The horse trotted along a path created by much smaller animals. They followed a game trail now, not an official road. She wondered if this path would be on Pan’s map. Probably not, she thought, and wanted to cry. The idea of being taken off the road that Pan had set her on made her grow desolate. The queen sat straight and tall behind her and flowed with the horse’s rhythmic shuffle, but Penny slid and bounced around chapping her legs and rear.
Her head pounded with the horse’s steps, and she rubbed the back of her head where she had been hit. Her ears’ rang, and she thought she might be sick. She hated the queen and her guards. How dare they hit her. She wanted to fight back, to attack them and flee, but knew it would be useless, so she sat very still and tried to think of an escape.
The queen’s cloak whipped in the wind, snapping at her face and flapping behind them. Her grand clothes looked shabby up close. The black cape frayed in several spots, and the tattered brown dress grew shabbier as shrubs and branches caught on the delicate fabric.
Lights from a village glittered ahead. Not much time had elapsed since she met the queen, as the sun had just begun to set and cast a warm glow on the green, rolling fields between them and the village. Boys with sticks chased after grazing cows, herding them into the village for the night. Bushes and low stonewalls marked the borders between the fields.
“Where are we?” Penny ventured to ask, afraid to disturb the silent queen.
“We are nearing the village of Rhonde. I have an old acquaintance I need to speak with.”
Square, brown huts lined the road up to the village. The horse’s footfalls echoed in the silent streets as the inhabitants stood silently aside for the queen and her soldiers. A bakery, a church, and an inn solemnly stood at the end of the road looking with disapproval at their squalid neighbors.
They headed up the hill towards the bakery. It sat solid and proud on its little patch of earth. White paint peeled off the walls exposing the grey rocks beneath. The yard sat nice and neat with rows of tidy flowers welcoming the visitors to the front door. A woman stood over a black pot by the bakery door. As they drew nearer, Penny spied a small girl sitting at the woman’s feet and stirring the pot with a long wooden spoon. The woman waved them down.
“Hello travelers, come inside and have a taste of the best hot cross buns in the kingdom,” she rasped in a refined accent. Long grey hair flowed past her shoulders. Pearl barrettes held the hair in place and reflected the setting sun. Her whole head shone with the sparkling pearls. Despite the grey hair, the woman’s face appeared young. Her skin was pale and her eyes drooped as if she hadn’t slept in days. Penny felt the queen stiffen behind her. The queen handed Penny the reins and lowered herself off the horse. She approached the woman.
“Old dog, you dare stand upright when the queen of the land approaches?” The queen lashed at the woman with her riding whip. The woman dropped to her knees and threw herself on the ground before the queen.
“Excuse me your Majesty, for I am old and nearly blind and could not see you.” Her head scraped the ashes, and the sparkling pearls were now covered in dirt instead of sunlight. The queen lashed at her again, and Penny turned away, afraid and embarrassed for the old woman.
“I’m sure you can see well enough to know the age of that slave you have.” The queen pointed her whip towards the little girl who sat in the ashes watching. The woman looked up.
“She is an orphan, she came to me hungry and in need. I fed her and clothed her when others in the village turned away.” The queen stepped forward and placed a boot on the woman’s shoulder.
“You revolting old hag. I should execute you like I did your daughters.” She kicked the woman in the stomach. The woman cowered and whimpered in pain. Penny bit her lip. She hated the queen.
“How may I be of service to you, Queen Aschenputtel?” The woman spat from the ground, her mouth filled with dust and ashes. Aschenputtel? Penny’s mind whirled. This couldn’t be the Aschenputtel from the stories. This wasn’t the meek servant girl from the tale. She rubbed her sore head to be sure she wasn’t dreaming. Yes, it was still tender, and no, she wasn’t dreaming.
“I am here for my summer taxes and the usual inspection of your bakery. You have operated far too long with slave labor. If I didn’t enjoy seeing you so miserable, I would kill you today,” she spat, winding her whip around her hand. The woman trembled and reached into her shabby dress. The queen lashed at her hand with her whip, knocking the thick key she pulled out of her sleeve to the ground. The woman whimpered and rubbed her hand at the spot where the whip struck her.
The guards laughed around them. Penny clenched her fists at her side. She wanted to help the old woman, to stand and face the queen together. The woman bent down to pick up the key; as she stood again her eyes met Penny’s. The woman’s glare startled her.
“You may inspect my home, Queen Aschenputtel, but remember: I am still your father’s wife. Even though he is dead, he would die again knowing how you treated us.” The woman shook, her bright eyes sparking with hatred. Dri-fa lunged towards the woman with her sword drawn, but the queen stopped her.
“That’s enough Dri-fa,” she barked. “My step-mother will escort me into her miserable hole. Stay out here and guard the exterior.” The queen swooped into the house after the old woman.
