Jocelyn did not prick her finger on a magic spindle and fall into an enchanted slumber. She fairly regularly pricked her fingers on various spindles (though she really preferred bobbins) and carding combs and other sundries, but they were no more magical than anything else, and her sleep was not particularly enchanting. She woke with tangled hair each morning, and no kisses were required for the process. There was no incident with scorned fairies at her birth, no castle full of people cursed to sleep for a hundred years.
Jocelyn was born to a king and a queen. Fairies were invited to her naming ceremony, where they each gifted her with skills and a name, which is how she ended up with the rather hefty name of Jocelyn Theodora Grace Blanchefleur Aurora Sofia Antoinette Epona Charity Marina Petranne Violetta Louise, but all thirteen fairies were invited and no one cast a curse.
It began with the fairies themselves. Part of being a princess in the kingdom of Splöstlienne meant learning the things one might expect princesses to be taught—how to dance, eat, play the harp, ride a horse, and curtsy appropriately to various visiting dignitaries. However, Splöstlienne sat on a ley line, the convergence of all the sorts of mystical things that sorcerers eat for breakfast and often choke on. The moon shone rosy pink there, the sea sang wild songs at night, and the forests were made of trees that bore fruit filled with truths and secrets that weighed heavy on the heart once they were known. As such, part of any royal upbringing meant learning to weave one’s life around these magics, learning to feel the tides of the soil, and the sea, and the blood, and that, of course, is where the fairies came in. Normally these things were passed from mother to daughter, but Jocelyn’s mother grew weak and died when she was only a few months old; Jocelyn spent the rest of her childhood years at the skirts of one fairy or another, trying desperately to learn all the things her mother hadn’t had time to teach her.
The fairies each had a special task, such as caring for the beasts in the forests, tending the sick, or singing the crops taller and more bountiful. Jocelyn studied with each of the first twelve fairies in turn—when she someday took the throne, she would first have to take a turn at each of their duties to show her ability to command her kingdom. However, it was the thirteenth fairy whose arts really fascinated her.
Ioma made her way to the highest tower of the castle every day just before dawn, taking each stone step with her wizened old legs, diaphanous wings shrunken with age and hanging limply down her back. Her silver hair trailed for yards behind her, gathering dust, spiders, and the occasional unwary mouse. When Ioma stood at the top of the tower, her hair curled down the stairs for four whole landings behind her. As a child, day after day, Jocelyn saw the silver strands slipping out of sight and scrambled after, catching their ends and unwinding the dazed mice, collecting the spiders with careful palms, uncoiling the endless lengths of dust and cobwebs. She bundled Ioma’s hair in her arms like a skein of yarn as she went, stumbling over it on chubby child’s legs, until she met the fairy at the top of the tower.
The old fairy was already sitting at her spinning wheel near the window by the time Jocelyn wobbled in, arms full of shining hair. Each day, Ioma pressed a finger to her own lips and smiled, lips wrinkled over toothless gums, beckoning the princess to the window. Jocelyn sat at Ioma’s feet, tucked into her layers of woolen skirts to keep back the early morning chill, knees pulled to her chest, and the two sat in silence as the sun rose.
In Splöstlienne, the sun made a soft sound when it rose. Very few people in the kingdom heard this, or at least paid it any attention—those who were awake at such an hour were busy with their morning tasks and had no reason to pay the sound any mind. Ioma explained to Jocelyn, once—and maybe a time or two again, because she was old and sometimes forgot when she had already said a thing before—that to listen to the sunrise over her land every day, to hear the soft ringing as the light hit each blade of grass, each living being, the roaring edge of the sea, each wooly sheep, each drop of dew, would teach Jocelyn things about her kingdom that no one else knew.
Jocelyn wanted very much to make her sorrowful father proud, and her people happy, and do justice to the memory of her mother, who had been a wonderful queen—her father had shrunk in the wake of her mother’s death, and Jocelyn couldn’t help but feel the need to somehow make it better. So the girl nodded, utterly solemn, and listened as hard as she could as the indigo sky faded and the stars dimmed out for the ringing (which was all at once very low and very high) to roll out across the land.
