Cindy was afraid. Very afraid. What was that sound? It didn’t sound like the mice and birds she was used to. From her perch near the fireplace in the cellar she could hear a far-off thumping, a pounding that grew nearer by the second. It was not like anything she’d heard before.
She shivered. In the early morning cold, she only had a short time before she’d have to go upstairs to the main house and stoke the fires, start the breakfast, and heat water for ‘Their Majesties’ baths. Her stepmother and stepsisters. Her own fire was meager, since they only let her use a few cobbles of coal at a time, not the fine richly-seasoned wood that she placed in the upstairs fireplaces to fuel their heat.
But the thumping continued. Now the cellar itself seemed to shudder with each blow. What could it be?
It seemed to be coming from the cellar dungeon. The dungeon was deep beneath the their small castle. It was not Cindy’s favorite place; in fact, she was also afraid of the dungeon, just as she was afraid of many things. Here, by the fire, she was safe. Safe from the cruel words from her stepmother and the cruel taunts from her stepsisters; safe from her stepmother’s switch. Cindy’s room in the uppermost castle turret was small and bare of furniture, but cozy. It was filled with scraps of cloth she used to create upbeat samplers, spools of thread, scissors and various types of needles. All very comforting. The dungeon was something else.
The dungeon was deep and dark and dank. It was sparsely lit by torches that eerily lit the place night and day, never seeming to go out or even waiver in the stale underground air. It was here that her stepmother preformed all of her dark magicks. It was here that her stepmother wove the spells that had heralded her assent into nobility from her more humbler origins. Cindy suspected that it was here that her stepmother had preformed the rituals that had killed Cindy’s father all those years ago.
Thump! Thump! The entire manor house shook with the sound. Cindy pulled her blankets tighter about her and tried to imagine what it could be. It sounded like an animal, though she couldn’t imagine what made her think that. It was true that Cindy had a kind heart for animals; how could she help feeling so when she shared their subservient position in the household? Perhaps it was her years of caring for the two milk goats, Lexie and Josepha, feeding and collecting eggs from the several hens in the hen house, or simply enjoying the lilting sounds of songbirds in the little woods that ran along the boundary of the manor house land. She didn’t even mind the few mice that she encountered in the nooks and crannies of the house, though she kept them firmly out of the kitchen and out of her own little room.
The thumping stopped.
Cindy waited. All was quiet.
Would it start up again?
Several minutes went by. Nothing happened.
Well. Those main house fires weren’t going to build themselves. The kitchen girl, Mabel, would be in to make the biscuits and porridge and eggs for breakfast, but Mabel didn’t make the fires or clean the scullery pots or lay the table – those were Cindy’s tasks. And Mabel needed someone to keep a sharp eye on her or she’d steal the well-aged cheese and next week’s bacon to put out at the market in her father’s stall and make a little extra on the side. It had already happened at least once, and Cindy wasn’t about to let it happen again.
Up she got, tugging on her household work clothes, winding an extra shawl around her against the morning’s cold. Lighting a lantern from the spark at her fireplace, she headed down the narrow spiral stone stairs to start her day of duty.
Cindy flitted from fire to fire, occasionally popping in on Mabel to keep a quick eye on her, and then back to the next fire. She found herself thinking of the strange sounds she had heard that morning as she moved from one task to another. And the more she thought about it, the more she thought that her stepmother must be behind it. There could be no one else. Her stepmother had some horrible plan, she was sure of it, as she was equally sure that it had something to do with the Prince’s upcoming country-wide choose-a-Queen ball. And the more she thought about it, while she rather aggressively swept the many hearths in the many halls, the more she thought she needed to tell someone about this. And not just anyone, she needed to tell the King or the Prince. Her stepmother couldn’t be trusted. She had killed Cindy’s Father, after all. There’s no telling what else she would do in her quest for power.
Cindy had known both the King and the Queen, and even the fledgling Prince, back when her parents had been alive and she’d been yet another courtier in a kingdom of courtiers. In those days, courtiers were a dime a dozen, there were so many. Not that Cindy was against courtiers, or the court of those days: no, far from it. She remembered running through the royal gardens with the prince and a few of his cousins dukes and duchesses, playing “catch me if you can” and “three blind mice”, all to the joyful tunes of the wandering court minstrels and the background laughter of their bedecked and bejeweled parents. Oh, those were the days! Of course, no one from that time would recognize her now, and her stepmother never let her leave the house anyway. But there was Mabel, and Mabel could leave the house and carry messages from one end of the countryside to another, if it was required. Cindy tied up the last ashy, dusty corner fireplace and nearly flew down the back servants’ stairs, just in time to catch Mabel in the act of shoving a large ham hock up her shirt.
“Mabel! Come here, girl!” Despite the years of servitude, Cindy was still Cinderella underneath it all, still the child of gilt and gold and privilege. It came out in times like these, times of stress and urgency and fear.
The servant guiltily dropped her eyes and set the ham piece on the table. “Was just getting it ready for the young missis breakfast, Mum.” Her eyes were still squarely on the floor, her voice a low sulk.
Cindy shook her head. “Enough of that now, girl. I have a job for you. Or a message. A message to be sent to the castle. And quickly.”
That afternoon, after she had sent Mabel off with her urgent message, Cindy went out on the grounds to feed the animals and collect eggs from the hen house. It was a lovely early Spring day, not that she had a chance to enjoy it like she used to. When her father was alive she would ride her pony, Whiskers, in the lanes all over the countryside, where everyone recognized her, by face if not by name. She hadn’t cared what the weather was like, as long as she could feel the fresh open air and see the green rolling hillsides of her island home. But Whiskers had been sold when her father died, along with other treasured possessions and mementos from her mother’s family, immediately after the estate had been settled on her stepmother. “Time to grow up, my dear,” her stepmother had rasped in her most threatening manner, when Cindy had asked about her missing possessions.
