New to this story? Start with Chapter 1, Briar Rose, here.
Catching up? Read the previous chapter, Steel Rose, here.
Scent Notes: Tiny wild roses blooming on the forest floor, rich, spiced rosewood, vanilla laced with patchouli and sweet resins.
Ellie sighed dramatically, rolling her eyes at her mother, Alice, who was relating for the thousandth time the odd stories of her childhood. It all sounded like a bunch of fairy tale nonsense to her; absolutely impossible and far-too-conveniently wrapped up, with so many fantastical elements Alice might be on drugs at this very moment. Alice saw her daughter’s eye roll, and pointed a french fry in Ellie’s face. “Seriously! I fell through the mirror into an alternate universe! I spoke to flowers and a giant caterpillar and had to outrun being beheaded by an evil queen using a flamingo as a croquet mallet!”
“Of course you did, mom, just like how we have ancestors who pricked their fingers on spindles and were trans princes and fell into weird sleeping comas but didn’t die. Okay.”
“Hey, to be fair, she was faking that sleeping coma thing. Life was weird, then; she did what she had to do,” Alice said, eating the fry she’d been pointing at Ellie, who rolled her eyes again and said, “Sure, mom,” in the most sarcastic tone she could muster.
“You don’t have to believe me right now,” Alice said calmly. “You’re sixteen; you disagree with everyone and everything. Just remember: keep moving forward, don’t forget your past, and if you ever end up horribly lost, just ask the nearest person, animal, or object which way to go. They always know.”
At this, Ellie excused herself to go up to her room. She had homework, and memes to look at, and probably 1,000 texts from her best friend Annie to sift through; she’d had enough of her mother’s crazy stories for one evening. Hours later she passed out, exhausted from pre-calc homework and in the middle of reading The Great Gatsby for her AP English class. She dreamt of fields of roses made of glass, and steel, and fire; she had to navigate through them to get home or she’d be lost forever, destined to roam amid these odd flowers. She awoke the next morning with a start; sweat covered her from head to toe, and her feet were aching as if she had been walking for hours. But that was impossible; she’d been asleep. Hadn’t her mom talked about anthropomorphic flowers last night? That’s probably where that dream came from. Still, Ellie felt a bit rattled, and told her mom about her dream as they both got ready for their days.
“Ahhhh, you’re lucky, you had a premonition. I never had one before my adventures. I hope you paid attention! Remember, you are not alone, and our family has a storied history of women surviving odd adventures, only to come out on top and become the stuff of legends. You come from a long line of terrifying women.” She nodded sagely. “You’ll get through it. You’ve heard all the stories. You’ll be just fine. I have total faith in you! One final piece of advice: don’t forget to stop and smell the roses.” Ellie was flabbergasted. “Seriously, that’s it? If something absolutely surreal happens I’m supposed to just have faith and smell the roses, and ask inanimate objects which way to go, and remember that my ancestors are badasses?”
Alice nodded. “Yes! Exactly,” she said, smiling. “Oh, you’re totally prepared; I’m so excited for you!” Ellie let out a frustrated sigh, grabbed her thermos of coffee, and headed out the front door to school. There’s just absolutely no way in hell this was really going to happen, right? She’d just had a weird dream, and her mother was warping it into something delusional like she always did. Maybe Ellie should have her re-evaluated by a psychiatrist. Maybe Ellie herself should go to a psychiatrist. She sipped her coffee, tried to calm herself down, and was bolstered by the appearance of Annie up on the street corner ahead, where they always met and walked together.
Annie had barely said hi when Ellie spilled all her thoughts and feelings about her completely strange dream, adding in her mother’s habit of claiming supernatural experiences that were probably just, like, bad acid trips in her youth or something. She didn’t mention the nagging, anxious feeling in the pit of her stomach that something was strange, but Annie could sense it underlying Ellie’s story. “Dude, it was a weird dream; I have weird dreams all the time. Last night, I dreamt my ex-boyfriend was trying to seduce me while also dating my cousin and I had to warn her to stay away from him and then we got into a fist fight. Dreams are just dreams, don’t read so much into it just because your mom seems to think dreams are real life.”
Ellie nodded and took a sip of coffee. They had just walked into the school, and she was feeling better. Annie always soothed her soul and made her feel more balanced.
“Alright, Ellie, I’ll see you in pre-calc soon. You’re gonna be fine!” Annie rubbed Ellie’s shoulder and went down the hall, turning left down the adjacent hallway towards her locker and her first period French class. Ellie walked down the hall and turned right, down to the end of the hallway to her locker. The first bell rang, meaning she had approximately three minutes to get her things together and head to English. Plenty of time. She set down her backpack and turned her combination lock to the right numbers, and pulled it open. There, inside, was an organized chaos only Ellie understood. Gum wrappers, old tissues, empty mini bags of Doritos, and plenty of pictures of her and her friends held up with silly magnets around a small mirror. Loose lipstick rolled around the top shelf, and Ellie started adding the contents of her backpack to the locker. Just before she closed it, she realized she’d accidentally put her copy of The Great Gatsby inside her locker, instead of keeping it out for class. As she reached in to grab it, she felt her foot slip, and she fell forward into her locker, bracing for the impact of her head on the cheap sheet metal.
