There were thirteen fairies in the kingdom when Princess Rose was born; but as thirteen was unlucky, and thirteen fairies unluckier still, the King and Queen only asked twelve to be her godmothers.
On the night of the princess’s christening, while her godmothers were giving her the gifts of beauty, song, embroidery, and so on, a terrible storm struck the castle. It rattled the windows and tore the royal pennants from the towers. With a great howl of wind, the doors of the banqueting-hall came banging open, and the candles all blew out. Silhouetted against the stormy sky, with her black robes whipping about her and lightning in her hair, stood the thirteenth fairy.
The queen ran to the cradle to protect her child, and the king drew his sword. The thirteenth fairy laughed. ‘Never fear,’ she said, ‘I only want to give her a gift.’
The frightened crowd parted as she swept down the hall and stooped low over the cradle. The baby began to cry. ‘Your Highness,’ said the thirteenth fairy, ‘I give you the gift of Eternal Youth. On your fifteenth birthday, you will prick your finger on a spindle, and drop down dead!’
In the outcry that followed, she whirled herself up in her shadowy cloak and vanished with a clap of thunder. A wisp of smoke lingered in the air.
The queen caught up her baby from the cradle and held her tight, and the king ran to her side and held them both. All three of them were in tears. ‘Somebody do something,’ sobbed the queen. ‘Save our child.’
‘I can undo the curse,’ said the twelfth fairy. ‘Little princess, I give you the gift of wishes. On your fifteenth birthday, you will not die. Instead, your dearest wish will come true!’
But somehow, word must have reached the thirteenth fairy that her curse had been undone. One night, as the baby princess slept, a storm-wind whirled about her tower, and riding on its back came a dark and angry figure. Her face leered in at the rain-lashed window, and the window creaked open. The thirteenth fairy whispered a terrible spell:
‘O Rose, thou art sick;
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy,
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.’
She uncurled her hand, and blew something from her palm into the chamber. A shadow in the shape of a caterpillar settled on the crib, and inched up the coverlet towards the sleeping princess. It ate its way into the baby’s heart, and there it stayed. The name of the shadow was Fear of Change.
The poor princess, for all her fairy gifts, grew up deeply unhappy. She sang very sweetly, but her songs were always mournful; the pictures she embroidered were always dark and sad; and her beauty was often spoiled by tears. In autumn she cried for the falling leaves; in spring, for the melting snow. When relatives said to her, ‘Haven’t you grown?’ she cried. And on her birthdays she cried most of all. A whole year lost, an age she’d never, ever be again.
Everyone had heard that on her fifteenth birthday, her dearest wish was destined to come true; and everyone had an idea of what that wish should be, and tried to influence her. But the princess hardly heard them. ‘I wish,’ she used to say, over and over, ‘I wish everything could stay the same for ever.’
If her dearest wish came true, she thought, she would wake up on the morning of her fifteenth birthday to find she was still fourteen. When that morning came, and the maid poked her head in and said cheerfully, ‘Happy birthday!’ she was bitterly disappointed. She crept off to the topmost room of her tower to cry alone.
There in the little round attic, where bats nested in the rafters of the pointed roof, sat a beautiful lady at a spinning-wheel.
‘What’s that?’ said the princess, who had never seen one.
‘This is a wishing-wheel,’ said the lady. ‘Come and play with it, and your dearest wish will come true.’
Forgetting all her manners, the princess dived for the spinning-wheel in wild excitement, and grabbed at the spindle; and the point, sharp as a rose-thorn, stabbed into her finger. As soon as her blood touched the spindle-wood, she fell down in a deep sleep, and all the castle with her. The king and queen fell asleep on their thrones, and the servants fell asleep in the kitchen, and the horses in the stables, and the birds fluttered out of the air.
The thirteenth fairy picked the princess up in her arms, and carried her down the spiral stairs, and laid her down on her bed, among the worn old dolls and teddy-bears she had never given up. ‘Sleep well,’ she whispered, ‘your dearest wish has come true.’
In the little attic room, the spinning-wheel suddenly blossomed with roses; it put down roots into the floor, and curled tendrils out of the windows, and by morning the whole castle was hedged about with roses, whose thorns were tipped with red.
For a hundred years the princess dreamed among the roses, while her hair grew long and tangled with the thorns, and the dust of years settled on her face. Many princes tried to rescue her, but as soon as the thorns pricked them, every one of them dropped down dead. The princess smiled in her dreams. She didn’t want to be rescued. She wanted everything to stay the same for ever.
Some say the thirteenth fairy regretted her action at last, and some say it was just coincidence; but whatever the reason, when a young prince was born in a far-away kingdom, there was a storm at his christening, and a mysterious lady came uninvited and gave him the gift of wishes.
When he was almost fifteen, the prince saw a picture of the princess in an old book, and fell instantly in love with her. ‘Who is she?’ he asked his tutor.
‘Thorn-Rose they call her,’ said the tutor. ‘They say she lies trapped in an enchanted sleep, in a castle of thorns, and all the princes who tried to rescue her have died.’
‘I wish,’ said the prince, ‘I wish she would wake up and love me.’
‘It’s been a hundred years,’ said the tutor. ‘I doubt there is much of her left.’
But the prince hardly heard him. ‘I’m going to find her,’ he said.
So he set off on the long journey to the castle of thorns. He arrived there on the morning of his fifteenth birthday. Thick as trees the ancient roses twisted and towered above him, full of bones and rusting armour caught on their cruel thorns. But the prince wasn’t afraid, because he had the gift of wishes. He put out his hand, and touched the roses, and a rose-thorn pricked his finger. And as soon as his blood touched the thorn, the roses parted like a curtain, and let him through.
Past the sleeping guards, up the spiral staircase, he walked in wonder to the princess’s chamber. There Thorn-Rose lay among her dusty toys, as beautiful as the day she had fallen asleep. He took out his lace handkerchief, and wiped the dust from her face. She stirred in her sleep, and sighed, and he couldn’t help but kiss her.
‘Wake up,’ he said. ‘You’re my dearest wish. Please come true.’
His kiss and his voice found their way into the princess’s dreams. She dreamed of a beautiful young prince who loved her, and she dreamed she loved him too. ‘I wish,’ she thought, ‘I wish this was more than a dream. I wish it would come true.’
The prince saw a shadow in the shape of a butterfly flutter from the princess’s chest, and dissolve in the sunlight through the roses.
And the princess opened her eyes.