Golden Hands

This is the second story I had accepted, the second or third published. It was printed in Space & Time #91. It is one of my favorites, despite being horror (and despite a sad ending, which I said I would never do when I was younger). One of the nice things about being in charge of a story is that you can create extra endings in your head. I mean, of course she comes back and haunts him. I mean, duh.

Mostly I wrote this story as an answer to all those Rapunzel stories which criticize the king for being so greedy. Everybody needs money. Everybody wants money. You can call it bartering if it makes you feel better, but it's still money.

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"Did you serve the pretender?" Simon said.

He stood in the great hall of the castle. He had marched into the capital early that morning. The prior regime--the pretender and his army--had departed many weeks before. That information Simon had received from the city's mayor, a man anxious to please the new authority but uncertain, Simon could sense, whether the new authority would retain its position. Simon, gazing over his soiled and exhausted troops, wondered the same.

A search of the castle had produced a gentleman-in-waiting, two cooks, a scullery maid and this woman, Rachel.

"No," she said.

She was thinking how much she had desired death in the last weeks, how many times she had hoped, Now it will all end, and had been disappointed. Today, faced with this grim-faced man, the returning heir, the heir legitimate, that stupid, pitiful hope was surfacing.

He will do it. He is too ruthless to leave me alive.

"You are a goldifier," Simon said.

"No."

The cooks and scullery maid whispered together.

Simon frowned at them.

"You've heard otherwise?" he said.

The more self-possessed of the cooks said stoutly, "Yes, sir."

The other nodded, and the scullery maid whispered confirmation.

Simon hesitated, eyeing the gentleman-in-waiting and then changed his mind. The man had not heard. He stared blankly past Simon, lips quivering, eyes full of dread. He knew he was doomed.

Probably the first time in his life he wishes he'd been born a gutter boy.

Simon turned his back on the man's glazed eyes. A man in such a position would have heard things, might even have received last minute instructions from his pretender king, might even have agreed--like a fool--to play at spying or assassination. Or might be innocent of nothing more than fear and bad judgment. At the beginning of his campaign, Simon would have ordered the man tortured--any available secrets wrung from him by the rack or by fire.

Now Simon would simply have him killed.

"How do you answer them?" he said to Rachel.

How she had answered from the beginning:

"My father lied. He told the king--" she saw Simon's grimace but was too weary to amend the statement--"I was a goldifier. He sold me," too weary even for bitterness which she had felt abundantly and deeply at the time, "for his own security."

Rachel had heard songs which described Simon as young and handsome. The same songs enumerated his graces, his virtues. They were sung by idealists, romantics--young men anxious to join a worthy cause, old men disillusioned by the pretender's greed, young women wanting a hero and old women wanting peace.

Do they still believe in him? Rachel wondered, studying the face of hard, etched lines. Young, yes. Handsome, once. Maybe even graceful long ago. Virtuous, never.

She did not believe kings were ever virtuous or could be, any more than bishops or mayors or any person who wielded power over others. Any more than her father.

"Would your father have lied to the pretender?" Simon said. "Would he have risked so much--his reputation, his life?"

"Would he have given me up if I truly could produce gold from straw?"

He saw the force of that argument and stopped pacing, considered. He ran a hand through his hair. It came away streaked with mud and dust and blood. He stared blankly at his fingers. He could not remember receiving a head wound. His lieutenant said, "Sir," and stepped forward, but Simon waved him back.

All of us wounded, hungry, tired, our boots worn to shreds. We need money. A constant refrain during the last six months of the year and a half campaign: we need money; how will we hold onto victory without money?

He looked at Rachel, the goldifier, so-called. Perhaps she was telling the truth. Perhaps, but how could he risk believing her, risk wasting the opportunity: money, money in abundance, money at the asking. He'd known of a goldifier who could produce twenty gold pieces from a twelve inch straw. He needed money.

Except this woman looked like his soldiers--so battered by circumstance she had no will to deceive or to fight.

He said brusquely, "We will speak alone."

His soldiers did not question, although a few shook their heads, and Simon's lieutenant frowned, his expression mirroring Simon's.

He looks like me, Simon thought. He was his own person once, but Simon could barely remember his life before the great campaign: a country of green hills--his foster land--a blur of excited preparation marked by bright banners, his soldiers fresh and dedicated. All such memories were buried under images of long, gray marches, of muddy battles fought under gray skies.

I didn't know how hard, how long the war would take, and by the time I realized I could not end it. I will not transform all the deaths, all the pains into meaninglessness.

