The new little group walked off into the woods. It had been a long day for each of them- Jack had lost his mother; the baker, James, had lost his wife; Cinderella had lost her Prince; Holly, who was Little Red Riding Hood, had lost her mother and grandmother; and Matthew, the baker's son, had lost his mother.
The tired little group was trying to make their way through the woods that had caused them so much trouble. None knew where to go: James house was in shambles, Cinderella had no idea where her stepfamily had gone, and Holly's home had been stepped on by the Giantress. Still they struggled on to the small town where they had come from. It was very dark in the woods that night, and James only had a quickly dying lantern with him. A gust blew it out, and the woods were put into darkness. Cinderella was the first to speak, though all of them were frightened by the silence and stillness.
"James, you have another match with you, right? Or some more oil?" He only shook his head, a motion she barely saw in the moonlight. "Does anyone?" They searched their pockets and searched the ground, but found nothing.
"Well," said the Baker, "I suppose we stop here for the night. Well go on tomorrow." Since there was no other plan, they shrugged and tried to make themselves comfortable. Jack spoke up as everyone got settled.
"We could go to my house in the morning. It only has three rooms and a loft, but it's our only option, I guess." And it was, and that small house would have to fit a group of five. Somehow, they'd find a way. If they could survive this, they could survive anything.
Tears woke James that night. It came from Cinderella, who was next to him. They had all been huddled together, but the adults and children had broken off into smaller groups; Cinderella and James on one side with the baby, Holly and Jack sleeping opposite them. He shifted over in the leaves, looking down on her small form, sympathy deep inside him.
"Princess, are you alright?" She sat up with a start, surprised that he was next to her. She wiped the tears from her eyes in a desperate attempt to conceal that she had been crying.
"Yes, of course I'm fine, why do you ask?" A cool breeze soothed her red, tearstained face, and she was grateful for the small comfort it offered.
"You were crying, Princess." He wanted to put a hand on her arm and let her know that everything was okay. They had each other, and would get through this. She looked down instead.
"You don't have to call me 'Princess', James. Cinderella works just fine, Ella works even better. And I was crying because…I miss him. He was my Prince, my fairytale. He was handsome and charming, and even though I ran from him three nights in a row, he never stopped trying to find me. I still love him." Tears continued to fall down her pretty cheeks, and James wrapped her in a hug. Though her husband, well, ex-husband now, hadn't died, he had left her in another form. He held her close.
"It's alright Ella. I miss Charisse more than you could ever know. But I'll tell Matthew wonderful stories about her. I'm just glad she didn't leave me the way your Prince left you."
Was he saying she shouldn't have married him? Although he had been unfaithful, she still loved him. Did he not understand that love knows no bounds? She remembered what the birds had told her, and pulled away angrily. "She did James. Who do you think Aden was unfaithful with? A lone woman out in the woods, your wife, Charisse." As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she regretted them. The poor man had just lost his wife today, why burden him with what she had done before her death, which only the birds, trees, and Aden knew?
His face changed. It went from sweet, sympathetic, to closed off and distant. "James I'm so sorry-" He cut her off by scooting away and laying down, not looking at her for the remainder of the night.
Morning came, and rousing Holly and Jack was no easy task. Ella didn't blame them for not wanting to wake up. It would mean facing the horrors of yesterday and trying to cut a new path for tomorrow. Eventually though, they woke them up, giving them some stale bread from James' pack. They scarfed it down, hungry as wolves. Ella laughed to herself about the analogy and Holly. She looked up to see James staring at her, and her laughter quickly ended after the thought of what happened last night. They frowned at one another.
"The leaves won't let go of my petticoat!" It was Holly's exclamation that broke the growing silence, and Ella went over to help her get cleaned up. Soon, all was well, and James turned to Jack.
"Direct us to your house, Jack. Let's hope it isn't in shambles like half the town." Jack led the way through the woods they now knew so well.
After half a day's walk, they came to a meadow, albeit a small one. A small cottage, barn, and garden stood in the clearing, with a well and giant footprint in the backyard. Jack sighed.
"Well, here it is, the much sought after house." James went and opened the door. Holly was first to go in, then Jack. As Ella went through she paused.
"James, please, can we talk about what happened?" He shook his head, jaw set.
"I don't want to talk about anything. Go in." She sighed but obliged. True, the house was small, but not tiny. One larger room, with a sitting area, fireplace, and kitchen, two small bedrooms, the smaller of them Jacks, the larger had been his mothers. Holly climbed the small ladder into the loft, and declared it comfy looking, although they should move the objects piled at one end.
The Baker climbed up, and pulled down two chests and a cradle. One chest held clothing that must have fit Jack and his mother at some point, some simple dresses that Ella claimed she could sew up that would fit Holly and her, and with mending, sewing, thread, and cloth, could make clothes for Jack and James from the rest.
The other chest Jack insisted should not be opened. Why, he would not tell, but after what happened in the woods, no one dared to push too far. So they put it in the corner of the room and left it there. Ella soon had a nice fire going, and pulled the cradle with Matthew inside close.
