Now it happened, in those old days, that the king of Sweden was a southerner, from the Danemark. And when the old jarls died, he brought in his Danish cronies and installed them as jarls over the Swedish people.
Jarl Erik was a fine, proud man, even if he was a foreigner from the south, and when he did not know the local ways, at least he did not scoff at them. But he was still in the flower of his youth, so in the autumn of the first year of his rule, he began to cast his eye about for a bride. He was too wise to choose his bride by her fair face or her relatives' influence. He wanted a woman who would be an asset in herself. So, disguised in a shabby old cloak, he walked down to the village to try to overhear what the maidens were saying to each other.
The village maidens, seven of them, were sitting in a circle with their spinning, gossiping as they worked. But soon their talk turned to bragging.
"I can milk ten cows and thirty goats and have the barn cleaned between sundown and supper," said sturdy Jorunn. But the Jarl knew his wife would have no need to do the milking, so he paid no attention to Jorunn.
"I can weave cloth so warm that you can walk abroad in a single tunic in January, and not get frostbite," said industrious Signe. But the Jarl knew that his hall would be snug and warm, heated with the best hardwood, so he paid no attention to Signe, and so the same to the others with their homely skills.
Freckled Asta, who had no mother, spoke up last. "I can fashion straw into goats for the winter feast."
The other girls clucked among themselves, and the Jarl put his fingers in his ears and pulled them out again to make sure he had heard correctly. He wished he spoke the northern language like a native. Had she said gold? A bride who could change straw into gold was a fine bride indeed for a Jarl.
The Jarl heard the other girls praising Asta for her skill, telling her how rich the winter feast at the Jarl's hall would be with her decorations. Even in the northern lands, he thought, peasants would not decorate their Jarl's home with goats. She must have said gold. He didn't know how she did it -- it was probably a spinning process, though weaving might do instead.
So he went to Asta's father, who didn't look very rich for a man whose daughter could fashion straw into gold. "I would like to have your daughter's hand in marriage," he said.
The man looked surprised. "My daughter? My Asta?"
"Yes. I have heard of her great skill with straw, and I think she would make a wonderful bride for your Jarl."
Then the man looked confused. "I wouldn't say she has great skill."
"Oh, nonsense, man, you're too modest. Bring me your daughter, and she will be the Jarl's wife. If she can pass my test, of course."
"Asta is a good girl," said her father stoutly. "She will pass any bride-test you can devise."
The Jarl had his men bring white horses into the village, and he lifted Asta up on one of them and carried her back to his stronghold. He looked dubiously at her freckled face.
"Here we are," he said. "You must do just as you have told the other girls. Here is a room full of straw. You have tonight to finish it. If you succeed, you will be my bride in the spring, but if you fail, you will be exiled from the village in disgrace, never to return."
"Ah -- all right," Asta managed.
He shut the door behind him, and she heard the bar slam down. She sat down in the straw and started twiddling desolately with the straw. It didn't go together as easily as she'd imagined, and it kept bending in the wrong places. After an hour, she had no goats, and some of the straw had been nearly shredded. A tear slipped down her cheek, and then another. She found she couldn't stop crying. "Oh, I wish I could get this done!" she sobbed.
"Do you need a hand with something, young miss?"
Asta whirled, looking around and around, then looked down to discover the speaker, who was a head shorter than she. He was a Finn of middle years, small in the way that Finns are small, but solid, with sparse blond hair and a round, red nose. "I am Raimo-Paavo Stiltskininenenen," he said. "I heard you in your distress. Perhaps I may be of service."
"I don't think so," Asta wept. "Thank you just the same. The Jarl thinks I can spin straw into goats, and I never learned the knack. I just bragged to the other girls because I couldn't do anything else. I thought my father would teach me before the festival. I don't know why the goats are so important to the Jarl! But I must either fashion all the straw in this room into goats and become his bride, or I will be disgraced and sent away from the village."
"Don't worry," said Raimo-Paavo Stiltskininenenen. "I have lived in Sweden many years, and I'm clever with my hands. Together we'll spin the straw into goats, and you'll win your Jarl."
"Thank you," said Asta. "That's quite nice of you."
"I'd like one or two of the goats in payment," said the Finn. "Small ones, of course."
"I'm sure the Jarl won't miss them," said Asta.
He showed her the knack of binding straw together to make the Jul goats, and by dawn, the two of them were chattering away like old friends.
"I'll have to slip away," said Raimo. "Your Jarl wouldn't like to find me here. Good luck!"
And the minute after Raimo disappeared, the Jarl flung the door open. He looked around him in dismay. "Where is my gold?"
"Where is your what?" Asta asked him.
"My gold! This is a bunch of -- of goats!"
"Yes," she said. "As I told the others I could do."
"Why would I want a roomful of straw goats?" demanded the Jarl.
"Well, I'm sure I don't know," said Asta. "I don't know what you do down there in the Danemark! We usually make do with a dozen or so."
"You said you could spin straw into gold," said the Jarl.
"I did not," said Asta indignantly. "Why would I say something so stupid as that? No one can spin straw into gold."
"The northlands are filled with witches," said the Jarl. "I think you are another of them, trying to trick me. Do Swedish women go back on their word so easily? You said you could turn straw into gold, and that is what you will do."
"I said I could turn it into goats!" Asta shouted after him, but he had closed the door. In a few hours, workmen came in with a new load of straw. They took none of the goats away.
"Am I to make golden goats?" she said angrily.
The workmen avoided meeting her eyes. Only Yngve, whom she had known since they were children, spoke to her. "The Jarl claims he has your word as bond, Asta. You had better get out if you can, or else change the straw to gold. Your word is sacred."
