It was dusk the evening of the third ball. Ella had been busy with so many tasks that she began to get confused. Her anxiety over her stepmother's wrath had only turned to terror after the beating she received when it became apparent there was no secret accounts or any sources of wealth hidden. Her little room over the kitchen was in shambles. Ella's stepmother and her daughters made a tumult of the room in their efforts to find the gown that she had worn. Now, having helped her sisters array themselves in their finery, she was locked in that tiny ransacked room, watching as the carriage clattered away.
Ella sank down with her back against the locked door of her chamber. Putting her head into her hands, she wept. Her back hurt, especially the shoulder. Her arms were bruised where the woman struck them with her cane. It seemed the only places that she wasn't beaten was her face, her hands, and her feet. As she wrapped her arms about her legs and set her forehead down against her knees, Ella silently plead with what ever good angel it was that aided her before to transport her out of the place of agony she was in.
Ella no longer wanted to go to the ball. As nice as it was to be the center of the prince's attention, Ella would have been happy working as a laundress somewhere far away if it meant that she was free from her tyrannical stepmother. Lost in her fantasy of escape, Ella nearly missed the sound of a footstep in the hall. Her heart was caught in her throat as she suddenly feared that a thief was in the house. The footsteps stopped before the door into Ella's room and there was a knock.
Ella scrambled to her feet and backed away from the door when there was a second knock. "Come forth, child," called the sweet voice from beside the pear tree, "Do you not wish to go to the ball?" Ella held back a sob.
"I can't go," she said, "I can't leave here. She'll kill me if I do." Ella heard the sound of the door unlocking. Anticipating the sight of some ethereal figure, Ella watched with her breath held as the door opened. No person stood before her. Sitting on the threshold of the doorway was a key and a common pear. Ella knelt and picked up the key. It was an ornate key that she had never seen before. She turned it over in her hands in wonderment.
She looked to the pear. It was nothing unusual for the fruit of a pear tree. No gems or other adornments were upon it. For all her attempts to divine if the pear was something more, Ella could only tell it was a normal fruit. Her stomach gurgled with hunger. It had been a long day and her stepmother forbade her from eating. Deciding that the pear was intended to assuage that hunger, Ella ate the fruit.
As she did so, she discovered that her hunger diminished and she felt as though she had eaten a great meal. The pain of her bruises faded away with the gnawing hunger in her belly. Assuming this was the magic of the pair, Ella turned towards her little cot, nibbling on the last of the pear. She gasped in surprise and dropped the pear when she saw the gown laying upon it. Of a simple and ancient design, the gown was the color of the deepest of sapphires. An under dress made of such fine linen that it seemed nearly see through lay beside it. Ella walked towards the gown and the shift.
"What is this?" she said quietly. Something like mist crept into the room through the open door. Ella looked around herself, alarmed that there may be a fire. The mist coalesced into a figure. A woman who looked much like Ella stood before her, ghostly and pale. "What are you?" she breathed as the woman walked towards her. A ghostly hand came up and touched her face. It was cold but it felt as solid as her own, which troubled the young woman.
"Come, child, you must dress or you shall be late," the woman said. Ella turned to the gown and swallowed uncomfortably. The ghostly woman helped Ella out of her day dress and into the shift. As the sapphire gown slipped over her head, Ella couldn't help the sudden fear that something evil was happening. Dressed in the gown, Ella looked down at her feet. The ghostly woman leaned down and touched Ella's callused right foot. Something warm came over her, and Ella watched with amazement as gold colored stockings appeared before sapphire blue slippers covered them. The ghostly woman held out a golden girdle. As she bound it about Ella's waist, Ella smelled something familiar about her. Ella tried to place the scent as a gold silk lined cape was wrapped about her shoulders.
"Your carriage awaits, child," the woman with the angelic voice said, "Remember, the magic ends at midnight. You will find yourself dressed in the rags that she left you with." Ella reached up to touch her hair and discovered with some amazement that it had been bound up in complicated braids. With a little shiver of trepidation, Ella left her small room and went downstairs. Before the house stood a white coach with a team of white horses. On the doors, a coat of arms were emblazoned. a lily was over a golden pennant upon a sapphire blue field. Ella hesitated before getting in the coach.
