Most of us enjoy reading a new take on a familiar, beloved story. And what stories are more beloved than our favorite fairy tales? Today, I've taken a new perspective on a story that will be familiar to most, if not all.
There was always something precious about the girl, something magical, something that made me want to protect her. Made me want to love her. Made me want to be a true mother to her, the mother her father had wanted for her when he'd married me.
But loving her wasn’t my job.
My job was to bend her without breaking her. To beat her down without crushing her. To hold her in the fire and thrust her into the water until the steel within her was so strong, so pure, it would not break, though assaulted by forces more evil than hell.
She could never know I loved her and longed to dry her tears. She could never know I felt her every hurt as a knife in my own soul. If she found out, everything would be lost.
Looking back, I may have done my job too well.
That morning, everything was black. Black curtains shielded the windows from curious eyes. Black crape swathed the banisters that curved on either side of the grand staircase, the rails that edged the landing above, the door frames of all of the second-floor bedrooms. A black dress clung to my body, the fabric's starch limp in the humid air. A black sky full of black clouds crashing with black thunder raged outside the front door. And a long, low, black carriage stood in the drive, driven by four black horses that stamped their hooves and snorted at the tempest that threatened to break overhead.
That morning was my first truly black moment. It would not be my last.
Silk and satin whispered behind me. A hand brushed my arm, the touch light and feathery. “Mama, are you well?”
Ell. The sweet young daughter of Lord Alistair Trillian and his first wife. My skin rippled at the tickle, and I jerked my arm away.
The girl stopped, still and silent, as if my abrupt move had left her stunned. Seconds thrummed in the conspicuous silence from the great clock, which had been stopped since the moment of the lord's last breath. Finally, the girl dropped her hand and stepped back.
I fixed my eyes on the portrait of Alistair just over her head, on the windswept silver hair that my fingers trembled to brush away from the strong forehead and jaw, on the piercing blue gaze that would never again seek the secrets in my heart. Secrets I had never been at liberty to share.
I drew strength from the knowledge that what I did was for the best of everyone, even my late husband's beloved daughter, and forced ice into my voice. “Child, do not call me that. Of course I am not well. The Whispering Death has stolen my husband. The sickness may yet linger within my home, risking the health of my daughters. And here I stand, answering inane questions. Shall you ask me about the weather, next?”
A tiny “Oh!” came from beside me, a sound so small I almost missed it. A sound so shock-sudden and broken it pierced my heart with a white-hot nail.
I could not let the girl's anguish move me. I could not look at her face, which I knew would be marred by a hurt far greater than the pain that darkened my own black heart. I had lost a dearly loved husband, but I had only met him late in life. To the girl, her father had been her life. I lifted my hem and climbed the stairs. “Come.”
A moment passed before her gentle step tapped on the stairs behind me. “Where are we going, M—” her voice gave a little jerk “—Stepmama?”
I took a key from the hook at the top of the stairs and pressed it into her palm. The metal was cold between us, rough with rust and disuse. “The key to your new chamber.”
“But…this is the key to the attic.” Her voice was faint, little more than a tremble.
“Such powers of observation. You truly are your father’s daughter.”
She stepped back, and finally I looked at her. Her blue eyes, so like her father’s, were so wide I thought I might glimpse her soul. A lock of her silver-sand hair had escaped its knot and curled against her cheek. And her pink lips were parted, as though I had slapped her. “My…my room?”
“Is the attic. Your old room now belongs to Stasie.”
“But she has a—”
“It has become too small for her.”
“Then let me move into that room. The attic is cold and—”
“No. We will be converting Stasie’s old room into a closet. Goodness knows it is too small for anything else. You may clear the hearth in your new chamber and set a fire for warmth. When you have time.”
I pulled my hand away from the key and let her soft, slender fingers close around it. Those fingers would not be soft for much longer.
