A Retelling Of Cinderella by Athene Grele
Once upon a time, in a faraway kingdom that may never have existed at all, and certainly does not exist now, there lived a beautiful maiden named Loreli. She did not live in a palace and did not own beautiful gowns and slippers, as maidens in these stories often do; she was a poor girl, living on the edge of a woods in a large house now falling apart.
Loreli's mother had died when she was young, and her father, a merchant and nephew of the Duke, had married again- a woman with two daughters of her own; and though the woman was beautiful, her heart and those of her daughters was as black and hard as the blackest coal. They spent all the money on trifles and were left with nothing when the father died, which only served to make them crueler and more shrewish than ever.
Loreli's mother, before her death, had told her only daughter stories of the faery creatures who lived in the woods; some were kind and mischievous, others cruel and ugly, and all were quick to anger at the smallest slight. The kind ones were beautiful and known as the Seelie Shee; the cruel ones, the Unseelie Shee. Loreli's mother knew their ways for she had grown up amongst the trees of the wood, and these she taught her daughter that the girl might protect herself. So it was that every day Loreli left out milk for the brownies that lived in the house, hung herbs from the ceiling to bring good luck, and never, ever went out on moonless nights.
The stepmother and stepsisters knew Loreli's ways and they teased her for it. They spilled the brownie's milk and pulled down the herbs, and they made her sleep outside on moonless nights.
It happened that the prince of this country was to hold three balls where he would choose his bride, and all eligible girls in the kingdom were to attend that he might choose the most beautiful for his wife. The stepmother and stepsisters spent the week preparing themselves, and in their great excitement they were crueler than ever to Loreli:
"Fetch my slippers, girl." "Make the stew, and hurry!" "Mend this stocking, will you?" "Hurry, child!" And they laughed to see the poor girl balance five tasks at once.
"Cobwebs," One said, for they called her names to shame her, "Cobwebs, you spilled the milk!" And she dumped a pitcher of milk over poor Loreli's head. "Oops, how clumsy of you! Clean it up this instant, and when you are done, I need my bath made ready." And the three of them swept from the room, laughing.
Loreli did not weep, for this was not an unusual occurrence in this household. She merely began to clean, and as she cleaned, she imagined what the ball must be like.
'It would be grand,' she thought, 'to attend such a party, and wear nice clothes and dance with a nice man- maybe even the prince himself! Oh, but Stepmother would never allow it. No, I'm to stay home and tend to the chores while they are out.'
"Still," She said aloud, "Wouldn't it be wonderful to go."
"What, you?" Said one of the stepsisters from where she stood in the doorway. She had come back down to make up more chores for Loreli, but seeing the chance to tease, she took it. "Fancy yourself a bride for the prince, do you?" She asked. "How would you have them introduce you, as Princess of the dust and cobwebs?" And she laughed at her own poor joke. "The prince wants someone beautiful like me, not a pathetic, dirty creature like yourself." She sneered. "Now when you are done fantasizing, Mother wants you to trim the bushes, weed the gardens, cook supper, and scrub the hallways. If that isn't enough for you, you can mend my dresses, make the beds, and take down the cobwebs in the attic." So saying, she left.
Poor Loreli sighed and returned to her work. She knew she must hurry, for it was getting on near dusk and if she did not finish her tasks soon, she would be weeding and trimming in the full darkness.
And that is indeed what happened. Loreli trembled with fear as she worked, for tonight there was not even a sliver of moon to aid her, and she could not help but remember her mother's tales of men who turned to wolves, of redcaps who soaked their hats in the blood of their victims, and most of all of the Unseelie court riding out to hunt whatever prey they could find, be it man, animal, or fellow faery being.
A howl rang through the silent trees and Loreli stifled a shriek. She had grown up hearing the howls of wolves all her life, and she knew that this was no wolf. This was some fell being from the underworld, a hellhound, and she was proved right by the sound of a hunting horn. The faery hunt was on, and if she did not return home at once she would become their prey.