Remembering the warning that the magic was going to fade at midnight, she stepped into the coach and went away to the ball. When she stepped from the coach, Ella had the hood of the cape pulled over her head to protect herself from the chill drizzle that began to fall. A servant moved forward to take her cape as she entered the chateau. Letting the hood of the cape fall back, Ella noted the servant's look of surprise. Once the cape was removed, the servant's amazement deepened. He watched Ella as she walked towards the ballroom. She entered and she felt eyes turning upon her. Ella felt painfully conscious that her gown did not match those of the other women. She lowered her eyes and focused upon walking down the steps.
At the foot of the steps, Ella found a clearing in the press of people. She was still looking downward when she nearly ran in to someone. Ella raised her eyes, ready to apologize, only to discover the Prince himself standing before her. He caught her hand and pressed his lips to it in a brief gesture. Heat lit in his eyes and Ella blushed. She moved to curtsey when he took a step back and pulled her with him. Ella followed him, even more uncomfortable with the way people looked at her. They walked to the doors out into the gardens. The threat of rain had turned to mist as he lead her out and away from the ball. Whispers ran through the ballroom.
The prince lead her along a path to a spot hidden from prying eyes. He let go her hand and turned to face her. Ella wrung her hands, suddenly very nervous. "You are Lady Ambrey," he said, not bothering to phrase it as a question, "Your father was the second son of Lord Ambrey who served my father. The house of Ambrey was driven into poverty when your uncle, the heir, died and his creditors came to collect his debts. Your father became a merchant in the city. Your mother died at your birth. And he remarried your stepmother." Ella blanched and took a step back.
"I have spoken with my father. The lands of Ambrey are restored to you as the rightful heir. The taxes and tithes of those lands are yours by law," he continued, taking a step forward and capturing her hands in his own. "I do not know everything," he said, "but it is enough. Your title is enough. Let me take you from her. I will install you in your proper place." Ella shook her head as panic began to rise in her eyes.
"No," she whispered, "She'll kill me. She'll..." The prince pulled her into his arms. He took her face between his hands and stilled her protestations with a kiss. Ella, too stunned to do anything, shivered as he kissed her. Slowly, he deepened the kiss as Ella swayed against him, becoming dizzy with breathlessness. The prince let his hands fall to her shoulders and then glide down her back. He held her against him, delighting in how she trembled and the little gasp she made as he broke the kiss.
"Be mine," he whispered in her ear, "You are all I can think about. When I close my eyes, it is your face I see. All these women, they pale next to you. Give yourself to me, I don't think I can live with this hunger." Ella couldn't help the warm flush that went across her cheeks. She couldn't help the way the longing in the prince's voice made her feel delightfully weak. Held against him, Ella couldn't ignore the strength in his arms or the warmth of his body in the chill evening.
"I can't," she said sadly, "I can't. She'll kill me." The prince tightened his hold about her. Ella gave a little sigh, though she couldn't tell if it was sorrow or delight. He buried his face against the hollow of her shoulder. As he took in a deep breath, Ella trembled. He muttered something against her neck. Ella cautiously slipped a hand from between them up to let it settle at the back of his head. He raised his head and took hold of her wrist. As he placed a kiss in the palm of her hand, Ella blinked tears out of her eyes.
"She is nothing to me," he said, looking down at her as she ducked her head, "A fly. An annoyance to be brushed aside. You don't need to fear her anymore. I will send men to take you from her house if she tries to keep you from me. Or remain here with me. Stay here. Everything you need will be provided. She will not be able to reach you here." Ella closed her eyes as tears escaped them. The prince looked at her and frowned. "You fear her this much?" he asked.
Ella said nothing as she trembled. The prince gave a small determined nod. "Very well," he said, "I will find a different solution. I must have you. That does not change." Ella looked up at him. In his determination, he looked fierce and she found herself feeling anxious. His gaze fixed on her face rather than the inwardly focused one he had moments before. His eyes burned brightly with that hunger that came to the fore earlier. "You will be mine, Lady Ambery," he said in a tone that brooked no argument, "If I must march through the gates of hell, so be it."
