In the northern woods, where the hills grow tall and deep with green, a little hut stood by a thicket of colorful trees. The hut was gray and crumbled with age, and inside lived a fat, choleric little man with legs as pointed as spindle needles. He sat all day and spoke to no one; though much longer ago than our story begins, he had held council with kings and was called by many illustrious names. For he knew the true matter of every skilled craft and also the words of Changing, used to coax frogs into men and children into trees, and even (and this was his pride) straw into gold.
But Time had forgotten him, and he soon found himself alone. Only the grove of trees brought him pleasure. They were of red leaves and gold, purple and ivory, carmine and the deepest cobalt. He sometimes stared at them for hours, letting the evening’s fire go cold until it was time for bed.
And then, when the fox and hare bade each other goodnight and the owl gave over to the hunt, anyone watching would have seen a strange thing. The trees shivered awake, creaking limbs becoming arms and legs, and leaves falling around strong young bodies in the rich hues of royalty.
They were princes and princesses all, from faraway lands, cursed to grow in the little man’s grove by day and toil on his land by night until the time of his natural death. The children chopped wood and carried water, hunted and gardened and cleaned, sewing clothes and mending floors and roofs, until dawn’s first light broke over the hill.
Of all the princesses, one was most lovely, with eyes the gray of a storm cloud and hair like midnight swells on dark water. Her tree was of ebony limb and pale flower, and it shimmered in winter, as if strung with diamonds.
It was Rosalynd who first heard the maiden weeping, far off, in a room full of straw.
“Hush,” she told the children. “Perhaps he will not wake. This hut has forgotten its ears. It has been such a long time.”
They went about their work, and Rosalynd counted the stars that sank beyond the nearest hill. But the stalwart and watchful hut trumpted with such terrible alarm that at last her master woke.
His needle legs danced when he heard the news—he loved the game, the clever ruse—and no sooner had Rosalynd finished washing the dishes than her master sprang up, spun three times, and sang,
“Lighter than dust,
Swifter than light;
Merrily go to a maiden’s plight,
Merrily aid in her plight I must!”
and vanished. Dismayed, Rosalynd ran from the hut. The sky had turned to caramel at the crest of the hill, and already her feet longed to slice into the dewy earth and plunge down, down.
The other children crowded round and, as she did every morning, she covered their faces in kisses and wrapped their shoulders in her arms.
“Will it be a girl?” asked one of the youngest, and her face bore lines of brittle bark.
“Another boy?” creaked a large, stately prince, who might have won tournaments and trophies had he been able to grow up in his native land, far across the western ocean.
“Neither,” Rosalynd whispered, and her voice was the moan of wind through her branches. She tried but could not speak again, for molten sap swelled in her stomach, liquefying organs, heart throbbing mutinously against the pressure until it too was a crystal hardness carapaced in woody ribs. Her mouth filled with her sap’s golden, syrupy tang.
All day she ruminated, while the beetles crawled among her roots, and when at last, darkness fell again and her aching bones were sewn up with new flesh, she hurried into the hut. Her master was gone with a twirl and a rhyme, and Rosalynd grieved. How many more children would fall under his curse and stand forever in their splendor of leaves, while the sun churned and scorched the land into another age?
For her master was immortal, born of the faye; he could never die a natural death and lift the curse.
For many nights, while her master’s greed spread like a pall over the grove, Rosalynd would sit by the fire, conscious of the hut’s malevolence. Oft she heard it say “Careful” in the crackling of the burning wood or in the creak of rain upon the eaves. And she was not wrong to fear; for the same magic that lent it ears to hear the cries of helpless maidens made the hut wary of the gray-eyed, dark-skinned princess. “Careful,” the hut threatened, its voice sharper than the icicles glittering along the thatch, “lest our master fell you with his axe while you sleep under the sun.”
The children shuddered.
“He will use your bones for his fires,” crooned the hut, “and will water the grove with your blood.”
