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8

In Merrywinter's basket, the petite raven sees the dance of shadow and sunrays, overlapping with the dandelion seeds being carried through the air.

The faeries' cottage resides peacefully beside a flowing river, where the waters run the mill for the sake of fulling textiles – removing impurities from the cloth, so they could be made into clothes which are sold on the German market as income.

Merryweather unlatches the gate, greeting the budgies who perch upon the makeshift house mounted on a pole; some bird feed is put there every morning by Fauna, and for the squirrels who'd want to climb up and steal some for themselves, the pole is swathed with grease so their paws slip.

Inside, there is Aurora (or if you'd call her publicly, Rose) by the sunlit desk – she is intricately decorating the sleeves of the beige dress with rose-like patterns. Her calloused fingers seem to weave as if without effort.

"Why do birds suddenly appear, everytime we draw near?" she sings to herself.

Flora emerges from the supply room, with another batch of coloured thread – she's taught Aurora all she'd needed to know from a young age about clothing, and ever since, the young lady has developed a talent and keen eye for designing people's outwear. Coats, dresses, gloves, using the material bartered for from the market (or hunting on the occasion).

Sweet Aurora; her fair skin, her lips as pink as St Valentine's. Her 20th birthday draws very near, and having discovered that a heart transplant is indeed possible, the three faeries anxiously await the day they take her back to Paris, where a preserved heart matching her blood type will replace her own cursed one.

Of course, none of this has been revealed to the young lady; it is a subject that's discussed in secret between the three, when Aurora is assuredly asleep or out frolicking.

What she does know is that she is royalty-in-hiding, having been taught all the royal etiquette and the political, managerial and diplomatic sciences – she would make for a very good Queen, oui, except that an evil witch named Maleficent is out to do her and her family harm.

She's wondered over the years when she'll be returning home to her castle, and see the faces of her beloved mother and father.

"When you're old enough," Flora tells her, "and we'll vanquish Maleficent's evil."

The company of the three faeries is so benevolent and enticing that Aurora does not once disobey them in leaving – on the occasion she's wandered too far in the woods, she delightfully gets lost with dreams of romantic love before finding the faeries again. The love and devotion hinted at from the stories she'd hear of princes who slay the monsters holding princesses captive.

Now Merryweather arrives with her basket of wildberries. "Toodle-hoo!" she goes, grinning as she lays down the basket. "How's the dress coming along? I've brought home a special little friend.."

She takes out the raven, it rests in her hands.

"Oh Merryweather!" Aurora's interrupted in her weaving, shocked by the sight of the raven's weakened body. "The poor thing, she's almost dead! What happened?"

"I found her lying under the brush – covered in all sorts of soot. She must have been lying there for a long while; had I not noticed her perchance, she would have likely gone unnoticed for years!"

"She must be starving..!" Aurora thinks of a way to get food into the raven; it would be too weak to even chew.. but since it is still breathing, it can still gulp. "Flora, do you have one of those nutrition poutrices?"

"Yes, we have some- I'll go fetch them right away!" The head faerie goes into the kitchen, where she scrounges the cabinets for the reserve poutrices, stored in jars. These drinks have been brewed in the rare case of a starvation epidemic, like when blight has taken crops, or whenever someone is particularly hungry or weak. But it doesn't taste like much; Fauna has described it as drinking raw batter, with all the lumps yet to be taken out.

Flora pours a little of the poutrice into a dish, and lays the dish down on a counter – Aurora comes with the raven.

"Lay her down so she could drink – gently, gently," Flora goes, her hands conducting Aurora as she angles the raven down so its beak could touch the drink. "I hope ravens don't mind if it's a poutrice."

The raven seems to contemplate the dish.

Then it tries one peck, and finding it good, it nips at the drink more excitedly, much to everyone's delight, until the raven seems to have life breathing through it again.

