Briar Rose

Lila Dubois

Chapter 1

The dust motes danced blue, green, and red in the glass-tinted sunlight.

Those tiny specks were all that moved in the great hall, for though the rest of the kingdom—as many of them as could fit within the towering stone walls—were in attendance, all were silent and still in a show of reverence.

Into this stillness four figures took shape, three appearing in sparkling clouds of mist, the fourth in a dark swirl of smoke. Refined, with skin that shone milk-white in the light and garments only a shade less fine than those of the king and queen, the witches stood, unaffected by the murmurings of fear and astonishment that ran through the crowd.

Three stood together, their hands clasped, garments of light colors, evoking feelings of peace and calm, lightness and joy.

Carefully laced overdresses of spider-web white floated on heavy skirts of robin’s egg blue, new leaf green, and buttercup yellow. Sleeves were lined with the same colors in darker hues and held in place by woven ribbons and strings of freshwater pearls. Hair—golden auburn, and the palest white—hung in rainfall-straight curtains, unadorned, giving the women an air of youth that hid the truth of their years.

The fourth woman was something else. She glittered with dark, from the wild fall of jet curls to the lush body wrapped in black on black brocade with gold and red accents. Her throat and the upper swell of her breasts were bare. Rubies, gems of passion and madness, dripped from her slender wrists and ears. The pale line of her throat was bereft of these gems, drawing attention to the nakedness of her flesh.

The rolling soft fabric of her skirts fell to the floor, but when she stepped forward those who knelt could see that, like a savage, she wore no shoes, only anklets of rubies.

“Welcome, honored guests. You grace us with your beauty and refinement.” The king never looked at the dark one when he spoke. His steady, placid gaze remained on the three witches of light, and while the insult hidden in his words may have been beyond the understanding of the peasants, the king, queen, and four witches understood it well enough.

“Majesties.” They spoke as one and then, like daises bobbing in the sun, dipped in curtsies.

The dark witch moved forward, deliberately placing herself at the same level as the others. Rather than perform some insipid curtsy she dipped her head and shoulders in a subtle bow.

The king paused for a moment, his lips pressing tight as he realized she would not grovel further. “We have invited you here to celebrate with us the arrival of our long-awaited daughter and heir.”

Now the pastel witches spoke, each voice chiming on identical notes.

“We are honored at the invitation, and delight with Your Majesties at this blessed event.

“To show our fealty and thanks, we have come to offer blessings over the child.”

From the tightly wrapped bundle in the queen’s arms, a tiny whimper sounded.

“Your Majesty, may we?” The witch in yellow held out her arms for the squirming babe. With the quiet obedience that marked her life, the queen handed the babe over.

As the people watched, the tiny princess disappeared into the arms of the witch. Her sisters crowded around her, cooing inanely at the babe, who continued to fuss quietly.

When the witches stepped back, their cheeks were pink with pleasure and their eyes bright. The one in yellow now stood in the center, the babe still in her arms. To her left the titian-haired witch, a smidgen taller than her sisters, reached into a pouch at her belt.

“Your Majesties, by your leave we will grace your daughter with gifts, the first of which will be a symbol of the others, enchanted by the light to grow and change with her, its beauty increasing as she does.” She raised her hand high, the colored sunlight striking off a solid gold bracelet. Simple, pure lines of gold, with subtle contouring, spoke of elegant wealth.

In the glittering light the bracelet glowed, reflecting beams of light to rival the streams pouring from the stained glass. Wrapped securely in her confining blankets, the baby blinked large blue eyes, struggling to focus on the glittery thing. When one of the women—for the babe knew them to be female, though not her mother—gently freed her arm and placed a tiny fist against the gold bracelet, the baby’s fingers curled reflexively around it.

Smiling at this sign of obedient precociousness, the witch in blue, the quietest of the three, took up her part of the ceremony.

“We three will grant you blessings. Features befitting a princess, as this bracelet of gold is a symbol of your royalty, so will you become a symbol of royalty to the people.

“The first gift is that of beauty.” The blue-garbed witch leaned low and pressed a lavender-scented kiss to the babe’s brow. For a moment, the wide blue eyes deepened to purple and then the babe let out a fitful cry.

On the throne the queen twitched forward, hearing fear and pain in her babe’s cries. The king placed a restraining hand against her forearm, and with a quick glance at her husband the queen settled back, only the tight twists of her fingers showing her discomfort.

“The second gift is that of grace.” A second lavender kiss was pressed to the child’s brow and her small cries escalated to a high whimper. The queen bowed her head, staring at her clenched hands.

Finally the child was returned to the arms of the yellow-skirted woman. Murmuring to the fretful baby, she waited until the baby quieted, then raised her voice, placing her hand atop the golden bracelet still clenched in the child’s fist.

“The final gift is that of obedience, so you may always remember your place and carry the gifts of grace and beauty while being mindful of the will of your sovereign.” The witch smiled at the king, who gave her a regal smirk in response.

A thin sheen of pale gold enveloped the child, while a chorus of oohs and ahhs rose from the crowd. Utterly disgusted at the display, the black witch curled her lip; repugnance and pity welled in her heart for the baby.

As the light grew to its zenith, the spell—for as much as those three might call this a gift, it was in truth a spell—sank into the baby’s skin and the fitful whimpers blossomed into a frightened baby’s endless wail.

On the throne the queen jerked, but stilled when the king’s hand fell against her shoulder once more. Pitiful woman, the dark witch thought. Had the child been hers nothing on this earth would have stopped her.

The yellow witch leaned down and whispered, “Hush.”

