Sleeping Beauty’s castle was so overrun with vines that Briar couldn’t even see the stairs from the front door. Faybelle took to the air to see if she could spot them from above while Daring tried to hack his way through with his claws. After a few seconds of determined swiping, he rested his paws on his knees, panting.
“Holy roses. Where’s an enchanted weed-whacker when you need it?”
A soft gust of air heralded Faybelle’s return from her scouting mission.
“I can’t see the stairs.” the fairy complained from above, as Daring shook little bits of leaves and bark out of his mane. “The vines go all the way up to the ceiling. I can’t even see where they end. They’re blocking my way.” She frowned, as if it irritated her to admit that she‘d been beaten by a bunch of plants.
“We’ll just have to go through them.” Blondie said brightly.
She stepped bravely into the thicket, holding her arms up as she tried to force her way through the waist-high tangle of branches. The prickly twigs caught at her legs and pulled at her curls. After only a few steps, she stopped and turned with difficulty back to the group.
“Maybe this isn’t a good idea.” she said, wincing as her hair caught painfully on a bramble.
Armed with her wand, Crystal took the lead as she began to blast a path for them, kicking bits of broken twigs out of the way.
“Which way should we go?” asked Ashlynn as she went to follow.
That was a good question. The hedge of thorns was so thick it was impossible to see how big the entrance hall was, let alone any doors or staircases that might lead further into the castle. Briar wouldn’t have known which way to go anyway. She had only been in her mother’s castle once or twice before, when she was a toddler.
“We should split up.” said Crystal “We can cover more ground that way.”
The others thought this was a good idea. The castle was huge; it would take quite some time for the six of them to search it, and after all they could only guess where the Fall Rose was. As much as Faybelle thought it might be in the tower, she could be wrong. At least, Briar hoped she was wrong, though she didn’t say this out loud.
It was agreed that they would all meet up back at the front door in an hour. Nobody was to search unaccompanied. Rosabella paired up with Daring, who seemed to be getting into his stride in his new beastly form as he clawed a path clear for them. Blondie and Ashlynn went after Crystal, climbing carefully over and under the vines that were too big for her to blast away.
Within minutes they had all vanished into the jungle. Briar watched them go, lingering at the door.
Faybelle was resting her elbows nonchalantly on a vine in mid-air, smirking down at her.
“You don’t have to come. If you’re too afraid.” said the fairy pointedly.
Briar glared at her. Well, of course she was coming, now that Faybelle had said that! Scowling, the princess planted one foot on the trunk of a vine and stepped determinedly into the castle, though she had no idea where she was going. The forest was so thick. Briar had to dodge and weave and dart in between the vines wherever there was a gap, so it became very difficult to keep to a straight line. Sometimes the bushes of brambles reached higher than her head, forcing her to use the bigger vines as stepping stones. At other times she had paddle through them as though she were wading through a lake. The lovely fur hem of her winter dress kept getting snagged on thorny branches and more than once Briar had to stop to free herself.
But more irritating than her clothes getting caught on the brambles, Briar was irked that Faybelle had obviously noticed her unease. Briar wouldn’t have minded her pointing it out if she’d put it nicely. If Faybelle had just said, “Look, Briar, I know you don’t want to go in. Just stay here. We’ll find the rose,” without sneering and smirking and making her feel foolish, well, Briar might have listened.
Briar knew it wasn’t really Faybelle’s fault. Faybelle wasn’t being deliberately mean. She probably thought it was silly, being frightened of an empty castle when Briar had no problem bungee-jumping off a beanstalk or zip-lining out her bedroom window. And it was silly. Briar hadn’t come on this quest just to get cold feet halfway through. That almost made Briar laugh, considering they were on a quest to save the world from eternal winter. Her spirits lifted, she pushed away her feelings of irrational resentment and unease and directed all her focus to getting through the castle without losing her skirt in the process.
Faybelle was having an easier time flying overhead, where the vines had grown thinner and were not so thickly entangled, but even her progress was hindered. In places where the vines grew too closely together for her to wriggle through, she had to land and climb carefully around them. At one point she had to climb through them, pushing aside an overhanging branch that rained splinters of wood and leaves all over her back.
