Written by Woodclaw :: [Wednesday, 30 November 2011 14:25] Last updated by :: [Sunday, 04 May 2014 18:51]
What If the Princess Slayed the Dragon
(with many thanks to Geekseven and Njae for the editing and support)
Usually I prefer to keep my story close to source material, especially when dealing with classics, but the Disney movie from 1959 is so iconic that I couldn't avoid it. Also the Disney version has a more compact story, which works better for a What If.
As a result I based the story upon Disney, but added lot of personal twists, especially regarding the look and the “magical feel”.
Once upon a time, there was small kingdom, which was indeed blessed. The fields were rich, the cattle numerous and fat, and vast forests of tall, green trees dotted the landscape. The knights of the kingdom were strong and vigilant, although the frontiers were secure and peaceful. King Stephan and Queen Leah ruled with a right measure of fairness and strictness, ensuring that none of their subjects abused another, but a heavy burden weighted upon them. While they loved each other very much, all their attempts to conceive an heir had failed and, as time passed, many feared that the royal family would soon be nothing more than a memory. The king greatly feared the power struggle among his peers and had often considered various ways to avoid it, which included asking his ally and good friend king Hubert to unite their domains in a great single kingdom.
Then something unexpected – almost miraculous – happened. One morning the royal physician was summoned with utmost speed, Queen Leah appeared to be ill. King Stephan was impaled upon the kind of anxiety that could kill a man. After an hour of careful examination the learned man pronounced her majesty not just healthy, but pregnant as well.
Describing the relief and the joy of the king is a task beyond mere words. Let's just say that over the day heralds were dispatched across the realm to announce the good news. Many were the toasts and the celebrations across the kingdom, but dark shadows were lurking just behind the horizon.
Months later the happy event was finally upon them, the whole kingdom was holding its breath. King Stephan had pretty much burned a hole through the carpets in front of the queen's bedroom, while midwives and physicians came and went through the door. His thick black mustache trembled with each step and his huge roman nose – made even more prominent by his exceptional thinness – flared each time the door opened.
His good friend king Hubert was waiting at his side, as he was to be the godfather to the newborn. “My friend, perhaps you should calm down for a moment and enjoy a glass of wine.” said Hubert raising a glass of his own.
Stephan snorted and looked across the room to his friend. It took him a long moment to realize that there was no malice in his comment, just a friendly concern: “I'm sorry, but I don't think that I'm in the right disposition to enjoy it.” Stephan smiled, “And I do believe that you were in an even worse one, when your son was born.”
Hubert looked dumbfounded and then laughed. The prodigious girth of his chest – not to mention his belly – gave him a deep laugh, which had a contagious quality, which together with his flaming red hair and thick sideburns gave him a vaguely barbaric appearance. “Yes, of course. They were the worst hours of my life but, let me tell you, the reward is worth every minute of it.”
King Stephan smiled again and the door suddenly opened and one of the midwives stepped out and bowed: “Your highness. It seems that everything is fine.”
King Stephan rushed inside and found his wife very pale, but also very happy, nursing a small bundle. She looked at him with pride and whispered “It's a girl.”
Like many monarchs Stephan secretly hoped for a male heir, but to his credit he was too relieved and happy to allow any resentment to cloud his judgment. Yet there was something else. The physician stepped in and asked the king for a short private audience. Reluctantly the king accepted. Queen Leah was a remarkably strong and very resolute woman, but the birth labor had taken a heavy toll on her. While she was fine, the physician was very worried about the future health and well-being of the newborn princess, which was beyond his ability to guarantee.
This was indeed grave news, but the king and queen were resolute not to lose this long wished-for child. As the royal heralds started to announce the date for the christening of the princess, knights were dispatched to the four corners of the realm, to look for the good faeries that dwelt in the forests of the realm asking for a boon on the newborn.
And so the fated day came, the whole kingdom was rejoicing, nobles and commoners alike filled the capital to capacity for the christening. The royal palace was literally overfilled, a veritable army of cooks and servants ran across the halls to attend the many needs of the guests.
The great hall was buzzing with chatter; nobles of all stations – from the lowliest knight to the mightiest duke – were assessing and evaluating how the little bundle that the queen was cradling in her arms would affect their future. Many were secretly looking for the chance to secure a marriage for their own offspring, perhaps even a royal one if the opportunity was right. King Stephan seemed unconcerned with such ideas, as he turned down many splendid matches with a knowing smile and a kind word. He had already made plans, for the young Princess Aurora would be married with Prince Philip, the only son of King Hubert, to unite the two small kingdoms in a greater, richer one. Behind the scenes the royal heralds of both kingdoms were already drafting a first version of the complex accords.
King Hubert and Prince Philip were also present and sat right next to the hosts. While Hubert was quite enjoying the whole deal, his five-years-old son was really bored and often eyeballed the little baby. This only got him a really disapproving look from Queen Leah, that made Philip blush up to his ears. Since Philip's mother died shortly after his childbirth, Leah acted as aunt and occasional surrogate mother for the young prince, which gave her a lot of leverage on him.
Suddenly the great door of the hall opened and a warm breeze washed the hall; there was a sound of distant silver bells and a fragrance of autumn leaves. The assembled nobles parted like a curtain to make way for three fairy ladies. To the eyes of the nobility they were incredible creatures, not particularly tall, but so thin and lightly built that the light seemed to shine right through their flesh and bones. Their skin and hair were of the most incredible colors: the first one was red with long golden hair that looked like autumn leaves, the second was in tones of green that went from grass to sea water, while the third was white and ice blue, looking like a living ice statue. The likeness of their features clearly showed that they were related, probably sisters. All three wore long gowns that leaved the arms naked and stole draped like capes across their backs.
The three strode between the two lines of nobles and servants with otherworldly grace, it seemed that their feet weren't actually touching the ground and that the very air rippled at their touch. They stopped a few paces from the thrones, grasped each other hands and bowed, like a group of actors at the end of a very successful performance. The royal couple answered with a deep nod and greeted them.
“Your Majesty,” started the Red Fairy, “We received your kind invitation and your pledge …”
“… and since the happiness of many might depend of your child's well-being …” continued the Green one.
“… we will happily grant our gifts to her.” concluded the Blue Sister.
The king rose from his seat and bowed with all the dignity of his charge. “For this I thank you. And for this day onward my house will be in your debt.”
The three held out their hands in a fluid motion and chorused: “Yet be known that these are gifts indeed, once given they can't be taken back.”
Something in the tone made the queen feel uneasy. She sensed some kind of implicit threat under the apparently friendly remark. Still, this was a sacred ceremony, so she rested the child in her cradle and gestured to the three Sisters. “Please grant your boons and take our gratitude and that of our bloodline, for our short mortal lives won't be able to repay your kindness.”
With liquid grace the Red Fairy came close and stroked with utmost care the little one on the forehead. The baby princess woke up and smiled, reaching for the long silky tresses of the fairy. With a maternal smile the fairy allowed the little one to continue playing while she closed her eyes, when she reopened them she wasn't looking to flesh and blood anymore, but to the child's naked soul. From the outside nothing was too apparent, a faint glow in the fairy's pupils was the only clue to the assembled guests.
Through her soul the fairy watched the long illustrious bloodline of Aurora, focusing with special interest upon her mother line. From that line she saw many strong, beautiful and passionate women, and thus chose her gift.
“Little child, born of greatness.” She chanted in her native language, which sounded like a lullaby to the assembled crowd “I bestow upon thee the gift of your mother: beauty, passion and health.” She drew a strange mark across the little forehead, leaving a faint red mark made of fine powder. Aurora sneezed and coughed, causing Philip to grin a little.
The Red Fairy stepped back as her Green Sister approaches. Imitating the gestures of her older sister, she also looked with her soul sight, and she focused upon the ever-changing present. She saw the great expectations of the people present and the horrible claws of envy projecting toward the child, but one will was especially strong and benevolent to the little one.
“Little child, born of hope. I bestow upon thee the gift of your father: wits, compassion and a long life.”
She was about to make way for the Blue Sister when the scene froze in horror. Everything was still the same, but unfamiliar at the same time. The sunlight became a cold distant glow, the colors became duller and the air thick with sulfur. Right from the center of the hall there was a loud crackling sound, like a burning log amplified many times. The marble floor exploded and a pillar of greenish flame rose from the depths of the earth, a dark, tall shape appeared in the middle of it.
The shape strode forward, like she owned the palace. She was a fairy too, but where the others were diaphanous, this one was absolutely solid; where they were almost of an ethereal and distant beauty, she was a symphony of seduction and unspeakable promises; where they were soft colored light, she was thick, uncompromising darkness.