The babe stilled, the small round face going smooth, eyes large and blue and passive, no longer alight with curiosity.

The black witch could bear to watch this no longer.

“Majesties, I too would like to bestow a gift upon your child.” Horrified stares had no effect on her; she suffered through derision and fearful regard more times that she could count.

“A gift…my lady?” The king’s voice dripped with veiled scorn. How he hated that he could not cut her, could not have his knights hunt her down and burn her. She was too powerful, the most powerful, and so was tolerated.

“A gift, and one of great value.” Skirts rustling, she pressed close to the other witches, scooping up the baby and letting her rosewood scent settle over them, watching in petty pleasure as their noses wrinkled in disgust.

Backing away, she looked down at the babe, stroking one plump little cheek as she murmured words to dampen the spell. There was no way to break it, for there was strength and old magic, a power she could not duplicate, in their trifecta, but she could change it, distort it enough that the child might have a chance.

She tugged the bracelet, plain cumbersome thing that it was, from the child’s grasp, clucking as she did so, a watery grin and a spit bubble her reward. Charmed despite herself, the witch gathered her skills, more determined than before, to right some of what they had done to the child.

Imitating the dark witch’s movement, she lifted the bracelet. From beneath her sleeve a twisting column of smoke, snakelike, wove up her arm, circling the bracelet. She pulled her hand away and it hung in midair, supported by an ever-twisting band of smoke. The crowd shrank back, fearful of her magic.

“Your beauty and grace are yours to keep, though neither will bring what others think they do. Your bracelet of gold, to which those gifts are bound, is now tempered. By blood its spell is broken, and by the briar rose it is remembered.” Light flared around the bracelet, and on its inner surfaces a twisting pattern of thorn-studded roses appeared. “And now for my gift.”

With great deliberation, she plucked the bracelet from the air and offered it back to the baby, who was the only one not trembling in fear. Instead she began sucking intently on the precious gold, the tiny slurping noises audible only to the dark witch.

“My gift to you is something more precious than grace or beauty, more real than obedience. My gift to you is an awakening of the heart.”

With a long hard glance at the king, queen, and three witches, she lifted the child, pressing blood-red lips to the small downy head. There she whispered the words, the truth of her spell kept between them.

“Be not who they want you to be, but who you are.”

Chapter 2

Aurora, offer the prince a goblet of wine.”

“Prince Phillip, would you care for another goblet of wine?” Like the dutiful daughter she was known to be, Princess Aurora responded instantly to her father’s command.

Seated beside her, Prince Phillip rolled his eyes. The girl would not see him do it. Indeed, in the entire time he’d know her, from their betrothal when he was four and she one, the girl had never looked him in the eye.

The quiet thing rarely ever looked up. She kept her chin tilted demurely down, her eyes lowered. There was no doubt that she was lovely, her face a perfect oval, tinted pink at cheek and lips, and her long lashes, darker than the pure gold of her hair, were all that he knew of her eyes.

Once a year his father dragged Phillip on a week-long journey to the castle of the neighboring kingdom. The marriage had been arranged to further political gains on both sides. His father’s kingdom possessed a fine and well trained army, and they often came to the aid of this kingdom, for though rich in growing things, they had no strong military. The marriage would cement the informal protection arrangement.

At fourteen Phillip had a budding interest in girls, and he was already dreading marriage to the boring blonde seated next to him.

She never spoke unless asked a direct question. Never looked up. She was about as lively as the straw-stuffed dummies he used for target practice.

“No, thank you, Princess, I would not care for any more wine.” His slightly mocking tone earned him a stern glare from his father. Phillip repeated his eye roll and his father grimaced at him.

Aurora had extended her hand, reaching for the jug, but now she slowly drew it back in, and the gold bangle on her wrist, too large for her skinny arm, flashed in the light.

Everyone knew the story of the bracelet, that it was a gift of three witches, a beautiful symbol of the blessings the princess would bring. It was only in the dark of night that tales of a black witch, who’d cursed the bracelet, were told.

Phillip thought the girl would be infinitely more interesting if she were cursed.

“Phillip, why don’t you take the princess for a walk? The king and I have a few business matters to discuss, and they are best if not discussed in front of a lady of the princess’s refinement.”

Aurora’s father managed to both preen at the compliment and look stern. “Really, is that a good idea?”

“Can her maids not accompany them? They will be more than properly chaperoned, and my Phillip is as good a fighter as some of my senior guard; he can protect her.”

Phillip widened his eyes at his father. He didn’t want to take her for a walk. Why couldn’t they just send her away? He wanted to hear the discussion. Besides, his father always spoke of business in front of his mother. Often Mother’s words were the deciding factor.

“If you insist,” the king said. “Aurora, behave yourself with the prince.”

The girl’s chin dipped even farther.

With a disgusted sigh he did not bother to hide, Phillip stood, grabbed the back of her chair and jerked it out.

“Phillip!”

“Sorry, Father, sometimes I don’t know my own strength. Princess, would you care to accompany me on a walk?”

Placing her hand in his outstretched one, Aurora rose. “Yes, Prince Phillip, it would be my delight.”

Dropping her hand—there were simply some things he wouldn’t do—he started walking, hoping she was behind him.

She was walking to his side, just slightly behind him. As they exited the great hall two older women, both wearing ugly blue veils, moved to follow them.

“Great, just great,” he muttered.

“I’m sorry, Prince Phillip, I did not hear you.”

“Nothing, Princess. I simply remarked on how fine your father’s castle is.”

“Thank you for your interest, Prince Phillip. Would you care for an architectural tour?”

“You know much about the architecture, Princess?”

