Barbed Blessing

Once upon a time there lived a wise and powerful king, the greatest war leader seen in many an age. His armies had pushed back the fae from the borders of his kingdom, reclaiming the land that was once covered with wild, thick fae woods, turning it to fertile farmland. He even came close to taking the head of one of the powerful Sidhe Lords…but this Lord was more cunning and desperate than a mother fox whose cubs were threatened, and found the King’s one weakness to use against him.


That weakness was a woman – the King’s wife. So the Sidhe Lord stole her away, and made a bargain with the King for her safe return and a peace accord between them. They agreed to plant a boundary of enchanted brambles around the borders of the kingdom, a thicket so dense that that no one – be they fae or mortal – could pass through it, save on the one open path. Neither fae nor mortal would be permitted to cross the borders into the other’s land without the agreement of both the human King and the Sidhe Lord, or else a terrible curse would fall upon them.


The King and the Sidhe Lord made a solemn blood pact. The King pricked his right thumb with a silver needle, and allowed his blood to fall upon a fresh bramble cutting, and said:


“As you keep to your bargain, so I shall keep to mine.

No fae blood to be spilled by men, our mingled blood the sign.

Peace shall endure between us, while the crown lies with my kin

Marked by these bramble boundaries: fae outside, men within.”


At this the bramble took root, and grew, snaking right around the borders of the kingdom and back to the place where the King was standing, before the echoes of his words died away.


And the Lord pricked his left thumb with the silver needle, and allowed his blood to fall upon the bramble, and said:


“As you keep to your bargain, so I shall keep to mine

No mortal lives shall we take. I shall protect your line.

Your kin shall ever wear your crown, your kingdom shall endure

Within the bramble boundaries, for now and evermore.”


At this the bramble grew thicker, and spread its thorns right around the borders of the kingdom, and left a gap only in the place where the Lord was standing. Then the silver needle was placed in an enchanted vial, still coated with the mingled fae and royal blood, and the vial was buried under the earth at that spot. And the Lord walked away into the forest, and the King walked back into his kingdom.


* * *


Well, the years passed, and the peace held. And the people of the kingdom grew complacent. The fae left them well alone, and not one changeling was born in the whole kingdom. The Sidhe Lord granted every request to travel the path freely, and they were able to reach other kingdoms to trade without fear of harm from the fae. And it is said that other rulers attempted to make similar alliances with the fae…but those land’s stories have been lost, as the lands have been lost, through this folly.


And it was during those good years that a daughter was born to the King and his wife. The Sidhe Lord himself petitioned the king to be allowed into the kingdom, with his own young son, to pay his respects to the newborn babe, and the King granted this request, which was the first time any fae had asked to cross the border.


Well, of course, there was a great feast, and there were many guests, all offering grand wishes and blessings to the little princess. But when the Sidhe Lord asked to be allowed to give his blessing to the child the Queen was suspicious, and asked “What manner of blessing would you give her?”


“Oh, the usual, beauty, strength, long life…” replied the Sidhe lord airily.


But the King was wise and wary, and said “Any blessing you give to my child, I ask you bestow also upon your own son.” This was so that any curse hidden within the blessing would be placed upon the fae lordling also.


And the Sidhe Lord agreed, and spoke these words, to the infant Princess Talia and his own son:


“So beautiful, all who see you desire you.

So strong, no labour ever can tire you.

Such beautiful children, healthy and strong

May your lives be very, very long.”


The years passed, and the fae lordling grew in the woods, and a strong and comely boy he was, just as his father’s words promised. He had no shortage of women – both fae and mortal – fighting over the privilege of coming to his bed. And if it wearied him, well, he had the fae gift of glamour, and could seem to be other than that he was, masking his great beauty at his will. But sometimes, for the sport of it, he would poke out the eyes of those who would bed him. They left him alone after that.


And the Princess Talia grew likewise, and yet found not so much comfort in the Sidhe Lord’s blessing. It became clear that she must live a life of solitude, for the fae magic was so strong that even her own father was overcome with desire at the very sight of her, and many servants in the castle were put to the sword for their lust-fuelled actions.