"I never swore any such thing!" said Asta. "And how am I going to get out of here with no window and guards at the door?"
Yngve shrugged unhappily, looking away. He left her there in the locked room without looking back.
Asta burst into angry tears.
"Did he want my goats back?" asked Raimo behind her.
"He didn't want any goats at all!" said Asta. "He thought I said gold! Who could turn straw into gold?"
Raimo chewed on his lip thoughtfully. "Not I, certainly. But I do have some of the magic of the Finns."
"I thought you might," said Asta.
"What I could do is to turn the straw goats into live ones. I could show you the knack. Do you think that would serve?"
"I don't know," sniffed Asta. "But it's better than nothing!" And, she thought, if I get exiled from the village at least I'll know how to make goats out of almost nothing!
So Raimo traced a rune on the head of the biggest straw goat, and another on its back, and then turned it over and traced a third rune on its belly. "Did you see those?" he asked Asta. She nodded. Then he blew on it three times, and it let out a bleat and hopped off his lap.
"How wonderful!" said Asta.
"Yes," said Raimo, "but I need more than straw goats this time. You must promise me something."
"Promise me that if this works and the Jarl marries you, I may have the speckled kids for my own."
"Will all the kids be born speckled?" asked Asta.
"No, no. Not even most. Just a few, here and there."
"That sounds fair," she said.
"Good. Now, show me how you'll do it."
Asta traced the runes for him, and blew three times. The smallest straw goat bleated, sprouted coarse white hair as she watched, and immediately butted playfully at Raimo's goat.
As they worked, the goats grew more rambunctious, and Yngve called in the door, "Asta? Asta, what's going on in there?"
"I'm just finishing," she said. Raimo winked and disappeared, leaving her to finish the last two goats herself.
Yngve burst in the door with the other men of the village and the Jarl in his wake.
"What is this?" demanded the Jarl.
"I told you, I can't spin straw into gold," said Asta. "So I did the best I could."
The men all stared at her.
"That's a lot of goats, my lord," said Yngve.
Frösten the skald, who played music and cast small spells for the village, whistled through his teeth. "A man could be rich with that many goats."
"But I wanted gold!" said the Jarl.
"Well, you've got goats," said Asta, "and the speckled kids belong to Raimo-Paavo Stiltskininenenen, my teacher."
Frösten looked at the Jarl through narrowed eyes. "There's what we want, my lord, and then there's what we get. I'd say that this is a lucky bargain, and you should appreciate it. And Asta."
The Jarl's men argued, and then Asta's father got there and started making noises about the honor of his daughter, and at the end of it all, the Jarl threw his hands in the air and said, "All right, I'll marry the girl! We'll plan a springtime wedding."
Everyone cheered except for Asta.
It became apparent, as winter progressed, that all the nanny goats Asta had made were pregnant. And the week before the wedding was to take place, every one of them dropped her kid. The whole village was in a turmoil, running about trying to see to all the goats and manage the wedding preparations at the same time.
The day before the wedding, Asta and the other girls in the village were hanging fresh flowers on the green when Raimo appeared. Hard-working Signe let out a squeak and sat down suddenly. Sturdy Jorunn instructed little Britt, "Run get the Jarl. And Frösten the skald, too. There's magic here."
But Asta said, "Hello. Are you here for your goats? They're pasturing up near the stronghold. Tolle should be bringing them down any minute now."
"Those are the Jarl's goats, Asta," said Jorunn sternly. "You made them for him yourself."
"I did," said Asta, "but I learned from this man, and he may have all the speckled kids in payment."
"They are the Jarl's goats, and no Finnish magician may have them," Jorunn insisted. The girls started to back away, one by one, heading for the safety of their homes and parents.
Frösten and the Jarl arrived at a dead run, just as Tolle brought the goats through the village green.
"Stop!" shouted the Jarl. "Who is trying to abscond with my goats?"
Raimo bowed. "Nobody, my lord. I was just taking my payment for their making." He grabbed the halters of two nearby goats, the sturdiest of the bunch.
"I acknowledge no payment."
"Oh, unfair!" said Asta. "I promised, and I told you of my promise. You must pay him!"
Raimo had started tracing patterns on the halters.
"For goats created from my own straw? Nonsense," said the Jarl. "They are mine. Frösten, stop the thief."
"I do not know his name, my lord," said Frösten, "and no skald may ensorcel a man without his true name."
All the villagers, peering out from their windows, nodded; they knew it was true.
"Come, now, you heard it once," said the Jarl.
Raimo kept working.
"So did you, my lord, when she spoke of her promise," said Frösten.
"Well, it was something like Ramming Stiltsors."
"Råm-Pål-Stilsen?" said the skald.
Raimo laughed. "No, no."
"It was Finnish!" said the Jarl. "Raimo-Paulo or something like that."
"Raimo. Paavo," Yngve started, but by then, the Finn had completed his rune-spells on the goats' halters, and he and Asta mounted up.
"Good-bye," shouted Asta, waving as her goat soared into the air. "Good-bye!" The goat breathed fire and bleated in surprise. "What did you do to these goats?"
"They'll get us to Finland in safety," Raimo shouted from his goat. “It’s the halters. Just, ah, be careful of the back end, all right?”
Asta’s goat belched fire again. She edged a little closer to its neck. “What will we do in Finland?”
“Magic,” said Raimo. “Of course.”
“Oh, of course,” echoed Asta. She smiled to herself. She had a few notions of what to do with magic.
originally appeared in Spellbound, Spring 2003.