“Not I, but I would be delighted to arrange for and accompany you on one, if that is your desire.”

“No, thank you, Princess; a walk outside should be fine.”

They exited the castle through the family’s private door, small but more heavily adorned than the great front doors. Phillip took a deep breath, feeling contentment flow through him. He loved the outdoors, loved to run through the woods, ride his stallion over fields, and practice archery in the massive training arena his father had built in the lower bailey.

“It is a beautiful day, is it not, Princess?”

“It is.”

They walked on, through the small graveled courtyards and down a manicured path. He preferred wild nature, not this manicured perfection, but if he had to walk with the girl, outside was better than in.

Soon her small controlled steps began to irk him. Speeding up the pace, he was mildly surprised when her gait lengthened. Casting his gaze askance, he was struck by how smoothly she moved. The shorter steps made her seem tentative and awkward, but the long strides made her more graceful.

They’d reached the end of the formal gardens, where manicured shrubs fell away into wild grasses and flowers. Phillip started off the path and with only a slight hesitation Aurora followed him. The ladies in waiting stopped on the path, leaving them to traverse the uneven ground alone.

Beside him Aurora lifted her skirts, ever so slightly, and continued to keep pace with him.

“Are you always so quiet?”

“What would you like to speak on, Prince Phillip?”

“You may call me simply Phillip.”

“My father wishes me to call you Prince Phillip.”

“Well, I wish for you to call me Phillip.” She stopped and he could see her fingers twisting nervously in her skirts. “Never mind.” He kept walking, rolling his eyes.

Soon the maids were smudges of blue behind them. Phillip was surprised she had not asked him to turn back. Then again, she never seemed to ask for anything.

With a fourteen-year-old boy’s tactlessness, he finally broke and asked, “Do you always do what you are told?”

“I do my best to be pleasing at all times.”

“What has that to do with anything?”

“Obedience is pleasing, and is a sign of diligence and good character.”

“Don’t you ever want to do things, or say things, just because you want to?”

“My wants are secondary. I am a princess and as such I am held to a higher standard. My behavior must be above reproach.”

Muttering, “Glad I’m not a princess,” Phillip turned back, Aurora mimicking the movement. “So you really don’t ever just do things you want?”

“What I want is to be pleasing.”

“Then call me Phillip.”

“Yes…Phillip.”

“That wasn’t so hard.”

“I am glad it pleased you.”

“Ugh, never mind. What if you hadn’t wanted to go on a walk with me?”

“Why would I not want to? You are my betrothed and as such I greatly value any time spent in your company.”

Phillip shook his head. The girl was ridiculous. She sounded like a nursemaid he’d had who liked to lecture, but she had been an old wrinkled lady (and one who quickly left when he filled her bed with tadpoles). The prim tone sounded preposterous coming from the lips of the young girl.

In silence, they made their way back toward the path. Out of the corner of his eye, Phillip saw something pink. Jogging a few steps, he pushed aside the grass and saw a small rose bush. It was thorny and wild, the stalk brown, but with a single lush rose blooming from it.

Pulling a jeweled dagger from his belt, Phillip sawed through the stalk, plucking the rose. As boring as he might find her, she was his betrothed, and he was, after all, a prince.

Carefully lifting the pink blossom, he offered it to her. “Beware the thorns.”

She took it, cradling it loosely until her fingers could find a bit of stem without barbs.

She carefully twisted the blossom, looking at it from every angle before lifting it to her nose. “Thank you, Phillip.”

“You’re welcome, Aurora.”

He saw the pink in her cheeks blossom, but still she would not look up.

They started back to the path, the maids smiling at the oh-so-appropriate show of courtly love. When they reached the castle doors, a messenger was waiting.

“Prince Phillip, your father bids you return to the great hall. Princess Aurora, you may go to your rooms.”

She dipped a curtsy to Phillip and nodded at the messenger before turning and making her way to her room, leaving her betrothed staring gloomily after her.

* * * *

Alone in her chamber Aurora let the maids undress her, stripping her court garments and redressing her in plain pink muslin.

“Is there anything else you need, Princess?”

“Might you bring me a vase of water, Maria?”

“Of course Princess, and might I say, Princess, Prince Phillip will be a very handsome man one day. You are very lucky.”

“Indeed, the king and queen honor me greatly by entrusting me with the duty of marriage to so noble a prince.”

When the maids left, Aurora hesitantly lifted the blossom to her nose once again. She was not sure how much enthusiasm or excitement was seemly, for she had never received a gift before.

Had she allowed herself to think about her own wishes, she would have wished for a better idea of what he looked like. Keeping one’s eyes demurely lowered often led to an incomplete picture of what people looked like. But her tutors told her that was a good trait in a princess, for it taught her humility and to never judge another person by their looks.

Maria returned, setting a thin vase of water on the table before her, and then retreating.

Aurora carefully lifted the blossom and started to slip it into the vase. Some of the thorns were too long for the narrow neck of the vase. Frowning, Aurora began pushing at them, attempting to break them off.

Her thumb, pressed against the edge of the thickest thorn, slipped, the sharp barb sliding deep into her flesh.

Starting in horror at the embedded thorn and welling blood, she did not notice the silver smoke seeping from her bracelet.

By blood its spell is broken, by the briar rose it is remembered.

Aurora blink, then slowly looked up, and for the first time in eleven years, she saw.

Chapter 3

Seven years later

Let go of me, you great smelly oafs!”

