04 July, 2006

Cinderella and the Proud Curse: Chapter 4

Smuggling Cinderella out of the mews was a dangerous job, but fairy godmothers are dangerous people. She managed to move through all the corridors to the outside world without anyone ever seeing her. You might want to ask her how she did it, but she would never tell. Fairy godmothers have more tricks up their sleeves than just changing pumpkins into carriages.

Once out of the castle, she whispered,
Tired of play
Ready to fight
Gone bird of prey
Burst forth with might

Her fairy godmother tapped her head again with her wand, the little fairy chimes rang, and the stoic falcon became a prancing mare. She said to Cinderella, “I cannot take you to the stable master, people might figure something out, but if you just walk over there, I am sure someone will find you.”

Cinderella did not answer right away. She was still trying to get used to how the world looked when seen as a horse. Instead of looking at one thing at a time, she was constantly looking at everything. Her right eye saw her fairy godmother, but her left eye was seeing a little boy playing with a stick. As if that was not enough, with both her eyes she saw the whole world, all the way around to her tail. She could see the whole stable all the way around her all at one time, and it filled her mind to overflowing.

Mostly what she saw was everything that moved, but it was the opposite of being a falcon. As a falcon, everything that moved was a possible snack. As a horse, everything that moved was might be a wolf waiting to eat her. Everything that moved was scary.

She could hardly focus on her fairy godmother for the sight of a little flag waving behind her. She knew that her fairy godmother was always colorful and smart, but instead she looked fuzzy and gray, except for her blue scarf. Cinderella found that by lifting and tilting her head, she could make her eyes focus better on that scarf. The blue was as blue as could be, but everything else was only gray.

Her fairy godmother put her hand up to pat Cinderella’s head.

The sudden movement terrified her. She was seeing too many things, and suddenly one of them was attacking her. She jerked back, causing her fairy godmother to jump back, too. “There, there girl,” she whispered to Cinderella, “It’s OK. Don’t be frightened. You’ll get used to it in a day or two. Remember that all horses are a little skittish. This is why. They see too much, but not well enough, and their poor little brains just aren’t quite fast enough to keep up with it all. You’ll get over it. Have no fear.”

It was just what Cinderella needed to hear. She really didn’t hear everything she said, but the tone was just right. Everything was going to be OK after all. She stood still, and then reached out to nuzzle her friend. She breathed deeply of her fairy godmother’s smell. It was a beautiful smell, and she knew that she would never forget it. That smell meant everything was OK. This time, when her fairy godmother reached out to pat her, she was ready and she resisted the fear. It was just a scratch between the ears, and it only lasted for a second or two, but it was perfect and it felt like heaven. She was ready to go face the world again, and to go out and conquer her prince’s heart.

She looked at her fairy godmother (and three other random things at the same time) and said, “Thank you dear heart. I love you, and all you have done for me.”

Her fairy godmother just smiled a sweet little smile, scratched her nose one last time, and turned back to the castle.

Cinderella turned toward the stables. She had been there once before, and looked forward to learning what she could do.

It was only moments before a stable boy found her and put a quick hackamore around her neck and nose. She wanted to watch the stable boy, but instead she watched his face, the rope, the rope again on the other side of her head, and everything behind her. It was too confusing, so she concentrated on simple standing still. Somehow, when she had been a falcon, nothing had been frightening. Now, everything seemed to want to eat her. Fortunately, the boy kept whispering kind-sounding words to her, and that helped her keep her fears quieted. His smell was not very strong, but she didn’t smell any fear. The boy was barely thirteen years old, and Cinderella was pretty sure that if she were to step wrong, she might accidentally kill him. Knowing that didn’t help, though. She was still much more scared of him than he was of her.

Being a horse was not going to be easy.

The boy brought her straight to the master of the stables. She could hear them talking together, and she could kind of understand what they were saying, but somehow understanding what they were saying was too much work. She ended up just standing there and listening to their voices, not caring at all what they said. The stable master spoke in a low growl that seemed to say, “I have you now, and you’re mine. That means you are safe. Nobody can get to you through me, and you will do everything I ask.” She didn’t need to know anything else. That man was in charge of everything he could see, and she would be safe if she just did what he wished.

