Once upon a time there lived a princess. She was the most beautiful in all the land, and her kingdom was ruled by her mother and father, King and Queen who loved her dearly. But the princess was lonely, and she wished to find her prince. A man who would cherish her as her father adored her mother. A man who would take her hands and stand beside her with respect and strength.
He didn’t have to be a prince from one of the neighboring kingdoms. In fact, none of them suited her and she grew despondent. It seemed her search for the right prince would never end. In desperation, her parents declared a ball would be held and every eligible man in the kingdom would attend.
Princess Faiza agreed, hoping she would finally discover a man who understood her.
The Lord Mistletoe hurried home to tell his wife and sons the good news. The ball would take place in a week. They would have to hurry to put his boys in a good light. He called the tailor to have new clothing made for them, and the barber to make sure their unruly ugly brown hair would be presentable. One had a great long nose, the other no chin, but it could not be helped. Fine clothing and elegant footwear would hide many faults.
In the kitchen Fella turned the spit and brushed the ashes from his eyes. He knew he should be at the ball as well. His stepfather only had eyes for his sons, and they made sure he was always hidden from his sight. His mother told him they were lucky she had caught the Lord’s eye and he would do as he was told.
Not that he had a choice. No matter how he tried to better himself, his stepbrothers found out. Kicking and punching him until he could barely move, they told him to empty chamber pots and to go back to the kitchen. They forced him into the tasks a drudge should do with less thanks and care than they gave their own valet. He knew he had to get to the ball. It was his only chance to get away from the life he’d been beaten into living.
He took his older brother’s cast off clothes and re-worked them into something he would be proud to wear. The colors suited his eyes and hair, the boots fit his elegant foot like a second skin. His shoulders were snug in the jacket and his shirt pure white linen. He even found a cravat to tie into a knot under his chin. Standing in his tiny room under the roof, the cat threaded her way between his feet purring in approval.
The tiny mirror reflected his blonde hair, which he pulled back into a thick braid held with a black ribbon. His eyes were as blue as the lake he wished he could visit again. He was always left at home with instructions to clean the chimneys and clear the fireplaces when his brothers and his parents went away in the summer heat.
He had a strong square chin and his teeth where white and straight when he allowed himself to smile. His mouth firm with a generous lower lip which he tended to pull when he was thinking. His nose was a shade too long, but it suited his widely spaced eyes. All in all, an honest face. A kind face. The decree included him thus he went out into the hall to join his family.
His stepbrothers had other ideas, and he felt the boot in his back as he stumbled falling forward toward the stairs, his head ringing like a bell when it it the newel post. Through buzzing ears, he heard their words.
"Doesn't he know he's not invited? No way he's going now. Get that damn tie off his neck, make sure he can't get loose."
Fella felt another heavy kick as one of the shoved him with his boot, rolling him over and yanking his hands above his head. Tying his wrists to the slats of the railing they tugged until his hands went numb. They tore at his clothes until he could feel the breeze tickling his bare legs, and then they pulled his boots from his feet.
"If you're in there, this could be you, but it's more fun to torment you."
The older one took his saber and cut his footwear into long strips of leather.
"Remember it could be your skin, but it wouldn't do to go to the princess's ball with blood on our clothes."
He followed the cat. It nudged his leg and would not stop. When he looked up, he was close to his neighbor's house and he wondered what happened. He pushed the door open as the cat leapt past him through the kitchen with the burnt roast sitting on a spit beside the fireplace. The cat returned once again butting its head against the back of his calves, pushing him toward the stairs. Nothing to do but go up and see.
“Don’t trip me cat,” His Lordship Byron Matterhorn hissed.
The jet black cat with glittering golden eyes bumped against the back of his ankles with each step as he climbed.
“Well, what have we here?”
Poor lad. Well, maybe not a lad. This was a young man, a finely made one at that. His hands were purple, where they were bound to the newel post and he knelt to pull the knots out of a fine silk cravat. Ruined now by blood spilt from a swollen nose and a split lip. He was slight for his height, but toughly muscled.
Byron reached into the inner pocket of his cape and pulled out the wand he kept with him no matter where he went. Only the princess and her parents knew he was a wizard, and he had hoped to keep it that way. But this was wrong. What had been going on right under his nose.? Lord Mistletoe and his sons were at it again. Lady Marmalade had married him out of pity and inability to live with herself.
This must be her son. How long has this been happening? The lad should be at the ball. First to heal the damage, his hands had been tied too long. He tapped his wand against the railing and muttered under his breath. The silver handle warmed in his fingers and a dazzling shower of stars cascaded down over Fella.
