Fun With Thornspell: “Nameless”—A Short Story For My Readers
Yesterday I provided the main introduction to today’s feature short story, here, recapping the “Fun With Thornspell” event and my commitment to write a short story for the character named in the winning comment.
But to remind readers, Thornspell is a retelling of the story of Sleeping Beauty from the perspective of the prince destined to break the spell—but as with all such stories, there are others who come into it, such as Rue, the mute, mysterious young woman who manifests, often to aid Sigismund, the prince, at different points in the adventure. (The winning comment alludes to this.)
The short story I have written deals with part of the Rue character’s backstory. And because the fairytale is about the hundred-year long, enchanted sleep that affects not just the princess but the entire surrounding palace, and because dreams and reality are very much part of the Thornspell story, I have written the story in the mode of being within a dream/dreamscape. If I have it done it well, then you should very much get that feeling from the story.
As well as Rue, I have also tried to include references to some of the other characters and story elements you, as readers, indicated that you liked, including Sigismund and Auld Hazel, Syrica and the faerie hunt. I hope that it may weave a little bit of magic for you …
Dedication: This story is written for Andrew, who posted the winning comment on the “Fun With Thornspell” series.
by Helen Lowe
She had seen the sea once, when she was very small, the waters stretching farther than she could have imagined before that moment. And there had been a ship, its masts tall as a forest tree, with white sails breaking the sky—until finally it vanished into that darker line where sky and ocean met. The people who lived by the sea had told her that sometimes the ships were lost: run aground or overwhelmed by storms, the white sails and the tall masts and the human crew all sinking below the waves, drifting deeper than the seaweed until they reached the ocean floor.
Perhaps that was what had happened to her—except that she could not have sunk to the furthest depths yet, because she felt more like the seaweed: a single cable cut adrift in shifting darkness. Or perhaps she had become water, her fingertips and hair disintegrating into the restless tide. Occasionally, in the fleeting moments when she came back into herself, she would detect a pinprick of light far above: a star, perhaps, caught as she was in deep waters. But whenever she tried to rise toward it the current would roll around her again, pulling her back into the dark and cold.
Finally—although whether it was a day or a season later she could not have said—she drifted out of the ebb and flow again. This time it was not one star overhead but a panoply of them, caught in a tangle of bare branches. And when she tried to move it was no longer the tide or seaweed holding her down, but tree roots. Vines scrambled over them, with long thorns that pierced her skin. She opened her mouth to cry for help and a vine snaked over her lips, pricking blood. If she struggled, the thorns only bit deeper—but the dark unceasing tide was gone, its voice replaced by a wind, howling through the bare branches of winter before dropping to a murmur amongst spring leaves. Sunlight slanted through the green canopy and a flock of sparrows darted across her field of vision. She could not turn her head, but for the first time the roots that bound her retracted, just a little.
The trees around her grew taller, stretching skyward; clouds blew across the sun and rain fell on her face. Winter frosts cracked her lips and more blood fed the piercing thorns, but this time she did not slip away into the song of wind and leaves. Instead, she clung to the darting sparrows, listening to their gossip overhead—and realized that although she knew their name, she could not name herself.
The awareness of that loss fretted, sharper than the thorns, but whenever she pushed at it, testing the edges of her world of sky—forest—sparrows, the roots would tighten again, the thorns pressing in. But the sparrows circled, chattering, and flew down to perch in her hair, tapping at her with tiny insistent beaks. “Remember!” The wind blew harder and they flew up in a cloud, only to settle again: “Remember!”
She had been named once, that much she was sure of—and now the light overhead became the recollection of sun through lancet windows, the ripple across a blue mere. Her feet ran in a rush with other children, their laughter tossed back like flowing hair. “Remember!” the sparrows chorused, and she felt the slow track of tears. When they slid into her mouth she tasted salt, an echo of the dark sea.
Another sparrow swung down from her hair to peck at an earlobe: a further exhortation to remember, as opposed to the puncturing cruelty of the thorns—which had been meant to poison her, she realized, finally perceiving the darkness at their heart. She focused her awareness further and discerned a second power that flowed green as sap through root and vine to oppose the poison.
Does the healing come from me, she wondered, or from some other source—but felt increasingly sure that the sparrows, at least, were her own, an outward manifestation of her resistance to the ensorcelled thorns.
Yet still she could not recall her name. Her mind’s eye kept returning to a vision of a tower with a narrow twisting stair and mirrors on every landing, their glass reflecting cloud and sky and the tossing crowns of forest trees. “Lost,” she whispered to herself. “And nameless. So let that be my name, until I find a better one.”
The trees grew taller again, their roots delving deep as the vines thickened into cables. They would never, Nameless decided, draw back of their own volition: she needed to either accept lying trapped until the forest fell, or endure the pain that struggle brought. Although how could she even struggle when only her eyes were free to move?
“Your eyes—but also your mind.”
Had she really heard a whisper, or was it just a subtle shift in the wind’s voice? Yet whether real or not, the whisper was correct: her mind was free to move. She tried imagining hands that could lift the briars clear, but they had twisted round and through each other in a way impossible to unravel. And not even the sharpest axe would be able to sever the knotted roots that bound her close. Easier, perhaps, just to drift after all, waiting out the aeons for the forest giants to fall … so much easier …
“Except you do not have aeons. No more than one hundred years, at best.”
The whisper again, and this time Nameless strained to look around. But no one stepped into the limited range of her vision, either to help or harm. She sighed, a long slow exhalation of breath—and realized that the thorns piercing her lips had retracted.
Is it the act of resistance itself, she wondered, that counteracts the dark will working through the thorns? In which case … She pushed with her tongue at the crusted blood on her cracked lips, frowning. In which case, she repeated to herself, I should pursue the green sap, see if that opens up a path for escape.
