“Is your name Charles? Oliver? Harold?” Gwyneth’s pulse pounded, and she shivered despite the fact she held the precious trump card up her sleeve. Her husband King Midas, the courtiers and soldiers all looked on, frozen as they had been from the moment the devil arrived in a thunderclap and a puff of sulfurous black smoke. Literally frozen by some magic force that thickened the air around them.
“No.” The evil being’s deep voice reverberated through the room, sending a chill down her spine and making the hair on her nape prickle. As menacing as a towering black thunderhead threaded with crackling lightning, the dark-shrouded figure dominated the throne room of the castle. Gwyneth longed to throw back his hood and behold his face just once.
“Brandon? Sylvester? Archibald? James?”
Why was she playing this dangerous game when her child’s very life was at stake? She should simply spit out the horrid name her spy had overheard and win Brea’s freedom. A demon from hell couldn’t break a deal, could he? Surely he was bound by his word.
“No. Are you prepared to concede, to pay me what you owe?” A cool voice came from the dark depths of the hood.
Gwyneth exhaled slowly, trying to rein in her racing heart. The warmth of victory swelled through her, but she willed herself not to show it with a smug smile. No point in angering her enemy.
“Is your name perhaps”—she paused and licked her lips—“Rumplestiltskin?”
There was dead silence in the room for the space of three heartbeats. Brea stirred in her cradle and gave a soft gurgle. Gwyneth glanced from the hooded figure to her husband, whose frightened gaze was riveted on the intruder.
Gwyneth knew she was correct. She’d received an eyewitness account of this cloaked demon waltzing around a campfire, gloating over her inability to guess his ridiculous name.
“Is your name Rumplestiltskin?” she repeated.
The dark being strode forward, stopping only a few paces from her and the cradle.
“No. It is not.” He reached for the baby.
For a moment, Queen Gwyneth froze, unable to fathom his answer, then she darted between him and the cradle, intercepting his black-gloved hands as they reached for her precious daughter. She snatched up Brea and clutched the baby to her breast too tightly, making the infant squawk in indignation.
“You lie! I know that’s your name. I won’t let you take my baby.”
“Madam, I never lie, and the child is mine.” He moved closer.
Gwyneth caught the familiar scent of smoke and earth that permeated his clothes. The odor should’ve turned her stomach, made her gut clench in fear, yet it instantly brought back memories of several long, dark, mysterious nights when he’d talked to her and…touched her while she spun straw into gold.
“I won’t harm her. I wish to raise her as my own.” His fingers tightened in the baby’s blanket.
“Begone, demon! I’ll never let you take her.” Gwyneth pushed away his hand.
“I would not be accused of separating a child from its mother,” he drawled. “You’re welcome to come to the underworld with us, lovely Gwyneth. If you dare to give up your wealth and title.”
“No!” Midas cried. Maybe he cared for Gwyneth and Brea more than she’d thought. More likely he feared losing the source of his riches—not that she could’ve spun one golden thread if it weren’t for the magical creature who now claimed their child in payment.
“Guards, seize him!” The king yelled quite futilely as everyone in the room, except, apparently, Gwyneth, was still frozen in place.
The black figure loomed over the queen and her child. His cloak seemed to billow in an unseen wind, and the air around them was charged as if from an approaching storm.
Gwyneth clutched Brea and stared into the depths of the hood, trying to glimpse a pair of eyes, trying to make a connection as she begged for mercy, but it was like trying to look down a well. A person might catch a glimmer of water at the bottom, but it was simply too dark to see anything clearly.
“Please, sir, leave my baby alone. I will come with you if that is what you desire, but this poor, innocent child has done nothing. Why should she pay for my unholy bargain?”
“Unholy?” A harsh bark of laughter came from the figure. “You think me some kind of devil? Well, maybe I am, but I’m not the one who was willing to give up her baby in exchange for a pile of gold.”
Neither was I. It wasn’t my fault. I was trying to save my life. Gwyneth wanted to protest and explain her actions, but excuses would not move him. She gripped his wrist, solid and strong beneath the black gloves—not an incorporeal spirit, but a demon of flesh and blood, as she well knew. She stared into the hood, searching for the face she couldn’t see, and made her offer again.