Making a courtly nod to the royal couple the dark fairy introduced herself in a hissing, almost poisonous, tone: “I deeply apologize for being late, your highness. But I learned about this fateful ceremony only through second hand news. Perhaps the unfortunate soul that you sent to my keep was somehow delayed.”
King Stephan tried to keep his composure, but his hand was already reaching for his ceremonial blade, his wife reached for his arm and spoke before he had any chance. “Your Excellency, we greatly hope that this shameful situation hasn't upset you.”
The Wicked Fairy smiled: “Upset me? Not at all your majesty. As I understand you've summoned my … kin to bless your child. Now I am going to bless her myself.”
“Bless her?” muttered the queen, now fully sensing the malice emanating from this creature.
“Indeed, I am going to summon my most secret arts to ensure this little one's safety … for a while.”
Maybe it was the tone, maybe it was the attitude, but the whole audience was keeping their breath.
“Hear me, you mortals. Hear to my gift and my prophecy. I bestow the greatest blessing upon this child. I bestow upon her the blessing of love. She will grow fair and wise, loved by those around her. Yet, no gift comes without a price I also foretell that within a day from her coming of age, she will pick her finger upon the spindle of doom and die.”
The Wicked one step forward to place her seal upon the princess and something snapped, the scene became a blur of chaos. King Stephan sprang from his seat and drew his blade: “Seize her!”
Four knights ran forward, but the Wicked one didn't bother with them, as a flick of her long, shapely arms sent a wall of greenish flames across the room. The four men were roasted alive and their armors melted upon the ashes. The assembled crowd back away in horror.
Stephan charged her but to little result. With a little, malignant laugh the Wicked Fairy raised her hand and closed her thumb and forefinger like a little vice. The king wasn't even touched, but felt to the ground choking, while his opponent squeezed a little more with sadistic glee as the monarch choked and gasped for air.
King Hubert drew a heavy dirk and tried to rescue his friend. The Wicked one flicked her left index finger and the blade escaped from the King's hand, it flew backward scraping the right temple of Prince Philip.
Mustering all her motherly strength the Queen placed herself in front of the cradle shielding it with her body. She was a tall woman, whose aristocratic features fully deserved the word “regal”. Her motherly fury made her appear even more impressive, but for the Evil one she wasn't much more than a toy.
The Wicked Fairy's eyes glowed and the Queen's body stiffened. She couldn't move. She couldn't speak. The fairy moved forward and scratched a black mark upon the little Aurora. “I … Curse … You …” was all that the Queen could mutter, between her lips, causing a little laugh from the fairy.
Another burst of the same greenish flame sealed the prophecy and the Wicked one disappeared, while her laugh lingered across the room. The first sound that broke the silence was the sobbing of the queen, her husband embraced her.
“Your majesty …” the Red Fairy started.
“Why?” the king choked. “Why did you stay still there?”
“We are very sorry.” the fairy continued, “But the laws of our kind are strict, we can't harm another of our kind.”
“The consequences of such an act could have been harmful for all of you.” continued the Green Fairy.
“More harmful than this horrible curse.” the king retorted.
“But there is still hope, your majesty.” the Green Fairy intervened, “Our Little Sister has not given her gift yet.”
The king and queen looked with hope and desperation to the Blue Fairy, who was deep in her thoughts. “Can she save my daughter? Can she undo this devilish curse?”
“No. these are gifts, your majesty, they can't be taken away but, perhaps, she can mitigate what has been done.”
The Blue Fairy snapped out of her reverie and focused on the baby princess with the utmost concentration. Mustering every speck of willpower and magic she could, the Blue one opened her soul sight. She probed deeper and further than her Sisters, looking into the future, looking for something that could give Aurora not just a chance to survive, but eventually to fight back. In a future far beyond anything human or fairy had ever dreamed she found it.
“Little child, born under distant stars. I bestow upon thee the greatest of gifts from those yet to come, that the strength of your heart will be the strength of your body. As long as you feel love in your heart your vitality will be unmatched and unconquerable.”
Trembling for harnessing such energy the fairy returned the bundle to the queen. “It's done.” she whispered, “I put all of my magic into this spell. As long as the princess will love and be loved no harm will come to her. But know this, if her heart grows weak so will her body.”
In spite of all the reassuring words King Stephan wouldn't sit idle. Within the hour heralds announced that for the safety of the princess spindling became illegal with a hundred miles from the palace. All those who possessed spindles were ordered to turn them to the palace. That same night more than a hundred spindles burned in a gigantic pyre in the palace courtyard.
Hidden in the woods nearby the fairies watched the scene with heavy hearts. The Blue Fairy laid on the ground weak and half asleep from the extreme use of her powers.
“This bonfire is waste of time and effort, my Sisters.” the Red Fairy declared with contempt.
“Yet, can you blame the king for this, my Sister?” the Green one asked while tending the unconscious form of their little sister. “He loves his daughter and those are the flames of his love and rage.”
The Red one grumbled and conceded: “Nay, I cannot blame him. Yet, such ruckus would not stop us. Most assuredly would not stop our Evil Sister.”
With a whisper the Blue Fairy interjected: “Perhaps, my Sisters, it is not the king's place to protect the princess against this threat. Perhaps it is our place.”
The older sisters looked at her with concern: “What do you mean, Sister dear?” inquired the Green one.
“We are godmothers to the child. We accepted some responsibilities coming here.”
The Red one tapped her chin and declared “Yes, I see your point and perhaps you are correct. Living here, in such grandeur and pampered luxury will most likely weaken her heart, making your gift a waste. She must learn how to love each and every creature in the world at the same way.”
The Green Fairy shrugged: “What are you saying? We cannot simply take her away from her parents.”
“Perhaps we must.”
“But it is too cruel.”
“Sister, you have always been too concerned about the feelings of mortals. Remember how many lives are tied to the fate of that child. Our Little Sister is correct. We must take the necessary steps to protect her … no matter the cost.”
“Still, let me talk to our royal hosts, I might be able to reason with them.”
“Very well,” the Red Fairy conceded, “But make haste, every moment we lose is a boon to our opponent.”
The Green one left the hiding spot, while her sisters continued to plot. “Hiding the child in our realm is not a viable option. We must hide her using more mundane means, and we have to renounce our magic in doing so.”
“Agreed,” the Blue Fairy replied, “And I believe that the old house in the Northern woods will serve our purpose well. The owner died some time ago – a year by the count of mortals – and none have any claim to it …”
Much later the same night the three fairies performed a sacred rite and sealed their powers for the years to come, until the time was right to bring Princess Aurora back to her family. While the king and queen watched with heavy heart as their most precious treasure was taken from them to be hidden far from the clutches of evil.
Years passed and the kingdom lived through moments of great prosperity and of great need, but in the depth of the woods such events arrived only as distant echoes, filtered through the tales of woodsmen and hunters that sometimes reached the lonely hut of the three weird sisters. The sisters themselves were very careful, not about themselves but to hide the princess as much as possible, they even changed her name, they called her Briar Rose.
Even though they regularly sent letters to the royal couple, through the most secure channels there was something about the princess, something so wondrous and terrifying, that they dared not speak or write about.
It was a wonderful spring morning when a gray pigeon landed on the windowsill of the hut's kitchen. Inside, the Green Fairy – who had taken the mortal name of Flora and now looked like a tall and strangely pointy woman in her 40s – was making breakfast. She noticed a small scroll tied to the bird's leg and she reached out to grab it.
A moment later Flora stormed in her sisters' bedroom with eyes as wide as two lanterns: “Sisters! Sisters! Wake up! Quickly!”
The Red Fairy – now calling herself Fauna and looking like a rotund matron in her early 50s – grumbled: “What now? What is this commotion?”
“It has come. The day has finally arrived!”
“WHAT?!?” the Blue Fairy – now Merryweather, a small pixie-like woman in her early 30s – exploded.
“Look! Look for yourself! The message just arrived.”
The other two fairies read the message several times and let it sink in deeply. “So many years already …” commented Merryweather.
Fauna, always the practical thinker, asked: “We must prepare. Sister, where is Briar Rose?”
“I believe she went out at dawn to collect some firewood.”
Fauna looked at the ceiling, as if to ask for some kind of divine illumination to strike her sister: “And you let her go alone, didn't you?”
Flora blushed. “Well, you know how … persuasive she can be.”
Merryweather laughed softly: “I think that the term you're looking for is scary.”
They all laughed softly and Merryweather continued: “We should have told their majesties.”
“Told? Told what, that because of your need to overdo their daughter is now a … freak …” Fauna retorted.
“She is not!”
“Well, surely she isn't a normal lady. Nor a proper one, I'm afraid.”