Two burly guards, their faces impassive from years of practice, dragged a struggling, tousled young woman before the king. Dressed in plain brown and white, a skirt and vest of mud-colored cloth worn over an off-the-shoulder loose blouse, and with a long sweep of honey gold hair falling down her back, the woman looked like a beautiful peasant girl.

“I said let go! That is a royal order!”

“I’m sorry, Princess, your father has ordered us to return you.”

“No!”

Grasping her firmly by the upper arms, the soldiers continued dragging her through the castle.

When they entered the great hall, Aurora tossed her head, golden hair flying. Standing straight, she walked sedately between the guards, no longer struggling. In a thick silence, she strode the length of the great hall, headed toward the dual throne at the far end.

The queen’s throne was empty. These “episodes” were distressing for her.

“Your Majesty.” The guards released her arms, and Aurora sketched a mocking bow.

“Aurora. I grow weary of this disobedience.” The king, head high, crown heavy on his brow, stared at her from his perch on the throne.

“I grow weary of your rules and notions of duty, your constant confinement.”

“You will be a queen someday. How will you rule unless you learn?”

“I would venture to say, Your Majesty, that I know more about the people than you.”

“Enough of your insolence.”

“Did you know that a sickness in one of the far villages killed many of the elderly?”

“That is not my concern. I have governors and overlords who are to watch over the people. Besides, to sicken and die is the nature of the peasants.”

“Your noble and generous nature is amazing to behold.”

“Do not forget that you are mine to do with as I will,” the king threatened.

“Beat me, starve me! You have tried both and it has gotten you nothing.”

“Do you have any idea of what day it is?”

“A lovely sunny day, one I was quite enjoying before you kidnapped me.”

“It is the first day of the sixth month. Do you know who should be here today?”

The princess cocked her head to the side and then let out a loud peal of laughter.

“My betrothed! It is the day Phillip should be here!”

“This is no matter to laugh about. Prince Phillip and his father have been more than understanding these past seven years.”

“Of course they have been understanding. They still want your gold, do they not? And you are still willing to sell me for an army.”

“You have been betrothed since you were one year old. You are eighteen this year, two years past the time you should have wed.”

“I’m so sorry that my behavior and longing for freedom has inconvenienced you.”

“This has gone on long enough, Aurora. In six months the prince will arrive, and at that time you will be married.”

“I will not.”

Turning smoothly on her heel, Aurora headed for the doors.

“Make sure she does not leave the palace grounds.”

Smirking at the order Aurora veered left, heading for an alcove, which led to stairs. The poor guards had probably had enough of chasing her around; it seemed only fair that she give them some peace and go to her room.

Up several levels, down tapestry-hung corridors and through winding towers, Aurora strolled, guards trailing her. Her chambers were in one of the towers. After they’d discovered the secret corridors a smitten mason had dug into her old room, she’d been moved to the tower.

Aurora opened the door and stepped in, turning to face the guards.

“I will be staying in for the rest of the day, gentlemen. There is no need to remain.”

“Yes, Princess,” they murmured obediently. Aurora closed the door and sighed, knowing that despite her words they would remain on guard until others came to relieve them.

With a humph of frustration she plopped down on the bed, her hair puddling around her. It truly was a lovely day outside, and she wanted nothing to do with the interior of the castle.

Though she would never admit it to her father, Aurora loved the castle, with its elegant turrets and buttresses, tall arches and time-worn steps. If she were ever to say so to her father, it would be taken as a sign of weakening, of acceptance of the shackles they so desperately wanted her to wear, but within her own mind she could admit she loved it.

Thoughts of shackles led to thoughts of her marriage, and of her father’s latest pronouncement. Since she was eleven her father had been putting off Phillip and his father, telling them she was in poor health as a way to keep them from arriving on the first day of the sixth month, their annual meeting date.

Just before her sixteenth birthday, she and her father had gone to war. The original date of the wedding had been the day after her birthday, but no matter what her father did to her or had others do to her, Aurora had refused to be the meek princess he wanted her to be.

Turning her head, she looked at the bracelet, which sat in a glass case atop its own table.

Her father and mother still didn’t know what had changed in her, what had happened in her eleventh year, but Aurora did, for she had met the witch.

Thinking of Millie, Aurora rose and went to the vanity. Slipping down onto the stool, she worried her lower lip with her teeth.

Should she do it? Was now a good time?

Letting impulse dictate, she grabbed the decorative dagger off the dresser and used it to slice thin bloody lines in each palm and then pressed her blooded hands to the mirror.

“Millie, I need you. Please.”

Pulling her hands away, leaving smeared bloody trails in her wake, Aurora went to pack.

It was late that night, when the white moon hung low in the sky, its pale light illuminating Aurora’s sleeping figure, that the mirror started to glow, a dark fog slipping from the corners to creep over the vanity top, tumbling to the floor and then slithering for the bed.

The blooded handprints slowly sank into the mirror, the magic soaking up the power rich royal blood.

Ribbons of smoke slid along the folds of the blanket, moving slowly over the sleeping figure, circling around her neck, whispering over cheeks and eyelids.

Aurora blinked herself awake and the fog retreated. Heavy-eyed with sleep, she slid from the bed, dressed in an embroidered nightgown. The fog curled around her ankles, like pleasant shackles, coaxing her on. As she approached the mirror it lengthened, the vanity it had rested on melting away, until a floor length mirror, its surface rippling like black currents, reflected her darkly.

At the last moment Aurora remembered to grab the bag from the floor, clutching it as she stepped up to the mirror, and then stepped through it.

* * * *

“I left them a note.”

“You know that will not stop them.”

“I don’t care.”

“Well, you should. Your actions and how they influence other people should be of concern to you.”

