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Molina, the miller's daughter
And so the wheel turns. The flax would flower and fade, the ponds would fill and flow, and through it all Molina would spin and spin and spin, for how else could a woman help the prosperity of her flood-ravaged town?
She stared wistfully at the waterwheels, which never stopped as long as the water flowed down from the mountains. If Lord Bachmeier would only listen to her and let more such wheels be built, their town would be prosperous once more. His grandfather had listened to her grandmother, otherwise these wheels would not be here at all, but to hear the current Lord Bachmeier talk, it was as though nothing had changed since his many-times great grandfather had been given this land from King Karl the Great himself.
If half the stories she'd heard of King Karl, or Charlemagne as the current king called him, were true, he'd have built new wheels all over his empire before the year was out, harnessing the flood instead of complaining about it.
At least Lord Bachmeier had agreed to plant flax in the flood-ravaged fields as soon as the water went down. Which meant an ocean of blue flowers instead of other crops, but they could trade linen for food. Heavens knew precious little grain had passed through the mill this year, but that was just as well, for they needed the spare waterwheels to power the hammers to beat the flax. That had been her mother's design, but Molina had improved on it since. What Lord Bachmeier didn't know wouldn't hurt him.
Molina sighed. She could speed up some of the process, but spinning the flax still took the most time. If she could use a wheel to turn the spindle, this would be so much faster.
"Good day, Miss Molina," a male voice said.
She glanced up in time to see Hofer slap Lanik before Lanik remembered to snatch his cap off his head. "Good day, boys. How goes the spring planting?"
"Almost done, miss. But it looks like the flax on the northern slopes is almost ready to harvest, maybe as early as next week, so we might have to bring the flax up to the pools to soak, and my father sent us to make sure there is water enough up there in the millponds," Hofer said.
"The pools are full, with enough water coming down the mountain to keep the wheels turning," Molina replied.
Lanik coughed. "Beg pardon, miss, but Uncle wanted us to speak to Mister Rademaker."
Of course he did. None of the men in town would take the word of a mere woman over the miller, even if she was his daughter. Molina forced a smile. "Father is beekeeping today. He had his eye on some wild hives further up the mountain, and he thinks they will swarm soon. He means to capture some new queens for our hives." Their hives were the only ones that had survived the flooding, so if Father didn't capture new bees, there would be no mead brewed in the town at all this year. "I'm sure he'd appreciate the help of two big, strong lads. Maybe even look the other way if a boy managed to get his hands on a honeycomb of his own."
"Thank you, miss!"
The boys scampered off, too eager at the thought of the possible sweet treat awaiting them to even say farewell. Boys, indeed. They were the same age as she was, old enough to marry, but she'd never see them as anything but the boys she'd grown up with. Certainly not potential husbands, though the other girls in the village didn't seem to share her opinions. Most of them were married already. At this rate, she wouldn't marry anyone, and today would be the same as every day for the rest of her life. She would sit and spin and watch the waterwheels, waiting for her father to return home for the evening meal, wishing for something different.
Today she could do something different. She'd done enough spinning for one day, and the warm breeze whispered of the summer waiting just over the horizon. Perhaps she should go check on the pools herself, and have a swim while she was up there. If the pools would be full of flax next week, this might be her only chance.
She set her spinning inside and dug out a cloth she could use to dry herself afterwards. Flinging it over her shoulder, she set off up the mountain, following the stream to the source of all its bubbling secrets.
* * *
Crown Prince Lubos
Lubos had changed his mind, he decided. Marriage was indeed the happiest state in the world, for if he were at home with his chosen wife, he would not be here in this predicament.
He almost wished he'd simply closed his eyes and agreed to the first girl his father thrust toward him as a possible bride. Instead, he had to endure the company of what felt like hundreds of girls exactly the same as the first. Oh, they might look different, with blonde hair or brown, or even a redhead or two, but whatever colour their eyes had been, he had not noticed. For every girl's eyes held the same look: wide and on the verge of tears. For each girl had been little more than the object of their father's ambition. He wanted her to marry the prince, therefore she was dangled in front of a prince, and it was her duty to ensnare said prince, or forever dishonour her whole family. He did not want to be a duty. He wanted a wife who wanted him, not merely a crown. Yet it seemed once women knew he was the crown prince, the crown part was all they saw.