“Geez. No wonder all those princes died trying to get to your mom.” the fairy muttered, picking loose bits of bark out of her long, pale hair as she took to the air again. She grinned down at Briar. “Can you imagine how bad it would be if these thorns were still sharp? We’d be slashed to ribbons.”
“Don’t, Faybelle.” said Briar stiffly.
“What? I’m just saying.” Faybelle turned in the air, trying to see how far they’d come. Over the bristling hedge of thorns she could just about make out a pale light, which she thought was the winter air coming through the open door. But when she tried to look further into the castle it was too thick to see more than a few feet. “I still can’t see a thing." She called down to Briar: "Do you even know where we’re going?”
“I only came here once with my mom, when I was little.” Briar said tersely “We didn’t stay for very long so I can’t remember much about where everything is. Anyway, the forest wasn’t so mad back then.”
She winced as a long-hanging branch raked across the top of her head, pulling painfully at her scalp. This forest of thorns may have inspired her name, but the princess couldn‘t find it in her to appreciate it right now.
Briar attempted to pull away but the prickly vines held fast, pulling tighter the more she tried to move. She tried to look up so she could see clearly which branch had caught her and only succeeded in causing herself more pain.
“What? What is it?” Faybelle swooped down to hover in front of her, her hand up, palm splayed, ready to use her magic. Briar tried to look up at her and winced at another painful tug.
“Ugh. Something’s got me.”
Faybelle descended a little so as to get a better look.
“Your roses are caught.” She rolled her eyes. “Here.”
She reached out, holding a low-hanging thorny branch carefully out of the way with one hand. With the other, she began to prise Briar’s hair free from the little tiara of silver leaves and pink roses she’d magicked up to match Briar’s winter dress in the place of the pink sunglasses she usually wore. All the sledging and jumping about they’d been doing today must have pulled them askew, tangling them up in Briar’s long pink-streaked locks, forming a kind of mesh that had in turn snagged on the branch.
Briar sighed with relief as she was disentangled, Faybelle pulling loose two of the roses that had slipped.
“Mmm.” Faybelle gave a one-armed shrug and continued to carefully run through Briar’s hair, combing the places where knots had formed until they were smooth. The drag of her fingers against Briar’s scalp felt quite nice after all the pulling from before, so Briar didn’t stop her.
“Didn’t she even talk to you about it?” Faybelle asked, concentrating on tucking the roses back in, securing them in place. Briar considered pretending that they were still talking about the castle, but in the end she just shrugged and shook her head no.
Faybelle watched her curiously, twisting the silver stem of a leaf around a rose to hold it in place.
“Aren’t you the least bit curious?” she asked.
“No.” Briar said firmly.
“Come on.” Faybelle removed her hands from Briar and shifted a little awkwardly in the air, looking at Briar without looking at her. “You must have thought about it at some point.”
All the time, actually, thought Briar. Without ever thinking about it too deeply. Her destiny was always looming horribly on the horizon, but until very recently it had always seemed distant, far in the future…
Rarely did Briar allow herself to think seriously about their story. Even when she‘d thrown the Storybook of Legends into the Well of Wonder, she had refused to think too deeply about what she‘d done. It was too frightening and anyway, it was done now. Even if she had wanted to, and Briar wasn't entirely sure if she didn't, Briar couldn’t change the past, no more than she could change the future.
“I have dreams sometimes.” she said.
“Dreams?” said Faybelle, folding her arms, but not in a derisive way.
“Where I’m…asleep, I guess. I don’t remember much.” Now it was Briar’s turn to gaze at a distant spot somewhere over Faybelle’s shoulder. She already wished she hadn’t said anything; she hadn’t even told Ashlynn or Apple about this.
“Maybe you’re dreaming of your future prince?” said Faybelle, her tone light and casual.
“I don’t think so.” Briar said, surprising herself by how confident she sounded.