This troubled and enraged the royal couple greatly, and the Queen was all for the King marching into the wild woods, seeking out the Sidhe Lord and forcing him to remove his barbed blessing. But the King reminded her of the terrible curse that would fall upon any who crossed the boundary without permission, and when a curse befalls a King, it befalls his whole kingdom, so he did not have the luxury of revenge and thinking only of his dearly beloved daughter. He swore to her that he would search all the days of his life to find a solution.


So it was that they sent Talia away, to a remote cottage near the edges of the Kingdom, together with one hundred servants who volunteered to guard her. And the servants were given the choice to lose either their eyes or their manhoods, so that they would not succumb to the desire that the princess aroused in all who saw her. And fifty of them chose to become eunuchs, and forty-nine of them had their eyes plucked out. But the one hundredth servant was the child’s nursemaid, who had also been the King’s nursemaid in his youth, She was so old that her eyesight had failed with her age, and she had never seen the princess whom she loved so well.


The years passed, and Talia grew to be a woman. And the eunuchs and the eyeless servants protected her faithfully, and kept her company. But they never told her of the curse she lived under, nor of the reason for the bramble boundary around the kingdom, for they wished her above all things to be happy. And all the while, the King and Queen tried to find some way to change her fate. The King first sent a message to the Sidhe Lord, asking for permission to enter the woods and speak with him. But the Lord declined his request, and from that moment on gave no one permission to leave the kingdom. All trade stopped, and the King realised that the protective brambles were, in truth, naught but prison walls. But still he searched, racking his brains, and those of all the wisest scholars in the kingdom, looking for some flaw in the words the Sidhe Lord had spoken, some loophole he could make use of to save his daughter.


In the meantime, his Kingdom suffered, and many and more died, for three terrible troubles fell upon the land in those years:


First, there was a great drought, and the people hungered. Fully half of the people in the land died from famine.


Next, those who were left turned, neighbour upon neighbour, for in their desperation for meat, it seemed good to them to kill and eat each other when they could.


And finally, a plague swept through those few who yet remained, some say as a punishment from one god or another, and all those who had eaten the flesh of other men to survive were themselves consumed by the plague, which covered their flesh with burning boils, agony to touch, which drove the sufferer violently mad with pain, until at length, the boils mercifully burst, spraying such quantities of blood and pus that there was nothing left but a dried, scarred husk of a corpse.


Gradually Talia’s servants succumbed to these things. In small groups, most left her house to seek food, and never returned. At length, only a handful of eunuchs, half a dozen eyeless and her nursemaid were left. Then came the night when the eunuchs said to each other, “Let us kill the eyeless on the morrow, for they cannot see to defend themselves, and we shall eat again.” But the nursemaid overheard this plot, and so in the night she led the eyeless servants to slaughter the eunuchs as they slept. But Talia did not eat of the flesh of the eunuchs, for she had bethought herself to save back a little of her provisions in secret, every day since the drought had begun, and had not yet begun to suffer so much as the others.


It was no more than a week later that the first of the eyeless began to erupt in boils, and his screams were truly terrible to hear. And it was not long until only the nursemaid and Talia were left alive. And one day the nursemaid came to Talia and said “Look here on my hand, my princess, I feel a lump and it pains me – tell me true, is it a boil? If it be so, I must leave this place at once, lest I infect you, or hurt you in my madness.’


But Talia could not bear to admit that her last and most loved companion was doomed to die like all the others. And the princess said ‘No, no, my dear, ’tis but a sting from some nettle. Let me put a cool compress upon it. There are herbs growing nearby that will soothe you.”


So Talia went out, and picked the herbs needed to make an ointment. With her own hands she ministered to the nursemaid, and soothed her first boil.


The next day, the nursemaid came to Talia again and said “Look here on my leg, my princess, I feel a lump and it pains me – tell me true, is it a boil? If it be so, I must leave this place at once, lest I infect you, or hurt you in my madness’.


