The moon was full, and its light made my strange chamber even stranger, turning the gold straw silver, and etching out shadows that confused my sense of depth. I squeezed my eyes tight against the unearthliness of it all.
“Why does it cry?”
The voice was scratchy as the straw, as distorted as the moonlight shadows. I sucked in a breath of surprise and opened my eyes- but saw nothing.
“What help does it want?” asked the voice. “One can help. One can do many things. Yes, many things.”
The voice seemed to come from off to my left, and I ran my eyes more carefully over the piles, heart in my throat. That voice did not belong to any mortal creature.
What I’d thought just another shadow rose up from its pile, and a pair of eyes caught the moonlight like a cat’s. The shape stepped forward and revealed itself to be- nothing I’d ever encountered.
The creature was small: no more than thigh-high to me, and I have never been more than middling height. It stooped slightly, spine curving as though it might move faster on all four of its limbs than just the two it stood on. The hands were nimble and twitching with a repressed energy- they ended in hooked claws. The creature tilted its head and peered more closely at me- a narrow tongue darted out, perhaps tasting the air. The head was a cross between a cat and a snake, but the ears were long as a rabbit’s, and the teeth were something from a nightmare.
“Why does it cry?” it asked again, extending a finger as though to touch my tears. I shifted away uncomfortably, and the wide mouth broke into a dog-like grin that would have been friendlier if not for those terrifying teeth.
“Is it afraid?” it asked, sounding surprised. “Don’t be afraid of one. One can help. Help, help!” its ears laid back in what I assume was supposed to be a reassuring manner, and it tucked itself into a seated position, wrapping a long tail neatly around its haunches. “One is so helpful. It did ask for help,” the creature added, almost reproachfully.
“I- I guess I did,” I said, slowly.
The creature nodded with satisfaction. “Yes. It asked for help. It cries. It cries because it needs help, yes?” Again the head-tilt.
“Yes,” I said. “The king has commanded that I spin all of this straw into gold by morning, or he’ll behead me and my father, and burn my village to the ground.”
The creature made a tsking noise. “Not so nice. Not so nice at all. But one can help!”
I gave a watery little laugh. “How? Even if you help me escape, he’ll hunt me down- and even if you help me escape so that he can’t find me, he’ll burn my village for spite. I cannot keep myself safe at their expense!”
Again the creature gave me a reproachful look. “It speaks nonsense. It does not need to escape: it needs staw-spun gold. Yes?”
“Well, yes,” I said, “But that’s impossible!”
The creature threw back its head and laughed, a strange cross between a cough and a yip. “Not for one! One can do this. See how skillful one’s hands are?” It held them out, and I tried not to flinch from the claws. The grin widened. “Yes, yes, one has lovely, skillful hands, but more,” it winked at me, “One has the old magics. One can do this for you.”
I eyed it warily. “Why would you do this for me? How does it benefit you?”
It looked pleased. “Yes, good. It understands: nothing without price. Yes?”
“What is your price?”
It narrowed its eyes and looked around the room. “Much straw, yes? Means much gold, when one has finished. Humans value gold, yes? Bright bright gold, soft and shiny, so yellow like the sun. A roomful will be worth so very much, one thinks.” The eyes shifted to me, crafty. “But then- not so much as its life, the lives of its tribe, yes? Something precious must be traded. What has it to trade?”
“Nothing worth a roomful of gold,” I admitted, “Let alone a village’s worth of lives.”
“Let one decide the worth. What has it to trade?”
I looked down at myself: all I wore was my work-dress, worn and stained from days of travel; my sturdy leather shoes, re-soled at least twice; and there, shining in the moonlight like a glint of hope, my mother’s wedding band. I glanced up: the creature was eyeing it with avarice.
“I have... my mother’s ring,” I whispered. “It- it would pain me to lose it, but not so much as it would pain me to lose my father, or my village.”
“Done,” hissed the creature. “A room of straw-spun gold for a ring. Yes, yes, a bargain shall be struck!” It held out one trembling hand and I, trying not to cry harder, worked my mother’s ring off my finger. I dropped it into that waiting paw, which closed quickly and drew it back to the creature’s chest. It inhaled deeply.
“Yes,” it crooned. “Yes, the pain for the magic, yes.” Then it slipped the ring onto its middle finger and sat up straight, tail twitching like a hunting cat’s. “Now one begins!"