The Oathbreaker, Pt XXXI

The sun was perhaps a finger’s length above the horizon.  I watched it sink from the window in my bedroom, wrapped in the scarf I’d woven from my mother’s goats, cradling my sleeping daughter.

“It will be over soon,” I whispered to her.  One way or another, it would be over.

There was no scroll tonight, no flagon of restorative potion.  Just me, and that I held most dear.

I leaned down and kissed her head, wondering if I’d ever have enough of her.

Half the sun was gone, and then three quarters.  And then all but a sliver, and then not even that- just a blazing glory of clouds to mark its passage.  All the orange and gold made me remember the little fire spirit, lounging on the rock, and I smiled.

“It seems pleased with itself,” said the creature.  I turned to see it sitting in my daughter’s cradle, leering at me.  “Has it found some small sliver of cleverness at last?”

“There’s no need to be nasty,” I told it primly.  “Get out of there.  It’s meant for babies, not spirits.”

It gave a snort, but climbed out and jumped up onto my bed.  I fought down my thrill at seeing it obey, however unconsciously.

“It is stalling,” the creature said, and sat at attention on one of the sable furs that covered the foot of the bed.  It stroked it absently.  “There is no point in stalling- it will not add any hours to the night.”

“Are you so impatient to begin?” I said, mildly.  “I might actually have discovered your name, you know.  It might be your pain you’re hastening, not mine!”

The creature gave a bark-yip.  “It is courageous, yes yes.  Valiant to the end.”

“And you are arrogant to the end,” I said, shrugging.  “We are as we were made, I suppose.”

“Get on, get on,” it grinned.  “One is impatient to hear what names it has unearthed for this final night.”

“Am I so amusing to you?”

“Yes yes, it more so than most mortals, for it actually thinks.  One thought, for a time, that it might actually present a challenge to one.  But in the end, it was nothing but a passing amusement, after all.”

“How difficult for you.”

“Yes yes.  One gets very bored.  But,” its eyes slid downward to my daughter, “Soon one will have a great source of entertainment, indeed, as well as the pain for all sorts of magic.”  Its tongue flicked out, tasting the air around her.

Red washed over my vision, and it took a great deal of self-restraint not to strangle the creature with my bare hands.

“Get away from her,” I hissed.  Its eyes narrowed and it reared back on its haunches.

“It cannot command one to do that, or anything else,” it said, taunting.  “It does not know one’s name.”

“But I do know your name, Rumpelstilzchen.”

The creature- Rumpelstilzchen- froze, and I felt a great pressure in the air around me.

What did you say?”  Now it was the creature who hissed.

I stood up straighter, doubts flown, and pointed my finger at it.  “I said I know your name, Rumpelstilzchen, and I command you to leave this place and never again threaten or do harm to me or mine.”  My voice rolled out like a thunderclap, magnified by the magic of the bargain we’d made, and the creature shrieked in agony, writhing on the bedclothes.

“No!” it cried.  “No no no no no!

But it had no choice.

It turned and attempted to lunge towards me, fangs and claws bared, but I held its true name now, and it could not disobey me.  It continued to struggle, howling all the time, until at last it ripped itself in two, and vanished in a swirl of smoke.


The king did not return from his pleasure-palace.  I was told he vanished from his hunting party with a scream and a smear of blood, and it was widely believed that a bear had taken him.

I felt no need to pursue it beyond that.

Alarming as the king’s death was, he had at least fathered an heir- my daughter- before he died, and so things were not as bleak for the kingdom as they might have been.  My role as queen-regent was not one I’d ever dreamed to wield, but I did my best, for my daughter and for our kingdom- queendom, now.  Having unlimited wealth certainly did not hurt, and before a handful of years had passed the common folk seemed downright pleased with the arrangement- although the nobles would wring their hands about my ‘need; to remarry.  I found ignoring them- or occasionally threatening to marry a foreigner if they would not let me be- to be immensely satisfying.

When my daughter was six, I took her to visit my mother’s grave.  It was not a time of greatest need, not like it had been the times before, but I called my mother’s true name, nonetheless.  She shone with an inner light when she appeared, and I felt a peace that she would, at last, be wholly free of this world.

“My daughter’s daughter,” she said, reaching towards my daughter.  “So beautiful.”

My daughter hid her face bashfully, then glanced back over her shoulder.

“Say hello to your oma,” I told her, giving her a squeeze.  “This is your one and only chance.”

“Hello oma,” she said.

“Hello my darling,” said my mother.  “I am so very pleased to meet you.  Why don’t you run along between those bushes, there, and play with my goats?”