But Talia could not bear to admit that it was indeed another boil, red and inflamed. And said ‘No, no, my dear, ’tis but a bite from some small insect. Let me put a cool compress upon it. There are herbs growing nearby that will soothe you.”


So Talia went out as before to pick the herbs, and this time the herbs she needed she found at the very edge of the kingdom, close by the enchanted brambles. So the princess made an ointment, and with it she soothed the nursemaid’s second boil.


On the third day, the nursemaid came to Talia again and said “Look here on my face, my princess, I feel a lump and it pains me – tell me true, is it a boil? If it be so, I must leave this place at once, lest I infect you, or hurt you in my madness.’


But Talia still could not bear to admit that it was a festering boil, and indeed that there were many more that were arising all over the body of the nursemaid. And the princess said ‘No, no, my dear, ’tis but a patch of sunburn. Let me put a cool compress upon it. There are herbs growing nearby that will soothe you.”


So Talia went out as before to pick the herbs. But this time she could not find them, no matter how she searched. At last she came to the edge of the kingdom, and spied, underneath the sharp thorny brambles, the very herbs she had been seeking. So she stretched out her hand to pick them. But as she did so, she scratched her hand upon the bramble, and her blood shone on the cruel thorns, red as a cherry ripe for the picking. She cried out, and at once a voice came from the other side of the brambles.


“Is something amiss, what has dismayed you?

I would offer my help, if I can aid you?”


And Talia, who had not grown up in fear of fae, but in blissful ignorance of the darkness of the world, was full glad to have help offered. So she explained her troubles; that she feared for the life of her only friend, and could not reach the herb she needed through the thick bramble.


“The answer to your woes is near

The gap in the bramble is close by here.

Follow my voice, and meet with me

For I know a magic remedy.”


Then they walked to the one gap in the brambles, one on either side of brambles so thick that they could see not the barest glimpse of each other.


When she reached the gap, Talia saw the most handsome creature she had ever laid eyes upon in her life. And at once desire rose in her, overcoming her senses so that she would have torn herself to pieces trying to get through the brambles to reach him if the gap had not been the quicker way. And the fae lordling, knowing full well the blessing that his father had laid upon them both, had his eyes tight shut until he felt her hands and lips upon him, and knew she had passed over the boundary to the fae woods. Then he looked greedily upon her, and soon they were both naked and aware of nothing but each other’s taste and touch.


Afterwards, when the fury of their lust had been sated, he tied a blindfold around both her eyes and his own, that they would not be so pleasantly distracted. He told her that a silver needle was buried in the gap, and that needle had a rare alchemical power indeed which she could use to cure the nursemaid. And he told her all that she must do, and arranged to meet her at the gap at dusk the next day, kissed her hand tenderly, and walked into the woods.


So Talia waited until the sounds of the fae’s footsteps had died away. Then she removed the blindfold and began to dig.


When she returned to the house, she knew she was barely in time. Her nursemaid was screaming incoherently. In haste, Talia mixed the potion as the lordling had told her – piercing her own tongue with the silver needle and allowing the blood to drip into the crucible from her open mouth.


“Virgin’s folly, swineherd’s purse

Bind them up with drips

Of royal blood and royal verse

Both from my royal lips.

I give you this, to end your curse

In a dozen tiny sips.”


And carefully, she poured a little of the mixture at a time into the screaming mouth of the nursemaid. Once, twice, thrice she tipped the bowl, and the screaming grew louder. Four, five, half a dozen times, and the screaming stopped, and the nursemaid began to moan piteously. Seven, eight, nine, and the boils began to burst, covering the princess in pus and gore as she hurried to finish the treatment. Ten, eleven sips, and the nursemaid thrashed violently, knocking the bowl from Talia’s hand.


Frantically, Talia dived after the bowl, and flung it wildly at the nursemaid, who was lunging at her like one possessed… and the bowl struck her full in the face, and one final drop of potion fell into her mouth.


