By Laura Schiller
Based on: Maleficent
Copyright: Walt Disney Pictures
In the highest tower of King Stefan's palace, in a four-poster bed piled with the finest furs and blankets, with gold-embroidered tapestries on the walls and a fire crackling in the grate, Queen Leila was dying as she had lived: alone.
"The King is not coming, my lady," said the steward, standing in the doorframe with sympathetic pain in his face. "Forgive me. I told him you were unwell, but … "
He let his sentence trail off unfinished, lifting his hands helplessly. They both knew what Stefan was like these days. No doubt he was at the smithy, goading the ironworkers on to forge new weapons against the Fae, or brooding over the pair of severed wings in the throne room.
"It's all right." Leila's voice was almost gone from the disease that was spreading through her lungs, but she could still make a near-whisper carry across a room. "I should have known."
Once upon a time, being promised in marriage to the handsome, energetic young warrior had seemed to Leila like a dream come true. Stefan had been kind to her then, and the wings nothing but a trophy of war, proof of the young man's courage in avenging the death of his father-in-law.
Then the owner of those wings had walked into Aurora's christening, and torn Leila's world apart in an explosion of sorcery and betrayal.
Leila had never openly questioned her father's hatred of the Fae – King Henry had been a man whom very few people dared to question – but she had never shared it either. She had been as terrified of Maleficent's fury as everyone else present, but she had also understood better than most just why the fairy had been so angry. It was the anger of a woman who had been hurt by someone she loved.
Everyone remembered the horns, the black cloak, the green light of magic crackling from her fingertips. But it was Leila who remembered the cane in the fairy's hand, how she had tried so hard to disguise the fact that she was unaccustomed to walking, or the pale skin and hollow cheeks that spoke of suffering as well as rage.
Leila had looked over at her husband on the throne beside her, his face twisted with fear and loathing, and not even recognized him. The face that appeared in her nightmares ever afterward was not Maleficent's; it was his.
Then – the curse. The confusion. The burned spinning wheels. The agony that followed when Aurora was sent away, and Leila realized she would never see her baby grow up. The long, slow, lonely years that followed, as Stefan drew further and further away from her in his obsession with revenge, and she let it happen, until they might as well have been strangers sharing a suite of rooms.
Of course he wasn't coming. Leila closed her eyes and leaned her heavy head against the pillows, disappointed, but also – secretly, shamefully – relieved.
"Thank you for trying," she told the steward. "You may go."
"Good night, Your Majesty," he said, with a deep bow and another concerned glance. She knew he worried about her. If it made him feel useful, let him. Personally, she would not mind dying very much.
Her body was so useless lately; not that she had ever been very strong – neither her father nor her husband had permitted her to be so – but she had at least been able to breathe without coughing and move without pain. Leaving this body behind would be such a relief.
There was only one regret she had in life, and that was not knowing what had become of her little girl.
As the sun set behind the Wall of Thorns and the fire burned down to embers in the grate, Leila kept her eyes on the open window. The royal physician was concerned about the effect of night air on her lungs, but she had insisted; it was the only thing she had insisted on in fifteen years. The window must stay open, no matter what.
It was close to midnight when she heard the sounds she had been waiting for: a rustle of feathers, a click of claws on stone, and a caw as gentle as she had ever heard a raven make.
The first time this bird had come to her, fifteen years ago, she had been frightened and tried to chase him away. Maleficent had a raven with her too; what if this was the same creature, come to spy on her or worse? Only the roll of paper held in its beak had given her pause. It had turned out to contain a frantic, blotted, badly spelled list of questions on how to care for a human infant, and the bird had hopped about so anxiously that Leila had actually smiled for the first time in weeks, then sat down and done her best to write an answer.
She had assumed at first that the letter, and the many others that followed, had come from Flittle, Knotgrass and Thistlewit. Judging by the words, however, sometimes it sounded almost as though the bird had written them himself.
After all, he could not be an ordinary bird. Who knew what manner of creatures lived in the Moors?
