By Anna May
It was looking like a very, bad morning for Mabel. She’d been scrubbing pots in the kitchen when a maid had called her into the throne room, where she stood, wringing her still soapy hands.
“Perina,” the king addressed her. “Testimony has been given, that you boasted you would go from here and take back the Witch’s treasure.”
“No, no, Sire, I didn’t!” She cried, shaking her head. “I made no such boast.”
“You did! I have the word of my most trusted palace serving maids, and a guard. You must not break your word. You, girl, have boasted, and you will make good on that boast!” Mabel wanted to scream with the injustice of it, but dared not argue with her king, not on the matter of her innocence or the matter of her name.
“You will depart at once, and may not return unless you come bearing the treasure stolen from my father’s father by the Witch.” The king slammed his scepter into the ground, and Mabel flinched.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” she whispered, all the while silently cursing those who must have lied, for some petty jealousies. She left the polished and gleaming room, fighting the urge to cry.
“Perina,” one of the maids had followed her. “You have none to blame but yourself, really. Sneaking ‘round with His Highness the Prince, putting on airs, like you was better than us because you was raised here. You was asking for trouble, with all your woe-is-me, ‘I had to grow up in a palace, never going hungry, ‘cause my parents didn’t love-.’”
“My name,” Mabel said, interrupting, heat rising to her cheeks. “Is Mabel. Why did you lie to the king? We weren’t hurting anything, pretending we had a chance! I don’t think I’m better than you for having lived here so long, don’t you think I wish I-! Just leave me alone, Ninetta.” She turned on her heel and ran down the hall. A few minutes later, she had her small pack on her back, and made her way to the palace gate.
Prince Pietro stood in the shadows. “Mabel!” he said, catching her up in his arms. “I’m sorry, this is my fault. I tried to talk to Papa, get him to see sense, but...” He shook his head, dark curls bouncing.
“It’s...It’s alright. I’ll be alright. I’ll find my family, I think I can remember where we lived.”
Pietro’s eyes were shadowed, his face drawn. “Yes. Do that.”
“What is it? What are you not telling me?” Mabel drew away, looking up into his black eyes.
“I... Mabel, I’ve been cursed. The Witch. Papa’s been going mad, trying to break it, but all the physicians say the only way to break her spell’s to get back the treasure - something about it being her power over the royal family and my life. If we could get it back, well, but otherwise it’s looking bleak. Papa’s sent men, but they don’t come back, and more than those refuse to go; under law, you know, they can refuse to go after a witch or ogre. So...” His shoulders slumped. “I’ve spoken to my fairy godmother, and she says you have a chance. So Papa...”
Mabel paused, drinking it all in. “Of course I’ll go,” she said, reaching a hand up to his cheek. “For you, I’ll go, and return as swiftly as I can.”
He held her close. “Luck to you, my Mabel, and be careful.”
The girl pulled away. “Yes. I love you, Pietro.”
She set off on her way, out of the city and into the country on a long, dusty road. She had nothing to do but walk, and think. She hardly remembered her life before the palace, but Ninetta’s cruel words had gotten under her skin. They hadn’t been true. Her parents had loved her, but they’d been poor folk. Mabel remembered hungry nights, fireless nights. They’d paid their tribute to the king in pears from their trees, and as a toddler, Mabel had helped her elder sister and Mama and Papa fill the four large baskets owed. Then had come the drought. Mabel frowned, thinking on that. Mama had died, and some of the trees had withered, so when it came time to fill the baskets, Papa’d told her to get in, kissed her forehead, promised she’d have a better life, and covered her with pear leaves.
A kitchen hand had found her, a cook called Maria, and she’d called her Perina, which meant ‘pearlet’, despite her protests that Mama had named her Mabel. No one had called her anything but Perina or ‘girl’ in the years that had followed, except for Pietro. In spare moments when he could escape his tutors and she her duties as kitchen maid, they played games and told stories, and he had alway called her Mabel.
The sun was low when she reached a large pear tree, which smelt of her mama and safety. She climbed it and fell asleep in its branches, as though in the arms of someone who loved her.
Mabel woke early, and left the comforting branches of the pear tree. At its foot, she was startled to see an old woman, reaching for a pear. Mabel plucked one, and handed it to the woman, who smiled, and said, “Thank you, child. You are the pear girl, then, called Perina?”
“My name’s Mabel, but yes, I am. Can I help you?”
The old woman stood up taller, and suddenly turned into the most beautiful woman Mabel had ever seen.
“My godson, Pietro, bid me come to you and offer aid. You will brave the Witch’s castle and retrieve the treasure chest, to break his curse?”
“I will.” Mabel’s hands shook a little, but she kept her voice steady.
“Then three things I say to you. When you come to the river of blood, you must say, “ Fine water so red, I must make haste, else of thee I would taste.’ Secondly, take three of these pears, this sausage and this pound of grease. You will know what to do with them when the time comes. Thirdly, take courage, and remember why you do this thing. The Witch is strong, and I cannot interfere with her magics. You must be stronger than she.”
In a burst of light, she was gone, so Mabel shrugged, put the gifts carefully in her pack, and set off again.
After some time, she came to a blood-red river. Her voice shook as she said, “Fine water so red, I must make haste, else of thee I would taste.” And to her amazement, the river parted for her. She scurried along the smooth, suddenly dry riverbed and up the bank as quickly as she could.
After a only a few turns in the road, she came to clay ovens and saw women laboring.
“Is this the way to the Witch’s castle?” She asked.
“Yes, but none who pass here return, be it for the Witch or be it that they take the other road and flee to the north. You should turn back, girl, and return home.” One of the women called to her.
