There was once a miller who kept a mill by a stream in the sort of picturesque rural squalor that is nice to look at in passing but not terribly attractive as a long term residential opportunity. He was reasonably trustworthy as millers go, and didn’t shortchange more than about half of his customers, and as a result he did a fair enough trade – not enough that he could be called, by any stretch of the imagination, well off, but he rarely went hungry, even in the direst winter, which passed for plenty in that particular time and place. Of course it helped that his nearest competitor was a good twenty miles away, over to Buriton way, and everyone knew that folk in those foreign parts were odd and untrustworthy.
Anyway, this miller was a widower but he had a daughter, and this being a patriarchal narrative, the daughter kept house for him, and fetched and tidied and cooked and sewed and generally did all those things that men don’t regard as work until they have to do them themselves. She was a sweet enough natured girl, and fond of her father, so she generally avoided too many tantrums, contenting herself with putting water pepper in the soup when he got too annoying, which would confine him to the privy for much of the rest of the day.
The miller in his turn loved his daughter the way you would love anyone who kept house for you for free, and when in strong drink (which it must be admitted to his credit was not more than once or twice a month. Well, maybe three or four times) would boast loudly of the girl’s domestic skills to anyone who would listen.
Naturally, this being not only a patriarchal narrative but a moralistic one, such boasting had Consequences. It so happened that the local warlord, who by virtue of a substantial bribe to the Church and the vigorous extermination of other contenders, had, in the best tradition, been crowned king, enjoyed riding around his realm to awe (or at a pinch slaughter) a few peasants and to see which of his barons was looking prosperous enough to make an unexpected additional contribution to the exchequer.
One day whilst the miller was holding forth about the virtues of his daughter, the king and his men rode up, just in time to hear the miller saying to one of his cronies:
“Oh, she’s a grand girl all right, my Rubella. I swear she can spin flax into gold.” Now this was metaphor, because actually they had made a tidy sum last year from the girl’s spinning, well spun linen lawn having become fashionable in the capital since the decapitation of Baron Rodolfo in an exquisitely worked linen shirt and black velvet hose, which everyone agreed had been the best dressed execution for years.
Unfortunately for the miller, the king was a simple man, with simple tastes. He liked nice uncomplicated things like swords, and gold pieces, and branding irons, and thought metaphor was a wussy sort of idea. He also had an unfortunate fondness for practical jokes of a rather rough kind, and he saw an opportunity to have some fun at the miller’s expense.
“Hey, you there, peasant!” he said. “I heard that. Go with two of my men and bring the girl to my castle and I’ll put her to the test. If it as you say, I’ll marry her and make her my queen. But God help you if you’re lying – I’ll have her hanging on the gallows as quick as you like.” And you might think that it would have been more appropriate to execute the man who made the boast, rather than the girl who had no part in it, but as I keep telling you this is a patriarchal narrative.
Still, there was nothing to be done about it. Two armed men escorted the miller to his mill, he bade a confused and tearful farewell to his daughter, and with little ceremony and less luggage she was hoicked up on one of the horses (the soldier copping a discreet feel as he did so) and taken away to the castle, weeping bitterly as she went.
“I’m bored,” announced the Woodgnome, with the air of one who has discovered an important fact, and is anxious to share it with the world.
The small grey donkey, over whose dusty flanks he was running a body brush with absent minded efficiency, shook its head and snorted.
“Bored?” it said. “There’s a whole castleful to run here, in its master’s absence.”
“Oh no there isn’t,” retorted the sprite. “Lord Huw’s people are entirely capable of running the place without any help from me, a fact that has been made perfectly clear to me on more than one occasion. The last time I tried to help, half the trenchers were lost for a week, and I not only got the belt from Huw but a few good swats from the chief cook’s wooden spoon as well when she caught up with me.”
“Probably less than you deserved,” said the donkey, although more for the sake of form than because he really meant it – the Gnome could actually groom quite well, having learnt under Huw’s rather exigent training methods, and the sensation was very relaxing, much as having your hair methodically brushed would be for a human.
“Besides,” said the Gnome, ignoring this last sally, “I’m bored because I haven’t been out for ages. I fancy some bright lights, some expensive shops, some action. . .”
