Episode #25: “Straw and Gold” by Kate O’Connor

April 5, 2016

Straw and Gold

By Kate O’Connor

Orin did not know the feel of gold. There was none to be found in his father’s mill. There were coins of tangy, sharp copper and rough iron fittings on the door, slick steel for the horses’ tack and clattering tin plates for the table. His sister had a silver ring that had belonged to their mother. It was smooth and cool as a night breeze on Jessa’s delicate finger when she held his hand, warm against his skin where it now sat. But none of those things were gold.

The padded stool underneath him was by far the most comfortable piece of furniture he had ever sat upon. The king was a clever man. Fear and wealth could drive a person to incredible feats. He clearly thought to give a bit of both to the woman who might live up to her father’s boasting, even if he thought her father a liar. Magic was rare – and it meant power. Orin tugged at the veil that covered his short hair then ran his fingertips over the wood of the spinning wheel. The finely-sanded surface was slick with polish.

Full transcipt after the cut.

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 25 for April 5, 2016. This is your host Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you!

Today is a big day for two reasons! First, it's the first episode of our second year! Happy first birthday to GlitterShip! Also, our story today is GlitterShip's first original short story. "Straw and Gold" by Kate O'Connor has never been published anywhere else in either print or audio. Going forward, GlitterShip will bring you one original and one reprint episode per month!

Also, if you are planning to attend Wiscon, the feminist science fiction convention in Madison, Wisconsin, May 27th to May 30th this year, there will be a live GlitterShip reading featuring a few of the authors who have previously appeared on this show. More information will be in listed on the convention schedule when we get nearer to the event.

On a serious note: if you live in the United States, you have probably seen the large number of bigoted, anti-trans bills being proposed in state legislatures. Although I don't want to spend too much time talking politics on this podcast, I do want to urge any American listeners to take a look at their local politics. If your state house is trying to pass laws that legalize discrimination against LGBTQ people, or criminalize trans people just for existing, please contact your representatives to speak out against bigotry. For those of you who have done so already, thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

And now, on to what you're here for!

After graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Kate O'Connor took up writing science fiction and fantasy. Her short fiction has most recently appeared in Intergalactic Medicine Show, StarShipSofa, and Escape Pod. In between telling stories, she flies airplanes, digs up artifacts, and manages a dog kennel.

Straw and Gold

By Kate O’Connor

Orin did not know the feel of gold. There was none to be found in his father’s mill. There were coins of tangy, sharp copper and rough iron fittings on the door, slick steel for the horses’ tack and clattering tin plates for the table. His sister had a silver ring that had belonged to their mother. It was smooth and cool as a night breeze on Jessa’s delicate finger when she held his hand, warm against his skin where it now sat. But none of those things were gold.

The padded stool underneath him was by far the most comfortable piece of furniture he had ever sat upon. The king was a clever man. Fear and wealth could drive a person to incredible feats. He clearly thought to give a bit of both to the woman who might live up to her father’s boasting, even if he thought her father a liar. Magic was rare – and it meant power. Orin tugged at the veil that covered his short hair then ran his fingertips over the wood of the spinning wheel. The finely-sanded surface was slick with polish.

The dusty, dry smell of clean straw filled the air to bursting. Even his father’s barn wasn’t as fragrant. He reached down, feeling around him until his hand encountered the nearest pile. He plucked out a few pieces and rolled them between thumb and forefinger. The harsh stalks rustled and poked.

For a moment, Orin hated his father. It was bad enough that he had gone begging to the king, but even worse that he had told lies when a courtier had mocked him for his poverty. That kind of pride was a luxury their small family had no room to claim. But what was done was done.

The king’s men came while Orin sat carding wool, banging on the door with metal-clad fists and demanding the girl who spun straw into gold.

Orin felt Jessa trembling beside him as their father explained what he had done. Father’s voice had been quiet and desperate. He hadn’t expected the king to call him out on his lie. He had just wanted to be heard without scorn.

