For decades they mourned her, until those who loved her became too old to recall her face. After that, for centuries more she was remembered, not as a person, but as a story, told to children younger than she had been when she first slept. Eventually the stories began to fade away, like the words in a dusty old book, until even her name was forgotten.
The prophecy stated that it would be a kiss that woke her up from the cursed sleep, but as the years passed, the kiss never came, leaving her to sleep longer than anyone had expected. In the end, it was something a lot less romantic that finally roused her.
When the first wave of explosions happened across the world, it shook the foundations of the small cottage where she lay, damaging the vines that held the curse firm. It wasn't powerful enough to destroy them completely but it shattered the magical bonds that held her asleep.
She awoke into a brave new world, no longer the one she had once known, filled with beauty, happiness and magic, but a darker place, consumed by hatred, greed and blood.
When Talia opened her eyes for the first time in more than nine hundred years, the first thing she noticed was that the colours had faded.
She knew where she was – the small cottage outside the castle walls was as much her home as the palace itself had been – but everything looked different than she remembered. The clean, crisp white of her bedclothes was now nothing more than a dull grey, with the edges worn and frayed from brushing against the floor. The bright tapestry that hung on the wall opposite her bed was barely recognisable and had she not known that the design in the centre was her family crest, she would never have been able to identify it. She held up her hand and even her own skin, once a flawless porcelain, was now wrinkled and pale.
The ambient sounds, those that surrounded her every day, had similarly faded away. She heard nothing, save the sounds of her own laboured breathing as the dust filled her throat with each intake of air. There were no birds chirping from the treetops or forest animals playfully calling to each other.
Sitting up in the bed, she turned and placed her bare feet on the floor, shivering as they touched the icy cold marble beneath her. She called out, her breath misting in the air, and waited for the arrival of a ladies maid or her mother, or even one of the royal guards, but no one came. Leaning down, she peered under the bed, hoping to hear the familiar yapping of her beloved puppy, but where he used to wait, tail wagging in anticipation, there lay nothing but memories.
Clutching her nightgown tight around herself, she stood up, her legs unsteady after years of sleep, and shuffled slowly towards the door.
"Mama?" she called out, her hand hesitating as she gripped the door knob. "Papa?"
No reply came, as she had both feared and expected. She took a deep breath and twisted the knob, the creaking sound echoing through the empty room. The door swung open and a gust of warm, stale air washed against her.
Tentatively, she left the relative safety of her bed chamber and stepped into the large open room, her thoughts amounting to little more than something's wrong. The fireplace was empty, devoid of its roaring, crackling fire, and in a room that was always bursting with activity and life, there was now nothing. No servants rushed to offer drinks; no children played underfoot; and no guests hovered, waiting in anticipation for her to wake. Instead, there was only a thin layer of dust and a deafening silence.
Hopeless and helpless, she dropped to her knees, the coldness of the floor no longer bothering her, and began to sob into her hands. Her tears pooled and she silently wished that she had never woken up.
"Who the hell are you and how the hell did you get in here?"
A rough voice broke through her sobs. She looked up and saw a man, no older in appearance than her eldest brother, pointing some kind of weapon at her. She had never seen anything like it before, but the black metal object, combined with the anger and distrust that she saw in the man's face were a clear enough indication that he meant her harm.
His clothes were as rough as his voice, dark in colour and dirty in appearance, a mismatched set of items designed more for warmth and comfort than style. His hair, dark as raven feathers, curled untidily around his collar, giving him the look of a street urchin.
She leapt up, brushing her hands down the front of her nightgown as if it were a ball gown. She straightened her back and held her head up high.
"Who am I?" She threw his words back at him, resisting the urge to wipe the tears from her eyes. She poured as much determination into her voice as she could, recalling the way her mother, the Queen, had spoken to those who disappointed her. "Do you have any idea who you are talking to?"
The man looked amused, his blue eyes widening in surprise, but his gaze never once faltered. He looked her up and down, measuring her up. "I'm talking to someone who seems to be standing in the middle of a battlefield wearing nothing but a nightgown that looks like it's older than something my grandmother would have worn."
