The Stroke of Midnight
Ellan is a lord turned servant in this gender swapped tale of Cinderella with a twist. He suffers constant abuse at the hands of his step-family, while finding limited peace in his friendship with a mysterious wizard in the woods. His world is turned upside down when he crosses paths with Leith, the crown prince of the kingdom--a man going through his own internal revolution. With a bit of magic, the lives of these two men are transformed...but the deceptive spell only lasts until midnight.
The sword slipped, landing on the ground with a clang which frightened the chickens and sent them scuttling.
"That'll teach you to wear your father's sword while doing chores," Ellan said to himself as he observed the chickens spread across the grounds and make themselves potential dinner for the foxes. He sighed, leaned over and picked up his most treasured inheritance. The sword had belonged to his father, and his grandfather before that, keeping both men safe in the endless wars of the greedy king. Ellan, on the other hand, had never had much use for it beyond completing his outfit. But even this was no longer possible as the leather scabbard had almost worn away along the sides. At a certain angle, the sword simply fell out and chased chickens. Making its wearer look less like the son and grandson of war heroes, and more like a silly boy playing dress up.
"I'll have to put you away."
This was easier said than done. Ellan had nowhere to hide the sword, and if he didn't keep an eye on it all the time, then it was likely to be stolen by his stepbrother. He ran his finger over the scratches the sword had sustained the last time that brat had taken it and used it against a metal post. "Some men were born for swordsmanship, while others were born to watch," Ellan's father had frequently said before his untimely death.
His stepbrother had been born to watch, but circumstances had led him to think otherwise.
He put the sword in the scabbard and walked back into the manor. He ignored the fine rooms with their priceless tapestries and instead climbed the servants' stairs to the room at the top of the tower. He tried to find a secure place for the sword but came up short. Instead, he stuck it beneath the hay mattress and prayed it would be secure there.
He then went downstairs and prepared breakfast for the family who had moved in after his mother's death, driven his father to the grave and forced him to be a servant.
His stepmother, brother, and sister.
The unholy trio he liked to call: "The Three."
"CinderEllan, you spread soot around whenever you enter the room," Arwyn said.
Ellan ignored his stepsister and put the breakfast trays down. He was allowed to eat with his stepfamily, but he chose not to. The scorn which greeted him from the usurpers could turn anyone's blood cold.
"I trust the eggs were in for five minutes, and the bread is fresh."
"Yes, stepmother," he said and made a hasty retreat to the scullery where he had hidden the best food. The Three never ventured too far into the kitchen if they could help it, giving Ellan full reign of this tiny kingdom. He'd learnt years before that the first bread to come from the oven was often chewy, and more than a little burnt on the bottom. While the second loaf--his loaf--smeared with butter, or honey if he could spare, was soft and tantalising. It was a small revenge on his abusers, but he took his digs where he could find them. He pulled the bread tin out of the wood oven and breathed the aroma in.
He sat down at the small window, ripped the loaf in two, then smeared the butter and ate as outside the sun began to burn the mist away. He could already see the villagers walking past the manor on their way to the fields, horses snorting, dogs yelping, tiny boys not much bigger than their canine comrades trotting behind carrying packs filled with the men's lunches. To be an apprentice to the king's ploughmen was quite an honour, and the boys wore their badges proudly. Ellan smiled as he watched the troops pass, trying not to think how desperately he would prefer that life. What hardship is poverty when it walks hand in hand with freedom?
He'd been born the son of a lord, but without his parents' protection, he'd been forced into servitude. And now he was trapped; trained for nothing and therefore could not escape and live as someone else. He pushed the thought of starvation aside, finished his loaf, and turned back to the kitchen to clean up.
"Hey," he exclaimed happily as he caught sight of one of the pots. "It's my lucky day."
He'd forgotten to take one of the eggs to his stepfamily. He grabbed at it, ignoring the scalding water, and quickly peeled it. It had been years since he'd had an egg. They were reserved for cooking and The Three. They were never an option for Ellan. He forced himself to eat it slowly, savouring it. He searched around for salt to sprinkle on the yolk, but there was none. When he was done, he sat at the table as though praying, but there were no words in his head. He kept running his tongue over his palette, enjoying the taste of his treat.
