A Retelling with Strength and Courage
Courageous Heroine Fairy Tales Book 1
Copyright © 2016 by Lisa Shea / Minerva Webworks LLC
All rights reserved.
Cover design by Lisa Shea.
Book design by Lisa Shea
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author. The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Warm thanks to my entire review team who has worked with me on this book for the years I’ve been developing it!
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Believe in yourself
Cinderella – A Retelling with Strength and Courage
This wife brought two daughters
into the house with her.
They were beautiful, with fair faces,
but evil and dark hearts.
~ The Brothers Grimm
In modern times, we tend to think of the Brothers Grimm as collecting kids’ stories. However, nothing could be further from the truth. When Jacob and Wilhelm were gathering their tales in Germany in the early 1800s, they were striving to preserve the oral tradition of traditional lumberjacks, hard-working seamstresses, and weary farmers. These “volk” (folk, traditional-culture) adults, after a long, hard day of work, would gather with their ale and bread by the fire and share stories to pass the time. In those days before TV and Internet, a good story was worth its weight in gold.
The tales were not gentle and they were not tame. Rapunzel lowered her hair in order to enjoy nights of passion with her lover. A maid is punished by being put into a nail-studded barrel and rolled until she dies. In another, a child is disobedient – therefore the mother buries him alive. Period, the end.
It gets worse. One stepmother kills her stepson, manages to convince her own daughter that the daughter killed the boy by accident, and then feeds the dead son to his own father.
Ah, what fun.
Unfortunately for the Grimm brothers, apparently the 1800s audience wasn’t keen to read these tales of cannibalism and debauchery. However, at the time children’s stories were selling quite well. So the Grimms reluctantly revised their book. With each new release they made their stories tamer and sweeter. The plots became more kid-friendly. Sales skyrocketed.
And thus the Faerie Tales as we now know them were created.
It wasn’t what the Grimm brothers were intending at all. But they liked getting money, and cute kiddy stuff was where it was at.
If the Grimm brothers were writing in modern times, they might have gone the other direction, adding vampires, werewolves, and hot sex into every scene : ).
In any case, my version of these folk tales is both sweetly gentle while at the same time brings back the feisty nature of the original heroines. The first heroines of these stories were not shrinking violets. They did not sprawl feebly on a cushioned couch waiting for their prince to come rescue them. Heck, many researchers argue that the original Grimm stories showcase women who were strong, determined, and willing to go for what they wanted. For some reason society felt the need to mash down that message in order to present it to children.
We don’t have to look too far in our own modern culture to see the echoes of this. It was just recently that a famous sports star told boys to be brave while girls should be “silent, polite, and gentle.”
We have come a long way – and yet we have a long way to go.
My stories are suitable for teenagers and up. They do not include explicit intimacy nor explicit violence. But, unlike those kiddified later Grimm versions which stripped away most traces of a woman who could stand on her own two feet, my tales strive to portray women who take charge of their own destinies.
A portion of all proceeds of this series benefit battered women’s shelters.
Ella wiped the sweat from her brow, then delved a sturdy stick into the hot, soapy water to swirl the linen tablecloth. Somehow Birgit had managed to spill red wine all over it – again – and of course her stepmother had blamed Ella for not laying the tablecloth smooth enough. Her own father had merely chewed on his roast pork, refilling his own pewter goblet.
Ella tucked her honey-blonde hair back into its tight braid and directed her attentions to the stain. She knew if she wasn’t able to get the cloth back to its pure white state that she would go to bed hungry again. And as much as she craved something – anything – other than her gruel supper, it was certainly better than nothing.
She glanced around the small kitchen. A frigid December wind battered the shutters covering the windows, but the wadding of cloth within kept out most of the chill. Smoky tallow candles in wall-scones lit the room. The heavy work table was pocked and scarred from long hours of chores. A low fire flickered in the stone-lined fireplace. The sound of wolf howled from deeper in the forest.
For one mad moment she thought about following the call. About abandoning the washing, drawing to her feet, pulling on her boots, and just trekking through the waist-high snow out into the forest. Whatever wolves, bandits, and other threats might wait for her there, surely it could not be worse than this servitude she had endured for the past twelve years.
But she had promised her mother …
There were footsteps, and she looked up.
Birgit waltzed into the room, her dark hair cascading around her face in gorgeous ringlets. Her deep blue dress perfectly showed off her firm curves and slender waist. She wore a golden belt with elegant silver chasing and matching slippers.
She carried a silver bowl of raspberries in a hand and popped one of the juicy red bundles into her mouth.
Ella’s mouth went dry. Breakfast had been long hours ago, and her stomach rumbled in pain.
Birgit barely glanced down at Ella. “Are you still working on that tablecloth, you stupid girl? It’s hard to believe we’re the same age, but you barely have the brains of a toddler. Put some effort into it. There’s still the goats to feed and then dinner to make. Father should be back from the market soon and you know how hungry he can get.” She chuckled. “If he doesn’t pass out drunk first, of course.”
Ella knew better than to respond. She put her head down and scrubbed harder at the stain. It did seem to be fading. Maybe if she tried some of her ash soap instead …
Birgit stopped above her. “You know, I’m sick of raspberries. I can’t eat another bite.”
She took the remaining raspberries and flung them down into the water.
The water instantly turned deep, blood red.
Ella bit her lip, fighting off the urge to grab Birgit’s slender wrist and do something which could never be taken back. She dove her hands into the steaming water, grabbing desperately at the floating berries to fling them into the fire. But it was too late. She could see the fabric taking on a darker, richer hue.
Petra stepped into the room yawning. “I couldn’t sleep a wink last night, Cinderella. My mattress is all lumpy again. You didn’t do a good enough job shaking it out.” Her hair was a lushly curled as her sister’s, but where Birgit’s was ebony dark, Petra’s was shimmering blonde. Her dress was emerald green and embroidered with twining vines.
Her eyes went to the red-tinged wash basin and her mouth turned up in a smile. “Oh, mother won’t like that at all.”
Birgit’s gaze sparkled. “Come on, Petra. Let’s head into town. I hear that the baker’s boy is working alone this afternoon. I have a feeling we might get a pie each out of a visit.”
Petra’s smile widened. “And maybe a tart as well.”
She hooked her arm in her sister’s. Then she glanced back at Ella. “Don’t forget my mattress, cinder-girl.”
A flick of the heel and both girls were away down the long lane toward town.
Resignation washed over Ella as she stared at the ruby red cloth. It was hopeless. No amount of washing would take out that color. Her stepmother would starve her for sure, perhaps for a full week. There was nothing else to be taken from her. The only item of hers within these four walls was this one grey shift and her worn-out pair of leather boots, so that she might trek deep into the forest to track a rabbit or even deer. Her parents cared little that to do so was a royal crime. They did love their venison.
For a moment the injustice of it all threatened to overwhelm her. The sideboard beckoned, and she found herself climbing beneath it. It was her haven. Her retreat. The one place within the entire house where she felt safe.
For, ever since her mother had passed away …
She fought off the tears. She clung to her last solid memory of her mother.
She had been six years old. It had been the year of the eclipse.
She had been hiding beneath this very sideboard.
Her mother’s voice had risen, faint, querulous, from the main room. “Where is my dearest Ella?”
Her father’s retort was sharp. “She’s always getting underfoot. We have important guests coming today and I didn’t want her in the way.”
