She had become accustomed to the screaming by the time she turned eighteen. Drunks, strangers, suicidal teenagers, it did not matter. The noises were always the same. The screams were accompanied by whispering when one of them passed by her tightly shut bedroom window. The whispers of dozens of souls, sucked out of the bodies they had once belonged to, and trapped in one of these creatures, unnerved her more than the screaming. But it did not wake her up anymore.
Instead, Ella was woken by soft tinkling, coming from the bells that hung above her bed. They were marked with name tags, but she knew which one belonged to whom by now. When her eyes surveyed the room, she spotted an icy handprint on her window. Someone had tried to get in. Again.
Making her way down the winding stairs, she headed for the left wing of the manor. After passing several locked rooms, windows with threadbare curtains, and cold fireplaces, she reached the well-maintained part of the house. She knocked on the door to the master suite, before heading inside.
‘That was about time, Goldilocks.’ Ella cringed when she heard the nickname her father had given her coming from the mouth of this woman. Her stepmother was sitting upright in bed, her bony hands resting on the sheets. The bedroom window was barred, as were the windows in most houses in the village.
‘I’m sorry,’ she mumbled, dodging her stepmother’s gaze as she rushed to the bathroom. She opened the hatch to the water storage and started pouring buckets of water into the bathtub, quickly putting a bucket under it where the water was trickling through a crack in the porcelain. Ella slipped out of the room without looking at her stepmother, and went into the bedroom of her older stepsister, Lea. With her translucent skin and raven hair, Lea was seen as the most desirable young woman in town, but Ella had never understood this. Lea’s nose seemed to be stuck in a perpetual wrinkle, and she was always squinting.
Lea did not speak, but gestured at the dress Ella had hung up the night before. In silence, Ella helped her stepsister get dressed. The dress was a bit too tight for Lea, and so short it showed the bottom half of her calves, but it still looked better than the rags Ella usually wore. Lea sat down at her vanity, dismissing Ella with one elegant hand movement, and Ella scurried out of the room.
Entering the room of her second stepsister was almost a relief. Lucy was younger than Ella, and her heart had not been completely spoilt yet.
‘I could hear them last night,’ Lucy whispered, as Ella helped her into her dress, a hand-me-down from Lea.
‘They cannot get past the bars, Lucy, you know that. As long as you stay in the house, you are safe.’ Ella did not mention her bedroom window without bars, nor the icy handprint she had found this morning.
After lacing up Lucy’s dress, Ella hurried to the kitchen, where she lit the furnace. When she heard footsteps coming down the stairs, she started clanking pots and pans together, hoping no one would come in if they thought she was busy.
The door flew open and Ella put down the empty pots as her stepmother swept into the room. She walked straight to the kitchen door, and opened it to pick up the morning paper from the porch. Ella heard the pages rustling as her stepmother flicked through the paper, and started filling the kettle with water. When her stepmother squealed, it slipped out of Ella’s hands, landing in the sink with a loud clatter. She had never heard her stepmother make a sound that was not disapproving or disgusted.
The woman bolted to the door that led to the hallway and yelled: ‘Lea, Lucy! Come quick!’
The two appeared not long afterwards, and their mother held the paper up in front of them, so they could read the article. Lea was the fastest reader, and screamed: ‘Tonight?!’
‘A masked ball?’ Lucy murmured. Her eyes gleamed, and she looked over her mother’s shoulder to Ella. ‘In the palace! The prince is looking for a bride, and has decided to marry a girl from the village! It could be anyone!’
‘You’re right, Lucy, it could be anyone,’ her stepmother agreed. ‘But it will be Lea.’ Lea’s smile instantly broadened, and she batted her eyelashes in a way Ella thought was supposed to be seductive. As her stepmother chatted on about Lea’s qualities as a princess, Ella’s mind was working on full speed. This was her chance to leave this house, and the family that had despised her ever since they had met her.
‘Can I come?’ she blurted out. The three turned towards her, shock on their faces, having forgotten she was in the room as well.
‘You?’ her stepmother asked, expressing more disgust in that one word than Ella had in her entire life.
‘It says “eligible”, Ella, I don’t think servants fall into that category.’ Lea’s smile was dripping with poison.
‘I’m not a…’ Ella started, but her stepmother shook her head decisively.
‘We simply cannot afford it, Goldilocks,’ she said, sounding like she was genuinely sorry. ‘You would have nothing to wear: Lea’s dresses don’t fit you. You don’t want to embarrass our family in front of the prince, do you know?’ Her stepmother marched out of the kitchen before Ella could protest, Lea following close behind.
Lucy lingered in the kitchen for a moment. ‘I’m sorry, Ella,’ the girl mumbled before turning on her heels and hurrying after her mother and sister.
