07/04/2015 Update: I am aware this has not been updated in some time (nearly a year!). It is my intention to rewrite chapters 1-4 and continue the story. Please bear with me!
In the early hours before the dawn the moors were quiet. Maleficent stood at the edge of the cliff, upon the twisted roots of the great rowan tree, watching the sprawl of the moors beneath her. She felt strangely calm. The familiar warbles and hoots of the night birds had soothed away the adrenaline that had flooded her body and brought about a sense of peace. Far away, in the distant castle, everything was chaos. But here all was as it should be. Creatures hunted for food in the darkness, or snuffled through the undergrowth, or were sound asleep in their various dens. Maleficent was in desperate need of sleep herself. The night had been long and eventful; but although she was exhausted she would not rest. Not yet.
"They'll come after you,"
Maleficent turned. Diaval was standing several feet away, watching her. Her lips twisted into a small frown. She hadn't heard him approach.
"How long have you been standing there?"
Diaval shrugged, loose shirt sliding along his shoulders too reveal scars that gleamed white in the darkness. "Only a moment."
Although he had washed off the blood , dirt and ash that had previously coated his face, he still looked remarkably dishevelled. His hair was one great matted tangle and deep scratches marred the line of his jaw.
"Let me heal you," she said, her voice gentle. She should have healed him earlier, but she had been too distracted with Aurora.
Diaval grinned and reached up to run his fingers along the jagged wounds. "No thanks. These should scar nicely."
Maleficent rolled her eyes and turned her back on him. A second later she heard his heavy tread on the roots as he joined her.
"They won't let you steal their princess, you know."
Maleficent laughed softly "I didn't steal her."
"Yes but they don't know that."
"Should I have left her there? For them to lock up in a tower to 'protect' her?"
She directed her gaze back to the castle. Pinpricks of light still flickered about the dark facade, lighting up the windows like a multitude of flaming eyes. She imagined the men, bearing torches, running through halls and up narrow staircases, searching desperately for their princess. By now they must have discovered Stefan's body, lying broken on the cobblestones where she had left it. Were they grieved that their king was dead, or glad? Surely they would not mourn the madman who had neglected his kingdom to the point of ruin.
The ways of the mortals had always confused her. She had never understood the greed and the lies that poured from them like poison, as though it was the most natural thing in the world. The men took, and stole and conquered, with no thought to anything but their insatiable hunger. She knew every little about the women. From what she had seen, they tended to be weak; their spirits quenched by husbands and fathers who wanted only blind submission. Perhaps her curse had done some good. It had allowed Aurora to grow up free and strong, nurtured by the love of the moors and not the greed of men. If she had been left there, they would have locked Aurora up 'for her own good' and any talk of Maleficent or the moors would have been dismissed as insanity or hysteria. The humans may have corrupted her own heart, but Maleficent would never let them do the same to Aurora.
"Of course not," said Diaval. "But they will still come for her. And for revenge."
"Enough, Diaval. They will not come tonight – they have no leader, after all."
"But they will come soon," he persisted "And they won't be alone. Princes will come from all around to rescue her, if they think they have a chance of marriage.
Maleficent gave a short, breathy laugh. "My dear Diaval. What nonsense."
"I just don't want to have to save you again. Being a dragon's far too dangerous for my taste. Better than a dog, though."
"Do you ever stop complaining?"
"Not until you stop turning me into unnatural beasts."
"We'll see." She curled her lips into a brief smile and turned back to watch the castle, thinking. As loathe as she was to admit it, Diaval was right. They would be after her, and sooner rather than later. She knew better than to underestimate them. Perhaps a hero had already mustered a small army, ready to save the day. "Are you well enough to fly?"
"As long as it's not as a dragon again," Diaval said, with his customary grin.
"Go to the castle. See what you can find out. If they are planning an attack, I want to know."
"As you wish."