“You’ll see plenty of action when Huw gets back from the border if he finds you’ve been maxing your credit cards again.”
“Huw’s a mediaeval, he doesn’t understand the concept of credit. It’s all usury as far as he’s concerned.”
“He seemed to understand compound interest well enough when calculating your punishment the last time you overspent.”
The Gnome winced. “Don’t remind me,” he said ruefully. “Well, what do you suggest, then?”
“Go see Cobweb. She’ll find something to keep you out of trouble. Or join you in it.”
The Gnome sighed. “No. Cobs really has a plateful at the moment, trying to get Nemessaries up and running. I don’t want to distract her. Besides. . .”
“Both Huw and Carabosse have threatened to make me pay if I make her life difficult just now.”
“Too much for you?”
“One of them I could handle, but not both. Especially not together.” He shuddered at the very idea.
“Get a job of your own then. Do something useful with your time.”
“I have a job.”
The Gnome considered for a moment. “Well, a role, anyway,” he said, slowly. A gleam lit his eye, and he dropped the brush on the floor. “Now that you mention it. . . Barnabas, dear, why don’t you take me somewhere where there is something for me to do?”
The donkey looked at him coolly. “Is that all the directions I get?”
“Well, since your Talent is to find the way, I reckon that if I tell you just that, you’ll bring me where I need to be.”
Barnabas shook his head again. “I’m a fool to myself, getting involved,” he said, “especially as I know you’ll want me to get you out of whatever scrape you end up in.”
“You know you love every minute of it,” grinned the Gnome. “Without me, you’d be the bored one.”
The donkey made a very rude noise, but the Gnome noticed, as he hopped aboard his steed, that Barnabas hadn’t actually disagreed. . .
When the king entered the room in which she had been locked, the miller’s daughter was just taking down the tapestries. She had always thought that when you were feeling miserable, doing something was preferable to sitting idle, and since it looked as if no-one had dusted and cleaned the hangings in here for years, she thought she might as well occupy her time usefully. Of course, what she really needed was a big tub of water and a few bundles of soapwort, but she was realistic enough to see that although the soldiers had been roughly polite, and the courtiers icily so, she had not been brought here for her domestic skills. Infuriatingly, no-one would tell her why she had been brought here, and she vented her anger by giving the dusty hangings a pummelling that sent generations of spiders scuttling for safe ground, cast great ashy clouds into the air, and set her to sneezing.
“Good grief, woman, what are you doing?” asked a new voice.
“Cleaning these, they’re filthy,” she snapped, only adding rather lamely, and with a flustered curtsy, “Sire,” as her glance took in the crown (which surely must be rather uncomfortable for casual wear around the house, she thought).
“You’re the miller girl, right?”
She was suddenly conscious of what a sight she looked, all smeared with floury dust, and her hair coming undone. She bobbed a hasty curtsey.
“Yes, Sire. That is, my father’s a miller.”
“And you can spin?”
“Yes, Sire,” she said, puzzled.
“Excellent.” He smiled. She couldn’t help but notice that his mouth was cruel but sensual, and a tiny part of her wondered what it would be like to have those lips ravaging your body. . .
“I said, come here,” he repeated, sounding a little peeved. Peeved didn’t suit him, she decided. He was made for rage. Or passion.
“Sorry, Sire.” She curtsied again, and came towards him nervously. When he took her arm his hands were rough and calloused, like any farmer’s.
“Here,” he said, leading her to another door, and opening it. It was a smallish room, with a window looking out on the moat. This one had no hangings, only a stone flagged floor with a spinning wheel, and a bale of straw.
“Your father says you can spin straw into gold,” he sneered. (He had a rather good sneer. Think Alan Rickman.) “Personally, I think he’s an old sot, but the exchequer needs filling, and you peasants all claim you can’t afford any more taxes. So prove it. Spin that bale into gold, and I’ll see you right.”
“Of course, fail and I’ll have to have you hanged as a felon,” he added, off-hand. “Nothing personal, you understand, but we can’t have people lying to the King.”
“But I haven’t lied. . .”
“So you can’t do it, then? I thought not. Executioner!” He stuck his thumbs in his belt and smirked at her.
“NO, wait. Wait, Sire. . . I’ll do it. But spinning takes time, I need to prepare. . .”
