Ternes

2

Deep in the woods, in a castle surrounded by a hedge of briars, a beautiful princess lies sleeping.

The woods are her first defense.

I am her last.

Once upon a time, there was a King who loved his Queen dearly, and she him, and yet they were not happy.  They ruled wisely and well, their kingdom was rich and prosperous, and they were beloved by their people.  But despite all these joys, they were not content, for they had no child to love, and no prince to succeed them, and a kingdom with no heir is perilous indeed…

Once upon a time, there was a prince, an oldest son, handsome of face but cruel of heart, who thought himself in love with the princess in the wood.

But when he came to the hedge of briars, it would not open to his command, and so he took his sword and began to hack his way through the green leaves and the thorny stems and even the soft, pink buds of the flowers, until the sap ran dark as blood and the air was full of the scent of dying roses.

He paid no heed to the screams of the briars, and so he did not notice when they turned to cries of rage.  He did not notice when they began to grow, magically wild and fast, closing up the path behind him and cutting him off from his companions.

He did not notice me, either, not when I told him to turn back, nor when I warned him of the briars.

And so there was nobody to notice when the briars caught his sword and wrested it away from him. Nobody to notice when they wrapped him in their thorny embrace and held him tightly and then more tightly still.  Nobody to heed him when he began to scream.

And soon – a short time indeed when compared to a sleep that lasts for a hundred years, though it felt like an eternity to the prince – he stopped noticing anything at all.
Once upon a time, there was a Queen who loved her husband, and he her, and yet she grieved, for her arms were hungry for a child, but her womb remained empty.  Every month, her hopes would grow with the waxing moon, only to wither as the moon waned until sorrow flowed from her like blood.

Months went past like this, and then years, until seven full years had passed, and the Queen could bear it no longer.

“If I cannot have a child, I might as well die,” she told the King, and the King looked at her face, and thought that she probably meant it.

So he held her close, and dried her tears for that night, and the next morning he took his Queen by the hand and they went to see the Fairy Godmothers.

The King had not wished to do this.  The Fairy Godmothers are powerful, certainly, but their power is entirely beyond a King’s control, and thus unsettling to his equilibrium.  And they do not see the world quite as we do, nor are they always kind in the way that we think of kindness.  Going to the Godmothers was thus a perilous choice indeed.

But the Queen could not live without a child, and the King could not live without the Queen, and so the choice was made, and they went together to kneel before the Fairy Godmothers, and ask for their help.

The Godmothers looked the Queen up and down, from her golden hair to her blue velvet slippers, and then they looked the King, up and down, from his golden crown to his red leather boots, and at last they looked at each other.  Nothing was said aloud, but the silence seemed full.  At last the eldest Fairy Godmother, whose name was Dame Carabosse, spoke.

“You will never bear a son,” she told the Queen.

The Queen began to weep, and the King, who in that moment was more husband than ruler, put his arms around her so that she could hide her face in his chest.

“You will never have a prince to sit on your throne, to rule your kingdom and to protect your people,” the Fairy Godmother continued, inexorably, and the King, who had never hated anyone in his life, hated her in that moment.

“But, if you will truly love her and cherish her as your life itself, we can give you a daughter.”

This was not the answer that the King had hoped for, but it was a better one than he had feared.  He looked at his wife, who nodded, and then he bowed his head before the Godmothers.

“Give us a daughter, then,” he said, “And we will love her as well as any son was ever loved, and raise her to sit on our throne and rule our people when we are gone, with wisdom and with kindness.”

And the Godmother extended her wand to touch the Queen over her heart and over her womb, and the Queen felt something change inside her, and her heart was filled with joy.

But the King, who had longed for a child nearly as much as his wife had done, was now seized with a fear far greater than any he had previously felt, for now he had something to hope for, and that meant that he also had something to dread.  A child is such a small, fragile vessel, after all, in which to carry one’s whole heart.  And so he petitioned the Godmothers once more.

“Oh, Godmothers,” he said, “My wife and I are not young, and we will not live forever.  Who will protect our daughter when we are gone?”

And he laid his hand over his wife’s, where it rested above her womb, for even though the seed was not yet planted, the King and the Queen loved their daughter already as though she were a babe fully formed.

The eldest Godmother extended her wand again, this time reversed, and touched their joined hands.

“Why, who else but her sister?  Two babes will grow in the Queen’s womb, as close as a tree and its shadow, or a candle and its flame.  The one will wake when the other sleeps, and as long as she lives, she will protect her sister from harm.”

“Then I must fear for two daughters, and not one, since I shall love them both,” said the Queen.

The Godmother nodded.  “And so you shall, for that is the price of our help.”

And she flicked her wand one final time, and the King and the Queen found themselves back in their chambers in the palace.

Once upon a time, a prince came to a forest where there was a castle surrounded by briars.  As he rode his horse along the forest path, he met a young woman – a very ordinary young woman, in a plain grey gown.

He was not an unkind man, this prince, though he was often a thoughtless one.  He gave the woman bread, and I gave him very good advice, but as soon as he rode on, he forgot both me and my words.

And so he wandered the forest for a week and a day, never getting closer to his goal, but only getting hungrier and thirstier, and colder and more tired, until at last he turned his horse around and rode for home.
Once upon a time there was a Queen who bore twin daughters, as close as a stem and its flower, or the sea and its shore.  The sisters clung to one another in the womb, and clasped each other’s hands even as they entered the world, which caused no small pain to their mother.

