Many years later, as he faced the wall of thorns, a young prince was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him aside and told him he was to be married. Back then he still believed he could elude the spinning wheel of fate, and didn’t listen as his parents, the King and Queen, tried to prepare him to command the peasantry and lead armies in the kingdom’s many wars. One day, when the prince was fifteen or sixteen, the king announced that he’d reached the age of manhood, and that very evening there would be a banquet in the prince’s honour as he took his seat in court. The feast was huge and lavish. The servants had sweltered at the ovens to prepare whole heifers, stuffed with fresh fruits and spices pillaged from rival kingdoms, every serf who could afford it had offered a cask of their wine in exchange for the prince’s blessing, and the six dukes had gathered to offer gifts. The first gave him a purse of gold; the second, a sack of beans that would sprout in even the most hopeless soil; another gave a potion made from oysters and bananas; the fourth had had forged a sword of such perfect size it would make the prince irresistible; the fifth had commissioned a portrait of the prince as Adonis, enchanted to also be a mirror; and the sixth gave him an Alephian orb through which he could surveil every inch of his castle. Finally it was the king’s turn to bestow his gift. “Son” he said, “To you, I give my own marriage bed, which my great-great-grandfather carved from a chestnut tree before he went mad.” “But I am not married” the prince began to protest, but the king promised that he would be wed soon enough. It was the destiny of princes to take princesses and have children to continue the name he had taken from his parents. Yet, a year passed and the prince did not marry. The visiting princesses took no interest in him, and he took no interest in them. The king grew increasingly distressed and frustrated with his son’s celibacy, and began convening with fairies at night to bewitch him into marriage. The fairies revealed that none of the usual love potions or enchanted arrows would work on the prince, for fate had already divined him a marriage with a princess in a castle so old it was nearly forgotten. Soon, they swore – and who would argue with fate – he would marry this princess and seize his crown. The king waited many months for the appearance of this princess, until one day, when preparing for one of his wars, he saw marked on the map a castle that bore the standard of a kingdom long since carved up and annexed by its neighbours. His advisors told him the many legends surrounding the castle: that it was surrounded by an impassable wall of thorns, how some said ogres lived there, others claimed there was once a princess but she had long since rose off the ground and floated to the beyond, while a handful maintained that the princess was still there: sleeping for one-hundred years awaiting true love’s kiss. The king took it for granted at once that it was his son who would succeed in this splendid adventure and sent him out to find and wed his princess.
***Facing the wall of thorns, the young prince lifted his enchanted sword and the barbed cage split open to let him pass. Behind it was a garden unchanged for one-hundred years, and in the near-silence, between two statues of a long-dead king and queen, he set his eyes upon her. A princess, who while only fifteen or sixteen in appearance, carried all the years of that turbulent land with her. Trembling in wonder and admiration, he knelt down beside her. And she was wide awake. “Rise and kiss me then.” The prince blushed, he was confused to see the princess had been awake for all this time, and too embarrassed to explain how he didn’t really want to kiss her. And since he was lacking these words, he resigned himself to what he was supposed to – and kissed the princess. He was sure he was doing it wrong, and hoped that after so long she had forgotten what true-love’s kiss was supposed to feel like. Of course, in her dormant century she had thought of little other than the moment her prince would arrive, and had rehearsed the kiss so many times she found herself savouring every sensation, deciding that it was definitely true love: she must love this strange prince even though he stood so far from her portrait of what a king should be. She took him by the hand and led him up the marble steps leading into the castle. She led him past the dusty library, and along gilded corridors inhabited only by dogs and emaciated servants, over a courtyard where the blacksmiths laboured, past the unstrung violins, and through a gallery of pictures covered by thick curtains. All the way up to the princess’s chamber: easily the most beautiful and extravagant room in the beautiful and extravagant castle. The carpets were all silk, the bed embroidered with gold, and the walls lined with mirrors that shone the terrified prince back at himself. ‘I have had the servants keep the bed made for your arrival.’ the princess explained ‘Once we are married I shall finally be able to sleep again. Then this bed shall be ours together. ’ But they would have to wait a few nights more, she went on, for when the fairies had cursed her there was no priest living in the castle who could marry them. She would have to order them a carriage back to the prince’s home. The next morning they would depart to be married and become the greatest king and queen to ever live. “In the meantime,” she told him “you may use the bed, since I do not sleep at all” Then she left to arrange the carriages. All alone in that mirrored chamber the prince looked over all his doubts. Certainly he should not marry this princess he did not love, but then, how would he ever be a king? How could he return to his father having rejected another bride? And why – why was it he could not love this princess? What was it about this castle that stopped his heart so? To distract himself, the prince turned his mind to the space around him. There were no books in the room, but he spent some time reading the tapestry on the wall, which revealed the origins of the fairies' curse that had trapped the princess for a century. Then he leaned out of the casement window and watched the castle staff, like ants below, forced to serve the princess in her confinement. They worked over fires and heaved barrows laden with wood and stone, but he could not see what it was they were building. And then, he heard a faint, uneasy rustling behind him. It was coming from the princess’s closet. Biting his breath, the prince opened the door and peered inside. Hunched over the writing desk was the chamber-maid, frantically running her quill across the pages of her leather-bound volume. The old maid stopped and turned to the prince. She dropped the quill to the floor and rose, shaking, with the book in her hands which were so gnarled and wrinkled they seemed to bear the whole hundred years she had been working. Silent, she placed the book in his hands and left. His fingers trembled as he peeled open the cover and the realised he already knew what he was about to read. He read it all at once, page after page, like he was running through a chamber of horrors and needed to get to the end without seeing the worst. For one-hundred years the chamber-maid had recorded the sordid history of the castle, how the princess had buried an entire treasury in time for her return, how she had beaten the disobedient servants, and let the obedient abuse the weak, how many had withered as food was reserved for the princess and her soldiers, how every maid had the locks to their chamber shattered. And then he saw his own fate as the fairies had written it: how the princess was to marry him and become the greatest queen who ever lived. The old ones would be deposed and he would lead a war that had been one-hundred years in the planning. How he would grow fat and wealthy as despot of the world. “What’s that?” He had stayed awake all through the night reading and now the princess had returned to fetch him. He wondered if she could see the sweat on his skin, the tears he was biting back. “The carriage is all ready. If we do well you can have me home and married by sundown.” Struck dumb with terror the prince followed her out of her chamber and through the opulent halls of the castle, out to the pristine gardens where their carriage was waiting, escorted by a caravan of knights and soldiers. The prince stared over the heads of the soldiers. He stared at the great gate that had opened in the wall of thorns. He had one foot in the carriage when he stared into the face of the beautiful and violent princess and said, with the hopeless courage of one facing the gallows: “I will not marry you.” The princess was silent as he stepped out of the carriage. At first he thought she might collapse into tears, after waiting for one-hundred years her fate was being unwound; but after a moment her face hardened with a look that reminded the prince of his father whenever he failed a courtship. Turning her back to him she grabbed the whip from her footman and lashed at the horses, screaming a march to her men. Knights sped through the thorny gate towards the prince’s home, as the princess led her charge without him. A seemingly endless column of young men, faces stained with ash from the forges, shouldered their arms and marched out to perish again and again in the endless wars. Yet, whenever the prince tried to leave with them the thorns would writhe and shift to halt his escape. As punishment for denying fate he was to take the princess’s place, stuck in the castle for one-hundred lonesome years. He returned to the princess’s chamber – his chamber – and, in the privacy of his isolation, broke down and cried. It was only when he had comforted himself with the knowledge that he would never have to face his father as an unmarried man that he was able to stopper the tears. Then he faced himself in the room’s many mirrors, drew his legendary sword and tossed it from the window of that high tower, watching as it shattered on the flagstones below. The prince went downstairs to the library and cleaned away the century of dust. He had one-hundred years to himself with no obligation to marry, and he vowed to use his days to study everything available: alchemy, astronomy, medicine; he would dedicate himself to discovering secrets and crafting gifts for the next century. In the evenings he would play the princess’s abandoned instruments, and practice with her paints. No longer needing to sleep, all his hours would be dedicated to the joys still available to him. Every day and every night he would prepare himself for the future where his father was long dead, and the princess’s reign all dried up, when he would get his chance to bring something new to the world. At the end of his condemnation to solitude he would have made a second opportunity on Earth. Acknowledgments: ‘Many years later, as he faced the wall of thorns, a young prince was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him aside and told him he was to be married.’ is paraphrased from Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, trans. by Gregory Rabassa ‘The king took it for granted at once that it was his son who would succeed in this splendid adventure’ is paraphrased from Charles Perrault’s ‘The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood’, trans. by Christopher Betts
Isaac Holden is a writer from the Wirral currently based in Glasgow. He writes a mixture of prose and poetry, often using humour and weirdness to explore whatever is on his mind. He also has work featured on rrramble.com and is currently producing a non-fiction zine.