By the Side of a Woods
Out the corner of his eye, Rumplestiltskin saw the color drain from Jeffery's cheeks. That's right, he thought. The Dark One answers to no one. He cocked his head at Miracle Max. "Give us a minute."
"Uh, oh." Brown eyes dancing, the old wizard kept shaking Rumplestiltskin's hand. "Did I let the cat spill the beans?"
This isn't as amusing as you think. Rumplestiltskin tightened his grip until the roguish smile began to falter.
Max wriggled his fingers like a fox in a trap. "A minute? Take all the minutes you need."
Rumplestiltskin continued to stare until the old wizard's pupils dilated to fill his brown irises. When his hand went limp, Rumplestiltskin released it. Max fled into his hovel.
Turning, Rumplestiltskin fixed his gaze on Jeffery. The younger wizard waved his fingers as if soothing the air. "I can explain."
Rumplestiltskin could feel darkness welling up inside him. He sensed his mouth spreading and his eyes widening with whatever expression it was that made supplicants tremble. I'm really going to have to examine it in a mirror sometime. At the moment it was even making Jeffery shrink back. He forced his voice to sound pleasant—jolly, in fact. "What is there to explain, dearie? This morning you kept me waiting while you hunted for your permit to take the Dark One traveling. In case anyone asked whether the restrictions on me had truly been lifted, Gwynneth had to have the proof ready."
Jeffery hunched his shoulders. "See? I—I wasn't hiding anything. I just wasn't… blurting it out." His Adam's apple bobbed visibly as he swallowed. "And strictly speaking, the Wizards' Council didn't put restrictions on—on you. They put them on me."
Rumplestiltskin craned his head forward. His face felt as stiff as a mask. "Why did you let them?"
Jeffery gnawed his lip—letting the question hang between them.
"Don't you think it's a mistake," Rumplestiltskin added softly, "to be more concerned about their wishes than you are about mine?"
Jeffery's mouth fell open. A few seconds passed before words came out of it. "You—you have to know I would never—never ever cross you. I'm fully aware there're countless things you could, that you could do to anyone who—who tried." He clasped his hands to his chest. "But—but please understand... If I crossed the Wizards' Council, I know there's one thing they would do. They'd make sure I—that I never have another portal-jumping customer ever again."
Rumplestiltskin peered at the young man cringing before him as if he'd never seen him before. Jeffery the One Trick Wizard had done the unthinkable. He had favored someone else's demands at the expense of the Dark One. And the reason he had done so was oddly flattering.
"You're serious? That miserable back-patting circle of self-important lackeys would be that petty?" And you trusted I wouldn't be.
"Oh, yes! Thank you." Jeffery looked honestly relieved. "That's the word for them: petty."
And by them, you mean Sarastro. Rumplestiltskin jiggled his head. "This permission. Am I the only one who requires it?"
"No. For almost a year, they've been insisting I get it for everyone—and they charge me a fee each time." Jeffery held out his hands. "They have me over a barrel. I'm just trying to make a living for me and Gwynneth."
"And the baby." The thought of the tiny marvel growing inside his friend's belly melted the last of the tension from Rumplestiltskin's face.
Jeffery exhaled slowly. "Yes, the baby."
Rumplestiltskin tilted his head. "No matter. You haven't crossed me." Sarastro has. For someone who wanted his signature on an agreement to not take over the Enchanted Forest, that officious Sorcerer of the Sun was making a pretty good show of doing it himself. "Let's try to make all the bother this journey has caused worth it. Though from the looks of this hut, I'll be surprised if your Miracle Max has anything I'd want."
Miracle Max wasn't shy about what he wanted from Rumplestiltskin. "Gold. What did you think I'd want? I mean, just look at this place."
Rumplestiltskin ran his gaze over the ramshackle house's ramshackle interior. The rickety shelf of spell books, the water-stained charts of the human form tacked to the splintered support beam, and the rusty scale and calipers lying by the washtub suggested that practitioners of the craft lived here, but that they lived here in poverty.
"The times have not been kind to you," he observed.
"You mean Prince Humperdinck hasn't been kind to him." Like Max, his wooly-haired wife appeared frail except for her eyes. When her glance darted to her husband, Rumplestiltskin could tell she was hoping to get a rise out of him.
"Valerie!" Max shrieked. "I told you to never speak that name in my presence!" He resumed shuffling from foot to foot, mumbling through a scroll of potions. The pointed peak of his velvet wizard cap swayed limply. "I'm sure I've got something to strike your fancy."
Rumplestiltskin folded his arms. I'm waiting, dearie.
Valerie crossed her eyes and continued flitting about with a bedraggled feather duster—swishing it over the jars of pickled bats and pig fetuses, the pewter plates hanging haphazardly on the walls, even the bunches of dried herbs dangling from the ceiling.
