Father taught me to Name gold when I was nine.
He learned it from his father, who learned it from his, who had it originally from a dragon. It’s no secret that to Name something is to create it, to own it, to draw it into existence. All the countries in all the world know the power of Names. There are lands that know the Name of wheat and so they produce the finest bread, lands that Name the deer of the forest, or the horses and sheep, and so have beautiful leather and chargers and wool, and lands where the women Name every flower and call bees so truly that the honey they harvest tastes like heaven.
The Names of life and death, of health, illness, danger, earthquake, fire, and river are guarded by kings and queens and wizards, and to speak them without training or protection is punishable by death. My family kept our secret close to our hearts, but never pretended it didn’t exist: to disregard a dragon’s gift would be as foolish as to run about the village turning apples and barrels into solid gold.
As a result, we were healthy and well-respected, turned to in times of trouble for having enormous good luck. An oak leaf into gold here, a broken bottle there, and we had what we needed to keep ourselves and our town out of hardship. We had a reputation, of course, and Father and Grandfather had both served as the mayor. When it became clear that Father could expect no sons to follow his path, he took me out into the forest, and beside a gently running stream began to whisper the first syllables of gold into my ear.
I was only sixteen when it did not rain from the end of winter until well past midsummer. Crops withered, when they grew at all, and the leaves on the trees crackled dryly in hot wind. By June, Father had begun taking the desiccated stalks of corn and grasses and turned them into thin strips of gold. We used them to trade with neighboring towns and less damaged farms for flour and meat and ale. Of all the towns in our county, we emerged into the first rain with the least death and loss, from people all the way down to chickens.
In August, when the streams flowed again, drawing water into our lakes, and our wells brimmed full, the King sent his son to find the source of our good luck.
Joshua arrived as I sat in the courtyard with my spinning wheel, enjoying the bright sun and singing with the birds. The rough wool slid through my pinched fingers, narrowing into a smooth creamy line as it whirled around the spindle. Father had stayed in bed for the morning, nursing an aching knee with wax-balm and heat.
The sun on my back, my favorite lullaby humming over my tongue, the repetition of turning my wheel, a full stomach, and the thick smell of rich soil and the morning’s fire lulled me into complacency, into a quiet trance. I don’t know how long he watched me before his hand jerked up to knock a happy honeybee from his face.
I faltered, lost the smooth line of thread, and just stopped. I’d never see so rich a man from that close, and the tooling and embroidery on his leather jerkin caught my eye first: the ivy-and-bluebird pattern of the royal house. It was so delicately done, it might have been grown there instead of sewn.
“Good morning,” he said. A thin beard hugged his jaw, and as he approached I realized it was his way of trying to look older. Boys here did it, too, and the thought of a man in the King’s service being just as concerned with such a thing brought a fond smile to my lips.
“Good morning,” I replied. I turned my wheel backwards to loosen the spiral of yarn on the spindle, and relaxed my hands into my lap. It occurred to me then that I should have stood and bowed.
He didn’t wait to be invited to sit on the three-legged stool beside me, for milking our cow and reaching into the eaves after robin’s eggs. “I am Joshua,” he said, angling his head toward me. “And I’ve come to ask you about this.” He withdrew a shining item from a pocket in his jerkin and offered it to me.
A solid gold daisy.
My smile fell. Against his palm, the petals looked delicate enough to flutter away in the breeze. “Lovely,” I whispered.
“Yes. It is. Perfect. With no signs of being molded, or carved, or shaped in any way. It is as if a small flower were itself transformed into gold.”
I raised my chin to look at his face. His eyes were earnest, curious, and oak-bark brown. I saw no threat in them. But still, I knew better than to tell the King’s man what we could do.
Joshua continued, “The King would honor a person with such a talent, would shower her with gifts and praise.”
“I imagine so.”
“Yet, if you wanted gifts and praise, you would surely have used your talent more openly.”
“What is your name, pretty spinner?”
“Oria,” he repeated. We watched each other over the vibrant daisy. Finally, I reached out and plucked it from his hand. He caught mine, the gold trapped between, and said, “You know its Name.”