“I don’t know how.” Jessa’s voice, more familiar to Orin than his own, was a whisper. Even if the king had only wanted plain yarn, she couldn’t have given it to him. Spinning was Orin’s job. Blind as he was, he couldn’t work the mill, but he spun the smoothest, finest thread in the village. It was all in the touch and the way whatever material he spun came together. No matter how poor the quality, he could make the fibers turn right under his hands.

“We don’t have magic. No one does.” Anger flickered in Jessa’s voice, driven by her fear. “It’s treason to lie to the king.” Orin felt her shivers as if they were his own. The punishments for treason were harsh and they had never so much as met anyone who could do magic.

Orin took his twin’s hand in his. “I’ll go.” He was the one they could spare. Jessa helped their father with the mill. She was part of the little world that was their village. Orin was nothing -- a damaged, near-silent young man who was little help to anyone. Maybe if he explained, the king would forgive them. It would be a disgrace if the task couldn’t be done, but it meant nothing in the greater scheme of things if Orin was shamed.

He could feel their attention on him. “Give me a dress and put a veil over my hair.” Orin spoke with far more calm than he felt. The people who came to the house always remarked that the twins could pass for one another but for their sex. Jessa was strong and her shoulders broader than Orin’s from her work in the mill. Life indoors had left his skin smoother than that of the village children.

“You can’t do this.” Jessa’s braid brushed his arm as she shook her head. “The king will be angry with you.” She sounded angry and commanding, like she did when someone spoke ill of him or their father.

He smiled, reaching out until he found her face. He patted her cheek gently. She had always been his defender. “My turn, Jess. Get your church clothes. You’ll have to help me dress.” This time, he would protect her.

Orin wished he had thought to ask for water to soften the straw. It was a silly desire. Even with the proper tools and enough time to work the straw into spinnable fibers, it would still just be straw, and, come morning, he would be dead. The king had been quite clear, his voice viper soft as he breathed the words in Orin’s ear like a lover. If the task could not be completed, the miller’s daughter would die.

Orin turned Jessa’s ring on his finger. He was grateful for its presence, even though it most likely meant she wouldn’t get it back after. The ring was a little piece of her -- and of their mother. It hadn’t crossed his mind until the king had spoken that death would be his punishment. Banishment, servitude, imprisonment, those had all seemed possible, but not death.

He twisted the straw into a bundle. His hands were shaking again. He didn’t want to die. He had wasted who-knew how long trailing his fingers along the walls of the room when he had first been locked in. The walls were solid stone under his desperate hands. There were no windows to move the stagnant air, no doors but the one they had escorted him through and shut behind him, no other way out that he could think to search for.

Orin tried to imagine what gold would feel like. Warmer than the silver ring, he thought, softer than iron, smoother than tin. His fingers moved over the bundle, twisting and pulling. What was it about gold that made people want it so? It must be more than cold metal.

Jessa said it was the color of sunlight and corn. He imagined the warmth of the sun on his face, the heat of the earth after a long summer day, the dusty-sweet scent of the mill. For a moment, the memories were so strong he could feel them. The straw pulled together, fibers working free and warming under his hand.

Out of habit, he spun them onto the wheel, hands following motions made familiar as breathing by practice and loneliness. The thread felt strange and stiff. His fingers tingled. Startled, he stopped, shaking his head to clear it. He felt the thread where it wound around the bobbin. It didn’t feel like straw, but it wasn’t metal either. Heart in his throat, he gathered up more straw. He started to spin again, trying to imitate exactly what he had done before. The straw fell to bits. He kept at it, over and over until he was exhausted and shivering in the chill damp of the cell.

He couldn’t make it happen again. Orin let his head fall forward into his hands, tears wetting his cheeks. For a foolish moment, he had let himself believe it was possible, that he had found the magic that would save his life.

“Well now. This is interesting.” A warm, musical voice filled the room.

“Who’s there?” Orin’s head jerked up, cocking to one side as he listened intently for the location of his unexpected visitor. He wondered if he had dozed off. He hadn’t heard the door open.