But Rosalynd shut her ears and waited for springtime, her heart resolute.
The night before the miller’s first grandchild was born, Rosalynd sang while she worked in the hut, while her master lay sleeping. She sang of sweet child faces and child fingers, of child feet and toes and chubby thighs. She sang of a mother’s gladness and sorrow. The children stopped work sometimes to listen. Even the night animals drew near, and Rosalynd only ceased her singing when she saw the sheen of tears on her master’s sleeping cheeks in the shadow of morning.
“Careful,” hissed the hut as the moon slipped away.
When her master returned the next day with a gyrating verse, Rosalynd’s flowers bloomed brighter, for she saw no babe in his arms. He passed under her floating boughs and looked up at her with eyes thin as yarn off its skein. She quivered.
He emerged from the hut carrying the chopping axe, which he rested against the wall by her roots. “No more singing for you, Princess.”
Rosalynd spent twilight caressing the limbs of each tree in her grove with her pearlescent blossoms, waiting for the time of Change. At last, she entered the hut.
“Is it a girl, do you think?” asked a child, and Rosalynd did not answer. She was fetching a clay cup of warm beer from the stove.
“Is it a boy?” asked another, and Rosalynd kissed his cheek. She then squeezed the juice of an old, potent root into the clay mug of beer. As she worked, the hut bent its fiery gaze upon her, and so she stirred the boiling contents with a finger, scorching the skin to the knuckle. The burn pacified the hut. She shuddered as she felt its venomous curiosity fade.
She turned to a boy, speaking loudly. “Prepare a new planting ground for the miller’s grandchild.” Then she pointed to the axe, whispering, “Instead, take that into the forest. Do not return until it is well lost.”
“Does the master mean to cut us down with it?”
“I mean to make the cut.”
The third night the sleeping draught was in her master’s stew. He slept soundly. Rosalynd dressed in breeches. She wore a long skinny beard made of moss the boy had gathered. She bound two strong saplings to her legs with cloth so she stood tall as the hut on her needle-thin stilts. Then she stoked a large fire in the outdoor pit and danced as if with demonic glee, singing at the top of her lungs:
“Merry the night she lies awake
Heavy her lids and heavier care.
Never will she guess or dream
Rumpelstiltskin is my name!”
Her song reached out above the hut’s snarling howls, while its master lay deep in heedless sleep; and the sound of her hellish anthem touched the ears of a nearby messenger sent two days’ journey over treacherous land to learn new names for his lady. Visions of a room full of gold sustained the envoy through his hasty return, for what a fiend he’d seen gloating round that midnight fire and with such a devilish name!
Just as morning’s light kissed the collar of the first hill, Rosalynd doused the flames. Her feet took root in the ground, and she gathered the children to her.
“Careful,” she murmured, as her master shambled from the hut to claim his child from the miller’s daughter. His eyes swept the wall where no axe rested. He squinted at her. Rosalynd hummed until sap squelched the pleasure from her throat.
The story of Death’s visit to Rumpelstiltskin took many months to reach the hut that stood in a newly treeless valley. It arrived on the lips of a famished young prince who exchanged his tale for a meal and a bed. He told of a little bearded man with a fiery temper who, having lost a challenge to the miller’s daughter, had plunged his needle leg into the earth and split himself in two. Royal children left off their play and lessons, abandoned their dust cloths, and sat round the fire, catching glances from the maiden they seemed to love best in the world, whose obsidian hair shone as if with starlight and whose gray eyes bespoke cunning and courage.
The prince stayed much longer than he intended.
Lora Rivera has two great passions—rock climbing and writing. Both involve ground-up grit and falling. Professionally she’s worked as literary agent, foster children’s biographer, and crepe maker. Now an e-learning developer, she is the senior editor of a climbing anthology. Find links to forthcoming and published stories at www.lorarivera.com.
art by Maya Kulenovic