She rushed to the door but to her horror found it locked. Nearly sobbing in terror now she ran for the side gate, heading for the kitchen door as the horn sounded again and the baying of the hellhounds grew louder. Suddenly, she stopped. There was a rustling and snapping in the woods behind her, and she turned, half-paralyzed with fear, to see a figure come stumbling from the woods. She raised her lantern and gasped at the beautiful creature she saw- a young man with long pointed ears, his clothes tattered and blood-soaked. He stumbled forward and looked into her eyes. "Help..." He whispered, and fainted.
This was the faery hunt's prey, Loreli knew at once. Without a second thought she bravely tossed aside her lantern and rushed to the young man's side. Struggling to lift him, she dragged his body through the side gate and up to the kitchen door. Even as she opened it, she saw shapes in the trees, and heard the howling of the hell hounds not more than a hundred feet away. Gripped by the icy hand of fear, she scrambled to drag the young man through the door and slammed it shut. Mere moments later, she heard the scrabbling of claws on the wood, and the terrible cries of the hellhounds. Then, suddenly, they were gone.
It took several minutes for Loreli's heart to calm. When it did, she rose unsteadily to her feet and went to fetch some ointment for the young man's wounds.
When she returned, she was so startled to see him sitting up she nearly dropped the jar. He turned at the sound she made and smiled weakly. "The iron," he said, gesturing at the stove, "Get me away from it."
Cursing herself for a fool, Loreli hurried to his side and helped him away form the stove. She should have known not to leave him there; iron was like poison to faery creatures, and he clearly was one- no human had ears like that.
"I thank thee." He sighed, leaning back against the wall. "Thou hast saved me."
Loreli said nothing, only watched him. His skin was pale, although whether that was his natural tone or due to fear and blood loss she did not know. His hair, although matted with blood, was so bright a yellow- 'like sunlight,' Loreli thought- that it shone even through the dirt. On his head rested a silver circlet inlaid with opals. When he opened his eyes, they were a dark, unnatural shade of green.
"I thank thee." He said again, sounding a little stronger. "What is thine name?"
"Lo- Cobwebs." She said quickly. Names, she knew, had great power in the hands of faery creatures, and even one as weak as he was now would still be on the look out for opportunities to make mischief. He smiled.
"Smart girl." He said. "Thou mayst call me Thorne, Prince of the Seelie Shee. I owe a life debt to thee. How wouldst thee have me repay you?"
"I- I don't know." She said, bewildered. No one had ever owed her anything- or for that matter, even thanked her for anything. She was quite unsure what to do.
"I will allow thee to think on it." He said, his green eyes glittering with amusement. "In the meanwhile, I should like to get myself cleaned-" He rose to his feet, only slightly unsteadily, and asked, "Have thee a bath?"
"Upstairs." Loreli (or, as we shall now call her, Cobwebs) said, pointing.
It was an hour later that he returned, and where he had found clean clothes, Cobwebs did not know; but he seemed to shine with an unearthly light and even the rough cotton tunic and leggings he wore looked as fine as silk on him. There was not a speck of dirt or blood on him and not even scars to show the ruthless beating he had taken at the hands of the Unseelie Shee. He seemed to have regained his strength entirely.
"Hast thou thought of a reward suitable to the situation?" He asked, unaware of the effect of his appearance.
"Yes," Cobwebs answered shakily, "I should like to go to the three balls the Prince is throwing, where he will choose his wife."
Thorne nodded. "Very well," he said, "So mote it be. What willst thou require?"
"A dress," She began, "And slippers, and a carriage to get there by, and some finery." (By which she meant necklaces, bracelets, fans and the like).
Thorne waved his hand, and Cobwebs was at once dressed in a beautiful ball gown of green silk and chiffon. He waved his hand again, and in hers appeared a fan of green silk with a white plume of feathers; a third wave, and a pair of glass slippers appeared on her feet. "Thou needst no jewels." He said. "Thine face is beautiful enough without them. Look at thineself." A mirror appeared in his hand as he spoke, and when Cobwebs looked into it, she did indeed see a maiden of beauty unrivaled by any other girl in the world.
