It was late, and I had just finished cleaning up the kitchen after an unsatisfying dinner of cold baked potatoes, when the all too familiar groaning from outside the house aroused my attention. Grabbing the sharpened spear that was leaning against the cold fireplace, I raced up the stairs to the main level, where my stepsisters were cowering on the lavender divan, huddled together like a pair of quivering newborn calves. My stepmother was also there, but unlike her daughters, she was prowling around the room looking out the windows with a hawk-like glare.
“Ella,” she barked, not looking toward me but continuing her feral prowl, “My staff, I left it in the dining room after dinner.”
She turned to see my exasperated expression. She carried that thing with her wherever she went, it was always clutched tightly in her white bony grasp. And of all the times to have left it behind…“Fetch it!” she bellowed.
But I didn’t have time to obey her command. The large front window shattered and a tattered-looking zombie dropped the long tree branch which it had used against the window and started crawling over the broken glass. It didn’t make it far before I had positioned myself to aim properly with my spear. The shaft left my hand with a satisfying whoosh, and penetrated the zombie’s skull directly through the soft portion of its right temple. It crumpled in a heap over the window sill, its fragile bones breaking as the source of their strength, the infected brain, was severed from the rest of the body.
I stood there for a minute, watching with curiosity as dust rose from the heap of dry bones, when suddenly my stepmother wrenched the spear from the corpse’s skull, using her foot as leverage to pull it free. She then launched it with a ferocious heave into the dark of the night outside and I heard a distinctive crunch as it made contact with another zombie skull. She stood breathless in the window, waiting for signs of any other invaders. All was quiet.
My stepsisters watched from the divan as my stepmother and I hoisted the crumpling corpse out the window and drew the drapes tightly closed. My trusted spear would have to wait until the safety of morning to be retrieved. We then proceeded to finish the nightly ritual of checking windows throughout the bottom floor of the house, drawing the drapes closed, and extinguishing all flames or sources of light. At the base of the grand staircase we secured the iron barricade that my father had constructed the previous year, hoping to ensure our safety from the prowling vermin outside until the light of dawn erased the need for enclosures. He had only lived long enough to see it finished before he was taken from me in the middle of a violent zombie attack.
My father was an expert marksman. He had hunted on our family estate for as long as I could remember, and had left his beautiful bow and quiver of arrows to my care. Some of my fondest memories were spent at my father’s side, his hand guiding mine as he showed me how to place the arrow just right and feel the perfect amount of tension in the string as I pulled it tight.
When the plague hit our kingdom five years ago, my father, the Colonel, was one of the front-runners in fighting off those who had become infected and were threatening the lands surrounding us. He bravely fought alongside the king himself, King Stephen, as even the royal guard became infected and dwindled in numbers. By the time my father succumbed to one of the most vicious attacks on the palace by the undead vermin, the royal guard was practically nonexistent. The queen was also lost, and the kingdom spiraled into a panic. The royal family barricaded itself in the palace’s soaring towers, and have not been seen this entire last year.
We were now on our own, myself and my stepmother, along with her two daughters. With no contact from the palace, many doubted that there were any who survived. Although my relationship with my stepmother was never very genuine before, after the death of my father it turned into something akin to poison. She despised me. I knew it with every look she gave me. She looked on me with the kind of irrational hatred that can only come from one who has lost too severely to make sense. Every time I pulled out my father’s bow, her look shot daggers to my heart, as though she blamed me for his untimely death.
My stepsisters, who were my same age and should have been completely capable, were nonetheless completely useless. I began to take care of everyone simply because no one else seemed willing to try, and my father would never forgive me if I let something happen to them. My stepmother’s rage toward me rubbed off on her daughters, and they began to treat me as a servant, despite the fact that they would have no food on the table or have the peace of mind to sleep at night if I wasn’t there to cook, clean, and guard the house.
The next morning I was up before anyone else in the house stirred. I began my morning routine, scouring the main level floor of the house for any possible stragglers from the night before, starting the fires in the cold, ash-filled fireplaces until they crackled pleasantly, and finally retrieving my spear from the front grounds. Since the infestation five years ago, it was no longer safe to have any fires lit during the dark hours of night, so I did all of the cooking during the day, to ensure that we had at least one hot meal. The scent of seared meat was a sure way to get your place crawling with vermin at night, not that we had a lot of meat to spare. I would have loved to do more hunting, but the presence of the undead had scared away most of the live game, so we mostly ate what root vegetables I could coax out of our meager little garden.
I boarded up the window which was broken the night before, another sad loss of healing light sacrificed for the necessary blockade which protected our family, then set to work burning the remains of the crumbling corpses in a bonfire at the side of the house. I was just finishing up when a man approached me from the road. He was dressed in what appeared to be faded royal golden robes, the fabric fraying on the edges. The once lustrous sheen was now lost and resembled a bruised piece of fruit rather than the stately finery it once had been.
“Good day to you, ma’am,” the man said primly, giving me a brief bob of his head as his heels clicked firmly together.
“Good day, sir,” I said, astonished, and offered a slight curtsy. Looking down at my ash-covered, tattered work dress, my face flushed with the heat of embarrassment. I must have been quite the sight.
The man handed me a tightly wound scroll with a beautiful red ribbon wrapped around it. I tried to wipe my sooty hands onto the front of my apron before reaching out for the impossibly white scroll of parchment.
“A message for the lady of the house, Lady Tremaine, and her fine daughters, from King Stephen and the royal family,” he said in an official tone. Then he turned and proceeded to march off.
I turned the scroll curiously in my hand, fingering the fine ribbon. This was very important, indeed, if the king suffered to part with such finery. I immediately went into the house to give it to my stepmother.