“Stop this!” Flora screamed. “This bickering won't do us any good. We still have some time, but we must send a reply to the king by tomorrow. So we must think of something.”
Miles away, into the depth of the forest, princess Aurora – or Briar Rose as she was more accustomed to be called – trekked, unaware of what was going on. She was indeed a sight to behold. While not unusually tall, she was slim – which gave the impression of a greater height. Her long legs – currently hidden under a thick wool skirt that reached halfway to her calves – were marvels of shape and grace that could have driven a sculptor mad trying to reproduce them. She was fair skinned and, from the tips of her toes to the top of her head, there wasn't a single blemish, scar or wrinkle, her skin looked polished and flawless like that of a newborn. Long tresses of dark blonde, almost chestnut, hair crowned a face that could have launched a million ships, noble, angular, with high cheeks and blue-gray eyes of the same color of the sky after a storm. But all of these became a secondary element when you realized her other incredible attributes, like her strength. Briar Rose wasn't simply a healthy young woman, her strength wasn't measurable in human terms. She had strength comparable to that of an ogre or giant, as the massive oak resting over her right shoulder amply demonstrated.
Briar Rose strode across the forest with a grace that would have made any noble dame jealous and an authority that would have made any knight quiver in fear. The forest was her domain. Here she could be everything she was without fear or restrictions. She reached a glade where a stream formed a small pond. This was her special place, her private hiding spot. She loved how calm it was. As far as she knew the entire world might have gone mad in the meantime.
Getting back to business, she lowered the tree between two boulders, securing it into place and took a step back. She folded the sleeves of her rough shirt and, with a single swift movement, she brought her arm down in the middle of the trunk. The wood splintered across her exquisite limb sending a deadly shower of splinters around, that didn't do much more than brush against her impregnable skin. Briar Rose dug her fingers in one of the two halves and hoisted it over her head then, with the practiced ease that came with practice, she started to chop the wood into smaller pieces. Her hand moved faster and faster until it was less than a blur, it was just a faint echo, a ghost movement like those of a fly's wings, there was smell of burning wood as some of the sawdust caught fire. In a few seconds Briar Rose had finished reducing a massive oak tree into logs not bigger than her forearms, from an outside perspective it looked like some kind of magic, as if the wood had simply split at the command of this marvelous woman.
Despite all of her fantastic gifts, Briar Rose wasn't immune to certain mundane concerns. Her last stunt left her caked with sawdust, which was why she loved to work next to the pond. In a blur of motion she dropped her clothes and slid into the cold water. After brushing the sawdust away, she simply floated across the pond allowing the sounds and the smells of the forest to fill her. While her senses were more acute than those of a normal person, they weren't as astoundingly more powerful as her strength or speed. Yet she knew the sound, the smell of the forest from her infancy, few creature could hope to sneak pass her. Simply floating in the water she noticed a small spot crossing the sky, probably an eagle soaring; she heard a rustle across the branches and knew that a group of squirrels was running up and down a nearby tree; and she smelled a very well-known scent up close. “Well, are you peeking, my dear Knight?” she asked laughing.
A massive gray wolf emerged from the wood and crouched by the pool. Briar Rose swam across the water and patted him on the head: “Hello, my brave Knight. I hope everything is fine.”
Knight, the wolf, sneezed and enjoyed the petting, known fully well that he had no chance against her.
Two winters ago Knight and his pack were roaming across the woods looking for food. It was cold, colder than any other winter they recalled and the food was growing scare. Usually they didn't attack humans, but the hunger was burning in their stomach and clouding their minds.
They spotted Briar Rose bathing in that same pond, fresh and abundant meat for the six of them. Slowly they had moved in, like shadows across the snow, but to no avail. Somehow she sensed them and emerged from the water to face them. There was no challenge in her, no apparent willingness to fight so the pack attacked.
The first attack came from the rear. The black young one jumped her. She didn't really move, she simply raised her arm and snatched him out of the air, hoisting him up by the throat. A second attack came from her left and met an identical fate.
With both her hands full a third wolf sensed an opportunity and sprang into action, running across the snow he bit her leg with every bit of strength he could. They expected her to fall and quiver, instead she simply laughed and kicked the attacker off her legs. The wolf flew in a graceful arc and smashed across a nearby tree, soon both of his chocking comrades joined him as she tossed them like rag dolls.
The remaining wolves circled them with care, they were the eldest and most experienced members of the pack. She didn't care, she even mocked them, feigning ignorance. With the precise timing that came with years of hunts, two of them rushed her. One attacked low from the right aiming to the calf to trip her, the other leaped for her throat, aiming to use his weight and her fall to maximize his advantage, but that didn't happen. She didn't dodge or react in any other way. She simply stood there – hands on her hips – as impregnable as a rock. For a moment the two wolves dangled from her body, then she spun like a tornado and send them sprawling across the snow.
Knight knew it was his turn, he was the leader and this creature would likely slay his pack. He approached her with care, stepping across the snow as lightly as possible, ready to attack on a moment's notice. He grew troubled as he studied her. No matter how careful he was she seemed ready to match his every move. He couldn't detect any opening, except some so blatant that they had to be faked. Eventually he made his move. He leaped for her from the side, only to spin in mid-air transforming an eventual suicide attack into a feint. She moved to intercept, but she was out of time. He landed and leaped again aiming at her legs from the back, and he succeeded. His fangs closed a centimeter under her knee, but they didn't sink in. He felt the soft skin under his fangs resist, the tips trying in vain to pierce it, only to break.
The creature reached for him and lifted him by the scruff of the neck bringing him to eye level with her. Their eyes locked and Knight sensed no malice or hatred in this human, only curiosity. Still the instinct took control and he reached for her, clawing and biting to no avail. She said something and tossed him into the ice-covered pond.
Perhaps it was her strength, perhaps the ice was too thin, but Knight smashed right through it and started to sink in the frigid water. Panic took over him and her tried to emerge, but couldn't find the hole, he was rapidly losing consciousness when a hand took him out of the water. The next thing he recalled was waking up next to the creature and the rest of his pack, he knew he was defeated and the creature was now their leader. And a fine leader she turned out to be, weird for sure, but she lead them into some great hunts and protected them from other creature. The pack had grown strong since that day.
Briar Rose kept stroking the gray wolf's head for a while, she knew he didn't like it much, but it was sort of private joke between them. Yet, she could easily see that something was wrong, around the sounds of the forest weren't right and Knight was very edgy. “What is going on? Tell me.”
Knight backpedaled a bit and faced a spot in the woods, growling and showing his fangs.
Briar Rose emerged from the water and shook herself at super-speed. Collecting her clothes, she concentrated upon the immediate situation. There was a new scent in the wind, something that didn't belong to the forest. “Guide me.” she simply asked, it wasn't an order, just a shared decision between two members of the same pack.
Knight slid across the brushwood, silent as a shadow and the princess followed him. They moved with perfect synchronism. As they approached their target new sounds reached them.
The snorts of several animals.
The sound of leather rubbing against the flanks of a horse.
The tingling of small shards of metal against each other.
The subtle twang of a bowstring.
Briar Rose hid inside a blackberry bush and squinted her eyes to pick out the details of these intruders. And what she saw was very interesting. A small group of riders, four in all, was crossing a path in the less traveled part of the forest. They didn't look much like the hunters that now and then stopped by the hut. These were young, good-looking men, with proud steeds, gorgeous dresses and well-oiled weapons at their sides. Their looks alone spoke volumes about the wealth and importance of their families.
Briar Rose felt strangely compelled. She liked what she saw, but two opposing sensations were fighting in her soul. On one hand she wanted to drive these intruders out of her domain, this was her place, the only place where she could use her gifts without having one of her aunts frowning upon her. On the other she really wanted them to stay. She had this strange urge to be with them, to talk with them, to show them her abilities and to win their affection.
Knight bared his fangs. He had no prejudice about humans. He usually tolerated hunters and woodsmen, but something in the smell of these people was tickling his darkest urges. Briar Rose turned to him and gestured to step back. The wolf complied with an angry expression on his muzzle.
The riders were moving at a very slow speed, apparently unconcerned with making their presence known. One of them – a stocky man with dark brown hair – had previously stringed his bow and was bragging about his archery skills: “Believe me, my friends, it was no luck. When I released the string I was certain that my aim was true. There's a moment when the arrow and the target are perfectly aligned. True skill is finding that moment and snatching it.”
Another of the riders – a tall and lanky blonde, with a thin mustache and a foreign accent – laughed: “Truly, your skill must be great to snatch that small second.”
“Thank you, but the merit is to the excellent schooling I received from my father.”
