Time passed and Aurora grew, as she always had, in both grace and in beauty. Maleficent gave silent thanks from time to time for the gifts given by Aurora's foolish pixie aunts, for even when the woes of the kingdom hung heavy on her shoulders, Aurora was bright and radiantly happy. Her hope and patience seemed to spring eternal, and she found light in even the darkest parts of her kingdom.
"I am the queen of the fairies, and I will sleep like a fairy," Aurora stated with an air of finality, one day, when Maleficent proposed creating a house for her in the moors. "I don't need a house, and I don't need a bed. I want to sleep in a tree like the fair folk do."
The human half of the kingdom had finally calmed down enough for Aurora to come and go readily from the moors; but there were only so many times she could pass out in the nook of a tree or on Diaval's shoulder before being roused to sleep in the cottage she had grown up in. It was a longer journey than sleepy queens liked to make, and the fair folk loathed saying goodbye - even overnight.
Plus, the world outside the moors had become a worrisome place, now that Aurora was royalty.
"So, you want to sleep like a fairy, mm?" Maleficent tapped her chin, and Aurora nodded vigorously. Diaval sat on Aurora's shoulder, nibbling at little bits of her hair.
"Well, some fairies sleep in the mud." Maleficent cast a sidelong glance in her direction. "Perhaps that would suit you, if you were a fairy."
That earned Maleficent a swat from Aurora, a chastising caw from Diaval, and the right to spend several days setting up the queen's new bed in the lower boughs of her tree.
Aurora's hammock hung several feet below Maleficent's in the rowan, with a handful of little nests surrounding it to hold her things. ("Exceptionally fine nests," Diaval had boasted, as soon as he'd stopped fussing with them. "No one builds nests like a raven.") Aurora's hammock hung above a careful web of branches, nestling her in where she could not possibly fall, and was situated so that both Maleficent and Diaval could keep an eye on her. They were, after all, her guardians in the moors - where Aurora would not allow her human guards to follow her.
"Such silly human comforts," Maleficent had scoffed, when Aurora's hammock was filled to the brim with pillows and blankets.
But Maleficent soon found that these human comforts were, without a doubt, needed for Aurora during the winter nights. The wind whipped freely through the highland moors where the great rowan grew, and while both Maleficent and Diaval could settle low beneath their feathered wings, Aurora was forced to burrow in blankets that did not work half as well. There were some nights, truly icy nights, when no amount of pillows and blankets could make the wind bearable, and Maleficent could almost feel Aurora's teeth chattering in the boughs below.
Diaval would chirp, insistently, over the wind at Maleficent from his nest up above, and she would move the magic in her fingertips until the branches themselves were twisting around Aurora's hammock to block the storm, their leaves rising to shield her from the wind. When that was not enough she would reach out over Aurora and dust the resting queen with warm furls of yellow magic, which moved and licked like gentle flames until she ceased to shiver.
Even still, on one truly cold night during Aurora's first winter as queen, Maleficent's magic was not enough. There was a rustling and fidgeting from below, and Maleficent rolled over to see Aurora clutching at her warmest blanket and clamoring up the rowan tree. She stopped just below Maleficent's branch, wearing nothing but her sleeping dress, a blanket pulled tight around her shoulders.
There, sleep-mussed and shivering, Aurora asked very politely - if not a little pitifully, shuddering from head to toe - if she could lie next to Maleficent to get warm.
"I kn-know your wings keep you warm." Aurora explained. "Your magic is wonderful, but...I think your wings would be warmer."
Maleficent paused, lips pursed and eyebrow raised. She reached out a hand and sent several warming furls of bright light curling around Aurora, stopping her trembling.
Aurora's eyes darted to Maleficent's fingertips. "Or you...could give me wings?"
"Don't be silly, you would look preposterous."
It seemed as if Aurora was about to argue this point, when - exhaling slowly and looking off to the side - Maleficent lifted up a wing. Aurora only stared at the feathery grace as if it were something completely new to her, or as if she had forgotten what she'd asked.
"Well, get in then." Maleficent murmured. "At this rate I'm going to get cold."
Aurora beamed, showing the utmost care when climbing in beside the fairy; but it was not without anxiety that Maleficent allowed the girl to settle against her. There was the nearness, which she was unaccustomed to on its own, even with a blanket buffered between them, but more than that there were her wings. Aurora had been granted fleeting touches - but they were few and far between. It was one thing to stroke at a feather in passing; it was an entirely different thing to lie beneath them.
