Free Story

 

STRAW-SPUN

(first published in Sword & Sorceress 27 in 2012)

Alina unfolded the letter slowly and with great care: it was very old, and felt thin and fragile under her steady fingertips. Her heart was pounding in a way unfamiliar to her, and not just because of the whispers she had heard on the way to the throne room: gold to straw from two passing courtiers, the end of the peace from a duke to a lady, Rumpelstiltskin – she hadn’t turned fast enough to see who’d said that.

She had come to the sitting room to ask her father about the whispers, but before she could say a word, he had handed her the letter. She smoothed out the last fold and focused on the ornate, flowing script so similar to her own.

The king was watching her. She composed her face and read.

#

I have four days until your third birthday, and it isn’t enough time. They say if you discover a goblin’s true name, it gives you power over him. For the past month I have been living in the library, searching through the forbidden books, trying to figure out which one he is and if anyone knows his name. It is a fruitless, endless task. I will not lie: it is also boring. Even the fear of death doesn’t change that.

Four days. I have an entire bookshelf left. Even if his name is there, which I doubt.

What will he do with you?

You need to understand: when I signed you away to him, you were nothing. Not a sigh in the wind, not a speck on the fabric of the world. You were nothing, not even a possibility of something, for though I had spoken to your father once or twice, I had never even touched his hand.

Yet you were real enough, to him, to be worth my life. My life and a roomful of gold. How could something that didn’t even exist be worth that much?

If I hadn’t done it, you would never have existed at all. So I told myself. I was buying not just my own life, but yours: three years of life for you. Children are happy creatures, and I swore you would be the happiest of them all, you-who-were-nothing. Three years of joy. Who wouldn’t trade for that?

It seemed so easy, so simple, when you were not real.

It was lack of experience, you see, that brought me to this. I didn’t know that parents love their children. Mine didn’t.

The king doesn’t like what I am doing. Nobody does. Whispers rise around me, suspicious and fearful. Does that make me seem like a better mother, that I am willing to risk my life for yours? Even if it’s too late? How could I know, back then, what I was willing to do for a life that didn’t exist?

Ah, but I lie. I always knew the whispers would come. That at first I would be their marvel, the girl who spun straw into gold, the commoner who married a king. For as long as the harvests were good and the borders at peace. But that when times turned bad, they would speak of witchcraft, and unholy bargains, and the devil.

Times are still good. But my days were always numbered. As yours were.

No, it’s no good drawing similarities between us. No good rambling on when I should be straining my eyes at yet another book. Cursed sorcerers and their cursedly small writing.

I just wanted to tell you… somehow… that I failed. I love you after all, despite all I did to avoid it. Your wide dark eyes when you were drawn from my body, your tiny red fists and feet. When I realized, suddenly, that you were something. The most important thing in the world. And that I had realized it too late.

I know it is inadequate – even silly. But I am writing this letter to say that I love you. And that I’m sorry.

#

Alina refolded the letter slowly, until it was so small she could hide it in her palm. She looked at her father.

“Why,” she said, “did you show me this?”

The king folded his hands together. They were old, crooked hands; the days when they had wielded a sword were long over. The ruby signet ring seemed too heavy for his fingers.

“Because,” he said, “we were wrong about what happened. Your mother never found his name.”

“Then why am I alive?” Alina asked.

She asked it calmly and precisely, the same way she asked about the progress of the negotiations with Aimar, and saw a flicker of approval in her father’s eyes. The king was a very calm, measured person. He found excessive emotion distasteful, and his definition of “excessive” was stricter than that of most people.

“I don’t know,” he said. “But I suspect, now, that your mother managed a trade.”

Alina rose from her seat and walked to the back of the sitting room. The portrait of her mother hung between two tall windows, overshadowed by their heavy sills, nearly invisible when the sun shone through. There was no good reason to display it more prominently, for there was nothing remarkable about it. Alina’s mother had not been particularly beautiful, or regal, or striking. She looked like what she was, a village girl wrapped in yellow silk.

Until a few moments ago, Alina had never been told there might be anything about her to admire.