“If I may be so bold. I would rather enjoy seeing these family skills myself.” a third one – large and powerful with jet black hair – interjected.
“It would be my pleasure, if our honored host has no problem with it.”
The last rider – a young man with reddish brown hair, a strong yet finely designed chin, a straight nose and a long white scar on his right temple – smiled wearily: “Go on, my friends, we took this detour for the pleasure not the speed.”
“Really? I thought that we took this detour in hope to catch a glimpse of this fabled elven maiden that lives in these woods.”
The last rider blushed a bit and murmured a comment.
“Perhaps you hoped that she would kidnap you.” the archer commented, “And bring you into her palace, far from your upcoming marr …”
“Enough with these chats, my good Samuel. Focus your attention on your target if you please.”
“Your wish is my command, my lord.” the archer replied picking an arrow from his quiver and scouting the forest for a suitable target. On a far branch there was a little red robin, busy at cleaning himself. Samuel pulled the string back and aimed carefully.
Meanwhile Briar Rose hadn't sat idle. She had a bad feeling about this little bet and she wouldn't allow any harm to come to the creatures of the forest for a stupid game. As the bowstring was pulled back she crouched, ready to jump. As he aimed, she carefully evaluated her own trajectory. As he released the arrow, she leaped. From her point of view the arrow was laughably slow and clumsy, it was simple matter to leap across its path and snatch it out of air; after all she had practiced many times catching hummingbirds without hurting them. Before the hunters had even time to realize what had happened she disappeared in the bushes on the other side of the path.
From anyone else's point of view the arrow had flown straight for its target, then a dark blur and a strong gust of wind had appeared and the arrow simply had disappeared in mid-flight. The hunters were dumbfounded and the horses, spooked by the sudden wind, reared and swerved. There was a faint sound, like a muffled voice, that quickly became a clear laugh, which echoed through the tree like a thousand silver bells.
“What is going on?” whispered the blonde hunter.
“I'll tell you what.” roared the large one, “It's the elven maiden and we made her mad.”
As if on cue, Briar Rose threw the arrow back, like a javelin. It flew straight in front of Samuel's eyes and nailed a falling leaf to a nearby tree.
There was a moment of awkward silence as the riders watched each shadow like it was a monster ready to pounce them. They were all young and bold, but this wasn't their domain, they were guests here and their behavior wasn't very kind. They all knew stories about how the fairies protected the woods and none was willing to pay the price. Another laugh sent them into downright panic, Samuel, the blonde and the big one plunged the spurs in the flanks of their steed, leaving the young man with reddish-brown hair alone.
He fought for a moment with his horse – which was trying to follow his kin – then drew the reins and tied them to a branch. Jumping down from the horse and half-drawing his sword he uttered a challenge: “Show yourself! Whoever you are I'm not afraid of you. We came here in peace, if we offended you in any way we will make amends for it.”
In the nearby bushes Briar Rose was pretty impressed with this young man. He was clearly out of his element, but he handled his fear in a way that few were capable of. She liked him a lot and she felt this urge to play with him a little more. As the young hunter turned his back to her she zipped across the path and snatched his hat right from his head.
The hunter felt the same gust of wind and, before he could react, his hat was gone, but he could have sworn he felt something solid catching it, not just the wind. Worried, he drew the sword in an instinctive motion.
Growing bold, Briar Rose get ready for another pass, this time she aimed for the sword. Once again she ran and snatched the blade, she was extra careful not to pull too strong, but she got it anyway.
Again the young man felt a pull and found himself disarmed. Despite the growing fear he was somehow enjoying this game and planned his next move. Slowly, he unclasped his cape and took his bow from the saddle as bait. Then he moved close to a tree to limit the number of possible angles of attack. He placed the cape on a precise spot on the ground and waited.
Briar Rose's confidence was reaching new heights and she decided to go one more time. The bow looked just right for her next target. Waiting for the right moment she jumped for it, but this time something went wrong. The cape was hiding a treacherous spot of wet leaves. Briar Rose slid and stumbled against a tree, while she wasn't hurt she felt dizzy for a second too long, enough for the hunter to grab her.
He was a smart guy and was able to keep himself out of the reach of her flailing arms, but her strength was too great for him to subdue her. Eventually Briar Rose started to spin in place like a giant spinning top, her aggressor tried to hold on in vain. He felt his hands going numb and lost his grip, sailing through the air and landing on a raspberry bush.
Briar Rose zipped across the field, her right fist raised to smash him. There was something in the way he had tricked her that made her feel stupid and clumsy, two things that she didn't like at all. Now she could see him up close for the first time and her world froze in place. His face was extremely regular, with a strong jaw suggesting a noble heritage; his brown eyes matched the color of his hair and were firm and honest. There was something in his bearing and composure – beside the uncommon height and the slim powerful build – that identified him as a truly noble man. A man who would stand his ground for a worthy cause, no matter the cost. Briar Rose felt something, as if his eyes were piercing right through her impregnable skin straight to her heart, and slowed her pace until she was immobile just a pace from him, lost in a dream of love.
The hunter was slowly getting back on his feet. When he turned to face her, his entire world froze in place. Despite the horrible clothes, the fury in her face and the dirt from her previous fall the young man couldn't deny that she was the loveliest creature he had ever seen. In his eyes she matched and surpassed any other woman he had ever met. Her beauty wasn't the ethereal one sought by ladies and queens, nor the sordid and overly sexual of some women of low reputation. She was real, solid and sensual, but shimmering with an otherworldly, almost angelic, quality at the same time. He felt his heart skipping a beat and without any control he found himself staring at her perfect face just from a pace away.
They didn't speak, they didn't even move for a long moment, lost in each other eyes.
Hidden behind a nearby tree, Knight grinned like only a wolf could. It seemed that the pack leader had found a mate after all, an unexpected but welcomed development. He was very happy for her and very eager to see her puppies in the future. But he understood the need for privacy and walked away looking for something to eat.
Back at the hut the three fairies had just finished writing a long letter to the royal couple. “So it's done …” sighed Flora.
“Yes,” answered Fauna, with an equally weathered tone “I don't think we can do much more than this.”
Merryweather was strapping the parchment to the leg of the carrier pigeon and intervened: “Now comes the hard part, we have to tell Bria … I mean Aurora about all of this.”
“I think she will be very happy.” said Fauna.
“I don't know. She isn't a normal girl for sure.” commented Flora looking at a tiny hand-print embedded in an iron pot, the biggest memento from when they had discovered Briar Rose's incredible strength.
The pigeon was set free while the discussin inside the hut simply faded.
The bird flew higher and higher before turning back toward the castle, but his message wasn't meant to arrive.
High among the clouds a dark feathered eagle soared through the sky. She was a thing of beauty and terror, a dark, slick predator looking for a prey. For some reason the poor pigeon looked just right for her. She dived with incredible speed and precision. The pigeon tried to evade, but it was too little and too late. The talons pierced his chest and killed him almost instantly.
The eagle soared higher and took her prey away, but not to her nest. She flew across the kingdom, up to a secluded keep, an ominous tower constantly hidden by swirling mist and unsavory magic. She entered through the highest window and landed upon an iron perch.
As the eagle was about to tear her prey apart she stopped sensing the presence of her mistress.
“What have you found, my beauty?” asked the Wicked Fairy with a voice that sounded like crackling flames. “Just a little life to sustain you or something more?”
The eagle shifted upon the perch allowing the Fairy to examine her prey. As she discovered the parchment the Wicked one grinned and a laugh shook her slim frame. “Let us split this, my beauty, you can have the meat, I'll take the skin.”
Sliding across the room the Wicked one reached a complex chessboard on the main table. She moved a piece shaped like her black eagle across the board and examined the new position. “Excellent,” she commented, “It's time to start my endgame.”
The young couple had walked across the forest for hours, yet they had barely spoken. The simple feeling of being together was enough to fill them with absolute happiness. After washing away the dirt of combat they had walked and played and laughed together for a long while. Now they were simply resting in a natural gazebo, created by a fallen tree crossing a standing one and a roof of ivy.
Briar Rose was resting on the young man's lap, for the first time in her life she felt exhausted. She knew there was nothing wrong with her body, if possible she was even stronger now. Earlier, she had tried to crush a rock in her hand and she had done so with no effort at all. Feats of strength that required both arms yesterday, now she could do with just her index finger. Fueled by this new-found love her gifts were growing by the second, but she was still very human and the sheer emotional baggage was wearing her down. She felt somehow vulnerable, but in a pleasurable way.
The young hunter smiled somehow lost in this dream of love when a sudden realization dawned on him. Placing his pleasurable guest down on a nearby stone, he bowed with all the dignity he could muster: “My lady, I must apologize for my rude behavior and for that of my friends. If something can be excused for our young age, it's not proper to offend one as fair as you.”