The sunlight made a different sound with each thing it touched, and her very favorite sound was the sound of sun spilling across the gorse bushes. They were ugly brown tangles of thorns for most of the year, cursed by farmers for taking over the fields, but in the spring they burst into bloom. They had tiny flowers, brilliant gold, which smelled of coconuts and vanilla. Jocelyn found their contrasting beauty and danger far more enchanting than roses, which smelled to her like paper and had very little cleverness or wiliness to them.
There was something admirable to the way gorse tangled in on itself, wrapping around its own limbs to grow stronger, the way Ioma spun and plied her thread. The cacophony of color, the cloying smell that reached for miles in spring, the inch-long thorns, and the ever-spreading roots that let the plant scramble its way across fields and hills alike—Jocelyn thought that perhaps, if she could be like that, she would not wither away like her mother, or shrink in sadness like her father had since her mother’s death, but could spread across her land and through it, beautiful and powerful and so stunningly vibrant.
The sun touched the gorse last each morning, as it grew in a hedge around the base of the castle, a kind of second moat. Each day, when the fingers of light brushed their pale, watery tips across the brambles, Jocelyn heard a sweet, ringing chime like a faraway bell or a sprinkle of rain on crystal, and she sighed, satisfied.
Ioma turned to her then, and the day’s lessons began. At Ioma’s knee, Jocelyn learned to card wool and wind spindles. She watched Ioma spin fine thread, fibers twisting around one another in a way that felt like magic. The fibers were sparse and weak, then tight and strong, and as she pushed the treadle with her foot, Ioma taught Jocelyn to spin herself and her kingdom strong, too.
The old fairy hummed wordless tunes as the great wooden wheel spun and the fibers looped in on themselves again and again, and she taught Jocelyn to hum along. Ioma didn’t hum folk songs or romantic ballads—she hummed the soft sounds of dawn on the kingdom, memorized from thousands of mornings hearing them, stringing them together like pearls. She hummed the sound of light on water, on stone, on silver birch bark and white-spotted fawns, on wheat fields and castle walls. As she spun and hummed, the thread grew strong, fine, and softly colored, like spiderwebs, and Jocelyn watched in wonder as her kingdom was wound into and onto itself again and again, growing stronger and more beautiful.
As she grew older, Jocelyn helped Ioma to spin, pulling the hanks of wool into roving, humming and singing along with the fairy’s songs, winding the finished thread onto spools. The thread was woven on a great loom in the corner, crafted into the shimmering sheets of fabric with which all of the royal family’s clothes were adorned. They wore robes made from the songs of the kingdom itself, connecting them to the very soil beneath them, helping them to connect to the hearts of even the smallest denizens of the kingdom.
Ioma allowed the princess to help with the weaving, letting her pass the shuttle through the warp until fabric grew under the child’s fingertips. She did not, however, allow Jocelyn to sit alone at the great spinning wheel—she let the girl sit with a drop spindle or a simple wheel now and again, to learn the pull and twist of the fiber between her fingers, but never the great wheel.
"Not until you are queen. When you are crowned, you will be called upon to show your people that you can do this most fundamental thing, to spin your own thread and weave your own robes. But to spin the very thread of the kingdom," the old fairy said, "requires knowing which sounds to call loudest, which things to increase and which to lessen. The balance comes before anything else." She pushed her bare foot against the treadle and the wheel spun, and Jocelyn sat and watched for hours as Ioma balanced the nature of birds against that of trees and flowers and seeds, the nature of fish against insects and water and stone, the nature of farmers against the needs of the land. She understood the idea, yes, but didn’t even know how to begin to understand the way to feel the balance herself.
"It comes from the listening," Ioma said to a fourteen-year-old Jocelyn when she drew up the courage to ask. "I come here every day for the beauty of it, certainly, but also to learn. I hear when the fish sing too softly because their numbers have been too diminished by fishermen, when the predators in the forest sing louder than the prey and food grows scarce, when the grass grows too thin by being trod upon too often." She nodded her head at the window, and Jocelyn went. As Jocelyn watched, patches of brown grass grew greener, fuller, and the thread at Ioma’s fingertips shone a pale green underneath its opalescent white.
