It was the roses that had done it.
Rosa knew it was her fault. She shouldn’t have asked. But her sisters always wanted jewels and dresses and silk cloths from distant lands, and Rosa had wanted a rose. They didn’t grow here.
They’d waved their father off, and then Lilian, her eldest sister, had gone about running the household, and Amary, the middle child, had taken every excuse to ride into town. It was a month after he’d gone that a man came back carrying his horse and telling them they’d found his carriage ransacked inside the Thorny Thicket. He’d been forced to move through the treacherous forest after a flood. They didn’t say what killed him. The man said kindly that he might’ve been swept away, but they all knew the dangers of the Thorny Thicket. Rosa’s nightmares had been made of its dark creatures since she was a little girl.
The girls were used to being on their own. Their father left for many months at a time to travel to the coast, where he had ships leaving and returning. At first it was as if he would return at any moment. But after another month had passed, the girls started to feel the space their father took up. Lilian had to go and handle his accounts, so that they could be sure his money was still coming in. They lived in their big house with their many things, and her sisters didn’t want to lose it.
It was a miracle when another month passed and their father came out of the forest. He had in his hands the single rose, the only thing he had saved. They let him in and made him food and he told his story. A beast in the forest had taken him in, tended his wounds, and brought him back to health. He had told the beast about his daughter’s simple request, and so the beast had let him return to his daughters, with the promise that he’d return.
The sisters had refused to let him go. They told him they couldn’t lose him again, and they all kept him in bed as they discussed what to do. Lilian and Amary squabbled, while Rosa turned the rose over in her hands.
“I’ll go,” she said. “In father’s place.”
Her sisters looked at her. They all looked very much alike, skin the same color of nutmeg, hair dark and curly, same peak to their lips, same point to their noses. Lilian was a few years older than Amary, who was a few years older than Rosa, and at times they seemed so different from her. Now they looked at her with their dark eyes, not eagerly, but as if a solution was near.
“We don’t know he’ll come,” Amary said slowly. “The beast, we don’t know if he’ll follow father here.”
“The Thorny Thicket is filled with many dangerous things,” Lilian said. “We can’t be sure you’ll get there properly.”
Rosa looked up at them. “I don’t want to wait.”
Lilian went to check on father, while Amary sat with her. They held hands and said nothing. No one tried to convince her otherwise.
Three days later, Rosa had a horse and two bags filled with food, clothes, and supplies to help her through the forest. Rosa left the rose on her father’s bedstand, kissed his forehead, and hugged her sisters. Then she left.
The Thorny Thicket had always been there. The small forest had turned one day, growing brambles along its borders, the trees turning tall and black, and the animals inside turning monstrous. There had been rumors–there were always rumors–that there was a King of the Beasts, an animal that walked like a man, who kidnapped maidens or sent monsters to devour homes or stole food from storage. Her father had always told her it was wolves or the occasional bear. Nothing more worrying than there’d ever been.
Rosa had never traveled on her own before. Her father had taken them with him when he went to see his ships, and she had gone to town with Amary, who liked to be seen by as many people as possible. Alone, on a horse, with only a few things to keep her warm, it was terrifying. She carried her cloak on her back and trotted slowly into the woods, watching the huge thorny vines that curled in large foliage. The sharp leaves of the brush and jagged ferns that grew in overabundance didn’t seem natural for their home, nor did the thick black trees whose branches spread out to cover the sky, giving her the smallest amount of sunlight to see by. There were no birds singing in the trees, nor animals in the brush. Her horse moved nervously, as though any twitch would send it speeding down the path, if there were a path. At times the flora broke away for passage, and at others it curled into itself, or knocked a tree into her path, or pitched the road into a ditch. And at times in the silence she would hear something move against the trees. There were no animals, as far as she could see. And the road seemed to curve endlessly, until she could no longer see where’d she come.
Even before the sun set, the forest was plunged into darkness. She fumbled with the firestarter her sisters had given her, and she could not find a flat piece of land to lay her bedroll. The forest was no longer silent. From a distance she heard wolf howls, and things moved overhead. Feeling bold, she picked up a rock and chucked it into a tree, where huge black birds swarmed out of. She thought she felt something slither beneath her sleeping bag, and she spent the night sitting up, waiting out the sounds.
Dawn came slowly as well. At first there was no light at all, and then she could see again. Her father had told her he’d gotten terribly lost and therefore had no idea the proper way to the castle he’d seen, and so Rosa decided to do the same. Exhaustion made it easy. The steady movement of her horse made it easy to loll off, and the darkness gave little to wake her up. Now that they were deeper in, there seemed to be life again. More black birds watched her from the trees, and she saw small things run furtively through the grass, though she could never quite see what. Her horse would suddenly become panicked, though she never saw the danger. And after it rode away from its perceived threat, she would have to stop and let it rest and hope the thing did not still follow.
