Kicking Against the Pricks

This creepy little tale was printed in a magazine called Dark Regions a few months before the magazine folded, a circumstance that filled my heart with superstitious dread. A year earlier, I had sold a story to Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine right before Marion Zimmer Bradley died. It was published in either the last magazine or second to last. I began to think my stories were some kind of plague to editors and magazines. (No jokes here, please.) I am usually not a superstitious person. I suppose writing fantasy brings it out of me.

In any case, this story was sold with the given title. The title was rejected. I can see why--the reference is biblical and absent the context, it's a bit "huh-what?" The magazine editor suggested "Dance of Death" instead.

After groaning nauseously, I agreed. Hey, what's pride to being published?! I considered the title sententious in the extreme, but whatever.

Except, turns out "Dance of Death" was already taken for that issue. The editor asked me to come up with some other titles. I sent an e-mail to my family who responded with things like "Waltz of Death" "Gig of Dance" and, from my brother Joe, "Death Death Death Death" which was my favorite, but I opted for "Thorns" instead. Which is how it was published.

It's a weird story, mostly because the tone of the beginning doesn't match the ending. If you've read my post about Plot & Story then you will recognize this as all plot. I didn't know where it was going when I wrote it. And it shows. Still, if you're into the macabre, you might like it.

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"You mustn't wake her," the witch said, "I tell you, she is not the princess."

The prince sighed and glanced across the low-ceilinged room. Through dormer windows, he could see the towers of the distant palace, the remainder masked by thick, rambling thorn bushes.

"Who is she then?" he said, his glance moving back to the woman who paced the room, her long, black cloak brushing the floor.

He had expected to find a witch here at the end stage of his journey; he had expected seductions, had been mentally prepared to resist a ravishing enchantress, cooing blandishments.

Look for her feet, look for the stork's claws, for the three toes joined by webs.

But this witch was just a woman, tense and anxious, short hair brushed contemptuously off her face; her feet were merely feet. He could see them as she turned, abruptly, emerging from the dark folds of her cloak. He watched them, mesmerized.

"She is the witch."

He sighed and transferred his gaze to the cup he held in his hand. He had dipped his ring in the liquid, and the stone had not changed color which it should have if there had been any poison in the drink. He had come prepared. For a trial of his virtue, of his bravery, of his wits. Not this--listening to an obsessed woman's extravagant claims.

"Listen," the witch said, settling on a bench across from him, leaning forward, hands on knees. "I was the princess. I was the one who was cursed. I was the one for whom they burned the spinning wheels--"

"Ah--" he said. The witch knew the story as well as he, as thoroughly as he. He murmured, "No more thread/No more thread/The kingdom goes naked for no more thread," the chant he had heard more than once during his travels.

"Our economy was ruined," she said. "Do you think I'd have allowed such an outrage if I'd been old enough to protest? I didn't even know there were such things as spinning wheels in the world. Until I was sixteen."

"You met an old woman in a tower--"

She frowned, and he subsided.

She said, "My nurse told me about the curse. Finally."

She ran a hand through her butchered mop of hair. He wondered she bothered to cut it at all, living alone with no attendants. He pushed a hand through his own rather lengthy curls. He'd been traveling by himself over three years now. Half his troupe had deserted him at the border of the desert; the other half he had sent home when they reached the great sea.

"She described a spinning wheel to me. She drew pictures for me in the dirt. I did meet someone in the top room of a tower. A girl, my age, but I knew she was the witch. I had been prepared."

He set down his cup.

"There was a spinning wheel in the center of the room. She begged me to play with her, to play with it. I pretended ignorance--'What is it?' 'I don't understand.' 'Where does the thread go?'--until she pointed to the spindle in frustration, and I pushed and--"

The witch held out her hands.

"She fell asleep," he said.

"Yes--"

"And everyone in the castle."

She looked derisive.

"If they had, do you think I would be here now? No, the thorns came. They grew out of fountains. They shattered walls. They clambered over barriers, over gates, around doors. Fire doesn't stop them. Cutting them is useless. And they attack. They slice skin, they puncture eyeballs, they choke throats. We all left--the servants, the courtiers. My father went to his hunting lodge in the north country. I've never seen him since. I came here. To watch. To wait. She mustn't be wakened."

He sighed, stretched.

"If the thorns are so dangerous," he said, "why not leave me to my fate?"

