Bright Iron, Bitter Ashes

Author: hossgal
For: Helen (LJ: prozacpark)
Requests: Cinderella (Fables)
Spoilers: Through "Cinderella Libertine"
Summary: Iron is not the only thing forged in fire, under blows.


In the days before, when her mother was still a warm memory and her father slept alone in the wide bed in the upper room, Ashella would sometimes lie awake at night, listening to the wind against the shutters. When the girl was very small, her mother would have come to her, feet loud on the rush-strewn floor, and bent close in the darkness.

"Are you awake, dear one?" Her mother's breath would have been tainted with brandy and rich meat, and her fingers would have been firm and comforting as she tucked the wraps closer about Ashella. "Go to sleep, there's a good child." And her mother would have pressed a kiss to the child's brow before slipping away. And the wind would still have rattled the shutters against the walls, and made the fire dance in the hearth, but Ashella would have slept quietly and well.

When she was older, and her legs had outgrown the confines of the crib, her father had finally ordered the crib put away, and a proper bed installed in the second room. No one came to tuck her in at night, so Ashella would lie awake, listening to the wind. Even did she pull the quilt tight about her, it was still not the same, and Nurse was no better help, for the old woman's breath stank of bad beer and worse teeth. Still, it was only the wind, and if Ashella could not sleep, nor was there any cause for fear. She had her home, and her father, despite his travels, and she was content.

It might be nice to think that her life was so, for ever and always, but that is not how the story is told.

***

The woman her father married was neither kind nor cruel, but instead resembled the great grey tom that owned the kitchen step - indifferent, self-possessed, and not to be trifled with. The similarity ran so far as to cause an observer to mark how the eyes of the cat - dark-rimmed and hazel - and those of the new mistress were much the same.

Had it been only the woman her father had married, Ashella supposed, she could have come to an accommodation with her, as the old hound Danny had with the kitchen cat. Occupied different rooms, found a pattern to their days that ensured their paths seldom crossed. And if there was now cause for concern, and disquiet in the house, there would have been no reason for Ashella to be discontent.

But the woman her father married had two daughters of her own - tall, plump girls with the auburn hair of their mother's kin, and skin like milk skimmed free of cream. They came to the house of Ashella's father wrapt in heavy robes against the autumn chill, and it would be the following spring before they dared venture out of doors.

The House was a fine one, and a large dwelling for a widower and his only child and their few servants. But no house - even one so large as that of the High King's summer castle - no house would have been large enough for Ashella and her new sisters to pass that winter in peace.

It began with small things - a look, a glare, a missing toy - and in a matter of weeks progressed to pinches, slaps, and untimely shoves on the stairs. Three days before Michaelmass, the older of the girls conspired to put a toad in Ashella's soup, so that she screamed outright at the table and flung the cup across the room. The temporary effects of this incident - Ashella was sent to her room and, when the toad could not be found, whipped for lying - passed soon enough, but Ashella's disinclination to eat at table, or, indeed, in the company of her sisters, lingered past the snow.

By the time the first buds appeared on the pear trees, and the sparrows to the ivy-covered wall, they were deadly enemies, prevented from drawing blood only by the icy stare of the other girl's mother, and the threat of Ashella's father's return.

A messenger came with the first of the green leaves, bearing the token of the death of Ashella's father.

That evening, she broke her sister Margot's mirror, and used the largest shard to hack off Sofia's braid.

***

Ashella would not understand for many years the complex forces governing the dispersal of her father's property, the retraction of his titles and honors, and the reversion of his ventures and the associated loss of capital. She was a merchant's daughter, after all, not a merchant herself. So when her father's wife drew her lips tight, and set off old Nurse, and sent the books from the library and the chairs from the west pallor to auction, Ashella knew nothing of the dire straights of the Household economy. She knew only that her father's books were gone, that Nurse had left weeping into her apron, and that her very favorite refuge - the tall-backed ebony-framed chair that sat by the fire - was gone as well.

When she found two new dresses in the wardrobe - both in the southern style that her sisters still favored, she might have been forgiven for leaping to assumptions.

She stared at the dresses until her eyes ached - noted the heavy fabric, the layered sleeves, the bows tacked to waist and shoulder. One was goldenrod, to favor Margot's ruddy yellow hair. The other, a deep brown bordering on rust, would suit Sofia.