“You can have all night. I’ll just lock you in here now.” And with a leer he pushed her through the door, which locked behind her with a very final sound. Then he went out of the room laughing. There was a guard in the corridor.
“In the morning, bring her to me to scare a bit more, and then throw her out,” he said, and went off down the corridor, extremely pleased with himself. Spinning gold, indeed. Nice idea, though.
The Woodgnome watched unobserved from Somewhere Else.
“That old chestnut, eh?” he said. “I think he is entirely too satisfied with himself, and needs bringing down a peg or two. Barnabas, old boy, you were right as usual. This Story needs the attentions of a Woodgnome.”
“I’m not so sure,” said the donkey dubiously.
“Oh, come on,” said the Gnome, and stepped into the Story.
“Tell me, fair maiden, why are you weeping?”
The girl looked up, and bit off a small scream.
“Who are you?”
“A friend. Why are you weeping?”
“Because I can’t get this damned straw to twist into a rope. It keeps breaking. How did you get in?”
“Never mind that, why are you making a rope? Aren’t you supposed to be spinning?”
The girl looked at him as if in grave doubt of his mental abilities. “I need a rope,” she said, slowly and carefully, “because this window is on the third floor of the castle. If I’m to escape before tomorrow I need a rope.”
“Escape? I’m sure that isn’t in the script,” said the Gnome dubiously.
“Well I’m certainly not waiting around for that idiot to execute me.” Even if he has got a rather sexy laugh.
“No, no, no, this is all wrong. You are supposed to spin the straw into gold, and you can’t, and then I help you. That’s the way it goes.”
“Because Story is like water, it always takes the easiest route for preference, the one that has been carved out before.”
“No, I mean why would you help me? We don’t even know each other. What are you anyway, and how did you get in here? More to the point, can I get out the same way? – now that would be helpful.”
“No you can’t,” said the Gnome, rather flustered. “And you’re a good deal too self possessed for someone who’s about to have her neck stretched.”
“Not if I can help it,” said the girl grimly. “And when I get my hands on that old fool my father. . .”
“That does not, in fact, seem a likely prospect,” observed the Gnome tartly and was rewarded by an alarming tremor of the girl’s previously stiff lip. “Oh look, it will be all right, I meant it about helping.”
“What do you want?” asked the girl shrewdly. “Why would you care what happens? And are you a demon? Will I be damning my immortal soul by dealing with you?”
“Would it make a difference?” enquired the Gnome interestedly.
“Well, I’d like to know. If I was damned anyway, then I might try some other sins, just to see if I liked them.”
“I’m not a demon, as it happens. I am one of the Fair Folk.”
“A Pharisee? You don’t look much like one – aren’t they supposed to be beautiful beyond mortal ken?”
“There’s no call to get personal,” said the Gnome coldly, “particularly from someone with three centuries worth of dust smeared about her person.”
“So what’s the deal? I warn you, I’m not giving up anything that can’t be replaced, I know your kind: luberechauns, nixers, pixels, you’re all shysters.”
“I am deeply wounded by your lack of trust,” said the Gnome. “I notice you have a rather pretty necklace. . .”
“Couldn’t possibly part with it, a family heirloom that belonged to my late mother and came with her blessing,” said the girl without thinking. Bargaining came as naturally to her as breathing.
“I’m sure it will look nice on a corpse,” retorted the Gnome. “Look, just give me the necklace, and I will transform the straw for you. You get to live, the king gets his gold, and everything will be hunky dory.”
The girl shook her head. “I might possibly be interested, if you can provide bathing facilities, with unlimited hot water mind, a decent bed, and some clean clothes.”
“You wish to meet the executioner looking your best?”
“No, you idiot. On top of the gold.”
“You don’t want much, do you? No, I’m sorry, it’s out of the question.”
“Fine. I’ll do it my own way.” She turned her back pointedly on the Gnome, and began her efforts to twist the straw into rope again. The Gnome stared at her flabbergasted. He had interfered in many, many Stories in his time, and he was a master at knowing just where to exert minimal effort in order to turn the juggernaut onto a new course. However, this Story seemed to be determined to manage its own variation.
He cleared his throat.