She didn’t know why that made her angry, but it did; and she knew she had better not let her father see that anger. So she kept her eyes on the painting, and her back to the king, while she spoke.

“What would a goblin take for a life?” she asked – but as soon as she asked, she knew. Suddenly she was afraid as well as angry. She took several deep, steady breaths, trying to hold her shoulders still, so her father wouldn’t guess.

“I don’t know,” her father lied to her. “The sorcerers have been working on figuring it out ever since it… happened. We know a bit about the goblin who is commonly known as Rumpelstiltskin – not his true name, of course, but it’s what the commonfolk call him. He has appeared sporadically in the Western Woods for several centuries. He is evil, and loves to cause trouble for humankind. But there are no stories of his making bargains with any of us, before….”

His voice trailed off. Alina thought of the story she had been told: how her mother had discovered the goblin’s true name, how in his rage he had pulled the ceiling down upon their heads and killed them both. Her father would not want to repeat the story now. Not when he was about to tell her the truth.

She could save him the trouble. But first she must compose herself. She concentrated on what she was: Princess of Ciern. Sole heiress to the kingdom. Valued adviser to her father the king.

“It will cause great difficulty with Aimar,” she said evenly, “if I am no longer available to marry their prince. That is the crux of the negotiations.”

No reply. She turned around and saw her father staring at her with wide, startled eyes.

“It will mean war,” she said. “That is the most important thing, isn’t it?” And as she said it, she truly believed it. Her responsibility to her people settled around her like a comfortable, heavy cloak.

“Yes,” her father said finally. “But – ”

Alina smiled. She enjoyed showing off how smart she was; people rarely expected it, when they saw her porcelain features and golden hair. It was especially fun when she managed to surprise her father, who should have known better.

“It’s rather obvious,” she said. The folded paper in her palm had grown damp. “What would a goblin take in exchange for a life, except another life? My mother gave him hers.”

“We know little about the fae,” her father said warningly.

“I’m not faulting your sorcerers, Your Majesty. They must have suspected it. But now they know.” Her voice didn’t even threaten to quaver. She was proud of that. “My mother was fifteen when she bore me. Eighteen when she… disappeared.” She lifted her eyebrows. “I am eighteen now.”

Her father leaned back, looking thoroughly impressed. Somehow it wasn’t as satisfying as it usually was.

“Eighteen years for eighteen years. That must have been the bargain.” She glanced once at her mother’s portrait before meeting her father’s eyes again. “And you know it now, because Rumpelstiltskin is back. The bargain is over, and he’s come back for me.”

#

It was not as simple as that, of course. It never was, with the fae.

What had happened was that gold was turning back into straw.

There were fifty bales of gold thread in the king’s storeroom, left over from Alina’s mother’s bargain. Or rather, there had been. Until that morning, when the seneschal did his daily check and found instead a roomful of old, moldering straw.

The sorcerers were universally agreed: it was a sign of Rumpelstiltskin’s return.

The advisers were universally agreed: it was an unmitigated disaster.

“The sorcerers might be correct,” Alina told her maid, Rose, while her hair was being brushed for bed. “The advisers certainly are.”

Rose made a sound of assent, the brush never ceasing its steady strokes. Alina caught a glimpse of the maid’s expression in the mirror. Rose had a broad, pleasant face that usually bore a slightly puzzled expression. Though far less intelligent than Alina, she was the closest thing the princess had to a friend.

She also reported everything Alina said to the king. Alina didn’t mind that. She had no secrets from her father.

“The real question,” Alina went on, “is what has happened to the gold we’ve already traded. But of course we don’t dare ask. If our neighbors think we tricked them on purpose, then Aimar, Mosun, and Palis could all invade at once.”

“The king’s cape is still gold,” Rose offered, as she worked out a tangle.

Alina refrained from wincing as her hair twisted sharply against her scalp. Rose did not have a gentle hand with a brush. It was a small pain Alina chose to bear, for the sake of her only friendship. And, she often thought, as an exercise in self-discipline. A princess could not afford to let her feelings show on her face, even – especially – when those feelings were pain.

“Yes,” she agreed. “Thread that has already been woven seems to have remained gold.”