“Goats?” squeaked my daughter, and was off like a hare.  My mother’s gaze followed her.

“She is so like you at that age,” she said, wistfully.

“Is she?”

My mother nodded and turned back to me.  “I am- so happy- that you brought her here, to see me.  But daughter, this is the last time I can appear to you this way.  Why did you call me now, when you are so happy?”

I tucked my knees up under my chin- a miller’s daughter in this place, even if I must be a queen in all others.  I let my eyes drift over to the greenery behind my mother’s grave, where I could just make out my daughter playing with Hazel, Aspen, and Yew.

“The world thinks her name is Elayne,” I said, absently.  “Named for my long-dead mother.”

“But that is not her true name,” my mother said, nodding.

“No,” I admitted.  “It is not.  Her true name lies locked in my heart, and I have never spoken it aloud.”

“Nor should you, until the time is right.  Anyone who knows her name will be able to call her as you have called me.”

I looked back up at her face and took a deep breath.  “Is the time right for me to know my true name, mother?”

She smiled, radiant, and leaned in close to whisper in my ear.


The Oathbreaker, Pt XXX

The new creature- ‘that other one’- did not step from the shadows as the bargainer did.  No, it coalesced from the rising frost-steam, swirling denser and denser until it stood before me, head cocked curiously to one side.

“It needs help?” the creature asked, voice sympathetic.  It looked exactly like the first creature, except where that one was pitch-black with glowing green eyes, this one was gray as fine ash, with dark blue eyes that squinted in the sunlight.  It might have been lovely, if I hadn’t known its nature.

“I do need help,” I said, playing nervously with my woven-gold wedding band.  “My- my friends told me you might be able to help me.”

“Did its friends tell it that one always requires a price?”

“They did not have to,” I said, hand moving to wear my mother’s necklace had once hung.

The creature’s mouth split into a grin and it sat back on its haunches.  “Good.  One does not like to deal with dullards.”

“It’s just…  I’m afraid you might not be able to give me what I need…” I said doubtfully.

“Let one be the judge of that,” it snapped, then relaxed.  “One can do many things- more wonderful and impossible than it could possibly imagine- so long as it can pay for them.”

“It’s not your abilities I doubt,” I said quickly.  “What I need does not come down to skill, but rather knowledge.”

“One knows more things than it could possibly imagine,” the creature huffed.  “One is very clever, indeed.”

“It’s just… I need to know a secret.  A secret no mortal knows…”

“One is not mortal,” it said, waving a clawed hand airly.

“No, of course not,” I said.  “Which is why I hoped, maybe, you could tell me…”

“Yes?” the creature leaned forward, eager.

“I need to know... a name.”

The creature’s eyes narrowed.  “A name,” it hissed.  “It does not ask for a small secret, no no.  But one knows many things.  And one knows many names.”  It glanced sharply at the lump of my daughter beneath my shawl.  “But a name is a precious thing, indeed.  Can it pay for such a precious thing?”

I narrowed my eyes in return.  “You’ll not have my daughter,” I said.  “She’s the reason I need the name, for she’s no longer mine to give.”

The creature considered this.  “What is yours to give?”

“I can give you beautiful jeweled necklaces.”  I said.  The creature yawned.  “I can give you a blanket woven of spun gold,”  The creature snorted and began deliberately inspecting its tail. I made my voice desperate.  “I’m a very wealthy woman- my husband is king of this entire land and he loves me more than life itself- he’d give me anything I asked for, which means I can give you anything you ask for!  Just name your price!”

“One has no use for it’s baubles, no use for it’s shining gold,” the creature said.  “A name is a life.  You must give a life for a life.”

“I’ve already told you- you can’t have my daughter,” I said, fear heavy in my voice.  “But if it’s my life you want-”

“Not it’s life, no,” the creature said.  “It’s life, freely given, means little to one.  By rights it should give its firstborn, but if it cannot-”

“I cannot.  And I cannot give any others that might come after, for they are promised, as well.”

The creature looked annoyed, and I was afraid it might decide to leave.  But instead it closed its eyes and steepled its fingers in contemplation.  “Let one think- one is very clever.  One can surely come up with a bargain that will suit all parties..  The girl-child is two-blooded.  It’s blood, and it’s mate’s blood.  Blood is life.  Blood.  Other blood.  Yes yes, the other blood...”  The eyes snapped open and fixed mine.

I covered my wedding band with my other hand.  “What- what do you mean?”

