Some of them, the wish-granters, the kindly folk, the godparents, are summoned by desire, or hard work, or anger. It calls them, tugs them, until they can go to help, to see the desire fulfilled, the wish granted. Some of them receive in trade only the sense that they're balancing the scales of the world. Some of them amass favors owed. Some of them make bargains.
Rumpelstiltskin has always found himself called to tears, the quiet ones of despair, the ones that are silent because it never occurs to the one weeping that someone might hear and come to comfort them. It might be better, if he could simply help them without asking anything in return, but his magic always asks for a bargain.
He's been called to the royal palace a time or two, in his years. Sometimes it's a scullery maid with a baby she can't afford, or a child whose knightly father is off at the wars.
This time, when he winks to the nearest secret place to the tears, he finds himself staring at heaps of bales of straw, still bound up with twine, no doubt taken from the stables or the mews, filling up one of the audience rooms of the palace, all the carved wooden furniture pushed away to the walls, the doors locked and chained.
The source of the tears spots him before he spots her, judging by the gasp, and he peers around a pile of bales to find a girl. She's a pretty girl just of the age to be wed, her face clearly used to smiles even if it's now wet with tears, with a clean apron and clever fingers currently twisted together in her lap, not touching the spinning wheel in front of her. He can't blame her, with only a leader there, no wool or flax or anything else to spin. Just straw.
“Who are you?” she asks, and if it were dark, he might not know she'd been crying, her voice is that steady. She's brave, then.
“I'm … an interested friend, you might say.”
“An interested friend. All my 'interested friends' stood there gawping in the marketplace while I was taken away.”
Taken away to the palace, but not the dungeon, and a room full of straw. Nothing is adding up. Rumpelstilskin sits down far enough away that he can't touch her, plays up his creaking back, the limbs that used to be stronger than they are now. “Let's say, then, that I'm an interested potential friend who would like to know what would help.”
She makes an expressive gesture at the piles of straw. “What would help? A miracle, sir. You must not listen to gossip, if you didn't hear it in the marketplace or the palace halls.”
“I've just returned after a long time away. What's your name, miss?”
She laughs, a wild choke of a sound. “I have until dawn to do an impossible task, and that's your question?”
“Well, first I asked what would help, but I think we might get along better if we know something about each other.”
She stands up, frowning down at him as he sits there. “But if I'm right, you won't tell me anything about yourself. Not even your name.”
“I'll tell you many things, if you ask, but not my name, it's true. But I'd be grateful for yours, and for the chance to help you. It bothers me, when I can't.”
“And what do you ask in trade?”
She's a canny girl, this one. Someone's taught her well. “Nothing you can't part with, but something dear. Not as dear as my name would be to me, but dearer than yours would be to you. But first, I have to know what I must do.”
She watches him, chin raised. Her eyes are red and swollen, and he keeps his face pleasant and neutral. If he gives her pity, she'll snap. “Spin this straw into gold.”
There are many things Rumpelstiltskin has done over the years. This, he's never been asked. “Who thinks you could do a thing like that?”
“A malicious fool, led on by a bragging fool. My father ...” She clenches her hands into fists. “I spin fine thread. That's all. I spin good flax thread, and my father bragged in the open marketplace, in front of the king, that I could spin straw into gold if I so choose, when he asked about me. And now everyone believes it. Maybe even my father.”
That's a tangle, to be certain. He lives in the deepest part of the woods, but even he knows what's going on, when he buys what few supplies he can't glean. He knows the king is a lecher and a warmonger. Can see the way he might leer at a neat, pretty girl in the marketplace and bluster it into respectable questions when her father proved to be near. Can see the way a boast might trigger his need for gold to fight his next war, claim more territory, nibble away at his neighbors' borders. It doesn't really matter if it's true. Because either he gets what he wants, or he gets something else he wants. “And if you can't do it?”
“He kills me.”
“Kills you? Not … forgive my indelicacy—”
“Oh, he might not kill me right away,” she says, something that's almost humor and almost fear around her mouth. His heart goes out to her, but she won't accept that either. “But yes, I'll die. So, bargain-maker, can you save me? Again and again, because he'll ask again and again? Or can you give me this power to use at his beck and call?”