“In the way? But Ella is such a help to me –”
A heavy knocking came on the front door. “They’re here. Not another word about it.”
Footsteps crossed and Ella heard the squeak of the heavy front door pulled open. Her father said, “Welcome, welcome. Minister Muggenthaler. It is so good of you to come. And Prince Alexander. This is an unexpected honor.”
A clipped voice responded, “The Prince’s father has instructed me to involve him in more of the day to day activities of the court. He must understand all workings, from high to low, if he is to take over for his father someday.”
The prince was in their home?
Curiosity lit in Ella, and she carefully crept forward from her sideboard retreat. She eased herself to the door which separated the kitchen from the rest of the house and carefully pressed it open just a hair.
A tall, slender man dressed in a fine velvet jacket and neatly-fitting black legging was stepping forward alongside her father. They were moving toward an easel set up before the great fireplace. A beautiful crimson fabric shielded the painting beneath from view.
Ella had not yet seen it in its final grandeur yet. None of them had. It was a quirk of her mother’s that she wished to keep her finished works private until their unveiling. Ella had gone with her many times to the scene of this painting, so she knew what it would hold. The beautiful arching granite bridge in the private gardens of the king. The massive, towering castle stood behind. The autumn foliage glowed in shimmering gold, crimson, and orange. At its center, a pair of swans swam serenely in the pond.
Ella’s breath caught. At last she would get to see it truly brought to life with her mother’s stunning talents.
Her mother gave a rattling cough and went to rise from her chair. “I can –”
Her father shot her mother a look. “Stay put,” he ordered. “The doctor said that moving around would only make it worse.” He waved a hand toward the painting. “Besides, as your husband and master, this painting belongs to me.”
Ella leaned forward, her heart pounding. She wanted to see –
The Minister stepped left, perfectly blocking her view.
She let out a huff of frustration.
A young boy turned and stared directly at her.
He was perhaps ten years old, already tall and sturdy, with searing blue eyes and short blond hair. Where the Minister’s outfit was flowery and decorative, the Prince’s was more utilitarian and functional. A leather jacket showed signs of rough use and the black leggings were dusty from riding.
The corner of his mouth turned up. He spoke over his shoulder. “I’m hungry. Is there something to eat in the kitchen?”
Her mother’s voice came. “There’s a bowl of fresh apples on the table, if you wish.”
“That would be just right,” he agreed, and he walked straight toward the door.
Ella eeped in nervous terror and scuttled back beneath the sideboard. The door pressed open and there was a pause. Then the door closed again. A pair of steady feet walked directly over to where she huddled.
Alexander squatted down to her level and smiled. “Hello, there.”
Her throat closed up. “Father will be upset if I talk with you.”
His eyes sparkled. “Then we shan’t let Father know about it.”
Her mouth went round. The idea that she could keep something from her father both terrified and thrilled her. He was the dominant force that ruled both her and her mother’s lives. She found she could only nod.
He reached up to the table and took down a pair of apples. He handed her one, then bit into the one he held. “I’m Alexander,” he said between chews.
“Ella,” she replied, wide-eyed.
There was a cry of delight from the other room. The Minister’s voice said, “Stunning, absolutely stunning. I can see why your wife has such a stellar reputation. This is a treasure like no other. What were you asking for it, again?”
Her father hesitated. “Three hundred guldens?”
The Minister laughed out loud. “You could ask three thousand for a work of this quality! That’s what the King paid to Herr Klamenstein just last year for his painting of the path through the Black Forest.” An oily note added to his voice. “And it became worth ten times that much when Herr Klamenstein unexpectedly passed away soon after that. The painting became his last ever work.”
Her father’s voice echoed in awe. “Ten times as much.”
There was the sound of a bottle being uncorked. Then her father said, “Come, Minister, let us talk in my study, I’ve got some fine red wine to share, and we can negotiate the terms.”
Alexander dropped to sit cross-legged, his gaze on her. “So, tell me about your life here. What do you enjoy doing?”
She stared at her apple. “I … uh … I help Momma with her paintings.”
He took a bite. “Do you like to paint?”
She nodded nervously. “I try.”
He smiled. “That is like saying I try to fight with my sword. I learn every day, and that is a good thing. Do you learn every day?”
She was caught by his enthusiasm. “I do. And Momma is so patient with me. She shows me how the colors merge together. How shapes are made up of pieces. She says I have real talent!”
His teeth sparkled warmly in the light. “I’m sure you do, with a mother such as her. What do you like to paint?”
She leaned forward. “Oh, anything! The way a deer pauses in a meadow, listening for sounds. The way a crow’s wing glimmers in the sun. The way light hits against a brook in the winter.”
He took another bite. “You sound like you really see the world around you.”
“I try to,” she enthused. “Momma always says that. Pay attention to each breath. Listen for each note.”
He chuckled. “My sword-master says the same thing. To watch every foot-fall. Pay attention to every glimmer of light. Because –”
She burst out, “Every moment is precious!”
Her face flushed. She had just interrupted the Prince. Surely she would be –
He smiled tenderly at her and touched his apple to hers.
Time had slipped away from Ella. She’d never had a true friend before, not like Alexander. Not one who understood her very soul. Talking with him was as easy as singing a song on a summer’s walk.
He asked her about her hopes, her dreams, and she found herself telling him secret, desperate wishes that she hadn’t dared even admit to her mother. In return, he was full of stories of his travels, of tales of court, and always with an attentive eye. He saw beneath the surface. He understood the depths.
She was wholly enraptured by him.
At last the light faded and her eyelids became heavy. There was a creak from the other room as her father and the Minister finally emerged from his study.
The minister’s voice was hearty and thick. “Good, good. So I’ll see you both at the castle tomorrow.”
Her mother’s tone rose with hope. “Then the painting is sold?”
Her father’s slur responded. “Yesh, yesh, everything is arranged.”
Alexander winked at Ella and gave her a smile. “Maybe I will see you tomorrow, then.”
She lit up in excitement. “You’ll come here for my birthday?”
He smiled. “Your birthday is on midwinter?”
She eagerly nodded. “Momma always says that I’m born when the world gets bright again. When the darkness fades away.”
His gaze held hers. “It certainly does, Ella. Maybe we can have a birthday party at the castle for you.”
Ella shook her head, shadows returning to her world. “My father would not want to take me along, not if there is business to be done. If they are to go, I’ll be told to wait here.”
His gaze held hers. “Then I shall return for you, someday.”
She looked into those blue eyes. “Promise?”
He nodded his head. “Promise.”
The minister’s voice called from the other room. “My Prince? We are ready to return home.”
Alexander stood, gave a sweeping bow to Ella, and turned.
In the beat of a heart, they were gone.
Ella shook herself back to the present. That long-distant day had been the last time she had seen her mother alive. Her parents had been gone before she awoke the next morning.
And then …
She pushed to her feet with determination. Her mother was dead and buried. The only person who could save her now was herself.
She looked down at the ruby-red tablecloth.
There had to be a solution …
Ella carried a pottery vase of fresh sunflowers in to her stepmother’s sitting room, carefully placing them on the corner table where they best caught the light. Her stepmother was at her writing desk, elegantly writing out a letter. Lying before her were two finished letters, each signed with the expansive “Monica” which filled the bottom of the page.
