My story began on my mother’s grave. Weeping over her headstone, alone, my father too gone in his grief to stand the sight of her graven name, I heard the faintest whisper.
I choked back my sobs, sniffled, and listened. There, again, a whisper, that might be–yes, it was! It was my name, Bella, soft and familiar–my mother’s voice. I rubbed my eyes, and smiled tearfully. She was still with me, and I found some happiness in that.
That happiness was tried a bare four months later, when my father remarried a younger woman with two girls of her own. At the tender age of seven, he said I needed a mother, though I thought a nanny would have done better.
My new stepsisters were twins, six years old, and hated me on sight, and they hid it cleverly from Father. In front of him, smiles and offers to play, but behind his back they pinched and stole. They had a skill for weeping, and I soon learned it was pointless to complain of their abuses. My only consolation was the whispers I heard, visiting my mother’s grave.
Then my father sickened, and died weeks past their first anniversary. For a time, I was lost in a haze of grief. I couldn’t even visit his grave, because he’d not been put in the family plot, but a farther away cemetery my stepmother deemed proper.
Things changed, but I hardly cared. Toys and fine dresses hadn’t kept my parents with me. Losing my bedroom, which held so many happy memories, hurt. But the cot I sewed of scraps softened the stone floor, and the fireplace was warm.
I muddled along until I was thirteen, when my stepmother went on a trip, and returned furious.
Having learned the value of information, I crept up to listen. “He gave me an allowance, for life. A pittance! It’s all left to her, on her twentieth birthday. That useless girl. How dare he!”
She treated me no differently, though her eyes were even colder. The years trudged by in misery, and as I reached sixteen years, she finally grew crueler. Inventive, spurring her daughters to new heights as well. As a horrifying example, she had the tree I’d tended on my mother’s grave cut down, and tossed the green branches, with their leaves still on, into the fire in front of me. That backfired, as the room filled with smoke, and I had the small comfort of watching her flee the room, coughing.
Eavesdropping one night, I heard her complain that I showed no signs of running away. She meant to drive me out, and steal my inheritance, I realized. Well, she would not take any more from me. With my mother’s ghostly support, I would endure.
Foolish of me.
One evening, I ate the scraps for my dinner and went to sleep. The next thing I knew, I woke to smothering darkness, my stomach churning. I thrashed and flailed, and a crack of light appeared. Though weak, I doubled my efforts, and crawled out of the hole I was in. No, a grave, I realized, and I vomited beside the upturned dirt. Luckily, a shallow one, or I might not be here.
I crawled to the river I could hear nearby, and cleaned myself as best I could. Then I waited for the first light of dawn, and crept homeward. Not to the house, but the graveyard. It was set back, and secluded, screened by trees. I could pray, and be safe for a while.
As soon as I stepped past the low stone wall, I felt something. Cool, creeping energy, which filled me up with a sense of well-being. I pressed on, and knelt on my mother’s grave. A wisp of smoke drifted up from the grave, shimmering and solidifying into a familiar, beloved face.
“Oh, my daughter! She has killed you!”
“I’m not dead,” I protested, pressing my hands to my thumping heart.
“Your power brought you back. I never wished this for you, my darling. But now that it is done, you must master this power.”
“What do you mean?”
“You have power over the dead. You are a necromancer.”
She had much to teach me, and I was eager to learn. I filched fruit from the orchards, more filling a meal than I’d had in years, and hung on her every word.
Very early the next morning, I crept to the house to listen. To my surprise, I heard crying.
“Oh, shut up. I procured the poison, the least you two useless girls could do was dispose of the mess.”
“It was so gross,” Eudora wailed. “Cold and stiff, and… smelly.”
The familiar crack of a slap. “Never speak of it again. Your sister has run off, and we will search for her. She has always been rebellious and ungrateful, so we must hope we find her before she comes to a bad end.”
Not much worse an end possible than a shallow grave at the hands of my beloved family, I thought. So she planned to claim I’d run away, did she? Well, I’d ruin that plan. I had the tools at my disposal–and the ball was tomorrow, the perfect opportunity.
I took my mother’s lessons into the woods, and hunted for newly dead things. I found several birds, which I filled with my power. I was pleased to note that they looked just like life, restored perfectly. I found a dog, too, and raised it, along with more birds, a fox, and owl, and various mice, each animal under my command making me feel stronger. A rare few resisted my power, and I let them sleep, but most leapt eagerly back to life.
Near the house, I gathered an abundance of rats poisoned by my stepmother. With a smile, I set them to spoiling food supplies that wouldn’t be noticed immediately and chewing holes hid in the full skirts of their nicest dresses.
My tiny spies hid everywhere, watching my killers from mouse holes, trees branches, and the sky. They pilfered money, enough for a gown, which I took care to purchase far from my stepmother’s usual haunts. And they took my stepmother’s favorite necklace, burying it in the tangle of disused and broken fripperies at the bottom of Philippa’s jewelry box. A bracelet stolen from Eudora soon joined it.
On the night of the ball, stepmother noticed the missing necklace, and turned over the house, finding it in Philippa’s room. Her squeaks of innocence fell on deaf ears, especially when Eudora found the missing bracelet–and a pair of ear bobs I hadn’t pilfered.
Despite the argument that followed, they made it to the ball on time. I chose my arrival time carefully–not too early or too late, my furred and feathered spies monitoring the Prince for the first hint of boredom.