Category Archives: Fairy tale
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.”
A short story inspired by Miranda Kate’s Midweek Flash Challenge No. 49.
“The lid of your jar.” He jabbed his finger against the thick glass, pointing above my head. “He’s forgotten to latch it. You could push it off!”
I reached up and ran my fingers across the perforated lid. The giant removed it occasionally to drench us with water, or to poke us with sharp objects, or to drop fire into the jar to make us dance. He secured the lid afterwards by snapping a metal catch, but perhaps this time…
I pressed upward gently; the lid lifted. A simple push and it fell to the side. I sprang to the thin, glass lip of the opening and unfurled my wings, stretching them wide, luxuriating in the caress of air on membranes that had been too long folded against my body in the cramped jar. By the trees, that felt good.
The interior of the crate that held the jars was dim, but I could make out some shapes. Above my head was the heavy cover. There would be no shifting that. I might be strong for my kind, but was still too small to budge such a substantial sheet of metal. There were a dozen jars in the crate, each with a sprung metal clasp to hold down the lid, each holding a prisoner. Their pale faces watched me as I perched on the rim of my jar, no doubt envious of my escape.
Down to my left, Rimbaud watched too, a grin on his pretty face. He blew me a kiss, and gestured to the side of the container, to the pale glow of an opening that we guessed was to allow air to reach us. My eyes widened. The metal clasp on his jar was also loose. The giant had been careless on his last visit.
It took me but a few moments to free Rimbaud, and we moved to the opening in the wall, mouthing our apologies to the other prisoners. Holding hands, we entered the passageway beyond. It was entirely circular, the walls and floor smooth, hard, and allowing a translucent glow.
“It’s good to touch you again,” Rimbaud said, squeezing my hand. “I’m scared. Are you scared?” I did not answer. “Are we doing the right thing? Death may await us along this path. At least in captivity we live, and our love endures.”
“Love without freedom is like wings without flight.” I closed my fingers on his, briefly, but my mind was on things other than reassurance. We could hope that this air tunnel led to freedom, but it seemed unlikely, given all that we had endured since our capture. Starvation and torture had taken me to the end of my sanity. Even the smallest chance of escape was worth grasping, and if this air-tube did not lead us to freedom after all, I would take my own life. I had suffered enough. We are not made for captivity, our kind.
The passageway ahead forked. Rimbaud and I looked at each other.
“There are two ways,” he said. “Which shall we follow? Perhaps one leads to escape, and the other to danger?”
“Let us each follow one. That way we will know the right path. Walk for five hundred heartbeats. If you have discovered nothing by then, turn around. We meet back here and compare findings.”
“Very well,” he said. His wing-tips caressed mine. “Be careful.”
I took the passage on the right. I have been walking for five hundred heartbeats now, but I do not turn around. I am close to open air. I can sense it. I smell leaves and grass, sunshine and summer breeze. Ahead of me an opening appears – I see trees against a blue sky. I almost run out of the opening.
I stand on a flat circle of earth, blinking in bright sunshine. All around me are breeze-blown birch, but between me and the trees is a wire fence that surrounds the bare circle. It extends above, too, a net across the blue sky. Behind the fence, staring at me, are giants. Scores of them, grinning, drooling, eating and laughing. I clutch my ears as a deafening voice booms, putting small birds to flight from the trees above.
“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Fairy Wars!”
The giants cheer, a horrifying thunder. Across the circle of earth, I notice a second entrance set in the wire. Another of my kind stumbles into the light. It is Rimbaud.
“Two creatures enter!” the voice bellows again. “But only one will leave!”
Rimbaud’s eyes brim with tears. He looks directly at me, and I can sense the love he holds for me, rooted deep within his soul. Those wide, innocent, beautiful eyes are now haunted by despair at the sudden ripping away of freedom’s promise.
“Bids are now being taken for the corpse of the loser!”
Rimbaud shakes his head, slowly, and collapses to his knees, wings handing limply around him.
“Which of these magical creatures will earn their freedom today, and which will die? Place your bets now!”