“Very well, Stepmama,” she whispered, and turned towards the corridor. “I will gather my belongings and move them—” She froze, and I knew she had discovered the small pile of items in the hall in front of the door to what had once been her chamber. A wooden brush that I’d found below stairs, in the maids’ dresser. A mismatched handheld mirror. A single, plain dress, also acquired from the maids. A rumpled pile of bedding, found forgotten in a closet, full of mice holes and mice droppings and goodness knew what else. And my one mercy, a small trunk that I knew contained some items that had no value other than the sentiment of having been passed down from her mother.
I fluttered a hand toward the pile and spoke as though I were granting a generous request. “You may take the time required to carry your belongings to your room. Be in the small drawing room in thirty minutes.”
She stared at me, and for a moment, I thought she was going to protest. I thought she was going to show a bit of the steel that I knew lurked under her sweet surface, that had to lurk under there, otherwise all of this effort would be for naught.
My entire life would be for naught.
I waited, matching her gaze, outwardly calm and cold, inwardly hoping, praying for her to show a hint of that strength.
But then the girl's shoulders slumped and she gathered the bundle of bedding in her arms. “Yes, Stepmama.”
I took a breath and watched her shuffle up the narrow stone stairs and tried not to despair. A kingdom could not be built in a mere day.
Neither could a queen.
Ell scampered down the stairs, hurrying to the scullery before Stepmama could add another layer of chores to her overburdened shoulders. “Chloe!” she shouted. “I need you!” She only had thirty, maybe forty minutes until Dru and Stasie would wake wanting breakfast, and Stepmama had tasked her with beating out the tapestry in the grand hall.
“Chloe?” The maid usually responded quickly. Ell had come to depend on her greatly over the past eighteen months since…since Papa’s death. The memory swelled Ell’s throat and brought tears to her eyes.
Since Stepmama turned evil. The thought slipped into Ell’s mind unbidden, a bleak whisper tinged with malice. The words swirled in her skull, their essence foreign and malignant, hinting at darkness and power and revenge.
Ell shook her head and pressed her fist to her temple to banish the thought. Such darkness was unfamiliar, utterly not of her.
And yet, the memories still flooded her brain. Papa's life, his love, his laughter. Stepmama's kind words, her gentle touch. Then, the black morning of Papa's death. Stepmama's once-warm gaze, suddenly harsh and cold.
It was as if all of Stepmama’s love had gone to the grave with Papa, and left nothing behind but ice and cruelty and work, work, work.
Not all of her love, the darkness whispered. There’s still plenty for Stasie and Dru. Stepmama’s true daughters.
A single tear fell onto her apron. Ell shook her head again to banish the memories and the voice. Enough. The past was over. Only the future could be changed. She hopped down the last two steps and trotted into the servants’ kitchen. The squeak of wood on stone and the tear-blurred outline of a seated woman told Ell she wasn’t alone.
“Chloe! Why did you not reply?” Ell rubbed her eyes to clear the moisture. “I need you to help me—”
Ell skidded to a stop. It wasn’t Chloe.
A young woman, a few years older than Ell, perhaps twenty, lounged at the servants’ table. Her brown hair was knotted into a messy bun. Her hips overflowed her seat and her chest overflowed her bodice. She had helped herself to a demi-loaf and wedge of cheese.
“I—you—have you seen—” Ell faltered and stopped. She leaned to the side and peered into the kitchen. Only emptiness peered back, telling its silent story. Chloe was gone. All of the servants were gone.
Stepmama had dismissed them.
A lump gathered in Ell's chest, cold and hard and lonely. The kitchen servants had been known, familiar. They'd gladly helped carry the burdens that had been piled upon their late lord's daughter. Yet even with their help, Ell had struggled each day to finish all the work Stepmama and her daughters coldly tossed Ell’s way.
Now, except for this slovenly new maid, Ell was on her own.
She studied the woman, with her abundant figure and lazy-lidded eyes that didn't look to have ever seen an honest day’s work. Ell straightened her shoulders, summoning her own version of Stepmama's cold authority. “So. You are the new help. What is your name?”
