This week’s Terribleminds flash fiction challenge is to retrieve an inventory from the @YouAreCarrying twitterbot, and use those items in a ~2000 word story. Here’s mine, a sub-2000 words spin on a pumpkin-themed fairy tale classic. I cheated slightly, turning the business card into a visiting card, but otherwise fit the remaining items in nicely.
How The Determined Earn Their Admittance
Ella lies nestled in the soft fur of a bearskin rug set before the fireplace, and waits. She has been left here, shoeless, ragged. The hem of her once-vibrant gown is frayed from how they abused her into this room. The door behind her is locked, and will remain so until her captors request her. Her crime? She dared to dance with a prince, but was not royalty herself. That is not permitted here.
She is still, as unthreatening in appearance as she can manage, in case pity lives in any of her jailer’s hearts. Time creeps, and she remains, listening for the occasional click! of the peephole in the door, noting each time how the space between clicks grows wider.
If her guards haven’t pity, perhaps she’ll find solace in their neglect? Her hope is stoked by their dimming vigilance; they assume she merely sleeps in their makeshift prison. It soon becomes apparent they do not fear any girl brought so low.
Hours seem to pass before the interval between patrols widens enough, and she dares to move. The merest tilt of her head, enough to see the doorway, confirms the peephole is shut. Only then does Ella push up and take in her surroundings. Aside from the fireplace and rug there is a small table, with a pitcher and bowl upon it. The room is otherwise bare.
Ella checks the handle of the door and confirms it is locked. She still has the key given to her earlier, but the door it opens is at least two floors above. For now she is trapped, until others are ready to settle her fate. Ella moves to the bowl and pitcher, but the water in each looks as if it’s been standing since well before this evening. There’s a film on the surface of each, they are too dirty for washing or drinking. In frustration she snatches up the porcelain bowl and throws it into the fireplace. The water it held kills some of the fire. Her fists are balled, pressed hard against her mouth, holding back a scream. She implores herself to control her temper. Rage or despair would be indulgences now, with no discernible gain.
When the bowl exploding brings no attention she sits, and considers the weakening fire. She’s curious about the only unguarded exit to this room. Moving closer, she leans under the mantle to examine the damper guarding the flue, hoping the caretakers are as negligent in their maintenance as they are in their housekeeping.
Where the plate covers the throat of the firebox there is a gap; a flaw Ella has seen before in older, equally poorly maintained fireplaces. This small discovery, informed by a childhood spent tending hearths, offers a shard of hope. She prays the peephole remains shut.
Ella douses the rest of the fire with the stagnant water from the pitcher, and clears the spent logs aside. She stifles another cry – this one triumphant – upon finding the thin iron plate that covers the ashbox. She lifts the still-warm plate free, and tips it against the edge of the hearth to cool further.
She tears strips of cloth from her ruined gown to wrap over her hands and feet, for some meager degree of protection from whatever residual heat the chimney bricks hold. She drags the rug into the hearth. Then, using the iron lid as a wedge, Ella levers the gap between the stone and the flue guard wider until it comes free and drops, its fall muted by the plush bearskin. What little sound there is brings no investigation, so Ella proceeds. She ties a strip of cloth over her face, before ducking beneath the lintel, to shimmy into the now exposed flue.
Bracing against the chimney walls, Ella begins her slow ascent. Her gaze focused downward to prevent ash and creosote from blinding her, she claws and shoves her lithe frame further up into the narrow crevice. The climb is agonizing. Her hands and feet are barely insulated from the still hot bricks. The air is sharp with carbon, and the cloth over her face is a poor filter against the acrid stench. With steady, hard fought progress, she makes her way upwards through the pitch black shaft. Tar cakes the chimney, sometimes sticking her in place, other times slick, as she struggles for purchase.
The castle is unknown to her; even more so here, literally within its walls. But the lack of any stiff breeze tells her the shaft she’s in will bend eventually; there she can take a moment to rest. Hoping to find it soon, she continues to crawl upwards slowly, guarding against the shock of bumping too hard into the ceiling of the joint. That jarring blow might send her crashing back down the shaft. The bearskin still down there is soft, but it hardly offers enough padding to protect her if she stumbles now.
When her head gently presses against brick, she stops. Her legs and back brace hard against the chimney walls, though her muscles burn from the exertion. Tentatively, she feels for the angle of the bend, and shifts with great care, until she can wedge herself into it. Here she can savor the smaller effort needed to remain in place, partly reclining within the angle of the vent.
It’s a short climb from here to the peak, where this flue joins another, before the shaft continues up to the rooftop high above. But exhaustion consumes her, and there’s good reason to doubt she has the strength to make it the full distance. As she lies there, catching her breath a moment, Ella feels a tickling on her bare shoulder. An earthworm has crawled onto her. It no more belongs here than she does, and that strange kinship inspires her to spare it. If you hold on, little friend, she thinks, I’ll free you…once I’ve freed myself, of course.
