For those unfamiliar with Once Upon a Time... while this story relies heavily on the original Brothers Grimm Rumpelstiltskin, don't picture their hobgoblin; instead, picture this sexy imp (Robert Carlyle in costume): tinyurlDOTcom/a9qxtvz (replace "Dot" with punctuation). The chapter titles are phrases from Grimm with some occasional slight variations.
For those familiar with OUaT... this story was inspired by the haunting reunion between old Cora and Mr. Gold/Rumple in his pawnshop (youtubeDOTcom/watch?v=Ln7pg6YgrXI) in "The Outsider" (2x12). The first five chapters were posted before "The Miller's Daughter" (2x16) with young Cora aired, so Trick of Hearts differs from canon. At the least, their past is less rushed than the scant 20 minutes OUaT afforded it.
Before true love, there was Cora...
The Miller Had a Beautiful Daughter
The night Rumplestiltskin met Cora began with a tinkling lullaby.
He first heard it when he arrived at King Wilhelm's alcove to conclude yet another ogre truce. Waving a hand to dispel the swirls of purple mist that had accompanied his entrance, he twisted around to the source of the song. Across the tiny room, the king held open a music box. Inside, a revolving copper cylinder played a nursery rhyme Rumplestiltskin recalled from long ago.
As soon as Rumplestiltskin caught his eye, the king snapped the lid shut. Despite the dozens of ogre truces they'd concluded over the decades, Wilhelm reacted as if the sight of his visitor was a shock. The look on his face said, Hideous.
Happy to see you, too. Rumplestiltskin fluttered his taloned fingers. "Do my ears deceive me? Was that 'Froggie Went A-Courtin'?"
King Wilhelm curved his hands protectively around the box. "I wouldn't know."
Yes, you would, you ungracious snob. Rumplestiltskin remembered Milah crooning the melody to their son Baelfire as he suckled at her breast. She'd been dead nearly two hundred years, but the simple old tune was impossible not to recognize.
Rumplestiltskin pointed to the curtain that separated the alcove from the great chamber. "I hear an ensemble playing. Without doubt, that's Luco Zephyri on the bassoon. He's a master of folk songs, is he not? I'm sure I won't be disturbing your company if I go and ask him." Besides the music, he could hear clattering porcelain and jangling silver. And was that roast chimera he smelled? He sighed.
The old king scowled. "Yes, that was 'Froggie Went A-Courtin'.' My mother used to play me the song when I was a boy. What does that have to do with the ogre truce?" Without taking his eyes off Rumplestiltskin, he placed the music box on the cabinet behind him.
Rumplestiltskin tipped his head from side to side. "Not a single thing." When he'd visited the local ogres for parley, they'd made him the guest of honor at a grand feast followed by a night of traditional drumming and howling. In the countless years he'd been dealing with them, no ogre tribe had ever neglected the niceties before getting down to business. Yet that was no reason to yearn for a bit of small talk with his fellow humans, was it?
Not that King Wilhelm knew he was—had been—human. Rumplestiltskin closed his eyes a moment. Then he shrugged. No matter. He flicked his wrist. A parchment appeared and unfurled from his hand.
The king grunted. "That's longer than last year's. I don't know why we bother with you as go-between."
"Go-between?" Rumplestiltskin narrowed his eyes. "I've been the sole ambassador of ogre truces for every realm in the Enchanted Forest since long before your sorry ancestor Wilfred murdered his monarch and usurped the throne of Wensumlea." Pivoting on the toe of his basilisk-skin boot, he pirouetted to the country reel lilting out of the great chamber. "If you've found another envoy who speaks the twelve ogre tongues and dialects—or even one of them—then dismiss me. I have a thousand other deals I could be making instead."
When he spun close, the king grabbed the contract from his hand. Rumplestiltskin smiled. After another twirl, he shot a glance at the music box. A simple gold-leafed wooden cube, yet Wilhelm had seemed to treasure it.
The king stabbed his finger at an item halfway down the parchment scroll. "Two thousand and three hundred sheep? In the past, we never agreed to more than two thousand and one hundred."
Abruptly, Rumplestiltskin halted his dance. "You're lucky I reached that settlement after you broke last year's truce."
"Last year's? Whatever are you talking about?" King Wilhelm lifted his pointy aristocratic chin.