She had begun her pacing again. She frowned.

"They're beginning to die," she said. "Just recently, in the last few days. They no longer kill. They are retreating."

"Perhaps, the hundred years are over."

A quite contemptuous glance this time.

"It's been barely fifteen years."

So she was nearing thirty-one or thirty-two. Or would be if she were the princess.

He joined her at the window, looked down at the thorn bushes. In daylight, their branches appeared singularly harmless, but he could spot--amongst the tangled mass--white bones, quiet bodies not yet reduced to their component parts.

"Tough for them," he murmured.

"Do you think I didn't try to warn them?" she cried fiercely. "As I'm warning you?"

He believed she had. What witch did not warn, did not display, with fierce pride, the exact detriment of her handy work?

"I've tried for fifteen years," she said, "to stop the stories, to change them. I've told them there's nothing beyond the thorns. I've told them only ogres live in the palace. I've told them to go home, to get married. I've told them the truth; I've told them what I'm telling you now. They have never listened. But I've tried. I've even imprisoned them, but I couldn't keep them forever. I can't keep you. I haven't the means."

Which had surprised him: the obvious poverty of her situation. Unless that was a necessary component to her fantasy; perhaps, she hoped for pity, but she was a singularly unpitiable creature, witch or no witch.

He turned away. She had, really, no need to seduce. He was tired, weary of his seven year quest, weary of being alone. They were of an age. He had been twenty-five when he started.

He crossed to the chair, picked up his sword.

"Please."

Now he could resist, now he could say, "Your remorse is belated."

"I never caused this. I've acted always in self-defense. If I had fallen asleep, do you think she would have warned, would have tried as I am trying?"

"The deaths happened," he pointed out, and, "I believe you to be no more and no less than that witch."

He did not succeed in surprising her. She had, no doubt, heard the accusation many times before. In that moment, he saw himself as merely one more body in an oncoming line of bodies, coming to be killed. Not even a face to her. Not yet. Just a body to urge away.

"Stupid," she said. "You men, so naive, so unwilling to understand."

"Not naive enough to take your word," he said, amused. "You yourself admit a witch is crafty, deceitful, wicked. Deceitful enough to tell such a story. Wicked enough to lock up a young girl from the world with no recourse to salvation."

"The bodies don't lie," she said.

No, but she could hardly expect him to stop now. To travel seven years only to turn back at the gate. And suppose the girl was in there, asleep, abandoned. He no longer had any desire for her or her kingdom. His first romantic dreams had given way to something less urgent but ultimately more satisfactory; he had learned to be kind somewhere across the sea and desert. He had learned to want the girl's freedom for charity's sake, for gentleness. Which was why, also, he had not killed the witch. He was surprised that others had not killed her. Did all who arrived here, arrive with the same weary spirit, the same need to leave alive as much as possible? Or perhaps, they merely thought her mad: this dark-gowned, slender woman with chopped hair, her movements brusque and urgent, almost mad--mad if you did not look long enough and see your weariness echoed.

"I have to go," he said and slung the sword around his waist. The hilt brushed against his thigh; he touched it lightly.

"Let me come then," she said, and, as he hesitated, "Don't you understand? She is dangerous. This is her work. Thorns that mutilate and murder, and this is just one of her curses. Imagine what she will be able to do awake."

"And what difference will your presence make?"

She didn't know, he saw that in her face and for the first time doubted his doubts of her.

"I must be there," she said. "If only to distract her. Promise me you will be ready to kill. When you know for certain what she is."

"If she is a witch, I will not wake her."

"Oh," the witch said, and her smile was wry, "she will look like a princess. She will look the same as the day she fell asleep. She will look much more beautiful than I."

Which he doubted, but he did not voice that thought aloud.

They walked through the village. A few of the houses were occupied; the tavern on the edge of the village did a desultory business with travelers heading for other kingdoms.

"This was nearly a metropolis once," the witch said. "Despite the failed textile industry. My father would hold great galas and use the town businesses. Perhaps, that is why they never rioted over his edicts."

A dog barked from a deserted side-street. Their boots slapped the cobbled stones; the stones gave way to grass. Grass turned to weeds. They reached the first of the tangled thorn bushes.

He unsheathed his sword, stepped forward cautiously. A few branches lay sluggishly across his path; he pushed them aside with the sword point. They writhed as they withdrew. All around was silence deeper than the silence of the town. Branches pressed down upon each other.

