On her sixteenth birthday, a girl approached her mother, a priestess gifted in prophecy, to learn her name and her fate. The trees of that island country spoke with the people, the priestesses most of all, and taught them things that we, to whom the trees are mostly silent, cannot guess.
“Your true name is Cypress,” the mother told her.
“The tree of mourning?”
“The tree of resilience. It is long-lived. And where there is death, the cypress stands vigil, its life in balance with what’s been lost. Your destiny, daughter, is to leave our land and find a tower of roses. Then, like a rose, the story of your life will unfold.”
“What is a rose?” asked Cypress, for their island, rich in hibiscus, bougainvillea, and a thousand other flowers, had never known roses.
The priestess described them to her daughter, adding, “You must go east, to the crowded realms. That is what the trees tell me.”
And so Cypress traveled across the sea, hiking deserts and ice caps, climbing mountains, sailing rivers. It took the better part of a year before she came to the place her mother had foretold: a castle with a garden famed for its rose beds, and more famous still for an ancient tower around which the roses were so thickly planted it was practically smothered in them.
She arrived in autumn, when most flowers were already dead. But the roses of the tower, even at their ebb, still blossomed in a cancerous surfeit of white petals, their perfume sickly sweet like pastries in a house of mourning. Despite those fulsome blossoms, the hedge was more thorn than flower. Cypress could understand the greenspeech of most plants, though trees spoke with the clearest voices and had the most to say, but from the great rose-hedge she heard only an angry humming, as of a hive of bees whose honey has been stolen.
Cypress asked for work and was grudgingly hired as a lowly scullery maid, only because the girl who’d last held that post had run away. The castle folk mistrusted the foreigner for her dark coloring, which they called ugly, though in her own land her cinnamon skin had been praised for its beauty. They thought her oafish and ungainly, for she was tall in the ways of her country-folk, a head or two above the tallest men in the east; the dress they made her wear barely reached her ankles, though it hid the strong legs she’d earned from a lifetime of swimming and running and the full skirts weighed her down, making her slow. The castle folk rarely spoke to her, even Myllem, the cook. Cypress bore all, for this was her fate, and she knew that happiness, or at least some great purpose, awaited her.
Only one other was treated worse. It wasn’t Raffin the dim-witted stable boy, for he was Myllem’s son, and even his stupidest mistakes were laughed off and forgiven. No, it was Rosabella, the princess.
Her milk-white skin had no bruises, and she was clothed and fed well enough—too well, in fact—but oh, Cypress pitied her. They never let the princess run or ride, or even walk in the sun. The girl had grown plump and soft and so very pale. No one spent time with her except her nurse, a pinched and wizened creature with a voice like a harpy. Cypress only saw the princess at the occasional feast or holy-day, or when visitors came and even the lowest kitchen wenches had to serve in the hall. Rosabella often smiled but never laughed, and her eyes, the scullery maid observed, were always sad. Once, when Cypress had to fetch water from the well, she saw the girl staring out in wonder as snow fell on the ice-silvered rose-canes, their thorns sharp as a wolf’s fangs. The gaunt arm of the nurse yanked the princess back inside.
For many years the king and queen had longed for a daughter. They had six fine sons—if by fine one meant richly dressed and sneering. But only the eldest could inherit the tiny kingdom—a ramshackle village and few paltry fields surrounding the castle—and it was costly to find dowries or commissions for the rest. They needed a daughter to sell off in marriage to a wealthy suitor in order to keep the realm solvent. And so Rosabella was swathed in precious silks, bathed in almond milk and crushed flower petals, and stowed away in the rose-choked tower until she could prove her worth.
Cypress worked hard at her lowly chores. In her few spare hours, she wandered in the forest, bringing back to Myllem fresh herbs and hidden gems like chanterelles or wild strawberries. Her gifts added fresh flavors to the meals, so the cook no longer beat her. Cypress brewed tasty tisanes which granted the drinkers restful sleep and sweet dreams. Soon all the servants clamored for them, and even the king and queen called for cups before retiring. The foreigner won new respect, and Myllem no longer thought it beneath her to chat with the girl. Cypress made the kitchen garden flourish, and aided the gardeners with the rose beds and in cutting back the thick canes that threatened to overwhelm Rosabella’s tower.