The nursemaid crashed to the ground, rigid as a felled tree. Cautiously, Talia approached. The boils had vanished in an instant, and her wrinkled skin had grown smoother than the princess had ever known it. The prone body on the floor looked like that of a girl her own age, not a woman of near a century. Weeping for joy, Talia clasped her friend to her in a joyous embrace. Not only had the potion cured the plague, it had also cured the aches and pains of age. “Truly, it was marvellous luck that I met that glorious fae this day,” thought the princess, “Surely the hard times of the kingdom have come to an end and the gods will smile upon us once more.” And then the nursemaid opened her eyes, and saw her mistress for the first time.


* * *


The palace was silent, and permeated with the sweet stench of rotting flesh. The king called his last surviving servant to his side, and solemnly took the crown from his head. “I must ask one more service of you, old friend,” he said. “To take this to my daughter – it is hers now. The medicines you have mixed for me have kept the madness at bay, and soothed some of the pain, but the plague will take my life within the hour all the same. Perhaps it is not yet too late to foil the plot that Sidhe bastard set in motion all those years ago. I have discovered his plan, and though it grieves me greatly, there is but one way to stop it. It is a hard task I set upon you – you know what you must do. It cannot be your eyes, for you must see well enough to take hers.”


The servant rode, long and fast, towards the small house on the border of the kingdom, not stopping even to see if the chafing of the saddle was caused by simple friction or if there were boils forming under his trousers. And when he arrived, he drew his dagger and dropped his trousers, preparing to do what must be done. But before he could make the cut, he heard her scream.


Inside, two women were wrestling on a floor that was slippery with blood. The messenger grabbed the topmost one and flung her brutally against the wall. Her neck snapped audibly in the sudden silence. Talia stared, bewildered, at the man in the doorway with his trousers around his ankles.


“She…was.. she tried to.. oh. But she was my friend. But… thank you.” stammered Talia. And then the messenger was on her, kissing her just as violently as the nursemaid had done, and tearing off what little of her clothing remained.


* * *


Talia huddled, cold, naked, sore and covered in blood – although most of it was not her own – in the gap between the brambles. So far as she knew, she was the last person alive in the whole kingdom. She gave a short, bitter laugh. At least there was no one left to force themselves upon her now. Her hands twisted the golden crown compulsively. She had found it in the messenger’s saddle bags, and realised what it meant. Her father was dead, and she was now queen. Queen of a kingdom full of corpses. She could not bring herself to put it on. Instead, she waited for her fae lover. Perhaps his touch would soothe her, body and mind. So when she heard his voice, asking if he might enter her kingdom, she was glad to welcome him in. And the sight of him drove the horror from her mind, for a while at least.


Afterwards, they sat back to back, so they might talk without the madness of lust controlling them.

“What new horror is this?” asked Talia, after a while. She pointed to the horizon, where before there had been fields as far as the eye could see. Now a dark line of brambles were visible, and coming closer every moment.


“When the boundary was broken

The waiting curse was awoken

The brambles have a mighty thirst

To taste your blood, for you are cursed.”


The fae lordling replied casually. He went on:


“To protect your life, my father vowed

And so your death shan’t be allowed

While you wear your crown of gold

The fae’s protection you will hold.”


She placed the crown upon her head, and the brambles stopped at once, less than a mile from the place where the two sat. “So I am to be queen of this tiny remnant of kingdom, with no subjects left alive?” she asked bitterly. “Why do the gods treat me so? How have I offended them?”


At this, the fae lordling laughed mockingly:

“Tis not the gods who you must blame.

My father cursed your father’s name.

He spoke of peace, while full of hate,

It was he who planned your fate.”


In fury she turned, her hand raised to strike at the fae, incensed by his indifference. But he laughed, as her blows turned to caresses in a moment, and they spoke no more for a while. And neither one of them noticed the crown fall from her head during their passionate embrace.


By the time she had regained her senses enough to thrust the crown back upon her head, the brambles were close enough to touch.


“You can never take that off again

And though it might cause some small pain

This crown you must constantly wear

May I enchant to hold it there?”