Around his voice she started to feel safe.

What the master wished was for her to go with the boy to one of the stalls, so she did. There she found grain, hay, water, and quiet; or not quite quiet; something better than quiet. She found the sounds of other horses eating, resting, and swishing their tails at flies. All their noises sounded just right. In the mews, she didn’t even remember whether there were any other birds. She couldn’t have cared less. Here, though, she was wrapped in the sounds and smells of her herd. She immediately went to sleep.

She woke and slept several times that day and night. Each time she woke, the weird vision of the whole world at once seemed a little more normal, and each time she ate she felt just a little more secure.

When morning came neither the stable boy, nor the master came for her. It was someone else, an older boy. As he drew near, she smelt something new. It was not quite fear, but it was not courage either. She wondered what it was, and she grew nervous. She watched as he came around behind her, and walked up on her left side. His hand ran up her side, then her neck, and finally up to her nose.

Suddenly, on her right side some huge brown thing flew toward her, and before she could react, it hit her in the neck and jaw! She reared up, stepped back, and took a wild kick at whatever was over there, but she hit nothing. As she began coming back down again, the boy bellowed and struck out. She barely felt the hit, but she heard his voice, and smelled his new smell. It was definitely fear. Whatever it was, the boy was afraid of it too! They were both terrified, and growing more so.

The boy backed up against the wall, and she backed up against the door, and looked for something to kick. There was nothing there. She looked wildly around, using both of her eyes, and spinning her ears this way and that as she tried to spot anything moving, anything that might have wanted to strike out at her. There was nothing.

Cinderella was more than a horse, though, and her mind gradually took over from her instincts. It was the boy. That was all. The thing that had hit her was the rope the boy was trying to put over her head. He had thrown it over her, instead of placing it there carefully. He had not been scared of some dangerous attacker. He had been scared of her. Her nostrils were still flared, and her eyes still wide, and so were the boy’s. She could see it now, even if it was a little fuzzy. The boy was plastered to the wall, afraid of the huge monster that he had created. His nostrils were flared just like hers, and his eyes were even wider, if that were possible.

Cinderella, calmed herself, leveled her breathing, relaxed her eyes and started walking toward the boy. She lowered her head so she could see his face better, and so that he would not feel threatened. Slowly she edged toward him, and gradually was able to nuzzle his hand. As soon as he scratched her head, he began to calm down, and this time when he put the rope around her neck, she was ready for it, and stood firm. By the time he had walked her out to the paddock, he was his old self again, and even his smells were returning to normal.

Out in the paddock, he had a saddle and bridle waiting for her. Out of her left eye she watched as he grabbed the bridle, and settled it on her head. In her right eye, the things the younger boy was doing fascinated her. He pulled out big things and small things and flags and all sorts of sticks, and set them all at different parts of the paddock.

The older boy put the saddle on her back while she surveyed the horizon, just enjoying her first few minutes out under the blue sky. Cinderella didn’t know that almost all experienced riders kick a horse in the belly with their knees to knock the wind out of it, and to make sure the saddle is cinched up tight. She learned!

Eventually, the boy took the reins, grabbed the saddle, and swung himself up on her back. It was a strange and scary feeling for Cinderella. The boy was pretty heavy, but she felt like she could carry him forever. That was not the problem. The problem was that she could not see him any more. She could see the whole world, but she could not see the one thing that she did not trust. This awful stable boy was sitting in the one place in the world that she could not see very well, right behind her.

She steeled herself against her fear, and tried to figure out what she was supposed to do. Whenever he kicked her, she went faster. Whenever he yanked the bridle, and the bit tore into her mouth, she turned toward the side that hurt. Whenever he smacked her in the head, she tried to do whatever she had just done differently the next time.

Being a horse was very hard.