“Are you still here?” she said, without turning round. Only eyes as clear as the Gnome’s would have spotted the little splash in the dust before her, as a stray tear escaped. It was something of a relief to discover that this formidable young woman wasn’t quite as self-possessed as she wanted him to think.
“Possibly I could do something in the cleaning up line,” he said tentatively. “But I can’t guarantee unlimited hot water. Enough for a good bath, yes, but once it starts to run cold you’re on your own.”
She spun around, and embraced him, getting dust and dead spiders all over his jacket, much to his disgust.
“Thank you, thank you,” she said. “Here, take it.” She reached up, and unclasped the necklace, held it up for a moment in the light. It was an old-fashioned piece, amethysts in something that looked like gold but wasn’t (because it went greenish in damp weather and needed polishing). Her mother hadn’t had a lot to leave, but Rubella hoped that she would have approved. She sighed, kissed it, and handed it over.
“Here. That’s my part. Now you do yours.”
The Gnome took it absently, without looking, and slipped it in his pocket. “You drive a hard bargain,” he said.
“I’m a miller’s daughter,” she said. “It’s in the blood.”
“Hmm.” He led to the far wall and opened a wooden door that had not been there a moment ago. On the far side was a warm and steamy room, with a large bathtub on low marble plinth in the centre of it. The bath was filled with steaming water that smelled of rosemary and lavender. There were thick white towels, like warm and fluffy clouds, piled on a wooden stand by the bath, sponges, bath brushes (one of which smirked offensively at the the Gnome), and a ewer of some sweetly fragrant oil on another, and in the background a lute was playing.
“Will this do you?” asked the Gnome softly, seeing the girl’s eyes grow round.
“This is. . . for this it would almost be worth being executed.”
“Good. When you’ve finished in here go out the far door and you’ll find a bed ready laid, the sheets turned down and aired, and a warming pan in it. Just leave the dirty clothes here and I’ll have them cleaned. Oh and a snack will be on the bedside table in case you feel peckish. Sleep well, and I’ll see you in the morning.”
And he vanished, like a candle flame.
The next morning she awoke, not in the warm embrace of the vast, downy-quilted bed in which she had spent a dreamless night, but on the cold stone flags of the spinning chamber. Only the fact that she was clean, dressed in clean clothes, and had –she hastily fumbled at her neck. Yes it was gone – no necklace, told her it was anything other than a dream.
Well, that and the fact that in place of the bale of straw there was a thickly folded piece of cloth of gold. Every thread in it blazed in the spring sunlight that streamed through the window. She fingered it wonderingly, admiring the skill that had woven threads of pure metal into a cloth. “And how am I supposed to have done that without a loom?” she muttered. Still, she didn’t suppose that kings knew any more about weaving than Pharisees. Maybe he wouldn’t notice.
The king was breakfasting in the solar and in a rare good humour when the guard hurried in.
“Yes? Where’s the girl? I’m looking forward to having a bit of sport teasing her. She’s a feisty one, I’ll give her that.”
“Yes, Sire, I’ll bring her directly. I just wanted to know what you wanted to do about the gold. . .”
“I don’t believe this,” said the king, running the cloth through his hands. It was so heavy that even an ell of it was almost beyond his strength to lift. “So you really can spin straw into gold?”
“I. . .” began the girl.
“I’m impressed,” said the king, who wasn’t really that interested in what seemed like an obvious answer. Looking her up and down, and seeing her clean and tidy (who had arranged the clean-up? he was sure he hadn’t ordered it, though it was a good thought) he noticed how straight and healthy she was. Big strapping lass with a frontage that swelled most impressively. . . not like these milk and water aristocratic women in the court, with their irritating high pitched laughs and their fawning attention on anything in hose. Come to think of it, the men in the court were just the same.
“Good. May I go now, Sire?” She had debated asking him what he had meant by ‘seeing her right’ but wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to know. Also, given what the stories said about fairy gold, she thought she might want to be away from here while the going was good.
“What? Are you crazy? I wasn’t joking when I said the exchequer needed filling. Look, stay. Have dinner with me. Tonight – well, tonight I really need you to do some more of this for me.”
“Your Grace, you promised. . .”
“Look, girl – what is your name?”