"Now," Thorne said with a smile, "Come with me." He took her by the hand and led her out the front door. There he lifted his fingers to his lips and whistled sharply. There was the sound of distant hoof beats and a moment later six fine white horses came trotting out of the woods, stopping before the house. "Elvensteeds." Thorne explained to Cobwebs, and waved his hand. A cabbage came rolling around the side of the house and stopped behind the horses. Thorne waved his hand again, and then again; the cabbage became a green carriage hooked to the horses by silver chains. Thorne snapped his fingers three times; at the first, two mice appeared; at the second, one became a carriage driver in green and silver livery; at the third, the second became a footman in the same.
Thorne turned to Cobwebs and bowed. "My lady," He said, "Your carriage awaits." When her only response was to glance nervously at the house, he added, "The brownies will take care of your chores while you are gone." That seemed to reassure her, and with a smile that accompanied her realization that she was free, she rushed to the carriage and clambered in. "To the palace!" She commanded imperiously, and at once they set off down Main Street towards the palace.
Now, unbeknownst to Cobwebs, Thorne had returned inside and sat down on Cobwebs' bed in her room in the tallest tower. He had been smitten with her since the moment he set eyes on her beautiful face (for Elves are flighty and capricious creatures, often falling in and out of love), and now he was sad for she had wished to go to the balls and perhaps marry the prince; and he knew that the moment the prince set eyes on Cobwebs, he would want her for his bride, as no other girl in the land could compare to Cobwebs in beauty. Thorne wanted Cobwebs for his own bride, but the Seelie valued free choice and if she chose to marry the human prince he would have no option but to leave her be.
Cobwebs knew nothing of this. She had arrived at the ball and was ushered in by the announcer. "How shall I introduce you?" He asked, and Cobwebs, remembering the cruel joke her stepsister had made, held up her head proudly and said, "Princess Cobwebs."
The announcer gave her a very odd look, but did as she bid him and, turning to face the ballroom below, announced, "Princess Cobwebs!"
All heads turned to watch as she descended the staircase into the room. There was absolute silence except for the music and a few startled whispers of gossip. As Cobwebs reached the floor, the prince pushed his way through to the base of the staircase and bowed deeply before her. "May I have this dance?" He asked.
Cobwebs accepted, and suddenly the room was filled with movement as couples began to dance again, like whirling tops on the floor.
The prince was not what she had expected. He was not particularly handsome, and his clothes were so ornately decorated as to be in poor taste; he seemed ridiculously vain, smiling at himself in mirrors as they whirled past them. He also seemed only to want to speak of himself and how many wonderful things he had accomplished. Cobwebs found herself quickly growing bored of his company and so was quite relieved when someone was brave enough to ask to cut in.
She found herself dancing with a young man who danced so gracefully it was like ice-skating. She knew not who he was, for he hid his face behind a mask and did not speak until the dance was nearly over; then he leaned down and whispered in her ear, "My prince sends me to tell thee his spells will fade at midnight, and thee must return before then or find thineself returned to thine poor state in front of everyone." Then the dance was over; the masked man bowed, turned, and was gone. Cobwebs glanced at the clock and was horrified to find herself with only five minutes until midnight. Gathering up her skirts, she rushed up the stairs and pushed through the heavy doors into the night; then she hurried to her carriage and ordered the driver to take her home at high speed. They lurched off down the street and had just barely reached the house when the horses pulled free and ran for the woods. Cobwebs scrambled out just in time; a moment later the carriage returned to its previous form- a cabbage. The driver and coachman became mice, and Cobwebs's gown became a torn, tattered cotton shift again. The slippers and fan vanished.
"I see thou hast managed to make it." Thorne's voice echoed from the doorway.
Cobwebs glared at him. "You could have given me a little more warning."
He shrugged. "I forgot." He said.
In the morning, when Cobwebs rose to make breakfast, she found the house scrubbed sparkling clean, all the clothes mended, and breakfast busily making itself in the kitchen while Thorne, sitting at the little table in the corner, watched.
"What in God's name-" Cobwebs began, but Thorne interrupted her: "All thine chores have been done, Cobwebs. What shall thee do with thine day?"