I was rescued from answering by Father. Coming around the corner from the front of our house, he called, “Oria, what sort of horse is that flirting with Jimsy by the trough?”
“Mine, sir,” said Joshua as he stood, releasing me.
“Good God, Prince Joshua.” Father bowed, clasping his hands before him. “To what do we owe the honor?”
“I’ve come about your town’s marvelous luck. Tales of it have reached even the King’s ear.”
Father drew himself up further, weight on both his good and bad knees. But his lips relaxed as he attempted to appear calm. “Have they? Luck is, as they say, fickle. I am surprised His Majesty is concerned.”
“His Majesty is less concerned, and more intrigued, sir Miller.”
I watched Joshua; the line of his jaw beneath that thin beard was sharp, and the tension in his neck didn’t translate into a hardness of eye. He wore a sword in a jeweled sheath, and his boots were polished mirror-black, but he did not stand too proudly. A prince who was not proud. My heart beat fast, like the swift turning of my spindle. “If the King is answered,” I said, “to his satisfaction, will he leave us in peace?”
“Then take me to him. I will make him richer than any King in ten generations.”
“Oria!” Father cut his hand toward me, as if he might reverse what I’d said.
“He knows, Father.”
Joshua’s gaze remained on me, but he said to Father, “There was a delicate golden flower that made its way to the King’s castle. I traced it here, along with a golden acorn, and two tales of golden seeds of wheat traded for ale during the spring drought.”
Father was quiet. “My daughter should not be the one to go.”
“But I should, Father,” I said, stepping forward and holding out my hand to Joshua, the daisy in my palm.
I rode before Joshua on the champagne colored destrier that had taken such a shine to our carthorse. Horses of this size were supposed to drag plows, and I could have curled up for a nap on his broad bad. I teased the prince that it was like riding a boat through an ocean of grass, and he promised to acquire me a more appropriate palfrey once I spun gold for his father.
It took five days to reach the castle, and Joshua and I traded family stories. When I told him we’d got the Name of gold off a dragon, he said that was near how his grandmother’s grandfather had risen to the Kingdom: he’d located the secret horde of a dragon and stolen enough jewels to run far enough away that he’d escaped all the beast’s curses.
“So,” Joshua said softly enough that I had to lean back into him to hear over the hard clop-clop of the destrier’s hooves on the road. “We’re brought together because of dragons’ magic. Destiny.”
I closed my eyes and thought if I could catch hold of the emotion rushing about under my skin, I’d whisper the Name of gold and turn my aching into tiny yellow butterflies.
The closer we came to the castle, the less lovely I found the land. The drought had not been rough here, but what should have been fertile fields lay fallow out of turn. Folk we passed watched Joshua longingly, but with little hope. I asked him, “What is wrong here? What happened? A plague? Too much rain?”
“Only the King,” he muttered, and would say nothing else.
Joshua made me promise not to speak unless his father bade me directly do so.
The King was a hunched old man with a bulbous nose, thin lips, and hands like claws curled around the arms of his throne. Expecting someone more like his son, I recoiled as we stopped before him, trying to hide my horror in a curtsey. Joshua stood beside me and said in a voice meant to carry to the far walls of the chamber, “I have brought you the source of Adventown’s success, Father.”
“A girl?” the King’s voice crunched out of his throat.
“Called Oria, Father. Is she not beautiful?”
I watched the King’s tongue press between his teeth, and swallowed a shudder. He said, “Indeed, Son, she is. What makes her so lucky?”
“The blessings of a dragon.”
“A dragon gift, eh?” The King’s eyes rolled up to the ceiling, where a giant green dragon was set into a mosaic. Its outstretched wings tipped either end of the hall, its tail curled over the far doors, and its nose arced down toward the throne itself. I would have been nervous to sit beneath such a maw, even if it was made of stone.
“I would marry her, Father.”
The King and I were equally shocked. He slapped his hands against the throne and crowed outrage at Joshua, and I put my fingers against my lips.
“You are ridiculous, boy, ridiculous and out of your wits. Why should I allow such a thing.”
