Monday, December 9, 2013
Paco José Madden: Cinderella, Dragon Slayer Rev. 1
Name: Paco José Madden
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
Title: Cinderella, Dragon Slayer (2nd Draft)
Fire. It’s all I ever think about, as I stack wood in the fireplace. The fire that ruined my life, that changed everything. I can see it happening right before my eyes.
Flames flicker all about me. My mother screams from above. A screeching sound of something terrible rips through the air and pierces in my ears. I place my hands over them, hands much smaller than my hands are now. Hands of a girl four—no, five—years of age. My tiny feet run to the stairs but the burning steps collapse in ash and smoke. The fire blazes so fast. My father stumbles from his workroom. I run towards him. A flaming beam falls on top of him and traps him underneath.
‘Papa, please. Let me help you,’ I hear myself cry.
My little hands can’t lift the burning wood.
‘Go! Get out! Save yourself.’ He says through fits of coughing.
‘I’m not going to leave you and mama.’
‘You’ll die. You’ll—’
Then my father looks up at me strangely. What’s wrong I think? Before those words can escape my mouth, the roof crashes down. Then all is darkness.
I’ve avoided fire ever since. A safe distance from the logs lit in the fireplace, I carefully place the poker back in its holder and wipe soot in front of the hearth. I’m just starting my day, and there is much work for me to do before the dawn.
Our house was destroyed by a dragon. When the townspeople came to the wreckage, they weren’t expecting survivors. Underneath the charred roof they found me. Still alive. Bruised and cut. But without a burn on my entire body. From that point forward, I was called Cinderella, the girl found in the cinders.
I’m sixteen now. For the past eleven years, I have been living with Auntie and her two daughters, Elvira and Esmira in a manor house on the outskirts of town. To say they took pity on me would be a lie. Auntie gives me nothing to wear but an old gray shift and no slippers for my feet, even in winter. I am also tasked with all the chores within and without the home. Before dawn, I the carry water, make the fire, cook, and wash. I clean in the afternoon. I prepare dinner and run errands before the sun goes down. Life isn’t so terrible if it’s simply drudgery, but Auntie and her charges find every opportunity to cause me grief and make me look ridiculous.
“Handle the plate and silver with a dishtowel. We don’t want it to get grubby,” gripes Auntie.
“I dropped a bowl of lentils out my window. Pick up every bean,” orders Elvira.
“Cinder, gray suits you. It is the color of blandness,” sneers Esmira.
The trio do nothing all day but gossip and stuff themselves with teacakes. They imagine every idleness a virtue and hard work a sin. Without me, these lollygags would most likely starve and die. That fact doesn’t make them treat me any better.
My only happiness is what I find on my windowsill each evening. When I go to bed, after all my labors are done, when my relations have teased and tortured me to no end, there on the ledge outside my window lies a cut red rose. I don’t know who brings it. I don’t know why. And I have never been able to catch the giver. But without fail, since my thirteenth birthday rain or shine, freezing cold or blistering hot, a red flower greets me when darkness falls and the stars come out of hiding. I sometimes imagine it’s my dead mother or father descending from heaven to cheer me up. Silly, I know. Perhaps it’s some admirer from afar. But who would admire me? It may just be some wandering soul who pities me. But I’m grateful. That daily act of kindness tells me there is still good in the world. It gives me hope.
“Daydreaming again?” Auntie calls from the playing table.
I stand in the kitchen doorway, leaning against a broom.
Her brows furrow, cracking the white paint on her face.
“Lazy girl,” adds one of my cousins looking over a hand of cards. A beauty mark dots her chin.
“Sweep! Sweep!” says the other and fans with her suits of cards in such a motion. This one’s cheeks are so red with rouge you would think she was constantly blushing.
I get back to the work and the three idlers return to their game.
A rope snaps and a crossbeam tumbles on one of the masons building the home for orphaned children. He screams, as the wooden timber crushes his legs. The man’s weather beaten hat lays beside his balding pate, as workers above scrabble down a series of ladders, ropes, and pulleys from the frame structure that appears as nothing more than ribs of wood. The first to arrive on the scene is Prince Perfect in his royal blue cape and jodhpurs.
I’m walking home from the market with a basketful of goods when I see this happen right in front of me.
