Ella rolled over sluggishly, wincing as the creak of the attic floorboards brought her dangerously close to wakefulness. It had been hard enough sleeping in a nest of blankets on the attic floor. Now, in the hottest room of the manor in the middle of a heat wave, she had traded the stifling heat of the blankets for the comparative coolness of bare floorboards, telling herself it was at least better than the hard kitchen flagstones.
But when she had spent those last winter weeks in the kitchen, dying embers in the fireplace had kept the cold at bay and her mind had been in a state of perpetual vacillation between grief and exhaustion, enabling her to slip effortlessly into unconsciousness each night. Now she had moved past shock into something containing all the superficial indicators of normalcy. This disturbed her, because what would Papa, who had every confidence in Ella becoming a proper young lady, or Mrs. Wollens, who tried to keep Ella from washing so much as a teacup, say if they knew how she spent her days now?
Thoughts of Papa and Mrs. Wollens were never far from Ella's mind, though to speak of either was now verboten.
Not that Ella spoke much to any of the other manor's inhabitants these days. Lady Tremaine discouraged her daughters from socializing with Ella, and Silas seemed to live inside his head, never saying more than an occasional 'Yes marm' to Lady Tremaine and providing only grunts to Ella's attempts at conversation. Lady Tremaine deigned to set Ella her tasks for the day each morning, then treated her as though she was invisible until she found fault with her work. Each night, Ella found herself turning over the day's criticisms in her mind, recalling every fault and cataloguing every misstep. Some nights she found herself dreaming through the day's work: occasionally correcting the mistakes of the day in her sleep, but more often repeating and exacerbating the errors.
At least when she dreamed she knew she slept. She shifted again, her hand rising heavily to flip her hair off of the back of her sticky neck.
Tonight she didn't dream. She closed her eyes and tried to ride her thoughts to sleep, but the heat in the attic and the discomfort of the hard floor kept half of her mind awake and anxious.
Eventually she heard the grandfather clock in the hall chime four, and she sat up with a sigh. Whether she had slept or not, her night was over.
The turret windows showed that it was still dark outside, but Ella had no need of light. Her day dress was folded neatly within reach of where she slept, and her hairbrush lay next to it. It took only a minute to change out of her nightgown, and she didn't need a mirror to brush and braid her hair into two symmetrical braids with practiced ease. A handkerchief over her hair tied at the back of her neck completed her simple toilette.
Still shoeless, her unshod feet were nearly silent as she descended the spiral staircase to the kitchen. Neither her stepfamily nor Silas stirred as she passed their bedrooms.
Bruno heard her coming though. He greeted her silently at the door to the kitchen. She caressed his head and let him lick her hand as she picked up a large basket and two empty milk pails.
"Out we go," she whispered, ushering him out the door ahead of her into the yard. He trotted ahead confidently, knowing the routine.
Their first stop was the stable.
"Good morning, Princess," Ella greeted the baleful dairy cow. "I hope you slept better than me last night." She continued talking to the cow as she fetched a stool and prepared her for milking. Bruno greeted Princess with a mutual sniff check, and then waited patiently at the door to the pen. When both milk pails were full, Ella opened the door to the pen and sent the cow off to pasture.
Their next stop was the henhouse. Here Bruno knew better than to follow Ella inside. When she emerged, she held the basket securely, careful not to disturb the eggs nestled into straw for safekeeping.
A quick trip back to the kitchen deposited one of the milk pails and several of the eggs, then Ella took the second milk pail in one hand and the rest of the eggs in the other and set off down the dark road, Bruno at her side.
Dawn had warmed from a wispy glimmer to a healthy glow by the time they reached the bakery. The front of the shop was dark, but Ella walked around to the back door, which was propped open by a loose brick.
"Hello?" she called. "Mr. Leavenson?"
A tall burly man appeared from the shadowy depths within, wiping his hands on his apron as he walked. A smear of white flour streaked across his otherwise red and sweaty forehead.
"You're late," he said.
"I can still use them. I've adjusted my regular suppliers for you, you know. But don't let it happen again, or I'll have to rethink this arrangement."
"Two and a half dozen."
"Fine. Set them out and we'll take a look."
Ella followed him into the kitchen. Though morning mist cooled the world outside, the heat of four large ovens set Ella sweating as soon as she stepped inside. She pulled an egg rack down from the wall and arranged her eggs on it one by one. To her relief, none had cracked on the journey.
"All accounted for," she said.
"Their coloring is off. What have you been feeding your hens?"
"Their coloring is the same as it was yesterday, and all the days before that," said Ella calmly. "And besides, isn't it what's on the inside that counts?"
"For a blind man, maybe. For the rest of us, presentation accounts for nine-tenths of the truth." He picked one up, examining it closely against the light. "Fine. They'll do. And the milk?"
"Right here," said Ella, lifting the heavy pail to the table with both hands. "It's to the brim this time, like you asked."