The eldest of the two was the most beautiful infant that you have ever seen, with hair like ripe wheat, and skin as pink and white as rose petals, and eyes as blue as the summer sky.  Her parents named her Aurora, for she was as beautiful as the dawn.

The younger twin had hair as brown and fuzzy as the inside of a chestnut shell, and skin as dun as a sparrow’s breast, and eyes as dark as the water at the bottom of a well.  She was not an ugly baby, by any means, but compared to her sister she was decidedly ordinary.  It was nearly a week before her parents were able to decide on a name for her, and they finally settled on Umbra, because she seemed only to truly awaken at night, when Aurora was sleeping, and she seemed destined to be her sister’s shadow.

The christening was a glamorous affair, with all the lords and ladies of the Kingdom invited, and all the Fairy Godmothers, too.  The maids cleaned the palace from top to bottom, the palace scribes wrote four thousand invitations, the butler polished the gold plates and goblets until they shone, the cooks made every delicacy imaginable (and some that had never been imagined), and the footmen were sent out to convey the honoured guests to the feast.

It would probably have been better if they had just invited close family.

The trouble with an event this large, with so many people involved in its organisation, is that things fall through the cracks.  The blue bathroom in the west wing does not get cleaned.  There is a fingerprint on the King’s plate.  The pastry chef forgets to make a gluten-free dessert option.  And a scribe misses a name on the invitation list.

Fairy Godmothers understand, of course, that everyone makes mistakes.  But they are not accustomed to mistakes being made about them.

The day of the christening arrived, and the King and the Queen stood at the head of the stairs, waiting to receive their guests.  One by one the guests arrived, and then two by two, and then in a great rush, and last of all came the Fairy Godmothers.

All seven of them.

The Queen, who was trying rather unsuccessfully to detach Aurora’s grip on her left ear ring, leaned towards the King.  “Aren’t there supposed to be eight Godmothers?” she asked, quietly.

The King continued to rock a sleeping Umbra.  His gaze was worried.  “Dame Carabosse isn’t here,” he replied.  “I hope she is not unwell.”

But there was no time for further talk, because the other seven Godmothers had reached the head of the stairs, and were ready to be greeted and thanked and escorted to their seats at the high table.

You know what happened next, of course.  Everyone has heard the stories.  The feast began, and after the toasts, the Fairy Godmothers stepped forward to give their gifts.

“Aurora shall have a temper as sweet as an angel,” said the first, “And Umbra will never let herself be bullied or taken advantage of.”

“Aurora shall have wonderful grace in all she does,” said the second, “And Umbra will be strong in body and dexterous in her movements.”

“Aurora shall sing like a nightingale,” said the third, “And Umbra will speak the language of the birds and understand their song.”

“Aurora shall have the kindest heart of any princess who ever lived,” said the fourth, “And Umbra will have the most discerning.”

“Aurora shall dance like a flower in the wind,” said the fifth, “And Umbra will fight as fiercely as a lion.”

“Aurora will be the most beautiful woman in the world,” said the sixth, “And Umbra will never be noticed unless she chooses to be.”

But scarcely had the sixth Fairy Godmother stepped back from the cradle, when a loud crack of thunder was heard, and a great black cloud appeared over the infants’ cradles.  The cloud quickly resolved itself into a figure – the figure of Dame Carabosse herself.

The King and Queen rushed forward and fell to their knees before the eldest Fairy Godmother, their mouths full of apologies and explanations, but the Godmother held up her hand, and they found themselves unable to speak a word.

She bent over the cradles, and touched one, then the other, with her wand.

Slowly, she stood, and looked down at the King and Queen.

“The gratitude of Kings is brief indeed,” she said.  “And brief, too will be the time of your joy.

“I gave you children, and you did not even invite me to their christening.  So be it.  I told you that my price was fear, and so now your fears will be realised.

“Aurora will indeed grow more beautiful with every day that passes.  She will be sweet tempered, and graceful, and kind, and gifted in every way, and Umbra will grow beside her, her shadow and friend.  No two princesses will ever be loved as you will love your daughters.  But you will have them for only seventeen years, for on the day of her seventeenth birthday, Aurora will prick her finger on a spindle, and she shall die, and her sister will wither away after her.”

And before the King and Queen could blink, Dame Carabosse was gone.

You can imagine the cries of the court, the tears of the Queen, the shouts of the knights who wanted to go in pursuit of the Fairy Godmother, the despair of the ladies in waiting, all of this made louder and more desperate by the cries of the two infants, who had awoken in the fuss and were expressing their deep displeasure with the occasion.

But just as the commotion reached its height, the seventh Fairy Godmother stepped forward.  She was the youngest of all the Godmothers, and the most junior, but like her sisters, she had presence and dignity enough to bring the room to stillness with a look.

And into the stillness she spoke to the Queen.

“Your majesty, I cannot entirely break my eldest sister’s curse,” she said, “But I believe I can mitigate it, at least a little.  Will you let me try?”

The Queen nodded, and the Fairy Godmother went to stand over the cradles.  She looked down at the infants for a long moment, and Umbra stared up at her with big, serious eyes, even as Aurora blinked sleepily at her and gave a great yawn.  The Godmother smiled.

“Not death, but sleep,” she said.  “Aurora will prick her finger on a spindle on her sixteenth birthday – I can do nothing to stop that – but she will not die.  Instead, she will fall into a deep sleep which will last a hundred years.  At the end of that time, she will be awakened with a true-love kiss, and the one who kisses her will rule half your kingdom.”

