art by Billy Sagulo
And Silver Fountains, Mud
by Lisa Nohealani Morton
Born and raised in Honolulu, Lisa Nohealani Morton lives in Washington, DC. By day she is a mild-mannered database wrangler, computer programmer, and all-around data geek, and by night she writes science fiction, fantasy, and combinations of the two. Her short fiction has appeared in publications such as Lightspeed, Daily Science Fiction, and the anthology Hellebore and Rue. She can be found on Twitter as @lnmorton.
The first thing she's aware of is weight. After too long asleep, her limbs are tingling and twitching, aching for movement, and something is impeding them. She only has a moment to register the feeling, to translate it into a word, pinned. Then the pain comes, and transfixes her in place.
She hears breathing, fast and harsh, and she squeezes her eyes shut tighter and thinks of her spinning, until the needle melts and she can escape this false awakening.
Half a day passes before she lifts herself off the bier. At first her legs are cold, and tremble when she tries to move them, as if she'd been a-horseback all day, but at last they begin to obey her commands. She stands, by inches, like a crone, and brushes her skirts down around her legs. There's a twinge, in between, threatening to stir memory, but she dodges it like a blow; her (step)mother always said that nice girls didn't, and so she hasn't, and there's an end to it.
She takes a cautious, shuffling step, and stumbles a bit; a clatter breaks the silence. She looks down, shocked by the sound, and sees a sword, tangled up in a belt as though its owner had discarded them hastily and forgotten them.
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Still moving slowly, she picks it up by the handle. The blade is dull, and fouled by sap. Absentmindedly, she casts about for a place to put it away. She wraps it in a piece of silk she'd been saving to embroider, and puts it among her underthings.
Thinking at last of her family, she rushes down into the throne room, where her mother and father are just beginning to rub their eyes and stretch. They exclaim to one another as the thorns shrink and pull away from the castle walls.
"At last, we are awake," declares the king, who declared most of the things that he spoke, as was his prerogative as king. "And my daughter is free of the curse and returned to us!
"But who do we have to thank for our salvation? Who braved the brambles and set the castle free?"
She lowers her eyes, and admits, "I did not see his face."
A feast soon follows, because there is always a feast. When her father the king posted the proclamations, a round dozen princes each claimed that he was the rightful gallant who should be granted her hand in marriage. There is jousting and boasting and drinking, and all the knights in the land attend, eager to prove their prowess on the tourney field.
"You got better princes in the old days, before we fell asleep," she overhears one of her aunts saying to another. "Why, my father made my Wilbur rescue me from a dragon, none of this namby-pamby jousting business. And some of their doublets are positively outré!"
"Yes," murmurs the other aunt, "but at a hundred and sixteen years old, she's lucky to get a husband at all."
At the end of the first day, the princes are lined up before her. Each one steps forward, blond and brunette and uniformly brawny and square-jawed, and in turn hands her a red rose. She takes the roses cautiously, but discovers after the second or third that the thorns are stripped away. No one wants to risk what may happen if she is pricked again.
"Well, my daughter?" says the king. "Which of these fine, strapping young princes did the deed?" (She forces her face to calmness, though her heart hammers her panic in her chest.) "Which has won your exceedingly fair hand in marriage?"
She scrutinizes each face in turn, but they all wear identical, princely, self-satisfied smirks. Since she can hardly demand they show her maiden's blood as proof, she raises a steady hand and points, hoping desperately to choose the wrong one.
"Him," she whispers, and watches one handsome face split into a grin and eleven others fall.
Their wedding is a thing for the ages. The king declares a month of celebration, and a hundred doves of peace are released to joyful freedom and cheers as she exits the church on her new husband's arm. The feast encompasses nineteen courses, and three kinds of duck alone; the cooks bring out dessert after fanciful dessert, culminating in a wedding cake sculpted to look like the castle as it slept, wrapped 'round in brambles made of marzipan. Roses made of spun sugar bloom on every slice.
Once everyone is sufficiently in their cups, her husband takes her hand and leads her upstairs to the raucous accompaniment of drunken singing, punctuated by ribald suggestions that turn her face as red as the roses on her cake. That first night, she flinches a little at his touch, but at his worried look she lays back, and smiles at him, and pictures herself surrounded by brambles until nothing can touch her at all.
She imagines now and again that she can smell iron rusting in her bedchamber. She makes sachets of lavender and rosemary and tucks them in among her clothing, and under her pillows, but the smell returns again and again. At last she hits upon the solution. She makes up a little pouch of dried rose petals, collected from the foot of the castle's walls, and slips it into the drawer that holds her underthings, next to the wrapped-up sword. Her hand rests briefly on the silk, but she pulls it away and goes back to her embroidery.
A month after the wedding, the old king goes back to sleep, and never opens his eyes again. She wears black to the coronation.