The first half-hour went pretty well. The boy asked her to run around the paddock, and stop, and gallop, and trot, and stop, and then gallop some more. She could do all that. There were really so many things to learn though. She had never had a man on her back in her whole life, and every time he whacked her, she just wanted to try to buck him off. She never even knew when the smack would come, because she could not see him back there. She hung on through it all, though, and did everything he asked of her.

He didn’t stop.

For two more hours it went on. He and his young assistant made her ride right next to things that were probably supposed to be enemy soldiers. They clapped really loudly behind her back when she was distracted by another challenge. They made her ride with a lance bouncing right next to her head. They even made her ride right under a flag flapping in the breeze. In her mind, she could tell herself that it was just a flag, but her horse instincts just saw movement over her head. She wanted to bolt and escape, but she controlled her fear again and again. It was hard. She could not even focus her eyes on the flag, because it was too high. She was not able to see things over her head very well, so to her it was just noise and movement, and that meant danger.

Cinderella lost all track of time. She had just been struggling forever. They came up to the flag again, but this time she could not take any more. She stopped and pranced backwards away from it. The boy dug his spurs into her already raw flanks, and he blasted her with his whip. Cinderella was so very tired, but the boy pushed her onward.

Finally, Cinderella could take no more. She laid her ears back, and prepared to jump as high as she could to see whether this little runt might want to try flying over to that flag without her.

Just as she was ready to leap, though, she noticed that the boy was not on her back any more. She whipped her head around to try to see what was happening, and she saw the boy lying on the ground being kicked by the stable master. His tone was almost even angrier than her own, and his boots were leaving permanent marks on that boy’s bottom as he struggled to get to his feet long enough to get away from his new enemy.

No sooner was the boy gone, than the cinch on her saddle was completely loose and the master was whispering in her ear. She was too tired to try to remember what his words meant, but it didn’t matter. The man spoke pure comfort to her soul. He scratched her ears and told her that everything was right with the world. He took the horrible bit out of her mouth, and put back on a simple rope hackamore. They began to walk slowly around the paddock. As they went, he kept on whispering in her ear and as they passed little things that she wanted to smell, the master stopped and let her. She stopped and smelled in the scents of all the sticks and flags and barricades that she had been dodging. They didn’t seem nearly so frightening with the master there, and smelling them made them all seem normal.

By the time the master brought her back to her stable, there was fresh feed and hay there, and plenty of cool water. Cinderella was so tired, she could not think at all. Then she went to sleep.

Over the next couple of weeks, two things filled her life. The first was waiting for the master to come and work with her. He only worked with her a half-hour a day, but it was amazing what he could teach in just a half hour. It was only a week or two before she knew things it takes a normal horse months to learn.

Of course, another trainer took her out in the afternoons, and ran her hard for an hour. The master did not have to be there to work her up into a good lather. She loved the chance to run, and loved how far and how fast she could run without getting tired.

The second thing that filled her days was so bad, though, was the news, and it was bad.. Her fairy godmother visited her every day, and keeping her informed of all the happenings in the castle.

The bits of news were just little things, but together they meant so much. Lord Farris was gathering his dukes and earls together. People could not get their ploughs fixed, because there was a shortage of iron. No one could buy any grain because all the usual suppliers were completely sold out. Any one of those things was a good subject for a talk over tea. A lot of soldiers, a lack of iron, and a lack of food meant war.

Lord Farris was calling up an army.

Early one morning, her prince came to the paddock with all his attendants and servants. He was in full, princely dress and looked like a vision in blue. It was wonderful that he had chosen blue; it was the only color she could truly see well. Had she still been a falcon, she would have been able to feast her eyes on him, but she still delighted in her fuzzy, blue sight of the one she loved, and sat quietly while her heart broke. She had trained and trained to carry her prince into battle, and it was obvious that she was not going to get her chance.

It took almost an hour for the prince’s party to get fully assembled, and ride off. When it finally happened, Cinderella could hold her voice no more. Her whinnies meant nothing, but she had to proclaim her misery as best she could. Horses don’t cry, but their big hearts can break, and hers was shattered.

All Cinderella knew was that her prince had mounted another horse, and that the whole group had left without her.

