January 30, 2011

Full Circle by P. L. Blair

       She ran. Faster, faster, fleeing down the stairs into the night, tripping over the gown as it fell away in tatters leaving her in her scullery maid's garb – relief when the glass slipper came off her foot.

        She kicked free of the other slipper as well. Almost threw it away. Then hugged it to her.

       The crowd in pursuit, the Prince chief among them. “Girl!” he cried. “Girl!”

       He did not know her name. He had asked – but in that very moment, she had heard the clock striking twelve, midnight. And heard the voice of her fairy godmother, the warning: You must be away before midnight, for at the stroke of twelve, the enchantment will end.

       She clutched the single slipper she had saved, terror lending wings to her now-bare feet. In the courtyard …

       No sign of her carriage, nor the snow-white horses that had drawn it, no coachmen nor attentive footmen, naught but a pumpkin on the paving, gnawed by mice.

       “I did warn you, Ella of the Cinders.”

       Startled, she looked around …

       The eld woman – her fairy godmother – sat on a bench close by, tiny frame all but obscured by the cloak she wore.

        “I failed.” Tears came into Ella's eyes. One hand kept hold of the slipper, while the other clutched the dagger belted to her waist. The silvered dagger she had been instructed to use this night. “But … the music … the dance ...”

        “Captured your mind,” the eld woman said. “Captured your heart.”

        “I'm sorry ...”

        “Come, Child.” The woman threw wide her cloak, wrapped Ella in its soft folds.

        It seemed only a moment later that she tumbled into the bed of reeds in the kitchen of her father's estate. The only bed she'd known since her father's death had left her alone with her stepmother and that wicked woman's two daughters. Before the old duke's body had grown cold, Ella's stepmother and sisters had turned her into a scullery maid.

         And the festival tonight … Her stepmother and sisters had spent days taunting her: how filthy she was, how ashamed they'd be to present her at the ball, how she had not even a proper gown nor shoes to wear. Only after they'd gone, swept off to the ball in her father's handsome coach, in finery that should have been hers by right of birth …
        Then the fairy godmother had come – Ella's godmother – bringing comfort. Bringing ... Magic to help win the heart of a prince.

        Magic she was supposed to turn against him.

        He and his kind, Ella's godmother told her, weren't human. They were wampyr, evil creatures that drank the blood of humans – and every thousand years, the Prince would visit a city like this one, and proclaim a festival so he could find a human woman to be his bride and bear children for him, children who would wed wampyr, so the race retained its human appearance.

         Ella's godmother had given her the silvered dagger, and told her what she must do. And she must do it before midnight …

        Ella had forgotten. In the moment she saw the Prince, everything the godmother had told her fled from her mind. So handsome … Black, black hair that curled around his ears, his eyes glimmering like polished obsidian … Young … strong … virile …

       He had taken command of her, swept her into the dance while all around, people whispered of the beautiful, golden-haired woman in the Prince's arms … and why had they never noticed her until this night. Her own stepmother and stepsisters had not recognized her but had gawked at her and spoke in jealous tones of how beautiful she was, her stepsisters lamenting that they would have to chance at all this night to capture the Prince's eye.

       And they had danced, she and the Prince, and danced … until the bells chimed midnight …

       Then Ella remembered – and fled ...

      “You still have the dagger, Child?”

       “Wh- what? Yes.” She laid a hand over the sheath that held the weapon.

       “You will have another chance to use it. You lost a slipper.”

       “Yes.” Ella remembered … And the other slipper, its mate …

        Lay on the hearth where she must have dropped it.

       “You captured the Prince's heart,” her godmother said. “He found your slipper, and now he will scour this city for you. He wants you for his bride, Ella. Let him find you. He will not harm you. Perhaps, in his own fashion, he actually loves those he chooses to bear his children. Let him find you, and on the night he takes you to his bed – then you will have another chance to do what you could not do tonight.”
        “What if I … fail again?”

        “You must not,” the godmother's voice and face stern. Then, with a slow, sad smile ...

        She faded.

       “Godmother!” Ella cried. “Wait!”

       Too late.

       The Prince indeed sent riders throughout the land in search of the mysterious golden-haired girl who had fled from him. And at last they found Ella, and of course the slipper fit, then she produced its mate, and of course they took her to the Prince. They were wed within the fortnight.

       And Ella kept the silvered dagger close at hand, ready for the day when she must wield it …

        But she didn't. Because she fell in love with him, and he seemed to love her. She had a gift, he said, for magic, and he taught her to use it: spells to change pumpkins into coaches and mice into horses and coachmen and footmen. Charms to bind people to her. Incantations to quiet ferocious beasts and lull an entire household into sleep. She learned to scry into the future using mirrors and reflecting pools and crystal orbs.

       The silvered dagger rested in a drawer in Ella's chambers.

       Years passed, and she bore her Prince sons and daughters – wampyrs to follow their father's ways. Her children grew to maturity, though once they attained adulthood, they seemed to grow no older – nor did the Prince grow older. But Ella did – though much, much more slowly than any ordinary woman might have.

      Yet one day, as Ella walked in the gardens, “You have grown old, Lady.”

      The voice harsh – she whirled; she had not heard him come up behind her. “My Prince ...”

      “It has been a thousand years since I took you as my wife.”

      Memory stirred. She felt the blood drain from her face. “What …”

      “You have not borne me a son or daughter in nearly a hundred years. I need a new wife, Ella.”

      She stepped back, hand raising to her throat. “You … cannot kill me.” Yet she knew he could.

      He shook his head. “Some part of me still … cares for you, Ella. But you can no longer stay here. I leave tomorrow for a distant kingdom where I'll announce a festival and select a new bride. You must be gone from here before I return, Ella. I won't harm you, but others of my people would, if they find you here without me.”

      She bowed her head, acquiescent, heart hammering. She knew what she must do.

      She saw her Prince off the next morning, then retreated to her chambers. She had not been idle the evening before. She had consulted her orb, made plans. Now she gathered up the few items she would need – a cloak fastened around her shoulders, the silvered dagger tucked into its old place at her belt ...
The castle was quiet around her, save for the sobbing that came from its kitchen. Softly, silently, Ella strode toward the sound, the girl who made it – a pretty child, her hair as golden as Ella's once had been. A scullery maid.

      “Why are you crying, Child?” Ella gently asked.

      The girl sprang to her feet, turning, green eyes widening in alarm at sight of the eld woman before her.

     Ella smiled. “I won't harm you, Child. I'm your fairy godmother.”

     “F-fairy godmother?” the girl stammered.

      Ella put on her kindliest expression. “Your mistress and her daughters are away tonight, at a festival in honor of the Prince visiting here. You're going to that festival too.”

      “How –” The girl shook her head. “That cannot be!”

     “Oh, it can.” Ella smiled. “It will. This night, Child, you will capture the heart of a Prince. Now,” solemn, “pay heed to me girl, and I'll tell you what's to be done. First of all, we'll need a pumpkin and a few mice ...”
    

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