“Well, what else could it be?”
“I don’t know.” Suddenly uncomfortable, Briar cleared her throat and set off walking again. “Come on. Let’s keep searching.”
Astonishingly, Faybelle did not press the issue but silently closed the door on the conversation and flew on. After about ten minutes of walking (well, more like climbing) they came to a wide open area with a ceiling built so high as to be invisible. The convex walls formed a huge, circular chimney, up which vines and tendrils climbed far above their heads, disappearing into darkness beyond which their eyes could not penetrate.
It looked as though they were standing at the base of a tower - but any kind of staircase had long since crumbled away.
The fairy and the princess stared up at it for a moment.
“I guess that’s where we’ve got to go.” Briar said presently, squinting as she tried to see how far up the tower went. Her eyes drifted to the thick tendrils that reached up into the abyss like Jack and the Beanstalk. “But how do we…”
“Here.” Faybelle extended her wings confidently, unfazed. “I’ll fly you up.” She held out her arms but Briar had a better idea. She walked over to the nearest clump of vines growing up the tower and examined the bases, where they were firmly welded to the floor under a thick coat of ice.
“We could use these to climb up!” she suggested.
“Or I could just fly us up,” pointed out Faybelle, stating the simple solution.
Briar was not to be discouraged. She crouched and wrapped her arms around the base of the vine - then stood up and pulled with all her strength, tugging the sturdy vine as best she could from side to side. The ice still felt as solid as rock but white cracks had begun to form. Briar jumped up and down, driving her weight onto the surface. With a crunchy sort of cracking noise the vine finally came free - and suddenly Briar was shooting into the air, speeding up the inside of the tunnel like a firework, arms and legs instinctively locking tight around her unexpected ride.
The vine deposited her over the edge of a balcony rail interwoven with more thorny tendrils. Though light-headed with a mixture of shock and giddy delight, Briar managed to land on wobbly legs without even slipping on the piles of snow that littered the floor.
“Whoo-hoo!” she cheered, dizzily fist-pumping the air. Her voice echoed. She glanced back over the rail, down into the darkness at the bottom of the tower. “Faybelle! You have to try this!”
“Or I could just fly up.” said Faybelle, taking her own advice.
She hovered over Briar’s shoulder, looking this way and that.
“I guess that’s the way in.” She pointed to a stone archway, with no doors built into it. Even in the unlit tower, Briar could make out the first few steps of a flight of stairs.
“Yes. Probably.” Briar swallowed. In the thrill of the ride up the tower she’d almost forgotten where they were going. Now she remembered, in a big rush of butterflies that made her stomach flutter uncomfortably.
“Well, come on, then.”
Faybelle swooped ahead impatiently. Briar followed at a more sedate pace, clasping her elbows. Her stomach twisted as she took the first step and she held on tight to the banister built into the winding wall.
They climbed the tower mostly in silence, apart from the steady thrum of Faybelle’s wings. Briar’s stomach no longer felt like it was swarming with butterflies; instead it felt like it was steadily filling with lead. Each step felt heavier and heavier. When they reached the top it came as a jolt; somehow Briar hadn’t been expecting the stairs to end. Her hand slipped off the end of the banister and she stumbled, her heel missing a step. Jolted out of her haze, she squeaked, her hand groping in midair for the banister as she tipped backwards - and then a hand grabbed her around the wrist and she was pulled against a warm, secure weight.
Briar blinked in surprise like someone coming out of a dream, her fingers reflexively squeezing Faybelle’s shoulders.
Faybelle looked back at her, close enough that Briar could see the near-invisible glitter of fairy dust under her pale periwinkle skin. The fairy’s arms were looped around her waist. Faybelle’s wings beat, blowing Briar’s hair over her shoulders, and she felt her feet settle firmly on the floor.
“Careful, princess.” the fairy said, before turning and disappearing through a simple stone archway just like the one downstairs, this time with a wooden door fixed into the frame.
Briar blinked again, sluggishly, wondering if that had really just happened. It didn’t seem to matter much. More and more she wanted to see what was in the room at the very top of the tower. Moving like one who was wading through water, she followed Faybelle in.
