Everybody knows the famous tales of the woe-be-gotten girl who has fantastic things happen to her, pulling her out of her unhappy life. Those happily ever afters are well known.
But then there are the lives that had the potential, the girls who were almost one of those legends, but it just didn't quite happen.
This is one of those times.
There once lived a beautiful girl. She was so beautiful that even as a child, her father's wife was insanely jealous of her. The stepmother was, as are all stepmothers, crazy, and when the girl's father passed away, the stepmother took the opportunity to lock the poor girl away in the basement of their manor house.
The girl, Rose, grew even more lovely as she grew older, despite seeing the sun only on the rare occasion her stepmother would let her outside. Most of the time, Rose was kept to the house itself, where she served as the manor's maid. She dusted, cleaned the floors, made dinner, washed the fine clothing worn by her stepmother and her two also-evil stepsisters (they always come in pairs).
It was possible, had Rose been a little brighter, she might have found a way to escape. Her basement door was kept unlocked most nights, unless Rose did something to displease her stepmother. But Rose wasn't the sharpest nail in the toolbox, and while she was unhappy, she never really considered escaping. Besides, she'd been told many horrible stories about the ravenous wolves and bears inhabiting the surrounding woods. Better to stay inside the house, safe from creatures that would want to eat her. And at least she didn't have to try to find her own food and water here.
Still, she spent her time staring wistfully out the window. She hungered for some hero to come along and whisk her away.
One day, a week before her 18th birthday, Rose was allowed outdoors -- only because her stepmother wanted her to muck out the stables. Usually a stable boy handled that -- her stepmother was convinced the fresh air would only make Rose prettier and tried to limit her access to it -- but on this occasion the boy was ill.
It was a dirty job, but Rose relished in it. She was outside the manor house, sharing company with their horses, who nickered and nudged her arm with their noses. Then Rose, attempting to hang one of the shovels back on the wall, dropped it with a loud clatter. One of the horses spooked and bolted out the stable door, which she had stupidly left open.
Rose gasped and took off after him, making sure to shut the door behind her. She could see him down the road, kicking up dust, and she jogged after him, part of her screaming that she should hurry before her stepmother found out.
She lost track of the horse for a while, but upon continuing a ways down the road found him hiding in a lean-to in a clearing. From here, she could see the next manor house -- no doubt the owners of this shack. Out of breath, she threw her arms around the horse's neck. "Why did you do that?" she asked, resting her forehead on his shoulder. He snorted, as if telling her he could do whatever he wanted. "Okay, we have to go back. But I need to catch my breath first." She moved around behind the horse so she could maneuver him back outside.
"Hello?" a voice called from the opening of the shack.
Rose gasped, pressing herself against the horse's side to hide. She'd never spoken to anybody outside of her family and the few other servants (there weren't many; why bother when they had Rose?), and she felt woefully unprepared to handle it now.
A shadow fell on the ground in the entrance of the lean-to. "I know you're there. I can see your feet."
Her hands trembling, Rose left the safety of the horse's flank and moved around, trying hard to keep her head high. "What can I help you with, sir?" Her voice trailed off as she caught sight of the visitor -- a dashing young man with wind-tossed blond hair falling haphazardly around his face, framing vibrant blue eyes. His hands held the reins of his own horse.
She'd had little contact with members of the opposite sex, and no contact with members of the opposite sex who were her age and handsome. Her hands flew to her mouth in shock.
The man squinted at her. "Come into the light. I can't see you."
His voice was deep and rumbling, and it compelled her forward into the square of sunlight.
Rose was smudged with dirt and smelled like horse, but her great beauty shone through even that. The sunlight added sparks of red to her dark hair, and her eyes appeared as liquid gold. Her perfect, heart-shaped pink mouth begged to be kissed, and the man was overcome with longing.
He blinked and bowed at the waist, one arm swinging outward. "My lady, I don't know how I have not witnessed your beauty before. I thought I knew everybody in this kingdom." He straightened, gazing at her intently. "Might I have your name?"