Cobwebs had not had a free day since her father's death left her slave to her stepmother's demands. She could not even recall what she had used to do for fun.
"A walk in the woods with me?" Thorne suggested, and having nothing else to do, Cobwebs accepted. They walked a path she had not even known was there; occasionally Thorne would stop to speak with birds, for the Elves knew the languages of all living things. "If ever thee needs my assistance for any reason, the birds will know where to find me." He told her.
Night came, and Cobwebs attended the second ball. Tonight her gown and fan shone with all the rich colors of autumn. The prince, upon seeing her, asked her where she had gone the previous night; and, maintaining a mysterious air, she responded that one of her servants had called her away for there were important things to be done at home, and would not speak of it further. The prince thought her a marvelous, exotic creature, and in his mind he was already making plans for them to be wed; but Cobwebs did not know this, and occupied herself with watching the other dancers and examining the ballroom's decorations.
Once again, at midnight she was called away and returned home as quickly as possible; and once again at midnight everything returned to its previous state.
The next night was the third and final ball, and this night Cobwebs wore a white gown that shone like it was spun from snow; a cobweb pattern of pearls was sewn to it, and she wore pearls in her hair as well.
The prince knew now that if he allowed her to dance with the masked stranger, at midnight she would leave him, and so at midnight when the stranger asked to cut in, the prince acted as if he could not hear him and swept past. Cobwebs realized what was happening and, as the song ended, attempted to pull away; but no matter how she begged, the prince would not let her go. "You will stay and marry me." He insisted, but she would not give in, and at last managed to twist herself from his grasp. Dashing up the stairs, she tripped in her hurry to flee and lost one of her shoes. Cursing, she tossed the other aside as well and ran barefoot from the room.
She did not make it. Her carriage was only halfway home when it dissolved into a pile of cabbage leaves around her; the horses fled, and the driver and footman were mice once again. Picking herself up off the street, Cobwebs heaved a sigh and began to walk home.
Her stepmother and stepsisters arrived moments after she did, and Cobwebs, upon hearing that the prince had set out to look for her, quickly hid herself in her room. The stepmother and stepsisters, on the other hand, eagerly awaited the prince's arrival; for they knew that he had vowed to marry the girl who fit the glass slipper his love had left behind (which oddly had not vanished at midnight). To make themselves ready, the girls cut off their toes in an effort to make their feet smaller.
At last the prince arrived; but at the sight of the bloody feet he knew at once that neither one was the girl he was looking for, his beloved Princess Cobwebs. Upon hearing this name, one of the stepsisters let out an awful shriek and cried out, "Why, little Cobwebs? She's gone and locked herself in her room!" Then the prince knew he had found her, and rushing up the stairs he broke down the door and hauled Cobwebs out kicking and screaming. "This," He announced to no one in particular, "Is the girl I will marry, and I will tame her and make her mine, and have no other."
Once at the palace he had her locked in the tallest tower lest she find some means of escape before their wedding day; for, despite the hateful words she spat in his face, he was determined to make her his. Cobwebs laid herself down on her bed and cried herself to sleep.
In the morning she was awakened by hopeful birdsong. She rose, dressed herself in what was provided, and ate the food the maids had brought her. Then, going to the window, she gazed out over the town and wondered how she was going to get out of this mess. She certainly was not going to marry the prince; he was vain and foolish and not even particularly handsome, and she would rather have a kind, intelligent husband then all the riches in the kingdom.
A little bird was singing from a branch in the tree that grew beside her tower; and, seeing it, she remembered Thorne's words. Quickly, she stuck her head out the window and called to the bird, "Little songbird, little songbird, quick, fly to my Prince and tell him I have need of him!" The little bird called thrice, then leapt from the branch and flew away.
It was a few minutes later that he appeared, standing by the window; and, upon seeing him, Cobwebs ran to his side and flung her arms around him. He kissed her lips and whispered reassurances in her ear; and then he lifted her in his arms and stepped out the window into a gilded carriage, which waited for them in midair. They flew away from that kingdom and were wed, and where they are now, no one knows; but wherever they are, I am sure they lived happily ever after.