Not only did I change the title and cover of my Cinderella retelling, but I’ve made the first two chapters available for you to read below. Also, see the wolf on the cover? I picked him out. It was kind of nice picking out my own wolf! I chose him because I think he looks tough. I’ve pasted the original image at the end of this post.
When I was six years old, my mother was kidnapped, and no one believed my account of what happened. I saw everything, but afterwards when I told my father he wouldn’t listen to me – even though he had been there too.
The day I lost her started out like an ordinary day. My parents and I were in the carriage on the road to town. When we were miles from home, we came upon a strange, young woman. Father frowned and pulled the horses to a halt before her. Oddly pale with black hair, she told us her name was Seren. She warned us the way wasn’t safe and asked that we turn around and head home with all haste. As Father began to question her, riders appeared from the woods. Seren took a glance at them and bolted. Barefoot beneath her plain gown, her feet pattered across the dirt as she sprinted off into the forest on the opposite side.
Branches snapped and cracked as the darkly-clothed horsemen burst through the trees. They galloped straight toward us. A blinding flash of light made our horses squeal and toss their heads, and I shielded my eyes with my arm. I couldn’t see how they did it, but I knew the glare came from the men. Whatever it was, it knocked Mother unconscious beside me. She slumped over against the side wall. Gripping her dress with my little fingers, I clung on for dear life as our horses reared and sidled. They nearly tipped our rig. The black-hooded men closed in around us, blocking our escape on all sides. One rider seized Father and yanked him from the carriage, while two others on foot dragged him away. Another man started to take Mother. I grabbed her leg and braced myself, but the man hauled her from the seat and me along with her. Losing my grip, I tumbled onto the dusty ground and started to cry.
That’s when the wolf appeared – the largest wolf I had ever seen. It walked upright like a human and yet was an animal in every way. Its fur was coal black, its fangs were long and sharp, and its growl was fierce, guttural and terrifying. The wolf’s eyes were blazing orange like coals smoldering from insatiable rage.
Rigid with fear, I watched from the dirt as the beast lifted my mother and cradled her limp, unconscious body. The wolf held her away from our assailants in its massive arms. Such a fearsome creature, with its claws and powerful muscles, yet it seemed to be trying to help. But as so many men struck it with weapons, the creature was forced to set Mother down to defend itself. The wolf carefully lay her near a tree trunk.
With flaming arrows jutting out of its hide, the beast’s snarl shook the foundations of the forest. For an instant everything, and everyone, went still. We froze in awe, our eyes locked on the wolf. Then the world was in motion again, the beast leaping forth as it reached out and seized the first man by the neck. It flung him against a tree with a crack, and once he fell, he moved no more. It grabbed the next man and the next, hurling them like rag dolls or tearing them apart.
My legs were weak and wobbly as I stumbled forward. The wolf and the men were blocking my view. I couldn’t see Mother now. I ran around the skirmish to the tree where the wolf had lain her, but she wasn’t there. Glancing up, I saw two men carrying her. Hearing me call out, another man ran at me, but the massive beast thrust itself between us. It grabbed the man by the wrist and lifted him off the ground. With a savage growl, the wolf ripped an arm from his body and tossed it aside. The blood was so red and vivid. The man’s cries were so sharp and agonized, but the wolf silenced them.
My vision dimmed, and I passed out near the edge of the forest. When I awoke, things were much quieter. I heard faint bird calls and footsteps. The ground seemed to be moving below me, yet I couldn’t feel my feet. I looked up to see the blue sky, and beneath that, the elongated muzzle of the giant, black wolf. I could smell its singed fur and feel the limp in its gait. It was holding me in its arms and I screamed, squirming and pushing against its wide, muscular chest.
“There now,” the wolf said. Its voice was coarse but vaguely female. “I am taking you somewhere safe.” I stared up at her in disbelief. Not only did this formidable creature want to help me, just as she had tried to help my mother, but she could speak like a human.
The wolf took me to the sanctuary of her den within a thicket, where she set me down and departed. Father was already inside the shadowy hollow. He lay on the ground, injured and unresponsive. Five wolf pups whimpered softly nearby. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light, the strange, black-haired woman named Seren returned. She was hurt too, and I wondered if she had escaped from the bad men as well. My mother was still missing.
“Seren,” I said, a sob catching in my throat. “Did the men take her? Has the great wolf gone to look for her?”
She paused, picking up one of the wolf pups before she replied. The other four puppies yipped and pawed at her as she sat cross-legged on the leaf-covered floor. “What is your name, little one?”
