Once upon a time, there was a kingdom named Silver Woods. The sky-kissed spires glittered under the sun while the nights brought out the haunting beauty of the kingdom when moonlight spilled through the windows and sowed dreams. The royal castle was the Black Castle. Princess Anastasia loved every bend and corner of this kingdom. She ached to rule over this kingdom one day. For at Silver Woods the kingdom passed on through the daughters in the Royal family. This was unusual at the time, but considering there had been no male heirs in the royal family for eight generations, it was not that surprising.
Silver Woods was peaceful and the people were happy. However, all was not well outside the boundaries of this kingdom. On the outskirts of this kingdom lived the Merrick family. Cinder Merrick lived with his stepbrothers and his step mom in a beautiful stone house. Gloria fooled his father into marrying her. Gloria was a selfish woman who did nothing without an ulterior motive. Cinder’s stepbrothers mistreated him. He had to work from dawn until dusk to feed himself. His infatuated father had foolishly left all his estate to his second wife Gloria.
Gloria was cold and heartless. She made Cinder do all the work of the house so she would not have to pay wages to servants. In her eyes, her two sons Roan and Seiko were perfect and could do no wrong. She adored them and catered to their every whim. Roan and Seiko in turn lost no opportunity in making Cinder’s life miserable. They teased him mercilessly and played cruel jokes on him.
Cinder tried to adapt to the situation as best as he could for he saw no way out of his miserable life. Foolish as he was, he could not leave his bedridden father at the mercy of his step mom. Even faced with the hardships that his life had come now, the memories of his mother singing, laughing with him still echoed through the stones to him. These were the only good memories he wished to keep and the only ones he had. He accepted his fate and saw no point in raging over it.
He strolled down the river to gather some berries that grew by the river. However even he could not control the ache he felt when there was an announcement for the ball in wake of the sixteenth birthday celebration of Princess Anastasia. He had only seen her only once and that was just by pure chance. She had been galloping on her horse Thor at breakneck speed, her copper hair flowing wildly behind her. He wished he could attend that ball just once. He would then be not so discontent with his fate. Sighing he accepted his fate.
The fairy of Hope bathing down the river was listening to the inner turmoil of Cinder. Fairy Hope herself was at the bottom of the ladder in the fairy world and had to do all the menial work like gathering the first drops of dew, tears of the moon and light from the fireflies. She had been observing Cinder for a long time and was sympathetic towards his plight. So she decided to do all she could to help Cinder attend the Royal ball.
The entire kingdom was in full swing preparing for the ball. The royal castle gleamed to a shine. New gowns were ordered. Carriages gleamed and the horses were groomed until their coats glistened under the sun. In no time, the day of the royal ball arrived.
Young knights from far and near arrived hoping to win the heart and hand of princess Anastasia. Roan and Seiko left for the ball with their mother dressed in their new finery after cruelly taunting Cinder. Cinder made his way to the river where he always found solace when he was sad. As soon as he drew near the bank, Fairy Hope appeared.
“We have no time to waste. You’re late already,” said the fairy.
“Who are you?” asked Cinder.
“You’ll know in time, but first you have to get ready for the ball. You do want to
attend the royal ball, don’t you?” she said sternly.
Cinder nodded, unable to speak.
Fairy Hope made sparkling new clothes from the barks and trees along the river for Cinder. The river water turned into a carriage with colourful fishes adorning it. The rats scurrying around the riverbank changed into six beautiful black horses. The scales of the fishes turned to shining new boots. A rabbit scurrying around the banks transformed into a handsome carriage driver. Cinder waved and thanked Fairy Hope.
“Remember my warning. Leave the Castle before the clock strikes twelve as my magic will last only till then” said the fairy.
Cinder nodded and left for the royal castle, the carriage and the rider making a pretty picture in the night. When he reached the castle all eyes turned on him. Cinder looked so regal and breathtakingly handsome that even his own stepmother and stepbrothers did not recognise him.
Cinder went over to Princess Anastasia and bowed.
“Would you do me the honour of a dance?”
Princess Anastasia was mesmerised. She had never set eyes on anyone so handsome. His eyes were the colour of damp monsoon leaves and she immediately fell in love with them.
Cinder was so enjoying the ball that he completely forgot the fairy’s warning and remembered it just in time. It was just five minutes to midnight!
“I have to go, excuse me” Cinder.
He turned abruptly and raced down the Castle steps leaving Princess Anastasia in the middle of the dance floor. In his haste, one of Cinder’s boots got caught with the brier patch alongside the castle steps. He tried to tug it free but it slipped from his foot. He keeps on running with one stockinged foot.
When Princess Anastasia raced down the steps, she found the shoe caught in the brier. The next day royal guards went about the kingdom carrying Cinder’s shoe throughout the kingdom. All the young men tried the shoe on, for Princess Anastasia would marry only the knight to whom this shoe was a perfect fit. The Royal guards at last came to Cinder’s house. His stepbrothers tried but the shoe was too large for them. The guards were just leaving when they saw Cinder chopping wood.
“He has to try it too” said one of the Royal guards, pointing to Cinder. Cinder’s step mom and brothers started laughing, thinking the guards had taken leave of their senses.
“He’s just a servant,” said Gloria.
However, the royal guards were adamant. When Cinder tried on the shoe, it was a perfect fit and he brought out the other shoe that he had hidden in the shed.
Princess Anastasia and Cinder were married with great aplomb. Both waved down to the people of the kingdom from the castle balcony and the people shouted and cheered, deliriously happy for the royal couple.
Cinder turned to Anastasia and said, “There’s a tale going to be carried down for generations in this kingdom”.
“And what tale is that?” asked Princess Anastasia.
“The tale of how a princess rescued a squire in distress,” said Cinder.
“We’ll see about that,” said Princess Anastasia.
Princess Anastasia gave a tour of the Royal Palace to Cinder. As they reached the farthest wing on the east, Princess Anastasia, turned back. Cinder saw a gleaming gold door with intricate details on its face. A heavy lion-shaped lock sealed the door.
“Why are we not going there?” asked Cinder.
“That room is off limits to everyone in the palace except me and don’t let me catch you trying to sneak in” Princess.
As the days passed, Cinder grew more and more curious about the sealed room. He tried in vain to argue with Princess Anastasia to let him open the door.
Princess Anastasia had to visit the neighbouring kingdom one day for on a royal errand. She urged Cinder to help her father in the affairs of the kingdom in her absence and warned him of snooping around the locked room.
Cinder tried hard to resist, but eventually he gave in and decided to break into the room. He had kept close watch when Anastasia visited the room and knew where she hid the key.
Excitement poured through him as he opened the lock.
Mirrors covered the walls of the room. Jars filled with clear liquid were placed on shelves in front of the mirrors. Eyes through bloated heads stared at him through the glass jars. Green, blue, brown, grey and eyes of every other shade. Horror for his fate seemed to reflect from their eyes.
It seemed that the Princess had a weakness for exotic eyes. She collected these and admired their beauty for hours that doubled when their reflection fell on the mirrors.
A new pair of eyes soon added to her exotic collection. They were the colour of damp monsoon leaves.