“I will come with you. I will do anything you want. Anything.” She emphasized the words with promise in her eyes and imagined she heard a hitch in his breathing. “But please leave Brea out of it.”
The creature gave a moment’s pause. Gwyneth’s heart lifted, rising like a bird in flight. Then another gust of wind blew through the room, swirling around them, and her fleeting hope was dashed, its wings shredded.
“I never break a deal. I will take the child as we agreed. Whether you come with her or not is up to you.”
The choice he offered was not a true choice. Of course, she would stay with her baby. “Very well then.” She bowed her head. “Let it be done.”
“Don’t be afraid. It will only last a moment,” the midnight-drenched voice whispered. Then the hurricane breeze rose, crackling with energy like lightning. Gwyneth’s hair rose on her arms and her head. She held Brea to her breast, feeling her daughter’s warm, heavy weight, smelling the milky scent of her breath as the infant cried and wiggled.
Darkness whirled around them. Was it the storm or the demon’s cloak encompassing them? Gwyneth couldn’t see. Her vision went black and she felt her body lifted. Strong arms wrapped around her, holding her tightly as she was swept away through space. She closed her eyes and screamed inside. She couldn’t open her mouth to scream aloud; the pressure of the air was too great. Would it crush Brea’s delicate little chest? Oh, God, what had brought her to this? How had she imagined she could escape a deal with the devil himself?
Gwyneth had been scrubbing bird droppings off the floor of the back porch when it began. Such a mundane task to herald the day on which her whole life would change.
Wrens had nested under the eaves, and she was too soft-hearted to drive them away while they had hatchlings. As a result, the birds shat on the porch railings and the floor every time they flew in or out of their nests. Gwyneth couldn’t abide the mess and scrubbed the area clean every day, in addition to all her other chores.
She’d kept house for her father, the miller, ever since her mother had died when she was a little girl. Cleaning the house, preparing meals, working in the garden, milking the goats, occasionally taking orders at the mill—these tasks filled her life. She was fairly content, although she dreamed of doing these same duties in a home of her own with a young, handsome husband sitting at her table and sleeping in her bed each night.
But while Gwyneth dreamed of love and home, her father had bigger plans for her—and for himself. He bragged on his daughter’s beauty to anyone who would listen, embarrassing her to the depths of her being with his prattling on about her long, golden hair, her sky-blue eyes, her rose-red lips and her smooth, pale skin. Her beauty was his wealth. Richard Miller planned to find a wealthy husband for Gwyneth who would ensure him a comfortable old age.
Word of her loveliness spread across the country. Men came to gape at her as if she were a prize cow nearly ready to be auctioned off.
“You see, she’s a hard worker, too. A perfect housewife,” her father might boast as he showed her off while she gathered eggs in the hen coop.
He even brought men into the house to observe her sewing in the parlor. “Her hands are as delicate as water lilies. See the tiny stitches she takes with her needle.”
Gwyneth dreaded the day he’d escort them into her bedroom to watch her washing up. “See her fine, white body, slender and swaying like a reed,” she imagined him saying as the leering men looked on.
But it was while she was on her hands and knees scrubbing a stubborn white dropping from the porch floorboards that her father’s boasting reached the zenith of foolishness. It was the day King Midas’s steward came to call at the humble miller’s house, for word of the man’s astonishingly gorgeous daughter had reached the royal ears.
“She’s right over here.” Gwyneth heard her father’s voice before she saw him coming around the corner of the house. “You’ll see. She’s everything I promised and more. The king himself would be struck dumb with desire by such a beauty.”
A man in a peacock blue brocade coat with a red sash across his chest strode alongside her father. He frowned as he picked his way across the yard, avoiding goose crap—birds were the bane of Gwyneth’s life—and stopped before he reached the porch.
“Bring the girl out to me. I’m not walking another step in barnyard filth.”
Gwyneth set her scrub brush in the bucket of soapy water and rose, wiping her hands on her apron.