Rumplestiltskin splayed his fingers in the air. "The terms of the agreement were fairly specific: no land use beyond the Taraval River."
The king held out his hands. "A few trees were cut down. What did it hurt?"
"Everything. It dishonored the deal." Frustrated, Rumplestiltskin shook his head. How could he explain the problem in terms easy enough for a royal to understand?
He began gesturing, putting on a show. "This year it's tree chopping. Next year it's clearing away the stones. The year after that it's cultivation and another swath of hunting ground is gone forever. Deer, elk, and golden hinds require woods to thrive. If you insist on depriving the ogres of wild game, then you must provide domestic stock to replace it."
"If it's woods these beasts like, then maybe we should herd the lot of them into the Infinite Forest."
Humans herding ogres? Rumplestiltskin sniggered. "Like to see you try, dearie."
The king harrumphed and returned to the contract.
Maddening! The more years Rumplestiltskin maintained the peace, the less everyone understood about why painstaking negotiations were necessary. Sometimes he was tempted to place his dealmaking on hiatus—spend the year at his spinning wheel, maybe plant a few rose bushes. After a thousand trampled villages, legions of squashed knights, and an entire populace screaming for royal blood, fools like King Wilhelm might realize the value of his services.
But I'd miss visiting the ogres.
From the great chamber, Rumplestiltskin caught the clanking of brass goblets. Soon the happy dissonance of a couple of dozen drunken lords and ladies joining in a toasting song reached his ears. Picking up his dance, he hummed along.
The king shook the parchment. "Ninety barrels of yogurt! What use have ogres for that?"
Turning to the king, Rumplestiltskin raised his shoulders. "Skyrgámur likes the taste. And don't forget the bilberries."
The king growled. Then he strode across the little chamber to a corner desk. As Wilhelm retrieved a quill from a drawer, Rumplestiltskin spoke up.
"Not yet. You haven't heard my part of the deal." He stepped over to the music box and lifted the lid. The tinkling strains of 'Froggie Went A-Courtin' resumed from where they'd left off. He glanced at the king. "My price is this."
The shock on King Wilhelm's face made Rumplestiltskin giggle. The old man began to stutter. "But—but I've collected a roomful of treasure next door for you to pick and choose. Including music boxes. Pure gold. With mechanical jeweled birds. Multiple songs. Much—much finer than that old thing."
And who did you collect those treasures from, I'd like to know. "It's this little item or no deal." As the song ended and started again, Rumplestiltskin began swaying to it.
"But—but—but… it was my mother's. What possible value could it have to you?"
"All the value in the world." Rumplestiltskin paused. "You could always try talking to the ogres yourself."
For a moment, the king glared. Then he muttered, "Dark One, you're a monster." He dipped the quill in ink and began scratching across the bottom of the contract.
Monster? Takes one to know one, dearie. Rumplestiltskin tucked the late queen mother's music box into the wide puffed sleeve of his bronze-colored shirt, vanishing it until he should want it again. "Sorry to have kept you from your guests. I think I smell cake."
Rumplestiltskin could recognize the sound of desperation.
He first caught the sobs when he left King Wilhelm's alcove. He tiptoed down the steep, winding back staircase, trying to listen. The further he descended, the more distinct the whimpering became. Not the sniveling of a lady-in-waiting whose suitor had strayed, nor the blubbering of a dowager whose corset no longer fit—the moaning he heard was a soul in despair.
He needed no other invitation.
Two stairs at a time, lower and lower, closer and closer he skipped until stopping before a heavy, oaken door. With a twist of his wrist, he sprang the padlock and lifted the bar. A wave of his hand, and he opened the door wide.
Inside the windowless chamber, a single tallow candle in a pewter holder illuminated a spinning wheel. On the stool beside it, huddled a young woman, head in hands, weeping. Her brunette hair fell over her face and cascaded into her lap. Behind her lay a heap of straw.
Rumplestiltskin hopped inside, cocked his head and cleared his throat. The crying continued. Then he snapped his fingers, and the door slammed shut, startling the woman into silence.
"Better," he said. "Wailing is for banshees." Not that it does them any good, either.
She lifted her head and swept aside her hair, revealing the most beautiful face he'd seen in an age—refined chin, high cheekbones, generous mouth. Despite her sobbing, her skin wasn't red and puffy. Instead, it was a flawless almond color. Her tears hung at the corners of her long brown eyes like dew.