When Max dropped his parchment but kept muttering, she jabbed him. "So… offer the Dark One some magic already."
Rumplestiltskin suppressed a giggle.
Sidestepping another poke from his wife, the old wizard rifled through the corked bottles and wax-sealed cannisters crowding the wobbly table next to his clay oven. "Aha!" Peeking back over his shoulder, he raised his scraggly eyebrows. "Liver tonic? Huh? Huh? I mean, your skin is kind o' yellow."
Rumplestiltskin shook his head. "Dearie, my skin isn't yellow. It's golden. My physical condition is tiptop. As far as what ails people who call upon me for help, I've never been presented with a problem I can't eliminate… except death—something no magic can do." He spread out his hands. "Other than that, there's little my skills can't already heal."
Max squinted at him. "Tooth powder maybe? Get your whites whiter than white?"
"Really, dearie?" Rumplestiltskin bared his teeth, showing the old wizard just how predatory they were. You really think you can fix these?
Max gulped. "Yes, yes. To make a deal, I need something special." He squeezed his eyes shut. "I'm thinking, I'm thinking."
After another full minute, Rumplestiltskin glanced at Jeffery and pursed his lips.
Catching his eye, Valerie jerked a thumb at Max and gestured as if pulling out handfuls of her matted white hair. Then she dropped her pretense of brushing off copper ewers and iron cauldrons and banged her husband over the head with her duster. "Quit futzing around with the schlocky potions! This isn't some schmendrick visiting us. This is the Dark One. Show him some real magic."
"Stop hounding me, witch!" Max grabbed the sides of his wizard's hat and pulled it down around his ears.
Valerie growled. Then she wiggled her feather duster under Max's nose. The old man's head began bobbing until he exploded a sneeze so boisterous that Rumplestiltskin fell back a step. Then the old woman fetched a surprisingly clean-looking hankie from the front of her raggedy dress and wiped her husband's nose. "If you don't show him the true love potion, I will."
True love potion. If only. Rumplestiltskin fanned his fingers. "If you're talking about an infatuation draft or enthrallment elixir, we have those in our land. Since true love must be freely given, by its very definition, supernatural magic can't create it. If you claim otherwise, you're a fraud."
Max broke free from his wife's ministrations, grabbed a wooden coffer off the side table, and stomped up to Rumplestiltskin until he stood nose-to-nose. "Fraud? Then what do you say about this?" He flipped up the lid, revealing a large bottle filled with a pearlescent goo. Inside, a pair of silver fibers shivered and twined.
Rumplestiltskin raised an eyebrow. "Pretty."
"Pretty? This is the power behind every miracle I produce! Of course, magic can't create true love. But true love can create magic."
"Liar! Liar!" Valerie shrieked, grabbing the box from Max. "This is our true love. It barely keeps the house warm." She slammed the wooden chest shut and tossed it back on the side table. "Show them the vial sitting on your head. If anyone has a right to see it, Jeffie does. After all, you made it from strands of his and Gwynnie's hair." Yanking the pointy velvet hat off her husband's head, she fished out a second bottle and held it aloft.
The purple liquid inside burned twice as bright as the pearly one. Two golden threads frolicked through it, sparking and fizzing each time they touched.
Staring at it, Rumplestiltskin felt a strange sense of awe. "Very pretty."
Jeffery coughed. Turning, Rumplestiltskin saw bafflement on his face. "You never said anything about making that kind of potion, Max. I'd assumed you were working on some sort of, I don't know, hair loss remedy."
"When you assume you make an ass out of you and me." Max stuck his chin in the air. "You gave me those hairs of your own free will. Next time you'll know to ask questions."
Rumplestiltskin's glance strayed back to the glowing purple bottle. "A potion made from true love. What exactly can it do?"
"What can it do? Why, anything!" Twisting like a cat, Max laboriously straightened his spine. When he was done, he looked a full inch taller. "True love is the rarest and most powerful form of magic, natural or supernatural. The greatest thing next to a mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich. Talk about healing what ails you! True love can triumph over curses, hexes, jinxes, even whammies."
Rumplestiltskin shrugged. "Everyone knows that."
"But the power of true love magic has always been limited to the two people who create it. Even worse, only one inconvenient, impractical, cumbersome method has ever been known for wielding it: a kiss."
"Until now!" Cackling, Valerie shook the purple liquid. "Maxie discovered how to bottle it."
The wizard glowered. "Witch! Stop being a buttinsky!"
Valerie leaned forward, whispering sotto voce as if that would keep her husband from overhearing her. "All magic dried up in this neck of the woods years ago. That's why Prince Humperdinck banished us here when he fired Maxie. But little did he know, my bubala had already bottled our true love. Sure, its power had fizzled to a frazzle—but it flickered just enough for him to concoct this second potion. With this in the house, he can still work miracles. With the magic of true love, there's almost nothing he can't cure. Why, just last week he brought a man back—not from death, but from near death."