Aurora hung her head at the rebuke, true regret, the kind her father’s scoldings never brought on, welling in her heart.

A pale hand cupped her face, tilting it up. “Never hang your head.”

“Yes, Millie.”

The dark-haired witch leaned forward, pressing an open-mouthed kiss to Aurora’s lips. A little trill of arousal slid through her belly and Aurora eagerly slipped her arms around the older woman’s waist.

“Enough, you little tramp.” Aurora grinned at the insult, which sounded like praise from Millie’s lips. “I haven’t even had my breakfast yet.”

“I know, but I am needy.”

“Ahh to be young again. Have you met any new boys?”

“Nay, just the Blacksmith of Nioneen’s son. Ohhh, last time I visited him he fucked me while I sat on his father’s anvil. It was delicious.”

“You were careful?”

“Yes, I didn’t let him spill inside me.”

“Good. And he does not know you are the princess?”

“No.”

At her dejected tone, Millie leaned in for another kiss, stroking the smooth fall of Aurora’s hair. “I know it is hard for you to conceal who you are, but you must.”

“Why, Millie? Why can’t I tell them? Tell every boy I touch the truth? My father would die from horror.”

“You know why.”

Aurora pushed away from the table, moving to stand by the divided door of the cottage, leaning on the closed lower half. Her body, quite beyond her control, made a graceful line, her hair spilling around her in golden glory.

“What if you are wrong, Millie? What if I would make a terrible queen?”

“You see the people, understand them in a way your own parents never could.”

“But what if Phillip is like Father, and I become like Mother?”

“He is not, and you will not.”

“I wish I had your faith.”

“What you need is breakfast. Come and sit.”

Millie, dressed in a finely cut, if simple, black dress, slid onto a stool at the small table in the cabin’s kitchen. Over a meal of bacon and fresh bread drenched in honey, Aurora once again explained the letter she’d left for her parents.

“I told them that I would not return until control of my marriage, both who and where, was given to me.”

“You know they will never agree to it.”

“I am aware, but I also said that if they did not agree I would never return.”

“Rose! You should know better.”

“It is the only threat I have.”

“You forget that they truly care for you.”

“No, they care for Princess Aurora, not Rose.”

“Your nickname is apt, my pet, for you are both beautiful as a rose and prickly as its thorns.” Millie rose, her dark hair spilling over them as she leaned to kiss the crown of Aurora’s head. “Why do you not take advantage of the sunshine, go and pick us some flowers?”

“If I pick berries, will you make tarts?”

“I will teach you to make tarts.”

“Why should I have to make tarts? I’m the princess, aren’t I?” Aurora rose to her full height, a full head taller than the shorter, curvier Millie. Grabbing a spoon, the witch gave her a good, hard smack on the bottom.

“Off with you, Princess.”

Wiggling her spanked bottom Aurora grabbed a basket and headed out the door. She wore a blue gown, the laced bodice embroidered with brown and pink roses. Millie had made her the dress the first time she’d come here. When the fighting with her father had reached its worst, and Aurora had lain, weeping, her back bruised by the whip and ankles and wrists marked by shackles, Millie had come to her.

First it was a voice in the night, coaxing the troubled young girl to speak of her plight. Lacking any confidant, she’d whispered of her need for freedom, her fear of her father, and love and hatred of her mother, the longing of her body which had led her into the arms of a rough-handed farmer boy, who taught her body of sweet things, but whom she’d never been able to see again for fear of him discovering her identity.

After weeks of these midnight chats, Millie had appeared in the mirror.

Aurora sat, her young face a study in shock, as Millie quietly told her the true story of her christening. The next night Millie had opened the mirror, inviting Aurora to her sanctuary in the woods. Even now the princess did not know exactly where it was, for Millie would not tell her, but on that first visit she’d allowed Aurora to stay a week, giving her the simple dress with its pretty flowers, and healing wounds—both physical and emotional.

Before sending her back, Millie had told Aurora that once a year, for a single week, she could find sanctuary in the cottage.

Aurora wandered farther than she thought, distracted by her reminiscences, and had already reached the river.

A huge oak lay across the river, stretched over a place where water had carved deep banks. The oak was not so thick as to make crossing easy, but Aurora stepped out without fear. Though the blood spilled by the briar rose had broken the spell, it was only to obedience that Millie had tied the counter spell, leaving Aurora with her grace and beauty.

Humming an off-key tune, she danced across the log, following the smell of ripe summer berries traveling on the wind. Farther and deeper into the forest she wandered, until a thicket of black berries, growing in a sunny patch near the edge of a meandering stream, made her stop.

Once both belly and basket were full, Aurora knelt to wash her hands in the stream. Hooking her basket over a tree branch and knotting a scarf around it to keep any woodland thieves out, she wandered along the bank of the stream, content to simply be.

Into her peace the sound of hooves intruded.

Aurora darted behind a large tree, the sound making her think of soldiers. Millie’d told her the cottage was far from the castle; indeed, Millie’d said it wasn’t even in her father’s kingdom, but the fear remained.

The hooves stopped and Aurora pressed herself back against the tree, hand over her heart in the hope that its too loud beating would not give her away.

Hooves stomped in a restless pattern and then there were the sounds of a man’s low murmurs.

“…warm today, we’ve come far. Time for a rest, get that saddle off you, take a quick dip…”

Hmm…not a soldier.

There was the sound of slapping leather and a horse’s low whinnies. A few more moments past and then there was the unmistakable sound of rustling cloth, followed by splashing.

Aurora snuck around the tree. Waist deep, in a little pool made by a bend in the stream, was a naked man.