“And what of her sister?” asked the King.

The seventh fairy looked momentarily surprised, for already the sixth fairy’s gift was working, and I chose not to be noticed.  And then she smiled.  “Umbra will not wither away, nor will she sleep, but she will guard her sister’s rest, growing in knowledge and power all the while.”

And in an instant, the Fairy Godmothers disappeared, leaving the court in uproar.
Once upon a time, there was a prince, a second son, handsome and charming and wealthy and beloved by his family and his people.  But beloved though he was, he was still the second son, and so his father sent him out into the world to seek his fortune.

As he adventured through the world, the prince found many things that he thought both lovely and good, and nothing was refused him, for good looks and sweet words will purchase a man many things, and coin the rest, and so he was considered to be a fine young man, cheerful and good natured.

One day as he adventured, he came to a great forest, with a castle at its heart.  This seemed strange to him, for most castles have a village or farms nearby, and not simply acres of forest, and so he decided to venture into the forest to find out what was there.  As he walked through the forest, he was met by a woman like a sparrow, with brown hair and brown eyes and a brown dress.  He gave her bread, and she told him a story of a castle and a sleeping princess, who waited only to be awakened by a kiss, and how the man who woke her would rule the kingdom.

This was an adventure very much to the prince’s taste, and so he listened carefully to the young woman, and followed her instructions.  He laid a trail of crumbs through the forest to mark his way, and when he reached the briars, he kissed the nearest rose, and they parted for him.  He ran through the path that had opened before him, and knocked three times on the palace gate, until that opened for him as well.

He climbed the stairs to the topmost tower, and entered the princess’s chambers without knocking. He kissed her once, and kissed her twice, but she did not awaken.  The prince frowned.  This was not how he had seen this encounter going.  He kissed the princess a third time, and then climbed upon the bed and began to push up her skirts.

“What are you doing?” I cried.

The prince looked at me in some astonishment, for he had forgotten I was there, forgotten the sparrow-woman from the woods, forgotten anything but my sister.

But he smiled at me anyway.  “I am waking the princess, as I promised,” he told me.

“That is no kiss!” I said.

His smile became a little strained.  “I don’t think a kiss is going to be enough,” he said.  “It’s alright.  I’ll stop if she asks me to.”

“She’s asleep!” I shouted.

“Yes,” said the prince, “I know.  But I’m pretty sure this will wake her up.”  And he nudged her legs apart with his own.

I was not prepared for this.  I had thought a handsome prince would rescue my sister, not molest her.  I screamed in rage and the birds who roosted outside the palace walls heard me, and screamed their reply.

The glass windows shattered, and the prince scrambled off my sister’s bed just as the first wave of birds swooped into the room.

There was not much left of him once the birds were done, but I had to clean a lot of broken glass and blood off the floor, and I was combing feathers out of my sister’s hair for days afterwards.

The next day, I sharpened the tip of my drop spindle until its lightest touch could draw blood, and hung it from my chatelaine belt.
Once upon a time, there were two princesses, sisters born in the same hour.  One was more beautiful than the dawn on a clear day; the other as plain as a foggy morning, for the opposite of beauty is not ugliness but ordinariness.  They were as different as two sisters could be, and yet they were as close as an egg and its shell, as a picture and its frame, as a song and its singer.  They shared only the twilight hours together, for the plain sister woke during the hours that her sister slept, and slept always during the day, while the beautiful sister awoke at dawn and went to bed early at night.  These hours were the most precious in the day for the two sisters, and they talked and shared secrets and grew to love each other more with every day that passed.

As the years passed, the beautiful sister, Aurora, grew more beautiful still.  She became gracious and graceful, sweet and kind, full of charm and accomplished in every womanly art, except for those of needlework and spinning, for her father forbade any to come near her with spindle or knitting needle or thread.  She learned all the arts of ruling, too, for she was the elder by five minutes, but her tender heart did not fit her well for governing, and her father talked often of finding a husband who could temper her softness.

By contrast, the plain sister, Umbra, grew plainer with every hour, until she was so ordinary that you could hardly remember her features even when she was standing before you.  She had no gift for singing or dancing, and fewer for charm or tact, but she trained with the knights that guarded her father’s castle, and studied with the kingdom’s best scholars and with the court magicians, and even when her feet were still, her hands were busy, for the domestic arts that were forbidden to her sister came easily to her, and she was an accomplished needlewoman.

There was no envy between the sisters, and no resentment.  The beautiful sister saw how her plain sister went unnoticed by the court, how she spent her nights studying and fighting and doing endless needlework, how she rarely saw the sun, and was glad beyond measure that she did not live such a life, though she saw that her sister thrived on it.  The plain sister saw how her beautiful sister was always in the public eye, how she must always be charming and kind and selfless, how she gave her days to music and dancing and pleasing the court, and had no time for any deeper studies, and though her beautiful sister was clearly happy, the plain sister thought that if she had to live such a life, she would feel like a bird in a cage.

Both sisters knew of the curse that awaited them on their seventeenth birthday.  Aurora conscientiously avoided spindles, and thought no more about it; Umbra read every book on magic in the palace library, and tried to find a way to break the curse.

But Dame Carabosse was the eldest of the Fairy Godmothers, and the wiliest, and so, despite all their attempts to avoid this fate, on the sisters’ seventeenth birthday, Aurora pricked her finger on a spindle, and fell into a deep sleep.

