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A miller's daughter. A cursed knight. The power of a name. Once upon a time... Molina has one desire: to see her inventions spread throughout the kingdom. When Prince Lubos offers to take her to the capital as his bride, she jumps at the chance. But impressing the king may take more than a simple spinning wheel. To marry Prince Lubos, she will need to work a miracle. Molina enters into a desperate bargain with a mysterious man who turns all he touches into gold. A man with a tragic tale of his own, all tied up in his family name. The future hangs in the balance, but will either of them live to see it?
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About the Author
A tale in the Romance a Medieval Fairy Tale series
A miller's daughter. A cursed knight. The power of a name.
Once upon a time...
Molina has one desire: to see her inventions spread throughout the kingdom. When Prince Lubos offers to take her to the capital as his bride, she jumps at the chance.
But impressing the king may take more than a simple spinning wheel. To marry Prince Lubos, she will need to work a miracle.
Molina enters into a desperate bargain with a mysterious man who turns all he touches into gold. A man with a tragic tale of his own, all tied up in his family name.
The future hangs in the balance, but will either of them live to see it?
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This lucky 13th book in the series is for my awesome readers.
Because without you, I would have ended the series at three.
So thank you. For reading. And being awesome.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2018 Demelza Carlton
Lost Plot Press
All rights reserved.
Kempenich winced as he reined in his horse. Even that slight movement set off the pain in his chest. Truth be told, he should not be riding at all, and he knew it. But some things could not wait.
The destrier's hooves caught on something, but the horse righted himself before Kempenich was thrown from the saddle. He breathed a sigh of relief. Darkness had carried him into many battles at the order of King Karl the Great, while the monarch had lived. Now he'd outlived his king, the time had come for what might be his last battle, and he intended to ride the black beast home from this one.
He slid down to the ground. "I seek the witch!" he bellowed. It took every bit of his strength to stand tall and stride toward the cottage, as a knight should.
The witch emerged, her arms folded across her chest. There was pity in her dark eyes, but she stood firm. "I am sorry, Sir Rumpelstiltskin, but there is nothing more I can do for you. You're dying." Mistress Kun turned away.
Sir Kempenich von Rumpelstiltskin refused to admit defeat. "I may be dying, but there is still something you can do for me."
She sighed. "I assure you there is not, but why don't we go inside and discuss it? I can see you need a pain draught. That, at least, I can give you."
Kempenich followed her inside the cottage, then sank gratefully onto a bench. He would drink anything she asked, if only she would grant him one last favour.
Mistress Kun darted about the cottage, assembling what she needed to make the draught, and Kempenich summoned his resolve.
Once more into battle...not for his life, but for the future.
"Mistress, I have heard tales that you are more than a herbwife and healer. More than a usual witch. There are tales that you are what heathens call an enchantress, a woman who works magic. They say that you have power over earth and rocks, and when a child from the village fell down a well, you cracked open the very earth itself to retrieve her, then commanded the rock to return to its previous place, and it obeyed." Kempenich held his breath, praying she would confirm the story.
Kun glanced at him. "There are all sorts of tales. Why, I have heard people tell stories of unicorns and dragons and immortality to children around the fire at night."
Kempenich bowed his head. He, too, had told such tales to his children. Including one he hoped was more fact than fiction. "There is a story about an ancient king who was granted a wish. He wanted to be the richest man in the world, so he wished for everything he touched to turn to gold. It is said that gold comes from the ground, and a wielder of earth magic might be able to do such a thing."
Kun lifted a bucket of water and poured some of it into a small pot over the fire. "Then you must also know the end of the king's tale. He could not eat or drink or touch his family, and he feared his wish would kill him, so he washed his wish away in the river, and shunned gold for the rest of his days."
"I will soon be beyond such mundane things as gold or food or even days, Mistress. But my family will not. And I have spent all that I have in physic for what ails me, seeking a cure that will let me live long enough to restore my family's fortune. If I die now, I will leave them little more than the Rumpelstiltskin house on stilts my father left me, on the rock King Karl granted him for his service. Other knights are building castles along the river to secure their lands, and if my son does not have one, he will lose his lands to a richer man who does. He needs gold, and I would give anything to give it to him."
Kun sank onto a bench and squinted at him in the dim light. "You ask me to curse you. Not for yourself, but for your son, who you will never be able to touch again. You will never be able to eat or drink, and your own wife will not be able to hold your hand as you take your dying breath. You even wish to hasten that dying breath."