For now. She could only hope the goblin would tell them what he wanted before the king’s cape disintegrated and covered him in straw.

Rose put the brush down at last, and Alina got to her feet and went to her window. Below her sprawled the city, lights and gray silhouettes in the night. All those thousands of people – and thousands more, beyond the city – getting their hair brushed, or brushing it on their own, getting ready for bed. Intact families, with no men gone for war, no women weeping over the deaths of soldiers.

For now.

Alina had never questioned why her father married her mother for the sake of bales of gold. Ciern was not a rich country. The gold – and her father’s wisdom in using it – had helped protect these people for almost two decades. The king would not have been what a king should be, if he had spurned his responsibility to those thousands and thousands of people because he did not love a woman.

Alina knew very few of the thousands of people in the city below her. She did not love any of them. But she did not want them to suffer because she had failed them.

She sighed, turned away from the window, and allowed Rose to change her for bed.

#

That night, the empty room that had once been used for spinning was suddenly no longer empty. The sentry Alina had posted there came to let her know, and Rose shook the princess awake from a dream in which gnarled green hands pulled her down into the earth.

Alina dressed simply and swiftly, in a long white gown, and hurried through the hallway with Rose’s disapproving stare burning into her back.

The west wing of the castle was dark, bare, and deserted. There had been a fire here – years after Alina’s mother had died – and though it hadn’t damaged the thick stone walls, a faint, ashy smell still drifted through the corridors, between the singed and crumbling tapestries and the blackened remains of carved wooden furniture. Alina had a torch, but its light was only enough to let her see her way, not to show her what was hiding in the shadows.

She knew there were things hiding in the shadows. She could hear them, brushes of wind where there should be no wind, half-heard sounds that could have been the scraping of branches or the hiss of the wind. They were the sorts of sounds that a person would think – would tell herself – she was imagining. But Alina had never been one for imagining.

When she reached the room where her mother had once spun straw into gold, she pushed it open without allowing herself to hesitate. She didn’t even acknowledge to herself that she wanted to hesitate.

The torch went out as soon as she stepped into the room. All at once it was dark, so dark that when she briefly closed her eyes, it made no difference.

Alina knelt and put the torch down on the floor. She settled it carefully on its side, then straightened and said, “I am not afraid of the dark.”

A moment of silence – she fancied it was startled. Then a voice said, “Perhaps it is I who am afraid of the light.”

It was a female voice.

Alina stumbled forward, one step, then stopped. She whispered, “Mother?”

“Come no closer,” the voice said. “If you see me, it will break what little protection I have.”

Alina’s fingers dug into the thin silk of her gown. “Protection from whom?”

“From him. Do you have to ask? Do you not know my story?”

As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, Alina could make out a hint of movement at the far end of the room. She was seized by a sudden, shocking hunger: a desire to see the woman hidden in the shadows, to look her in the eye. To see if she resembled her. Alina looked nothing like her father, but maybe…

She had never wanted anything so badly in her life. And at the same time, it was something she had wanted her entire life without ever really knowing it. She tried to get a grip on the sudden turmoil inside her, and she succeeded. Mostly.

“I read your letter,” she said. Her voice came out clear and smooth.

“Ah,” the woman said. A short sound, not much more than a breath, but Alina heard the surprise in it.

There was silence for a moment. Then her mother said, “So you know that I love you. Come to me, my daughter. The king will let you go now, because of the gold.”

“It’s not that simple,” Alina said.

She heard her mother’s indrawn breath. “It is, my daughter. It is always that simple, to choose love.”

Alina stood very still. She squared her shoulders. She said, “I know the goblin’s true name.”

Silence – but a silence more profound, somehow, than the ones that had come before. Alina snatched up her useless torch and rushed forward, into the shadows.

It was as she had suspected. Her mother was gone.

#

That afternoon, for the first time in her life, Alina lied to her father.

She didn’t know why she was doing it – another rare sensation for her. She was allowing herself to be guided by her emotions, like the silly noblewomen she had always despised. But something about hearing her mother’s voice had let her emotions loose, and something else – her anger at her father, perhaps – made her not want to rein them in. Besides, she trusted her own intelligence enough to consider that there was a good reason for her distrust of the king, even if she hadn’t fully figured out what it was.