When the first word of flattery escaped Valerie's mouth, Max had stopped scowling. By the time she extolled his greatest feat, he was standing tall and beaming.
Then she added, "If Maxie gets twenty yards away from this bottle, his spells go pfft," and he groaned.
Rumplestiltskin inclined his head toward Max. "You've succeeded in impressing me. What's your price?"
"The potion is not for sale." Max grinned. "What I can offer you is the knowledge of how to make it."
Rumplestiltskin arched an eyebrow. Better and better. "You'll trade that knowledge for gold?"
Valerie sniggered. "He'll trade anything for gold."
"Perfect." Rumplestiltskin glanced at Jeffery. "When we get home, we'll try it out. I'm sure you and Gwynneth can spare a couple more hairs."
"No!" Max grabbed the hat and the glowing purple bottle from his wife and clutched both to his chest. "If you make a second Jeff-and-Gwynn batch, you'll be stealing the bread from Valerie's and my mouths! You can't just make true love potion by the vat-full. It's more like an assay. If the result is positive, you've got magic. If you run the test again, the second result replaces the first. Only one bottle per couple can sparkle at a time."
"Luckily for anyone identified as truly in love." Rumplestiltskin nodded. "Otherwise they might be plucked bald."
Looking crafty, Valerie grinned. "Surely you know at least one other couple in true love."
Rumplestiltskin flashed a brief smile and looked aside. That remains to be seen. Today with Max and Valerie, he'd be the apprentice. The day after tomorrow he'd be the master again. Cora. The promise of mentoring her gave him a floating feeling like dandelion fluff on a breeze.
He faced Max. "Somehow, bartering knowledge for gold doesn't seem equitable."
"What?" Max sounded downright mournful.
"Because it's too valuable for that." Rumplestiltskin stabbed a finger in the air. "The proper exchange for knowledge is knowledge. Tell me: do you own a spinning wheel?"
Max and Valerie opted to spin gold as a double-act—her huddled at the wheel, him waving one hand at the straw to transform it into fiber and the other at the spun thread to coax it into the treasure that could whisk him and his wife from neediness into comfort for whatever years they had left. The proof they'd mastered the trick was merrily rippling off the spindle and piling up on the floor.
Valerie winked at her husband. "With this secret, Maxie, we'll never have to bother with any other magic ever again."
Rumplestiltskin quirked his mouth. Actually, that wasn't true. Once others saw Max and Valerie's good fortune, the couple would discover a need for a lot more magic—spells for erecting a dome of protection, enchantments for securing treasure chambers, maybe even tips for training three-headed hellhounds. All magic comes with a price.
Watching the winks and grins the elderly couple threw each other, Rumplestiltskin wondered whether the pearlescent potion might be glowing a little brighter too.
"Remember," he said. "You can only work this magic using this wheel and only when no other citizen of Florin can see you. If anyone enters while you're spinning, any thread not hidden in a bag will instantly turn to yellow twine." He tapped three talons against his forehead. That caveat should protect them from nosy neighbors. But did they need protection from their own greed as well?
"And another thing. Only on the day the lunar phase—" Rumplestiltskin shot a glance up through a hole in the thatched roof where the moon was already visible in the late afternoon sky "—has reached its first quarter can gold be spun from straw. And only when both of you create the golden thread together."
He sidled around behind the couple's backs. Fluttering his fingers, he began embedding the rules in the spinning apparatus itself. He watched his spell create a blue shimmer through the magical aura emanating from the bottle hidden in Max's hat until it saturated the hardwood wheel.
Satisfied, Rumplestiltskin perched his hands on his hips. Those convolutions, challenges and complexities should be sufficient for keeping the old rascals safe and happy.
Just after the sun had deserted the moon and dipped below the horizon, Rumplestiltskin sauntered up the dusty path from the shack. Questions about true love potion buzzed through his head. Was it potent as a liquid? Would soaking everyday objects in it charm them? Could its benefits be added to tonics? Or was it only effective as a vapor wafting through the air? Could combining it with other magic—say, pouring it into a healing brook—expand its power beyond one tiny house?
Behind him, he heard Max yell, "Watch out for the—"
"—tree root," Valerie finished.
Without conscious effort on his part, Rumplestiltskin's enchanted basilisk boots lifted him over the hazard. Even so, he turned around to nod his thanks for the warning. The couple stood arm-in-arm in their doorway—Max waving with his right hand, Valerie with her left. The sight made him sigh.
Halfway up the path from them, Jeffery looked over his shoulder and repeated his good-byes. Then he jogged up to Rumplestiltskin, stopping a couple of yards away. "I hope this last visit was useful."