A young, golden-skinned, muscled, naked man.

Yum.

Aurora was suddenly hungry for something besides berry tarts. Gathering up her skirts she slipped out from behind her tree, quickly gathering up his discarded clothes, which were hung over a low vertical branch along with the horse’s saddle and bridle. The horse, tethered to a tree by a rope attached to his halter, was much more interested in munching grass than warning his master of the girl’s approach.

Aurora hid his clothes in the roots of the tree her basket hung in, and then made her way back to the man. Quietly as she could, though the man continued to splash obliviously, Aurora climbed the tree, seating herself where the man’s clothes had been.

Leaning on one arm she ogled him, her body slowly heating in anticipation.

* * * *

Climbing out of the small pool, which had been pleasantly warm, Hawk shook himself, bending forward and scrubbing his hands through his hair to help remove the water. It had been a hot, miserable ride today. It hadn’t helped that this was the tenth day of his journey and that his body had been sticky with many days’ sweat. He was clean now, and this forest seemed worth some exploration.

It was a very pleasant surprise to see a peasant maid seated on the branch in place of his clothes. They stared at one another for a moment, her eyes leisurely taking in his naked body, lingering in the interesting places, biting her lip in a way that told him she knew exactly what to do with everything she saw.

“Hello, fair maid. Tell me, have you seen my garments?”

“Well, sir, I’m afraid they have been carried off.”

“Really? By whom?”

“Some woodland creatures, I fear, fierce beasties.”

“Would this woodland creature have hair of gold and truly delectable breasts?”

The girl glanced down at her own breasts, lifted by the tight lacing of her dress. “Why yes, sir, how did you know?”

Hawk moved forward, his cock swelling with each step. “Perhaps if I reward this ‘fierce beast’, she might return my clothing.”

“It would have to be a very pleasant reward.”

Hawk reached the girl, sliding his hands around her waist. “Hopefully she can see that a reward of mine is a very large reward indeed.”

She laughed, and it was so merry that the air around her seemed to sparkle. Hawk was enchanted.

“It is, indeed, a very fine reward, but it is the implementation of the reward that counts.”

Hawk grasped the girl’s ankle and slowly ran his hand up to her knee, dragging her skirts with it. The other hand grasped her other knee, forcing it wide so he could step between her legs.

The hand beneath her skirts continued its journey, rising ever higher, slipping to the inside of her thigh. The girl’s hands slid along the swelled muscles of his shoulders, fingertips pressing in, testing his strength. One hand traveled down the planes of his chest to flick a flat male nipple.

Hawk jerked at the touch, so she did it again, turning the flick into a pinch.

“A pinch will earn you the same, wench.”

“I certainly hope so.”

Long-fingered, delicate hands slid around his neck, and the girl pulled him in for a kiss. Her mouth opened against his, her tongue the first to explore outside its home confines. She tasted of blackberries and sunlight and woman. As the kiss grew and deepened he draped her skirt back over her thighs, and then went to work on the lacing of her dress.

When the laces gave way he pulled his mouth from hers, jerked the bodice down, and feasted on her breasts, taking first one and then the other nipple into his mouth. Her hands fisted in his hair and Hawk returned the pinch, gently clasping her nipple with his teeth.

One hand supporting the small of her back, he slid the other between her legs, nearly weeping with joy to find her so wet and ready. He slid in one finger, and she was tight, gloriously so. Her hips rocked as he fucked her with first one and then two fingers.

The branch she sat on was too high for him to fuck her while she sat upon it, so he freed her breasts, whispering, “Hold on” as he slid the hand at her back beneath her skirt to grasp her hip.

When her arms were securely laced around his neck and her legs hooked together at his back, he lifted her, arms flexing as he slid her down onto his cock. He let her own body weight force her down, and she wiggled her hips, situating herself more firmly.

Once she was settled, he pressed her back against the tree, the branch matching the curvature of her lower back. She unlaced her hands and braced them on the branch behind her.

Hawk slid his hands to her thighs, lifting and separating them, allowing his cock a half inch farther inside her warm body.

He wanted to say something, but he could not think, so instead he pulled back, then thrust forward. She cried out in pleasure, her head falling back, her hair spilling over her breasts and onto the branch beneath her. Her breasts, delicious, bared, and plumped by the half-on bodice, jiggled with each thrust.

With her body braced as it was she could not thrust back against him, but her moans and cries told him what she wanted and needed.

It was going to be quick, the very suddenness of the encounter serving to drain his stamina. Hawk lifted her left leg, laying it along his chest, ankle near his ear. The change freed up his hand to slip between her legs and stroke her clit.

He timed the stroking of her clit to the thrusts, rubbing hard on the bud as he pulled out and pressing firmly as he stroked in.

Her cries of pleasure rose in volume and frequency, her cheeks and lips flushing a dark rose.

He felt her orgasm in the tightening of her belly, a moment before she screamed her pleasure to the sky. Hawk gathered himself, his thrusts increasing in tempo, his own climax only a stroke away. Just before he came, she moved, dropping her hips as he pulled out, so that his cock slid along her belly beneath her skirts, his seed spilling there.

Gasping, Hawk leaned into her, pinning them both upright to the tree.

Her arms came forward, sliding around his neck, her breath panting in his ear.

Hawk considered himself a skilled lover, and had done his share of truly interesting sexual things, but this lightning-fast woodland encounter had shaken him in a way nothing else had.

Kissing her shoulder, he whispered, “What’s your name?”

*

“What’s your name?”

Still panting from the liquid lightening orgasm she’d just had, Aurora almost gave her true name. Swallowing back the deadly admission, she gave the name Millie used.