I bare my teeth. By the trees, if this is what it takes to earn my freedom, so be it. I will not – I cannot – return to captivity, torture, and life in a jar. Rimbaud looks startled as I unsheathe my claws and launch myself at him with a scream.
Hope closed her eyes and let the late summer sun warm her face. Back in the days when she was being beaten in the school toilets, being called Spudface, being made constantly to feel like shit, Hope had almost given up on life itself.
University had been a little better, but she had still noticed the funny looks, the hushed voices when she entered a room. There had also been a lot of spite, and once someone had spat on her because she’d easily managed to get in the front row at a concert that everyone on campus was desperately trying to blag a ticket for.
Then he came into her life. That summer evening last year, he had stepped in when she was being pushed about helplessly, spun around by four horrible men who simultaneously shouted at her how ugly she was while groping her tits. He had stood before her like an avenging champion, fists clenched, defying her tormenters to go for him instead. They’d left, hurling vile insults about her, about her deformed body, her twisted face.
He had taken her for coffee then and, without asking, bought her millionaire’s shortbread. She still, to this day, did not know how he had known that was her favourite. All through the evening they had talked about perception, both that of other people, and the self-perception that comes from within. How your own skewed view of what you were, your own faulty self-image, built from years of cold insult, could actually turn you into a thing not true.
Unlike anyone else she had ever met in her entire life, this man had told her that she was beautiful. How much he admired her. And slowly she had realised something important. Something life-changing. If you believe that you are beautiful, it is just as good as being beautiful – and suddenly you are. Beauty shines out of you with that knowledge.
The music started, and Hope adjusted her veil. She pushed down on the ribbon-bedecked wheels, and gracefully eased her wheelchair through the flower-strewn summer orchard to where her new husband stood waiting.
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The steady drip – drip – drip of snow falling from the overhead branches drenched the ronin’s shoulders. He hunched his cloak closer and peered through the pale mist that shrouded the white-rimmed trees. Was that…?
It was. A dark cottage squatted in a small clearing like a huge slaughtered boar. The absence of smoke implied that it was uninhabited. Perhaps the place might offer him shelter.
As he trudged closer, dragging his weary boots through the ankle-deep snow, he could make out a vague shape in front of the cottage. Closer, he saw that it was a large box laid on a very low table. The building itself looked odd, with tiny windows and an extremely small door. The ronin would have to bend double to enter. He paused by the strange box. It was fully six feet long and covered with snow.
He raised a gauntleted hand and swept away some of the snow. Gasping a curse, he took a step back in shock, his hand instinctively reaching into his cloak for the hilt of his katana. Ice sprayed from his boots as he struggled to retain his balance. His breath fogged the frozen air.
Looking about, he saw no movement, no life. The forest was as still as death. He moved back to the box and swiftly swept all of the snow away. The top was made of glass, though this was not what had caused him to spring back. His alarm had been caused by the contents of the box, now fully revealed.
She was exquisitely beautiful, skin as white as the snow he had just swept away, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as ebony. Her eyes were closed, her shapely body unmoving beneath her simple shift. The glass coffin, for such it must be, had likely been placed outside to keep it cold.
The girl was clearly dead, and yet her features stirred such feelings within the ronin’s chest that he felt an irresistible desire to stroke the line of her jaw, the curve of her neck. He searched for the fastening on the lid.
A dark ball of fury bulleted into him, knocking him sprawling in the snow. A student of battojutsu, the ronin was back on his feet in an instant, his sword slicing through the air exactly where his opponent would be standing. It cut only the air, however, passing over the head of his attacker. His assailant was hooded and, incredibly, stood no more than three feet tall. He carried no weapon.
“You are not welcome, intruder,” growled the dwarf.
“Leave this place,” came another voice from behind. The ronin whipped round to see another dwarf, poised to attack him from the other side. More dwarves, similarly hooded, stepped out of the trees until he was circled by seven samurai, all dwarves.
“Why should not we kill you, intruder?” the first dwarf said. The ronin considered. He would tell the truth, as always.
“Because I love her.”