“No chicken in this country would have a bed within a week. And no power or skill on this earth can teach you how to spin straw into gold. The only reason I can do it is because I can grant wishes, with the right bargain.”
She pulls a ring from her finger. It's gold, but so thin it's barely more than wire. Thin as yarn. “What kind of bargain will this give me? It's nothing, compared to the gold he wants, but it was my mother's. My father gave it to her when they married. Is it enough?”
Rumpelstiltskin could wish, for his own sake and this girl's, that it would be enough that he could spin up every stray piece of straw in the country. But there are rules, even for him, written deep in his bones. “A night's spinning. When he asks again, you need another bargain.”
“A skein of the gold you spin tonight? I could hide it for a day, maybe. But—no,” she says, before he can begin to express his regrets. “No, that wouldn't cost me anything.” She puts her hand to her chest. “There's one more thing I can offer. Tomorrow night. Maybe it would last two nights. It's more precious to me.”
“We'll discuss tomorrow when it comes.” He sits down at the spinning wheel. He's never learned to spin, but he doesn't need to. She needs the straw spun, so he'll spin it, though he could wave his arms and have the room full of piles of solid gold no mortal man could hope to move. “You could still tell me your name. It can't be used against you, and it will be a long night. I won't make it a part of the bargain, but I'd appreciate company while I spin.”
There's a long silence while he grabs a fistful of straw and starts feeding it slowly through the wheel, watching it spin tighter and tighter, into something that gleams. “Hannah,” she finally says. “Let me help you with this, have you never spun before? You won't get anywhere fast like that.”
He'll have it all finished by dawn, since that's the bargain, but he smiles at her anyway. “Help me, then. I'm always glad of assistance. As glad as I am to give it, in fact.”
“I keep my bargains,” she says when she's yawned her way awake, still looking at everything he spent the night making with her eyes wide. “Though if you can make this much gold, my ring won't do you much good.”
“I can't make it for myself, and it matters to me because it matters to you.” She pulls it from her finger and places it in his palm, carefully not touching him. He tucks it safely away and looks at her again. “He won't let this be the end of it. If you don't want to be calling me to you every night of your life, you have to find a story he'll believe that will let you live.”
“That I can do.” She picks up one of the threads, lets it slip between her fingers. It's true thread, not wire, but melted down, it will behave like gold. He's sure of that. “My mother used to tell me stories about magic, and people like you.” She looks at him. “It will be more than just tonight, though. And if I know you'll come, I might not be desperate enough to summon you. Will you come back? I promise you another bargain.”
“You did give me your name without a price attached,” he muses. “I think it will be enough for me to find you tonight. Good thinking.”
Hannah's smile barely deserves the name. “I may not be able to spin straw into gold, but at least there's that.”
He can hear something at the door, the king and his men impatient to see if they're starting the day with a fortune or an execution. Rumpelstiltskin stands. “Tonight, then. Good luck.”
“I'll need it,” she says, and the last thing he sees as he fades away is her turning to face the door.
It's hard to find Hannah, and the spinning wheel, in the one clear space in front of the altar. Tonight, they've put her in a prettier dress, and she looks pale and tired and upset. He might have been called to her even if it weren't for their bargain, and just as he thinks it she looks up at him. “I think some of it came out of stalls and coops already used,” she warns. “It won't be a pleasant task. Can you do this much?”
“You need me to do this much. What do you have to offer me? Have you found a way to stop?”
“I told him that as part of the gift, I was told that I would only ever be able to do it three times. He'll ask once more. And for tonight's work ...” She's wearing a necklace, amber beads on a gold chain, and he'd thought perhaps it was a gift for her work, nothing to her, but when she takes it off, her hands are trembling. “Another gift from my mother. She left it for my wedding day, and the wedding days of my children, and it was my grandmother's before it was hers, and two generations of mothers before that.”
“A worthy and a brave gift. It's enough for tonight, and enough to get me to you tomorrow night. But with so much more straw, it's only one night of spinning.”
Hannah bows her head. “It's all I have of value to me or anyone else. At least all that's mine to give.”
There's always one more bargain to make. Especially for the desperate. But that's to worry about tomorrow. She has a day to think of what more she has to offer. “Worry about tomorrow tomorrow. For now, let's get to work. I'll have to spin very fast, to get all of this done.”