"I should hope so," said Mr. Leavenson, opening the lid and sniffing at the contents inside. "Adequate," he proclaimed. "I'll get your payment."
He left while she poured the milk into a large vat. When he returned, he handed her two loaves of day old bread and a handful of coins.
"Thank you," said Ella, wrapping the loaves in her empty egg basket and pocketing the money. "See you tomorrow."
"I had better," he replied gruffly, walking her to the door.
Halfway home, the road brought them to a stone bridge crossing a small stream. Instead of crossing, they stepped off the path and carefully made their way down the rocky embankment. As they approached the underside of the bridge, they heard a sharp three note whistle.
"Hush Bruno, you'll wake the fish," said Ella clearly and loudly.
"The fish are already awake," said Rosha, coming out from the shadows under the bridge.
"Good morning," said Ella. "All of you are up? Isn't it a bit early for that?"
"The mayor's men were sniffing around more than usual last night, so we turned in early. Besides, better to be up while it's cool then sleep when it gets hot later this afternoon."
"What were the mayor's men sniffing around for?"
"Who knows," said Rosha offhandedly, kneeling down to greet Bruno. "Probably just looking to stomp around and rattle their swords. Jackie Dee nicked a penknife and three pocket hankies off one of them in the square."
"He's lucky he wasn't caught."
"Oh, he knows what he's doing, Jackie Dee does. He's got it down to an art."
"Of course he does. "
"Look, I know soldiers make you nervous, but relax. We're all fine."
"Just be careful. And if any of you gets in trouble, know that I'll do anything I can to help."
"Oh come off it, you may have a roof over your head, but from what I've seen, you're just as alone an orphan as any of us."
"I'm not an orphan, I have a family. But that reminds me, here's today's for yours." She took out one of the loaves in her basket and handed it to him.
"So you say. You know you're welcome here whenever you need." His tone was casual, but he watched her closely with an earnest gaze.
"Don't," said Ella quickly, breaking his gaze and turning away. "Look, you've got the bread, I should really be going. They'll be expecting me back. Same time tomorrow?"
"Right," he said, her response to his offer not entirely unexpected. Since the first day at the graveyard, she'd told him plenty of stories about her father, but she always avoided talking about her stepfamily. "Much obliged, as always."
"Stay safe," she said, whistling Bruno back to her side.
"You too," he said, watching her climb back up to the road.
The morning mist had disappeared by the time Ella reached the manor gates. She wiped a thin layer of sweat from her forehead as she called a hello to Silas, weeding the flowerbeds along the front path, and returned his grunt with a cheery wave. After filling her milk pail with water from the well out back, she reentered the kitchen.
Sighing, she saw that Silas had made his morning coffee in the teakettle again. The fine black grounds, still damp, clung to the sides of the kettle like chimney soot. She rinsed it clean quickly, hoping the smell wouldn't transfer into that morning's tea.
Her stomach rumbled as she set out clean water for Bruno and the chickens. The baker's loaf waited in the basket, but she pushed it from her mind.
She relit the stove and set the kettle, then filled a pot to boil the eggs, grimacing as she heard floorboards creak upstairs. Anastasia had a habit of waking early, and couldn't keep herself occupied for long. Without Drizella in the same room to draw her attention, she would prowl the upstairs corridor trying to decide whom of her family a premature waking would anger less.
Today, it seemed, was Ella's turn.
"Where's the chocolate?" she asked, standing on the bottom step to the kitchen.
"Anastasia! I didn't hear you come down."
"I woke up. And Drizella said if I woke her up again she would tell Mother on me, and Mother said if either of us woke her up she'd give us double lessons and no dessert. So I'm here for an advance on dessert, just in case."
"I don't have any dessert down here. You and Drizella finished all of yesterday's tarts." Ella felt it would be petty to add that she had doubled the recipe in futile hopes of leftovers.
"You have chocolate though, there's always chocolate."
"It's on the top shelf, by the almonds."
Anastasia went to the pantry and stretched onto her tiptoes.
"I see it, but I can't reach."
"Use a chair," said Ella, checking the eggs.
"The chairs are heavy, and besides, I might fall. Mother says I have a delicate sense of balance. Can't you get it for me?"
"I might fall too," said Ella, but without conviction. She stood on chairs all the time reaching for things in this kitchen. She dragged a chair over to the pantry and fetched down the large chunk of chocolate, handing it to Anastasia before jumping down lightly.
"Knives and a hammer are in that drawer," she said, as the kettle started to whistle.
"I'm not allowed to use knives, they're dangerous," said Anastasia, hands on her hips.
Ella took the kettle off the stove, searching for a hot pad.
"Knives aren't dangerous, not as long as you aren't doing something stupid."
"I'm not stupid!"
"I didn't say you were!" Ella found the hot pad and set down the kettle. "Get a knife and the hammer and take it to the table, I'll help you cut it once I get the tea steeping." Ella climbed back on the chair to bring down the tin of tea.
"Your dog is stupid," said Anastasia. "He keeps whining and scratching at the door."