"How dare you!" she demanded, stepping closer to him until the end of the metal weapon was pushing against her chest. "I am the Princess Talia, daughter of King Alfred and Queen Lucia, and this is my home." Part of her wanted to correct the last statement - the cottage was nothing like the home she remembered - but a Princess never contradicts herself. What was said, was said.
"Princess?" he scoffed. "I never realised, how stupid of me." He offered a half-hearted bow, filled with as much sarcasm as his words had been. "How can I ever make it up to you?"
Talia wanted nothing more than to call out for a guard, someone to take this foul, maddening creature away from her, but instead she surprised herself when she next spoke. "You can start by telling me what has happened here. And where my parents are." The final words came out as little more than a whisper and she became acutely aware that she was terrified of what the answer might be.
The man hesitated for a moment, before lowering the weapon to his side. "We were hit by another bomb," he told her gently. "It came down a couple of miles from here and damaged the roses covering this place. I never even knew it was here."
"They're enchanted," Talia replied, her heart lurching at the memory of the curse. She had known, the instant she felt the sting of the spindle, what was going to happen. It had been prophesised by a fairy and that was something she'd learned couldn't be altered. "The roses, I mean. They grew like that to protect me."
"Of course they did," the man muttered under his breath. "Just like the dragons and the knights in shining armour."
For a second, Talia felt a burst of hope until she realised that the man was simply teasing her. "Do not mock that which you do not understand," she warned him, all softness gone from her voice as the mask of Princess quickly slipped back into place.
"I apologise, your highness." He bowed again, but this time his voice held a little less sarcasm than before.
Talia waited until he was standing straight again. "What is your name?"
He laughed and Talia prepared herself to take offence once more, but the laugh was gentle, as if he was laughing at himself this time, rather than the question.
"I barely remember," he confessed. "It's been so long since someone called me anything other than Hey You that I was starting to think that it might actually be my name." He held out a hand to her. "I'm Jake."
She placed her own hand gently in his. "Talia," she replied, dropping the honorific and the titles. "I'm pleased to meet you."
Before she could say anything else, Jake's attention was stolen by a noise coming from outside the cottage. He dropped her hand and rushed to the open door. Talia followed, standing behind him, peering over his shoulder, trying to get a glimpse of the outside world.
"Damn it," he said, slamming the door closed and pushing Talia further back into the room, before she could see anything. "Get down."
He wrapped his arms around her and flung them both to the floor, his own body covering hers as much as possible. Less than a second later, Talia heard an explosion and the entire building shuddered. The few remaining pictures fell from the wall, smashing on the floor around them. The windows shattered, showering them both with shards of glass. Dust filled the air outside the cottage, darkening the sky and making it impossible to see anything.
Through it all, the only thing she was aware of was the sound of Jake whispering to her, his lips brushing against her as he spoke. "It's okay. It's nearly over. We're okay. You're okay. I'll keep you safe." He said the words with such conviction she could almost believe him.
Once the noise had finished, and the dust started to clear, Jake gently eased the two of them up. He looked at Talia, who stood with her eyes wide open, blood beginning to well on her cheek from a stray shard of glass. "What just happened?" she asked, her voice trembling.
Jake shook his head. "No time," he said, grabbing his weapon from the floor. "They'll be back soon to rummage through the debris. We need to move. Get your stuff and let's go."
Talia looked around the room at the remnants of her life, now strewn across the floor, many in pieces. She saw the silver candlesticks that used to sit on the table at mealtimes, and the portrait of her great-grandmother that took pride of place above the mantel. Trinkets and ornaments that had once meant everything to her now felt useless. She didn't know how long she had slept for, or what happened to everyone else, but she knew one thing - that life was over for her now.
She slipped her feet into a pair of pretty but probably not very practical shoes that she pried from beneath the rubble, and pulled a long fur coat over her nightgown.
"I don't have any stuff," she told him as she crossed the room to the door. "I'm ready."
He turned to her and wiped the blood from her cheek, his hand lingering a moment, warm against her cold skin. "When we're out of here, somewhere safe, I'll tell you everything I know," he promised her.
She nodded and took the opportunity to glance behind her one more time, saying a silent goodbye to the world she was walking away from.
Jake reached out his hand to her. "Welcome to the war, Princess."