The Curse Strikes

This week for Fiction Friday, I thought I’d share another excerpt from The People the Fairies Forget, my young adult fantasy novel.  You can read a little about the premise here, and catch up with previous excerpts here and here.

            In brief, the story so far: Princess Rosaline was cursed by the Evil Fairy Echinacea at her christening to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die.  Good Fairy Marjoram transformed the death curse into a spell for enchanted sleep until awakened by a kiss.  Tarragon (a free agent fairy unaffiliated with either group, and our narrator) thinks the whole thing is kind of stupid.  He also has a wager on with Marj about whether True Love can be found among non-royalty; he says yes and she says no.  He’s chosen a goatherd named Jack and a kitchenmaid named Emmy, who works at Rosaline’s castle, to prove his point, although the details of how this will be demonstrated have yet to be revealed to the reader.

            As we join, Rosaline has just pricked her finger.  Marj, out of deep concern that Rosaline will be lonely if she wakes up in a hundred years and everyone else is gone, has put the rest of the castle to sleep too.  Tarry has seen to it that Jack and his herd of goats, including the Little One, a baby goat, have come to the castle to investigate.

*********************************

           When we arrived at the main entrance to the castle, Jack stopped short to stare at the yards and yards and yards of thorns.

            The area around the castle was by no means deserted.  A considerable crowd had gathered already, and more were arriving.  Many looked on with eager curiosity and loudly theorized regarding what had happened—they were plainly onlookers, come to see the excitement.  Others, the ones who appeared more distressed, had to be friends and relatives of the people inside.  Marj should’ve seen what she’d caused.  But she wasn’t there, of course.

            The goats settled in and started eating the lawn.  Jack eyed the thorns.  They weren’t just thorns.  Marj would never dream of magicking up something that plain and ugly, so she’d made enchanted roses instead. There were roses swarming all over the outer wall of the castle and spreading at least three hundred feet out into the fields in a tangled mass far above our heads.  They had vivid red blossoms and sharp thorns.

            Jack scratched the Little One’s head, and stared at the roses.  “I have to get through there.  How am I going to get through there?”

            She bleated at him.

            “You’re right.  There has to be a gap.  Even magical roses that spring up over night, instead of over centuries the way they should, have to have a gap in them somewhere.”

            There wasn’t any gap.  I knew there wouldn’t be any gap.  Marj is thorough.  Jack wasn’t the only one looking, and no one found a hole large enough to let a rabbit through, let alone a man.  As Jack began a second circle of the castle, I decided it was time for me to go to work.  I shed a little magic here, cast a few spells there, pretty soon everyone but Jack had wandered out of the vicinity of the northeast corner of the castle, leaving Jack out of sight of everyone but me and the goats.  I cast one more spell to keep it that way, and then lifted my own invisibility spell.

            “You’re only going to get yourself poked that way,” I remarked.

            Jack, trying to pull a creeper aside, didn’t look up immediately.  “I’m fine.”  Then he did look up, and jumped back so that he poked himself after all.  “You’re—wait, you’re—very small.”

            I’d magicked myself down to a foot tall.  People don’t take you seriously as a magical being unless you look the part, and I’d much rather shrink than go for gossamer wings.  And sparkles…we’ve been on the subject of sparkles.  The pointed ears are worth something towards presenting a magical appearance, but not much.

            “You take magical roses calmly, but you’re bothered by a man a foot tall?”  I think it was as much my sudden appearance as anything else that startled him.  In Waldisan and Perrelda both, people were used to a certain amount of magic drifting around.  Not as much as in, say, Beaumont to the north, where the magic has always been more dramatic, but they did expect the occasional fairy floating in and out of royal courts, every village had at least a passable herbwife, the coastal towns had periodic problems with serpents, and every decent-sized city was sure to house a magician or two.

            “It’s…not the same thing.”  Jack shook his head.  “So…you’re magical.  Obviously.  Are you good or evil?”

            “Good,” I said promptly.  “Which is just what I’d tell you if I was evil.”

            “You know, I did think of that,” Jack said with a trace of aspersion.  He recovered equanimity quickly.  “But I thought it couldn’t hurt to ask.  Why are you talking to me?”

            “You’re in luck today, Jack ol’ boy,” I said, rubbing my hands together.

            He started.  “How do you know my name?”

            “It’s not an uncommon one.  And I’m magical.  More importantly, I’m here to help you get through those thorns.”

            His eyebrows shot up.  “Really?  Good!”  Then they dropped again in suspicion.  “Wait, why?”