So she lied.

She was very good at lying – it was another essential skill for a princess – and her father had no reason to doubt her. She explained her actions of the night before by telling of her intent to go, alone, and give herself to the goblin when he appeared. That part was true, yet it was the thing her father had the most difficulty with.

He didn’t tell her the truth, either, about why he couldn’t accept the obvious solution. He raged that she had no right; that she – or rather, her impending marriage and the alliance that hinged upon it – were too important to the realm.

“Not as important as the gold,” Alina corrected him.

She was right, and he knew it, and yet he raged. He, too, was being controlled by his emotions now. She marveled at it. Was this part of the goblin’s plan?

They said the fae were ruled entirely by emotions, that their courts were seething masses of love and hate and jealousy and desire. It had always sounded abhorrent to her, but now she thought she could see why some people were drawn to it.

It was a while before her father calmed down enough to ask the obvious question, and that was when she lied.

“He was there,” she said, “but the torch went out, and I didn’t see him. I told him I was there to fulfill my mother’s bargain, and he just… he laughed.” She shuddered. “It was not a human sound. I don’t know how I even knew it was laughter, but it was. And then he was gone.”

“The gold in the storeroom,” one of the king’s sorcerers reported, “is still straw.” The sorcerers had been nervously silent while the king raged, and still looked nervous – as well they might, Alina thought, considering how useless they were turning out to be.

“Don’t you mean the straw is still straw?” she asked pointedly. “It was never truly gold.”

The sorcerers exchanged glances. One of them, a scrawny young man, said reluctantly, “Human magic cannot change the true substance of things. But the fae… we do not know what the fae can do.”

“It seems to me,” Alina said, “that there is a lot you don’t know.”

“Daughter,” the king said warningly. The Sorcerers’ League was a powerful force, not one to anger lightly. Alina knew this. The note of surprise in her father’s voice made her flush. But she kept her scornful gaze on the young sorcerer’s bony face.

“We know better than to go meet him on grounds of his choosing,” the sorcerer snapped at her. “If you had waited, things might have turned out differently.”

Alina was not surprised by the open disapproval in his eyes. She was used to it, from those who spent enough time with her to see past her beauty. People found her strange and unwomanly. The duke of Darmil, who had courted her last fall, had told her that she needed to acknowledge the passionate side of her nature – with an eye, apparently, to benefiting from that acknowledgment himself. But Alina saw the breathless romances and desperate tears of her maids, and had never seen any benefit in them. She liked being cool and calm, unaffected by emotional storms.

It didn’t bother her that so many found her unnatural. Her father, too, was calm and dispassionate – and her mother, it had always been impressed on her, was not. It was a good way to rule a kingdom. Her father liked her even demeanor. He always had. And he was the only one whose approval she had ever wanted.

Until last night. Until she heard the voice of the mother who loved her, and had suffered terribly for that love. It made her wonder what it would be like to love fiercely, wildly, without regard for consequences. It made her wonder if the duke was right, and there was something she was missing.

She kept her eyes on the sorcerer, and her voice angry, as she spoke. She didn’t want to look at the king, and she didn’t trust herself to disguise her voice.

“They will turn out differently, next time,” she said. “He has shown that he can be drawn into the open, by me. I can make him appear before the court. And before you.”

“How?” It was the king who asked.

She had to look at him then, but years of training stood her in good stead. She met his faded blue eyes with utter calm. She even smiled.

I’m sorry, Father. But the thought didn’t make it into her voice.

“By the threat of taking me out of his reach. The king of Aimar has been pressing us to announce a betrothal. Let us do it in three nights’ time.”

The king looked at her for a moment. She had never noticed, somehow, the depth of the wrinkles around his eyes.

Then he turned and said sharply, to the sorcerers, “Will that be enough time for you to set up a spell?”

The sorcerers assured him that it would, and the king nodded, even though they all knew that no human spell had ever captured any of the fae.

Only one human being, outside of legend, had ever held the fae to any sort of bargain. And that was Alina’s mother.

