The clouds were low, glittering like gold. On the horizon, the sun looked oddly flat.
The footman, to his credit, was kind. He watched with knowing eyes, gaze always drifting back to my throat. He was imagining, perhaps, the bright splatter as my head was lost, parted from my body. I didn’t blame him for his glances or his silence. He closed the door and I was shut in the tower room, alone with my father’s lie.
The room was filled with straw. It spilled in drifts over the stone floor. It made a dry shoosh shoosh sound when I walked.
In my father’s watermill, straw was plentiful. It was everywhere, the scattered remainder of malt and rye and barley flour. I’d lived my whole life surrounded by straw. I’d never spun it into so much as broadcloth, let alone gold.
After a time, I sat down on the floor and looked, just looked. With an idle hand, I began to braid a circlet, and after that, another one. It was peaceful. I would sit all night, braiding circlets, and in the morning, they would come for me and chop off my head.
“What a proud, foolish man he is,” said a voice behind me.
I twisted around, but did not stand up. The man in the corner was a stranger, small in stature and with a face like old leather. His coat was not the bright livery of the footmen, but long and dark and tattered. His eyes were the clearest, palest blue.
“Do you speak ill of my father, who promised fairy stories, or of the king, who believed him?”
The little fellow surveyed the room with arms folded. “I speak ill of all men. What will you give me if I spin gold for you?”
“I’ll give you the sun and the moon and the deep green sea. Don’t be an ass. No one can spin straw into gold. If they could, they’d be richer than kings.”
The man winked, and it was like the winter sun striking off ice. “I spin gold from worthless things, and as you can see, I’m not unduly rich and I’m not king.”
I set down my braided circlet. “I don’t want you to do it for me.”
The man stepped closer and I saw that his ears were the long, tufted ears of a goat. “You want to die by the ax?”
“No, I want you to teach me how to do it myself.”
The man eyed me. “You may be in a sorry plight, princess, but you are a clever one.”
“Clever as a blackbird, and no princess.”
After a time, the little man nodded. “Just so. If I teach you the trick, then you will surely be wedded to his majesty.” He strode to the window, gazing out at the darkening sky. “He had a wife once. Did you know that?”
“No, I’d always assumed he got his children by way of a cabbage patch. Of course he had wife, and now he wants another, and he’ll only take a sorceress, not because he needs the riches, but only because he’s a prideful pig who can go to the devil, and my father can rot there with him.”
The little man shook his head, turning back to smile on me. “Vitriol, my dear. It becomes you. The girl before you was a poor little idiot, or so I believed. I saved her for the price of a tiny thing. A pittance, really, but in the end, she broke her promise. She begged my help, and in return, cheated me and stole my name.”
“What did you do?”
His face was quite impassive. “I called her a deceitful cow and flew away on a serving ladle.”
“No you didn’t.”
He shrugged and watched me, unblinking. “Then I didn’t. What business is it of yours, girl of misfortune? Now give me a gift and I’ll save your pretty neck.”
His eyes were wild and hungry, but I was hungrier.
“No,” I said. “Teach me to spin gold and I’ll save my own neck.”
His face had taken on a curious expression, somewhere between tenderness and want. When he touched my hand, I felt the power beneath his skin, enchanting me. I had never believed in magic.
He stood over me as I began to spin the straw, letting it run through my hands. With his guidance, it softened, lengthened, and then began to shimmer. It coursed through my fingers as I worked the treadle, making the wheel whisper and hum, and when the straw turned molten and began to drip down onto the floor, I gasped in pain and wonderment but did not pause.
“Fool,” he said as the drapes caught, smoldering gently, then bursting into lively flame. “You burn too hot.”
His voice was gentle and I did not stop. Smoke billowed in a dense cloud, but the air was glittering with sparks. They danced around us, igniting the straw. The whole room was shimmering and roaring, a furnace, and when the heat grew too great, I did not fling myself to hammer and beat at the door, but only covered my face with my hands.
At once, the little man was close by my side, tugging at my wrists. “Fearless creature,” he whispered. “But fearlessness won’t save you. Give me a gift and I will save your life.”
My eyes were stinging. “And what could I give a man who makes gold from nothing?”
In one swift movement, he caught me around the waist and drew me to the window, his tattered coat flapping around us. So close to him, the smoke was faint. I only smelled rue and sweet clover.
His voice in my ear was a sad old song. “If anyone had seen your handwork tonight, you would have been nothing but a gemstone to covet, kept in the counting house with the rest of the jewels, all the rest of your life.”
His eyes were blue as cornflowers and I believed him. “Then I give you my life.”
“Reach your arms around my neck, princess.”
I did it. His hair felt like warm moss and soft new wool.
We leapt from the sill and plummeted, falling past banquet halls and galleries and hard gray stone. Then, with a jerk, he caught the wind in his coat. We rose like smoke and took to the sky.
Below us, the castle was burning.
Above us was a sea of sparks, the moon and the stars.
Photo by slipstreamblue