Her stepmother looked up with a curt nod. “About time you brought something new. The old flowers were looking absolutely fetid.” She waved a hand at the letters before her. “As soon as I finish this last letter, you will run down to town to fetch the messenger. These letters must get to my sisters as quickly as possible. They must hear the latest news about my dearest Birgit and Petra. The girls’ choir master told me just yesterday that they have the voices of angels.”
Ella knew the sisters’ harmonies were due to the expensive daily lessons the mother had arranged with the finest bard in the region. She couldn’t deny it. Her stepsisters had the countenances of angels and their voices matched. It was only when one looked within that one saw the blackness of their souls.
Her stepmother’s brow creased and she leaned forward. “Where are my daughters?”
“They went to the baker’s, Frau.”
A sharp grin creased her stepmother’s face, and she nodded. “Ah, the baker boy’s there alone, isn’t he? Good. The girls need to hone their skills on lesser meat if they’re to claim the ultimate prize.”
She looked back down to her letter. “If that’s all, you may go. I want that tablecloth clean and ready for tonight’s meal.”
Ella swallowed. She’d never done this before, but she was desperate. And, after all, it couldn’t possibly get any worse.
“Yes, Frau. I nearly have the stain completely out.”
Her stepmother vaguely waved a hand. “Fine. Then go, go.”
Ella turned as if to go, and then glanced back. “A tinker stopped by earlier this morning, but I told him we had no need of his services and sent him on his way.”
“Rightfully so,” she snapped. “Can’t trust one of those scoundrels as far as one could throw them. We use proper artisans from the castle staff for our needs.”
“It’s just, when he was talking with me, that he said he’d come from the court at Livonia. He said that they were throwing away all their white tablecloths. The color is boring. Like leftover chaff on a fallow field, he said. The new color is deep crimson. Rich. Vibrant. He said he heard that a large shipment of cloth is being planned for our very own castle.”
Her stepmother’s head rose in sharp interest. “Red tablecloths?”
Ella nodded. “It’s supposed to improve the strength and virility of the eater. Just like spices do.”
Her stepmother tapped a finger to her lip. “The King’s planning on red tablecloths, is he …”
She pointed an elegant finger at Ella. “That tablecloth that you’ve finished cleaning? I want you to dye it red. A deep, crimson red. We will be on the forefront of this trend. If any daughters in the land are to be healthy and vibrant, then my Petra and Birgit will be.”
Ella gave a curtsy. “Yes, of course, Frau. It will be done as you request.”
She turned and moved through the door, closing it neatly behind her. Her heart hammered against her ribs, and she could barely believe what she had just done.
It had actually worked.
The next few hours were a blur. She shook out mattresses, cut carrots, fetched the messenger, prepared the rabbit stew, and made sure the tablecloth was the richest shade of red she could muster. At last everything was set. She nervously laid out the tablecloth so that each edge had a matching length. She carefully put each item in its exact place. The golden candelabra with ivory wax candles. The silver chasers holding the fine bone china.
She was just setting the pewter goblets in place when the door flung open. Her father’s slurred shout came. “I’m home!”
Monica drifted down the stairs, her face serenely content. She was in an ivory and gold dress with intricate embroidery along the hems. Her hair was done in artful curls which had taken Ella a full half hour to arrange. She smiled warmly at her husband. “There you are, my sweet Bruno. How was the fair?”
He laid down two bags. “I have brought even more beautiful dresses for our daughters. The expense was worth it. Soon we will have a princess in our family, and we will have everything we’ve ever dreamed of!”
His gaze drew to the table with its red cloth and his brow creased. “What is this?”
She patted his arm. “We are the setters of fashion, my dear. Every step moves us that much closer to our goal.”
He shrugged, went to the shelf, and pulled out a bottle of wine. In a moment he had it open and was filling a pair of glasses. “To us!”
Monica clinked her goblet against his, and they both took long draws.
Laughter echoed from the streets and in a moment Petra and Birgit tumbled into the room, their lips ruby red from berries. Petra was carrying a paper box wrapped in pink ribbon. The most delicious smell of apple tart wafted out of it. Petra tossed it casually into Ella’s hands. “Get this into the kitchen.” She then turned to beam at her mother. “Mama, I brought you home four apple tarts. They’re fresh from the oven.”
Monica fondly ran a hand through Petra’s hair. “Ah, Petra, you are such a smart, smart girl. Maybe it will be you who catches the Prince’s eye.”
Birgit frowned. “I thought you said it could be me?”
Monica laughed. “You are certainly the prettier of the two. Maybe he will take both of you and sleep with one every other night.” She shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter. All that matters is that someone catch that man and connect our family with his.”
Birgit lit up. “Is Prince Alexander finally back from the Bramburg front, then?”
Bruno beamed. “That is the news I have to share. He arrived at the castle tonight! The King is overjoyed at his safe return. He’s been away five long years, after all. He is nearly twenty-six! His father was despairing of ever seeing him wed and with heir. The King sent some sort of an ultimatum, if I hear the rumors right.” His yellowed smile widened. “It seems to have worked.”
Monica clapped her hands together in satisfaction. “Then that will mean a ball and a wife. Girls, all of our planning has led up to this moment! We must pursue these next weeks with the utmost in care. Every detail must be perfect!”
Her father patted his stomach. “But first, let’s eat. I am starving!”
Petra’s eyes went down to the tablecloth, and her mouth hung open in shock. “What is this?”
Ella curled up on her thin mat in the kitchen’s darkest corner, tension roiling her. Her two stepsisters had not dared to say a word about the raspberry-stain color of the tablecloth, but Ella had seen the sharp fury in their eyes. She knew that she would be made to pay for dodging their prank.
Whatever they had planned, she would endure it. For she had promised her mother. She would care for the house – and for her father.
At last it was time. The house settled into its deep sleep. Even snores came from the large, opulent bedrooms above her. The third stair down, the one she carefully tended so it would squeak at the slightest touch, lay silent.
It was safe for her to go.
She silently climbed to her feet and pulled on her boots. She wrapped her threadbare blanket around her shoulders. She now had, on her person, every item she owned from within these four walls.
She took one last glance around and slipped out the kitchen door.
Her feet knew the way by heart, even on a frigid, cloud-roiled night such as this. The narrow footpath into the dense woods. The fallen log crossing the tumbling stream. The thin trail along the cliff’s edge. And, at long last, the small clearing beneath the spreading oak tree.
The small rock beneath which marked her mother’s grave.
When she was younger she had been saddened that her mother had not been buried in the elegant church graveyard. The one nestled within the shadows of the large, white steeple on the town common, a full mile beneath their home. But time had made her aware of many things. Her father’s instant need to cleanse the home – her mother’s family home – of anything which reminded him of her. The delight he had taken in so many women courting him, demonstrating to him in so many ways why they should be the new mistress of the manor.
Ella had never been quite sure what had won Monica’s case for her. After all, she had brought with her two young daughters of her own. And her father had so enjoyed entertaining offer after offer. But it had only been weeks after Monica’s arrival in town that her father had become besotted with her. Then the engagement, the marriage, and Monica had moved in. The two daughters had taken the finest bedrooms.
It had seemed the blink of an eye before Ella’s bed had become the dusty corner in the kitchen.
And through it all her father had said nothing … nothing …
Ella moved through the snow to her mother’s grave and quietly dropped to one knee at its side. She gently laid a hand on the stone. Warmth entered her heart as she thought of her mother’s gentle voice. Of the enduring love her mother held for her. Her mother had done her very best to cherish each day. It had been her frail body which had not been able to hold out.
