Merry Christmas!

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Merry Christmas, everyone! Hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday.

I would like to share with you a story for you to read at your leisure. It is the beginning of a new series by my co-author Erin Virginia and me. Have a great holiday!

It’s the story of Cinderella’s stepsister after happily ever after and the curse that has been placed upon her..

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The dark, foreboding sky looming above Barren Wood that night painted it in a more haunting light than usual. At only ten-years-old, Hans Nox, was used to nightmarish things: things many in their realm thought to be mere myth or legend. But for the boy, whose hair and eyes matched the darkness that followed him wherever he went, this was a good thing. Hans fashioned himself an apprentice to both the darkness and the light, so he had to study each carefully. Twigs snapped beneath his feet until he came to a familiar clearing in the woods, not too far from the cottage where he lived with his family. It was odd, all the moonlight seemed fall into that circular area. Then, he saw her standing by the cauldron as it bubbled brilliantly above the crackling fire. She wore a dress layered in black and red. In her hand, she held a raven, petting it gently as an evil smile creased her lips. She forcefully cracked the bird’s neck, causing a sharp snapping sound to echo through the night. Then, she tore away a clump of feathers and tossed the carcass into a nearby bush as a dark, red liquid gushed over her hands.

“Why are you doing this, mother?” Hans asked, pulling himself onto a tall tree stump that overlooked the cauldron. With his feet dangling back and forth, he watched her carefully and waited for an answer.

Without a word, his mother lifted her bloody hand above the brew. Then, she slowly dropped one feather into the brew at a time, which bubbled and smoked with ferocity until they had all been added. Moments later, it faded back to a quiet boil. “I owe it to my sister’s memory and to the peace of this realm,” she said, her sharp glare focusing on him for a moment.

From her pocket, she pulled out a smooth, round mid-sized stone and gripped it tightly. It was dark green and glowing. It could have been from the moonlight or the light of the fire, but Hans knew differently. It was coming from a place of magic. He frowned, attempting to make sense of his mother’s words. “But I thought the curse was to be lifted nevermore?”

She glared at him again then when he thought she’d shoot him with a spell to punish his sass, she turned back to the brew and barked with laughter. The sound was so terrifying that even his skin stood on edge, but he knew what she needed next. Without waiting to be asked, he slid off the high stump and walked over to his mother, who now had her hand out in anticipation of his approach. From his pocket, he pulled out the small purple root that he had just retrieved from the deepest part of the woods and held it out her.

As the root disappeared into the clutch of her hand and sharp fingernails, she smiled at him and shook her head. “A curse can always be lifted, but I will not allow that. I cannot allow that.”

Then, she raised her hand above the cauldron and let the root fall from her grasp. As it slipped into the liquid below, a large cloud of smoke emitted from it, filling the entire clearing with a faint green mist. Hans looked up, unsure of what to say or do, but when he set his focus back on his mother he noticed that the stone held in her opposite hand changed to black.

A flock of ravens burst from the trees as steam from the brew climbed into the sky.

“As long as this stone remains black, we can be certain that Stephanie Thorne will die-without true love, or happiness.”

Chapter One

CURSED
Beyond the shadowy trees of Barren Wood in the northern realm of Fairland, sat a vast castle; one that had once been used during times of war to stave off soldiers and threats that had spilled out from the mysterious, darker parts of the country. At the moment, war was not on the horizon but that did not mean relations were harmonious between the four kingdoms of Fairland. The High Emperor, who overruled it all, imposed many restrictions upon the citizens though the kingdoms, who each had their own rulers, remained independent in their day-to-day lives.