It was no secret how much Aurora adored her wings, and Maleficent would not have been surprised if she had reached out immediately to stroke them; an act that would, without a doubt, petrify the fairy - however lovingly it was intended.
Aurora was a gentle, dear-hearted thing, but there were days Maleficent still woke, gasping and clutching at her back in a silent scream, certain that the wings she felt were only phantom limbs.
Maleficent feared for them, somewhere deep in her bones on a level she could not shake, and to have her wings touched so soon after their return was devastating intimacy she could not bear.
Even from Aurora.
But mercifully, Aurora was often wiser than she appeared; and whether it was the way Maleficent tensed her wing hesitantly above them, the way the color drained from her face in the dark, or some other magic unique to Aurora, the little queen seemed to know.
When Aurora lay down she did not reach out for either form or feather. Instead, she whispered her thanks sweetly, wrapped her arms safely around herself, and rolled over where she could not stare or touch - waiting patiently for the feathers to cover her, if they chose to, in their own time.
Aurora had gifted her these wings, and yet she did not demand them. Aurora didn't demand anything.
This made something in the fairy ache deeply with guilt and adoration in equal parts, and it took all Maleficent's self-control not to take to the skies where, she would hope, such sentiments could not follow her.
"Are you alright?" Aurora asked, gently, after several still moments.
"Yes." Maleficent's breath left her in a low murmur. "Yes, just fine."
Maleficent wrapped an arm carefully around Aurora's waist, pressing ever so slightly into the little queen's back to offer all her warmth, and then - very slowly - draped a large feathered wing over them both.
"Goodnight," Aurora breathed, softly.
"Goodnight,"Maleficent replied, as smoothly as she could, "beastie."
This marked the first of many cold, windy nights on the moors where Aurora would make the unassuming climb up to Maleficent's branch and ask, very gently, if she could share her bed.
Those nights Maleficent slept little and felt much; for even though she loved the queen with all her heart, her heart was not what it once was. The intimacy of sleeping side by side left her raw, so quickly did it drudge up old memories of nearness - associated strongly now with betrayal and loss - and so tentatively did it toy with new feelings she did not wish to feel.
Maleficent was keenly aware of the way Aurora would press back ever so slightly, trusting her so completely, and of the way Aurora's heartbeat settled like Maleficent's hammock was the safest, warmest place in the whole world -- while her own heartbeat pounded like a drum.
Maleficent thought more than once, that, if she allowed it, Aurora would sleep against her every night, rain or shine.
And more than once, Maleficent wished she could.
It was several years of peace under Aurora’s reign before the gentle queen was forced to make use of her army.
It was an early day in the summer months when the Kingdom of Myrce and the Kingdom of Leria rode their troops towards the border of Aurora’s kingdom and stood, several hundred men strong, under a banner of war. Their demands were simple: Aurora would give up the throne, or they would take it from her. She was unwilling to trade – or, indeed, even to use – many of her land’s natural resources, unmoving on the subject of the moorland’s pristine protection, and was deemed by their unified cause unfit to rule at all. For what was an eighteen year old girl doing, unmarried and unwilling to marry, ruling with a council which was half beasts?
To their eyes it was unnatural, and to their hearts it was unsettling.
But armies could not walk Maleficent’s world without her knowing, and it was not long before both fairy and raven swept unceremoniously into the throne room to find Aurora sitting down to her morning council, bathed in sunlight.
Daylight poured into the throne room through the open ceiling. The entire roof, along with many of the second floor rooms (one of which, Maleficent suspected, had held her wings) had been completely torn off. This left the throne room as a sort of open courtyard, where subjects of both earth and sky could come and go freely, and vines grew over the lengths of stone walls. It was so beautiful, so completely Aurora, that Maleficent almost regretted proposing they burn it to the ground years earlier, when it still reminded her iron and armies.
Blonde hair was still mussed from sleep, and the pink that rose to Aurora's cheeks at the sight of them made their queen look very young indeed - as if, somehow, those who had watched her since birth should not see her before breakfast. She rose and embraced Diaval, even as wisps of yellow magic turned him back into a man, and then stepped near to Maleficent. The fairy reached out in greeting to brush stray blonde hair aside, and Aurora smiled broadly.
"You..." Aurora started, her face falling at Maleficent's expression, "have bad news."