Ella’s voice came out of her, soft and rough. “I miss you, Momma.”
Ella could remember clearly the prayer the two would share every night. Ella’s mother would come into her room to tuck her in. Together they would bow their heads. Ella would promise her mother – and God – to do her best to be a good girl. To be honest and true. To honor her father and always protect him.
Ella looked down. It was the last which had kept her at home, when every other instinct pleaded with her to run. The thought that her last words to her mother had been a vow to be there for Bruno. For while he had ignored her these past fifteen years – while he had allowed her to be cast aside and ignored – he was still her father. He was still her last and only blood relative on this Earth.
She closed her eyes, striving for strength.
She stood. A twig shimmered in the moonlight, lying fresh on the snow. On a whim she took up the stick and began sketching on the white, frosty surface. She drew the curve of the swans’ necks, just as they had been in her mother’s painting. The soft lift of the feathers. The elegant shape of the bills. Slowly her tensions eased. For a long moment she was lost in the creation. In the memories of all she and her mother had shared.
There was a snuffling noise from the woods’ shadows.
Ella smiled and turned. “Come on out, Pansy. It’s all right.”
An elderly gray mare emerged from the shadows to draw up to her. Ella ran her hand down the horse’s mane, fondly combing out the tangles with her fingers. Pansy had once belonged to Old Mrs. Crabapple, a midwife. When Mrs. Crabapple had passed away, none in the village had been interested in tending to a horse long past her prime. So when Pansy had wandered off, none had cared to look for her.
Luckily, Pansy had done quite fine for herself in the quiet meadow clearings of the forest. Even in this dense winter, she had her ways. Ella brought Pansy a dented or damaged apple from the cellar whenever she was able. In return Pansy kept her company on the long, quiet nights of these visits.
Ella looked over to beneath the oak tree. Underneath the layers of snow lay her cache of treasures. Her bow and arrows; her deerskin coat. Her thick leather boots. Her family might treasure venison, but they did not understand the intricacies of hunting. They could not tell when the skins brought back were not quite whole.
Ella was building a hope chest.
For in a few days – on midwinter’s night – she would turn twenty-one. And then she would count her vow to her mother complete. Her father, after all, had a wife and daughters to watch after him. And Ella, as soon as the weather eased, would vanish into the forest. She would build a cabin, light a fire at her very own hearth, and be free.
Wholly, finally, free.
At last the sky tinged with a gentle glow and Ella sighed. She waved to Pansy. She swept her hand across the glistening snow, erasing her images. She pressed her lips to the stone in a fond farewell.
Then she headed back the long, lonely path to her home.
She had just finished frying the eggs when her father and stepmother stumbled wearily down the stairs. They plunked down in their chairs and Ella brought over their plates. Her parents began eating their meals as she carried over the mugs of warm ale.
Her stepmother looked around. “Where are the two girls? Ella, go make sure they’re up.”
Ella nodded. There was no help for it. She slowly ascended the stairs, ensuring to press down hard on that third creaking stair. She went first to Birgit’s room. She quietly knocked on the door. “Birgit? Time to wake up.”
She pressed the door in and peered around. “Birgit?”
Birgit’s room was a celebration of order. Her bookshelf had each tome neatly aligned with its neighbors and all books were in alphabetical order by title. Her wardrobe doors were firmly shut, but Ella knew the dresses within were hung neatly and properly cleaned. She knew this because she was the one who had done each cleaning. Another dresser held undergarments and, on its polished top, locked boxes held elegant jewelry.
The large, canopied bed held a motionless lump at its center.
Ella walked over to the side of the bed. She leant over. “Birgit –”
A hand snaked out, grabbing Ella by her hair. The hand yanked, and Ella held in the sharp cry of pain through long years of practice.
Birgit’s voice was low and terse. “Don’t think you’ll get away with that little prank of yours, slave. When mother finds out you’ve been lying, you’ll wish you’d never been born.”
Ella remained motionless. She could not react now, not when she was so close to her final escape.
A shrill voice rose from below. “Ella! Get the girls and get down here! We need more bacon.”
Birgit gave Ella’s hair one last pull before flinging off her blankets. Her elegant nightgown shimmered in the morning light. “Coming, mother!”
Ella put her out of her mind; she moved on to the next door. She was just reaching up to knock when it flung open and Petra bowled her into the wall. Petra snapped, “Get out of my way!” She strode down the stairs and Ella could hear the warm greetings offered up by her mother and stepfather.
Ella followed her down and headed back into the kitchen. She had just put the bacon onto a plate when there was a sharp rapping at the door. Her mother snapped, “Well, get the door, girl!”
Ella wiped her hands on her apron and strode to open the door.
An elegant messenger stood there in blue and gold, an embroidered bag hanging at his side. He drew out an envelope with a ruby-red seal and handed it to her. Then he turned and strode down the long lane which headed back to town.
From behind her a chorus of voices sounded.
“What is it?”
“Bring it here!”
“I wonder what it says!”
Her stepmother’s hand was outstretched with the force of a command, and Ella placed the letter into that strong grip. Three pairs of eyes were firmly latched onto it.
Her stepmother drew a fingernail along the edge and drew out the card within. It was on the finest linen paper with exquisite black calligraphy. Ella stepped back into the corner, her heart racing with interest.
What could it be?
Her stepmother looked up in triumph. “I knew it! There’s to be a ball in one week’s time, to celebrate Prince Alexander’s return! And the King makes plain that every eligible young woman in the kingdom is to attend.”
She turned to her two girls. “This is it! All that we have worked for over the years! All that you have practiced and trained for!”
Birgit’s face lit with smiles. “But we must have new dresses, of course! We can’t wear anything that has been seen in the village before.”
Petra put a hand to her breast. “And new jewels as well! So that all eyes are drawn to us!”
Her stepmother nodded in approval. “You are exactly right, girls. We will go to the seamstress this very afternoon. No expense will be spared.” Her grin grew wide. “For once we have the prince, the coffers of the kingdom will be ours. We will have wealth without limit.”
Ella’s father raised his glass in toast to the other three women. “To being rich beyond our wildest imaginings!”
The glasses met his, and their planning began in earnest.
Ella drew even further back into her dark corner.
The scene of her mother’s painting. The last, final months that Ella and her mother had spent joyfully together.
There was, of course, never even the slightest suggestion that Ella would be invited to the ball. Ella had no doubt that, if she brought it up, her stepmother would tie her to a fence-post like a goat in order to force her to stay behind.
The glimmer of an idea lit within her.
She would go on her own.
The invitation had clearly stated that all eligible young women would be allowed through the main castle gates. As long as she could make it there, she could slip off to the gardens and her family would be none the wiser. She could finally fulfill her one dearest wish.
To see the palace gardens one more time.
Hope warmed her from within. Most of her childhood memories had faded over the years, despite her best efforts to hold tight, until the one clear recollection which remained was that of her times with her mother in those palace gardens. She could remember the arch of the bridge. The cool breeze which came across the small lake. But mostly she basked in the warm love of her mother. The sense that everything would be all right.
Resolution grew within Ella.
For one evening, if even for just a brief hour, she longed to bask again in that glow. For she knew it could sustain her for a lifetime of winters to come.
It seemed as if a whirlwind had invaded the household. Seven straight days of primping. Of preening. Of trying out every item of jewelry available from any story within reach. Seamstresses came and went, each more frazzled than the next. Ella ran ragged keeping up with orders shouted more quickly than she could follow.