Amber mist swirled from her fingertips and Diaval dissolved into a dark flurry of wings. She watched as he soared away to be swallowed by the darkness. For the first time the sight of his flying did not make her heart twist in a twinge of envy. She smiled and ran her long fingers over the soft feathers of her wing. She could hardly believe that they were real. The longing to stretch them out and take the skies once again was almost more than she could bear. Her earlier flight had been too short and far too distracted for her to have been able to enjoy it as she would have liked. Now all that she wanted was an hour or two, with nothing but the sky, the clouds and her wings.
Instead, with a last, lingering look at the star strewn sky, she turned back to her tree and began to make her way carefully over the protruding roots.
With each step her wings dragged behind her, giving a small, half-forgotten tugging sensation. The weight of them was far greater than she remembered, and her shoulders ached at the unfamiliar strain. She felt off balance, liable to fall backwards at the smallest gust of wind. Her body would take a while to readjust to their presence, just as she had been forced to adjust to their absence. Still it worried her.
She eased herself onto the boughs of the bent and twisted tree with an unusual amount of care, ducking low beneath the branches so not to catch her horns. Her body felt awkward with the added weight and bulk of her wings. She had grown so accustomed to moving without them that she snagged them several times on the overhanging branches and grazed them painfully against the rough bark. She gritted her teeth in pure frustration.
Aurora was sleeping in the heart of the tree, between two heavy boughs, in a hammock made of vines and leaves. It was where Maleficent would sleep for the few hours each night that she allowed herself to. She eased herself onto one of the two supporting boughs, being careful not to disturb the hammock. It felt good to rest within the safety of her tree with her wings supported on the branches to alleviate the weight. She reached back and ran her fingers over the aching joint where her wings sprouted from her back. The place where the wings had fused back onto her body felt unnaturally hot, and she could feel the rough scars beneath her fingertips. It was sore and sensitive to the touch. Maleficent withdrew her hand.
It will heal. She told herself firmly. It just needs time.
She couldn't believe anything else. It had to heal. The thought of getting her wings back, only for them to be permanently crippled was too much to bear. She drew the wings over her shoulders and around her body, cocooning herself in soft feathers. She sat like that for a long time, barely able to breathe through the potent mixture of relief and fear.
In her leafy bed, Aurora slept on peacefully. She was curled onto her side, facing away from Maleficent, legs drawn up beneath her skirts. Her golden hair, splayed over her face had turned silver in the moonlight, reminding Maleficent of freshly spun cobwebs. For as long as she watched, the girl didn't move, the only sign of life the soft, barely audible breaths. Maleficent didn't like it. The longer Aurora remained in this deep sleep, the greater her unease grew. She wanted to shake her, to ensure that this was only natural sleep and not a remnant of the curse. Absurd as it was, Maleficent could not make herself believe that, after 16 years, the curse had finally broken.
It's natural sleep. A deep natural sleep, brought on by exhaustion. Nothing more.
She forced herself to look away from the sleeping girl and settled back onto the branches, allowing her heavy eyes to close. She needed to sleep desperately. Worrying about the curse had kept her awake for days now. Although as a faery she needed far less sleep than humans, this was still pushing the limits. But Aurora slept in her bed. For a moment her mind teased her with images of curling up behind the girl and stretching her wings over the two of them. She forced the thoughts away. She did not want to think about her feelings for Aurora. When she did she just became hopelessly confused.
Instead she found her mind wandering to Stefan. His dead and broken body sprawled out upon the cobblestones. Part of her wanted to feel something about his death. Anything. Sorrow for the boy she had once loved or triumph for the death of the man he had become. Instead she felt nothing. It was his ambition and her malice that had nearly destroyed Aurora. And now he was dead and she was alive, reunited with her wings and with the girl sleeping safely beside her. She was glad that he was dead, but she had not meant to kill him. She was not looking to explaining everything to Aurora.
"Where am I?"
Maleficent started, wings drawing back in surprise. Aurora was had rolled over and was peering up at her.
"This is my home. You're safe."
