My tongue felt heavy as lead- and I was weighed down by it, trapped like a rabbit in a snare. But my mind whirled, casting about for an escape, much as the rabbit’s hind legs might scrabble in the dirt. Wise woman- my mother raised me to be a wise woman. What could I do? How could I save my father, save the village?
Only by sacrificing myself.
“Of course my father would never lie to his kind,” the words felt thick and stiff in my mouth. “Nor would the other villagers. If your highness believes I can spin straw into gold, who am I to contradict you?”
My father’s eyes flew to my face, wide and panicked, but I forced myself to ignore him as I kept my eyes locked with the king’s. A smile spread across the king’s face, and he straightened. “That’s better!” he said, then looked about the square, beaming. “I would be deeply honored if you’d be willing to accompany me back to the castle and demonstrate your most unusual skills! I would, of course, reward you- and your father- most handsomely.”
“I’m sure we need no reward beyond the honor of knowing I am in service to the king,” I said quickly, hoping against hope he might forget about them as soon as we were out of sight of the village.
“Still,” said the king, helping me to my feet. My skin crawled at his touch, and I was fully cognizant of the fact that he left my father kneeling. “Such beauty, such industry- you will be rewarded. Unless, of course,” he added absently, “You are lying. And then I shall behead you and raze your village of liars to the ground.”
I swayed, clenching my jaw and willing myself not to faint.
“It would be pure foolishness for me to lie to my king,” I said. “As for my father and the villagers, they have only my word to go on- they’ve never seen me work. No one has. It doesn’t work if others watch.”
“Oh?” said the king, but I could tell he was only half listening. “How interesting. Come here!” he gestured imperiously at one of the women. She curtseyed and came forward. “The miller’s daughter will ride back to the capital with you."