I expected the creature to reappear the night that my daughter was born- but it did not. Nor did it arrive the night after, and I began to wonder when it would. Because I knew it would, eventually- my mother’s words echoed in my ears: it knows how much greater the pain will be, if first you have had hope. The creature was trying to make me hope it had forgotten our bargain, and if I had not had that conversation with my mother, I surely would have. Hope born of desperate longing, but hope nonetheless. Instead the delay just increased my dread, drove me to the edge of panic, and made it impossible to fully enjoy my first days with my daughter as I should have.
The king, of course, was utterly disgusted with me for delivering a worthless girl rather than a strapping boy, and he showed his pique by retiring immediately to one of his pleasure palaces, with a bevy of his favorite nobles. I could not have been more pleased, for at least I didn’t have to worry about smiling for him on top of everything else. Instead I spent the time attempting to plan. Attempting.
Three weeks after my daughter was born, as the moon rose near-full on the horizon, the creature appeared, perched on the richly carved footboard of my bed.
“It has bred a lovely girl-child,” it said, pleasure evident in its gaping grin. My daughter, nursing, did not react to its dark scratchy voice, but my arms tightened involuntarily about her warm body.
“You came,”I said, and my voice shook with terror and suppressed rage. Plan or no plan, I could not be calm in the face of losing my child.
“Yes, one has come to let it fulfill its oath. And it has done so well,” the creature stretched out, coming closer and peering with satisfaction at my daughter’s sweetly curved cheek. It inhaled deeply, closing its eyes in delight. “Yes yes, this will more than repay the magic one used for its straw-spun gold.”
“Please,” I whispered. “Please don’t take my baby.” Tears filled my eyes, slipped down my face. “Please, I’ll give you anything else. I’m queen now, I can give you anything!”
“One doesn’t want anything else,” the creature said smoothly, crawling up onto my blanketed legs until it was close enough to touch my daughter. “One wants what was promised one.” It began to sway, much as a mother holding a child would, but it made no move to take her. I wondered if it wasn’t savoring the moment, like a glutton inhaling the scent of a fine feast.
“Please,” I said. “Give me a chance to win her back!”
The creature paused mid-sway. “Chance?” It said, long ears moving upwards.
“Yes!” I said, desperation coloring my voice. “You- you said you liked a good gamble! Let’s raise the stakes, and if I win, I get to keep my daughter.”
The creature cocked its head to the side, considering. “And if it loses?”
I had already thought of this, and knowing the creature desired pain, offered up the only thing I could think would increase the pain of losing my firstborn.
“You take her and… and any other children I might have after her.”