Other New Adult and Children’s books by Jon Jacks
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‘You’re a… girl?’
You know, I’m always open to sparing them until they come up with that line.
Like it means they suddenly think they’ve been running away for no reason.
Like it’s all gonna work out just fine for them, after all.
He laughs; they usually do at this point.
A laugh of relief that they’re not gonna die after all, as they’d feared.
Laughing a little at themselves, too, for being so stupid that they honestly thought the rider chasing them through all these forests was actually a man, not a ‘silly little girl’.
Laughing because they think all their problems are over.
Nope; they’re only just beginning.
This one was easier to catch than usual.
Sure, he ran; but he’s a little bit overweight these days. No longer the relatively handsome young man I remember visiting our castle with the prince, even though it didn’t really happen so long ago.
Of course, he appears older than he really is. As a number of them do.
Some seem ridiculously young; vulnerable.
I find them the hardest to deal with. The hardest to find.
In the early days of my searching, I’d actually passed close by some of them with out actually realising how close I was to my goal.
Of course, it was all down to magic; magic they had no influence over.
Magic they’ve suffered, rather than gained from.
That’s why they’ve all changed so much.
In the last few years, I’ve changed too: but in completely different ways.
See, I realised, even way back then, that I really was ‘just a girl’.
The boys, the men; they were the ones trained to hunt, to fight.
‘Girls’ like me; well, it was all ‘catch yourself a good husband, dear!’
Needlepoint lessons, how to dance – that sorta thing.
I’d always wondered why I hated all those things.
And now I know; I just wasn’t cut out for it, was I?
Turns out, see, I’m more cut out for cutting up people – especially those who refuse to tell me what I need to know.
Even if he didn’t fear me, you’d think he’d have the sense to fear Cer, Ber and Us.
(Yeah, I’ve read my histories; I named them after Cerberus.)
They’re my hounds; black, massive.
Hungry looking, no matter how much I feed them.
He certainly feared them when they were chasing after him and his poor terrified mount through the forests.
If he’d have dared waste a moment by staring back at us, he’d have seen the way they flowed through the undergrowth like the darkest of shadows, unhindered by bushes, even trees.
As for me, he would have wondered how I appear so dark, even on an eerily moonlit night like this one, as if I’m absorbing any nearby light.
But now he sees I’m ‘just a girl’; well, he thinks I can’t be serious about setting the hounds on him.
Well, girls just don’t do that sort thing, do they now?
I mean, just how wrong could this idiot be?
If they’re hungry (which they always are), if he refuses to tell me what I want to know: well, he’d have brought it all upon himself, wouldn’t he?
Why should I hold myself responsible for his stupidity?
He doesn’t recognise me.
Then again, why should he?
I was just one of innumerable girls the prince and his entourage visited as they toured the kingdom.
‘You know, you’re quite beautiful,’ he says now, fluttering his eyes at me.
Hoping I’ll be flattered, no doubt. Hoping I’ll start thinking, ‘Hey, you know what? He’s all right after all!’
Or, better still for him, ‘Wow, like maybe he’s even good husband material!’
Only thing he’s really good for at the moment is providing a snack for my dogs.
Unless – he can tell me what I want to know.
‘The Glass Slipper: what happened to it?’
My whimpering captive babbles.
They always do at this point.
Making out he wasn’t the one in charge, that there were other people superior to him who took responsibility for all things like that.
Typical, isn’t it?
What do men usually do but try and impress you with how important they how, how powerful, how high up they are in the pecking order?
Get them in a position like this, however, and it’s all ‘Oh, it wasn’t poor little me!’
Well, to give the guy his dues, he doesn’t look all-powerful at present.
All his clothes torn, caught on any number of branches and brambles as he fled through the forest.
His face cut a little too.
As his horse eventually had the good sense to throw him, he’s also a little muddy, a little bit bruised.
My lasso holds his arms tightly about his waist. The bolero I brought him down with as he tried to run away binds his legs even tighter.
Even so, he’d desperately tried to get up, to hop away.
When he still thought I was a man; still thought his life was in danger.
When I’d lassoed him he’d screamed like a little girl.
To give him credit, I’ve heard far worse; but then, we’re still in the early stages of the negotiations, aren’t we?
‘I’d heard it broke; or maybe, someone even broke it on purpose! It was dangerous, I’d heard – though I don’t know why!’
I nod; yep, others have said the very same thing.
Like them, he’s telling me this in the hope I think I’ve set myself an impossible task.
How can you possibly find a glass slipper that’s been smashed?
What would be the point, anyway?
The point is, of course, that all of Cinderella’s magical garments vanished on the stroke of twelve, yes?
But not the Glass Slipper.
Which means that slipper is still full of magic!
‘You’re not telling me anything new,’ I say to him calmly as I stoke the campfire I’ve made.
I’ve got all night to get the truth out of him.
Not that I don’t believe him about the slipper being smashed.
I do: I most surely do.
‘But if it’s smashed,’ he replies, managing a bemused grin, ‘then it means it can’t be found. No one knows where it is!’
I just knew he’d told me it had been shattered in the hope I’d call off this mad quest.
Yeah, it is mad.
Mad at him for wasting my time.
Without warning, I abruptly rise up from my crouch by the fire and launch myself towards him.
Grabbing him roughly by the legs, I begin to drag his bared feet closer to the fire.
He’d chuckled earlier when I’d removed his boots, his socks; no doubt thinking it was a very womanly thing to do.
Like I was welcoming him home and making him comfortable by the fire.
Now he shrieks for mercy, realising at last that I mean business.
He’s probably surprised by my strength. Surprised by how careless I am about his wellbeing as I drag him brutally over the rocks.
‘What else do you want to know?’ he screams. ‘I don’t know anything else!’
‘Names,’ I say. ‘Like I got your name off the last man I killed.’
‘Who…who was it; the man you killed?’
He’s quaking now, bless him.
Like he wants his mummy.
‘I presume you mean the man I just mentioned?’ I ask him coolly. ‘I mean, you wouldn’t want the list, would you now?’
He blanches, nods weakly.
‘Baron Nene,’ I say, stoking the fire again, letting his dainty little toes feel the heat.
Now he turns a deathly white. He recognises the name of course.
Recognises, too, that Nene was also a member of the prince’s group.
‘But…but Nene was…was…’
‘A knight? One of the kingdom’s best swordsmen? That what you’re trying to say?’
He nods again, gulps in dismay.
‘Why did he give you my name?’ he asks worriedly.
‘It was the only thing he thought he could give me, I suppose.’
I stare intently into his wide, fear-filled eyes.
‘Like you, maybe? If you really can’t tell me where any of the pieces might be, then tell me the name of someone who can.’
So I get another name.
Probably as useless as the last one, truth be known.
But I’ve got to start somewhere, haven’t I?
Did I kill him, once he’d told me all I knew?
Naturally, I’ d thought about it; I mean, I don’t want him sending out a warning to all the rest of the prince’s companions, do I?
My task is hard enough as it is without adding any more complications.
So, it placed me in a bit of a dilemma, really.
Do I risk that?
Or do I kill a man who’s tied up?
Well, I took a third option of course.
I cut him free.
Told him he could go.
But I’d left my sword close by him; just as a test, to see what sort of man he really was.
He grabbed it, thinking he’d take me by surprise.
Laughing again, as he came at me; only cruelly chuckling this time.
This way, see, I get to practise my use of the double daggers.
It’s a win win, isn’t it?
Wow, what a first class bitch, you must be thinking.
What the hell’s stirred up her hornet’s nest?
And you know, I don’t even have a dreadful childhood to blame.
My dad, my mum; they were just great.
Just about perfect, in fact.
My sister, too – she was wonderful.
We always did things together.
Always enjoyed being with each other.
So, maybe they’re dead, right? you’re thinking.
Or maybe the prince and his men; maybe they got up to no good when they were visiting all those girls in all those castles and palaces?
And so now I’ve got this weirdly warped mind, and I’m seeking revenge on those I hold responsible?
It’s none of the above, I’m glad to say.
Mum and Dad, they’re still in our castle.
Sis, well; she took the usual way out for a girl in our sad little world and got herself married, popping out a darling little kid not long after the wedding (but not so close that it might’ve caused a bit of a scandal!).
As for the visiting entourage of the prince, if they’d tried on anything untoward in our castle, they’d still be packing out our dungeons.
So, what’s the reason – why am I hunting all these guys down?
I’m afraid it’s quite simple.
I just want that damned slipper!
The Mail Coach passes along some of the most deserted tracks in the kingdom; like it’s just begging to be robbed.
It not just the mail and its packages calling out to me; it’s also the passengers, those wealthy enough to afford a ticket but not the phalanx of guards you need to pass safely through an area like this. They put their trust, see, in the fact that anyone who stops a mail coach will be mercilessly hunted down by the king’s men.
Even so, the coachman trusts more on the speed of his horses than any number of king’s men setting out to avenge his death. Even safely hidden out of sight amongst the thick bushes lining the edge of the road, I can hear the pounding of the hooves as the already sorely pressed team is urged on to ever-greater bursts of speed, the coachman wiling to tire them out if it gets him and his charges safely through this dark and most deadly (well, as far as the road’s concerned, anyway) part of the forest.
With a sharp, hard nudge of my knees – I’m holding my weapons in my hand – I similarly urge my mare Bess to break cover and leap forward into the path of the swiftly oncoming coach.
‘Stand and deliver!’ I yell out as loud as I can from behind the raised neckerchief veiling my face.
To show I mean business, I also hold out both arms, pointing my weapons directly at the coachman.
Now until some quite ingenious inventor comes up with something more threatening than two daggers you can easily hold in your hand (and what a boon to the world such an invention would be!), this might not sound like a perfectly good way of bringing a mail coach traveling at full pelt to a halt.
But I’d thought of this.
So Cer, Ber and Us are already strung out across the lane.
The coachman might have fanciful ideas about just riding straight through them.
But the horses won’t.
Whinnying in fear, they slew to an immediate stop.
The coachman and his guard, still uncontrollably travelling at the coach’s original speed, are sent bowling out of their seat across the tops of the rearing team. The guard gamely clings on to his crossbow, and more amazingly still manages to raise and aim it at me even as he struggles to gain a more upright position once more.
Lucky for me, I suppose, that that inventor hasn’t come up with some form of semi-magical weapon.
As it is, a crossbow’s no problem for me.
With a quick flick of my hand, I throw a dagger his way. The blade hurtles towards him, catching the bolt and making it fly back up into the guard’s face, while also slitting the bows string.
Actually, I’d meant to pinion his hand to the butt; but its still an impressive throw.
Certainly, it cows both the guard and the driver into submission, persuading them it’s not worth putting up any more foolish resistance. Especially as I’ve already replaced the dagger I’ve thrown, having quickly slipped it from a number of them I have loosely sheathed on my chest belt.
See: and you thought I was mad holding up a coach with a couple of daggers, didn’t you?
You can’t do that with a sword now, can you?
Sure, I could have used my long bow; but tell me, have you ever tried to dismount from a horse and then proceed to relieve a number of coach passengers of their ill-gotten gains, while still keeping them covered with a bow and arrow?
Well, yeah: I have, right?
First time I ever tried this in fact, and it almost turned out to be my last, believe me! If you thought that poor old guard looked a bit incompetent when his arrow flew back up into his face, you should have seen me!
Damned stupid stirrups!
Now, of course, I’m well practiced at this kind of thing.
I’m much, much cooler in the way I go about it.
Charming the ladies as I go about ensuring they’ll be more favoured by God now they’re so freely giving up their burden of wealth.
Naturally, they’re all fooled into thinking there’s some ravenously handsome rogue hiding behind this mask. And I have no intention of dissuading them from that notion.
I’ll even let the obviously more impoverished girls off with no more odious a payment than a kiss on my cheek.
That’s what they expect, see, from their dandy highwayman?
If the king’s men ever catch up with me, and take me alive, at least I’ll have a pitying crowd as I’m led to the scaffold.
The men, they couldn’t be charmed no matter how hard I tried.
They seem to resent emptying their pockets and purses for me.
Like they’ve got it into their heads that, just because I’m dressed more or less all in black, that automatically makes me the bad guy around here.
Then again, it is the weirdest of blacks I’ve ever coma across, I’ve got to admit: I’ve no idea how it manages to soak up the light, creating an aura of permanent shadow about me.
Oh, and then there’s the three hellhounds, of course: but heck, even the dandy highwayman needs company, doesn’t he?
The guard and the coachman stand by looking a little bit abashed, realising no doubt that their passengers won’t be happy that that they’re not doing anything to stop me digesting everyone of their riches.
Once I think I’ve got everything of value off them – no need today, I believe, to waste time going through the mail box – I let them step backup into the carriage, the coachman and his guard to clamber back into their higher seat.
I gallantly toss these two a couple of coins in recompense for the trouble they’ll be in when they back.
They grin, tip their hats to me in gratitude.
Always best to keep the supplier side of your business on your side, I reckon.
‘On your way then, ladies and gents,’ I cry out gleefully, giving the rear horse of the team a hard slap on her flanks.
Cer, Ber and Us have already melted into the undergrowth lying to either side of the road. With an excited neighing, the team rear and surge forward, the coach fiercely jolting into sudden motion, the passengers rocked and buffeted by its abrupt acceleration.
I’m glad my face is covered by my neckerchief as I’m instantly suffused in the thickly choking cloud of dust the hurriedly departing coach throws up around me. I gasp and chuckle with relief when I can at last pull the neckerchief aside and breathe in some clear, fresh air.
The young girl standing alongside me laughs along with me.
She’s sweet; she can’t be more than twelve, bless her.
I glance back at the swiftly retreating coach, still gleefully chuckling that it had all been so easy yet again.
Then I glance back at the girl.
I frown in puzzlement.
‘Who are you?’ I ask her.
‘Apsara,’ the girl says innocently in answer to my question.
She’s a pretty little thing. She reminds me of…no, no! That can’t be possible.
I mean, I only saw her riding off with the prince – but this girl is far, far too young!
A sister, maybe?
But she didn’t have any sisters, as far as I’m aware of – despite what that fairytale would like you to believe!
‘Yeah, but what I mean is,’ I say, clarifying my question to the young girl, ‘what’re you doing here?’
‘You didn’t ask that; you asked who–’
‘Yes, yes: but now you’ve answered that – so now, what’re you doing here?’
‘Well, this was only as far as I could afford to travel.’
I look about me, taking in the dark shadows of the thickly crowded trees.
‘To here; in the forest?’
‘They said they’d take me until there was somewhere safe to drop me off. So when we stopped, I thought this must be it.’
‘Safe? With me? Didn’t you just see me robbing everyone?’
‘Did you?’ Her eyes widen in shock, ‘I wasn’t watching,’ she admits, ‘I was getting my bag down, and no one was helping me.’
Her wide eyes drift towards the small bag on the floor by her feet.
‘That’s it? That’s all you’re traveling with?’
She isn’t going to last an hour in this forest.
I don’t want to really tire Bess out forcing her to carry us both. (Would it tire Bess out? I’m not sure it would, come to think of it – but I don’t want to take the risk.)
Then again, I don’t want to tire myself out walking alongside Bess as she carries this little girl.
Being tired is dangerous in my profession.
‘Look, if I had an extra horse–’
‘Isn’t that one over there?’
She points off towards the edge of the road.
A fully saddled horse is grazing there.
Of course; it must have followed me, Bess and the hounds after I’d had to dispense with her master.
‘Oh, yeah, yeah; it is,’ I say
‘A horse, and already saddled for me!’ the girl exclaims elatedly. ‘What a truly wonderful, magical forest this is!’
Yeah, that’s one way of describing it.
Although personally, I wouldn’t use the word ‘wonderful’.
‘Why didn’t you kill him?’
I’ve insisted it’s too dangerous to ride along the road; too dangerous for me, actually, as the king’s men will be out looking for a highwayman who robbed the Mail Coach.
‘Kill who?’ I ask in reply to the girl’s question.
‘The guard; I’d noticed earlier that he had a crossbow. But he still looked alive to me when they rode off.’
‘He’s just doing his job; although in his case, thankfully, he didn’t do it too well, did he now?’
She returns my grin.
‘So you’re not quite as bad as you’d like to think you are, are you?’
‘Hey, last I remember, I didn’t put an ad in the paper saying there was a vacancy for my conscience, right?’
‘Isn’t there some other way you could make a living; I mean, other than by taking things off people?’
‘See, you’re already acting like you’re my conscience? So, maybe you can come up with some other way of getting on in this cruel world?’
‘Well, can’t you, you know: set up a shop, maybe? Selling nice things people want?’
I was wrong about this kid.
She won’t last five minutes out here.
‘Where’re you heading?’
I’m curious: what was such a young girl doing travelling alone on that mail coach?
‘To seek my fortune in the world!’ she replies brightly.
‘Hmn, you don’t exactly look like your setting out to explore the world,’ I point out, taking in her pretty little white dress, her dainty shoes. ‘Haven’t you got anything more suitable to wear in your bag?’ I ask her helpfully.
‘I’m not sure; what do you advise I wear?’ she asks demurely, handing me her bag.
I peer inside the bag. If there are any clothes in here, they’re tucked away in the bottom. It’s mainly full of a number of objects, not one of which looks to be ff any use to someone who’s just popping across the road to buy a quart of milk, let alone setting out on a mission to earn their fortune.
A mirror – already vain, bless her.
A ring – yet another object of vanity.
A necklace – ditto.
A small cup – wow, something useful at last, I suppose.
A dagger – at last! Oh no, wait: it’s a letter opener.
A candleholder – worse than useless, especially as there isn’t a candle with it.
A flower vase – minus any flower, naturally, and probably, surprisingly, the most useless object of all in here, even though it’s up against some pretty stiff competition.
Ah, a book! A book on survival tips maybe?
Er, no: a book called The Glass Kingdom.
Yeah, I used to have that too when I was little; stories of legends, witches, goblins and what have you.
Then, finally, crumpled breath all this junk, a few spare items of clothes.
A pretty little white dress and dainty shoes.
‘Wow; who packed this for you?’ I ask. ‘Some evil stepmother, who just couldn’t wait to be rid of you?’
‘Oh no, no!’ she blithely replies. ‘I didn’t bring these things with me; I bought them!’
‘You bought junk? Wait, wait – let me guess. To sell in your shop, right?’
She nods, her eyes elatedly sparkling.
‘I’ve got to start with some things to sell, don’t you think? You’ve got to spend to accumulate; isn’t that what shopkeepers say?’
This girl would have no hope of surviving a birthday party, let alone this forest!
Am I really so cruel that I’ll just drop her off as soon as we reach somewhere relatively safe?
Well…it’s not like she’s really safe with me, is she?
She’ll be okay; I’m sure.
I lean over in my saddle to hand her bag back, telling her that she’s dressed just fine after all; we should be approaching a farm or maybe even a village I can leave her at in less than an hour, surely?
She smiles pleasantly back at me as she reaches out to take the bag’s handles; but one of us (and I’m sure it isn’t me!) fumbles it a little, the bag slipping out from between our hands.
She manage to grasp the bag’s handles before it crashes to the floor, but as it falls between us and our mounts, it strikes the flank of Apsara’s horse hard.
With a panicked neigh, the horse rears a little, almost unhorsing the poor girl; and as she lets go of the reins and makes a grab instead for the saddle’s pommel, her mount fearfully snorts and breaks into a terrified charge.
Worse still, the silly mare charges off deeper into the forest.
Maybe…maybe she’ll be all right, don’t you think?
Even my three hounds look up at me accusingly, like they know what I’m thinking and they can’t believe I’d being just so amazingly discompassionate.
I spur Bess into following after the rapidly retreating Apsara.
What ever did I do to deserve meeting her?
The road – well, track would be a better word, as no workman ever dared work too long out here – running through the forest is bad enough.
The narrower, winding riders’ tracks branching off it are even worse, entering areas of the wood that are so densely packed, it’s dark throughout the whole day.
Worse still, however, are those bits of the forest where the trees and undergrowth are relatively lightly spread, yet the darkness still hangs over it all, like it’s caught in a semi-permanent night.
It’s a darkness caused by things other than the simple absence of light.
It’s parts of the forest like this that even I studiously avoid.
Even the king’s men avoid it. Even when fully armed, and riding around in a large force.
So, sometimes, admittedly, I have used that fact to my advantage.
Whenever a patrol has got close to catching up with me, I immediately point dear Bess towards areas like this.
I make out, naturally, like I’m foolish enough to keep charging headlong into the darkness.
In reality, I use that darkness to leap down off Bess and bring both her and the dogs into a huddle beneath any low hanging undergrowth that will hide us from anyone idiotic enough to follow after us.
Thankfully, the soldiers are idiotic enough to think I’ve ridden deeper into the wood.
They think I’m finished anyway.
So they turn around, heading back for home, telling themselves they’re leaving me to a well-deserved fate.
Today, thanks to Apsara, I really am riding ever deeper into one of these impossibly darker areas of the forest.
Like I’m tired of living.
Like I’m impatient to meet up with my own death.
Apsara’s horse is grazing, but it nervously glances up and about itself everywhere now and again, like it’s quite rightly fearing an attack any moment now.
There’s no sight of Apsara.
Doubtlessly, she’s been thrown by her mare. But not anywhere back along where I’ve just ridden.
I can’t see any sign of her bag either. Which means Apsara dropped it earlier; or, more likely, has picked it up and taken it with her.
When I slow down to ride alongside the mare and take up her reins, she almost seems glad of the company. She follows on alongside us, trotting along amiably.
I’m sure Apsara can’t have got far.
Not in those shoes, anyway.
And not carrying a bag of complete junk.
Just a little way ahead, I find myself heading towards a house; a small one, one with a sloping roof and tall chimney, the smoke of a fire twirling up from its uppermost stack.
Now, that’s just what you don’t want to see in these parts.
A house means someone’s living here.
And anyone living here has got to be…well, pretty damn mean, really.
Not someone you’d like to meet on a dark night.
Even less so on a dark day.
Wait – please don’t tell me Apsara went in there!
But…I already know the answer.
Yeah, she would, wouldn’t she?
I leave the horses and the bags with the hounds.
‘Stay here; but be ready to come when I call,’ I tell my dogs.
They obey, as they always do.
Like Bess, the dogs always display the most amazing loyalty to me; and yet, also like Bess, I’d simply come across all four of them wandering around unclaimed and, apparently unloved.
Then I head up the garden path, wondering if this is the most dangerous, most idiotic thing I’ve ever done in my life.
No; it isn’t.
It’s when I knock on the door.
That’s really foolish.
‘Coming,’ someone sweetly trills from inside.
And the door’s opened by one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.
‘Darling!’ she squeals excitedly, throwing her arms around my neck and bringing my lips towards her for a long, lingering kiss.
‘You’re home at last!’ she says, taking me by the hand and – with a glorious twirl of her lithe body that sends her dress spinning out about her legs – leading me indoors.