“Why are you crying, miller’s son?” The voice came from the far side of the room, light and easy as a summer breeze.

“The king will kill me if I don’t spin this straw into gold.” It sounded so stupid when he said it aloud. How could anyone be expected to do such a thing? How could his father have imagined the king would believe such a blatant lie?

The man laughed. It was the laugh that told Orin his visitor wasn’t human. It was wild and unrestrained, almost painful to hear. He shrunk away from the creature, wrapping his arms tightly around himself. “And how did he come to believe a boy like you could do that?”

“My father told him my sister could.” The words felt like they were being pulled out of him. He didn’t usually talk easily, let alone to strangers.

Orin heard the man moving, striding through whispering piles of straw. He flinched away. “I’m not going to hurt you.” The other sounded annoyed, but Orin believed him. There was something solid about his voice, as though lying was beneath him.

Orin felt the heat of him as he knelt beside the wheel. Like sunlight. The wheel creaked as the creature spun it. There was an intake of breath that sounded almost surprised.

“It’s not gold.” The voice had shifted, amusement draining into intense interest. “No. Not gold at all. But something.”

“What do you mean?” Orin’s voice cracked, the fear twisting his stomach, reaching up into his throat.

“It doesn’t matter.” A rush of air as the man stood. “I can help you with your impossible task, if you want. For a price.”

“I don’t have any money.”

“I just told you I can spin straw into gold. Do you really think I need money, boy?”

Orin felt like his cheeks were on fire. He dropped his head again. “What, then?” he whispered.

“Something important. Something worth your life.”

Orin thought frantically. He had nothing, was nothing. His fingers twined nervously together in his lap, encountering a slim band of metal. He stopped and sat up straight again. Slowly, he pulled the little silver ring off of his finger. “Here. What about this?” It would hurt to lose it, hurt worse when he had to explain to Jessa that it was gone. It was all they had of their mother.

“Yes.” The stranger breathed, coming close. “That and the thread you spun earlier will do nicely.” The fingers that took the ring from Orin’s hand were deft and gentle. “Do we have a deal?”

“We do.” Orin nodded, heart racing.

“Close your eyes.”

Orin let out a derisive chuckle.

“Yes, yes. I know. Do it anyway.” The man walked around behind him, sounding exasperated. “You don’t sleep with your eyes open, do you?”

Orin shut his blind eyes, a faint smile tugging at his lips. His visitor seemed far more approachable when he was exasperated. He jumped when the man’s hands settled over his. They were calloused and well-formed. Not a farmer’s hands, nor a miller’s, but not soft like a child’s either.

“Here.” He turned Orin’s left hand over, setting something cool and hard on his palm.

“What is it?” Orin turned it over in his hand. It felt like a coin, smooth and simple.

“Gold.”

“But…” Orin traced the small object over and over, trying to sort out what made it so valuable. “It just feels like any metal. A little softer than silver, but just as cold.”

“Exactly.” There was a smile in the man’s voice now. He took the coin and handed Orin a bundle of straw. His hands guided Orin’s to the spinning wheel. His chest was warm and solid against Orin’s back, driving the chill of the room away. “Let me show you the trick of it.”

“How did you do it?” Jessa sounded wary. Orin didn’t blame her. Magic had no place in their lives. She sat on the bed next to him. The foot of distance between them felt like the moment before a missed step sent him tumbling. Their father hadn’t said a word to him since the king’s men had escorted him back home, treating him with care and awed respect.

“There was a man. He helped me.” Orin was half convinced it had been a dream. But a dream didn’t explain what had happened. The king had come with the dawn, a single guard with him. Orin had heard him through the door, his voice tired and resigned as he told the guard the woman would most likely need to be taken to the executioner. Then door had opened and all talk had ceased. King and guard both had barely breathed as they circled the room.

“What man?”

“I didn’t ask his name.” Orin shrugged. “I don’t think he was human.” He knew the man hadn’t been.

