This story is instead about Ella, who is brave and virtuous and beautiful, but perhaps not as much as the princess. She didn't have a wicked stepmother or a magical talking animal. Her father is a miller and he has a gentle and loving wife with two sons and one daughter. The sons are not her faithful guardians, nor are they wicked and scheming. They're the younger annoying siblings that pull her hair and hide frogs in her bed. The barn cat she feeds can neither talk and the only reward it ever brings her for her love is the occasional dead sparrow. Ella buries those in the backyard. And no, they don't sprout into beautiful trees that bear golden apples.
Her best friend, Lars, is not a fairy. He's the son of a couple who own a rather large flock of sheep. Every day he'd drive the sheep out to pasture and sometimes he'd meet Ella by the river. Sometimes they forgot, or were late, or Ella just didn't want to go out in the rain. Nothing horrible happened as a result. Again, this is not the heroine I am speaking about.
It was late summer when the proclamation reached her town. Lars was in the pasture with the sheep so he didn't hear the crier standing in the middle of the town square. Ella was there on errands when she noticed the crowd gathering. Curious, she crept closer until she could see the royal herald in the middle of the square. He was dressed in rich fabric embroidered with gold and had a white stallion with him. Ella was surprised he'd made it this far without bandits robbing him blind.
"The prince," he was saying, his voice loud enough to carry to where Ella was standing and beyond, "has decreed that he is to marry. However, lacking any suitors he finds worthy, he has given the ladies of this kingdom a task. Whomever shall spin a length of cloth fine enough to pass through the eye of a needle shall be his bride."
Ella ducked behind the nearest tall person. Turned her back and clasped both hands over her mouth. It wouldn't do to laugh at the royal herald.
He continued with the terms of the challenge and finally the crowd started to disperse. Ella finished her errands and headed down the path to her home. On the way there, she remembered Lars, and took a detour to meet him by the river.
"So that's the short of it," she said as they sat on the bank, watching the dragonflies zip across the water, "I think he just doesn't want to marry."
"Or perhaps he already knows who he wants to marry, and this impossible task is only possible for that one."
He was looking at her expectantly. She sighed and sulked, refusing to look at him.
"Oh fine," Ella finally said, "No, I'm not going to try."
"But you're ready to be married," Lars countered, "Your father is going to start looking for suitors soon. Wouldn't it be nice to be a princess?"
"I haven't even met the prince! How would I know I'm suited for him?"
"If you are, the cloth will go through the needle. That's how these things work. And you'll be happy because it's meant to be."
Lars, although he was not the hero and not a prince, was still very perceptive.
"So you think I should try."
"I do. If anything, it'll let you travel some, get outside this town for a bit. Spread your wings Ella – if only for a short time."
He dropped off wool later that evening, after dark. Spoke a few words with her mother at the door, and then left. Ella ignored it until her youngest brother grabbed it, wrapped it around his neck and pretended to be an old grandfather. She only took it from them when the second oldest snuck up behind and started choking his brother with it.
She started spinning two days after. It wasn't because she was particularly inspired, or that she thought she was indeed the one who the prince would marry. It was because Lar's patient and inquiring gaze was following her everywhere – even into her dreams – and the other girls around town did nothing but talk talk talk about how far along they were on their own bit of cloth. Ella grew tired of being left out. It was decided that all the ladies of the town would go together with fathers and brothers accompanying them for protection. Like a giant traveling festival. It sounded exciting, and her own uncle would be one of the ones going to the royal city. He promised to make sure she didn't fall prey to any wolves, witches, or dashing young strangers on the way there.
Ella didn't work on the cloth diligently, forsaking sleep and food for the sake of the task. Some days she forgot about it entirely. But as time progressed and the window of the trial grew shorter she worked on it longer and longer, daydreaming as she did about the prince. He was handsome, she knew this much. Handsome and gracious and learned in many things. She wondered what they'd talk about. If he had a garden with peacocks, and if princesses did anything besides sit around and look pretty all day. She'd heard that they hunted sometimes. Ella didn't know if she'd be good at hunting. When the barn cat brought her the dead sparrows she always felt a little sad for them.
He eventually invaded her dreams. They'd go riding together and she'd rest her head on his shoulder. He'd bring her lovely things and kiss her hand. On the last three days before they left for the royal city, Lars announced that he'd be going with them. Her dreams grew confused and sometimes it was the prince who was tending the sheep and Lars carrying her about on a white stallion with mane made of silver.
It was raining on the day they set out. The girls huddled together for warmth and grumbled about the foul weather. Some said it was an evil fairy trying to keep the future princess from her destination. Ella thought it was just bad luck and tried to remember when she'd last seen a black cat.
"Can I see your cloth?" Lars had come up behind her.
She pulled it out and handed it to him.
"It'll never go through the eye of a needle," she said.
"Course not. That's not the point. Betcha anything his fairy godmother gave him the needle."
"He has a fairy godmother."
"Silly Ella, every prince has a fairy godmother." And he handed the cloth back.