Rose flushed, the rosy hue on her cheeks only enhancing her looks. "Rose Belmont."
"A Belmont? But I thought they were all gone." The man stepped forward, and Rose moved backwards a step, staring shyly at the ground.
"I ... am not allowed out very often."
"Where do you live?"
Suddenly nervous, Rose's voice caught in her throat. "I'm afraid I don't feel comfortable telling you that, sir."
The man stepped forward again, quickly this time so Rose couldn't move. He grabbed her hands in his. "I saw you running through the field, and I wanted to make sure you were okay, but I must be going. May I call on you?"
Rose didn't know much about how the world worked, but she knew she wanted to see this man again. The disappointment seared her heart. "I am sorry, but I don't think that will be possible."
She stared at the ground. "My stepmother would not allow it."
"I could compel her to..."
Rose gasped in alarm, though she vaguely wondered how this man could compel her stepmother. "Oh, please, no. She'd make my life unbearable."
He frowned. "In secret then. Can I meet you somewhere..."
The impropriety of that suggestion was staggering! But her heart pounded as she pondered the dilemma, tempted. "I ... I might be able to get away tomorrow without her knowing. I could meet you here."
His smile seemed to light up the dark building. "Tomorrow then. I will wait for you when the sun is at its highest." He turned to go.
"Wait!" she cried. When he turned back to her, she said softly, "I don't know your name."
"James. James Chandler."
And then he was gone, leaving her shaking in anticipation and wondering why his name seemed familiar.
* * *
James waited for her in the lean-to every day that week. They fell into a pattern. He would sit next to her as she worked on the sewing she brought with her, and they would huddle in the warm hay at the back of the lean-to, talking softly. Rose was careful not to talk about where she lived, and James seemed equally resistant to talking about his life. Instead, he focused on her beauty and how entranced he was with her.
Unfortunately, the stable boy eventually got better, and Rose soon found herself locked inside again. She knew James waited for her at the same time every day -- that had been their agreement -- but she couldn't meet him.
Finally, feeling desperate, she attempted to work out an agreement with her stepmother.
"I've discovered the fresh air makes me able to work faster, Mother," she told her.
"I'm sorry, Rose," her stepmother said snidely. "But I cannot allow you to roam around outside like some wild animal."
"But surely, an hour of fresh air could do no harm." She could see the argument was not going to sway her stepmother, so she resorted to desperate measures. "If you put me in charge of the stables, you could fire the stable boy and save money."
Compassion was something her stepmother had little of, but greed she had plenty. Her narrowed eyes gleamed with malicious joy at the idea of having one less worker to pay. She waved a hand at Rose. "I suppose we could use the extra money. However, I will only allow it if you have the entire house cleaned top to bottom, every day by noon. I will not have the household duties shirked because you want to loiter in the smelly stable."
Rose wasn't a genius, but she knew what the stepmother was doing. She'd work Rose to the bone, and give her the extra stable work. But Rose didn't care, even if it was an impossible task. "I'll do it."
Her stepmother strolled off, cackling to herself.
Rose awoke early the next morning, letting herself out of her dank basement and setting about to cleaning the house. But as hard as she tried, she just couldn't get it done. In retaliation, her stepmother locked the basement door. "I'll have no lazy daughters in this house!"
Rose cried herself to sleep that night, and the next night, convinced she would never be able to see James again.
The next morning, a knock came on the manor house door, and her stepmother flew into a whirlwind of panic. "The prince is here!" She sent her two daughters upstairs to change and grabbed Rose's arm roughly, dragging her to the basement and shoving her inside the door. "Not one word from you!"
Dejected, Rose sat at the top of the stairs, her ear flat against the crack at the bottom of the door. She heard her stepmother usher the prince into their parlor. Rose's stepsisters giggled and generally made fools of themselves. The rumbling baritone of the prince seemed familiar, but the basement door was thick, and Rose couldn't quite hear him.
And then the stepmother said something loudly enough to hear that made Rose shoot straight to her feet: "I'm glad you could stop by, Prince James."
