It was over. She was going to die.

When King Torgen returned in the morning, he was going to have her beheaded.

“No!” Gemma said, pounding a fist on the wall. “No,” she repeated. Tears stung her eyes, but she glared at the board. “I can’t give up,” she said, stiffening her resolution before she started sawing at the board again.

Some of her tears escaped her eyes and rolled down her face. Gemma refused to acknowledge them and tried tugging on the board.

When a teardrop fell from her face and splashed on the windowsill, the door clanked and was thrown open with a mighty crash. Footfalls walked into the room, and the door slammed shut.

Gemma whirled around, hiding her knife behind her back.

A strange man stood at the door. He was tall, but his shoulder width put him more on the slender side. He wore black cape with the hood pulled up, blocking most of his face except for his fine mouth.

His cloak was unlike any style Gemma had seen before. It latched on the right side of his neck with a large sapphire pin. Part of the cape was pushed behind his right shoulder, keeping his right arm free and mobile. The rest of the cape covered his front. If his mouth wasn’t so pleasant looking, Gemma would have wondered if he was death coming prematurely for her.

As it was, he was likely a less-than-savory servant of King Torgen. “I told My Lord if I was seen while working, the flax would not turn to gold,” Gemma said, wary of the man but hopeful the encounter could be used to her advantage.

The stranger tilted his head. “What?” he said in a voice that was musical and fresh like a newly melted snow stream.

“Didn’t King Torgen send you here to check on my progress?”

“No, not at all. You are Gemma Kielland, correct?”

“Yes,” Gemma said.

“Then I am here to help you.”

Gemma stared at the stranger with her icy eyes. “How?”

The stranger’s fine lips parted in a smile to reveal perfect, white teeth. “I am here to spin the flax into gold.”

“Are you?” Gemma said with no conviction.

“Yes. I overheard your plight and decided a rescue was in order.”

Gemma exhaled and rubbed her eyes. “Please go away. I haven’t the time to deal with a madman,” she said, her forehead furrowed.

The stranger chuckled and pushed the front flap of his cloak over his left shoulder, revealing strange clothes underneath. He wore a black shirt that contained none of the fanciful puffs that were all the rage in Loire. It was tailored, almost like the Erlauf military uniforms Lady Linnea day-dreamed of. Over the black shirt, he wore a vest that was the same shade as his sapphire cloak pin and bulky with pockets. The look was finished with black breeches and black boots that were so well polished, Gemma suspected she could see her reflection in them if she drew close enough.

“You are an amusing one,” the stranger said as he sat in the chair and arranged the flax fibers, pulling some away from the bundle tied to the distaff. He wet his hand in the water pot to moisten the fibers, and set about rolling the fibers and mashing them with the end of the flax thread already wound around the spindle. He pressed a foot pedal to crank the wheel—which made the spindle rotate and the thread wind. As he worked, he spoke under his breath, almost like he was conversing with the flax fibers and spinning wheel.

Gemma raised her eyebrows at the man, but he was absorbed with his work. Nonchalantly, Gemma strolled around the room and tried tugging on the door. It was locked. Those outside must have locked the door when the stranger entered.

Gemma returned to her window and reluctantly turned her back to the spinning stranger—listening intently lest he lose his mind all together—and returned to sawing at one of the boards barring the window, hoping the clanks and whirls of the spinning wheel would cover up the noise of Gemma sawing.

Eventually, Gemma forgot about the intruder and furrowed her forehead as she pressed against the board with all her might.

“You’re trying to escape? Smart girl, smarter than your father,” the man said in his fresh, musical voice.

Gemma jumped and almost tossed her knife into the air. When she had a good grip on the knife again, she folded her arms across her chest and stared at the stranger.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to surprise you,” the stranger said as he looked at the scratched up board with a critical eye.

Gemma could still hear the spinning wheel whirling. She risked a glance at the spinning wheel, and then she did drop her knife.

The spinning wheel was spinning, and flax fibers pulling away from distaff unaided, rolling and curling itself around the spindle. The spindle was not wound with coarse flax thread…but something shiny.

Gemma leaned back on her heels when she realized the material curling around the spindle was not thread, but finely spun metal. Gold.

Gemma studied the gold thread and considered the possibilities. Was she dreaming?