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Freedom From Fear

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Once upon a time, there was a girl and her father. The girl’s name was Helena, and her mother Amelie had died when Helena was quite small. Helena’s father at last felt that he needed a wife and his daughter a mother, and so he married a beautiful woman named Yvonne.

Now Yvonne had two daughters already, their father having died when they were quite young as well, and her daughters’ names were Sara and Ruth. Sara was a year older than Helena and Ruth was a year younger. And Yvonne was a proud woman, proud above all of three things: her beauty, her money, and her daughters. Helena’s father felt certain that Helena would be great friends, as good as born sisters, with Sara and Ruth, and that Yvonne would be as pleased to teach the skills of accounting and business to her third daughter as to her first and second.

Helena’s father was quite wrong: no sooner did Yvonne wake on the morning after her wedding but she turned out Sophie the maid without references at all. Then she woke Helena up and told the girl that Helena herself was to be the maid from then on, and to get on with her work, for breakfast needed to be served on time.

Helena went straight to her father, of course; surely he would overrule Yvonne about Sophie, and surely he would defend his own daughter! But her father seemed scarcely to recognize her—he called her Elli, not Helena! He had always had two daughters, he said, and their names were Sara and Ruth, and if Elli didn’t cease this nonsense about being his daughter herself then he would personally turn her out and see that she never found employment again.

Of course, Helena was only seventeen years old, and Sara took great delight in explaining to her exactly what would happen to a pretty girl like Elli alone in the world, what was doubtless going to happen to Sophie that very week, while Ruth silently paged through a book. Thus Helena determined to do exactly as Yvonne demanded of her, but to do it so kindly and so well that Yvonne must realize—

Well, what Helena meant for Yvonne to realize, Helena never did quite figure out. Certainly nothing Helena did could ever meet Yvonne’s or Sara’s standards. So if Helena had stopped trying to please her stepmother and stepsisters, if she had simply done what she was told but not well and not more, who could have blamed her? But Helena didn’t dare become useless to them, because she feared being a pretty girl alone, like Sophie. And worse, she feared what had happened to her father could happen to her as well. And worst of all, she feared what had happened to her father could not be undone, that he would never look at her with love in his eyes ever again. So Helena did as she was told, and she did it well.

One day it chanced that Sara and Ruth received an invitation to a ball at the palace, in honor of the birthday of the King and Queen’s twin children, Prince Carl and Princess Annette. Sara immediately shrieked in glee that she would be a princess, and make Ruth a countess the very day of the wedding.

Now it was well known that the Prince and Princess had a godmother who was a Fairy princess herself, versed (of course) in magic—and what could have caused the change in Helena’s father, except magic? So Helena wished dearly that she could attend the ball, that she might meet the Lady Doireann herself and ask her a few pointed questions.

That night, Ruth sneaked down to Helena’s little bed by the kitchen hearth. “You can’t tell anyone, Elli,” said Ruth. “You want to go to the ball. Good for you. I don’t. I don’t want Lady Doireann thinking I’m mixed up in this.” And Ruth told Helena exactly what Helena needed to do, and Helena agreed, for it might be her only chance to save her father and herself.

On the day of the ball, Helena helped pin Sara and Ruth into their elaborate gowns and elaborate hairstyles and elaborate masks. She meant, several times, to ask Ruth obliquely if the plan was still as Ruth had told her, but when Sara was not in the room, Yvonne was, and Helena simply could not speak the words. That night, therefore, almost as soon as Sara and Ruth had left in their carriage for the palace, Helena returned to her cinder-covered hearth. There, at the stroke of seven o’clock, she fell to sleep, and woke in the carriage, wearing the very gown she had helped Ruth to put on earlier in the evening. She checked her purse: the small hand mirror showed her Ruth’s masked face, and below the mirror, a roll of papers lay. She left the papers alone, careful not even to let Sara catch a glimpse of them.

The bond of silence Ruth had laid on Helena held, and so Helena got to the palace without saying a single word to Sara—which was as well, for much of what Sara was saying was angering to Helena, disparaging as Sara did both Helena and her father.

Sara and “Ruth”, though (of course) they arrived at the palace at the same time, were announced separately, for as Sara had known all along this ball was only an excuse to get every marriageable young woman in the city (of something resembling a high enough class to marry a prince) a chance to dance with Prince Carl as though he and she were the only people in the world. Sara, being older than her companion, was announced first, and the Prince swept her out onto the ballroom floor with hardly a word to her beyond greeting.

A few minutes later, the tune of the music changed, and the soldier who had escorted “Ruth” from the carriage moved to be ready to announce her. But the Prince insisted instead that he dance another dance with Sara.

Helena, suddenly remembering what Sara had said when she first saw the invitation to this ball, ignored the soldier’s instructions to stay out of the grand ballroom. Surely if anyone could find Lady Doireann in time to save Prince Carl from Helena’s father’s fate, it would be Princess Annette.

Princess Annette, it transpired, was to be found at the tables serving hors d’oeuvres. She took one look at Helena and dropped the morsel she was about to eat, and called the nearest soldier to find her Lady Doireann now.

Helena explained matters to the Princess and the Lady as well as she could, and handed over the papers in Ruth’s purse to Lady Doireann, who examined them and showed Princess Annette.

“Well,” said Princess Annette. “There’s no help for it: we shall have to enchant him as thoroughly to resist Sara’s compulsion as Sara is enchanting him to fall prey to it. Helena, are you willing to be the means of that enchantment?”