‘Yes…yes, I am, darling,’ I say a little unsurely at first, but adding brightly, ‘Yes – I’m so glad to be home!’
I’m such a lucky man to be married to such a beautiful wife!
My sweet, sweet Belinda.
As I enter through the doorway just behind her, the moths she’s disturbed in my ancient clothes fly up before me, rushing into the room, fluttering towards the blazing orange flame of a limply tilting candle, placed within the centre of a table.
Belinda turns, whirling around on her dainty feet ever so delightfully, and hugs me tightly once more.
‘It’s so good to see you safely back, darling!’ she whispers in a way that’s both a sigh of relief and yet also amazingly seductive.
From my clothes, another set of moths rise up, swooping like the others towards the bright flame, painfully extinguishing their own lives for what they believe will be a brief moment of pleasure.
I can’t remember where I’ve been, for some reason.
To the market?
To the wars?
And just how long have I been away?
It doesn’t matter; I’m home now.
Our cat, lazily laid out before the fire, glances up at me with a look of complete disinterest.
In the corner of a room, Belinda has trussed up a small calf. Its eyes are wide with terror, as if the poor thing is aware that Belinda is intending to use her as a feast welcoming my return.
To stop her panicked bleating, Belinda has had to muffle the calf’s mouth.
For some strange reason, Belinda has also dressed the calf in a pretty white dress, a dress that curiously reminds me of something…but I can’t quite remember exactly what, for some strange reason.
A moth fizzles out in the orange flame.
Belinda has stepped back from tightly hugging me to give me a puzzled frown.
‘A girl? Dressed as a man?’ she says curiously.
Before I can ask her what she means, she raises a hand, opens it; and a fish slips out from within her palm. It swims out into the air, swimming about me, circling me. Its silvery scales glitter in the light, reflecting a whole spectrum of colours, colours that whirl around me, entrancing in their gorgeousness, their calming effects.
The calf in the corner is far from calm, of course; she’s struggling to free herself from her bonds, grumbling noisily as if attempting to call out a warning to all her friends.
‘Now, before I go any further,’ Belinda says coolly, leading me back towards a chair, ‘I want you to tell me what you can remember about why you chose to dress as a man.’
As I sit down in the chair, with the fish still calmly swimming about me, Belinda stares deeply into my eyes: but, for some strange reason, I don’t think it’s because she wants me to return her love for me – at least, not at this particular moment.
She wants me to explain…to explain why I’m dressed as a highwayman.
‘A man called at my father’s castle; a handsome highwayman. But he vanished, leaving his clothes behind. So I wore them and left home.’
‘Why did you leave home? Were you unhappy there?’
‘The slipper; I must find the glass slipper.’
‘Ah, yes, yes; I’ve heard of the queen’s slipper. But why is it so important to you?’
‘The story lies; I want people to know the truth.’
Belinda paused while she considered this.
‘Which part is a lie?’ she asks. ‘The slipper…you’re searching for that; so you must believe that part of the tale is true?’
I nod in reply.
‘Then the way it was used to find our queen; is that true?’
I nod again.
‘And some people cheated, cutting off their toes, yes?’
‘I didn’t cut off my toe!’
‘I didn’t say you did. Unless…are you…no, you couldn’t possibly be; you’re far too beautiful.’
‘The story makes out I’m an ugly sister, if that’s what you mean!’ I say helpfully.
‘But you said you didn’t cut off your toe? So, you’re the other sister?’
I shake my head.
‘I mean it was the slipper that cut off my toe: it had a broken rim!’
‘Well, that’s what comes of making slippers from glass, I suppose.’
‘That’s what the servant said!’
‘You’re big toe; very painful,’ Belinda says, but with an amused chuckle rather than an emphatic frown.
‘My little toe; if you slice off someone’s big toe, they can’t walk. I’ve seen it myself – you know, when it’s the only way to get people to talk.’
She nods sagely, like she does know what I mean.
Our cat – I can’t recall its name, for some strange reason – has risen up from its place before the fire and is now glaring hungrily at the swimming fish.
‘Ah, all this talk of toes has made him hungry; his favourite dish,’ Belinda announces with a satisfied smile. ‘I think I’ll have to ask you more; but after we’ve eaten, I think, darling.’
Like the good, caring housewife she is, Belinda kneels before me and begins to quickly unlace and slip one off one of my riding boots. My sock quickly follows, almost carelessly cast aside as she replaces it in her hand with a large knife that appears from nowhere.
‘Ah, I see it was a toe from your other foot that you lost,’ she observes with a giggle, obviously noting that I have five toes as she delicately runs the knife’s gleaming blade along them.
‘No, it was this little toe I lost,’ I point out dreamily.
Belinda frowns in puzzlement once more.
She opens her empty hand, allowing the fish to deftly swim back into it. The fish vanishes as soon as Belinda closes her fingers.
‘Strange,’ she says, ‘the Fish of Truth should ensure you can’t lie…’
She angrily rises to her feet, letting my own foot fall a little painfully to the hard floor.
‘Little lies always put me off me off the smaller aperitifs! Let’s have something a bit more satisfying, shall we?’
She grabs my hand, splaying it out; and with a swift swish of her blade, she slices off my index finger.
Belinda likes the taste of my finger; she munches on it hungrily before tossing what little remains of it to the impatiently waiting cat.
The cat’s also called Belinda, I realise.
They’re both enjoying eating my finger; they each grin gleefully.
It’s the same grin.
Because, of course, Belinda and Belinda are really just different aspects of the same person.
A witch and her familiar.
‘Ber!’ I yell out as a leap to my feet and withdraw my sword. ‘Cer! Us!’
With a flowing curl of my sword, I take off the witch’s hand, one of the surest ways there is to limit the ability to cast spells.
As Cer barges in through the doorway, he follows his own diligently instilled training, leaping on and riving apart the familiar until it’s little more than a bloodied ball of black fur.
Ber and Us don’t bother with the door. They flow in through the cottage’s wall, as if the walls weren’t really there as far as they’re concerned. They launch themselves upon the bewildered Belinda, bringing her down by their combined weight alone, their snapping jaws also playing their part in preventing any complicated spells being cast.
Belinda’s supposed beauty is no more; she’s fighting for her life, and such enchantments are nothing more than a waste of her energy.
She incredibly ancient, ridiculously filthy; it’s hard to say how long she must have been living out here.
On the table, the orange flame flickers, granting the already bloody scene a tinge of the hellish. It flames all the brighter, all the more hungrily, as thousands of moths rise up from the dying witch. Rising and swirling en masse towards the table, the moths extinguish themselves with the sounds of quenched desires in the candle’s fire.
It’s only a small candle, I notice for the first time. It appears slender and angled only because it’s been pinioned upon a curiously leaning candlestick that narrows to almost nothing at its peak; a candlestick made of the clearest glass, glass that glows the orange of an evening sun.
There’s an irate mumbling coming from the room’s corner.
Apsara is laid out upon the floor, frenziedly yet fruitlessly writhing as she attempts to free her tightly bound wrists and ankles, to release her gagged mouth.
‘Apsara!’ I cry out unnecessarily as I rush towards her to help free her. ‘Are you all right?’
It’s quicker to use a knife to cut through the gag rather that trying to undo the knot or pull it painfully away from her mouth. Soon as I’ve done it, however, I wish I’d taken a slower course of action.
‘No thanks to you!’ she snaps furiously. ‘I thought you were going to join her in eating me!’
‘You looked like a cow–’
Opps; that wasn’t the best thing to say, was it?
My knife easily slices through the old ropes the witch had used to bind Apsara. I suspect these ropes have been used many times for similar, equally sickening acts.
‘I mean the witch must’ve enchanted me…’ I explain to the still glowering Apsara.
Her brow creases as she considers this. Then she sees my hand, with its missing finger.
‘Sorry,’ she says, taking my hand gently in hers. ‘Do you have anything we can – oh, it’s already stopped bleeding.’
‘Family trait,’ I lie, not wishing to go into any explanation. ‘It’s a good job she cut it off and ate it, I suppose,’ I add brightly, aiming to stop her from probing any further.
‘A good job?’ She pouts in disbelief. ‘How’s having a finger severed a “good job”?’
‘Well, I’m not quite sure how it happened, or why: but when the witch and her familiar were eating my finger, it somehow dawned on me that they were really just one and the same person – a witch and her familiar.’
Ber, Cer and Us pad quietly over towards us, lie down licking their lips, even yawn a little.
The witch looks like nothing more than a low, tangled pile of old, discarded clothes.
‘We should take the candlestick,’ Apsara announces determinedly as she picks herself up off the floor.
Nonchalantly stepping past my dogs, she heads towards the table.
‘Oh no; not something else for your shop?’ I wail in frustration.
‘Don’t worry,’ she replies confidently, picking up the candlestick without any care that she might cause the candle to fall and start a fire, ‘I’ll use it to replace the one I have in my bag, so we’re not carrying any extra weight.’
‘We’re not carrying any extra weight?’ I say doubtfully as I follow her to the table. ‘I wasn’t carrying any extra weight at all until you showed up.’
She’s already picked up her bag, from where it had been stored under the table. I hadn’t noticed it there, of course.
Placing the bag on the table, she quickly searches inside it for the candlestick she’d bought earlier, disinterestedly handing it to me once she’s found it. Then she begins to place the new candlestick in the bag without bothering to douse the flame.
‘Er, just call me a natural worrier, if you want,’ I say to her, ‘but don’t you think you should put the candle out…’
She shakes her head.
‘Oh, it won’t burn anything unimportant like a bag,’ she declares assuredly.
Just to prove her point, she holds the flame against the inside of the bag.
Thankfully, nothing else bursts into flame.
‘How did you know it would do that?’ I ask.
‘The book,’ she says. ‘I thought you’d have read all those sorts of tales?’
‘A long time ago…’
I’m trying to remember any of the stories I read in the book that referred to a witch who charms you into thinking you’re married to her then calmly sets about eating you alive.
Nope; I’m sure that if I’d read that I would’ve been a child who didn’t sleep very well.
Then again, maybe my mind’s just deliberately wiped all memory of it clean away.
‘It’s the Flame of Love,’ Apsara calmly informs me as, closing her bag, she lifts it off the table and begins to head for the door, the hounds closely loping behind her as if they’ve already become accustomed to her. ‘That’s why it devours all your memories of less important things than your love for someone.’
‘The Flame of Love?’ I chuckle, amazed once again at her innocence. ‘It doesn’t really exist; well, not physically, least ways. It’s just a term used to describe …well, I suppose the ecstasy and anguish you go through when you’re in love with someone.’
Apsara pulls a dissatisfied face.
‘So where do you think that term came from?’ she retorts. ‘This is the original Flame of Love: the love of the Sun for his sister the Moon.’
‘Brother and sister? Isn’t that, well, you know…just a tiny bit…’ Now it’s my turn to pull a disgusted expression.
‘Oh, it happens all the time in these legends,’ Apsara says dismissively.
‘But… it’s not exactly a legend, is it? I mean, if you’re saying this Flame of Love actually exists…’
‘Well, some bits of these legends have been made up, obviously!’ she snorts, but with little conviction.
‘But why would it be here, in this forest; and why wouldn’t more people know more about it?’
‘Maybe because they didn’t read the book carefully enough?’
‘I was told it was a pretty rare book…’
It dawns on me that I’m still holding the candlestick Apsara had handed me. Now that we’ve passed out into the house’s garden, I’m loath to simply toss into the greenery.
It’s the first time I’ve really inspected the candlestick. It’s familiar; very familiar – I used to have one just like it.
‘Hey, I used to have one just like this!’ I exclaim with pleasant surprise, recalling how I used to enjoy the responsibility of lighting the way for my sister and me as we headed to bed.
‘You did? But you said it was junk,’ Apsara casually points out.
‘Well, I mean, I thought it was when I didn’t realise it was something so full of pleasant memories.’
‘Do you want to put it back in my bag?’ Apsara offers, kindly coming to a halt and opening up her bag for me to place the candlestick alongside all the other items.
‘I don’t suppose it’s really worth saving…’ I admit unsurely. ‘Just extra, unnecessary baggage really–’
In the light of the Flame of Love, I can quite clearly see the other objects. I reach in excitedly, bringing some of them out into the light of day. (Well, what passes for the light of day around here, anyway.)
‘Hey, I had a cup just like that, too! Me and my sister, we used to– And that mirror! I can remember when we– That vase! That’s like one we used to place–’
Each time I recognise an object, I elatedly withdraw it, securing the last one I’d taken in the crock of my other arm until I’m just about weighed under by what I’d previously pronounced to be useless items.
‘Wait a minute! All these things are mine, aren’t they?’ I eventually declare accusingly at Apsara.
‘Possibly,’ she admits. ‘I did say I’d bought them, didn’t I?’
‘Mum and Dad would never sell these…these reminders of the childhood of me and my sister!’
‘Maybe they…well, it was a sort of coachhouse sale. Once you’d left, maybe they just saw it all as so much clutter–’
‘Clutter? We lived in a castle!’
‘They did love you, right?’ she asks suspiciously.
‘Of course they loved me!’
‘But your step dad–’
‘He wasn’t my step dad! That’s another lie in the story! Mum and Dad were happily married; and they loved both me and my sister!’
‘Yet you left home…’
‘To set matters straight! To show that whole Cinderella thing is just a fairytale!’
‘But the slipper’s real – right?’ She peers intently into my eyes, like she’s yet another Fish of Truth.’
So, she might have been a calf back in the witch’s house, but it obviously hadn’t affected her hearing.
‘Yeah, some bits of it are true, obviously!’
‘But how will finding the slipper help you show the story isn’t entirely true?’
She already knows more than I’d like her to know; I might as well let her know a little bit more.
‘Because I think the Glass Slipper doesn’t just refract light – it refracts time!’
‘It’s an odd thing to believe, don’t you think? Apsara declares with uncharacteristic confidence as we mount up onto our horses. ‘That the slipper can alter time; that is what you’re saying, yes?’
I have no real proof that the Glass Slipper is capable of this. Not any more.
I look at my hand, the gap were my severed finger used to be.
Perhaps I’ll have some form of proof soon enough, if she’s prepared to accept my interpretation of what I think it means.
Then again, why am I so intent on proving it to this young girl?
To prove to myself that I’m not crazy, I suppose.
‘You took it for granted that that candlestick you picked up was really the Flame of Love,’ I point out defensively.
Now she’s the one who shrugs.
‘The difference is, you still have to find the slipper; do you think it’s possible?’
‘If anyone can do it, it’s me,’ I reply confidently.
Apsara studies me doubtfully.
‘Isn’t it all a little dangerous for a gir–’
‘For a girl, you mean?’ I snap irritably. ‘I was never interested in tapestries, all that sort of thing a girl’s supposed to learn. My father’s men were glad that I wanted to learn how to fight: they’d thought their skills would go to waste with no master’s son to train.’
‘I was going to say “for a girl who seems to have forgotten her legends”,’ Apsara calmly explains.
‘What use are legends?’
She’s opened up and reached into her bag. For some reason, she’s withdrawn the Flame of Love.
She holds out the glass candlestick towards me, but tips it up, so it’s now upside down, the flame seeping up its length yet causing her no harm.
‘Legends make us look afresh at the everyday things around us,’ she says.
I look at the glass candlestick, narrowing almost to nothing at its lower end.
It’s not a candlestick anymore.
It’s the high heel of an elegant shoe.
The heel of a Glass Slipper.
A flurry of moths suddenly gather about the orange flame, each instantly flickering out of existence as it draws too close.
From the undergrowth, there comes a pained groaning, an urgent whispering.
Ber, Cer and Us abruptly lurch towards the sounds, vanishing into the thick bushes as if they, too, have been uncharacteristically surprised by the presence of whoever’s been shadowing us.
The undergrowth trembles violently as, in a mingling of the hounds’ furious snarling and the squealing of their prey, what appears to be two foxes are dragged out into the relatively clearer area of the path we’re taking.
‘No, no! Please don’t hurt us!’
‘We didn’t mean any harm!’
‘We were only following orders to keep track of you!’
They’re the strangest foxes I’ve ever seen. Not only do they talk, and in the clear voices of a young man and woman too, but at first I take them to be curiously armoured until it dawns on me that they’re more machine that animal, being mainly constructions of metal and wood.
Yet there are undoubted animalistic qualities to them other than their shapes and fur: there are segments of sinew, of flesh. I suspect, too, that the eyes must once have been more fully alive.
There is so little of the original creature left, however, that I’m sure there would be little in the way of scent for my hounds to detect.
‘Whose orders?’ I demand fiercely, while ordering my hounds to back off and leave the foxes alone.
‘The Man of Bronze, who made us what we are.’
‘We were once man and wife: but our memories had become clouded. We’d almost forgotten how much in love we’d once been!’
‘You were humans?’ I gasp in horror.
They nod their heads. Tears weep from those eyes that I now know for sure are their original ones.
The female fox’s comment is interrupted as another creature bursts from the undergrowth just ahead of us. This is a horse, however, not a fox, and seemingly chiefly made of bronze.
As such, it puts on an amazing spurt of speed, and is soon galloping away from us.
‘That’s him!’ one of the foxes yells. ‘There’s the Man of Bronze!’
The bronze horse glitters like a flashing sun as we pursue it through the forest.
Even the thin rays of sunlight that manage to penetrate the roof of the forest are reflected back as flames of gold.
The mechanical steed moves far smoother and at an even faster pace than our natural horses. He’s also shrewdly avoiding any possible obstacles, displaying at least an obviously animalistic astuteness, perhaps even a human intelligence. He’s leaving us almost effortlessly behind.
‘I don’t see why they call him a man!’ I yell out to Apsara. ‘All I see is a horse of bronze!’
‘We just can’t see him yet: he’s just invisible for the moment, that’s all!’ Apsara yells back curiously: for surely she must have realised the horse is most likely a hybrid of man and beast, like the foxes?
The ground begins to incline upwards, making the going harder and more tiresome. And yet the bronze horse hardly seems to have slowed at all.
Neither has Bess, or the hounds, of course. But Apsara’s mount is naturally tiring.
We’re in a part of the forest that runs around the base of a mountain, a mountain that frequently erupts from the surrounding shrouds of dark trees like sheer, towering white walls.
If the bronze horse is heading towards one of these soaring cliffs, then he’ll be trapped, or at the very least be forced to take a sharp turn in his course.
Ber, Cer and Us are keeping pace with Apsara and myself as we urge our mounts into struggling up the increasingly steep slope, but the foxes have dropped far behind. At least the tangled branches of the bushes are no longer whipping at our legs, or the flanks of Apsara’s mount, as they aren’t growing so densely here. The ground is rockier, and long-ago displaced and fallen boulders lie everywhere about us.
Through the growing number of openings in what had previously been packed woodland I begin to detect what I at first believe is the bright white glow of daylight. The closer we draw towards this ‘light’, however, the more I realise it is reflected light: the sun’s rays echoed and intensified by a sheer chalk cliff face.
The bronze horse doesn’t slow its pace or hesitate in any way that I can detect.
Rather, it hurtles straight towards the cliff, as if its intention is to shatter its own, determinedly lowered head against the hard rock.
The clatter of the hooves on the hard rock is magnified by the solid cliff face.
It’s almost thunderous in its intensity.
The ground itself seems to be shaking, adding to the rolling crashes of heavy thunder: our mounts begin to whinny in fear as their tread becomes increasingly unsteady upon the ground. Ber, Cer and Us appear bewildered by what they’re experiencing, their eyes white and globular, resenting at least their growing sense of uncertainty and insecurity, if not actually fearing it.
A dark thread appears within the otherwise pure white of the cliff face, running up from the ground directly in front of the charging bronze horse. It ascends rapidly, expanding equally as swiftly, a dark crack apparently determined to completely split the cliff apart.
Yet it only rises so far, only extends so far too, forming the entrance to what could be a cave.
With a last spark of bronze in the sunlight, the mechanical horse sweeps into the darkness of the cave.
‘Faster Bess, faster!’
I spur Bess on to a last, stupendous sprint; and Apsara and her horse follow too.
The crack is closing once more. It’s narrowing, shrinking.
We rush into what is now a ridiculously narrow entrance: but it doesn’t open up immediately into a cave.
We’re still hurtling down a narrow corridor running down the inside of the mountain.
And the crack is continuing to close and narrow.
‘Stay!’ I shout back towards Cer, Ber and Us as Apsara and I hurtle into the ever-narrowing crack.
I don’t want to risk them being caught up in this rapidly closing corridor. It might run too deep, entrapping even them.
I can only hope they’ve obeyed me: I didn’t have time to look back to check that they had stayed outside, as I’d commanded.
I urge Bess on to an even greater pace, realising that Apsara and her mount, being behind us, are in even more danger than we are; for the corridor behind me is naturally closing in even faster than it is around me.
How long does this swiftly shrinking crack in the mountain go on for?
Does it even open up into a cavern?
We’re plunged into darkness as the entrance nosily creaks to a close behind us. But the corridor itself continues to squeeze in upon us, now forcing me to pull my feet in closer to Bess’s sides.
My sword scrapes with clangs and clunks upon the relentlessly approaching wall. I have to duck low in my saddle to prevent my hat from being squeezed clear of my head.
I’m on the point of giving up all hope that we’re going survive this hellish pit when, at last, I catch sight of what could be the oily yellow light of lamps.
‘Almost there!’ I scream back toward Apsara, hoping she’s keeping up with me and hasn’t already succumbed to the tighter squeezing of the corridor behind me.
The dim lantern light is so far off it isn’t strong enough to illuminate the point where the corridor at last becomes the cavern. It’s so dark here, it’s more to do with an abrupt sense of all-pervading airiness rather than any visual clues that signify that we’re safe, that we’re reaching the end of the tightly narrowing passageway.
As the crack completely seals up behind us with a final rumble, we all tumble chaotically to the floor in a tangle of exhausted, flailing legs. Like me, Apsara is thrown from her saddle as her drained mount crumples to the ground.
Thankfully, most of the more damaging energy of her fall is absorbed by the loose, tumbling roll she’s quite naturally thrown into. Even so, she ends up more or less alongside me in a crumpled, groaning heap.
‘Remind me,’ she grumbles, ‘why did I think it was such a good idea to leave the safety of that coach?’
‘Remind me,’ I painfully grumble back, ‘why I didn’t force you to get straight back on it?’
The light of the lanterns is getting stronger; no, one of the lanterns is drawing closer.
What seems in the semi-darkness to be an incredibly tall, ridiculously broad man is holding the lanterns.
Something is slinking alongside him; something growling threateningly, something hissing.
Apsara and I rise to our feet as these hybrid creatures unhurriedly approach and gather about us.
But these aren’t little foxes.
Neither do they appear to be friendly, going by their irate scowls, their snarling.
What I now realise is a tiger has bared iron teeth.