I swallowed and wiped a tear from my cheek. I tried to steady my wavering voice as I answered, “I am Elin. My father’s name is Talies, and my mother is Cara. Do you think we can find her?”
“Elin,” Seren repeated softly. “I am sorry, dear girl. I – the wolf did her best, but some of the men managed to escape with your mother. There is no more we can do. But, the wolf did free your father, and he will heal. We will care for him together.”
I nodded, knowing I should be thankful and glad of this. And I was, because I loved Father too. But I just couldn’t accept that Mother was gone forever, or dead, and that there was nothing anyone could do about it. I curled up in the den with the pups and cried until that evening when I fell asleep.
Over the course of a week, Seren brought us food and nursed Father back to health. At times when she wasn’t around, an ordinary, black wolf came and nursed her young. It was odd that just like the pale woman and the giant wolf, this common animal had identical injuries. I tried to ask Seren about this, but she only said that she, a human, was a friend to all the wolves and they fought together.
As Father and I hid away in the lair, a battle raged outside the thicket. At different hours of day and night, I heard wolves snarl and men scream. Sometimes the sounds were close by and other times they were more distant. Once, I peeked out and saw others like the great, black wolf who rescued Father and me, fighting against more of those bad men. Frightened and grieving, I held one of the warm puppies in my arms for comfort. He was the largest, a light brown male. The little wolf said his name was Trystan – I know because he told me, although I can’t explain how it’s possible. He thought it into my mind, and I understood. Sitting beside Father with Trystan on my lap, we spoke through our thoughts as the battle slowly died down. The human cries diminished until only the growls of beasts remained. It brought me hope. For whatever reason, the giant wolves were on our side.
When Father awoke and was well enough to travel, Seren arranged a carriage for us. She helped him walk back to the road where the driver was waiting.
“Thank you,” I said. “You have been so kind to us.” I reached out to clutch Seren’s hand as she helped boost me up onto the seat.
She smiled and pressed her palm gently against my cheek. “It was the least I could do. Have a safe journey, and perhaps one day we will meet again.” And as our carriage started to pull away in the bright daylight, I couldn’t help but notice that Seren’s eyes were blazing orange – exactly like the giant wolf’s.
* * * * *
It wasn’t until the next morning at home when Father swore that we had been robbed by highwaymen, and that Mother had hit her head and was swept away by the river.
“No Father, that is not what happened at all. We were attacked, but the wolf tried to save her,” I told him. “Do you not remember? The huge, black wolf who stood upright on its hind legs – the one who fought off so many of those bad men. But when they shot it full of flaming arrows, it had to set Mother down, and the men took her after all.”
“Elin, your mother was killed when the horses spooked. She was thrown from the carriage near the river and the current carried her away. That blow to her head was fatal. She was already dead when she hit the water. There was nothing I could do,” Father replied, looking down on me with sympathetic, careworn eyes.
“But we were not near the river, we were on the road in the woods,” I said.
“Yes, dear, but that road takes us across it. You have ridden to town with me many times, and you know that we always take a bridge into Lyntref.”
I stared at the table. There was a bridge across the river, but we were not anywhere near that when this happened. Continuing to plead with him in desperation, I brought up other things in hopes of jarring his memory. I told him about the blinding flash of light. I mentioned how the men had dragged him from the wagon, beating him with clubs and tying him up. He didn’t seem to recall that either. I wrung my hands and leaned forward, imploring him to embrace reason as tears leaked out of my wide, red eyes.
“If only you would try and remember, Father. Now that you are healed, we should go back and try to follow the trail, see where the men have taken her,” I said, my voice breaking like an ill-tuned lyre. “She was not dead, only asleep. I know it – I saw…”
Father folded his hands on the table. He pushed down the corners of his mouth when he smiled, a piteous gesture. “Elin, you were frightened. The feral dog that ran near our wagon was no wolf. It scared the horses, making it easier for the men to attack us. I know you are grieving for your mother, as am I. But we must not let our imaginations run wild, even though we may feel it helps to explain why she was taken from us. We both saw the highwaymen who waylaid and robbed us. And your mother’s death was a tragic accident. Nothing more.”
A tragic accident? As if forgetting how we lost my mother wasn’t enough, he also seemed to have no problem pronouncing her dead when we hadn’t found her body. For days I tried to jar Father’s memory, or at least get him to believe what I had been telling him. The “funeral” came and went, and none of my arguments were successful. After crying myself to sleep one night, I tackled the subject again in the morning, this time with a plan.