Inside it was bigger than she’d imagined, a wide open space with shafts of light coming through the gaps in the rafters. It was completely clear of thorns and adorned with drifts of snow. In the centre of the room was a wooden spinning wheel with a stool and a woven basket filled with glowing yellow yarn. The spindle gleamed in the faint light. It looked sharp.
Briar stared at the wheel until her whole body felt numb. She was only dimly aware of Faybelle hovering beside her.
“So that’s it, huh? To think. Your mom and my mom were once here.”
She flew across the room, settling behind the wheel for a closer look. Briar followed, drawn to it like a magnet.
“Double dare you to touch the spindle, Briar.” Faybelle sang as she came close.
Briar reached out -
“Briar?” said Faybelle, suddenly anxious.
- and touched the needle.
Faybelle’s hand shot out, catching Briar’s wrist a split second too late. Briar’s eyes closed and she dropped, asleep before she could hit the ground.
Faybelle shot forwards, quickly catching her shoulders to keep her from falling. She lowered the princess carefully to the floor.
“Briar! Briar! Wake up!” she kept saying, which was ridiculous because she knew Briar wasn‘t going to wake, however many times she told her to. Still she kept on saying it. It was like doing that idiot thing of searching everywhere for a missing key, insisting that ‘it had to be here somewhere,’ even though you knew it wasn’t.
Faybelle knew perfectly well Briar wasn’t going to wake up. Once anyone touched that needle, they were gone, for a hundred years, only able to be woken by true love’s kiss.
Faybelle had always known that this moment was going to happen. It was their destiny, after all.
But right now fulfilling her destiny was the furthest thing from her mind. Faybelle’s thoughts were ablaze in a deafening panic. She didn’t know what to do. She wondered about getting the others - but they could be anywhere in the castle by now, and when she went to lift Briar, something tightened around the princess and held her fast. Vines were sprouting from thin air, winding around Briar and filling the room. When Faybelle tore her gaze from the princess and looked around, she saw that they had begun to creep up the walls and slip through the holes in the roof, tingeing the pale winter light a soft green.
The vines would grow until they reached the hedge of thorns on the ground floor which would bloom and spread out and around the castle until nobody could get in or out. They would keep the princess safe in her tower, and keep her young and youthful and beautiful for a hundred years.
Faybelle could feel the magic awakening around her; the feeling of a long-ago curse finally coming into fruition. She wondered if she could... remove it somehow, or undo it. But at the same time she knew she really shouldn’t. Her magic was not like Farrah Goodfairy’s. It was the magic of the dark side of fairykind; it was too dangerous, and powerful, to apply to mundane uses. It was not designed to cause good, or undo evil, or break a curse…
Which left Faybelle with only one option.
Briar dreamed that she was sleeping again, just as she had the night before Thronecoming, the last time she had pricked her finger on a needle.
How long ago that seemed.
She could tell that it was dark, even through her closed eyelids, and she could smell roses, lots and lots of roses filling the air with their heady perfume. She could feel their silky petals, soft against her skin, brushing against her cheek and resting under her palms. She thought she might almost be covered in them, like a blanket, but didn’t open her eyes to check.
Instead Briar snuggled into the bed of roses and breathed in their heady scent.
It was soft and comfortable here, and the darkness was so still and quiet, and Briar didn’t think she ever wanted to move.
She dreamed in half-remembered voices that drifted through her mind, attached to faces and memories that faded away just as quickly.
“Hey, Briar, could you come help me with my hair?”
“Briar, it’s not just about the party!”
They all seemed very faraway and unimportant, and kept overlapping each other, so that Briar could only hear bits of sentences.
“We all have a part to play…” said Apple White.
“Charades!” cried Cupid.
“I’ve thought long and hard and - I choose me.” said Daring.
It was all too much effort to concentrate, when the roses were so soft and snug and warm, and she felt so comfortable. The voices were growing dimmer anyway…
“Briar! You love everything and anything hexciting! Because… you know…”
Know what? Somewhere in the back of her mind, Briar stirred.
