“It was barely three months after my husband died when the Thorns swallowed the castle.”
This was the tale, as my mother told it, her hands shaping and slapping the dough rhythmically. “I was young and heartbroken at having lost him so soon after we married. I suppose I became less cautious or simply cared less. So much that when a strange man knocked on the door, I let him in.” He’d seemed huge standing in her doorway with his cuirass under one arm and his horse’s reins in the other. He had hair as dark as the Thorn and eyes that snapped sparks at her like new stars.
She instantly knew him for a prince. What else could he be?
“Have you room for a traveler?” he’d asked. As was his right, he received the best that was in the house, and in the morning he’d risen from crumpled sheets and my mother’s tangled hair to test his strength against the Thorn. She’d found him later when she’d gone to draw water for boiling. How there had been no sound when the Thorn punctured his armor, she did not know, but he was a strong man and still had some breath within him. So she stayed with him until he breathed no more. Why? The tale changes in its tellings here. Perhaps she was a little in love with him. Perhaps it was a sense of duty, or pity. “No one should die alone”, she said.
“Had he told me his name or his kingdom, you might have been raised a lady,” my mother said, and she smiled a little sadly. I threw my arms around her waist and said I would rather stay with her than in any castle, anywhere. She kissed me, and the dust-motes danced in her hair.
The people of the village soon learned to avoid the Thorn. The princes did not stop coming, despite the death of the first. If anything, it seemed to goad them to greater attempts, and my poor mother became the steward of their last hours on Earth. They stayed at her little house on their last night, ate her food for their last meal, and if they gave her coin she became the recipient of their last act of kindness. She became woman-who-receives-death, and therefore a crone, though she had seen no more than twenty winters.
At first she tried to dissuade them, for all that she was a peasant and not fit to speak to royalty, but they would not hear her, no matter the number of failed attempts before them. Not even the sight of armored skeletons hanging from the monstrous brambles would turn them away. And she could not save them once they were snarled. She tried. She tried axe and knife and fire but the Thorn might as well have been made of steel, for once it caught, it would not release what it held. Some of the princes cried out, railed and cursed her, commanding her to set them free, and died spitting blood and angry words when she could not aid them. I grew to hate the ones that made her cry.
I met many of them, though I do not remember them all. It became my duty when I was old enough to toddle to bring the welcome-cup to the doorway when they knocked. Who knew there were so many princes in the world? Dark-complected or fair, tall and muscular or short and wiry, clever or dull-looking, dressed in velvet or armor, they came one by one, and one by one they died. None of them demanded that she warm their beds the way my father had; over the years she developed a kind of solemnity that drew their uneasy respect.
And then, even the princes stopped coming.
Time passes quickly when you are young. Minutes become days, days become weeks, weeks become months and years, and no prince came. Had they all been used up, I wondered? Who, then, would rescue our princess, and what would we do without our king and queen should no one succeed in breaking the curse? We would be ripe for bandits without the help of the trained guard in the castle. Women in the marketplace wrung their hands like soapy laundry and feared the worst; men built their fences two feet higher and bred their watch-dogs large.
Bandits did come, and for a time it seemed the ground was as thick with them as autumn leaves, though for a time they, too, avoided the Thorn. They made their camp in the wood that stood between us and the village, and when we traveled to purchase those things that we could not provide for ourselves, we would sometimes pass close enough that my mother and I could hear them hallooing to each other and crashing through the underbrush. There were many days when we did not dare to light our fire for fear that we might draw their attention. But fear of the Thorn kept the bandits at bay; these were local men, for the most part, who knew full well what perils awaited and chose less dangerous prey.
We heard the fighting when a larger band of brigands moved in, foreign men who slew our bandits with ruthless efficiency and took up residence in their place. These men were cruel, and where we knew the earlier bandits would sometimes turn a blind eye to us as we traveled to town, these strangers would show no such mercy.