Instead, she was surprised to find herself falling forward and down, down into a dark tunnel. She screamed, and her cries echoed around her. The detritus from her locker was decorating the walls of the tunnel and she realized she wasn’t falling so much as floating downward. Where she was going, she couldn’t tell, but it seemed to be quite far; there was no end in sight, just torn scraps of magazines and old bites of muffins floating in the air around her.
“Hello?” Ellie called out, turning a gentle somersault in mid-air. No response but her own voice. “Am I dreaming? Is this a hallucination? What’s going on?”
Quite suddenly, she landed on her butt with a loud thump. “Ow!” she said, looking up to see how far she had fallen. There was no way to tell; sparse light filtered down from above, and there seemed to be a small amount of light in the distance. Ellie stood up and walked toward the light she could see. Eventually, she walked up to a tiny door, which she couldn’t possibly fit through, but she opened it anyway as there’s no other way out. Somehow, the whole wall in front of her opened up, and she finds herself in a gigantic forest. She turned around, but there was nothing behind her but more forest. She kept turning, trying to figure out where to go and what to do and where she came from, exactly, because tunnels don’t just disappear and you can’t just fall through your locker into a land of wonder and.... She got so upset, and so dizzy, she fell down and let out a sad scream, the trees swirling in the air above her.
Okay, she had to keep her wits about her. Think about the dream, think about what her mom had told her, because, either her mother had been telling the truth this whole time, or she was suffering from some kind of mental break that was all-consuming. Either way, going into a full-on panic wouldn’t solve anything at this point in time. There must be giant fields of flowers somewhere. She had to find the roses. “How do I get to the roses?” she yelled. “Anyone? Help? Where are the strange rows of roses?”
A beautiful butterfly landed on her nose, startling Ellie so badly she nearly sneezed it off. “Follow me, Ellie,” the butterfly said in what sounded exactly like her mother’s own voice. “Follow me to the roses you seek.” With her eyes narrowed and nearly crossed while trying to look at the butterfly, it rose, brushed its wings gently against her cheek, and flew away. Ellie took a second, realized she had no other choice and that her mother was right simultaneously, leapt to her feet, and took off after the butterfly.
She nearly lost the butterfly several times, but it seemed to sense when Ellie couldn’t keep up and slowed her flight down so the girl could catch her breath. The forest seemed to go on forever; several times Ellie heard small voices yelling at her to watch out, not to step on them, not to trip on that root, look out for that tree branch! She couldn’t tell if the voices were coming from other animals, the trees, the wind, or inside her own head. Wherever their origin, they helped her successfully navigate the chaos of the forest floor uninjured so she could keep her eyes on the butterfly. For that, she was grateful. Suddenly, they were out of the forest and a few hundred yards above a majestic grove of roses. Even from this distance, she could tell that they were the odd types of roses that did not grow in the world she lived in normally. These looked to be made from different substances entirely. Some shone in the sun like steel. Others lit up like flames. They were so majestic and strange, it was hard not to stop and be enthralled by them. “Wow,” she said. The butterfly flitted near her face, before settling in that uncomfortable middle distance that nearly made Ellie cross her eyes, and spoke.
“You must hurry, the Queen is on her way to cut down all the roses. She thinks they’re ugly and smell bad. She’s having them replaced with Corpse Flowers, which only bloom every seven years or so, and when they do, they smell like death. She’s an odd lady.”
“Okay, but what does that have to do with me?” Ellie asked.
“The only way out for you is to make a bouquet consisting of the following roses: Steel, Glass, Flame, Briar, Black, Wood, and Blood.”
“Ew, blood?” Ellie said. The butterfly flapped near her face, almost like she was slapping Ellie.
“Yes, because of their color. Calm down. But the hardest one to find is the Wood Rose. There’s only one in the whole garden, and you must find it, otherwise your bouquet will be incomplete and you’ll be razed down along with the fields of roses.”
Ellie shuddered. “Surely the Queen wouldn’t kill an innocent girl?”
The butterfly answered sternly, “Surely, the Queen has killed many innocent girls for many reasons. Go! There isn’t much time!” Then she flew away, yelling, “Remember your heritage!” as she went.
Ellie decided she didn’t have much choice, she ran down to the roses, realizing just how many there were as she got closer. There had to be hundreds of each varietal; the air was thick with the scent of roses of all kinds. She hadn’t, to this point, realized that roses could smell differently from one another. Up until now, a rose was just a rose and by any other name would smell the same as any other. But now she could smell, as she finally got to the edge of the grove, so many different types of rose she almost passed out. What a beautiful place! How could anyone want these gone? How could anyone hate such a sight, or such scents wafting through the air? No time to psychoanalyze, however; she had to make this bouquet, and quickly, or she’d never get out of here.
Ellie could tell immediately that the Briar roses were the ones on the outside of the grove; they grew together and formed a thick hedge of thorns. She looked down and found a pair of gardening shears with a tag saying “Use me!” on them, and cut a few large stems, pricking her finger in the process. “Ow!” she said, putting her freshly-stabbed finger in her mouth. A flash of images came through her mind: a tower, a spindle, an exceedingly long time in bed, and a cottage with a luscious garden. Huh. Weird, she thought.