“Briar Rose.”

“That is an odd name.”

“What is your name?”

“Hawk.”

Aurora leaned back far enough to look at him and lifted a brow. “You call my name odd?”

“Very well then, we are named for plants and beasts, neither one of us human.”

Aurora flexed her hips, his softened cock, which had slid down between her thighs to nestle against her well-used sex, rubbing against her. “What we just did feels all too human to me.”

“Or perhaps it is animalistic in its ferocity.”

“I did warn you of the ferocity of the woodland creatures.”

“You did.” Hawk leaned back, his hands on her hips to steady her as he lifted her away from the trunk and then set her down on unsteady legs.

“So, Briar Rose, what are you doing out here in the middle of the day, stealing the clothes of strange men and letting them have their wicked way with you?”

“You are mistaken, sir. It is I who had my wicked way with you.”

“Pardon me.”

“And my reasons for being here are my own.”

Something in her voice must have alerted him, for he spoke softly. “I mean no criticism.”

Aurora stepped away, headed for the stream. “Very well.”

Kneeling by the stream she cupped some water and gently washed her belly, though it felt that most of his seed had seeped into her dress.

“Will you return my clothes now?”

She looked over her shoulder, frowning at his soft cock. “Can you not go again?”

“Peace, lady, I need some time.”

“You look young; you should be able to go again soon.”

“You know much about this?”

“Apparently more than you.” That startled a laugh from him, and the pleasantly low masculine sound skittered up her back.

“Well, Briar Rose, might I redeem myself in your eyes?”

“As soon as your ‘reward’ rises once more.”

“There are other things I might do to help…pass the time.” Hawk assisted her to rise and then finished loosening her laces, slipping the dress up and off.

Aurora stood, unashamedly naked, the sunlight hallowing her hair and highlighting the pink of her lips and nipples.

“Has anyone ever told you how beautiful you are, Briar Rose?”

“Beauty is a trick, a spell.”

“Then I am enchanted.”

Dropping to one knee Hawk spread out her dress and then held out his arms to her. When she stepped into them he grabbed her waist, assisting her down.

Aurora ran her hands under her hair, spreading it on the grass above her head, not wanting it trapped under her body.

Hawk lay in his side, propped on one elbow. “What good deed did I do that I would find such a beautiful creature in the woods?”

She did not answer, for his hand began to skim over her, fingertips brushing, palm smoothing, over every bit of skin. He touched her collarbones and pressed a finger into her belly button. Her traced the indents of her waist with the backs of his fingers and pinched the base of her breast, plumping it so that his tongue could lap at the pink tip.

Aurora’s legs began to move restlessly, her thighs sliding together, creating friction along the lips of her sex.

His hands moved to her restless legs, stroking her, calming her as he might a skittish horse, his strokes easing her legs apart until they lay open, her swollen sex, once more moist with arousal, open to the air and sun.

Slowly, teasingly, he stroked the very edges of the outer lips, running his fingers through the blonde curls. When she began to make small, needy noises, he leaned down to kiss her, drinking in the little sounds.

His fingers continued their too-gentle assault on her sex, and soon she was lifting her hips against his hand, begging for a deeper touch. With a long smooth stroke, he slid two fingers inside her.

Aurora brought her hips up, inviting him deeper. Hawk curled his fingers inside her and rubbed her clit with his thumb, all while continuing to nibble at her breasts.

This orgasm came on easily, building quickly and cresting so that her toes curled, her breasts thrust up into his mouth, sex pressed into his hand.

When her body relaxed down Hawk wiggled his fingers within her, thrusting languidly, extending the pleasant post-orgasm flutters. “Did you enjoy that Rose?”

Aurora opened one eye and smiled sleepily, “Very much so.”

“I am glad, but I hope you don’t think that we’re done.” He rolled between her thighs and then slid down her body, his lightly furred chest scrapping against her breasts and belly.

“What are you—”

Hawk settled himself between her legs, his hands on her inner thighs, keeping them spread. His thumbs stretched, hooking the lips of her sex and spreading them.

“—doing?”

He bit her clit. The small stab of pain in her already orgasm-sensitive vagina was too much; her body was forced into another deep, muscle trembling orgasm. Aurora’s back arched as she screamed, the sensations so strong that light danced behind her closed eyes.

With her clit trapped by his teeth Hawk began to lick. As her slender fingers knotted in his hair, he forced her body to dance on the knife’s edge, giving her a rich depth of pleasure that her previous lovers never had.

When his lips and teeth left her she let out a sob, one of both relief and disappointment, but then his body slid along hers once more, and his cock glided smoothly into her orgasm-tightened body.

Aurora arched her back, the fullness a sweet, deep pleasure, and Hawk bent his head, pressing his lips to her throat as he thrust into her. His strokes were long and hard, her wet passage eager for him. When she lifted her legs, wrapping them over his back, they groaned in unison as the new position allowed him to enter her deeper.

Again and again he thrust, his thick cock sliding deep, pressing against the walls of her vagina, opening her and filling her.

The orgasms and the attention of his hands and mouth had driven the blood to the surface of her skin. Each touch, from the brush of his chest against her nipples, to his breath against her neck, sent pleasure coursing through her body. The taste of his kiss and his smell, sweat and man, was thick and pleasing in her nose.

“Rose,” he said, panting, “you have enchanted me and I can hold on no longer.”

Their lips sealed together, bodies rocking, as he came, spilling inside her.