The well-dressed man in the yard saw her and his eyes widened. “You tell the truth, Miller. She is every bit as exquisite as the rumors claim.”
Gwyneth wanted to run into the house and slam the door behind her. Instead, she came to the porch railing and bobbed a curtsy. “May I bring you something to drink, sir?”
He waved a hand. “No, miss, that won’t be necessary. I’ve seen enough. I’ll be on my way.” The steward turned on his heel and headed back in the direction from which he’d come.
“Wait! Wait, sir,” her father cried, and she cringed inside at the desperation in his tone. “I haven’t told you everything. Not only is my daughter an excellent cook, a talented needlewoman, a sublime singer and a remarkable beauty, but she can also, uh, spin straw into gold!” His last words were nearly a shout as he trotted after the retreating back of the king’s servant.
The man stopped short. “Excuse me?”
Gwyneth’s father hurried toward him, head bobbing. “That’s right, spin straw into gold. An amazing talent the likes of which even a king has never seen. Such a talent would surely be worthy of taking a woman to wife. Don’t you agree, sir?”
Gwyneth gasped. Her heart stopped beating for a moment, and she clutched a hand to her chest. Her father had gone mad! He would be jailed for his insolence. The mill would be foreclosed on, and perhaps Gwyneth would be thrown into prison for good measure. What was he thinking, making such a preposterous statement?
But the steward turned slowly and stared at her father as if trying to decide whether to hear him out or slap him in the stocks. “Gold, you say? That is an outrageous claim.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. He stroked his full moustache and gazed at Gwyneth, then at the house and yard. “If the girl can truly spin straw into gold, why do you live in this hovel? Show me some of the gold.”
“Oh, but you see, sir, the timing must be just right. The full moon… And only once every eighteen years. On the fifth month of the year. That’s what the, er, magic woman who blessed her with this gift told us on the day she was born. You see, Gwyneth is a very special girl. Will you introduce her to the king?”
Gwyneth closed her eyes and swallowed hard. Please, father, stop talking right now before you dig us in any deeper.
“You already told me the girl is eighteen. This is the fifth month of the year, and the full moon takes place over the next three nights,” the king’s advisor pointed out. “If she can truly do all you say, I’ll take her to the castle this very afternoon and test her tonight to see if she’s worthy of being wedded to the king.”
Father stood with his back to her, but she could almost hear him swallow as he was caught in his lie. Gwyneth’s heart plummeted still farther, landing in her shoe. If he had to claim something so crazy, couldn’t he at least have made it impossible to prove?
The steward strode toward the porch, ignoring any goose droppings he might flatten under his polished boots. He stared at Gwyneth. “Is it true, miss? Can you spin straw into gold?”
“I don’t know, sir,” she answered truthfully, trying not to expose her father’s lie or add to it. “I’ve never tried to before.”
He snapped his fingers and beckoned her as if she was a dog. “Come along. I’m taking you to the king. He can decide for himself if he wishes to put you to the test. Likely it’s all nonsense, but one never knows with these things, and it wouldn’t do to miss out on an opportunity for His Majesty. It might be my head that would roll.”
Gwyneth began to untie her apron. “I should change. I’m not dressed for an audience with the king.” Anything to stall for time. Maybe she and her father could sneak out of the back of the house and run away.
“Doesn’t matter.” The man snapped his fingers again. “Come along, girl.”
She hurried down the steps and across the yard to him. Around the corner of the house, she beheld a gorgeous carriage parked in the front drive between the house and the slowly turning wheel of the gristmill. The gilded royal insignia decorated the door of the carriage.
Her heart must have risen from her shoe, because it dove back down again as a new jolt of terror ripped through her. She should end this now, tell the man it was all a foolish mistake. Would they punish Father and leave her out of it? Could she do that to him? He was her father, after all, no matter how much she despised his behavior sometimes. What if the penalty was worse than the stocks or jail time? Could a commoner be beheaded for inventing such a lie?
Silence seemed to be her only option. Gwyneth felt as if her lips were sewn shut, so she couldn’t possibly deny her father’s claim. She rode in the fancy carriage toward her destiny, so sick with fear she was afraid if she opened her mouth she might vomit on the purple velvet upholstery.
