Zebra, Mule, and I stood abreast, as always, and studied the newcomer. Sea Horse reared up from his pale green tentacle of a tail. His upper half resembled the cavalry horses behind us, complete... [+]
I will assume for expediency’s sake that you know, or think you know, the story of “Sleeping Beauty,” or “Little Briar Rose.” Known by her parents as Rose and her friends as Briar, stories would have you believe that she was a fool who by the age of sixteen had no idea what a spindle or spinning wheel was. But facts are facts and entire economies based on the export of fabrics cannot be put on hold for sixteen years, even for the fate of a princess, and although the royal parents had banned any spinning related activities within the palace, Briar was far too clever to be kept restricted to the castle. By eight she was already sneaking out past the walls with the children of the castle servants. Suffice it to say, the princess was far more worldly by her sixteenth birthday than her parents may have desired.
The celebration was spectacular, after all not only was Briar coming of age, but the king and queen felt they had been victorious over the curse cast by the evil fairy. Pale pink silk was draped across the great hall. Fragrant blossoms so fresh that the morning dew could still be felt in the dampness of their petals were spread over every surface, and hummingbirds were released en masse to flit about like tiny jewels. The saffron and lemon cake was so large it had to be carted in by a team of milky-white mares, which were also a gift to the princess. Every dignitary from the surrounding kingdoms was invited and they showed up in droves with treasure and endless flattery. She’d not had a moment to herself for days and it was getting harder and harder to pretend she was not being inspected for breeding purposes like one of the gift mares. It was not surprising then that she found herself sneaking away and up into one of the castle’s many towers.
She was halfway out the window and onto the roof when she heard a quiet but firm voice
“It’s a long way down Princess.”
Startled, Briar pulled herself back through the window. An old woman sat in the corner with a spindle and wheel.
“Do I know you?” she asked. “Forgive me, but my father will quite literally kill you if he finds you have that inside the castle walls.”
“I’m here to fulfill a promise,” said the old woman as she pushed back her hood. Briar saw then that this was no ordinary servant, for the old woman’s eyes were completely amber in color with no whites to be seen.
“Right,” said Briar, “I guess I should have expected you’d show up at the last minute. I was beginning to doubt the story was true at all. And let me just say, knowing what I know, do you really expect me to walk over there and touch that spindle and die, or if my godmothers’ magic holds up, sleep for one hundred years so some stranger can kiss me awake?”
The old woman laughed not unkindly and she did not look nearly as terrible as Briar had imagined, just a bit tired maybe, with fine wrinkles around her eyes and at the corners of her mouth. Though her parents had refused to speak with her about the curse, the servants’ children had been told tales of it by their parents, and they in turn had told Briar. In a way she had been anticipating this, though only really half believing it would ever come to pass. The old woman shook her gray head almost sadly. “Mab,” she said, “though I’m not surprised I’ve gone without a name for so long. When we give our fears a name they lose power after all, but Princess I’m not here to kill you, but to give you power.” She set the spindle down on the floor in front of her.
“That doesn’t sound at all suspicious.” The princess raised an eyebrow, crossed her arms over her chest and leaned against the sill, but she was intrigued. This frank conversation was far better than holding court with the hordes of nobles. “Why don’t you explain to me why I shouldn’t summon the guards right this minute and have you hauled off to the dungeon?”
“That’s easy,” said Mab, “and I’m betting you’ll choose the spindle over walking down those stairs, if — if you choose to believe the first prophecy.”
“Right. The one where you were bitter you didn’t get invited to the banquet, threw a fit and cursed me?”
“No. The one I told your father that he decided he didn’t like and threw a fit, kicking me out of the banquet.”
The princess chuckled despite herself. “That does sound like him.”
“This is what I told your father that day, Princess: ‘Famine is coming to this kingdom. Your crops will whither, your people starve, your economy collapse. Rampant greed will keep the few with means safe, while the majority will suffer. You will blame your neighbors and start a war. No, you will start three wars. You will bite off more than you can chew. Your kingdom will crumble, your people die. You will be feared, then hated, then resented, and at last — forgotten.’”
“Yeah,” sighed Briar, “I can see why he may not have liked that.”
“It is not a lie though. Princess, you’ve been outside the castle. You’ve seen how things have begun to spiral. Your father may not be an evil man, but he is a greedy one. What has he said to you when you’ve voiced your concerns for your people? Has he dismissed them out of hand?”
Briar nodded slowly. “So that explains why he kicked you out, but not the whole spindle bit. It seems . . . excessive.”
“The wheel is for time and fate.” Mab gestured to the wheel and it began to spin, seemingly of its own accord. “The spindle is a thing of action and creation, but in the end merely a tool. Magic is a finicky thing. It sets its own rules and we work around it as best we can. Even I do not pretend to understand it completely.” She paused thoughtfully, “Just so you know, I never said you’d die. I said there would be a time when you’d have agency to choose the fate of the kingdom, and maybe to them that is just as bad.”
The princess frowned and chewed her lip, frustrated, “So what does it have to do with me?”
“To choose sleep will cause a chain reaction. The other Faeries will do together what I cannot and put the whole kingdom under a spell. One hundred years of rest. One hundred years for the overly-worked soil to revitalize itself. One hundred years for dreaming of a better way of doing things, and perhaps then a chance. I’ve tried and tried to see another way to it, but sixteen years ago your father made his choice and the paths which once were many became few. I am here to guide you as I tried to guide him. Only you can make this decision; the spindle and I are merely the catalysts.”
Mab spread her hands before her as if in supplication and Briar’s eyes fell on the spindle, which sat on the floor inanimate, yet sharp and holding all the power of a coiled snake. Briar slid to the stone floor and began to quake and sob silently, for a decision that was too big, for her friends who had been growing cold towards her, though she’d snuck them what food and aid she could. She cried for the exponentially increasing amount of beggars she had indeed seen on the streets. She cried for her nursemaid who had lost three children yet seen Briar thrive, well fed and educated. And she cried for herself as she imagined herself cold and sleeping, or maybe even dead, in a vast and silent kingdom and no one to help her out of nightmares and dreaming but herself. And when all the tears she had, perhaps a hundred years worth, had been shed and she could hear the boots of guards stomping up the stairs, and all the time had run up and still somehow spread before her like infinity, she reached for the spindle.