She began turning over in her mind what form to take for her last chance. When her fairy godmother came, she would have to confess that she had not even gotten a chance to win her prince’s heart.

Once the party was completely gone from sight, Cinderella tried to pull herself together. She took a big drink of water, and had a little grain and hay. She was just beginning to feel like herself again when the master came to her and saddled her up. She noticed, but did not pay much attention to the fact that this saddle was much smaller than what she was used to wearing.

She didn’t feel much like training that day, but she would relish doing so as a last memory of being a horse. In fact, if she could not come up with another animal to change into, maybe she would stay a horse. She certainly loved her master enough to do so.

She loved being a human among humans so much more, though. She was so hungry to feel love again. And of all the people in the world, she loved her prince. She just could not get over the thought she might never see him again.

“Is she ready?” came a voice from behind her. She had watched the man walking up out of the corner of her right eye, but hadn’t really paid him any attention. That voice, though, got her full attention immediately!

It was the voice of her prince.

Her ears stood up, and her head whipped around. She bobbed her head up and down until her eyes were focused as well as they could be on his face, and was sure. Yes! It was her love. Here! And not out with his party, riding to who knew where, but here to ride her to anywhere he pleased! She let out an excited whinny, and started shaking right where she stood.

“See,” her master said, “I told you she was smart. She’s the smartest horse I’ve ever known. No other horse would know her prince at first sight, especially the way you are dressed.”

The master was right. The prince was dressed more like a stable boy, than an heir to the king’s throne. She thought about it for a second, and realized that the first party was a decoy. The prince thought that there were spies around, who would report when he left the castle … report to Lord Farris.

Then the prince was preparing for war too.

That meant that their ride today would not be for pleasure.

That was good, very good.

The prince stood up into her saddle, and disappeared into that blind spot that she had come to trust so well in the hands of her master. She could no longer see him, but his knees, his hands, and his voice would tell her everything about him. Before they had ridden ten minutes, she knew what she had always suspected. He treated all his subjects with the utmost of respect, even the lowest. And he was perfectly clear with them too. She could sense no doubt in his hands. Whether he wanted a left turn, a quick jump, or a full on gallop, she knew it instantly and was able to obey him perfectly. She was so happy.

The prince was done with small talk. He gave the reins a quick flick, and they were off. They started in exactly the opposite direction as the main party. They continued riding away from everyone at a slow gallop for over an hour, before the prince suddenly turned into the woods.

The woods were new. She had never been in the dark woods before, and these were the darkest she had ever seen. Horses don’t see well above their heads, so she could not see the tops of the trees, but she could see that they blocked the sun. It was very unsettling.

The prince never flinched. She could feel his weight settled lightly in the saddle, and that he never fidgeted. He was perfectly at home on her back.

They rode like this for hours.

Finally, in a remote part of the woods Cinderella had never seen before, the prince began to slow her down. She could feel his weight shifting in the saddle as he began looking left and right, and even behind them. What he was looking for, she could not begin to guess, except that it probably was not good.

The next few moments happened so fast, she could hardly remember it all.

Out of the back of her eyes, her horse vision caught movement on both sides. At first it seemed like just a limb moving, but she didn’t wait to figure that out. She bolted into a gallop. At her first motion, six men with spears stood up in front of her, and she broke to the left, away from the river. That was no good either, because there was a solid cliff wall. This was a careful trap.

Turning left again, she saw the movement behind her had been four men with spears. She ground her mighty hooves into the soft moss of the forest, and lowered her head. Within 2 steps she was almost at a full gallop, and almost within spear range of the prince’s enemies. With her last step, she did a little trick that the master had taught her. She did it without even meaning to, and she did it perfectly. She leaped into the air at full speed and when her hooves were in the right place, she shattered the soldier’s helmet with a well-placed kick.

Suddenly, they were free.

The attackers never had a chance to strike at her prince, and she was at a dead gallop, running away from them before they even knew why they had missed their chance.