#

The ball was a bit sparse, due to its being so hastily put together. All the members of the court came, of course, and the few foreign dignitaries who happened to be in attendance; but the ballroom still seemed empty, the music echoing a bit hollowly among the dancing couples. Alina took her turn among the dancers, wearing a violet gown of layered silk, her scalp aching from Rose’s ministrations. The king sat on the dais, his face blank. The sorcerers stood together at his side, blue-robed and murmuring secretively.

The goblin appeared in the middle of the dance floor. He appeared quietly, with no smoke or flames, so that it was a moment before the shrieks of the dancers alerted Alina to his presence. She stood utterly still as the lords and ladies stumbled and fled, some brushing hard against her in their haste, almost knocking her over. She planted her feet wide on the marble floor.

The sorcerers drew together and cried out a spell in unison. Alina felt that brush by her, too. The jostling of the dancers had not made her stumble; the spell did. She took one step sideways, to keep her balance. But the goblin just stood there and grinned as the magic shattered against him.

He was ugly and beautiful at once. Ugly because he looked almost human and yet horribly not, beautiful in the wildness and magnetism that radiated from him. His skin was tinged green, his deformed features hovering between animal and human. He was short, and wide, and might have been naked. It was hard to tell if those shimmering blue-green feathers were his clothing or a part of him.

He ignored the dancers, the sorcerers, and the king. He looked at Alina, and her breath caught under the force of his gaze. It was so powerful that nothing else about his appearance seemed to matter.

“So,” the goblin said. His voice was like discordant music. “You claim to know my true name?”

“I do,” Alina said, her voice as cool as years of practice could make it. Only she felt the sharpness with which her fingernails dug into her palms.

“And you will call me by it? Before the court?”

He knows, she thought, and forced her fingers loose. Her palms still hurt, and she felt the sharp sting of blood. “I will.”

There was an utter silence, such as had never before been heard in the court of Ciern. Even the sorcerers’ robes did not rustle. They stared, seven pairs of piercing eyes. They did not know.

“I will,” she said again.

“Then do it,” the goblin commanded. “If you would have your freedom, do it.”

“Wait,” the king said. Alina did not dare look at him, to see if he knew. “What happens to her if she is wrong?”

The goblin’s protruding upper lip curled, touching the tip of his long nose. “A bit late to be worrying about consequences, Your Majesty.”

“Someone else will say your name,” the king said. “I will do it.”

“It has to be me.” Alina pulled herself as high as she could. “The name is only true coming from me.” She faced the goblin. “I call you Father.”

If the court had been silent before, now it was a tomb. Even the king uttered not a sound – which told Alina that, if he had not known, he had at least suspected.

And had tried to protect her anyhow.

The goblin broke the silence with a laugh – a long, inhuman cackle. Alina did not flinch.

“How did you know?” her real father asked, when finally he was done.

“I never felt truly human.” Though she had never realized it, either. “And my mother hinted at it, in a letter she wrote me. That was why she never expected my father to let me see the letter.”

The my father came out of her mouth without thought, and she felt the king’s flinch from halfway across the room.

“Then you will come with me,” the goblin said, and she returned her attention to him, where it should have been all along.

He did not phrase it as a question, but Alina hesitated. Tell me before the court… if you would have your freedom. And she had it. They all knew, now, that she was not the king of Ciern’s daughter, and that meant she was no longer useful. The treaty with Aimar would have to be sealed some other way.

She already had a few ideas for how that could be managed. She wanted to tell her father… but he wasn’t, of course. Wasn’t her father. Her father was a creature of Faerie with whom her mother had dallied and then turned to for help. Whose child she had kept from him, for as long as she could.

Alina wanted to help the king anyhow… but that was just something she wanted. He had many advisers, after all. At least half of them understood the political landscape well enough for their advice to be useful. But none of them could save her country. None of them could bargain with a goblin.

“Change the straw back,” she said, in the tone she usually reserved for impertinent ambassadors.

“Come with me.” He held out a hand; it was overlarge, and gnarled, and his fingernails curved like claws. “Your mother misses you. She will teach you our ways, and in a few days, you will be able to transform the straw yourself. If you still care to.”