Once upon a time there was young prince who went out into the world to seek his fortune.  He was the seventh son of a seventh son, which is a very auspicious number indeed, but it does put one rather a long way down the line of inheritance.

The young prince was handsome, as all good princes are, and he was kind, as all good princes should be, and he was also rather intelligent, which made him quite unusual as princes go.  He decided that he would like to study architecture, as princes have more opportunities than most to visit castles and enjoy their features, and so he went about the country, visiting friends, and planning improvements for his brothers’ castles at home.

One day, he came to a forest, with a castle in the distance.  It was a rather lovely castle, fourteenth century or so, with round white towers and blue slate roofs.  It looked like a picture from a Book of Hours, the prince thought.  He decided that he would like to visit that castle.  In the forest, he met a young woman as ordinary as brown bread, who claimed to be from the castle.  He shared his lunch with her, and wrote down detailed notes on how to find his way through the forest and through the briars.

He was pleasantly surprised to find that the briars did indeed open for him, and the castle likewise.  It really was in superb condition.  The prince didn’t go in at once, but rather did a circuit of the castle.  There was a chapel connected to the main building, he saw, built in the gothic style, with tall spires and intricate stonework.  He decided to take a look inside, and pushed open the heavy wooden doors.  Inside, he stopped short, enraptured by the the tall windows in white and yellow glass, and the great rose window above the choir that filled the building with light and beauty.  He spent the day sketching, and forgot entirely about the plain young woman, and the princess sleeping in the castle tower.

Only when night fell did he leave the chapel and enter the castle, but it was empty and silent, and no matter how many times he climbed the stairs, he found himself once again in the entrance hall.

The young prince was sad.  He had been looking forward to seeing what an architect who could built such a spectacular chapel would do with an entire castle, but clearly the castle was enchanted against him.

And so the prince walked out the castle gate, and through the briars, and out through the forest, back to the inn where he had spent the previous night.  At least he had his sketches of the chapel.  Perhaps he would build one like it for the royal palace at home.

Once upon a time, there was a princess who pricked her finger on a spindle and fell into a sleep that lasted for a hundred years.

I never did find out how Dame Carabosse made my sister prick her finger on a spindle.  Mine was the only spindle in the palace, and I found no blood on it, nor was it in the same room where my sister lay, overcome by sleep.

All I know is that I woke, suddenly, with the sun shining brightly overhead, and the castle eerily silent, and I knew in that moment that the curse had come upon us.

I had never seen the palace in full daylight, and I was in no condition to enjoy it now.  It was strangely empty, and I know not what became of the servants or of our parents.  I think they must have been spirited away to sleep elsewhere.  There were only the two of us left – myself waking, and my sister sleeping.

I was afraid, of course.  Wouldn’t you be?  Alone in a castle, with a sleeping sister to take care of and nobody to help us if the Fairy Godmother decided to deepen the curse, or if some passer-by chose to attack.

And I didn’t even have my sister to talk to.

I carried her up the stairs to her chamber, feeling glad now for the wrestling and archery training that had given strength to my arms, and laid her down on her bed.  I didn’t know what kind of sleep this was, but she might as well be comfortable.

And then I sat down on a cushion in her chamber, beside her bed, and began to knit a green scarf.  That probably sounds strange to you, but I did not want to leave my sister alone, and I could not simply sit there with my hands folded in my lap.  Knitting came as easily to me as breathing, and did not require me to think, at least past the casting on.

And so I sat, and I knitted, and I waited for my sister to wake up.

By the end of the second day, there was no change, and I needed to move, so I went to the garden, and began to pace around the castle walls.  I took my knitting with me – I could not bear for my hands to be still – and the scarf grew longer and longer, trailing along the ground behind me as I paced in my agitation.  It hardly mattered.  I had no idea who I was making it for, and I wasn’t doing a very good job of it anyway.  I was distracted, and sleepless – I hadn’t dared close my eyes the night before for fear of someone coming to hurt me or my sister – and so it was probably inevitable that I would jab my own finger with my knitting needles as I walked.

For some reason, that was the last straw.  I flung my knitting down with a cry, and sucked on my finger.  Several drops of blood fell on the knitting, and I burst into tears.

A crow landed beside me, cawing enquiringly.  I fluttered my fingers in apology, then sighed.  “This is impossible.  I cannot stay awake for a hundred years, if that is how long my sister will sleep.  And how can I protect her if I am sleeping too?”

The crow put his head on one side then hopped over to my knitting, pecking at the bloodstained part.  “Build a wall,” he croaked.  “Keep them out.”

I looked at him.  “How?  I have no materials, and in any case, I can’t stay awake long enough to build a wall around the whole palace.”

The crow ruffled his feathers at me, as if I had said something stupid.

“Blood,” he croaked.  “Tears.  The work of your hands.  Plant it and see what grows.”

It was a good thing, really, that I had trained so long with the soldiers.  The scarf was at least six metres long by now, and digging a trench long enough to plant it was hard work.  By the time it was done, night had fallen again, and I was sweating and aching in every limb and covered in mud to my elbows.

And nothing had happened.

I collapsed next to the end of the trench where the scarf was now buried, and the crow hopped up beside me again.  “Water it,” he said, and I burst into tears again.

I wept for my sister, and for my parents, and for myself.  I wept for tiredness and for loneliness, and for the fact that I was filthy and would need to find a way to heat water and draw my own bath before I could be clean.  I wept because I was seventeen and I didn’t know enough to protect myself and my sister and I didn’t know how I would survive a hundred years of solitude without going mad.