He strode across the floor to a door behind the dais. He turned there, waiting for Rachel, the goldifier, the possible goldifier, and caught, over her shoulder, the gentleman-in-waiting's bewildered stare.

"Kill him," he said and opened the door for Rachel.

He closed it on the man's screams and pressed a hand to his eyes.

Would he rather have lingered another hour, another day in terrible anticipation? Can't he appreciate I am showing mercy?

While Rachel was thinking, I wish I were that man. What I would not do to be this king's enemy, to be valueless.

She recognized the room, a bare space containing only a table and three chairs. A large fireplace overwhelmed the opposite wall. She had never seen it lit. The floor was flagged with bitter cold stones, and the walls were bulwarks of heavy, oak panels. A small room but large enough for the pretender's purposes. She'd sat in here amongst bushels of straw, her arms clasped tightly round her knees, yearning for an end, a good end: an end without capitulation or loss of pride or shameful acts.

"Sit," Simon said, and she sat.

He sat opposite, leaning forward, elbows on knees, hands clasped, and then he took her hands between his which she wished he would not do. She too badly wanted touch, comfort-- reassurance that she was desired for some other reason than her supposed abilities.

I no longer have the stamina to withstand flattery or caresses.

"I was told," Simon said, "that the pretender threatened your life should you fail."

Rachel wondered which of the pretender's aides had told Simon about her. Many had fled to the heir's camp, hoping to salvage their reputations, their lives. She wondered how quickly Simon had killed the informant. Because, of course, he had, of course he would. Not even a gentleman-in-waiting could live, that was how badly he coveted trust, how fiercely he guarded against betrayal. Then why not me? she wanted to cry. Why can you not perceive me as a threat?

"He offered you marriage," Simon said. "Marriage or death. As if the two were not the same in essence."

She raised her head, her eyes. She almost could believe him empathetic, outraged on her behalf if she did not know him to be ruthless, if his face did not tell her how ruthless he had been, could be.

His fingers tightened.

"Help me. I need food for my men. I need provisions. Help me and fight the pretender who imprisoned you, who threatened you."

She had not expected such an argument and tried to pull back her hands, alarmed, discomfited. Yes, she longed for revenge. Yes, she wanted to strike the pretender, to spit at him, but, "No," she said. "No, I tell you. I am not a goldifier."

Simon loosed her hands slowly, rose, paced.

"I cannot believe you," he said, and she saw he meant the words literally--he could not afford belief, could not dare to believe.

"Would my father have given up such a prize?" her trump card that she played and played to no avail, that no one seemed to hear.

He didn't know. Perhaps. If the man feared the pretender, feared his daughter would be taken from him in any case and sought to gain favor by advanced capitulation. Or perhaps her father knew too well the attendant negatives of a gold-producing daughter: robbery and taxation not to speak of supplicants and swindlers.

Or perhaps a very clever father indeed who had anticipated his daughter's stubbornness and sold her, knowing she was not a goldifier, and certain he would have time to escape before his lie was proved. Perhaps, perhaps, she spoke the truth.

He could not allow for that option. He could not trust her, could not release her. Suppose rather that she was a skillful liar, as good as any spy or diplomat, devoted to the pretender who had, after all, promised her marriage. Suppose Simon let her go, and she found the pretender and produced gold for him, insuring the death of Simon's men, of his cause.

We are already teetering on the brink of collapse. I doubt we will survive the spring. We certainly will not if the pretender retaliates too soon.

But if Simon didn't let her go, he would have to kill her. He could not afford to give his enemies an object to fight for, something to win, to kidnap, to ransom.

He circled the room. He knelt abruptly and scraped up a handful of wet, gray straw from the corner. He pressed the mess into Rachel's hands.

"Change it."

"I tell you, I cannot."

"Change it," so close he could see the flecks of blue in the brown irises, the gray, heavy shadows beneath the eyes, the marks of teeth on her dry lips.

She had also stood. She held the clump away from her; but her fingers would not separate, would not release the sticky, disgusting lump of dirt and straw.

She was aware of Simon beside her. Aware of his breath against her hair, of his chest rising and falling, his right hand stretched out to catch her burden should she release it.

"I cannot," she said again and misery swept over her.

"No, no," jeered a goblin voice.

Fear replaced the misery, terror flooded through Rachel so strong and quick she flinched, rearing backwards, her hands clutching convulsively. The wet straw and dirt oozed between her fingers and stuck to her palms.

The goblin leered at her. He always appeared thus, suddenly, through no discernible opening. She had never been able to anticipate him, and she believed, anyway, that he deliberately materialized behind her back or at the corner of her eye. He loved to shock, to startle, to dominate through fear.