"Very." In the fading light, Rumplestiltskin could see Jeffery's smile looked friendly but his eyes held a wariness they hadn't before their confrontation. He felt a catch in his throat. How can I fix this? The only thing he could think to do was put on his most amiable jester's voice and say, "True love. Max found the most powerful source in all the realms when he picked you and Gwynn." He waggled his head and resumed walking.
Jeffery took a long stride and caught up. "That bottle was pretty, wasn't it? But if that scoundrel had told me he wanted our hair to test our love, I'd have said no. What if the result had turned out like his and Valerie's?"
Rumplestiltskin glanced at him. "Their potion did look rather pallid, didn't it? One doesn't like to think age does that to all true loves."
Jeffery shrugged. "As far as Max and Valerie are concerned, I don't think it was age. I think it was Humperdinck. That prince is a real villain. Valerie wanted Max to stand up to him. Instead, he begged to keep his job and was banished anyway. Valerie was disappointed."
Rumplestiltskin's mind flashed on Milah. He knew the pain of watching a wife's love fade because her husband had disappointed her. He walked in silence, waiting for the familiar shame of those memories to subside. Dead is dead.
With a sharp bend, the path entered the woods. Low-hanging branches of yew trees curved over them, blocking out even the twilight. Rumplestiltskin conjured a single twinkling flame to dance ahead and lead them through. At last he said, "What if instead of disappointing, a lover's actions satisfy the other's ideals—is that what makes the potion glow?"
Sidelong, Rumplestiltskin saw Jeffery frown. "You're asking about me and Gwynnie?"
Rumplestiltskin lifted a shoulder to say, And?
Jeffery raised his eyebrows. "Well, Gwynn did ditch her parents' choice for husband at the door to the chapel, jump on a horse, and come riding to find me. And I did have to abandon my family estate when we fled our home kingdom to where we live now. You know, doing all that really made our love feel like true love."
"And if you'd had to slay a dragon?"
Jeffery laughed. "I'd have been fried to a crisp. After the baby is born, her parents are coming to stay for a month. I'll have to thank them for only putting us through trials we could handle."
Rumplestiltskin smiled but his mind returned to the true love potion. Interesting that mutual sacrifices increase its power, he thought to himself. Very interesting.
Back in the portal anteroom, Rumplestiltskin surveyed the few dozen doors they hadn't opened today. Would one of the magical lands beyond them be the way station that could lead him to Baelfire? He took a deep breath. "Jeffery?"
The young wizard looked up from bundling his purchases.
"I understand why the Wizards Council decided to require travel permits. You've heard about the giants' magic beans?" Rumplestiltskin's mouth twisted. The story was even older than he was.
"I have." Jeffery's eyes lit up. "Legend has it they could take you to any land you chose—including the ones I can't reach with my hat. Their roots could dig tunnels into the ground or whirlpools into water. If you wanted to go up, their stalks could grow ladders into the sky."
"Yes." Rumplestiltskin grimaced. A magic bean—the last in existence according to that lying fairy meddler Rheul Gorm—had created the whirling chasm that had stolen his son from him. "Well, the giants used to offer them for sale. That is until some purchasers decided it wasn't enough to do what we did today—visit and trade. If the Wizards Council wants to verify your Enchanted Forest clients don't intend to go raiding and pillaging as some have done in the past, that's one way of maintaining peace among the various lands."
"Nobody on the council ever mentioned the problems the magic beans had caused, but what you say makes sense. I'm always asked the reason for travel when I request a permit." As if that was the end of it, Jeffery began looping his Lilliputian rope around his crate of yellow Oz bricks. Something about his manner, though, looked uneasy.
Hmm, Rumplestiltskin thought and ambled up to the pile of goods. He squatted beside the younger wizard to pack up his own acquisitions. "And with my reputation it's no wonder my permit took so long to obtain."
"Well, considering how powerful you are, the possibility was mentioned that you could conquer and plunder another land all by yourself." Jeffery glanced at him. "I had to keep pointing out the big difference between what you could do and what you would do."
"The Wizards Council was just being cautious. I find that admirable." Rumplestiltskin swept out his fingers for emphasis.
If Jeffery had looked uneasy before, Rumplestiltskin could see that his words made him downright uncomfortable. "I don't know about admirable. Anytime you gather a bunch of miserable, self-important lackeys into a back-patting circle, well, their motives are likely to drift."
Rumplestiltskin leaned forward to stare into his friend's eyes. "There's more?"
"Yes." Jeffery blinked. "It might mean nothing, but I'll let you be the judge."
Miracle Max & Valerie: Picture the movie versions played by Billy Crystal and Carol Kane (in really elaborate makeup) in The Princess Bride circa 1987: tinyurlDOTcom/m92lsdy (replace "DOT" with punctuation).