“Did you fetch the morning eggs, Danielle?”
Danielle holds her hands over the breakfast table. They are cupped together. She separates them. Rubies fall. Sapphires too, and emeralds. Seven gems, and an egg.
“I see.” Her wicked stepmother narrows her eyes. “The hens have not lain eggs properly in several days.”
“I feed them the normal feed, mother.”
Danielle’s wicked stepmother is named Glory. She clicks her sharp fingernails on the table.
“Danielle,” Glory says, “these gems are very fine, but what may I eat for breakfast?”
“Perhaps they are edible,” says Danielle. She taps a ruby. It rings, lightly, like a bell.
“I should have the wealthiest chamberpot in the world,” Glory says, “and not be full from it.”
Glory shakes her head. “It is no matter. I shall have bread and cheese. Clean the cinders, Danielle. They are a disgrace.”
Danielle curtsies. She goes to the closet. She takes out a broom and a pan. She holds the broom at her left side like a sword. She leaves the room and goes to the fireplace. The room is full of cinders and ash. They are being fanned onto every surface and every wall by seven cinder pixies. In the center of the room stands the cinder troll.
“I’ve been sent to clean this up,” she says.
The troll looks her up and down. He snorts. “You’re not much,” he says.
Her right hand crosses her body and takes the broom’s hilt. In a long circular motion, she brings the broom up and around until its bristles face the troll. Her left hand joins her right at the broom’s base. The broom is heavy, held in this fashion, but her arms do not tremble. “I am whom my mother sent.”
The cinder pixies go still. The troll looks her up and down.
“It’s my right,” says the troll, “as a cinder troll, to push the cinders out into the room.”
“And mine, to sweep them back.”
The troll hesitates. “Perhaps,” he says, “one quarter of the room in soot, and three parts clean.”
Danielle closes her eyes. She thinks. Then she opens them. “They say that every one of us lives seven lives,” she says.
“And that we should be kind to those we meet. For anyone may have been one’s mother, in another life, or one’s father, or one’s child. One’s lover, or one’s friend.”
“That’s wise,” says the cinder troll.
“In another life,” says Danielle, “I believe that we were friends. For there is a light in your eyes that my soul knows. But in this life, I have a duty, and I must drive you back.”
She steps forward. The troll steps back.
She steps forward. The troll is still. Then he reaches behind him to the fireplace and draws forth a poker, and takes it in his great strong hands.
“I had not thought,” says the troll, “that Glory would have a loyal servant.” He is breathing lightly though Danielle’s lungs burn. Each clash of poker and broom makes her arms ache.
“She is my mother,” Danielle says.
“That,” says the troll, “cannot be so.”
Cinders in the air swirl into Danielle’s mouth, and she chokes. Her eyes water. The troll strikes, the poker winging her shoulder, and her left arm goes numb. She falls backwards. The troll does not advance. After a moment, he holds out his hand to help her up. She takes it. She backs away. She reassumes her stance.
“She has taken me in,” Danielle admits. “The mother of my birth is gone.”
“My true mother went adventuring,” Danielle says. “To find a lost prince, they sent out seven maidens; to find each lost maiden, they sent out seven princes; and for seven princes lost, seven maidens each; and so in progression were all the heroes lost, and my mother among them. And I was left behind.”
The troll feints, then brings the poker around hard. The broom cracks, though it does not break. The poker lunges for Danielle’s face, and she steps back.
“And why have you not gone?” asks the troll.
She looks at him. She does not answer, for she does not know. Slowly, she brings the broom back to her side. She sets her feet. Her eyes burn.
“Are you surrendering?” the troll asks.
Danielle shakes her head.
“Then we will end this now,” says the troll.
“May we be friends again,” says Danielle, “when next we meet.”
The troll steps forward. There is tension in the great muscles of his arm.
Danielle’s shout splits the air and makes the cinder pixies flutter. She strikes. There is a crack like the breaking of the world. She is past the troll in a single motion, stumbling to a stop, kneeling in the ashes, and her broom is nothing but splinters.
The troll falls, and the room is clean.