Alongside him, a large snake is rising up, baring its fangs, readying itself to strike.
As for the man carrying the lantern, he’s actually a looming gorilla; and, with what seems to be nothing more than a simple shake of his free hand, a long-bladed sword effortlessly slips into his palm.
Our horses have clambered back to their feet, but we won’t be able to remount in time to get away from these ferocious – and no doubt incredibly swift moving – hybrids of metal, wood and animal.
‘We don’t want to kill them,’ Apsara whispers to me. ‘Remember, they might once have been innocent men, like the foxes.’
‘We don’t want to kill them?’ I hiss back in astonishment, nervously clenching the handle of the sword I’d hurriedly unsheathed. ‘It’s a gorilla with a sword, Apsara! I’m just hoping he thinks we’re two innocent little girls who don’t deserve to die!’
Somehow, Apsara has managed to arm herself with her letter opener.
Great; a fat lot of good she’s going to be in this fight. Unless the gorilla’s just come to tell us he’s having trouble opening his mail.
I could try and figure out why Apsara just happened to have the letter opener on her, but I’ve got other, more important things on my mind at the moment.
Like how to take on an armed gorilla, an iron toothed tiger, and a gigantic cobra. The latter might even be actually venomous, knowing my luck.
‘Their weak spots are their cogs,’ Apsara says, whispering to me yet again. ‘Jam something in there, and it stops the clockwork.’
Staring more intently at the animals before us, I realise that she has a point; even in the dim glow of the lantern, the metal gears glitter like so many jewels, sections of their workings revealed where there hasn’t been enough fur or flesh to completely cover them.
The tiger’s become a little bored with their steady approach. With a prolonged snarling, he rushes forwards, leaping up into the air towards me.
Instead of obeying my instinct to step back in retreat from the tiger’s attack, I step forward and crouch slightly, deliberately bringing myself under the beast’s more exposed and vulnerable body. In this case, the tiger’s belly is even more open to the elements than its generally more fur covered top or flanks. I swing my sword up into the whirling cogs, forcefully jamming the blade home even as I swing aside to avoid the tiger’s falling body.
The abruptly motionless tiger drops off to my side, landing on the hard ground with the dull thud of heavy sinew and the clank of machinery.
I can’t withdraw my sword without letting the tiger spring back into life, unless I’ve damaged the cogs enough to ensure they remain immovable.
Carelessly throwing his lantern aside – such that it shatters on thankfully incombustible rocky ground, the spreading oil bursting into a yellow fire that lights up the whole scene in an eerie, jaundiced glow – the gorilla throws himself upon me, his sheer bulk enough to send me almost uncontrollably reeling back.
I retain enough control, however, to ensure I whirl aside as he brings his blade curling down towards me. Its tip strikes nothing but impenetrable rock, breaking off in a flurry of sparks.
The shattering of the gorilla’s sword delays his assault long enough for me to regain my feet and withdraw from my belt two of the longest daggers, ones I’ve diligently practised with to use against the most expert of swordsmen. So when the gorilla strikes out at me yet again with a fiercely curving down stroke of his sword, I bring my blades together, catching his blade in their crossing point.
The force of his blow is so powerful, however, that I’m forced back onto my knees once more. And, unlike when I’m facing any normal swordsman, I can’t summon the necessary strength to force his blade up and away from me.
Worse still, I hear the slithering of the cobra as it passes by me in the shadows lying beyond the smashed lantern’s flickering flames.
I fear a strike of venomous fangs, the monstrous serpent launching itself at me from out of the darkness.
I sigh with relief as the cobra passes me completely by; then almost weep in fear and frustration when I realise its heading directly towards Apsara.
The little girl’s white dress flashes yellow in the oily light, making her an easily seen target.
The cobra glides like a lightning crack streaking across the ground. It strikes; and Apsara falls back in horror as the serpent gleefully closes its massive jaw around her tiny body, the fangs sinking in towards her chest.
The gorilla’s strength is unimaginable.
Bit by bit – especially now that he’s gabbed the sword’s hilt with both hands – he’s applying ever-greater pressure, forcing his blade closer and closer towards my head, despite my best efforts to hold it at bay.
Thankfully, he’s still thinking like a human rather than a beast. A real gorilla would instinctively realise he only has to swat me with his free hand, the force of the blow alone probably being enough to kill me.
As it is, his human intellect has persuaded him that the sword is the best means of killing me.
He grins maliciously as he puts even more pressure to bear upon me.
Instead of continuing with my attempts to resist this irresistible force, I suddenly twist my arms down and to one side, while at the same time slipping my body off in the opposite direction.
With the abrupt removal of any resistance to the downward pressure he’s exerting, the gorilla topples forward slightly, enough to make him stumble and lose his footing.
Swinging up and around, I plunge both of the long blades of my daggers into his exposed flank, hoping I don’t strike any hard fame beneath the fur, hoping instead that at least one of them will find a gap and sink deeply into its workings.
One blade clangs heavily against a solid strut of the gorilla’s frame.
But the other thankfully deeply penetrates, finding little resistance until it at last becomes embedded in the whirring machinery, seizing it up and bringing the beast to an immediate halt.
The eyes still watch me, still glare angrily. The gorilla of flesh and blood is still alive, still aware; it’s just the general workings of this hybrid beast that have come to a halt. The body as a whole is frozen in mid action, as he had attempted to retrieve his unstable footing and raise his blade against me once more.
I’m tempted to push this unbalanced, petrified beast toppling to the floor; it would take only the merest jab of a finger, despite his immense size. And yet the pitiful glow of his eyes dissuades me.
Besides – there’s still the serpent to kill.
The serpent who’s already killed poor little Apsara.
In a flowing move, I reach for two more daggers, whirling around to look towards where I’d last seen the slinking coils of the cobra coiling across the floor.
The coils are still there yet, strangely, they’re motionless, silent.
‘Your father’s men taught you well,’ Apsara says with a satisfied grin, taking in the stilled gorilla and tiger with an admiring nod of approval.
I’m so relieved that she’s safe, I almost rush forward to take her up in my arms.
But that would be crazy.
It would just be a sign of weakness.
Looking more closely at the unmoving serpent, I see that its jaw is still wide open, frozen in mid strike. The cogs revealed deep within its throat have been stilled with the firm imbedding of the letter opener.
Wow; how lucky must she be to have managed that?
‘My training was the best ther–’
I stop, noticing that Apsara is staring at my hand.
She’s seen that my finger has grown back.
‘Oh, yeah: there is that, too,’ I say.
‘Do you want to explain how your finger’s returned?’
‘Wait, didn’t I see a fang going into your chest?’
We speak at one and the same time, both requiring answers to questions that are puzzling us.
Before either of us can attempt an answer, however, there’s a heavy clumping of metallic hooves behind us.
Whirling around, we expect to be confronted by many more of these horrendous machines, perhaps under the leadership of the bronze horse.
But the only creature standing relatively close to us is the mechanical horse. Many other beasts have gathered together behind him, yet they’re making no move to approach, let alone attack us.
‘Why have you invaded our home?’ the horse demands. ‘Why have you killed our friends?’
‘We haven’t killed them; only disabled them, I hope,’ I say apologetically, recognising that we are indeed invaders of his realm.
‘We can release them,’ Apsara confidently declares, ‘on condition that you command them that they mustn’t endanger us.’
The horse nods his acceptance of these conditions; and as he steps towards us, he gives a shrug of his bronze plates, such that they glitter in the last of the lantern’s scattered yellow flames.
And in an instant, he turns into something far more recognisable as a man.
As the man entertains us at his splendidly elegant dining table, I can’t help but notice that the flow of his movement is nowhere near as smoothly graceful as it was when he was the horse.
It is this identity of a man that seems the more unnatural form for him.
Like the other creatures here, he is constructed from an ingenious mingling of clockwork and metal with ligament and skin.
The creatures who had resisted us have retired to other parts of this immense, innumerably tunnelled cavern, for only the tiger required repairs once Apsara and I had withdrawn our blades. Apsara had returned her letter opener to her bag, yet seemed to me to briefly scramble around in the bag as if searching for something else.
Thankfully, the food being served to us is the same as we would eat within our own world, with only the nature of the servants and our host striking any odd note. Those serving the food are, surprisingly, more fluid in their movements than their master, though these creatures are more simian like than human, or only semi-beast, walking upright on curiously bent hind legs. The dull glow of their eyes, however, seem pained, pleading, and is pitiful to witness.
These servants had set the table even as the man had walked towards us, inviting us to eat with him, as he would relish news of the world lying beyond his own realm. We admitted that we weren’t wholly informed of all events taking place within the new queen’s domains, yet even I had to grudgingly admit that she appeared to be making efforts to improve the wellbeing of her people.
The Man of bronze purported to be unaware of any realm fitting this description, saying that none he knew of nearby benefited from either a king or queen who used their power wisely, yet he still insisted we joined him for a ‘welcoming’ dinner.
The plates and cutlery are amongst the finest I’ve seen, no doubt made by the master craftsman who has made these hybrid constructions of man, beast and machine. There are napkins, too, with individual napkin rings; one of metal for me, of wood for Apsara, and one of a yellowy glass for the Man of Bronze. As soon as the napkin is pulled from the glass ring, however, the ring shrinks to a size more suitable for wearing upon a finger. Even so, the Man of Bronze places his ring by his plate, as Apsara and I do with ours.
Whereas we eat hungrily, appreciating this opportunity to eat well, he only picks at his own food. Perhaps, as he’s constructed mainly of machine parts, he doesn’t need regular food in any great quantities.
‘I can’t fail to notice,’ he says at last, with tones of pride, ‘how you admire my creations.’
‘But we heard that you take people,’ Apsara says sniffily, ‘and it is these poor people you transform into your “creations”.’
I had thought of challenging him on this myself, of course, as I hadn’t forgotten what the two foxes had told us: and yet I’d also had the good sense to remain mute on the subject, as there was little we could do about it at the moment.
Far from being insulted by Apsara’s accusation, however, the Man of Bronze is thankfully merely amused.
‘Ah, so that’s what they’re claiming now, is it?’ he chuckles good-naturedly. ‘Yet the truth is, my dear, that I am as much their creation as they are of my own previously limited abilities.’
‘But…to take people…’ Apsara continues with her fruitless protest, ‘and transform them into…creatures?’
‘Ah, but if you have heard complaints, my dear – which I can only presume you have? – then this is because they no longer fully remember their previous lives; recalling for the most part, as we all do, only the happier sections of our lives, and wilfully forgetting its worst aspects. In this way, they reassure themselves that they were once morally upstanding citizens – rather than outcasts and thieves – or healthy people with a lifetime of joy lying ahead of them – as opposed to the reality of ill health and an early death.’
‘But is this preferable to dying?’ I ask, recognising at last that I’m being ridiculously complacent to the suffering of these people, as if awestruck by my strange surroundings.
‘Indeed it is,’ the Man of Bronze insists, splaying his arms wide to draw attention to his own hybrid form. ‘For look at me: in this way, I too am still alive, whereas otherwise I would be undoubtedly dead. You see, I was once nothing but a maker of toys; ingenious ones, if I say so myself, that worked through clockwork, granting my creations a semblance of life. Envious of what they presumed must be my wealth – for I rarely sold my creations, being unable to part with my greatest treasures – a gang of thieves broke into my shop one night, viciously torturing me with my own tools in the vain hope that I would reveal where my “treasure” was hidden: when, of course, it was on plain sight all around them.
‘They left me for dead upon the floor of my own workshop, intending to return the following night, when they would rip apart even more of my shop and my treasures in their search for riches they could never hope to find.
‘In the darkness of my workshop, I heard first a whirring of gears quietly coming to life, and then the hesitant approach of my children. Those that could kneelt by me, weeping. Even they could see that my flesh, my sinews – even my innards – had been torn and shredded beyond use. I was no longer a man, but merely something you would more regularly expect to see upon a butcher’s slab, with barely anything keeping me alive.
‘I don’t know who it was amongst them who had the idea; but in a moment, they were dismantling a horse of bronze I had been working upon yet had not had time to complete. These pieces my children cleverly built around me, retaining the parts of me they could save, discarding those beyond hope; granting me a new body, with new muscles of clockwork, and flesh and bones of bronze and wood.
‘Later, I would make my own improvements, granting me a nearer semblance to a man; but for the moment, it gave me and my children the means to prevent the retuning thieves from inflicting more pain upon us. And yet, rather than seeking revenge, we welcomed them amongst us: for just as I had been granted a whole new form of life, we allowed the flesh and the minds of our torturers to form the repaired sections of the children they had damaged the previous night.’
A hybrid of man and antelope is taking away my empty plate.
His wide and terrified eyes tell me that everything the Man of Bronze has told me is true.
‘I hope you have enjoyed your welcome,’ the Man of Bronze declares, rising from his chair even as he reaches for and picks up a large carving knife, ‘for now it’s time for you to make good the damage you inflicted upon my children.’
As he had risen from his chair, the Man of Bronze had deftly slipped his finger of his free hand into the ring by his plate.
Now he unhurriedly slips to one side, makes the slightest of swerves: and then, with surprising ineptness, launches himself upon me.
It’s an easy move to counter.
As I rise up quickly from my own chair, sending it flying back behind me, I curl in beneath his arching body, fiercely bringing an arm up to deflect his blow. Using the flow and momentum of my rising, as well as the unsteadiness of his own inept thrust, I whip that same arm around to send him sprawling off to one side.
Fearing an attack from his creatures, I don’t see that I have any time for mercy.
Although he appears strangely shocked by the ease with which I’ve thwarted his attack, he’s obviously readying himself to attack me once more; he swings around as soon as he begins to regain his footing, his eyes glaring and filled as much with hate as surprise.
Withdrawing a dagger from my cross belt, I plunge it deep into a small section between his eyes that lacks any protection from the bronze plates.
Well, whaddya know? It seems I had been looking for weak points on his body, if only through habit rather than consciously – you know, just in case?
He falls back, dropping onto his knees; but his body crumples no further, the metallic sheeting forming his body acting like a suit of armour keeping him keeling upright, despite the blade deeply embedded between his now lifeless eyes.
I spin around, taking a dagger in each hand, expecting his children to instantly launch into an avenging attack.
They’re holding back; not one of them is moving.
‘I think they’re glad you killed him,’ Apsara whispers to me, if a little unsurely.
It’s true they are staring at the kneeling Man of Bronze, as if hesitant to declare him truly dead.
I suppose they have seen him come to life once before.
Is that why they’re they all so scared of him?
I whirl sharply around, my arms and long-bladed daggers extended out before me.
I had hoped to sever his head, to prove beyond all doubt that he was dead. But his armoured plates protect his neck.
Even so, the force of my strike is enough to send him toppling over onto his side with the clang of dulled bells.
At last, with the exchanging of anxious glances turning into ones of relief, the creatures accept that their master is dead and erupt into a series of weeping and whooping cheers.
‘Why do you think he just came at me like that?’ I ask Apsara. ‘Making it so easy for me to kill him?’
Apsara smiles, holding up a glass ring she slips onto her finger.
‘Because he thought he was invisible,’ comes her chuckle from out of the empty space lying before me.
The Man of Bronze is still wearing the glass ring I saw him slip onto his finger: but I see now that it’s the one Apsara had bought from my home, its glow not as yellow as the one that he had placed by his plate earlier.
Apsara must have swapped the rings at some point.
So that’s what she’d been scrambling around in her bag for.
‘How’d you know to do that?’ I ask the empty space. ‘No, don’t tell me; you read about it in the book, right?’
There’s no answer at first.
Then Apsara appears at my side, having moved slightly, and now holding rather then wearing the ring of yellow glass.
‘Sorry,’ she says bashfully. ‘I nodded in answer to your question; I’d forgotten you couldn’t see me.’
‘A ring of invisibility,’ I whistle. ‘Wow, just think what we can do with this!’
‘No,’ Apsara replies adamantly. ‘Not if you’re serious about reforming the slipper, anyway.’
‘How can a ring be a part of the slipper?
Apsara bends down and reaches into the bag that now lies at her feet. She must have collected it while she was invisible
Did the bag become invisible while she carried it? I didn’t notice, but I suppose it must have done.
Around us, the creatures are beginning to silently leave the cavern. They’re not bothering us, but neither are they helping us. I’ll have to make sure we’re not the last ones left in here: we don’t have any idea how to make that portal open, after all.
‘It’s only a ring while it’s separated from the rest of the slipper,’ Apsara says, rising once more but now holding the slipper’s heel in her other hand.
She brings the two pieces together: and as they touch, the ring quivers slightly, breaks apart at its top, then flows like molten glass into a new shape – the curved section of the shoe that supports the upper arch of the foot.
Of course, I’m amazed by this find, this addition to the formation of the slipper I’m searching for.
And yet; there’s also a part of me that regrets bringing the pieces together.
‘Wait, wait; shouldn’t we keep the ring separate? I mean, so we can use its powers of invisibility?’
Apsara shakes her head doubtfully.
‘If a piece of the slipper it can be connected to is close by, drawing on its magic too much simply begins to drain it; weakens it far more than any normal use would. Which means that, soon, I’m going to also have to relinquish this.’
Reaching into the top of her blouse with her free hand, Apsara pulls clear from around her neck the blue necklace that – like the letter opener, and the ring – she must have taken from her bag earlier.
In the cavern’s dim light it looks quite beautiful, especially the crescent pendant, for in the eerie glow it looks like a slice of a dark blue evening sky.
‘This will join the slipper’s toe section to the rest of the sole.’
I cup the crescent in my hand, staring at it in amazement, bafflement – and anger.
‘You already had this part of the slipper? But you didn’t tell me?’
‘I wasn’t sure, at first, that it was the Necklace of Inanna,’ Apsara replies calmly. ‘But I wore it just in case: and it’s a good job I did, as it protected me from the fangs of the snake, just as the necklace is supposed to prevent the penetration of any blade! That’s when I was sure this was part of the slipper!’
There’s something seriously wrong with all this supposed explanation.
‘So…you’re saying I had this piece all along – when I was a child? But…but how’s that possible, when the slipper only shattered a few years back?’
Something else strikes me. Something that had been troubling me when Apsara had revealed that she’d read about the Flame of Love in the book of legends, but I hadn’t had time to define exactly what was troubling me until now.
‘And the book; The Glass Kingdom. How could that tell you where to find the slipper’s heel when I also owned that long before the shattering of the slipper? Besides, it refers to ancient legends; to objects that were in existence long before the slipper even came into being!’
‘But you said the slipper refracts time,’ an undeterred Apsara says, pointing to the finger that had appeared once more upon my hand. ‘And shouldn’t someone who can regrow a finger have an open mind about such things?’
I glance at my finger a little ashamedly.
‘Well, okay, yeah; it was when my lost toe grew back that I first began to suspect that the slipper refracted time, not just light,’ I confess to Apsara. ‘I mean – as I think I might have already said? – I didn’t cut it off on purpose: and then, thankfully, the next day my toe had grown back. And later, when a coach robbery went a little wrong…well, let’s just say my hearing wouldn’t be as good as it is today if things hadn’t returned back to normal in less than a few hours.’
Apsara gives me a ‘see what I mean’ sort of expression.
‘Even so,’ I say defensively, ‘you just can’t have pieces of the shattered slipper turning up in legends from long ago!’
‘Can’t you?’ Apsara says simply, waving in my face the necklace pendant that had just saved her.
Cer, Ber and Us rush happily towards us both, gathering around us and eagerly licking our hands.
Close behind them come the two foxes, explaining that they came in through the corridor, which has opened up once again now that the creatures are slowly leaving the cavern.
‘Where will they all go?’ I ask.
‘Who knows?’ the vixen replies. ‘It can never be an easy life for any of us anymore. But at least we’re free of the Man of Bronze.’
‘Thank you for saving us from him,’ the other fox adds. ‘I can’t think how you did it, when he had the power to become invisible!’
‘Is there another way out of here?’ Apsara ask, ‘one taking us more north east?’
‘Yes, there are other corridors,’ the vixen says.
‘It’s a high tower we’re looking for; one not too far from this mountain,’ Apsara adds.
The foxes exchange what appears to me to be puzzled glances.
‘There are no other buildings around these parts for at least three day’s journey,’ the fox explains. ‘That’s why we were so surprised when you turned up in our lands, apparently out of nowhere.’
‘But we came from a cottage not far from here,’ I protest.
Apsara has reached into her bag once more, this time producing the book. She opens it up near the start, where a map shows the location of each legendary item.
It’s a map I had never taken seriously, presuming it had been drawn purely from someone’s overactive imagination.
For the first time, I notice that the castle of my mother and father is on the map, the location for the Necklace of Inanna.
Why had I never noticed it before?
Because, of course, no one ever expects to be featured in a story book, do they?
Now, of course, I feature in a story that’s spreading all too rapidly, just as any salacious rumour spreads.
According to this map, every item thankfully – in fact, all a little bit too conveniently, if we’re really talking legendary objects here, as opposed to ones formed from the shattered slipper – lies nearby, apart from the Dagger of Brutus, whose location is illustrated in a separated box.
Then again, the Necklace of Inanna (if I remember the story correctly) had lain in a ancient tomb situated in a far off country until a band of marauding soldiers had stolen it. Yes, I remember now; it was indeed a present given to me by father’s soldiers after a campaign overseas.
‘This isn’t an accurate map,’ the vixen says, shaking her head after briefly studying the drawing.
The fox nods in agreement.
‘This map is nothing but a construct of a wild imagination. You can’t seriously be using this to find your way around?’
Despite the foxes’ insistence that the tower we’re seeking – according to Apsara, it holds the Mirror of What Might Be – doesn’t exist, they agree to lead us out to the north east side of the mountain.
Our journey through the meandering corridor gradually opening up before us in the mountain’s otherwise impenetrable rock is thankfully less hurried and not quite as dangerous as our entrance.
On exiting the fissure, we look out over the land from our high vantage point.
As the foxes had assured us, there is no high tower to be seen anywhere in the land stretching out for countless miles before us.
I sigh with disappointment.
That’s what comes of following a map drawn by someone just for their own amusement.
With nowhere else to head, we mount up and begin to descend the mountain anyway, the foxes leaving us after a while ‘to try and form a new life, the best we can under the circumstances’.
The crack in the mountain closes up behind us. There’s no turning back now.
Eventually, we come out on a road that, once again, isn’t portrayed on the map.
‘Look, it’s been right so far about the cottage and the mountain,’ Apsara declares. ‘I think we should continuing heading north east, as the map says we should.’
I stare at her. Both amazed and amused by her confidence that we’re doing the right thing.
‘Hey, how come you suddenly seem to be the one in control of all this?’
‘Maybe because I’m the only one who remembers what was written in your book?’
‘The book that’s says there’s a tower by the mountain, right?’
‘Er, I take it you haven’t looked behind us recently?’ she answers mysteriously.
I twist around in my saddle to look back at the mountain.