"Yes. I am no use to them like this. Better to be dead than to be a burden." Kempenich took the cup she offered and drained it.
Silence stretched between them. But it was Mistress Kun who broke it.
"There is some truth in the tale, but the enchanter who cast such a spell was a fool. I can restrict the spell to your hands, while you live. You may still eat and drink, as long as your hands do not touch it. But when your heart stops, the spell will spread throughout your body, turning it all to gold." Kun bowed her head. "This I will do for you, but you must swear to tell no one about the source of your wealth. Breathe a word to anyone that I cast the spell, and that breath shall be your last."
"I swear on my honour, and that of my father, that I shall tell no one," Kempenich promised.
"Then hold out your hands, palms up," Kun instructed, picking up a knife. She pricked her thumb with the point, then used the welling blood to trace lines on Kempenich's fingers, then his hands, until she swiped her thumb along the lines on Kempenich's wrists, right the way around. "By my blood, I bespell yours. Everything your hands touch from this moment until the day you die, will turn to gold."
For a moment, Kempenich's hands glowed, then lit up in a blinding flash of blue that made him turn his head away, lest the brightness hurt his eyes. When he saw his hands again, the light had vanished, and so had the blood, though the blue tinge to his fingertips had taken on a greenish hue.
Dead hands. Kempenich shivered. Did he dare touch anything with them? What if the spell hadn't worked, and he tainted whatever he touched instead?
"I would offer you a cup of wine to toast your family's fortunes, but..."
Kempenich grimaced. "No more wine for me, now. It does not agree with the draught you gave me."
Kun nodded. "I have just the thing. One of the dairymaids brought a pail of milk this morning, and it's been chilling in the cellar ever since. I mean to keep the cream for butter, but there will be more tomorrow." She rose and headed for the cellar. When she returned, she carried a brimming jug that she poured into two cups and a bowl.
When she caught Kempenich eyeing the bowl with curiosity, she shrugged. "That's for Butter. He usually comes running as soon as I go into the cellar, for he loves his milk." She raised her voice, and called, "Butter! Puss-puss-puss!"
But the cat did not come.
With increasing urgency, the witch kept calling, leaving Kempenich alone in the cottage as she moved outside.
After a while, Kun fell silent. But she didn't come back in.
Kempenich debated whether to follow her, or stay and wait. He wanted to head home before the effects of Kun's draught wore off, but even the walk to where he'd tethered Darkness wore him out these days. He knew in his bones this would be his last ride.
"You did this!" Kun shrieked, bursting into the cottage. In her arms, she cradled a piece of gold-coloured fur.
It took a moment for Kempenich to realise the fur was still attached to a feline body. "I've never seen that cat before," he said weakly. It wasn't a lie. Too late he remembered his horse stumbling as he arrived the cottage. Had Darkness lost his footing because he trod on the cat?
Kun pointed a shaking hand at Darkness. "He had a muddy hoofprint on his back that could only have come from that enormous warhorse of yours. You come here for my help, yet you kill my cat without a care? It's not my fault your ailment is beyond my powers. You, Sir Kempenich von Rumpelstiltskin, have no heart, and that is what is killing you. Take your golden curse, but know this: every male born of your blood will bear the same curse. His heart will fail him in his prime, just as yours has, and his only warning will be the curse, heralding his death. And you – " She waved her hand, and Kempenich found himself soaring through the air, to land in the saddle. "You shall have a daily reminder of the creature you killed." Another wave of her hand, and a pair of gloves appeared on Kempenich's hands.
Golden brown leather, lined with golden fur. Kempenich glanced at her, only to find the cat's corpse had vanished. He now wore it on his hands. His belly roiled, but he fought to keep the bile down.
But Kun wasn't finished. "As long as you wear these gloves, you may touch things like a normal man. Take them off, and all you touch turns to gold. A curse on you, and all who follow you!"
"Please. Curse me...kill me, do what you will with me, but don't hurt my son," he begged.
Her eyes were the cold of black ice. "Bring my cat back to life, and I will consider it."
She clapped her hands. "Go!" The tether holding Darkness broke and he galloped off, forcing Kempenich to cling desperately to the reins so that he would not fall off. "And don't return!" she shouted after him.
As his world dissolved into despair, Kempenich knew one thing for certain: he would never return to the witch's cottage. For if he survived the ride home, it would be a miracle indeed.
He remembered little, until something in the horse's slowing gait made him open his eyes. After several blinks, the blue-green blur before him revealed itself to be the corroded bronze lion that protected the bridge to the island where the house of Rumpelstiltskin stood.