As the morning stretched toward noon, the beautiful raven-haired, Stephanie Thorne, sat in the kitchen yard of the Northern castle, the section of Fairland that was on one side dark and on the other side very green, with a bowl of cherries and a sharp, thin knife. The juices gushed over her hands and clothing with each pit she removed, soaking her apron in their blood-red stains. She’d finally reached the last cherry when a large cloud of smoke burst from the woods in the distance. A pain in her stomach twisted at the same instance. It mirrored the pain she’d felt the night she’d moved to the castle over five months ago, and the pain she’d felt the morning of Prince’s Dominic’s Rose & Slipper ball, and the pain she’d felt when she turned sixteen and every birthday before that since she was eleven-years-old. It came more often and erratically as of late. Stephanie watched the billowing smoke evaporating into the sky, waiting for the sharpness to pass and wondered if she’d been stricken with a kind of intuition about whatever happened in the woods that she didn’t understand yet. It wasn’t a place she’d often go. She wasn’t like her younger sister, Helena, who didn’t mind the trees and the earth. But the feelings were probably only bad stomach spells as many were wont to have. They passed, then they were gone. Age had probably increased their frequency. She’d be twenty in a few months time.

“You’re wanted upstairs, milady,” said a familiar voice. Stephanie turned to see the head kitchen maid standing in the doorway, brushing the back of her hand against her sweaty brow.

“I’m just Stephanie, Mary Oliver,” she told the woman tiredly. She didn’t seem to understand that Stephanie was no longer a lady, or maybe she did understand, but it was too much for the middle-aged woman to ignore Stephanie’s true station.

She stood up with her bowl of cherries, handed it to Mary Oliver, then removed her apron to give it to the kind-faced woman as well. At that moment, the kitchen mutt with its light somewhat unclean fur and adorable but mischievous panting face, ran out of the backdoor, limping. Stephanie whistled for the dog to come back to her. She sat back on the stoop and put the dog in her lap, scratching it behind its ears and looking at its injured paw. “Has anyone looked at this?” she asked Mary Oliver.

“What? No, milady. We’ve been too busy.”

Stephanie gave the dog another scratch, this time beneath its chin. “Well, Mr. Wallford,” she said to the dog. “I’ll just have to send someone to look after you myself.”

“Milady,” Mary Oliver cleared her throat.

“Yes, Mary Oliver?”

“Princess Ellinor wants to see you.”

Ellinor. She sighed. Ellinor was the person she spent most time avoiding at the castle. Her step-sister, who’d been in her place once upon a time, was now royalty. It didn’t seem right, but what could Stephanie do? “The cinder princess. Whatever for?” She watched the dog hobble over to its small bed set up for him inside of a wooden crate then stood to look at Mary Oliver directly.

“It’s not for me to question,” she replied, avoiding eye contact.

“But you know?” Stephanie asked stepping over to a washing bucket the maids used to clean their hands. She took a cup and scooped out the water, then watched it send the redness from the cherries with a splash into to the ditch in the kitchen’s dirt packed yard. Stephanie took the small towel Mary Oliver had on her shoulder and wiped her hands with it before replacing it neatly. She gave the woman a pointed look. “Well then?”

“They want you to move all of your things upstairs, milady,” Mary Oliver said, unable to contain her smile, re-folding Stephanie’s apron over her arm, while still balancing the cherry bowl in the crook of her other arm.

For some reason, Stephanie felt the urge to smile back. At last, this could mean they’d finally come to their senses and were ready to grant her title back. Would they grant her mother and her sister’s titles back, too? And the lands that had been taken away from them after Ellinor had married the prince, would those be restored? They’d found her mother guilty of treason after lying to the Grand Duke and hiding away the now Princess Ellinor from the prince. Her mother could have worked her away out of it if she hadn’t spit in the Grand Duke’s face during a heated argument in front of several nobles. She was lucky to have her head, really. But the Grand Duke had known Lady Lavinia years before under what circumstances Stephanie was never quite clear on, and so he’d had the king punish her and her daughter for their crimes mildly. They would either be banished from the kingdom to live penniless, or they could stay at the castle and work as Ellinor (or as they’d once called her as children, Cinderella) had done all those years as a servant. But Ellinor must have seen the darkness of this cruelty and fought to bring the light back into their lives. She, after all, had the kindest heart of all of them growing up, a heart that Stephanie sometimes envied. She had to have gotten the king and his brother to re-think everything. What else could it possibly be? Stephanie rushed inside, passing through the kitchen and the other servants. As she rounded the first corner, mirth compelled her to reach into one of the maid’s mixing bowls and pull out a handful of berries. She stuffed the small bunch into her mouth as she skipped through with a wide grin on her face. There were gasps and sighs all around her as Stephanie yanked the apron tie from another maid, spun her around then let her go. The maid held her head as if she’d gone dizzy. As she ran out of the kitchen, she heard that same maid’s voice shout, “You’d think she weren’t never a high born lady!”

