No amount of scrubbing could get the stains out of his step father's boots.
They were blotched and blackened by years of blacksmithing and they smelled like it, too.
Elias glanced up from his work when his step brother stepped into the barn, balancing two buckets on either end of a long stick that he carried on his shoulders. With a grunt, he placed them down in the straw-covered floor.
"Father wants you to shovel the manure," Collin said, sneering down at him. "Make sure you hurry. You still have to hunt supper."
Collin was nearly a foot taller than Elias, but scrawny. Like his sister, Collin favored his father with bright blue eyes, freckled nose, and red hair, which was a stark contrast to Elias's ebony curls and brown eyes. Strangers who didn't know them thought Elias to be a servant.
Which wasn't untrue.
He gritted his teeth. "Fine."
"And don't forget to milk Betsy. Father wants fresh milk for dinner." Collin's sneer broadened. "I'll let him know you didn't clean his boots like he told you too."
Clenching his hand into a fist, Elias glared at him He could take him, but there was no point. This place was his home and his step father wouldn't hesitate to kick him out.
Taking a steadying breath, he stood to his feet, but Collin blocked his path.
Folding his arms over his chest, Collin taunted, "You're worthless. Just like your father."
His temper flared and before he knew what he was doing, he punched his jaw. There was a a satisfying 'crunch' then...
"Father!" Collin screamed, doubling over, holding the side Elias had assaulted. "Father, come quick! Ella just punched me!"
Elias didn't miss the cruel nickname Collin had used his childhood, but he was too rattled to care. What had he done?
"What in the world is going on-"
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Thadeus, a small man with a permanent slouch that had been left behind by the years spent hunched doing his craft, appeared, goblet brimming with mead in hand. His beady eyes narrowed at the sight of his son before pinning Elias with a look that told him it was all over.
"Let me explain," Elias begged. "I'm sorry. He-..."
"Get. Out." Thadeus beared his rotted teeth as he pointed for him to leave.
Without any other choice, Elias walked out of the barn and away from the home he'd known all his life. It was a large home, built for a Duke. His father hadn't been the wealthiest, but he had had enough wealth to live well. Elias remembered vaguely having maids, chefs, and workers to help with the farm. He'd been happy. That was until his father had died when he was only six. Soon after his mother was forced to remarry in order to keep her property, since only men could own property and have money. That was when Thadeus had entered in and ruined everything.
By birthright, the property should have gone to Elias when he reached 19, but Thadeus had threatened him. He dreamt of someday taking back what was his, but he knew it was in vain. With nothing to his name, he had no hope of winning against Thadeus.
He was only a poor, and now homeless, boy.
Just as he reached the forest that surrounded the kingdom, someone called out for him.
He turned to see Penelope running toward him, carrying a brown sack. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she wrapped her arms around his waist.
"Please don't leave," she cried, her voice muffled against his shirt.
His heart swelled. The ten year old was the most family he had left.
"Hey, it's okay," he assured, patting her back. "Don't cry. We both knew I couldn't stay forever."
"Father is so mean," she lamented. "I hate him!"
Crouching down, he got down to eye-level with her and raised her chin so she would look at him.
"No, Penelope. We can't hate. Hating is wrong and weak. It takes more strength to forgive. Can you be strong? For me?"
She sniffled. "Only for you, El. Here. I brought this for you just in case you wouldn't come back. It's your father's suit I found in the attic. You'll look so handsome!"
He chuckled and took the bag from her hands. "I don't think I'll be needing a suit, but thank you."
At least he'd have something of his father.
"But you will!" the girl exclaimed. "Tonight there is a ball and the princess is looking for a prince to marry. You can make her fall in love with you and marry her and then come back and get me."
"Penelope, that's very thoughtful, but I'm not a prince."
"You are to me," the girl said, causing him to smile. "Please, promise you'll at least try, El. Promise!"
"Fine, I'll try," he answered.
She kissed his cheek then ran back toward the farm, leaving him with a single brown bag and a Duke's suit.
He was insane to think a ten-year-old's plan would actually work.
Staring out across the ballroom, he watched in an outdated, dusty suit as hopeful suitors flocked to the throne where the king sat looking pale and disinterested, next to the princess who was hidden by the crowd.
Keeping his head down, he walked along, biding his time until he would surely be thrown out for being an imposter. Yet, this was the life he would have had if it hadn't been for Thadeus.
He had just snuck some more food from a servant's tray when the announcer quieted the violinists.