Joshua’s jaw tightened. “For my happiness?”
Why did he not tell his father of my skill? I wondered. Why did he not promise hills of gold?
“Bah!” The King snarled. “Throw her into a tower-room. If she’s good luck, it doesn’t matter where we keep her.”
I backed away, stumbling on the thick rug. Joshua caught my arm, shaking his head. “Wait, Oria, don’t fear.”
But the King’s hands spread wide, and men in corselets with broadswords and shields marked with the King’s ivy-and-bluebird arms came from their places around the throne and grabbed me. Joshua pushed them aside, red blotches bursting on his cheeks. “No,” I whispered, as his hand went to his sword. “No.”
He stopped, and I was led away.
I turned the single wooden chair into gold, and the bars slashing down over the tiny square window; the plate upon which they served my rancid bread, and the bread, too. I whispered the Name to three of the stones in the wall, making them dully yellow in the candlelight. Then I turned the candle into gold and the fire died. I slept on a straw mattress with a single wool blanket, and at dawn I turned them to gold as well.
When an armored soldier opened the door in the morning to take the small chamber pot, I handed them an unsoiled golden bowl.
I smiled and said, “You should tell the King what I’ve done.” His thin eyes flicked beyond me. The chamber pot fell to the stone floor with a thud, denting my soft gold.
It was less than an hour before the King arrived; Joshua on his heels, in the same traveling clothes he’d worn yesterday, and tired shadows under his eyes.
“Girl!” The King clapped, eyes rolling in his head like a frightened horse. But the King’s sparkled with delight. “Why you are lucky. I will lock you up again and bring you things to transform!”
“Oria,” Joshua began, but the King flapped a hand to quiet him.
“You will serve me, girl, or I will have your head on my executioner’s block.”
The King sent me books and tableware, he sent me shoes, daggers, pillows, and quills – anything he thought of, anything that would amuse him to be turned to gold he sent. And when he came to claim his prizes, he danced. The golden slippers clanked on the floor, “Not comfortable,” he said, “weave me something softer!” He sent a wheel and wool, and as I spun, I whispered gold’s Name and thin golden yarn wrapped around the spindle.
On the third morning, he came with Joshua again, and pushed his son toward me. Blood had dried across his left cheek, and he stood with all his weight on one leg.
The King said, “Him, girl. Turn my son into gold. He works against me, his father and his King, to topple me from power and claim the throne for himself.”
Joshua did not deny the charge, but watched me with his oak-bark brown eyes.
Though the King had not asked me to speak, I said, “Who will inherit your kingdom, then?”
“You will be my wife, and your first born shall be my heir.”
I reached out a hand and touched the thin beard on Joshua’s jaw. His lips tightened almost imperceptibly and he closed his eyes.
“Very well,” I said. I walked past Joshua to the King. I held out my hand. “Here is my hand, and my promise to marry my King.”
His fingers were dry and they tightened around mine.
I leaned close, as if to kiss his twisted old lips. When I could smell the rank ale on his breath, I whispered the Name of gold.
“No!” he screamed as his hand hardened around mine. With his other, he swung and hit me, throwing me back and tearing my hand out of the hard golden grip. Joshua caught me and I gripped his hands, staring at the King, unable to look away.
The dull gold had claimed his entire arm, and the King scrabbled at it. Guards shoved into the tower room, clustering in the doorway with comical expressions of horror as their King shuddered and clawed at his own body. The gold was hungry. It fed rapidly, consuming him completely in moments.
Silence rang after his final scream faded. The guards lowered their swords and swung their eyes to Joshua. “Destroy it,” he said. His voice was thick. “Melt it in a fire. Watch it drip away, and with it, the pain of our kingdom.”
The guards backed away. Not from him, but from me.
I was suddenly faint and dizzy. A roaring like dragon’s breath filled my ears, and after a moment I opened my eyes from the floor, where I was cradled in Joshua’s arms. My heart beat in my head, pulsing and aching. “Joshua,” I said. “I promised to marry my King.”
He smiled, and out of his jacket he pulled the golden daisy.
image by HOBO