When the carriage reached the palace and she was ushered from it, Gwyneth was bombarded by a barrage of images: a flagstone courtyard; mammoth, ornate doors; an imposing front hallway filled with armor and paintings. She was left to wait on a large gilt chair in a parlor which could have encompassed her entire house.
After nearly an hour, the steward returned. “Before you can meet the king, you must be appropriately attired.”
He summoned maidservants who took her to a bedchamber, dressed her in a sumptuous, pale green silk gown and embroidered slippers. They arranged her hair, rouged her cheeks, draped her in jewels, then returned her to the steward so he could escort her to the king’s private chamber.
“When you enter the room, keep your head bowed. Don’t address the king until he speaks to you, or approach him until he tells you to come forward. Be certain to drop a deep curtsy and don’t raise your eyes to meet his. Can you remember all that, girl?”
“Yes, sir.” She caught her breath as servants opened the tall, highly polished door and the steward seized her elbow and propelled her forward. All she could see was her own shoes, the colorful tapestry of the carpet beneath them and a flash of the steward’s boots as he walked alongside her.
He squeezed her elbow, and she stopped walking and waited, dying to look up and see the king. She listened to the soft pad of royal footsteps on the rich carpet as he walked toward her and stopped in front of her. Should she curtsy now or wait for him to acknowledge her first? She couldn’t remember.
A white-gloved hand reached out, took hold of her chin and tilted her face. Pale gray eyes looked down a long, narrow-bridged nose into her eyes. “My Lord, she really is a beauty, isn’t she? But about this other thing, do you really believe it, Wallace?”
“I don’t know, Your Majesty. It sounds highly suspect, but there’s no harm in testing her.”
“Quite true.” The king released her chin and stepped back. She risked another glance, taking in his high forehead, fair hair pulled back into a neat queue, his long, angular face, the jewel encrusted lapels of his jacket—a trifle showy, but then a king could wear what he liked.
Gwyneth took the opportunity to curtsy.
“You’re a very lovely girl, Gwyneth,” King Midas addressed her at last. “I certainly hope your father’s telling the truth about this fairy blessing or whatever it is because I should sorely hate to cleave that pretty yellow head from that creamy white neck. It would be rather like decapitating a buttercup. Flowers were made to be enjoyed, not destroyed, and you are a rare and exquisite blossom, which I should enjoy inhaling deeply in the future.”
She had no idea how to reply. A threat, a compliment and a suggestive comment all combined? There was no response she could give, and so she remained silent.
“Is there anything you’d like to say, Buttercup?” the king continued. “A confession, perhaps, or maybe just a salutation.”
Good God, was he giving her a chance to make an excuse and win her freedom? Should she tell him everything right now and beg for her father’s life and her own? But what if it was a trick and he had them executed anyway? If she could prolong this situation until the end of tonight, perhaps her father, at least, would have a chance to make an escape.
“I’m deeply honored to meet you, Your Highness.” She could barely speak above a whisper. She cleared her throat and tried again. “As for the claims about my beauty or my abilities, I cannot speak to either topic without appearing vain or proud. It is for others to say whether they find me beautiful, and for time to tell whether I can perform up to expectations.”
There. That would have to do. Neither an admission of guilt nor a claim to have abilities she didn’t possess.
“I shall look forward to talking with you more, little Buttercup.” The handsome king smiled as if he’d never mentioned possibly killing her. “For now, you shall be given dinner while a room full of straw is prepared for you.”
Straw. Gwyneth swallowed the bile that rose in her throat. She’d never have imagined that simple word could strike terror in her heart. She curtsied again before backing out of the room and away from the king’s presence.
When the door had closed behind her, the steward seized her arm once more and propelled her along the hallway. He took her to a formal dining room where a single place setting graced one end of a long table.
After she was seated, a series of servants with silver dishes offered her delicacies which she refused despite the rumbling of her stomach. She was too anxious to choke down food.
“You really should eat something,” the steward said. “This may be your last meal.”