I wept until I fell asleep right there in the garden, and when I woke, the sun was high in the sky, but I was in full shade.  On my left, the palace towered above me, all white stone and round towers.  And on my right was a hedge of rose briars, surrounding the palace and extending as far as the eye could see.

I was still filthy and lonely, and rather hungry.

But for now, we were safe.
Once upon a time there was a King who had three ambitious sons.  The eldest son knew that he would inherit the kingdom when the King died, and was content.  The second son married a neighbouring princess, and ruled her kingdom, and was likewise content.  But the youngest son had no kingdom and no princess, and so he went out into the world to seek his fortune.

After many adventures and much wandering, he came to the castle surrounded by briars.  He was quick and clever and remembered the advice of the ordinary young woman who he met in the woods, and when he reached the thorny briars he walked into them with confidence and they parted for him.  The palace opened at his touch and he ran lightly up the stairs to the tower where the princess lay sleeping.

She is beautiful, my sister, even sleeping.  Her hair falls to her waist like a waterfall made of sunlight, her cheeks are flushed with sleep, and she is slender and graceful in her form.

For a moment, even the ambitious young prince stopped still in wonder, and when he strode forward to kneel at her bedside, there was something of reverence in his step.  He bent his proud head to kiss her, and it was a gentle kiss.

But my sister did not awaken.

He kissed her a second time, still gently, and she still did not wake.

The prince frowned.  He kissed her a third time, more forcefully, and I prepared myself to act, but after a moment he lifted his head, and my sister remained asleep.

The prince rose to his feet, and looked down at my sister for a long moment.  There was sadness on his face, but also determination.

“I wish that I could wake you,” he said.  “You are lovelier even than the minstrels said, and I would gladly take you as my bride and Queen, and love you all my days.

“But your Kingdom is lying fallow, your subjects are sleeping and cannot wake.  They need a ruler, and I need a Kingdom to rule.  And there is more than one way to break a spell.”

He drew his sword.  “It will be a clean death,” he promised her.  “And I vow that I will serve your people well, for the love of your memory.”

He raised his arm, and I stabbed him in the back with my spindle.

It was a clean death.

I fed his body to the briars, afterward.  My sister did not need to wake up to a corpse in her chambers.  And he had vowed to serve our kingdom, after all.  He might as well be of use.

Once upon a time there was a princess who lived alone in a castle, with only her sleeping sister for company.

Every day, at dawn and at dusk, she would sit with her, and talk to her about her day, and tell her all her secrets.  It wasn’t the same as it had been before.  It could never be the same.  But in this way she stayed close to her sister, as close as a dream is to a sleeping mind, as close as a tear is to the eye that sheds it.

It was not the same, but the princess had become accustomed to it.

She had the crows, who were her friends, except when they ate the vegetables she grew in the garden.

She had her needlework, which could often be turned into very useful things.  (Her tapestry of a bath full of hot water, the steam lovingly embroidered in silver thread, was in nearly daily use.  Her crocheted cupcakes, she quickly discovered, could really only be used once, and it was simpler to bake them with real flour and sugar and eggs.)

She had the seventh fairy Godmother, and sometimes also the first and the sixth, who would visit her from time to time and keep her company.

She had the villagers who visited the inn just outside the forest.  They were not friends, perhaps, since they usually forgot who she was in between visits, but this was for the best, since the princess did not age, and there really wasn’t anywhere else nearby where she could eat a hot meal that she hadn’t cooked herself.  And they were still company.

She had her books – all the books in the castle library, in fact.

She had herself.  She knew, now, that she could look after herself and her sister, her castle and her gardens and her briars.  She knew, now, how to sort the cruel princes from the kind ones, how to protect the foolish ones from themselves, and test the wise ones.

She had the princes, too.  Year after year, they came to the forest, came questing for the heart of a sleeping princess, and even though they failed, again and again, even though some were cruel and others were foolish, they were a joy to her.  As long as they kept coming, she knew the castle had not been forgotten, that her sister would one day awaken.

And so she also had hope.

Once upon a time, there was a prince who had been exiled from his kingdom.  He went out into the world to seek his fortune, and in time, he came to an inn at the edge of a forest.

The inn was a friendly, noisy sort of place, and quite full, so he took his flagon of ale and his bowl of stew, and went to find a table.  There were no empty tables, but the table closest to the fire was occupied only by a plain young woman with an intelligent face, in a dress as brown as a sparrow’s wing.  She had a bowl of stew in front of her, too, and a slice of bread, but no ale.

He smiled at the young woman.  “May I?” he asked, and she gestured for him to sit.

They ate in silence for a while, and then the prince put down his spoon.  “That was a fine stew,” he said.

The young woman nodded.  “They do well here,” she said.

“Do you live nearby, then?” asked the prince.

“Not too far away,” she replied, and went back to her stew.

The prince sighed.  He had been feeling a little lonely, but evidently the young woman did not wish for company.  He began to rise, and she looked up at him, her eyes narrowing as she studied him.

“Where have you come from?” she asked suddenly, and the prince sat down again.

“I’m from the kingdom across the sea,” he said.

“Seeking your fortune?” she asked.

The prince nodded.  “Sadly, yes.  My brother assumed the throne, and he preferred not to have me around.”

The woman eyed him suspiciously.  “Why not?”

This was not the usual response to his confession of royal blood.  The prince grinned despite himself.  “Probably because I thought I would make a better king than him,” he said, frankly.