As Father sat across from me at breakfast, spooning oatmeal into his mouth, I said, “I know that you do not remember what happened, but I understand now. I realized you must have forgotten because you were badly hurt. But it is all right, you see, because all I need to do is show you where I last saw Mother. We can go there together. The bad men might have left tracks – we can follow them. And I can call for Seren. You must remember her – the woman who cared for us inside the wolf’s den. She will probably help us again. She may even know where the bad men have taken Mother.”
Father frowned, shaking his head. His words came out hard and unyielding. “Elin, no. I understand that you are grieving. You are young, and this must be very hard for you. But that is enough.”
I felt my facing turning red. “Father, we should at least look for her. We must try. Where is she?”
He dropped his spoon into the bowl and glared at me. “Elin, no, I said. That is enough!”
My feeble flame of hope flickered and died. Still clutching my fork, I started bawling. Warm, sticky tears rolled down my face. Between shudders I managed, “But we need to go find her! Where is she?”
Father took the napkin from his lap and threw it on the table, almost like he was whipping the placemat with it. Looking away from me, he called for my nanny. “Mari!”
“Where is Mother? Where is she?” I screamed. The fork slipped out of my hand and thumped next to my plate. “Where –” I drew a breath through my loud crying. “– is she?!”
“Mari!” Father demanded.
The nanny seemed to materialize in the dining room doorway, poised there with her mouth partway open.
“Take her,” Father said.
Before she got her hands under my armpits to whisk me away, I gritted my teeth, scrunched my mouth into a sour pucker, and pushed my plate off the table. It hit the floor and broke in two, food flying in various directions. I hurled my fork at the far wall, barely missing my father’s head. I picked up my glass of milk with an unsteady hand which jerked to-and-fro from my wild weeping. Some of the liquid sloshed onto my arm as I tossed the glass to the side. The milk splashed across the hardwood floor and against the wall paper.
“There now, Elin, come to Mari,” the nanny said, lifting me off the chair as I kicked my feet with all my strength.
“Where is she?” I screamed, inhaling for another good wail. “Where is she? Where is she? Where is she?!”
Father buried his face in his hands while Mari removed me from his sight.
* * * * *
That night, I awakened from a disturbing dream. Now the thought of seeking out my nanny seemed like a good idea, so I padded across the hallway in my bare feet. When I neared the stairs, I overheard her and Father speaking.
Mari was saying, “Are you sure that is necessary? I cannot imagine putting her away. The poor child. She is having such a terrible time right now. But I am sure she will come around.”
Father sighed. “I just do not know. She insists on that fantastical story of giant wolves and a wild woman. And you saw her at breakfast. That is not normal behavior.”
“I know,” Mari said, her voice soft. “But please do not put her away. I will do everything I can to help her through this. She will become herself again. You will see.”
Put her away. I might have known what it meant, but here at our home, Blaenwood, on the other side of the vast forest, we are sheltered from much of the kingdom. My knowledge was limited to what my elders told me. Too upset with Father to ask outright, and too embarrassed of my tantrum to ask Mari, the next day I consulted one of the housekeepers.
“Brenda, what does ‘put away’ mean?” I asked.
“Well, that simply means to set something back in its proper place,” the kindly woman replied. She smiled down at me, little wrinkles springing up at the corners of her eyes.
“Yes.” I pushed out my bottom lip. “But what if it is a person?”
Brenda blinked, pulling her head back slightly as she frowned. “What do you mean, Elin?”
“What if someone was going to put a person away? What does it mean?” I asked.
The housekeeper gasped. “Elin, who said that?”
I furrowed my brow and shifted my feet, already frustrated that she hadn’t answered my question. “Father said it.”
She stared at me for a few seconds, then knelt in front of me, taking me gently by the shoulders. She glared into my eyes. “Now Elin, you listen to your old Brenda. No one is getting put away. Do you understand?”
I nodded. I didn’t understand at all, but maybe there were reasons why Father didn’t believe me, and Brenda wouldn’t answer a question. Or maybe life was just cruel. Not even the housekeeper was on my side.
The years crept by after Mother’s disappearance, leaving an empty ache in my chest. The pain and betrayal receded to the back corners of my mind, crusting over like a half-healed wound. I couldn’t control what other people saw, or what they did about it. I could only promise myself that one day I would find out the true nature of my mother’s fate, even if I didn’t like the answer. And I would never again let someone betray me this way – brand me a delusional child for telling the truth. Never again.
* * * * *
Eleven years later, to a degree it seemed that history was about to repeat itself. I saw something coming that could ruin our lives and I didn’t know how to tell Father about it.