Aurora languidly trailed her fingertips over the muscles of Hawk’s back. It was rare that she indulged herself by lying with a man after he had pleasured her. Caution always bid her kiss him quickly and leave. Drawing a breath, as deep as she could with his muscled torso lying across her, Aurora breathed him in.

Hawk’s head turned, lips grazing her jaw. “Am I too heavy?”

“Nay.”

But still he shifted, moving to lie beside her as he had before, but this time he kept one leg over hers, weaving their lower limbs together. His gazed focused on her breasts and Aurora tensed slightly. She was tender now, and had known men who liked to play with nipples as if they were toys, disregarding their post-sex tenderness.

Hawk’s head bent. Aurora tensed, but he kissed her breasts, oh so sweetly, oh so softly, and she relaxed down, feeling worshiped instead of fondled.

Aurora’s belly began to flutter, not with arousal, but with something else, something new. When he shifted so that he could look down at her, the backs of his fingers stroking her face, Aurora felt her heartbeat quicken, her soul sinking into the blue of his eyes.

He looked at her, and it was no heavy-lidded gaze of arousal, but an open-eyed stare of awakening.

“Why do you look at me so?” she asked.

“I cannot help but look at you; I am quite enchanted.”

“Nay, your cock is well pleased; there is a difference.”

“I know the difference, and though my cock is pleased, you are enchanting, and this—” He took her hand and pressed it over his heart. “—is very different.”

“You say that only because I was a wet and willing woman.”

“And a clever one. I have never heard a peasant speak so wittily.”

“Your speech is not that of a peasant either.”

“True.”

“Why?”

“You first.”

“I cannot tell you.”

“Then I…” He lifted the hand he still held to his lips and kissed her palm. “…cannot tell you.”

Aurora curled her fingers around his jaw, loving the sturdy and steady feel of his face in her head. His features were very fine, a thin straight nose, smooth jaw, and eyebrows that arched, like brown wings, over steady blue eyes. His hair was cut short, an easy style for a man who knew he did not need to work at his appearance.

Aurora finished her survey of his features and returned her gaze to his. Her heart gave a traitorous thump and the knot in her belly wound tighter. Inexplicably her eyes began to fill with tears.

“Beautiful Rose, why do you weep?”

“My heart, it hurts.”

“As does mine,” Hawk said with a smile.

“Why? I don’t understand!”

“Because, you have just fallen in love with me.”

“That—I cannot—”

“As I have with you.”

A tear slipped from the corner of her eye to trail into her hair. “It cannot be.”

“Why do you deny true love?”

“There is no love, only duty.”

“Has no one ever loved you before, my beautiful Rose?”

“My…my godmother.”

“But no man.”

“Nay.”

“Well, I have never loved a woman. For many years I kept myself away from women, thinking that I must marry out of duty, but no more. But I have known love, from my parents and subje—friends. And I know that this is love.”

“I cannot love you.”

“Why?”

“I have…I must…”

“You must nothing.”

“Oh, please stop! You make me long for things I cannot have.” But rather than push at him she buried her face against his bare chest. Hugging her to him, Hawk rolled until she lay across him, her blonde hair falling in golden glory around their bodies, her cries of distress heartbreaking in a forest that had gone quiet.

“Sweet Rose,” he murmured, voice rich and smooth.

“Hawk,” she whimpered. She needed him, needed his touch once more, and, for the first time, she wanted sex to be soft and slow, with long glances and slow touches, not the fire and flash she had known.

Throat now too tight to speak Aurora sat up, astride his belly, and then lowered herself to lie on his chest. Whisper-soft and tentative, like a kitten, she scattered tiny kisses over his face, pleasing herself, the pleasure rolling when the way his lips moved to seek hers told her that he found her touch pleasurable too. The tip of her tongue, delicately extended, traced over his closed eyes and the swell of each cheekbone. As she moved back to his ear, he rubbed his cheek against hers.

“You are so handsome, my darling Hawk.”

“And you so sweet my beautiful Rose. I cannot wait to be inside you again, my body pumping slowly within you.” Aurora bit her lip as his words fueled the fire in her belly. “Can you feel it, do you ache for it? My body thrusting into you, over and again.” His hips moved under hers, pantomiming the rhythm he spoke of. “Again and again until I spill inside you, filling you, as you clench around me.”

Aurora sat up, her face ashen. “Spill inside me?’

“Aye, are you ready Beautiful Ro—”

She rolled off, nearly doing him an injury in the process. “The last time, you…you…”

“What’s wrong?”

Aurora climbed off him and yanked her dress on.

“Rose, what are you doing?”

“I must go.”

“Why?”

“This was a mistake, a terrible mistake. I should have been more careful.”

“Careful about what?” Hawk, more than a little exasperated, grabbed her arms, holding her still.

“I…I should not have let you spill inside me.”

“Ah, yes, well, it’s no matter if you are with child, my love. I can take care of you. Now just calm yourself and let’s get that dress back off.”

“You don’t understand! I shouldn’t have done this. I should have been more careful.” Aurora jerked the laces of her bodice closed. “I must go.”

“Don’t go.”

“I must!”

“When will I see you again?”

The correct answer—never—sprang to her lips, but what came out was: “Tonight.”

“Where?”

“Here. Now please…I must go.”

“Rose, if you are in danger, if your father or brother will hurt you for what we did…”

“I will be safe. There is only my godmother.”

“I still do not understand what’s wrong.”

Aurora grabbed his face, pressing a fervent kiss to his lips. “Tonight.”

Snatching up handfuls of skirt, Aurora turned and ran. Naked, confused, and half aroused, with the only chance of relief darting away, Prince Phillip watched his love run through the trees.

~

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