A short story for Miranda Kate’s 75th Flash Challenge – do read Miranda’s own tale there, it’s a cracker. Once again I revisit a fairy tale; you can easily guess which one from the pic. Maybe I’ll put all these in a book together one day. This week’s picture prompt is by Patricia Brennan, an artist from the UK. She calls this one ‘At the Stroke of Midnight’. You can view it over on her page at Deviant Art.
Her mother had always taught Aschenputtel to be honest and humble and true, and she tried to show her gratitude by visiting the grave whenever she could slip away. The marigolds brightened the small headstone, half hidden by ivy, a smudge of gold in the monochrome predawn.
Aschenputtel stood and turned. A small bird chirruped from the tree above, the first of the chorus. She looked back down to the ancient, crumbling stone house. It squatted below the hill like a fat, black toad. They would be awake down there in an hour. Beautiful to the eye, they certainly were, but their hearts were ugly-foul and black. If a fire was not already burning in the grate when they appeared, they would punish her once more. She plucked a burdock leaf and rubbed it gently on the half-healed, burned skin of her forearm.
A flicker caught her eye. An ochre mote blinked in the near distance. It was a light, buttercup yellow, bobbing along the track through the wood, flickering through the dark trees. It came accompanied by a growing sound, all rattles and jingles and the thump of hooves. A carriage, pulled by two white horses, emerged from the trees and swept to a halt in front of the house. The driver jumped down and banged on the front door. A second figure seemed almost to glide from the carriage after the first, who once again thumped the door with mighty force.
She would have work, if there were visitors. Her rough wooden shoes picked a careful way down the precipitous path that wound down the hill. Voices from below welcomed the surprise visitors, with first anger, then a tone of query, surprise, and, oddly, effusive welcome. It was not like her father to welcome anyone, let alone with enthusiasm. The dawn visitors must be special indeed.
The sky paled. She slid down the last few feet on her backside, dirtying further her filthy, brown smock. She tried to open the back door silently, but it could not resist a throaty creak. She paused, holding it ajar. Voices rang inside.
“…also is not the right one,” a man said. “I can see the blood where your daughter has disfigured her foot to make it fit!”
“I assure you—” Her father’s voice, cut off.
“Have you no other daughter?”
“No, sir. But … perhaps if you were able to describe the girl in question, I would know her?”
“As you well know, man, it was a masked ball. Masked.”
“Aschenputtel‼” The screech made her jump. The door slipped from her fingers and swung wide. Her father and his wife stood with a man in a dark cloak, who sported an impossibly wide moustache. He held a small object that glinted in the candlelight. A second stranger sat at the table, his face hidden beneath a hood.
“Why lurk you there, wretch?” her step-mother snapped. “Make haste and light a fire! Our guests are cold!”
Aschenputtel scurried to the hearth, and lifted two logs onto the grate. Her fingers shook as she separated enough kindling to take a spark. She would pay for this later with a beating.
“Chamberlain?” A new voice, a liquid purr.
“Yes, sire? Oh! Are you sure? She’s filthy. Her arse is caked with, well, who knows what?”
“This girl?” laughed her father. “This stunted scullion was left behind when my first wife croaked. She cannot be the one you are looking for. As you see, she never bathes, and you can likely smell her across the room.”
“Nevertheless.” That purr again, soft like a warm hug on a cold night.
“But she never leaves the house! Last night she was here, sleeping on this very floor—”
“Be silent, man. Chamberlain?”
“My lady, if you please?”
Aschenputtel felt a hand on her shoulder. My lady? Did he mean her? Her fingers shook, and she dropped the kindling. She kept her grimy face lowered, but turned her eyes up. The cloaked man took her arm and helped her to her feet. She wondered how he managed to make his whiskers project horizontally fully two inches past his cheeks.
“Will you sit?”
He gestured to a stool, and she warily eased her buttocks onto the hard seat, aware of the dampness of her mud-caked smock beneath her. The moustachioed man swung his long cloak behind him with an elegant movement, and knelt at her feet. Her mouth gaped as he drew her foot out of the heavy wooden shoe. A rich stench wafted from her feet, and she lowered her head in shame, but the cloaked man seemed not to notice. The thing that he held glinted as, with cool fingers, he slid it over her foot. It was a golden, filigree slipper, a little blood-stained at the toe. The tips of the man’s moustache twitched upwards as he grinned. He stood, helping her to her feet.
“It fits!” he laughed. “It fits perfectly, sire!”
The man at the table crossed to face her, and shook off his hood. He was beautiful.
“It’s you, isn’t it?” His voice caressed her ears. She said nothing. “You came secretly to the ball last night, and you danced with me.”
Aschenputtel frowned. She had, as her father had said, slept through the night on the kitchen floor, left alone when the others had gone out in their finery.
“We kissed in the garden, you and I,” the handsome man continued. He reached up and took a twig of myrtle from her hair. “I fell in love with you at that moment. When you ran, you left behind your golden slipper.”
She had never in her life even seen such a slipper, nor ever a man as handsome as this.
“I knew I could use it to find you, for no other’s foot would fit so dainty a shoe. And I was right, was I not?”
She stared at him, wide-eyed.
“Will you marry me? Be my princess and live at the palace with me?” A small frown wrinkled his brow. “It is you, isn’t it? You did dance and kiss and sing with me at the ball last night?”
Her mother had always taught her to be honest and humble and true, but where had that taken her? To a life of filth and servitude, a misery of existence. For the first time in her life, Aschenputtel lied.
“Yes,” she said. “It’s me. I danced with you. I kissed you. Take me away from this shithole.”