On the night of the harvest festival, Fina had finally had enough of waiting. She knew what had to be done, but no one else seemed to think it could be done, and Fina was the one who suffered for it. That night she decided that she'd just have to do it herself.
There was no use in telling anyone, or asking permission. Her mother would tell her they could try another poultice, or ask for cures in the market town. Her father would pat her on the head like a child, and tell her she was always beautiful to him.
Fina had fallen sick in the summer, while the men were away fighting. The choking purple-black swellings had burst forth on her throat as the fever lifted, and the grandmothers of her village had shaken their heads and made warding signs against evil. None of them knew any cure.
None except Grandmother Blanca, who had shaken her head sadly and said, "The King could have cured you. The King's Evil, it's called, and the King can heal it by a touch."
It was nearly the first time Fina had ever heard of the King being good for anything. Like a proverb, everyone said that if the King were awake there wouldn't be so much fighting, and the men wouldn't have to go away to the borders every summer. Fina wasn't sure anyone really believed it.
And still, though everyone who lived in Fina's village knew perfectly well where the King was--they lived just outside the shadow of the thorn crown hill, after all--no one suggested the obvious. The King was asleep; he needed to be woken up. The King would not come out of the thorn-buried palace to cure her; Fina would have to go in.
She would just have to do it alone. On the night of the harvest festival everyone was too busy to notice her going. She had the light of the harvest moon to travel by, and her harvest-gift of a new warm cloak. She slipped away from the revels to get it, and to trade her dancing-slippers (as if anyone wanted to dance with a girl who had the Evil twined black around her throat) for sturdy boots.
A year ago, Fina could have run without stopping from her home to the top of the thorn crown hill. Now she had to walk slowly through the bare fields and into the forest where the land started sloping upward. There she crossed the track which had once been the royal road circling the hill, and climbed painstakingly up through the tangle of new forest which marked where trees had grown on the old cleared ground outside the castle wall.
Everything had changed after she had fallen sick, and even now that she was not confined to her sickbed, she was not as strong as she had been. She had to do her chores sitting down, and had been hardly any use to anyone during the harvest. Never mind the King's Evil--no youth from her village wanted to dance with a nearly-marriageable girl who couldn't help bring a crop in, but had to sit alone, minding the littlest children like an old grandmother. A girl who got sick and couldn't get well again.
Fina stopped again and again on her way to the thorn crown hill to catch her breath, and every time she did she turned her face to the moon, for the reassurance of its light. She had gone to the thorn crown hill often enough as a child, to play there as all children of her village did, but she had never stayed after dusk. She had never even stepped into its shadow on a sunny day; all the children knew better than that. The thorn crown hill was familiar, but it was not an ordinary place, and it must be treated with caution.
Fina remembered the story as she went, reminding herself that the thorn crown hill was not really a bad place, even though it was enchanted. It was their own King who slept there, the King and Queen and their daughter the Princess, and all the ordinary folk who were their servants. There was many a house in Fina's village that still kept a place at table for a scullery maid or a stable boy who would yet come home from service someday.
It had begun when the Princess was born, and was cursed and blessed by her fairy godmothers, so that she would prick her finger upon a spinning wheel, and fall into sleep upon her sixteenth birthday for a hundred years. To spare the Princess from her fate, the King commanded all the kingdom to burn their spinning wheels. Even now they all spun their wool on spindles; the King had never retracted his order and his loyal subjects still abided by it, though he had slept now for nearly the full hundred years the curse and blessing promised. He was their King, and his word was law. But the King's command had not been enough to turn aside the curse, and the day had come when the Princess fell into her sleep, and all the palace with her, and the thorns grew up around it.
The King had not been able to save his daughter, but his touch alone could heal Fina, and Fina meant to find him. He was her King, asleep or awake. He had to be good for something, else why did her father and all the men of their village fight at the borders every summer in his name?
Fina stopped to catch her breath and looked around for the moon. It was only then she saw that the darkness before her wasn't just darkness. She had come through the forest to the place where the thorns began.
The thorns looked like a solid black wall in the white light of the moon and stars, though Fina knew from daylight memories that they were a glossy dark green unlike any other plant that grew anywhere around the village. She also knew that they were not as solid as they appeared when their empty spaces were filled with shadows--there were openings that invited daring children to explore, especially down at the ground. Fina didn't know anyone who had ever wormed all the way inside, under the thorns' shadows, but she hadn't come to the hill now to play. She wouldn't be put off by a few trifling scratches.