Briar Rose laughed under her breath. None had ever treated her with this kind of pompous respect and she wasn't sure she liked it, but she decided it was better to follow suit. “And I, my lord, apologize for my mischief and pranks. I'm not used to have a guest so distinguished, but I do believe that my aunts will be char …”
Realization hit her like a falling boulder: “My aunts! I've been away for hours! They'll be so worried!”
She was about to rush away, when the hunter grabbed her wrist: “Please don't go!”
“I must, my aunts are my only family and they're probably waiting for me.”
“When? When can I see you again?”
Briar Rose smiled and the whole scene looked warmer already: “Come to the old hut by the spring, north of the forest road. Come this night. I live there, I'll introduce you to my aunts”
She sped away, leaving only a trail of flying leaves behind. The young man looked at her disappearing: “Until tonight then. It will feel more like a hundred years to me.”
Briar Rose ran through the forest like a miniature cyclone, a rooster tail of leaves marked her passage. In moments she was back at the hut, without thinking she slammed the door open – almost ripping it off the hinges. Inside it was somehow cold and gloomy, but she didn't notice. “Aunties, where are you?”
“Here.” Fauna answered as the sisters appeared from a corner, “And we have something to tell you, dear.”
“Me too.” Briar Rose continued ecstatic “I met a man today, in the forest and I … I … I think I'm in love.”
The expression on the faces of the sisters was indescribable. They felt fear, displeasure, guilt, a overwhelming sense of failure, yet a small part of them felt an incredible joy at the news that their goddaughter was in love.
“Who?” asked Flora.
“He's a hunter. I don't know his name, but you'll meet him tonight. He's coming here.”
“But … But …” Merryweather tried to object, “But you can't!”
Briar Rose snapped out of her reverie: “What do you mean?”
Fauna decided to take the burden upon herself: “You can't because you're already betrothed.”
“Already betrothed?” something broke into her voice.
“Yes dear, since the day you were born. You're betrothed to Prince Philip.”
“A Prince? This can't be. I can't be betrothed to a prince … unless …”
“Unless you're a princess.” Flora interjected, “Yes, dear. Your true name is Aurora. You're the only daughter of King Stephan.”
“No.” she muttered, “No, please this is a joke, just a horrible joke.”
“We took you away, because a horrible spell was cast upon you when you were born.” Merryweather continued fighting a losing battle against her tears.
Briar Rose was too stunned to answer. She simply pressed her hands upon her ears, trying to shut the world out.
“We were your godmothers. The King summoned us to ensure your well-being and survival. So we took you here to better protect you.”
“Protect me?” Briar Rose voice was a rasp, “How exactly.”
Fauna grasped the hands of her sisters and attempted to put on a bold face: “These are not our true guises, your highness.”
The three sisters simultaneously bowed their head and light seemed to fade away from their forms. There was a smell of opening flower and a crack of breaking ice, then a multicolored flame – red, blue and green – surged from the ground and engulfed the three. Their skin and clothes burned like paper, leaving only the shining forms of the Fairies true selves.
Briar Rose screamed at the top of her lungs: “LIES!! YOU TOLD ME ONLY LIES!!”
She punched a nearby wall in frustration. The whole hut trembled like a leaf in a cyclone and barely managed to remain intact. Briar Rose failed to notice how wrong that was, with the level of strength she had just minutes ago the hut should have been pulverized, but this was the last of her thoughts.
The Fairies looked at her, in their present state their emotions were pretty garbled, as they were trying to negotiate human empathy and fairies' detachment, but the scene looked strange nonetheless.
The Blue Fairy – once Merryweather – trembled as she realized the meaning of this: “She … is lost.”
“What do you mean?” asked the Green Fairy.
“We protected her indeed, but we also lied to her. She might be royalty by blood, but she is not by spirit.” the Blue one murmured, “We taught her to be kind and just … but not to be a ruler … I fear she doesn't know who she is anymore.”
“That we couldn't do, my Sister, it will be up to her real family to prepare her to be queen one day.” the Red Fairy pointed out before helping Aurora to her feet “Your highness, we must go. Your parents await you.”
Aurora rose slowly and mechanically. She felt empty and alone, lost without anything to rely upon. With a blank expression and a without uttering a word she followed the Fairies that guided her toward her destiny.
The castle was a magnificent work of white stone and blue tiles. Its majestic silhouette, with tall towers and bold buttresses, stood out against the flames of the sunset. But to Aurora – cloaked in a dark hooded cape – it looked more like a sinister prison. In her soul she was still the wild-child Briar Rose, used to being free to come and go as she pleased, to run alongside her wolf-friends, to wrestle bears and bathe in frigid streams. Stone walls didn't appeal nor suit her. And she wasn't feeling well, with each step away from the forest, the animals, from everything she had grown to love she felt her strength flowing away. Her knuckles had started to hurt the moment the hut disappeared from her view and the pain had grown worse with each passing meter, but she was resolved not to show it.
As the Fairies guided her through a secondary door and up several flights of stairs, she was barely able to stand. The memory of the young hunter was the only fire that still burned in her soul.
They reached a bedroom. From Aurora perspective it was immense, easily half the size of the hut, and it was just a room, her mind was overwhelmed with wonder. The Fairies sat her on a stool and took several dresses from the wardrobe. “Your highness, your parents will join us soon. Please allow us to dress you.”
Aurora sighed: “Do as you wish.”
The Fairies worked as fast as possible and Aurora didn't pose much resistance. As they finished the three Sisters retreated with a deep bow allowing Aurora to appraise herself into the full-length mirror. She looked and a stranger looked back to her, a stranger with her face. Not only was the dress completely different from any other she had ever used, but she could barely recognize herself as a person. Just this morning she was a girl that ran across the forest and played with animals, now she was a princess; just this morning she was strong and powerful, now she could barely stand; just this morning she felt in love for the first time, now she doubted she could ever see the young hunter again.
Tired and disgusted, Aurora turned away from the mirror and explored the room. While it was vast she felt constricted and suffocating. As she tapped the walls looking for some aperture, some stone returned a hollow sound. Intrigued Aurora probed the surface and discovered a small door hidden behind a tapestry. Behind it there was a flight of stairs and a distant creaking sound could be heard from the top of them. Looking for a way out Aurora slid out of the chamber and up the stairs.
At the top of it she found three old women, so old and grizzled that their skin looked like bark and their hands like talons. They were all dressed in black cassocks and spun gray wool on a spinning wheel.
“Look, we have a visitor.” chuckled the first one, with a voice that sounded like a small child's laugh.
“And a royal one, no less.” added the second, whose voice sounded as that of a grown strong woman.
“Yet, one that refuses her destiny.” mocked the third, whose voice sounded older than the mountains.
Aurora tried to bow, imitating what she had seen in the forest: “I'm sorry for disturbing you. I'm lost and I was looking for a way out.”
“Nonsense, princess once child, your arrival wasn't by chance. Fate brought you here.”
“And we know it well, princess soon wife.”
“Fate and us are very close, princess someday queen.”
“Fate ties us all” they chorused.
Aurora was intimidated and fascinated. In her current state of mind everything was preferable to being entombed in that chamber. “But how could you know my fate?”
The first one pointed to the whole: “We know because we work for it.”
“We spin the threads of the lives of men and women alike.”
“And we are spinning yours.”
The third one held out a pretty hefty ball of thread: “Aye, yours. This is your life, from the day you were born, to the day of your end. This thread measures the time of your existence.”
“And within its coil all the events of your existence are folded.”
“Waiting for Fate to unfold them and sew them in the tapestry of history.”
Aurora's eye flashed with a sudden thought as she lunged for the ball, but the old woman was faster than her and hid it into her sleeve. “Now, now, your highness, what is the meaning of such a gesture?”
Aurora face trembled with desperation as she allowed her emotions to flood out: “I want to be free! I want to chance my destiny. I don't want to be princess.”
The three old women looked at each other and grinned like predators. “Perhaps, we can help you.”
“How? Please, tell me.”
“We cannot change what has already been spun.”
“But you can.”
“Sit to the spinning wheel, princess and make your own destiny.”
Aurora sat as the old women moved aside. She looked for directions and one of them stepped forward: “First of all, your highness you have to understand how the parts work, this one is the spindle …”
Fascinated Aurora reached for the metal spike.
Downstairs the three Fairies waited for the royal couple. While their kind were not very emotional, their recent experience of mortality had left them with a sense of unease and uncertainty. The Blue one was especially worried: “Sisters, I think that we are doing something wrong.”
“Why so, Little Sister?”
