Once upon a time there was a young girl whose father had terrible taste in women. Her mother, had she lived long enough, was the type who would most likely have locked her daughter in a tower for reasons unknown, making her a tragic damsel in need of rescue. As it was, she died when her daughter was an infant, and over the years, the girl’s father grew in wisdom. His second marriage was to a better woman, or so he thought.
She was a better woman than his first wife had been, for when he died she did not lock his daughter in a tower. After all, she had daughters of her own, and had not towers enough to lock them all away. She was merely satisfied with doting upon her own children while treating her stepdaughter with as much contempt as possible.
The extravagance of the young lady’s stepmother led to the dismissal of a good deal of the servants, and pride in her father’s home compelled the young lady to take care of whatever she could and do whatever work could not be completed by their remaining staff. After cleaning the fireplaces one morning, her stepsisters nicknamed her “Cinderella.” She thought “hardworking,” “loyal,” or “diligent” might have described her better, but her annoyance was enough to amuse her stepsisters. Soon, the remaining servants and everyone else, even her stepmother, were calling her by that name, as if her own had been forgotten.
Cinderella did her best to keep her father’s house in order, despite the constant overspending of her stepmother. She kept the herb garden tamed, she convinced the cook to stay on for lower wages, she dusted the chandeliers, and every once and a while she cleaned the fireplaces. She was so busy maintaining the house that she had no time to keep up on social events. So when her stepsisters haughtily informed her that a royal ball was fast approaching, not only did she not care, she was annoyed that they had interrupted her work to give her such useless information.
She went early to bed the night of the ball, after a hard day’s work harvesting in the herb garden and beating the rug in the main hall. All she wanted was to rest, and to avoid the pomp of her parading stepmother and stepsisters, who would inevitably ask for compliments on their looks and dress and then sneeringly disregard whatever she said. There was no inducement for Cinderella to go to the ball herself, and the cost of their carriage conveying her family to the ball was less than the cost of their dining at home. The servants had the night off, and Cinderella hoped, in their absence, to be able to relax as well.
But instead, she dreamed.
A lovely ball, music, dancing, beautiful women and handsome men, talking and laughing together, everyone enjoying themselves, when suddenly a black cloud fell over the party and a bone chilling howl drowned every other sound.
She woke with start to find someone in her room. “Who are you?” she gasped. “How did you get in?”
“Why, dear Cinderella,” replied the woman, “I am your fairy godmother.”
“That is not my name,” Cinderella snapped, the howl from her dream still echoing in her ears. “I don’t have a godmother, and I don’t want to have anything to do with fairies. Get out.”
“Dearest child,” cooed the woman, “You should already be aware that your True Name has been lost. ‘Cinderella’ is what you have become. If you were Yourself, you should be at that ball tonight, among the happy dancers. But you work and you strive and you scrub, and so ‘Cinderella’ is what you are.”
After a moment of silence in which the young woman studied the fairy in her bedroom, she sighed. “I suppose you are right,” she said. “I have been ‘Cinderella’ for so long that there are some times that even I forget my own name.”
“Perhaps you may live long enough to win another name,” said her godmother.
“What do you mean?”
“You shall go to the ball tonight, as a young lady of your station ought,” her godmother replied, ignoring her question.
Cinderella shook her head. “I am too fatigued to dance. I have done a great deal of work today and I merely wish to rest. I shall go to a ball another time.” Not to mention the dream she had just woken from. Though the room was warm, she shivered and wrapped her arms around herself.
“Nonsense,” her fairy godmother replied, and snapped her fingers. “Now, you shall find a coach outside waiting to take you to the ball.” She took Cinderella’s hand and helped her out of bed. “Hurry now, my dear.”
“I do not wish to go,” Cinderella protested.
“Do not worry about what you shall wear,” her godmother said, as though she had not heard.
A beautiful ball gown that was lovelier than anything her stepmother or stepsisters had ever worn was spread out on the bed before her. It was not something that Cinderella would have chosen for herself (even if she had been interested in attending the ball); it was a bit too magnificent.
“There, my dear! It will bring out the green hue in your eyes!” Her godmother helped her dress, though to Cinderella it seemed rather more like she was impelled than helped by the fairy. “Now! Let me look at you!” She stepped back and surveyed her work, but stopped short when she saw a naked toe peeking out from underneath the hem of the dress. “Oh, dear! But you cannot go to the ball unshod!”
“How distressing,” Cinderella replied. “I do not suppose that this means that I may escape attending.”
“Of course not!” her godmother exclaimed, sounding scandalized. She snapped her fingers again, and Cinderella found silver shoes on her feet, with heels that made her wobble. “There, now. No one will recognize you, dressed as you are.” She turned Cinderella to look in the one glass kept in her room for such a purpose, and Cinderella saw silver threads wound through her hair, and little diamonds twinkling there.