Penny stared after them. The door hung open and the dim twilight filled the opening with shadows. She could no longer see their figures. The woman was the queen’s stepmother? She tried to remember the details of Aschenputtel’s story, but a tug on the hem of her skirt brought her eyes down to her feet. The small girl who had earlier sat by the large cauldron now sat next to her. Layers of ash matted her thin hair, and dirt covered her face. Despite what the old woman said, the little girl did not look well cared for. She scooted closer to Penny. Her bone-thin legs and arms bowed out. She could not walk or stand up straight, and her thin lips cracked from exposure. The guards gave her a wide berth as she crawled over to Penny. They looked down at the girl in disgust. Penny knelt and laid her hand on the thin, dry hand of the little girl.
“You poor child.” Penny’s eyes stung as the girl’s eyes pled to her. The bony hand tugged on hers, and she pulled Penny towards the bakery. She motioned for Penny to peep through a broken window and into the dark room. Penny saw the queen follow the old woman to the back of the building. The girl pulled her away from the window and towards the side of the bakery. Penny looked over her shoulder and noticed Dri-fa watching them with interest.
“Eh, what are you two doing?” she yelled and walked over.
“She’s pulling me over.” Penny twisted and shouted back, but the girl pushed her closer to the bakery and began to dig at the loose dirt and ash. She motioned for Penny to do the same. Dri-fa snorted and returned to the other soldiers.
“What are we digging for?” Penny whispered, but the girl didn’t seem to hear her.
She followed her stepmother through the bakery, glancing around her for signs of more children. Paper on the windows filtered the orange evening sunlight into dull squares of light on the floor. An ancient oven in the corner radiated heat in waves throughout the small building causing her to sweat in her cloak. A large wooden table filled half of the bakery, and broken, discarded remnants of fine furniture filled the other half. She didn’t see any other slaves. Unless her stepmother was hiding them somewhere, it looked like the starving girl in front was alone.
“We sleep in the back, the girl and I.” Her stepmother motioned towards a curtained closet, her sophisticated accent grated on Aschenputtel’s ears. She didn’t care where the old, nasty woman slept, or for the old witch’s false attempts at conversation.
“Where’s the tax?” she barked, enjoying her power over the woman who once abused her. Her stepmother approached a heavy cellar door. Her hands shook as she fit the key in a black lock and opened the thick, heavy door with a heave.
“Down there,” she rasped, motioning for the queen to step below. The sunlight from the first floor created a long rectangle of pale light on the cellar’s cracked dirt floor. Aschenputtel remembered her stepmother’s treachery.
“Oh nooooo… you can’t deceive me old woman. Fetch it yourself and return quickly, or I will send Dri-fa in after you with a barbed spear.”
The woman bobbed her head and stepped below. Her steps echoed down in the dark cellar then stopped; Aschenputtel turned back to the room they had entered through. She recognized the fine furniture as remnants from her father’s house: her mother’s furniture, her inheritance broken and desecrated by her stepmother, but hoarded and treasured out of spite. She shivered in disgust. She wanted to get out of the miserable hovel and back to her guards. She called down to the old woman, and told her to come back, or plan on dying the way her daughters had. No sound came from below. She called again, threatening to send Dri-fa and the barbed spear, but no answer.
Once, her stepmother would have scared her, and she would never have willingly been alone with her, but now the brittle, old woman amused her with her desperate attempts at the finery she once had as her father’s wife. Aschenputtel sighed, annoyed that she would have to enter the dark cellar, looked around the room once more, and pulled out a dagger from her sleeve.
She descended the narrow stone steps, balancing herself against the wall. Dirt covered the steps making each stair slick. The light from the first level faded to complete black down in the earthen room. Muffled cries came from one corner, and a child’s voice cried out to her.
She turned in time to spare her neck from the rough squeeze of a rope her stepmother held taunt between her hands. Her stepmother swore; Aschenputtel ducked, and as her eyes adjusted to the black she saw a birdcage set on the ground stuffed with the fattest child she had ever seen.
“Quick! Turn!” he yelled.
She jabbed her dagger into the arm of her stepmother; the latter withdrew. Aschenputtel grabbed at a jagged rock and threw it at the old woman. It glanced her temple. She howled with pain and backed into the shadows. Aschenputtel ran up the stairs. Daylight appeared before her, but the heavy cellar door slammed shut enclosing the room in pure, evil darkness. Gasping, Aschenputtel banged on the thick wood. It did not budge. What magic was this, that her stepmother could command the slamming of the door?
Fear scrambled in her gut like a caged animal. She heard a scratching sound, like a hand scratching at the dirt. She tried to shout for help, but the fear in her belly reached up and grasped her throat making her gasp for air. She hoped Dri-fa would swing the door open, finish off the crazed woman, and free her. No one came. The only sound was the scraping of her stepmother as she crawled up the stairs towards her.
“All I wanted,” her stepmother growled, “was a man who loved me and my daughters. Someone established and wealthy enough to take care of them, but you were in the way; you were always in the way.” She looped the rope around Aschenputtel’s kicking foot and dragged her down the stairs. Her head hit each step with a sickening thud. The rough dirt scraped through her clothes. She kicked and raged, grabbing at the stairs. Her stepmother looped a rope around her neck and cinched it tight.