This time, she doesn't fall asleep. She fetches him armful after armful of straw, and helps him move the spinning wheel when that makes more sense, leaving piles of gold thread behind them, compressing the straw until he can start to see the figures on the stained glass windows.
By the time he finishes, they're starting to glow with the morning light, and he has no time to stretch the creaks out of his back. The stone in this part of the castle amplifies the sounds of boots against stone, soldiers marching to escort her to a room to rest or to the dungeon to await her death.
“Tonight,” she says, suddenly desperate. “The necklace was enough?”
It's a warm weight in his pocket. “The necklace is enough,” he assures her. “One more night of this and you'll be free, no doubt with a reward to make your life after this a little easier.”
Hannah's face twists into a frown, then, but there's no time to ask why. The key is in the lock, and Rumpelstiltskin fades away before they can see him.
Hannah is sitting on the throne, her hands clenched white-knuckled on the arms. She's wearing a new necklace tonight, jewels strung like beads onto some of the thread he spun, and a beautiful dress, too, that must have been taken from one of the ladies in the palace. “You've come up in the world,” he says as he goes to the spinning wheel. That, at least, is the same familiar object.
“If I can do this tonight, he says I'll be his wife. And if I don't, I'll die.”
Hannah deserves to go back to her mill, and learn to smile again, and go back to spinning flax and cotton and wool, with a dowry that would please any husband. But she isn't asking for that, so Rumpelstiltskin can't give it to her. “What do you have to offer, then?”
“Not a kingdom. That doesn't mean anything to me, and it's not mine yet. I could give you every jewel I'm wearing, and those don't matter either. Nothing I can offer you means anything to me, except ...”
Ask for help, he wants to tell her. Ask for escape. Find some other bargain and ask for something that will leave the king with a pile or straw and no witch to make into a bride. “Except?” he asks instead. He may have power, but he still has rules to follow.
“Can I pledge you something? The moment it comes, will you know, and come to make sure I fulfill the other half of the bargain?”
“It's been done,” Rumpelstiltskin says. There's only one thing women pledge in advance, the truly desperate, and it's never been a bargain he's made, but oh, if she offers, he can't say no. For his own sake, he wants it more than anything. For hers … it's never been something he's been offered, but he's heard the stories. It's always an offer the woman regrets. “What are you offering, that would be worth the wait?”
Hannah lifts her chin. She's brave enough to swallow the regrets, and wise enough to know she'll have them. “A child. My child, if the king marries me in the morning.”
There. It's done. “And what makes you think a child has value to me?”
“Because it has value to me, and that's the way it works, isn't it? I told you my mother told me stories. She said your kind are child-thieves—and yes, I know it's not stealing if I'm making a bargain.”
His kind can have children, but they're ordinary kinds of people with ordinary kinds of lives. Or they can steal children away without a bargain, but that does them no good. No, only children traded for and won can inherit their powers, and Rumpelstiltskin has lived a long, long life without training an heir to his power. “A child, your first-born, would have value, but think carefully before you really offer it. What would your king do, if you bargain away his heir?”
Her face spasms. “I don't know. Kill me. Make sure I have another one. Be so busy fighting wars that he doesn't notice. But this child, my first one … it will be safer with you than here, I think.”
Trade yourself, he wants to say. Spin flax and wool in my house, and if you have a child someday I'll raise it like a grandchild, and it won't have power, but it will have love. But that's not what she's offering, and he can't suggest a bargain, only accept or not accept what's offered. “It will be safe. And loved, for what it's worth. Is that your offer, then? Your first-born child?”
Hannah swallows. “That's my bargain. My child, for this room filled with gold.”
Rumpelstiltskin nods, looks at her sitting there on the throne, and the changes in her that only two days have wrought. She'll be a smarter and kinder queen than this king deserves, but it's going to come at a cost. He hates adding to it, but this way, she'll be alive, and have a chance to forge some happiness. “Then we'd best get to spinning.”
“There must be a lot of unhappy hens in the kingdom.”
“I hardly know. I've been under guard, and no one here really talks to me.”
“They'll talk to you after today. They'll have to.”
She manages a wry but honest smile, more comforting than anything else he's seen from her yet. “We'll see what we have to say to each other.” She offers him her hand, and he lets her pull him to his feet, before shaking out his sore arms and shoulders. Spinning, it seems, is physical work.