"Make room. The princess shall choose a partner for the first dance."
He stepped back with the crowd to create enough room for dancing as the princess came into view. She was pretty, but there was nothing that propelled him to want to dance with her. He sighed.
Elias didn't know what he had hoped for, but he felt disappointed just the same.
"Pretty, isn't she?"
Startled, he was snapped out of his thoughts by the words of an old woman standing next him.
She was only one of the few other women in the room and she wore an expensive gown just like the rest. White tendrils of hair was tucked against the nape of her neck, revealed a brown birthmark on her temple about the size of a coin.
She didn't turn to look at him as she watched the princess dance with one of the bachelors.
"I suppose," he admitted, though he felt no desire for the girl.
The woman arched a quizzical brow. "You don't seem very interested like the other men."
"She's... healthy enough."
The woman snorted. "My boy, she isn't a horse."
She stared at Elias openly. But why he didn't know. He wasn't anyone worth a second glanced, much less staring at. Elias squirmed beneath her scrutiny.
"You're the Duke's son. I'm sure if it now," she hissed. Reaching out, she out a wrinkled hand on his arm. "You must come with me."
"What?" The woman was senile. "Listen, I don't know how you knew my father, but I'm not what you think."
Leaning forward, she glanced around to ensure no one was listening then she whispered, "I need your help. That's not the princess. The princess is in the dungeon. If you don't help, she'll die."
He shook his head at her claim, but she looked at him in earnest. Against better judgement, he nodded and allowed her to pull him through a door by the kitchen.
Once through the door, he found himself in a castle corridor. The stone walls gave off an unwelcoming cold. 342Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ919AT4Fy9G
"Why is the princess in the dungeon?"
The elderly woman's face reddened as her eyes filled with rage. "That girl out there. She's pretending to be the princess and she locked Cinder up. I'm afraid she has drugged the king to the point that he doesn't know who comes or goes. I just hope it isn't poison."
Wringing her hands, the woman shook her head. "We have to hurry. I told the guards about some cake the chef cooked. They'll be back from the kitchen soon."
They rounded a corner that led down a flight of cobblestone stairs lined with torches mounted on the wall. He descended each step cautiously, minding the puddles of mold-smelling water that trinkled down the walls and onto the steps. The woman accepted his arm when he offered it to help stabilize her balance.
"But why would someone do that?" he prodded.
It seems far-fetched that no one else would pick up on a girl imposing as the princess and drugging the king.
"She's a witch," she muttered. "The guards are under her spell and no one can help without risking their life."
Now he knew she was crazy.
Before he could enquire further, she darted from his side at the bottom of the stairs and toward one of the cells in the dungeon. Human excrement and decaying rats churned his stomach. He tried to stifle the stench using his sleeve, but to no avail. It was too strong to be ignored.
Curiosity drove him to go with the woman more than anything. If he came to the cell and it was empty, he'd just lead the woman upstairs and seek out a heeler for her.
But, it wasn't empty.
"Vern! What are you doing here?" came a voice from the cell as he approached it.
When a face came into view, his jaw fell slack.
The girl was young and beautiful, much like the rumors around the kingdom had spoken of.
"I brought someone to help you escape, but we must hurry." The woman waved him over, impatiently. "This is Duke Alistair's son, Elias. He will get you out of the castle and somewhere safe."
He hadn't remembered giving her his name, but he was too stunned to ask how she knew it.
The girl regarded him with suspicion etching her expression. "Who?"
Waving her question aside, Vern withdrew a key and quickly worked the lock until the iron door opened.
"Here." Vern hiked up her dress and withdrew a bundle of clothing that she had tied around her stomach. Elias looked away as soon as he realized what she was doing. "Put this on. I'm afraid I wasn't able to bring you any shoes."
" There's some," Elias said, pointing out a pair of boots that had been left by a wooden chair.
Vern clapped her hands in delight and went to retrieve them. "The Good Lord provides! Now, Elias, go stand by the stairs and watch out for the guards while the princess changes into the guard's clothes."
He didn't have to be told twice. After a few moments, the princess emerged from the cell, donning the outfit given to her by the older woman.
Wisps of brown hair poked out of a tight braid that hung over her shoulder, as bright blue eyes stared out from under a pair of dark lashes. The balky attire hid any trace of feminine curvature, but he could tell she was thin -unhealthily so- by her sunken cheekbones.
"I can't walk in these," she said, tugging the boots at her calves. "They're too loose."
"Take mine." His were almost as large as the boots she had on, but his had strings so she could tighten them.