It was going to be a good day.
"You, sir, are forbidden from leaving the grounds."
"Oh, father, do hush, or you'll give yourself heart failure."
The king pushed his cheeks out, making himself seem like the frog from a fairy tale. Leith had a moment where he wondered if his mother had kissed an amphibian to get the throne.
"I'm am not in the mood for jesting, young man, I am tired of my knights having to fish you out of the woods."
"Then tell your knights to stop following me into the woods. Is that not common sense? Leave me alone, and I'll come back on my own."
The king threw his quill down, smearing ink across the desk. "Is this funny to you? A prince of the realm hiding in the woods like a hermit?"
Leith walked over, picked up the king's goblet, and downed the red liquid, coughing at the taste. He hated sweet alcohol. There was something deceptive about it. And Leith was never interested in anything deceptive.
"If I remember my history lessons correctly, a prince of the realm once camped in those very woods," Leith teased his father, "And didn't that prince lay siege to the castle and claim this kingdom for his own?"
The king scowled. "What is your point?"
Leith shrugged dramatically as though life was a great game. "There is obviously a weak point to the castle in those woods. I'm just trying to find out where it is before I take the throne."
"You shall not have that throne until you pick a wife," the king ordered.
"Grandfather had the throne without a queen," Leith reminded. "Why can't I follow in his footsteps?"
"When you survive a plague, which wipes out nearly all the women of marrying age you can ascend the throne without a queen. Until then you get off your arse and start finding a princess."
Leith ran his gaze over the library shelves, wondering which book would have instructions on starting a plague. It had something to do with rats, didn't it? He could find a rat.
"What about that nice princess from Liechtenstein?" the queen asked as she entered the room, her maids scurrying around her like chickens. "She was rather taken with you."
"Mother, she was rather taken with everything. It was the first time she'd left her castle. She thought the pig's swill bucket was beautiful in the morning light. Forgive me for wanting a wife with a bit more life experience to her."
"You are just fussy, boy," the king cried. "Pick a woman and be done with it. It's not hard."
Not for women anyway.
"What about the princess from Castile? With the lovely hair?" the queen said dreamily.
"Mother, if you love her so much you are welcome to her."
The queen shook her head and scuttled to the window seat with her sewing. The conversation died only as long as it took her to thread her needle.
"What about that young princess from Aragon? The one with strange blue eyes. She seemed interested in you."
"Only because I'm made of meat. Did she stop eating at any point that night?"
"A healthy appetite is not a reason to dismiss a princess," the queen admonished.
"No, but her appetite is enough to make me worry I'll find her chewing on my limbs on my wedding night."
"What about the princess from Saxony?" the king asked. "You should choose her."
"I would never choose her!"
"Why?" both monarchs barked.
"Because I've met her."
"You are impossible, boy!" the queen said with a sigh.
"Listen to me," the king growled. "I want a wife chosen before the full moon, or I shall choose for you. And I'm rather taken with the Saxon girl."
"As you wish, Father, I choose..." He lifted his finger and turned in a circle until he was pointing at a skinny maid washing the windows. "Her. I choose her."
She jumped and chattered at him, making him think of the squirrels in the trees on his morning rides through the woods.
"You cannot marry a commoner, and I am getting tired of your games!"
Leith smiled, he lived for his father's anger. Since his tutoring ended it was his only entertainment for the day.
"If I find a frog who promises me that she is really a princess, may I marry her?"
"That's it!" The king began unbuckling the belt which held his scabbard. "Come here, boy, you are not too old for a thrashing."
"Keep your pants on, Father, no one wants to see the crown jewels."
"I'll give you crown jewels," the old man claimed as he tried to unravel his belt, spinning in circles and surely making his ancestors wish for a new emergence of the plague.
"You have until the full moon to choose," the queen said. "I suggest you choose wisely. Because there is no changing your mind once arrangements have been made."
Leith couldn't help but notice that his mother's glance was in the direction of the bumbling king at the last part of that sentence.