Still, the light of the moon wouldn't penetrate the thorns, and Fina didn't mean to try them in darkness. She turned to her left and began to circle the hill in the direction of the sun, walking in the space between the trees and the thorns. It would have been shorter to walk widdershins, as she stood now on the south side and wanted to reach the east, but Fina was not about to take that kind of risk on the thorn crown hill. She was taking enough risks as it was. It had been easy to ignore the truth of it while she stood alone at the edge of the harvest festival, but here on the hill in the moonlight, Fina knew she was taking a great chance in coming alone in the dark to the thorn crown hill, full of magic as it was.
She also knew she'd been right back in the village, with the familiar harvest-songs ringing in her ears. No one else would dare to try, no one who did not live every day with the Evil around her throat. She had to do it herself.
Fina had a right to be there. She was the King's subject, and long ago her grandparents' grandparents had lived on the edge of the city outside the palace, before the thorns grew up and folk fled, leaving the city empty. Fina's ancestors had stayed, though there was no longer a city or a palace to sell their crops to. At first maybe folk had stayed to wait for the King's return, but in time they had stayed because this was their village, and they weren't going to be chased off by any curse, or any thorns, either. Fina's blood was the blood of the ones who stood their ground.
She had a right to go before the King if anyone did. All it would take was a touch of the King's hand to heal her. She might be healed even if she couldn't wake him, if only she could find him--if only the stories were true, and the King was really alive and only sleeping, behind the thorns. If the King himself was not just a story people told. It was harder to be sure here, in the dark, with the eerie blackness of the thorns under her right hand.
The moon was beginning to sink. Fina kept going until she was in the deepest shadow of the thorns, with only starlight to see by. That meant she was a little south of east, as far as she could get from the setting moon. As soon as the sun rose enough to cast a shadow from the thorns, Fina would be in the light outside it. The sun would wake her as soon as there was sun to see by. Everyone slept a little late the morning after the harvest festival, so Fina could start into the thorns before she was missed at home. With luck, she'd find the King and find her way back out before anyone had time to worry much.
Fina knelt down in the clear space in front of the thorns, heaping up leaf mold to make a nest. When she was done she laid down with her cloak wrapped around her and closed her eyes, thinking of returning home, healed and triumphant, until thinking turned to dreaming.
Fina knew even as she was waking up that someone was standing over her, and her heart sank. The smell of leaf mold and the angle of the light told her where she was--she had not slept very deeply, and never forgot that she was on the thorn crown hill. She knew that being caught here meant her venture had failed when it was only half-begun; if she had to explain her plan to her father or mother, or even to one of the village girls who'd been her friends until the Evil took her, she would falter and give up and go home. For a moment she kept still, pretending to sleep and wondering who had caught her. It was barely dawn; who had missed her so soon and followed her here?
It might be her father--he might have come to her rescue, as the King had tried to rescue the Princess from her curse. It might be her mother, who would gently talk sense to her until she remembered that she was only an ordinary village girl--a sickly one, at that--who had no call to go looking for the King all on her own. It might be one of the young men from the village--perhaps one of them had noticed her leaving--perhaps one of them had noticed her after all, and was not put off by the Evil wrapped around her throat....
Fina opened her eyes, and then quickly sat up. The person standing over her was a woman, an old woman with white hair, and she was no one Fina had ever seen before.
Strangers came to Fina's village now and then, peddlers with their wares and the Baron's men seeking soldiers. Sometimes there were families; women traveled with their children and sometimes their old folks, too. A town was overrun in the fighting sometimes, or lost too many of its men in a year to keep going. People would leave one place to shelter with far-flung family in another, or to take their chances in the Baron's city. But old women, grandmother-aged, didn't travel alone, and certainly didn't stray off the road to explore the thorn crown hill.
Fina stood up and dusted herself off, then curtseyed awkwardly to the woman, taking in her old-fashioned dress made of very fine stuff. There were rings on her fingers, and her skin was so pale the veins on her hands showed through in murky blue branches. This grandmother hadn't labored in the fields to bring in the harvest, nor driven a mule cart down what was left of the old royal road to reach this place.
"Good morning, grandmother," Fina said respectfully, restraining her curiosity. Strange things happened on the thorn crown hill. It was necessary to be careful.
"Good morning, daughter of daughters," the grandmother said, with a strange little smile curving her mouth--as if she were teasing Fina, though her words were perfectly proper. "You have kept vigil, after a fashion, so tell me--have you come here seeking to wake the Princess?"
Fina frowned. She couldn't see what help the Princess would be.
"No, grandmother," Fina said, trying not to sound as if she thought the grandmother's question strange. "I come seeking to wake the King. I wish to be healed."
The grandmother looked surprised at that, and then reached out one pale hand to Fina's chin, and tilted it up to view her throat. Fina kept her own eyes lowered, and did not look to see what the grandmother thought of Fina's ugliness.