            One rule of the wager—I definitely couldn’t tell him there was a wager.  I bowed expansively.  “Out of the goodness of my heart?”

            “What do you expect in return?”

            “Clever,” I approved, “Good for you to think of asking.”

            “Thanks.  But what do you want?  You can’t have my firstborn child.”

            “What would I want with a crying baby?”

            He shrugged.  “I never understood that, but I hear that’s what they always ask for.”

            That’s true, but they only ask because they don’t expect to get it.  It doesn’t make a whole heap of sense to me either.

            I raised my right hand.  “I solemnly swear that I will not request payment for services rendered in the adventure we are embarking upon.  Satisfied?”

            “I guess.”  After a moment he shook his head, and the suspicion shifted to befuddlement.  “But…why do you want to help me?  I’m just a goatherd.”

            “That’s why,” I said.  “Now, first order of business.  Getting through those roses.”

            “Are you going to give me a magical sword?”

            “A what?”

            “A magical sword.  To cut the roses.  The princes in the stories always—”

            “Right, right, they do,” I said.  “But that’s because they’re mostly big lunks who don’t know how to do anything but wave weapons around.  I was thinking of a more non-violent approach.  People are too fast to dismiss the possibilities of talking as a peaceful solution to problems.  Choosing violence too quickly causes many of the troubles in the world.”

            Jack was staring at me.  “So…you want me to talk to the roses?”

            That was the gist of it, and I said so.

            He turned and looked at the roses somewhat doubtfully.  “Um…open sesame?”

            Not surprisingly, nothing happened.  “What was that?” I asked.

            “A magic password.  Is there a magic password?”

            “There could be,” I allowed.

            “Maybe…open basil?  Open oregano?  Open saffron?”  Jack scratched behind one ear.  “Emmy would be able to think of more spices.”

            “How about tarragon?” I suggested.  “Try tarragon.”

            “Open tarragon,” he said, with more confidence.  Still nothing.  “But you told me to say that one!”

            “I didn’t say it was the right one.  It’s just my favorite herb.”

            Jack frowned at me severely.  “You’re not being very helpful, you know.”

            “Yeah, I know,” I said.  I was even contrite, to a point.  “It’s a bad habit.  Listen, when I said to talk, I meant…talk.  Explain the situation.”

            “You want me to…explain to a bunch of roses?  They can’t hear me.”

            “That’s what you think,” I murmured, as the roses rustled.

            Jack’s shoulders hunched.  “They just moved.  It’s not windy.  But they just moved.”

            “Mm-hmm.”

            He still looked doubtful, but he turned to face the roses.  “So, I…would like to get through you.  To the castle.  Please.  I’m not a prince and I don’t have an enchanted sword and I’m just a goatherd and I just want to go in and look for Emmy.  Can I do that?”

            The roses rustled more vigorously. 

           “I can’t tell if that was yes or no.”  Jack dragged a hand through his hair.  “Jacks are supposed to be clever and all, but I’m really not, you see, so I don’t know how to get past you.  But you don’t understand; I have to get in there.  I have to find my…friend.”

            The rustling turned mocking.

            “I know it’s not the right word,” Jack muttered, “I know that.  I guess she’s my…”  He hesitated, glanced at me.  I didn’t say anything.  There was only so much help I was allowed to give before I forfeited my wager.  I could help him get into the castle, but I couldn’t help him with the question of what Emmy was to him.

            Jack swallowed.  “The stories…the stories are always about princes and princesses.  But couldn’t…I mean, maybe…”  He looked back at the roses.  “Couldn’t a goatherd and a kitchen maid have true love too?”

            The words seemed to echo and linger, and when they finally faded there was a suddenly noticeable silence.  Only for a moment, though, before the branches of thorns twisted and twined and rearranged.  Slowly at first, then faster, they sorted and shifted and a shadowy, rose-lined tunnel formed before us.

            “Does that mean yes?” Jack asked, staring at the tunnel.  “Or was ‘true love’ the password after all?”

            “Don’t ask too many questions,” I advised.  “Just take advantage of the opportunity given you.”

            He didn’t move at once.  Just went on staring at the rose-lined tunnel.  “I’m not sure I should.”

            “Don’t you trust me?”

            “Of course not.”

            “I knew you were a sensible lad,” I said.  “Whether you trust me or not, you can see for yourself that this is your only chance of getting in there.”

           “Right.”  Jack peered down the length of the tunnel and swallowed a nervous lump in his throat.  “Well, come on then,” he said with a fair degree of cheer to his goats.  “Let’s go.”