"Hurry!" Vern urged, glancing up the stairs.
Cinder gave him an undecipherable look before shrugging off the boots they'd found and slipping into his. He put on the other pair. Although they were big on his feet, he at least could run in them if they had to escape quickly.
The princess struggled with the tightening the laces. Her hands were shaky, but he couldn't determine if it was due to fear or malnutrition.
Without a word, he bent down and helped her tighten the laces before securing them in a knot. He met her intense gaze when he had finished to tell her he was finished, but the words shriveled up on his tongue.
"We must go!" Vern insisted, tugging the princess toward the stairs.
Cinder glanced at him over her shoulder as he got up to follow.
"Try to keep your head down. No one will know your a woman if you don't look up," said Vern guiding up the stairs. "Elias, keep close behind, but not too close, lest we draw unwanted attention."
The ballroom was lively with chatter and music. Mead wafted off laughing tongues as they wandered through the crowd. He had slowed his pace to not arouse suspicion as Vern had told him to do, but he made sure to stay as close as he could manage.
He couldn't explain the sense of desire to protect the girl, but it was there, and it propelled him into an unknown and possibly even dangerous future. No longer did he feel like just a poor orphan. The newfound sense of purpose breathed life into his lungs and strengthened his resolve to see the girl protected at all costs.
But was she truly the princess?
There was nothing regal about her appearance. Not when she was dressed in oversized men's clothes. But her eyes had captivated him so, for a reason he didn't dare venture to guess.
His musings were interrupted by a clatter as Cinder bumped into the arm of a servant that was carrying a tray of wine glasses and the servant dropped it. Shards of broken glass flew across the floor, catching the attention of people nearby and, unfortunately, the girl dancing just a few feet from them.
The girl glanced their way and her eyes flooded with recognition.
"Guards! Guards, get them!" she shouted.
Elias ran forward, grabbed Cinder's hand, and bolted for the exit. When Vern didn't follow, he glanced over his shoulder, but he couldn't see over the people.
Guards chased them out the door and down the entrance steps. They were nearly to the last step when Cinder stopped.
Following her line of sight, he saw his boot laying on the steps, right where the guards were.
"No time," he replied, pulling her hand behind him as he jumped the last few steps and looked around for a way to escape.
A farmer's wagon full of pumpkins and gourds caught his eye. With her at his heel, he led them to the wagon and hoisted her up into the seat before pulling himself into it and settling beside her.
Flicking the reins tied to the team of horses, he grinned. It was the most excitement he'd had in a long time. Cinder noticed his smile and looked as though she thought him mad.
They had just reached the gates when the guards and caught up with them on horseback.
Elias yelled at the horses and snapped the reins again, forcing them at a breakneck speed. The wagon jolted every time it came upon a small hole in the dirt road that weaved through the forest. Strewn with slippery, seedy guts of pumpkins and gourds as they fell from the wagon, the path proved to be hindrance to the sure footing of the guards' horses and Elias soon managed to escape them.
Once it was safe enough, he slowed the team of horses and smiled.
"We made it," he said with an exhale of air. He doubted his heart would ever beat normally again.
"Thank you," Cinder murmured, smoothing the wrinkles indenting her pants. She worried at her lower lip and looked around them. "I hope Vern is okay."
"So you're really the princess then?" he asked, not much more convinced than he had been an hour ago.
Cinder frowned, solemnly. "I used to be until that imposter took over the castle. She took everything from me. Vern, my godmother, was the only one who was brave enough to stop me."
"How did she know my name?" he asked. No one had ever guessed his identity before and hardly anyone still remembered his father.
She shrugged, looking down. "I'm not sure. She's my mother's sister. Years ago, she was the kingdom's most sought after seamstress. Maybe, she knew your father then."
He thought about his suit, but it seemed unlikely she'd remember making it, much less who for. Still, he didn't question her concerning the matter any further.
After a few minutes of silence, he noticed streams of tears running down the girl's face.
"Hey, it's okay. I'll help you." Elias didn't understand why, but he hated seeing her so upset. It made him angry at the girl responsible for it all. "I'll help you get your castle back."
He couldn't even obtain the farm that he had inherited, how could he get back a castle from an evil witch, for the princess? But he didn't know what else to say to make her feel better.
Lillian sniffled and gave him a small smile. "Thank you. Oh! I'm sorry about losing your boot."
He shrugged. "Don't feel bad. It's just a shoe."
After all, when had anyone used a shoe to track someone down?
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