"The King's Evil," said the grandmother, slowly withdrawing her hand. "You seek only the healing touch of the King, and nothing more?"
Fina nearly said yes, and then hesitated. Shyly, with her eyes still downcast, Fina admitted, "Grandmother Blanca told me that the King would give me a gold coin for my dowry, as well as heal me." Fina knew the coin would do as much good as the healing, but she had hardly let herself dwell on that. The stories never ended well for girls who grasped after gold.
With that in mind, Fina added cautiously, "But if only I could be healed, that would be enough."
"Well," said the grandmother. "A gold coin might not be too much to ask. How do you mean to reach the King to be healed?"
Fina glanced to her right. The wall of thorns looked only a little less imposing with the sun shining full upon it, and it occurred to Fina that she had been smaller the last time she tried to get inside. Still, she had a plan of sorts. "I will crawl under the thorns, or through them, if I must."
"You will crawl," the grandmother said. "Indeed, for you wear no armor and ride no horse, nor carry a sword, nor shield, nor even a torch to light your way. And what will you do when the thorns catch your hair, or cut your hands and feet and pretty face? Will you leave yourself scarred when you wished to be healed, or turn back when it hurts too much to go on?"
Fina raised her chin further, and pushed back the hood of her cloak to reveal what she normally kept covered. Her hair was nothing more than a cap of curls which seemed not to have grown at all since she rose from her sickbed.
"They cut it when I had the fever," Fina said, as if it hardly mattered, as if her long curly hair had not been the prettiest in the village. "So you see, it won't slow me down in the thorns. As for scars, my feet and hands are hard from work, and another scar here or there will matter very little. Anyway, a scar is an ordinary thing. There's not a man in my village without scars from the fighting, and most of the women have had their own hurts. If I can be healed of the Evil I can be one of them."
"Ah," said the grandmother. "As you are not one of them now, for you have come secretly and alone."
Fina looked away at that, but she did not pull her hood up again to hide, no matter how much she wished to.
"Very well," the grandmother said. "I see that you are determined to try. Perhaps I can offer you some help. Is there anything you would ask of me?"
Here on the thorn crown hill, speaking to a mysterious grandmother-woman, Fina knew very well that she must think carefully before she answered any question put to her. Finally, Fina said, "I would ask of you your advice, grandmother. You seem to know this place better than I. How should I go to reach the King?"
The grandmother gave a very small laugh. It was just the sort of laugh Grandmother Blanca might give, if Fina had done something rather clever--though not the cleverest thing she had ever seen.
"Well spoken, daughter of daughters. I would advise you to do as you have said you will do, and approach the King through the thorns on your knees, with the humility of a child. Have courage in your venture and do not try to turn back once you have begun, for then you will surely be snared. And let me keep your cloak until you return. It will only hold you back."
This last was said in a very sensible tone unlike the momentous voice of the other advice. Fina obeyed promptly, undoing the ties of her cloak and gathering it into a bundle to hand to the grandmother. When she had done so, the grandmother was holding something herself: a work knife, suitable for cutting reeds or willow withes, plain but sharp.
"Take this, as well, to free yourself of the thorns when they catch you. Use it sparingly. The thorns are here for a purpose, just as you are."
"Yes, grandmother," Fina said. "Thank you."
She took the knife in her hand and turned to face the thorns, then nearly turned back to say goodbye to the grandmother. She remembered just in time that she must not turn back, and so she said nothing more.
Fina knelt before the thorns and looked for a place to start. There was a likely-enough gap between the thorn-stems just to her right, so Fina laid down on her belly and poked her head and hands in. It was instantly darker in the thicket, and she hesitated for the space of a breath--but she was in the thorns now, and she had to go on.
Fina lifted up enough to worm her right arm beneath her and tuck the knife through her belt. When it was secure, she reached forward along the ground with both hands, feeling out her path. The bramble was thick, and past the small space she already occupied, there were no hollows large enough to admit her. She would have to push into the thorns and through them. Fina took as deep a breath as she could without coughing, ducked her head down to protect her face, and pushed forward with her knees, pulling herself with her hands.
She felt the thorns snagging at her dress, along her back and her arms and legs, but that was nothing to the dozen or more scratches that trailed across her scalp and the exposed back of her neck. Fina gasped at the pain, dropping lower to the ground to escape it. The first shocking stings faded to a lingering burn, and Fina gritted her teeth and shifted her hands across the ground, searching for the widest space between stems. That hadn't been so bad, really. She could do that again.