The city was teeming with life when they arrived. The townsfolk clustered together and staggered about like wounded deer, unable to comprehend the sheer scale and grandeur arrayed before them. It was a gauntlet of vendors, each crying that their mirrors or pheasants were the best and deserving of the young beauties walking past. It was like a river of people, all arrayed in bright colors, a wild dance of destinations and noise and distractions. Ella found herself pressed up close between Lars and her uncle, one hand on each of their arms like a drowning man clings to driftwood.
"How are we ever going to find the palace?" she whispered.
"Mark the cobbler has been here before," her uncle replied, "He's leading the way. As long as we don't lose the rest we'll be fine."
She nodded and tried to swallow the lump in her throat. Lars patted her shoulder to reassure her.
"Spread your wings Ella," he whispered.
Was she going to be a princess?
They were all searched upon arriving at the palace. No one was allowed near the prince while bearing weapons, and with all the people coming and going they had to take precautions. It was a messy ordeal, mostly because the guards were less than polite and Lars tried to start a fight when they got to Ella. Finally, she snapped at both the guards and Lars for being pig-headed men. Lars subsided into a furious silence and the guards finished the search of her person as quickly as they could while mumbling apologies for their prior comments.
"Ella, that was just like a princess," one of the other girls said as they were led through the massive corridors of the palace.
"It was?" she replied dumbly.
"Yes! No princess would let them get away with saying those things. Ooooh, I was too scared to say anything though!"
Ella fell silent and returned to admiring the passageways they were passing through. It was like she'd stepped into a dreamland where everything shone and glittered.
They were instructed to wait outside in an antechamber. The prince would allow the girls in, one at a time, and give them the needle to try their cloth on. Ah, the prince himself? Yes. Ella felt all those sparrows she'd buried return to life in her stomach.
Lars was talking to her in that quiet voice he often used, saying something that should be reassuring. She didn't know what he was saying, and then they called her name and she felt her head go light and the world go white. A guard took her arm, looked into her face.
"It'll be fine miss," he said, "The prince is very kind."
She nodded and let him lead her away and towards the throne room.
"Wings!" Lars called out from behind her.
He was radiantly, incredibly, beautiful. Ella felt like the earth should just open up and devourer her. Foolish little girl. She didn't belong here, she wasn't a princess, and how could he be sitting there on his golden throne waiting to see her – the miller's daughter – personally?
She knelt, tried to mumble something polite, lost all words. Lost all strength to move. There were tears beginning in her eyes. Oh, she should never have come.
"Ella, was it?"
His voice was very kind and a lot closer than she expected. Startled, she looked up and found herself face to face with the kneeling prince, who had left his throne and come to where she was. He smiled. Her heart skipped a beat.
"Now, calm yourself. You aren't the only girl whose been terrified."
It was incredible. He wasn't bored at the endless procession of giddy ladies, or upset that she would dare present herself and then be too frightened to do anything. He was gracious and good, just like a prince should be.
"You have your cloth?"
She nodded and pulled it out. He had in one hand a slender gold needle, almost like a strand of his hair in its perfection and size. Gingerly, he took an edge of the cloth and tried to put even the tiniest bit to the eye of the needle. It bent, folded over, and refused to go through.
"Ah, not quite, Ella," he said with a sigh, "but it's for the best. You might have been unhappy as a princess, I don't know, but you aren't meant to be, that is for certain."
The cloth was placed back in her hand. He stood and walked away, shaking his head at some nearby people she assumed were advisors. Ella took a deep breath and stood, swaying a bit as the terror and apprehension started to subside. The prince was back at her side, thanking her for trying and turning her so she could get her bearings as to where the door is.
"No princess, dear Ella," he whispered in her ear, for her and her alone to hear, "but I see a shadow falling across the threshold. Perhaps you should look there instead."
Lars was right outside the door. He took both her hands and she shook her head in answer.
"I'm not the one," she said, "But that might be for the best, right? Wings."
No one in the group was the princess. The girls were bitter and complained, but only for an hour or so, as they group was staying in the city for the remaining three days of the trial. Every day they went out and shopped and explored and were generally fascinated with the sights around them. Ella found herself being paid attention to by some rather not-so-dashing young men, and most of them she found she could fend off herself. Those that she couldn't were dealt with by either her uncle or Lars. Usually in an alleyway. It was sweet, in a strange sort of way.
On the last day the princess arrived. Her cloth passed right through the needle and she swept aside her dirty rags and was presented to the people in a shining gown like the moon. Ella and the others managed to catch a glimpse of her and everyone had to agree that she was lovely and gentle and all the things a princess should be. They'd live together for a very long time and the kingdom would prosper under their rule. But for Ella and the rest, well, it was time to return to the town. There were things that needed to be done and for Lars, sheep that needed to be watched over again.
In the fall, Lars proposed and after thinking it over, Ella accepted. They were married and Lars inherited a good portion of his family's flock. They hired a boy to watch the sheep, had some children, none of which were particularly brave or heroic. One did go off and try to be a master thief, but he was eventually hanged for his efforts some years later. This was especially difficult for Ella.
They lived together for the rest of their lives, occasionally fought, never ran into too many hardships, and generally lived happily ever after, as best as they could. As for the cloth Ella had spun so long ago, well, she eventually embroidered it and gave it as a gift to her husband. The pattern she spent days on? Wings.