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When Rosamond awoke the next morning, she couldn't smell breakfast.
"Monika?" she murmured, but received no answer. Perhaps it was too early and the maid was still preparing it. Rising, Rosamond decided to begin making herself presentable for the day. There was still a jug of water half full from last night, so she used that to wash before hunting for a comb to untangle her night-mussed hair.
A terribly unladylike snore made her stop, for it came from Monika's pallet. Surely the maid had not allowed a guardsman to sleep in her mistress's pavilion? She would soon feel the rough edge of Rosamond's tongue if she had. Wait until the queen heard about it.
Rosamond marched over to Monika's bed and wrenched the coverlet aside. Monika herself lay there alone, breathing so laboriously that it sounded like snoring.
"Monika, wake up. I need breakfast," Rosamond ordered.
The maid slept on.
Angrily, Rosamond shook the woman, but Monika simply fell back to her pallet, as limp as one of the rag dolls Rosamond had once played with as a child. She seemed unusually warm to the touch, too.
Feeling fear for the first time, Rosamond cupped Monika's cheek so she could gaze upon her face. The maid's eyes were closed, but her skin had the same waxy sheen as Melitta.
Rosamond tore her hands away from Monika and stumbled out of the tent as fast as she could. "It's Monika! She won't wake. She won't wake!" she shouted.
Strong hands fastened around her shoulders, spinning her around to face Sir Warin. "What's this about Monika?" he asked, his eyes filled with concern.
"She didn't wake. She usually wakes before me. I called her. I even shook her, but she won't wake!" Rosamond babbled, shaking her head. "She is ill. The same ailment as the weaver's daughter, I know it!"
Sir Warin gestured to the nearest guard. "Is anyone else ill?"
The man shook his head. "I don't think so, sir. I'll go check the other men." He returned a few minutes later, still shaking his head. "No, sir. Not a single man still abed, seeing as the sun is so high in the sky and all. If the princess had risen earlier, as is her usual habit, maybe one or two might have been but…" He coughed. "I'll go help saddle the horses, sir."
"Monika usually wakes me," Rosamond said. "I don't understand. If she is so ill, why am I not ailing? She rarely leaves my side."
Sir Warin's eyes narrowed. "What has she done that you have not since we left the city?"
Rosamond spread her arms wide. "Everything." Princesses did not do things for themselves, Monika and her mother had told her so many times it had become a habit. "She cooks for me, packs my things, brings water to wash with, sets out my clothes and helps me dress, even mends my clothes when I tear them. When we get home, she says I must have new gowns made with the queen's gifts, because my travel-stained dresses will not be fit for anything more than rags. Those new velvets will be perfect for court…" She might have prattled on for longer, but Sir Warin held up a hand to silence her.
"You said the weaver's daughter was ill, and Monika has the same ailment?" he asked.
"Did you touch the cloth the queen gave you?"
Rosamond's mouth seemed suddenly too dry. "I…no. It came in so many chests, and you were angry, so Monika said…she said she would load them onto the packhorses. The weaver's daughter unpacked those chests when they arrived, at about the same time we did, but no one else had touched them…" She stopped dead, clapping her hand to her horrified mouth. "You don't think Queen Margareta gave us cursed cloth?"
"Mayhap the queen herself did not know. Whether she did or no, the curse is undoubtedly real. We cannot take it home." Warin pointed at four guardsmen. "You! Fetch more wood. We must have a bonfire before we leave this spot."
The men obeyed, piling wood beside the small morning cookfire. They coaxed the cheerful flames into a roaring blaze under Warin's watchful eye, until he nodded and strode off.
"Where are you going?" Rosamond demanded, following him.
"To the picket lines, where the packhorses' burdens are piled, to fetch the cursed cloth. I will do what I must to protect you and the kingdom." He marched grimly to the pile of bags, seizing several before heading back to camp. When he reached the fire, he unfastened one of the sacks, reached inside, and tossed the bundle of cloth onto the flames.
"No!" Rosamond shouted. "You can't burn the queen's gifts. They are gifts. To do so would start a war." She seized the next bundle of cloth before Sir Warin could throw it into the fire. "You can't!"
