Authors: A. W. Exley
Tags: #Cinderella retelling
ELLA, THE SLAYER
By A. W. Exley
The flu pandemic of 1918 took millions of souls within a few short weeks.
Except it wasn't flu and death gave them back.
Seventeen-year-old Ella copes the best she can; caring for her war-injured father, scrubbing the floors, and slaying the undead that attack the locals.
they're called, like rats they spread pestilence with their bite. Ella's world collides with another when she nearly decapitates a handsome stranger, who is very much alive.
Seth deMage, the new Duke of Leithfield, has returned to his ancestral home with a mission from the War Office — to control the plague of vermin in rural Somerset. He needs help; he just didn't expect to find it in a katana-wielding scullery maid.
Working alongside Seth blurs the line between their positions, and Ella glimpses a future she never dreamed was possible. But in overstepping society's boundaries, Ella could lose everything – home, head and her heart…
ELLA, THE SLAYER – copyright © 2015 A. W. Exley
All Rights Reserved
No part of this book may be used reproduced without the written permission of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons (living or dead) is entirely coincidental.
Cover art by Amalia Chitulescu
Editing by Suzanne @ The Word Vagabond
Be the first to hear about new releases
, occasional specials and giveways. My newsletter comes out approximately 4 times a year. Follow the link to sign up
This novel uses British English
Somerset, England. Summer, 1919.
To escape from reality, I dream of a time when there was only one type of death.
Mother died when I was young. We buried her in the ground, and the maids packed away her clothing. Father and I cried and mourned the empty space in both our souls and at our table. Back then death only had one meaning: your life snuffed out, never to rekindle.
Then came the Great War, and we learned of a new type of death. The
, we call them. Men who returned with shattered minds, unable to grasp the horrors they saw or the deprivations they had suffered. Their chests rise and fall, but they have blank eyes — the window to their souls have shattered, leaving thousands of fragmented reflections that cannot be pieced together again. They continue to follow the routine of their pre-war lives, but there is no spark within them. Like Henry, my childhood friend and co-conspirator in my escapades. Once he dreamed of being footman in a grand house. I still remember his excitement when he hit five foot seven, the minimum height for work upstairs. He always had a quick joke or smile for me. Now he rarely speaks and never laughs. At night I hear him cry out in his room above the stables. Sometimes he screams; that sound is worse than the silence.
Other walking dead from the Great War — or in his case, not walking — are like father. A shell exploded close to him. Doctors removed the shrapnel in his head, but they say it’s left him with an irrecoverable brain injury. He sits in his chair by the window and drools out one side of his mouth. The doctors said he would have been better off dead; and in my heart, I wish he had joined mother. We tend to his needs and each night I narrate the events of the day. Every time I climb into bed, my last wish before sleep claims me is that father might either return to us or find peace.
Although, father’s condition suspended between life and death is convenient for step-mother. With our modest estate entailed, as long as father lives she remains in control. The war created problems for families the length and breadth of England, as lawyers scour genealogies for a living male heir. So many men died or simply disappeared. Titles were in need of a man to settle upon, and stories cropped up of humble privates returned home to find a peerage thrust upon them.
Then, as the war concluded and the nation planned armistice celebrations, came the most devastating attack. The flu pandemic of 1918 struck with the influx of returning soldiers. In just a few short weeks from September to December, millions of people died. We all pulled together to nurse the sick and bury the fallen.
Except it wasn't the flu.
And they didn't stay dead.
The table bounced under my cheek and jarred me back to full awareness.
"She's at it again," Alice, the upstairs maid, said. A full coal scuttle rested on the table, the heavy item that had awoken me. She rolled her amber eyes and wiped her hands on the white apron around her neck. Her white mop cap kept her dark curls under control, and a frown marred her pale brow.
"What is it this time?" I asked, wiping strands of blonde hair off my face. My cap pitched to an angle and I righted it, shoving stray hair back underneath. The
in question was step-mother, no doubt: Elizabeth, Lady Jeffrey and wife of Sir Jeffrey. My step-sisters, Louise and Charlotte, were referred to collectively as
. And I had to stop referring to them as my step-relations; the lady of the house would flog the skin from my hide if she caught that familiarity passing my lips. She may have been married to my father, but she was quick to point out my status as the daughter of a servant.
Alice poured herself a glass of water and took a quick drink. Only eight in the morning and we had both been working for over two hours now. We had cleaned the house from top to bottom and laid fires that should sit unused in the middle of summer. The lady thought it kept us in work to use them throughout the year. Thank goodness father's home was modest in size with only eight fireplaces. Imagine if we possessed a grander home with thirty or more!