Fina pulled herself forward again and won another foot of progress at the cost of more scratches over the same places on her head and neck, and a startling new jab into her right shoulder that made her gasp. Again she stopped for a moment, trying to sink far enough to make the thorns release their grip on her. When she shifted her feet around, they struck thorns on either side. She was all the way inside the thicket now.
With her chin nearly at the ground, Fina tried to look ahead. She didn't know how far the thorns extended, and hadn't thought to ask the wise grandmother. There was no brighter light visible ahead, nor anything that looked like the palace--and what would she do, she wondered, if her path through the thorns ended at a solid wall? Could she climb them?
Fina shut her eyes and focused on the bit of ground her hands had found, her elbows already pressing thorn-stems aside to make a space. They prickled all along her arms, and she dared not shift to try to escape them, when she might only press herself further onto other thorns. She dug in her knees and toes and pushed herself forward. Thorns caught at both her shoulders, and scored deeply as she pushed past them. Fina could not help crying out that time. Her head and neck felt cut to pieces already, and there was no end of the thorns in sight.
She bit down on her lip to prevent herself from calling back to the grandmother, or begging the thorns themselves for mercy. She had sworn she could crawl through them. She had no other choice, now.
Still, Fina could not make herself push forward again. She knew what pain awaited her when she did. Her questing hands trembled, flinching away even from thorns that weren't there. It felt as if there were no way to go forward, and yet she must.
Fina's right hand withdrew without her even thinking of what she was doing. She took the knife from her belt. Its blade seemed to glow silver even in the dim, green light of the thicket. The blade was sharp, perhaps even magical. Grandmother herself must surely be magical, and she had given the knife to Fina. It would cut the thorns.
She could cut herself a path. It would still hurt to go forward. She would still crawl. But she could open up just enough space to pass. Surely Grandmother had not meant for Fina to be cut to shreds, to bleed to death on the way through the thorns. Just holding the knife made her feel stronger. She could make a way.
Not yet, she thought. I don't have to use the knife yet. Grandmother said to use it sparingly, and I can go on one push further before I use it.
Fina tucked the knife back into her belt, shoving her hands forward heedlessly; she only had to redirect a little to the left to find a space wide enough to fit her arms and lay her hands flat on the ground. She dug her fingers and toes in and pushed herself ahead, letting herself scream a little as she went. The pain was worse again--the tender top of her foot caught a thorn, and even after she'd made her push she had to spend a whole minute working her foot free of the painful grip.
Fina was breathing too hard; she began to cough, and with every spasm of her lungs she was forced onto one thorn or another. Flinching only made it harder to catch her breath, until the pain in her chest was sharp as the thorns. The coughing went on and on, and she thought of the knife as she lay there, trying to see anything at all across the ground under the thorns.
Once more, she told herself when the coughing finally eased and she drew a free breath. I can do it just once more. She dug her toes in and inched her hands forward, and before she had decided to stop hesitating she was throwing herself forward. Pain rained down over every part of her, and she heard her dress catch and tear, but Fina forced herself to reach out again as soon as she had made the push forward.
This time her hands found something that was not the cool, soft earth under the thorns. Fina had to twist down, laying her cheek to the ground between her elbows, to see what the hard thing was. For a moment she could not make sense of the streak of white and fold of red, and then she realized that her right hand curved comfortably over a thighbone, and that above it, tangled in the thorns, was the remnant of some bright woven thing--a banner, perhaps, or a surcoat.
Fina's eyes moved past it, and then, turning her head further, Fina looked up.
There were more bones caught in the thorns above her, gleaming white amidst the green, and here and there were blood-red tatters. Grandmother had remarked that Fina brought no armor, no shield or sword. Others had come before--armed and armored, seeking to break through the thorns to the palace. Enemies seeking to ensure the king never woke, perhaps, or to claim the princess while she could not resist, and so claim her inheritance. Fina was savagely glad that the thorns had prevented this invader, and yet....
He had made it just as far as Fina had, and he had died without going any further.
Fina's eyes blurred with tears, and when she heedlessly drew back her right hand to wipe them away, her hand came back both wet and bloodied. She shifted among the thorns, trying to ease herself away from the skeleton, and the thorns above her rustled with her movement.
Small white bones pattered down around her.
Fina sobbed and flung herself blindly forward. She fought her way through on hands and knees, not troubling to feel her way or to muffle her wailing. She was alone in the thorns. If she must die in them, she would not die quietly.
She pushed on and on through the cruel raking pain and the insidious clutching of the thorns, and when she found herself unable to move any further forward Fina gave vent to a long, loud scream that ended in an even longer series of rattling coughs. She shook so badly with fear and anger that the thorns all around her shook, too. No bones fell, this time--but the knife slipped from her belt and hit the ground with a soft thud.
