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Lob-lie-by-the-fire (the naming of things remix)

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The room was high enough in the central keep to have a view out over the walls, where the land dropped away at their base down into the green valley. The room itself was made of good stone, the floor polished smooth by time and footsteps, the walls still rough behind their thick tapestry hangings. The door was old wood, almost as hard as iron, and very thick, with a great wood bar across it. There was a large table, also of wood, though not so old as the door, nor as strong, and on the table was a basket of good bread, and jugs of fresh water. Also cheese, although no milk, and a box of sweetmeats, claggy with honey. There is a particular smell stone has, and another, equally particular, that belongs to wood, although it doesn't smell the way a living tree does; besides those, the scent of the bread carried the memory of ripe wheat, and there was the curdled sourness of the cheese, the damp wool of the hangings, the warm pungency of the full chamberpot, traces of old smoke (although the fires had not been lit since early spring).

The room was almost quiet, although a bird sang brightly just outside the window, and there were some sounds from outside the door, heavily muffled by its thickness. Inside the room, there was the rustle of mice in the wall, and the sounds of two people (hearts beating, their breathing), and the queen's voice, singing.

Normally she had a good voice, clear and true, but it cracked and wavered now. Still, it was better than the boy crying, which was an unpleasant sound. There was a scream somewhere outside the door, so long and loud it could be heard even in the room: the scream of a man whose guts are spilling out and who has no further hope than to go quickly to his death. One man's screams sound very like another, even to my ears, so there was no telling on which side he had been fighting. The queen took a quavering breath, and kept on singing, her hand stroking the prince's hair.

§

The kitchen was a bustle of activity: spits turning in front of well-fed fires, mortars ceaselessly grinding nuts or sugar, knives flashing in the firelight, water boiling in cauldrons, a cellarful of supplies – meat and grain and fruit in syrup and jars of fat – being made ready for use. Juices dripped from the turning meat into the trays below, and sometimes a kitchen boy would break off from turning the spit to baste the meat or to flick a little of the gathered liquid into the fire, a little offering done by rote, accompanied by a thoughtless, murmured prayer. Off-cuts and waste were gathered up to go to the pigs or the chickens; smaller crumbs were scattered on the floor as though by accident, food for the mice and the rats; a little saucer in a dark corner was filled with milk for me.

§

The hunter sat down to eat his lunch beneath a large tree. He had a strip of dried meat and a handful of dried fruit, and when he had finished his meal, he arranged the fruit seeds in a neat pattern, playing with them as though he were still a child, and then he went on his way.

Another time, there was a man who came past and stopped to drink at the spring. He was grateful for the water, and moved by some impulse he found a smooth stone, rounded over centuries by the water and whiter in colour than those around it, and placed it neatly where he had knelt to drink. Stones slowly gathered there, left by passers by, piling up into a little cairn.

Once a family stopped and lived there for a while, next to the spring and the large tree, although it may have been a different tree by that time. They had a fire they made sure never to let go out, and they shared their shelter and their food with a dog, and mice, and ants, and fleas. They saw the world in two unequal parts: the part that was inside, and their home; the part that was outside, and contained everything else. They felt sure that something marked the boundary between the two, that somehow their home was safer than anywhere else, that it protected them.

Once an injured man, still bleeding heavily but hoping to live, hid among the bushes from his enemies. After they had gone, he was able to drink the cool water, and eat nuts from the tree, knowing a good hiding place was close at hand. Later, the little forest creatures picked his bones clean, and left them under the bushes, white as cairn-stones.

§

There had been houses here before, or at any rate shelters meant to last longer than a single season. At first there had been only one at a time, and often many years after it had decayed away before the next was built, but eventually, after many centuries, it became normal to have a second and a third join the first, and then even a fourth or fifth, to make a little village, but they were always built up around the occupants, who gathered walls and roof around themselves as naturally as a spider spins a web, or a rabbit digs its burrow. But one day men came who did not want to live here themselves, but had plans and designs and gave orders that were carried out. A castle grew up then, bursting out of the ground like a mushroom growing up from a log: the first small tower grew up and outwards, sprouting new walls and towers, sinking cellars and tunnels into the ground like hyphae, growing larger and more solid by the century. And other, smaller buildings grew up round it, spreading out and down into the valley, until there were few trees left.

The old spring welled up now in a dark basement, and the water was led away to serve the purposes of men, but in recompense the offerings piled up around it, cellars full of food, of armour and weapons, of gold and cloth and precious things, and the castle was beautiful as well as safe, and all manner of creatures lived within its walls.

§

There was a book on the table, large and heavy and old. Normally it was kept in the library with the other books and the silverfish and the pretty molds that grew in irregular patterns if the summer was wet. The man was muttering to himself as he studied it, reading the same page over and over again, as though it were important to him to remember it perfectly. Also on the table was a black cockerel, which had been killed and cut open. I'm not sure why it was there – perhaps the man intended to eat it, although it had been a long time since I had seen men eat their meat raw. There were candles, but arranged around the dead bird, not where they might have cast light on the book. The man stopped reading and took a small silver box from his pocket. He took pinches of salt and tossed them to the floor at each corner of the table. It didn't seem likely this would be useful to anyone, for I cannot think of anything that lives inside and likes salt except humans, who do not eat it from the floor. Cows, perhaps, but cows do not like to climb stairs, and we were in a room at the top of one of the towers.