“Hmm. Pretty. Look, Rubella, I really need more gold than this. I mean, to be honest, I didn’t think you really. . .” he paused, realising that he didn’t want to lose any hold he might have over her. “I didn’t think you were really up to much. I mean, one bale isn’t much of a test. But you’ve shown you have some skill. Keep on this way, and you really will get a reward. But the same rules apply: fail tonight, and . . .chlkkk.” He made a strangling sound and a jerk of the head.
The girl smiled bitterly. Typical man, promises worth about as much as spit. By the time that evening came, however, and she was escorted to his chambers for dinner, she had mellowed a little. She could see that running a kingdom was, in a larger way, like running a mill. Suppliers needing to be cajoled or bullied, competitors to be kept an eye on, domestic management never able to be neglected for a moment lest the rats get into the grain, or the grindstones wear beyond usage and no replacement ready. And always, always, the problem of money. In fact, when she put this to him, and they compared notes, he found it so interesting that they conversed animatedly long into the night.
At last, however, an attendant whispered into his ear.
“Ah, yes,” he said. “Look, Rubes, this has been lovely, but. . .”
“But you want me to go and spin gold for you.”
“I’m. . . do you want anything? I’ll have wine and some food sent up with you in case you get hungry, and a more comfortable chair.”
“Don’t bother,” she said shortly. “I’ll manage, as I did last night.”
When they took her, it was not to the same chamber but to another, much larger, which had been almost entirely filled with bales of straw.
“You are joking?” she said, as they locked the door behind her. The only answer was the departing footsteps of the guard. He whistled, just off key, a habit of which she would dearly liked to have broken him, ideally with the aid of something painful.
“Oh, damn. Oh, damn, damn, damn. Pharisee, where are you?”
“Here,” said the Woodgnome. “I see that the appetite for gold has been awakened. You really need to do something about that – I won’t always be around to get you out of scrapes.”
“Can you get me out of this one?” asked the girl. “And how much is it likely to cost me?”
She dimpled at him prettily, and thrust her breasts forwards.
The Woodgnome laughed. “You are really barking up the wrong tree there, my girl. Besides, you should keep your virginity. It might come in useful.”
“About 4 years too late for that,” she said huffily. “I’m a country girl, remember?”
“Ah me,” said the Woodgnome. “No, I’m afraid you’ll have to pay your debts in another way. I notice you have a rather nice ring. . .”
“That’s – my father gave me that, the year I turned 16,” she said, blushing. “Isn’t there anything else?”
“I’m afraid that narrative logic demands it,” said the Gnome solemnly. “Don’t worry, the eventual payback will be worth it.”
“Same terms as before, bath, bed, the whole lot?”
“The whole lot. Oh, and Rubella?”
“The King may want to get a little – ah – frisky, tomorrow. I should let him try, if I were you.”
“Because he won’t be able to. And that’s when you’ll tell him that your father hasn’t been able to get it up for years, thanks to the side effects of the gold spell, which rapidly become permanent.”
“Ah. Ahhh! Got it, right. Mr Pharisee?”
“Thank you,” she said shyly, and kissed him gently on the top of his head (I told you she was a strapping lass).
“Yes, yes, enough of that, you know where the bathroom is,” said the Gnome gruffly. She knew enough about men to take this for what it was worth, and went off to her bath smiling.
“Here,” said Barnabas, sticking a head through from somewhere else, “I think she likes you.”
“Very funny,” said the Gnome. “I suppose I’d better do something about this lot. Let me see, carbon is 12.0107, gold is 196.96655, goes ah, 16.4 or thereabouts, add one for luck, divided by the Planck constant, cast into dimension 13, and . . . off we go.”
Barnabas withdrew, hurriedly. The spinning wheel began to spin, faster and faster, its sound building from a pleasant whir to a shrieking howl. It became a blur, then a dull red glow, then gradually up through yellow to a blazing white furnace. Then it was blue white, a terrible, radiant blue, then swiftly violet, and at last it was a clump of darkness, a blackness beyond black, out of which no light could escape.