Stephanie could have cared less what maids thought of her. They’d never warmed to her anyway. That didn’t matter now, did it? As she passed the servants’ quarters, she stopped in the threshold and peered in. Along the floor lay stacks of hay with makeshift hay beds and floor mattresses littering the room. It was modest and dreadful, but the thought of moving upstairs caused her to sigh in relief as a smile creased her lips. “At last,” she said to herself, before heading down the back western corridor to the spiral staircase at the end of it.

***

At the top of the staircase sat the princess’s quarters, which was connected by a bedroom in the center to the prince’s rooms. When Stephanie reached the landing, she came to a set of guards standing watch outside of the door. They immediately moved aside and held the door for her. Chin high, Stephanie walked into the room to see her step-sister standing by the window with her ladies-in-waiting just behind her. At eighteen, Princess Ellinor, was the youngest of the group, but she was also the most beautiful. Her long, honey-colored hair shimmered in the light as it fell in perfect waves down her back, and her sweet hazel eyes added to her innocence.

The moment Stephanie’s presence was known, the ladies-in-waiting turned toward her with sharp glares. Stephanie paid little mind, however, as all three of them were nothing but an annoyance to her. She’d known them growing up, and she knew that they loved the idea of seeing Stephanie in such a state, any excuse to look down on someone. She’d been like them too once, she supposed, but now, she just wanted to be home again, comfortable and at the station she belonged to. She wouldn’t take it for granted ever again. Not like these girls did. The three ladies continued blinking at her as if the image of her stung their eyes. There was Marigold, who was beautiful and bookish, but her problem was that she never failed to let you know just how smart or attractive she was. Then there was Abigail, a stern, plain, no-nonsense kind of woman–whom frankly she found dull. Last but not least was Penelope, the group’s peaceful mediator. She was the nicest of the bunch, but that wasn’t saying much. Even she made Stephanie feel uneasy most of the time.

“Thank you, ladies. I would like to speak to my sister-cousin alone, if you please,” Princess Ellinor said, still looking out from her window.

“Why, so I can strangle you without any witnesses?” Stephanie mumbled to herself.

The three ladies curtsied toward the princess and then exited the room, leaving only the step-sisters behind. Just then, Stephanie stood up straight and mimicked their curtsy, grinning widely as she thought of just how fake and irritating they were. “Your highness.”

Ellinor smiled, her eyes darting back and forth. Seconds later, she began pacing the room, picking up and folding garments as she came by them.

“Ah… your highness?” Stephanie repeated, hoping to gain her attention, but it didn’t work. Instead, the princess carried on, ignoring her as she became engulfed with the task at hand. Not wanting to overstep any bounds, Stephanie waited patiently; well, as patiently as she could.

Once Ellinor had finished, she turned back to her with a bright smile. “How long have I been married to Prince Dominic?”

Stephanie tried to hide her face from the princess as she gritted her teeth at the thought. “Five months, three weeks, seven hours, twenty-three minutes, and three seconds, your highness.”

Ellinor tilted her head slightly and shot Stephanie an incredulous look. “You never took care to know any minute of the day when we were children.”

“Things change, your highness,” she said in earnest. She was tired. Her bones hurt and feet ached. She just wanted to take a hot bath, but she never got to do such things. Who would carry hot water in for the likes of her ever again? It was obvious that Ellinor had not called her in to restore any title. She would have come out and said it by now.

Princess Ellinor then returned to the vanity by her window. “They do,” she said, staring out of her wide window that overlooked the castle gardens once again.

Stephanie stood there, watching Ellinor twiddle her thumbs as she stared blankly out of the window. She was already growing weary of the princess’s delays. Why didn’t she just come right out and say it? “Your highness, I heard from Mrs. Oliver that you wanted to speak to me,” she said, her tongue a bit sharper than in should have been.

