Although the zombies were quick, Sampson was faster. We rode hard and fast, heading toward my family estate. As we rode I began to formulate a plan. If all went well, we would be free of these creatures by daybreak. If things did not go well, maybe Philip would find the golden bow and end the nightmare afflicting our kingdom on his own.
I would have rather done it by his side. I abruptly stamped down my longing for a connection with the prince. Who knows how many lives were already lost this night, all because I had not understood the full power of the golden bow. Now that this bow was in my possession, there would be no turning back. It had to end here.
Upon reaching our estate, I ran through the house collecting as many oil lamps as I could find. I didn’t know how many I would need, or if this was even going to work. But it had to work.
I carried the lamps out to the stable where our animals were kept. The horses were gone, still at the palace with my stepmother and stepsisters, but there was our cow and a handful of chickens pecking about. I quickly led the cow around to the side of the house. I didn’t tie her up, in hopes that she could escape if the zombies decided to attack. The thought of losing our one cow almost brought tears to my eyes. Without her milk every day we surely would have starved these last few years.
I made my way back to the stable and chased the chickens out to fend for themselves. I then began emptying the oil from the lamps around the dry hay on the ground. I knew that the creatures would be here any moment, they were following us at such a quick pace.
A sudden flash of black pain erupted across the back of my head, quickly circling around my skull until the darkness overtook my vision and I collapsed to the ground.
I woke up lying face first on the hard packed earth, bits of gravel and wood chips digging into the tender skin of my cheek. Involuntarily I let out a groan. Shifting slightly, I tried to sit up but my vision was spinning and out of focus. The back of my head was on fire with an intense pain. Someone, or something, had attacked me from behind.
I opened my eyes again, trying to focus, and saw the silhouette of a woman standing in the doorway to the stable. I blinked again.
It was Lady Tremaine, my stepmother, and in her hands was the golden bow, ready to fire and aimed directly at me.
“You think that you are so clever,” she said in a low voice, practically spitting out the last word. “The Colonel always did love you best. I tried everything to please him, arranging for his favorite foods, ensuring the house was just right, even adorning myself in whatever fashion I thought would please him most, but it was never enough. One look from you, his precious little angel, and he would melt. You could do no wrong. You were his little princess.” She paused and I was surprised to hear the venom in her voice suddenly disappear as she choked out her last words, “My love was never enough.”
I sat there blinking, unsure of what to do. I never saw my stepmother with much emotion other than a demanding anger, but now she almost looked fragile. I came very close to feeling sorry for her.
“My lady,” I said hesitantly, but my words seemed to break her out of her melancholy. She returned to her spiteful glare, and positioned her stance to get a better aim at me with the golden bow.
“I am not going to let you steal the prince away from my girls, with your bewitching ways and showy weapon skills.”
“No!” I cried, reaching my hand out toward her.
Lady Tremaine pulled the string back as far as her arm would extend. She looked at me down the length of the straight golden arrow with one last hateful glare.
“Good-bye, Cinderella,” she said and released the arrow.
Multiple things happened at once. In an instant I had thrown myself to the side, trying to avoid the flying arrow, and at the same time there was a loud crack that shook the ground and made the walls of the stable tremble and creak noisily. Lady Tremaine was thrown back in a violent explosion, sending her flying out the stable doors and into the darkness of the night outside. Before I could even register what happened I heard a blood-curtling scream and the savage snarls of the plagued creatures.
I stumbled to my feet and ran to the door. Lady Tremaine was in the midst of at least fifty zombies, who were ripping at her limbs and tearing at her flesh in a maniacal frenzy. I picked up the golden bow, which she had dropped at the door, and began shooting and shooting. Two down, four down. Her screams were getting quieter and more garbled. She didn’t have much time. Five down, eight down. I was going to run out of arrows. Ten down, twelve. More zombies approached from the woods. There had to be more than a hundred now.
It was too late. Lady Tremaine’s lifeless corpse dropped to the ground, her skull crushed and mutilated. Hungry for more, the creatures then began to turn to me. I slowly backed into the stable.
The golden bow began to thrum again, the intensity increasing with each moment. Many of the creatures covered their ears, groaning and wailing. But slowly, they trudged toward the stable. I backed into the far wall and climbed up the ladder that led to the loft above. I had to get them all inside. If only I could keep them there long enough. Some of them began clumsily attempting to climb the ladder after me. It wouldn’t be long and one of them would succeed and I would be attacked.
I only had three arrows left.
The air in the stable was stifling as it was filled with the pungence of the undead creatures. Their cries and wails echoed off the wooden walls and I prayed that they were finally all contained.