Prince Perfect is the heir to the throne and only child of the King and Queen. His real name isn’t Perfect, but everyone calls him that because he strives in every way to be faultless. In courtesy and manners, in manliness and courage, in compassion and humility, the Prince excels, hence the nickname. This was in not due to his parents’ care, but the nursemaid who raised him. She was a saintly soul, who loved and disciplined the child as duty required. The nursemaid taught him never to treat the servants as chattel, that kingship was a privilege not a right, and that one must always endeavor to do good with the gifts in one’s possession. It was said that the Prince as a child told a lie about a theft he committed which he blamed on his manservant. The nursemaid did not punish him, but her disappointment was so great that the Prince vowed never to lie again unless it was to save a person’s life. Prince Perfect meant every word and never lied or committed a misdeed since. He also joined the nursemaid on her daily calls about town to assist the poor and sick. The Prince was a willing helper. He enjoyed being kind and generous. When his gentle-hearted angel of a nursemaid passed away, Prince Perfect grieved terribly, but he kept her spirit alive by continuing to do good and acting properly.
Now kneeling in front of the stonemason, the Prince attempts to lift the beam from the hurt builder. He turns to me and says, “Can you give me a hand?” I drop my wicker basket to the ground, fruits and vegetables spilling everywhere and bend down to help lift the block of wood. Another set of hands grabs hold of the other side. Something rank stings my nostrils, but I am too preoccupied to investigate the scent. The injured man moans and cries out in pain.
“On the count of three we lift. And you”—the Prince shouts to a carpenter who has reached the ground floor—“pull the poor fellow out.”
The carpenter puts his hands under the man’s armpits. He nods at Prince Perfect.
“One. Two. Three.” The three of us lift the great plank of timber just enough, so the carpenter can free the man lying below.
“Let go.” The Prince instructs. The log drops to the ground with a thud. The other workers arrive and load the injured man onto a cart. He mumbles an agonized ‘thank you’ to the Prince, who takes the man’s hand and says some encouraging words.
Then he turns to one of the mason’s. “Take him at once to the doctor in the castle. Make sure he receives the best care. His legs still might be saved.” Prince Perfect places a gold ducat into the man’s hand. The men carry away the injured party, as the Prince stoops to collect the fruit and vegetables that fell from my basket.
“Thank you both for helping lift the beam,” he says, as he puts a pair of tomatoes in the hamper. I look behind me. So that was where the foul smell was coming from. The swineherd’s son was the other person lifting the beam along with the Prince and me. The boy stands on the opposite side of the girder, his hair and clothes splattered with mud and slop. His hair is rangy and looks as if a pile of straw was laid on top of his head. The boy also has a squat if stout build.
“What are your names?” asks Prince Perfect still gathering my fallen produce. From a kneeling position, his blonde lashes catch the sun and sparkle like the gold that was in his palm a moment ago. I don’t know why I remain standing and do not bother to collect the fruits and vegetables myself. Somehow I’m fixed to the spot.
“My name is Cinderella,” I tell him.
The swineherd’s son, on the other hand, dashes off before saying a word.
“I hope I didn’t offend him by asking his name.” The Prince rises and hands me the basket.
“He’s the swineherd’s son. He smells and no one likes him.” I wrap my arms around the wicker vessel.
“If you had been working with pigs all day, you would reek too. I wonder if there is anything I can do to help?”
I blush, embarrassed, by what I said about the swineherd’s son. I forget that I’m talking to a prince and Prince Perfect at that. “You’ll think of something,” I reassure him.
“Again, you have my gratitude.” The Prince is known for profusely thanking those who help him do a good deed. “I hope I shall soon see you again, Cinderella.” He removes his feathered cap and bows. A footman brings his horse around. Prince Perfect mounts the silvery steed and gallops away.
I sigh, my head full of silly fantasies. Continuing my journey home, I regret how I spoke of the swineherd’s son. If there’s anyone worse off than me in town, it is him. He lives on a pig farm not far from Auntie’s house. Auntie and her daughters often complain when a breeze blows downwind of the farm, bringing with it the stench of pig and offal. The boy has the unenviable task of caring for the hogs of his cruel stepfather. Sometimes, when passing the farm, I hear the sound of a belt thrashing flesh and the cries of the poor boy. Still it’s hard to sympathize with someone whose fate that so closely resembles my own.
“Dawdling again?” Auntie stands in the doorway of the house. Her arms cross over her chest, and she has the usual expression of dissatisfaction on her face. “We’ve been sitting all day waiting for supper. Where have you been? Oh, never mind. I’m not in the mood to hear one of your useless excuses. Get inside the kitchen and cook something edible.”