From then on, Jocelyn tried to listen to the balance. She listened as the world turned its face to the sun each day, listened for the scales that tipped between each resident of her kingdom, for the miserable sounds of loss and the glorious sounds of joy and always, always, the bright chime as the sun finally brushed the base of the castle walls and woke the sleeping gorse. Day after day, Jocelyn watched as Ioma spun strength not just into the kingdom itself, but into its king—giving strength to her flagging father, to his failing heart.
Besides Ioma, Jocelyn’s only steady company were sparrows. They flew up to the window ledge and watched, heads cocked, as the women worked. Jocelyn listened to the songs of their feathers and their tiny, hollow bones and imagined herself as one of them, safe at the top of the tower, small and soft, high and away but still a part of her kingdom.
The princess became a quiet young woman, speaking kindly but rarely, listening for the sound of imbalances inside herself when she wasn’t listening to those of her kingdom, carefully correcting them where she could, spinning her thoughts and her heart stronger, tighter, finer and more beautiful. She was lovely in the way that kind people are lovely, whether or not their features are plain—she was soft, and glowed with the hazy peace of someone who lived their life mostly alone, but wasn’t lonely. She listened, too, as the years passed, as her father grew older and wearier and finally died.
She watched as Ioma spun fiercely that day, fingers working thread colorless with mourning. Jocelyn was so lost in listening to the weeping of Splöstlienne and the shifting of the balance that she had no thought to mourn for herself, for the loss of her father as a parent, not just a king. She sat at Ioma’s feet and let tears run down her cheeks, but they were for the kingdom, not herself. She felt the loss of the man who listened to the complaints of his people and made fair compromises in their disputes, who managed the treasury so the hospitals and schools had funds and full staff, who planned the rotations of crops in the fields, who rode out and organized the defenses at their borders, who gave hope to his people. She listened as Ioma rose the next day and spun the kingdom brighter, spun the birds louder and made the moon’s face blush deeper pink and hummed sea sounds until the waves cried out for the loss of the king.
On the third day, she followed Ioma up the winding stairs blindly, sweeping dust from the old fairy’s hair and shooing mice and scooping up spiders as she had done for nearly two decades now.
When she reached the room at the top, though, Ioma was not sitting at her wheel. Instead, she stood at the window, her spinning stool empty, and waited. Behind her, the sun began to rise, unheeded, for the first time in Jocelyn’s life.
"Oh," Jocelyn said, with sudden, horrible understanding.
"Oh," Ioma agreed, gesturing to the wheel.
Stiffly, Jocelyn made her way to the spinning stool. She sat abruptly, plunking down onto the worn wooden seat, skirts a mess around her. She sat there, numb, as the sun rose over Splöstlienne, the miserable hum of a kingdom in mourning filling her ears, and she could hardly bear it.
"You are queen now," Ioma said gently. "You must be crowned. You must be married. But first, it is for you to call your kingdom through their grief and back to balance."
Jocelyn closed her eyes tightly, brow pinched, and said, "How?" She couldn’t imagine a way through the grief for herself, let alone for the entire kingdom.
Ioma moved, then, and came to stand behind the princess, now queen, and put her hands on the girl’s shoulders. "You’ve listened for years. You must sing now, not just listen." She pulled wool roving from the basket beside the wheel, wound it around the spindle, put the soft end in Jocelyn’s fingers. "You see? Sing, Jocelyn."
Jocelyn eased her slippers off her feet, set the delicate silk things aside, and slid her bare foot onto the smooth wooden treadle. It was soft and dark with years of use, and felt warm beneath her sole. "I just push," she said, hearing her own voice as if from a very long way away. "I push with my foot, and pull with my fingers, and let the wheel pull it in."
Ioma’s hands squeezed Jocelyn’s shoulders again, encouraging. "You’ve watched for years. Never mind if it’s lumpy, my dear, let the wheel do the work. Sing."
Jocelyn gave the mechanics of the thing a moment. She focused on the whoosh-clack as her foot pushed down and the wheel spun and the roving twisted in her fingers. It went quickly, quicker than it had always looked from the outside, and she struggled for a moment with fingers that barely seemed to want to obey her at all. Ioma stood behind her, steady, a statue of support.