Warin wrenched it out of her grip. "Do not touch the cursed stuff, Princess. What the queen does not see, she will never know. Unless you know how to remove curses, we must destroy it with fire. Can you break curses, Princess?"
Rosamond wrapped her arms around herself as tears sprang to her eyes. No one had ever spoken so roughly to her before. "No. I am a healer, and I help plants. Only a powerful enchantress – "
"Then let me do my job, Princess, which is protecting you." Another bundle of bright-coloured cloth landed in the fire, sending up a shower of sparks, followed by two more.
Realisation dawned. "If she was cursed by merely touching the cloth, then so are you." Rosamond gulped. "So am I."
"I pray that you are not, Princess." Warin would not meet her eyes. He turned and cupped his hands to his mouth, shouting for the attention of his men. "Ride for the capital. Tell the king we were taken ill on the road. God willing, we will be but a day behind you." He gave Rosamond a hard look. "You should go with them, Princess. Monika and I are cursed, but you are surely free of such evil spells."
Rosamond's fingers itched where she'd touched the velvet. "No, I cannot. What if you are wrong, and it is not a curse, but some plague that others can catch from me? I dare not bring it home."
"Go with them, Princess," Warin said through gritted teeth. "They will keep you safe. When this illness takes hold, I know that I cannot."
She lifted her chin as she glared at him. "Who will keep them safe from me if you are wrong? I am a Princess and a healer, and they will be no help to me when they are dead." She swallowed. "Or if I am dead, for surely the disease will take me first." She closed her eyes in horror. She didn't want to die. She didn't want him to die. Or Monika. Or anyone.
"Can you heal it?" Warin demanded.
Rosamond thought of Melitta. "Yes, perhaps. But it may take some time. We can't stay here beside the road, where any traveller might happen upon us, lest they be afflicted, too. We will need shelter while I try to heal you."
"Heal all three of us," Warin corrected, surrendering the last piece of cloth to the flames. "First Monika, then yourself, and if you have the energy and I still live, you can heal me."
Rosamond did not know how to heal herself, but she didn't tell Sir Warin that. She drew herself up. "Find us shelter, and I shall."
He nodded. "There is an old convent near here that I know of. It is one of the best spots in the kingdom for hawking, but as the king and queen are not fond of falcons, we should be safe."
"What about the nuns?" Rosamond demanded, horrified. "Their faith will not save them from whatever disease we are carrying, or a curse."
Warin flashed a bleak smile. "The convent has stood empty for my lifetime, Princess, and that of my father. The order who built it left, and did not come back. At least if we die there, it will be on hallowed ground."
Rosamond did not want to die, but she saw no other choice. "Help me with Monika. We must get her to this convent you speak of so that I may heal her." Before it was too late, she thought but didn't say.
* * *
After travelling for most of the afternoon, Rosamond wanted to scream at Sir Warin for his mistaken idea of what nearby meant. Even when they stopped, she saw no sign of any building at all. Perhaps the knight had only imagined this convent.
"In here," he said, taking Monika in his arms. He carried the unconscious maid toward a rock covered in thick briars.
No, not a rock. A stone wall, Rosamond realised. The briars bore so many flowers that they hid the joins in the stonework. "How do we get in?" she blurted out.
"When I was a boy, there was an entrance here. Under the briars, it will be here still." Sir Warin glanced down at Monika. "I will set her down. Keep watch over her while I work." He placed Monika carefully on the grass, then unsheathed his sword.
"No!" Rosamond cried out. "You don't need to cut them. I will ask the plants to move." The instant the words left her lips, she regretted them. Yes, plants usually did her bidding, but these were not the small rose trees in her garden at home. No, these were mighty monsters, wild and free. Yet she swallowed and stepped up to the tangled briar. Cupping her hands around a full-blown pink rose, she felt the sting as the tiny, needle-sharp thorns at the base of the bloom pierced her skin. "Permit us to pass," she whispered, closing her eyes.
She felt an answering whisper of greeting as she heard the rustle of leaves, moving in the breeze and scraping against stone. Except…there was no breeze in this still hollow.