The creature slithered up next to me.  “It cannot give the girl-child, and one does not care for it’s life.  But the other blood- ah, the other blood…”

“Tell me what you mean!” I said shrilly.

“One will exchange a name for the other blood.”

“You want… my husband?” my voice broke as I said it.

“Yes yes,” it said.  “Yes yes, it must choose.  Child or mate, mate or child.  Lose one to save the other, yes yes.”

I let the thought roll over me- the thought of living the rest of my life with my mad husband, without my daughter, knowing that I might have saved her.  I gave a cry of anguish and buried my face in my hands, the tears flowing hot and fast.

“Yes yes,” it hissed.  “Yes yes, this is the price one claims.”

“I can’t, I can’t,” I sobbed, shaking my ehad.

“Then there is no bargain,” it said.

Please,” I said, looking up from my hands.  “Does it have to be... him?  Not- not my father?  Or… or…”

The creature shook its head.  “Only its mate will do.”

At that moment my daughter, as sleeping infants will, gave a stretch and a little cry.  I could have kissed her for her timing.  Instead I stared at her, looking as stricken as possible.

“Will it hurt him?” I whispered.

“It’s mate will be gone in an instant,” the creature answered.  Or, rather, evaded.

“It has to be the right name,” I insisted.  “If you don’t know the name, there is no bargain.  You can’t just give me any name.”

“Of course not,” it sounded insulted.  “One knows how the old magic works.  One will give it the very name it wants, in exchange for the right to take the other blood.”

I took a deep, shuddering breath.  “You- you have a bargain.  My husband for the name of the creature who is your dark twin, who spun rooms full of straw into gold at my behest.”

The creature’s eyes widened when I revealed what name I needed, but the magic was already rippling out across the two of us.  I imagined the king, hundreds of miles away, feeling a strange shiver go down his neck, and I hid a vicious, victorious smile.


The Oathbreaker, Pt XXIX

I did call the others, one helpful spirit after the next, but none of them knew the dark creature’s name any more than the air spirit had.  There were all, however, absolutely delighted by my daughter, and most- if not all- stayed to coo over her as I called and questioned still more of their ranks.

At last I had called them all, every last name my mother had taught me- and all had sadly shaken their heads.

“Not that one,” they said, time after time.  “That one has no truck with us.”

The hope I’d fought so hard to keep from rising began to fall, crushing my heart beneath it.  My eyes burned and filled, and at last the tears began to fall.  I had no more wisdom, no more tricks- nothing else.  I had failed.  I would lose my daughter- and any others that came after.

“Aw, no cry lady!  No cry, no cry!” I was swarmed by dozens of spirits, some no larger than my pinkie, others as large as a hare, all patting me in comfort.

“But you were my last hope,” I sobbed.  “The creature said no mortal knows its name, so I thought perhaps one of you…” I couldn’t continued, and instead hid my face in my hands.

Suddenly a warm, crackling sort of voice said, “We don’t know that one’s name, but we may know one who does.”

I looked up and saw a spirit made of flames sitting on a rock.  Its features were difficult to make out, dancing and shifting as they were, but it appeared to be somewhat reptilian in form.  All around it the snow had melted, and it cocked a maned head as it considered me from its perch.

“We have seen that one- it loves to play and hide in the darkest shadows we cast.  We have never heard it utter its name, but we have seen it dance with another of its kind.  Perhaps that other one knows that one’s name.”

I stared at the flame spirit, hardly daring to open myself up to this new thread of hope.  Another creature!  Would it know its compatriot’s name?  It might!  But what would it demand, in exchange for such a precious boon?  Pain, of course- but what pain could I offer it that would be greater than my current pain?

Nothing.  Anything I offered, it would know I must not actually value… I must trick it into asking for something, as the first creature had.  I  hadn’t known how much future pain I was trading- I must trick the new creature into thinking I remained naive to the nature of pain.

“Can you bring it here?” I asked slowly.  “Will it come in the daytime?”

The flame spirit fluffed itself up, then sleeked itself back down, much as a bird might.  “Yes yes, that other one will come.  It is already drawn by your pain, but our presence keeps it at a distance.  We do not like that other one, no more than we like that one.  And it knows it.”  The little paw-like hands hands stretched out and I saw what looked like little claws kneading at the rock, leaving scorch marks in their wake.

“Would you… would you all disappear for a bit, so I can talk to it?  Please?”

A few of the spirits disappeared immediately, but more scowled and slunk about my skirts, making noises of disapproval.

“Lady should not trust that other one,” came one voice from among the many.  “It is just as bad as that one.”

