A Little Ash – Dying Words Part One – Short Story

*Content warning: death of a parent, use of the word mute as a slur about someone partially non-verbal, magical illness.*

*Cinderella retelling where Cinderella’s mother’s dying words are a curse instead of just words to live by*

The trouble with dying words is that there is a magic in them. Sometimes it’s benevolent or subtle, like last words of love boosting the confidence of the recipient. But in Ashley’s case it had become a curse. Particularly ironic considering the words themselves that wrapped around Ashely like thorned vines: have courage and be kind.

Ashley had managed neither so far. At least not in ways she could feel counted. Not since her father remarried.

The woman herself was exactly the kind of widow he should have remarried at his age and with one daughter already. The fact that she brought two daughters if her own was neither here nor there to the propriety of the matter. Her actual personality was somewhat lacking, Ashely found, not that she would ever bring herself to say such things. Not that her father was exactly blessed with an abundance of character either.

Both Mr and the new Mrs were interested primarily in their appearance to society and would do whatever it took to maintain good standing. Even if those things were neither courageous nor kind, even if those things set the three girls to squabbling at best, even if those things hurt themselves or their neighbours or their staff in the long run.

Which was exactly how Ashley ended up in the poor part of town looking for cheap, out of fashion dresses to buy that she might be able to alter them to match newer fashions for herself, her step-sisters, and even her stepmother. Especially since Ashley was the only one of them with any sewing prowess outside of embroidery. Dot, to her mild credit, did add embroidery to most of the dresses Ashley built. Naomi never added any use to the whole situation, but she was the elder of Ashley’s step-sisters and a little spoiled because of it.

Not that Ashley would say that. At the mere thought of it, her limbs going rigid as if she needed to prepare to run, prepare to fight. The remnants of her mother’s words curling inside her chest like roses, the thorns pricking against her insides.

“Mind yourself!” Someone snapped at Ashley as they pushed past her, their arms full of bundles of fabric well past what Ashley would register as useable.

The thunder of horses hooves and carriage wheels rumbled down the thin street. Ash dipped into an alcove, a little too close to someone else who leapt into the same safety.

Pressed against the firm body of a stranger had Ashley’s heart thundering just as loud as the horses hooves. It was inappropriate, beyond inappropriate. But probably not so much in this area of town. Probably not so much in this level of society. But Ashely was supposed to be part of the upper portions of society. Ashley wasn’t supposed to be pressed this close to another person until she was married, and even then it should only be to the person she was married to and even then only in private. Certainly not in the street.

Then again, Ashley: daughter of a member of untitled but still landed gentry, shouldn’t be in this area of town at all.

“Apologies,” the stranger said, breath brushing over Ashley’s ear and down her neck. “I thought I could fit without pressing quite so close.”

Ashley shook her head, turning her face down to avoid making eye contact with the stranger to whom she was pressed to uncomfortably close. The stranger with whom she had shared an intimacy she would never have imagined. Who knew breath on a neck could be anything other than uncomfortable, who knew it could send an illicit thrill down a spine like that.

The carriage whooshed past them, the tip of it scraping against the signs that decorated the street. Flutterings of scraped and burnt metal and wood sprinkled onto Ashley and her temporary companion.

The carriage was long gone, sound of hooves dissipating into the air and the bustle of the streets by the time Ashley and her erstwhile companion emerged from their alcove.

“Miss?” the stranger said as Ashley tried to scurry away.

She froze and turned back to him. This time she tilted her face up just enough to see his. He wore a hat low on his head, covering most of his eyes, a few sprigs of curly hair having escaped from it like springs busting out of an automaton. The portion of his face Ashley could see held a regal aire, clean and clean-shaven. His shoulders sat back, obviously not a man accustomed to leaning over a machine or stooping to clean a floor on his hands and knees – a posture unbent by the ravages of work.

What in the world was a man like that doing in a place like this? Even Ashley wasn’t so neatly crafted as him.

“You have a little ash in your hair,” he said, lifting an unmarked, uncalloused hand but hesitating before it made contact with Ashley’s hair. “May I?”

Ashley lowered her eyes again and nodded. She shouldn’t, but that would require saying something to the contrary, would require the courage to refuse.

The gentle press of fingers into her hair sent another frisson down her spine. She clenched her jaw, fisted her hands at her sides, hidden by skirts borrowed from servants they could no longer afford to keep.

When he retracted his hand, Ashley fled, thorns curling around her throat where his breath had been.