Helena, thinking she could not be more frightened or afraid of more things than she already was, said yes, on condition that if Yvonne found out then the Princess and the Lady would protect her from her stepmother’s wrath. To this condition Princess Annette agreed at once.

Lady Doireann enspelled Ruth’s gown to appear entirely different to the one “Ruth” had entered wearing, indeed on the very cutting edge of fashion, and transfigured Ruth’s leather shoes for shoes of glass. Then she transported Helena to the same waiting chamber where “Ruth” had been waiting for her turn to dance with the Prince, and commanded the soldiers to announce Lady Elli the moment the current dance ended, no matter what the other waiting ladies thought about it—and indeed several of those waiting were indignant, but Lady Doireann’s word was the next thing to law on palace grounds.

Thus Helena found herself dancing with Prince Carl, trying desperately to keep him engaged in polite conversation so that his eyes stayed on her instead of wandering to Sara in the crowd. For she had no idea how strong Sara’s enchantment was, nor how strong Lady Doireann’s might be. Dance after dance, and Helena grew tired, and truth be told she thought she would have found the Princess a better conversationalist (certainly the Princess was a lovelier sight). But the safety of her Prince her father her very self relied on her ability to keep dancing, to keep the Prince entranced—

The great clock began to ring out the hour, and Helena turned to the nearest clock at once. Midnight. Ruth had said to be certain Helena was alone at the stroke of midnight, for Ruth’s spells would break at that moment—

Helena turned and ran, awkward while wearing unfamiliar shoes and carrying legs an unfamiliar length. One of the glass shoes slipped off her foot; she ran on, getting just back inside the room where she had spoken to Princess Annette and Lady Doireann before the twelfth stroke sounded. She fell at once to sleep, and woke in the cinders of her hearth.

The next morning, Sara was furious: First, that someone clearly no better than her stepfather’s former maid Sophie surely was had stolen Prince Carl from her for so much of the night. Second, that rumor had it Prince Carl meant to marry that woman, that mysterious fleeing Lady Elli. Third, that rumor had it Lady Doireann had enspelled the shoe Lady Elli left behind so that it would fit its owner’s foot and no other. Indeed, rumor had it that he was sending a fine diplomat and a squad of soldiers about the city that very day in order to find the woman the shoe fit, and Sara knew it would not be her.

Yvonne was, if possible, angrier.

Helena stayed well out of their way.

Late that afternoon, Helena answered the door and found Princess Annette and a squad of soldiers waiting outside. Helena at once called for Sara, for Ruth, for Yvonne, and turned back to the door to invite the guests in. Princess Annette winked at her, and smiled, and hesitantly, Helena smiled a little back.

“My brother’s instructions,” said Princess Annette when the family were gathered (Helena watching from the next room), “are to test the glass shoe against the foot of every woman of marriageable age in the country, until we find the woman whose foot it fits.”

Ruth looked up, straight at Helena, then returned her attention to the Princess. Yvonne barely glanced Helena’s way, and Helena’s father not at all, but Helena shuddered nonetheless.

Princess Annette invited Ruth to try on the glass shoe first, and Ruth did so, without pretense that she cared about the outcome. Of course, it did not fit. Princess Annette invited Sara to try on the glass shoe next, and Sara, gleeful, slipped it on to her foot.

The glass shivered once and shattered.

At once Yvonne turned on Helena, shouting that this was Helena’s fault, that Helena was demon-cursed and determined to prevent Yvonne’s daughter from advancing in life. Yvonne raised a hand to strike Helena, and immediately Princess Annette stood between Helena and Yvonne. Shocked, Yvonne pulled her blow.

“There’s a simple way to solve this, you know,” said Ruth. “Find the other slipper.”

Sara began immediately to scream that it wasn’t simple at all and how dare her sister betray her. Ruth rolled her eyes and lifted her skirt just far enough to show that she wore a shoe of glass, identical in every way to the one Sara had shattered save that it was for the left foot instead of the right.

Yvonne whirled on Ruth and slapped her across the face.

“To be fair,” said Princess Annette, glaring at Yvonne, “there might be two such pairs of shoes. I have some small skill in magic myself: I shall transfer the enchantment from the shards of Lady Elli’s shoe to the shoe that Miss Ruth now wears.” With a few words, she did so: at once the shoe slid off Ruth’s foot, and Princess Annette ordered Helena to approach and try on the shoe.

The shoe fit like a dream.

Yvonne screamed, a long drawn-out scream that had nothing of fear and everything of despair. Sara broke down weeping. Princess Annette ordered both women and Helena’s father arrested on the spot.

Later, in the carriage returning to the palace, Princess Annette apologized to Helena for everything.

“What for?” asked Helena. “You were no more at fault than I.”

Princess Annette nodded. “I was afraid you would blame me,” she said. “Perhaps a foolish fear. But someone as courageous as you, with such a bright soul—I cannot help but wish the opportunity to know you better.”

That struck Helena into silence for a quarter hour.

At the palace, barely an hour passed between Helena’s arrival and Helena’s father rushing to fall at her feet and beg forgiveness for ever falling prey to Yvonne’s spell. Helena embraced him, weeping.

Ruth found her, after that, and told her that Lady Doireann had taken justice upon herself, in the form of transforming Yvonne and Sara into toads. Helena thought that wasn’t fair: surely the two should have been transformed into maids of all work, and on that note, could something be done for poor Sophie?

“If we can find her,” said Annette, who had asked Helena no longer to call her Princess, “we can help her.”

Helena smiled.