We had more to fear than most. We were alone in the forest, as my mother’s husband had been a hunter and had had nowhere to bring his young bride but the cabin he had built himself. No help would hear if we called; the people of our village shunned the Thorn and us. The bodies of the slain princes, with their fine clothes and heavy purses would doubtlessly be a draw for brigands, and if they happened to find us as well… My mother would close her eyes at this and refuse to say more. Then, one night, it seemed as if her unspoken fears would come true.
I heard the horses’ hoofbeats at the same time as my mother, though they were not close enough to have seen our little house yet: made of dark wood in a dark forest, it afforded us some small cover. We ran with pounding hearts to smother the fire and lock ourselves into the small shed we used for firewood during the wet season. Perhaps they would not look too closely and think our house vacant. Though I was young, I knew that we owned little that they might want, other than ourselves. In my mother’s arms, as close as her breath, we heard their rough voices through the walls, though I could not understand what they said over the pounding of my heart. They crashed around inside it for a few minutes but found little to their interest. They rode off towards the Thorn and the bodies of fallen princes to see what they could scavenge.
When the first shout came, it seemed that the entire forest must have flown up in surprise, like startled crows. Then more voices, angry, disbelieving, and then in pain, tumbling over each other, louder than anything I had ever heard. I was glad of my mother’s arms that night, though I had thought myself too old for such things. Frightened though I was, I somehow fell asleep, and the two of us did not stir until well into morning. My mother pushed the door open and led us out into dusty sunlight to see what damage had been done. The house was mostly intact — there had been nothing to steal — and the bandits had had their eyes on a bigger prize. It was a short walk to where the Thorn first sprang out of the ground, about fifteen minutes on young legs. There had been ten of them, we saw: big men with cruel hands, now hanging bloodless in the grasp of the Thorn. There were no more attempts after that, and the survivors — those who had remained in their camp — soon departed for safer lands. Bandits, it seems, are not so brave as princes.
I was eighteen when my mother died. The sickness that took her did not touch me, and if I had been a figure of suspicion with those in the village before, their fears seemed confirmed now. It was under many an uneasy stare that I made the trip into town to beg the priest to come say the proper rites over her, so that she might be buried beside other decent folk in the churchyard. I watched my mother’s pine box disappear into the ground, and wondered numbly what would happen to me. It had been hard for two women living on their own to manage. On my own the task seemed insurmountable, but what choice did I have? If I’d been another woman, I might have thought about marriage, but I’d never even had a sweetheart. None of the lads who eyed me on market-day were brave enough to follow me into the shadow of the forest, as if it were I and not the sleeping princess who was under a spell. I might have joined the Sisterhood but my faith was a dubious thing at best, having lived near a place of magic for so long. I might leave this place entirely, but where would I go? I went home, cleaned our — my — house, gathered firewood, went looking for wild mushrooms, and scraped at my little vegetable patch. And soon the people spoke of me as the old woman in the woods, just as they had my mother. Perhaps they forgot that there had ever been another.
I was not paying attention when the prince came. My hands were full of dirt, and my head full of weeding-thoughts, so I did not hear his horse until he was standing mere feet away. The man on horseback wore only leather armor, and bore no family crest I could see, but he had the look of someone who had come a long way. I knew exactly what he was, and could barely keep myself from gaping like a landed fish. Luckily, my mother had taught me what to do. I took a wide grip of my poor, battered skirt and curtsied low, speaking the words of welcome I had memorized long ago.
“Royal Highness, pray accept your servant’s welcome.”
The words felt as strange in my mouth as they always had, no matter how many times I had practiced them. The language was fancier than anything my mother and I used between us, but she had known more princes than I, and this was apparently the way to speak to them. The pause that followed made me wonder if I had stepped forward with the wrong foot, or made some other unforgivable breach of etiquette, but he finally spoke.
“Thank you.” I waited. Water dripped from the roof into the rain barrel. “Please, get up, that can’t be comfortable.”