By the time the prince’s ball rolled around – his emergence into society, postponed until the last possible year it could be without calling for questions – Ashley had finished all but her own dress alterations.

“If you cannot finish in time,” her step-mother snapped, standing over Ashley’s shoulder and watching her stitch with fingers calloused from threads and house care that she should never have been requested to do but for the poor business choices of her own father. “You will not be able to attend.”

Ashley shook her head. She could finish. Probably. Maybe. Thorns curled around her fingers, making them stiff and sore in ways that over-stitching didn’t.

Her step-mother swashed away, hand flying to press against her forehead. “How shameful it will be to have a daughter missing from the ball! What will we say to people? How will we disguise it?”

“You won’t have to say anything,” Dot cut in. “I can help Ashley finish.”

“We could hardly have you arrive late,” her step-mother continued as if Dot had not spoken at all. But she flounced into the path Dot would have taken to approach Ashley. “That would be more shameful still. No, if you cannot finish we will just have to tell people you have been taken ill. A temporary sickness, but one that will excuse your absence. Influenza, perhaps, or that new virus everyone is getting.”

“Mama!” Dot cried. “You cannot use that, only poor people get that one. Then people might start thinking…” She trailed off, obviously too overcome or too ashamed to admit that Ashley was always the one who travelled to the rough parts of town to buy clothes from people who couldn’t afford to eat. That Ashley was always the one who braved those rough and uncobbled streets where people sat on corners coughing and crying and wishing they could afford a roof over their heads and walls to surround them even if they couldn’t manage a meal to go with it.

Have courage, her mother had told her. And be kind. Ashley could do neither, shying away from the people who needed help she had no ability to give. Her mother would have wanted her to even hare a kind word with them, but Ashley couldn’t seem to manage it. She could never seem to speak when she needed to.

“Maybe it would be better,” Naomi cut in. “Better than having a mute sister attend the party.”

“Naomi!” Dot cried.

Ashley hunched closer to her sewing, face flaming, heart kicking up protest against her ribcage.

“I’m not wrong,” Naomi grumbled. “She never says anything. It’s fucking weird.”

“Get yourselves ready at least,” Ashley’s step-mother snapped at her daughters.

Dot left with a guilty glance over her shoulder in the doorway. Naomi stepped close to Ashley and hissed, “It would be better for all of us if you got hand cramp now and failed to finish.”


Ashley hiked up her newly refurbished skirts and tumbled down the stairs, grubby stockings on display for the whole household to see – not that the household consisted of more than just the five family members, all of whom had seen Ashley’s stockings plenty of times before anyway.

The front door crashed with a thunk into the stone face of the house. Ashley barged out into the cool evening air, the tinges of orange sunset painting the landscape in watercolour hues.

It glinted off the family crest that decorated the side of the carriage, dusted off for this event specifically. The rented horses and driver pulled away down the drive, none of the passengers glancing back in time to see Ashley standing, abandoned outside the house.

There she stood until the carriage had completely disappeared from view.

She stood there a heartbeat more as something within her twisted, darkened. She hadn’t thought they would actually leave without her. She had thought actions spoke louder than words and her putting her sisters’ dresses as the priority would be respected, would be enough to show them that she cared and yet… Here she was. Alone and left behind, unable to enjoy or experience the excitement of the royal ball.

Ashley wasn’t foolish enough to think her step-mother would allow her to appear at the second or third night if she missed the first. And there was no way to get there now, if Ashley took the time to walk to the palace, the ball would be halfway over before she even got there.

She almost wanted the ground to swallow her up, for those thorns of her mother’s unintended curse turning corporeal and wrapping her tightly in them like a cocoon. She would never have to deal with anything ever again.

Instead, she turned around and stepped back through the front door and into the house, carefully taking off the painstakingly remade dress, hanging it in her wardrobe. Something in the mirror over her vanity glinted with green. Ashley stared at the lines of thorned vines wrapping down her spine, over her shoulder where that stranger’s hot breath had ghosted, and disappearing under her underclothes.

Ashley wrapped up in particularly modest clothing, tying a shawl over her shoulder and tucking it into the front of her chemise. She couldn’t risk anyone else finding out about the curse. At least not unless she figured out how to break it.


The second night of the ball, Ashley was dressed and ready to go before either of her sisters. She waited in the foyer of the house for her step-mother to arrive. The woman grimaced at her. “You can hardly attend now,” she sneered. “We have already made our excuses for you, it would be far too suspicious. Go and help your sisters dress.”