/

I feel like a small, hapless child, being cradled under their care. How the times have passed me by, and how I envy the radiance Aurora emits in even her smallest gestures. I always see her smiling, her eyes off in innocent daydreams. If I could admit it, Aurora would be the person I ought to be, had fortune favoured me better.

The faeries have raised her well. I will give them credit for that. They shower upon Aurora their attention – I would have prefered some modicum of privacy, but the one word that I would never use to describe the faeries' relationship wtih her is neglectful.

Neglectful like my own parents had been.

Neglectful as God's eyes turning a blind eye to the suffering I've endured.

If I grew up alongside Aurora, I would have loved her dearly as my family – someone like her, borne from the womb of my sister and the fertile seed of Charles. That fact is spectacularly incredulous.

If I'd raised her, I would never want pain to befall her pure soul.

I cursed her to die at the age of 20. Because I wanted to see the look on their eyes when they do see her die, and my hatred triumphs over them in retribution.

How pathetic of me..

At night, the raven pretends to sleep, even though she's brimming with energy and wakefulness. She is perched in a cage in the stillness of the lonely knitting room, hearing the river flow outside with the occasional breeze wisping at the windows.

She manages to overhear the hushed conversations of the faeries, discussing the risks of bringing Aurora back to Paris while Maleficent remains undefeated out there.

"She could just be biding her time," Fauna says. "What if she finds us travelling in the open, and casts us into misfortune?"

"My dears, I've got that planned for," Flora goes. "I've garnered the support of our fellow faeries around the world, and the instant I send a signal upon seeing Maleficent, they will arrive and banish her into oblivion!"

"And if she catches us off our guard?" Merryweather asks.

"Well, we'll be travelling under disguise in a carriage back home. We haven't used our magic all this time; there is no way Maleficent will know it's us."

"What about that raven?" Fauna goes. "Maleficent uses crows and ravens.. I don't think we should keep it. How do we know it's not connected with her? For all we know, it could be spying on us, listening to every word we say!"

Merryweather says, "I don't think Maleficent would be that unkind to one of her servants. I think the raven must have been travelling while it was freezing, alone without its flock, and the sheer exhaustion has led it to fall.. I dunno, gosh knows how many days it's lain there. I don't want to just toss it out when we were so kind to it. It's done nothing the whole time except peck at the birdseed."

"In any case," Flora goes, "we must remain vigilent. Those 20 years without a sign from her is no assurance.. and Aurora's birthday is in two days."

/

The next day brims with sunlight, and after an innoceous breakfast, Aurora asks if she can take the raven out for a walk.

"Ah non..!" Fauna exclaims. "We don't know if that bird carries Maleficent's foulness—!"

"Please?" Aurora eagerly unlatches the raven's cage, and the bird feigns a feral nervousness, pretending not to trust the hands reaching out for it. "She looks scared, she needs some reassurance.."

"Why do you refer to it as a 'she'?" Merryweather asks, tucking away the napkins. "I'm just wondering – mind you, I'm no expert on birds."

"I dunno, to me it looks like a she. Even ravens have genders too."

After the faeries relent from Aurora's desires, the young lady has the raven perch on her shoulder as she waltzes out into the forest.

"Those faeries.." she goes, talking to her newfound friend. "Sometimes, I feel like they're just being overprotective of me. I won't deny that I'm frightened of Maleficent – gosh, she must be one awful creature, slaughtering innocent people, but I wonder if she isn't just a faerytale. If she really has powerful magicks, there'd be more rumours from people about her, like Genghis Khan. I'd shudder to imagine what she might do with me, if she were more real.."

The raven squawks, as if agreeing with her.

"What about you? Do you have a family waiting for you? Or friends? I think ravens always do; they must have such lively occurences for them to fly about the lands everyday – perching up in the high branches, conversations about what they've seen, exchanging their own g'days.."

Now the raven seems downcast, its gaze looms gloomily upon the distance.

