Once Upon A Time

Everyone thinks they know the classic fairytale characters - Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella. No one ever thought to delve beneath the surface and uncover the fact that Snow White was the estranged sister of Red Riding Hood. Or that Cinderella and Rapunzel had been childhood friends until secrets got in the way. Or even that Sleeping Beauty had once struck up a deal with the ominous Rumpelstiltskin.
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2. The Tower House

A small, melodic, childish voice could be heard tinkling about the old house, creaking with the spiders hanging lazily from their elongated cobwebs that curtained the dark corners no-one bothered to use any more. 

The girl whose voice it belonged to was petite and slender, wearing a simple blue linen dress that brushed the dusty floor. Her long, dark eyelashes sent dust motes fluttering around the room in a dreamy haze, illuminated in the light streaming in through the broken, slightly wonky window half-concealed by a grubby blind. 

The little girl was tottering on her small feet, reaching the high notes of the nursery rhyme she was breathing to herself, her thin hands clutching the end of an over-sized, wiry broom. The motions of the broom along the dusty, uneven floorboards sent more dust swirling around the bare, sparsely furnished room, catching on the ragged material of her socks. Her long, fair blonde hair, flowing in a waterfall of wavy tresses usually coming to her waist, was haphazardly knotted on the top of her head, a few loose, curling tendrils framing her cheeks and sapphire blue eyes.

"Ella ...?" called a stern, older voice, from another part of the house. The girl looked up for a moment, distracted from her sweeping and dreamy singing by the call, but continued her work a moment later. "Ella!" called the voice again, harsher and closer this time. Ella swept the floor harder, enjoying the harsh ssssshweep that came from each brush of the rigid, stiff twigs.

"Ella, answer me!" Her step-mother called, and shoes could be heard clip-clopping up the rickety stairs towards the room Ella was standing in. 

"Yes?" Ella sighed finally, dropping the broom and tiptoeing to the door. It creaked open, its hinges squealing in mercy, to reveal her stern, tall, gray-eyed stepmother standing on the wooden landing. 

"How many times do I have to call your name before you give me the time of day?" she sighed pitifully, shaking a way a loose tendril of her patchy brown hair (that had turned slightly silver over the past few years) irritably. "Look, another silver hair. What did I tell you? I gain a silver hair for each time you ignore me calling you."

"Of course," Ella agreed mockingly, bowing her head and curtsying so low that her upturned nose nearly touched the floor. 

"Don't be so silly!" her stepmother snapped, taking a firm but rough hold of Ella's tiny wrist with one of her long, ropy hands. With her other hand, she pinched at Ella's cheek and pulled her upright, a blazing of cold fury set in her vicious eyes. "We're going to Rapunzel's, let's go!"

Within a second, she had removed her hand, that was stricken with prominent veins, from Ella's terrified face. Her blue eyes had welled up with tears of fear that glistened in the harsh, naked-bulb light, but she stood her ground and stamped down the rickety stairs after her stepmother. The woman's face had now softened into a glow of satisfaction, and when she turned towards Ella once more she saw happiness there.

"I'm so sorry," she gasped, "I lost my temper."

Ella nodded slightly, but it was more of a neck spasm from the fear that was shaking her body. Her stepmother had been like this for quite a while now - ferocious one moment and completely characteristic the next. She would have fits of rage at the dinner table, and then lose the austere composure and become friendly. It was frightening Ella.

"What are you going to do at Rapunzel's?" she asked kindly to the ten-year-old. Ella shrugged, and mumbled, "Play outside."

Her stepmother fell silent for a while, a flurry of emotions passing through her pebble-like eyes. For a moment she looked as though she was about to say something important, but brushed the idea away, only to whip around to Ella a minute later, staring into her blue eyes with her storm gray ones. "It might be best not to mention what happened a minute ago to Rapunzel and her mother. I'm not sure it's best."

Although not knowing why, and feeling shaken for doing so, Ella nodded obediently and fell silent at her stepmother's request. On the journey to Rapunzel's she remained silent, working through events in her head. Her 'mother' had always been a little unpredictable. It was getting worse with each passing day - even towards her two own daughters, who were spoiled yet in adoration of their mother, who worshiped material things like fancy ballgowns and elaborate accessories just as much as them. This was where they and Ella differed - she was content with the least in life, as long as she was somewhat happy, and she knew she didn't need fame or fortune to gain that. But the situation with her mother was beyond her control. 

After ten minutes, the family's slightly outdated carriage rattled to a halt outside of a large, looming, wrought-iron gate, the deep black paint peeling in places and emanating a general air of being forgotten for too long a time. The effect was still grand, however, with malicious spikes sitting atop of the gate bars, a foreboding sight to anyone who wanted to enter beyond. Two fresh green bushes, the perfect shade of spring, flanked the gates, blocking off any other ways of getting past. Without hesitation, Ella unlatched the perilously complicated padlock that was securing the gates together, whereas many other visitors may have been fazed by the obstacle.

The gates swung open with a creak to rival the sounds of disuse that could be heard in Ella's ancient house, and swung forwards to reveal a large field in full bloom, adorned with several, multicolored rows of flowers. Stood proudly in the middle of the field was a three-story, tall but narrow "tower" house, nicknamed the former by the King's men because of its crooked, spiraling roof that ended in a long, sheer point.

Ella had always loved the house, not for its tumbledown bricks piled in a rather ungracious manner on the outer walls, or the low-hanging tree with a wooden rope swing secured to a thick branch, but because it felt so homely and loving, or at least  compared to her dysfunctional household. 

Before Ella could drink in any more of the surroundings, a small girl wriggled out from the warped front door and ran across the expansive field, flinging herself into Ella's surprised arms. Ella buried her face in the mass of thick, wavy, pure golden hair from the head of Rapunzel, who was giggling with happiness to be reunited with her friend. 

They shared a few minutes of laughter and chatting before Ella's stepmother tottered out of the carriage.

"Ella ... Ella ... Ella ..."

Her stepdaughter was so caught up with catching up with Rapunzel that she ignored her mother. 

"Ella ... Ella ..."

Her stepmother's voice was rising in suppressed anger.

"Cinderella!"

Both the young girls gasped in shock as her mother balled her fists and motioned to come and see her. Quivering slightly, Cinderella made her way hesitantly to her stepmother, who bent down and smirked. "Now listen," she said condescendingly, "I don't want you to make any trouble for Rapunzel's mother, or be a nuisance."

Ella nodded and stumbled back to Rapunzel, the image of her stepmother's deceitful smile still branded into her mind. 

They walked around the field for a while, chattering incessantly and giggling, when a large crash resounded from Rapunzel's home. It was so loud and raucous it quaked the very ground beneath their feet. 

But Rapunzel brushed it off, batting an eyelid and saying, "Oh, don't worry. Let's go somewhere else," gesturing towards the dense forest to their left. But she seemed nervous about discarding the huge noise, and Ella doubted whether she was telling the whole truth.

"Are things okay?" she asked in a concerned tone.

"Yes, of course!" Rapunzel laughed, shaking out her cascade of fair hair in a carefree manner. Little did Ella know that Rapunzel was having the same doubts about Cinderella and her mother, from the way she had been so afraid of talking to her stepmother at the carriage. 

The girls looked at each other for a moment, and continued talking, but neither felt very trustful of the other afterwards.

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