Rumpelstiltskin: Child Eater
Once upon a time, in the poor kingdom of Douran, ruled a sad and lonely king. Though his realm was vast, and there were fields aplenty, his storehouses were bereft of gold. His people struggled and toiled day by day, but drought a famine had all but ruined their livelihoods. Once, the kingdom had flourished. Such days seemed a faded memory, a forgotten dream.
With no wife, and no heir to succeed after him, the kingdom fell under the government of fear and uncertainty. Unrest resided in the hearts of the people, and the land constantly sat under the threat of war. No matter how much he wished it, the poor king could do nothing to make rain fall from the sky or the earth to bear its crop.
“What can I do?” the despondent king moaned wearily.
“My dear King Lancer, your people need you to be strong,” Edgar, High Advisor to the king said as gently as he could. “They look to you as a beacon of hope that not all is lost.”
“All is lost, Edgar,” the king sighed. “The fine citizens of Douran are starved and dying. I would feed them if I could, but I starve as they do. What hope is left for us?”
Edgar adjusted the faded sash he wore, allowing himself time to think. It was getting harder to keep his hold over the kingdom inconspicuous with the figurehead on the downward slope into depression. If King Lancer gave up his royal authority without someone to succeed him, no one would accept a mere advisor as the next king. Civil war would break out, the other kingdoms would attack, and Douran would cease to exist. He could not let that happen. “You need an heir.”
King Lancer lifted his saddened eyes to look at his dark featured advisor and laughed, hopelessness permeating the mirthless sound. “Perhaps you haven’t noticed, Edgar, but the last I checked one needed a wife to procure offspring, and a wedding would cost money. Unless you have found some gold in our stores since the last time you checked, we’re simply out of luck. No gold equals no wife, and no wife equals no child. So, I ask my question again, what can I do?”
Edgar twisted the ragged hem of his once-fine sleeve between his spindly fingers and bit on his almost nonexistent lower lip. “You cannot give in to your dark thoughts,” he decided flimsily. “Your people need you.”
King Lancer sighed and slumped even further in his wooden throne. He felt so old. When he had first donned the crown, he had felt alive and eager to save this dying kingdom. He’d been too young to realize the burden of the responsibility of kingship. Back then his sea blue eyes had sparkled, but now their brightness had faded to a dull grey. Once he had been strong and battle hardened, now he simply felt weak. Had it really been only six years since he assumed the title of king?
Edgar looked at his king quizzically. “Did you hear anything of what I just said?”
“Sorry . . . my mind wandered for a moment.”
His lips tightened and he forced back a frustrated sigh. “King Lancer, hear me out, if you will. I want you to rest for a while. Concentrate on ways to help your people and allow me to concentrate on a way to help you. Allow me to find you a wife, one who will not expect an elaborate affair. I am certain there is someone out there for you, someone who will fill you and the entire kingdom with joy. Trust me as your people trust you.”
“Very well. I shall try.”
Edgar bowed and left the miserable king to his loneliness. Now all he had to do was find a girl, and gold.
Tom the miller was a simple man. He had all but one valuable possession, his daughter, Arabella, a girl as beautiful within as she was without.
“Daddy, Mildred twisted an ankle,” Arabella quietly announced, peeking her dirt smeared face around the door. Her twig infested golden curls bounced lusciously around her flawless face and her diamond eyes shone with worry.
“What is it you were doing?” he asked, pulling a leaf from his daughter’s hair.
Hurriedly, she tried to comb out the foliage. “The cart got stuck in the rut out back. I was trying to help pull it out when it lurched, and I fell in the bushes. I’m fine, I promise. She’s the one hurt. I didn’t see what happened, but she screamed something awful!”
He sighed. “I pray it’s not too serious. She’s the last healthy one we’ve got. Without her. . ..” He shuddered as the thought remained unspoken. It was bad enough being a poor man with only two goats, worse still with one sick and the other lame. “Come on, let’s go see what we can do for the poor girl.”
Arabella practically dragged him to where the goat lay in a patch of dirt. “What should we do?”
Tom looked over the injured leg, frowning deeply.
“Is it bad?”
“It’s a sprain. She won’t be able to do much work like this. Thankfully, a sprain of this calibre isn’t fatal. She’ll live to work another day.”
Arabella’s smile brightened the gloom of the day. Though heavy clouds covered the sky, she shone as brilliantly as the sun itself.
“We’ll have to wrap this as soon as we can if we want it to heal as quickly as possible. Where are the good splints?”
He swore under his breath. “Alright, I’ll just have to go to town. I don’t want to use anything that could cause any more damage. Hopefully, I’ll be able to find something cheap. You stay here to prep some linen to wrap her leg with. And see that the animals are fed. They haven’t eaten yet today.”
She nodded. “I pray she makes a swift recovery.”
“That’s my girl,” Tom said fondly. When had his little girl grown into such a fine woman? “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
The walk to the town market was a short one, and soon he was surrounded by merchants calling out their meagre wares. Once, this market had flourished will all manner of trinkets, exotic foods, medicinal herbs, and many other wondrous things. It had been a sight worth seeing, or so the stories would have one believe. It was said that people came from miles around to take in the sights and sounds. Unfortunately, none of the current inhabitants remembered such days of prosperity.