The boy in the cage screamed for help. So is this how it’s going to end? Our decades long battle of wills ending with my death in a cellar while my pathetic guards stand outside the door? I think not!
She burst her strength in her struggle against the rope, but her stepmother had tied it to a hook on the wall. The old woman grabbed the dagger in her arm and wrenched it out. She slipped her arm around Aschenputtel’s neck and lay the blade over her throat. A void crept into the corners of Aschenputtel’s eyes.
“Little Aschenputtel, all grown up and queen of the kingdom, going to die in my cellar. A fitting end…” Her stepmother cackled and pressed the knife further against her throat. She felt the blade pierce her skin, cold and wet. The sound of scratching in the dirt grew louder; it wasn’t coming from inside the cellar, but from the outside. Her stepmother turned to look. The wall of the cellar began to crumble.
Hazy twilight peeked in between the wall of the cellar and the first floor. The dirt caved in as four small hands windmilled through the loose dirt. Armored legs started kicking in the rest of the wall. Her stepmother loosened her grip and backed away, then shrieked and ran up the stairs where Dri-fa pulled the door open and grabbed the old woman’s arms, pushing her towards the other soldiers inside the bakery.
The Weaver’s daughter jumped into the cellar and ran over to her. She reached out cautiously and untied the noose around her neck. Aschenputtel jumped up and grabbed the rope, enraged, spitting curses at her stepmother and her guards.
“One more second and I would have been skinned from ear to ear! Where were you Dri-fa?” she yelled as the latter rushed down the stairs. The blood from her neck dripped onto her dress. She dabbed at it with her fingers.
“Guarding the exterior!” Dri-fa gasped. “The girl warned us that you were in danger. We couldn’t get through the door in time so she broke through the dirt.”
“So a little girl is doing your job?” she shouted. She knew that she had been at fault by following the woman into the bakery, unguarded, but fear and rage boiled inside her. She couldn’t stand there anymore. She began to pace across the floor. The Story Weaver’s daughter could not be underestimated.
The little girl dropped into the cellar after the Weaver’s daughter and motioned for them to follow her. She pointed to her stepmother’s keys on the ground and the cage holding the boy. Aschenputtel’s hands shook as she grabbed the keys and opened the lock to his cage. The boy crawled out with caution, his chubby legs and arms weak and unused, and his body filthy. The girl scooted over to the boy and grabbed him in a fierce hug.
“It’s taken me months to get that one fat,” her stepmother yelled from the top of the stairs. Aschenputtel whirled around and faced the woman.
“And you will never enjoy the results of your rations. Dri-fa, send two guards to take these children to my personal physicians with explicit instructions that they be nursed to full health.” She swayed, weary from her struggle. Her stepmother cackled from the top of the stairs.
“Those children were better off with me than that one is with you.” She motioned towards the Weaver’s daughter. Aschenputtel glared at her. She ascended the steps and punched her stepmother in the mouth. Blood burst from her stepmother’s face and splattered her, but it felt so good to release years of torment into one physical act. She smiled as the blood gathered at the corner of her stepmother’s mouth.
“I would kill you, old dog, but I prefer to watch you die alone and in misery. However, I simply cannot have you eating local children.” The woman looked into her eyes, glaring evil.
“Take her to Straff Prison,” Aschenputtel said, enjoying the look of horror that crossed her stepmother’s face and knowing the woman was too proud to plead for mercy. She smiled with satisfaction thinking of the old crone in the pure black cells of Straff, hundreds of feet below ground. Hidden from daylight, children, and the finer things in life, Aschenputtel could think of no better end to her evil stepmother.
Outside of the bakery, doves cooed as they settled in for the night, and the wind grew silent. She looked across her soldiers and attendants. Twelve soldiers, one cook, one advisor, and out of all of them the infernal weaver’s daughter had saved her from the stranglehold of her stepmother.
A hint of guilt crept up her spine and niggled at her ear. Maybe she shouldn’t kill the girl. Wasn’t it ill fated to harm one who saved your life? She would have to consider her choices.
Two soldiers walked past and placed the boy and the girl on a horse. The boy’s dimpled arms wrapped around his much smaller, bonier sister. Her shoulder blades stuck out like baby bird wings. Four other soldiers secured the old woman to the back of the supply wagon, while the others moved the supplies onto their horses.
“She’ll need a full escort,” she told Dri-fa. Dri-fa nodded and organized four more soldiers to escort the woman to Straff. Dri-fa turned to ride with her, but Aschenputtel did not want the company of her captain.
“Dri-fa, you’ll need to head them up,” she snapped. She caught her captain casting the Weaver’s daughter a wistful look, but it passed before she could be certain.
“My Queen,” Dri-fa bowed, “as captain of the guards my duty is with you.”
“No, Dri-fa, you didn’t do your duty earlier. When you return from escorting my stepmother, then you will be restored to my side.” She saw the worry pass over Dri-fa’s face as she glanced again at the Weaver’s daughter. “Tend to securing the prisoner,” Aschenputtel barked, irritated at her captain’s sudden interest in the girl. Dri-fa bowed again before setting off to finish shackling her stepmother to the wagon.