Authors: Gary D. Schmidt
Tags: #Ages 10 and up
Clarion Books • New York
a Houghton Mifflin Company imprint
215 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10003
Copyright © 2001 by Gary D. Schmidt
The text was set in 12-point Italian Old Style.
All rights reserved.
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book,
write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company,
215 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10003.
Printed in USA.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Schmidt, Gary D.
Straw into gold / by Gary D. Schmidt,
Summary: Pursued by greedy villains, two boys on a quest to save innocent
lives meet the banished queen whose son was stolen by Rumpelstiltskin eleven
years earlier, and she provides much more than the answer they seek.
[1. Fairy tales. 2. Greed—Fiction.] I.Title.
PZ8.S2845 St 2001 [Fic]—dc21 00-060340
QUM 10 9 8 7 6
The Miller's Daughter
Who knows what fills a hand fuller
than a skein of gold
Once when the world was younger and the times ever so much older, there lived a miller who ground coarse flour, left stone chips in his meal, and stole as much wheat as he could take without his customers knowing for certain that they had been robbed. His mill hunched ramshackle beside a dwindling river, its wheel lumbering in a circle like a blind beast at a tether. When the lumbering wheel stopped, the miller would slouch to his gray, sloping cottage and sit silent at the meals his wife and daughter set, wishing for what he did not know. He no longer attended Mass, and when the priest came to chide him, he spat on the floor. He abandoned the markets in Wolverham and grew surly with those few customers who still brought their wheat to him. Finally they too left him alone, ramshackle himself beside silent millstones.
One twilight the king and his hunters rode by the mill just as the miller was coming out. The miller looked at the embroidered clothes of the hunters, their beringed fingers, their golden spurs, the silver studs on their dogs' collars, and suddenly he could not bear to have them ride by without noticing him.
"Your Majesty," the miller shouted. But when the king stopped, the miller did not know what to say.
Snickers from the huntsmen, and the king took up his reins again."Majesty,"called the miller desperately,"I have a daughter, the most beautiful in all your land, if it please you."
The king pulled away, but the miller dashed in front of the horse and grabbed at the reins. "Her beauty is such that everything she touches becomes as beautiful as she. Even straw slips from her spinning wheel into golden thread."
The setting sun silhouetted the king, so the miller could not see the greed that sprang into his face. "Golden thread?" he repeated.
"The finest of gold," the miller insisted, "skeins of it, gleaming brighter than the sun!"
"Bring her to Wolverham tomorrow, and we shall see if what you say is true. Should she indeed be able to spin straw into gold, she will be rewarded richly. And you along with her. If not, you have lost your daughter her life." The miller let go of the reins and watched the king's company ride away laughing. Then he turned to the river and wished that it were deeper and swifter.
When the miller told the tale to his wife and daughter that night, tears scoured his cheeks, but his daughter held him close."We shall see what comes with the day," she said. But the new day brought only gray and dismal clouds shrouding the road to Wolverham, and gray and dismal hearts held tight in the miller and his daughter. When finally stood before the king, they both trembled.
The miller's daughter was indeed as beautiful as the miller had said, and because she hid her trembling, the king saw her standing like a noble and stately princess. He dismissed the miller with a wave of his hand and welcomed the daughter to his castle. He sent for attendants to dress her for the revels that would be celebrated that night in her honor, and when she was brought back to him in the early evening, he was dazzled by the play of firelight upon her face.
But something was missing.
A clap and a whisper to an attendant, who disappeared at a run. He soon reappeared behind the miller's daughter, holding an open wooden chest.
"Lady, you are bidden to wear these." Inside, a wrought golden ring and a square-linked golden chain glowed against the velvet. She held her hand up, and the servant slipped the ring on. Then he took the chain and fastened it behind her neck, the king watching all the while.
Late that night, the king almost regretted bringing her to the room of straw to do what no one could do. But he had said what he had said, and now he pointed to the spinning wheel and the surrounding hillocks of straw. "If you cannot spin this straw into gold, you will surely die." He lay wakeful that night, knowing that he would doom her to execution the next morning.
The miller's daughter was also awake, pacing around the spinning wheel, weeping. When the locked door opened suddenly, she was startled to think that morning had come so quickly. But it had not, and it was not the king coming to seize her. Instead, a little man entered and bowed.
"Why is Mistress Miller crying?" he asked politely.
"This straw must be spun into golden thread by morning."
"And is that all? Simply done. But what does she have that will pay for the spinning?"
She removed the golden chain easily from her neck and handed it to the little man.
"Done," he said, and sat at the spinning wheel, filling spindle after spindle with skeins of golden thread.
In the morning the king was astonished at what he saw, and if love of the miller's daughter grew in his heart, it warred with the greed that grew even faster. He took her to a second room, piled higher with straw, and demanded that it too be spun into gold by morning. As before, the little man appeared while she lay weeping, and when she handed him the ring from her finger, he sat at the wheel, filling spindle after spindle with skeins of golden thread.
The next morning the king drew open the door eagerly, and he was not disappointed at what he saw. And if his love grew stronger, his greed grew even wilder, and he took the miller's daughter to a third room, filled almost to the ceiling with straw bundled from the barns of every farmer near Wolverham. He left her with the same warning: She must spin this straw into gold, or she would die. But if she succeeded, he promised, she would become his wife. At this she hid her face. For joy, the king thought.