"I'm nobody," Ella said. The prince smiled. It was something that made Ella's heart skip a beat even as she grew uneasy. "I only came to see you one last time," she continued, "I promised I would try. And so I am here. You must forget me." The prince's smile grew hungry and Ella stammered, "She is my guardian. She would never approve this. It simply can not be." The caught her face between his hands and turned it up to face him again.
He kissed her again. This time, Ella did not stiffen in shock. Shyly, Ella kissed him back. The prince, however, pressed his suit. His kiss became crushingly forceful as he gripped her tightly to himself. Dizzily, Ella found herself eager for more. The prince broke the kiss and she swayed towards him. He laughed softly and kissed her again, a hand moving down to her hip. He pressed her hips against his own and smiled at how she looked surprised to feel something of a bulge pressed against her. Ella swallowed uncomfortably with a mouth that had suddenly gone dry.
"What I want," he said, "I make mine. And I want you. I would have you come willingly. But I have no qualms about just taking you." His emphasis upon the word take made something within Ella shiver deep within. "We must return. They'll talk if we do not," he said stepping back. He took Ella's hand in his own and lead her through the garden back to the entry into the ballroom. As they rejoined the party in progress, the prince smiled graciously at a courtier who wished him good evening.
With a firm hold on Ella's hand, he went to the dais. He sat on his throne and fixed Ella with a stern look. She meekly sat upon the chair set near him. After a brief time of the prince talking about the nobles and indicating who was who, Ella forgot the uncomfortable conversation they had. He lead her out to dance a few simple sets and then they resumed their seat. The hour drew later and the prince smiled. He had decided that she would not escape him again. He spoke of what he learned of Ella's family, noticing quickly that it was a topic that she seemed entranced by.
The clock began to chime. Ella suddenly tensed. As it rung ten times, she started to rise. At eleven, she managed to slip out of his grasp. She kilted up her skirts and ran through the ballroom. Unwilling to see his prize get away, the prince pursued her. She fled down the steps, losing a sapphire colored slipper in the process. He watched her get into the coach and clatter off as though the devil himself was after her. A rider that he had waiting soon set off after it. He stooped and picked up the slipper.
He watched with wonderment as the final bell tolled and it transformed from leather to glass. He turned and walked into the ball. A stern voice called his name and the prince looked up. His father had come to learn who he had picked to be his bride. The prince smiled. He approached his father and bowed, holding his relic carefully. "Lady Ambery," he said. The king nodded.
"Where is she?" the king demanded.
The prince looked down at the glass slipper. "She has fled but I will find her," he said, "A rider is pursuing the carriage to find where it is she flees to. Lady Ambery is in fear of her life. This is why she leaves each night." The king frowned at his son. "I shall find her and she will fear no more," the prince said firmly. The king looked at his son. He was reluctant to believe that he had found the lost scion of Ambery's line. Still, the wonder that he held in his hands suggested that he had found someone. The king decided that it had to be enough, because the glass slipper was jeweled and bore signs of being a rare treasure. What ever woman who wore such fine things, he thought, would clearly be worthy of his youngest son.
Ella's carriage gave a shudder. She looked down at her gown and noted how it was beginning to dull. The carriage stopped just before the door of her home. Amazed that the magic some how remained past the stroke of midnight, Ella darted into the house. She slipped her sapphire colored slipper off and ran up the stairs to her room. She shut the door and pushed the ornate key into the lock. Somehow, the door locked itself from the inside, though the key barely fit. Ella sat down on her cot and looked down at the slipper in her hands.
She stared with amazement as it transformed to a glass slipper covered in sapphires. Ella put the slipper into the pocket of her apron with the key. She then laid down on her cot. Outside, she heard a rider go past. A few hours later, Ella woke to the sound of her stepmother's carriage clattering before the house. Ella looked down at her ragged dress, one that had once been her mothers that her stepmother had torn to shreds before Ella before throwing it at her and telling her if she mended it, she'd have been allowed to the ball a few nights before. Hastily, Ella changed into the dress she wore earlier and made her way to the door. She listened to the sound of her stepmother rushing up the stairs.