Jocelyn worked the thread, fingers clumsy, and tried to listen to the sound of her kingdom.
All she heard was the sound of broken things and weeping. It spun itself into the princess, Jocelyn’s heart hanging heavy. She began to miss her father, not for his death, but for the man he must have been before her mother died, the strong and happy king her people were mourning. She began to weep for the loss of her mother for the first time, tears flowing silently as she listened to even the soil below the castle weep. She mourned the loss of a king and a queen who knew how to rule, and felt—as everyone must, one day, as birds feel when they are pushed from the nests, as butterflies do when they unfold from their cocoons—that her life had come upon her all too suddenly, and that her days of quiet joy, of listening to nothing but Ioma and the sounds of the wheel and the kingdom and the sunlight, had come abruptly to an end. She felt as though she were drowning under the weight of the expectations that had been so suddenly thrust upon her—the expectations of the fairies for her to follow their teachings and their work, the hopes of her people that she could take up her father’s mantle, the certainty that she was simply not ready. Just for a moment, she hated her parents for not being strong enough to survive until she was ready, to survive until—until she didn’t know what, but she hated them, fleetingly and fiercely, for being human enough to fade away into death, for leaving her suddenly surrounded by responsibility and a reality away from this wheel, away from this tower. She was terribly ashamed of herself, then, for hating them at all, for not being brave enough to simply miss them, and like the wool in her hands, the hurt and the shame and the sadness spun tighter, stronger, and Jocelyn felt herself spinning away with it.
Alone in the cacophony of misery, a ring of gold and brown shone out, singing sweetly of hope for strength and endurance. The gorse called out with the promise of bright color and strong limbs, of sharp thorns to hold back the hurt and glorious flowers to soothe the suddenness of loss. Jocelyn seized upon it, clung fiercely to the magnificent sound of strength and beauty and infinite endurance, and let the sound of gorse spin up out of her throat and out her fingertips. Its sweet chime grew louder and louder, blocking out the sound of her childhood breaking and the mourning of her kingdom and its people, silencing them all like stones in the dark as the shimmering sound spread across Splöstlienne. She thought only of that sound, and of the sounds of the spinning wheel and the peace of the tower, and she spun furiously, unwinding the grey sadness and spinning herself tighter into strands of gold.
"Oh, my dear, no," Ioma said, gently, sighing with the sort of solemn resignation of someone who knew she wouldn’t be heeded.
It was the last thing Jocelyn heard her say for a hundred years.
When the last sounds of sadness had faded, the last strand of roving slipped from Jocelyn’s fingers and spun out onto the wheel. Before her, the spool was wound with heaps of golden thread that smelled faintly of coconut and vanilla, and everything was silent except for the brilliant song of the gorse. The thread was beautiful, smooth and flawless, and Jocelyn turned with proud elation to see her teacher’s face.
The old fairy’s face was smooth marble, wrinkled lips made of folded stone. Her river of silver hair was dull grey, a stream of old pebbles and strands of spiderweb. Aghast, Jocelyn rose, running to the window, and looked out across the fields and hills of Splöstlienne.
They were gone. In their place was an ocean of gold-flowering brambles spreading as far as the eye could see. Their thick brown branches wound around the window ledge itself, still growing, yellow buds swelling and bursting into bloom as Jocelyn watched, frozen with the enormity of what she had done. Ioma stood behind her, a statue now, and before her was an astonishing end to the terror of having to be queen, of facing the sudden, agonizing start of her adulthood.
Because it was what she had done every other day of her life, Jocelyn turned from the window and went back to where Ioma stood. The old fairy’s tiny wings lay against her back like foggy glass, and her woolen gown hung in smooth marble folds. Jocelyn sat, perhaps a little more shakily than she usually might, at Ioma’s feet. Hands trembling, she reached for the carding combs and the basket of wool and began her day’s work, carding out ropes of roving, her knees drawn up to her chest, her head resting against Ioma’s stony skirts.