One of the zombies stumbled over the top of the ladder, making its way onto the creaking floor of the loft. Shuffling toward me, its black mouth agape and snarling, I let one of my precious arrows fly into its skull. But even as it crumpled to the floor, another was in its place, advancing toward me at the front of the loft. I backed up until I was next to the small window that was on the front wall. Then suddenly I heard a series of whistles coming from below, a long one flowed by three short chirps.
Surprised, I turned to look out the window.
“Philip!” I cried, forgetting myself and calling him by his given name. Prince Philip was below the window, sitting astride a chestnut horse, which sweating and snorting from its intense ride from the palace.
He didn’t seem to mind my impudence. “My lady! You must come down this way! The stable is completely overrun, there is no other way out!”
Suddenly I felt the sting of a clawed hand ripping at the flesh of my arm. I screamed, trying to pull back. The creature loomed forward, reaching for my throat. I ducked down and grabbed the knife that was strapped to the outside of my leg. Slashing the creature wherever I could, I tried to wrench my arm free from its grasp, but the tears of my blade did nothing to stop the ferocity of the zombie attacking me. With a lunge it grabbed my skull, trying to draw it near to its gaping mouth. Out of desperation, I wrapped both hands around my knife and plunged it up under the creature’s jaw as hard as I could. The blade sunk deep into its throat and into the brain. A puff of putrid dust escaped the black mouth and it slid to the floor, a heap of rattling bones.
“My lady!” Prince Philip called out again. He sounded desperate. “Are you alright?”
I drug myself up to the window again, trying to wipe the filth of the creature from me and managing to just smear it instead.
“I am here,” I said.
“Jump down. I will catch you,” he called. I looked at him uncertainly. “You must trust me,” he said, repeating what I had told him earlier.
“Alright,” I said finally, and I climbed over the edge of the window and dropped down to Philip’s waiting arms. His horse snorted upon the sudden extra weight, but he bore us well.
We sat there for a moment, looking into each other’s eyes.
“Thank you,” I managed to squeak out.
“Don’t mention it,” he replied, and he gently swept his hand across my cheek, wiping away the zombie filth.
Prince Philip’s horse trotted around anxiously, arousing our attention. The creatures wouldn’t stay in the stable for long.
I reluctantly slid down to the ground and Philip quickly followed.
“I need fire,” I said, pointing toward the stable. “I placed as much fuel in the stable as I could. We must burn them before they escape.”
Philip gave me a beaming smile.
“You need fire?” he asked, his eyes twinkling. “I am just your man.”
He pulled out from his coat a torch that looked like it was made of pure gold. It was covered in ornate carvings, just like my golden bow. I caught my breath.
“Where did you get that?” I asked.
Philip began ripping some cloth from the end of his white shirt.
“I got it from the witch in the forest,” he replied, and handed me the strips of cloth. “Wrap these around your arrow.”
I obeyed, wrapping the soft woven fabric around the tip of one of my remaining arrows.
Philip touched the end of the golden torch to the fabric on the arrow. A white hot flame immediately flared on the end of the torch, igniting the fabric with a round ball of a flame much hotter than any fire I had ever seen. I loaded the arrow onto the golden bow and let the fiery shot loose into the stable.
I wrapped the last arrow and Philip lit it in the same manner. All of a sudden one of the zombies came stumbling out of the door, heading toward us. I shot the last arrow straight into its chest and the creature erupted into a white consuming flame. The creature fell back into the stable.
Without any warning, there was a crashing burst as the flames hit the fuel and the dry straw. The entire stable was engulfed in flames so white hot and intense it could not have been of this earth. The inhuman cries that came from within the fiery inferno sent chills up my spine. Within a matter of minutes, there was nothing left but a smoldering heap of ash.
The creatures were gone.
“What if there are more of them out there?” I asked Philip, looking at the still crackling mound. The night breeze was already picking up bits of ash and it was swirling around in the air, covering us with its sooty residue.
“Then we will destroy them, together,” Philip said resolutely.
I turned toward Philip and he stepped close to me.
“May I?” he asked, as he tilted the leather mask from off my face. I had forgotten that it was even there.
“You are Colonel Tremaine’s daughter, aren’t you?” he asked, dropping the mask on the ground and taking my hands in his. “I recognized the whistle call.”
“Yes,” I replied, breathless.
He stepped in closer, and I could feel the warmth of his body close to mine.
Looking down at my filthy, tattered dress I smiled and said, “You can call me Cinderella.”
He took me in his arms and spoke close to my ear.
“No, I would rather call you my Cinderella.”
As the glorious warmth of the sun began to peek over the tops of the trees, welcoming the beginning of a beautiful new day, his lips touched mine and I was delighted in the tender surprise of our first kiss.