"I've come for you," the goblin said.

Simon was frowning, thick grooves stretching from nose to mouth and between his eyes. His face was a mass of lines and shadows.

"I've come for you, Rachel," the goblin said and chuckled, his long arms running across the rough stones, his long fingers splayed.

"What rights do you have to her?" Simon said quietly, and his hand was at his sword hilt.

"Oh, I helped her I did, and she bargained herself away, she or any child she might have."

Simon reared back. His voice was quieter: "Whose child?"

The goblin grinned, showing thousands of tiny teeth: "The king's--"

"So you are a goldifier--"

"No," Rachel shouted.

"Why else would you make such a promise?" Simon shouted back. "How else could you anticipate such an outcome? You could only have his child if he made you his wife. Unless--" and again his voice quieted--"unless you feared rape?"

"No," she said wearily, "No. The king was going to marry me. He--" pointing to the goblin who sniggered--"brought gold into the room. He sprinkled gold coins amongst the straw. The king--the pretender--believed I had made them--"

She had begged the goblin not to bring the gold, had pleaded with him to desist, and he had laughed as he was laughing now and said she had already made her bargain, she had asked for his help, she had involved him in the situation, he was free to do as he wished with it.

She said, "I planned to kill the pretender," after which she would not have cared who had her: the goblin or the pretender's guards.

Simon did not believe her. She saw that in his shuttered eyes. She knew what he feared--a child of the pretender. Did you serve the pretender? Sleep with the pretender? Love the pretender?

Still the goblin snickered. He was coming at her; his multi-jointed fingers clamped on her wrist.

"Come with me, come with me now."

And Simon struck off the goblin's head.

The body slumped to the stones. The head bounced and rolled, spilling yellow pus. They watched. The body didn't rise. The head's eyes stared sightlessly. Simon and Rachel waited. Nothing. Simon exhaled a long breath.

The goblin's fingers still held Rachel's wrist. She pushed at them desperately. Simon, caught by the motion--hands rubbing flesh—turned his head and saw coins fall from Rachel's hands to the stone floor.

One. Two. Three.

And Rachel began to scream.

"I don't want it. I don't want it. Take it back," screaming at the goblin's headless body. "Take it back. Take it back."

Simon grasped the goblin's hand, bent the fingers away from Rachel's wrist. The fingers snapped, and the arm crashed down to lay beside its brother and still Rachel screamed.

"I didn't want it. I never wanted it. Take it back," as she rubbed desperately at the straw on her palms and between her fingers, her hands releasing a stream of golden coins.

"Take it back. Take it back. I gave it to you, you bastard," sobbing, wringing her hands so the coins somersaulted upwards, ricocheting off the walls.

"Sir?" the lieutenant's voice though the door.

"Don't come in," Simon said.

He had stepped away, his back against the oak paneling. His eyes never left Rachel's face, not even to follow the sparkling arc of a golden coin. His hand held his sword hilt loosely; the point of the sword grazed the stones.

So she had told the truth. Of a sort. A goldifier who had bargained away her gift for . . . what? A chance to kill?

He did not believe she would ever murder. She would have started with herself if she had any such seeds within her. It would have been a simpler solution to her problems.

For death then. A clean death. A death without indignity, without secrecy or game-playing or double roles. Which he could understand. He had never liked spies. He had always loathed using them.

Rachel had stopped screaming. She slumped forward, hands against her face, sobbing wretchedly.

"I never wanted to be a goldifier. I never asked for such a curse. I've hated it every second of my life: being used, being sought for money, being threatened and loved and praised and hated and scorned for this," hands drifting out and downwards.

A year and a half ago he would not have heard her--he would have thought of his campaign, of his men. He thought of them now, and there was nothing he could do that would redress her wrongs without harming his men, there was no balanced solution.

Except one.

He dropped his sword. He went towards her cautiously, stepping over the goblin's body, his boots kicking gold coins wherever he placed a foot.

He put his arms around her. She shuddered against him.

He thought that of all the wrongs he had done, this would be the least destructive. Of all the deeds he had committed, this the least terrible.

And yet this will give me nightmares, this will bring me sweating awake, panicking.

She felt the prick of the dagger against her neck. She raised her head and laughed, inviting him to finish. Yes, end this, kill me, kill the curse, kill my wealth.

He thought, Am I a fool? We need money so badly. I must be a fool.

He sliced her neck from ear to ear, quick as deaths go, and sure. He held her, and her blood ran over his chest, down his arms and covered his hands, leaving behind a golden dust which he could not rub away.