Then she fetched the silver-bladed scissors from her mother's sewing basket, still in its place of honor in the parlor. The scissors took the shape of a wading bird - long legs and impossible toes curling around her fingers. The crane's beak made the blades, opening and closing - snick, snick - as Ashella flexed her fingers. It was half an hour before her father's wife finished seeing the tradesmen off with the case and chair, and came in search of Ashella. By that time there was no undoing the child's labor. The dresses that her father's wife had gone to her cousins to procure, gone on bended knee, as a beggared widow pleading for charity for her daughters, well, they would never grace a respectable woman's child. And when her father's wife found Ashella, unrepentant, in the midst of the tatters and rags, scissors still bright in her fist, she might be forgiven for hasty action, as well.

The next ten years were a long winter of discontent for them all.

***

Her father's wife made Ashella repair the dresses to the best of her ability, and then, when the ragged slits were closed and the uneven hems more or less restored, made the girl wear the awful things. Ashella would have sworn that she could not have physically summoned more hatred for the garments than that first instant, when she opened the wardrobe door and saw the southern-skirted dresses hanging there. As it came to pass, when her father's wife tugged the waist-ties straight about Ashella, the girl felt a murderous tide wash over her, and it was only by digging her nails into her palms until they bleed that she overcame the impulse to attack the mirror and the girl standing there in a brown dress.

Just as well, for she was without anything but her stockings to beat the mirror with, her own hairbrushes confiscated and gifted to her sisters after she threw the other girls toilet articles into the midden. Her shoes were gone - since her father's death, neither her hands nor feet had grown perceptively, and her father's wife had forbidden her to wear her shoes about the house, least she destroy them, too.

"There," her father's wife said, pulling the ties straight. "Now you have your dress."

Ashella considered her wavy reflection, the water stain on the glass, the uneven him. "I don't like it."

The hands on her shoulders tightened their grip. Ashella bit her lip and refused to flinch. "Then mend the other and you shall have two dresses to wear."

She could not be allowed out of the house in such a state, and, as a result, was confined to indoors. Furthermore, as idleness was a prime contributor to her predications against her sisters, she was restricted to the lower rooms only, and set under the constant supervision of the cook or maid. Those individuals wearied quickly of the girl's propensity for darting off when unengaged, and the scolding from the mistress that resulted, so they began to assign the girl small tasks, and praise her when they were done well.

In this manner the girl learnt the art of baking, of fire keeping, and of scullery-keeping, and earned the unending contempt of her sisters.

Not that Ashella cared. Sometimes, when she knelt beside the dress form and brought the edges of the tears together, she would imagine it was one of her sisters - Margot, for preference - wearing the garment, and not the manikin. In such moments, she would empty the pin-apple and thrust each one into the form, following the creases of the faux body - the line where the hips met the torso, the curve of young breasts, and the hollow where arm met shoulder.

At first, she had used the scissors to stab, but that only left more holes to repair.

She wished, often, that she was the Briar Rose, who could slip into slumber when her fingers were pricked. Her thumb was swollen and throbbed - she tucked it into her mouth and sucked the iron taint strong on her tongue. If only.

Her father's wife would inspect the dress at odd intervals - the goldenrod dress had been more badly damaged, and there was less room for error. Sometimes, when the weather was poor but the season not too cold, the older woman would bring her own needlework to the attic that was Ashella's work room and supervise, as Ashella toiled.

When she did so, and caught Ashella gazing at the gown with her thumb in her mouth, she would gift the girl with a wrap on the ear. "Mind your task. You have no time for dreams."

Ashella would glower, her face to the floor, and think if only.

***

In the wintertime, wind sang through the attic walls like water through a rush broom, and Ashella was permitted to sleep on the kitchen hearth. Her tasks grew to include scraping the ashes from all the hearths and stoves of the House - a filthy task that the youngest maid relinquished with a glad heart. Ashella's hands grew lined with soot, and her father's wife bade her leave off her sewing, for fear of soiling the fabric.

Spring came late, and cold, and Ashella was still sleeping on the hearth a week before Eastertide. The seneschal set her to cleaning all the hearths, making them new for the Easter flame. Ashella set herself to the task sullenly - after Easter would come spring, and she would return to her work on the hated dress.