Lubos had had his fill of such girls at court, which was why he'd happily agreed to his father's suggestion that he accompany the tithe collectors on their rounds this year. Father had told him he suspected a conspiracy among his lords and barons, who were cheating him of his rightful percentage. Lubos, however, smelled a different plot. The recent floods had affected them all, and all of his father's kingdom was poorer because of it. If the tithe was smaller this year, it was because the lords and barons had less to give. Well, to the king, perhaps. Every man among them with a daughter old enough to be out of swaddling clothes wanted to push the poor girl toward the prince, and it was worse than court. Lord Bachmeier was by no means the worst of them, but Lubos had to give him credit for being the most persistent. His four daughters were all old enough to be married, and it seemed the girls had a competition among themselves to see who could win the prince. Lord Bachmeier had boasted about the quality and quantity of linen his lands produced, and it seemed that every lady in the land was employed in making the stuff. His own daughters went everywhere with a spindle in one hand and a distaff in the other, linked by a length of thread. This thread they then used to ensnare him in any way they could.
Why, only last night Lubos had woken from a terrible nightmare. The four girls had turned into spiders, venom dripping from their fangs, as they spun webs to entrap him the moment he moved.
Unable to bear the feeling of fine wool or linen, for it reminded him of his nightmare, in the morning he dressed in his coarsest clothes. But he'd almost screamed when Lorelei let her hair trail over his hand as she filled his cup.
To escape her wide eyes and even wider mouth, for Lorelei had evidently never heard a man utter such an unmanly squeak before, he'd made his excuses and bolted.
He headed to the town at first, a place where the girls did not go, for they believed it was beneath them, or at least their father did. But as he descended into the valley, Lubos noticed a stream with a well worn path beside it that led up the mountain and into the forest. There might be good hunting up here, he thought, which would give him a good excuse to flee from Lord Bachmeier and his daughters in the future, if he needed it.
As he climbed, Lubos heard a strange creaking sound. Like a sign blown in the wind, but it was not a back-and-forth sound. It was as though the wind had picked up the sign and carried it forward, protesting all the way, as it moved ever onward.
Lubos laughed aloud at the thought. Why, the sign was him – moving ever onward from vassal to vassal, protesting when presented with a possible bride at each new castle.
Lubos emerged from the shelter of the trees, and saw the truth. The creaking was driven by water, not wind. Nor did the wood move onward. The giant waterwheels, spinning on their axles in the stream's turbulent flow, could go nowhere. They were anchored in this place as marriage would make him a fixture in his father's castle, for the rest of his life.
A small bridge arced over the millstream, leading to a building as big as any manor house Lubos had visited on his travels. This belonged to the miller, or at least it did now. Perhaps Lord Bachmeier's family had once lived here, before moving to their current castle. He considered crossing the bridge so that he might take a closer look at the house, and perhaps obtain a cup of ale, for climbing this path had been thirsty work. But if this house belonged to Lord Bachmeier still, then any of his daughters might be lying in wait for him there, or one of his servants who might send a runner to find the girls. Either way, his solitary walk would be over.
Instead, Lubos dropped to his knees beside the stream, cupped his hands, and drank. It was cold and sweet, tasting of the mountains it had descended from. Better yet, it slaked his thirst enough to make him choose a higher path – the one that led further up the mountain, following the stream. For if the water tasted so good in the lower reaches down here, how much purer would it be in heights? Determined now, he followed the stream to its source.
* * *
Sir Abraham von Rumpelstiltskin
The witch had hair fluffier than a fresh-shorn fleece. Abraham prayed that her thoughts were not as woolly-headed as she appeared.
"Ah, 'tis the boy's father, come to call. And not to ask about the baby, or the chest pains, though I have prepared a draught for you, all the same." The woman smiled and gestured toward the table outside her cottage, and the steaming cup that sat beside a suspicious-looking, smoke-coloured cat.
Abraham had no intention of drinking some witch's potion. Her talk of chest pains made his ribs ache, though he was certain there had been no pain before.
"I did not curse you. It was another witch, long ago, who cursed your ancestor, but I promise you, the chest pains started when you turned that garderobe handle to gold. You just did not notice until now. And the draught is not poisoned. It will ease the pain so that you no longer notice it, at least for a little while."
"Do you read minds?" he asked.
She laughed softly. "No, Sir Abraham, I do not see into your mind. Instead, I see into the future of what will be, or what it might be. But you do not wish to ask me what will be, for you already know your fate."
His voice came out in a whisper: "Less than a year from now, the curse will consume me completely, and I will die, and my legacy will be to pass the curse on to the very son my wife is carrying, so that in his turn, the curse will consume him, too."
Her eyes were unusually hard in such a soft face, but they arrowed into his soul. "So tell me, Sir Abraham. If you know the future is so certain, why have you come here? What can you possibly want to ask of me?"
It was on the tip of his tongue to say that such a strong seer would surely know the words before they left his lips, but as he gazed into her knowing eyes, the urge left him. To let her speak for him was to let fate have her way with his life, and he would surrender to fate no longer.
"I have come to ask how to change my fate. To break the curse that kills my family, for a crime so far in the past none of us can remember it. A way to save my son, and fulfil the oath I made to my father."
"Save the boy, or save yourself?" she asked sharply.
