PART I – The Price of Gold
It was a cool summer evening, the kind that you eagerly welcome after weeks and weeks of heat and humidity.
I was in the kitchen, carefully spreading butter on two slices of bread, for me and for father. The butter was a rare treat. It had taken me a month to save enough money for it.
The house was very quiet.
It had been that quiet since my sister had married and moved away. I still couldn't get used to it.
A bowl of blueberries that I had picked stood on our wooden table. When I had finished spreading the butter, I critically studied the result. Something was missing. I placed five blueberries onto each piece of bread as a decoration. That was better.
"Father? Father, come eat!" I called.
I heard nothing.
That was when I knew. But just to make sure, I lifted the blanket that I had hung a little ways from his bed to give him some privacy. As I expected, father wasn't there.
He was out drinking.
It had been two weeks since he had come home drunk. I suppose I had hoped that he would stop once and for all…it was a naïve wish, even for a girl of nineteen.
I sat down at the table.
It was very quiet.
Oh, I understood. Of course, he'd rather be with a group of bawdy men than sitting here with me and fighting temptation! I blinked and bit down on my piece of bread and butter. I finished my piece, thinking all the while that I should find some work away from home and leave father to take care of himself.
Eventually, I sat down at the spinning wheel and started to spin, trying to work away my disappointment. Two hours later, I was still spinning when father stumbled into the room.
"Ellis? Child, you still up?"
I studied him. He was drunk. But he had no drink with him which meant he wasn't drunk enough to forget that I had no tolerance for beer or ale in the house.
"Yes, I have work to do," I said.
"You'll never believe it…never believe it…"
I kept spinning.
"I talked to…the king today."
Must have been three or four bottles at least. "I'm sure it was very nice."
"The king! I told him what a…what a great daughter I had."
Hmmm. Perhaps, father had felt guilty about giving in to his addiction again and tried to make up for it by praising me at the tavern. I could do without such praise.
"Pretty…smart…wonderful cook…spins straw into gold…pure gold, I said."
I chuckled. "Gold?" I looked around at the small shabby corner we called a kitchen. "Don't I wish?"
"Pure gold." Father stumbled into his room and fell down on the bed.
I walked over to the bed and looked at him for minute. His face was unshaved, his shirt partly unbuttoned, his boots still on. What I felt exactly, I couldn't say. Love, anger, resignation? He was my father, whatever his faults. I pulled off his boots and placed them by the bed. I gently covered him with a blanket, then returned to the kitchen and ate the second piece of bread and butter so that it wouldn't go to waste.
The next day, I was summoned to the palace.
It happened very simply. A court official arrived and insisted that I come with him immediately. Although he was very polite about it, a sword hung at his side, sending the clear message that I had no choice in the matter.
I tried to think of a way to leave father a message but could think of none. He had never learned to read, so I could not leave a note. Our neighbors had disappeared without a trace (as people tend to do when they sense trouble coming) so I could not ask them to pass along what happened either. So I did not leave any message, hoping that I would return soon.
I was brought to the throne room and then told to wait while the king spoke to a statesman. I used the time to observe him. He had a wrinkled face, a head of grey hair and seemed to have a perpetually unhappy expression on his face. But perhaps, I told myself, he was just having a bad morning.
Eventually I was told to walk up to the throne and curtsy. I was beginning to feel nervous. Not because the king himself was so very intimidating but because the situation was. What could the king possibly need me for?
I curtsied and looked up. "Your majesty?"
The king looked down at me. "Yes, you're Lady Ellis. I chanced to meet your father last night when I was visiting a tavern. Charming man. Introduced me to some of the finest local wines."
I tried to smile politely.
"He also mentioned that you could spin straw into gold."
I stared. There was no humor in his expression. "He was wrong, your majesty. I can't."
He studied me suspiciously. "Do you call your father a liar?"
I did not like to humiliate my father but I had no other choice. "Your majesty, my father was drunk. He had to be, if he claimed I could do magic."
"He wasn't drunk. I would have never taken him seriously if he was." He paused. A thought seemed to occur to him. "Perhaps, you wish to keep your magic abilities a secret. I can understand that. I will only ask you to spin straw into gold for me once and I will keep your secret."
"And if…I don't?"
"I will have no choice but to imprison you for defiance until you decide to change your mind."
I tried to speak calmly. "Your majesty, surely if I could spin straw into gold, my father and I would be very wealthy by now. But we aren't. We are barely getting by."
"Hmm! Well, this is my view of the subject. Either you are lying to me or you're telling the truth."
I could hardly argue with that.
"If you are telling the truth, I lose nothing. If you are lying to me, then I gain a roomful of gold. Either way I cannot lose."
"But you ask for the impossible." My voice broke.
"Not necessarily. I am a fair man."
I tried not to look like I doubted that very much.
"I'd like you to try. Give it your best effort. If, in the morning, I see evidence that you have tried, I will pardon you."
"Now, I have listened to your appeal patiently and I have given you my decision. Nothing else remains to be said."
I was led out of the room by servants, stunned. As I was led down the hall, I glanced into a room with the door wide open. A boy, about eight years old, in fine clothing, was playing with silver toys. He looked up, met my gaze and stared at me frankly.
I hope you can forgive me for not smiling at him.
They took me to a small room with a window, a neat bed, a small table with a candle on it, a chair, a spindle and straw covering every inch of the floor. The tallest servant placed a silver bell upon the table. "Ring if there is something you want," he said. Then they closed the door and I heard the sound of a key turning in the lock.