The shovel edge drug across the hearthstones like cook's knives on sharpening steel. All the rest of the house was at their own tasks, and Ashella moved through the house with her shovel and broom like a ghost, bearing a scuttle of graveyard dust. By noon, all the lower floor hearths were laid, and Ashella ascended the stairs to the upper floor.

In the room that had been hers alone, before her father had married, Margot and Sophia shared a wide bed and a table set before a bronze mirror. They ignored Ashella as she entered, sitting together in the window seat with their needlework.

Ashella, for her part, had spent the last ten years not looking at any wall that stood behind her sisters. She bent to her task - first the shovel, dragging the black iron across the stones, the silver line of the ground edge winking at her as she poured the ashes into her basket. Then the broom of straw, pecking at every corner. She would have to come later with a basin and brush, and scrub the stones themselves. Perhaps she could put it off until this afternoon, when her sisters would be out walking.

With her head entirely inside the hearth, she groaned. She had missed a chunk of soot, caked to the stone. Her right hand closed on the hearth-shovel just as a foot came to rest on her fingers.

"You missed a place, little ash-wench. Here, let me help." Margot's voice, thick and bitter. Ashella gritted her teeth and tugged at the shovel handle, but the foot on her hand stayed both arm and shovel. Over by the window, behind Ashella, Sophia giggled.

The bail of the ash bucket creaked as it rose through the air.

Later, Ashella could not remember what, precisely, she had done. Only that it had ended with a shriek and the ash bucket tumbling across the floor, and herself standing while Margot clutched her hand and sobbed.

"You've ruined my dress, you stupid slut! You'll pay for that!" Margot scrambled to her feet, face contorted with rage. Ashella raised the shovel again, stood her ground.

"Silence."

Three pairs of eyes went to the figure standing in the doorway. Two looked away, almost in the same moment. Ashella was the only one who saw her father's wife sweep the room with her gaze, the only one who saw how that gaze noted the needle work abandoned at the window seat, the spill of ashes down the side of Ashella's dress, the smoking rushes. The only one who saw one lip curl.

"Girls. Attend your work."

"But, but lady mother, she -" Sophia stuttered to a halt. Margot was still choking on her sobs.

"Attend. Your. Work." The two retreated to huddle together at the window. The older woman turned her eyes on Ashella, still standing with the shovel in one trembling fist.

"You will attend to the proper pursuits of young ladies, and leave the chastising of your sister to seneschal. Or to me."

***

The seneschal's face was dark as a thunderstorm. He laid the stripes over Ashella's back with a firm vigor.

"Stupid. Foolish. Girl. Keep. To. Your. Work!"

She bit her lip, kept her eyes on the shovel, leaning against the hearth, and the bright line of the blade-edge.

***

Another year passed. And then, in the space of three hours, on three nights, her whole world changed.

The next morning she awoke on the hearth again. When the king's man came calling, her sisters shut the door in Ashella's face, and everything was as it had been.

***

On the fourth day, the prince's aide-de-camp returned, as he had been instructed. The maid brushed through the kitchen on her way to the front door, apron flying. Then back again, past Cook and Ashella, dressing quail for supper. Ashella shifted her feet, so that she could look out into the receiving hall. Cook scowled at her but said nothing.

"Oh, sweet child of heaven, he's here." Sophia's voice floated down from the upper rooms, hysteria warring with the faintest of hopes.

"Let it go, you fool." Margot, bigger boned and more realistic, practically spat her anger and frustration. She followed Sophia halfway down the stairs, before jerking herself free and flouncing back up. "You will never fit in it! Give up!"

Sophia stumbled the last half-dozen steps and sank on the floor, gasping for breath. One hand clutched the railing; the other held the glass slipper to her heel. Ashella left the quail on the table and went to the door, staring at the shining slipper -

- she had moved like an angel, like a falcon, like a thistledown. The prince's arms had held her close, so close she could smell the scent of cloves and leather on him, and under it all the musky tang of a man. He had looked down at her, caught in the circle of his arms, and he had smiled at her, a smile of joy and delight.

Father, this is the one, the only woman I will wed -

- and startled, when Sophia called her name.

"Please, please help me."

Cook hissed after her, but Ashella was already stepping forward. Her sister's eyes were desperate, pleading. "Please, Ashella, help me."