She stepped back from the door just as the older woman tried it. The door rattled but was clearly still locked. The key jangled and soon the door opened to show Ella's stepmother glaring countenance. She looked at Ella with an expression of loathing. When she went to the little window, she discovered it was still shuttered and had the thin layer of dust it had earlier, undisturbed. The woman turned and looked at Ella. "I don't know how you did it," she sneered, "But you're not getting out again until the Prince is married."
Ella stared at her stepmother as she walked out of the room and locked the door. Ella thought of the prince's words earlier. She closed her eyes and wept. For she knew that her imprisonment was surely a death sentence because her stepmother never fed her in confinement and the prince would not know where to find her. The next day, Ella woke and tried the door of her room. It was still locked. She sat down on her cot. With a sigh, she strained to listen to the noises of the house below. She slipped into a doze.
There was the sound of voices in the kitchen below. Unfamiliar voices that woke Ella. A male voice spoke of his search for Lady Ambrey. Her stepmother declared herself to be Lady Ambrey. The man asked after her daughters. They soon were heard below. There was some sort of flurry of activity that moved off towards the side of the house where the parlor was. Ella looked at her apron. She sighed, wishing that the magic had not faded. She walked over and picked it up, stunned to discover that the slipper remained with the key. Ella picked up the key and cautiously tried it at the lock again.
Soundlessly, the door opened. With her bare feet, Ella crept down the hallway. She sneaked down the stairs and peeked around the corner. Someone stood in the doorway from the parlor into the kitchen. The portly servant with the cheerful smile held something that winked in the light before her tall, skinny stepsister as she sat in the chair and held out her foot. He talked ceaselessly about the delight that Lady Ambrey was at the ball. As he spoke, Ella's stepmother gave a little huff of distaste, leaning on her cane. Ella's eyes widened as she saw the mate of the glass slipper in her apron pocket.
Her stepsister's foot proved too wide for the slipper. She rubbed her toes, looking as uncomfortable as her sister who had blood oozing from her own toes where it seemed she had cut them in anticipation of putting them in to the slipper. The servant looked at Ella's stepmother. He saw Ella in the shadows behind her. "Have you another daughter?" he asked. Ella's stepmother's eyes widened slightly. She looked over her shoulder and saw Ella standing there.
"No," she replied, looking at Ella with hatred, "Only a servant."
A familiar voice said from the other doorway, "Let her come forward." As the prince's servant turned to approach Ella, her stepmother moved her cane. She knocked it into the servant in a seemingly accidental motion as she turned. The glass slipper fell from his hands and shattered on the floor. The servant blanched. Ella's sisters gasped. Ella timidly walked forward. As soon as she was in eyesight, the prince recognized her.
Divested of her finery and having lingering bruises on her wrists and shins, the prince still knew the woman he saw standing before him with her eyes lowered. "What a pity," her stepmother said, "The slipper is lost. I fear you shall not find the one you seek, my lord." Ella felt the weight of the slipper in her pocket. As she came forward, she pulled it out. Ella's stepsisters gawked at her in shock at the sight of the slipper. Her stepmother's face darkened with anger.
She raised her cane. Ella looked over her shoulder at her stepmother and blanched, nearly dropping the glass slipper in her hand. The prince crossed the room with a few swift strides. He wrenched the cane from the stepmother's hand. She glared up at him. "No more," he said, dropping the cane to the ground at her feet. "Come, maiden, the carriage awaits," he said to Ella. She looked at him and trembled. He stepped up beside her and took her left hand firmly in his own. "Come," he said, "my father awaits you." Ella flushed and took a hesitant step with the prince as he began to walk out of the house. He looked over at her and she saw his fierce look of determination. Lowering her eyes demurely, Ella walked with him.
Ella's stepmother called after them, "I forbid it. This will not happen." The prince ignored her as he lead Ella to the carriage. He personally helped Ella into the carriage and then entered himself. The servant bustled out to the carriage and made his way inside. As he sat across from the prince and Ella, he smiled. Ella's stepmother watched furiously as the carriage left. Her daughters asked if Ella's marriage to the prince would give them title and wealth. The woman turned and shrieked at them to leave her alone.