The man consulted the book again and began to declaim aloud, nonsense for the most part, but in the end he began to address me:

"By these means, I command you to appear, you lubberkin, you spirit of the hearth, you embodiment of fortune; by these means I bind you to obey me. Serve me and you shall have your reward; obey me and have payment for your service," and much more in that vein I paid little attention to. The book was bound in leather, which had begun to rot in places, so that cowhide dust sloughed off the binding and made patterns on the table. They were tallow candles, that smelt still of cow fat. Perhaps that was why he threw the salt, to appease the spirits of the dead cows? Although it did not seem to me there were any spirits in the tower, nor does anything linger behind of the beasts of the field after they have ceased to move. Which is lucky for them, for he went on to talk at great length about politics, and complicated deals with his neighbouring lords, and since I was there I had to listen to all of it, although he could have come to the point at once, if he had not been so fond of his own voice.

§

"It's for you," the girl whispered, furtively dropping a morsel of cheese just outside the door. She came from one of the shacks way down in the valley – one large room, with parents and grandparents and eight living children, along with the pig and the cat and a few hens – but she'd had a good job in the castle for a while, and had filled out with regular meals and not having to walk a mile each way whenever she wanted water. Filled out even more since she'd caught a senior guardsman's eye, and soon enough she'd probably be sent back to her shack in the valley.

"I know I'm not doing all the work I should, but I'm not lazy, I swear, I'll make it up when I feel better, just see if I don't."

The bruises stood out vividly on her forearms and legs, like patches of mold on old bread. They came up in the night for no cause she could see, save one, and for that she turned to the old remedy of prayers and propritiation.

§

As time went on, the growth of the castle slowed, although the buildings around it grew even faster than before. There were fewer people now who called on me deliberately, or who remembered to set aside my portion. The old books, written by hand, were set aside, and new ones, printed in uniform type, began to take their place. New tools and mechanisms were brought in, metal everywhere that had once been wood and stone (though metal rusts, red as blood, which wood and stone do not).

The new king did not throw salt around, or pile up little river stones, although at times he did order great feasts. Mostly he asked questions, all the time, of anyone who might answer him, from the wisest to the poorest peasant in his fields. It did not seem a profitable pastime, but the ways of people are often strange, and his was no stranger than many others. Certainly it did him little good, and every year he seemed more strained, more tired, with less time to devote to pointless questions and more time spent in pointless brooding over account books, and discussing trading concessions and border taxes, which did him no more good than his questioning.

It happened that some girl from the mill on the river caught his fancy, and he brought her to the castle, to the room high up in the keep. She was not the sort of girl who had been brought to the castle in times past, not being at all attractive as people generally judge such things (though fashions change), and she sang old songs under her breath to stop herself from crying. When she had been left in the room for some while (door barred this time on the outer side, the room smelling now of fresh straw), she ceased to sing and to snivel both, and went over to stare out the window, down into the valley below, though what she saw of interest I do not know.

At last darkness came, with no moon that night, so that there was little for her to see, though she stared out the window still. In time the dawn came grey across the land, and afterwards the red of fire. I thought that she might cry again, which is always an unpleasant sound, but luckily she began to talk to herself instead.

"After all, why not?" she said. And "Perhaps there is a chance for me. Perhaps the stories are true." And "I must try it now, while there's still time. But then I'll know it doesn't work and I won't have even a hope to comfort me from now until they come. But I must be brave." And saying that, she took off her ring, a poor wooden thing, of the sort no one now wears, and threw it down in the centre of the room, and then began to cry again in earnest.

It wasn't much of a ring: the tree that gave the wood had been very young, hardly more than a sapling, and it had not even died in the making of it, for the ring had come from a branch, not from the heart wood, but perhaps it seemed important to her because her father had made it for her. As I said, it wasn't much, and there was no reason I should want it, but it was no more incomprehensible a gift than many I had been given before, and after all I must fulfil my function, as every creature must. Spinning straw to the semblance of gold is no greater task than causing the wheat to grow, or a man to turn aside in his search, or the winter cold to remain outside.

She was back the next night, and the one after, for once he was sure it was no human deceit, the king had gone back to asking his endless questions: whether it was replicable, how much might be made, how long before it reverted to straw, what the cause might be. The girl offered me this and that, as seemed best to her: a cheap amulet a boy had given her (a boy she had no interest in going with, although it was the natural order of things, and the way humans had lived for all ages past – but the times were changing, and she turned her back without thought on a nice, steady boy who liked her); her first born son, if she should marry the king. What she thought I might want with a human child I do not know – it was a stranger thing even than a gutted cockerel – but she seemed to think it was traditional, and also that I might help her marry the king, although why she preferred a man who asked questions to a man who would give her sons to keep I cannot say. But marry him she did, so that they were the two of them together owners of the castle, and all its lands.

Nor did the questions cease, but rather doubled, for she asked them as well, and always they came back to the same point. What manner of creature was I, and what was my name, that I might be categorised and put into place, that I might be commanded to do their bidding. I, who had always been a creature of hope, of fear, of human longing, of nameless and unspoken necessity: the roof against the rain, the winter store of food, the crackling fire and the wall against the wind.

But I am always as I am made, and I must serve my makers whatever fee they choose to give me, whether what they want is good or ill, whether a wiser man would have asked some other service, whether the price they offer is one they truly wish to pay. And so I have a name at last, last of all creatures named by man, even if I was forced to choose my name myself, and with that name comes banishment, for there is no place for me in this new world of change and iron and questions, or if there is a place, it is a place for Rumpelstiltskin, singular and real, and not for whatever I once was.

As for the king and the queen, they must shift for themselves, and make what they can of their lives unaided by anything they can't get from a printed book, for I am gone from them; and the luck, and the magic, and the price to be paid, are gone too, gone the way of the fleas and the prayers and the fear of the dark. It is a new age, and I a new creature to live in it, and to make what I can of my life before I die (for all that truly live must truly die): I too must shift for mysef, for I do not think there is any power I may call upon to aid me, as I was called upon to aid others in times past.