"Holly, could you come help me get some dinner ready? Maybe you could go out and pick some vegetables for some soup. Jack, could you go fetch some wood? James, perhaps you could bake some bread to go with dinner?"
Jack was soon outside chopping wood, thrilled to have a chance to look and be like the man his mother had repressed so much. Holly was out pulling up greens, and the Baker was happy to find that Jacks mother had adequate baking supplies. He kneaded the dough as Ella set the table and warmed water over the fire for soup. The house was silent, and neither of them dared lift it. Holly brought in the greens, and declared she would go feed the animals.
Ella chopped up the greens as James made bread.
"James, I am sorry for what I said in the woods. Please forgive me, I spoke out of turn." He slammed the tray down on the counter.
"Cinderella, let it go! There's nothing to forgive, now please, be quite." She wasn't thwarted by his outburst, and as she continued to chop, she spoke again.
"You can't say it didn't affect you James, I know it did. Now I'm trying to apologize, and you're being stubborn not letting me. If I was your wife…"
He shoved the bread into the oven and spun around to face her, "Alas Cinderella, you are not my wife, and I wish you wouldn't speak as though you are, and don't talk about her. If you were my wife, which you aren't, we argued a little sometimes, but if I told her to let something go, she would, unlike a lucky maid who used to sleep in the ashes!"
Her face fell dramatically. He stared down at her angrily as her face fell, and tears collected in her eyes and ran down her cheeks. She pushed him away and ran into the closest bedroom, flinging it closed behind her. James sighed, and looked up to see Holly standing in the doorway, looking frightened.
"Holly everything's alright. You don't need to be afraid, adults fight sometimes." She came closer, but looked frightened still. He sat her down at the table, and she began to talk.
"Before Father died, he and Mother fought all the time. Granny says that's what killed him, and Mother didn't even seem sad for that long. He was taken to drink, but he was still Father. And now my new parents are fighting too!"
"New parents" are what caught James' mind. "Holly, we're not your new parents. We're your guardians. We look after you, keep you safe, but aren't exactly parents. Now, do you know how to make vegetable soup?" She nodded, and finished with dinner. Jack brought in wood, and they fed the fire.
When dinner was ready, James took a deep breath and knocked on the door.
"Who is it?"
He sighed, "Dinner is ready Ella. It would be nice if you would come out and join us." He didn't want to say family, but he knew Holly at least, and probably Jack too, thought of them as one.
"I'm not hungry James, but thank you."
In truth, she was starving, but she couldn't go back out there and make polite conversation after what he had said earlier. How they had finished the meal was unknown to her. Perhaps Holly had helped with supper. She stayed near the door, wanting to hear what type of conversation they would have over the meal.
They said grace, and James spoke first.
"Jack, do you know a trade? Was your mother planning to apprentice you to anyone?"
Jack shook his head. "No, Mother never wanted me to grow up; I guess she was planning to keep me around here for forever. Why?"
"Well, if you don't know a trade yet, perhaps you could become a baker. You'll need to know something one day." They agreed on this, and the Baker decided to teach Jack everything he knew.
Holly spoke up next. "What do I get to learn?"
James chuckled a little bit. "Girls don't learn trades. Ella can teach you how to grow a garden and run a household." Her face fell.
"I wanted to be important."
"Holly you are important. Men would be nowhere if they didn't have a woman to come home too. One day, you'll keep the household running as much as your husband will." The answer pleased her, and she went back to eating, but not for long.
"Why won't Mother come out of her room?"
James dropped his fork, and Ella let out a gasp behind the door. Why would Holly call her Mother? Hadn't James already explained once that they weren't her parents? Parents were married, parents didn't argue, parents was not a word to describe James and her. Even Jack looked startled at the dinner table. Holly of course, saw nothing wrong with it, and simply waited for an answer.
"I already told you, we aren't your parents. I don't think she'd be thrilled with you calling her 'Mother'. I am James, not 'Father' except to Matthew, and she is Ella, not 'Mother' to anyone, understand? Now, who will clean up the dinner dishes?"
Jack and Holly were out the door before he finished his sentence. He sighed, picking up the table. That was when Ella finally decided to come out of her room. The poor man would probably helpless. She came out, and James saw her.
"Well, look who finally decided to surface from the depths. Here, I kept your dinner warm."
Even though she had told him she wasn't hungry, he had saved her some dinner. She smiled, reaching for the bowl and bread. He pulled it away from her, and she frowned.
"First though, I would like to apologize for my outburst earlier. It was harsh, and I spoke too quickly. Forgive me." She nodded, but her appetite began to dwindle just talking about it. She looked down, still upset a little. James let go of the bowl and came closer, putting an arm around her shoulder.
"I really am sorry, it was cruel to say." She nodded, looking at his face.
"It just hurt so much to hear you say that. I know I was lucky, but the way you said it, I almost felt ashamed of myself for what happened. To be that lowly, it was horrible, and then, after I married Aden, life was wonderful. And to hear you talk about my other life like that…it hurt." He nodded, holding her gently in a hug for a few minutes.
"Now, you need to eat something. All if forgiven for both of us, I take it?" She realized he meant that he forgave her for what she had said in the woods, and she nodded, smiling, and turned to her dinner.