            The goats refused.  Only the Little One had no objection.  The others would not enter the rose tunnel for love, force, or pleading.

            “Can’t you do something?” Jack demanded.

            “I don’t think they’ll listen to me either.”

            “Goatherds don’t leave their goats alone.  They could wander off, they could be stolen, they could be attacked…”

            “How much longer are you going to dither?”

            “I’m not dithering,” he snapped.  Then he picked up the Little One and told the other goats, “Stay here.  Please.”  He turned resolutely towards the tunnel.  “You coming?”

            I bowed my most elegant.  “Your obedient servant.”           

           He hesitated one final time on the threshold.  “I feel like the Egyptians at the Red Sea.”

           “Try to feel like the Israelites instead,” I suggested.

            “Right.”  Maybe he tried.  Whether he did or not, he plunged into the tunnel.

            I was beginning to think he never would.  But he went, and I followed.

            He walked the first half with one hand on the Little One’s head, taking one carefully measured step at a time.  It was a dark, narrow tunnel with ropy, thorny branches on every side.  I was small so I fit very well, but sometimes Jack had to duck to get through, and other times his shoulders brushed against the tunnel on either side.  It wasn’t hard to see what he was thinking about.  If the tunnel should close…if the walls should push back together and the branches wind around him…the rustling of the roses didn’t help.  It had an ominous sound, the branches on one side seeming to call to the branches on the other side, longing to twine together again if only this foolish, insolent, audacious boy wasn’t in their way…

            Halfway there, Jack’s courage broke and he ran, ran at full tilt until he threw himself breathless against the door to the castle.  It swung open when he touched it and he half-stumbled and half-fell within.

            The Little One bleated her disapproval.  Personally, I was surprised he’d walked as far as he had.

            “Sorry,” Jack apologized to the Little One.  “Are you all right?”

            She seemed to be.

            “I’m fine too,” I said, having glided after him.

            “Sorry about that,” Jack muttered.  “I expect a prince wouldn’t’ve run.”  I suspect he hadn’t met many princes.

            Jack flipped loose hair out of his eyes, and only then did he look around.  I looked too.  We were in the front hall, a grand cavernous entryway leading into the castle.  There were always four guards on duty here, and by what light entered through the branches over the windows we could see four red uniforms in approximately the right places.  The men in them, however, were sitting on the ground, slumped back against the pillars where they normally stood at attention.

            Jack cautiously ventured towards the nearest, almost on tiptoe, and gingerly reached out one hand to poke his shoulder.

            The guard’s head lolled to one side, and Jack leapt backwards.  “He’s dead, isn’t he?”

            Then the guard’s mouth dropped open, and a loud snore emerged.

            “He’s asleep?”

            “They all are,” I said.  Marj was, after all, thorough.  Under normal circumstances, there’s a rule that prevents fairies from casting spells on members of the armed forces.  It’s supposed to keep us from interfering in wars, which is a good goal and makes for not such a bad rule, usually.  That should have excepted the guards from Marj’s sparkling slumber—because when the King and Queen of the Fairies make a rule, you don’t break it without a very, very good reason—but the situation of “A Princess Slumbering For One Hundred Years, Necessitating a Full Complement of Palace Staff in Sympathetic Slumber” constitutes an official and sanctioned exception to the rule.  This came up more often than you might think.

            Jack checked the rest of the guards too.  They were all fast asleep, and no amount of prodding, shaking or shouting received any response.  “I guess that makes sense.  The Princess falls asleep and everyone else does too.”  He looked suddenly struck.  “Everyone else.  So if I find Emmy what am I…we’ll just find her and then deal with it, right?”

            The Little One bleated agreement.

            “Right,” I agreed too.  I knew how to deal with it, but I wasn’t allowed to tell him.

            Jack looked over his shoulder at me, still crouched in front of one sleeping guard.  “You know, you already know my name.  Do you have one?” he asked me.

            Another advantage of goatherds.  I’ve seen many a prince who never thought of asking for names.  Granted it took even Jack a while, but he was understandably distracted.  “Would you believe me if I told you it was Tarragon?”

            “I might.”

            “Well, it is whether you believe it or not,” I said, and walked over to him.  Crouched down, he was about on my level.  I extended a hand.

            He shook it, if dubiously.  “Nice to meet you, Tarragon.”  Then he stood, and scooped up the Little One, who had been wandering at liberty while he looked at the guards.  “Let’s go find Emmy.”

            I hoped that was who we’d end up looking for.

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