Happy Free Fiction Thursday, everyone!
Today I’m linking up The Long Con, a short story first published by Daily Science Fiction. (If you want free fiction EVERY day, not just Thursdays, DSF is not a bad place to start.)
The Long Con is probably one of my favorite stories that I’ve written. It’s a great example of how I like to look at a story and try to find what’s missing: in this case, why was Rumpelstiltskin so careless with his name? We can see from the rest of the fairy tale that Rumpel knows what’s up — he’s savvy, he’s clever, he knows how to be in the right place at the right time and how to make just the right deal — so why in the world would he just shout his name in the woods when he knows the Princess will be looking for it?
The Long Con
I knew the girl would never give up her child.
I knew before I asked. That is the sort of deal you only make if you’re young and naïve and facing execution and the idea of a child is so very far away that it is an easy thing to give up.
But I asked her anyway, knowing that she would say yes then and say no later.
How she wept when I came to collect! Oh, the tears that fell over that poor sweet babe! How she begged and pleaded that I spare him, that I release him from her promise!
I thought the guessing game was a nice touch. It kept her busy for a few days, and gave her hope.
And all the while, I was working. I baked and cleaned and made sure the queen’s messenger overheard me sing the naming song in the dark woods.
She was so proud when she guessed that name! The triumph in her voice! The relief in her eyes! I put on a show for her and she ate it like it was porridge that was just the right temperature.
“How?” I screamed. “How did you guess that name?”
I stomped and ripped and shouted. I believe there was spittle, and I am certain my face turned red.
And then I left.
I went to my clean cottage that smelled of fresh bread and I waited.
The child was not yet walking by the time the whole kingdom knew of the twisted man in the deep woods and the clever queen who outsmarted him. The young princeling heard the story at his mother’s knee and saw daily the huge rent in the floor where I had stomped my foot in rage. Servants and peasants would watch him pass and whisper about the boy who had been saved.
At first it was enough that the story was about him and that it ended happily. He enjoyed the attention, as any child would. He would demand to hear the story, and when his mother reached the end of the guessing game the prince would yell out “Rumpelstiltskin!” with her. I heard them in my forest home and smiled.
Because soon, he began to wonder.
“Why, Mama?” he asked. “Why did the strange little man want me?”
And the queen had no answer.
The older he grew, the more it ate at him. Why had I asked for him? I could have had treasure, powers, half the kingdom, had I desired it. Why had I wanted the baby?
The princeling was a handsome enough child, but his curiosity kept him inside, scouring ancient and dark tomes, when he should have been learning swordplay and horsemanship. The riddle of his importance drove him to long conferences with grizzled soothsayers and dreary mystics and old witches who reeked of the potions they brewed.
I believe he would have been a good king, had not the mystery ground at him until he was as gnarled in mind and body as the ancients he communed with daily.
He was passed over when his father chose an heir, but by then he didn’t care, not the curious young prince. Twenty years had gone by and he had no more answers than when he was a bright-eyed babe. So he put his mind to a new pursuit — finding me.
He rode away one fogging gray morning and his mother wept, for she knew she would never see him again. I think she finally realized the truth.
I had taken her child, after all.
He found me. I let him. He stood in my little cottage, as twisted and ugly as I, dripping swamp water on my floor, and he asked his question.
“Consider this your first lesson,” I said. “Any common thug can take what they want. The pleasure is in getting the prey to come to you.”
His eyes gleamed as he saw in my words the promise of power, of knowledge, of the joy of the chase, and I had him. He was mine.
Any cut-rate sorcerer can make beauty from dross. The real magic stood before me: a prince, become a monster. Gold, spun down to straw.
If you’d like to read more fairy tale retellings like this one, be sure to check out Wolves and Witches, a collection of short stories and poems by my sister Amanda C. Davis and me, available from Amazon or from the publisher, World Weaver Press.