Aurora comes by a toadstool, lit by a ray of sunlight, where she decides to give her legs a rest. She pulls out some breadcrumbs from her pockets and scatters some by her feet, and the raven flutters down, pecking at the scraps, the crusts and crispy whites gulped down by its mouth in one swoop.

The life of a raven seems so simple and magical in its own right; they can eat, drink, fly whenever it gets cold, and feed their young with their beaks..

Are there such things like raven princes and princesses, in a ravenous kingdom?

The romantic mood of the moment makes Aurora relax; if she kisses the raven, and it turns into a princess.. how she is wanting for a prince to come along, and swoop her to paradise.

In her dreams, she pictures the ideal man who would do so – he'd be taller than her, his shoulders broad with confidence; he'd be kind, gentle and brave for her sake, and when she kisses him, she surrenders herself in his arms as she sees the stars behind his head.

And in her dreams, she sees him slay Maleficent, the wicked dragon who keeps her prisoner, freeing her once and for all from the worrying constraints of her fairy godparents.

She remembers a half-forgotten tune from that dream.

"I know you.. I walked with you once upon a dream.." She doesn't know exactly where the words have come from, only that they feel right with the tune. "I know you, that look in your eyes is so familiar a gleam.."

Aurora gets up and she dances – holding her arms to herself, just like how her prince would.

The raven glances at her, a bewildered expression on its eyes.

"Oh," Aurora goes, "I'm not being crazy – the faeries usually don't want me to meet anyone; but I fooled them. I have met someone, the prince of my dreams. He's taller than I am, and the most sweetest personality in his heart. He'll love me the way I need to be loved. Even though you can't see him, just imagine, I am dancing with him." To be a princess is to dance with your soul mate upon the clouds.

Even though no such person really exists. You always have notions of how an ideal friend or lover ought to be, hinted at by a tantalising glimpse, and sometimes you might be surprised by the person in reality. They surprise you with the variety of shades within their character, and disappoint you in the ways they cannot fulfill your needs.

She is twirling, holding the sides of her dress so she doesn't trip. She's so caught up in her motions that she doesn't notice attracting the attention of Prince Derek, who happens to be riding along on his pony.

At first sight, he is arrested by her beauty, and he dismounts his faithful steed (named Phillip) – he comes by Aurora's side, and joins her in her dance before she realises it.

"Aaah!" She shies away from this handsome stranger.

"I'm awfully sorry," he goes. "I didn't mean to frighten you. You looked like you were having a delightful time.."

"It isn't that.. you look awfully familiar. As if.. I've met you before."

"We have? Where?" Derek peers closer at the woman's eyes. "I'd like to know."

".. once upon a dream," she tells him.

Derek blushes at her statement; it may be something a daydreaming child might say, but out of her lips, it swoons his own heart. "What was that song you were singing?"

"Take my hands first."

He stares at her offered hands, like they are shrines ready to be honoured by his touch, and he takes them, and she shows him how she longs to be held, as they dance through the woods.

"I know you," he begins, "I walked with you once upon a dream.."

"And I know it's true," she goes, "that visions are seldom all they seem.. but if I know you, I know what you'll do – you'll love me at once, the way you did once upon a dream.."

They dance without a care for anything else, except each other's happiness, and the raven and his horse follow them avidly through the forest, until they arrive at the edge of it – before them, the hilly meadows with the sparsely pines.

Derek makes himself comfortable, laying down on the grass, sighing happily, trying to make out the horizon's infinities like he used to as a boy.

"I've never seen this before," Aurora goes, sitting down beside him.

"Me neither."

She follows his gaze, wondering what he sees – it's the same sight, but the perspectives betweeen two people can vastly differ, in more ways than one.

Some time passes.

"If I might ask, what is your name?" Derek goes, interrupting the comfortable silence.

"Huh? Oh—" His question jolts her into anxiety; if she gives out her actual name to him, she'd be forming an attachment to this stranger, and only encourage him to seek her out to his own disappointment – after all, she lives in a lonesome cottage in the woods, with her three doting faeries. "It's- I can't tell you."