I wanted to be happy that he was remarrying. I truly did. I wanted to share in the joy with him, to celebrate the fact that he had decided to live again – to really live. Gwyneth could never replace my birth mother, Cara, but having another woman to confide in wasn’t a bad thing. These ideas were all so wonderful. They shimmered in my thoughts like sunlight on butterflies’ wings, beckoning me to succumb to the warmth of a summer day. Too bad those ideas weren’t real.
When I learned what Gwyneth was, I knew I had do something, but I felt powerless. So many things had happened during the last six months. So many inexplicable occurrences had muddied my thinking, compelling me to hold my tongue. I had no idea how to explain any of it to Father in a way he would understand. If he didn’t believe in events we experienced together, how could he possibly believe in what happened to me when I was alone?
Father and I stood in the wide hallway of our three-century-old estate home. I had been born here seventeen years ago, and the walls, painted sage green, were still decorated much the same as they were during my earliest memories. Under our feet was the burgundy rug which Mother had woven herself, depicting deer and oak trees. At our side was the large mirror in a finely crafted, mahogany frame. Its twin was mounted on the opposite side of the rug. The overhead chandelier had been lit, the candlelight sparkling like jewels against the glass tear drops. It cast speckles of warm, golden light around us. This familiar atmosphere near our front door should have been comforting, but I chewed the inside of my cheek, feeling anything but at ease. Father seemed to be lingering here, stalling.
“Today is the day, Elin dear,” Father said, taking a deep breath. “I will wed Gwyneth, and her two lovely daughters will be your new sisters. It pleases me they are so near your age. Things could not be more perfect.”
He grinned at me, his blue eyes twinkling, his dark hair pulled back neatly and tied with a black satin ribbon. He briskly brushed his velvet plum waistcoat with his palms and adjusted the handkerchief in the pocket. Glancing up, he put a firm hand on my shoulder and squeezed, reaffirming his nervous joy. He must have thought we were sharing a moment together. To him, I was still the naive little girl who admired her daddy. Father had no idea how far I had shut him out.
Forcing myself to relax my face, I smiled back. “I am so happy for you.” I was supposed to say more, perhaps even hug him. Instead, I pretended to be looking over Father’s attire as he fussed with it, making sure everything was just so.
He turned toward the door and my heart surged. I tried to draw a deep breath for strength, but my corset prevented me. My legs felt buttery and a light-headed feeling made me long for a chair. My feet started moving beneath me, taking me away as I blindly followed Father out into the overcast morning. Our hound Jack trotted out to meet us but whimpered as he felt my unease. If not for the occasion, I would have stopped to talk to him.
Making a second attempt at a good deep breath, I inhaled the smell of damp leaves, earth, and rain. Fall used to be my favorite season. I loved the grey sky hovering over the trees in burning colors of orange and red. The atmosphere had invigorated me. Now, autumn signified my world dying all around me, which it truly was.
Silent, I stepped up into the carriage and took my seat next to Father. The driver slapped the reins and the horses lurched forward. As the wheels turned and the carriage started moving, I heard Father’s stifled wheeze. He turned to me like he was suddenly gripped by a thought.
“Elin, is that your mother’s dress you are wearing?” He frowned, and my stomach dived.
“Yes, Father,” I said. It was a salmon-colored, satin gown with pearl trim – a good color for someone with blonde hair and blue eyes. I had finally grown tall enough to wear it.
“Do you think that is appropriate under the circumstances?” His frown deepened as he pursed his lips, giving the dress a cursory inspection. His eyes softened, and he blinked, meeting my gaze again. For an instant, his expression clouded over like his thoughts were elsewhere.
“I thought it was a good way to honor her memory. She would have wanted you to be happy,” I said.
Father sighed. “And so, she would.”
As we jostled along the dirt road leading from our estate, I reflected on what I could possibly do to prevent this marriage and came up with nothing. I wondered why Father and Gwyneth hadn’t chosen the large, stately cathedral near the castle for their ceremony, but Father said that Gwyneth wanted a quaint wedding. I suppose it wasn’t important, it only seemed a strange thing to do for people who could afford better.
Realizing I was leaning forward in the seat, I pressed my back against the cushion. I stretched out my arms, intertwined my gloved fingers, and finally placed my folded hands on my lap. My stomach wriggled. My mind swam with foolish daydreams of how Father might ask just the right question and then I could tell him exactly what had been going on behind his back.
Elin, have any of your possessions ever caught fire by spontaneous combustion?