Fina went still at that small, ordinary sound. The knife. She could free herself with the knife. She would have to, now. She was certainly snared.
Fina tried to draw her right hand back to pick up the knife, then sobbed again as thorns stabbed into her wrist and her hand. She tried her left hand, but it was nearly as badly caught. Fina ducked her head--jerking it downward, pulling strands of her hair out as she did, to look at just where the knife had fallen.
By hunching forward, she could touch it with her left knee. She nudged it carefully forward, forward again, until she could bend her head to the ground and close her teeth on the hilt. The taste in her mouth was metal and dirt and blood, but she was able to lift the knife, able to deposit it atop her right arm and then to shrug it off again, down and into the thorns in the direction of her right hand.
The blade stopped just above her hand, and only then did it occur to Fina that she might have hurt herself far worse with the knife than the thorns. Still, with a little jostling of the thorns and some careful movements of her hand, Fina was able to get the knife's hilt to her fingers. She had to turn it backwards to cut her hand free, but the knife proved very sharp. She had only to touch it to the thorn stems to part them.
"Thank you," Fina whispered hoarsely, as the thorns released her right hand, and then her left arm. "Thank you."
She did not know if she thanked the knife, or the grandmother, or the thorns themselves for retreating, but when she reached back to cut her feet free, she found that there was no need.
"Thank you," she said again, and wiped the knife on the mostly-intact skirt of her dress before tucking it carefully back into her belt.
Fina ducked her head and reached out her hands carefully through the clearest space she could find between two thorn stems. When she had extended her hands as far as she could, she felt something strange beneath them. She didn't recognize it for a moment, and then she smiled.
Fina's hands were in grass. Grass could not grow in the shadow under the thorns. If she had found grass, she had found open space. She had nearly reached the palace.
Remembering to keep low to the ground, Fina dug her toes in and pushed forward with her arms extended, squirming the last distance on her belly. She scarcely felt the clawing of the thorns now, because she could see daylight before her and knew the ordeal was almost at an end.
When her head emerged from the thorns Fina began to laugh, even though she was still pushing her body painfully through the grip of the thorns. She laughed as she crawled across the grass on her belly, her body coming free inch by inch with many small tears to her skirt. She laughed as her knees touched grass, and then her toes. She laughed and laughed and rolled onto her back to stare up at the clean blue sky and the sun that shone down at her, only an hour or so past dawn.
After a moment Fina realized what was strange about the grass she lay on, and stopped laughing to roll over again and look at it. The grass was fresh and green, new-grown, as though spring were just about to turn to summer. It was nothing like the parched stuff of harvest time, awaiting only a hard frost to kill it at last. Inside the thorns it was springtime. Fina breathed easier in the warm air, already feeling better.
If she had not already been sure that the grandmother and her knife were magic, Fina knew it now. The stories must be true. The King must be in the palace and only sleeping, and he must be able to heal her.
Fina stood up then and ran her hands over her dress only to realize that instead of removing grass she left trails of blood. She winced, inspecting her hands--though her palms and fingers were as work-hardened as she had promised the grandmother, the backs of her hands had been easily scored by the thorns. She had long wounds criss-crossing her wrists, deep gouges that trailed off into mere scratches. Her ankles and the tops of her feet were the same, and she felt a suspicious trickling down her spine that she chose not to try to blot away for fear that it might not be sweat. Every motion brought the pain from the thorns leaping up, from a dull burn to a sharp stab all over again. Her chest ached with exertion, and there was a bright new pain across her ribs when she breathed too deeply.
Fina gave up on improving her appearance. If she looked like a ragged beggar before the king, instead of like the daughter of the prosperous man who farmed the fourth-best piece of land in the village, that was what it was. There was no help for it. Fina would not be able to impress anyone here.
Anyway, they were all sleeping.
The patch of grass Fina stood in was bounded on one side by the thorns and on the other by a high wall--just as the trees did not grow all the way up to the thorns on the outside, the thorns did not grow all the way to the wall. Fina faced the wall and turned left again to walk sunwise around the palace. The wall curved, and soon Fina found herself on the south side of the palace where a broad, stone-paved road emerged from the thorns and ran into a gate. She stared at the road for a moment, realizing that the track she knew that led from the village to the south side of the hill was the remnant of this road. The stone had been long since scavenged, used to build barns and homes in her village and elsewhere. What would the King think of that, when he woke?
Fina set that aside. She would try to wake the King, first, and worry about what he thought of the road later.