There’s no mountain there.
I’m just beginning to wonder if we’ve somehow been magically and unknowingly spirited to some other, strange land when we hear the sound of a large number of quickly trotting horses rushing towards us.
It’s a troop of the king’s men, their pennants flying from their stiffly held lances, the plumes on their helmets like clouds of red dye spreading in water.
There’s no chance to turn around without arousing suspicion.
We continue to ride along the road, passing by the troops as if we’re just regular travellers making our way from one town to the next.
Two men who seem to be the troop’s officers observe us more closely and suspiciously than the rest of their men. Even so, as we smile innocently back at them, they simply salute and continue on their way, until we at last find ourselves just about alone on the road once more as the very last of the soldiers ride by us.
‘Idiots,’ I snigger quietly in relief to Apsara. ‘They couldn’t catch a disease.’
‘It’s all a bit too easy, don’t you think?’ says Apsara doubtfully. ‘I mean, all this easy evading of the Royal Troop?’
‘Not really,’ I shrug. ‘The army doesn’t attract the brightest of men, does it?’
‘Or maybe another way of looking at it is that your sister the queen thinks more of you that you give her credit for and she’s given orders that you shouldn’t be arrested?’
‘Hah!’ I chortle dismissively. ‘So you still believe she’s my sister? I don’t know her: as far as I know, she’s never met me – unless, of course, she was just a lowly servant I’d never taken notice of!’
‘Then you treated her well, so she’s–’
‘And how would she know I’m dressed as a highwayman?’
‘I don’t know,’ Apsara admits. ‘Did you often dress in–’
‘No, I did not dress often in men’s clothes! I seem to recall already explaining that the highwayma–’
‘Yeah, yeah; he left them behind. And then he went off running about the countryside naked, right?’
‘How am I supposed to know what he decided to wear instead?’
‘One of your dresses, perhaps?’ Apsara replies with a mischievous chuckle.
Before I can make any suitable retort, we’re abruptly interrupted by the heavy hoofbeats of a number of horses hurriedly drawing up behind us.
It’s the two officers, and a handful of their men. Riding back at a hasty pace towards us. This time, they don’t pass by us; they gather about us, bringing us to a halt.
One of the officers politely doffs his helmet.
‘This may be nothing sir, young miss,’ he says gruffly. ‘But I must insist on seeing the bag you’re carrying.’
With a nod of his head, he indicates Apsara’s bag. She hands it over to him with surprising sheepishness.
The officer handed the bag scrabbles around inside it.
If he finds the half formed slipper, will that raise his suspicions…?
In my saddlebags, I still have all the purses and jewellery I took from the coach.
Fortunately, it’s only the mirror and the cup that he withdraws from the bag.
Even so, he studies these childish artefacts intently.
‘Ah yes, we thought the bag fitted the description,’ he says, with a waving of an arm towards his troops. ‘Arrest these two, men!’ he adds firmly.
‘So, let me get this right,’ I hiss furiously at a shamefaced Apsara. ‘You think they’ve tied us up because they think you’ve stolen the bag and the things in it?’
Like me, she’s been allowed to remain mounted. But we’ve had our hands tied behind out backs, and the reins of our mounts are being firmly held by two soldiers who have been instructed to keep a close eye on us.
Ber, Cer and Us have, as I’ve previously trained them to do, melted into the nearby woods. They’ll keep pace with us, waiting until there’s a chance for them to help us.
I don’t think that chance will ever come.
There are too many men holding us.
Apsara continues with her explanation as to why she ‘thinks’ the Royal Troop might ‘think’ we’ve stolen the bag.
‘I, er, didn’t actually buy those things, see, becaus–’
‘So I’ve been arrested for stealing my own childhood toys? Is that what you’re saying?’
‘Well, not exactly saying that; but yes, yes –I’m sort of implying that.’
‘Great! Even the queen hasn’t put a stop to people being hung for stealing!’
‘Look on the bright side,’ Apsara insists as brightly as she can manage. ‘If your parents have made such a big fuss about your childhood things going missing, they must really care for you, right?’
‘Oh yeah, yeah: that is a silver lining, isn’t it? Just call me old sour face for not spotting that bright ray of sunshine lighting up my otherwise quite miserable execution.’
‘Maybe it is time to use the Ring of Invisibility,’ Apsara whispers conspiratorially.
I whisper conspiratorially back.
‘Oh, that would be the Ring of Invisibility you gave to the officer in your bag, right?’
‘Tell me,’ I say, deciding that we might as well have a decent, last conversation as we take what’s probably our last ride in the countryside, ‘what exactly was it that you hoped we’d find in this non-existent tower? This Mirror of What Might Be; would it, by any chance, be showing anyone looking into it that we’re soon to be hung?’
Apsara pouts doubtfully.
‘I can’t see that anyone would really concern themselves with such mundane things, can you?’
‘Hmn, it isn’t exactly mundane as far as I’m concerned.’
‘True, true,’ Apsara says sagely. ‘But why would anyone owning the Mirror of What Might Be concern herself with the fate of two petty thieves?’
‘I’m not a thief!’ I protest irately. ‘I didn’t steal those–’
Apsara quietens my protest by simply staring at my bulging saddlebags.
‘Huh, semantics,’ I snort back. ‘You know full well what I mean!’
‘Well, look; if it really does make you feel any better, I think the Mirror of What Might Be would show that the far more likely event is that we’re not taken to be hung.’
‘Erm, now let me think; is there any way that little nugget of information might be supposed to make me feel any better?’
‘I think it says that chance is working for us rather than against us; that’s how the mirror works, see? It shows the most likely outcome of all other possibilities; to within a month’s time frame of you asking the question.’
‘It sees into the future? But only what might be?’
‘What’s most likely to be: but you can see the possibility of all other likelihoods, dependent only upon how long you have to stare into the mirror. Therefore, you can determine which actions are most likely to end up in the result you desire.’
‘And so why do you think it show there’s little likelihood that we’ll face the noose?’
‘Because – I’ve got an idea.’ She leans forward in her saddle, calling out to the soldier leading her horse. ‘Excuse me…’
The solider wearily peers back over his shoulder towards Apsara.
‘Ah, at last,’ Apsara says with a miffed sigh, as if she’s been calling the poor man for ages. ‘I’d like to speak to your officers; I have something important to tell them!’
‘Apsara,’ I hiss. ‘This had better not be–’
Before I can plead with her not to betray me, the solider pulls her and her horse out of the line up of trotting riders.
Apsara smiles triumphantly back at me as she’s led up the road towards the officers.
The next time I see Apsara, she’s smiling even more broadly than before.
Her hands have been untied.
She’s even been given her – my – bag back.
She’s riding back towards me with one of the officers.
‘Untie this man,’ he says with a commanding wave to his men.
‘How’d you do that? Get us released?’ I ask Apsara curiously.
‘Well, the Royal Troop; they’ve got to have been given some sort of code word that any government spy they’ve mistakenly caught can use to make sure he’s freed. Right?
‘I suppose so; yeah. And you knew this code word?’
‘Of course not! It would have to be secret, wouldn’t it? Otherwise even a couple of petty thieves could use it to escape!’
‘I’m not a petty thi–’
I bring my protest to an abrupt halt.
What’s the point?
‘Okay, so how’d you get us free?’ I begin again.
‘I whispered the code word to their commanding officer!’
‘Which was…?’ I ask, tempering my frustration.
‘Glass!’ she exclaims excitedly.
‘That’s it? Glass? You guessed it?’
‘Not at all!’ she replies, putting on an offended expression. ‘Think about it: the tower, the mirror…’
I think about it.
I’m still none the wiser.
She detects my bewilderment.
‘When we arrive at the mirror, all we have to do is ask it to reveal the code word that was given to the Royal Troop!’
I smile, impressed by her ingenuity.
And then…something strikes me that there might be a problem with her theory.
‘That was given, you said? As in the past, you mean?’
She nods, still smiling at her own cleverness.
‘But…doesn’t this mirror reflect the future…? And besides – how do we get back in time to let us know what we’ve learned?’
She turns slightly in her saddle, raising a hand, a finger, as if about to confidently correct me; but then she pauses.
Her finger drops.
So does her expression.
‘Ahh…’ she says anxiously.
Behind us, we can hear the thunder of rapidly approaching hooves.
We both, as one, urge our horses into an immediate gallop.
‘This time thing’s just so bloody complicated!’ Apsara wails furiously.
Both Bess and even Apsara’s horse are expensive looking breeds.
We should be able to outrun what are relatively nags belonging to a group of soldiers.
Unless, of course, the officers, have purchased excellent steeds using their own not inconsiderable wealth.
They usually do, unfortunately.
Certainly, at least two of the pursuing riders seem to be gradually gaining on us, going by the sounds of the hoofbeats we can hear pounding the packed earth of the track.
As we hurtle around a sharp corner, our situation abruptly becomes even worse; for the track simply vanishes, the beaten stones of the track simply ending in what appears to be an almost perfectly straight line, as if the road’s makers had suddenly run out of money, materials, and men to construct it with.
‘This is crazy, impossible,’ I scream out in frustration as Apsara’s mount is suddenly slowed down by the hard going, the long grass hiding uneven ground. ‘We only came this way just a few moments ago!’
The hounds bound ahead, looking back in puzzlement at us, no doubt wondering why we’ve been dragged to a ridiculously slow pace; like Bess, they’re completely unaffected by the rolling unevenness of this uncultivated and uncared for land.
‘Look, look!’ Apsara yells elatedly, excitedly indicating something lying ahead of us.
It’s the tower.
A tower soaring so high into the clouds, I wonder how we could ever have missed it.
Like the track, the thunder of hooves upon it has come to an abrupt end.
Fearing that the pursuing troops have already arrived on the softer ground of the scrubland, I whirl around in my saddle; and I’m relieved to see that they haven’t yet drawn so close.
They must still be behind us on the track that’s now hidden by the higher bushes and small trees sprouting up here and there from amongst the thick, tall grasses.
It’s only after we’ve travelled a good distance deeper into the tangle of grasses, ferns and undergrowth that we finally consider that the Royal Troop has given up on its pursuit.
Unlike us, who had little choice, they don’t want to risk the health of their poor horses by dragging them through this uncared for land of prickled gorse and thorny brambles.
I finally feel safe enough to ask Apsara why they originally accepted her false code word.
‘Maybe I said it with enough conviction to make them wonder if they were a little behind in receiving the latest code word commands?’
Whatever the answer is, it’s irrelevant for now at least.
We’re faced with new problems.
Like how do we scale a tower reaching up into the clouds?
‘Is it like that tower, do you think,’ I say hopefully, ‘where she lowers her hair and hauls us up?’
Apsara shakes her head. She points to a small door at the base of the soaring tower.
‘I think it’s more like that sort of tower,’ she says, ‘where you haul yourself up an apparently endless flight of stairs.’
‘Oh just great,’ I say miserably. ‘You know, rather than me dying of exhaustion when we finally get to the top, maybe you should just kill me now?’
Even the dogs sigh with relief when I tell them they don’t have to follow us, they can stay at the base with the horses.
The only thing we take with us is the partially formed slipper. I even leave my sword behind, along with most of my knives.
We’re carrying only the most essential items. Even so, we have to take a rest every now and again, along with a drink of water from the bottles we filled earlier and have brought with us.
When we reach the door to what must be a surprisingly small room at the tower’s ridiculously narrowed peak, I’m almost too exhausted to knock.
As I lean my weight on the door, it swings open with a pained squeak.
A woman with long blonde hair has her back to me.
She’s seated before a mirror, however, so I can see her face; she’s beautiful, young.
She’s smiling, but otherwise there’s no reaction from her as I apologise for disturbing her.
As Apsara and I cautiously enter the small room, I notice that our reflections in the mirror – unlike that of the woman’s – are incredibly hazy, multiplied countless times in a confused medley of what I presume must be all the possible moves we might make over the next few seconds.
It’s all a blur and effusion of indigo, much as you might see floating in the air around a brightly lit cathedral window.
How is anyone supposed to make sense of such confusing images?
How much more complicated must it be if you’re looking even farther into the future?
But then again, what’s the point anyway, if all you’re seeing is what’s reflected in this small room?
I would ask the young woman how to use the mirror, but I don’t think she’s going to be much help.
A dagger has been plunged deeply into her heart.
‘What use is this mirror if she couldn’t even foresee her own death?’
‘It’s the Dagger of Brutus, or Carnwennan,’ Apsara replies to my question, studying the dagger with its hilt of violet glass. ‘The glass hilt dulls any suspicions the intended victim might have; shrouding its holder in the more indefinable shadows of a sense of wellbeing and friendship.’
At certain angles, the dagger’s hilt appears white. The glass is just a thin covering, the hilt lying beneath it being one of white metal.
‘At least we won’t have to go searching for that,’ I say with less satisfaction than I should probably feel.
Ignoring the dead woman with surprising callousness, like she’s seen this sort of thing so many times before, Apsara stands before the mirror, her demeanour giving me the impression that she intends to use it. She’s placed the partially formed slipper to one side, so she’s obviously delaying any further melding of the sections.
‘Er, didn’t you say we shouldn’t drain the objects of their magic whenever we’ve brought other sections of the slipper close by?’
‘This is important; and I’ve worked out what I need to say this time.’
‘You’re not going to ask for the code word?’ I guffaw in astonishment. ‘Why?’ just to see how close you were with your guess?’
‘We might be caught again,’ she points out.
‘But how can the mirror help, when all it reflects is this small room? It’s just so ridiculously badly positioned!’
Apsara turns to me.
‘You’re thinking of a normal mirror. What does a normal mirror do?’
I frown, thinking this is a silly question to ask.
‘Reflects things,’ I say, realising even as I do that it’s an inadequate answer.
‘Reflects the world lying before it; that’s what you were implying just now, yes, when you said it was badly positioned?’
I nod; yes, that does just about sum up what I meant.
‘And that reflection – although it appears like our world to be one of height, width and depth–’
As she says this, she draws a cube in the air.
– ‘actually only gives us a flattened image we can’t possibly penetrate with our hand, or even walk around it; correct?’
I nod again; yeah, that’s a fair enough description.
Better than mine, at any rate.
Apsara fleetingly turns back towards the mirror.
‘Now this mirror, it gives us a flattened reflection of the world of height, width, depth – and time.
She draws the cube in the air once more; yet then quickly draws it in another position, then another – the cube as it would appear in different positions, as if it were being moved over time.
I now what she’s saying; if the cube were real, the mirror would be capable of displaying all of the multiple positions it might possibly take over the next month – but it would doubtlessly show the most likely position as a firmer image than the rest.
Apsara indicates the mirror.
‘But the real beauty of the mirror, of course, is that within the next month the mirror itself could be possibly – no matter how improbable it is – transported anywhere that we could wish it to be: and therefore it can reflect anything we chose.’
Her explanation over, Apsara stares directly into the mirror once more.
‘What code word will the Royal Troop be using tomorrow?’
The mirror is filled with a multiple of clashing, hazy images.
The room is filled with the smells of heated horse, the sounds of whinnying and the tinkle and slap of harnesses.
Spoken words are being repeated again and again, yet like the images, they clash multiple times, making it impossible to define any particular expression, despite some of them being far stronger in their intensity than others.
With surprising confidence, Apsara places her hands on the mirror’s surface; and then she hesitates, as if suddenly unsure about what she should do next.
She glances back towards the dagger protruding from the woman’s chest, observing it warily – but then she reaches out for it with her free hand, grabbing its hilt firmly.
She turns back to face the mirror, where her other hand still rests on its glass surface – and then there is no surface, her hands slipping inside, moving as if she’s pulling her way through a crowd.
The hazier images are pushed aside, as are the weaker sounds, each move Apsara makes bringing the stronger, more repeated images to the fore.
This is the word repeated far more times than any other.
The most likely of all possible alternatives.
‘Ghast – an older word for ghost,’ Apsara says with a satisfied smirk.
She turns to me.
‘No wonder they briefly accepted “glass”,’ she says with a chuckle. ‘They must have given me the benefit of the doubt at first; each one telling themselves they must have misheard me, until they discussed it amongst themselves later and decided I had said “glass” after all!’
Her elation fleetingly seems to desert her, her bright smile briefly replaced by a perplexed grimace. Then the smile returns as if I had simply imagined its disappearance.
With one hand still on the dagger, the other still protruding into the mirror, she quickly moves the images once more until she at last seems satisfied that there is nothing more to do here.
Perhaps she realised that you can’t simply withdraw your hand from such a magical device? There must be some way, some protocol, of switching it off, as it were.
As Apsara finally pulls her hand clear of the mirror, and she turns away from it, the reflected images fade, the sounds and stenches vanishing with them. She has her back to me, but I can see that, at last, she’s reaching out for the incomplete slipper she had brought with her.
This time it’s me who wants to delay the melding of the mirror into the slipper.
‘Shouldn’t we use the mirror to find out where we can find the next piece of slipper?’
‘It’s there,’ Apsara says distractedly, indicating one of the room’s small windows with a sharp nod of her head. ‘Besides,’ she adds with another nod of her head, this time towards the murdered woman, ‘she might not want to help me again.’
I frown, mystified by Apsara’s comment.
‘The vibrations coming from the two parts of the slipper connected me to her,’ Apsara replies nonchalantly as she brings the incomplete shoe towards the dagger’s hilt. ‘Wouldn’t you know it, but it turns out that there’s a part of her that will forever remain alive!’
No, I didn’t know it.
I’m more mystified than ever.
Shrugging off my bewilderment, I hurriedly stride over to the window and peer out.
About a short horse ride away, there’s a magnificent house, surrounded by high walls. At least, they appear at first to be high walls, until I realise that most of the walls’ supposed height comes from the overgrown roses climbing up them.
Gardens which were obviously once meticulously planned and well cared for also lie neglected, and have returned to the wild. The house itself is strewn with ivy, to the extent that much of it has partially collapsed under the weight.
When I turn back into the room, Apsara has already merged the glass sides of the dagger’s hilt into the partially formed slipper. They form the curled sides of the slippers, the so-called quarters running down each side of the shoe from the upper arch support that had been formed from the ring.
The poor woman strangely seems aware that the gorgeous violet glow of the glass has vanished from the dagger used to murder her.
Her smile has gone, to be replaced by a more knowing, horrified expression.
As if she has recognised, at last, but too late, the treachery that would take her life.
Apsara next brings the slipper towards the mirror, a piece of glass so large I wonder how it can possibly become a section of a shoe.
As the slipper is brought close to it, however, the glass of the mirror quivers, as if vibrating to the high notes of an accomplished singer.
It ripples, as if liquefying; then it begins to flow as smoothly as a stream’s sparkling waters towards the slipper.
In a moment, the slipper has its arch support, its shank, which melds seamlessly with the curling sides formed from the dagger’s handle.
And as for the Mirror of what Might Be; now, sadly, it’s just an empty frame.
‘The last part; for now, anyway!’ Apsara declares brightly as she brings the now almost complete slipper up towards the glittering blue crescent of her necklace.
As with the mirror, the necklace vibrates, shivers; then flows from about Apsara’s neck as if given life, as if it has been transformed into snaking, deep blue waters.
It rushes – strikes out, even – towards the waiting slipper. It bites onto the glistening end that only a moment ago was a mirror.
It streams up and into its appointed place within the slipper, solidifying as the throat that the still missing toe box will eventually affix itself to.
The only other thing the slipper lacks is the part that cups the heel.
And yet, something about this now almost wholly formed slipper strikes me as being distinctly odd.
It’s the size.
I mean, most girls could get two feet into this thing!
‘The slipper’s not anything like how I remember it!’ I point out to Apsara as we ride away from the tower, heading in the direction of the house we’d spotted from the window. ‘It’s hardly going to help pick out a dainty-footed princess, is it – a shoe that any fisherwoman would think too big for her?’
Apsara merely shrugs, like she can’t see why I think this is important.
‘It’s glass, isn’t it?’ she says pointedly.
‘Yeah – but, well; who’d go to a prince’s ball wearing that?’
She shrugs again.
She can’t think of an answer, obviously.
‘Maybe it, you know…well, when you try it on, well it sort of…you know, it shrinks to fit?’
‘What, if we sort of wash it countless times, you mean?’
‘Magically!’ she replies emphatically, confidently tapping the bag she’s carrying. ‘It’s a magic slipper, remember?’
‘Hey, wait: one thing I do remember is that you stole all those things from my father’s castle!’
‘If you wanted them back, you could have brought them along!’ she exclaims, referring to the mirror and letter opener we’d left behind at the base of the tower.
‘I don’t want them; but, I mean – don’t you think you owe me some sort of explanation as to how you came by them?’
It’s not even like my father’s castle is that easy to steal from. Besides, I’ve got to admit that Apsara hardly strikes me as being some cat-like thief.
‘Have you considered’ she retorts huffily, ‘that if I hadn’t brought them with me, you wouldn’t be so close to obtaining the full slipper?’
‘Ah, but…but now…yeah.’
She’s got a point hasn’t she?
‘So, what are we going to find in this great house?’ I ask her, giving up on any attempt to pin her down on how she ended up with items from my childhood.
‘The Vase of Life,’ she replies calmly. ‘Or, to us, the bit of the slipper your toes go in.’
The maze of thorns surrounding the house aren’t, thankfully, as impassable as those that had grown about Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
At one time, however, the tangle of roses, vines and clematis might well have been a formidable obstacle. But at some point someone has been here before us, it seems, and has hacked a way through the mass of intertwining plants, the thicker stems visible beneath young, finer growth displaying signs of being savagely severed.
The upper growth of the wickerwork of plants is actually startling gorgeous, a mingling of roses, clematis blooms and wisteria, a wild tapestry of colours. Whoever had first chosen and cultivated these shrubs had chosen well.
The gateway is impressive, its towering, carved pillars still discernable beneath the covering of blooms. One of the wrought iron gates is still in the closed position, but the other lies warped and broken amongst the flowers, having been violently wrenched from its hinges.
Everything has been overrun by the untended flowers. And so we don’t notice the fallen soldier until we’re just about tripping over him.
His armour is rusted, while any visible material is torn, rotted. The plant’s tendrils have gradually snaked through his armour, even through the eye sockets of the skeleton he’s become.
Now that we’ve seen him, we notice at last the dull glimmer of other pieces of armour more deeply embedded amongst the undergrowth.
More dead knights.
We wonder how the men have ended up so entwined within the mesh of growth until we come across other dead soldiers who have been hoisted upwards as the bushes have grown, such that they now dangle from branches like strange fruit.
The house itself is more derelict than I had first supposed when seeing it from the tower’s window. The jumble of intertwining plants look like a green sea frozen as it lashed at a cliff of red brick, but not before the pounding waves had caused immense damage.
Trees or the thick stems of large bushes grow at a weird angle towards the house, as if they have been blown that way while young and have never been able to stand upright once more. This close to the house, the effect is more one of trees who have launched a vicious attack upon the building rather than that of a structure collapsing under accumulated weight.