That night, Ella heard them leaving the house, but she refused to come out of the kitchen to wave goodbye. She was standing by the kitchen window, looking outside into the garden and the forest behind it. Darkness had descended over the village, but there were no screams tonight. As the night progressed, the sounds faded. Ella did not move away from the window, but kept staring into the forest like her life depended on it.
A scream caught in her throat when something moved between the trees. She instinctively ducked, but raised her head after a couple of seconds and glanced through the kitchen window. A woman, illuminated by the full moon, stood in the middle of the garden. Her skin was white as chalk, her eyes black like onyx. The grass around her was frosted, and Ella could see icy footprints where the woman had walked through the garden. She could not hear the whispers through the window, but she knew they were there. However, all her attention was drawn to the woman’s clothing. The ice blue ball gown, with puffy sleeves and tulle skirts, sparkled in the moonlight, and matched the silver mask she was wearing perfectly. It was the perfect outfit for a royal ball.
Ella’s gaze darted across the kitchen to the furnace, and the iron poker heating up in the fire. She remembered what her father had told her once: only an iron stake through the throat will kill them and release the souls that are trapped inside. She crawled to the furnace, grabbing the poker by its cool end. She knew that once she went outside, she had two choices: to kill, or to die.
She put her hand on the handle of the kitchen door, and peeked through the small, barred window in the door. The woman was now standing in the middle of the garden with her back to Ella, her gaze fixed on the full moon. Ella knew the whispers surrounding them made them hear less well, and that her only chance to kill the woman was to take her by surprise.
She pushed down the handle, and the door opened silently. Ella rose and took a careful step onto the path. The woman did not stir, and Ella took another step, then another. She raised the poker, aiming for the woman’s pale throat. When Ella thrust the iron forward, the woman spun around, her eyes widening in surprise when the poker pierced her windpipe. She made no sound, except for a soft thud when she fell down on the grass. The only indication that life was leaving her were the whispers disappearing, and the garden grew silent again.
Ella allowed no time for guilt to conquer her mind when she slipped the dress off the woman’s body. The woman had been a monster. The person she had once been, had disappeared when she had decided to become one of them. Ella promised that person that she had not died in vain. Her dress would be put to good use.
The dress was a bit short on Ella, but the woman’s shoes were so beautiful that Ella was happy for the chance to show them off. The slippers were see-through, made of a glass-like material, and glimmered in the moonlight that streamed in through the kitchen windows.
She grabbed the poker from the place next to the furnace where she had put it down, and made her way over to the front door. This was, by far, the worst idea she had ever had. Killing a creature was one thing, but walking through the streets in a ball gown with a poker in one hand and a pair of slippers in the other, was something else entirely. She closed her eyes, and brought to mind all the times her stepmother had smacked her across the face for burning some toast, all the times Lea had messed up her entire bedroom, just so Ella would have to clean it up again, all the times Ella had been treated like a servant instead of a member of the family. Her knuckles were white from clenching the poker when she opened the door. She sprinted outside, onto the dark street.
When Ella arrived at the palace, panting, beads of sweat dripping from her forehead, she had no idea how she had made it there. The whispers in the streets had surrounded her, poking at her head, begging her to join them, but she had not been attacked. She paused at the bottom of the steps leading up to the double doors that granted entrance to the palace, to drop the poker and put on her slippers before making her way up the stairs.
The guard standing at the doors looked Ella up and down, but let her in without a comment. The doors opened straight into the ballroom, and Ella found herself standing on the platform, a flight of stairs to her right descending into the room. The inner circle of the ballroom was occupied by hundreds of dancers. They circled around the pillars that supported the roof, a sea of glistening dresses and stiff suits, waltzing to the loud music that boomed through the room, drowning out all the other sounds..
Ella approached the stairs leading down, but was stopped by the announcer. ‘What is your name, miss?’
‘Ella,’ she answered.
The announcer stomped his staff on the ground twice. ‘Your highness, ladies, gentlemen, the lovely Ella.’ The announcer was screaming at the top of his lungs, but hardly anyone heard him. As calmly as she could, Ella descended the staircase, one hand on the railing to prevent her from falling over.
When Ella reached the bottom of the stairs, she hesitated for a moment. A young man wearing a golden mask that showed only two dark eyes approached her, extending his gloved hand, which she gratefully accepted. ‘Dear Ella,’ he said, leading her away from the staircase. ‘Welcome to my ball.’
The prince, she realised. ‘Your highness,’ she said. ‘It’s an honour.’ Ella spotted her stepmother from the corner of her eye, and turned away, hoping that the woman had not seen her yet.
‘The pleasure is all mine,’ he answered, before inviting her to dance.
Ella’s mother had always told her that the only thing in life that was truly like a fairy tale was love.
After three hours of dancing with the prince, Ella was convinced she finally understood what her mother had meant. She found herself smiling at everything he said, despite the fact that he was forced to shout his sweet words over the pounding music.