The great gate to the palace stood open, and two men stood to either side. They wore magnificent finery with shining swords at their sides, but the effect was ruined by the fact that they were fast asleep; when Fina came closer she realized they were both leaning back slightly, resting against the wall to either side of the gate. Neither of them took any notice of the dirty, bleeding girl with the Evil around her throat as she approached them.
Fina walked out to the middle of the great paving stones and considered how to proceed. Politeness had not failed her so far.
"I have come to be healed by the king," Fina informed the sleeping guards. Her voice was small and cracked, but loud in the magical stillness of the palace. "May I pass through your gate?"
They gave no answer and did not bar her way. Fina wondered if she should try to wake them--but she had not come for the guards. If none halted her, she would go straight to the king. If she could wake him, he would know what to do for the rest, and if she could not wake him the rest would be no help. Fina strode past the guards.
She found herself in a wide courtyard, and her slow steps halted. There were bodies everywhere. Sleeping, Fina told herself, and indeed she could see them breathing when she watched. They were perfectly silent, though, with none of the shifting and mumbling and snoring and farting and other sounds that she knew from sleeping in a small cottage with her family. Breathing was enough, even if the silence was unnerving. They were alive. Fina walked on, into the palace.
She soon found herself in a great hall, with a high ceiling and shining floor, all silent except for her own footsteps. Even those halted as she looked around, taking in the dazzling decorations, and also the line of people who lay or sat or leaned, all asleep in a line that stretched nearly to the head of the room. And there, on a raised dais, most richly decorated of all, sat a man on a golden chair, with a golden circlet on his head: the king who slept.
A small sound echoed in the enormous chamber, and Fina looked down to see that blood had dripped from her arm onto the beautifully polished floor. She blushed, thinking of the work she made for the ones whose job it was to keep the floor clean. A third cousin of Fina's, twice removed, was a palace maid, and perhaps would wake soon to mop this very floor. Still, there was nothing to be done but to do what she had come to do as quickly as possible.
Fina began to walk along the line, looking at all the people there. None of the men seemed as scarred and weary as the men Fina knew, and their clothes were brightly decorated in all colors, even the green and red that were emblems of the kingdom's enemies. The stories said there had been no war while the King was awake, and so far the stories seemed proven true.
At last only the King was left before her, flanked by more shining guards, all of them sleeping, all of them heedless of the one girl awake in the palace. Fina wiped her hands again on her skirt, which could hardly look worse, and then she approached. She knelt before the dais and looked up at the King, but the King slept on.
"My King," Fina said, trying to be polite again, and to think of the right question to ask. "Your Majesty, I have come to be healed. Please, I have come all this way through the thorns."
The King slept on. The King knew nothing of the thorns, for they had not grown up until after he slept. The King knew nothing of her, or of what befell his kingdom while he slept to save his daughter from the deadly curse laid upon her before the last blessing.
"Please," Fina repeated, but no one heard her. No one stirred.
She could not simply kneel and ask, any more than she could have waited forever in her village for someone else to think of how to cure her. Fina was going to have to wake the King herself. But having knelt, she did not feel she had the strength to rise, knowing that she would feel the pain of the thorns again with every movement.
She remembered, just then, what the grandmother had said. Approach the King on your knees, with the humility of a child.
Perhaps she could do that, at least. Fina set her hands down on the next step of the dais and slowly, painstakingly, pulled herself up, crawling like a child. Another step followed, and another. Tears blurred Fina's eyes. But when she put out her hands to find the next step, she touched a leather boot, and when she looked up she realized she knelt at the feet of the sleeping King.
Fina raised her hands to touch the King's knee, and then saw how bloodied and dirty they were, compared to the fine clean clothes the King wore. She had made a mess of the King's floor, and the King's boot, but she knew better than to stain his silk and velvet robes. She didn't dare wake him only to make him too furious with her to heal her.
"My King," she said, but even from so near, the King did not hear her.
Fina's eyes closed on defeated tears. She could not fight the King, as she had fought the thorns. If she wished him to treat her as a loyal subject, she must behave as one, even while the King slept--just as her father and all the men of her village did, going every summer to the border to fight in the King's name. The thorns were nothing, compared to the problem of the King himself.
For the first time, Fina thought, Everyone was right. It can't be done.
I shouldn't have come.
Tears rolled down Fina's cheeks, and she was tempted to lie down and sleep herself. Perhaps she could join the others here in their cursed-and-blessed slumber, safe behind the thorns. She would not wake until the King woke, and the Queen, and the Princess and all the rest, even if it took another hundred years--even if it was a thousand. The King would find her someday, kneeling at his feet, good and loyal and patiently waiting. Surely the King would reward her then.