Cinderella was not swayed by her appearance; she still did not long to go to the ball, but instead felt obligated to go so as not to waste all of her godmother’s work. She sighed as her godmother handed her into the carriage and called, “Have a good time, dear!”
As she rode toward the castle on the other end of town, she wondered why her fairy godmother had been so insistent that she be present at this ball. The royal family was by no means illiberal when it came to giving large parties, and there was a ball quite as often as any young lady could wish (any young lady who was not busy taking care of her father’s house, that is). The celebration of the return of the crown prince was the excuse used for the ball this time, and she wondered why such a fuss should be made: he had been abroad just two months.
She stepped out of the carriage and was escorted into the ballroom. The lights were bright and laughter floated through the air, and she could hear music, though those making it were hidden. It was unnerving to be in the very place in reality that she had just been in a dream.
After standing for a moment alone and hearing no ominous howling, Cinderella went to a table laid with refreshments to find something to drink. Unfortunately, several sophisticated-looking gentlemen were standing nearby, and they all, in their turn, were “enchanted” with her beauty and begged to be “bestowed” the honor of her hand for a dance.
“No thank you,” she told the first. “I do not intend to dance this evening.” The second seemed to think her reluctance stemmed from an improper introduction, and so informed her that he was the second son of a count. He was quite disappointed when she refused. The third informed her that he was a lord. So she curtsied when she told him that she had come determined to avoid the dance floor.
A few moments later, she was standing alone enjoying her drink when the sophisticated-looking gentlemen nearby began to whisper amongst themselves. She glanced at them, wondering why they were behaving like a group of old women when suddenly there was a young man before her, holding out a gloved hand.
“Is this the enchanting young lady who comes to a ball and refuses to dance?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” she replied, sighing, “and I care not whether you are count or lord, coachman or stable boy. I do not wish to dance tonight, and you cannot change my mind.”
That was when a whisper of one of the gossiping gentlemen reached her ears: “She would not refuse the crown prince…?” The young man appeared to have heard it too, but when she gasped and looked back at him, spotting the gold circlet upon his head, he merely smiled and bowed.
“I shall offer you a promise, Lady: one dance with me, and you shall not be bothered for the rest of the evening. No counts or lords, coachmen or stable boys will bother you.” She curtsied her acceptance, and took his hand.
Though she had not wanted to dance, a promise from the prince would prevent her from having to do so again for the rest of the night. It was the first time someone had let her have her own way that evening.
She was not serious and hardworking enough to be unmoved by being asked to dance by the crown prince. As he led her to the dance floor, she blushed, covering her face with her hand to prevent it being seen by her partner. She had washed her hands after finishing her work earlier that day, but the scent of wolfsbane still lingered on them. This knowledge made her blush even more, lest the new name she found be “Lady Wolfsbane;” “Cinderella” was bad enough!
The music started. She was dancing with the crown prince. He was a fine dancer, but she still was not sure whether she would rather have stayed at home in bed. The prince may have been light on his feet, but that did not change the fact that she was tired from a long day’s work.
“What are you thinking of, Lady?” he asked.
“I… was…” she began, not sure she wanted to share her day with him. “I was thinking of how interesting your trip abroad must have been.”
He laughed. “I do not believe you, but I will not insist on knowing your true thoughts.” He was silent for a moment, then admitted, “all anyone wants to hear about is my trip. But I did not find much novelty in it, to be honest. Paris was as it usually is: noisy, filled with parties no one really wants to attend and people no one really wants to speak to. The newest craze there is monsters.”
“Yes,” the prince replied. “Ladies seeing them out their bedroom windows, gentlemen glimpsing them in the street while walking home in the dark…” he laughed again. “All fancy, of course, but it amuses the idle inhabitants of Paris.”
“I should not think that dwelling upon monsters, real or imagined, would be something idly done,” Cinderella replied.
“You are very wise, Lady,” he said, as the song came to an end. He bowed, she curtsied, and he took her hand again to lead her away from the dance.
As they reached the refreshments table once more, he looked about him as though he was going to share a secret with her and did not want others listening in. “Would you care for a walk in the gardens?” he asked, gesturing to an open door nearby.
She sighed. She did not care for a walk in the gardens, but he was the crown prince, and he had promised that she would not be hounded to dance for the rest of the night.
He seemed to sense her reluctance, and smiled. “One turn,” he urged. “And then, if you will permit me, I shall call your carriage and you can be off, before the monsters come out for the night.”
This was too much to resist. Her fairy godmother had told her to be home by midnight, but had not said anything preventing her from returning before then. She smiled, took his arm, and allowed herself to be led outside.
“Such a lovely night,” the prince commented. It was a crisp evening, lit by the occasional torch, and, at times, the moon, whenever the clouds allowed its light to touch the earth.
“Yes,” she agreed.
