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art by Jonathan Westbrook

The Long Con

Megan Engelhardt likes to find the story behind the story and knows that a good con is never truly over. Her work has appeared in Necrotic Tissue, Silver Blade, and Crossed Genres, among others. She can be found at megengelhardt.com or on Twitter at twitter.com/MadMerryMeg.
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 naive 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.
"Why?"
"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.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, January 31st, 2012


It always bothered me that Rumpelstiltskin was so careless. It was obviously not his first time to the dance--he played the princess so well at the beginning. He knew what he was doing, so why would he ultimately fail in such a spectacular and easily-avoidable way? When I thought about it, the answer became clear: he didn't fail.

- Megan R. Engelhardt

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