All of these roses were obviously laid out with some kind of plan in mind; they didn’t just spring up here willy-nilly. Fairy tale logic, okay, think like you’re in a fairy tale. What would your ancestors have done? She walked down to the end of the roses of Briar roses, turned left, and saw rows of white roses, their petals shining like glass in the sun. She had a sudden, strong craving for cabbage as she cut the stem of the brightest, shiniest rose. Ellie could nearly see her reflection in the petals, but distorted, and she had much longer hair. She shook her head, and the image disappeared with a grin, and now, shorter hair. Maybe my mother isn’t full of it, she thought. Maybe I really do have fairy tale blood. Which, if I remember the stories correctly, means … a-ha! She’d rounded down and around the next bend to discover the rows of yellow, orange, and bright red roses dancing like flames towards the sky. Ellie saw the field burst into flames in front of her eyes; she cried out, and the flames evaporated as if they were never there. Her mind flashed with the image of a tiny, annoying little man who she instinctively wanted to punch, but that also faded quickly. “Fucking Rumplestiltskin,” she muttered, and she could almost hear his answer from a tower far off in the distance, his cursing that he couldn’t show up and “assist” her through her journey. Ellie cut the stem of the rose with a mixture of colors, the one that most looked like flames, and carried onward. As she suspected, she came upon rows of blood-red roses, so dark they almost looked brown, but each one absolutely gorgeous. “The fairest of them all,” Ellie whispered to herself as she chose the darkest rose, cutting the stem and smelling a distinct note of dragonsblood. She had a sudden desire to stare at herself in a mirror, but repressed it, carrying on. Her stomach rumbled. If only she had an apple. No, wait, not an apple. Some bacon. Maybe a breakfast sandwich. Cake? Why not all of it? As Ellie turned into the next rows of black roses, she understood. That’s why her sudden food craving had hit. These roses carried distinct notes of gourmet, delicious food, which sounds gross but was actually intoxicating. As she cut the stem on the boldest black bloom she could find, she pictured a table laden with food, with many women laughing happily while they ate. A glorious image that was cut too soon by the sound of machinery in the distance. Ellie stood, turned, and saw the razing equipment cresting the hill. She was running out of time! She could see the Queen’s crown on top of the long, blonde, silken locks that whipped behind her in the wind as she rode the foremost crane. Go, Ellie, go!
Steel is next, find the steel, she thought, running down and leaping over several rows of black roses until she came to the center row of grey roses. Her breath caught in her throat; they were so beautiful. She’d never seen grey roses before, and it took all of her willpower not to start cutting every single one. She didn’t have time for that. Cutting the stem of the most perfect rose, she saw flashes of a fancy restaurant, and eating steak in bed. She made a mental note to never stay on a shitty date, ever, and then started to panic. She hadn’t found any wooden roses. There’s only one. Where is it? Shit, shit, shit! Okay, fairy tale rules, let’s do this. “Where is the Wood Rose?!” Ellie yelled over the fast-approaching Queen and her minions determined to destroy the roses. As if on cue, she saw the butterfly flutter over her head, towards where she had begun. Of course it was right at the beginning! She ran back through rows and rows of roses, wishing she had more time to smell each and every single one. She leapt over when she could, and finally made it back to the front of the garden. The Queen was nearly upon her, just two hundred feet away and encroaching. But she couldn’t see it, no matter how hard she looked. She’d have to smell for it instead. Although the Queen was nearly there and her cackling made the hairs on Ellie’s neck stand up, she closed her eyes and focused on her breathing. She would find it; she had the power. By instinct, she reached out and smelled several roses, none of them correct. As the earth rumbled beneath her and the scent of burning tires screeched in, she bent her head down and was shocked to smell a deep, rich, woody scent. It was all rose and vanilla and sweet resins, all of Ellie’s favorite things. Without opening her eyes, she cut the Wood Rose. The Queen’s cackling turned to screams of pain; Ellie opened her eyes and saw that all of their equipment had vanished and the roses had thrown out their stems and vines and wrapped them around her and her lackies. The roses were safe. She was safe. She closed her eyes again and breathed in deeply. What a perfect bouquet.
Ellie opened her eyes to find herself in her bed, safely in her bedroom. She was sweating and panting, probably from that crazy dream. She sat up and breathed deeply to calm herself. Her hands weren’t dirty, there were no stab marks from thorns, and she was clearly safe in her bed. Just a dream. Just a crazy-ass dream.
But then she looked over and saw, on her dresser, a bouquet of roses of every kind: briar, glass, flame, blood, black, and steel. In the middle of them all stood her rose, the Wood Rose, confident and proud amongst its family, the true descendant in a long line of badass fairy tale folk. All Ellie could do was smile.
Keep reading! Go to the next chapter, Stone Rose, here.
Or, check out the entire Steel Roses anthology here!
Scent Notes: Tiny wild roses blooming on the forest floor, rich, spiced rosewood, vanilla laced with patchouli and sweet resins.