She gets up, her cheeks red, but Derek grabs onto her.

"Why not?" He wishes he hadn't asked her that.

"I promised my godparents I would keep myself a secret," she tells him. "They said that people are eager to run their mouths off in rumours.. I have to go." She frees herself from his grasp.

"But when will I see you again?" he pleads.

"Never-!" She is rudely striding away from him.

"Never?"

A part of her is tugged at – is it really right to just leave him hanging? The one who resembles the prince of her dreams? She gulps to herself, and musters up the will to look him in the eye. "Perhaps we'll meet again someday."

"When? Tomorrow?"

"Erm.. this evening!" She just blurts out the answer without thinking, and she can't take it back.

"Really?"

"Yes.. I live in a cottage nearby in the woods – it's by a river, near the glen." And Aurora flutters along in the direction of her home, the raven perching on her shoulders and giving Derek a lingering glance. "Au revoir!" If we do meet again.. I don't even know your name!

For some reason, Derek feels fondness for the young lady, like she was an old friend he's all but forgotten about. He'll talk with his mother Uberta about it, and ask her if she still needs him in her affairs with the German diplomats – if not..

/

Arriving home, Aurora has to stop herself before entering the door; it feels like her skin is bursting in heat, from the anticipation of introducing the stranger to her home, and ultimately he'd whisk her off and away. But will he actually come? That is the question.

She fans her face with her hands, before opening the cottage door to the tangy smell of wildberry pie and onion-sauteed chicken.

The three faeries have made lunch, but their expressions are dour – as if they have brooded over a serious matter. It's something Aurora has only ever seen once or twice, in contrast with the usually jovial mood they carry.

"You'll never guess what happened to me," Aurora goes, hoping her excitement will diminish the seriousness in the air. "I met someone.. the man of my dreams!"

"Aurora!" Flora is troubled.

"I know! He has brown hair.. I was dancing, and there he was, with his cute horse – we danced together to the meadows, and- it was gorgeous being with him. He asked me what my name was, but no, I was fluttery on the inside.. I remembered what you said about meeting strangers."

"Have you seriously met with that stranger?" Flora says, as if in total disbelief.

"Of course I have! And he's not just a stranger.. he was dressed in his ermine cloak and had a glittering sheath on his pony. Almost as if he were indeed a prince. But I never got his name – only that I promised him to meet me here."

"At our cottage!?" the other two faeries join in unison with Flora.

"Yes."

And Aurora sits down with them, her stomach on the verge of hunger. She pauses before reaching out for a slice of pie. "I feel like I've fallen in love from just that brief encounter. Why aren't you happy for me?"

A beat.

"You are a princess, dear Aurora – and you have a kingdom to come back to, your mother and father included. Queen Odette, and King Charles. We've decided that after this lunch, we pack and head out back to the lands of France, in time for your 20th birthday, where you truly belong as royalty."

"But.." Aurora stutters. "This is all happening very fast, it's too soon. He's coming here this evening.."

"You've told us about your dreams for a prince who'd love you," Merryweather says. "See, you are already betrothed Aurora, to a handsome lad of the Frejordian kingdom – Prince Derek."

"I promised to meet him-"

"I'm sorry child.." Flora holds Aurora's hands in condolence. "But you must never see that stranger ever again."

Then the sadness hits Aurora, a tear at first, and then the rain all at once. "No.. no!" It feels like someone has poked a painful hole through her heart, and she bursts away from the table, her chair clattering to the floor. "I don't believe this! No!"

It is the first time in her life that she's known this kind of sadness – falling into a beautiful love, only to have it be taken away from her. She does not know what to do, besides running away from her protectors into her room, where she just grieves on her bed.

"And we thought she'd be so happy," Fauna goes.

Silently, perched by the windowsill, the raven cries for Aurora.

June 2017

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