As he hummed to himself the Woodgnome’s long elegant hands made a complex pass through the air, and the bales of straw began to unravel, as if in a high wind. First one straw, then many, began to fly across the chamber and each was sucked into that terrible black maw. There was the occasional brief burst of gamma radiation as the straw disappeared beyond the event horizon, which may account for the basilisks that hatched from the castle chickens the following year and caused so much trouble, but that is by-the-by. It didn’t take long for all the straw to disappear. A family of rather confused harvest mice that had nearly gone the same way were currently in residence in the Woodgnome’s pocket.
“Now,” he said. “Turn her over.” He disturbed the mice temporarily to retrieve a pair of sunglasses, spoke a Word, and the clot of blackness suddenly became its own negative, a brilliant tiny white star. Out of it spun a stream of gold wire, long and shiny and heavy. When the wire stopped the Gnome spoke again, and the light died. The spinning wheel spun slowly to a stop and there was silence at last.
“Have you finished?” asked Barnabas, popping his head back.
“Yes, it’s all over, you big baby,” said the Gnome.
“I don’t like High Energy Magic,” said Barnabas. “Never have, never will. Especially when it’s you doing it. It isn’t safe.”
The Gnome grinned. “Of course it isn’t,” he said. “That’s why I enjoy it.”
“I’ve a good mind to tell Carabosse you’ve been transmuting. You won’t enjoy that.”
“Don’t be a grass. Unless that’s what you’d like to be, in a field of hungry cows.”
Barnabas snorted, knowing this threat to be about as serious as his own. “Are you really going to put the knots on the king?”
“Oh yes. Thank you for reminding me.” The Gnome delved in his pockets again, to a chorus of high pitched squeaks. “Sorry.” He pulled out some string and began to do something that looked like a rather elaborate game of cats cradle. “If the king gets the idea that Rubella can produce gold on demand the poor girl will never have any peace. So we have to make sure that he won’t ask her to do it. There, that should be enough to prevent him rising to the occasion.”
“Sunup soon, we should be going.”
“OK, let me just translate the girl back here.”
“You know what you have to ask for next time?”
“There may not be a next time. It depends on whether the king’s cupidity or his vanity is the greater.”
“And if it goes to that?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because you said you came here to make mischief, and so far you seem mainly to have made the story run on conventional lines. Why didn’t you just give the girl a rope the first day?”
“You have no style,” said the Woodgnome. “That would have been pedestrian. This was never a conventional story to begin with, and I wanted to be sure where it thinks it’s going before I make it go where I want it to go.”
The king came himself the next morning to unlock the door, looking. . . well, perhaps it was excited, but the oldest guard, who’d known him for 20 years, would have said he looked almost nervous, like a boy on his first date.
“Your Grace,” said the girl demurely. She was sitting in the window embrasure, with the bright sunlight behind her, and she looked – pretty as a picture. He was so taken with her, in fact, that he almost forgot what he had come for until she indicated with her hand. And there it was, neatly coiled, thick golden wire. He lifted some to check. Heavy as lead, soft as butter. Gold all right.
“I can’t believe it,” he said. “Rubes, you’re amazing.”
She smiled. “Thank you, Sire. I wonder – could I have a glass of water? All that spinning is thirsty work.”
“Water? I think we can do better for you than water. Here take my arm. I’ve had the liberty of having a breakfast prepared.”
“Please don’t worry about it, Harald. It happens.”
“Not to me, it doesn’t,” he said, with such obvious misery in his voice that she rose from the covers and put an arm across his hunched shoulders where he sat on the edge of the bed, carefully not looking at her.
“I mean, it happens when I do that spell.”
“Spell. You mean – the gold thing?”
“Yes.” She sighed. “My poor father – well, you see, it’s reversible at first, but after a couple of times it becomes permanent. I think it’s why he took to drinking so much.”
“Your father can’t – and it’s because you – but why would he? I mean why didn’t you stop?”
“Well, money is always needed in a mill, same as a kingdom, just like we were saying the other night. And I suppose he thought – one more time wouldn’t hurt, and then it was too late.”
“Oh God. The poor man.” He sat for a moment longer and then she felt a faint tremor in the sturdy shoulders. He laughed.
“I suppose this means that if you spend one way, you can’t spend the other. Finance or frigging, but not both.”
She roared with laughter - strong, bodyshaking laughter, and slapped him on the bottom.