How curious you should ask. As a matter of fact –
“Elin,” Father said.
I visibly jumped, my hands momentarily coming off my lap in an awkward gesture. A warm heat seeped into my face and I inhaled to gather my composure. My corset suddenly felt tighter. My ribs ached.
“Yes?” I asked, lifting my chin and turning my head slightly to face him.
Father laughed, putting his hand over mine. “You were daydreaming. Do not feel ashamed. I too was indulging in my thoughts. Look, we are almost there.”
He nodded at his side window, and outside I saw the pebbled lane leading to the little chapel. Dark grey, wooden fence posts connected by lengths of chain link had been decorated with large, lavender bows. I thought I was going to be sick.
“I wish you would have accepted Gwyneth’s offer to be a bridesmaid,” Father said.
I gritted my teeth, swallowing and noticing how dry my mouth was. “There may have been a misunderstanding concerning that.”
“Lady Urien was clear that she would have loved to have you. Of course, it is no matter now.” He smiled, letting me know that my sin of declining Gwyneth’s heartwarming offer was forgiven.
I didn’t answer as I recalled the terse words with Father’s fiancée at the engagement party. Already upset by various small barbs Gwyneth and her daughters had flung at me, I had drifted away from the group, standing sullenly by one of the food tables while I picked at a muffin. I had been a nervous prey animal, glancing back to notice Gwyneth floating over soundlessly. She had sidled up next to me, so close that the hems of our skirts rustled together like double draperies that had been shoved to one side of a window. I had caught the faint scent of lavender and my heart quickened. Dreading what had been coming, whatever it was, I had stiffly made myself look up from the muffin and meet her eyes.
There was no denying that Gwyneth Urien was a striking woman. She was close to Father’s age, probably two and forty, but whatever cream she used on her skin, it had been working. Her blonde hair had been put up in high twists and curls clasped with opal barrettes. Eyes the color of jade stone had peered into mine, eyes that searched my soul for something she could use. I never knew what that something was.
“Elin, darling,” Gwyneth had said. “I hope you are not offended that I have not invited you to be a part of the wedding procession. It is nothing personal. You see, my daughters and I are all quite comely, as I am sure you are aware, and I cannot have any detractions on our special day.”
I had held my body still, confronting her with a steady gaze. As her words had sunk in, I felt like I had been punched in the gut. My glance had flitted to Annest and Dafina who doted on Father’s every word, or at least pretended to. Yes, they were attractive, like two dolls with all their makeup, curls, and lace. Coral snakes are pretty, too.
Giving Gwyneth a tight, close-lipped smile, I had said, “Of course.”
She had placed her hand on my arm, offering me a sugary sweet grin. “I knew you would understand, dear. And do not be dismayed by your homeliness. For one thing, low self-esteem is not good for a girl’s marriageability. You know what they say. It is what is on the inside that counts.”
Turning her back before I could reply, Gwyneth had nearly hit me in the face with her coif. I had jerked my head away, grimacing as though I’d just bitten into moldy bread. How unbelievable that someone would have made a point of saying those things. My racing heart had become a nervous flutter and I realized I was shaking. Parts of my mutilated muffin had dropped onto the white table cloth, rolled, and fallen onto the floor.
“Oh Talies,” Gwyneth had said loudly enough for me to hear as she returned to my father’s side. “Elin has declined to be a bridesmaid. I would have been honored to have this beautiful, young woman stand beside my daughters. After all, she is soon to be as one of my own. But, of course I respect her decision and welcome her all the same.”
My mouth had dropped open. My hands had seemed to go numb. The rest of the poor muffin had fallen from my grasp and landed on the immaculate, tooled rug with a plop. My wits had followed suit, turning to mush right when I needed them most. The only thing to have been said was that she lied, which was exactly what I couldn’t have said. Father had frowned, stepping away from the teenage girls and gaping at me.
“Elin, is this true?” he had asked. His eyes had fallen. He had looked so sad I thought he might burst into tears right there in the parlor. The dull chatter around us had tapered off and then abruptly died. All the guests had turned to stare at me.
“Of course not,” I had said, making sure to give Gwyneth a look. “I would be honored to be a bridesmaid.”
Gwyneth had wrinkled her forehead, blinking and batting doleful eyes at me. “But Elin, that is not what you told me a moment ago. Are you only saying that because I told your Father?”
“You never asked me to be a bridesmaid,” I had said, so angry now that my chest was heaving.
“Elin!” Father’s scowl could have curdled milk. Apparently, he had thought that lying in front of a room full of people was something I did for fun.