“We raised the princess like our own and according to the custom of our kind. Now as appropriate as it might be to give her back to her true parents … she is not ready. She is lost in this house of stone. Her soul belongs to the wilds.”
“Stop it.” ordered the Red Sister, “Your sentiment echoes mine, Little Sister, yet we cannot do any other way. You know that we protected her because so many lives are going to depend on her. Yesterday, today and tomorrow, this mortal world balances on a tiny ridge. The princess is the key to maintaining the balance.”
The Blue one was about to retort when the Green Sisters gasped: “She is here.”
All of the sudden the argument was forgotten and they became extremely wary. With utmost care they entered the chamber and found it empty. They rushed across the room and up the stairs only to find a horrifying scene. The princess laid on the ground with three old women knelling around her, like vultures upon a prey. As they noticed the Fairies their form became liquid darkness and flowed into the tall, regal form of the Evil Fairy. “My Sisters, how considerate of you to come here.” she mocked without shame, “I believe that our game is about to end and I my victory seem assured, don't you agree?”
The Fairies didn't answer, strong emotions wrestled in their bellies as the mortal love for their goddaughter clashed with the distant emotions of their kind.
“Since your queen is now out of the board, I am going for checkmate.”
The Red one frowned: “What are you talking about?”
“Isn't it obvious? The young prince. Without both heirs the upcoming chaos is going to be even more glorious. Now excuse me.” with an evil laugh that echoed through the halls she disappeared.
The Fairies stood still for a long time contemplating their greatest treasure and their greatest mistake. Slowly they laid out the body properly and took it down to the bedroom. With each step down the weight of the failure became heavier, but the Green one felt something else too. At first she thought it was only a brief sensation, but after a moment she felt it again. She studied the princess's corpse very closely and felt it again. “She lives.” she murmured.
“What?” the Sisters chorused.
“Look! Look! She lives! The flame isn't blown out yet!”
“How is such thing possible?” asked the Red one.
“The hunter!” exploded the Blue one, “The one she met in the forest. She said she loved him. That flame is keeping her alive.”
“Then we need him. She said he was going to be at the hut. Quickly Sisters, we must hurry.”
“Wait,” the Green one interrupted, “What about the people in the castle. If they found the princess in such a state, chaos will be unavoidable.”
“That is right.” the Red one drew a glyph in the air and uttered the words of an ancient incantation. The air in front of her shimmered and a figure materialized. It was almost impossible to distinguish; it was just a vaguely humanoid outline in the air.
“By the ancient pact between our people, I call upon thee, Fair Sylph. Please hear my call and my prayer. Put those who live in this house of stone to sleep until the evil that devours this young maiden is vanquished.”
The figure flew away and, one by one, all the people in the palace felt asleep.
Back in the forest, the young man approached the hut with a certain caution. While he was very nervous about meeting his love again, there was something else that bothered him. First of all, he didn't know – until a few hours ago – about anybody living so deep into the forest. True, he was a foreigner, but he had visited this kingdom many times, at least once a year since he was five years old.
What really worried him was something else, he was an accomplished warrior and had developed a keen instinct for danger. Right now his instinct was screaming that something was wrong in the whole picture. The hut was in from of him. A thin plume of smoke fluttered out of the chimney, orange light filtered under the shutters. Yet there was a stillness in the whole scene that made him uneasy. She was expecting him – he was sure of this – and his horse was pretty noisy, but none had come out to see. Trying to find a compromise between courtesy and carefulness, he decided to leave his shield and bow, but he triple checked his sword and dagger making sure that he could draw them with ease.
Unknown to him many eyes were checking his moves, both from the hut and the trees.
With all the confidence he could muster the young man approached the door. As he knocked there was a subtle rustle inside and slowly the door opened. Inside it was quite dark, only one candle on the main table lighted the room.
The warrior instinct screamed its alarm just a mere second before the first attacker appeared. It came from a corner hidden by the open door, just a darker shape in the dark room. The young man had no time to draw his blades, he spun around and crushed his elbow in the generic direction of his attacker's head. The sound of its neck snapping back was very satisfying.
A second wave of attackers appeared from the dark corners of the room, but this time he was ready. The room was too small for using the sword so he drew his dagger and wrapped his cape on the left arm as an impromptu shield.
The first strike came from the right as one of the shapes lunged with a serrated blade, the man blocked with his own blade and counterattacked with a kick followed by a thrust.
A second strike arrived from the left and he blocked it with the cape. The blade of his opponent cut through the thick wool of the cape, but missed the flesh. Having the dagger still buried in the first opponent's chest, he swatted the opponent aside with a shoulder push.
The third attacker was more cautious, it jumped and feinted, looking for an opening. Suddenly the young man took the initiative and attacked, pulling his dagger in an upward thrust. The opponent leaped back and used the opening to head butt the young man.
Dazzled, he failed to detect a new opponent. It fell from the ceiling right upon his back. The impact knocked the air out of his lungs and sent him flat on the floor.
All of the sudden they were all over him, six at least, punching kicking and screaming. The young man fought to his last breath, kicking one opponent away and stabbing another before they could subdue him.
They tied him with leather strings and hoisted him up. He could now see them a little better, they were strangely deformed creature, humanoid but clearly not human. Each one had his own brand of deformity. one had a pig-like muzzle instead of a nose, completed with boar-like fangs protruding from his upper lip. Another was so thin that his bones were clearly outlined against his oily skin. A third one matched a grotesquely muscled right half, with a scrawny left one. They were goblins. But even the horror and revulsion that these creature inspired him disappeared as their mistress entered the scene.
The candle flame flicked green and, exploded in a tall pillar as the Wicked one made her triumphal entry. Smiling she examined her last prey: “What unexpected pleasure! I admit, when I set this trap I never expected such a valuable prey. I am charmed to meet you again Prince Philip.”
Philip tried to back away from the Wicked Fairy. For years, after seeing her at the christening of Princess Aurora, he had nightmares about her. The scar on his right temple pulsed in time with his quickening breath and his eyes became wide with terror, as his childhood nightmares returned.
The Wicked one savored his terror for a long moment. It was really a little unexpected bonus. She expected the prince to remember her, but not to fear her so much, it made her victory even sweeter. “Away with him.” she commanded, “But gently, he is still our honored guest.”
As the goblins took Philip away, the Wicked one snuffed out the candle and faded into darkness.
Outside the goblins bragged and laughed as they pushed Philip around. Still shocked and badly beaten, the prince had little energy to react. After several pushes, one of them sent Philip in a little bowl next to the path. The goblins started to bicker among them about who had to fetch him back, when a dark gray shade entered the picture.
The pack leaped across the darkness with practiced ease. Each wolf aiming for a specific opponent. Using the combined force of their weight and momentum they managed to throw the goblins flat on their backs, all but one. As the creatures tried to get back on their feet a second group of wolves entered the combat, these were younger wolves angry and eager to prove themselves. Older and younger wolves ganged up over the goblins. Fangs closed, bones broke and in a few moments the cries of the dying reached the sky.
The largest of the goblins watched the massacre from a distance, for some reason the wolves had ignored him completely. As he reached for his serrated knife he heard a growl from his back. Turning he saw a gigantic gray wolf behind him. The beast easily dwarfed any other member of the pack, his fangs shined like blades under the moonlight. The goblin tensed and his hand rushed to the blade, but he wasn't fast enough, the beast jumped him and his fangs ripped the goblin's throat.
Philip awoke moments later, witnessing the final moments of the massacre. He wondered for a moment why these wolves had saved him. The large gray wolf approached him and gave him a strange look, before turning away.
Knight walked away from the human. He didn't care for him – actually the human's smell was very unpleasant – but he was the mate of the pack leader and this made him part of the pack as well. The pack looked after its own, always.
As the Fairies reached the hut, they found the massacre had already ended. Goblins' corpses littered the path to the hut and a young man – likely Aurora's lover – was struggling to free himself from a leather rope.
Floating three centimeters from the ground the Fairies approached him, looking at him with their soul-sight. He turned and their surprise was total. Through the soul-sight they saw his past, present and future. They saw the noble lineage coursing through him. They saw his naked soul and his most intimate fears. In a word they saw Philip's true essence.
“Fear not, your highness. We come to help.” they chanted in unison.
Philip studied them as his memory once again went back to Aurora's christening. His eyes became to tiny slits as he appraised them: “I know you. What are you doing here?”
The Red Fairy step forward and gestured, the ropes simply untied. “We are here to help you. We know you are in love and that your loved one was kidnapped.”
“And how do you know this?”
The Green Fairy took a more conciliatory tone: “We know because we had protected her for years. Now she is in mortal danger and only you can help her.”
