The door locked behind her with a heavy thud and the scrape of metal on metal as the bolt slid home. Behind her, the laughter of the guards. In front of her, a room full of straw. The late afternoon light beamed honey through high barred windows, illuminating the stacks so that the straw glowed gold; ironic, thought Alexia, considering her father’s boast. ‘My daughter can spin straw into gold’; the last in a series of escalating bets he’d made over weeks of needling and prodding from the king as his cup was continuously filled and his pride was continuously nibbled at. She didn’t blame him; he was weak and eager to please. She blamed the king. He toyed with people for sport. When he was a prince, he had enjoyed pulling the wings off flies.
She paced around the room, corner to corner, wall to wall. There was a spinning wheel just under the window. In the morning, the king would come in surrounded by his guards and courtiers. He would express mock surprise that the straw was still straw, and then mock disappointment that he was forced to kill her. A king must keep his word. Her father would live, broken by grief, which was the whole point. Or, if a miracle happened, and the king arrived in the morning to a room full of gold, he would marry her. She would live. Her father would live. She would do anything for that. Alexia began to weep. She knew there was no third option; reprieve.
A small voice spoke from inside the straw.
‘Why do you weep?’
‘Who are you?’
He was a short person with an elfin face, skinny limbs, and tousled hair. The look of a malnourished child, but the bearing of an adult.
‘You don’t need to know my name. I am here, ready to do your bidding. What can I do for you?’
‘Nothing. Unless you know how to turn straw into gold.’
She would prefer to spend her last night on earth alone, not making conversation.
‘I can do that. I only ask for something in exchange.’
‘No you can’t. Nobody can.’
‘I have magic. I am magic. If you are desperate enough, I can do anything. I only ask for something in exchange.’
‘I bet you can’t.’
He was a little flushed now. So this was why the king did what he did. There was a perverse joy in it. She should be ashamed of herself.
‘You don’t look strong enough. I bet you can’t turn even one straw into gold.’
He looked mutinous, as if he wanted to hit her, or cry.
‘Why don’t you believe me?’
‘I’m sorry. I’ve just lost my faith. It doesn’t seem like my day for miracles.’
He seemed mollified at that. He picked up a piece of straw, one light little piece of dried grass that had long ago lost its memories of the meadow, and he whispered to it, in a quiet susurrating language like the wind in the trees. It turned to gold.
Alexia stared at him, open mouthed.
‘I only ask for something in exchange.’
‘You could marry the king.’
‘You could live.’
‘How did you do that?’
But he had the upper hand again. His skinny legs were straight, his little chest high, his eyes piercing and fierce.
‘I ask for something in exchange.’
‘What do you ask for?’
‘In exchange for a room full of gold and marriage to the king, your first-born child.’
‘And in exchange for helping me escape?’
He hadn’t thought of that. What miller’s daughter would choose escape over marrying a king? His eyegaze flickered a little. He pinched his chin.
‘I’m not sure that would be worth my while.’
‘You don’t even want a little gold?’
‘What if I turned one of those bars to gold to fund your escape?’
‘It would be too heavy.’
He paced around the room, muttering for a while. Alexia wondered how bad marriage to the king could be. She was not so naïve that she preferred death. Perhaps she would be forced to take the deal. Many women lost their first child. They survived. The man came back and faced her.
‘I can melt the bars and the locks but the escape would be up to you. In exchange, I require your father.’
‘No, just his labour. For seven years. It is more than fair.’
It was more than fair. She agreed.