Having no more words, I had started to shake my head. Gwyneth had grabbed Father’s arm with one hand and turned his cheek toward her with the other. “It is all right, Talies. Do not chide her. I am not the least bit offended. Elin and I understand one another perfectly.” She had smiled at him, a deep, rich, radiant smile that made her glow. Or perhaps it was Father who had started glowing. After snatching a disappointed glance at me, he had turned back to his love, his stony expression melting. He had murmured something appreciative which I couldn’t hear.
My skin had broken out in a cold sweat. Turning briskly, my skirts had swished against the table leg as I made my exit.
“Elin!” Father had called in a voice reflective of a wounded puppy.
I had ignored him, maintaining a smart pace as I rounded the corner. I had held up my gown and darted up the stairs to my room. I couldn’t have closed and locked the door fast enough. The smell of lavender had still lingered, as though Gwyneth’s essence had followed me. I had lifted my arm and sniffed at the sleeve. Yes, there it was. My dress was full of the reek of it. With trembling fingers, I had clawed at the laces in back, straining my shoulder blades to undo them myself. Wriggling out of the stiff material, at last I had been free. Standing there in my corset and petticoat, I had thrown the salmon-colored gown against the wall.
But I could still smell it. I had sniffed at my skin, the corset, and the petticoat, but those weren’t it. The only other thing I had been wearing was the pearl necklace. Those had belonged to Mother too. I couldn’t see how pearls could retain a smell unless they had been sprayed with something, but I had undone the clasp behind my neck and gave them a whiff anyway. Lavender. Strong lavender, so pungent it had knocked me senseless.
Gasping, I had extended my arm and held the necklace away. The string of pearls had burst into flames and I screamed.
I felt the carriage slow and was jolted back to myself. The wheels ground to a halt against the gravel and I heard a few definitive stomps of the horses’ hooves. I was here, sitting beside Father. This was the day of the wedding.
Naturally, we were among the first to arrive. While Father consulted with the minister, I selected my seat in a pew on the groom’s side. Inhaling, I let my eyes wander around the modest chapel. The inside walls were made of honey-colored wood. A stained, oak lectern was situated upon the dais. Behind it, near the altar, was a carved statue of the first god, our Father, whose breath gave life to Edim. Candles were mounted all along the walls and larger ones on stands illuminated the front of the church, where the vows would be spoken. Little bunches of white roses and lavender were tied to the inside end of each pew with a lavender ribbon, like the ones on the fence outside. The flowers had also been placed on the front of the lectern, while some had been fashioned into a chain which wrapped around the dais.
Bit by bit, the guests began to trickle in. I crossed and uncrossed my ankles, that being the only part of my body I felt free to move. Fidgeting while I waited was out of the question, but it was hard not to when I was supposed to sit by while my Father married a woman who wasn’t what she said she was. To be honest, I didn’t know her identity, but it probably wasn’t human.
As I gave in to my frustration and picked at a hang nail, I saw a full skirt trying to push past my legs. The royal blue gown was covered in sequins and lace and must have cost a fortune. I dropped my hands to my lap and looked up to see an older woman – well, if one could call her that. Her hair was all silver and pulled into a bun, but she looked barely older than Father. I had heard that some people go grey prematurely. The woman sat down right beside me although the rest of the pew was empty – not to mention many of the other pews as well. I wondered who she was.
“Good day,” she said, smiling and raising an eyebrow as she awaited my reply. “Or perhaps I should say it is not.” The woman winked at me above her conservative grin.
I stared at her, noticing the unusually bright blue eyes, too blue to be real. She made Gwyneth look rather plain by comparison.
“Good day,” I said.
“I am Eiriana,” she said, extending her hand.
“Pleased to meet you,” I said, taking it. “I am Elin, Talies’ daughter.”
“I know,” Eiriana said, smiling in earnest now. A few lines sprang up at the corners of her eyes. “I am your grandmother – Cara’s mother. I have wanted to meet you for so long.”
I blinked, frowning as I stared at her. My mother had told me that my grandmother was lost long ago. I felt like I was plummeting into her vivid irises, getting lost in them and the strangeness of her. I knew it was rude, but I looked her up and down, again noticing the sequined dress and now her jewelry – a large sapphire pendant on a gold chain. I wondered what kind of game she was playing and what was in it for her. The idea that I was related to this woman was insane. Who was she and what did she want?
“There must be some mistake,” I said. “My mother told me that my grandmother passed away many years ago.”