The second night exhaustion made the ground softer and the noises quieter. She lay on her pillow and squeezed her eyes shut until everything around her disappeared, and she finally went to sleep.
She awoke slowly as she heard her horse huff and whinney. At first she thought it might be morning already, but the darkness still stretched all around her. The forest felt like it was underwater and the nighttime filled it up, making it hard to see and even harder to make out what had frightened her horse. Slowly she made out six shapes sitting amongst the trees, and twelve pairs of eyes watching her. Wolves. They were white and grey and scraggly, as though they hadn’t eaten properly in a long time. They did not bare their teeth, nor did they move any closer.
Rosa must have dozed off, because when she opened her eyes again they were gone. Her horse was still nervous, so she didn’t ride. They walked through the forest, and Rosa wished she had some weapon with her.
The forest no longer seemed so scary to her. It was still unnerving, and she had to be careful of the thick thorns that grew up in strange places, but she had become accustomed to its strangeness. The black birds still watched her, but they only watched, and so she was unbothered. She was certain she caught the glimpse of a rabbit and a chipmunk in the trees, and the presence of a fuzzy animal made her feel a little fuzzy as well. A forest could not survive on predators alone, she told herself. Things must live here without sharp teeth.
The foliage delighted Rosa. Big flowers bloomed against the dark trees, colored in bright magentas and dark yellows. Vines wove up tree trunks bloomed with red buds, and the leaves were striped with shades of green. She stopped for a long time to collect the flowers and weave them into her hair. Everything in the thicket was supposed to be enchanted, she’d heard, by some dark fairy who’d cursed some prince, but as far as she could tell nothing had threatened her. Rosa loved to plant in their garden, and her father would bring her exotic plants from far off lands, which never lasted long but she liked to see them anyway. Her father always said she looked like a rose with her brown skin and red hair, and she would dress in bright greens and feel like a garden. She gathered up all the flowers she could find and twined them in her horse’s saddle.
She was properly lost now. The sun was barely visible between the trees, so she had trouble at times finding the direction she was going in. If she could remember where she’d come from, she might be able to find her way back, but the trees merged together behind her as though the forest was closing in around her. Even if she wanted to turn around, she wasn’t sure she could.
Night settled in again. She would have kept going if she could, but her horse was tired, as was she. Her fire lit, she laid down in the cool dirt and closed her eyes.
And woke to the sound of screaming.
She drew her head up. The fire had gone out, but she could see the shape of her horse as three wolves downed it. It screamed and kicked, knocking a wolf aside, and then it managed to get itself upright before sprinting away. Rosa scrambled to her feet, torn between chasing after it and running for her life. Her hesitation cost her. The wolves turned on her.
Her mind told her to run, but her legs were shaking. She raised out her hands as the six wolves moved closer to her. Their lips were pulled back, showing their bone white teeth, and they encircled her. She had no weapon, no fire, even her supplies were gone. The wolves came in closer. Her knees sunk to the ground, and she closed her eyes.
A howl sounded up through the trees, so deep and loud it shook every branch. The sound of it nearly knocked Rosa over. The wolves all stepped back. Leaves floated down from the treetops. The howl rang in the air like an aftershock, making the forest silent and still, and then it sounded again, closer, louder, meaner. The wolves turned hide and ran.
Rosa ran as well. She didn’t know how she managed to get her feet off the ground, but she was running. Branches reached down to grab her, the vines snagged at her skirt, and the monstrous howl seemed to follow her wherever she went. She gasped as the foliage cut her skin and caught her hair and pulled her down. She ran farther and faster than she thought she could. Her lungs felt squeezed and her side ached and her face was covered in sweat and she finally, finally collapsed on the ground, the flower petals falling out of her hair.
It took a long time to gather herself up again. Her breath came back to her in slow, deep swallows, and her limbs stopped shaking. She lifted her head and looked up. In front of her were wide, black gates. The metal was twisted and gleamed in the low light. Gargoyles sat on the trellis, their small eyes peering down at her, their mouths open with short fangs out. Behind the gate was a castle. It wasn’t like any castle she’d ever seen, not that she was an expert. It was falling in on itself, towers weighed down by their own stones so that they sloped towards the ground, and walls crumbling from windows like they were weeping. Everything was black and grey and covered in the vines that twisted everywhere. The only color was the garden. Red roses bloomed against the dark landscape, their petals opened wide despite the darkness. The air smelled sweet with them, and other flowers. Lilac. Rosemary. Hyacinths. Flowers she’d always tried to keep but never could.
Rosa stood slowly. Nothing chased her anymore. Her hands reached to the black gates, and they swung back before she even touched them. The gargoyles watched her.
This is where I’m supposed to be, she thought. She’d never been more sure.
Rosa walked through the gates, ready to face the beast.