Abraham did not flinch from her gaze. "Both of us, if I can. But if I can save the boy from sharing my father's fate, it will be enough."
"Would you give your life to do it?"
For a long moment, Abraham could not answer. Finally, he said, "All men die. If I do nothing, my time is already short."
She nodded slowly, as if this answer seemed to satisfy her. "Drink the draught, Sir Abraham."
He reached for the cup, clenching his gloved hand around it, and downed the contents. Heat seared his throat, bringing tears to his eyes as he coughed and…ah, now his chest hurt. But it was a small pain, too small to mention. He slammed the cup back on the table. "Satisfied?" he growled.
"It is not my good opinion that matters, brave knight, but a girl who you have yet to meet." The witch closed her eyes. "You must go to the capital, and as you cross the bridge into the city, look up. You will see a tower, and there you will find the girl. She will be in danger, though she may not know it yet. You must keep her alive, no matter what happens, in order for her to break the curse. She must break it willingly, of her own free choice, even though she does not know how to do it. She is your only hope, and if she dies, then all hope is lost."
"Does this girl have a name?"
The witch shook her head. "I cannot control the visions, Sir Abraham, nor can I know everything. You have a time and a place to be, and the certainty that she is the right person. I cannot tell you more than I can see."
Despair welled up in his breast, threatening to swallow his heart. "But I must know more. Must I leave now, or can I say farewell to my family? Will she break the curse right away, or will I have to wait? Will she do it in time to save me, or save him? What if…?"
There was pity in her eyes now. "You will leave on the morrow, and you will have time to say farewell to your wife tonight. Once you arrive in the capital, your fate, and that of your son, will be in your hands. When and how and who…are questions I cannot answer, for they depend on what lies in your heart, and what you choose to do. One thing I can promise you. If you choose to stay, and do not travel to the capital, then both you and your son will die, exactly as you have foretold, and you will die an oathbreaker."
"I will not die an oathbreaker!"
She smiled. "Then perhaps your son will live to hold his own son in his arms. Oh, and one more thing. I cannot tell you more, but I can give you a gift that may make your task easier. They were a gift to me, and heaven knows I have no use for them."
She headed into the cottage, then returned a moment later with a pair of extraordinary shoes. They were made of black leather so dark, they seemed to drink the light. They were not new, for dust scuffed the toes, but they seemed hardly worn at all.
"Keep them," Abraham said, waving her gift away. "I have no need for another man's cast-off shoes. My family's curse has the fortunate result of keeping us wealthy enough to afford good boots."
"Ah, but can your good boots do this?" she asked, slipping the shoes on her own small feet. She stamped her foot three times. A hole appeared at her feet, small at first, then widening, until it was large enough to swallow her. The witch grinned, then stepped forward. She dropped through the hole, which closed abruptly behind her.
Abraham's mouth dropped open and he could not seem to close it. He scuffed his foot across the ground where the hole had opened, but it felt perfectly solid to him, as if the hole had never been.
The witch's breathy laugh came from behind him, and Abraham whirled to find her standing in the doorway to the cottage with her arms folded across her chest.
"My cellar is beneath you, Sir Abraham. Or, more specifically, my bags of flour for baking. I landed on the sacks, and came up the stairs to where I am now. Such is the magic of the shoes. Merely stamp your foot thrice while wearing them, touch your toe to the point where you want the hole to form, and it shall open. It works on walls as well as floors. It will close when you have passed through it, just as you have seen." She held out the shoes. "In all the best tales, a knight on a quest receives a magical item to help him. Make the tale a good one, Sir Abraham. One that will be remembered through all the ages, so that a thousand years from now, when the nights are long and dark, someone will start to tell the tale of the man from House Rumpelstiltskin, and how he saved a princess from a terrible fate."
Abraham bowed. "I thank you for your gifts and your sound advice, Mistress Witch, and I will do everything within my power to be the hero of such a tale." He mounted his horse, waved farewell, and headed home.
Dalia shook her head and reached out to stroke the cat on the table. "Should I have told him that when his tale is told, there are those who will think he is the villain, and not the hero, Kisa?"
"Mrow," said Kisa, angling her head to give the witch better access to her neck.
Dalia sighed. "Better that he does not know, then. The people of the future must make up their own minds, as he will, when the time comes for him to choose."
Would you like to read more?
A miller’s daughter. A cursed knight. The power of a name.
Once upon a time…
Molina has one desire: to see her inventions spread throughout the kingdom. When Prince Lubos offers to take her to the capital as his bride, she jumps at the chance.
But impressing the king may take more than a simple spinning wheel. To marry Prince Lubos, she will need to work a miracle.
Molina enters into a desperate bargain with a mysterious man who turns all he touches into gold. A man with a tragic tale of his own, all tied up in his family name.
The future hangs in the balance, but will either of them live to see it?
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