“Oh. Yes,” Ellinor replied, her eyes still refusing to focus on Stephanie. “As you may have noticed,” she sputtered. “I am not doing well in my station. I’m rubbish, really. And the last time I attended a tea party was when I served you, which-”

“Not to be rude, Ellinor… your highness,” Stephanie said, interrupting her mid-sentence, “But would you please get to the point?”

The princess turned away from her window and shot Stephanie a piercing gaze before speaking. “Prince Dominic’s mother is returning from the south for the first time since our marriage, and I want to host a tea party for her before the gala that night in honor of her homecoming.”

“And?”

“And… I wondered if you could be my etiquette tutor,” Ellinor said, her voice sounding a bit strained. Stephanie shook her head, taken aback by the offer. She wanted to say something–anything–but she couldn’t find the right words to use before the princess spoke again. “If you want to keep your kitchen duty, I understand. Is that what you were doing just now?”

Stephanie could tell by her step-sister’s actions and expressions that she was keenly interested, but it didn’t make her any less exasperated by the request. “Cherries, Princess. I was cutting cherries.”

“Oh,” Ellinor said, smiling as she turned back to the window. “I love cherries.”

Without control, Stephanie raised her hand and made a choking gesture aimed at her step-sister’s neck. Something had come over her. She was not going to harm Ellinor, of course. In spite of everything she’d done or said to Ellinor in the past, she did not hate her, or at least she did not want to. She’d tried hard on many occasions to be friendly with her, but there was always something holding her back. Any time Ellinor irritated her or didn’t grasp things as sharply as she did, she found herself annoyed, fired up in a way that almost seemed magical. It was a feeling she’d felt so many times growing up, a feeling that seemed almost as if it was not under her control. It was as if a mystical force was causing her to lash out at Ellinor when with another person she would have easily been able to relax or brush it off. The feelings had left her since she’d moved to the castle, but she’d made it a point to stay as far away from the princess as possible. That likely had everything to do with it. The only thing was that it felt stronger than ever today, like it had when they were children and like the day she’d rather forget, the day of the Rose and Slipper ball. It always frightened her a little, but she was able to find the composure to close her eyes and take a deep breath.

When Stephanie opened her eyes again, her hand fell right to her side seconds before Ellinor turned to face her again. “You could live right here next to me. There’s a small room adjacent to this one,” she said, her tone now perking up quite a bit.

Stephanie sighed loudly, shaking her head in disapproval; although she really did want to escape the servants’ quarters. “Why, so I can hear you and the prince in the throes of passion while I lie cold and grateful under a thin sheet of cotton alone?”

“Don’t be silly,” Ellinor said, almost laughing. “You’ll have thick blankets.”

And that was it. Stephanie clenched her fist tightly at her side, anger swarming over her. “Will I have my title reinstated?”

“You know I can’t do that,” the princess said, letting out a faint sigh. Then, she turned away and began brushing her thick, fair hair.

Stephanie shot her a heated glare, frustrated and angry with her flippant response. “At least, I wasn’t raised in a cinder closet.”

Almost immediately, Ellinor’s hand stopped brushing, and she looked back at Stephanie through the reflection in her mirror, blinking.

“Apologies, your highness; but I must decline,” she said, offering a final curtsy to the princess before walking toward the door. Before she could leave, however, she turned to her. “Your old dog, Mr. Wallford. He’s got a bad foot. Would you mind sending someone for him?”

Ellinor’s eyes went wide. “Mr. Wallford is hurt? I wish I could bring him up here with me, but he is an outside dog.” And not a purebred, who might have been given a caretaker and a groomer.

“Tell that to the kitchen maids,” said Stephanie.

“I’ll send someone.” Ellinor looked a bit guilty, but Stephanie knew that Ellinor really had as little control over her life as she did. Thinking she could help her had been a wild idea at best. There was no one to help either of them.

“Thank you, your highness,” Stephanie said softly and left Ellinor alone.

***

Happy holidays, everyone! I hope you enjoyed the first part of Cursed. You can find more of the story on Wattpad

 

 

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