The woman continued to stare at him, as though she was trying to see through him.

“And I probably would have,” added the prince.  “I’m better with people than my brother is, and, not to put too fine a point on it, I’m brighter than he is.  But he was right to send me away.  He wasn’t doing a bad job, all things considered, and as long as I was there, it was a little too tempting to find out if I was right.  And a civil war wouldn’t have done the country any good.”

The woman nodded slowly, and then stood.  “There is a castle beyond the forest,” she said, “And a sleeping princess inside, waiting to be woken.  Perhaps you are the one she is waiting for.  Or perhaps not.  If you are truly seeking your fortune, I suggest you take the forest path tomorrow.”

And she was gone before the prince could follow.

The prince knew a challenge when he heard one.  He also knew a proposition when he heard one, and sadly, that wasn’t one.  So he was quite surprised, the next morning, to find the young woman waiting for him on the forest path.

“You again,” he said, intelligently.

The woman blinked.  “You recognise me,” she said.

The prince laughed.  “My brother is the slow one, not me.  You shared a meal with me last night, and it takes me longer than that to forget a face.”

The young woman seemed unsettled.  “Share your meal with me again, then,” she said, “And I will tell you the way to the palace.”

This seemed a little odd, but the prince obligingly brought bread and cheese and sausage out of his pack.  “Why are you helping me?” he asked.

“Nobody ever asks me that,” she said, taking a bite of cheese.

“Will you tell me, then?”

She shook her head.  “Bread and cheese and sausage gets you the path to the palace.  You have not earned the right to my motivations.”

The prince was beginning to think that the young woman’s motivations might be the most important part of this story, but he shrugged as if unconcerned.  “As you wish.”

The young woman settled down and began to tell her tale.  “Once upon a time,” she said, “There was a King who loved his Queen dearly, and she him…”

The prince ate his bread and cheese and sausage slowly, listening as the young woman described the beautiful princess, the curse, the spindle, and her long sleep.  She told him of the path to the palace, of how he must speak to the briars to be allowed entrance, and how he must knock three times on the palace door so that it would open.  She told him that the princess slept at the top of the highest tower, waiting to be awakened by a kiss.

When she finished speaking, the prince was silent for a long time, thinking.

“Do you tell this story to every prince who enters these woods?” he asked.

“I tell this story to anyone who I think might be able to wake the princess,” she said.

“That… sounds like a bad idea,” said the prince.

The young woman smiled at him.  It was not a friendly smile.  “Only for those who have wicked intentions.”  She stood.  “You do not have to continue down this path.  But if you do, I’d advise you to remember that my sister is well protected.”

And before he could question her further, the young woman – the princess’s sister, which must surely make her a princess herself – vanished.  I followed the prince as he walked down the forest path towards the hedge of briars, leaving a trail of crumbs behind him.  The birds liked those crumbs, and I was happy for the princes to oblige them.  At the hedge, he stopped, and kissed the nearest rose.  The briars cleared a path for him.  It was a narrow one, and he would have to walk carefully if he did not wish to be scratched.  The briars had learned from the previous princes.

He hesitated before entering.  Not a stupid man, this prince.  “I would crave a boon of you, briars,” he said.

The briars did not reply, but there was a shivering in their leaves that suggested that something was listening.

“I go to meet a princess, but have no gift to give her.  Will you give me one of your roses, that I may court her properly?”

There was a long silence from the briars, and then something fell to the ground in front of the prince and he picked it up.

“Thank you,” he said, and walked forward.

I followed, soundless and invisible.

At the palace gate, he knocked three times.  The gate swung open, but the prince did not go through.  “I would crave a boon of you, gate,” he said.

The gate creaked, as if caught in the wind.

“I go to wed a princess, but have no ring to give her.  Will you give me one of your golden hinges, to fashion a ring that I might marry her properly?”

There was a silence, then a pinging sound.  The prince bent, and picked something up.

“Thank you,” he said, and walked into the palace.

He climbed the steps slowly, almost thoughtfully, looking around him as he went and stopping at each landing to look down into the main hall.  I followed him, silent as ever, until he stopped outside my sister’s chamber.

“I would crave a boon of you, door,” he said.

The door was silent.

“I go to rescue a princess, yet I know that I may not be the one who wakes her.  If I am not, will you guard her against all others who might enter, wishing to do her ill?”

“I am more than capable of guarding my own sister, thank you,” I told him, and had the satisfaction of seeing the prince nearly jump out of his skin.

The door swung open, and he half fell through it.  I smiled in spite of myself.

“That wasn’t very nice,” he said, reproachfully.

“I don’t have to be nice,” I told him cheerfully.  “Actually, the Fairy Godmothers pretty much absolved me of any requirement for niceness at my christening.”

The prince threw me a dark look, and strode over to the bed where my sister lay.  His face softened as he looked at her.  “What a lovely creature you are,” he murmured, then shook his head.  “This feels really odd.  She’s asleep.  She’s never seen me in her life.  She’s going to wake up and slap me.”

“If she does, I’ll kiss you myself,” I said, thoughtlessly.

The prince grinned and looked me up and down.  “I’m going to hold you to that,” he said, and bent to kiss my sister.

Nothing happened, of course.  I tensed, watching to see what he would do next.

But the prince simply sighed, and straightened.  He looked over to where I was standing, spindle in hand, and smiled a little.

“The spell said it was just a kiss, right?  Not anything else?”

“There had better not be anything else,” I told him, and he shook his head.