But if she never returned to the village, no one would keep a place for her. No one knew she had come to the thorn crown hill, and no one would guess she had found her way through to the palace. Her mother and father and Grandmother Blanca would all think she was dead--that she had run away and flung herself into the river or lost herself in the woods. They would think she had done it for some silly reason, because none of the boys would dance with her or because her friends weren't her friends anymore, because she thought she could never be healed. They would never know what she had tried to do, or how close she had come to succeeding.
She had to get home, which meant passing through the thorns again. But she couldn't face the thorns without trying something more to wake the King, no matter how dangerous it was. No matter how tired she was.
Fina put her hands down by the King's feet, took a deep breath, and pushed herself quickly up to her feet, like shutting her eyes and jumping from the apple tree, or into the pond. She stood a moment, wavering, and realized that her head was level with the King's, sitting on his high throne on the dais, while she stood on a lower step.
Fina stepped up to the side of the throne. A guard stood there, sleeping upright, propped by a shining spear. Fina looked up at him for a moment, then clasped her hands behind her back and bent to speak right into the King's ear.
"Please, Majesty, please wake up. I need your help."
The King slept on, and Fina, bending down with her face beside his, swayed forward a little, not thinking what she dared, and kissed him on the cheek. "Please."
The King turned his face toward her even as she straightened up, and before his eyes were quite open he murmured fondly, "Daughter."
Fina bit her lip and said nothing.
The King opened his eyes and saw her, and his fond smile turned to puzzlement. He looked around, blinking, and said, "Audiences, yes, of course. How silly of me to fall asleep."
He looked up at Fina again--she stepped back, down off the dais, her heart racing. She had done it. She had woken the King. The King was awake for the first time in almost a hundred years--everything would change now, everything.
The King said, "You've come to be healed, have you, young woman?"
Fina nodded quickly, and curtseyed as best she could, without knocking her knee against the King's or falling into his lap. She would be healed, first, but then--so many things would change, when the King returned to them. No one would doubt her, no one would think she had been childish or selfish to run away. Even the King--the King himself!--called her young woman, not girl.
"Very well," the King said. "Chin up."
Fina lifted her chin, and the King's hands came to rest upon the ugly swellings of her throat. "By the word and the power of the King, be this Evil vanquished and be you healed."
Fina felt her face stretched with an enormous smile. The healing was here--she had done everything she meant to and more. She waited for the miracle to occur. But all that happened was that the King's hands slipped heavily to her shoulders. The gentle look in his eyes ebbed into vagueness, and then his eyes closed. He was asleep again. Fina reached up to her shoulders and took the King's hands in hers, heedless now of the blood and dirt; she kissed the back of one, and then the other, like boys did when they played at courting girls.
The King's hands tightened on hers, and he stirred a little, lifting his head without opening his eyes.
"A sovereign for your dowry," he murmured, and then his hands went limp, slipping from Fina's grasp.
"No," Fina whispered. "No, no, I woke you! Majesty, you have to come out--you have to tell everyone, you have to stop the fighting. No one's even sure if you're real, or if you're alive anymore! No, please! Wake up!"
Fina fell suddenly silent when she heard her voice echoing back to her from the walls of the great palace chamber. She captured the King's hands again, and kissed them both, and both of his cheeks, his eyelids, even his forehead just below the great golden crown, but the King did not stir again.
Her knees buckled, and Fina whirled and sat down hard, at the King's feet. Beside her, the King's hand slid limply from his knee to rest at his side. When it fell, something made a muffled jingling sound, like a moneychanger's box. Fina turned her head to look, swiped tears from her eyes, and saw that the King's hand rested on a velvet purse, the top open just far enough to show a bright gleam of gold.
Fina looked up, but the King still slept. He had told her she was to have a sovereign for her dowry, just as Grandmother Blanca had said. If Fina had a sovereign from the King, everyone would have to believe she'd come to see him, even if he still slept, even if she was still cursed. That would be something, to be able to show what she had done.
Fina slipped her fingers beneath the King's, and pulled out a heavy gold coin.
She had seen a sovereign before, once in the market town when she'd gone with her mother to sell a cow. Her mother had let her carry the coin, worn and dim and unreadable, to a moneychanger's for a small sack of coppers and silvers stamped with the Baron's sign. But this sovereign was new-struck, shining and perfect, with the King's face easily recognizable on its side. On the coin the King looked stern and strong, like a soldier--nothing like the man who slept so helplessly here. Fina closed her fingers around the coin and stood, made another awkward curtsey to the King and turned to go.
She'd barely made it to the bottom of the dais before she was longing to lie down and rest. Everyone else was sleeping, and it was strange to be the only one awake, lonely and unnatural. She found she was on her knees again, as when she had knelt to face the thorns, but now Fina felt warm and safe and comfortable. She was as ready to sleep as if she were at home in her bed.