“This is goodbye for a while, then,” he says.
Hannah tilts her head, considering. “When will you come? Can you feed it? Will you wait until it's named, or until it's weaned?”
“Named, most likely. I can care for it, you don't need to fear that. The child will be as happy as I can make it.”
“And if it asks after me someday?”
“I'll tell it the truth.” He spent a long time hating the woman who taught him and raised him and bargained him away from his family. “That you did the best for it that you could, and that you were brave.” He hesitates, but she doesn't seem ready to send him off yet, so he keeps speaking. “Next time I see you, you'll hate me. I can just about promise you that. So I'll tell you now to live well, as well as you can. And if you ever want to make another bargain ...”
“Live well, sir. Give my child that necklace and ring someday, if you haven't used them yet. And I'll see you when you come to fulfill your bargain.” The doors rattle on their hinges, the king impatient to see all the gold that could buy a kingdom twice over, just from this one night's work. Hannah straightens up, brushes dust off her beautiful dress as efficiently as if it were her old apron. “Here comes my groom, then.”
“Goodbye. Are you sure I can't have your name?”
“I'm sure. That would be a different bargain completely.”
“Goodbye, then, sir.”
Rumpelstiltskin fades away again, just as the first rays of light come through the window, making the whole throne room glow.
Rumpelstiltskin goes back to finding the desperate, the people in need, and does what he can for them. He eases fevers, leaves presents, finds children and brings them home, or to new homes. He has a quiet meal with a woman like him—they're more often women than men, the group of them. The girls are more often traded, much as he hates it.
And he waits.
It's only a matter of months before the gossip in the marketplace is that the new queen is with child—with the marriage so new, and such luck and happiness, say all the matrons in town. The king has delayed his planned spring campaign to expand their borders at the south, to be sure to be home for the birth, which means the king hasn't earned Hannah's trust enough for her to tell him. Or perhaps he's staying home to protect his heir, though Rumpelstiltskin wouldn't lay money on it.
Maybe he'll appear, and Hannah will be happy with her king, and he'll try his best to show her the way to back out of an agreement like his. It will be a wrench to him, when he's been quietly preparing his house for an heir, asking those like him how they trained their own, how they were trained. A wrench for him is better than a heartbreak for someone else, though.
Rumpelstiltskin can't imagine how any other wish-granters can bear it.
He starts haunting the marketplace as often as people go there to meet, listening for word brought from the castle, even if it's only that the queen is healthy and the king is smug. The farmers' wives, when they come to town for trade, tell him he's a gossip and ask about him where they never dared before. He tells them that he may be taking in his grandchild, in the not-too-distant future, and they coo over it and fill his head with conflicting advice.
Maybe Hannah is getting the same advice from ladies in waiting and housekeepers. It's hard to imagine her among them, laughing and chatting, but maybe it's so. She's not the kind to dwell in misery, even if everything is difficult.
The news about the baby's birth comes before Rumpelstiltskin feels the tug of a bargain that needs fulfilling. The queen has insisted on waiting a little time to name the child, everyone says, and it's a daughter so the king hasn't insisted that his heir be named.
A daughter. Rumpelstiltskin wonders what Hannah will name her, and what she'll name herself later in life and keep secret from all but those she trusts most.
He appears to the sound of the king hissing something vicious. He's never seen the man before, but he's not hard to recognize, built like a mountain, a fighter with a sneer on his face and a golden chain around his neck, his bulk hiding Hannah and the child from Rumpelstiltskin as he hisses “—magic bargain with my child, my blood. What if it had been an heir? I should kill you where you stand.”
“You'll wake her,” Hannah says at a normal volume, and the king shifts just far enough that he can see her face over his shoulder. She relaxes into a smile, if a wan one. “Here he is.”
The year between them hasn't been kind to Hannah. She's thinner than she was, thinner than she should be when she's so recently had a baby, and all new mothers are tired, but her exhaustion seems bone-deep, and tempered by little joy. Some of that, Rumpelstiltskin knows, is his fault, because she knew all along that the baby wouldn't be her joy and her relief in an unhappy marriage. “Here I am,” he agrees.
