A Mile from the Castle

“You kept it.”

The woman reached up slowly to the locket hanging around her neck, closed her hand over it. Her hands were knobbly, reddened, arthritic. Her face was lined deeply with laugh-lines and crows’ feet were carved at the corners of her eyes. She was sat in a rocking chair, her swollen feet visible under the hem of her drab grey skirt. “It was a gift. I haven’t just been waiting for you.”

He wasn’t a prince, you understand. He had tow-coloured hair and sharp green eyes, but there was something a little crooked about his nose and something ungainly about the way he stood. He was obviously a labourer, broad-shouldered and packed with the kind of muscle you get from hard work and not from the kind of deliberate exercise for the sake of gaining muscle. He was young, for sure: maybe twenty years of age.

He was born in the same year as the old woman, a good year for beer and a bad year for wine, the year after a poor wheat harvest.

“I know,” he said. “I saw your daughter. She looked a lot like you.” He paused. “Not as beautiful, though.”

The woman did not reply. He took a step closer.

“Sweetheart — ”

“I didn’t wait for you,” she said, more firmly. “I didn’t even try to get through the hedge.”

“But you’re still wearing the locket,” he said. “And I’m sure it still holds a lock of my hair.”

“What do you want?” she asked. There was exhaustion in her voice: sixty years of hard work, of bearing children and churning milk to make butter and helping her man in the fields when the harvest had to be got in and there weren’t labourers enough to bring it in before the rains. Sixty years in the cottage a mile from the briar hedge, years spent trying not to think, trying not to wonder about what lay beyond it. Sixty years of giving the last cup of milk to the thirsty princes heading for the hedge, and sixty years of telling the men from their fathers or uncles or sisters that they hadn’t come back, would never come back. Sixty years of living. Six of them alone with her two youngest daughters, wishing she’d had more sons, getting by alone.

“I was going to marry you,” he said, slowly. “I went to sleep knowing I was going to marry you the very next day. I dreamt of you. And I still want that.”

She shook her head, but he was suddenly closer, put a hand up against her lips.

“I’m going to marry you,” he said. “This very day. I made you a promise, sweetheart.”

He wasn’t a prince. But he had broad strong shoulders and capable hands, and he could fix the thatch of the cottage and fetch the water from the well. He could join the labourers in their lord’s field and carry home their own allotment of the harvest, and send her daughter home from the field without letting her stand there and flirt herself into danger after helping to bring luncheon to those working hard.

“I’m sorry I kept you waiting,” he said, softly.

“I didn’t wait,” she said again. But it wasn’t really true.

Notes: This story is a ‘what if’. What if there was a servant in Sleeping Beauty’s castle engaged to a girl from a nearby farm? What if the farm was just outside the hedge, and what if the girl was still alive when the spell was finally broken? The fairytale pays no attention to the fact that inevitably someone isn’t going to be in the castle when the spell falls, or knows someone in the castle but doesn’t live there, or… So what happens to them? Hard luck, you’ve just gotta hope the prince comes along soon so you can see your old mother or get home to your bed?


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