Maleficent's frown deepened, and she brushed the little queen's cheek. “Leria and Myrce are marching towards our border."
"Under a banner of war."
Aurora's small morning council - three bearded men, a mudcap, and an elderly gnome - made themselves known by breaking into hurried conversation. The men clutched at their beards and looked to one another with wide eyes. Aurora frowned, worried her bottom lip, but Maleficent noted that she did not look surprised.
"Diaval flew over them and listened for their intentions." Maleficent continued, chin tilted up with disgust. "They say they'll have your crown.”
She would never understand the hearts of men. Terrible, greedy things - for who could wish harm on queen or kingdom so soft?
A voice in the back of Maleficent's head reminded her, in a whisper, that she had.
"I refused to trade them iron months ago." Aurora said, with a deepening frown. Maleficent found it a most bizarre expression for their usually bright human to wear, and felt her fingers move minutely with the impulse to brush it away. "They know we don't mine it here anymore," Aurora continued, "but even if we had it I wouldn't give it. They've shown far too much interest in...in..."
"The moors." The gnome behind her squeaked anxiously.
For all the mockery directed at the little queen from foreign nations – teasing of Aurora's kingdom full of pixies and magic dust – there was a deeply rooted fear at the unknown power Aurora’s combined kingdoms had brought, and an even deeper longing for the untouched resources of the moors, vulnerable now that the wall of thorns had come down.
Maleficent breathed deeply, struggling to school her features. The moors were her soul, to threaten them was to threaten Maleficent herself, and she had not watched Aurora pour her every breath into this combined kingdom for nothing.
“Aurora," she started, with a carefully clipped tone, forcing her words to be even, "what do you propose?”
The young queen's face fluctuated between worry and a rarely seen expression, which Maleficent was fairly certain was pain.
"We..." Blue eyes flickered searchingly to Maleficent, waited for the smallest of nods, and then moved over the small assembly with a growing voice. "We will meet their army with ours... We have no choice. They cannot have this kingdom, and they cannot have the moors."
The council broke out into a fit of conversation. ("But the alliance with the East..." "...who will we trade for spices and silver..." "...their combined armies...") However, in the end, there was agreement between all souls present; for not a one was willing to endanger Aurora's crown, or the peace it had achieved.
Suddenly everyone was standing, and all at once everything was motion.
"Ready the men, as quickly as you can, please."
"Yes, your majesty," bowed the captain of the guard.
"Diaval, tell Balthazar and the other border guards to mobilize."
"Yes, mistress," breathed the raven man.
"Anyone willing to stand is to be given armor from the supplies - brass or silver - and a horse where we can spare it."
"Yes, your majesty."
The room swept into a flurry of activity and commands, which carried Diaval away on his wings and each man and moorland thing away towards their cause until only Aurora was left, standing in her courtyard of a throne room, in the horned shadow of her protector.
There was a long, slow breath, before small shoulders sunk visibly. When Aurora spun - eyes wide and fearful - the queen was a girl again.
The fairy's answer was immediate, “I’m here.”
Aurora stepped into outstretched arms, and Maleficent embraced her, smoothing hands over the girl's head and shoulder blades, petting down her back. The little queen clung fiercely to her, sobbed once - twice - and then quieted, breathing raggedly.
"Don't be frightened," Maleficent murmured, as softly as she could manage. Warm breath hit at her collarbone, irregular with stifled fears. "Your subjects adore you, all your subjects, and they will stand for you gladly." Maleficent gave a squeeze and whispered firmly, "There is not a one of us who would let harm befall you."
"Oh-" Aurora's face rose from her shoulder, eyes bright and tearful, "no, Maleficent - I'm not worried for me; I'm worried for my soldiers! They're such good men."
Maleficent's lips twitched up with disbelief. Her soldiers. She was worried for her soldiers.
Truly, Aurora was a better queen than any of them deserved.
Maleficent's amusement quickly slipped away at Aurora's increasing distress. "This conflict should have been avoided! Surely this could have been prevented." Aurora's eyes were wild and wide. "I could have traded them something. I am not the queen I should be; I should have-"
Aurora stilled, quieting at the press of two fingers to her lips, and a low voice.
"Not all conflicts can be avoided," the fairy soothed. "Dissent from your own people could bring your rule into question, but this is not of your people. This speaks only of the greed of other nations, not blessed with monarchs as virtuous as you."