"How did I get here?" Aurora sat up, looking around curiously. Maleficent had never brought her here before, in spite of the girl's constants questions about where she lived. "The last thing I remember I was in the castle. There was fire and men everywhere. You were flying..." Aurora gasped. "Your wings…?"
Maleficent could not hide her smile as she spread her wings out proudly. Aurora looked at them with an expression close to awe. "They're beautiful," she breathed and began to reach up, but then quickly withdrew her hand. Maleficent stretched out a wing for the girl to touch. The sensation of a soft hand caressing her feathers was more pleasurable than she could have dreamed.
"Diaval carried us," she said when she could at last trust her voice not to shake. "You had fainted or been knocked unconscious. It was certainly a challenge, getting a dragon through a window."
"Us? Did you not fly?"
Maleficent eyes flitted down and in an involuntary protective gesture her wings curled back against her spine. A hard lump formed in her throat which she swallowed quickly before saying "I was exhausted. The net had sapped my strength. And...My wings are not as strong as they used to be. It'll take time for them to heal, for me to get used to flying again."
"But they will get better?"
"I don't know."
At once Aurora scrambled awkwardly to her knees and reached out to touch Maleficent's arm in a simple, comforting gesture. Once again Maleficent was stunned by just how deeply the girl could feel another's pain.
"I'm so sorry."
Maleficent's laugh was humourless. "You really are the strangest creature."
"What do you mean?"
"I cursed you to eternal sleep. I lied to you about it for months. And yet you still care?"
"Of course," Aurora said with a small shrug, as though this extreme empathy was normal. "You broke the curse somehow, didn't you? And when the soldiers came you tried to protect me."
Maleficent nodded. "But Aurora…When we last spoke, before the castle and the curse…You hated me."
Aurora shook her head, silver hair fanning out around her face. "I couldn't hate you. You are my dearest friend. You showed me the moors. You gave me the happiest moments of my life. I was just…hurt. I had found out that my entire life was a lie, and you….I didn't know what to think." Aurora looked down and Maleficent saw a tear escape her eye to slide down her pale cheek. "I still don't. I don't understand anything. Why did you curse me? And why did my father have your wings?"
"I'll tell you everything." Maleficent promised without hesitation. After all that she had done, she owed her that much at least. "The whole story. But not just yet. It's too long to tell now."
"Can I ask you one thing?"
Before Aurora could speak there was a loud squawk overheard. They both looked up to see Diaval shoot through the branches and land on the bough beside Maleficent. A moment later the bird became a man and Diaval shook the hair roughly from his face. "A fine mess we've caused," he said, perching more comfortably on the branch. "I went to the castle. To eavesdrop..."
"They didn't recognise you?"
"They had enough on their mind without worrying about a bird," he responded with a dismissive flap of his hand. "Most of the main hall has been destroyed and dozens of them have been wounded or killed. They found the body of the king and..."
Aurora gasped , sounding as though she had just been doused with icy water. Maleficent gave a small, annoyed sigh and glared at Diaval. "I had not told her yet."
"Ah," Diaval replied awkwardly. He suddenly became rather interested with the leaves above her head.
In a mirror of Aurora's previous gesture Maleficent leant forward and put a gentle hand on the girls shoulder. She was glad that she didn't flinch away. "I'm sorry."
"You…You killed him?"
"I tried to spare him but he gave me no choice. If I hadn't killed him, he would have killed me."
Aurora nodded, wide-eyed. For a long time she said nothing, just stared blankly at Maleficent. "I don't feel anything," she said eventually.
"It's understandable. You had only just met him."
Aurora sat back, brought her legs up to her chest and stared at her knees. Maleficent watched her for a moment before turning back to Diaval.
"What else did you hear, Diaval?"
"They're worried about the princess. They think you stole her to kill her, or for some other evil purpose."
"That's to be understood. Do they plan to attack?"
Diaval shrugged. "A few of the men mentioned it. Wanted to ride out and save the princess at once. I doubt that there'll be any real threat for a while."
"I will have to keep an eye on the wall." Maleficent said with a small sigh. Bringing Aurora here had put the moors in danger. She had known it would when she had grabbed her.