I had been beginning to wonder when he would let me stand up, but that was one of the privileges of royalty.
“I have no stable, Highness, but if you see it fit, I can tether your horse to the shed and see to him while you rest.”
“I would rather see to him myself. It’s only my legs that are tired, and I would be grateful to give my hands something to do.”
Had I heard him correctly? I caught myself before I could look into his face for confirmation.
“Then by your leave, I will prepare food and bed for you. Please accept my apologies that I am thus unprepared.”
There was not much that could be done to the house on such short notice; it would not be fit lodging for a prince even if I had scrubbed it top to bottom. Still, I did what I could with my broom, and hoped he would not notice the amount of dirt that I pushed out the door while he was busy with his horse. There was little in the house I could serve him right away, bread and meat and apples from the market, and perhaps later I could go hunting wild mushrooms. In the meantime, this would have to do.
It was not enough. I knew by the way he did not immediately reach for what I set in front of him.
“I think this may be too much for me to eat alone, will you join me?”
My head snapped up in surprise, and I had my first real look at him. He was young, I thought vaguely, and his face had none of the hard lines that I assumed men of power must have. His hair was the color of earth at plowing-time, as straight as mine was curly, and he had eyes the color of acorns . “I think this is the first time you’ve looked me in the face. I was beginning to wonder if this forest hadn’t metamorphosed me into something too horrible to look at.” He smiled, and his mouth was wide and easy, drawing mine into a similar curl.
Feeling very bold, I said, “No, nothing like that.”
I sat and had dinner with the prince, who only ate sparingly since he didn’t want to “eat me out of house and home.” His name, he said, was Colm; he really only answered to “Highness” when he absolutely couldn’t get away from it.
“But you’re a prince.”
“Yes,” he nodded reluctantly, “but probably not the kind you’re thinking of. My home is Dircia, fourteen days on horseback from here.”
“Dircia has a prince?” The question slipped out before I could clamp my lips around it. “Forgive me —”
“It’s all right. Our ruling family, such as it is, is barely known outside our own borders. Dircia was only ever farmland with a small copse of wood for hunting, so when my great-great-grandfather decided to call himself king, no one thought it was worth contesting.” He choked briefly on a crumb before righting himself. “How did you know who I was, since Dircia was a surprise to you?”
“I didn’t know who you were specifically, but you had to be a prince.” I followed a whorl in the tabletop with my finger. “No one else comes here.”
“You’ve met other princes then?”
“Oh yes, though I couldn’t tell you how many. I never kept count.”
“Somehow I doubt they were all princes.”
“My father was.” It burst out with surprising vehemence and Colm blinked. “My mother told me. He wore polished metal armor and carried a sword and shield. Everyone knows what princes are supposed to look like.”
“I believe you.” He leaned forward on his elbows. “Do you know his name, or where he was from?”
“No. He was the first prince my mother had ever met. I think she was probably a little overwhelmed. It doesn’t matter anyway. He was the first to try rescuing the princess.”
Silence dropped onto the table like a heavy stone, and we both sat uneasily until Colm spoke again.
“Then the old woman the people in the village talked about —”
“There never was any old woman,” I interrupted, “Just my mother. And me.”
“Another mystery solved, then. Go to the little house in the dark woods, seek out the old woman, rescue the sleeping princess — it’s all pretty fantastic. I think I half-believed you were an enchantress of some sort, especially since I’d expected to meet a wizened old beldame, not someone who looks like you.” If my cheeks colored, I hoped it was dark enough inside to hide it. His smile flashed, “Enchantress or not, I’m not sure I shouldn’t be bowing to you. It sounds as if your father was a prince from a truly first-rate kingdom, unlike Dircia.”
“Now you’re teasing me.”