When the little man appeared the third time, he again demanded that the miller's daughter give him something before he sat down to spin.
"I have nothing left to give," she said.
"Then Mistress Miller must promise to deliver her first child to me."
She felt a hand grip her heart, and her tears blurred the little man.
"Promise," he insisted. "Mistress Miller must promise, or the king will find only straw when he opens the door."
"I cannot promise such a thing," she said quietly.
"It is peril I speak of. Peril. Mistress Miller must yield the child."
"She must yield the child," he repeated.
So she promised, and when the king found a room of golden skeins upon opening the door, he swept them into his treasury and the miller's daughter into his throne room.
A year later the miller's daughter, now the queen, birthed a son, and the hand that still held her heart gripped even more fiercely. She hid her terrible promise deep within her, but in the summer evenings as she nursed the boy at her breast, and on clear autumn mornings when he stretched his fingers to the golden leaves, and during winter nights when she tucked him warmly beneath heavy robes, she felt the grip of the hand.
One day, when the child's eyes were no longer their infant blue, what she feared came. As she sat in her bedchamber, rocking her sleeping boy, the door fell back and the little man strode in, his arms outstretched to take the child."Now Mistress Miller must give me what she promised."
She stood up, clutching the baby, unable to speak.
"None of this. None of this," said the little man, coming closer. "What's spun is spun. The child is mine, as Mistress Miller promised. Yield the child."
"Anything," the miller's daughter said, shaking her head, "anything of mine is yours. Anything but this child."
"She has nothing but this child to give."
The miller's daughter pled and wept until the little man at last relented. "But for three days only, no more."
"Is that all that I may hope for?"
The little man thought for a moment, his eyes strangely sorrowful. "Each day," he said slowly, "she may guess three names while I hold the child. If by the third day she has guessed my name, she shall keep him. If not, she shall give him to me."
"And if the king should place guards at the gates of Wolverham, and by the castle, and by my own door?"
"Mistress Miller knows," whispered the little man, "whether the king will stretch his hand out to protect her. She knows better than I."
Silence, terrible and long, until the miller's daughter murmured,"! agree," and the little man was gone.
In the morning he appeared, holding out hands with fingers as long as spindles. The miller's daughter had prepared three strange and unusual names, but when she saw her baby in the little man's hands, drawn close to his chest and wailing, wailing, wailing for all the world, she blurted out, "Matthew, Mark, Luke," and grabbed the child back. The little man left silently.
On the second day the miller's daughter called the names even before he took the child from her arms, but the little man shook his head. "Promises by Mistress Miller are not so easily broken. She may try the names while I hold the baby," and he took her son from her arms.
"Plotinus, Justinius, Boethius," she said, snatching the child back. Once again the little man left silently.
On the third day the little man appeared with a basket, lined with a blanket woven through with golden thread. The eyes of the miller's daughter were wide and stricken, but the child's were closed in silent sleep. Wordlessly the little man took the baby, wrapped him in the blanket, and placed him in the basket.
"Basil," said the miller's daughter hopelessly.
The little man picked up the basket.
He walked to the doorway and paused there, looking back. "One more guess for Mistress Miller." But she could not speak, so closed was her throat. When he left and the door shut behind him, the hand gripped her heart so terribly that she fell into a heap.
I had waited for this day for as long as I could remember.
And now, lying under a down quilt, I folded my arms behind my head and savored the day's bright coming. Outside the window, across dark woods and blue hills, fingers of sunlight reached over the edge of the world. They reached farther and farther as the sun shouldered up behind them, the light whitening the hills, the evergreens, the very air, until finally it spread into my own room and played on the quilt.
I had waited for this day.
A rap at my door. "Up, up, up!" My da. Morning after morning our life had a sameness to it, and even if today was the day when I would finally go to Wolverham, when I would see the market and the castle and the townspeople, when the king himself would process to celebrate a great victory, there were still the morning chores. And today the Dapple and the Gray would need special care. After the feeding and mucking out, they would have to be curried, combed, and saddled. It was a chore I enjoyed almost as much as they did, but today it meant a longer time before we could leave.
"I'm up! I'm up!"
The door creaked itself open and Da peered in. "Up is dressed. Up is walking across the yard with a bucket in each hand. Up is milking. Up is not lying under a quilt with arms back of his head."
"Fuss bucket," I hollered.
"He is a slugabed." Da shook his head, the tip of his beard wagging just over his toes. Then he padded away down the hall, hooting like a comic owl. The door quietly latched behind him.
Some things about this morning were the same.
The casement windows cut the sunlight into diamond streaks that patterned the floor, but when my feet hit the stone, the chill in them shivered me. I threw three splints on the graying embers and blew them to a blaze. When my face and hands were warmed, I lifted my shirt and turned my back to the fire. My breath blew into the room like a cloud.
Wolverham. I'd never seen the city, but on the clearest of days, when the sky was bluer than blue and the clouds whiter than white, I could climb the thatch of our roof and just barely see the banners braving the castle turrets. I imagined them rollicking in the breeze and thought what a fine place it must be, where houses lay stone against stone, one after another, up to the castle itself. For someone who had never been past the clearing around our home, such a thing would have been impossible to imagine without the pictures that Da had conjured in the air many a late evening.