He looked up at the towering castle that had been built too many generations ago to count. Its spires rose majestically above the town, but it no longer gave off the aura of strength and power it ought.
Turning back to the streets, he could see how far they’d fallen, if the tales were true. The houses were dismal and weary; the people were no better. He longed for days of colour, but he feared he would never see such in his lifetime.
He walked to one of the run-down stalls where an old woman peered up at him, her sunken brown eyes unnerving. “Umm . . .” he began, but the sight of the old hag only made him shudder. He turned to leave when she grabbed his sleeve. “What!” he cried in shock.
She stared at him for a moment. “It’s happened before,” she crooned in a voice much smoother than he would have expected.
“The time comes for history to repeat itself. He hungers.”
“What are you babbling about?”
“The royal bride be warned! He craves the blood of the child.”
“Let go of me, you old coot. There is no royal bride. Find some other kingdom to menace.”
“Beware falsities. One lie leads to the destruction of many lives.”
He yanked his arm free of her white-knuckled grasp and stumbled away from the stall. Fixing his tunic, he moved on, allowing the woman and her nonsensical warning to fade from his mind.
He visited three more stalls before he found what he was looking for at the lowest reasonable price. He was just about to head home when he saw a narrow man with dark features walking the streets. Recognizing him as someone from the palace, Tom decided to follow him, curious at his presence. They ended up inside one of the town taverns where he discovered the man was Edgar, the king’s high adviser.
“Did you leave the palace and get lost?” the bartender asked gruffly. “How does someone of your status end up here?”
“Actually,” Edgar corrected, clearing his throat, “I’m on a search on behalf of King Lancer.”
“We have no gold either,” the bearded bartender snarled, and turned away with a huff.
Edgar waited for the man to turn back, but he continued to receive the cold shoulder. He never knew peasants could be so infuriating. He was trying to help them, after all.
“Excuse me?” Tom queried, working up his courage.
Edgar turned to the blonde-haired man who stood only a few inches shorter than himself. “Yes?”
“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I couldn’t help overhearing you say that you’re here on behalf of the king?”
“I know I have no right to ask, as it’s the king’s business, but what could he possibly need from us?”
Finally, he had found a commoner with some sense. “I’m on a mission to find something that would make everyone happy,” he decided to say, not willing to give everything away all at once. “Including the people.” That last he added loud enough for the bartender to hear as well.
Tom’s mind worked furiously. “Something that would bring happiness,” he mused. He thought about the days of his youth when he’d first met the love of his life. Though she’d passed, he still saw her in Arabella each day. “I can’t think of anything that would make any man happier than finding a wonderful wife to stay beside him, and a child to bring a smile to his face. And perhaps this is just a proud father speaking, but I happen to have the most beautiful daughter in the entire town, perhaps even the entire world. My humble opinion, of course. I have no doubt that she would make any king happy.”
Edgar eyed the man, taking in his ragged appearance. His own clothes were not much better, but at least they were clean. “Not interested,” he stated flatly, and spun on his heels to leave.
“But not only is she beautiful!” Tom cried as he ran after the adviser, “she can also spin straw into gold!” He was immediately horrified by the words that spilled unbidden out of his mouth. What was he thinking? No one could do something so obviously impossible!
Edgar paused, his interest suddenly piqued. “She can what?”
Tom gulped. “She can, um, spin straw into gold?”
“Who are you?”
“Tom. The miller.”
“Well, Tom the miller, perhaps you’d be willing to send your daughter to the palace by this evening. She shall be put to a test. If she is as talented as you say, things could change greatly for you.”
His heart dropped for he knew he had doomed his daughter. “Yes, sir.”
“Good man. See you tonight.”
He went home disheartened. What was he supposed to do? Perhaps he could take Arabella and flee the country. No, he had already made a promise. There would be no running away now.
“Father, you’re home!” Arabella called when she saw him. Her smile faded at the look on his face for she could tell instantly that something weighed on his mind. “Why, what’s wrong? Could you not find what you were looking for?”
He tried to smile cheerfully at her, but he knew she could see right through him. “My dear, the king’s high adviser has requested for you to go to the castle this evening.”
“Me? What have I done?”
“You’ve done nothing wrong,” he fumbled truthfully. “It’s just . . . well, it seems he somehow caught rumour of your beauty. They wish to see the truth for themselves.”
“Oh,” she breathed. “But surely there are plenty of girls more beautiful than I who ought to be presented to the king. Why me?”
She was so kind, and so pure. He hated himself for lying to her. “You must go at once. Perhaps the king shall make you his queen.”
She laughed. “Father, did you not hear what I said? Why would he choose me over all the maidens of this land? I’ll go, but don’t hope too much for such an elegant return.”
“I love you,” he said as he handed her a worn riding cloak.
She took it and gave him a big hug. “I love you, too.”
He watched her leave and prayed that she would return to him, but he feared that he had just sent her to her death. A tear rolled down his cheek. “Forgive me,” he whispered as she disappeared from view.