“I cannot, I must go on,” and she made to do so when a girl said, “Wait! Would you have any pears? Our mistress has asked for pear turnovers, and we have none, and what a beating we’ll get if she don’t get them.”
Mabel un-shouldered her pack and pulled the pears from it, handing them to the women. “Here,” she said, before turning to go on her way.
A little farther on, Mabel saw it, a castle, black as a rotten tooth and crooked besides, behind a tall iron wall, with a tall gate slamming rapidly. She knelt, and with deft fingers, worked the grease the fairy had given her into the hinges, so high she had to stand on tiptoes. The gate began to close smoothly, slower, and she eased it open, trudging along the narrow path up to the castle door. Moments later, she saw a large red dog coming at her with fangs and slavering jaws. Quick as a hare, she threw him the sausage in her pack. In a blink, he ate it, and bounded away.
At long last, she stood at the threshold of the Witch’s castle, and as she put her hand on the doorknob, she felt pure terror course through her. I have to get out of here, those women were right! I have to go, I can’t do this! Her thoughts raced with panic. She wanted to run, until she was safe in the arm-branches of the pear tree. But Mabel paused, and let out a slow, shaking breath. It was some kind of dark magic, she knew it must be. “Take courage,” she said, soft as a sigh. Mabel opened the door, and stepped softly down the hallway, letting luck guide her until she saw it, as beautiful as a fairy story, dark wood inlaid with silver and gold and mother-of-pearl. This was the treasure box Pietro had told her off in their stolen moments, the treasure the Witch had stolen. Mabel gathered it up in her arms, and again fear struck her like an arrow. She felt rooted to the stone floor, a terrible ache in her breast - oh, how she wanted to sit and rock and weep, the Witch would be coming but she could not run.
Footsteps sounded farther down that dark hallway. Mabel closed her eyes, picturing Pietro. “Take courage,” but the fear-spell held her tight. “No! It will not end this way. For Pietro, you must run! You must be stronger, Pear girl, stronger than the spell, stronger than the Witch. You do this for love, and that is more than fear.”
She broke into a run.
Out the door she ran, feet pounding, heart pounding.
“Dog, eat her!” cried the Witch, seeing the girl fleeing the castle. But as Mabel waited to feel teeth in her flesh, she heard instead a voice, saying, “No, I won’t, for she gave me meat.”
Mabel ran on.
“Gate, crush her!” Cried the Witch, coming down the path. Mabel flinched, expecting bones to break, but the gate only cried out, “No, I won’t, for she greased my hinges.”
Mabel ran on.
“Ovens, burn her, women, grab her!” cried the Witch, still on the girl’s heels.
“No, we won’t,” said the women stoutly, “For she gave us pears for our baking.”
Mabel ran on, and the river of blood remembered her.
“River, drown her!” cried the Witch.
“No!” sang the river, “I won’t, for she called me ‘fine water so red.’”
Mabel reached the other side as the Witch,who’d heard gossip of the girl, shouted, “Little Pearlet, Perina, I curse you by your name! Return to me, Perina, I command!”
But Mabel only stood, breathing hard, unable to run any longer for the pain in her sides. The Witch screamed, and ordered, “River, part!” as she moved forward, and rather than part, it swept her away, down the river, until she was gone.
“My name,” the girl gasped, lungs heaving, “isn’t Perina.”
She limped along, until she reached the pear tree, and again fell asleep in its mother’s arm branches, not touched by fear any longer.
She rose early, and walked the long road to the King’s City and the Palace, where a guard stopped her.
“Might you be Mabel?” He asked, squinting. “I’ve a letter for a girl I’m told will come by this gate, by that name.”
“I am,” she said, taking the letter and reading it quickly.
Mi cara, thank you for what you have done, a thousand times my thanks.
Papa will offer you a reward, but you and I both know he’s not like to grant anything large or valuable, not even for such a service as you have done. Fear not, my love. Ask for the box of coal in the cellar, and all in it. That he will not refuse you. I love you.
Mabel folded the letter, and entered the palace, making sure that there was enough notice for Pietro’s plan to fit together before she entered the throne room. Word had spread quickly, and the room was packed with ladies and lords in silk, and Ninetta, her face blotchy with rage, stood in the hall doorway. Mabel smiled cheekily at her, then turned to the king and curtsied, holding the treasure box under one arm, and then brought it forth with a flourish.
“I have made good on the boast, Sire. I give you the treasure stolen from King Stefano by the Witch, who is no more.”
The king took the box, looking impressed and grateful before he hid the expression. “Yes. Your banishment is revoked, and I will grant you one request.”
Mabel hesitated, then said, “Sire, I would like the coal box in the cellar, and all it contains.”
The king waved a hand. “Granted,” he said airily, and footmen bore the box into the room, where Mabel threw off the lid, grinning broadly.
Pietro leaped out, embracing Mabel with all his might, and she flung her arms around him and held him as though no one in the world was watching. At last, he turned to his father, still holding Mabel’s hand.
“Papa, you must not break your word. She has fair claim on my hand, and I will wed her, for she saved my life at risk of her own.” She squeezed his hand, and he squeezed back. “Papa, may I introduce you to my pearlet, my champion, and my bride?
There was shock on the king’s face, and murmurs in the court. The future Princess curtsied again to her king.
“Sire, my name is Mabel.”
The king put his head in his hands and laughed for the shock of it all, then stood and proclaimed the wedding would be held right away, while Pietro held Mabel, his dark eyes bright with joy as he ran his fingers through her curly brown hair and found a pear leaf, and they laughed and lived happily ever after.