There were no windows this time- just lanterns hung high around the walls- too high for me to reach. I sighed deeply and waded through the straw to where a slightly-more-comfortable-looking stool peaked out, and removed the spindle that was sitting on it, replacing it instead with my skirt-clad bottom.
I stared at the spindle in my hands, considering my options. I could call for the creature- except I didn’t know it’s name. My mother’s words floated back to me: you must never accept aid from a spirit whose name you do not know, for they will always have the advantage over you, and that is a very dangerous thing, indeed.
I shuddered. I had accepted aid from that creature, and although I had come away from the encounter arguably better off, I felt certain it was no mistake that it had mentioned no name to me. Would it come if I merely cried help again? And if it did… would I escape harm twice? But if I did not call for help, I would most certainly be beheaded in the morning- and the inhabitants of my village not long after. Mass execution by blade was perhaps better than being burned to death, or starving to death after everything else had burned, but not by much.
I felt tears welling up again, but I bit my lower lip and stared resolutely upwards in an attempt to forestall them. And what would it matter if the creature came and saved me once more: the king would certainly insist that I perform yet another miracle. My only hope was to somehow convince him to execute only myself.
This was not a heartening thought, and the tears slipped over. I gave up fighting them and leaned forward, face in my hands.
“Why does it cry?” I jerked my face up, and there was the creature, popped up out of a particularly high pile of straw like a vole in the garden. The bits of straw caught between its ears should have, by all rights, made it look ridiculous- but somehow it remained faintly menacing. Its voice sounded almost… eager.
“Oh,” I said. “You came.”
“Yes, yes,” it said, then disappeared back down into the hay. The stack shook a bit, and a few moments later it emerged again in front of my knees. “It cries again. It needs help? Yes, yes?”
“Yes, yes,” I agreed, and gestured around the room. “More of the same, I’m afraid.” The creature peered this way and that, eyes narrowed, then gave a disgusted snort.
“No new challenge for one’s skillful hands.”
I sat in silence, stifling the absurd urge to apologize for my situation not being novel enough. The creature gave a little wiggle and emerged fully from the straw.
“What has it to trade?”
I’d anticipated that, and had my answer ready. “I have this fine gown,” I said. I was loathe to be found naked in the morning, still more loath to lose the golden thread I’d saved for my village, but it was better than death, surely.
The creature let out a derisive snort. “Worthless,” it said, making a dismissive gesture with its paw. “A gown means less to it than a piece of straw.”
I could not contradict it. “I have nothing, then,” I said.
“Yes it does,” the creature looked sly. “It has something beneath the worthless gown.”
At first I did not understand- surely it didn’t mean my petticoats? Then it reached out and tapped the silk corset twice.
“Here- close to the heart, it keeps it.”
My hand flew to my chest, and I felt cold. It meant the miniature spindle, of course- worth far, far more to me than even my mother’s wedding band had. The creatures eyes narrowed in pleasure.
“Yes,” it said. “It understands. It knows. Greater pain, for a greater magic.”
Perhaps you will forgive me for brief moment I considered saying no. Better to die that release that last piece of my mother.
But not better that others die.
I opened my mouth, but couldn’t make the words come out.
The creature helped me, holding out its paw. “A room of straw-spun gold for a necklace?”
“Before the sun rises,” I clarified, voice shaking.
“Yes, yes,” it said impatiently. “It agrees?”
I reached into my bodice with trembling hands and removed the small carving. Kissed it.
“Do it,” I said, and placed it in the creature’s claws.