One spring day while Cypress was doing just that, she spoke to the princess. The nurse was away. Now that the princess was almost a grown woman, she often left Rosabella alone for hours at a time, certain she would spend her time suitably; docility had been the primary trait cultivated in her. While Cypress hacked at the canes, her sleeves ripped by the thorns, her arms bleeding, the princess peeked out from the threshold.
Cypress paused in her work. “Wouldn’t you like to step outside? It’s a fine day.”
“I’m not allowed,” the princess said meekly.
“Nurse Krimps told me she’d be gone for a few hours.”
The girl glanced to her right and left and didn’t budge. But she held a hand over her heart and her face was filled with yearning.
“I’ll stay by you and protect you,” Cypress said, pulling herself up to her full height. She’d grown accustomed to stooping, lest the castle folk feel threatened.
“Would you—could you—take me to the garden?” the princess asked. “I’ve never seen it.”
If Cypress worried about the risk of such an undertaking, the girl’s joyful smile made her sorrier she’d never tried before. She held out her arm like a courtier for Rosabella to lean on.
“You go too fast!” the princess complained. “A lady must never take long strides like a man, but show herself to be dainty and fragile.” Cypress bit back the desire to argue that the girl was fragile enough. Instead, she shortened her stride and slowed down.
They stepped through the arbor. The garden wasn’t much to look at yet; most of the flowers were just green spears poking up from the soil. But the girls bent down to examine each sprout and bud, the patterns of veins on the different leaves, happily comparing all the different varieties of green.
“What do you do all day in that tower?” Cypress asked.
“I learn deportment. How to speak with a soft, silken voice, to say little and listen much. How to smile sweetly but not too broadly. And I embroider. I’ve embroidered tablecloths and sheets for my trousseau, and thousands of pillow-slips, and ever so many slippers for my ladies in waiting, though I don’t have any. Nurse Krimps herself has twenty pairs. My parents send others off to far lands, in the hopes that princes and kings will admire my work and ask for my hand in marriage. I’m rather tired of embroidery, but it does keep me occupied.”
“Don’t you do anything useful? Sew your own gowns, or card or spin?”
“Princesses aren’t supposed to be useful,” Rosabella answered, “only beautiful. And of course fetch a good bride price and bear her husband healthy heirs.”
“Do you never read? Or sing?”
“Heavens no!” the girl cried. “If I read, my future husband would think me too independent, filled with radical ideas. If he wishes me to know things, he will teach me them himself. As for singing—Nurse Krimps is tone deaf, so she’s never taught me any songs. I wish I knew some.”
Cypress felt very sorry for the girl indeed, and before she returned her to the tower, vowed that she would visit as often as possible, and help her see a little something of the outside world whenever the nurse was absent.
She was as good as her word. Almost every day, the scullery maid escorted the princess to the garden. Cypress told the Rosabella of her homeland, and taught her many of the island songs. The princess had a lovely voice, faint at first, but gaining in strength over time. Her cheeks no longer resembled the white roses of her tower but the pink ones that now blossomed in the summer garden. She walked briskly, and could even run. She easily learned the names of plants and flowers, and soon her nimble fingers were adept at snapping off dead leaves and spent blooms. She had a quick mind, after all, and had only been trained to be dull. She reminded Cypress of the topiaries that edged the garden walk, twisted out of their true form. But a topiary left unpruned would soon revert to its natural state. Cypress hoped that her friend was now experiencing such a restoration.
One day, when Nurse Krimps was out for most of the day, Cypress brought Rosabella to the woods. She’d told Myllem she would bring back mushrooms and watercress, so she’d been granted three full hours between breakfast and dinner.
“I’ve never seen so many trees!” the princess exclaimed. “And the light!” She placed her hand in a golden shaft that threaded its way between the trees. Tears starred her cheeks like dewdrops in the morning grass.
That was when Cypress knew she loved her, not merely as a friend, but with a deep, abiding love.
The princess caressed the long needles of a pine. When her fingers came away sticky with sap, she sniffed them. “Will you teach me?” she asked.
“Teach you what?”
“How to hear them. The trees. You said they communicate with you.”
“I don’t know if they’ll speak to your kind,” Cypress said. “Besides, it takes years to learn to hear the trees’ speech.
“Please, let us try!” the princess begged.