Maleficent felt the girl's hands clench in her robes, and a few tears slipped down over Aurora's cheek.
"Their greed and prejudice is not your fault, Aurora, and should not rest on your shoulders."
The young queen stared back, uncertainly, and Maleficent pressed.
"This is not your fault."
With a sigh, Aurora relaxed visibly in her arms, and let her head fall back to the fairy's shoulder.
"You are my strength," Aurora whispered, after a beat.
"And you are my queen," the fairy answered.
Maleficent flew high over head, and surveyed the troops.
The men below her formed an army which was, from her place in the sky, discernable as only half as large as the army that opposed them. Only a fraction of Aurora's men road on horseback, and those who did carried visibly fewer weapons. There had been little left from Stephan's militaristic reign, once the iron in the kingdom was outlawed, and warfare - Maleficent realized with striking clarity from her place in the clouds - had never been a priority of Aurora's.
Now, on the battlefield, it showed.
Maleficent swooped back, diving across the several hundred feet still left between the meeting armies, and glided low along their front line. Through the armor and regalia she saw several men she recognized - the heavyset captain of guard, who was getting up in years, the lanky young man who often escorted Aurora to the moors and walked her horse back, and the soft-voiced soldier who frequently stood watch outside Aurora's bedchambers at night.
These were Aurora's men, every one of them, and they wore a mask of determination and fidelity straight across - for their queen was nothing like her brutal father, whom many had the misfortune to serve, and they prized her for it.
This loyalty, one Maleficent could almost taste on the air, was surprising to the fairy - and stirred something of her faith in men. Though, she supposed, it probably had less to do with them and more to do with Aurora. Aurora could conjure love from the lowliest of hearts.
Maleficent knew this, perhaps, best of all.
Several strong wing beats pushed her back up above the men and horses, and Maleficent felt her stomach turn, abruptly, as she caught an upsetting - though not unexpected - glimpse of gold in the crowd.
Aurora rode, at the center of her army, atop a black and feathered horse. Two enormous tree guardians flanked her on either side, their thundering steps causing both horses and men to give a wide berth. Aurora sat straight, but Maleficent could see, past where blonde hair looked like as many golden threads in the sunlight, that the color had drained from her face.
Maleficent swooped nearer, close enough to exchange words, but the sight did little to calm her. The little queen's knuckles were bone white as she gripped Diaval's mane, nearly hard enough to pull feathers, and from up close Maleficent could see that she was trembling.
"We're outnumbered in men." Maleficent announced as she swept near enough to be heard, wishing that she had better news.
Blue eyes blinked up at her -- and much as they had in the throne room, they looked wide - fearful - but not surprised.
Aurora opened her mouth, as if to speak, but only nodded.
The very idea of Aurora on a battle field petrified Maleficent in the way that a threat on their entire kingdom did not - made her stomach lurch in strange ways and bid her heart to ache - but Aurora was insistent. She was certain.
Aurora was not a warrior, she did not aspire to be a warrior, but she was adamant about being present for the battle. For surely she could not ask men and fairy folk alike to ride to the edge of her kingdom and stand for it when she would not.
And it was not in Maleficent's nature to question the choices Aurora made, no matter how they pained her.
Maleficent looked to Diaval and even as a horse he saw her, out of one large, dark eye, and swiveled his ears. Maleficent had asked that Aurora trade her normal stallion for Diaval - who, Maleficent had quietly commanded, was to get Aurora as far away as possible if the battle turned against them.
If there were anyone she could trust with Aurora, it was Diaval.
The kingdom's edge rose into sight - outlined by the falling away of trees and the yellowing of grass not touched by the unseen tendrils of the moors - and the faces of the opposition came into focus. Maleficent moved to beat her wings once, harder, to move to the front of the line - before she paused, looking at Aurora.
"Go on," Aurora encouraged in a tiny voice, gripping tight to Diaval. Her face was blanched, but she forced a smile. "I'm in good company."
The tree guardians at either side of her nodded their huge, knotted heads, and Balthazar rumbled in his deep, moorland tongue:
"With our lives."
Maleficent nodded gratefully to him and cast Aurora a long, lingering look - full of more sentiment than words would allow, heart pounding in her chest - and then launched herself forward with the blast of wings.
The armies stood, face to face now, only a sliver of land apart. When Maleficent touched ground between them, her back to Aurora's men, she could feel a sea of eyes upon her and the nervous shifting of horses at her back.