They walked on, deeper into the thicket. The tangled confusion multiplied. Branches arced overhead. The prince glanced up continuously as he walked, wary of being hanged. Once a great branch crashed downwards, a dying gesture tinged with malice. He slashed it as it fell.

Still deeper and now the branches seemed more wakeful, more aware. They moved occasionally, stealthily; he would whirl his sword, snarling, until they retreated.
He looked back frequently at the witch. Even in the deepest areas, the branches did not reach for her, not even the half-hearted, incomplete lunges they made at him.

She caught his eyes on her, said angrily, "I told you, they are dying." He only nodded.

There were skeletons amongst the branches: skulls' faces, great hollow eyes watching; skeletal hands, fingers gesturing them back or onwards. Near the center of the thicket, he tripped over a body and swallowed a gasp before calling, "Don't come closer," to the witch, but she already had. As if she would spare herself no pain. Was it remorse that kept her at his heels, that pulled her around him to the body's face? A young man, that much was still obvious although the body was decomposing and rapidly.

She groaned. He lurched upwards to his feet, pulling at the shoulder of her dress. She also rose; she followed.

They saw several more bodies, skeletons crumbling into the dark, loamy earth and then, abruptly, none: only the gray-brown branches and the large, ugly thorns.

They exited the thorn bushes onto a long terrace; they stood, hands shading their eyes from the dim, afternoon sunlight. The palace rose above them: thin, spindly towers surrounding a central, square fortress. It presented an unbalanced picture, massive heaviness coupled with brittle elegance.

"Where--" he said to the witch, but she shook her head.

"Find her yourself."

In the tower, the stories said. He began with the first, walking slowly up the narrow stone steps, his hand against the outside wall. The witch came behind, silent, unprotesting, unhelpful, uncomplaining. The air was thick and sultry. The room at the top of the tower burned with heat. It was empty except for flies. He turned without a comment, passing the witch as he descended. They didn't speak.
The second tower. The third. His feet dragged. Sweat covered his shirt. At the bottom of the fourth tower, they found a well. He poured a bucketful of water over his head. Cold rivers spilled down his neck, soaking his collar.

She drank from the bucket ladle.

"The water is fresh," she said. "I remember when this well was dug," holding out the ladle to him, but she was still a witch, and he was taking no chances.

The door at the top of the fourth tower was closed. He pushed it cautiously. It swung inwards, revealing a room full of furniture, elaborately carved chairs and screens and chests. He could see the bed beyond a group of screens which displayed scenes of pastoral life.

"Don't--" the witch said.

He walked into the room, walked around the screens.

He had forgotten how young sixteen could be. Long agile limbs, a pert face, the lips still puckered in bewilderment, the fragile lids only partially closed. The princess looked as if she might wake at a whisper, at the barest touch of lips to her cheek. She looked alive, even though she was dead.

The center of her chest was a hole of thick, dried blood.

He said, "Did you do this?"

The witch left the doorway. She looked down on the dead girl, on the corpse.

She said, "No."

She sat suddenly, disrupting a cloud of dust from an overstuffed chair. She sank her head in her hands.

"That's why the thorns are dying," she said.

After a pause, he said, "Someone got through."

"Yes," she said, bemused. "I didn't think it was possible."

They descended the tower. The witch was crying, silently, and he wondered why, he wondered if she knew why she wept. For the girl's youth? Did she still believe the girl in the tower was a witch, an unwise witch who had been caught by her own tricks?

He should have checked the girl's feet. He stopped at the bottom of the stairs, leaned his head against the cold stone; he breathed in, out. He should mount again the hundred narrow steps, climb up once more through the thick, choking air. He couldn't gather the necessary energy. He could barely muster strength to follow the witch. She was far ahead of him, heading down the long corridor.

"There were storage rooms near the kitchen wing," she called, her voice soft in the immense, quiet emptiness. "There may be provisions. Things left behind."

He went after her, pushing his boots through piles of dead leaves and dust. He passed broken walls and smashed windows, destruction caused, no doubt, by the thorns. He supposed the bushes had retreated after the humans had fled, leaving the sleeper behind.

