February 1, 2011

Isolda's Escape by Mark Packard

The willow broom handle rubbed against familiar callouses as Isolda swept around the hearth for the tenth time that day. Insanity would rule her days if she hadn't taken to the habit of remembering fonder times when her parents were still alive.

With her mother, old memories of making bread brought peace, kneading, forming the loaf, her mother's hand enveloping her own, shaping it just so, carefully placing it in the oven, and then the joyful anticipation of it baking, constantly checking on the loaf.

With her father, more recent memories of playing hide and seek whilst engaged in chores around the farm. One of them would disappear, and the other would start the hunt, choosing footing carefully to avoid alerting the intended prey. She had a real knack for this game, and her father admitted it with a genuine pride, taking her with him on real hunting trips until his death a few years ago.

He had never bothered to ask his new stepdaughters to join him when he'd remarried. They were far too proper to engage in such brutality.  In spite of her present dull existence, these memories rarely failed to cause a smile to spread slowly across her beautiful visage, even if the swine more commonly known as her stepsisters were present.  Whenever these memories failed to ignite her spark, she reverted to memories of her own secret hunts, fresh blood on the knife—and a vengeful smile never failed to arrive.

While Isolda was generally grateful for being spared from slavery by her stepmother, Avice, upon her father's death, it was the reason she was retained that blotted out her gratitude in favor of bitter anger. Over time, it became clear that Avice just wanted a servant.  And Isolda had no other options available. She begrudgingly accepted her lot, but only as a temporary waypoint, as she quietly started planning the end game. Why rush something that brought her such joy?

She was willing to admit to herself the first kill was the hardest.  A cruel suitor to one of the swine had treated Isolda exceptionally poorly, and she had steeled her resolve to make him feel her pain, personally. While she had a mind-numbing amount of chores to keep the estate in top shape, she also had periods of inactivity. One such time presented itself after this suitor called upon Clarice, the older swine, by far the more haughty of the two. A flurry of activity in helping Clarice prepare for the date was followed with blissful quiet. As the suitor rode onto the estate and was stabling his steed, he hurled insults at Isolda seemingly just to assert his higher position.  She swallowed the words she longed to speak, and could feel her heart racing. As she took care of the horse, Isolda began working on a more specific plan. 

After finishing with the horse, she quietly snuck through the house to her room.  She donned her dark clothing and grabbed her hunting knife, stopping briefly at the fireplace to blacken her face with ashes.  Then she headed into the forest around the trail where she knew the suitor would exit the estate.

The tree she chose had a branch that hung directly over the trail, and she'd climbed it easily before. Her eyes had already grown accustomed to the failing light, and she was prepared, knife clinched in teeth, as she saw the buffoon start down the trail. Every inch he got closer elevated her inner doubts. As he passed under the limb she perched on, she couldn't muster the nerve, and got up to leave, but slipped and fell silently onto the horse behind him. Her instincts took hold when she realized what had happened, her mind picturing a particular hunting trip with her father. Her hand shot forward instantly covering his mouth, as her other hand brought the blade into play. Quickly, she drew the knife across his fragile neck feeling the warm sensation of blood spilling over her hand. He was absolutely unprepared for what happened, and she was unprepared for her own reaction, falling to the ground crying as his lifeless body slid off the horse. It took all of her energy to drag his portly figure down to the river and slip it in the icy water. After she chased his horse off the property and cleaned up what little evidence remained, she went back to the river, washed up and then ran home. She didn't see the pair of eyes that watched everything secretly from the protection of a large bush.

The next two weeks were a blur and Isolda was grateful for the distraction. Still feeling pangs of guilt, she had backed away from her original plan. She didn't want to be responsible for someone else's death again. And then the invitation for the royal ball came. It seemed the King was looking for a bride to bring happiness to his son, and wanted to take matters into his own hands, given that the son hadn't found anyone yet. Avice and the swine were more excited than Isolda had ever seen them, and she harbored her own hopes for that night as well. Avice quickly dashed those hopes. She had seen Isolda with a longing smile as the swine talked about what they would wear. "What are you smiling at? Were you under the impression that you would also be attending the ball? Oh dear, sweet Isolda. The thought of you in your servant garb bowing before the Prince is laughable. I wouldn't dream of letting you go." Isolda stormed out of the room as the giggles from the swine faded. Back to Plan A after all.

She knew it was a flaw in her character, but Isolda secretly relished the rush from a kill. Her personal experience with the suitor had only served to validate this feeling.  However, the mess and ensuing chaos often make subtle methods more attractive, like poison. She knew her stepmother to be a cunning and careful person that could more than hold her own in a social setting. Why test that in a physical confrontation? Isolda had known about hemlock for years. Her father had tipped his arrows with it to hedge his bets with a troublesome varmint that kept stealing chickens from the farm. What better addition to the morning tea for her stepmother? While she had never seen the effect on people, she knew it brought about rapid breathing failure. Her stepmother wouldn't be able to talk. Perfect.

It played just as she had hoped. After toying with the spoon, adding sugar, and then a few test sips, her stepmother had enjoyed the cup of tea brought to her.  It took a full five minutes for the shortness of breath to lead to gasping. Isolda had done her best to rush in and pretend to assist her. "What's wrong? How can I help you?" all while her stepmother's eyes looked to her for help. Another ten minutes of frantic efforts failed and she expired to the cries of her daughters. One down.

Now to the next evil source of evil. What was it, exactly, that made Clarice grate on her nerves so completely? The high-pitched voice? The haughty, ungrateful attitude? The lack of concern for all around her? What did it matter? With the mother gone, Isolda had made Clarice the next focus of her attention. The ball was three nights away now. While the girls were still grieving and the funeral scheduled for eight days hence, it was clear that the ball was an important part of their survival plan at this point. When Clarice asked Isolda to help her lace up her new dress, the opportunity was clear. After pulling the laces tight, Isolda drew the dagger from a hidden pocket, grabbed her stepsister's chin and slid the blade between her ribs right by her heart. Death came quickly and quietly.

That's when she felt the point of a knife at the base of her skull. "You know, my mother never treated me any better than she did you.  I saw what you did to that suitor. I would guess you killed my mother as well, though I have no proof. There can be no doubt that Clarice was your next victim, what with your hands still clutching her head." Agnes, the younger swine, was much smarter than she had let on. "Would you consider a compromise?" Isolda hadn't seen this coming at all. Little did she know. "Aside from the shock of having them gone, I don't know that I'll really miss my mother or sister. However, without any parents or guardians, we won't be able to keep this house much longer." She was right. "I think you should go to the ball. You are much fairer than I, and stand a better chance at the Prince's hand." Isolda could work with this.

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