The sight of her startled Rumplestiltskin into silence—but only for a moment. "Don't be afraid of me, dear. You're in want of something. Maybe it's something I have."
The young woman—she couldn't have been more than twenty—gazed at him. Unlike the typical first reaction to seeing his reptilian complexion, her expression remained calm and unsurprised. "Alas, kind sir, you cannot help. I must spin this straw into gold, and I know not how. Only the Dark One has magic enough for this."
Rumplestiltskin grinned. The Dark One? That's me. And spinning's my specialty. He bent his knees and flourished his hand in his most courtly bow. "At your service."
"You can't be the Dark One. You're not fearsome and pitiless." Her lips trembled into a gentle smile. "Your skin sparkles like gold and your eyes are green like malachite. Your appearance is too… pleasing to be the Dark One."
Oh, you flatterer. Of course, he didn't believe her. Rumplestiltskin was no fool. And yet… no human had given him the courtesy of sweet-talk in longer than he could remember. At least, she didn't find him repellent. He exhaled slowly. Good thing the straw covered half the chamber. He was going to enjoy this labor very much. "Tell me your name, child. You know mine."
"Cora," she said. "I'm far from a child."
No doubt there. The full round breasts pushing up from her white laced bodice bore out the truth of that claim.
"Move your seat back, dear," he said, gesturing as he circled to her side of the spinning wheel. "I brought my own." In a puff of purple smoke, he produced the low cushioned stool that usually stood beside his own spinning wheel in his mountain fortress. He glanced at Cora. Her lips were parted in surprise and wonder. That was the best flattery of all.
When he skewed an eyebrow, Cora jumped up so quickly that she knocked over her seat. After he'd settled on his stool in a comfortable position for spinning, she up-righted hers. She'd barely moved it back at all.
Rumplestiltskin listened to himself breathing in, breathing out. Despite his intention to accomplish the task with little fuss, he couldn't. I haven't set my price. Without a deal in place, performing magic at another's behest felt like overturning the balance of the universe. Absurd, really, but he couldn't overcome his anxiety—even with a young woman as indisputably guileless as Cora. He clenched his hands so tightly that his talons dug into his palms.
He glanced at her sidelong. Putting on his drollest jester's voice, he asked, "What will you give me, dearie, to do it for you?"
Cora's eyebrows knitted together. "My necklace?" She touched a heart-shaped pendant nestled between her breasts.
Quickly, Rumplestiltskin looked back at the wheel. "Family heirloom, is it? Belonged to your granny? And her granny before her?" Exacting a personal keepsake might be the only way to ensure an equitable deal from the likes of King Wilhelm; he didn't want to deprive gentle Cora of something she cherished.
Cora rolled her eyes. "A baker's boy gave it to me—a dullard I find annoying. But the chain is silver, and the stone's a rather nice piece of rose quartz."
Rumplestiltskin relaxed. "The necklace it is. The deal is struck." With that, he twisted to study the straw. Silently, he conjured a wind to blow the blades in a steady stream into his hand as his other hand spun the spoked wheel. From there, he mentally coaxed the straw into fibers, twirled them through the orifice and past the hooks, wordlessly casting the spell that transformed the resulting thread into something precious.
When the first length of gold undulated off the fly wheel Cora reached out and squeezed his shoulder. "You're wonderful. Before King Wilhelm closed me up in here he said, 'All this must be spun into gold before morning, as you love your life.' As sure as we're sitting here side by side, you've saved me."
Wilhelm. That monster. "Your life could have been spared if I'd just walked out of the castle and neglected to bar the doors behind me. No need for a deal."
Cora's hand rested lightly on his shoulder. "Not unless you walked me and my parents out of the kingdom as well—and I don't think my father would be happy giving up his mill."
Rumplestiltskin continued spinning straw. "Ah, you're a miller's daughter. Then you have a fine dowry to go with your fine looks. I'd wager that necklace is just one treasure of many you've received from young hopefuls." He slanted a casual glance at her fingers. When he noticed a slender gold ring with a small stone that looked like garnet, his throat tightened. "Or is there only one?"
Cora shrugged. She took her hand away to rest it in her lap. "No suitors I find suitable. Merely a lot of fools."
Rumplestiltskin turned his face to hers. For all her innocence, her dark brown eyes held a keen intelligence. "And you do not suffer fools easily?"