This sense of a steady streaming of growth continues as Apsara and I – once again, I’ve ordered our mounts and the hounds to ‘stay’ – follow the track of thick stems that have wound their way inside the house through the main doors. The vast majority of these thicker, older stems seem to be heading in one direction; to the upstairs rooms.
The coiling trunks wind their way up pillars, or ascend the stairs as if it were a waterfall in reverse. It is only towards the top of the stairs that this thick growth at last begins to thin out a little, until it peters out into little more than a few strangling stems reaching out towards the double doors on one of this floor’s major rooms.
The door we push on opens with a protesting crack, as if it had preferred it wasn’t disturbed.
The room is incredibly dark, with what could be large windows covered with thick drapes.
Little light comes in with us through the opened door. The room is gloomy, the murkiness only added to as we disturb thick coatings of dust that lie everywhere.
Directly ahead of us is what appears to be a large, tall alcove, yet the presence of heavy drapes suggests that they veil a towering bay window. In the alcove, standing in front of these draped windows, is a small yet high table.
Nothing stands on the table but a vase; a slender plinth of elaborately carved wood supporting an upturned cone of green glass.
A rose stands in the vase but, naturally, it is dried, dead.
So much for the Vase of Life.
‘This can’t be it? Can it?’
The flower, unlike the vase, no longer contains even the merest hints of green.
It’s grey, even black in parts. The bloom leans at an odd angle, the weakened stem too insubstantial to support it.
It all appears so dried and brittle that I’m scared to touch it, lest it falls apart, crumbling into noting but a dark dust. I’m even going so far as to hold my breath as I observe this sad specimen of a once glorious bloom, for I fear that even that could send it all tumbling to the table top as a pile of soot.
You can still make out its individual petals. Its leaves. Its thorns.
All of it covered in a patina of dust.
I sense that I’m about to sneeze.
I pull back quickly, covering my face to lessen the impact of my sneeze on the dust lying everywhere around us.
But nevertheless, this sharp exhalation, along with my abrupt move, sends the layers of dust billowing into the air.
The already dimly lit room is instantly made murkier than ever.
‘We need more light in here!’ I declare in frustration, reaching up to pull apart the drapes I’ve ended up standing by.
‘No, no!’ Apsara shrieks in warning, holding up a hand to stop me. ‘Don’t alter anything until we know–’
But it’s too late.
Although my pull on the drapes isn’t anywhere near strong enough to pull heavy rolls of cloth apart, it’s more than enough to begin to shred material that’s old and rotten. The thinner bands of material holding the drapes to the window’s overhead rail are particularly weak: and so as the first few split under the sudden, added stress of my sharp wrench on the folds of cloth, the rest inevitably follow one by one as they find themselves taking on more and more of the burden of supporting the heavy curtain.
One whole drape tumbles to the floor, the abrupt flooding in of the outside light painful to eyes that have become accustomed to the darkness.
Like me, Apsara has to shield her eyes with a raised arm.
Unlike me, she turns to look at the vase. I stare out of the window, looking out for the great palace that – according to the map – should lie just a short distance from here in this direction.
I can’t see anything resembling a palace, even though we’re high enough to see over even the overgrown walls surrounding the house.
It’s still an admirable view. Once again, I’m struck by the idea that the massed plants below could be a surging onslaught against the house or its occupants, as if they were seeking revenge on those who had pruned and grafted them.
There’s a definite sense of the plants sweeping this way, any sense of movement in their now thankfully stilled form granting the impression of a flow in one direction only, as opposed to the more aimless jumble I’d expect naturally growing flowers to take.
Ivy and wisteria clings to the walls just outside the window, a more extensive tendril having apparently achieved its aim for it has tentatively entered the room through the small gap in a broken window.
‘Look, look at the vase!’ Apsara calls out to me.
I’m only half way through my turn away from the window, and I can already detect the effects of the light upon the vase. The air around me glitters with an emerald glow, as if transformed into a gem-like substance.
The vase itself, however, is more beautiful by far; it sparkles as if taking the yellow of the sun, mixing it with the blue of the sky, and creating a whole new world of the purest green imaginable.
A flaming furnace of green, rather than of red.
The stem of the dead flower is bathed in this deep-sea glow, such that it could be fresh and alive once more.
‘It’s…it’s beautiful!’ I gasp in awe
‘Is it?’ Apsara breathes anxiously, pointing towards the wilting bloom.
Only it isn’t quite wilting anymore.
It no longer droops at a strange angle.
There are even hints of a colour in its petals; the marbling veins of a blood red.
Life is returning to the rose.
The green light swirls now as if it is water.
The rose continues to revive, its stem strengthening, straitening.
The petals glisten like a scarlet velvet. They curl about each other like long parted friends.
The rose stands perfectly perpendicular within the vase, as if fully supported by the mystical green waters swirling about its lower stem.
The petals unfurl slightly, flowing into new shapes.
The rose has what could pass for a face.
With a mouth of the reddest lips.
A mouth that speaks.
‘Welcome,’ the rose says, her voice soft and entrancing. ‘And thank you.’
‘What happened here?’ I ask the rose, if only because I’m not quite sure what else I should say.
It’s selfish to think this, I know: but if the rose depends upon the vase for its life, than how can we take the vase away to become a part of the slipper?
It’s not as if it is any regular rose, after all!
‘The house…was invaded,’ the rose declares, with obvious tones of sadness.
That would explain the forced gate, the hacked shrubs; the dead knights.
‘The inhabitants of the house resisted the attack, naturally,’ the rose continues. ‘But the invaders managed to shroud the windows, to prevent the light from reaching me – and so I effectively died, the invaders free to do as they wished to our home.’
She droops a little once more as she relates her sad tale.
‘It was a wedding day; it should have been our happiest day,’ she continues, brightening, standing up straight once more.
‘They wanted to take me, of course; but I resisted. The support of the vase is a part of the table, and the table is a part of the floor, and the floor is a part of the ancient roots of this house. And yet they would leave all that behind, believing they only had to take the Vase of Life to be granted every happiness they desired. But the green light of the vase is as much a part of me as I am of this house; and if I refused to leave, as I naturally did, then we could not be severed either.’
‘What was that?’ Apsara ask apprehensively, her ears pricking.
‘What was what?’ the rose asks innocently.
But I can now hear what I must presume Apsara had heard: a strange slithering, sounds of movement akin to the snaking of serpents.
‘Ah, the wind, whispering through the gaps in the windows,’ the rose tries to explain, if a little unsatisfactorily.
A deeper noise, a creeping, a hissing, comes from behind what remains of the drapes shrouding the bay window.
It becomes a ripping and then a startling thunderous thud as the rotted loops of the remaining drape finally give way and the heavy material completely crumples to the floor.
The windows on this side of the bay are more shattered than those of the originally revealed side.
It was the wind after all.
I laugh with relief; but Apsara’s expression is still strangely stern and fearful.
‘I didn’t wish to desert my friends.’ The rose coolly picks up her tale once more. ‘I couldn’t let anyone leave, to let this wonderful place become unloved and suffer its own form of decay because of that. So we resisted their departure; barriers sprouted up everywhere, surrounding the house – barriers of thorns that should have been impenetrable. We thought at first only to keep them here; and we would feed and care for them. Yet the invaders – what else could we call them now but “invaders”? – resisted in turn, attempting to break free, to hack viciously and callously at us in their attempts to do so; and so we were left with no alterative but to fight back.’
‘Who is this “we”?’ Apsara asks with a surprising level of suspicion. ‘The wedding party?’
The rose shakes her head.
‘It was the wedding that heralded the end of us all, of course. The mistress didn’t wish to stay here, “out in the middle of nowhere”: they would be leaving for the great house in the city. We could have stopped them, we were so close: just a few moments more and it would have been too late for them to shroud me in darkness, bringing all of us to a halt.’
Apsara rushes towards the bay window.
‘We have to block the light!’ she screams urgently at me as she begins to fruitlessly struggle with the heavy material that has tumbled to a chaotic heap on the floor.
An ivy tendril, one hanging into the room from a broken window far more than I remember it doing, whips across to her as if abruptly caught up in a strong gust. But then, as if alive, as if it were actually something more akin to a snake rather than a plant, the tendril brutally wraps around Apsara’s arm, dragging her away from the fallen rolls of cloth.
Other tendrils lash out towards her, rapidly entangling her in their coiling embrace. They wrench hard upon her, as if prepared to rip her apart.
I’m withdrawing my sword and a dagger even as I rush to help. With a few quick slashes, I severe the writhing stems, seeing with relief that the separated parts of the plants drop away from Apsara’s limbs and waist.
With an ear-piercing shattering of the glass, the windowpanes closest to us implode in towards us, showering us in sharp slivers. Thicker branches of ivy and wisteria force their way inside, even as other stems pummelling at the other windows also begin to break in.
The stems curl everywhere about us, as if we’re suddenly being attacked by a number of octopuses of various sizes, the tentacles coiling around our arms, legs, torso, even pulling hard back on our heads and threatening to grab us by our necks and choke us.
At some point, Apsara has grabbed two of my daggers for herself, and she’s using them with far more skill than I would have given her credit for. Like me, she’s hacking away at the stems, causing the coils entrapping her to fall away only for fresh, grasping tendrils to replace them.
‘It’s the rose!’ she screams out to me.
I notice for the first time that she’s bleeding about the head badly. An ear is missing, I’m sure of it. It must have been sliced off when the glass slivers fell everywhere about us.
‘The rose is controlling the plants! She didn’t want the people to leave!’
Despite the pressure I’m under to hold back the surging onslaught of tendrils, I glance back towards the innocent looking rose.
‘I’ll cut it down,’ I yell back to Apsara, making a series of desperate, hard slashes at the plants and briefly gaining enough freedom to draw away a little from the window.
‘If it’s that easy, why didn’t the soldiers try that?’ Apsara cries out.
I ignore her; my blade, at least, is in easy reach of the rose.
I strike out at the rose with a curving slash.
The emerald green light suffusing her quivers; and instantaneously becomes as solid as any precious stone.
My sword shatters upon it.
The clatter of breaking iron is horrendous, yet even that is drowned out as part of the room’s wall crashes inward.
It’s not wisteria or ivy this time; it’s a whole tree that’s barging its way towards us, its innumerable branches violently thrashing like the countless serpents of a Gorgon’s head.
With yet another loud crash, the door to the room falls aside.
The plants we’d passed as we’d ascended the stairs have now also come to life.
And as they stream into the room, they cut off any possible escape route for us.
‘Hold them off for as long as you can!’ Apsara shrieks back at me as, with a whirling of her blades, she breaks free of the entrapping coils.
‘Hold them off? Are you kidding me?’ I cry back, find myself almost being overwhelmed by the writhing tendrils even though I’ve already replaced my broken sword with a dagger.
To make things worse, Apsara uses her hard fought for freedom as an opportunity to head for her bag.
What’s she want? A handy cup, maybe?
My own whirling of my blades is proving increasingly less effective.
There’s just so much to hack through, and you need a good, sharp strike to cut through the stems effectively.
The more the tendrils wrap around me, however, the less striking distance I have to create an effective blow.
Before I know what’s happening, a grasping branch of wisteria whips my arm up high above my head, holding it there, and leaving one of my daggers useless, unusable.
Others curl about my legs, dragging them together despite my efforts to prevent this.
With a further coiling of tendrils, my legs are suddenly tightly bound together.
I can’t move anything but one arm, and even that is so restricted my strikes against the stems are just about ineffective.
And then, with a brutal wrench, the branches binding my ankles jerk me up off my feet.
I’m hoisted up into the air, tipped virtually upside down.
Before I can do anything about it, I’m dangling helplessly high above the floor.
Like a piece of fruit.
Like those dead soldiers we saw when we first arrived here.
As I’ve fought them, the tendrils of the plants have struck me as being like snakes, like the tentacles of octopuses, the hissing serpent hair of the Gorgon.
Now they remind me more of spiders, swiftly enwrapping their helpless victim in strand after strand of an entrapping, muffling cocoon.
It’s only through one eye, and that already partially covered, that I see that Apsara is now standing by the rose.
The emerald glow is vibrating excitedly once more. It’s swirling, flowing.
The rose is trembling.
The emerald light is no longer fully supporting the rose. The sparkling glow is slipping away from the rose’s stem, rushing instead towards Apsara.
The rose tumbles towards the tabletop, already darkened once more, its bright colours swiftly fading.
It strikes the table with hardly a sound, the petals so brittle they crumble, becoming nothing but a dark dust.
No longer kept alive by the vase, all the aging it has kept at bay is catching up with it all at once.
It’s darkening, powdering.
In a moment, it’s hardly different from the layer of dust its fall had briefly disturbed.
The frenzied whipping of stems, the furious thrashing of branches, the writhing of the tendrils, all comes to an immediate end, the sudden eruption of silence and stillness quite startling. With nothing driving them on to act as if they are not only alive but aware, the tightened coils of the shoots instantly loosen their previously tight grip up on me, the twists and loops of leafy fronds dropping away from me.
I sigh with relief; then begin to plummet headlong towards the wooden floor lying far beneath me.
Hearing my scream, Apsara worriedly glances up towards me. She’s holding an almost complete slipper, the toe box now in place.
She’d drawn the vase into the slipper, the only thing that could tear it away from granting the flower everlasting life.
Abruptly, my fall is brought to a jolting halt.
Thankfully, my legs are entangled enough amongst the jumble of steams to stop me dropping all the way towards the floor.
‘Er, could you cut me down, maybe…’ I plead with a giggling Apsara.
Apsara had lost an ear in the showering of glass we suffered.
We’re both scratched and bloodied badly by our experience tangling with the climbing roses and the rainfall of glass slivers. But Apsara’s head wound is very bad indeed, causing her to loose tremendous amounts of blood.
I try and bandage her wound the best I can by using strips torn from her spare dress.
‘See: and you said everything in there was junk!’ she’d exclaimed happily in between protesting that there was nothing to worry about, that it was bound to stop bleeding at some point.
Trouble is, I don’t think it is going to stop bleeding.
It’s far too serious a wound, and requires proper treatment.
‘The palace: we need to get to the palace that’s on your map!’ I sternly warn her. ‘Presuming your map isn’t totally useless, of course,’ I add despondently.
We’re following a map in a storybook, after all.
Apsara mounts up on her horse without any problem, and soon we’re galloping across the rocky land, heading in the direction that the map assures us leads towards a grand palace. Cer, Ber and Us, as well as the horses, sense the urgency, and break into the fastest pace they can manage, taking into account the distance that Apsara’s mount might have to travel.
In a situation that’s the exact reverse of what had happened earlier, we find the rough brushland abruptly changing into grandly cultivated fields, as if someone had defined a clear boundary beyond which a more civilised land lay.
There’s even a road, the tracks formed of beaten stones that we’re used to.
When I glance behind me, the scrubland has vanished. Only the neat fields stretch out behind us, the delicate weaving of the road a yellowy-white band splitting the myriad greens.
Ahead of us, however, is an even more spectacular and welcome sight.
It’s the palace, rising up from the landscape like a soaring peak formed of rubies.
Despite the richness of the palace’s construction, there are no protective walls, no guards.
I’d hope we’d come to some outpost or lodge house where we could ask for help.
We’ve no choice but to ride on towards the building’s entrance, despite the unlikelihood that such a fine palace is going to lay on a welcome for two dusty and bloodied travellers.
‘Welcome, welcome,’ the servant standing at the bottom of the grand flight of steps declares warmly. ‘We’ve been expecting you!’
A group of other equally exquisitely dressed servants stand on the steps behind the one who had welcomed us.
They rush forwards to help us dismount and take our bags. They stare a little warily at Ber, Cer and Us, but relax when they realise the vicious looking hounds mean them no harm.
‘Please, please help my friend,’ I plead with them. ‘She’s lost an ear!’
‘No, no, I’m fine, fine,’ Apsara bravely insists, even attempting to shrug away from the servant who is trying to tenderly remove the bloodied bandage.
‘Apsara, please!’ I snap at her, hoping to get her to recognise that she does need attention. ‘I was really impressed with your skill and bravery back there, but–’
‘Luck, all down to luck–’ she continues to protest.
‘Lost ear, Sir?’ the servant says doubtfully, glancing my way and drawing my attention back to the side of Apsara’s head.
There’s no blood there.
But there is an ear.
Apsara notices my bewildered expression.
‘Oh, yeah; and there is that of course,’ she says.
Before I can ask Apsara how she’s managed to grow her ear back, the servant politely invites us to ascend the elegantly curving flight of steps.
‘The Cup of Joseph: that’s what you’ve come for?’ the servant declares proudly, adding when he says and misunderstands my puzzled frown, ‘The seer’s cup?’
Ah, well now; if it’s a seer’s cup, no wonder they knew we were coming.
The large doors to the palace lie open. In the darkness beyond, there’s a ruby-red brilliance that sparkles even more startlingly than the palace’s walls, even though I wouldn’t have thought it possible.
Apsara is already racing up the stairs towards the door, carrying her bag with her.
‘Wait here,’ I command the horses and dogs.
There’s hardly any need to order them to wait here. The servants are already taking care of them, with bowls of water, food, and blankets to help them cool down at the correct and healthiest rate.
The seer’s cup again, right?
They knew the mounts and my hounds would need attention after such a long, hard run.
But if they already know so much about our journey here, then what else could they have lying in wait for us that isn’t quite so welcoming?
I nervously glance back towards Apsara.
‘Wait!’ I cry after her.
She’s already passing through the open doors.
Despite my exhaustion and the pain of sorely exerted muscles, I sprint up the steps as quickly as I can.
As always when you pass beneath a doorway’s soaring arch, there’s an abrupt change from sunlight to shadow; and yet within that darkness here, there’s a glow more brilliant than the condensed blaze of a furnace.
It’s a fire of light, a flickering of every red imaginable, dancing before me in a way that’s totally entrancing.
Certainly, Apsara is gawping in awe at the glass cup that stands so proudly before her upon a stone pedestal that can only have been specially prepared for it.
‘Is that it?’ I ask hopefully, adding more suspiciously, ‘Can it really be this easy this time?’
‘Yes, it’s the cup you seek.’
The answer doesn’t come from Apsara.
A woman is gracefully descending an elegantly curling staircase, drawing unhurriedly towards us.
Like her palace, her gown glitters as if made from gemstones, rather than being more simply adorned by them. In this case it’s diamonds rather than rubies, however, the light effusing from her making her shine as if every rainbow has been collected in this one place.
The suffusing light sparkles endlessly, diffusing even the few parts of her flesh – her face, her hands – not completely covered in dazzling diamonds.
She could be made of brilliantly twinkling ice, or even iridescent stars, but – of course – I’m sure she’s not.
She flows down the stairs as if the most luminous section of the Milky Way has broken free and cascaded down to earth.
‘It’s yours to take,’ this Luminous Lady offers, waving a hand in a gesture inviting us to pick up the brilliantly shining cup. ‘I know you need it far more than I do; for the completion of the Glass Slipper, yes?’
I’m still expecting a trick.
This is all too easy.
‘No, Apsara!’ I say firmly as she eagerly reaches out for the cup.
The Luminous Lady is now on our level. She glides over to us while hardly disturbing the hanging of her gown.
She chuckles warmly.
‘I can understand your suspicion,’ she says kindly. ‘Every other piece you’ve collected has been far more of a challenge than I ever expected it to be.’
‘Expected it to be?’
‘The cup, I’m afraid – despite its quite obvious beauty – is actually quite wilfully reticent when it comes to revelations; it denies many things to me, such that I can only guess at the outcome.’
‘Still; it can only be a remarkable cup to own,’ I say warily. ‘Why would you give up something so powerful so easily?’
Drawing nearer to the pedestal, she calmly reaches for and picks up the cup, handling it as carelessly as if it were an everyday drinking goblet.
With every move of her hand, even the very slightest twirl of a finger, the cup bursts with the most glorious red light.
‘It shows only what must be,’ she declares with a slight hint of sadness. ‘And therefore if it believes there is anything that I could have even the slightest effect upon, it denies me the vision it would grant anyone else.’
‘But…surely, there are still advantages in seeing future events?’ Apsara says uncertainly.
The woman smiles wearily.
‘Obviously, you have never heard of the Emperor’s Master Potter? No?’
She sees the bafflement in our eyes, our expressions.
‘He had perfected his art, such that his pots – much as the way the finest of glassware will resonate to a sung note that reflects its nature, or animals can sense the charged atmosphere of a forthcoming storm – would excitedly vibrate the night before an important event.
‘Thus one sang of tomorrow’s joy, another rang like jubilant bells heralding glad tidings – and a third mournfully wailed an imminent death.
‘The emperor, flattering himself that he was wise, refused the offer of the first pot, scorning its frivolous nature; the second was likewise refused, the emperor pronouncing that it could only ever lead to disappointment, for people by their nature will always optimistically overestimate the expected glad tidings.
‘The third, however, could only be a boon – for who didn’t wish to be made aware of and prepare for an imminent death?
‘It was placed within the corridor leading to the great hall itself, a pot the size of a man, elaborately decorated in the earthy Green of Emperors. And here it would sorrowfully grieve throughout the night whenever anyone connected with the emperor was due to die the following day.
‘Naturally, everyone began to dread its nightly laments, fearing of course that they themselves – or at least someone they loved – might be the one the pot was mourning for. Thus Death’s arrival meant relief for some, unbelievable anguish for others; an anguish made all the worse for they well aware that those spared this pain had prayed all night that Death would call on someone else – for hadn’t they done this very same thing themselves on previous occasions?
‘In this way, the premonition of death became a greater source of fear than Death itself. And so everyone was thankful on the night the pot wailed so much it shattered completely; and news of the emperor’s own death the following day was greeted as glad tidings, and a great cause for joy.’
I’m not quite sure how I should phrase this.
– ‘are you saying you want us to take the cup?’
She nods, smiles.
‘The cup: it’s such a startling red,’ I say as Apsara eagerly reaches into her bag,
‘Yes,’ the Luminous Lady agrees, ‘although, strangely, the colour something reflects is the only colour it hasn’t absorbed, the only colour it doesn’t resonate with; and so it is actually every other colour but red.’
As Apsara elatedly brings out the almost completed slipper, the Luminous Lady’s eyes widen in amazement.
‘It already looks quite beautiful, doesn’t it?’
She’s so entranced by the way the slipper glistens in the light of the ruby cup that she’s briefly tempted to reach out for it.
‘Sorry,’ she says, chuckling as she quickly withdraws her hand. ‘I’d heard that –well, when it comes near another of its missing pieces, it resonates, connecting with it even though they are yet still parted.’
‘Yes, I’ve felt that too,’ she admits.
‘May I – if I could just…?’
The Luminous Lady tentatively reaches for the slipper once more, her gaze pleading, her smile reassuring.