The woman chewed and gazed blandly back at Ell. Then she brayed a laugh, spraying soggy crumbs onto the table and the skirt of Ell’s dress. “Sacked ‘em all and didn’t tell ye, heh?” The woman smirked and swallowed the last of the bread, then drew herself up to mirror Ell's posture. “And for what, pray tell, must you have my help?” The servant's overly cultured tones dripped with a heavy dose of street-sharpened mockery.
Ell took a breath and forced her hands to relax. “The tapestry in the great hall—”
“Eh,” the woman grunted like an irritated sow. “Do it yerself.” She picked up the wedge of cheese between her thumb and forefinger, the dainty motion a strange contrast to her heavy hands, and bit into it with teeth that looked like they belonged on the family nag.
Ell's stomach clenched, but she kept her hands loose and her face smooth. “The tapestry is too large for one person alone.”
“Well, that’s jest too bad, innit?” The woman scooted her chair until she faced away from Ell.
The clock in the hall chimed half-ten. Ell’s neck tensed. Stasie and Dru would be waking soon. She needed this laggard's help to finish the tapestry, yet the maid clearly refused to yield.
Ell studied the woman, her ample figure, her ruddy cheeks, her sleepy eyes. And as she looked at the woman, deep in her soul, the darkness stirred.
Something woke in Ell, from a place inside her she’d long sensed but never before reached, and suddenly, powerfully, she knew the woman's secret.
Ell placed a hand on the table and tilted her head to catch the maid's lazy gaze. “You should watch yourself in this place.”
The woman’s eyes glittered and she turned her gaze aside.
Ell shook her head slowly, knowing the woman still saw her. “Such strange goings-on.”
The woman slouched deeper in her seat and snorted. “Eh, or wot, a ghost’ll haunt me bed?”
Ell stepped to the maid's side of the table and leaned against a shelf, matching the woman’s propping-up-the-walls posture. “Oh, heavens no,” she said, letting a bit of a drawl enter her voice. “The ghosts around here only haunt slothful maids and cast-off daughters. Not a one of those to be found.”
The maid quirked her lips and gave a hint of a nod. “Name’s Amma.”
“Amma,” Ell dropped the drawl and pushed away from the shelf in a quick, abrupt movement, crouching so her face was even with the maid’s. “I wager Lady Trillian meant to bring on only one when she hired you.”
Amma pulled back from Ell. "Ay, get outta me--"
“One.” Ell held up one work-roughened finger. “One. Single. Maid.” She trapped Amma’s eyes with her own, dipped her gaze to the woman’s stomach, looked back at her reddened face. “One mouth to feed.”
The maid stared back, her wide-set blue eyes unblinking and unflinching, and Ell couldn't be sure who was the mouse and who was the snake. Then the woman's pupils dilated and her face went sickly pale, a wan caricature of her former ruddy hue. “How could ye possibly—” Her whisper broke, raw and hoarse, and her thick throat wobbled. She dropped her hands, a thick, fleshy shield covering her belly, covering the new life within. “Ye must promise not to tell. If anyone finds out—Simon the Miller's boy's promised to wed me, but if anyone finds out about—about—"
A heady satisfaction that wasn't entirely her own flooded Ell at the maid's confirmation of her secret, dark and content, like a cat that's been stroked. “Oh, Amma!” Ell sweetened her voice and tucked back a strand of the woman’s hair. “Of course I won’t tell! Friends keep each other’s secrets. And we are friends, are we not?”
The woman’s head jerked up and down, like a puppet on a string.
Ell clapped her hands together, and the woman flinched at the sound. “Lovely! And you know what else friends do? They help one another.”
Amma twitched in another erratic nod, then burst into motion. “Oh, yes! Indeed they do! A tapestry, ye said?” She hooked her arm through Ell’s elbow. “Lead on, dearie!”
And deep within Ell, the darkness grew.