James? And then it hit her, why his name seemed familiar. James was the prince! Panic streaked through her body, and she began pounding on the basement door. "James!" she cried.
But it was no use. By then he'd already left the house. When the door flew open, her stepmother stood there, glaring at her. "No dinner for you!" she declared, slamming the door back in Rose's face.
That was the worst night of Rose's life. Distressed and hungry, she cried until she had no moisture left in her body. Then she fell into a restless sleep.
Late in the night, a rustling sound woke her. She sat up in bed, her eyes catching movement in the corner of the room. A rat, probably.
She stood and crept toward the corner, intending to find the rat's hiding place and clear it out. But in the corner she found not a rat, but a small, fuzzy creature that came to the middle of her calf. Its ears were pointing, sticking sideways from its humanoid head. She stared at it in awe. "What are you?"
"Well, that's rude," the creature said in a quiet, high-pitched voice, blinking its wide eyes at her. "How would you feel if I asked what you were?"
She gasped, then fell to her knees so she didn't tower over it. "I'm so sorry. Who are you?"
The creature grinned, showing a row of white teeth. "My name is Hans." He snapped his fingers, and four more just like him made their way from behind the sacks of grain in the corner. "And these are my brothers. We're here to help you."
"We know you're being held prisoner in this house. We can aid you."
Hans puffed out his chest proudly. "We can have this house clean every day in a quarter of the time it would take you. Then you can visit your prince."
Rose covered her mouth with her hand. "How do you know about that?"
"Your tears called us. Do you agree?"
The situation was strange, but Rose was desperate. Without thinking or asking what the creatures would want in return, she blurted, "Yes. I agree."
Hans smiled broadly. "Then sleep as long as you like, m'lady. We'll have the place done before you or your stepmother wakes."
"Thank you," she breathed.
When Rose awoke again, she was convinced she had dreamed the creatures. She crept upstairs, sighing at the thought of another day of useless cleaning only to be locked in the basement again. But as she stepped into the kitchen, everything shone. "My lord," she gasped.
Hans appeared then.
"How can I ever thank you?" She was tempted to sweep him into her arms, but she didn't want to hurt him.
Hans held out his hands. "My lady, my brothers and I are ever so hungry. If you would be so kind as to repay us with food. We will help as you long as you need, so long as you keep us fed."
Such a simple request! "Of course. What would you like?"
Hans and his brothers had simple tastes -- bread and butter were scarfed down the food in an instant and retreated back to the basement.
By the time her stepmother came downstairs, Rose had spent a peaceful morning reading a book. At the sound of her stepmother's footsteps, she jumped to her feet and pretended to be scrubbing out the fireplace. Her stepmother's surprised gasp told her when to turn around.
"How..." her stepmother said.
Rose stood straight, her chin high. "I did what you asked. May I move on to the stable?"
Her stepmother, too astonished to speak, waved a hand of dismissal at her and moved to unlock the outside door. As Rose stepped past her, her stepmother gave her a narrow-eyed look of suspicion. "I hope you don't expect this lets you off for the rest of the week."
"No, Mother," Rose said demurely, then practically ran to the stable. After 10 minutes of light work in there -- enough to be sure her stepmother wasn't watching -- Rose hurried down the road to the clearing.
In the lean-to, James waited. Rose threw herself in his arms, and he showered her with kisses.
"Where have you been?" he gasped. "It's been days! I worried some other man snatched you up, but I didn't know where you lived."
"I'm sorry. My stepmother's a horrible woman, but I've found a way to outsmart her."
"So you can continue to meet me?"
"Yes!" Then she bit her lip. "James, why didn't you tell me you're the prince?"
He paused, his expression stricken. Then it eased. "I apologize, Rose. I should have told you. But it's a rare luxury for a beautiful woman not to know who I am."
The poor dear. What he must have to deal with in his life. She beamed at him. "I assure you, it is you I'm interested in."
"Thank goodness." James kissed her full on the lips, making her dizzy. "This will not do, Rose," he said. "You are the most stunning girl I've ever seen. I want you to run away with me. Be my wife."