“Why me? Can't you simply use you magic to do this?”
“In another circumstance, yes. But this enemy can only be vanquished by a mortal's hand. We will assist you, but we cannot interfere.”
Philip sighed, once again he had let his warrior spirit to prevail against his good manners. “I'm sorry for my rudeness. It has been a strange, difficult day.”
“We know.” added the Blue Fairy, “And we are here to help you reach her.”
The Blue Fairy touched Philip on the forehead. He felt a pleasurable breeze washing over his face as his wounds from the recent combat vanished.
The Red Fairy nodded her approval and pointed to Philip's sword. “Your highness, please show us your blade.”
As he presented the weapon, she chanted strange words in a hypnotic rhythm.“It is done. I blessed your blade, so it will strike true as long as you purpose is clear.”
The Green Fairy joined her Sister and pointed at the shield. Likewise she chanted strange words and caressed the smooth wood and metal surface. “And I blessed your shield, so it will hold and protect you as long as your will is strong.”
“Now quickly.” urged the Red one, “We must reach the castle. The hour is later than you think.”
The forms of the three Fairies warped upon themselves and became three small dots of light, floating in front of Philip.
He jumped on his horse – which was strangely calm – and spurred him into a furious gallop. As he followed the three lights, Philip had a little time to ponder how incredible this entire story was. Magic, fairies, a mysterious woman from the wood and even goblins, he felt like a character in one of tales that his nanny told him when he was a child. Once again his mind went back to his childhood fears, he felt that the only way to end this story well was to face them and conquer them. His face hardened with resolution as he swore not to allow fear to surpass love in his heart.
The horse almost flew across the countryside, faster than ever, and soon the towers of the castle appeared behind the horizon. As more of the castle appeared, Philip's eye widened with surprise. A dark, dense mass was growing at exceptional rate along the castle wall. Coming closer he started to distinguish massive trunks flowing upward in thousands of vines, each one covered in long dark thorns, as long and sharp as knives.
The horse backed away, unwilling to run across that forest of death and Philip had to dismount. He secured his grip on the sword and started chopping vines away from his path like a man possessed, when a hissing voice reached his ears: “I have to admit, your highness, your fury is something to admire.”
The Wicked Fairy was there, sat upon a throne of black vines, completely unconcerned with the hard thorns. “And you, my Sisters.” she continued, “Your persistence in face of certain defeat is interesting. The board is almost clear, your 'Queen' is no more and your 'King' is about to follow suit. I am really interested to see what your next move will be. Resign, perhaps?”
Philip was bout to charge her, but he found himself unable to move. His feet were wrapped in tiny vines, but as strong as steel cables. He raised his sword and started chopping them away while the Wicked one continued: “Even so your continual interference with my plans has forced my hand. I will not allow you change to the outcome of this game. Right now I devout my undivided attention and all of my power to thisss …”
Her voice trailed away in a prolonged hiss, as a terrifying metamorphosis began. The Wicked one grew taller and her long back cape opened like wings. Her face elongated, becoming a long reptilian muzzle, with long jaws filled with fangs – each one the size of a great sword. Twisted spikes sprouted from the back of her neck and all the way down her spine and her new serpentine tail. Black wings, large enough to block out the sun sprouted from her back and her hands and feet exploded into massive claws. Her skin turned darker and darker until it was as black as the depths of her soul, and small scales appeared all over it.
Philip just had time to raise his shield as the colossal dragon spat a lance of greenish fire to him. The enchanted wood exploded in a shower of sparkles as the infernal flame split against its surface. The heat was almost unbearable and the skin of Philip's face blistered , but his will held and so did his shield. He had barely time to recover as the beast lunged for him. Her jaws snapped close and he barely had time to sidestep. He swiped at the beast's head, but his heart was filled with fear and his arm was weak. The blade barely scratched her hide.
Up into the tower Aurora moaned as strange magics battled in her body. The curse and the gift fought to take over her soul following the rhythm of the combat outside.
Backing away from the beast's claws, Philip found himself cornered against the wall of thorns. He had just seconds to steady himself before the next attack. The beast was just a moment from him when a realization dawned on his mind, instead of sidestepping he mustered his courage and charged. As the jaws of the beast closed toward him, he accelerated and plunged his sword in the soft underbelly of the creature. The blade slashed her neck open and Philip was awash in her dark blood.
Aurora rolled in her bed as she felt a powerful heat exploding in her chest and a sensation of great well-being washed her body.
Realizing that the creature was vulnerable, Philip renewed his attack, he dodged her back claw, but a tail slap caught him by surprise. His shield held, but the serpentine appendage had too much momentum and sent him flying. He tried to focus his thoughts and shake away the dizziness, but to no avail. The creature loomed over him, her jaws opened dripping venomous saliva that burned the ground. Philip never understood what kept him alive, but he was able to roll away from the snapping fangs. He wasn't going to die, he decided. He was going to live and save his love. He was going to marry her and live a long life, and he swore to love her each day as the first. Etiquette, royal duty and even his own blood could go to hell for as much as he cared.
In the tall turret, Aurora suddenly awoke, her eye opened wide as she gasped for air. She didn't know exactly what was happening, but a sense of doom and happiness filled her soul. Trying to stand up she reached for a brass candelabra. There was a strange noise as her hand squished it like wet clay. For a long moment she was astounded, then her face bloomed in a big smile, somehow her strength had returned. It was just then that she noticed the chaos outside her window.
Outside Philip was doing badly. He knew that this was a uphill battle for him. So far he had managed to survive with minimal damage, but he had to be lucky against each attack, she needed to be lucky only once. He had to strike for a vital spot before it was too late. He had only one chance and he knew it. As she reached for him again with her jaws, he dodged and attacked at the same time, plunging his sword up to the handle into her left eye. The dragon twisted and screamed, her flailing claws swatted Philip aside like a rag doll.
From her window Aurora saw the entire scene, as the form of her loved one was swatted aside a fury like none she had even felt filled her chest. Without thinking she leaped out of the window, almost flying, as her legs propelled her across the sky toward the black dragon. A moment before landing in the middle of the creature's back, Aurora swung her fist with all the speed and strength she had, adding her incredible momentum to her phenomenal strength.
There was a massive cracking sound and the shock-wave rattled the nearby towers. The dragon tried to scream, but the air escaped her lungs while her back cracked under the strength of the princess.
Trying to push her advantage Aurora went for the head. She used one of the spikes protruding from the beast's back to swing herself in a long arc. Her feet barely made contact with the left cheek of the dragon, but the glancing blow sent her sprawling next to Philip's unconscious form.
Sensing an opportunity to finish the battle in one swift strike, the dragon clawed for the two lovers. Her front right claw darted forward to smash the two into pulp. There was a terrifying boom and a small cloud of debris exploded around the point of impact. The dragon's muzzle contorted in an indecipherable expression, she felt something resisting her attack.
Under the massive claw Aurora was resisting with all her strength. Pushing with both hands she struggled to keep the scythe like talons away from her love. Never before she had strained herself to this point, it felt … strangely good. She finally had found an opponent that allowed her to go all-out, to unleash her strength without fear of hurting someone. With a roar she strained herself a bit more and pushed the claw back.
The dragon was dumbfounded, she knew of the enchantment, but such a strength was beyond anything she had anticipated. If she was to win this battle, then toying around – like she had done with the prince – was no longer an option. Yet she hesitated which gave Aurora a little window of opportunity.
Hunting with the pack had taught much to Aurora, now she had the occasion to put her skills to good use. She sprinted away, right between the dragon's front legs aiming from the back ones. Knight had taught her that grounding an opponent was the first step to the kill. Aurora ran right into the massive legs, tackling it with a full body slam. The dragon lost her footing, as the combination of unyielding flesh and super-speed transformed Aurora into a living projectile that almost broke the column-thick bones in half.
As Aurora rolled away the dragon tried to get her advantage back. On the ground the princess was too strong and mobile to face, so she took the fight to the air. Her large wings flapped with a sound like a million hides slapping against a rock. In a moment the whole mass of the creature took off.
Aurora had found herself next to the beast's tail as it took off. In an instinctive motion she grabbed one of the spikes and held it with all her might. She had no time to try steadying herself and she doubted that even her strength could keep such a massive creature down. Now she was airborne and scared to death. For a long time Aurora had wished that her powers included the ability to fly, but now that she had experienced the gut-wrenching effects of a sharp turn she changed her mind. Gritting her teeth Aurora started to use the spikes as a sort of ladder and climbed her way up to the dragon’s head. While the wind was not strong enough to slow her down the aerial acrobatics of the beast were challenging her balance and her grip.