“Oh my friends,” I gave a shaky laugh.  “I do not trust it, not at all.  But I need it.  Please.  I need to save my daughter.”

One by one the others disappeared, until at last only the flame and air spirits remained.  The flame spirit stretched, gave it’s mane a shake that sent sparks flying, and then eyed me knowingly.

“Lady must be wise, like lady’s mother,” it said.

“I know,” I said.  “Thank you.”  It leaped into the air, and was gone.

Now only the little air spirit was left, and its stance was worried.

“Careful, lady, careful,” it said, and kissed my cheek.  “It will want what is most precious,”

“Well it can’t have it,” I said as reassuringly as I could.  “But it can have the next-most-precious thing, if it likes.”

“Careful,” the spirit whispered again, and zipped away into the sky.

I was alone again, save for my now-sleeping daughter, and the sun had risen high above the horizon.  The pond was liquid one more, and I watched the wavelets sparkle in the clear winter’s light as I thought about what my next-most-precious thing might be.

“Come out now, please,” I said to the cold, sharp air.  “I know you’re nearby, and I know you can… help me.”


The Oathbreaker, Pt XXVIII

I turned my head, slowly, and came nose-to-tiny-nose with the air spirit.  It smiled cheerfully, a swirl of silver-white in the warm morning sun.

“Hello hello!” It’s voice tinkled like frost-covered leaves blowing in a playful breeze, and I couldn’t help but smile back at its evident joy.

“Hello there,” I said softly, and then, because it seemed polite, I glanced downward and said, “Would you like to meet my daughter?”  The spirit gave a shriek of delight and dove towards my daughter’s head.  I closed the shawl just in time.  “Perhaps from a distance?” I asked.  “She’s very small yet, and not used to the cold air.”

“Sorry sorry!” the spirit was contrite, but still vibrating with excitement.  I pulled back the shawl once more and it floated a respectful distance above us.

“Ooo,” it said.  “So soft and warm!  So pretty!  Pretty pretty!”

“I think so,” I said, warmth blossoming in my chest.

“But… why did lady call if not for cooling?”  It asked at last, landing next to the leftover cheese and applying itself industriously.

“I need to know if you can help me with a name.”

“Name?  Name for girl child?”  the spirit looked up, curious.

“No, she has a name.  I need the name of…” I paused, considering.  How to describe the creature?

“I made a bargain with something… sort of like you.  But not of the air.  More like… of the shadows.  But stronger.  Bigger.  More solid.  Very pleased with its own cleverness, and its knowledge of the old magics.  All black, with long ears and a long tail, and eyes that glow in the moonlight.  And a great many sharp teeth.  Do you know it?”

The spirit gave a little shudder.  “Bad bad bad,” it said.  “Lady should not deal with such as that one.”

“That I know,” I said.  “But I had no choice.  And now I need to know its name, so I can undo what harm I’ve done.”

The spirit shook its head.  “Don’t know,” it said, sadly.  “Don’t know that one’s name.  Sorry, sorry.  That one is sly, and keeps its secrets well.”

I swallowed my disappointment.  Of course it would not be so easy.  “That’s alright,” I said, reaching out to give it a little caress along its finely feathered back.  It giggled with pleasure, and took off again.

“Call the others,” it advised.  “Maybe a more powerful one knows that one’s name.”


The Oathbreaker, Pt XXVII

The sun broke over the horizon.

I stared at it, numbly.

One more night to be a mother, it had said.  One more night.  The fear rose up from my stomach to choke my heart, my throat.  One more night.

And one more day, whispered a calm voice in the back of my head, sounding so much like my own mother that I shuddered.

I pulled the cord, and sent my maid to fetch the wet nurse, and my daughter.  And some food.

When my daughter was safe in my arms I sent everyone away, and did not summon anyone else.  Instead I wrapped her to my chest and threw a pair of shawls about the two of us, then picked up the basket full of food the kitchen had sent.  Balancing carefully, I descended from my chambers into the main portion of the palace, and from there out into the pleasure gardens.

They were empty of people, this time of year, but still beautiful.  The rising sun turned the stretches unbroken snow into a blanket of glittering rose and peach, pierced through here and there by the beautiful black lattice of bare branches.

So very, very beautiful.

The cold air hurt my chest, but then my chest was hurting anyway, so I paid it no mind.  I leaned my head down and kissed my daughter’s head, nestled in the warm pocket on my breast.  She smelled of milk and honey and the languor of summer.  She was far more magical than an entire castle-full of straw-spun gold.