"I couldn’t bear it," she said, something like an apology, to the old fairy’s statue. "I just couldn’t bear it."
"Seven score of men have tried and died, princes, kings, and peasants all!" the bard cried, quite drunk, from his seat beside the fire. "Gorse daughter in her tower high—she sings a song, and suitors die! The brambles close around their limbs, and not a one comes out again!" There was a sort of macabre glee to the man’s slipshod rhyme. Matthias cringed inwardly.
"Do you imagine she’s actually worth it?" his older brother, Liam, joked quietly. "There are women enough here, without—what was the line?—shredded flesh and blood abounding? Yes, that’s it. For her beauty so astounding, they quest on, facing shredded flesh and—you know." Liam jerked his head down the table, where there sat an array of ladies decked out in finery. "What man is so desperate for a girl that—"
Matthias had stopped listening. He was the eighth son of the king, and while girls were very lovely, and he had riches enough for anyone who lived their life occupied with the collection of riches, he really preferred a nice game of chess to a dance with one of the ladies of the court. In chess, he knew where he stood, and, as an eighth son, such a thing was very rare. While he didn’t precisely adore the idea of facing his own shredded flesh, something about the bard’s story struck a chord within him—very much the same one as playing chess with his uncle did. He didn’t think he was some sort of master of knightliness, capable of bashing his way through miles of gorse brambles with brute force, but part of him wondered if perhaps there weren’t some other way.
"Where is it?"
The bard came to an abrupt halt in the middle of another gory verse randomly spattered with anecdotes about the princess’s beauty. "What?"
Matthias rose, pushing his chair back from the table. Liam made a face at him, as though he was quite fed up with his brother’s antics, which wasn’t particularly unusual, as Liam was a master of knightliness and brute force, and while perfectly capable and intelligent for a king-to-be, wasn’t invested in Matthias’s love of strategy or quest for a place in the world to call his own unless it involved ideas for expanding or enriching the kingdom. "Where is this—this gorse daughter? This kingdom?"
The bard huffed. "It was known as Splöstlienne, and—" he paused, clearly at a loss. "And I’ve no idea where it is, sir."
Matthias hummed a little and left the hall, leaving his seven elder brothers, his parents, the bard, and the rest of the court looking exasperated and bemused.
It took nearly four months of Matthias riding around the outlying villages and asking various village elders about legends of Splöstlienne before anyone could point him in a useful direction—people had heard of a giant field of thorny plants, but it had been so long that trade routes had shifted and roads had changed and people had moved on. When someone finally did know anything at all specific, it was an old man who claimed to have been the son of a fisherman there before he met his late wife and eloped with her. He went on about seas that actually sang, a moon that shone pink as a rose, and a cadre of fairy women who kept the magical kingdom in balance.
"Jocelyn," the old man said eventually. "That was her name—or part of it. There were several; there always are with royals."
Matthias, who only had one name—unless one counted Marcusson, as he was son of King Marcus—said nothing, merely nodded and waited for the man to go on.
"But son, she must be old by now. Nearly as old as I am. Certainly no beauty to woo and marry. I know you’re the youngest son—"
"Actually, no, there’s another one after me," Matthias corrected, mostly out of habit, because Michael was only five, and hadn’t even been alive long enough to be officially named into the succession in case of drawing bad luck. He was their mother’s favorite, which Matthias didn’t particularly resent, because Michael was charming in the way all children were when they were small and sticky but not especially loud. He didn’t resent it, no, but Michael’s birth had robbed him of his only small corner of identity, that of the youngest son. It didn’t gall Matthias, precisely, but it left a hollow space in his chest where he thought a sense of self ought to be, or at least where one might begin. "I’m sorry, do go on," he said, cringing at his own bad manners.
The man harrumphed. "Nonetheless, it’s a few weeks’ ride northwest, if you’re really that curious."
And, all logic aside, Matthias was that curious. He wondered, almost desperately, what gorse smelled like, what this princess looked like, how any of this had come about at all. He wondered if she was terribly old, and simply trapped, or if she was young and spectacularly beautiful and under a curse.
He thanked the old man, tipped him a silver piece for his help, and rode out that very day.
Read part 2 here!