She let herself sink down, aware of leaf mould and loam below her, intermingled sunlight and shadow above. Sinking deeper again, she realized that she lay at the heart of a vast root system. Not just a coppice or a grove, she concluded, stretching her mind to encompass it all: this is a forest. The leaves overhead whispered their secrets as she pursued the green through countless branching root mazes. But always, just when she was sure she had found a clear pathway, the green flow would divert down a new channel, elusive as an eel.
The shadows deepened and the moon rose, edging every leaf with silver. The vision of the tower filled Nameless’s mind again—but this time the mirrors on the landings shattered, fragmenting into a pattern of herringbone bricks with the mosaic of a dancer at their center. Lilacs fell from the dancer’s fingertips and her face was obscured by the curve of dark hair that fell below her shoulders. “Resist,” a voice whispered out of the mosaic, silver moonlight and green sap woven together: “You must free yourself.”
Nameless jumped back, startled out of the vision—and found herself floating among the topmost branches of the forest trees, surrounded by a faerie hunt. Both horses and riders flickered in and out of shape around starfire eyes, the hunters’ slender spears of glass and bone leveled at her heart.
“You can see me,” she tried to whisper. “So am I spirit or flesh?” But no words came. Instead she felt the bite of invisible thorns again, a jagged stitchery across her lips as she held out moonglow hands, imploring aid.
The hunters just stared at her, their expressions impossible to read although the starlight eyes turned wholly black. One figure took form, more solid than the rest. “It is because of you we are trapped here.” His voice rustled like the forest leaves as his spear arm drew back. “But perhaps your death will free us.”
The sun leapt up, turning the eyes of hunters and faerie steeds alike to red blood—and a crone hobbled into the glade below, leaning heavily on a gnarled walking stick as she squinted skyward. The hunt leader hissed like a cat, reversing his spear, and the whole band whirled away, a ribbon of dawn mist and fire across the face of the sun.
Nameless plummeted as though the air holding her up had collapsed—but just when she thought she must slam into the ground, her course steadied until she hovered eye-to-eye with the crone. The look that met hers was sharp and bright as a bird’s.
“Yer name is it?” the old woman said, as though she heard the unasked question. “That’s no’ something I can help ’ee with, lass. ’Ee must find it for yerself.”
And free myself, too, Nameless thought, as the morning ribboned around her like the faerie hunt, dazzling her with the new sun’s blaze. When her eyes cleared she found herself in an enclosed courtyard, with her companion sparrows fluttering above a nearby herb parterre. A young man was standing just a few paces away—or perhaps, she decided, studying his open face, he was still as much a boy as a young man, at the precise age when youth stands poised between the two. She felt the sun’s warmth, and caught the pungency of the herb sprig he was rubbing between his fingers—but knew that he could not see her.
“Fear not, lass, ’e will one day, when time’s right.”
The crone’s voice sounded as close as though the old woman stood at her shoulder, although Nameless could not see her, any more than the boy was aware of her own presence. The scent of the herb pricked at her nostrils and her memory at the same time, so that she lingered there, struggling to recall … Something, she thought desperately: anything. But like the source of the green sap that worked against the poison in the thorns, this too eluded her. She drifted closer all the same, drawn to the boy and the aromatic tang of the herb; her hand was half sunlight, half a bending in the air as she reached to pluck a sprig of the herb for herself.
The boy looked up, the sun turning his eyes to gold as he gazed through her. She paused, transfixed, because the eyes did not quite go with the open face—they spoke of power, sleeping maybe, but soon to wake.
“The young dragon.” The crone’s cackle was humorous. “Oh, ye’ve eyes to see with, lass, plain enough.”
The boy looked kind, Nameless decided, despite that flash of power. She watched him drop the herb leaves and step away as a voice called from beyond the courtyard wall. Stooping, she picked the sprig up—and almost dropped it again as her vision swam with images of the plant: stitched as a motif onto a fluttering pennon and embroidered into gloves and guerdons. When she steadied, the spray still clutched in her hand, she could see the detail of her clothes for the first time—woven of sunlight and air perhaps, but the same herb-leaf pattern was worked into a border along her sleeves and spearhead deep around her dress’s hem.
She swallowed, still dizzy, and the sparrows spiraled close, settling onto her shoulders and hair, and clinging to her embroidered sleeves. The boy and the courtyard and the herb parterre had vanished, but she still clutched the sprig in her hand as she floated above the trees once more—only now, she could see her body. It was lying in a wooden summerhouse on the crest of a small hill, with green trees rising all around. Rose briars grew up and over the summerhouse and canes crawled across its wooden floor—but none actually touched the pallet were her body lay.
She wondered whether they ever had, or whether the sense of being trapped by roots and thorns was an illusion created by the spell that kept her body locked in sleep. My body, she added to herself, but not my spirit: not anymore. Somehow, her spirit self had stepped clear, free to slip between sunlight and shadow, and traverse moonlight and night.
Tentatively, she visualized standing beside the bier where her body slept—and found herself in the exact spot. The herb was still in her hand and she lifted it, inhaling the scent of the bruised leaves. “Rue,” she whispered inwardly, and knew that somehow, the word applied not only to the plant, but to herself as well. “Rue,” she repeated silently, and heard the sparrows’ swift, joyful chitter. And then finally, because anything said thrice has a magic to it: “I am Rue.”
It was not all that she was. But for now, it would do.
(c) Helen Lowe
Have read Thornspell and want to read more of my work? You can check out the The Heir of Night here or here. Tales for Canterbury contains my short story, The Fountain, (preview here), plus there’s more short fiction here; and poetry, here.