“Not at all. I’m fairly sure being a prince’s daughter makes you at least a lady of rank, though depending on where he came from, you might be a princess.” He leaned back on his seat and looked at me thoughtfully. “There aren’t many princes of the sword-wielding, maiden-rescuing variety, and those that do exist tend to be more jealously guarded than an accountant’s lock-box. There is too great a need for them to be allowed to wander as they might like. Most of them are settled firmly at home where they are obliged to marry a lady who is quite awake, and become kings. Well, perhaps that much I have in common with them.”
“Is that why you are here? Because you must marry?” I was glad for a chance to change the focus of the conversation. When he had called me a princess I knew he hadn’t mean it unkindly, but I knew there could be no closing that gap between us. He had a kingdom to return to when this was over. I would stay here, with my hands full of dirt.
“Yes. We may not be much of a royal family, but I am the oldest son and I have a duty.”
“So you must marry a princess?”
“That would be ideal, but with princesses being rather scarce, I think my parents would be relieved if I married anyone at all.”
“Aren’t there any ladies of rank in Dircia?”
“Yes, quite a few, some of whom I’ve been introduced to with real, ah, intent.” He smiled ruefully. “The Lady Gwendolyn, for example, is someone my parents have made very encouraging noises about, on any number of occasions.”
“What is she like?”
“In addition to having a mind like an abacus, she can read and speak French and Latin, embroiders tapestries that she donates to the church, and is unfailingly polite — I don’t believe she has used the wrong fork a day in her life.”
“She sounds very… admirable.” I turned the word over in my mouth carefully.
His breath jumped out of his chest in a laugh.
“Yes, very admirable is the Lady Gwen, although she would think I was taking liberties if she heard me call her that.”
“No, if I called her ‘Gwen’. She enjoys the occasions for pomp and show more than I ever have. I think she would enjoy that part of being Queen, whereas I think I’d rather be pulling a plow; at least I’d know I was getting something useful done.”
The image of him, feet planted in the ground, straining against a harness like a horse caught me in an ungracious snort of laughter, but his face only brightened. “I practically had to, one year…”
If my aching ribs were any indication, he told me stories for hours. He told me about the year that the flooding was so bad that the farmers didn’t dare plant for fear of everything washing away. When the sun came out, every man, woman, and child rushed into the fields with seed, including the royal family. Even the horses from the royal stables were conscripted into duty for the day, until Colm’s own horse had panicked at the noisy plow clanking behind him and dragged the prince face-first through an acre of mud before he stopped. “Needless to say, everyone had a good laugh, and we somehow still managed to get all the planting done in time.” Then there was his little sister who used to sneak out of bed at night to sleep with her favorite dog in the royal kennels, and the tutor whose buzzing snore had a young Colm convinced that the man had swallowed a hive of bees. There were other stories too, though drowsy with food and company, I could not remember them. Morning found me in bed, and though I picked through my woolen thoughts, I was not precisely sure how I had gotten there. I had some vague memory of protesting that Colm could not possibly sleep on the floor, and his refusal to “kick his hostess out of her own bed.” Yet, here I was, so I supposed he must have won. The door swung open, and Colm came in with the sunlight, hair and face damp as if he’d been washing.
“Good morning. Did I wake you?”
“No, I was just awake.” I curled my legs around and stood up, pushing my hair out of my eyes. “I should have been up earlier.”
“We both slept late. I would say it’s mid-morning, if I had to hazard a guess.”
Breakfast was bread and fruit left over from the night before, and once the crumbs were swept away, he asked me, “Do you think you might take me the rest of the way to the castle? I’d like to get a look at what I’m getting myself into.”
“Yes, of course, it’s only a short walk from here.”
Even daylight could not improve the look of the Thorns, but then again, nothing could.
“My God,” Colm breathed, “Is it all like this?” He stared at the bodies, where piecemeal light fell on bone and decaying clothes. Princes stared at the wrong things: those poor bones could harm no one, but the Thorns could.
“There are more here, I think, because the main gates used to be in this area.”
“Charge in through the front door,” he murmured, eyes moving slowly over the twisting branches. “Sounds like something a prince is supposed to do.”