“Harald, you rude boy! I should give you a smacked bottom for talking like that to a girl. Oh! Harald? Is that a sign of interest I see? Oooh, Harald, you are a naughty boy, aren't you? Somebody isn't going to be sitting down for a while when I get my hands on him. . .”
“You told me that he wouldn’t be able to, and that that would ensure he wouldn’t ask again,” said the girl. “And now look at this!” She gestured around the Great Hall. Straw. Straw everywhere. “He’s promised to marry me, you know, if I transform this lot. The Court is in an uproar.”
“Well how was I to know he would like having his bottom smacked so much that it could overcome my spell?” said the Gnome irritably. “Has it occurred to your greedy boyfriend that the animals will still need feeding through the winter?”
“That’s hay,” said the girl witheringly. “Straw is for bedding. And with enough gold, we could import feed if it were needed.”
“All right missy, no need to get hoity toity with me. I’ll just. . .”
“I can’t pay you! Don’t you understand? I don’t have anything more to give you for the spinning,” she hissed. “And Harald will be so disappointed.” She sat down and began to weep.
“Look. . . I’m sure we can come to some arrangement.”
She sniffed. “Such as?”
“I’ll do it, for the third and final time. But in return, you must give me your first born child.”
“Not a chance, you gouger. I know about those sort of arrangements and they always spell trouble.”
“Gouger? Very polite. Who took care of your maidenly upbringing? Your mother being dead, and all that?”
“Three wise women from the village. Gammer Corey, Gammer Measurer, and Gammer Cates.”
“Three crones? That explains a lot. So She has been meddling with this story too, has She? Hmm. I wonder. . .” The Gnome frowned, pondering, as he walked to and fro. “OK. I will do it, in exchange for a promise.”
“A promise? What do you want me to promise?”
The Gnome grinned. “I don’t. It isn’t you I want to promise at all.”
There was once, as I think I may have mentioned, a miller, a widower, with but a single daughter. But one day his daughter went off to town and came back with a new husband, and a cart laden with something heavy enough to sink it to its axles in the mud by the bridge. They bought out the old man, and set him up in a comfortable cottage nearer to the inn, with a woman who came in and cleaned and cooked for him, and although she did neither, in his opinion, quite as well as his daughter, he was comfortable enough. It was a five minute wonder, until the news came from the capital that they had a new king, and then that gave people something else to gossip about.
As for the miller’s daughter and her husband money never seemed to be a problem for them. That was no doubt because they did very well for themselves, and the millwheels were always turning. For they gave fair measure, and even, to regular customers, a bit of credit when times were hard, and by their thrift and industry they prospered mightily. They acquired lands, and properties, and in the fullness of time, children, and they were, as much as the times allowed, content.
There were envious tongues that wagged against them of course, for good fortune always attracts envy. But she was a formidable woman, and he was a man who knew one end of a sword and spear from another, and generally people found it worth their while to avoid making difficulties for them.
And occasionally, in their bedchamber, he would say wistfully:
“I still wonder what it would have been like if you’d agreed to be my queen. You run this place so well, I’d have liked to see you running a kingdom.”
And she would reply:
“We’ve been through all of that long ago. It would never have been allowed by your courtiers. It would have been like wading through treacle. You told me that yourself, that was why you spent all your time hunting and fighting wars. It was better to get your promise to do it the other way round. At least this way you get what you want, too.”
“Yes, about that. . .”
“Oh, I haven’t forgotten. You messed up the corn delivery from Barchwell, and then you were rude to the carter when he said so. I think that deserves the strap, Harald, don’t you?”
“Oh, Rubes. . .”
“Fetch it then, my lad. And be quick about it, or you’ll get extra.”
And you may well think that this is a very strange ending indeed for a fairy story, and that it should involve names, and people stamping their feet, and kingdoms, and happily ever after. But you see, those things belong in quite a different story, and there’s only one Person who can pronounce the Gnome’s True Name anyway. And I really don’t think he would be anxious to do any more child care. No, on the whole it worked out for the best.
And as for happily ever after, well they were happy enough. Not in quite the conventional way, perhaps, but then you see, this is no longer a patriarchal narrative
Click on Idris the Dragon for more stories
© , 2005