The king turns around with a hiss of steel as he draws his sword, but he doesn't call for his guards. Maybe he doesn't want them to know what kind of bargain his queen made. “Begone, demon,” he says. He's a handsome man, but the handsomeness doesn't outweigh the cruelty. “My wife had no right to bargain with what isn't hers.”
He's not the kind of man who will listen to reason. “But she did,” Rumpelstiltskin says, as gently as he can. Maybe someday the king will mourn his daughter, instead of being angry, and he'll be grateful for a little gentleness. “And it's not for you to stop me.”
Hannah steps around him, the baby in her arms. She's sleeping peacefully, in her presentation gown, pink and nearly bald, her few little bits of hair as golden as the thread Rumpelstiltskin spun for her mother. Hannah is wearing a thread of gold around her neck, and touches it self-consciously when she sees him looking, like it's a chain and not a gift. “You're very prompt.”
“I know.” He can't apologize. He reaches out for the baby instead, offering his arms. The king makes a noise of incoherent rage, but his sword doesn't come near Rumpelstiltskin, some superstitious fear that he wouldn't fall if he was stabbed. He would, of course, no matter how long he'll live without steel in the way, but the fear, the unwillingness to try, the old superstitions, have saved his life more than once.
Hannah sighs, but she offers the baby. “I'd thought you might wait until tonight. There's a bag next to her cradle, of things I hoped you might take. Things I knitted and sewed, that she might have used.”
It's kind, and brave, and he's tempted to say yes, but sense wins out. “If I'd thought of it, I would have realized you would have made that kind of preparation. For now, though, I think it's best not to linger. What did you name her?”
Her mouth quirks. “Does it matter? If you're smart, you'll change her name.”
He tilts his head in wry acknowledgment. He's only known her three nights, but he doesn't think he's met someone who isn't a wish-granter who knows him so well. “Still, I'd like to know it. If only so I know what not to choose.”
“Diana. Her name is Diana.” Hannah looks down at the baby, and then thrusts her into his arms. He takes the weight, and Diana doesn't stir.
Rumpelstiltskin steps back. Hannah's hands flex, reaching. The king's sword moves, confused, ready to take him on as a threat. “I'll love her,” he promises both of them.
Hannah looks at him, at her daughter, at the king, mouth pressed flat, and says “Wait.” He does. Even the king turns to look at her. At least he's smart enough to know that she's smarter. “A new bargain.”
“You can't undo a bargain.” There's one way, but she has to ask for it, or to guess at it.
“I'm not. She's in your arms, isn't she? I said a new one.”
Rumpelstiltskin meets her eyes. “What do you have to offer that you value?”
The king makes an impatient noise. “We have gold, we have jewels. Name your price, and give me my child back.”
“Your name,” says Hannah, and he starts. There's a gleam in her eye that means he gave himself away. “You helped me for three nights. Give me three nights more. Come back every day, and I'll give you all the guesses I have. If I guess your name, I'll give it to you. Swear never to use it against you. How's that for a bargain?”
“You can't promise that for everyone else.” He looks at the king. “He'll listen, and use my name, if you let him.”
The king makes an offended noise, but Hannah just talks over him. “No one will use it. I swear. They know not to go against a bargain with the good people. That those like you come and exact revenge if a bargain is broken, especially one so sacred that in involves your name. And I'll ask a whole list of names at once and you can tell me if your name was said in that whole list or not, and that's a measure of protection too.”
Rumpelstiltskin raises an eyebrow, but her face gives nothing away. She was easier to read a year ago. If it suits her to lie, though, to enforce her husband's silence through fear, if it means having her child, he's not going to gainsay her. “I suppose you'll make that clear? And who's to say a bargain for my name will still mean as much to me if you don't know the exact one?”
“I will. I swear. Your name wouldn't be worth anything to either of us, otherwise. And as for the name … I hope it still means enough.” She looks up at the king. “You agree, sire? No trying to control him, in case it brings curses down on our heads? And you'll make it clear to your men?”
There's a long silence, and a grudging nod. Rumpelstiltskin doubts it will be the last they talk about it, but for now, he trusts Hannah enough to keep the agreement binding. Most people aren't bound by their word the way he is, but she'll keep hers to death and beyond. It's the only thing that's keeping him from saying that she needs his name exactly. “Begone, then,” says the king. “Noon in the throne room tomorrow, and I'll tell you your name, and you'll leave the baby with me.”