“You made a deal with a fairy?” Jessa’s voice was shocked. It went against every story they had been told growing up. A fairy’s bargain was a double-edged sword.

“Just for the ring.” He didn’t tell her about the strange thread he had woven before the fairy had arrived. It was too odd and she was already treating him like he’d done something frightening. “I’m sorry, Jess. I didn’t know what else to do.”

The bed shifted and she hugged him tightly. “I’m just glad you’re home.” Her voice was muffled and thick with tears. He was surprised. Jessa never cried. “Be careful.” She said, holding him so tightly it hurt. “Be really, really careful. They can be monsters.”

“I will be.” Orin promised. He doubted he would ever see the man again anyway. The thought hurt more than he cared to admit. “Besides, there are good fairies as well as bad. I would have died if he hadn’t interfered.”

A week later, the king’s men came again.

 “You won’t trick me twice.” The king said, though there was a question in his voice. “And if you prove incapable of repeating your accomplishment, the punishment will be the same.”

Frightened, Orin felt out every corner of the room he had been locked in. It was easily twice the size of the first and piled high with straw. Even if it had been filled with nothing more than wool, his fingers would have bled before it was all spun. He sank onto the stool, shocked into numbness. It wasn’t fair. He pulled up handfuls of straw and gathered them together. He would have to do his best and hope it was enough.

The night passed too quickly. It had taken him a good hour to remember the trick of it, but the thread had finally shifted and come together. As he had predicted, his fingers split and bled. The thread turned slick and slipped off of the wheel more often than not.

The first frustrated tears had long since dried on Orin’s cheeks. He slipped from despair to frantic hope and back again. His hands ached terribly as he spun. He didn’t know how much longer he had, but he knew it wasn’t long enough. He had managed less than a third of the work. He was so tired.

 “This won’t do.” Anger rumbled in the fairy’s voice.

Orin jumped, dropping the blood-covered thread. He reached for it, finding it again and setting it back to the wheel. He couldn’t afford to lose any time.

“I’m sorry.” Orin whispered. Was the man mad at him for spinning gold without his permission? They hadn’t talked about that. Orin had assumed the lesson was his to use.

“Hush.” Gentle hands took his, pulling them away from the spinning wheel. “You’ve done nothing wrong.”

Orin sat still as his hands were turned over and examined. The small kindness nearly brought him to tears again.

“All of this in one night.” It didn’t seem like a question, so Orin stayed quiet. “And you barely more than a child.”

“I’m not a child.” Even to himself Orin sounded defeated. Had he had his sight, he would probably be considering a house and family of his own by now. He would never be a man like the king, proud and strong and whole, but he had done his best to protect his family and help where he could. He wouldn’t take the blame for a task that was beyond anyone.

“I didn’t mean it like that.” The fairy laid a hand on Orin’s head, brushing his hair back out of his face. “You are a treasure and they treat you cruelly. It makes me angry.”

“A blind man is valuable to no-one.” The bitterness that always lingered under the surface crept out. He had been a burden his whole life. Jessa was kind about it. Father mostly ignored him. But it was a hard, cold fact that their lives were harder because they had to care for him.

“Eyesight has nothing to do with it.” The man’s voice was sharp. “You have a mind for magic. It’s rare enough among my kind. Even more so with yours. Such a gift should be protected and cherished. But enough of this. You need help.”

“What do you want this time?” Orin had nothing left. Kind words or no, he didn’t think the fairy would work for free.

“Ten drops of blood.” There was amusement in his voice. “One from each of your fingertips, so I will know next time you land yourself in such trouble.”

Mutely, Orin held out his hands. It was a small thing, really, and it warmed him that the fairy cared to know how he was fairing.

Orin was not surprised when the king’s men returned a third time, though he hadn’t expected the king himself to come with them.

“Once more.” The king said, kissing the back of Jessa’s hand. “Do this for me one more time and I will marry you.”