Eiriana lifted her chin slightly. “Is that what she told you? That I died?”
Well, okay, not technically. “No. I believe she used the word ‘lost.’”
Eiriana smiled. “Ah, yes. And so, I was. But now I am found again, right here in this chapel next to my only granddaughter.” She gathered her silk shawl around her shoulders as though she was cold and pretended to look around the church.
I opened my mouth, but realized I had nothing to say and snapped it shut. I wished she would get on with it, whatever it was. I turned to face the lectern. There was nothing to see besides Father and Friar Prowell standing idly beside one another. Guests were still meandering in and choosing their seats.
“A small turnout for such a wealthy widow, do you not think?” Eiriana whispered into my ear. She had leaned her head toward me, and though I couldn’t see her expression the sarcastic grin was audible. I let a small giggle escape.
“I wondered why she did not want to use Hennion Cathedral. I thought all the lords and ladies and important people were married there,” I said.
“Yes, you are right,” Eiriana nodded. “Well, it is simple really. The cathedral is too close to the castle. Too many eyes and ears darting about. A wedding held in a small, woodland church with a minimal number of guests draws the least amount of attention.”
…draws the least amount of attention. Eiriana certainly had mine. I wondered if she was a friend of Gwyneth’s, and if this was some sort of setup to entrap me. As though I wasn’t trapped enough as it was.
“I beg your pardon, but I do not understand,” I said. I peered at her from the corner of my eye, readjusting my clasped hands.
“You will,” Eiriana said. She swiveled her body in the pew and glanced behind her. “Almost time, then.”
Father and Friar Prowell took their places in front of the aisle near the dais, and the small gathering of wedding guests fell silent, all turning in the pews as Eiriana had done. Now I noticed that the church doors had been propped open. I could see the pebbled lane, the copper-tinged trees and the overcast sky. It seemed darker, like storm clouds were moving in, and I liked the idea of Gwyneth and her daughters getting rained on outside. That was probably too much to hope for.
On the dais, the flutist lifted his instrument and began to play. The tune wasn’t what I expected. It seemed sweet and sad, the kind of song which reminds one of a distant memory they can’t place. The melody was too doleful for a wedding. Well, maybe not for this one.
My eyes flitted to Father, my blood quickening as I wondered if he had somehow noticed my disrespectful thoughts. His gaze was locked on the church doors. I smiled at him, but he didn’t even look at me. Come to think of it, he hadn’t acknowledged my presence even once since we arrived.
Dafina appeared through the open doors first, head held high and grasping her bouquet in thin, dainty fingers. She was a slender brunette with a narrow nose, wearing a lavender gown that matched the decorations exactly. She had put on so much face powder it was a wonder she hadn’t sneezed it all off already.
Soon Annest strutted out after her sister, blonde like her mother and buxom. Her bodice was barely containing her womanly charms. I listened to the click of her boot heels as she made her way to the front and took her place next to Dafina. When she stopped and faced the gathering, the flutist changed his tune to the bridal melody I was accustomed to.
My stomach dropped, and I knew I was supposed to stand up now, but my legs had turned to lead. I grabbed the back of the pew and forced myself up. Eiriana followed, though I thought it was odd that she had waited for me to do so first.
A shock to my senses, Gwyneth appeared in the doorway. Her smile was like the sun. Her gown shone in waves of pale lavender and sequins that sparkled in rose gold and silver as she gracefully approached. I turned to get a glimpse of Father as his bride walked toward him down the aisle. He stood unmoving, unblinking, and mesmerized, as I suppose any man would have.
I realized my eyes ached. I was furrowing my brow without even realizing it, and with effort I blinked and softened my expression. I pushed the corners of my mouth into a smile I didn’t feel.
As Father and Gwyneth said their vows, the ceiling of the modest chapel seemed to tower above me. A cool breeze brushed the back of my neck. Had no one bothered to shut the door after the procession? The chill making the space feel drafty and empty, I folded my arms around my waist to stay warm. I was alone here. Alone in a building full of people.
I must have drifted into a void of dark thoughts, because the sound of clapping and cheers brought me back. It was like my head shot out of the water just in time to see a ship sinking. Father released Gwyneth from his embrace after their kiss and the happy couple locked hands. I took a deep breath and started clapping my gloved hands together as the two of them walked arm in arm. Father didn’t look at me. Not even now.
Then it hit me. Yes, I knew Father’s wedding wasn’t about me. It was the fact that I was his daughter and he didn’t even regard me enough to share the moment. When I was accused of declining Gwyneth’s offer to be a bridesmaid, Father wasn’t hurt because I wouldn’t be standing with him. He was hurt because he thought I hurt Gwyneth. He had believed someone he’d known less than a year over me, and now I’d become invisible.