Only one thought sustained her.
The gardens, after all these years, were finally within her reach.
And she had a plan.
She carefully studied the efforts of each seamstress who came in to work on her two stepsisters. The stepsisters immediately put Ella to work holding the pins or adjusting the cloth. But what the stepsisters saw as mindless tedium, Ella absorbed as free training on how to design the perfect dress. Every detail of tuck and nip, of fold and layer, was memorized with precise attention.
And now the day had finally arrived.
Ella had to admit that her stepsisters looked stunning. Birgit wore an elegant gown of shimmering blue, with lace along her neckline. Petra’s outfit was the deepest green. Both women held matching fans created from delicate bird feathers.
Ella’s stepmother came forward with a proud smile. “I knew you two could do it. All these years of effort have finally paid off. Now I don’t care which of you wrangles his attention tonight, but this is your one and only chance. Whatever it takes – however it comes about – one of you must be his by the end of the evening. Do I make myself clear?”
Two heads nodded. Two pairs of eyes gleamed with bright intent.
Ella’s father pressed open the front door. “Here comes the coach.” He turned to look back at Ella. “Make sure you are up and waiting for us when we return, no matter how late it is. The girls will need help undressing – I’m sure they will be exhausted.”
Ella dropped her gaze in dutiful submission. “Of course, Father.”
He gave a half-hearted wave in her direction, and then the family whisked through the opening. They stepped up into the elegant black coach. And then it was easing through the snow off into the late afternoon glow.
Ella waited at the door until they were down the lane and disappearing in the far distance.
She closed the door, her heart pounding with nervous excitement.
In a flash, she had the main dining table cleared. The crimson tablecloth, freshly laundered and ironed, was laid out along it. Ella had sketched her dress in the snow of the back yard so many times that it was now second nature. She took up a burnt twig from the fireplace and carefully drew the lines. And then she began cutting.
There was no turning back now.
As soon as the pieces were set, she sat down to do the needlework. Her fingers flew along the stitches. Where her sisters had demanded flowers and ivy, whirls and embellishments, Ella’s focus was simply on creating a dress which fit her well. After all, the outfit had precious few criteria to meet. It would need to be sturdy enough to survive the long, chilly trek down to the castle. It had to be reasonably presentable, so that the palace guards allowed her through those main gates. And, finally, it would need to keep her warm while she spent her time in the castle’s private gardens.
And when she returned?
She would need to disassemble the dress and re-sew the pieces back together to form the original rectangle. Iron it perfectly flat. Yes, there would be seams, but with the dark crimson color they would not stand out strongly. If they were noticed, Ella would explain that the cloth had been damaged and she had repaired it the best she could. If she were punished, so be it.
She would risk anything to see the gardens for one final time.
She sewed and pieced, tucked and folded. From lanes deep down the hill came the merry shouts of families and the bright neighs of horses. While some of the town could afford beautiful carriages, many others took whatever transportation they could. And for a number of families, that meant wagons with blankets laid over hay. She could hear the families singing as they passed.
The last of the voices faded into the distance.
The shadows were long by the time the dress was ready. She slipped out of her shift, put it in the corner of the kitchen, and then eased into the dress. She propped the silver tray up on the mantle to take a look at herself in its reflection.
Her mouth went round.
Her week of intense study with the seamstresses had paid off. The dress was not one-tenth as fancy as those of her stepsisters, but it was the finest thing Ella had ever worn. She had trouble believing it was really her.
She tentatively lifted a hand; the reflection waved back at her.
She glanced out the window.
Evening was sending long fingers of deep orange shadows across the ice-traced trees.
There was one item left.
She went to the back door and lifted up the weathered wooden lid of the storage box. Usually beneath were the tools she needed to care for the hens and goats. But tucked in along with them, beneath a burlap sack, was hidden her final touch.
A pair of ice-carved slippers.
She could not wear her boots with her dress – not without causing comment. So she had taken care, these past seven days, to carve two blocks of ice into perfectly-fitting shoes. They almost appeared to be carved of glass. They would be nearly impossible to walk in, of course, with their rigid form and lack of bend. Could one even dance properly in a glass slipper? In any case, for the purpose of making it past the guardians at the gate, the crystal shoes would do just fine.
She tucked them carefully in a leather bag at her shoulder. She would only put them on when she got close.
Ready for her journey, she made her way to the front door. One last glance around, and she slipped through. She drew it shut behind her.
There had been the faint hope of ask a villager for a ride, but as she approached the town proper it was clear that every home was dark and silent. Her dressmaking had taken longer than she’d hoped. There was no other option. She would have to go on foot.
Desperation soaked into her. It was a full six miles to the palace. By the time she arrived, even if she turned right around again, she would barely make it home before the family returned. And how would she have time to reassemble the tablecloth …
Her hopes and dreams were fading out of reach, and her shoulders sagged.
There was a soft nicker at her side.
She looked around in surprise.
Pansy stood there, her age showing in her thin withers, but her eyes were clear and bright. She came up alongside Ella.
Ella gave her a fond pat. “What are you doing out here, dear friend? You should be in the meadow, enjoying an evening meal.”
Pansy nudged her head toward the main road.
Ella’s brow creased. “You can’t be serious. That’s a long way for you to go.”
Pansy gave a soft nicker.
Ella gave it thought. She could just ride for a short while, after all. Maybe that would be enough to give her the time she needed.
She carefully climbed up onto Pansy’s back. “All right, girl. We’ll just take it slow and –”
Pansy ambled into a walk … a trot … and then the smoothest canter Ella had ever seen.
She twined her hands into Pansy’s mane. “Pansy! I had no idea!”
Pansy whinnied with delight, her muscles moving sure and smooth through the snow.
Ella leaned down over Pansy’s neck, the thrill of the motion coursing through her. She had heard rumors about how wonderful a horse Pansy had been in her youth, of course. How Mrs. Crabapple had made it through all types of weather to get to a patient’s side. But that had been years ago. Everyone thought Pansy was long past her prime.
Pansy was proving them wrong.
The sun was setting in shimmering crimsons and golds when they approached the towering outer walls. Ella could see the peaks of the castle proper further within, but she had little use for those. That would be where her stepfamily preened and strutted. The last place Ella would want to be was anywhere near them. No, she had a quite different destination in mind.
She dismounted and gave Pansy a fond pat. “You go on home, now. I’ll be able to get back on my own.”
Pansy gave a rippled whinny which almost sounded like a laugh. Then she moved over to the side of the twenty-foot-high outer wall where slender tufts of grass poked out through the glistening snow. She began contentedly nibbling.
Ella chuckled. She pulled off her boots and slid on the ice slippers. The material was cold and fit snugly against her feet. Without any bend to the sole, they proved difficult to walk in. She left the boots near Pansy and then minced her way carefully toward the open gates.
The guards on either side smiled as she approached. One said, “You’re a straggler, aren’t you? I’m sure we’ve had a full four hundred girls through here, with their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters …”
The other chimed in. “Aunts, uncles, grandparents …”
Ella brought on a smile, ignoring the icy chill of her feet. “Then I guess I’d better catch up!”
The guards waved her through and resumed their watch on the main road.
Ella stepped beneath the curving arch.
It had been fifteen long years, but now that she stood within the gates, the memories came flooding back in. The towering castle keep stood a full five stories high. The road she stood on, wide enough to fit four horses side-by-side, ran through a main courtyard ringed by blacksmiths and tinsmiths, bakers and stables. It ended up right at the massive steps up into the castle itself.