Still, it was a beautiful day, and the weather reminded her of the promise she always felt in Springtime. It had been – two years? – since her father’s death, and naturally it felt like a lifetime since she had heard his voice. She hoped the message she’d sent with Mabel – in the secret code she and the other courtiers had developed among them so that the grownups would not know what they were saying among themselves – would reach the royal household, and – hopefully – be put into the Prince’s hands.
When she got back to the house in the late afternoon she asked Fritz, her stepmother’s butler and sometime valet (“Women can have valets, too,” her stepmother had said when she brought Fritz with her into the household), if there had been any messages delivered. Fritz was fussy and somewhat unpleasant, but she knew he was not dishonest – in spite of being employed by her stepmother – and that he would give her an item that came for her. But he shook his head and sniffed haughtily. “Nothing this afternoon, Miss Cindy.”
“Miss Cindy.” She used to be called that by her tutor, Evangeline. Her mother had died when Cindy was so young, but her father had always cared well for her, and Evangeline was someone Cindy loved and trusted almost as much as she did her father. Sadly, Evangeline was off and married now, and besides, she wouldn’t have been able to help Cindy. It was better, Cindy told herself firmly, that Evangeline was well out of the way; otherwise she would certainly have been a target for her stepmother’s wrath. And for her stepmother’s revenge magic.
Revenge Magic. That was the best way to think of it.
“Cindy!” Her stepmother’s voice, dry as a desert streambed, barked at her from the parlor. “I want to see you!”
Cindy took a deep breath. “Yes, Regina!” she called, in her most cheerful voice. She knew it irritated her stepmother when she was cheerful, and she carried it off as best she could. She heard, “Call me Mother!” in her stepmother’s snapping-turtle voice, again. Cindy smiled to herself as she silently thought, _Never_. _Never, never, never._
It was late in the afternoon when the message came. Cindy’s heart leapt when Fritz brought the white envelope into the parlor on a silver serving tray. Surely this was the message from the Prince.
Indeed, it was a message from the Royal Household.
An invitation to a ball.
That evening after dinner – Cindy served the meal that Mabel had prepared earlier in the day – Cindy was just finishing the cleanup when she heard it again. This time it wasn’t the thumping, though. It was a terrible low moaning sound. She had never heard anything so mournful. She almost wept at the sound of sadness coming through that moan.
It was coming from the cellar. Just like the thumping … it came from the cellar.
She froze. What could it be?
Cindy brushed wiped her hands on her apron. It was time. Cindy was practical, if nothing else. She always had been. When her evil Stepmother had cursed this house and quite probably killed Cindy’s Father, Cindy could have run away. She could have run off to the forest and live with the many creatures who were her forest friends. But she knew she had a bed here- admittedly just straw, but a bed nonetheless – and food – often just gruel, but still food – and had decided the smart thing to do was just stay where she was and resign herself to this lot. Besides, she now had an invitation to the ball – what could this horrible wailing or thumping or anything possibly do to ruin that? Cindy practically raced down the stairs before she could stop herself. She would make herself do this before she started to come up with practical reasons not to act.
The wailing grew louder and more poignant: somehow becoming sadder with ever step Cindy took down the creaky wooden cellar stairs. As she came closer, she started to hear the thumping as well. As she reached the last step of the long, long staircase, she felt the walls start to vibrate as well. She faltered, and started to waiver and lose her balance; she reached out and braced herself against the cellar wall. The cellar felt slimy and wet with globs of some unknown substance dripping down and covering her fingers and hands. It was almost as if it were alive and trying to cover her flesh and suck her into something unknown and unknowable. She drew back, quickly, her senses suddenly alert again.
And then she saw it. A great blob, black and red with numerous mouths and arms – the mouths all opened and the arms all waving wildly. There were two great trunks of something that seemed to make up it’s legs. These “legs” were each alternately stomping, back and forth, and making the thumping noise she’d been hearing. The mournful wailing was coming out of the many mouths. The Thing/Creature seemed to have no eyes. And in the center of it all was her stepmother, caught in the Thing’s glutinous mass, her eyes full of terror and her mouth open and wailing in tandem with her captor. She looked straight at Cindy, begging with her eyes, but seemingly unable to say or do anything else.
Cindy stepped off the last step onto the cellar floor, which had the same feel as the wall. He threadbare slippers squished and squashed on the bumpy and slimy floor. “So you finally went too far, Stepmother.” Cindy shook her head, as if contemplating the antics of a naughty child. “And now you want my help.”
Cindy’s stepmother managed to barely nod her head.
“I wondered why you weren’t at dinner with you horrid offspring, and now I know. ” Cindy looked around the cellar room with the many accoutrements of her stepmother’s evil trade. Most things had been absorbed by the Thing/Creature, thought the caldron was still pretty much intact and bubbling furiously. That meant the spell might eventually be reversible, depending on what Cindy decided to do. Cindy was also a little versed in the black arts – her stepmother had relied on her to go into town to fetch some of the herbs and other supplies needed to do some of the spells. “I could help you, I know, but actually, Stepmother, there’s a ball happening tonight, and this time I actually got an invite. And now that you’re otherwise engaged, I don’t suppose you’d mind if I borrowed one of your ball gowns and that new pair of glass slippers that you just had made. You don’t mind, do you?”
Cindy’s Stepmother would have wailed again, if she could, but now the blob mass was starting to cover her mouth and the rest of her face. Cindy turned to go and walk back up the stairs.
She was nothing if not practical.