“I meant, there are no special vows, or words that must be spoken?  Rings that must be exchanged?”  He held up the golden hinge, which he had somehow managed to fashion into a ring while climbing the stairs.  Dexterous of him.

I shook my head.  “Just a kiss.  I visited the Godmother who tried to fix the curse, and she said that only a true love’s kiss would suffice.”

“But that’s ridiculous.  How can anyone fall in love with a sleeping woman?  She’d be better off being kissed by you – if anyone loves her, it’s her sister.”

There was clearly no romance in his soul.  “That’s not really true love, though, is it?”

“It’s a sight closer than anything I can give her.  Your sister is a beautiful woman, but for one thing, I don’t know her, and for another, she’s asleep.  I’d far rather kiss you.  You’re awake.  And you’re interesting.”

I felt my cheeks beginning to redden.  “There seems to be a lot of me kissing people in this conversation,” I said, trying to make light of it.

The prince grinned again.  “I’m happy to swap conversation for action if you are.  After all, you did promise me a kiss…”

I felt myself reddening even further.  “Very well,” I said, and stepped towards him – and past him, to kiss my sister on the lips.

Her eyelids fluttered, and I held my breath.

Then she gave a great sigh, and turned her head away, as fast asleep as ever.

Her face grew blurry in front of me, and I felt an arm come around my shoulder.  The prince pulled me in against his chest and hugged me.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I didn’t mean to upset you.  I really thought that might work.”

I hadn’t cried since my tears had watered the briar hedge around the castle, and even then, I had cried alone.  It was better with someone’s arms around me.  Less lonely.  I leaned into the prince’s arms and cried a century’s worth of loneliness into his embrace.

I think he tried to say comforting things at first.  Soothing things.  But I could not be soothed, and after a few minutes, he just held me close, and let me cry all over him while he stroked my hair.

He was a very kind prince, I realised.  My sister could have done a lot worse.  And probably would, if I couldn’t find another way to break the spell.

“Thank you,” I said, at last.  Somewhere along the way, the prince had moved us into a window seat, and I was sitting half on his lap, leaning against his chest.  I felt myself blushing again, and he smiled.

“That’s better,” he said.  “I’ll have to keep threatening to kiss you.  I’m much better with blushing maidens than with weeping ones.”

“You did pretty well with the weeping,” I told him, and climbed off his lap.

He stood, politely.  “Have you been all alone since your sister went to sleep?” he asked.

I shrugged.  “Pretty much.  I go down to the inn when I want company, and sometimes one of the Fairy Godmothers drops by, but that’s about it.”

“That sounds lonely.”

“I’ve managed.”

“Hmm.”  The prince looked at me, consideringly.  “And how many princes have you dealt with?”

I frowned.  “Depends what you mean by dealt with.  There have been a lot who got as far as the forest.  Only a few got all the way to the palace.  There were a couple who were… difficult.”  I swallowed, remembering feathers and blood on the floor, and the feel of flesh yielding under my spindle.

I did not supply details, but the prince’s hand found mine anyway, and squeezed it.  I looked down at our joined hands, and he let me go, and walked over to look out the window.  It was nearly dusk; nearly time for me to sit with my sister and tell her about my day.  I had no idea where I would even start.

“I have a proposition for you,” said the prince, without turning around.

“Oh?”

He took a long breath.  “I don’t know how to say this without insulting you, but I don’t think you are safe here.”

“You definitely didn’t manage to say that without insulting me,” I told him.  “I’m not stupid.  I know we are not safe here.  But there’s nowhere else I can go.”

The prince turned to me, his face serious.  “Let me stay with you,” he said.  “You won’t be alone, then. I can help you deal with any princes who turn nasty.  You can trust me with your sister,” he added, “I’m only interested in women who are awake enough to reciprocate my interest.”

This was not entirely reassuring, given all his talk of kissing earlier.  “I’m awake,” I said.  “Can I trust you with me?”

“I certainly hope you will,” said the prince, misinterpreting me.  He strode towards me, his hands outstretched.

I stepped back, hurriedly, and he dropped his hands to his side.

“Awake and interested,” he said.  “I’m not going to make a move on you unless you are both.”

“What do you get out of this?” I asked.  I knew I sounded belligerent, but I needed to know that my sister and I would be safe.

The prince looked a little rueful.  “I’m rather hoping that I can convince you to marry me at some point,” he said.

I stared at him blankly, and he continued.  “You’re intelligent, resourceful, brave and loyal.  You know how to do magic.  Also, you’re the heiress to half a kingdom, which I admit, is a consideration for me. Who wouldn’t want a wife like that?”

“You wanted to marry my sister,” I reminded him.

“Your sister is beautiful.  And who knows?  Perhaps if she were awake, she would be as interesting as you are.  But I followed the path into the woods because I wanted to know what you wanted from me.  I followed the path to the palace because I hoped I would find you here.  I asked the briar for a rose and the gate for a ring so that I could court you properly, and I asked the door to lock out those princes who were unworthy so that you would be safe, not just your sister.”

That… was almost romantic.  I didn’t know what to make of it.

The prince smiled at me.  “I like you.  You challenge me, and you make me curious, and you make me think.”

The prince stepped closer again, and this time I did not step back.  He lifted a hand to cup my cheek.  “Also, I really want to kiss you.  May I?”

He seemed sincere.  And he had held me and let me cry all over him.  Which, come to think of it, probably meant that I had a red nose and red eyes right now, and my hair was probably doing bizarre things, too.  If he wanted to kiss me now… I tilted my lips up to meet his.