The dragon soared across the battlefield looking for the princess and, to her surprise, she was nowhere to be found. Her sharp eyesight could tell apart a hummingbird from a red robin a mile away, but she couldn't find any trace of her prey. After a moment she decided that it didn't matter much.
Aurora was halfway along the beast's neck when she realized what was about to happen. Summoning every iota of strength in her body she grabbed two spikes as far apart as possible and pulled. She pulled with all her might, with enough strength to uproot a centuries old oak.
The dragon opened her maw with a sadistic grin and little speckles of greenish fire fell out.
Aurora pulled with enough strength to bring down a massive granite pillar and destroy an entire palace.
Liquid fire gurgled and rose in the dragon's mouth, hotter that hell itself.
Aurora pulled with a strength spawned from her desire to protect her love.
An eerie green light surged from the open mouth of the dragon and the flame was just a millisecond from igniting the scenery.
Aurora pulled until her arms felt like they were about to collapse under their own power.
Without warning the dragon felt a sharp tug on the back of her neck forcing her to throw her head backwards. A cloud of green fire exploded from her mouth, but her aim was ruined, it went upwards and never came back. Enraged the dragon flapped her wings and flew upwards, just to suddenly go into a power dive, attempting to bounce the princess off her back.
Aurora panicked for a moment as she felt her innards twisting, she didn't know what to do but her body reacted instinctively. She stomped her feet into the dragon's spinal column to brace herself. The shock from the impact reverberated through the beast's bones and stunned her for a moment, long enough for the ponderous mass to smash into the outer wall of the castle.
Aurora dug herself out from under the dragon. Despite the devastation she was unharmed and literally furious. As the stunning from the massive impact wore off she turned and faced her opponent.
The dragon rolled on her belly and stood up on her three good legs. Her eyes narrowed into two tiny slits as she regarded the princess with all the hate her mind could conceive. The two stared at each other for a few seconds, locked in a contest of wills, then the dragon attacked, clawing for the princess.
It was a quick left-right combination, but Aurora was ready. In spite of her mass, the dragon was awfully quick, but to Aurora she looked slow and lumbering. With a graceful movement – that looked more like a dance – she spun away from the first claw and artfully jumped over the second, but this was exactly what her opponent wanted. The double claw was a feint to cover a third attack, the colossal maw snapped around the princess as she was spinning in mid-air with no way to avoid it. The dragon gloated as she proceeded to chew her prey.
The gloating was very short lived, as Aurora mule-kicked the dragon’s upper gum, snapping one of the front fangs out. Using it as an impromptu knife, Aurora plunged it into the beast's mouth several times, drawing little fountains of maroon blood.
The dragon tried to hold steady, but the pain was more that she could handle. Attempting to get some relief, she spat out the princess in a high arc.
Aurora tumbled across the air like a rag doll, almost at the complete mercy of the gravity. With a thrust of her back she turned to face the beast.
The dragon opened her mouth and a incredibly intense green light shone through. A long lance of green fire cut the sky hitting Aurora with surgical precision. This wasn't a vast fireball, it was a super-concentrated jet of flames, hot enough to vaporize steel and smite human flesh into nothingness. It was so concentrated that it almost had a mass of its own. The green spear lit the sky for several seconds, until the dragon exhausted all her flames. She watched the night sky with a malicious grin and looked very … astonished.
Aurora was still there. What little of her clothes had endured so far were now reduced to ashes, she was smoking, her skin was covered in charcoal black ash and the tips of her hair were burning, but she was alive and still fighting. The much stronger fires of love and rage were burning inside her. The impact had sent her even higher into the sky, now she was coming down hard. Using all her muscles to direct the fall she aimed for the dragon's head and cocked back her right fist.
The impact resounded miles away, like a comet smashing against a planet. The dragon's skull fractured and the beast squirmed in pain. Aurora pressed on, she grabbed on one of the dragon’s horns and brought down her fist again. One, two, three, four, five times she punched the creature right between the eyes before a contortion of the serpentine neck smashed her against a turret of the castle. Aurora reached for any handhold available and found the grip of Philip's sword, still plunged into the dragon's eye. The sword slid out and Aurora fell only a few meters from Philip.
Despite his wound Philip was slowly coming to back to consciousness. He felt groggy and confused, but the scene in front of him was enough to shake every bit of confusion out of his mind. The girl from the forest was standing just a few meters from him, completely naked – which caused Philip to feel very awkward just for watching – waving a sword, his sword, at the same black dragon he was trying to save her from. In spite of the ash covering her form, she looked nothing short of magnificent, her long dark blond hair billowed in the wind caused by the dragon, every ounce of her body was soft curves that flowed into each other perfectly, yet she looked completely impregnable like a fortress.
Noticing where she was standing Aurora planted her feet and faced the dragon. There was a sound, like two rocks sliding against each other, when she gritted her teeth: “Stay away! You can't have him! Do you hear me? I won't let you near him now or ever!”
Philip looked at her starry-eyed, despite all the dirt and the drying blood sprayed across her body, she found her beautiful. In fact he doubted that she would ever look more beautiful in his eyes, so strong, yet so feminine. From his point of view the dirt didn't detracted from her looks, but simply changed it. She was no longer the dream-like vision from the woods, she was a real, solid woman, a woman that was fighting for him. Even if there was a more beautiful woman in the world – which he doubted – this woman will always remain the fairest to him.
The dragon took a step forward and something unexpected happened.
The blade started to shine with some strange internal fire. A two meters long tongue of iridescent flames burst from the blade, bathing the whole scene in a supernatural glow. A similar fiery glow started to emanate from Aurora and in a moment she was shining like a multicolored star.
The dragon started to backpedal away from the flaming blade, recognizing the magic at work.
The hearts of the two young lovers had touched each other and now that energy was powering the blade's enchantment as well as supercharging Aurora herself.
Aurora looked at the dragon with a strangely calm look on her face, she knew she had the upper hand. The simple sensation of incredible energy coursing under her skin told her so. She gracefully jumped, with the iridescent aura from her back unfolding like a pair of angelic wings and descended on the dragon's head swinging the blade in a two handed grip.
The blade cut through scales sinews and bones like they were no more substantial than air. A long vertical cut appeared across the dragon's head and green fire poured out of it and exploded skyward forming a massive column.
The dragon screamed with a voice impossible for any human or animal to reproduce as the same green flames that powered her consumed her body and soul. The forest of thorns around the castle dried and decayed in a matter of seconds. In seconds there was nothing left but carbonized bones and they simply vanished into dust at the first breath of wind.
Aurora plunged the sword into the earth, the blade now burnished by the blood of the beast and leaned on it. She felt like a massive burden was lifted from her chest and now she could breath more freely. Behind her Philip was trying to get back on his feet, but his left leg was limp and unable to keep him up.
The Three Fairies appeared. They looked older, wearier and tired. Their aura was now less shining and more mundane. Seeing the prince's discomfort the Red Fairy stepped forward, but her Green Sister stopped her. “This was our Little Sister's doing, let her complete her task. For once we can simply sit back and take care of the details.”
She blew over her open palm and a thin dust flew around Aurora's naked figure. Thick bushes of every imaginable flower wrapped the princess for a moment, when they retracted Aurora was clad in an the most incredible dress ever. It looked like it was made of small leaves sewed together, its color shifted from a luscious spring green at the bottom of the gown to a bright autumnal red at the collar, and it felt softer than silk.
Aurora looked puzzled at the Fairies. The Green one bowed her head: “It's our last present, your highness, and our attempt to apologize for all our lies.”
The Blue Sister had helped Philip back on his feet and approached. She took Aurora's hand and joined it with Philip's hand. “I believe introductions are in order.” she added with her most solemn tone, “Princess Aurora, allow us to present you your soon-to-be husband Prince Philip son of Hubert.”
The lovers stared at each other, both speechless and dazzled by this final revelation. Following the same impulse they embraced each other and kissed with all the passion of their young love.
Around them the castle was slowly awakening and Aurora took her first step toward meeting her real parents, while supporting her limping betrothed.
Soon the royal marriage was celebrated and they lived happily ever after, except from the occasional broken bone.
The keep had been silent for days, as the goblins had fled and even the black eagle had left her perch, but something remained, the chessboard was still there, perfectly pristine among the gathering dust.
Three little dots of light flew in from the open windows and unfolded in the forms of the Three Fairies. Looking at the board the Red one smiled and took a step back: “Little Sister, if you please. It was your gambit that won us this game.”
The Blue Fairy took the white queen – shaped like Aurora – and moved it across the board. “I believe this is a checkmate.” she smiled before turning back into a small dot of blue light.
The keep started shaking like a wounded animal and collapsed, while the Fairies flew away toward their forest.