She remembered Sophia under Margot's biting tongue, how the other girl would curl onto her pillow and weep. She remembered Margot's insistence on first choice of any proffered gift, while Sophia always chose last. She remembered Sophia standing mute as Margot, still enraged by the incident with the coal scuttle, harried the old hound out into the street, and into the path of the passing carriages.

Sophia was still struggling with the glass slipper, her broad fingers slipping over the smooth surface. Ashella knelt at her sister's side. With one hand, she took hold of the pale ankle. With the other, she leaned forward and set the knife hilt on the lowest step. The blade was large and dark, except for the narrow, fine-honed edge.

The men's voices at the door suddenly grew quieter and retreated.

"No!" Sophia's voice was half a sob, half a wail.

"Dear sister," Ashella asked, "do you wish me to help you?"

Sophia gulped, looked at Ashella's fingers, tight on the knife hilt, at the bit of grey down clinging to the back of Ashella's hand. Then she looked at Ashella's fingers, dimpling the soft flesh of her leg. Looked again at the knife, and then met Ashella's eyes.

"Please, sister."

The hilt of the carving knife was smooth and balanced in her hand, and the crunch of the blade against bone and gristle was very like the crack of the chicken joints.

***

The aide de camp stared at the ivory beauty standing in the passageway, leaning so much on the diminutive serving girl beside her. Then he looked down at the toe of the glass slipper, at the frosted upper and the rose-pale foot within it. At last, he thought, an end to this wild hunt.

"Please, sir, she is faint with the thought of seeing her prince again. You must take her to him."

Between the aide and his men and the little servant girl, they loaded the beauty on a spare horse and rode away. The aide pressed the horses, intending to make the king's castle by evening. None of them noticed the scarlet smear on the side of the lady's horse until it was far too late.

***

The wedding passed in a torrent of lace, dressing and undressing, and of complex rituals that required her actions and words but not, it seemed, her understanding. It was another magic hour - another magic day - a funeral and a marriage together, that left Ashella wrung and staggering. Her tongue went numb first, stumbling over the strange phrases. Then her ears, as the echoes from the cathedral's high walls echoed and reverberated until it was all one single sound - complex, unending, and meaningless. Finally, she felt the last of her thoughts slip away and leave her mind empty.

When she was back to herself, she was sitting in a small room and staring at the wall. Sunlight through the high window made a patch of gold on the wall. It was, she decided, not quite halfway down.

The calculation astonished her and she shook her head. The piled curls and woven flowers and headdress of bird's wings moved with her, and she put out a hand against the sudden vertigo.

She did not realize there was another in the room until her prince - her husband - caught her hand.

"Oh," she said, "My lord, I did not see you there."

He smiled, a thin crease on his face. The expression did not warm his eyes.

"But you do now, I do hope. Enough to recognize me, at least."

And how could she not? He was a blaze of gilt piping and metallic thread - even the ivory embroidery on his sash glinted. From the tall boots - polished black - to the gleaming sword hilt at his side, to the ebony hair swept up off his forehead - everything about him was as shining as the day.

"I do, my lord. I know you well."

"hmmm." His hand had been caressing hers - the thumb moving slowly over the silken glove, the fingers broad and warm. Now he released her and stood.

"You will come to know me far better, my dear. But before we progress to that intimacy, I need an assurance of you - that you recognize me, and do not confuse me with any of your relations."

The patch of sunlight slid over one shoulder and set the epaulet there ablaze. She blinked at him.

"My lord, I...do not understand."

"Then attend, for I will not abide an error. You are not permitted a knife, you are not permitted a blade, you are not permitted a sword. I prefer my fingers and toes to remain as they are - numbering ten, and attached to me." Her hands fisted into her skirts. From a great distance, she heard her own voice reply, "My lord, I only live to meet your desires. I...know nothing of the sword, my lord."

The words brought a laugh from him. "Oh, you will, little princess. You will."

He might have said more, or she might have, but there came a knock at the door, and the monsignor drew them out to finish the ceremony. Her prince took Ashella's hand as though plucking a bit of down from the air. She, for her part, stood close enough to feel the sword in its sheath bump against her hip.

It was late - Orion risen and the moon set - before they were alone again, locked in the bedchamber. There, on the pale sheets, he taught her what he wanted her to know.