‘Sorry,’ she chuckles once more, ‘it…it is too much to ask, isn’t it? That I could experience the resonating as they merge?’
Apsara and I exchange doubtful glances. I can see in her eyes that she wants me to make the decision.
‘I mean,’ the Luminous Lady adds, ‘if you don’t wish to take the cup, then…’
The implication seems clear; we only get to complete the slipper if the woman is allowed to hold the slipper as the sections meld as one.
‘Can we trust you?’ I ask suspiciously.
‘You’re heavily armed, I see,’ she points out, drawing my attention to my dagger-strewn belt. ‘Whereas I am not.’
Yet again, I exchange worried glances with Apsara.
But I nod, granting my permission that the woman should be allowed to hold the slipper.
Apsara hands the slipper to the benignly smiling woman.
I ready myself, watching the Luminous Lady closely for any suspicious move.
She takes the slipper.
Says, ‘Thank you.’
She draws closer towards the glowing cup, bringing the slipper closer still towards it.
And the glass of the cup begins to tremble in excitement.
It’s like a flow of sparkling, scarlet waters.
Of the blood of angels.
Its snakes through the air towards the waiting slipper, melding with it; becoming the part of the slipper that cups the foot’s heel.
The part that at last completes the slipper.
I’m still expecting the Luminous Lady to pull a trick on us.
But still she simply smiles elatedly.
She stares in unfeigned reverence at the gorgeously resplendent slipper in her hand.
Every colour there could possibly be reflects everywhere about it.
‘Perfect,’ the Luminous Lady mutters, awestruck. ‘It’s perfect – in every way!’
There’s something about the colours.
Something is missing.
A colour; although I’m not quite sure which one it could be.
It’s a colour that, oddly; well, it doesn’t exist.
Not in this world, anyhow.
And yet – it’s supposed to exist.
I’m not sure why I think that; it’s just a sense that–
‘No, wait! It’s not perfect,’ I cry.
The Luminous Lady looks back towards me as if she thinks I might possibly be just a little crazy.
‘There’s a piece missing,’ I declare with a confidence that takes even me by surprise, adding with a nod of my head towards the glass shoe, ‘From the slipper, I mean.’
I thought I’d better add that in case she thought I was the one with a piece missing.
The Luminous Lady smiles like you would smile at an overly anxious child.
‘Oh, the rim, you mean?’ she says; which is particularly strange, as I hadn’t meant the rim of the slipper at all.
I just had this weird sense that the slipper wasn’t complete.
But now that she mentions it, I see that the slipper does indeed have a slightly chipped rim.
In fact, it’s the missing slice of glass that had whipped off my toe when that idiot servant of father’s had tried to force it on to my foot too quickly.
So it’s still missing!
All this searching for all the pieces, and I hadn’t thought of looking for the missing section responsible for my portrayal in the story as a cheat.
The Luminous Lady seems remarkably unconcerned that the slipper isn’t complete after all, even after she has sacrificed her seer’s cup.
‘It’s not one piece,’ she says assuredly. ‘It’s millions of slivers, all infinitesimally small; otherwise, how would it be possible for each and everyone of us to possess a grain of compassion within us? And, unfortunately, it is only that small sliver that connects us all.’
Apsara said she had felt a connection with the lady sitting by the Mirror of What Might Be: is that what she meant? A link brought into life by the presence of the dagger and the mirror?
And what of me? Hadn’t I also sensed that the witch and her cat were one and the same, once they’d each eaten a piece of my finger?
Was that a similar experience?
Though it’s hard to see what compassion has to do with this overly large shoe.
‘I still think anyone turning up at a ball wearing that would look like a kid trying on mum’s shoes,’ I say, if for no other reason than to cover my brief period of musing. ‘I mean, any girl could have ended up marrying the prince if it had been this size!’
‘Oh, it shrinks to fit,’ the Luminous Lady says dismissively.
Of course, Apsara, gives me a stern ‘See, I told you’ glare.
‘It also becomes a pair, naturally,’ the Luminous Lady continues. ‘And will instantly garb you in clothes more becoming of the world’s most gorgeous slippers.’
‘But…wasn’t that all down to the Fairy Godmother?’ I ask.
‘You believe in fairytales?’ The Luminous Lady manages to say it as if, once again, she’s talking to a particularly immature child.
‘Well, not everything in them, admittedly,’ I reply ashamedly. ‘But I did think that bit–’
‘Was true?’ She titters a little, I’m sure. ‘Only partially.’
‘But if it really contains so much power – well, then why is it a shoe?’ Apsara wisely asks, managing without even trying to make my own comments appear even more stupid and childish.
‘You know, you really should pay more attention to your legends rather than fairytales,’ the Luminous Lady answers, but this time with a tempering, good-natured chuckle. ‘It’s the Silver – silver was just a term to describe it before the ancients were aware of glass – Sandal of Shala, Goddess of Grain and Compassion.’
‘Hmm, it’s hardly a sandal,’ I point out before I can bite my tongue and stop myself from saying something else that will turn out to be ridiculously stupid.
Wouldn’t you know it, the Luminous Lady stares first at me and then at the slipper as if I’ve just once again proven that I’m the oddest person every to grace this planet.
‘Isn’t it?’ she says, closely observing the slipper as if, to her, it is indeed a sandal, and I’m some fool who imagines it to be something else.
Why do I feel such a buffoon in front of this woman?
‘Obviously,’ she says graciously, ‘it appears as you wish or expect to see it; which is indeed a facet of its powers. And to think; it hasn’t been seen whole like this for thousands of years!’
Now who’s the one who should be paying more attention to fairytales?
‘Actually,’ I say, utilising the most magnanimous tones I can muster, ‘it was whole up until, oh, just a short while back now.’
‘Didn’t I say you pay too much attention to fairy tales?’ she titters. ‘This is the original; the one that will make the prince fall in love with the belle of his ball. And so, thank you for your help in bringing this to me.’
She slips her hand into the ‘sandal’.
And then she vanishes.
‘Where’d she go?’
‘Back in time, I suppose,’ Apsara says sagely, frowning intently as she tries to make sense of everything that has just happened. ‘Don’t you see? You were right about it refracting time!’
‘She said this was the original slipper…’
‘So she’s gone back in time…’
I slap my forehead hard, wishing I could knock more sense into my stupid brains.
‘You mean we’ve just helped Cinderella become queen?’
‘That woman; she’s the Fairy Godmother!’
‘Why us? Why’d she need us to bring her the slipper?’
‘Maybe her powers are limited? Maybe it’s just sheer chance that we set all this in motion, by bringing all the pieces together?’
‘Or, maybe – you know, the book? The Glass Kingdom? Maybe, you know, she’s gone back in time to place that amongst my things! Making sure I’d bring the slipper to her!’
Apsara pauses to think about this.
‘The question is though: why you? Why did she need you to do it?’
‘Connections again?’ I say brightly. ‘Cinderella’s in my father’s castle…so…er…’
‘Still doesn’t really make sense, does it?’
‘Then we have to stop…no, wait! Do we have to stop her?’
I’m suddenly filled with doubt.
I quite like the way I’ve turned out, to be honest.
I like who I am – and I never really did before, truth be told.
All that bowing to people who visited the castle.
All that ‘preparing for marriage to a suitable suitor’.
I mean, I would be okay with getting married as long as I had the upper hand: know what I mean?
Like, I wouldn’t even mind marrying that dopey prince if it meant that as queen I had real power around here.
Power to make changes.
And you know what?
This Queen Cinderella, whoever she is – well, she seems to have managed that.
Yeah, I’ve got to give her that.
Apsara has politely waited while I pondered this.
She smiles, like she can tell from my expression what decision I’ve come to.
‘But your parents? The story?’ she asks, taking on the role of Devil’s advocate.
‘Well, it is just a story,’ I say resignedly.
There are no longer any servants around to either help or hinder us as we step outside of the palace.
The blood-red glow of the palace walls shines everywhere about us, as if we’d been caught up in the midst of the most fabulously crimson sunset.
I spin around on my heels to take another admiring look at this magnificent building.
And the strange thing is, the palace is far more magnificent than ever.
The towers stretch so high, it’s impossible to see where they end, the glow of sunlight and glittering gems being too bright for your eyes to put up with for too long.
The rubies have been enhanced with delicate patterns of other precious stones, one tower having been graced with spiralling coils of sapphires, another with more frond-like curls of emeralds.
It really is quite, quite beautiful.
When I turn away to look back towards the land, however, I can immediately see how it has all been paid for.
The rolling, cultivated fields we had passed through only moments before are full of bedraggled people of all ages being worked hard by uncaring overseers. Here and there I can see that there are new growths that have spouted up from the soil; crucifixes and gallows, bearing the wracked bodies of those who had no doubt attempted resistance.
‘Something’s gone badly wrong,’ I say, doubtlessly unnecessarily as Apsara couldn’t have failed to see the change that has occurred.
She grimaces, even as she reaches once again into that damn bag of hers
‘This isn’t how the story told it, you mean?’ she says bitterly.
I’m not expecting what she produces from her bag.
It’s the Glass Slipper.
The Glass Slipper isn’t as large as the one we just lost.
Neither is it quite as small as the one I remember being asked to try on.
‘Let me guess!’ I exclaim excitedly. ‘You managed to swap the slippers?’
It abruptly dawns on me that swapping the slippers might not be such a good idea after all.
‘No, wait! That would mean you’re responsible for all this?’
Apsara shakes her head.
‘No, I’m not responsible for all this!’ she snaps irately. ‘And I didn’t swap the slippers!’
‘But if you’ve had this all along…then why the heck did we spend all that time creating another?’
‘It’s not the real one!’ Apsara says. ‘Besides, I wasn’t sure why I had it.’
‘To sell in your shop, maybe?’ I irately sneer.
Why has she been hiding this from me?
‘Of course not! I mean, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with it. I didn’t have it until I made that connection with the lady sitting in front of the mirror.’
‘The slivers! Along with you touching the dagger, and the mirror, that’s why you had a connection her!’
‘Possibly,’ she says, turning the wonderfully glowing slipper around in her hand. ‘However it worked, she somehow told me I had to take this copy; but she either didn’t have time, of didn’t want to tell me why!’
‘Then – we can use it to go back in time? To stop the Luminous Lady, or the Fairy Godmother, or whoever she is, causing all this?’
With an airy wave of a hand, I indicate the impoverished labourers working the land.
‘Did you see how she did it? How she used it?’ Apsara asks, continuing to curiously study the slipper as she turns it around in her hands.
I frown, trying to recall how the Luminous Lady had handled the slipper before she’d vanished.
‘She just sort of held it; and then vanished,’ I say.
‘No clue there, then,’ Apsara replies dejectedly, hesitating slightly as she prepared to slip her hand into the shoe. ‘Maybe she just placed her hand in – no, that doesn’t work.’
She glanced about her, as if she had been expecting to be transported somewhere else.
‘Your foot, maybe?’ I say. ‘That is what you’re supposed to do with a shoe, after all.’
‘And she did say it shrinks to fit,’ Apsara agrees, with maybe the merest hint of ‘told you so’.
‘It won’t fit me,’ I point out. ‘It’s up to you to try it on.’
She’s already slipping a foot out of her own bedraggled footwear. She leans on my shoulder as she places the slipper on to her foot.
‘We’d better be touching anyway, in case it does work,’ she says.
It doesn’t work.
Where still standing here. With Apsara wearing an odd, higher shoe; one that, despite its reasonably small size, is still big on her dainty foot.
‘I feel like a twelve year old trying on mummy’s shoes,’ she says miserably.
‘Just like I said,’ I say.
‘You know, I don’t think this copy can be magical, come to think of it,’ she adds more dejectedly than ever.
‘What makes you think that? Apart from that your standing here wearing an odd shoe?’
‘It’s taken from the mirror, isn’t it?’ she says as she slips out of the glass shoe, slips on her own, older shoe. ‘Which means it lacks a dimension; the very dimension we were hoping to use.’
‘Although, maybe because the real slipper has such control over time, that’s maybe why I could retrieve a copy of it from the mirror; you know, potentially it could exist anywhere, and at any time.’ She holds the slipper in her hand once more. ‘But this is a copy that is itself timeless.’
‘So what use is it to us if–’
I stop, listening out to the crash of hooves on the road leading to the palace.
The hounds have heard it too, rising to their feet.
It’s a large squadron of the king’s men, galloping towards us at full pelt.
‘Halt, halt in the name of the Queen’s Men!’ the officer at their head hollers out to us.
It’s not as if we could escape if we tried.
The soldiers are far too close, riding far too fast.
We’re not even mounted.
Amongst the rapidly approaching riders, there’s also a gleaming coach. The Queen’s Coach, albeit now far more resplendent than I remember it being before.
It’s so weighed down with jewels and gold, it requires a team of what must be twenty of the finest horses I’ve ever seen.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see Apsara slip the glass shoe into the layers of her blouse; thankfully, it’s small enough for her to hide it there.
That’s how she must have taken it from the tower without me seeing it.
We make no signs of resistance as we’re surrounded by the Royal Troops. Following our lead, the hounds don’t protest either, even as the riders warily gather about them, containing them within a corralling of tightly packed horses.
Despite the gleaming lances lowered towards them, the riders would present no problems for the hounds, or for Bess; but thankfully they retrain what must be their instincts to attack, to flow through the ring of soldiers as if they weren’t actually there, for they don’t wish to draw attention to their special natures.
A handful of troops urge their mounts to trot closer to us, lowering their lances as they approach, pressing the sharp blades of the lance-ends close up against my back, my chest.
Obviously, they regard me as being more of a threat than Apsara.
She’s just a sweet little girl, after all.
All their wary attention is directed at me, while she’s just about ignored.
The officer who had commanded us to halt leans forward triumphantly in his saddle.
‘You’re under arrest, for sedition against the Crown!’
The ring of riders surrounding Apsara and myself is much larger than the one corralling the hounds and horses.
A section of the ring diligently opens up, allowing the entrance of the now more languidly moving coach. The drivers of the coach pull it to a halt such that the door is directly facing us.
Gaily liveried servants leap down from the back, one dropping a set of steps into place as another opens the door.
The queen alights.
I’ve never met Queen Cinderella, so I’ve no idea what she looks like.
However, I can definitely say this isn’t Queen Cinderella.
Yes, she’s dressed in the most regal of robes.
But this queen is the woman I’ve previously called the Luminous Lady, or the Fairy Godmother.
‘The missing piece!’ she rages as she furiously charges towards us, waving the slipper before her such that it sparkles in the light. ‘I want the missing piece!’
The slipper is smaller than when she’d taken it off us, having now been worn by Cinderella of course.
And yet, no: it’s not as small as I remember it, not when I was asked to try it on.
It’s the same size, in fact, as Apsara’s useless copy of it.
‘You checked it; you said it was perfect!’ I point out, not a little bewildered by the Luminous Lady’s insistence that a piece is missing.
Yes, now she holds it up close to me, I can indeed see that the rim remains chipped.
But that’s exactly how it looked when she’d taken it off us, when she’d carefully inspected it.
What’s her problem?
‘It’s been worn,’ Apsara says firmly, determinedly stepping forward to take the slipper from the woman’s furiously trembling hand and more closely inspect it. ‘You can’t return it.’
‘Of course it’s been worn!’ the Luminous Lady storms. ‘That’s how I know a piece is missing! It allows me to go back in time – but not forwards! That’s why I’ve had to wait all this time before I could arrest you two scoundrels!’
‘You wore the slipper?’
‘Do you really think I’d let this Cinderella whoever she is wear it and become queen?’ she snarls. ‘Yes, I know the tale; some weird warping in time I couldn’t quite fathom. But now I know the piece missing is larger than it’s supposed to be!’
‘Yet you’re still queen, it seems,’ I point out. ‘So it didn’t stop you achieving your aim this time!’
She angrily snatches the slipper back off Apsara.
‘If it worked how it was supposed to, I could’ve come straight back and made you hand over the missing piece!’
‘I don’t know of any missing piece,’ I admit.
‘If you were so impatient to have us arrested, why wait all this time?’ Apsara asked.
‘Because I had to wait until you’d collected all the pieces, obviously! But, equally obviously, you hadn’t collected them all!’
‘We were just following this map,’ Apsara explains, reaching into her bag, bringing out The Glass Kingdom. ‘We thought we had collected them all.’
The queen snatches the book from Apsara’s hands, only to irritably filing it aside.
‘I already knew about all those pieces, idiot!’ she sneers before turning to me with a furious glare. ‘Who do you think left the book with you, to help you find them all? Who do you think helped you follow a map that really made no sense at all, unless you could travel across the world as easily as crossing a road?’
‘You?’ Now I’m becoming increasingly puzzled. ‘But if you knew where they all where – then why didn’t you collect them?’
‘Because the slipper – by some bizarre mischance – has developed this affinity with you. It would only come together for you, as my sister warned me!’
‘Oh, you’ve meet her! When I showed her that I’d managed by chance to recover the Dagger of Brutus, she tried to show me it had to be you who collected it – but I thought she was lying, holding things from me!’
‘So you killed her?’ Apsara asks.
The queen shrugs.
‘I realised she was right when I couldn’t even withdraw the dagger; like the slipper itself had determined I’d abused its powers by using it in such a way. And, of course, because unlike you I didn’t posses a sliver of the slipper far larger than anyone else’s!’
As she talks, she gives a commanding wave of her hand, ordering a number of dismounted soldiers to grab me firmly by my arms and hold me tightly.
‘Me?’ I laugh in disbelief. ‘You’re saying I have a larger sliver of compassion than anyone else?’
‘I didn’t say compassion,’ she growls as the men tightly bind me, ‘I said sliver; the sliver of broken glass that I can only presume – and it took me a while to work this out, naturally, until I remembered my sister’s mirror showing how you would lose your toe – somehow embedded itself deep within you.’
Hah; that would explain the way I regained my toe, wouldn’t it? And, maybe, why I realised the witch and her familiar were one when they’d both eaten my finger.
‘Well if it’s inside me, how am I supposed to retrieve it?’ I point out.
‘Oh, don’t worry; I don’t expect you to,’ she says, commanding her men with another wave of her hand to hoist me up onto a horse. ‘My doctors can operate on you; they’ll find it!’
We’re prisoners of the Royal Troop – or Queen’s Men, as they’re now known – once again.
This time, they haven’t let us keep our own horses. They’re being placidly led far behind us in the column stretching out along the road as it slowly winds its way back towards the capital.
Where the doctors eagerly wait to slice me up.
While alive naturally; because I might have to be present to make sure the last piece melds successfully with the rest of the slipper.
You know, I think I prefer how this Cinderella story was originally told.
I mean, my parents could quite easily live with their slightly tarnished name.
While I’m going to find it pretty hard to live once I’ve been filleted like the wares on display on a fishmonger’s stall.
The hounds, like the horses, are being kept far back in the column.
Apsara, like me, has been more or less tightly bound, and placed on an unfamiliar mount.
The countryside we’re passing through is pretty miserable too.
Burnt out farms.
Besieged, shattered castles.
Yeah, the queen’s made quite a few changes around here. No wonder her new palace gleams so wonderfully.
Apsara leans towards me a little in her saddle.
‘I think we’ve left the queen far enough behind now, don’t you?’ she whispers, like this is all part of some wonderfully ingenious plan.
‘Oh sure,’ I whisper back sarcastically. ‘She’ll still be firmly entrapped in that palace of rubies we left her in, I reckon!’
Apsara ignores me.
She leans forward in her saddle, calling out to the soldier leading her horse.
The solider wearily peers back over his shoulder.
‘Ah, at last,’ Apsara says with a miffed sigh, as if she’s been calling the poor man for ages. ‘I’d like to speak to your officers; I have something important to tell them!’
And everything politely returned to us once more, too!
‘Apsara; you’re a genius!’ I declare.
The code word had worked.
Sure, it had taken the officers a little by surprise when Apsara had ridden up to them and whispered the supposedly secret code.
Hadn’t they just been ordered by the queen to arrest us?
But they’d also previously garnered, of course, that we’d been charged with collecting something important for her.
So who was to say we weren’t on some ultra-secret mission, which entailed a fake arrest, and then our release when we ready to take on the next stage of our task?
I can only hope the poor guys don’t end up being the next ones to end up swinging from a gibbet; but let’s face it, they probably will.
‘It’s a pity the queen had kept the slipper with her,’ I muse sadly. ‘The officers might have even let us take that with us if they’d had it with them!’
Apsara reaches yet again into her bag. She pulls out the copy of the slipper.
‘They did,’ she says brightly.
‘Hah, the useless copy, you mean!’ I chuckle.
She shakes her head.
‘Nope,’ she says. ‘See, this time I did manage to swap them!’
Like many of the castles around here now, my father’s castle is in a terrible state.
Huge parts of its walls lie in ruins, the result, I can only presume, of an attack utilising the very best siege engines.
Trails of black smoke still curl up from certain sections of the buildings, but it looks to me like the weakly fading plumes of old fires.
I don’t think anyone’s in danger, anyway.
The castle seems to be completely deserted.
The last time I was in this courtyard, it was alive with life.
Traders from the town, the market. The craftsmen, coming to see what services my parents and their large retinues of clerks, soldiers, maids and servants required.
It’s a terrible sight, all these signs of abandonment.
And yet, the miserable state of my father’s castle is, I suppose, going to help us restore it to its rightful glory.
If the walls had still been secure, if the soldiers had still been on guard, if the maids and servants had still been busily milling about the buildings; well, how would we have got into the castle, which is where we need to be?
As it is, we need a room where we can appear without startling anyone.
That means the surgery, a room I know was – thankfully – usually empty.
Although it could be a handy short cut from stables to laundry, more or less lying between them both through necessity (these two areas, along with the kitchen, being the ones most likely to suffer injuries), the rules stated that it must be always kept clean, so it remained rarely disturbed, even by people simply passing through.
It’s an ironic place for us to be in, seeing as how I almost ended up in the queen’s surgery, where I would have been gleefully spliced and diced by overeager doctors.
It’s also the place where I’d first discovered the highwayman’s clothes, hanging in a closet. I’d been sent here to have my toe treated, yet probably still wouldn’t have gone searching the farthest, least accessible cupboards if I hadn’t wondered where this absolutely dreadful smell was coming from; his boots had been covered in dirt from the stables, though I got rid of most of it with a torn, muddy cloth left alongside some even more badly caked shoes.
‘So, we still think you’re going to have to wear it to make it work, right?’ I ask Apsara.
‘I reckon it’s the best way of insuring something’s going to work, don’t you?’
‘You could just end up dressed like a princess,’ I point out with a grin.
She gives a resigned shrug.
‘I’m hoping that the slipper will sense the presence of the slipper still held by the Luminous Lady back in the past,’ she says, having discussed this earlier with me. ‘That’s the only way, as I’ve said, that I think we can be sure of ending up in the right time period.’