The midwives know better than to chatter as they go about their work. Anyone who mentions that only six months have passed from wedding to confinement is swiftly clapped in irons; the new king will not tolerate anyone carrying rumors about his queen. They bring the water, and the cloths, and strip the sheets when they become soiled, and do what they have been paid to do.
The mother-to-be is quiet throughout the birth. She gives one small moan when they tell her she has a daughter, and turns her face to the wall as the infant nurses. The next day, however, she smiles as the king holds the baby up before a screaming throng of subjects.
"My people," he proclaims, "this is my daughter!"
She closes her eyes and lets their cheering wash over her as she prays.
No fairies are invited to the christening.
Late one night, after her husband has been and gone, she takes the sword out of its silk wrapping, and holds it across her lap. The sap still fouls the blade, turning the edge a grisly red like blood. She scrubs at it with a corner of the cloth, but it's hardened and won't come off. Everyone in this castle is asleep, she thinks. What will it take, to wake them up?
She sits like that for a time, one hand idly stroking the pommel, daydreaming brambles, until she knows what she'll have to do. She wraps the sword up again carefully, and goes back to bed.
The next morning, she finds the castle armorer in his room in the barracks, polishing a shield with a soft cloth. He's a short man, well muscled, with an unfortunate wart at the end of his nose that keeps the castle maids from mooning over him.
"Good armorer," she says, startling him so that he drops the shield. It hits the ground with a sound like a gong.
"Milady," he says, "I--this is hardly a place for you. You'll soil your dress."
"I need your help," she says.
"Of course, milady, anything we can do--but what help can I possibly be to you? Unless you need a sword, which, ha-ha, of course you don't--"
"I have a sword," she says, and watches his eyes widen slightly. She laughs, light and careless. "It's a surprise, for my husband. For our anniversary. But the blade is dull."
Understanding dawns. "Of course, milady, I would be happy to sharpen it for you."
"No," she says, "I want to do it myself. It will be more special that way." She smiles at him. "Surely you can help me?"
He leads her down a hall and into a small room with a chair and a grinding stone. "Good luck, milady," he says. She sees a fey glint in his eyes as he turns to leave. Had his ears always come to such a point?
Then the door closes, and she's alone.
It turns out that sharpening blades is as easy as spinning. There's even a foot pedal to keep the wheel turning. The sword feels warm in her hand, like home; like she hasn't felt since before she went to sleep. She closes her hand around the pommel. A sweet scent fills her nostrils, like new-bloomed roses. Her head is full of brambles, but she feels herself beginning to wake up.
When the sword is ready, she goes looking for her husband. She finds him consulting with the armorer on the castle's defenses. They turn to her politely when she walks in. She wants to tell them that no wall will match the brambles, all chopped down when the castle awoke, but the words freeze in her throat.
"Why, that's my sword," the king says. "I haven't seen it since... have you had it all along?"
She bites the inside of her cheek and nods. She'd never admitted it to herself, but, "I knew it was you," she says at last.
The armorer glances between them. "I'll just leave you then, milord, milady," he says, and turns away. She watches him go. For an instant, as he passes through the door, it isn't the armorer at all, but an old, old woman, withered and bent, with a glint of mischief in her eye. She shakes her head in confusion, and the old woman is gone, and so is the armorer.
At first, neither of them speaks. Then her husband says, with a strange twist to his mouth, "In the songs, now you'd fall into my arms and grant me True Love's kiss."
She lifts her chin. "In the songs," she replies, "I'd run myself through, and you'd waste away from weeping o'er my corpse."
He laughs scornfully. "Then it's a good thing this isn't a song, isn't it?"
She nods. "Roses should have thorns," she said. He's still looking at her oddly when she raises the sword.
Wood creaks as branches stretch upward; thorns as large as daggers scratch their way up the castle walls. A baby cries, uncomforted. The castle sleeps. She alone remains awake, stalking the halls with her sword.
The first thing she's aware of is light. It seeps in around her eyelids, plays over her skirts, teases the sword in her slackened hand, which tightens as she wakes.
All of her roses have returned. They bloom, still wet and red, on every throat she sees. Everyone is asleep, just like before. Everyone but she, and her daughter who lies at her breast, nursing peacefully. The brambles are back as well, and they overgrow everything.
This time I'll be the witch, she thinks, and smiles, and sings a lullaby.
This story was first published on Tuesday, December 31st, 2013
I'm not sure what it is about fairytales and fables. I write a lot of them, both retellings of existing stories and new ones (often set on Mars or featuring a robot prince, because the future needs magic, too). The fairytale we call "Sleeping Beauty" is based on a number of earlier stories that are much less romantic than Perrault's version. I wanted to explore the darker side of Sleeping Beauty stories from the point of view of a "Beauty" who got revenge for the wrongs done her instead of fading into "Happily ever after."
- Lisa Nohealani Morton
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