She turned right.
This was the way her mother had taken her. Along the path behind the stables. Turn at the well. Then follow the slight dip, down against the side of the castle for a while, until –
Her mouth dropped open, and tears came to her eyes.
There it was.
She stumbled ahead, her ice-slippers barely hindering her now, joy lifting her. The gentle curve of the pond with its delicate ice frosting. The elegant arching of the bridge over. And, once she reached the far side –
She turned to face the castle.
She could barely breathe, it was so breathtakingly beautiful.
She was looking at the bank of two-story-high windows which opened onto the ballroom. Within she could see the whirling colors of the dancers. Blue – green – crimson – white … She couldn’t hear anything from this distance, except the rhythmic beat of the drums, but she was sure that beautiful melodies of musicians cascaded around each couple. It was all the perfect backdrop for the scene her mother had painted.
The world which had been for the two of them alone.
Time drifted by. The rustling of the leaves, the twinkling of the stars, the shimmering of the moon, it all brought her emotions out of her, rich and full.
It was almost as if she could feel her mother there by her side. The warmth of her love. The tenderness of her smile.
At last the chill of the night began to ease in through the fabric layers. She reluctantly turned -
A voice cut into her thoughts, deep and curt.
“What are you doing here?”
Ella spun in surprise, guilt coursing through her.
A guard was there in the shadows. He was dressed in a dark tunic with dark leggings. His hand rested on the hilt of his sword. He was in his mid-twenties with short blond hair. His gaze seemed hollow. Shuttered.
Her voice caught in her throat. She backed up a step. “I’m so sorry. I just wanted to see the gardens –”
His shoulders eased. “It’s all right. The palace grounds are open to all. I just wasn’t expecting to find anybody here.” He nudged his head toward the balcony windows. “Shouldn’t you be up there, making yourself seen?”
She burst out laughing. “Making myself seen? The last thing I want to do is be seen tonight! I came here for the gardens.”
He seemed surprised. His gaze flickered to the windows and back to her. “You aren’t here for the party?”
She shook her head. “No. I just wanted to see the gardens and then head home again.”
He opened his mouth and then closed it again. He shrugged. “All right. Well, here they are.”
She turned again to the gardens.
They were stunning in the snow. She’d only seen them in summertime, and in autumn foliage, but they took on a fresh beauty in the winter. She found her feet guiding her to the bridge. She walked up to stand on its curve, looking out to the delicate icing of the scene below. She wondered where the swans were. Perhaps they had a wooden home built for them in the nook of the castle somewhere.
A voice came at her shoulder. “For what do you seek?”
She blushed. “The … ummm … swans. Do they live nearby when it’s cold out?”
He glanced at her in surprise, and then nodded. He pointed. “There is a shelter built for them under those eaves. They will come back out in the spring, when the ice melts.”
She smiled. “That’s good. I am glad they are safe.”
His voice grew quiet. “I had forgotten how peaceful it was here.”
She looked over at that. “This is not your usual post?”
He drew back into the shadows. “I have been away on the front for many years. I have only recently returned.”
She nodded. “I imagine you traveled with the prince, then. I heard he fought on the Bramburg line. It could not have been easy.”
His eyes flickered over. “Most women would have said it was noble and valiant to fight in the war.”
She held in a snort. “Most women sit by a window all day stitching roses and gossiping of dresses. They have no idea what it means to kill.”
His gaze grew disbelieving. “And you do?”
“ Not a human,” she conceded, “but I bring home the family meals. To kill any creature uncleanly … the animal suffers horribly. I invested my life into learning how to shoot well. If the family was to eat, I would do it without causing any unnecessary suffering. And especially the deer -”
His voice was low in its echo. “Deer.”
She flushed, suddenly realizing she was talking with a royal guard. “No, that is, we mostly eat rabbit and badger. I only meant –”
He blinked in surprise, and then his shoulders eased. “Of course, of course. I would not judge you. Not tonight.”
She breathed in relief.
His gaze drifted out toward the woods.
The guard murmured, “I always thought it was greedy of … the royal family … to claim all deer their own. After all, many families along the forest struggle with hunger in the deep winter. I would never complain for you to have your fair share.”
Pride prickled within Ella’s heart, and she found herself saying, “Many might face hunger, but not ours. I would never allow it. My aim is true.”
His gaze twinkled. “Oh, indeed? Might I have a demonstration?”
He waved a hand toward the right.
Ella followed his gaze.
A small wooden structure was tucked in against trees. Beneath the elegantly curled roof was a sturdy rack, where bows and arrows lay in a neat line.
Ella’s heart thundered with nervous curiosity. Half of her argued to head back home right now. She had seen her garden. But the other half was drawn in by what she saw laid out before her. Surely they were the finest bows and arrows one could imagine.
Just to touch one …
She glanced nervously at the guard. “Are you sure?”
He nodded, a smile playing on his lips.
That was all she needed.
She went down the bows until she found one just the right height and thickness. She expertly tucked her foot in against one end and strung it up. Then she slung a quiver of arrows over her shoulder. Luckily she had made her dress with tight-fitting arms – there was no loose fabric there to interfere with her draw.
She positioned herself before one of the targets. It was about forty feet down the alley.
The guard smiled indulgently. “You can move closer if you wish.”
Ella chuckled, her nervousness falling away. “If I weren’t able to hit a deer precisely from this distance, we’d have starved half the winters. And I would not ever allow myself to leave an animal injured. I have vowed to kill with the first blow.”
She drew out the arrow and carefully laid it into position.
She drew back …
The arrow whistled as it flew through the air. It landed dead center of the bullseye.
The guard laughed in delight. “I can see you’re as good as your world! Would that we had your skill on the front.”
His gaze shadowed, and he looked down.
Ella could feel his emotion. She stepped forward. “I’m sorry that it was bad for you. But it’s necessary, right? If we did not hold the Bramburgs off, they would sweep in and destroy us all.”
His gaze was dark. “That is what is said. And yet, sometimes, it feels as if they are merely holding us in place. As if the desire is to fuel the creation of yet more suits of armor. Of even more arrows and swords. For the lines never change. The battlefield grows ever darker in blood.”
A snippet of remembered conversation came to Ella. “My father once said that the Queen’s brother runs the armory. And that his house grows ever more prosperous with every passing year.”
The guard glanced over with sharp interest. “Who told you that?”
Ella blanched, remembering again who she was talking with. “Nobody,” she stuttered. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything. I should be heading home.”
He put up his hands, his voice easing off. “Please, don’t. It is nice talking with you. You are more … real … than the women inside.”
A true smile came to her lips. “If they are anything like my stepsisters, I can only imagine. If Birgit and Petra were required to take on one-tenth of my duties, they would barely understand where to begin.”
Her gaze grew serious. “Just as, I imagine, few within understand the sacrifices you make in order to keep them safe from harm.”
His head nodded.
His eyes glowed with heartfelt appreciation.
He stepped forward to take her hand –
Time stood still. The world was frosted, chilled, and edged in deep silence.
Ella spun to the castle in confusion, her eyes moving to the tall windows of the ballroom. What had happened to the drummers?
Her mouth fell open in shock.
The guard’s gaze followed hers. His hand fell to the hilt of his sword; a muffled curse shot from his lips.