Rose pulled back and gazed up at him in surprise. "You mean it?"
"Yes. You will be the most beautiful queen the kingdom has ever had, and your stepmother will not be able to touch you again." He trailed a finger down her cheek. "What do you say?"
Her smile was the largest she'd ever given. "Yes, I'll do it!"
They made plans. He would ride back to the castle, a day's ride away, and prepare his father for her arrival. Then he would come back to get her. She revealed to him her home. He sputtered, angry that he'd been in that very manor house earlier in the week and hadn't known she was there.
"Can you meet me at your stable when the moon is at its highest tomorrow night?" he asked. "I think that's our best chance of getting away without your stepmother seeing."
She nodded anxiously. "I'll steal her key."
He leaned forward, kissing her on the forehead. "Then I'll be back in a day's time." He rushed off to his horse, tied to a tree outside the lean-to. Rose returned to finish the stable duties, barely paying attention to what she was doing.
She would be free in two days! She would be able to have a life of her own, with the man she loved -- a prince, no less!
Back in her basement that night, she thanked Hans and his brothers profusely, giving them more bread and butter. "If you hadn't helped me, I wouldn't have been able to talk to him."
Hans' teeth glinted in the firelight. "If you'd like to thank us, we love the king's toffee."
Her eyes widened, but she nodded. "Tomorrow is a market day. I will try to get some for you before I leave."
Hans rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "And maybe some more bread and butter tonight? We're very hungry."
"I..." A flutter of misgiving erupted in Rose's stomach. Hans was very attached to food. She shoved it away, going back upstairs to get more food for him and his brother. As they ate, she bit her lip. "What will you do when I am gone?"
"My brothers and I are nomads. We will move on to another home in need of our services." His stomach grumbled, and he grinned at her. "Other maidens willing to feed us."
Rose fell asleep that night happy for the first time.
Talking her stepmother into purchasing the toffee was easier than Rose expected. She simply told her it would be a birthday gift for Abigail, one of her evil stepsisters. Her stepmother, pleased Rose was showing proper respect for her real daughter, allowed it, bringing her the toffee.
Rose wrapped it in a cloth and stored it under her pillow, planning to give it to Hans as a farewell present. She spent the rest of the night scurrying around and packing up her few belongings. She'd never really been allowed to have anything of her own, so she didn't have much. But she dragged out the motions as long as possible to keep herself busy. When she could hear her stepmother and stepsisters settling down for the night above her, she crept quietly out of the basement, gazing out the window at the moon's progress across the sky.
Finally, it seemed at its highest. Dawn would be in a few hours, and she had no time to spare. "Hans," she whispered, hoping he was nearby even though she was in the kitchen. His small head appeared behind a chair.
"I have one more favor to ask of you. In return, you shall have your toffee."
"Anything." He gave a small bow.
"In my stepmother's room there's a key on a chain. She takes it off at night and leaves it on the bed table. Can you retrieve it? You're less likely to be seen than I am."
"It will be done." He disappeared.
She waited next to the door, her muscles tense. Before long, Hans reappeared, the key in his hand. She took it and leaned down to kiss him on the top of his head. "Thank you so much." She unlocked the door and opened it, starting to take a step through, then stopped. "Oh, I almost forgot." She held out the package of toffee. "For you and your brothers."
Hans' eyes glinted, and he snatched the package out of her hand. His four brothers appeared suddenly, and they distributed the toffee amongst themselves. Rose glanced outside but saw no sign of the prince, so she decided to wait to make sure the creatures liked their gift. "Good?"
The toffee had been devoured already, and a strange sound was emanating from Hans' throat. "Very good," he said, but his voice sounded scratchy. "Though I am still hungry. Very hungry." Suddenly, his eyes took on a red glow -- all of their eyes, actually. Thin threads of silver were falling from their bodies, as though they were emerging from a cocoon that hadn't been there before.
How odd, Rose thought, warnings flittering through her body. "Hans?" she asked uncertainly.