She was moving so fast that she never saw the rope that snapped tight in front of her. She just felt her forelegs quit moving while her body kept going. She hit the ground hard, and her prince went over her head. When she came to a stop, she was up against a tree upside down. By the time she rolled back onto her feet, there were 3 ropes around her neck. All she could see were men and spears all around her. She had no idea where her prince was, and she began lashing out immediately. The men were scared and smart, though. They stayed out of reach of her fore hooves, and she was too frantic to turn around and try a real kick. The men with the spears were growing impatient, and starting to get close enough to take a stab at her. Well, let ‘em! She was more than ready.

Suddenly she saw and heard her prince. He was pressing up between the men, speaking calmly and quietly.

Somehow, he seemed to be in control of everything.

It didn’t make sense, but if he was OK, then she had nothing to fight over. She dropped back to the ground, and started to quiet down. The prince took a moment to rub her nose, and to let her know everything was really going to be OK. He didn’t spend long, though. He turned to the man with the biggest helmet insignia, and asked, “What was the idea of ambushing me that way! You call me to a secret meeting, and then you risk my life?”

“Yes, lord prince,” said the sergeant as he fell to one knee. “If I have failed to obey my orders, I am greatly in your debt. I am to bring you to my lord’s ambassador, immediately.”

“Untie my horse, and then lead on,” the prince commanded.

His order was obeyed, and Cinderella accepted her prince onto her back once again. Her heart was still racing as if she were free, but she was bound both by her loyalty to her prince, and by the dozen spears behind her. She followed this sergeant who had lately tried to kill them both, and memorized everything about the path out of here. As a horse, she found she had a fantastic memory for paths. She was prepared to use any of them at her first opportunity!

When they arrived in the clearing, Cinderella’s heart went from racing to a dead stop.

The lord’s ambassador was none other than the witch who had started all this. She had nearly turned Anna into a mouse, and done that very thing to Fluffy and herself, and now she was trying to kill the prince. What was going on here?

“Fair prince,” the evil woman began. “You are here because I sent you a message telling you this was the only place you could find out about your fair princess.”

The prince was silent.

She continued, “I could not tell you this in your castle. I needed to be out here, where I would be safe. Your princess is never coming back. I cannot tell you why she left, but I can tell you she has gone forever. You have been betrayed.”

The prince still said nothing. He did not know the of the tide of emotions tearing Cinderella apart just beneath his saddle at this very moment. On one hand, she was dying death after death of pure anger because her enemy was saying such awful things when she could not answer her. On the other, she was afraid to move or even make a sound because she wanted to know what her prince was thinking. She was frightened of his response, but hoping he would not lose hope in her, in spite of this witch.

She reached into her frock, and pulled out a bag. From the bag, she pulled out a white thing. “This was given to me by one of my masters. He explained that this was Cinderella’s wedding ring, and included a note from her to you.”

She handed the note to a servant to hand to the prince. Cinderella was instantly mad that the woman would not come into reach herself. She was too clever by far.

As the servant brought the note to the prince, Cinderella watched it with increasing fascination. It seemed to shimmer. If she looked directly at it, it looked like everything else she looked at. Through her horse eyes, it was fuzzy, and hard to focus on. But when she glanced away it was amazingly shiny. It was like it was made of some kind of silver that reflected the sunlight even when in the shade.

The prince received the letter in silence. He had not yet spoken a word, and it didn’t seem this letter was going to change that. He began shaking, though. Soon he was sobbing, and then weeping outright. His tears lasted a long time, even though a few dozen people were watching him. If anyone cared that the letter broke him, though, they did not show it.

The witch spoke again. “I’m sorry, young prince, that you have been betrayed in this way. We all make mistakes, and marrying for the sake of one enchanted evening is not the worst of them. Cinderella could never help your kingdom to prosper. Your people deserved better, and so do you, as you see now in that foul letter.”

Cinderella did not know what was in that letter. The witch had written it, not her, so she knew that it was horrible. Still, she stood quietly and watched everything unfold.

“Lord Farris,” the witch continued, “has a daughter, and a plan for uniting your two kingdoms. Allow me to introduce Danielle.”