“Noon in the throne room,” Hannah confirms, “and we'll make a new bargain if we make the right guess.” She looks down at Diana, still peaceful in his arms, sleeping her last moments with her mother away. “Please, I have no right to ask, but—bring her? To our meetings? I just want to see she's well a few more times.”
“It will be harder for you,” he warns. “And if you try to take her back, you'll lose your chance at our bargain.”
“No, I know.” She swallows. “I just want to see that she's well and safe. She never has to leave your arms, if you don't want her to. I don't have anything else to offer you, so I can't make it part of the bargain. I wish I could.”
Some of Rumpelstiltskin's colleagues tell him his heart is too soft. In a year, the few he's talked too have all shaken their heads over him when he's told them about Hannah. Perhaps because he's never brought up anyone by name before. “I'll bring her.” He looks at the king. “And I warn you again: if you try to take her, you'll never see either of us again.”
After a moment, he gives a jerky nod. It's the best Rumpelstiltskin can expect, and hopefully Hannah will have a few strong words for him.
“She won't let you sleep the night through,” Hannah warns, her voice wobbling. “But she likes singing, and going outside to get some fresh air, even if it's night. Just wrap her up tight, will you?”
“Of course,” he assures her, and her mouth trembles, and the king sneers, and it's too much for all of them, he knows. Better to leave. “Tomorrow at noon in the throne room. I know how to find it.”
Hannah nods, eyes brimming with tears, and Rumpelstiltskin makes sure his hold on Diana is tight as he leaves them behind, to their fights and their bargains and their search for a name they won't find.
By morning, she settles some. Rumpelstiltskin doesn't fool himself that he won't have hard weeks and months ahead of him, while she misses her mother and perhaps even her father, while she gets to know the very different world he's brought her to. If Hannah doesn't get her new bargain.
If he doesn't help her. He shouldn't. Without a few wish-granters in the world, it becomes a bleak place indeed, and he may have a long life, but not an endless one. The world is going to need Diana. But the world needs Hannah too, in a different way, and it needs her whole-hearted and strong. Can he wait for another child, another desperate trade?
It's almost noon, and he's starting to feel the pull. Diana gurgles a little. Perhaps she feels it too. He's felt it as long as he remembers. The woman who raised him went to places of great joy to add to it, and asked a kindness in return, brought home jars of honey and handmade rocking chairs and gold rings as a result. She only ever had to make one trade. He hopes Diana has her kind of call, more than his.
He's never heard of a wish-granter trading a child back. Will Diana still feel the call and not know why, if he sends her back to her parents?
“Yes, you're going to see your mother,” Rumpelstiltskin says when Diana gurgles again. “And we'll hope it turns out to be wise to bring you along.”
“How did she sleep?” she says when that assurance is given.
Rumpelstiltskin doesn't offer to let her hold Diana, even though she's crying fitfully again, back in a familiar setting, but with unfamiliar tension. He bounces her a little to calm her, and she subsides, though he can already tell it won't be long. His knack for sensing desperation and unhappiness will, he thinks, stand him in better stead when trying to divine a baby's needs than his mentor's predilection for joy.
“Not too well, but I think we're just about used to each other now, so I have higher hopes for tonight.”
She nods, hands clasped in her lap, and nods over to a neat pile of canvas not far away from her. “That's for her. The supplies I mentioned yesterday. Take it when you go?”
“I will. For now, perhaps you should begin guessing. She's a little fussier here than she was at home.”
Hannah's mouth tightens, but she holds out her hand and a page darts up to her and places a book in her hands. “This may take a while. Tell me if you need a break to feed her or change her.”
The book is full of names, all the ones the palace records can give up, years and years of names, centuries of them, even, from all across the region. Even the name he was born with, but it's not his true name, so he doesn't flinch, doesn't let on. It's not his name.
When she closes the book, her voice hoarse, an hour and more passed no matter how fast she was reading, he shakes his head. “None of those names are mine. Tomorrow?”
The crowd, and the king, are restless at that, the guards twitching for their weapons, but Hannah just raises a hand. “Yes. Tomorrow. Don't forget the things I set aside for Diana.”