“First you must take off your shoes.” Before Rosabella could comply, Cypress bent and removed them herself. The delicate green satin had gotten muddied from their woodland trek, the silk embroidery torn. “Oh, they’re ruined! Nurse Krimps will discover our secret and never leave you alone again!”
Rosabella laughed. “I have thousands of slippers. I’ll discard these and replace them with another pair; she’ll never know. The greenspeech,” she insisted.
“Stand with your bare feet on the roots,” Cypress instructed. “Wrap your arms around the trunk, your cheek and ear pressed to it. Let it feel and hear your heartbeat, get to know you a little and then listen. Listen hard.”
Rosabella did as she was told, her eyes closed, her mouth slightly open. Cypress knew the moment when the princess heard the oak: her eyes flew open and her mouth widened. Her arms tightened around the trunk, her feet pressing deeper against the roots.
When her arms grew slack, Cypress asked, “What did you hear?”
“A song! A song, at first, of sun and the rich taste of soil, and the tickling of ants on bark. And then it spoke to me. It said, Be brave. And told me my true, my secret name.”
Cypress wondered that the tree would speak so readily to a girl untrained in greenspeech, but then her princess was like none other, and who could hold back their heart from her? “What is it?” she asked, in a hushed voice.
The princess laughed. “Rose. That’s hardly a secret name, is it? It’s mostly just my real name.”
But Cypress knew that trees never err or cheat. The girl was Rose, and though now she most resembled the long-stemmed cultivars of the garden’s seemly rows, in her heart of hearts she was like the eglantine that gladdens the forest shadows.
She wished she could tell the princess all that. Instead she asked, “Why are the roses that grow around your tower so strange? I’ve never seen anything like them.”
“They were planted generations ago; the tower was old even then. King Rorum married Queen Merash but he loved another. He waited till she bore him three heirs and then plotted to rid himself of her. He called her mad, shut her in the tower with one of her maids, and wed his paramour. The new queen planted the roses herself, saying they were an offering of love to Merash, white in honor of her purity. But she had knowledge of witchcraft, and the roses grew more quickly than was natural. The thickest hedge was placed before the tower door, the canes climbing and entwining so Merash could never get out.”
“So the hedge was built to be her prison,” Cypress said.
Rose nodded. “When they put me in the tower, they had to hack away the briers, and remove the bones.”
Cypress shuddered. Rose took her hand. “It was long ago. The hedge no longer bars my door.”
“You’re still a prisoner there.”
“I will always be a prisoner.” The princess looked up into the boughs of the oak as if she wished she could trade places with it. “When I marry, I’ll no longer have this. Or you. Though maybe my husband will be kind to me. Maybe we’ll even love each other.”
The oak groaned, although there was no wind. They will choose as her bridegroom old King Mindor, rich and cruel, it told Cypress. She was glad Rose could no longer hear its voice. He will not love her. She will exchange one prison for a worse one.
The castle bustled with activity. The princess would soon reach her majority, and the king and queen were planning a ball — ostensibly to celebrate it, but really to provide her many suitors a last glimpse of her beauty before they offered their bids for her hand. Only Cypress knew the man who’d be accepted. As she scrubbed cauldrons clean, or pruned the tower’s rose-canes, she tried to hatch a plan to help Rosabella to escape—if that were what she wished. Surely that was why Cypress’ fate had sent her there.
Rose no longer needed to stand on the trees’ roots with her bare feet, or even touch them, to hear them. One day when they were in the forest, Rose listened to her oak, the first that had spoken to her. She cried out, tears coursing down her cheeks. And then she laughed loudly, head thrown back.
Cypress wanted to ask what she’d learned but what the trees say to a person is private, only to be shared if the hearer wishes, and Rose didn’t offer. Perhaps, she thought, it tells her about my plan to rescue her. Did she weep at the thought of her marriage being prevented? And laugh that my plan would fail?
“This wedding—it’s something you long for?” she asked Rose instead.
“I—no. I have no wish to wed a stranger. If I marry, I would have it be for love and not for gold. I fear finding myself in a worse prison than the one I’ve lived in all my life. At least here, there is friendship.” She smiled at Cypress.
“What if a way could be found to free you—would you take it?”
“And do what? Go where?” The light dimmed from Rose’s eyes.
“Wherever you like. I’ll take you anywhere you wish to go.”
“Like in a tale!” Rose sighed. “It can never be.”