The brightly colored women – and the elegantly tuniced men at their sides – were pressed up against the walls. In the center of the ballroom were men in armor and swords, with their weapons raised high.
The castle was under attack.
Ella was racing toward the castle, tumbling in her ice-shoes, calling out the alarm, and strident horns echoed in answer from the walls. Ella thought again of all the carts and wagons she had heard rolling through the town during the afternoon. Yes, undoubtedly many had held villagers and their families. However, it would have been easy enough for hostile troops to enter in disguise. The King’s soldiers at the gates could hardly be expected to know every single family from every remote corner. Undoubtedly every wagon which had at least one female form in it – no matter how homely – was allowed through. And it wouldn’t take much effort to dress a young soldier up in a woman’s outfit.
She turned to sprint left around a corner. The guard grabbed her arm, pulling her right. “Not that way. Come. I know a shorter route.”
There was a small door in the side of the wall, and he reached into a narrow hole alongside it. Some sort of a twisting pull, and it opened. Before them were a steep flight of stone steps.
They went up.
A landing, another set of steps, and he put a finger to his lips. She nodded.
He carefully crept forward.
She realized they were on a balcony flanked by thick curtains, overlooking one corner of the ballroom. The musicians were huddled back behind them on the balcony in a silent mob. Horns, flutes, and other instruments were strewn about the floor. A trio of wine glasses sat empty along the balcony edge.
The guard barely glanced at the musicians. He eased around the curtain to look below. Ella crouched below him to do the same.
The room had stilled in a tableau.
At the far end of the room was the head table. Ella had never seen the King and Queen, but surely the crowned blond couple in the beautiful black-and-gold outfits were them. The Queen was as beautiful as everyone said she was. Ringlets of golden hair cascaded along her cheeks. The King was portly with a thick beard.
The King was lowering himself down onto a knee, his gaze glued on his wife.
She stood stock still.
A man in a silver tunic stood behind her, a glinting dagger held at her throat.
A low growl sounded in the guard’s voice. “That is Sir Hector himself. The gall of him, to take her hostage in the open! If he dares to hurt her …”
Ella scanned the rest of the room. There were around fifty of the King’s soldiers around the room, with more coming in, but each man who saw the situation froze in place. Perhaps thirty of the enemy were arrayed before the head table. Ella had no doubt that the Hector’s aim was to force the Queen to move down into the middle of those enemies – and then for the whole group to leave the castle.
Who knew what concessions would then be demanded for the Queen’s safe return?
The guard’s hand clenched on his sword. “We need to do something.” His eyes moved amongst the positions, cataloguing his options.
Ella carefully drew an arrow from her quiver. She kept her voice low. “Do you trust me?”
He went pale.
“You cannot be serious. That is the Queen down there.”
She nodded. “All tales of Sir Hector are of his cruel, spiteful nature. If he is able to spirit her away – how long do you think his series of demands would go on? What will she suffer in his care – and what if he never lets her go? What if, in the end, he takes the entire kingdom as his own – and the Queen is never seen again?”
From the shadowed look in the guard’s eyes, the thought was not far from his own.
Hector was at the far end of the table.
He gave the slightest of nods. “Do it. Before it is too late.”
Ella lowered herself to lean on the balcony, just as she would against a fallen tree. She drew in a deep breath. The arrow was just so.
A clock chimed somewhere far above. Was it midnight already? Ella absently counted the tolls as she sighted carefully, oh so carefully, for the exposed area of Hector’s chest. This gave her the greatest space to work with that would ensure Hector dropped that dagger.
Hector turned –
The time was perfect.
She released –
A shriek filled the room. Her stepmother’s voice called out in outrage, “What in the world?!”
Against all odds, against any move that Ella could think a human body could possibly make, Hector turned so that the arrow struck him not full in the chest, but high in the shoulder. His groan shook the room, but his grip on his dagger remained firm. Another blink and he dove the remaining distance into the safety of his troop, dragging the Queen with him.
Hector’s men closed in tight around him, sealing him and his hostage safely within their wall of swords.
Ella’s stepmother’s shriek rose even higher. A finger pointed straight at Ella. “Traitor!”
Ella’s world spun up into a blur.
She raced past the shocked guard, leaving him behind. She stumbled down the steps, tumbling out through the door. She had to get out of the castle gates before she was caught. Before she was drawn, quartered, eviscerated, and burned alive. She doubted the word of one lone guard could save her from that fate.
The courtyard was deserted, and even the two men at the main gates had all their attention on the palace within. One asked her, as she raced toward them, “What has happened? We heard the alarm, but cannot leave our posts.”
She tripped, and one of her ice-slippers tumbled onto the stones. She let it lie. There were more important things to consider. “The Queen has been taken hostage,” she shot out as she drew close. “You will probably have to let her through, for her own safety. But be ready to follow her.”
The guards stared at her in shock.
And then she was past them, tumbling up alongside Pansy.
Ella pulled off her other ice shoe and flung it hard into the far wall, where it burst into a thousand pieces. Then she tugged on her boots and vaulted onto Pansy’s back. “Come on. We have to get into the woods. We have to get ahead of them.”
Pansy seemed to need no urging. She lit out at a canter, they turned hard right, and in a moment they were on the road toward Bramburg.
She leaned down over her mount’s mane –
The thunder of hooves sounded from behind her.
Her throat tightened in panic. She looked over her shoulder –
It was the guard. He was on a sleek black stallion, the finest she had ever seen. And, despite Pansy’s speed, he was drawing up to her as if she were standing still.
There was no use for it.
She reined and let him draw close.
He shook his head as he came alongside her. “Where are you going? Surely you live in town, to the south?”
She stared at him in shock. “It is my fault the Queen is in trouble. I am going to find a place to intercept them. To whittle down their numbers, if I can do nothing else.”
His gaze went in surprise from her to the bow she still carried at her side. “You are going to take them all on yourself?”
“What is the alternative, to let her die? It is my fault.”
“It is not your fault,” he shot back. “Sir Hector is the one who held a knife to her throat. You did not arrange for their ambush, did you?”
She shook her head. “But I hardly made it better.”
“You are the only one who tried to save her,” pointed out the guard. “Without you –”
Ella glanced back down the road toward the castle. “If we stand her arguing, they will be on us and kill both of us. Can we continue this later?”
His gaze sparkled, but he nodded. “Then we will do this together.”
She frowned. “Are you sure? If you are found with me, they might string you up, too. I could not take responsibility for that.”
His eyes, for once, lost a bit of their shadows. A smile came to his lips. “If it comes to that, we will face that together as well.”
A warmth came to her chest, and she could barely breathe.
She glanced to the left. “If we are going to fight, I need to gather up my supplies.”
He nodded. His hand fell to the hilt of his sword. “Lead the way.”
She found the narrow deer-trail and guided Pansy down it. Pansy hardly needed urging – she knew the way well. Past the badger-hole, around the tumble of rocks, and then there was the clearing with the small grave.
The guard looked around in curiosity as she climbed down. “This is someone’s resting place?”
She nodded. “My mother’s. She passed away fifteen years ago.”
“I’m so sorry.”
She went to the mound and dug her way through the snow. At last she reached her precious cache. She pulled off her thin boots and replaced them with the thick, furred ones. The tunic came next, pulled right over her red dress. She strapped her knife at her side.
His voice came from behind her. “Why do you keep these things out in the woods?”