Rumpelstiltskin walks over to them, and the guards look even more unhappy. All he does, though, is put his hand on the neatly wrapped pile, give Hannah a brief nod, and disappear before anyone can act on their unhappiness.
Diana, seeing the forest rise up around them again, makes a curious but not unhappy noise, and stops fussing.
“I'm glad she's well, then,” she says, frozen and wounded, and opens the book. “I suppose we should begin.”
Today's crowd is restless and frightened. There's a man standing to one side who has some of Hannah's look about him, an older man. Probably her father, who bragged stupidly and began the whole chain of events. Rumpelstiltskin wants to be angry at him, but he only feels sorry for him. He lost his daughter, trying to brag to a king. He just didn't have anyone to bargain with.
Hannah reads the names out one by one. Today's names she stumbles over. They're the names from stories and books and tales, from immigrants and ambassadors and all the names of their kinfolk that they can remember, all names given as gifts for their queen, or compelled by threat of force from the king.
“None of them are right,” Rumpelstiltskin says when she's done.
For just a moment, her chin trembles before she clenches her jaw, and his heart goes out to her. Diana, sensing his tension, stops staring around at the world and starts fussing, which only makes it worse.
The king, never helpful, turns on Hannah. “You should have let me kill him when he first came. Even magic can't stand up to steel, and you wouldn't let me do it. You gave my word for me. I never should have—”
Diana lets out a wail to make ears bleed, and Rumpelstiltskin bounces her a little. “I think I should take her,” he says, an apology and a warning.
“One more day,” says Hannah, desperate and ignoring the king. “Please, I have one more night to find an answer and make the right guess, don't I?”
His name is written in no books. It's made for him alone, not carried by any family that he knows of. She won't find it unless he gives it to her.
“One more night,” he says, and takes Diana away.
He paces across the floor with her, and wonders what he's doing. He has an heir, a child to raise, and he's seen enough of the king to know that Diana will live a happier life away from him. To cheat this most sacred of bargains to lose would make him worse than a fool.
If he wins, though, Diana grows up without her mother, a woman who could teach her a great deal, who would love her and raise her and protect her from her father to the best of her ability. Hannah is left with a husband who hates and mistrusts her, a public that could turn on her for her perceived connection to people like him, lonely and still trying for duty, for a second child and the closest to a happy life she could get.
Diana received the magic as soon as the bargain, the first one, was fulfilled. He's sure of it from the way she cries in company but not when it's just him. She's feeling hopes and desires and fears and angers warring in the people in that throne room, and she'll keep feeling them. She might not ever know why, if he brings her back. The magic might be dormant, or it might make it hard for her to be a princess. No one has ever traded a child back before, so he doesn't know.
When it gets dark, he goes outside, and makes a little campfire. Diana watches the sparks, solemn but not crying, and Rumpelstiltskin talks to her, tells her all about their powers, all the things she might find herself drawn to, all the things it will feel right to ask for or accept. He tells her about their history, and about the trade and the price they all pay.
And, when he hears a twig snap nearby, after footsteps not quite quiet enough in the night, he says “I haven't introduced myself to you yet, have I? If we're spending the next while together, I should at least give you my name.” Diana looks up at him like she knows something important is about to happen, and he swallows, and makes sure his voice is firm and just loud enough to carry. “It's Rumpelstiltskin. You can call me Rumpelstiltskin.”
He keeps talking, quieter, a murmur that no one should be able to hear, and listens to the footsteps walk away. He only prays that whoever was listening will take the news to Hannah and not the king.
The king looks almost bored. The guards look ready to leap into action. The people look depressed. Hannah's father is there again, and Rumpelstiltskin would almost bet that he's drunk.
Hannah, though. She knows. She looks settled, and serene, everything a queen should be. After today, she'll be the queen who saved her daughter from a demon who tried to snatch her away in an unfair bargain. Rumpelstiltskin knows the way stories spread, even if Hannah would never let those words pass her lips. “How did she sleep?” she asks.
“Not well,” he admits. “Hopefully better tonight, wherever she sleeps.”
“Then let's begin, and see it settled.” She looks around the throne room, some kind of resolve on her face, and then opens another book.
These names are stranger, invented collections of syllables along with the kinds of silly things the stories always say his people name themselves, names like Flitterling and Gleamer. He stands impassive as he has the past two days, Diana napping in his arms, and waits.