The corridor narrowed. It spit him out into a large courtyard surrounded by low buildings on three sides. Overhead the azure sky loomed empty of clouds. The courtyard was still and deserted. He rotated slowly, hand on his sword hilt. He opened his mouth. A cry echoed from the farthest building, and he sprang into a run.
The witch stood beside a table in a rough-stoned kitchen. Opposite her, a young girl also stood, as young as the one in the tower. She had been eating something in a bowl: a nasty concoction of half-cooked wheat and water. She was covered in dirt; her dress was torn, her hair matted and twisted. Her face--petulant, closed--turned towards him as he entered. Cold eyes dismissed him.

"Who are you?" the witch was saying. "How long have you been here?"

"I'm Sarah," the child said.

Surely, no more than fourteen.

"When did you get here?"

Sarah shrugged. Her eyes strayed to the bowl.

"Why--"

"I killed her," Sarah said, her chin motioning upwards, her eyes on the witch's face, eyes that were wary but not abashed.

"You--" not quite a gasp or a sob or a cry.

The witch reached out her hand, pulled a chair away from the table. She sat, and Sarah also sat. She began to eat again, hurriedly but not messily. The prince watched them. He watched the witches' hands clench and clasp each other on the table top.

"Are you sure you killed her?"

"My brother Jared wanted to rescue her," Sarah said. "He died from the thorns, and my brother Peter went to find him, to bring his body home for burial, and he died too, so I came, and I killed her."

"How did you get through?"

Sarah shrugged. "The thorns didn't touch me--"

"Because they're dying."

"No," Sarah said. "I killed them when I killed the princess. They were alive when I came, but they didn't touch me. My nurse told me they wouldn't. My nurse says the thorns came from the princess' dreams, from her nightmares; the princess was angry to be asleep so long, angry with all the young men who failed her, who didn't come. So she dreamed twisted, angry dreams to kill them. But I'm not a man. I passed through. I killed her, and now the thorns are dying because of me."

The witch put her hand to her mouth. Her head was lowered. The prince could not see her expression.

He stirred from his position. His sword swung, striking the doorpost.

"Sarah," he said, "she's been dead several days; why haven't you left?"

A barely perceptible flicker of the eyelids, barely noticeable tremor in the hands and jaw. Sarah stirred her filthy slop.

"I don't want to go home. I don't feel like going home," and then, furiously, spoon clattering into the bowl, "I'm not sorry. I'm not," and perhaps, he thought, she isn't; perhaps, she is only afraid of what she thinks will be said, knows will be thought; what we are thinking now: that this is tragedy, such an old sin to sit on such a young heart.

Sarah was staring at him, his face, his clothes, his sword.

She said, "Did you come to wake her?" anger resurging in her voice.

"No," he said gently. "No. She was a witch. Not a princess. We just came to see if she were still alive."

"Oh," Sarah said. "What would you have done if she had been?"

"I don't know," he said.

Waited. Waited until he was sure he should wake her. Waited until he knew if he could trust the woman he had come with. Waited until another, younger prince arrived because he would not have married a sixteen year old girl, princess or no princess.

"Well, I knew," Sarah said, picking up her spoon. "I knew, and I killed her. That's what I did."

The witch rose from the table. She stumbled past the prince out the door. He followed her into the wide, still courtyard. She held herself and sobbed, noisily now.

"All this time, I could have come. I could have passed through the thorns. I could have stopped her."

"Would you have?"

"I don't know, but that child shouldn't have had to do it. And so many people died. I didn't know a woman could pass through. I wasn't brave enough to try. I warned. I tried to warn. I thought that was all I could do. I should have been the one. It wasn't a child's job," the witch said.

No. And he wondered if she realized the deeper implications, if the deeper implications mattered. Did it matter now which was the witch and which the princess? The one who had slept had had a witch's power, dreaming hate and loathing. If the woman before him had slept instead what might have been different? Might the thorns have been so many blossoms that caressed, that released perfume; faint-blue flowers that stood aloof, their hidden centers deep velvet?

He waited while she sobbed herself into stillness. He touched her shoulder.

"Let's go," he said. "Before night. Come," he said, "you don't have to keep vigil over this any longer. Call Sarah," he said, "and we'll go."

She called Sarah and Sarah came, truculent, shadowed by her deed and obstinately unrepentant. The witch took Sarah's hand. The witch put her hand on the prince's arm. They went back down the corridor, and, as they passed the fourth tower, he took a long, deep drink from the well.