“He’s gone,” the townsperson looked down at his worn shoes.
“Well I’ll have to go find him myself, then.” Belle raised her head and looked confidently ahead. “I know he headed due West past Saturday. I can follow the path of his carriage with the other carriage and be back by Tuesday. Tell Merriwether to watch the home.”
With that, she took off down the road to her cottage, cape trailing behind her.
The cottage emerged from behind the tall trees separating the town from the Inventor and his daughter. Belle quickly burst into her home, collecting supplies for her journey. A bag of food, rope, and coats slung over her shoulder as the door slammed shut at her heels. The family’s second horse was secured onto the four-wheeled carriage even before the townsperson could deliver the news to the small town. Belle was going after her missing father.
The cool winter’s day developed to a frigid night as Belle carried on towards the direction of her father. An oil lamp and the full moon led her way deeper into the hooded trees of the forest. The eerie quiet of the darkness kept her senses alert. An abrupt howl of a wolf in the distance made Belle jump out of her skin. As she crept further, the sound of wolves grew louder until the creatures were close enough to hear their panting. Belle’s horse spooked and tried to turn back, jostling the carriage and flinging Belle onto the ground along with her things. She called after her horse in vain. The wolves circled around the defenseless Belle, creeping closer and closer. She froze in shock and wondered if this was the fate her and her father shared. Suddenly an arrow whizzed past her head and struck a wolf in the chest. More arrows soared through the air, all clearly hitting their targets and causing the others to scamper off into the shadows. The bloody fight cleared and a hooded figure emerged from the woods, donning a crossbow.
“Who are you?” Belle picked herself up from the ground, legs still shaking and face bruised.
“They call me Cinderella,” The figure took down her hood to reveal shimmering blonde hair that appeared almost white in the snow. Each strand was perfectly placed into a tight bun, exposing her bright blue eyes and porcelain skin. “And you?” Her eyebrow raised slightly in question.
“Belle,” she replied. Cinderella muttered under her breath, “No wonder, her name means beauty,”
Belle ignored her, accustomed to the common phrase.
“I arrived from the village just east of here. I was on my way to rescue my father when those wolves attacked and spooked my horse.” She dusted off her coat and began to collect her things from the trail, Cinderella following her every move.
“Girls like you shouldn’t be alone in these woods at this time of night.”
“Girls like you shouldn’t be living in the woods alone with a crossbow,”
“What would have happened if I hadn’t shown up with my crossbow?” Cinderella swung her crossbow over her head and cocked a hip out.
Belle looked up in amusement. “I would have been dinner. Thank you, by the way. I’m not sure how I could ever repay you.” She gathered her rations back into the sack.
“Pass me some of those blueberries and we should be even.” She stuck her hand out, beckoning her to come closer.
The two heroines met face to face as Belle carefully placed 6 blueberries into Cinderella’s hand.
“Do I know you from somewhere?” Cinderella asked.
“I have a bit of a…reputation around my village,” she blushed, “As-”
“As the village sweetheart? The most beautiful girl in town?”
Belle paused. “I was going to say ‘As the one who doesn’t fit in’,”
Cinderella shrugged. “I was close enough. What’s your grand plan now, Belle? Back to the village? They’re probably floundering without anyone to play the ‘outcast’ role.”
Belle finished packing up her things, slung them over her shoulder, and held her head high.
“I will continue my route until I find my father,”
“What if I could come with you?” Cinderella asked.
Belle blushed, “Oh I couldn’t ask you to do that. It may be dangerous! We could run into… other animals! Storms!”
Cinderella zipped up her cape. “I have been living in the forest myself, you know. It will be nice to finally have some company. Plus- you asked me how I got this crossbow. It’s a good opportunity to chat.”
Belle pondered this argument, knowing that Cinderella was right. She nodded her head with a small smile. “Ok. We shall go together to find my father.”
The silent night carried on, now accompanied by two pairs of footprints and soft voices. Cinderella, for the first time, was able to tell her whole story to an unbiased third party. And she was enjoying it.