Ashely’s mouth opened but no words made it up her throat past the twisting vines that had taken up root there. She ducked her head and scurried away upstairs. Her own bedroom door called to her, the idea of helping her sisters prepare for a ball she had all but been banished from rankled. But her shoulders stooped even further and she trudged into the dressing room to help Dot into her dress.

“Your dress is so pretty, Ashley!” Dot enthused. “Are you coming with us tonight?”

Ashley shook her head.

Dot frowned. “Why not?”

“Don’t frown!” Naomi snapped. “You’ll ruin that makeup I so carefully applied. And she’s not coming because her sickness can’t just last one night!”

“It could if it was food poisoning. or if it was on its final stages, or–”

“Shut up, Dorothy!”

Ashley flinched at the anger in Naomi’s tone.

Dot pouted but said nothing more on the subject.

Ashley remained in the dressing room while Naomi and Dot descended the stairs, their elegant but well used shoes that didn’t quite fit their feet clopping loudly against the wood. She stayed in the dressing room as the front door opened and closed. As the steady beat of horses hooves disappeared down the driveway.


The afternoon of the third night, Ashley didn’t bother with her fancy, painstakingly made dress, leaving it in the wardrobe as she dipped out the back door into the garden, wandering far enough that the crafted and curated greenery gave way to woodland. She couldn’t handle helping Dot and Naomi tonight. It was her last theoretical chance to live the way her standing should have allowed, the way she would have if her mother’s death hadn’t taken most of her father’s business connections away with it.

Ahsley had been too young to understand how it had worked and her father had no interest in teaching her how it worked, preferring the idea that she, Dot, and Naomi would all marry rich and he and his new wife would be able to use either their new connections or just sponge off their daughters for the rest of their lives.

The prince’s balls were supposed to be the nights Ashley would meet her future spouse, regardless of whether they turned out to be royalty or not. The goal was, obviously, to throw the girls in front of the royalty and the high-born landed gentry, but anyone well off enough to be invited to these events would do.

Dot and Naomi had been chattering about their respective flirtings and introductions for the entire last two days.

Ashley couldn’t take anymore. Couldn’t take anymore of her family. Couldn’t take anymore of her unfortunate circumstances within it. Couldn’t take any more of her step-mothers obsessions over what might or might not look good to the outside world. Couldn’t take the way the thorns of her own mother’s words curled over and around her.

She was so wrapped up in her own feelings that she barged straight into a warm, solid body.

“Oh, fuck, who else is out here?” the stranger said. The words came out in a voice Ashley recognised. The person with whom she had accidentally shared an alcove in the poorest part of town.

She stared up at him, wide eyed and heart thumping.

“I know you…”

Ashley shook her head, tipping her chin down, avoiding his gaze.

A hand appeared at the edges of Ahsley’s vision. She flinched away from it. “You’re… Are you okay?”

Ashley rushed to nod.

“Are you looking for the palace for the ball?”

Ashley peered down at her dress – hardly a ballgown but certainly not as plain and simple as what she had been wearing when they first met. Still, this was not ball attire, even if she wouldn’t have risked her stepmother’s ire for attending a ball she had been told to stay away from. She shook her head.

“I thought all the young women in the kingdom had been invited.”

Ashley shrugged a shoulder.

“Do you… want to attend?”

She peeked up at the young man, he wasn’t looking at her, glancing sideways toward a soft glow that Ashley guessed must be the castle.

“Is it that your family can’t afford it?”

Ashley shook her head. Not that it wasn’t true, her family couldn’t afford it, which was what had created this whole problem in the first place. If they had been able to afford a seamstress, Ashley wouldn’t have had to make the dresses, if Ashley hadn’t had to make the dresses they would all have been finished in time and Ashley wouldn’t have missed the first ball, which would have meant no excuse of illness, which would have allowed Ashley the same advantages her sisters had been boasting about for the past two days. On the other hand, she did, in fact, have a dress to wear to the ball, her fingers still sported the tiny red dots of pinpricks to prove it.

The gentleman stranger let out a soft hum. “Your family won’t let you go?”

What was the harm in nodding at that? That was, without a shadow of a doubt, the truth here.

“You know, the third night is supposed to be a masquerade.”

Ashley smiled, finally facing him head on. She shook her head.

“They’d never know,” he cajoled, wearing the perfect mask of innocence. He offered a hand.

Thorns prickled around Ashley, pressing against her skin, filling her insides and making her want to unload what little remained of her lunch.

Have courage.

Ashley took his hand.

*Part 2 Coming Next Week as we slide into February’s theme: True Love (It’s LGBT History Month, of course it was going to be love)*

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