Gwyneth glanced up sharply. He must know her father’s story was a lie. Perhaps both he and the king were having a joke at her expense. It would explain their sly words and arch tones. They were merely making a game for themselves. Playing with her like a cat played with a mouse before killing it.
She straightened her shoulders and firmed her chin. “I’m ready now. Take me to the room and we’ll find out if I can perform the task you’ve set for me.”
Gwyneth managed to keep up her brave front as he marched her along the hallway and down a flight of stairs to a subterranean series of chambers. She showed no expression as a soldier opened the door and escorted her into a room so full of straw the dust floating in the air choked her and made her sneeze. She bit her trembling lower lip and kept her face still as she regarded a large spinning wheel standing in the center of bales of straw, and she shed not a tear as she faced Steward Wallace one last time.
“Good luck, my girl. I fear you’re going to need it.” He smiled at her with perhaps a touch of sympathy before walking from the room.
The door slammed shut behind him. There was a clang of metal on metal as the bolts shot home. She was locked into a windowless room with no hope of escape.
Gwyneth walked over to the spinning wheel, touched the sharp point of the spindle, then set the empty wheel turning. The wooden axle creaked as the wheel spun around. She wandered over to one of the piles of loose straw, conveniently pulled from a bound bale for her use, and picked up a handful.
The stiff yellow stalks sifted through her fingers and fell to the floor. Her father was such a fool. If a person were to spin any grass into golden thread, it should be hay, not straw. Hay was much more pliable.
The ridiculous thought seized hold of her, and she began to laugh. She pressed her hands over her mouth to hold back her laughter, but it burst through. She laughed and laughed until tears ran down her cheeks. Then she sank onto the little stool facing the spinning wheel and sobbed until her breath hitched in her chest.
Oh, God, please, God, I haven’t asked you for anything since the night my mother died. You couldn’t spare her then. But will you spare me now? Please, help me. Do something to save me. Send me a miracle.
There was no miracle. Why would there be? Why would God vindicate her father’s barefaced lie? It wasn’t as if he’d made his ridiculous claim through any motive purer than plain greed.
Gwyneth wiped her eyes on her borrowed sleeve and straightened. It wasn’t her nature to give in, and now that she’d wept out her tension and despair at the impossibility of her task, she decided to give it a go.
She stood and dragged a bound bale of straw closer to the wheel and sat to begin. She ignored the horrible noise the spinning wheel made and tried to concentrate. She tried to wish magic into her tingling fingers, gold into the dull, dead straw. She tried praying while she spun. But no determination in the world could accomplish the impossible and, as time wore on, despair began to rise once more.
She had no idea of the time. She seemed to have been there for hours, futilely spinning straw into thinner strands of straw by the light of the single lantern. Her hands hurt, her back ached and she imagined the sun rising in the sky. The last sunrise of her life, and she wouldn’t even see it.
Tears prickled her eyelids. As panic began to rise once more, she got up and ran to the door, testing the security of the bolts. Surely there was a way out of here. Why had she not just admitted to the king that she couldn’t do this? So what if they’d killed her? At least she’d have been spared this night of awful anticipation.
The door wouldn’t budge, even when she pounded it with her fists and threw her entire body against it. Leaving it, she felt her way around all four solid walls. No hint of a hidden door met her questing hands. In desperation, she began to move the straw around the room in order to scrutinize every inch of the stone floor.
There was no escape. She’d always known it, just as she’d always known there was no earthly chance of spinning straw into gold.
“I always took my life for granted,” she whispered aloud, sinking into the useless straw. “I never realized how much I wanted it… Not just my silly dreams of a beautiful future with some wonderful husband, but even the everyday drudgery. I’d give anything, just to have life.”
She closed her eyes as the silent tears poured down her cheeks, giving in at last to total despair, total loss.
A loud crash like thunder exploded through the sealed room. Gwyneth jumped, her eyes snapping open. Smoke billowed around her, emitting some powerful, sulfurous stench. Astonished, she gazed into it, and after an instant made out the tall, cowled figure of a man.
He stood perfectly still, the cowl pointing toward her. His voice seemed to echo, as if from some deep cavern. “Did you say anything?”