I took another shallow breath in the corset. To my discredit I had cinched it up as tightly as possible. Gwyneth had already called me ugly and I’d be damned if she called me fat as well. But I had to try and get some air in my lungs, because I wasn’t thinking straight. I should have felt stronger with my new disillusionment about Father and his view of me, but it only made me feel more confused. A hand on my arm made me flinch.
“Elin,” the odd woman next to me was saying. Her grip tightened on my upper arm. “Elin, come, let us go outside. You should be the lucky girl who catches the bouquet.”
I shook my head. “No, I do not think that is a good idea. And I do not think Lady Gwyneth wants that.”
Eiriana raised an eyebrow and she showed too many teeth when she smiled. “Oh, I am sure she will live through it.”
I started to smile back, before stiffening again. I didn’t know this woman. She was interesting, and she seemed to dislike Gwyneth, but that didn’t mean anything.
“Come, Elin,” Eiriana said, reaching down and grasping my gloved hand. I still must have been chilled to the bone by the icy winds of fortune, because her grip felt incredibly warm. Too numb to protest, I allowed the strange, silver-haired Eiriana to lead me out of the chapel. She wove us in and out of strings of wedding-goers and right out the door, where people had gathered here and there to throw rice or flower petals.
Father and Gwyneth had separated into two different groups of congratulators and well-wishers. The bustling, multi-colored skirts of all the women in their best gowns colored the pebbled yard like spring flowers, but the looming grey sky was muting their brightness. There wasn’t much of a breeze, with the autumnal forest walling us off on all sides from the outside world. The fiery trees were hushed and motionless as they hovered over us like sentinels.
“Elin,” Eiriana repeated, seeming determined to yank me out of my inner world one way or another. She had released my hand and touched my shoulder. “I know this is not a good day for you.”
I swallowed and tore my eyes away from the cluster of people – Father was hidden behind them – and looked at her. “Who are you? What do you want?” The coldness of my voice shocked me.
“I am your grandmother,” Eiriana said, her voice even and unfaltering. “And I know what Gwyneth is.”
I know what Gwyneth is. How could she possibly know? I stepped back, wriggling away from her touch. “Then why have I never seen you until today? Why has Father never mentioned you? Why did my mother tell me she lost you long ago? If you are really my grandmother, you sure took your time showing up. My mother was –”
Eiriana grabbed my arm and stepped closer to me. She put her face by mine and kept her voice low. “Taken. Your mother was taken.”
My mouth dropped open. I glared at her, knowing well that the idea a stranger believed as I did about my mother was too good to be true. This entire thing must have been arranged by Gwyneth and I wanted no part in it. I wasn’t as gullible as I used to be – little Elin had grown up.
“I know this is a lot to take in, especially on a day like this,” Eiriana said. “I am not asking you to trust me. But if you are willing to give me a chance and not fight against me, I can actually help you. And I think I am correct in that you need the help.” Without turning her head, her eyes flicked in Gwyneth’s direction and back to me. “I know what she is, Elin. What you have discovered about her so far, I also know. And I know a lot more. There are things I could explain to you. If you want to escape this fate, and I think you do, let me help you. You do not have to trust me. You do not even have to like me, or believe I am your grandmother. Just let me help you.”
My heart pounded, and the corset was suffocating me. I didn’t feel cold anymore. Instead I had started sweating and my legs itched. I had never had anyone ask this of me before. To say it was peculiar was an understatement, and she was right – I did need help, whether I wanted to admit it or not. There was no way in hell I was going to trust her, but I had no one else. Slowly, I nodded, frowning at Eiriana as I thought of how to reply.
“All right,” I said, quickly adding, “perhaps. But I must be careful. I have never –” I have never had any friends, was what I had almost said. How sad. “I have never –”
“You have never wanted to leave home before?” Eiriana asked. How could she have known that? Though I tried to hide it, even from myself, my dread was becoming unbearable.
Slowly, I nodded. “Yes. And I have nowhere to go.”
Eiriana smiled. “Of course, child. And take care you should. Not everyone is
worthy of our trust, sometimes not even those we love.” She lifted her chin and nodded in the groom’s direction. “But just think. If you were to be married yourself, then you would have somewhere to go, would you not?”
And suddenly, catching Gwyneth’s sickly-sweet lavender and rose bouquet didn’t seem like such a bad idea after all.