“Shall I word it like a fairytale then? Very well. Once upon a time, there was a girl who was cared for by her evil stepmother. Her two step-sisters would badger, bully, and beat her. They made her do all the chores and never let her go out. They named her ‘Cinderella’ because of her dusty appearance in the fireplace. Then one day, a noble guard knocked on the door and told of an invitation to The Royal Ball. You see, a Prince was to be there, searching for a Princess. The evil stepmother told Cinderella that she would not be able to go, that she must ‘stay home and sew our dresses and sweep the stairs.’ So, she left. She wasn’t like the brave Princesses in the stories that suck it up and sing to the birds for happiness. She wasn’t willing to wait for her fairy godmother to make things better. She knew if she wanted change she had to go find it herself. So she took whatever clothes she could carry and ran out of the house. She thought the best way to get vengeance against her sisters would be to go to the castle herself and try to woo the Prince. It seems silly now, but it was a solid plan in the moment, believe me. When she got to the castle, she saw the Prince there, calling his guards foolish names and acting like an outrageous rich person. She then realized the Prince wasn’t worth all this struggle. She stole a crossbow from a sleeping guard. She retreated into the woods until something better would show up. Maybe she was waiting for a fairy godmother, after all.”
Belle thought about Cinderella’s story for a beat.
“You are a brave Princess, though. You did what you wanted to do, you spoke your mind, and stayed true to yourself. How could you possibly be any braver than that?”
“Belle, I don’t have a plan. I don’t have any clue what to do now!”
“We can figure it out. Together.”
The princesses continued down the trail in silence. Belle looked up from the ground to see silent tears running down Cinderella’s cheek. She edged closer to the other girl and took her hand into hers. When Cinderella looked up in confusion she gave her hand a comforting squeeze.
They arrived at a dark and looming castle in the forest. The sky was now warming up to a dazzling sunrise. The girls were exhausted from their feelings and trekking through the snow. The castle seemed like the only option for some rest or food if the owner was willing. Belle raised her hand to hold the brass knocker established on the bulging door. Three loud raps echoed through the forest. After a brief moment of held breath, the door creaked open. A scuttle of metal on tile drew their attention to the floor, where a clock was looking up at them.
“Are you… a dog in a clock costume?”
The clock opened the door wider to reveal more of the castle inside. “I’m afraid not, m’lady. I am simply a clock that happens to be alive.”
Belle leaned into Cinderella to whisper. “Have we been walking long enough to be hallucinating like this?”
The clock looked nervous, as if opening the door for friendly strangers would get him into serious trouble. Cinderella knew about getting into serious trouble.
“We don’t mean to bother you, Mr….Clock. We are-”
“SHHHH!” The clock panicked, “I know why you are here. The Master’s affairs are some I cannot agree with. I will help you retrieve the man you are looking for, but you must listen very carefully to what I say and agree that you never saw me in this castle.”
The girls enthusiastically nodded, now understanding this is where the Inventor had been trapped.
“You shall head up these stairs to the painting on the third floor. From there, open the painting as if it were a door and take the steps all the way down. Your father will be in the second cell to the left. The keys are hidden but there are to no use to you, there is a trapdoor on the left side of his cell under the bed where he can escape from. It leads to the southernmost side of the castle. Be quick!”
The girls thanked the mysterious clock and quickly followed his instructions to find Belle’s father. They found him shivering in the corner of the cell. Belle was overcome with relief in seeing her father was in solid condition. Hurriedly, they told him of the secret door and watched him descend into the darkness.
Then came the hardest part: Escaping themselves. They could hear the scattered footprints and voices of those above them in the hallway. As Cinderella began to hatch a plan, they caught the sound of heavy boots and shattering glass. Gun shots echoed through the castle, seemingly shaking the walls.
“Now what’s going on?” Cinderella panicked.
A deep and booming voice carried to the basement, “Step forward, the one who has taken my Belle!”
Belle filled with dread. “Gaston!” She whispered. “He’s here!”
“Who is Gaston?” Cinderella scoured the sides of the chambers, looking for a way to escape the basement.
“It’s just… a man, in my village, where I come from. He wants to marry me because he thinks I’m the most beautiful girl in all the land or something,” Belle searched alongside Cinderella, feeling the walls for a weak spot.
Cinderella stopped her quest to look annoyingly at Belle.
