IV: The Task


Before meeting the king, both my father and I were “made presentable.” It seemed King William did not like to interact with people who looked “poor.” I was put into a relatively plain dress, though it was finer than any other thing that I had ever worn before. My hair was styled and left uncovered. I was shown myself in a mirror while a woman put something onto my cheeks and lips that reddened them. I shook with fear, knowing that I looked too pretty. I prayed to a God I now knew was out to get me that the king preferred to fuck men. I prayed that I would be killed, rather than be used by men.

My father gasped when he saw me. He thought that I looked like my mother, but he still had no idea why we had been asked to court. The Were-tiger and shifter lusted for me even more when they saw my golden hair and my curves.

I “heard” that they had already asked the king for me if I could not deliver gold from straw as reported. They each imagined raping my body and allowing others of their kind to do the same.

Other than us and King William, the throne room as empty. As we approached the dais where the king sat, I again prayed for death. However, this time I prayed to the devil himself.

Perhaps, I was his child. And, perhaps, he would show mercy.

King William leered at me as he began speaking, though he was clearly addressing my father rather than me.

“Corbett Stackhouse, I have been told that you have an extraordinary daughter. I am pleased to find that she is beautiful as well!”

“Your majesty?” my father asked, keeping his head lowered. Of course, we were both already on our knees before him.

“Do not be modest. It is said that your daughter has an amazing gift: the ability to spin straw into gold!” the king said excitedly, his greed clear.

My father gasped and quaked next to me. “Your majesty, I . . . .”

King William interrupted, “I wish to buy your child from you, miller.”

I could tell that the king was not prepared to take “no” for an answer.

My father was now trembling with fear. “Your Majesty, I am sorry to have to tell you this, but she cannot . . . .”

“Cannot do what?” King William snarled. “Cannot do what you claimed she could? If you lied, miller, you will be killed!”

I could tell from his thoughts that the king was having fun toying with my father. I could also tell that the Were-tiger had told the king about my alluring scent. Thus, King William truly believed that I was a fairy. Moreover, he believed that I could do as my father had boasted.

And from my father’s thoughts, I realized that my fate would soon be sealed.

“She can make gold, Your Majesty. She does have the ability, but I do not know from whence it came. However, she cannot be trusted. She has never used her gift to help her kin,” he charged. “Uh—the only time she ever used her gift was to make a single coin of gold which—uh—turned into ash when I tried to use it. She is of the devil! You may ask the priest in my parish, Your Majesty. She is a bad seed! In fact, I have—uh—kept her in my household only out of fear of her—uh—witchcraft!”

“Well, then, you will not balk at selling her now,” King William smiled. “How does fifty pieces of gold sound?”

“More than adequate,” my father said quickly, his mind spinning around his new wealth. “But—uh—what if she is with you just as she was with us: unwilling to use her talent?”

“I will worry about that,” King William waved in dismissal before gesturing to Quinn to hand my father a bag of coins.

“You may go,” Quinn said to my father, who hurried away without a look in my direction.

“Tell me, fairy,” King William said as soon as my father had gone, “are you a changeling?”

“I am not a fairy,” I stammered.

“Oh—but according to these men, you smell like one.” The king looked at Sam. “What of the father? The brother?”

“Neither smell of the Fae,” he answered.

“And there is no mother?” the king asked me.

“She died when I was born,” I responded in a quiet tone.

“Ah—so you are either a changeling or the killer of your own mother,” he said cruelly.

I could say nothing, for what he said was true. My mother did die because of me, even if I had not intended her harm.

“Here is the deal, fairy,” King William said sharply. “I have taken a liking to you, and so have my two-natured friends. There are two paths you may choose to walk through this life. The first is as a queen and the second is as a whore.”

Wide-eyed, I looked up at him. “What do you mean?”

“I am going to put you into a room full of straw and a loom. You will be locked into that room for three days and nights. But do not think me cruel. You will be given three days’ worth of bread and water. At the end of the third day, I will open the door. If all of the straw has been turned into gold that will STAY gold, then I will make you my wife and you will live in luxury for the rest of your life. You will be mine—but only mine.”

“And when the gold runs out?” I asked, my voice cracking. I did not even know why I asked. It wasn’t as if I could actually make gold from straw.

“I will vow to use your gift only once. And I have learned something about negotiating with the Supernatural, so I will not go back on my word.”

Unbelievably, he was telling the truth. Of course, from his mind, I saw that the room he was going to lock me into was huge and absolutely teeming with straw.

“There is a caveat, however.” He leaned forward, leering. “If you become my wife, you will allow me to take your body whenever I desire. And—if you fail to give me an heir within five years’ time, you will make me another room full of gold.”

He chuckled. “Of course, you might decide not to use your gift for me—or maybe your father is simply a braggart and you cannot do as advertised. Whatever the case, if I open that door in three days’ time and you have not turned every piece of straw into gold, I will give you to my Weres and shifters to use as they will.”

I had already resolved to find a way to end my own life during the next three days, when he continued, “I was going to have you killed, but I think that death would be a relief to you rather than a punishment. And—in light of that—know this: If you somehow disappear from the room or if you kill yourself, the lives of all your kin will be forfeit in the most painful way I can devise.”

He looked at Sam. “Other than the father and brother, who are her kin?”

Sam looked at piece of paper. “There is a great-uncle. And there is an aunt—the sister of her father. The aunt is married, and—though her daughter is dead—she has taken in two orphans from one of her neighbors: two boys, aged three and five. However, Sookie’s father and the aunt are not close, so she may not even know much of her family.”

The king scrutinized me for a moment. “I wonder if you care for any of them. I’ll tell you what. If you harm yourself or disappear, they will all die. And—in addition to them—I will choose one hundred innocents. Children. Orphans. All girls. I will make sure that they suffer greatly and for a very long time before I kill them,” he grinned.

His thoughts told me that he spoke the truth and that he would enjoy carrying out his threats.

Yes—God had a wonderful sense of humor, and all of it seemed to be at my expense.

I could not hold in my rueful laughter this time—or my tears.

I was roughly brought to my feet and then led to the room full of straw. There was no bed. There wouldn’t have been room for one. There was only a tiny path to the loom in the center of the room. Next to it were several loaves of bread and a large cask of water. Since it was the afternoon, the room was light from the many windows that were near the ceiling, but I could not see outside. I noticed that there were no candles or lanterns, so I asked Sam about this.

“Fairies can see just fine in the dark,” he laughed.

It was more proof that I was not one.

“I truly hope you fail,” Sam said, licking his lips. “Of course, the king will not be a kind husband, but he will tire of using you every day—at least after you are with child. But your scent ensures that I would never tire of you, nor would any of my kind.” With those words, he shut the door. I heard the clicking of locks, but they would not have been needed. My life was not worth a hundred and seven others, even if one of them was Bartlett. In truth, even protecting just my father or brother would have been enough to prevent me from killing myself.

No. It did not matter that my father had sold me. It did not matter that he had never shown me any affection. It did not matter that my brother thought nothing of me at all. Gran had loved them, and I had loved her. I was sorry that I would never get to her heaven now that I had prayed to the devil for his help. But I hoped that she was happy there. And free.

As I would never be.

Having nothing else to do, I sat at the loom and picked up some straw. I wove it together automatically, preparing it as I would have for one of my blankets. It was all that I knew how to do with straw, after all. Later, I planned to take off my fine dress and make a small blanket using the needle from the loom.

It would be the only dowry I brought to my life as a whore for the Weres and the shifters in King William’s employ.

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