Orin was glad he had been inside when the royal procession arrived. His hands were heavily bandaged. The sight of him would lead to too many questions. Jessa was good at playing blind. She had watched him their whole lives. She knew what to do, but if the king saw them together, it would be very clear that something was amiss. He was not a stupid man.

Jessa joined him a moment later, catching him by the elbow and leading him back to her room. He followed without a word.

“You’re not going this time.” Her voice was firm. “You couldn’t spin if you wanted to. I’m going to have to go and hope your friend shows up.”

“I can’t promise that he will.” Orin’s jaw clenched tight. He was helpless again. The king had already seen Jessa uninjured and strong. And she was right about his hands.

“I know.” She sighed. “Just once more and then we’re out of this for good. And everything else besides. I’ll find something to trade him. We’ll be safe and fed and comfortable for the rest of our lives.”

Orin hadn’t known she wanted to be queen. He wouldn’t have thought an offer like that would appeal to her, but he could hear the excitement in her voice. He supposed he understood. Hadn’t he already seen how power could change one’s life?

Orin didn’t sleep that night. He waited in his chair by the hearth until morning, wishing as hard as he knew how that the fairy would help his twin. At long last, the door opened and his sister was home.

“Your fairy did it. All of it. He said I could learn to do it myself if he had a week to teach me and I stopped talking at him.” Jessa was tired, but triumphant. “It’s done.”

Orin closed his eyes, relief making him weak. “What did you give him?”

“Nothing I’ll have to worry about any time soon.” She squeezed his shoulder fondly. “Now hush. I have to pack. We’re moving to the castle.”

“I can’t. The king will know.”

“I told him my blindness was cured when he kissed me.” Jessa laughed. “At this point, I think he’ll believe anything I tell him. He has a ballroom full of gold as proof.”

“I’m staying here.” He would get lost in the palace. “Don’t worry, Jess. Once my hands are better, I’ll spin for my supper. I’ll be happier here. Take Father. I’ve had enough of the palace to last me a lifetime.” He was ready to have his own life, to prove he could take care of himself without burdening them.

If he could learn to spin straw into gold, there was no telling what else he might be able to do given enough time to experiment. He could find his fairy again and maybe this time they would have the chance to talk. There was so much Orin hadn’t thought to ask while the man was saving his life.

Jessa hadn’t been home once in the year since she had wed the king. She sent her people to buy the thread he spun and made sure he was supplied with wool from the castle flocks. He was fast gaining a reputation for spinning the finest thread in the kingdom.

The late-night knock on the door was furtive and unusual. People visited him to buy and trade, nothing else. Orin got to his feet slowly. It was easier to make his way through the house now that he was the only one in it. Everything stayed where he left it.

“Orin. It’s Jessa. Let me in.”

As though he would have forgotten her voice. She was the king’s wife, but she was still his sister. He opened the door.

She threw herself into his arms, burying her face in his neck. He stumbled under the unexpected weight. She sobbed until he thought she would break.

“What’s wrong?” He asked once she had calmed a little. The shoulder of his tunic was damp. “Is it the baby?” Jessa’s son would be two months old. Orin had yet to meet him. The king didn’t approve of his wife wandering about the countryside to visit old friends. Orin didn’t think Jessa had told her husband she even had a brother.

“Yes. No. Sort of.” She paused, and took a shaking breath. “I’ve made a terrible mistake. I don’t know what to do. I have three days. Just three days before he comes back.”

“Before who comes back? You’re not making much sense.”

“Your fairy.” Her voice was angry now and she pushed away from him. “He wants my son. And because I was an ignorant, grasping little girl, he has the right.”

“You promised him your child.” Orin couldn’t quite believe it. How could she have offered something like that? Her own flesh and blood.

“Don’t say it. I know.” For a moment, she sounded like a queen, imperious and cold. “I begged him. I offered him anything, anything but my son.”

“There’s nothing I can do. I haven’t seen him since that night.” And Orin had missed the man, strong hands, wild voice, short temper and all. Though he had searched in his own way, asking anyone who came for thread and wool, no amount of wishing had brought the fairy back to him when Orin didn’t actually need his help.