“Yes.” I waited while he looked, and after a minute he turned back to me, face pale.
“How have you lived next to this? It looks like a battlefield.”
Unexpectedly stung, I said, “Maybe they were not worthy, but they were still men. Should we have left them to die alone?”
“You shame me. You’re right of course. So, you and your mother…”
“We stayed with them, though there was little we could do. We brought water in a long dipper for those that had voices left to ask. Some of them hurled abuse at us and called us filthy names, demanded we get them out. We never could, though they didn’t believe us. They were frightened and in too much pain. Others asked us to remember things for them: a victory, a kiss, the birth of a child, the color of hay at mowing-time. I think in their last minutes, many of them were good men.”
“No wonder you seem so solemn,” his voice was soft, and I blinked, realizing I had turned away from him, looking out over the Thorns again. He had such a strange expression, a mix of wonder and sadness that I caught myself staring back at him. Then he shook his head as if to clear it and said, “Would you think the less of me if I asked to leave this place for now?”
He said he was going hunting for our dinner, though I suspected he simply wanted some time alone. I didn’t tell him he only needed to check the traps. I swept the house again, re-stitched patched clothing that had come apart, worked in my vegetable patch, and went to pick wild grasses to stuff in a corner of the roof that was threatening to leak. Chores that usually filled up my day didn’t seem to be chasing the sun as quickly as I’d like. I packed the hole in the roof a second time. He wasn’t back yet. Had he changed his mind and left? No, surely he wouldn’t leave without his horse? He reappeared at sunset, with a sheepish expression and a single rabbit swinging from his hand. I took it without a word and began cleaning it, and if there were more apples for dinner tonight than there was rabbit, neither of us was going to mention it.
“How did you hear about our princess?
“Someone brought the story to dinner one night, most likely. It’s too fantastic a story to stay in one place long. A beautiful princess cursed to sleep until someone wakes her, it’s the kind of thing people love.”
I paused with a slice of apple half-way to my mouth.
“No, you have got it all backwards. The sleep and the Thorns were not the curse.”
“I’ll tell you the story as we know it. The king and queen had been trying to have a baby for a long time, so when the little princess was born, they gave a very lavish name-day celebration, inviting several prominent fairies to be her godmothers. Naturally, they were each expected to give her some sort of small gift, but what happened was that they started competing amongst themselves for the most extravagant present. They started out as things like good health and common sense, and then escalated into the ability to sing like a lark, dance like a leaf, and other things that wouldn’t do her any good. Then the last fairy declared that she would be the most beautiful woman in seven kingdoms, and from that moment on, no one in the royal family got a moment of peace. Offers of marriage started arriving before the princess was even out of swaddling-clothes, and as she grew older they only grew more insistent. By the time she was fifteen, she could scarcely walk outside without someone climbing the walls to declare their love, or even try to steal her away. The king and queen could see how frightened and unhappy the princess was, so they consulted the only fairy in the kingdom who had not attended the name-day celebration. She said that she could not destroy the gift given by the last fairy, but there was a way to protect the princess from unscrupulous suitors. She warned them that the price would be high, but the king and queen said they would pay anything; so, on the princess’ 16th birthday, which is traditionally when girls are betrothed, the Thorns grew up around the castle, and everyone inside fell asleep.”
“They’re keeping her safe,” he murmured, “poor princess. Do you think they’re meant to keep everyone out, since all the men who’ve come before me have failed?”
“Maybe they came for the wrong reason — just because she was a princess, or beautiful, or rich.”
“You think the Thorns can sense intent?”
“They’ve never hurt me or my mother, not even when we were reaching between the branches to give the princes water. They only seem to react when someone tries to force their way in.”
“Just like the men who tried to force their suit on the princess. It is protection.”
“Maybe. I don’t know anything for sure.” Suddenly embarrassed, I picked up the plates and began scraping them clean. His voice came from over my shoulder, “Did you ever tell any of the others this?”