At that, a young woman stepped out from a tent near the edge of the clearing and began walking toward the old witch. She shimmered, just like the letter had shined. She was frightening to look at. She was just too beautiful. Suddenly, though, Cinderella understood. Danielle was shimmering because she looked like two different people. One Danielle was a queenly beauty, but the other was a rather plain girl playing dress-up. The queenly illusion could slay a man with her beauty, but the real girl was too drab to even notice.

To Cinderella’s horse-vision, neither of these views lasted long at all. She kept looking stunning, and then plain, and then stunning again.

The prince could only see the queenly beauty. Cinderella could tell because his knees tightened around back, and he stood up in the saddle just the tiniest bit. Her big horse’s heart broke.

It was magic. The witch had cast a spell to make the plain girl look queenly, and she could see now that she had cast a spell on the note she had given the prince as well. Her heart broke a little more, because her prince believed the note, and thought that she had betrayed him. Cinderella looked around the meadow, and knew that only she could see through the magic. Every man in sight was seeing a woman for whom he would die, if only given the chance.

There was nothing she could do.

“Lord Farris’s daughter,” the evil, old witch introduced. “was deeply offended that you wronged her so much over so little when you chose Cinderella. Now that we all know what kind of woman your little dancer was, Danielle is vindicated before all, and sees no reason why she should embarrass herself further for your benefit. Nonetheless, at her father’s request, she has agreed to take a carriage ride with you to your castle to determine whether you are worthy of her forgiveness. Should you not wish to take this ride, she will return to her father, and inform him of your judgment.”

The prince did not sit silent for long. “Do I understand that the Lord Farris has plans beyond those for his daughter?” he asked.

“Danielle has been authorized to explain certain things to you, good prince, about her father’s plans, certain things that might interest you. And we all know that a marriage such as this can seal an alliance. Yes.”

The prince dismounted from Cinderella, walked over to Danielle, and bowed. It was a simple moment of formal courtesy, and Danielle returned it in equal measure. Cinderella stomped a little where she had been left, but again, there was nothing to do.

Turning to the old witch, the prince said, “We must leave at once. Already, I am gone from the castle too long.”

With that, the prince and Danielle were taken to the waiting carriage, loaded up and began the trip back to the castle. Cinderella was tied to the carriage with a 10-foot lead, and followed the carriage home in which a beautiful illusion was stealing her husband. Once they arrived, she was stabled and fed, but she could not eat.

After two days of heart-wrenching pain, her fairy godmother came to see her.

“I know what happened out in the woods,” she said. “I’m sorry.”

Cinderella looked at her. She had come to the stall all dressed in black, and she was holding her hands clasped up to her face as she spoke. Cinderella could see that she really was sorry, and that if she could do anything, she would. It let something deep inside her rest to know that someone, somewhere knew and cared that the most awful thing in the whole world was happening to her right now, and that she could not do anything about it.

Cinderella also finally understood that her fairy godmother could not do anything about it, any more than she could. She placed her big head up against her fairy godmother’s bosom, and just nickered for a while.

Eventually, it was the time for a decision to be made. Cinderella still had her third chance. She could turn into one more beast, and try once again to win her love’s heart. Her fairy godmother asked her what she would like to become.

“There is nothing I could become that could compete with that magical beauty,” Cinderella said. “Whether at play, or at work, I can only serve the prince faithfully. I cannot make him see that it is with my heart I serve him. He only knows I serve him well, not that I serve him in love.”

“I’m afraid you may be right, dear,” whispered her fairy godmother.

“When I choose this third form, it may be the form I will bear for the rest of my life,” Cinderella concluded.

The two stood together in silence for a few minutes, neither able to come up with anything useful to say. Eventually, Cinderella picked her head up, and looked her godmother in the eye.

“I choose to be a nightingale,” she said. “She sings the saddest, most beautiful song in the whole world, and she sings it all night. If I must be an animal, and lose the one I love, then I will mourn my loss in beautiful song all the rest of my life.”

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