Alina swallowed hard. This, she told herself, was where she could do the most good. Unless she plunged into the life of the fae, into love and passion and madness, and no longer cared about doing the most good.

The thought terrified her, and at the same time it pulled at her. The pull seemed stronger than the fear.

That was what the goblin was counting on. If you still care to. He’d said it as if it was a taunt.

Her real father grinned at her, a grin wild with pure delight.

She crossed the marble floor, step by steady step, and did not flinch as she took his hand. It felt cold and scaly and very strong. She half-turned, not meaning to, and looked at the king.

Who was standing. Who was being restrained by one of the sorcerers.

“Why?” he demanded. Speaking to the goblin. “Why do you want her?”

“Which her?” the goblin said, and laughed. “Because I loved your queen, as you did not. And this one is my daughter. I love her too.”

It was true, of course; the fae couldn’t lie. And she could hear the sheer intensity in his voice when he spoke of her mother, the fierceness of his passion. If the duke of Darmil had spoken to her like that, would she have considered his offer after all?

Yet the goblin’s love had not kept him from leaving her mother in a marriage with a man she didn’t want, from bargaining with her for the fate of her child. The love of a fae would be possessive and selfish.

Perhaps that was what her mother had liked about it. Her mother, who had never known love. Alina wondered what it would be like to be loved that fiercely, wanted that openly.

The king shook off the high sorcerer’s grip. “Alina,” he said hoarsely. “Don’t. The gold is not important.”

He knew that wasn’t true.

“I’ll still care to,” she assured him, calmly and surely. She smiled.

Then she turned and took the goblin’s other hand.

#

Three days after Princess Alina was kidnapped by the goblin in a spurt of smoke, all the straw in the castle storage rooms turned back to gold.

Three weeks later, when the king was in his study examining a map – the map of the border between Ciern and Aimar — the door opened and the princess walked in, still wearing her heavy violet betrothal dress.

The king looked up at the first creak and went very still. He looked older than he had three weeks ago, the wrinkles around his eyes deeper, his jaw sagging lower. He was silent for a space longer than he would once have been, before he said, “They let you leave?”

“They couldn’t stop me,” Alina said, “once I knew their ways.”

A longer silence. Then the king said, in a voice that sounded even more unsteady by contrast with hers, “And why – why did you come back? Your mother didn’t want to, once she knew their ways.”

The silence was momentary but vast. Alina looked at her father, and knew she would never tell him of the time she had spent in the courts of the fae. Of the overwhelming force of their loves and passions, so wild and all-consuming that the tales of humans dying for faerie love made sense to her now. Of the warmth of her mother’s arms, satisfying a lack she hadn’t known she had.

She would never tell him how close she had come to staying, once she knew their ways. Until she had come across her mother’s letter, and opened it, and read it again.

You were nothing. Not when her mother had chosen to love one of the fae, or to lie with him, or to bear his child. Her mother had not loved her then, could not have loved her, because she didn’t yet exist.

Which was why love, for all its power, had failed her. It had come too late to make a difference. But responsibility… responsibility was something you could feel for an unborn child. For a child not yet conceived. For the possibility of a child.

Or for thousands of people she didn’t know.

It is always that simple, to choose love.

But it was the king who had chosen love. Her mother had simply been swept away by it.

“Their ways are wild and fierce and free,” Alina said at last, knowing her father wouldn’t understand. “But our ways are real.”

The king looked at her, his expression grave. She wondered, suddenly, if he did understand. If he had always known, as she now knew, what she was giving up and what she was choosing.

“Besides,” Alina said after a moment, “I wanted to talk to you about Aimar. We will have to find another solution, now that I won’t be marrying their prince.”

“Aimar,” the king said, after a long moment, “will be a problem.”

“Perhaps,” Alina said. “I think I know how we might deal with them.”

The king nodded and moved over. Alina lifted her hem, stepped over the bench, and sat beside him. She pulled the map closer.

“I believe,” she said, “that if we build a bridge over the river here….”

They bent their heads together to take a closer look, and remained that way for many hours, talking in low tones as the sky outside the window dimmed into dusk and then deepened into night.

 

– The End –