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I no longer trembled when she struck me. I stood. There was a time when I was younger that I cowered at her hand, but that was long ago. I looked down at the witch and bowed deeply, while pressing my fingers to the wound. Blood trailed down my cheek, as I lowered my head. Yes, Madam. Blood is power. I apologize for my disrespectful silence. I chanced it, and glanced up at her. She had a superiority complex. Those who did not submit died. There was no other way to live, and be near her. And for whatever reason, she would not release me.
The old woman reached for me, tucking her bony fingers under my chin, which forced me to turn my face up and look at her. Precious child. Many things will come our way, especially after tonight, but make certain that there is no doubt in your mind about how much I cherish you. A wayward child must feel the sting of this stick to grow into a fine woman. And that is what you are. That is what you have become a fine woman.
And, tonight everyone will see.
You will attend the ball as a woman in lady's finery that will make all others seem trite. Ella, you will win the prince's heart. He will choose you to be his bride before the stroke of eleven. I swear it to you.
Lowering my dark eyes, I nodded and replied, Yes, Madam. But, what am I to wear? I have never seen the gown of which you speak.
In every year past, I wore the attire of a child or young lady, but it was my seventeenth birthday. I was of age. In previous years, my long golden hair had trailed down my back, my small hands were ungloved, and my gown swished just above my ankles. But this year I would wear women's garments. The women's gowns, the gowns of the fine ladies who attended the ball, touched the floor. And, they wore revealing, low necklines with sleeves that draped off their shoulders. Corsets that had been pulled tight offered every woman an hourglass shape, and silk gloves spanned arms from fingertips to shoulders. It was the mark of womanhood. And tonight it was being offered to me.
The old woman crossed the room to a cabinet that was always locked. It stood floor to ceiling, and had only one thickly carved wooden door. Massive black hinges held it tightly shut.
Though I tried, I was never able to pry the door open to see what she hid inside. I was certain that the items I stole were in this box, though I'd never seen her put them inside. The only thing I did know was this she kept her prized possessions locked in this tower.
The wooden door creaked in her hand. When she turned away from the cabinet, I could see that she pulled out a box made of stone. It was far too small to contain a gown, or even a shoe. She pressed the door closed, and strode toward me. The stone box was clutched to her chest.
This is the last of my magic, she confessed. I have used it sparingly until this occasion. This will provide you with brilliant beauty. You will be the personification of perfection.
The prince will be unable to look away from you. Neither will any other man for that matter.
I stepped closer, looking down at the closed box. Your power is from the box? I didn't understand. I thought you were a sorceress. I thought your powers were within you.
Wiry white hair framed her haggard face. She smiled softly while rubbing her hand over the lid of the stone box. Dark power comes from many places, child. It is not innate. Power must be attained and then channeled. My powers dwindle, and you know how important it is that I have them to take care of you. Without me, you would surely die a horrific death. If the kingdom knew what you were what you've done... Ella, they wouldn't just run you through with a spear. They have ways of ridding their lands of evil. Ways that would make you cry out in fear.
She shook her head slowly, while keeping her palm on the top of the box. I won't tell you what they do. It will only terrify you tonight when you have to face those people. But remember, remember when you look into their smiling faces and see them for what they really are. Remember that they would have you skinned and set aflame before they ever accepted you. Or me.
For we are the same, child. And we both know what will happen to us if we fail tonight. I nodded, not fully understanding what she was implying. Swallowing hard, I wrapped my arms around my middle and kept my eyes fixed on the box, on the source of her power.
She continued, The greatest power comes from blood.
Blood is power. It always has been. It always will be. The old woman's lips twisted into a smile when she slowly pulled back the lid. It opened in her hands, revealing a stone case lined with gold. There was something dark contained within a beating heart. It was small and withered. Black veins spidered across its surface, like mold on cheese.