He grinned up at her, and the action revealed a row of razor-sharp teeth. They had definitely not been like that before. In fact, now that she was looking, his fingernails had grown into claws.
"We're so very hungry," he growled.
Rose took a step outside, opening her mouth to call for James. But before she made it all the way outside, the creatures jumped on her, their sharp claws sinking into the soft skin on her back and knocking her to the ground.
She shrieked, a bloodcurdling scream, and rolled over, trying to knock the creatures off. They tore at her skin. Hans grinned at her as he bit into the tip of her cute little nose.
"Rose!" Out of the corner of her eye, she could see James running toward her. Her vision began flashing red and black; she was on the verge of passing out from the pain. "Are those gremlins?" He kicked one off her, but it came right back, its sharp teeth sinking into the flesh on her cheek.
As her mind sank into blackness, the last thing she heard was James saying incredulously, "Did you feed them? You never feed mogwais after midnight! That's how you get gremlins!"
When Rose managed to open her eyes again, sunlight burned them. She threw an arm up to block the light, then gasped as she saw it was covered in bandages. She sat up, every part of her body screaming in pain. She was on the floor of the manor house's kitchen, her body wrapped in bandages, even her face. She wondered how long she had been unconscious.
Voices came from the foyer, and she crept to the door to listen, ignoring the pain.
"I thank you, Madam Cunningham." Rose sucked in a breath, recognizing James' voice. She took a step forward but stopped when he continued. "I have spent the past few weeks searching for a suitable match. Abigail will make a fine bride."
Abigail's shrill giggle chilled Rose to the bone. Bride? What was James talking about? What about her?
"I'm glad you came to your senses, your highness," Roses' stepmother said. "Abigail will be much better for you. Rose is ... too common."
A pause, then James said, "I admit, nobody could compete with her in beauty. Even after meeting her, I was very thorough in my search, and I found nobody more lovely. She would have been an asset to my throne for that reason. But now... I cannot marry a girl nobody will be able to look at."
Tears stung Rose's eyes. What was he talking about? He loved her! Suddenly, all her pains hit her full-force, and her fingers gingerly explored her bandage-covered face. Welts and tender skin greeted her touch. Choking back a sob, she grabbed the wash pan next to the fireplace. Bandages covered nearly all but her eyes, and she began tearing them off. She stared in disbelief at her reflection.
The face staring back at her barely looked human. It was a mass of open wounds, one eye swollen nearly closed. Most of her nose was gone, as well as half of her lip. Her lovely face was now that of a monster. She would heal, but the scars would remain.
And apparently her beauty had been all the prince wanted.
For the first time in her life, she felt something: courage to stand up for herself. She would march into the foyer and demand an explanation from James. And then she would walk out of this house, never to return. She'd find a healer, somebody who could help her injuries, and start a new life. Anything would be better than staying here. She should have been brave enough to do it sooner.
But as she turned, her stepmother entered the room. "Oh good, you're awake." She cringed and averted her eyes. "I can't stand to look at you." Reaching out, she grabbed Rose's arm and dragged her to the basement.
"No!" Rose yelled, but her voice was gone, replaced by a whisper of air, her vocal cords damaged in the attack. She fought her stepmother, but she was too weak, and her stepmother shoved her into the stairwell.
Blocking the door, her stepmother stared at her. "I loved your father, so I will continue to support you. But I don't want to see your hideous face up here again."
The basement door slammed in her face. She banged on it with her fists but quickly grew tired.
Tears trailed down her cheeks, stinging in her wounds, as she slowly made her way down the steps. She collapsed on her bed, pulling her knees to her chest and closing her eyes.
From the corner of the room came a hitching growl -- the sound of a monster laughing.
Author's Note: Yeah, so I rarely write short, but I did this for a challenge in this other writing community to which I belong. The challenge was "Happily Never After," which most people didn't take literally as far as the fairy tale part, but I did (I guess I'm a literal kind of girl). :P I like it. It's fun, in a disturbed way. lol