The clock struck twelve when they heard a piercing scream coming from the garden. Ella’s gaze left the prince’s face for the first time that night, and she saw five creatures coming through the doors. The music stopped, and the whispering was suddenly overwhelming, like one of them was standing right next to her. With the rest of the crowd, Ella sprinted towards the open doors. When she reached the exit, the prince was still in the ballroom, surrounded by guards, and the creatures were moving towards the door where the crowd had disappeared moments before, choosing easy prey.
‘Ella, wait!’ the prince called, but she refused to stop. She ran, leaving her slippers on the top of the palace stairs. She looked over her shoulder to see the prince burst through the door just behind the creatures. They came down, but he stopped at the top of the staircase to pick up her slippers.
Ella ran for her life, hoping that someone, somewhere, had decided to let her live through the night. Every once in a while, a scream pierced the cold air, and she would pick up her pace a bit. When she reached the manor, the house was still dark. Ella quickly made her way to the kitchen, where she slipped out of the dress and into her own clothes, chucking the gown and the mask into an empty cupboard. She was just smoothing out her curls when she heard the front door open. Walking into the hall, she faked a smile.
‘How was the ball?’ she asked sweetly. Three pairs of frightened eyes were staring back at her.
‘They came,’ Lucy whispered. The girl was shaking, her braids had come loose, and tears were flowing down her cheeks.
‘Oh no.’ Ella feigned surprise. She made her way over to Lucy, brushing the tears off her stepsister’s cheeks. ‘Luckily you are all okay. How was the prince?’
‘He was so dreamy,’ Lea sighed, her eyes glazing over. Ella turned away from them to hide her smile. ‘He was definitely looking at me,’ she heard Lea say.
‘He most definitely was not,’ Ella mumbled, but no one heard.
The next afternoon, when Ella was in the kitchen, she was startled by a knock on the front door. She started for the hallway, but when she had opened the kitchen door just a crack, she heard Lea coming down the stairs.
‘Don’t open that!’ her stepsister yelled. ‘It’s the prince! He must be coming for me!’
‘Lea, wait.’ Her stepmother, who had just come out of the lounge, made Lea stop on her tracks. ‘I will open the door.’ Gracefully, she opened the front door, acting surprised when she saw the prince standing on her porch.
‘Welcome,’ her stepmother said. ‘I assume you are here for my daughter?’
‘I am here for every girl who was at the ball,’ he answered. ‘But, more specifically, for the girl who wore these.’ He held the shoe out to her. The glass caught the sunlight, creating a rainbow on the wall, and Ella’s breath caught in her throat. ‘I have been looking everywhere. This is the only house I have not visited yet. You are my last hope.’
‘Oh, my Lea has ones just like those,’ her stepmother said. ‘Or she did, until she lost them, of course.’ Her fake laugh trailed through the hallway. ‘Lea, dear!’
Lea appeared from one of the rooms that had doors leading to the hallway. ‘Yes mother?’ she said. She stopped when she saw the prince. ‘Your highness,’ she said, sinking into a low bow.
‘Please, sit down,’ the prince answered, gesturing at one of the chairs in the hallway. Lea obeyed, the chair creaking in protest. Her slippers slipped from her feet, and the prince took her foot in his hand, fitting the shoe onto her foot. However, the shoe was too small for Lea, and the prince took it off he foot again.
‘I’m sorry to bother you,’ he said softly.
‘No, please, try again. I’m sure it fits. It must fit!’ her stepmother sounded desperate now, and Lea was nodding eagerly.
That was the moment Ella chose to emerge from the kitchen. ‘Excuse me, but may I try?’
‘Please, Ella, don’t be silly,’ her grandmother said, but the prince stopped her.
‘Your name is Ella?’ he asked. As his eyes roamed her body, Ella saw a hint of recognition in his eyes, despite her dirty clothes and bare feet. ‘Please sit.’
Ella took place in the chair opposite of Lea, and the prince gently took her foot in his gloved hand. The shoe slid onto her foot with ease, and as she stood up, he took the other shoe out as well, and slipped it on her other foot.
‘Ella,’ he mumbled. ‘Please marry me.’ Ella nodded. Anything better than living with her stepmother and stepsisters forever.
His broad back obscured her view of the window. When he turned around, Ella smiled at the man she could now call her husband, still wearing the suit he had married her in mere hours before. He slowly peeled off his gloves and walked towards where she was sitting. Her smile melted off her face when he clasped his ice cold hands around hers, the whispers that surrounded him embracing her at the same time he did.
Previously published in the UKCCWS Illustrated Anthology Vol. 3 (2016) with the accompanying illustration.
Once upon a time, there was a girl named Judith, a BA history student at the University of Kent, and a lover of all things mystical and fantastical. She spent her days reading, watching way too many period dramas, and staring out into her aquarium, searching for mermaids. She does not know this yet herself, but will live happily ever after in an awesome big city, surrounded by her 12 cats.