“See, I knew you were the most beautiful girl in town,”
“That’s not the point!! Help me find this key into the cell!”
The booming footsteps stopped at the opening door to the basement. Both girls pressed themselves to the wall and held their breath.
“BELLE! Are you down there? Have they kept you captive!?”
Belle hit her head against the wall in defeat. A piece of brick shifted behind her skull. The girls looked at each other with awe. They carefully slid the brick out of the wall to find a single golden key held up by a hook. Cinderella got to work opening the cell Belle’s father had just inhabited. The door to the basement opened with an eerie squeak as Gaston made his way to the chambers. The cell door was unlocked and the girls hid the key behind them as the basement door burst open. Gaston donned a red hunting polo and a satchel carrying everything from a bow to a bayonette.
“Oh, Belle!” He threw himself into her, knocking her off-center. “I thought I would never see you again!”
Belle, unamused at his facade of emotion, pushed him aside.
“I know you just came to save me for the honor and glory, Gaston. Why, I’m not sure you’re even aware of my favorite book!” She crossed her arms in front of her, successfully pulling his attention away from Cinderella shifting the bed away from the trap door.
“Of course I know your favorite book! You’re always…. Reading… places… and at times,”
Belle slowly walked closer to Gaston, pushing him closer into the cell across from her father’s.
“You don’t know anything about me. Well I’ll tell you one thing. I don’t need any man to save me from this dungeon. I don’t need any man in general! You are a rotten, no-good, conceited, egotistical, misogynistic man who will never get the satisfaction of taking me back to town to show off as a trophy wife!”
At this point, Belle had pushed Gaston into the open cell. He kept his signature smirk but a hint of panic rose in his eyes as he realized Belle was saying ‘no’ to him.
“Belle! Mark my words. You will be mine. I will wait in this ‘damp basement’ until the day I find love!”
Belle slammed the cell door shut and took out the key, locking it in front of Gaston.
“Be Our Guest,” She replied with a wink.
She followed Cinderella to the other cell towards the trap door, ignoring the various pleas from Gaston. Together, they escaped out of the basement and into the woods. There, her father was waiting anxiously for their return.
“I-I-I heard the gunshots! I was so afraid!” He ran into Belle’s arms, finally receiving the reunion they deserved.
“Don’t worry Papa,” Belle replied, “We’ll be home soon.”
Cinderella, on the other hand, feared they had no means of returning home. And if they could, where was home for her? In that moment, a flash of light appeared in the clearing of woods a few trees away. The group moved closer to see the magical bursts of color and sparkles appearing in the clearing. A tornado shape of silver and gold reached high into the sky as a little old lady with a wand came into view. She wore a bright blue cape and a warm smile that eased the tense travelers.
“Hello there, I am your fairy godmother,” Her voice spread over the land like a warm summer’s day. The gang stood in awe, mouths open and cares forgotten.
“Cinderella, I have been watching over you. You have proven your bravery. But now it is time to return to safety and find your home. And I think I have something that could help!”
The fairy flicked her wand at a nearby tree, erupting stars in the morning daylight. The tree began to transform into a magical carriage equipped with a horse and enough seating for three.
“You have been independent and self-reliant, yes. But sometimes it is alright to ask for help!”
The godmother was content in her work and sat back as the group examined the properties of their transportation.
“Fairy godmother, how can I ever repay you!” Cinderella fell at her feet beside the fairy, overcome with gladness.
“My dear, you have been good enough. You may repay me by keeping your confidence in yourself.” The fairy lightly touched Cinderella’s chest. “Though you have doubted me in the past, I certainly placed you right where you needed to be,” She nodded slyly towards Belle, who was still in shock of the new creation. Her father tinkered next to her, finding inspiration for his inventions.
Cinderella enveloped her fairy godmother in an embrace. “Thank you,” she whispered.
And with that, the fairy godmother was gone, leaving behind her carriage and three relieved travelers. They took off down the trail, due East towards Belle’s village. When they arrived home, Belle took one look at the lonely cottage and knew it was no longer her home. She kissed her father goodbye and promised to visit. She then hopped back into the carriage with Cinderella and carried on down the road. As they rode into the sunset, they could see a patch of glitter erupt in the sky.
And they all lived happily ever after.