Once upon a time our princess was placed under a terrible curse at her christening.
(You know this story.)
For all the gilt-edged invitations that went out, the king and queen forgot to invite the wrong fairy, and she showed up anyway. She was heartless, and inventive, like most faeries; and like most faeries, time was not the spun thread of life to her but a river she waded in as she pleased. And so, with patience, she cursed the princess to live and grow in all happiness and wisdom for eighteen years, until on the day she came of age, the princess would prick her finger on a spindle and die.
Consternation. Shrieking, fainting, and then a startled silence. One more faerie had not given her gift yet, and she walked through the silent sea of shock, up to the baby sleeping placidly in her crib. And with the same inventive wit of all her kind, she reached right into the heart of the cruel magic and tweaked it aside, redirecting the power just enough to avert tragedy. Our princess would not die on her eighteenth birthday, but fall asleep, and the whole castle with her, that she might not wake up alone when the curse was past.
It was very thoughtful of the fairy.
The king did not see fit to inform us.
He must have realized, our wise king, even in those moments of terror and confusion, what might happen if anyone noised the tale abroad. He must have ordered silence – perhaps that helpful fairy sealed their lips with a touch of her gentle fingers. It has taken us until now, when everything is over and we stand amidst the dusty ruins, to learn that short story.
The kitchens were so crowded that I had to carry the succession of sizzling pans and boiling pots over my head and wriggle between one person and the next to make my way from stove to countertop without burning anyone. Mary panicked, somewhere in the middle of the morning, because the third batch of pastries would not roll out thin enough; Elizabeth declared that Some People simply couldn’t keep their heads under pressure, and then promptly forgot that sheep’s-head flowers are crushed, never whole, and had to throw out an entire pan of pastries; and there was a minor catastrophe when Joseph poured the wrong bowl of wet ingredients into his flour and Mary reamed him out.
Everything moved, in short, as smoothly as it ever does on a royal birthday. Just like every year, the first course rolled out right on time, done to perfection. And just like every year, we breathed for a bare ten seconds before Joseph cried out, “The soup is boiling over!” And everything was chaos again.
I was beating eggs for the fifth time, overworked wrist throbbing and eggs foaming into a smooth batter, when the kitchen- stumbled.
Elizabeth shivered, and scolded Joseph for leaving the door open. Mary lost track of what she was doing for a moment, staring into empty space, and nearly lost a finger on the cutting board before she jerked back to herself. I put the beater down and rubbed the back of my head, trying to dismiss the nasty twinge there and wondering if I should have taken something for headache.
None of us recognized the feeling of a long-dormant spell finally locking into place. Why should we?
The twist in the back of my head did not go away after a moment. It turned into a muzzy foggy feeling, a static shorting out every thought, and a few seconds later Elizabeth’s hands were on my shoulders, guiding me to a seat. Maybe I was swaying. All I remember is grey encroaching on my vision, an intolerable exhaustion as I collapsed onto the chair, and I closed my eyes for just a moment to steady myself.
Of rustling green leaves.
Of sunlight, sweet and hot and heavy, pouring over me.
Of earth, spiced and damp and rich, and rooted strength.
Of breezes, gossiping and friendly, tickling through my branches and whispering their news to me.
And I dreamed of silence at last, a green silence that was unhurried and unworried, a patience and guardianship.
I woke. Around me, others stirred, momentarily unfamiliar forms, and then one sneezed and another sat up and began rubbing dust from their eyes and I knew their names. For a moment, sharp panic: had we all fallen asleep? Then I realized that it was not just my team, Elizabeth and Mary and Joseph, but everyone who was getting up from the floor, the chairs, the table. All through the vast length of the kitchen men and women got to their feet, dazed and disoriented, but already leaning into the same panic that had seized at me.
Well. You know this story. A hundred years after she fell asleep, the first prince to make it past the thorny vines breached the entrance. With a single kiss, the spell was broken.
He is handsome, in a blue-eyed black-haired sort of way. He and the princess are head-over-heels in love, as far as anyone can see, for they’ve barely left each other’s sight since she woke up. There will be another royal celebration in a few more days, a ball thrown for their wedding, and the kingdom will rejoice.
We went home. The nobles were greeting the prince, cooing over the princess’s health after all those years, praising the fairy to high heaven; the maids and the pages were called into service, bleary-eyed and dust-covered themselves, to help the court as they recovered from a century of beauty sleep; but no one thought of the kitchen staff. We walked out the back gate together without having to discuss it, and as the road entered the village we split up, still in silence.