Rosamond's eyes flew open. Before her, the briars had parted to reveal an arched portal into the building. She expected it to lead into darkness, but the ruined roof was open to the sky, letting in dappled sunlight.
Sir Warin stared at her with an intensity that made her feel uncomfortable. "I am glad to be on your side, Princess. I would hate to be your enemy," he said. He lifted Monika's limp form and strode into what remained of the convent.
Rosamond hesitated for a moment, before following him inside what turned out to be a chapel. Little remained except the stone altar, which was now wreathed in roses. She stepped up to the altar, brushing aside the leaf litter that had collected on its surface. "Put her here," she commanded.
Now it was Sir Warin's turn to hesitate. "Witchcraft in a holy chapel? Won't we be struck down?"
Rosamond made an impatient sound in her throat. "We are already struck down with a curse, remember? Perhaps the holiness will help. We will need all the help we can get, for I am but a novice at this."
Reluctantly, he set Monika on the altar. Then he backed away, staring at the maid in horror. "She looks like one already dead, laid out for burial," he whispered. "Save her, Princess. Please, I beg you. Save us all." He dropped to his knees.
Save them all. If only she could.
Rosamond wrapped her hand around a tangle of briar, feeling warm blood slick her palm, before she set her other hand on Monika's breast and sent her healing magic flowing through the dying maid.
* * *
Three days it took her to heal Monika of the disease, for Rosamond's waning strength took its toll on how much magic she could use before she swooned. Even calling on the roses for assistance did not help as much as she had hoped…for Rosamond knew the disease coursed through her blood, too, threatening to steal her life, even as Monika recovered.
Sir Warin had caught a plump bird, which now roasted over the fire he'd built in the old convent courtyard. "Good evening, Princess," he greeted her, wiping at the thin sheen of sweat that seemed to permanently coat his brow. He had caught the plague, too, Rosamond realised, but he would not allow her to heal him until Monika was well.
Which was now.
"It is a good evening," she replied. "The last of the disease is gone from her body. She sleeps now, but soon she will wake. Monika is healed."
He flashed a tired smile. "Then you are truly a good witch and a worker of miracles, Princess. I am grateful for your care, and I am certain that when she wakes, Monika will be, too."
"I must heal you," Rosamond insisted. "Monika will be weak for a while yet. She will need your help, and you cannot return to the city if you carry the sickness."
"She will have you, Princess. You have enough strength for a whole kingdom."
Rosamond wanted to laugh at the irony of his statement. She barely had the strength to stand. She knew what the knight did not – that she had contracted the disease when she healed Melitta, and soon she would no longer be able to hide it from him. She suspected she had only lasted so long because the healing energy coursing through her into Monika had kept the disease at bay somewhat. Not enough, though. It was only a matter of time before the disease won. Rosamond could not heal herself – magic didn't work that way.
If Sir Warin would not allow her to heal him, then she would wait until he was asleep tonight and take care of him then, Rosamond decided. She had so little time left.
Fortunately, she didn't have long to wait. Sir Warin had scarcely finished his dinner before he stretched out before the fire, mumbling something about the lateness of the hour.
Rosamond's eyes darted to the sky, where the sun had not yet set. Sir Warin was sicker than he was willing to admit, too.
He had chosen a patch of grass to lie on, so Rosamond lay beside him. One of the briars on the wall had sent runners snaking through the grass, which was all she needed to help her heal him. At least, she hoped it would be enough.
Grasping a handful of thorny runners, she sent a wave of healing through Sir Warin's sleeping body. She would not have days for this; if she did not heal him completely in one go, she might not manage to heal him at all. So even as her head ached and her body grew numb, still Rosamond worked her magic. The brave knight must survive, even if she did not.
The full moon had risen high in the sky by the time she had rid Sir Warin of his ailment. He would sleep for some time yet, as his body still had healing of its own to do. If she were stronger, she would help him, but as it was…
She climbed laboriously to her feet. Rosamond wanted to check Monika one more time before she lay down to await her fate. There would be no healer to save the princess, but Rosamond knew this was the only way to save the kingdom. She could not carry this curse home.