***

Years later, they sat side-by-side in the Swan ship, fleeing the last free keep of the Homelands. The ship's blunt prow ground against the canyon walls, making the whole vessel shudder. About them, the last of the exiles wept and cursed and clung to each other against the ship's rolling.

Ashella turned around in her seat. Behind her, she thought, she could hear the clash of swords, the shouting of the commander Bearskin and the battle-cries of the captains: the RedCross Knight, Tam-lin, Lockley, and the strange woman Britomart.

Beneath the bench she shared with Charming was a kingdom's ransom in jewels and soft metal. Not a fifth of their entire worth - all the fine clothes were gone, save the ones they wore. Even Charming's sword had gone.

If he had stayed, he would have had to borrow a blade.

"Look at us - practically beggared! Is this any way for a Prince - and his wife - to leave their home?"

If she had stayed, she - she could not even have borrowed a sword.

The ship pitched under them again, and Ashella watched the fortress behind them as they sailed away, until the turn of the river took them from sight.

***

The sound of the ringing steel hung in her mind for many years.

***

When the Fables set sail for the New World, she found herself renamed - she was Cinderella now, and the little ash girl faded even in her own thoughts.

Five years after their arrival, she found herself on the road to the Fable Holding, north and west of the New Amsterdam lodgings.

Four days by coach, and then she walked the last six miles, as the skies opened above her and the rain came down like the seas had been poured out.

At the Holding Gates, she beat on the passing-gate for what felt like days before anyone answered. Finally, a great hulking shadow loomed over her, and worked the lock from the other side.

Inside, she pulled back her cloak hood and announced, "I have come to see the Marquis de Carabas."

***

She found him living in a barn, and answering to "Puss". Standing in the doorway, she looked all about the barn, expecting something different than the worn timbers, the stacked hay, and the chickens wandering to and fro. Certainly she had expected something other than the battle-scarred Tom lying circled in the hay, eyes closed, in a building that stank of tom-cat piss.

He bestirred himself enough to offer her a selection of mice - she refused, as politely as she dared - and then Puss settled himself back into his nest in the hay. He heard out her request, then shook his head.

"I taught warriors, little girl. Not ash-maids, not princesses."

This at least she had expected. "There is no one else. We lost so many, fleeing the Homelands?"

"All the more reason to leave aside the sword, here, in the New World."

A trick. "Master Carabas, I beg you. Please, teach me what you know."

The cat was motionless, except for the flicking of his tail. "Why don't you ask your husband?"

She drew a deep breath, let it out, let another go. "Master Carabas, I beg leave for troubling your rest. Good night."

She had curtsied, straightened, and turned to go, all in a heartbeat.

Behind her, Puss started laughing. "Stop, little princess." When she turned to face him, he asked, "What will you trade me, little ash-girl?"

She swallowed, and offered what she had the most to give - an inexhaustible supply, now.

The cat hacked and spat. "Earless tramp - as if I'd waste my time on goods that Charming has already tasted. Think of another."

Shaken, she tried to gather her thoughts. "I - I -" The chill of the barn brushed against her cheek, slid into her hair. "I can tend your fire, mend your hearth."

The Marquis stared at her.

"I can," she insisted. "I can cut wood and fetch it and keep the fire all night."

"Then," he said, "we have much to do."

He taught her twice a day, for no more than an hour at a time. The rest of the time he expected her to practice the forms alone, except for the times set aside for minding the fire.

She hauled stones for the fire pit. She pitched hay. She cut wood. She practiced the forms until her palms bled on the schooling staffs. She cut more wood, hauled more stones.

By the end of the first day she was aching. By the third, she hated the Marquis as much as she had hated Sophia - long dead and forgotten Sophia. Before the end of the second week, her anger had peaked - victim to exhaustion greater than she had ever owned as a servant in the house of her father's wife.

She carried stones for the hearth, and begged mortar from Weyland Smith. At night, she lay in front of the fire and watched the embers dance.

In the day, she rose at dawn, washed her face in a bucket and readied herself to face the Marquis and his instruction.

In the first weeks he only showed her forms - forced her to repeat motions again and again until her shoulders shook and her arms ached.

"Arms straight, hands loose, back straight. No, back straight. And again. And again."

She thought she hated him then, but after twenty days he began to spar with her.