It was the curse, trying to hold her fast with the rest of the palace. Fina bit her lip, blinking her eyes open. She could not fall to the curse now; she had to get home. The pain in her lip kept her awake long enough to get back on her feet, but as soon as she took a step her eyes were sagging shut, her vision blurring, and there was still the length of the great hall to cross, and the courtyard beyond.
Fina's right hand was closed on the coin, but she raised her left hand to her right arm, finding the places the thorns had cut her and pressing down upon them, raking her nails over them, until the pain blazed anew and the blood was flowing again. She blinked her eyes clear and then ran, the pain in her arms like fire, her feet heavy and dull as rocks, until she reached the doors and was faced again with the wall of thorns just a little way down the paved road.
Fina held out her bleeding hands before her. She was so weary, from her first passage through the thorns and from the curse. She did not know what would happen to her if she fell asleep in the thorns, and she didn’t know if this counted as turning back. Had the grandmother meant her to stay in the palace forever?
"Please," she said aloud, though all were sleeping. "Grandmother, please help me. Thorns, please let me through. I only came to be healed, not to stay."
She fell to her knees again even as she spoke. She would just have to look for a way through; she had to try, and once she began to try she surely must not turn back. But before she could touch her hands to the thorns again, other hands gripped her shoulders and drew her up to her feet. "Here, daughter of daughters, this way. It's not much further, and then you can rest."
Fina leaned her head against the grandmother's shoulder, and let the grandmother guide her. The wide, paved road turned to a grassy path through the thorns. Fina knew better than to ask why she could not have come this way the first time. When they reached the trees again on the other side, Fina saw her cloak on the ground, lining her nest in the leaf mold, and she lay down upon it and slept at once.
When Fina woke, she felt something strange. She opened her eyes, blinking toward the sky, and saw that it was the same bright blue it had been at the palace, within the thorns. She also saw the grandmother's face, framed by the new green leaves far above. Her head rested in the grandmother's lap, and the grandmother was plaiting Fina's hair.
Fina pressed her lips together as tears sprang to her eyes, for she realized at once that too much time had gone by while she was on the other side of the thorns, or perhaps while she slept. Her hair had grown long, and autumn had turned into spring--but how many autumns, and how many springs? The king had been sleeping nearly a hundred years when Fina ventured to the thorn crown hill, and there was no knowing how many more years had passed now.
"There, daughter of daughters," the grandmother said, brushing one cool hand across Fina's cheek to wipe the tears away. "It is only half a year--it is not as if you had gone to elf-land."
Fina sat up and touched her hair, and found that the plaits were short, stubby things after all, though the grandmother had pinned them up like a grown woman's hair.
"I must go home," Fina said, and the grandmother raised her eyebrows.
"I mean," Fina said, remembering herself. "Thank you for your help, grandmother."
Though she was frantic to get home--her family would think she had gotten lost, everyone in her village would think she was never coming back--Fina made herself be still and ask, "Is there any way I can repay you?"
The grandmother smiled. "Just this, daughter of daughters. Tell your story--tell of the other side of the thorns and the King who healed you."
Fina touched her hand to her throat and realized that she was, indeed, healed. She looked down at her hand and saw that the wounds from the thorns had healed as well. Some had left scars, but they were narrow and already fading. Her tattered dress had been repaired, too, with fine stitches that almost disappeared into the weave of the wool, though faint stains lingered here and there from her blood. She had enough to tell a story on, but the damage was not so bad, in the end.
"Tell your story and show the coin, for proof," the grandmother instructed. Fina opened her right hand and saw that she still held the king's sovereign, and it was still new-struck and bright. "When you tell the story, give the sovereign away to one who listens. If you do this faithfully, each day you will find a new sovereign in your pocket."
Fina's eyes went round, thinking of who she would tell first. She could give everyone in the village a gold sovereign of their own, from the smallest child to old Grandmother Blanca. The whole village would be rich then, just as if they were able to sell their goods to the King.
"But hurry," the grandmother said, rising to her feet and drawing Fina up after her. "You must tell the men before they go off to the fighting, so that they might spread the story far and wide. None have come for generations now to try to rescue the Princess, and the King will not return to your people until the Princess is awakened by one who has the courage to fight for her."
Fina turned to go home, but then thought of something and looked back to the grandmother. "You'll be here, won't you? You won't let any through who would harm her, or the King?"
The grandmother smiled. It was not a kind smile; her teeth were white as old, bleached bones.
"I will be here, daughter of daughters. The Princess is not undefended. Now go, and tell your story."