She nodded mutely. And then, realising he could not look at her, said ‘Yes’ in a small, wretched voice. With but a touch of his hand upon her head, she felt a burning pain sear her scalp, as the golden crown melted her skin and fused with her skull. She screamed as she smelt her hair burn.


“You agreed to this of your own free will.

Don’t worry, sweet, you have beauty still.”


And he looked on her again, his smile savage but beautiful, and despite the agony in her head and heart, she welcomed his touch once more. Afterwards, he rose, and dressed without looking at her and turned to leave.


“For nine months you shall dwell alone

Enjoy your solitary throne.

I shall away, my duty’s done

Then I’ll return, and take our son.”


And thus it was. For nine months, Talia simply sat, naked but for the crown that perpetually burnt her skull, in the small patch of grass between the brambles. At first she hoped she would starve to death, but the lordling had instructed his fae to throw food over the top of the brambles daily, and try as she might, Talia could not resist the urge to eat for long, for the half-fae babe within her belly clamoured constantly for meat, and Talia could not deny her child.


Nor could she bring herself to take her own life, knowing that the cost would be her child’s life also. The very brambles seemed to whisper to her, mockingly, echoing her father’s voice.


“As you keep to your bargain, so I shall keep to mine.

No fae blood to be spilled by men, our mingled blood the sign.

Peace shall endure between us, while the crown lies with my kin

Marked by these bramble boundaries: fae outside, men within.”


She knew then that the magic in her father’s words had led to this. All she could hope for was to die as she birthed the child. She knew her son would go with his father, and be raised a fae. Perhaps she would know the mercy of death – was that the peace that the mingled human and fae blood in her son would bring about?


The brambles seemed to speak again, dashing her hopes, this time in the voice of the Sidhe Lord:

“So beautiful, all who see you desire you.

So strong, no labour ever can tire you.”


After the child was born, the fae lordling came to her. “You may not come in!” she called, keeping her eyes tight shut as she cradled the babe to her breast. “You cannot take him.”


“Let me come in, and I do swear

Your nursling will stay in your care.”


She ignored his entreaties, but he stayed, patiently awaiting his chance. And at length she slept, and on waking, opened her eyes to see the fae lordling, in his blindfold, outside the brambles. Forgetting all else, she tried at once to reach him, but the brambles would not let her thorough. “Come to me, my love” she called and the brambles parted at once, and he came to her again.


He visited her often in the months that followed, and spoke sweet words, and brought her fine clothes and gifts, and she could almost believe she was truly a queen and not his prisoner. Until the day came when she awoke to find him gone, and the child, no longer a nursling, with him, as well as all her belongings. And she cursed and railed against it, but she soon realised she was in the same predicament as before – she could not take her own life without taking that of the babe he had put within her. She had not even a scrap of clothing to make a blindfold for herself when next he came.


When he returned to meet his newborn daughter, Talia had her back to him.


“Come, do you think you can resist me?

You know, my queen, how much you’ve missed me.”


Then Talia said “Come to me, my love”, and the brambles parted and he took off his blindfold to enter the grove. She turned to him, triumphant, revealing bloody sockets where she had impaled her own eyes upon the thorny brambles, with a thorn raised like a dagger in her hand, and the stillborn babe at her feet.


The fae lordling laughed in surprised admiration, even as he threw himself towards her lustfully. The thorn pierced his chest, entering him as he entered her, and they both thrust together, vicious and panting. When at last she pushed his corpse off her she was laughing wildly in victory and madness.


* * *

They say that she still lives her unnaturally long life, there in that patch of brambles which is her kingdom. They say that she took the lordling’s half of the blessing and curse that his father gave to them both when she took his life – and it is so strong she can now never die, and not even the wild beasts of the woods can resist her beauty. They say that she eats the animals who skin themselves pushing through the brambles to be with her. They say if you come upon a bramble patch in the woods, you had best hope the Queen within is sleeping soundly. Be silent, and leave it as fast as you may. For if she awakens, she may decide to invite you into her kingdom, an invitation none can resist. And it is certain that you will never leave.