I walked until I came to the edge of one of the decorative ponds, which had a thin skin of ice on it, gleaming in the early morning light.  It would not last long- even now a fine steam was beginning to rise from the brittle surface, as the sun spread out along it.  There were benches arranged around the pond, but I ignored them, instead spreading out one of the shawls on top of the snow.  I smiled to see there, dancing pattern of black, white, and coal-banked red.  It was the shawl I’d woven a lifetime ago, as a miller’s daughter.  Simple as it was, it was still the finest piece of clothing I owned, golden gowns be damned.

I laid the basket of food down, then settled myself in the center.  The wool protected me entirely from the chill beneath, and I reached into the second shawl to adjust my daughter and let her take her own breakfast.

We sat in the stillness of the morning, and I watched the sun climb higher in the sky, and I tried to think what I would do with my final night.

How I would spend my final day.

I ate the bread and cheese and sweetened oat cakes of my breakfast slowly, carefully, savoring their flavor.  I left a little of each, as my mother had taught me, for the good spirits.

The good spirits.

...no mortal knows one’s name...

But the spirits were not mortal.

My heart lurched.  Could it be so simple?  Could they know what my mother’s spirit had not?  I tried to force down the hope, not wanting to give that creature an ounce more pain if I could help it, but hope pays no heed to the wishes of humans, and rise it did.

Mouth dry, hands shaking, I called the name of an air spirit, one who had kindly cooled me on some of the hottest summer days.  Nothing.  I took a sip of the warm wine that was in the basket and tried again, louder.

Something tickled a lock of loose hair by my cheek.


The Oathbreaker, Pt XXVI

I did not allow myself the luxury of a long wallow- time was passing, and even as I had blessed the length of the night for the extra time to guess, so now did I curse the shortness of the day in which I had to prepare.  For prepare I must do.  I summoned the court’s ambassadors, for they would have knowledge of foreign names my people had never encountered.  I summoned the court’s priests, for they would know the names of gods and angels and demons I’d never knowingly had truck with.  I summoned children- dozens and dozens of children, for they have their own secret languages and names for things.  And I summoned my daughter, for I would not sleep without her by my side, and sleep I must, if I was to stay awake another long winter’s night.  Perhaps in my dreams more names would come to be.

I woke six hours later, again with an hour before sunset.  I ate what was put before me as I eyed the new scroll on the device.  It was not so large as the one from the night before, not even with the names I’d not gotten to added to it.  I would not run short of time this evening.

In the light remaining I sent my daughter off with the wet nurse, and called my maid to help me change.  Since becoming queen I’d had a few simple gowns, gowns like those I’d worn as a miller’s daughter, fashioned for me.  I wore them only when my husband would not be around, as a sort of reminder of who I really was.  A sort of comfort.  I needed that comfort tonight.  I needed to be a miller’s daughter, a wise woman’s daughter, not the wife of a king.

I shooed the maid out as the last of the light disappeared, and the creature stepped out of the shadow the closing door created.

“Is it feeling more clever this evening?” It asked politely.  I took a deep breath, and began to read.

Name after name, some so hopelessly complex I had no hope of pronouncing them correctly.  The creature laughed at some of the more outlandish attempts, but answered in the negative to all.  Just as before, it began interested and engaged, but eventually grew bored.  Unlike the previous night, however, it seemed to remember much earlier that if I failed, it won.  This began to perk it up, and as the night wore on it began giggling its “No.”s, which only served to make me stammer and stumble over the strange names all the more.

I came to the end of the scroll as the stars began disappearing.  For a long moment there was silence as my brain scrambled for more names- Say something! my mind screamed.  Don’t waste any of this time!  But I knew no more names.  Until, suddenly, I realized I did.

My mouth opened, and out came the names of all the good and helpful spirits my mother had shown me.  At first the creature looked stricken, then baffled- then disgusted and finally, amused.

“How can those be one’s name?” It finally asked, laughing.  “Those names all belong to others.  Weak, useless others.  It should know that- it has had truck with the others, or it would not know the other’s names.  The others are far too careless with their names, not like one.  One is too clever for that: no mortal knows one’s name.”  The last was said smugly, and I fought the urge to throw my silver flagon at its pitch-black head.

“No mortal knows it yet,” I said instead, digging my fingernails into my palms.  “Don’t forget, I have one more night of guessing.”

“Yes yes,” it said, complacent.  “One more night of guessing, one more night of hope to sweeten the pain, yes yes.”  It yawned, stretched, and slithered off the bed towards the corner.  “One more night for it to be a mother,” it added, and disappeared.