His face burned and he moaned as he pried his eyes open. His vision wavered, and he shook his head trying to clear the blurry picture. White hot stars showered over his face, and he drew a deep breath, as he tested the knots at his wrists. Pulling them toward his chest he understood he was free and pulled himself up on his hands and knees.
“What is this? Am I not hurt enough? Am I alive? Or is this the blessed relief of death?” Fella struggled understand.
“Easy, son. I’m not quite done with you yet. Let the spell work its magic and heal your hurts.”
He turned his head toward the voice and looked into the twinkling blue eyes of his neighbor.
“T’is I. What happened to you? Never mind. It has come to my attention your mother and stepfather have let his sons get right out of control. You are as much a man of this land as any other, and you shall go to the ball.”
“With what? My clothes are ruined, my boots in shreds, and I have no way to get to the palace. I am but a slave in this house, with no way to present myself. Why did I even try?” Fella said bitterly.
“You shall go, but the spell I have lasts only until the clock strikes midnight. I will turn your cat, who came to me for help, into a fine steed, and your rags into rich fabric. Even your boots will be fine buttery leather once more.”
Lord Byron tapped his wand three times against Fella’s shoulder and another shower of light flowed over him, transforming his attired.
“This is finer than what a prince would wear,” Fella protested.
“It is, but it is magical, except the boots. It will disappear on the last strike of midnight as surely as if it never was,” Lord Matterhorn warned him.
“Now, outside, so I can deal with your cat.”
Fella followed the illustrious lord down the stairs. Lord Mistletoe’s white curls flowed in the breeze as he walked into the courtyard followed by his only friend in the world, his cat.
Fella knelt beside her and whispered, “Black Beauty, my only friend and hunter of mice and rats, do you understand what Lord Byron wants to do?”
The ebony feline butted her head under his chin and purred.
“I had no knowledge of your ability,” Fella said. His gaped, his mouth open in wonder as he watched the spell weave its way around his faithful cat.
Before him, a proud mare of elegant proportions, perfectly balanced with a saddle trimmed in silver and gold.
“Go my son. I know you can ride. I saw you with your dearly departed father often enough. You never forget once you have learned. This would be his wish for you. Make him proud.”
Fella swung into the saddle. Kicking his horse into a canter, he proved the old wizard right as they leapt the closed gate and galloped off toward the palace.
“Well old friend,” Lord Byron spoke into the shimmering sunset, “I’ve done what I can for your son. Now we’ll see if what I have wrought bears fruit.”
Princess Faiza stood at the top of the stairs overlooking the ballroom. Couples whirled through the lovely movements of the waltz the court composer had put together especially for the occasion and she sighed. Not one of the men had asked her to dance.
Dressed in a plain gown of simple white muslin, with her jewelry simple chains of silver, she looked like a dowdy spinster unless you were to study her face. Her unadorned face shone with innocent beauty. Faiza sighed once more and watched as the major domo introduced another young man.
“Lord Fella Chesterfield.”
His voice was somehow louder and carried across the room as the music died. Everyone turned to look. Faiza stared too. He carried himself with grace. His face was proud, his stance at ease, although she sensed he would pounce in an instance if necessary. From her spot beside the stairs, she was close enough to see his face was clean shaven, and his chin square and strong. His eyes blue, like the sky or the lake behind the castle, lit with excitement as he observed the dancers.
She wondered if he would descend to the dance floor immediately, and was pleasantly surprise to find he made an elegant bow flourishing his hat in a sweeping gesture, before he clicked his heels together and turned to go to the tables behind them and select a few sweetmeats and other tidbits to eat.
He came to stand beside her and offered her the plate.
“I’m a stranger here, my name is Fella. You look lonely standing here, and you are by far the loveliest creature in the room. Why are you not dancing?”
“The others do not see beauty. They see poor and plain.”
“Then share these small bits of food with me, and we’ll dance together. No one knows me, and if they cannot see you are much more than what you wear, then I don’t want to meet them either.” Fella popped a sugar plum into his mouth.
“I’d be most delighted to spend time with you, kind sir.” Faiza blushed at the compliments, before she selected a small triangle of sandwich to devour.
Balancing their empty plate on the railing Princess Faiza held out her hand, letting Fella guide her down the stairs. He spoke to her of many things, always asking her opinion. He argued with her when he disagreed, he made her laugh, and the hours flew by. They went to sit at the side of the dance floor, and he pulled his boot off to massage his toes.
“It’s been far too long since I’ve danced at a ball. My feet hurt, I’m breathless, and I still don’t know your name,” Fella said.
“I am Princess Faiza,” she said as the great grandfather clock in the corner began to strike the hour.