“Oh, for God’s sake, Umbra, get a room.”

It was my sister’s voice.

I opened my eyes, and stumbled as I stepped back.  My knees didn’t seem to be working properly. The prince – whose name, I didn’t even know, I realised – steadied me.  He looked pretty pleased with himself.  That was fair.  I felt pretty pleased with him, too.

My sister’s voice…

I spun towards the bed, where my sister was sitting up and rubbing sleep from her eyes.

“Oh my God, Aurora, you’re awake!”  I was on the bed before I knew how I got there, hugging her fiercely.  She hugged me back, and I found myself laughing with delight.  Tears were welling in my eyes again, and I blinked them back.

“But when did you wake up?  I don’t understand,” I said.

My sister looked confused.  “I don’t know.  I don’t even remember falling asleep.  I dreamed of you, I remember.  You were talking to me, a lot actually, and talking about princes, and spindles, and kisses.  It felt like a really long dream.  And then I woke up and you were in my room, kissing a man I’ve never seen before.  I didn’t even know you had a boyfriend!”

I didn’t even know I had a boyfriend either, but this did not seem like the time to mention that.  Also, I still didn’t understand how the curse could have been broken.  I said so.

“The spell said she would be woken by true love’s kiss,” said a voice behind me.  “It didn’t say that your sister had to be the one who received it.”

I turned, and saw the seventh Fairy Godmother standing in front of me.  “Wait, so it never had to be Aurora who was kissed?  Why didn’t you tell me that before?”

The Fairy Godmother looked a little embarrassed.  “It didn’t occur to me.  It must be because you and your sister are so close.  But I really thought that one of the princes would fall in love with your sister and break the spell.”

The prince and I exchanged glances.  I was pretty sure I knew exactly what he was thinking.  The word ‘pervert’ was definitely part of that sentence.  Something else occurred to me.

“Wait… this is true love?”  I turned to my prince.  “I don’t even know your name yet.”

The prince bowed gracefully.  “My name is Robert.  And yours, I think, is Umbra.”  He held out the rose to me in one hand, and the gold ring in the other.  “I have no kingdom to offer you, and no better courting gifts than this rose, which you made, and this ring, which I made, and my heart, which is yours already.  But my future is yours, too, if you will share it with me.  Will you take me as your husband, Umbra?”

I smiled at him.  “I will, and gladly,” I said.  “But first, I need to talk to my sister.”

 

 

station

Ternes station is situated on the border of the 8th and 17th arondisssements, not far from the Arc de Triomphe in the northwest of Paris.  It was opened in 1902, and serves Line 2 of the Métro system. Ternes station is named for the Place des Ternes, which intern takes its name from Villa Externa, a medieval farm and residence belonging to the Bishop of Paris.  The Externa part refers to the fact that it was outside the city walls at the time when the residence was built.  Ternes is a whole little region within Paris, extending west from the Arc de Triomphe to the Palais des Congrés, and bordering the Plaine-Monçeau area to the north.

The word terne in French means dull or drab, and I liked the idea of a princess who was so dull and drab that people tended to forget that she was there.  Terne is also apparently an alloy coating made of lead and tin that was used to cover steel, which worked well for a heroine who appears drab on the outside, but who is in fact very strong on the inside.  I decided to make her Sleeping Beauty’s twin sister, who of course you have never heard of because she is really good at going unnoticed, and let’s face it, Charles Perrault is not the man to remember the plain sister of the heroine, now is he?  (To do him justice Perrault did come up with my favourite excuse ever for not inviting that last godmother – not enough nice gold plates to go around.  The moral of the story is thus don’t be stingy, and just buy another gold plate and cup.  It works out cheaper in the long run…)

There are lots and lots of versions of Sleeping Beauty.  Some of them are more disturbing than the others, like the old Italian version in which the prince rapes the princess as she is sleeping, and she gives birth to twins, and only wakes up when one of the twins, who is trying to suckle and evidently failing, sucks on her finger and draws out the splinter of spindle.  (The moral of this story is make sure you have a good pair of tweezers in the first aid cabinet, and don’t just assume someone is in a coma until you have made a basic attempt to treat the injury.)  Some have sequels with jealous mother in laws (or, in the Italian version, the prince’s actual wife) attempting to kill Sleeping Beauty and her children (the moral of this particular story is make sure you know precisely what meat is in the pie your jealous wife or mother is feeding you.  Really.).  And others have been watered down and made romantic, for a definition of romantic that includes love at first sight.

All of this seemed to bear a certain amount of examination, and really, I felt that Sleeping Beauty deserved to have a careful sister who was not going to let any princes misbehave themselves on her watch.  I wasn’t expecting the romantic ending, though.  Not sure how that happened.

The rose divider is an edited version of a watercolor botanical drawing “Rosa gallica Aurelianensis”,  by Pierre-Joseph Redouté (1759-1840), available from Wikimedia Commons and in the public domain.  The picture of Sleeping Beauty is a detail from The Sleeping Beauty by John Collier in 1921, against which I have committed an act of artistic vandalism, by cropping it to remove the extra woman, and adding some very green knitting.  I apologise to John Collier’s ghost for this.  I have no excuse.  The original picture (without knitting) is from Wikimedia Commons and in the public domain.

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Charles de Gaulle–Étoile fleurdelis-left Ternes
fleurdelis-right Courcelles

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