His name comes in the middle of a list of invented ones, and Hannah doesn't flicker an eyelash as she continues the list. He doesn't either. He may be losing Diana, but he still has to protect himself. She's giving him the gift of his real name, not used against him as a weapon, for her daughter back, but the king doesn't understand bargains. He won't stay afraid of invented ghosts forever.
Finally, she finishes, after leaving him standing there almost twenty minutes knowing that he's lost, and she closes the book, though she doesn't hand it off to anyone else like she has for the past two days. “Well?” she asks.
He looks down at Diana, her dear little face. His heir, whether she's with him or not. If any regular mortal could raise a wish-granter, though, it's Hannah. “Yes,” he says. “You said my name.”
The king sits bolt upright. “Guards, take the—”
“Wait,” says Hannah, and they do. They all do. “I said a new bargain. I never said I was going back on the old one.” She stands up, the book still under her arm. There's a bag, a leather one, behind her chair, and she swings it over her shoulder before she turns to Rumpelstiltskin and Diana. “Take me with you. That's my bargain. What I want in exchange for not using your name.”
The king shoots to his feet. “Witch. You've been in league with him all this time, you've been planning to get a child of my blood and use it—”
“If I were working with him, I wouldn't need to make a bargain to get him to take me away from you. And if you weren't so greedy that it made you gullible, I would never have bothered you.” Hannah backs away a step. “My gold has made you rich.” She pulls the thread of gold from around her neck and drops it on the floor. “Have that too, for what it's worth. Forget about me. You'll say you were widowed, or I was a witch or a fairy, and you'll have all the heirs you want. And you'll never see me again, and if you see our daughter, you won't recognize her. It would have been so easy to be kind, but you never were. That was your choice, so I'm making mine.”
She's won. She's made a bargain he can't refuse, and one he doesn't want to refuse, even if he wonders if she knows what she's offering, how lonely a life she might end up living, in the middle of the woods. But she's won, fair and square, and if she doesn't like the bargain she's made, he has no doubt that she'll present him with another one.
The throne room is in pandemonium. The king is reduced to speechless rage, his hand on the pommel of his sword, and the guards and public are in a confusion. The miller, Hannah's father, has closed his eyes against the sight, swaying a little. Diana is starting to cry, upset by all the noise and emotion. Rumpelstiltskin extends his hand to Hannah, who's watching him. “Come along, if you're coming.”
“Of course I'm coming,” she says, and walks over to him, over the king's senseless shout.
Rumpelstiltskin takes her hand, and the throne room fades away around them.
“Thank you, Rumpelstiltskin,” she says at last. “Or should I call you that?”
“Here, you can. Elsewhere, ask first. Thank you for not taking her back from me. I thought you would.”
“But you still gave my messenger the answer. You want Diana, but you would have given her up.”
Rumpelstiltskin shrugs. “I'm a little too soft, perhaps. It would have been difficult. She's my heir, even if she's not your king's heir. As soon as you traded her to me, she got the magic, like I have. Only time will tell how it will work, for her. You found the only way I know of that you can mother her and still let me bring her up to what she could be.”
Hannah looks around his home, assessing it. It will need to be a little bigger, with three rather than two, but he doesn't worry about that. His magic takes care of his needs easily enough. There was already a rocking chair, though, built with his own hands over the course of the year, when he knew Diana was coming. She sits down in it, to rock Diana and feed her, and looks up at him. “Tell me, then. What could she be?”
“People call us by many names, and even we aren't sure which ones are right and which are wrong. We call ourselves wish-granters, more often than not.” He sits down at his table, facing them. “You bargained yourself away too. I've never known someone to do that. I don't know if you've made yourself into one of us too, or something like us.”
“I feel different,” she admits, “but mostly I just feel free. Only time will tell if it's more, I think. What do you think I could do?”
“Anything you like,” he says, with perfect honesty. There are rules to his magic and his bargains, but Hannah already knows how to get around rules. He smiles at her. “Spin straw into gold, if you like.”
Diana gives a happy gurgle, all right with her world, and Hannah looks at Rumpelstiltskin, a year's worth of cares falling away from her face. “Now why,” she says, “would I ever want to do that?”