“Goodness, is it midnight?” Fella stood one foot clad only in a fine white stocking.
“It is, why?”
“I must go!”
She watched as he ran out the grand archway and into the passage beyond.
“But your boot, Fella.” She tucked it under her arm and dashed after him, out through the passages and into the front gardens. He was gone. Vanished, nothing more than a poor ragamuffin and his cat wandering down the street. His feet bare and his cape torn and worn around his shoulders.
“But mother I found the right man. He disappeared at midnight. All I have is his boot. It must have been made to fit him exactly. There can’t be another man in the kingdom who could wear it, and he’ll have the matching boot for his other foot.”
“You have two months to find him. Otherwise your wedding will take place and you will wed the Prince we have chosen.”
“Papa, you can’t do this to me,” Princess Faiza protested.
“We’ve waited long enough. You will be an old maid if you don’t marry soon. We want grandchildren, and an heir to pass the kingdom to after you.” Her mother’s voice was stern, and she shook her finger with every word.
“I swear I’ll find him. Fella has my heart. I never told him, but I love him.”
Faiza stormed out of the throne room to pack her trunk. She commanded the major domo to ready the carriage. She would leave immediately. Through all the estates, all the neighboring castles and all the towns in the kingdom she would search and find Fella no matter what it took.
“I’m never going to find him!” Princess Faiza stomped her foot.
“We have tried this boot on over two thousand young men. Not one of them fit. He must have been a figment of your imagination.” The major domo in charge of her safety and her search replied with equal frustration.
“I have one more day. Let us go through the village and estates closest to home once more. I know he’s here. To disappear like he did, he must have lived close to the castle.”
“Agreed. We will try at every house. Let us start with this one.” Her protector pointed to the large home built of sandstone and brick. The gate was open to a long driveway.
“Which one is this?”
“Lord Chesterfield’s old estate. His widow is married to one of your father’s advisors. He does well enough, not nobility, like her first husband. A bit crass and forever trying to find opportunities for his sons. Seems to me she had a son from her first marriage. The true heir to the title, although those boys are trying to find a way to take it.”
Faiza sat back to contemplate this new information. They’d been here before, but only the two ugliest men she’d ever encountered had tried on the boot. Where was the third son?
Not only ugly in appearance, but their characters were such that she shuddered when one of the dared to kiss her hand with wet slimy lips. His brother had grasped her knuckles so tightly her fingers had hurt for hours afterward.
“Lady Chesterfield?” Princess Faiza inquired as the door was opened by a young man dressed in threadbare clothing with worn clogs for shoes.
“My mother hasn’t used her title since she married, princess.”
“And you are?”
“Never mind who he is. He’s nothing more than a worthless serf. Not worthy of you at all Your Highness.”
It was on of the brothers, the one who dared to kiss her hand. He turned and punched the serf in the stomach and when he doubled over, he brought his knee up into his chin, knocking him to the floor.
“Get back to cleaning the fireplace, Cinderfella. You’re no good for anything else.”
“Stop this instant,” the princess commanded.
Even Fella gasped at the imperious tone, and pushed himself to his feet, a bruise blooming along the point of his chin.
“Bring the boot. I want this serf to try it on. Now!”
“But princess, you cannot be interested in this ragamuffin! He’s nothing more than a servant, a serf beneath our notice.”
She recognized her father’s advisor. She’d never liked the man with his long nose and haughty manner.
“He’s the one man who has never tried on the boot.” Her heart beat a tattoo as she watched the young man dragged himself to his feet. He was blond and when he turned and met her eyes, his eyes were the same beautiful blue she remembered.
“Come out on the steps Fella,” she coaxed. When he staggered. she put her shoulder under his arm and helped him out the door.
“Major domo, bring the boot.”
Her tone demanded obedience and her faithful companion opened the carriage door, pulling the soft leather boot from under the seat. Walking over to the young man, he brushed the ashes from his legs and drew his wooden shoe from his foot.
“Can you put it on yourself?” the silver haired man inquired.
“Of course, it’s my boot!” Fella pulled it over his elegantly arched foot and sighed as he pulled it on over his finely muscled calf. “If you would allow me, I’ll go get the other boot.”
Princess Faiza smiled brilliantly. She put her hand in his and said, “I’ll come with you. I’ll never let go of you again.”
The next day, the princess was married. Not before she had her father dismiss the arrogant advisor and order him to leave the kingdom. Fella’s mother declined to leave her husband, and her estate and all which belonged to her first husband returned to her son and the rightful Lord Chesterfield.
As she said her vows, she knew they would live happily ever after