Soot

Prologue

A cry split the cold morning air. The child, who only moments before had been chasing the pigeons, had fallen down and scraped her hand. She lay where she fell, propping herself up on the uninjured hand and looked aghast at the scraped palm on the other. The scrape looked at first just like skin that had peeled off, but soon little droplets of blood oozed out and began to trickle down to the child’s wrist.

Her wailing hadn’t ceased, and within a few minutes the stone courtyard where she’d been playing was full of people balking at the tremendous noise she was making. A woman scooped her up, ignoring the blood smearing across the white cloth of her apron and took her inside. The stone courtyard emptied as people grumbled and then went back inside the large stone building and got back to work.

“Hush, now,” murmured the woman soothingly in the child’s ear. “There, there. ‘S alright. ‘S just a little scrape.” The child had stopped her wailing by now and had subsided into hiccuping whimpers, tears still streaming silently down her face at the subtle, pulsing pain in her palm. The woman’s face was averted from hers as she put the child down on a wooden stool beside the fireplace, and the child took this opportunity to look at the blood on her hand again. Tentatively, looking quizzically at the redness, she stuck out her tongue and licked it. The taste was strange and metallic, mixed with the dirt that had stuck to the blood. She shuddered a little.

The woman bustled around her, moving around the fireplace, fetching a basin and water and setting it over the fire to heat. Absentmindedly, she patted the child’s matted hair between motions. She got a clean cloth from somewhere and, when the water was hot but not too hot, she took it off the fire and placed the basin beside the child. She dipped the cloth into it, wrung it out, and then tenderly washed the child’s scraped hand. The warmth stung, but the child was calm now, her big eyes fixed on the woman’s face.

“There, now, y’see?” the woman said, taking the child’s other hand and washing it as well. “No more tears now, there’s a good girl. Don’t hurt so bad now, do it?” Her eyes finally met those of the child. The woman gulped.

The child’s eyes were black. The woman couldn’t tell where the pupil ended and the iris began. It seemed like the child had only extremely large black holes set within the whites of her eyes. For all that, she was still only a child. Maybe two years old, three at best. She was skin and bones, almost, although her cheeks retained the roundness of a baby and had a healthy pink flush to them. The child’s hair color she couldn’t make out for it was too filthy and matted, bits of twig sticking out of it here and there making it look as though a bird had idly built its nest there one morning while the child still slept. The child’s limbs all looked to be working and normal, if too thin. The woman thought to herself, instinctively, that the child was probably full of lice and that she needed to be scoured immediately.

But then she met those eyes again. The woman bit her lip, thoughtfully.

“You got a name, child?” She asked abruptly.

“Thea.”

“Ah,” the woman said. She bit her lip again, hard. She looked around her, making sure they were alone and that no one had heard the child utter her name. No one in the large, bustling kitchen had been paying them any attention. It was near supper-time, and they were all busy. She would be told off for not helping tonight. The woman brought her mind back to the child before her and came to a decision. In years to come, she wondered whether she’d been taken on by a fit of madness or whether it was just that the child was much too thin for comfort.

“Your name isn’t Thea. Y’hear me, child? Your name isn’t Thea. You’re gonna be my daughter, and you’re name’s gonna be-” she hesitated, thinking. “Your name’s gonna be Soot, cause o’ your eyes, little one.”

“Soot,” the child repeated. “Soot,” she said again, touching her small nose.

“Soot,” the woman agreed.

Mute Anna

Anna wept silently. Where once she screamed, now she was calm, tears dripping down her cheeks without a sound. She had gone away for a time, or, at the least, had slept like a morbid version of a Sleeping Beauty. However an equally morbid prince must have come to her without her knowing it – he must have worked some sort of sourcery to awaken her from her restless, though long, sleep. She couldn’t remember a prince, but he must have been there. If she could have chosen freely for herself, she would sleep in the tower forever more, sparing the world her presence.

But Anna was awake again, and she couldn’t fall back asleep. In fact, the castle where she’d slept seemed to have disappeared without a trace, leaving a few dusty old stones lying around in a field of brown grass. She would stare at the forlorn heap and couldn’t even contemplate building the castle up again. It was too difficult. It was so much easier to simply sit on the grass and weep.

The silence irked Anna, though. She was used to being free, unfettered, unreserved, but something had changed – she knew not what – and she couldn’t make a sound anymore. She was so silent that she would throw stones around for the simple pleasure of hearing a noise and making sure that she hadn’t gone deaf. She hadn’t, though, she’d simply become mute. Each day that passed, however, brought her throat a slight ease and she felt that before long she may be able to make a squeak again – and then, ah, then! Then she would be able to resume her screams, the thing she relished in most. Anna couldn’t help it – she was a violent, ugly beast. But so beautiful as well, so beautiful that it would take an age to describe her beauty and charm.