Another voice was calling, clearer than the others.
“…please wake up.”
Briar blinked and opened her eyes. She reached out, stretching her arms out of the blanket of flowers and someone caught her hands and pulled…
And then Briar awoke, breathing out into the warmth of someone else’s mouth. She opened her eyes and saw Faybelle leaning away from her, her face pale and worried, one hand still grasping Briar’s wrist, wings high with agitation.
“Briar!” she gasped “Are you awake? Can you hear me?”
“Faybelle?” Briar mumbled.
“Oh, godmother.” Faybelle sat back, shoulders slumped with relief. “I didn’t think you’d ever wake up. I didn’t know what to do. I was so worried. I even thought about trying to use my magic to undo the curse - but I didn’t know how. I was afraid you’d really be gone if I tried that. I couldn’t even take you to the others because the vines had locked you in.”
Indeed, as Briar took note of her surroundings she could see that the room had almost changed beyond recognition. It now resembled an enormous green cave. The holes in the rafters were completely stopped up with climbing thorns and red roses, though they were drooping and limp now.
Briar refocused back on Faybelle.
“I…fell asleep?” she asked, feeling confused. The time she and Faybelle had spent together in the tower room seemed like a dream, as if Briar had been half-asleep from the moment she had stepped onto the balcony. When Briar tried to think back to those last few seconds, all she could remember was the pointed tip of the spindle.
The tip of her index finger on the hand Faybelle held was throbbing. Briar sat up and limp tendrils of vine and strands of overblown roses slithered off her and onto the floor. She looked down at the drying bead of red on her finger.
“You…woke me up?” she said, feeling like she was teetering on the edge of a major world-alerting truth, like a catastrophe or a revelation of some kind.
“Well, I had to be in the story somehow!” Faybelle snapped, her face flushing darker as she turned away, though she didn’t let go of Briar’s hand.
Briar’s own cheeks were hot. She and Faybelle sat there, staring at anything other than each other. Briar noted irrelevantly that the roses were starting to fall, the vines wilting like flowers that had been left in water for too long. A faint yellow glow caught her eye and she got to her feet, stepping towards the spinning wheel.
Immediately Faybelle’s hand shot out, grabbing Briar by the wrist. Briar was pulled into an awkward half-bow.
“Don’t!” Faybelle snapped.
“Uh, I was just going to look in the basket.”
“Oh.” said Faybelle.
There was another loaded silence.
More out of a desire to break the awkwardness that was crowding the room, Briar straightened up and approached the spindle again. She moved slowly, waiting for any kind of pull or attraction that would drive her to touch the spindle again. But nothing happened. The spinning wheel remained as it was. When Faybelle didn’t move to stop her, only continued to hold her hand in that crushing grip, she reached into the basket and pulled out the ball of glowing yellow yarn, holding her right index finger aloft to keep from rubbing the sore part against the thread.
“Magic yarn.” Briar said thoughtfully, recognising the warm hum under her palms. It was the same radiance that had drawn her to the spindle; only far less powerful. But of course the spindle was enchanted specially for her.
“The rose at Cinderella’s was protected by magic. Maybe this is too.”
She sat down at the spinning wheel.
“Move.” said Faybelle, stepping in between her and the spindle. She took the glowing ball of yarn from Briar’s hands. “I’ll do it.”
Faybelle held up the ball of yarn to the point of the spindle. At first nothing happened. Then, like two magnets being drawn together, a single loose thread came free from the ball and latched on to the end of the needle. It ravelled the spindle in yellow light, transforming it into a single goldenrod rose.
“We’ve found it.” cried Briar in delight. “The Rose of Fall.”
“Great!” Faybelle snatched the rose up without ceremony. “Now let’s go!”
With her free hand, she grabbed Briar’s and marched them out of the room and out the door. Briar obeyed blankly, letting herself be steered along. They didn’t let go of each others’ hands until they were down the stairs and out of the tower altogether.