She extended her wings, slowly, to their full length.
"Queen Aurora," she called out, in a steady voice, "sends her condolences to those who would forget the power of the Moors!"
Two separate banners waved before her, the purple and silver of Leria, and the blue and gold of Myrce. Maleficent looked down her nose at the sea of men, like so much filth, and felt a fury rising in her veins.
Both armies dressed in their own colors, but wore pieces and held weapons made of iron.
"You must be Maleficent!"
The deep, bellowing voice came from a heavily decorated man in blue and gold, standing just behind the front line. His orange beard was sprinkled with grey, and his horse wore a king's regalia. A top his head sat a jeweled crown.
"I hear you keep council with the queen," he drawled, and the men around him rippled with smiles, as if they were in on a joke. "Truly, your majesty must be a lover of beasts!"
There was a distasteful slickness to the innuendo, and Maleficent bristled at once - the earth at her feet slowly overturning as thorns, black and sharp, began to sprout from the ground around her.
"Where is your princess, fairy?" came another, higher voice - from a young man dressed in purple and silver. This man, too, wore an elaborate crown. "Or has she sent beasts to lead her army as well?"
Green swirled at her fingertips, and Maleficent felt the thorns inching up beneath her feet, preparing to become a living weapon - and the horses and men shifted behind her, ready to follow her lead - and she bared her teeth -
"I am here."
A quiet, unassuming voice called out over the crowd. Maleficent turned to see that, at Aurora's word, soldiers and sentinels alike stilled, parting to give her room.
The sight of her, riding a horse - a feathered, beaked horse - with no saddle or reigns, sparked a new ripple of whispers through the crowd as she stepped forward. Dressed simply in a green cloak - infinitely less ornate than her royal counterparts and without a banner or procession of any kind - she looked more girl than monarch. Only Aurora's slender, leafy crown marked her as the queen she was, and even that - without a single jewel - was not what they would suppose.
Aurora leaned down near to Diaval's ear, running a hand over his neck and whispering, and her mount came to a steady halt midway through the crowd. His ears swiveled and his tail flicked from side to side, and the men around them parted to let Balthazar and his fellow guardian move with thundering steps to tower behind Aurora, as imposing as twin mountains.
"You come to my kingdom wearing iron?"
This voice, in a timber so entirely different from anything Maleficent had ever heard, left Aurora's lips in a disbelieving murmur. Blue eyes were as wide as ever, beneath the leafy crown - but there was something different there now too, burning.
Diaval stepped from side to side, snorting, and mirrored Aurora's agitation.
"You would threaten my people and my land, after months under the pretense of peace, and you dare to wear iron."
With Aurora, her softest words were often the strongest, and these were no exception. There was a disbelief in her voice, like she could not possibly fathom men to be such monsters, and she drew up high on Diaval with an entirely foreign expression of disgust.
“Leave our borders now,” Aurora commanded, with a fierceness Maleficent did not know her to possess, “or we will chase you from them.”
Maleficent stared, in awe.
There was another ripple of motion, of whispered words and half-certain sneers from the wall of opposing men, but it was not with the same levity - or certainty - that the king of Myrce replied:
“We do not fear the fairy-loving princess and her band of woodland sprites!”
This sentiment, somehow, rang hallow over his troops, and as they looked up across Aurora's men to the two forest guardians - towering somehow even higher now with spears ready in their enormous hands.
"Give up your crown now, princess," the king of Leria pressed, "and save yourself from a humiliating defeat."
Aurora turned, slowly, on Diaval's back to lock eyes with Maleficent, and begged her silent permission.
The fairy drew out her wings, lips twisting up in a sharp, proud smile, and with a nod she gave it.
"Rise," Aurora cried,"and stand with us!"
It was less than a shout, not quite a yell, but Aurora had never needed to speak loudly- not for Maleficent and not for the forest.
There was a deep, omnipotent rumble, and then all at once the creatures of bark and clay were rising - clawing their way from the earth on every side -and stepping out of the tree line in the dozens; moving on four legs and on two, and forming the half their army had been lacking. The moorland creatures greeted the enemy line with a fearsome, earth-shattering roar -- and the opposing kings took a collective breath as inhuman bodies, tall enough to block out the sun, rose around one who was not princess, but queen.
And Maleficent's heart skipped a beat.