She answered absently, cinching the belt tight. “If my stepmother knew any of these things existed, she’d sell them in the blink of an eye. And I promised my mother I’d watch over my father, so I’ve stayed until now. But tomorrow is my twenty-first birthday. I will consider my debt to my father – and my vow to my mother – paid in full. I will be leaving home.”
He dismounted and stared at her as if she were a faerie. “You what?”
She blushed in hot shame. “I know, a daughter’s place is to care for her family. But I just can’t –”
He waved a hand, taking long strides toward her through the thick snow. He stared at her as if he had not seen her before now. “Not that. I mean … tomorrow is your birthday? Tomorrow? Mid-winter?”
Her flush grew even stronger. “Yes.”
He seemed as if he could barely speak. “What is your name?”
Now she felt as if her throat had closed up. Why was she so reluctant to tell him? It took her three tries to get the word out. But at last she did, on breath so faint she wondered if he could hear her.
He sagged against the oak.
His voice was hollow. “You’re alive? But I thought – I’d been told – ”
She could not breathe. The glimmer of an idea began glowing in the back of her mind.
He drew in a breath, staring at her. “Do you know how many nights, in the trenches, that memories of our conversation kept me whole? How thoughts of your determined strength brought me through the darkest hours?”
She stared more closely into his eyes –
Into their deepest depths –
Her world hung motionless.
A whinny from Pansy reminded Ella of the precarious situation, and she finished adjusting her knife at her hip. She forced her voice to be matter-of-fact. “Your mother is in the hands of a foul knight. My failed shot may have made things even worse for her. Rest assured I will do all I can to help get her back.”
She looked up at Alexander.
Now that she knew who he was, she could see the blue of his eyes, even in the shadows. The strength in his shoulders.
The mix of pain and bright hope in his gaze.
He looked as if he might take a step forward, but he held himself back and nodded in acceptance. He mounted his horse and waited for her to do the same. “I imagine Hector’s force will go off the main road as soon as possible, so that they evade my father’s pursuing troops. If we are to intercept them, we must do the same. I suggest we plow north from here, directly into the woods.”
Her brow creased. “But that would bring us down into the swamps. That is dangerous territory, even in the drier months. If we attempt it now, with the snow cover over it, we will hardly know which path is safe. A horse could easily break through and become hopelessly mired.”
His gaze held hers. “Do you have another suggestion?”
Ella sighed and shook her head. “Lead on, and I will go at your side.”
He nodded, his gaze shining.
And then they were in motion.
He forged through the brush, his steed moving with careful precision across fallen log and tumbled rocks. Pansy followed in his path, often using the same hoof-prints in the snow for her own smaller frame. They paused occasionally to listen for any sounds of their quarry, but the forest echoed in silence. Only the whistle of the wind and the shush of snow falling from a branch answered them.
Dawn was just bringing faint light to the sky when Alexander pulled up. His brow was creased with concern. “The swamp begins in earnest before us. You have been good to stay with me this far, Ella, but I beg you to go back. I have no doubt that you are a talented archer – but if your mare were to falter –”
Before she could form a retort, Ella found Pansy stepping forward.
Ella reached for the reins. “Pansy, wait –”
Calmly, with determination, Pansy stepped forward into the swamp.
Alexander’s voice held concern. “Ella, pull her back. She doesn’t know –”
Pansy walked along a ridge with quiet certainty.
Awareness lit Ella, and she held back a laugh. “Oh, but Alexander, she does know. This is where she lives. This is her back yard. She probably knows far better than any of us how to traverse the maze of treacherous swamp and firmer soil.”
Alexander’s gaze held doubt, but at last he gave his steed a nudge to follow. Now it was Ella and Pansy leading the way.
Down, down, down they went, deeper and deeper into the valley of the swamp. A hill rose alongside them to the right. Ella had heard legends that it had provided coal in the distant past, but now it lay vacant.
They rounded a corner.
There, tucked into the base of the hill, was a long stone cottage. Its thatch roof was layered in snow. Thin tendrils of smoke rose from its chimney. A heavy fence surrounded it, but it was barely visible – the entire property was ringed close by thick, high shrubs of bushy pine. Only a narrow entrance at one end existed, closed by a sturdy gate.
Alexander reined in hard, his face going white.
Ella looked back at him in surprise. “What is it?”
His eyes were locked on a wooden cross nailed to the chimney. His voice was rough. “They’re real.”
“Who are real?”
His hand dropped to the hilt of his sword.
Ella followed his gaze.
The front door of the cottage had pressed open. Out into the snow marched six warriors, short, burly, in leather armor with crosses embossed at each chest. Their hands rested on swords at their hips.
They lined up before the cottage, their gaze resolutely on Alexander.
Ella’s throat went dry. “We can always go back –”
A low chuckle sounded from behind them.
A seventh man stood there, perched on a rock, a crossbow held steadily in his hands.
It was aimed directly at Ella’s chest.
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Heart-felt thanks to:
Ruth, who always provides feedback and support for all my projects.
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I grew up, as most girls do, reading fairy tales. I was often torn between enjoying the fantasy and being disappointed by how passive the heroines seemed to be.
Let’s take sleeping beauty. Aurora lays asleep on a bed for a hundred years until a guy comes, kisses her, and marries her.
Snow White? She stupidly, despite many warnings, eats an apple given to her by a stranger. She falls into a death-sleep and lays in her coffin until a guy comes along, kisses her, and marries her.
Or Beauty and the Beast. I admit I adored the library, especially in the animated version. But I was less keen on the idea that a woman in an abusive relationship simply had to be patient and understanding, and the ‘beast’ would eventually give up on his abuse and treat her like a princess.
I have been working on my own versions for many years. It took countless tweakings before I felt I had created the mix of strong-and-compassionate that I hoped to convey.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on them!
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Be the change you wish to see in the world.
65 pages / 12,649 words Cinderella made a vow to her mother, before her mother tragically passed away on midwinter's day. Ella had sworn to watch over her father and care for him. But then her father had married anew. Her stepmother and two stepsisters took sharp delight in causing Ella grief from morn to eve. They bullied her, called her Cinderella, and treated her as little more than a slave in her own home. It took all of Ella's courage to swallow the insults and to honor her word. Now the crown prince had returned home from the battlefront, and a ball was announced to celebrate his arrival. All eligible young women from the entire kingdom were invited to attend. Ella had but one desire left. To see the king's gardens one last time before she fled home. It would be a final way to commemorate her beloved mother before considering her vow's terms to be complete. She had no idea what waited her on that arched stone bridge ... * * * Cinderella - A Retelling with Strength and Courage is Book 1 of a gently cliff-hangered short story series. The series honors the original intention of the Grimm Fairy Tales - to present women of strength and courage tackling challenges which seemed insurmountable. With each new book a new heroine is interwoven into the story. The series sequence leads up to a happily ever after ending. The series is clean romance and is suitable for teens and up. Half of all author's proceeds benefit battered women's shelters. I publish my books one at a time to get feedback and suggestions as I go. If you prefer to read your stories complete, you are welcome to wait until the sequence is complete and then buy the box set. Either way, you support the cause! I have been working on these stories for many years. As fairy tales are so integral to so many young girls' lives, it was critical for me to do my very best to present each heroine in a way which honored her strength and showcased her ability to stand on her own. I feel strongly that no woman should ever sit around waiting for a man to "rescue" them. They should not endure abusive behavior in the hopes that a man will change or magically become that prince. Be the change you wish to see in the world.