“My mother used to try to talk them out of making the attempt when she was alive, but none of them wanted to listen. She was just a woman. What did she know?”
“It might have saved their lives.”
I focused on the scratched plate in my hand.
“I tried sometimes, too, but it didn’t work. Maybe they weren’t good enough for the princess, but I wouldn’t have wished for their deaths.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply —”
“It doesn’t matter.” I swallowed his words like a sour stone, and my stomach clenched around it. “You know what I know now. If I’m right, then you should be safe. After all, you are doing this with a kind heart.” He did not reply immediately.
“Yes, you are right, of course.”
I found myself still waiting long minutes later for him to say something else, though I did not want to admit why.
The following morning produced the brightest sunlight we had seen in days, as though the sun had been following its winter route too early in the season. It was fitting, I thought dumbly, as I stared into a shaft of sunlight. There is always a glorious day at the end of a fairy-tale. Colm and I had broken an uneasy fast some hours before, the air chokingly thick between us. He had reason to be nervous, of course, he knew what his fate would be if he failed, whereas I…
I threw the wash-water out into the yard viciously. All I had to do was stay with him, like I had stayed with all the others. No, not like all the others. The thought crept through my head like a mouse on the floor and I would have slapped at it if I could. Colm paced, patting his pockets as if to check if something was missing until he ran out of places to check, and then he turned to me.
“Would you mind if I leave Blackfoot here with you for now? It’s bound to frighten him if things go badly.” Go badly. I shook my head mutely. “Also,” he produced a much-battered piece of paper, “if you could see that this message gets to my parents, I would appreciate it. My horse knows the way home, or this should pay for a messenger.” He dropped a few coins into my hand and closed my fingers around them.
“Yes, of course.” My voice only wavered a little bit.
We walked to the Thorns in silence. I didn’t want to chance saying something that might make him more nervous, didn’t dare look at him too often for fear he might see and ask what was wrong. And if he asked, how could I tell him? No matter what happens, you’re lost to me and I didn’t think I could endure the pity that would follow.
I stood a few feet behind him when we reached the Thorns, wishing I could root myself like a tree. He walked until mere inches stood between him and tangling black, and waited. The sun landed on his shoulders. No leaf fell, no bird sang. I drew no breath. Then came the rumbling, like a river deep underground. Thorns quivered, creaked, and to my amazement began to curl away. They unhooked themselves like so many rows of tangled knitting, drawing themselves apart to form a rough hedge to either side of him. I swallowed one deep breath after another; it had worked, he was alive. He did not move — why was he waiting?
“They’ve never done that before,” I said, my voice was hoarse. “You’re meant to go in.”
“Am I?” He didn’t turn around, and his voice bounced off the Thorns strangely.
“You must be. The king and queen would want a good man for their daughter.” Tears, hot and damning streamed down my face, and I was glad he couldn’t see me.
“That is how the story is supposed to end, isn’t it?” His tone was thoughtful. “The prince finds the princess, falls in love with her at first sight, kisses her, and marries her.”
“Close your eyes.”
“Close your eyes,” he repeated. He knew, oh he knew, but at least he wouldn’t make me watch him vanish. I closed my eyes and waited, swaying on my feet. Then, there were hands on my face, there were lips on my mouth, there was Colm, more real against me than anything had a right to be.
“Come home with me, marry me.” He said the words against my mouth, and though I was tripping over my own breath, I heard him perfectly. And clinging to him like the last day on earth, though I said nothing, he understood that I meant yes.
BIO: Anna Yardney has been published twice, though it was so long ago she can no longer say where. She lives in the suburbs of western Philadelphia in a house that doubles as a small library, and is frequently mistaken for a student due to her refusal to go anywhere without paper, pencil, and reading material.
IMAGE: Edward Frederick Brewtnall (1846-1902), Sleeping Beauty