Rosamond had already chosen her resting place. She believed it had once been a kind of courtyard, open to the sun and rain, because very little of the roof had fallen onto the mosaic tiles still visible beneath the leaf litter. In the middle of it stood a fountain, though it held no water now. Instead, the basin had filled up with roses, so that it resembled a bed of flowers. This would be her deathbed. Far more befitting of a princess than the cold vaults beneath her parents' castle. A castle she would never see again.
Would her last sight on this earth be of sunny blue skies or sparkling stars? Rosamond wondered. It mattered little. She would be surrounded by the scent of roses, which would be enough.
With considerable effort, she made her way to the chapel where Monika lay resting.
Rosamond laid a hand on the maid's forehead, searching for signs of the disease, but finding none.
"Mistress?" Monika croaked.
"Rest. You were ill, but you are better now," Rosamond soothed her, struggling to keep her voice from shaking. No one would reassure her when the time came. "Sir Warin sleeps in the courtyard, but he will wake when he is well, too."
"What of you, mistress? Who cares for you?" Monika asked.
No one. Rosamond didn't dare speak the words aloud. "I am well cared for, I assure you. My sleeping chamber is over there. The roses guard me while I sleep. They will allow no harm to come to me." For she would soon be beyond harm, and the kingdom would be safe.
"It is time for me to retire. I only came to check on you. If Sir Warin survives until morning, you must return with him."
"What of you, mistress?" Monika said again, more urgently this time.
Rosamond smiled sadly. "If I do not succumb before morning, then I will return with you. If my body lacks the strength to fight this plague…you must leave me here. Do not bring my remains home. Tell my parents I died on the road, of an illness that I would not wish to visit upon my people. Promise me, Monika."
"No, mistress!" Monika tried to rise, but she was too weak.
"Thank you for your service to me. Please thank Sir Warin, too, when he wakes."
And with that, Rosamond bent her final steps toward the rose-shrouded fountain. Perhaps it was selfish to use the last of her strength to reach the pretty courtyard, but she did not care. She had used so much of what she had left to heal others. If she did not put enough distance between herself and her travelling companions, they might contract the disease again from her remains, and she would not be around to heal them a second time.
When she reached the stone basin, she nearly tumbled in, she was so tired. The briars would not let her, though, snaking beneath her to hold her weight until they formed a proper bed. Thorns shredded her clothes and some pierced her skin, but she felt little any more.
The world was no more than a dream to her now.
Rosamond lay on her bed of roses, weaving her fingers between the blossoms. She could feel the disease running riot through her blood, though it had not invaded her lungs as it had Melitta, Monika and Sir Warin. As her energy waned, she fancied she felt the tiny disease motes slowed their dance, almost as if they would die with her. That was a good thing.
The briars she touched – a dozen bushes, at least, all sending their runners toward her – offered her welcome, wishing her health in ways that felt like sap running through her veins instead of blood.
Protect me, she told them, envisioning vines closing off the courtyard to all but the sky, so that no one could reach her while the disease still survived in her body. Protect the kingdom. In her mind's eye, this involved all the plants in the kingdom forming up like armies for battle, keeping anyone at bay who might threaten her people with a plague like hers.
She lay facing the sky, but Rosamond saw neither stars nor moon as her eyes closed and her consciousness sank into oblivion, surrounded by the plants she loved, promising to obey her wishes.
While she lay alone in the moonlight, briars wove themselves into an impenetrable wall, blocking off the courtyard. Leaves whispered in the night breeze, telling trees and bushes of the princess's desire, until every bush along the borders had heard her final command.
Roses cradled her body, while berry bushes built a wall of their own around her lands. They would keep the kingdom safe for her, they promised, as only plants can.
Would you like to read more?
A sleeping beauty. A kingdom frozen in time. Only one can save them all.
Once upon a time…
Lord Siward intended to go hunting, but when he stumbles upon a ruined castle and accidentally wakes the mysterious maiden sleeping inside, he knows his holiday is over.
With the kingdom in trouble, Siward should be protecting the realm, but every time Rosamond looks at him, he gets lost in the girl’s green eyes. Who is the mysterious beauty, and why does he feel she holds the key to the kingdom’s deliverance?
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