THREE RED ROSES • by Rebecca Birch

The old crone licked the end of a thread, squinted through her rheumy eyes, and slipped the thread through a deep green needle’s eye.

Sharp cedar smoke hung in the air, the fire making the princess’ shadow flicker and dance across the floorboards. Her honey-touched perfume tickled the crone’s nose with a wisp of forgotten memory.

The old woman paused, needle poised over her embroidery hoop. “You’re certain this is what you want? There’s no going back.”

The princess shook her head, setting her ebony curls asway. “I’ve nothing to go back for.”

The crone pursed her lips and pressed the needle through the silken cloth. Pain blossomed over her heart, as if the needle pierced her own flesh.

She ignored the discomfort. It was the price she paid for her magic.

“No prince waiting just over the horizon?”

Up and down the thread flowed over the snow-white field. Thick red blood seeped from the finely wound fibers and settled into the soft shape of rose petals.

“Nothing waits for me but loneliness. They’re dead — all of them — from my father down to the bakers and beekeepers.” The princess nibbled her lower lip, and her skin blanched winter pale. “Even the bees in their hives.”

The crone finished the first rose and moved on to the next. Her chest flared with pain and a wave of dizziness forced her eyes briefly shut. She wondered if she had the strength to complete the image. Wondered why she felt compelled to try.

She owed this girl nothing.

“Where did you find the spindle?” the crone asked.

“In a hidden room behind the hearth,” the princess said. “I didn’t know what it was. No one ever…” She paused. Stepped backwards. The honey-sweet scent faded. “How did you know?”

The crone shrugged. “You’re not the first. The spell failed, you know. It was supposed to be you who died.”

“I wish it had been me. More than I’ve ever wished for anything.” The princess thrust her hand between the crone’s face and the embroidery hoop. “Do you see the prick on my finger there? It’s the mark of my guilt. Forever. How can I live like this? Knowing my life was paid for by everyone I ever loved?”

The old woman licked her lips and looked away. Her hands kept moving. They knew their work. “We all have guilt, Princess.”

“Even you?”

The crone didn’t reply.

The princess pulled back her hand and stared at it. “I’d cut it off and feed it to the fire if it would bring them back.”

Salt stung the old woman’s eyes. She blinked back the tears that threatened to spill over.

One last rose to stitch.

A stab of pain spiked through the crone’s heart, forcing a gasp from her lips. She folded over the hoop, sucking in thin, short breaths.

The princess touched her shoulder with gentle fingers. “Are you all right?”

The kindness hurt nearly as much as the needle’s bite. How long had it been since she’d felt another’s touch?

With each breath the pain ebbed, until it was a steady, aching throb.

Straightening, the crone began to stitch the final rose. The spreading stain sketched the petals’ contours in agonizing detail.

She ignored the princess’ question. “I need a strand of your hair.”

Tugging loose one ebony curl, the princess asked, “Whatever for?”

With a deft motion, the old woman tied off her thread, slit it with a tiny knife she kept tucked in a tunic pocket, and observed her handiwork — three roses, fashioned from three drops of her heart’s blood.

She threaded the princess’ hair through the needle and whip-stitched three dark, glossy stems.

“It’s done.”

The princess reached towards the cloth, hesitated a finger’s-breadth away. “What must I do?

“Cast it into the flames. It will bring you a new beginning, but I can’t promise your new life will be any better than the one you leave behind.”

The princess lifted the hoop. Tears glinted in the corners of her eyes. “Thank you. But, please, what is your name?”

The old woman sighed. “I’ve been called many names. Aurora, for one, but I prefer the name that reflects my nature. Briar Rose.”

“It’s lovely.”

Briar Rose looked down at her own wrinkled hand, at the spindle prick that had altered her forever. She’d thought she found her happy ending once upon a time, but that had been a fickle, fleeting moment. The thorns that had guarded her enchanted slumber were a part of her now, sustaining her long after her prince and all the rest had turned to dust, leaving her behind with nothing more than ghosts that haunted the bowers of her dreams.

“Go on, then.”

The princess tossed the embroidery into the fire. The fabric charred and curled, flames licking towards the ceiling.

A swirl of snow appeared in the center of the room, cascading down around the princess. She looked up, her scarlet lips parted in a surprised intake of breath. The snowflakes kissed the pale whiteness of her cheeks and melted away into nothingness. Her body shimmered and sparkled, became gossamer thin, then vanished, leaving nothing behind but the dim outline of her feet and three drops of blood splashed on the snowdrifts. A baby’s cries hung in the wind.

Briar Rose closed her eyes and slid the thorn needle back into its sheath beneath her skin. When she reopened her eyes, nothing remained but her bare room and the fitful, sputtering hearthfire.

“Luck and peace to you,” she whispered into the silence. “May you live happily ever after.”

Rebecca Birch lives in Seattle, Washington, where it doesn’t really rain every day. Her fiction has appeared in the Grantville Gazette: Universe Annex, Abyss & Apex, and Penumbra eZine.

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