Alice put her hands on her hips. "The coal is dirty and apparently it's throwing dust on her clothes. She wants us to wipe it off."
I sighed. At just seventeen, I had found myself responsible for holding the estate together. England lost the flower of her youth on the battle fields of Europe when so many men had failed to return. Their jobs were either left vacant, or women stepped in. We're fortunate in that the small house and plot of land need only a skeleton staff to operate. But that is what we're becoming – skeletons. The life and flesh plucked from our limbs by her constant irrational demands. We needed to maintain the perimeter defences, to ensure the vermin don't disturb our sleep, and she wanted the coal polished.
"I'll deal with it." I stood from the table and brushed my hands down my apron. "Let's just dump the coal in the old bath by the stables and sluice it through the water. Then pick it out and let it dry in the sun."
Alice beamed. "You are so clever. Not like
I picked up the heavy bucket. "Come on, may as well get started before she wakes up and screams for something else. I still need to find time to ride the perimeter."
I was born within these walls and sat by my mother's bedside, holding her hand until the last breath sighed from her body. Father loved me as his daughter and raised me as well as any son. Fencing and shooting were part of my daily lessons, and I thanked him for it; post-pandemic they became valuable survival skills.
Father never hid me away as the shameful product of his scandalous marriage to the housekeeper. There was an advantage to a rural life; farmers are more pragmatic. An extra set of hands makes the daily tasks easier, no matter where those hands originated. Christmas 1913, just a year after she had passed, father returned from a business trip to London with a new bride and two new daughters. I understood; he was lonely and foolishly thought a new step-mother would welcome me. But the city-bred woman he brought to our corner of the countryside wasted no time in demoting me to the kitchens, where I belonged. Her daughters looked down their elegant noses at me, scoffing at my plain clothes and dirty hands. They stayed inside and played the piano, while I dug potatoes and drove the tractor.
With the brewing trouble in Europe, father didn't notice that I hardly appeared in the parlour anymore, except to serve tea. Then, in August 1914, war broke out. I was just thirteen when he left us. He was first amongst those to sign up — he said he would lead the village lads, that they needed a father figure to watch out for them. He said we would be safe in our corner of rural England.
He was wrong.
Five years later, his body returned, but not his mind.
I pushed aside such maudlin thoughts and concentrated on the task at hand. It didn't take long for us to wash the coal and lay it out in the sun to dry.
Henry appeared in the barn doorway and walked across the cobbles, leading my mare. He rarely spoke, but his sorrowful eyes saw everything. He went about his tasks quietly, always knew what I was about to do and had whatever I needed at hand. I wished we could reach him, but he remained locked deep inside his exterior shell. What I would give to see him smile, or to hear father's voice again.
I took the reins and laid one hand on his arm. "Thank you, Henry."
Alice and I had determined he needed touch to remind him he stood amongst the living in Somerset, and not on some desolate killing field surrounded by the bodies on his fellow soldiers. So few had made it home. Only nine villages in all of Somerset were untouched, 'the lucky nine' they called themselves. We were not among them and we treasured those who returned to us, however damaged they seemed.
The men who returned from war faced a new battle in the grounds of their homes from the shambling dead created by the flu pandemic. Except it wasn't influenza. Doctors and scientists still can't agree what it was or where it came from. Some called it
, but it didn’t originate there. The War Office suppressed word of the initial outbreak so as not to dampen morale – arrogant fools. We were so ignorant when it hit, and completely unprepared. Returning soldiers brought the sickness home with them. Millions died in a matter of weeks. We mourned like so many villages and buried our dead — except they came back.
It took weeks to realise the new danger. Grieving people embraced the returned souls. We were horrified to think that the living had been confined to the earth still breathing. We thought they did not speak because of the horrors they had suffered. Imagine being buried alive, the dead and earth pressing on you. Except they came back for a reason: us.
Those attacked were infected. Over a period of days these poor souls sickened and died, only to turn and suffer the same horrible fate. Even now there were those who couldn’t believe we needed to exterminate the flu victims. They hid them in their homes, certain that with time they would be cured. Until they too were bitten and became the same mindless, violent shells. It was a horrible cycle that needed to be broken.
We call them
, it helps to forget what they once were. You cannot think of it as Mrs Bridge from down the lane who always had a smile and a ginger cookie. Or young Amy that I used to play with. No, that made it too painful. Vermin spread disease, like the rats who carried Black Death into every village. I knew technically it was the fleas on the rats, but the analogy suited my mind. The virus burned around the globe in a matter of weeks and destroyed itself, thank God. But it left behind the vermin who continue to transmit the disease through their bite, until we figured out how to stop them.