This morning- a hundred years ago- I told Mum I wouldn’t be home for dinner, but if she left the backdoor on the latch I’d be home to sleep. It’s a sturdy little house, a handful of rooms all curled up together, and you have to lift the door up on the hinges a little and open it slowly if you mean to be quiet- the sleeping folks being right there, as it were.
I lifted the latch quietly and opened the backdoor without knocking, and a stranger looked up from the counter. Her hands were still in the bread dough she was kneading, and I knew what she saw: dirt on my face and spiderweb in my hair. Strange eyes and an unfamiliar step.
“I’m sorry,” I said, and shut the door.
I understand, in an empty black-and-white sort of way, what has happened.
What happened to the wooden knight, half-carved for Stephen and sitting on the hearth this morning as I walked out?Just seven years old, and his one ambition is- was- to be a king’s night. Without a king in the country, what happened? (It would, perhaps, be more important to ask what happened to the country without a king. But that doesn’t matter.)
There’s a ring of keys on my belt, from work, an unwilted sprig of lilac flowers in my hair, and a little polished river stone in my pocket. This, and no more. I had few enough possessions in my home, but now – not even a change of clothing. The riverstone was from Francis. Elizabeth is was convinced that he is was going to ask me to go a-courting. He’s hanging around the backdoor in the evenings when I get off work, true, though I wondered if part of that was the pastry-scraps.
I wonder what that would have been like?
I stayed in the palace kitchen that night, curled up against the warm stones of the great hearth. People trickled in one by one as evening shadows grew. It’s a long, low room, big enough for little groups to distribute themselves here and there. None of them had returned with blankets, or even cloaks. It’s not our place, at all, to sleep in the castle, but they were all too busy preparing for the wedding to notice us.
Elizabeth sat against the wall and had a very, very quiet fit of hysterics. After a little while of listening to the thick gasping noises as she struggled to stuff it all down into the hollow of her chest where it could make no noise, I crawled over and sat beside her and tucked her head in close against me, and let her muffle it in my dress instead. She cried herself to sleep like a child, and lay heavy against me, still shuddering now and then with the long gasps of lungs trying to breath again after crying. I watched the rise and fall of her breath, and the coals behind me crackled softly, and the sound turned into rustling, wind through leaves, and I watched the night slip past, and thought about nothing at all.
The fairy has been watching over preparations for the wedding. Making sure nothing goes wrong this time. Seeing her victory through to the end.
I caught her alone in a corridor, the next day. It nearly stole my breath, just to look straight at her glamour, and I might have been risking my life. (I know nothing of the customs of faerie.) But I managed to ask her where the vines came from.
“The vines?” She said.
“The vines you called up, my lady.” The patient, long-lived vines that twined across every square inch of the castle walls, if the stories are to be believed, and saturated the castle in their slow magic. The thorny-stemmed broad-leafed vines that drank sweet sun, and stretched roots deep into the earth, and whispered with the wind. The vines that I know with such clarity, though I know nothing but rumor of the rest of the story that wrenched my life out of my hands. “To protect the castle. Did they… come from somewhere?”
“Oh!” Her blank confusion cleared. “Those seeds came from the Eldest Forest. But don’t worry. There is nothing else of the forest here, and they will not come back. You need not fear.”
“Thank you, my lady.”
Elizabeth is going to stay with distant relatives, star-struck enough by the fairy tale that has come to pass in their lifetime that they will take this vagrant in from behind the thorny walls. Mary is going to work at the inn- simmering a hearty stew and wiping down tables is the same as it ever was. Joseph is going to stay at the palace, despite it all, and I know he will take care of the rest of the kitchen.
The princess will get married two days from now, and live happily ever after.
And I stand at the edge of the Eldest Forest, and I know I will not come back. The only way to go into this forest and come back is clutched in the shielding hand of a quest, and I am no princess. My mother whispered no prophecy of greatness when I was born, and I was not there at her deathbed to receive her blessing or promise her last request. My only almost-lover was a cooper’s apprentice, a fumbling sandy-haired boy with work-rough fingers and a stutter, and he died thirty years ago if he was long-lived.
I am a kitchen maid, a serf, and we are too busy working and living and dying to go on quests and seek out magic. It is not for us to have our names remembered.
It is for us to pick up the pieces and carry on.
Most of us do. But there are always the weak links. I’m sorry.
There is sap running green in my veins, and leaves rustling in the back of my mind. I have not eaten for one century and three days – I have forgotten what food tastes like – but I know what sunlight tastes like on my skin, sweet and hot. I see what I ought to feel in those around me: wild-eyed panic, in Elizabeth. Heart-ripped-out grief, in Joseph. Searing anger, in Mary. But I can find nothing in my hollow chest but a green stillness. A silent patience.
I am walking into the Eldest Forest.