Reaching down into the shaft at the other side of the junction, Ella doesn’t detect any heat. Probing the contours of the adjoining flue, it seems wider than the one she just climbed. It’s very reasonable for her to hope this one leads down to the kitchen, or at least an unoccupied room – ideally with no locked door to imprison her again. Taking great care, she climbs over the peak, swinging her legs into the other vent, and begins her slide down.
The journey down this side is faster, and slightly less painful. She can let gravity assist; using her battered hands, feet and back only as much as is required to slow her descent. The shaft opens into an enormous hearth, with fresh wood visible beneath an iron grating in the fireplace floor. The kitchen, mercifully empty. Ella drops down, then slides out, coming to rest on the stone floor.
She tears the cloth from her face, breathes deeply, and slowly removes the wrappings from her hands. With the cleanest strip of cloth she can find, she smudges some of the chimney’s filth from her eyes, nose and mouth. She’ll need proper dunking to come truly clean. For now she can see, but still cannot smell or taste more than black soot and ash. As she’s catching her breath a wiry man comes in from the yard, carrying a basket. They form a ridiculous tableau; the slight, tired girl, pitch-black and ragged, and the shocked, wiry cook, egg-laden. Neither is certain what to do.
The cook moves first, dropping the basket, racing for the door out of the kitchen, slipping on broken eggs as he runs. He tries to shout, a prelude to the alarm he’ll raise once the kitchen door is opened. Ella springs to her feet, grabbing the nearest weapons she can find – a pair of thick stirring sticks close by the hearth – and intercepts him, just as he reaches his mark. With the first stick, she collapses his knee. The blow brings him crashing against the door. He bounces off, stunned with pain.
Without pause, Ella brings the second stick down on his neck, and hears the meat give way beneath his skin. His eyes burst wide, but he can no longer shout. She stands over him as he gasps. After another moment, When she’s certain their scuffle hasn’t summoned the curious, Ella rolls him into the buttery and conceals him. No one will come for wine for hours. His body will remain there, undisturbed, for most of the day.
Cloaked in black soot and predawn shadow, Ella picks her way through the castle halls, avoiding guards who, by this time, must surely notice she’s gone. She is searching for the chamber unlocked by the key she was given. Taking utmost care, she finds the proper room, unlocks it, and slips inside.
“My God, it’s you! What’s happened to you?” The prince had been pacing, not sleeping in bed as she expected. His face brightens at the sight of her, regardless of the filth coating her. To him, she is no more than the girl he danced with for most of the night, and desperately wanted to bring to his chambers. Ella touches a blackened finger to her lips, and he quiets, abashed.
“It’s no matter now,” he whispers, “I thought I’d never see you again my dear.” he rushes to her, arms open, paying no attention to the boning knife she took from the kitchen until the blade slides between his ribs. She sets her mouth on his to muffle any cry, before leaving him, bleeding, on the chamber floor.
Ella wipes the blade clean. She secrets the knife against the small of her back in case it is required again. The dead prince’s visiting cards are stacked neatly on his writing desk. She takes one, and dips a corner in his blood. Her proof collected, she slips out, pausing to lock the room behind her as she leaves.
Ella heads back through the kitchen, the simplest route to the yard. It takes no more than a moment to find the mews. The shed doors are locked for the evening, their handles are bound fast by a massive chain. The surge of energy she felt during her escape and the prince’s assassination has long since deserted her, and the weight of all her exertions pervades her. No! And so close to safety! She picks her way around the mews, clinging to hopes she’ll a way inside. An unlatched window in the back of the structure is her salvation. Ella hoists herself awkwardly through, crashing into a pile of hay beneath. Inside there is no carriage awaiting her, as promised. In its place sits what looks like a cruel joke – a large, ripe pumpkin.
A gentle tickle at the nape of her neck reminds Ella of her own promise. She carefully removes her companion, and sets it on the ground. There you go, she thinks, even though I’m not yet free myself. Drawing out the knife, she looks for a means to escape this new prison.
No way out presents itself. Ella cries out, despairing, and stabs the blade into the gourd, bringing forth a gentle, crystalline sound. Curious and hopeful, she cuts, and discovers the impossible; a small brass bell, secreted inside. She rings the bell, and hopes.
Ella hears a voice behind her, as improbable and clear as the tiny bell. “Well?”
“It’s done, milady, just as you asked. Here is my proof.” Ella turns, and the woman now standing there takes the bloodstained card she offers. The card flares, instantly reduced to ash in her hand. She smiles warmly at Ella, who returns the matronly smile with a teary-eyed one of her own.
“Well done my child! I congratulate you, and welcome you to the ranks of my Godchildren.” The woman reaches out a hand, which Ella takes without hesitation. “Now, let’s get you home to clean up and rest. We’ll discuss later what the future holds for you, dear.”