“He said if I learned his name he would release me from our bargain. Do you know it?”

Orin shook his head. “I never asked.” The fairy had done so much for him and he hadn’t thought to ask so much as his name.     The chair creaked as Jessa sank into it. “I have people out looking. They followed him as far as the forest. Beyond that, who knows?” She was silent for a long time. Orin stood beside her, the distance between them palpable. “I can’t lose my baby.” She whispered.

“I’ll go.” Just like the first time, the words slipped out before he knew what he was going to say. For this, the fairy would find him. He had come every time Orin had needed him.

Jessa hugged him, the space between them evaporating like it had never been there. “I’m sorry.”

“I know.” He would have to go into the forest alone. There was no point in hoping the fairy would come if he brought a guide.

Jessa’s men dropped him off at the edge of the forest. He followed the cart track a long way into its rustling, whispering depths, shuffling along slowly. He rubbed his fingertips, hoping that he was right and ten drops of blood taken more than a year ago would be enough to get him out of the mess he was walking deeper into.

After a while, Orin lost track of the path. He was hopelessly turned around. He pushed on, not sure if he should call out or be silent. He opted for silence. The fairy had always found him well enough before without him yelling.

He stumbled and fell over a tree root. Something smooth and cool brushed against his arm, coiling and alive. He jerked back, desperately hoping the creature wasn’t poisonous.

“You do get yourself into the most interesting sorts of trouble.” The familiar laughing voice came from the trees above him. “Stay still. I’ll send the snake away.”

Orin shivered. In no time, the fairy was beside him, helping him to his feet and brushing the crinkling leaves off of his clothing.

The tight knot in Orin’s stomach loosened. He had found him. Whatever else happened, he wouldn’t be left wandering the woods until he starved or ran afoul of something less pleasant.

“Let me look at you.” He was turned gently from side to side. “Hmm. Yes. You’re here about your sister’s child, no doubt.”

“It seems like we have been friends long enough that I might know your name.” Orin smiled. A year was a long time to think. He thought he knew the game his fairy played.

The man laughed long and loud. “Friends, is it?”

“You want rare treasures. Things that matter to people but get overlooked and forgotten. Am I right?” As before, Orin felt the fairy’s interest sharpen. “You don’t really want the baby.”

“You and your sister have proven most interesting folk. Why wouldn’t I want a part of that for myself?” His tone was light and casual.

“You’re lonely.” It surprised Orin. He would have thought there would be others like the fairy to keep him company. The silence was so complete that Orin wondered if he should have kept his mouth shut. The last thing he wanted was to make the fairy angry. What was it that he had said before? Magic was rare.

Orin reached for him, fumbling around the unfamiliar clearing until his hands found leather and cloth. He gripped the man’s strong arm in apology. “I have a better bargain to make with you.” He spoke softly.

“I’m listening.” The cool edge to the voice let Orin know that he had indeed set off the fairy’s temper.

“You will let my sister learn your name in time to keep her baby. In exchange, I’ll stay with you.”

“You would sacrifice yourself for her again?” The tone was mocking.

For a brief moment, Orin wondered if he should agree. Then he smiled. “It’s a bargain, not a sacrifice. That means I’m getting something out of the deal too.” His fairy wasn’t the only one who was lonely. Spinning in an empty house wasn’t much of a life. And he would get a chance to ask his questions. Not just the man’s name, but who he was and why he tried so hard to cover over his kindness with bargains and anger. “I keep you company, my sister pays with something she values, but doesn’t recognize, and you teach me a little magic here and there to pass the time.”

“All right, you ridiculous man.” The fairy was laughing again, all traces of his temper vanishing. “You win. Your sister can have my name. Though I think I am getting the better end of this.”

“No.” Orin grinned. “I am.”

END

“Straw and Gold” is copyright Kate O'Connor, 2016.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll be back on April 19th with a selection of flash fiction reprints!

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