Princess Without A Name – slightly reworked

I’ve been thinking about trying to submit this story to Hilights, a children’s magazine. With the help of my mother, Ms. Editor Extrordinaire, I reworked it a bit. It’s still too long by over three hundred words, however, and I’m trying to figure out how to shorten it. The reworked version so far is below.

________________________

Once upon a time, there was a princess who didn’t have a name. She lived locked up in a tower, like all princesses do, and had a jolly life there. She got plenty of exercise in the big swimming pool in the basement of the tower, read plenty of books in the big library on the first floor of the tower, and had plenty of food in the pantry on the second floor and plenty of time to gaze outside wistfully from the one window that was on the third floor of the tower. It was a very good tower, as towers went.
The princess without a name was very happy there. She lived her life all alone, except for the girls that came to restock the pantry, and read about other people in books. She had, of course, read all the stories of princesses in the library, and she knew how her story would go. She knew exactly what would happen with her life.
She felt lucky, knowing exactly what was to be. It made her glad to think that one day, probably around her eighteenth birthday, a prince would come riding on a white, or maybe black, horse. He would save her from the tower by breaking into it or climbing up it or doing something else that was very athletic. Then he’d pledge his true love to her, and they would ride off together into the sunset and live happily ever after. The princess without a name liked the sound of happily ever after. It sounded like a nice way to live, though rather vague.

As her eighteenth birthday drew near, the princess without a name started to worry about two things. The first was that all the princesses in the stories had names. Not very good ones, no – for what sort of a name is Cinderella? Or Snow White for that matter? Still, they had names. But the princess without a name had no name at all. She never really thought about it. She knew who she was, and that was that. She never felt she needed a name.
The second thing she worried about was that she would have to leave her tower. She really liked her tower, being stocked as it was with good things to do and to eat and to read. She even had a few friends, if she thought about it – the girls from the village who opened the tiny window in the pantry and gave her food every week. The window was much too small to escape from of course, but the girls liked having nice chats and the princess without a name rather liked hearing about their lives, unprincess-like though they were.
Mind filled with worries, one of which being the creases in her brow from being so worried, the princess saw her birthday come and go. And no prince or horse came near the tower. As the days passed, she started to forget a little about it. She kept about her routine, and even had the village girls add a few dozen new books to the library.

Still, fate is fate, and the day before the princess’s nineteenth birthday, a prince appeared. He came riding – of course he did – but on quite an odd black and white horse that looked rather like a tall cow. His face was very sweaty and his chain-mail wasn’t very shiny, being rather caked with mud. The princess without a name looked down at him from her window at the top of the tower and waited.
“O, fairest of maidens! Princess of these lands! I am Pip, and I have come to rescue you!” He shouted up at her, rather as if declaiming, badly, from a page. The princess stifled a giggle. Pip?!
“O lovely lady, will you tell me your name?” he shouted, his voice breaking on the high pitch he put on the word “name.”
“I don’t have a name,” called down the princess. The prince blinked a few times. He looked like he was thinking very hard, and not managing it well.
“Well, then, after I rescue you, I’ll give you one, O star of mine!” he eventually yelled, sounding, and looking, rather pleased with himself at the solution he found for this unexpected development. The princess thought to herself. She looked back into the comfy tower room, her bedroom, and sighed a bit. She looked out at the prince and sighed once more.
“Maybe once you break in, we can live here?” she asked the prince a moment later. She really did like the tower. She heard the prince laugh an odd, trilling little laugh.
“Why, lady, I have a castle waiting for us far away from here,” the prince called back, still giggling. “That is where we shall live, get married and have our children! Why, this little place is scarcely enough to hold one little princess, how could it hold a family and servants and courtiers?”
The princess without a name cringed at his words. A family? Servants? Courtiers? She wasn’t even nineteen. She wasn’t ready for all that. Happily ever after had always been vague, true, but never had she heard about the happy couples having babies and servants and courtiers right away. Also, the princes had always been sweet, not annoying like this one. They were never called Pip. And their horses were beautiful.
The princess thought the matter over for a few more minutes while Pip toiled away at the door of the tower, hitting it with his sword and muttering things like “Have at you!” and “Open sesame!”
“Pip! Hey, Pip!” she called, trying to get his attention away from her faithful door that was solid oak and seemed quite unwilling to let him in. Once Pip looked up at her, wiping sweat from his brow with his hand, she continued.
“Pip, your offer is so kind. But, you see, the thing is,” she began, “I like my tower. I don’t really want to leave. So, thank you, but I’d really rather stay put.” With those words, the princess who didn’t want a name given to her turned, walked into the depths of the tower and went for a long, aggressive swim in her pool.
She never saw Pip starting in shock at the tower. Nor did she see him hacking hopelessly at the door a few more times. Nor did she see the big brass key that hung next to the door on the inside of the tower, just like she hadn’t ever seen it. She would see that key one day, when she was ready to. She would see the key and she would open the door and until then she had no need to know that it was there. Her tower was enough for her and would be enough for her until the day she would know that it wasn’t.