“You are lovely as well,” he added.
“Your majesty,” she protested. “I have already danced with you and consented to take a walk with you; there is no need for you to flatter me.”
“There is every need,” he argued. “When a woman such as yourself, a woman as beautiful as the moon, is before me, it would be a crime for me not to tell her that her beauty belongs among the stars.”
“Your majesty, please.”
He smiled. “Why have I not seen you at a ball here before?”
She frowned. One does not inform the crown prince of the work that has to be done to maintain a house such as her father’s, especially when it would cause embarrassment to one’s stepmother, who should have been doing it herself. The only explanation that she could give was: “I… have not the leisure time that some young ladies enjoy.”
“Do not tell me,” said he, smiling, “you have a secret life. You are by day a mild-mannered citizen, but at night, a righter of wrongs! A doer of good!”
“What conclusions you jump to, your highness!” she declared. “Why did you assume I was a ‘doer of good?’ Do you have a secret life as well?”
“Yes,” he replied, and for the first time, Cinderella noticed how far they were from the ballroom, and how few people were nearby. They were quite alone in the garden.
She cleared her throat nervously. “Are you a… doer of good?” she whispered.
“No,” he said, smirking, “I am a monster.”
Cinderella did not believe for one moment that he was anything more than a spoiled, flattering, lascivious royal brute. So as he leaned down to kiss her, she stopped his face with her hands.
She did not expect to get any response except for a more forceful attempt, and fully intended to slap him as hard as she could and to hurry back into the ballroom as fast as possible. But to her surprise, he recoiled, letting out an anguished cry.
She watched in horror as the clouds parted and moonlight found the prince: the gold circlet fell from his head as his shirt ripped at the shoulders, claws burst from his gloves, and he began to transform into a monster.
The “back to the ballroom as fast as possible” portion of her plan was enacted. She hurried as quickly as she could, weaving through the shrubs toward the light of the building. Somewhere in her mind, she knew that the ballroom offered her no real safety from the beast, but it was better than staying to be torn to bits.
The howl from her dream was loud in her ears. She picked up the hem of her magnificent gown and ran.
A snarl from her left was so near that it foretold teeth in her elbow, and startled her so much that she fell sideways over the low hedge on her right. She landed on her rump and her feet dangled in the air in a very unladylike fashion.
She was going to die. Her only thought was, who will take care of the house now?
“So, Lady,” snarled the beast-prince. “It seems you do have a secret. You can fend off a werewolf once with ease.” He paused, and Cinderella was sure that he could hear the rapid beating of her heart. “But let us see if you can do it twice.”
He howled… in pain.
She sat up, watching the beast-prince writhe in torment. The heel of one of her shoes stuck in his chest. He raked a paw at it, trying to dislodge it, but screamed with agony as the shoe touched him.
“Silver shoes?!” he growled. “Who are you...?” He stepped forward and drew back a huge arm tipped with claws to kill her in one blow.
But her screaming and his howling had not been in vain. Their cries were being investigated. Men approached with shouts and people watched from the doors of the ballroom with exclamations of fear.
The beast-prince looked at the advancing men, then back at Cinderella. “Curse you… Lady Wolfsbane!” he growled, and tore off into the night.
The second son of the count helped her to her feet and inquired after her. “I am quite well,” she informed him. “But I must speak to the king.”
She was helped inside and given new footwear as a hunting party set out to kill or capture the beast. She kept her remaining silver shoe clutched closely to her still rapidly beating heart. She was escorted in to an audience with the king, who would not normally have allowed such a thing, but was inclined to indulge one who had very nearly lost her life to a beast in his garden.
“My king,” she began with deep curtsy, “I thank you for consenting to listen. Has your son told you of the monsters in Paris?”
The king laughed. “He has, but please do not tell me that this has all been a joke to stir up some craze he picked up abroad.”
“It has not been a joke,” she replied, “if I had not been harvesting wolfsbane today, I would be dead. The monsters in Paris are real. They have made your son one of their number. He would have killed me tonight, were it not for my shoe.”
“Your shoe?” the king asked, flabbergasted by the whole situation. She handed her remaining shoe to the king, and curtsied again. “What am I supposed to do with this?”
“If your son returns, he will have its match. That is how you will know that what I say is true.” The king stared at her, stunned into silence. “And if you and your guests would live the night, wolfsbane is needed: in the nosegays, hanging at the windows, and tied onto the beds.”
“Who are you?” he asked, unknowingly echoing his son.
She smiled. “My father was a baronet; my stepmother and stepsisters are nobles of your court. I am just the caretaker of a household.” She curtsied once more and turned to leave.
“But… what is your name?” he said, silver shoe in hand.
She stopped at the door, and turned back toward him. And as the clock struck midnight, she said, “You may call me Lady Wolfsbane.”
|Halloween Writing Prompts: 8 of 8|