"You need to rest," Diaval responded.
"Later. I have no need for it now," She smiled at him, then turned back to Aurora. "Are you well?"
"Just overwhelmed," Aurora replied slowly. " I only found out yesterday that I had a father and now he's dead."
"I understand. But you mustn't feel guilty if you do not feel grief. You didn't know him. And if you had I doubt you would have liked him." Aurora did not respond, and in an effort to distract her Maleficent said "You wished to ask me something?"
Aurora blinked, a brief look of confusion flashing over her features. "Oh yes. How did you break the curse?"
Maleficent looked away. She had been hoping that particular question would not come up for a while, to give her time to think. She could feel the heavy weight of Diaval's eyes and the girls trusting stare. "I added a clause to the curse," she said slowly. "It was a gibe at your father. I said that 'true loves kiss' could break it, the idea being that he and I both knew that there was no such thing." She felt her lips twitch in a small humourless smile. "A few weeks ago I had tried to revoke the curse but it was too strong. I didn't know how else to save you..."
Maleficent broke off. She took a deep breath. She looked past the girl at the dark sky. She looked at Aurora, the girl to whom she had done so much wrong. "Diaval and I saw you with the boy - the prince. He was our only hope. We tried to get to the castle to prevent the curse, but we we're too late. So we brought the prince to you." She could feel Diaval's suspicious look. She was glad for the darkness that hid the tears that had begun to well in her eyes. "Diaval and I hid, while your aunts took the prince to you. He kissed you..."
"Maleficent..." Diaval began, but she ignored him.
"You didn't wake. Your aunts thought that he had failed and left with him..."
"Maleficent..." He sounded more urgent this time. Aurora looked at him in confusion.
"Hush, Diaval," she commanded, eyes not leaving those of the princess. "I stayed. I thought that I had lost you..." The quiver in her voice was audible. Maleficent could not disguise it. "But then you woke."
"Then, Philip is my true love?" Aurora asked. She looked confused, disbelieving.
"Yes," Maleficent whispered.
"Maleficent, you can't-"
"She needs to know the truth, Diaval," She turned to face him, and raised an eyebrow, challenging him to contradict her. She had never seen him so angry.
"We need to talk."
"What's going on?" Aurora glanced between them, looking thoroughly lost.
"Nothing. Diaval just thought it best that we did not tell you. He feared it would be too much for you to take in. We'll be back in a moment, princess."
Maleficent got to her feet, momentarily caught off balance by the weight of her wings on her shoulders. It was comforting, the brush of the feathers against her back. She smiled at Aurora, who was watching her still, looking terribly confused.
Diaval was waiting for her at the edge of the trees. She ignored him, and walked deeper into the forest. She would not risk the princess overhearing them.
"Well?" She asked, turning back to face him when she was content that they were far enough away.
"Why?" He asked angrily.
"I've caused her enough pain."
"So you lie to her? And about something this important..."
"She deserves to be happy, Diaval. She deserves to fall in love with a prince and live happily."
"He's not her true love."
"And what, I am?" Maleficent laughed bitterly.
"You broke the curse."
Maleficent shook her head. "I will not allow my feelings to get in the way of her happiness. I will always protect her, with my life if need be, but it can be nothing else. She deserves better."
"Better than someone who risks everything for her?"
"Better than someone who used her as a means for revenge. Better than someone who lied to her for months."
Diaval tried to argue, but Maleficent interrupted him. "I will hear no more. This is the end of it, you hear me? She never need know the truth. She will marry the prince and she will be happy. She will be happy without me. If you tell her, I will turn you into a dog and leave you in that form forever. Now leave me. Go to Aurora. Tell her I needed to rest."
Diaval did not move. He stared at her, his expression a mixture of disappointment and anger. Then he turned and walked away.
She watched him go. Her legs shook, and all the remaining energy seemed to have drained from her body. She lowered herself to the cold ground, wings wrapping around her body and hiding her from the world.