Ella realized she was right. Usually she heard Bruno. Today her attention was already divided.
"Could you let him in please?" she asked.
"No way," said Anastasia, seating herself at the worktable. "I don't want cooties. You should have learned your lesson by now."
"He doesn't have fleas anymore," said Ella. "He's been clean ever since he's been here." She opened the back door for Bruno herself. He sniffed at her knees, and then noticed Anastasia, making a beeline for her.
Anastasia scrambled up to stand on her chair, brandishing the knife in front of her.
"No!" she and Ella shouted at the same time.
Ella lunged forward, throwing herself onto Bruno before he could rise up on his hind legs to investigate Anastasia.
"Put down the knife!" said Ella, the blade uncomfortably close to her face. Bruno squirmed beneath her, barking, confused.
"He was going to eat me!" said Anastasia, knife still in hand. "He's a monster!"
Ella turned her attention to Bruno, murmuring softly in his ear. When he stilled, she shifted her weight, letting him up, but staying between him and Anastasia with an arm around him. Her breathing slowed, but her heart still raced. She led him outside, and sat with him on the back step, trying to reassure him.
"You're safe," she murmured. "That was scary, but you're safe."
"Ella," said a voice above her head. "Come inside."
Ella gave Bruno one last scratch before moving his head off her legs and standing up. Through the open top half of the door, she saw her stepmother in her dressing gown, glaring in the shadows with arms crossed, and Anastasia behind her, sitting on the chair with the knife finally at rest on the table. Ella stepped through the doorway, and latched it carefully behind her back.
"What happened?" asked Lady Tremaine.
"When?" asked Ella.
Her question earned her a slap across the cheek.
"I am in no mood for impertinence. What happened just now, here? I am awakened by an unholy racket, shouting and barking, and I come down to find my youngest daughter in tears. What happened?"
"Anastasia attacked Bruno with a knife, and I pulled him away."
"Liar!" shouted Anastasia. "He attacked me, I was defending myself!"
"He was just saying hello! He's not used to you being down here, of course he was curious!"
"Silence," said Lady Tremaine. "Why did you have a knife, Anastasia? You know they're dangerous."
"I wasn't going to use it," said Anastasia. "Ella told me to get it so she could cut the chocolate for me."
"You shouldn't have gone near it," said Lady Tremaine. "Ella can fetch her own knives." She ended with a pointed glare at Ella.
"Yes Madam," said Ella.
"You will restrain your dog by whatever means necessary to keep my daughters safe," said Lady Tremaine. "I'll have Silas find you a rope."
"He wasn't-" Ella stopped short at the look in her stepmother's eyes. "Yes Madam."
"If anything like this ever happens again, I will drown the mutt myself, understood?"
"Yes Madam." Ella's throat constricted, and it came out a whisper.
Behind her stepmother, the lid on the egg pot rattled, about to boil over. Ella glanced at Lady Tremaine, who gave an irritated nod towards the stove. Ella scrambled over and took the eggs off the heat just as bubbles began to spill over the side.
"What was that?" asked her stepmother sharply from behind.
Ella froze, genuinely confused.
"What was what?"
"Something jingled. Empty your pockets."
Suddenly Ella remembered the baker's coins still in her apron. Slowly, she put down the pot and reached into her pocket, drawing out the money for Lady Tremaine's inspection.
Her stepmother took the money from her, counting it up.
"Did you steal this from me or someone else?"
"I didn't steal it. I earned it."
"Preposterous. You don't earn money."
"I did. I sold eggs to the baker in town. I need the money for shoes this winter."
Her stepmother regarded her thoughtfully.
"The eggs were not yours to sell. They belong to the estate, under my care."
"We were just throwing them out, we can't use three dozen eggs every day."
"Was this all you got for three dozen eggs?" asked Lady Tremaine skeptically.
"It was two and a half dozen, and a pail of milk. And I also got a loaf of bread for it all. It's in the basket." Despite her stepmother's milder-than-expected reaction, Ella didn't think she'd appreciate Ella's charity to the children under the bridge.
Lady Tremaine lifted up the corner of the basket cloth to reveal the loaf inside.
"Very well," she said at last. "I will allow this to continue. But you will give me three-fourths of the money you collect each day."
"Do not complain. That means an equal share for you and me and my daughters, which is exceptionally generous considering I have every right not to give you any of it."
"Yes Madam." Ella tried to calculate how long it would take her to save up enough for shoes at a quarter of the rate.
"I will keep all of this today. Consider it a penalty and back pay for your deceit thus far." Lady Tremaine slipped the coins into her own dressing gown pocket.
"Now finish up here. I expect breakfast upstairs in ten minutes. Come along, Anastasia."
"And see that the mutt is restrained by the time we finish," she called over her shoulder as they ascended the stairs.
"Yes Madam," Ella whispered, angrily wiping away a single tear.
AN: Bonus points to anyone who spotted the Dickens reference.
And as always, if you liked it, leave a review telling me what you liked!