The practice staves were split through, and could no more break a bone than they could stop a sword. But they left bruises the size of her palm, wherever they touched.

In this the Marquis was different from Charming, who had left all his marks on her soul.

She stayed with him for six weeks, before he bade her go.

"Master, I do not understand. I have not -" Surely she had not yet finished. Honesty forced steel into her backbone. "Master, I am not ready. I need more instruction."

The Marquis stared at her until she dropped her eyes. "Enough, for now. Go, practice. When you have practiced enough, come back."

She nodded, saluted, and sheathed her sword. When she would have undone the harness and set it in the rack, he stopped her.

"Keep it. Practice. Return, when you are ready."

She left, made her way back down to New Amsterdam, and opened a cobbler's shop. The next year, she made her way back up to the Holding. And again, three years after that. And again.

***

The rain was falling in a dank mist, and the Glass Slipper had not had a customer since lunch. Cinderella sent the afternoon girls home and drank tea alone until closing time. Then she went to her books and tried to make sense of the mess her latest accountant had left her in.

Two hours steady labor with quill and Quicken confirmed her suspicions about cash flow. She would not be able to take another vacation before midsummer. Running one hand through her hair, she scowled at the screen. She was ready for another lesson with Puss - was ready now, had she the time. Sighing, she picked up the pen. Maybe a sale - maybe invest in some of those horrid gel things that all the Mundanes were wearing?

"Working late, Princess?"

She curled her hand into a fist around the inkwell and clenched her fingers until they ached. When she could speak without screaming, she said, "Sheriff. What a pleasant surprise. I'm afraid the tea is cold, or I would offer you some."

Bigby Wolf stepped into the room and sat without asking. "Nicely spoken for a woman who stoops to doing her own accounts."

"It's not as though I'd trust you to count past three, Sheriff."

He waved a hand. "Not my line of work. And it is your business. Or, it is this week. How's sales going?"

"Quite fine, thank you for asking."

"Really. Then you'll be taking off for a few days, then? Going back up to the Farm?"

She sat at her desk, very still. "What are you saying?"

"Me? Nothing. Just that, I hear there's an old swordmaster up at the Farm who's pretty pleased with his latest student." Now he quit playing with his cigarette and met her eyes. "Wouldn't have figured you for one of the hunter set, Princess. Quite the opposite, actually."

Blood runs thicker than water, and those that live on blood know each other. The Farm had banned the Wolf, but Bigby wasn't the only predator amongst the exiles. "I've broken no Fabletown law. Nor has the Marquis."

"Didn't say that. I was just wondering if you were going to be paying him a visit soon - brush up on your bladework."

"I might. Not that it's any of your business. What do you want, Bigby?"

He took a drag on the cigarette before replying. "Want you to visit a different swordsman."

"What? Why? I'm training under the Marquis - why should I abandon him? Have you no sense of loyalty?"

"Princess - I mean, Miss - don't fence commitments at me. What I'm offering you is a job."

"Doing what?"

"Practicing swords craft. You do, don't you?"

"Get to the point."

"Bluebeard. He's re-opening his fencing salon. I want to know what he's doing."

"You want me to spy."

"I want you to go take a lesson in fencing. Or three. And keep your eyes open."

"What do you want from me?"

The tip of his cigarette glowed once, then again. The ember light caught in his eyes and he did not pretend to misunderstand her.

"No oaths. No fealty. You will be, in all senses of the word, a free-lance. Payment on delivery of information, no retainer."

She looked past him, at the unlit shop window, at the rain beating down against it. "Half on assignment, if I choose to take it, and half on completion."

A smile that was more a baring of teeth. "I thought you weren't a merchant, little ash girl."

She smiled back, in the same tone. "I'm not. I'm your scout, as long as you pay."

After he left, she checked all the doors, then sat down at her desk. In the center drawer she picked at a wooden seam until the panel slid aside and she could retrieve the trinket she had secreted there the day she bought the shop.

The crane still gleamed at her, gold legs and silver beak. Cinderella held the scissors in her hand until the metal was warm from her flesh. Then she closed the drawer and rose, unhurryingly. At the front window, she lifted down the crystal shoe. The crane scissors rested easily inside. When she set the slipper back up on its shelf, the scissors were almost invisible.

But she knew they were there.