‘All a bit hit and miss, you mean, right?’
‘You got it,’ she says, slipping out of both of her old shoes. ‘So; are we ready?’
‘Stay here,’ I turn and say to the hounds and the horses. ‘Until we return…wait!’
I whirl back to face Apsara.
‘We can’t return!’ I say wretchedly. ‘The piece is still missing!’
‘Look at your parent’s castle,’ Apsara says to me, taking my hand consolingly in hers. ‘We don’t even know what’s happened to your parents! Can you really say you want to leave everything like this?’
I look sadly back towards the dogs and the horses.
‘I don’t suppose; you know – we could take them with us.’
‘Maybe if we all get in a large huddle and–’
Before she can finish, Bess, Cer, Ber and Us have eagerly drawn close to us, though Apsara’s horse seems less certain about what she needs to do.
‘When we get there, remember to let them out through the door to the stables!’ Apsara declares firmly.
‘Of course,’ I say, wondering how she knows one of the doors leads out there.
Perhaps all castles are designed this way?
Or, maybe, she knows the layout from the time she managed to steal all those things she gathered in her bag?
Ah well; it’s all so unimportant now, isn’t it?
Apsara is slipping on the slipper.
She giggles as it shrinks to fit her foot.
We both giggle nervously when another glass slipper appears on her other foot.
Then we’re bathed in light of the most entrancing, most wildly whirling colours.
‘Did it work?’
The light has abruptly faded, but the walls of the room seem no different to how they’d looked before.
Worse still, Apsara is now dressed in the most fabulous ballroom dress any girl could imagine.
Is that the only piece of magic that’s taken place?
‘Yes, look!’ Apsara exclaims excitedly, drawing my attention to the door to laundry. ‘That had been forced open, broken; now it’s firmly shut.’
So we did it.
Sensing my elation, the dogs grin and wag their tails happily. Bess seems like she’s having to hold herself back from whinnying joyfully, if any of that is actually possible.
There’s no sign of Apsara’s mount; at some point, she’s been left behind.
‘Let’s get them outside,’ Apsara says urgently, leading them all obediently to the door as if she’s some roughly garbed stable hand rather than a perfect princess in miniature.
‘Er, you don’t think, do you,’ I begin hesitantly, drawing her attention back to her glittering dress, ‘that you could be Cinder–’
‘Cinderella? No way!’ she pronounces adamantly, reaching down and slipping off the glass shoe. ‘I’m way too young, remember?’
She appears to shrink before me as the high-heeled shoe remaining on her foot abruptly vanishes. The dress disappears too, leaving her grabbed once more in little more than her simple blouse.
An aura of incredible beauty that had also suffused her has similarly evaporated, making her once again a pretty enough yet reasonably average little girl.
‘Hey, look at this!’ she exclaims joyfully, lifting the real glass shoe up closer to my face.
The rim is still chipped.
But the piece missing is nowhere near as big as it was before.
‘The missing piece; it’s back!’ I say happily.
How did the missing piece of the slipper end up returning to its proper place?
We both exchange puzzled glances.
Then excited smiles.
‘What’s it matter?’ I say. ‘It means we’ll now be able to return to our own time – once we’ve sorted everything out here, of course!’
‘So – what do we start sorting out first, do you think?’
‘We’ve got to find the real Cinderella,’ I declare confidently, adding as (I whirl to face the laundry door that eventually leads through to the kitchen), ‘Doesn’t the story say she sleeps by the kitchen fire?’
‘But the Luminous Lady; she’ll be turning up to the ball too!’
‘Oh, that doesn’t matter,’ I say with a dismissive wave in the air. ‘Cinderella gets the prince to fall in love with her – and then she leaves the slipper behind deliberately! You know; sort of like ladies drop handkerchiefs – a sign that they must be pursued by their love, adding a delicious element of chase!’
‘Yeah, wonderful; but what I meant is, what sort of story is that going to be, when the Luminous Lady ends up killing this poor Cinderella?’
‘Hmn…that is a point,’ I grant Apsara grudgingly, wondering why everything has to be so complicated. ‘We have to get her away before she–’
We both say it at one and the same time.
That’s why Cinderella has to leave the ball!
She doesn’t have to leave because everything turns back into rags – as long as she wears the slipper, she’s fine.
But she has to leave the slipper, otherwise how can the prince find her once again?
Wow, the story all begins to make sense at last.
‘And then later,’ I add resignedly, recognising that there’s another complication, ‘we simply have to steal the slipper back – so we can get back to our own time!’
The castle is once again bustling with vigorous life.
There’s so much going and froing, we’re hardly noticed as we swan confidently and assuredly about the castle’s lower room, searching for our Cinderella.
No one’s expecting any ne’er-do-wells to have slipped past the guards, obviously.
Trouble is, it’s taking us longer to find this beautiful girl than I thought it would.
The maids by the fire are all pretty robust; as you’d expect, the heat of the fire has given them all red-mottled skin.
They’re all, well – let’s say well fed, too.
The advantages of working in the kitchen.
I’ve never really been down here before.
I never knew it was such a hard life for everyone.
Yet, most of the people here still seem to smile as they go about their work.
Maybe that’s why I never realised that their lives were so bad; I’d just got this image in my head of loyal, happy maids and servants.
I mean, I’m overhearing some things here about my sister and me that I would rather not hear.
Not because these poor people are being particularly mean; but because what they’re saying is all unfortunately true.
‘You know,’ a frustrated Apsara eventually wails to me, ‘I’m beginning to wonder if this Cinderella actually exits.’
‘You too?’ I say dejectedly, realising she could be reading my mind.
It’s useless: it was easier searching for the pieces of the slipper.
And then, suddenly, I’ve got the answer.
‘What? I thought you’d said Cinderella wasn’t your sister?’
‘She isn’t; but my sister is my sister! Now she wouldn’t mind marrying the prince. And all we have to do is tell her all she has to do is wear this shoe, and she’s assured of winning his heart!’
‘And all we have to do,’ Apsara says cynically, ‘is wander around the upper apartments, somehow disguising the fact that we look like we’ve come in from the most disreputable parts of the city!’
‘I suppose you could always hold them up, like you do the coach; only offer them something, rather than taking it off them. That would be quite novel!’
‘Yeah, yeah, thank you, Little Miss Sarcasm; but, come to think of it, you might have arrived at the very answer we need!’
Before we prepared for the ball, I’d taken a stroll with my sisters amongst the carefully tended hedges of our garden.
Unlike my overly excited sister, I had no interest in meeting the prince. From what I’d heard of him, he had little understanding of the kingdom he would soon be inheriting.
(Much sooner than he would think: for just a few days after the ball, his father the king was killed in one of the many ridiculous wars he was always undertaking.)
My dreams were filled with more adventurous, rebellious men, who witnessed the corruption around them and sought their own means of making their way in life.
And that day in the garden, who should appear before me but the most startling handsome highwayman I had ever seen.
Well, don’t they say you’re attracted to those who look a little bit like you?
At the time, as I recall it, I had been amazed by the sense of familiarity I detected within this man’s looks and casually confident demeanour.
The things he said, too: he could have been reading my mind, in the way he seemed to know of everything I was interested in; in the way he could hardly do anything wrong; in the way he was at once both attentive and yet also coolly aloof, uncaring of any offence we might take at his rudely imperious behaviour.
He had ever so politely bowed to us, with a flourishing lowering of his hat, as he abruptly appeared on the walkway before my sister and me.
My sister, naturally, was startled.
She wanted to cry for help.
I stopped her, telling her not to be so childish; the guards wouldn’t have allowed in anyone capable of causing us harm.
I was intrigued by this man who had dared to present himself before us without any of the usual, boring means of introduction.
I even gave my sister the knowing glance we had developed between us that meant we wished to be left alone with a man who had taken our interest.
Now I realised, of course, that that highwayman had been me.
No wonder I knew exactly the things to say to keep me entranced.
Naturally, both Apsara and I had realised that what I was doing was strangely distasteful; making love to myself, as it were.
Yet what choice did we have?
We needed to get my sister alone so that Apsara could approach her, offering her the Glass Slipper, and the chance to charm the prince into marriage.
All this was taking place behind another row of hedges.
It wasn’t going well, for some reason.
I heard my sister’s voice rising in fury.
It was distracting, even to someone being charmed by a handsome, witty highwayman.
‘I’m sorry; I must go see whatever is upsetting my sister,’ I declared irately, angered that I’d been interrupted.
And then I – that is, the me who was still a lady – apologetically slipped away, rushing off to find my sister.
And then I – that is, the me who was now a highwayman – took the opportunity to dash off in the other direction, and find out what was happening to Apsara.
I peered around one of the long rows of high hedges, just in time to see Apsara rushing towards me.
She wasn’t looking my way, however.
She was looking back, and up into the air.
She no longer held the slipper.
But that was because it was sailing though the air, high above her.
And if Apsara didn’t manage to catch it, it might well smash when it struck the ground.
The Glass Slipper has never looked more glorious.
As it twirls through the air, it catches the sunlight and, in innumerable ways reflects and refracts it, throwing out all manner of sparkling tones.
It iridescently flickers like so many stars and suns, all caught up in one particular place.
The shimmering light plays across Apsara. Reds, greens, yellows, blues, purples.
And as the light swims across and around her, she begins to grow.
No; to age.
Her long blouse is now like a short skirt upon her.
Her childlike limbs have gained the grace of a beautiful teenager.
She only stops growing older as, at last, and thankfully, she firmly catches the slipper in her cupped hands.
Sensing that I’m close, she turns to me with a relieved smile.
The gorgeous smile of an incredibly beautiful girl. For the slipper has worked its magic, enhancing her beauty as it spun in the air, as it threw its enchanted light about her.
Her hair alone is worthy of a king’s ransom, spilling about her as if still illuminated by the slipper’s glow.
She frowns when she sees that I’m gaping at her.
She glances down at herself, at the now too short blouse, at her elegantly long legs.
She looks back up at me, wide eyed.
‘Oh…dear!’ she says.
‘Er, but apart from that, what else went wrong?’
I’ve got to ask her, haven’t I?
Besides, she doesn’t appear that bothered that she’s suddenly gained a couple of extra years.
I mean, don’t all young girls wish they were that little bit older, that bit more sophisticated?
So, looking at it on that level, Apsara’s got to be the luckiest girl in the world, hasn’t she?
Apsara gives me an irritated frown.
‘Well, I suppose I should have known your sister might be, er…shall we say, opinionated?’
‘Sure, if you want to be polite about it. What did you say that was wrong?’
‘Well, what did I say that was right? Just about nothing, really.’
‘Yeah, that’s sounds like my sister, sure enough.’
‘I mean, just what are you supposed to say to her to get her to listen to you?’
I nod; yeah, I know the feeling.
‘I said to her, as we’d arranged,’ Apsara continues, ‘that the slipper was magic, that she couldn’t fail, wearing this, to land herself the most desirable man in the land.’
‘Well, I didn’t think we’d quite agreed on that sort of language…’ I point out.
‘I might well have asked her if she’d ever thought of changing her face! “Are you implying I need help?” she’d spat back at me. “Do you think that’s the only way I can get myself a husband? Through trickery, magic?” I wish I’d never opened my mouth!’
Yeah, that’s my sister, no doubt about it. I should have told Apsara to be careful with the words she used; basically, to use as few as possible.
You could tell my sister she’s the most beautiful girl,you’d ever seen, and she’d find some means of taking it the wrong way. Like, she’d want to know just how many girls you had seen.
‘But the slipper,’ I persist, ‘why didn’t you show her the slipper?’
‘I did! That’s when she really lost it! She’d picked it up, and was quite entranced by it at first, admiring its colours, its daintiness; so all I said was, don’t worry, it will grow to take your feet!’
I wince again.
I can guess what happened next.
‘“Are you saying I have big feet?” she’d shrieked – and then she threw the slipper at me!’
‘Apsara, there’s no way my sister could throw the slipper so high into the air!’
‘Oh, she didn’t; I ducked. The slipper struck the hedge – and then it must have hit a springing branch or something, because the next thing I know, it’s flying out of there high up into the air.’
My sister had run off. Closely followed by me, in my original, lady-like form.
So, there goes that plan.
If my sister had told me why she was so upset, rather than insisting on just being furious without telling me why, I might have known this scheme wasn’t going to work.
Coming around from my despondent pondering, I glance Apsara’s way.
In that blouse, that’s now too short for her, she looks like some impoverished maid forced to wear clothes she long ago grew out of.
Like, in fact – a young, beautiful kitchen maid, in need of a little magical help if she wants to go to the ball.
‘Oh no, no, no!’ Apsara says when I suggest that, at last, we’ve found our Cinderella. ‘I’m too young, we’d agreed on that, remember?’
‘Have you taken a proper look at yourself?’ I say. ‘You don’t look twelve!’
‘Oh, and of course, that isn’t in any way a bit of a dodgy thing to say!’ she scoffs.
‘So, you’re okay, right, about all these people slaving away in the fields? Or those people hanging from gibbets–’
‘Okay, okay; I get your point, blackmailer!’ She abruptly frowns, considering what she’s committing herself to. ‘But I don’t want to marry the prince!’
‘You don’t have to marry him; you’ve just got to make sure our Fairy Godmother doesn’t marry him!’
‘And if something goes wrong? If things don’t work out as they do in the story, and instead he starts immediately introducing me to his parents as the woman of his dreams?’
‘Oh come on! People have married worse!’
‘Not at twelve! At least, they’re not supposed to; not these days!’
‘Twelve going on eighteen, Apsara!’
She glares at me.
She stamps her foot, like a disgruntled twelve-year -old.
‘Young girls, they just grow up so quickly these days, don’t they?’
Sure, I was sorely tempted to say it when Apsara had stood before me, her glass shoes granting her extra height and elegance, her ball gown sparkling like it’s made from material drawn down from the most gloriously sun-kissed blue sky.
But I had the good sense to keep my mouth shut.
I’m tight lipped now, too, but this time through anxiety.
It’s drawing closer and closer to twelve, and yet there’s still no sign of her.
Worse still, an amazingly glamorous carriage is unhurriedly making its way towards the sweeping steps leading up toward the palace’s main doors; the very steps I’m expecting Cinderella to come rushing down any time now.
The carriage’s occupant, I reckon, can only be the Fairy Godmother or whatever you want to call her.
The coach glistens in the flaring light from the countless candles and blazing braziers illuminating the palace. It’s a coach of nothing but glass, no doubt: we’re back in a time when the Fairy Godmother still has her own Glass Slipper, after all.
That’s what Cinderella’s coach was chiefly constructed off, even though we’d started off with nothing more than a pumpkin – hey, we thought we should stick to that part of the story at least, right? – and I wouldn’t have believed it was possible if I hadn’t seen it for myself. Cinderella had made quite an entrance in that, I can tell you.
Thankfully, no one’s clamouring to see the Fairy Godmother’s arrival, even though it’s every bit as spectacular as Cinderella’s entrance.
That’s what comes of arriving late. Of turning up once the prince’s heart has already been stolen.
As the clock strikes its first beat of twelve, the Fairy Godmother alights from her carriage, her dress all the colours of the star-garbed night sky.
Woo, she looks amazing; yeah, I’ve got to give her that. In the interests of fairness, at least.
No wonder the prince had fallen for her.
The difference this time, of course, is Cinderella.
But just where is Cinderella?
If the Fairy Godmother sees her – well, what will she do?
The clock is already on its sixth beat.
Get out of there, Cinderella!
As the clock strikes the twelfth beat, the Fairy Godmother enters the palace through its huge, double doors.
She’s timed her entrance perfectly, obviously.
Unlike Apsara, who must be as deaf as a post if she hasn’t heard the booming of the clock’s striking!
Maybe she’s just enjoying herself too much in there!
Maybe she’s just lost all sense of time!
I realise I’ve got to get in closer towards the palace, to make sure she’s all right.
Fortunately, the light-absorbing darkness of my clothes allows me to move virtually unseen across the rolling lawns leading up to the palace’s entrance. I pass alongside the rows of spectacular carriages, every one of which is being attended to by whichever servant has been chosen to stay behind with the horses while everyone else is being relatively regally entertained by the domestic staff.
The only team of attendants opting to stay by their carriage, of course, had been Cinderella’s. Now there’s a space in the rows where her carriage had been.
In its place, there’s a pumpkin being hungrily eaten by white mice.
Then – does that mean Apsara got away in time?
Or does it mean she didn’t; and the Fairy Godmother’s just turned her into a frog or something?
‘What’re you doing here?’ a voice hisses angrily at me from out of the darkness.
I’m suddenly overwhelmed by the terrible stench of horse dirt, a smell even more noisome than the one wafting up from my own heavily soiled boots.
I whirl around on my heels.
Apsara is glowering at me, her hair a tangled mess entwined with broken twigs, her blouse and bared legs muddied. Her shoes, like mine, are covered in the most awful smelling mess.
If the prince had seen her like this, well…
‘I’ve been looking everywhere for you!’ she snaps.
‘Looking for me?’ I answer, incredulous. ‘I came looking for you! What happened?’
‘I went down the wrong steps, didn’t I?’ she groans miserably. ‘Have you any idea just how many flights of steps there are in a building that size? And these steps led out into the blooming woods, didn’t they?’
She’s disgruntled, I can see. I can see, also, that’s she covered in cobwebs, as well as mud and twigs.
I think I’d better change the subject a little.
‘The, er, slipper…’ I say hesitantly. ‘Did you remember to leave it behind?’
‘Oh, I forgot!’ she exclaims, only to sternly add, ‘I just rushed back home to put on this tight old blouse, obviously!’
‘Good, good,’ I say gleefully, ‘now we just hang around until the prince gets tired of searching for you, pinch the slipper back; then try and figure out how we use it to get back to our own time!’
‘Wonderful, just wonderful,’ Apsara says miserably, glancing in dismay at her cobweb entangled hand as she vainly tries to free a number of twigs from her hair.
A guard has seen us as we’ve made our way across the more open areas of rolling lawns fronting the palace.
My clothes are dark, but Apsara’s, of course, are still white enough to reflect the odd flickers of light coming from the looming windows.
‘Couldn’t you have rolled around in a bit more mud?’ I growl at Apsara as we break into a run.
The yell that had erupted out of the darkness far behind us is joined by a crack, a noise rather like the one of the thicker branches of a tree splitting. Abruptly, I receive what feels like a sharp, hard blow along the side of my head that just about knocks me to the ground in its suddenness and violence, rather as if some invisible assailant as struck out at me with a heavy sword.
My hat briefly sails up into the air until I catch it. With my other hand, I gently touch the side of my head, wondering what could have happened to me.
It’s wet, wet with blood. I can also feel a gaping wound, a long, painful furrow running along the side of my head.
It reminds me of the sort of deep wounds I’ve seen crossbow bolts inflict after a glancing blow.
Blows that have caused enough damage to be a mortal wound. They become badly infected see, and somehow the poisons seep through into the brain; it’s not a nice way to go.
Thankfully, I’ve had and recovered from far worse. So despite the agony every jarring fall of a foot is causing me, I keep running, reassuring Apsara that I’m fine, that we’re not far now from where I’ve left Bess and the hounds.
What was that thing that hit me?
If I didn’t know better, I’d have to swear that someone’s actually gone and invented that device I’d said would be an improvement on the crossbow.
In the particularly thick darkness of the copse they’re hidden away in, Bess and the dogs are just about invisible.
I fall against Bess with relief; I’m so exhausted and suffering so much pain that I couldn’t have run much farther. Apsara has to help me up into my saddle. If she had still been twelve years old, rather than a taller and fitter teenager, she wouldn’t have managed it.
Apsara gets up on to Bess, sitting behind me, but holding the reins. With an abrupt tightening of her knees into Bess’s flanks, she urges her into a surging gallop; we need to get away from here as fast as we can. The hounds obediently follow on alongside, flowing through the undergrowth as if it isn’t really there.
‘That wound,’ Apsara cries out firmly even as we continue to spur our horses into a furious pace. ‘I saw it when helping you up; it’s serious.’
‘I’ve recovered from worse!’ I yell back, immediately wishing I hadn’t; moving my jaw is only adding to the sharp stabs of pain.
I sense Apsara glancing down at the relatively minor scratches she’d received to her arms as she’d made her way through the wood. They’re still bleeding.
‘I…I don’t think it’s going to heal this time,’ she yells back.
It’s agony just trying to think.
‘I’ve always healed from these things; ever since my toe was cut off by the slipper.’
I try not to shout this time, hoping to lessen the pain a little.
It doesn’t work.
‘The sliver of the slipper; it must protect me, remember?’ I continue when, glancing back, I see her anxious expression.
‘We saw the slipper; the piece wasn’t missing!’ she says worriedly.
‘But…but isn’t that…you know, all this time thing? It’s not possible that I’ve lost it – is it?’
She looks at me.
This time, it’s a fearful expression, one that somehow says, ‘Yes, I think it is possible.’
‘We’ve changed things, remember?’ she says sullenly. ‘I…I don’t think you’re going to lose your toe this time…’
I try to let what she’s implying sink into my increasingly dulled mind.
She’s saying I don’t get my protective sliver of glass.
Which means I’m not going to recover from this wound.
Which probably means I’m dying.
As soon as we feel we’ve left any pursuers far behind in the darkness, Apsara dresses my wound as best as she can manage, using some of the layers of her already overly short and flimsy dress. (‘It’s a little tight now anyway,’ she says brightly.)
‘It will stem the blood loss a little; no more,’ she says despondently.
‘There’s nothing anyone else could do?’ I ask hopefully. ‘Someone with more experience in such things?’
‘Sure; let’s visit someone with that kind of knowledge, hoping they haven’t heard how the prince’s ball was brought to a sudden end to hunt down a bunch of assassins.’
‘Ah well: at least the Fairy Godmother had no chance of undoing your good work with the prince, eh?’
‘You’re not taking this seriously enough–’
‘I’ve never had to before; the slipper’s sliver always protected me!’
‘Then, that’s the answer; we have to make sure you get that sliver back inside you.’
‘So, I’ve got to lose my toe?’
‘Which means one of us is going to have to be the one who puts the chipped slipper on her foot…’
‘I’m too weak; besides, I’ll recognise me.’
‘Then it will have to be me…’
Getting out of the castle had been relatively easy; no one’s expecting someone to want to break out.
Besides, there’s an old, secret tunnel. One that’s a last route of escape if the castle ever suffered an overwhelming attack (did my parents use it, I wondered, when the queen’s armies had laid siege to it?). One so narrow that Bess, if she’d been a normal horse, would have struggled to make her way down.
I’d taken the key to the hidden door with me, and not simply to ensure no one would find the key and use it; we’d already planned on heading back into the castle, hoping to steal the slipper from the prince’s retinue and make our way back to our own time.
Inside the castle, the tunnel opens up inside the very filthiest areas of the stables, where no one is likely to be hanging around simply because they’ve got time on their hands.