Without thinking, he pulled off his glove and patted the lion's head, as he had done every time he returned home safely. This time, his fingers tingled at the touch, and too late he realised what he'd done. The blueish bronze was neither blue nor bronze any more, but bright, shining gold.
He shoved his hand back into the cat-fur glove, cursing witches and their cats.
His son would die young, and so would his grandsons, because Kempenich had been a thoughtless fool who sought out a witch. He should have left things well enough alone.
But it was too late now.
What had he done? And how would he ever set it right?
As his vision faded and Kempenich slid from his horse to the ground, fighting for air that did not seem to breathe life into him any more, he had one last, fleeting thought. Even if he died before he could restore his family's fortune, at least his son would have a chance to do it. Before this curse killed him, too.
And so the wheel turns. The flax would flower and fade, the ponds would fill and flow, and through it all Molina would spin and spin and spin, for how else could a woman help the prosperity of her flood-ravaged town?
She stared wistfully at the waterwheels, which never stopped as long as the water flowed down from the mountains. If Lord Bachmeier would only listen to her and let more such wheels be built, their town would be prosperous once more. His grandfather had listened to her grandmother, otherwise these wheels would not be here at all, but to hear the current Lord Bachmeier talk, it was as though nothing had changed since his many-times great grandfather had been given this land from King Karl the Great himself.
If half the stories she'd heard of King Karl, or Charlemagne as the current king called him, were true, he'd have built new wheels all over his empire before the year was out, harnessing the flood instead of complaining about it.
At least Lord Bachmeier had agreed to plant flax in the flood-ravaged fields as soon as the water went down. Which meant an ocean of blue flowers instead of other crops, but they could trade linen for food. Heavens knew precious little grain had passed through the mill this year, but that was just as well, for they needed the spare waterwheels to power the hammers to beat the flax. That had been her mother's design, but Molina had improved on it since. What Lord Bachmeier didn't know wouldn't hurt him.
Molina sighed. She could speed up some of the process, but spinning the flax still took the most time. If she could use a wheel to turn the spindle, this would be so much faster.
"Good day, Miss Molina," a male voice said.
She glanced up in time to see Hofer slap Lanik before Lanik remembered to snatch his cap off his head. "Good day, boys. How goes the spring planting?"
"Almost done, miss. But it looks like the flax on the northern slopes is almost ready to harvest, maybe as early as next week, so we might have to bring the flax up to the pools to soak, and my father sent us to make sure there is water enough up there in the millponds," Hofer said.
"The pools are full, with enough water coming down the mountain to keep the wheels turning," Molina replied.
Lanik coughed. "Beg pardon, miss, but Uncle wanted us to speak to Mister Rademaker."
Of course he did. None of the men in town would take the word of a mere woman over the miller, even if she was his daughter. Molina forced a smile. "Father is beekeeping today. He had his eye on some wild hives further up the mountain, and he thinks they will swarm soon. He means to capture some new queens for our hives." Their hives were the only ones that had survived the flooding, so if Father didn't capture new bees, there would be no mead brewed in the town at all this year. "I'm sure he'd appreciate the help of two big, strong lads. Maybe even look the other way if a boy managed to get his hands on a honeycomb of his own."
"Thank you, miss!"
The boys scampered off, too eager at the thought of the possible sweet treat awaiting them to even say farewell. Boys, indeed. They were the same age as she was, old enough to marry, but she'd never see them as anything but the boys she'd grown up with. Certainly not potential husbands, though the other girls in the village didn't seem to share her opinions. Most of them were married already. At this rate, she wouldn't marry anyone, and today would be the same as every day for the rest of her life. She would sit and spin and watch the waterwheels, waiting for her father to return home for the evening meal, wishing for something different.
Today she could do something different. She'd done enough spinning for one day, and the warm breeze whispered of the summer waiting just over the horizon. Perhaps she should go check on the pools herself, and have a swim while she was up there. If the pools would be full of flax next week, this might be her only chance.
She set her spinning inside and dug out a cloth she could use to dry herself afterwards. Flinging it over her shoulder, she set off up the mountain, following the stream to the source of all its bubbling secrets.
Lubos had changed his mind, he decided. Marriage was indeed the happiest state in the world, for if he were at home with his chosen wife, he would not be here in this predicament.