“No tale,” Cypress said, “though tales will go in the making of my plan. Do you want to hear?”
It took nothing for Cypress to add some extra herbs to her tisanes.
“Nurse Krimps has told me of the princess’ curse. How terrible!” she said to Myllem.
“Curse? I never heared o’ no curse,” the cook replied.
“Why surely you must have been there yourself. Three hedge-witches were invited to her christening but a fourth forgotten. She laid a curse on the infant, saying that she’d prick her finger on a spindle and die on her eighteenth birthday. But one of the other hedge-witches softened the curse, so that instead she’d sleep for a hundred years.”
“A hundred years,” Myllem went on, as if she’d been the one telling the story in the first place. The tisanes ensured that Cypress’ tale was believed and remembered as fact. “I heared the witch meself. That’s why they never let the girl spin; embroidery needles is all they let her get at. But prophecies has ways o’ makin’ themselves happen, mark my word. And woe if the princess’ birthday en’t soon upon us! A sad thing for Princess Rosabella but worse for the rest of us if the kingdom loses the money her bride price would provide. What’s to become of me, I ask you, if the princess sleeps a hundred years, and the castle goes to wrack and ruin?”
“Good thing the spell may break if the right suitor wins his way to the tower,” Cypress said.
“Aye, we must pin our hopes on a hero, that’s for certain.”
“But how will any man get through those hedges?” Cypress continued. “Soon after her sleeping body is discovered, the roses will grow around her, and the thorns turn into spikes.”
“Ready to pierce the heroes like pigs on my spit,” the cook continued. “I never liked them hedges, but I suppose that’s cause I always knew they was cursed. They’ll keep out anyone but the right man. And what if he don’t come?”
And so the story circulated. All feared for the day when the princess would turn eighteen. While the suitors gathered thick as flies, Cypress and the princess gathered white roses from the tower’s hedge. The night before the ball, Cypress stole into the tower. She tiptoed past the room where Nurse Krimps slept to the chamber where the princess waited, candles lit. They strewed the rose petals onto the bed, pouring beeswax from the burning candles onto them. With the wax still hot and pliable, Cypress molded the mixture into the shape of the princess, eyes closed as if in sleep. Soon the effigy no longer looked like a mere doll but so exactly like the princess that Rose glanced at her looking-glass to make certain she still wore her own face. Its waxen skin looked and felt like real flesh, and its breast rose and fell as if it breathed. Cypress placed a spindle by the wax figure’s outstretched hand.
They stole from the tower, taking anything useful for a long journey, including several jewels to trade for horses and lodging. As they passed the tower’s threshold, the rose-hedge spoke in greenspeech for the first time. I will give your tale the ring of truth, it promised, and grow thorns sharp as swords, hungry to slice into human flesh and drink human blood.
The next morning, Nurse Krimps discovered the body of the princess, and the vile spindle, and the kingdom mourned—at least for a time. The hedge rose up, true to its vow, stronger than any wall, brandishing foot-long thorns sharper than swords. But although Rosabella could not be married off to King Mindor or any other suitor, the realm flourished, for the king and queen charged a handsome fee to each man who attempted to broach the hedge. Several inns were built at the foot of the tower to house the would-be heroes, which added significant revenues to the local economy. For generations the little kingdom prospered from the heroes’ blood—until one day, they say, a man won his way to the tower, kissed the sleeping form, and it crumbled into dust. The hedge receded, the spines retracting, till it looked no more vicious than any ordinary rosebush.
One night, in a forest a day’s ride from the coast, Cypress and Rose dismounted. Cypress built a fire and cooked the last of the food she’d stolen from Myllem’s kitchen. The next night they would spend in an inn before buying passage on a ship to the former scullery maid’s homeland. They ate in silence.
Rose got up to pat the horses, whispering loving words to them, while Cypress warmed her hands at the fire and gathered her courage.
“That first day the oak spoke to you, why did you cry and then laugh? Is it something you can tell me now?”
Rose left the horses and stepped closer, standing behind Cypress. “At first I cried,” she said, “because the oak told me your secret. I hadn’t known you loved me.”
Cypress exhaled slowly, the fog of her cold breath flying up to the stars. Rose kneeled behind her.
“Then it told me that I loved you. And I laughed because I knew that already.” She wrapped her arms around Cypress and laid her cheek against her back, as if she were a tree.