"Oh, I don't mind fools." She looked aside, smiling softly. "My father's a fool but I love him. The last time the king hunted in the woods near the millstream, he asked for a flagon of ale. That's when my father made the silly claim I could spin gold out of straw."
Rumplestiltskin waggled his head as the golden thread piled up. "I'm well known for this trick. Curious that your father would pick that boast."
"Yes, curious." Cora's eyes widened. "And I don't even spin. My mother thought it a peasant's occupation. My domestic accomplishments are pastry making and embroidery."
Rumplestiltskin raised an eyebrow. "My business carries me to all corners of the Enchanted Forest. I'm seldom in the little realm of Wensumlea more than once a year. Fortunate I was here tonight."
Cora's hand returned to his shoulder, spreading warmth through his body like honey. "Fortunate, indeed. That's why I still can't believe you're the Dark One. Your magic is good magic. You have another name—a real name—don't you? Come on, admit it."
He blinked. Straw bunched up in his hand, and he had to slow the wheel. Bad enough that his physical age was more than twice that of young Cora—if he told her his given name she'd guess his real age was centuries older. And she'd know he'd been born a peasant. Even in his day, no man of accomplishments had been called Rumplestiltskin.
Once the wheel regained speed and the gold thread flowed again, he said, "You're right. But I bet you can't guess it."
"Timothy, Ichabod, Benjamin, Jeremiah?" Cora leaned toward him and smiled into his face. "Demosthenes, Erichthonius, Ted?"
He snickered. Cora's playfulness told him her desperation was gone. He, Rumplestiltskin, had banished it. In his most madcap voice, he replied, "Guess away, dearie. We have all night. Do you like roast chimera? Ale? And while I'm at it, I'll conjure us a cake."
Rumplestiltskin gazed down at the satisfying heap of golden thread. He winked at Cora. The windowless room robbed him of celestial clues to the time, but by the guttering candle, he deduced at least four hours remained until dawn.
Cora clasped his hands in hers and swung them back and forth like a child. "You did it! You're marvelous."
Rumplestiltskin's pulse quickened. He disentangled his fingers before his talons scratched her. "But in doing it, I've deprived you of your bed of straw. No matter. Let's see what can be done with this string." Strutting around the chamber, pointing and waving, he lifted the golden thread from the cold stone floor and strung it in the air, looping and weaving until he'd fashioned a hammock. "There, my dear. Yours shall be the most opulent bed in the castle tonight."
Cora hoisted herself onto the hammock, inadvertently bunching up her fluffy pink skirt and exposing her snowy petticoats. Her dainty feet dangled below.
Pressing his palms together, Rumplestiltskin said, "Well, then. I bid you good rest."
Cora tilted her head to one side. "Not until you collect your price." She reached under her luxurious dark hair to the nape of her neck. In a moment, she'd unclasped the necklace and extended it to him. The chain wound left, then right, twirling the pink heart pendant. "Take it. It's yours."
At Cora's request, Rumplestiltskin barred the door from the outside again. If the king suspected she'd had help, she feared the consequences. Then he departed in a puff of purple smoke.
He arrived atop a mountain peak. The full moon dawdled above the horizon, burnishing the mist that drifted from the forest a silver gray. He examined his fingers still tingling from Cora's touch. Odd, but she was the first person to take his hand since Baelfire had tried to pull him down Rheul Gorm's sinister whirlpool to the world without magic. On that tragic occasion—when he'd failed to yank his son back—he'd let go.
Of course, sweet Cora had meant nothing by reaching for him—at least not more than relief at being saved from King Wilhelm's outrageous demands. What had the grasping tyrant been thinking? How could he not know that only the Dark One could spin straw into gold? When Cora presented Wilhelm with the large pile of pure golden thread, the king would be staggered. The fool would believe the young lady had spun it herself.
Dipping into his sleeve, Rumplestiltskin retrieved the music box he'd acquired from that selfsame fool. He wound it up and let it play. Long after Milah had lost interest in such things as crooning to their child or holding him on her lap, Bae would sing "Froggie Went A-Courtin'" while he did his chores. Until tonight, Rumplestiltskin had forgotten how the melody went.
Over and over, then slower and slower, the nursery tune repeated. When at last the music box stopped, Rumplestiltskin took the necklace he'd bartered from Cora, secreted it inside, and closed the lid.