He almost wished he'd simply closed his eyes and agreed to the first girl his father thrust toward him as a possible bride. Instead, he had to endure the company of what felt like hundreds of girls exactly the same as the first. Oh, they might look different, with blonde hair or brown, or even a redhead or two, but whatever colour their eyes had been, he had not noticed. For every girl's eyes held the same look: wide and on the verge of tears. For each girl had been little more than the object of their father's ambition. He wanted her to marry the prince, therefore she was dangled in front of a prince, and it was her duty to ensnare said prince, or forever dishonour her whole family. He did not want to be a duty. He wanted a wife who wanted him, not merely a crown. Yet it seemed once women knew he was the crown prince, the crown part was all they saw.
Lubos had had his fill of such girls at court, which was why he'd happily agreed to his father's suggestion that he accompany the tithe collectors on their rounds this year. Father had told him he suspected a conspiracy among his lords and barons, who were cheating him of his rightful percentage. Lubos, however, smelled a different plot. The recent floods had affected them all, and all of his father's kingdom was poorer because of it. If the tithe was smaller this year, it was because the lords and barons had less to give. Well, to the king, perhaps. Every man among them with a daughter old enough to be out of swaddling clothes wanted to push the poor girl toward the prince, and it was worse than court. Lord Bachmeier was by no means the worst of them, but Lubos had to give him credit for being the most persistent. His four daughters were all old enough to be married, and it seemed the girls had a competition among themselves to see who could win the prince. Lord Bachmeier had boasted about the quality and quantity of linen his lands produced, and it seemed that every lady in the land was employed in making the stuff. His own daughters went everywhere with a spindle in one hand and a distaff in the other, linked by a length of thread. This thread they then used to ensnare him in any way they could.
Why, only last night Lubos had woken from a terrible nightmare. The four girls had turned into spiders, venom dripping from their fangs, as they spun webs to entrap him the moment he moved.
Unable to bear the feeling of fine wool or linen, for it reminded him of his nightmare, in the morning he dressed in his coarsest clothes. But he'd almost screamed when Lorelei let her hair trail over his hand as she filled his cup.
To escape her wide eyes and even wider mouth, for Lorelei had evidently never heard a man utter such an unmanly squeak before, he'd made his excuses and bolted.
He headed to the town at first, a place where the girls did not go, for they believed it was beneath them, or at least their father did. But as he descended into the valley, Lubos noticed a stream with a well worn path beside it that led up the mountain and into the forest. There might be good hunting up here, he thought, which would give him a good excuse to flee from Lord Bachmeier and his daughters in the future, if he needed it.
As he climbed, Lubos heard a strange creaking sound. Like a sign blown in the wind, but it was not a back-and-forth sound. It was as though the wind had picked up the sign and carried it forward, protesting all the way, as it moved ever onward.
Lubos laughed aloud at the thought. Why, the sign was him – moving ever onward from vassal to vassal, protesting when presented with a possible bride at each new castle.
Lubos emerged from the shelter of the trees, and saw the truth. The creaking was driven by water, not wind. Nor did the wood move onward. The giant waterwheels, spinning on their axles in the stream's turbulent flow, could go nowhere. They were anchored in this place as marriage would make him a fixture in his father's castle, for the rest of his life.
A small bridge arced over the millstream, leading to a building as big as any manor house Lubos had visited on his travels. This belonged to the miller, or at least it did now. Perhaps Lord Bachmeier's family had once lived here, before moving to their current castle. He considered crossing the bridge so that he might take a closer look at the house, and perhaps obtain a cup of ale, for climbing this path had been thirsty work. But if this house belonged to Lord Bachmeier still, then any of his daughters might be lying in wait for him there, or one of his servants who might send a runner to find the girls. Either way, his solitary walk would be over.
Instead, Lubos dropped to his knees beside the stream, cupped his hands, and drank. It was cold and sweet, tasting of the mountains it had descended from. Better yet, it slaked his thirst enough to make him choose a higher path – the one that led further up the mountain, following the stream. For if the water tasted so good in the lower reaches down here, how much purer would it be in heights? Determined now, he followed the stream to its source.
Molina trekked up to the pools, panting a little as the slope grew steeper. The track led to the topmost pool, the biggest and deepest of the three. The cool, blue water tempted most newcomers into taking a dip, but Molina knew better. The glacier fed stream was ice cold still when it fed the top pool, and the overhanging trees did little to let the sun in to warm the water. The second pool was little better, for it was cut into the cold stone of the mountain itself, which seemed to drink the warmth the water gained from the sun glittering across its surface.
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