As it is, our boots are soon caked once more in the sort of mess that’s only completely cleared out every year or so.
Ah well, never mind; we need to swap our clothes for servants’ costumes anyway. And we’ll find those in the laundry.
You’d think we’d have plenty of times to arrange things, wouldn’t you?
I mean, how long would it be before the prince and his men ended up here, with all the other castles and palaces they have to visit before – at last – arriving here?
Well, we hadn’t wanted to hang around that long before we had an opportunity to steal the slipper back. So we’d sort of left a sort of clue as to where the prince should start his search. We’d stuck the embroidered emblem from one of mum’s handkerchiefs (again found in the laundry) in the slipper – you know, so it sort of looked like a label?
Besides, the servants and maids in a castle rise early, so we need to find a couple of outfits and wigs that fit us well before anyone’s around to disturb us. We need the very finest, cleanest, most perfectly starched livery, the uniforms worn by the most respectable and honoured of the servants. Our own clothes, I store away in a far, unused cupboard in the surgery, the stench from my boots and Apsara’s shoes being too strong to successfully hide them on the laundry shelves.
I pull my wig as far forward as I can to shade my face, hoping no one recognises me. It also covers my wound, and helps hold the makeshift bandage in place, one that’s thankfully a little more substantial than the one originally tied by Apsara, as we’ve had materials from the surgery to draw on.
Apsara’s wig isn’t quite so easy to fit into place on her head. First we have to painstakingly gather up her tumbling locks, holding them all together with any hairpins we can find. Then we just about squeeze the wig over what is a not inconsiderable pile of hair, holding it down with yet more pins. Thankfully, the servants wear fashionably high wigs, otherwise this would have been completely impossible.
When everyone begins to wake up, we spend the morning rushing around, making sure no one ever gets a good look at us, or has a chance to call us over; we’re far too busy pretending to take down pictures, or move tables, or clean the vast (and very dusty!) tapestries hanging from the walls.
It’s made easier than we might have expected, as everyone’s working in an excited atmosphere: a royal messenger had ridden hard through the night, informing the palace that they must prepare for an early morning visit by the prince and his entourage.
Every now and again, however, I have to take a rest.
I need the prince to get here as soon as possible!
The arrival of the prince is heralded by a blast of the castle’s trumpets as soon as he and his small band of followers are spotted galloping over the rise of a nearby hill.
He has forgone his usual, languidly moving train; similarly, he has insisted all usual protocol is abandoned, as his mission is urgent.
As per the commands delivered by the earlier arriving messenger, he and his retinue are hurriedly shown into the castle’s state rooms, where my parents and sisters – hurriedly garbed in their very finest clothes – are waiting to receive him.
Only the most elegantly dressed servants attend such important events, and Apsara and I make sure we join them, ignoring the odd puzzled stare of anyone who has the time to wonder when these new attendants had been taken on.
It’s a strange feeling for me, seeing my parents so close, yet unable to speak to them. If I attempted it, they’d naturally believe I was mad; for aren’t their daughters actually gracefully sitting before them, eagerly anticipating the arrival of their prince?
The prince’s entry into the room is preceded by only two of his entourage, and their imperious announcements are of the very briefest kind, the barest minimum that can be allowed without risking any interpretation of insult to the hosts.
Following this lead, the greetings of my family are equally swiftly run through on the entry of the prince, his eagerness to move on to other, more important matters plain to see.
My family stood to greet the prince, and now my father offers him and his friends a seat, a handful of the castle’s servants carrying high backed chairs drawing up behind each one of them. As politely as he can, the prince waves the offer aside, and so everyone remains standing.
He has already quickly taken in the appearances of my sister and myself, frowning in puzzlement and disappointment.
Even so, unlike his arrogantly sneering companions, the prince at least makes the effort to treat everyone with respect despite his obvious need to quickly resolve the issues troubling him.
‘Sir,’ he says, ‘I’m sure you must be aware of the reason for my arrival here; it is your daughter Cinderella whom I have come to see, and yet I see that she is not here!’
Everyone in my family exchange mystified glances, my father eventually sternly declaring that ‘These are my daughters, My Liege; and no one by the name of Cinderella lives here.’
The Prince frowns once more.
‘Then I wonder if you can tell me anything about this?’ he says, with a wave of a hand commanding someone standing behind him to step forward.
The man is holding out before him a plump, blue velvet cushion; and safely nestled amongst its folds there lies the Glass Slipper.
It sparkles iridescently, the multi-coloured light playing about it more glorious than the air of rainbows created by the most entrancingly designed stained glass.
It’s strangely, wonderfully reassuring to see it once again.
My sister gasps.
She’s not just awed by the slipper’s beauty.
She recognises it.
I doubt if it would be possible to read every emotion so swiftly passing over my sister’s face.
But I can guess.
This is the slipper that had been offered to her, with the promise that it would capture the prince’s heart.
And she had turned it down, dismissing such promises as nonsense.
She looks a little, sick; a touch peeved.
Even so, she raises her head regally and confesses to having seen the slipper once before.
‘I saw it here yesterday; it belonged, I believe, to a young girl I saw wandering about our garden!’
The prince almost leaps for joy.
The slipper does come from this castle!
It does belong to a girl living here!
‘This girl; describe her to me!’ he says expectantly.
‘She was pretty,’ my sister replies. ‘About twelve years old.’
‘Twelve?’ the prince chuckles nervously.
This isn’t working out as easily as he’d hoped, obviously.
Then again, it isn’t working out as I’d hoped, either.
Is he even going to insist everyone tries on the slipper?
‘She told me that anyone wearing the slipper would entrance the prince!’ my sister says.
One of the prince’s friends sound scandalised by my sister’s comment.
‘Are you saying the slipper is magic?’
The prince’s entire retinue now appears anxious.
The prince dismisses their worries with an irate wave of a hand, conjuring up the impression that this is a conversation he’s tired of having.
‘No, no! I’m not stupid! The girl was real; she was no enchantment! Her beauty was perfectly natural!’
The prince’s men hide their disbelieving, disapproving frowns, naturally reticent to unnecessarily anger him any further.
Even so, it’s quite obvious that they believe the prince has dragged them all out on a fool’s errand, and a potentially dangerous one at that if witchcraft is indeed involved.
‘Sir, may I suggest,’ one of them grandly announces, ‘that one of these girls here try it on? For then we can see if it is the slipper’s magic that has tricked you into–’
‘It is not foolishness!’ the prince storms.
‘I’m sure, Sir,’ another one of his entourage confidently declares, ‘that either of these two girls would be more than happy to try on the slipper.’
Noticing that my sister doesn’t look at all entranced by the idea of putting on a magical slipper, the me that I used to be steps forward to more closely inspect the slipper.
‘It looks too small, even for us.’
‘The girl – she said it would fit anyone who tried it on,’ my sister says.
The old me raises her eyebrows, intrigued by this.
‘Then it is indeed magic!’ one of the prince’s horrified men exclaims assuredly.
‘What use is it as a test if it fits anyone?’ another one bellows.
Every raised voice seeks to dissuade the prince from continuing his search. There are even accusations that it is my family who are seeking to trick and entrap him.
‘This is magic I’d like to see!’ the old me firmly declares, sitting back in the nearest chair even as she slips off one of her shoes, revealing a stockinged foot.
Thankfully, Apsara thinks and moves quicker than I do.
As the prince’s man holding the cushion and slipper steps forward with the obvious intention of keeling before the seated me, Apsara hurriedly strides towards them both. Standing rigidly yet mutely in the way, she holds out her hands for the shoe; thereby giving the unmistakable impression that it is the custom of the household for servants to undertake any task involving the mistresses.
My family, not unnaturally, are a little surprised by this. But the prince and his companions seem to accept it as being a perfectly acceptable convention, and make no protest when Apsara carefully picks up the slipper.
She demurely slips to her knee before the old me.
She cradles my heel in her hand as she brings foot and slipper closer to each other.
As she slips the shoe onto my foot, Apsara gives it a forceful tweak.
‘Oww! My toe!’ the old me screams.
The blood pooling in the Glass Slipper glistens.
‘She’s cut off her toe to make it fit!’ one of the prince’s men screams in horror.
I recall that, although I had felt the sharp edge of the glass slice into my toe, I had not realised at first that my whole toe had been removed.
So, at first, the old me is simply aghast at the outrageous accusation.
‘I have not cut off – oh My God! He’s cut off my toe!’
When I see the severed toe lying in a pool of its own blood within the Glass Slipper – as if proudly, if a little morbidly, on show within a unique display cabinet – I’m angry that the servant before me has been so inept and careless.
When everyone else begins to realise that my little toe has indeed been sliced off my foot, the room erupts, a chaos of distressed wailing from my mother and sister, of rage from my father, of confusion and helplessness from the castle’s servants.
‘Well, that’s what comes of making slippers from glass, I suppose,’ I say, if only to draw my incandescent father’s ire – for suddenly, he doesn’t know which servant to be most angry with; the idiot who’s just sliced off his daughters toe, or the crassly impertinent one who’s spoken out of turn and so dismissively.
Apsara wisely utilises my father’s confusion and the horrified commotion taking place about the chair to deftly mingle with the similarly dressed servants, who are suddenly milling everywhere as they ineptly attempt to address the problem. They’re mopping up the blood spilling on the carpet, calling on maids to assist their injured mistress, or helping my sister and parents hurriedly aid my painfully hopping self to exit the room and head for the surgery.
No one seeks to apologise to the prince and his men. For their part, the prince’s companions seem a little bemused by the commotion, even a touch angry that their mission has become unnecessarily complicated. Some of them are urgently beginning to look around the room for the Glass Slipper, realising that it appears to have mysteriously vanished.
Of course, Apsara still holds it, tucking it close against her stomach, using her back to shield it from the view of the prince’s men. She’s heading for the door, apparently part of the group of servants following on behind my swiftly retreating parents and sister.
Seeing that she has the slipper, I begin to follow on after her, hoping that I’ll begin to swiftly recover now that my toe has once again been removed, now that I once again have a sliver of the slipper swimming somewhere around inside me.
The truth is, I’m not yet feeling much stronger, any much less delirious.
If anything, I still seem to be weakening, if not so rapidly as before.
Maybe I’m in such a poor state, it’s going to take me a while to recover.
Even so, I can’t believe our good fortune.
Somewhat miraculously, we seem to have got away with both slicing off my toe and stealing away with the Glass Slipper.
I can still hear the other me wailing in distress as my family hastily retreats down the corridor, heading towards the surgery; and there was me, flattering myself I’d shown great fortitude when it had happened.
The sounds of commotion outside the room, however, are actually increasing, not decreasing. Cries of anger, even angry scuffles, drawing quickly towards the room’s open doors, not away from them.
These are heavy, booted footsteps, too, coming from the opposite direction to the one taken by my family.
A couple of heavily armed men stride into the room, taking up positions either side of the doorway, threateningly raising an arm towards anyone seeking to leave the room, preventing anyone else from leaving.
Directly behind the men, the Fairy Godmother sweeps into the room, her diamond studded cloak a starburst of blazing light.
More well armed men follow on behind the Fairy Godmother, dominating the room with their stern-faced presence.
Without a break in her stride, the Fairy Godmother walks confidently towards the bewildered prince.
Neither the prince nor his men seem to be in any way offended by or wary of the intrusion; the Fairy Godmother, after all, is a beautiful woman, one who must have created quite a stir when she’d arrived at the ball, even if the ball was being rapidly brought to a close.
It’s a relatively short walk for the Fairy Godmother to take, despite the vastness of the stateroom, but unfortunately it’s one that takes her almost directly past Apsara, who had almost reached the door.
Apsara’s back might shield any view of the slipper from the prince’s entourage, but the shoe is on plain display to the oncoming Fairy Godmother.
The lady snatches at the shoe, raising it high into the air as she continues striding towards the prince.
‘You have been tricked, My Liege!’ she loftily declares. ‘I possess another slipper, which I will prove–’
‘You!’ the prince exclaims in wild delight. ‘I’ve found you!’
Even the Fairy Godmother is brought to an astounded halt by what could only be taken as the prince’s declaration of love, so heartfelt is his announcement that he has at last found the girl he seeks.
‘Oh, you recognised me,’ she begins, uncharacteristically abashed, ‘I didn’t think you’d–’
She brings her remark to yet another abrupt halt.
She’s seen that the prince’s adoring gaze isn’t fixed on her, after all. He’s gawping, rather, at someone behind her.
The Fairy Godmother angrily whirls upon her heels.
When she had so aggressively snatched the slipper from Apsara’s hands, she had also dislodged the already precariously fixed servant’s wig we had piled all those masses of golden, tumbling locks under.
And so now those tumbling locks have tumbled once more, despite Apsara’s best efforts to quickly gather it all up once more, obviously hoping no one had noticed.
But how could anyone not notice?
Her hair glitters like it’s a form of light created by the Glass Slipper itself; a cascading waterfall of miniature suns.
Even the prince’s companions are entranced.
No wonder the prince is besotted.
Of course, one person entirely immune to Cinderella’s charm is the Fairy Godmother.
When she sees the effect Apsara’s transformation from indistinct servant to an un-ignorably gorgeous girl has had on everyone, the Fairy Godmother rages at the injustice of having her coronation as queen snatched from her hands.
‘So,’ she snarls, ‘let’s see if love conquers age, shall we?’
And she tosses the Glass Slipper into the air, sending it twirling towards Apsara.
It was the twirling of the Glass Slipper in the sunlight, of course, that had turned the child Apsara into the teen Cinderella.
Even through the increasing pain and dizziness of my injury, I realise that the Fairy Godmother intends to ensure the prince sees Cinderella swiftly age before him.
Even if Apsara recognises what’s about to happen, and leaps out of the way, the chances are the slipper will smash upon the floor.
The prince’s companions, who are obviously in no rush to see him married, will use the slipper’s breaking as an excuse to declare that he can’t be sure that this is the Cinderella he’d met at the ball, that this might all be part of a magical entrapment.
As I’d been following Apsara as she’d made her way towards the door, I’m close enough now to throw myself forwards, placing myself beneath the whirling slipper, the light emanating from it playing everywhere about me like spiralling rainbows scattered across a clear pool.
Apsara briefly appears horrified that I’m preparing to catch it, when I know full well what it could mean to me.
But thankfully she realises that this is for the best, that she has to move back and aside to ensure the slipper’s magical scattering of light has no further effect on her.
I can already feel the effect it’s having on me.
I’m growing weaker, weaker than I already felt.
I’m finding it hard to reach up, to reach up high at any rate.
Am I getting smaller?
My jacket cuff certainly seems too large.
Even as I try to work out exactly what’s going on, I keep my eye on the spinning slipper. It’s whirling has dislodged the severed toe nestled within it.
The toe rolls towards the rim.
It tumbles from the slipper.
It drops down towards me.
I gawp in surprise and horror.
The toe slips into my gaping mouth.
Before I know what’s happening, before I can stop it, I’ve swallowed it.
My own toe!
I’ve just swallowed my own toe!
I urgently try to dismiss the thought from my mind; I still have to catch that whirling slipper!
But it’s hard to keep up with it. My own shoes seem massive upon my feet, weighing me down.
My jacket is way too large for me.
Instead of catching he slipper, as I’d hoped, I have to content myself with reaching out, flaying at the slipper with my hand; and sending it flying back into the air once more.
Recognising that something so delicate and precious looks sure to shatter on striking the ground, others dash forward to catch and save the slipper.
It’s not a wise thing to do.
As the whirling slipper throws out its strikingly resplendent beams, it ages those it catches in its play of colourful light. A companion of the prince is struck a considerable number of times in this way, his ageing more pronounced than the others, such that like me he finds he’s unable to catch the slipper as he’d hoped; and so he too has to be satisfied with simply knocking it back up into the air.
The glorious whirling of spectral light plays about everyone once again. Only this time, those seeking to catch the flying slipper find themselves growing younger, not older.
Their bodies shrink, their clothes becoming too large for them.
As, of course, had happened to me.
I haven’t grown older; I’m younger, younger than I was when I’d last lived in this castle.
It must be the way the slipper twirls; clockwise, or anticlockwise.
A forwarding or a reversal of time.
My wound has healed, I realise, but I don’t think that’s due to my difference in age; I think I’m benefiting from yet another sliver of the glass.
It must have been embedded in the toe I’ve swallowed.
I use my new found youth, energy, and exuberance to bring the toing (Hah! Toeing maybe?) and froing of the slipper to an end, leaping up first onto a chair, and then the table, to at last catch the soaring shoe.
When all the chaotic scrabbling comes to a close, I’m a young girl once more.
The servants clothes hang off me.
I look like a twelve year old, dressing up in father’s clothes.
The Fairy Godmother observes me with a mix of what could be admiration and hate.
‘You’ve wasted your time trying to save it,’ she announces with a bitter laugh before turning back to face the startled, perplexed prince. ‘For I have the real slipper here.’
She reaches into her fabulous gown.
And draws out the other Glass Slipper.
The prince, naturally, is more bewildered than ever.
‘But…but that’s the one I brought…’ he says unsurely, pointing towards the slipper I’m holding.
‘Left and right shoes, My Liege,’ one of his men – now little more than a young boy in oversize clothes – hisses in warning to him.
The Fairy Godmother glowers at the boy, making him shrink all the more into his clothes.
‘Not in this case!’ she hisses in warning like a snake. She whirls around to point accusingly at Apsara. ‘She switched them on you when – dressed as a servant – she first took it from your own man!’
She pronounces ‘dressed’ such that it drips with connotations of the foulest treachery.
Why else would anyone be dressed as servants unless they meant to harm the prince?
‘Take them,’ the Fairy Godmother commands her men, a wave of her hand confirming that she also means that I should be arrested.
The prince’s own men leap into action, but not to save us.
They join in with the Fairy Godmother’s men, surrounding the large table I’m standing on. Others forcibly apprehend Apsara, pinioning her by the arms.
And when the prince steps forward to protest at the way his Cinderella is been treated, he too is surround, but by his own companions, cautioning him that his more suspicious father the king has already told them to guard him from any further uses of magic.
What could I do?
I did what any disgruntled twelve-year-old girl would do.
I furiously throw the Glass Slipper I’m holding at the laughing Fairy Godmother.
At least this time the slipper sails through the air in a more direct course.
Its ageing effects only briefly affect the men it whirls over.
The Fairy Godmother hadn’t been looking my way when I’d thrown it. She’d only had eyes for the prince, seductively striding towards him as she held out the glass slipper for him to take.
Something makes her look my way at the last second, however. Perhaps a glint of reflected light in the glass of the slipper she held.
Whatever it is that makes her look my way, it’s too late for her to do anything about it.
Fortunately for her, I think, I didn’t throw it high enough to have any affect on her age.
Even so, she screams in terror.
The Glass Slipper crashes hard against her cloak of diamonds.
Even a magical slipper, of course, would find it hard to resist an impact against diamonds, the hardest substance known.
There’s a tinkling, a shattering, of glass.
An eruption of light.
An avalanche of glass slivers.
All continuing, bizarrely, to head in very same direction they’d been travelling in while wholly melded together.
The slivers whirl through the Fairy Godmother, unstoppable.
Soaking up all the light about her, glittering all the more.
Like a rain of stars.
But where these new stars didn’t shine with their absorbed light, there was only a deep, indefinable darkness left lying between them.
A darkness, I sensed, formed not from an absence of light, but a lack of compassion.
A darkness that shrieked even as that too vanished, as if it were now nothing more than a puff of smoke.
All that was left of the Fairy Godmother was the Glass Slipper.
It must have dropped from her rapidly dissolving hand to the floor at some point, and yet it hadn’t smashed.
It hadn’t even been chipped, unless you include the missing slivers about the rim.
It had even landed the right way up, cat-like in its fall.
Of the other slipper, there was nothing to be seen.
Not even slivered pieces, glistening upon the floor, glowing with their fleshly acquired, new light.
Yet now that I know more of this fabulous slipper, I have an idea where they might be.
They’re part of the slipper regally standing upon the floor, melded into it; returned to where they belong.
And what of the darkness, that absence of compassion, they had torn through?
The slipper can’t absorb such a thing, I believe. It can only ever reflect – reject – it.
I think, too, that I know where that peculiar darkness has gone.
Bess, Cer, Ber and Us; for aren’t they the creations – the creatures – of the Glass Slipper?
From where else could they have originated?
As Cinderella tries on the slipper, the slipper that was only ever meant for her, and so fits her ever so perfectly, I slip away to say goodbye to my faithful beasts.
I don’t need the Glass Slipper to return to my own time.
For I recognise now, of course, that this is my own time
Just as the story tells us, Cinderella is indeed sister to my sister.
She is daughter to my father, and my mother.
Yes, yes; I see all this now.
I also see that this is how it has to be.
I could make changes, of course; but why, when it all works out so well?
I collect a blouse to wear from my room, while the other, ‘older’ me is still down in the surgery. I take a spare one, packing it into a bag with a number of objects I know I’m going to need.
A small cup.
A letter opener.
A flower vase.
A book, The Glass Kingdom.
My farewell to Bess, Cer, Ber and Us is far sadder than I expected, even though I tell them I will be meeting them again quite soon.
Besides, I reassure them; the old me will be out to see them soon, wearing the highwayman’s clothes I’ll find in the surgery’s cupboard – and they should make her welcome, for we are all linked, all one.
Soon, of course, I’ll be queen.
If you enjoyed reading this book, you might also enjoy (or you may know someone else who might enjoy) these other books by Jon Jacks.
The Caught – The Rules – Chapter One – The Changes – Sleeping Ugly
The Barking Detective Agency – The Healing – The Lost Fairy Tale
A Horse for a Kingdom – Charity – The Most Beautiful Things (Now includes The Last Train)
The Dream Swallowers – Nyx; Granddaughter of the Night – Jonah and the Alligator
Glastonbury Sirens – Dr Jekyll’s Maid – The 500-Year Circus – The Desire: Class of 666
P – The Endless Game – DoriaN A – Wyrd Girl – The Wicker Slippers – Gorgesque
Heartache High (Vol I) – Heartache High: The Primer (Vol II) – Heartache High: The Wakening (Vol III)
Miss Terry Charm, Merry Kris Mouse & The Silver Egg – The Last Angel – Eve of the Serpent
Seecrets – The Cull – Dragonsapien – The Boy in White Linen – Porcelain Princess – Freaking Freak
Died Blondes – Queen of all the Knowing World – The Truth About Fairies – Lowlife
Elm of False Dreams – God of the 4^th^ Sun – A Guide for Young Wytches – Lady of the Wasteland
The Wendygo House – Americarnie Trash – An Incomparable Pearl – We Three Queens – Cygnet Czarinas
Memesis – April Queen, May Fool – Sick Teen – Thrice Born – Self-Assembled Girl – Love Poison No. 13