"Hello, old friend," she whispered, prying her tired eyes open and reaching out a hand. "No scraps for you today, I'm afraid … have you a letter for me?"
The raven hopped onto her outstretched finger, then, as even his slight weight proved too heavy for her, onto the blanket. He dropped a scrap of paper in front of her. She squinted to read it by the light of the dying fire.
His writing – if it was his - had improved over the years. In large, clear letters, it read:
My mistress is sorry she cast the curse. She has been watching over Aurora and loves her as her own hatchling. She would revoke the curse if she could, but no power on Earth can change it. I cannot ask you to forgive her, but please believe me when I say that we would do anything to keep Aurora safe.
Leila's first impulse was to drop the paper and raise her hand to swat the creature away.
His mistress had cast the curse. So this was the same raven that had perched on Maleficent's cane that day. She had been corresponding for fifteen years with a servant of the woman who had cursed her daughter to a sleeping death.
But when the bird fluttered back in alarm, tilted its head and made a plaintive, inquiring noise, she lowered her hand and sighed. This was still her friend, almost the only friend she had. He was no more to blame for Maleficent's curse than the army was for Stefan's madness.
"Forgive me," she said. "The curse was not your doing … I should not take my anger out on you."
The raven rubbed his beak against her hand.
She has been watching over Aurora and loves her as her own … Leila fought back a fierce wave of jealousy – why should the fairy who had ruined Aurora's life be closer to her than the mother who had birthed her? – but it made a strange kind of sense. Knotgrass had, after all, gifted Aurora with the power of being loved by all who knew her. The raven's letters over the years had conveyed the idea of a bright, curious, open-minded girl who not only accepted the Moorfolk, but was fascinated with them. Leila loved her daughter without ever having met her; to her it seemed natural that others would love her too.
Besides, Leila had sensed at the christening that Maleficent, even at her worst, was not entirely evil. She had hesitated at the cradle; she had woven in a solution for the curse.
"Does that creature really love my daughter? Can she love her, after what she has done?"
The raven ruffled his feathers and let out a caw that sounded downright indignant, as if he resented the slight against his mistress.
"I have no choice but to believe you," she admitted. "And is there really nothing you can do to break the curse?"
The raven walked over to the discarded letter and pecked at it, just below the final words: … we would do anything to keep Aurora safe.
"But how … ?"
Leila felt a coughing fit coming on along with the tears; it rattled her head to toe, making her gasp for air as if she were drowning. By the time she could breathe again, the raven was perching on one of the posts at the far end of the bed, balancing neatly, the same way he had sat on the knob of Maleficent's cane.
Leila still remembered that day as vividly as if the fifteen years had never passed. She also remembered the fairy's final words before her disappearance.
"True love's kiss," she said breathlessly. "You mean to say … it's real?"
She felt ridiculous asking this of anyone, let alone a bird, however extraordinary. Judging by her own life, she was inclined to believe that true love did not exist; it hadn't lasted between her parents, or between herself and Stefan, and certainly not between Stefan and Maleficent.
But the fairy believed it, or at least part of her did. She must have. Stefan had begged her for mercy and she had granted it. It had to be possible.
The raven inclined his head in a slow, elegant nod.
"Thank you," Leila whispered. "Please … tell Aurora … "
Tell her I am sorry I never got to watch her grow up. Tell her I wish I could see her again, one last time. Tell her how proud I am of the young woman she has become, and that I hope she will never allow herself to be trapped like I was. Tell her that if anyone can bring peace between the humans and the Fae, she can.
But she had no breath left to say so much at once. All she had left in her were three small words, but that was all she needed, for as she spoke them, she knew she did not need to fear for her daughter.
There was, after all, such a thing as true love. Aurora had been surrounded by it all her life.
"I love her," said Leila.
She stroked the raven's feathers one last time before her hand went limp.
Diaval's cry of grief was heard all around the castle. But by the time the servants came running, the room was empty and the Queen was dead.