For the first time in decades, I dream-traveled, a cloudy avalanche of smoking trice and heart’s-blood opening the path to the cursed princess’s dreams. I found a smiling teenage girl dreaming of dancing in a blue dress, golden shining hair loose down her back. I took her partner’s place. Instead of medium-tall, fair-blond and beardless, she blinked and found me: lanky-tall, black-bearded and thick-haired as a horse. She was very pretty, with feathery eyelashes, wide full mouth, and sturdy expressive brows. She looked up once after the chant had taken full effect: I saw deep down into her eyes, blue and grey and green like the edge of a stream, transparent and trusting. When she awakened in a strange bed, taken by dream from her home to mine, she would fear me and despise me.
No one would suspect she was taken by a dream-traveler. I was, as far as I knew, the only sorcerer alive capable of it. That was the genius of the plan, concocted by my master. He had bullied me into agreeing to it, and then promptly died. Dream-travelers are rare to begin with; the innate ability and deeply-practiced skill needed to take someone out of their dream into another is rarer still. My master hoped that hiding the princess would force the fairy that did the cursing to panic, to amend her plans, perhaps even to stumble in the final days. It was not unusual for lesser fairies to blunder with clumsy counter-curses when confronted with difficult circumstances.
I woke the next morning with the sleeping princess pressed to my side, seeking my body heat. She slept in a thin linen shift, fine and smooth. Her blankets must have been thick to keep her warm in the castle, because she was cold in my chilly northern mountain bed. I passed my hand over her head, murmured a few words to keep her asleep longer, nothing heavy. I could smell her scent on me all that day – expensive perfumed soap, sweet hay, and apples.
Poor Princess. She woke to a nightmare. She tried to escape the compound that night, but wolves and darkness drove her back. She huddled in the kitchen next to the fire, shivering, waiting out the one full year until I would take her back to the comfortable warm castle and the royal family that spawned her and couldn’t, despite all the magic of a kingdom, keep her safe.
Dreams are strange things.
Dreams for me were always places to be explored, best described as walking through doors, sometimes closing them behind, sometimes finding them already closed, discovering what each new room could teach. Sometimes, depending on how heavily I slept, I could shape my dreams, swim upstream perhaps instead of merely floating with the current, to use yet another metaphor. I have learned that metaphors are the best way to describe dreams and dream-travel.
Are you all right, Princess? It was the cook speaking, her words punctuated by thumps of kneading dough. I paused outside the door to listen. The princess had been avoiding me, huddling in the kitchen next to the fire and talking to the cook, when we weren’t eating. She wouldn’t look at me during meals either.
Yes, I’m all right, I heard a weary voice say. Another day.
At least you can’t dream during the day, the cook said.
Yes, she said. That’s true. Last night I dreamed I woke in another strange cold place. Rufus was there and angry with me of course. That’s not too different from being awake, really. Sometimes it’s better and he looks at me like I’m nothing. An annoying nothing.
He’s not angry, or annoyed with you, Princess. He’s just that way.
Well, it doesn’t matter. I’m nothing but trouble to everyone. My parents were the same way.
No. Looking at me like I am nothing but trouble. It’s not my fault I was cursed.
I heard a petulant note in the princess’s voice. Of course, I couldn’t blame her. It wasn’t her fault, fairies being what they were. The curse itself was bad enough; no one would ever quite remember the details. No fairy ever laid a curse without adding a spiteful confusion. The fairy had touched the infant princess’s silken head with spider fingers and spat out the curse, marbled her bile with air and memory. Something about true-love’s kiss, something about her twentieth birthday. Some said a prick of her finger would start the curse, others said the kiss. Most agreed on a magical sleep, usually a hundred years in length, though a stalwart few said death.
I left then. Dreams, she had said. Perhaps I could help with that.
I decided to dream-travel to her that night. It involved staying awake later than I would have liked, but I stifled my annoyance as I lay down exhausted in the darkness. It was the least I could do for the poor little bitch, stuck here in the freezing cold dark with a prickly bastard like me, and a superstitious elderly cook for her only friend.
It took awhile, but I finally found her dreaming of a dark dusty box of a room, not one I recognized. She was trying to light a candle, crying as she fumbled with the tinderbox. I took it from her hands, and lit the candle easily. She looked up from the flame, wiped her face with her palms. Thank you, she said.
You are welcome, Princess, I said.
Can you take me home, please? Her voice was tiny and hopeful, eyes huge in the near darkness. She was wearing the blue dress of the first dream, feet bare. I knew she was nineteen, but she looked all of twelve.
No, Princess. Let’s leave this room. I held out my hand to her and she just looked at me. I dropped my hand, tipped my head instead. Come.
I tried one door and it opened to empty blackness but the next was warm before I opened it. Sunshine burst in. Behind me the Princess gasped, gave a little shuddering cry, and passed me at a run.
She didn’t get far. The door had opened into a hillside meadow, late summer. Butterflies, bees. Deeply blue sky like an unending dome, thick smell of dry grass rising from the earth, crickets chirruping. The princess sank down to her knees with a sigh.
I’m never going to leave, I heard her say, but she wasn’t speaking to me. I left her there. She didn’t notice me leaving.
I was careful to not look at her any more than usual the next morning, but she seemed a little better the next few days. Curious, I gave into temptation and intruded another night. She was in the meadow again. The dream princess already looked better – had she spent the entire past week in that meadow?– with color in her cheeks and mouth. She was on the other side of the expanse of grass, closer to the bottom of the hill, wearing shoes this time.
Princess, I said, taking her arm. In daytime, her pale, nearly colorless eyes were the blue of thin skimmed milk, but in her dreams, I saw bright eyes, forget-me-not blue. Was this her doing, or mine?
I asked her: are you afraid of me?
No, she said. I’m cursed. There’s nothing else to be afraid of, you least of all. And then she smiled. I hadn’t seen her smile since the dream when I took her.
I told her so, the next time I came to her in dream, told her she was not at fault. She seemed to appreciate my telling her, and my continued presence in her dreams. She unbent. We talked. We walked, most often in the meadow of her childhood, near the castle, bordered by trees with branches like the arms of strong men. She told me of growing up a cursed princess, prized, protected, never loved by those to whom she meant the most.
Short winter days, long nights, and the dreams. I grew to look forward to them. To her. This person growing in my mind. She’s not real, I kept telling myself, and then looked hard at the wan sunlit princess who ate her meals in silence across the table from me, looked for the princess I thought I was beginning to know.
I told her about being a sorcerer, taken from my family at a young age to the capital city. Told her about fairies that I’d met and sorcerers I’d bested, told her more than I intended. How I’d ended up at the northernmost border of the kingdom, a secluded hermit, because I hadn’t known when to shut my mouth and silence my pride. She listened, we walked, and sometimes, she would raise one warm palm, and take my hand.
My dream princess was the loveliest thing I’d seen in a very long time and I was, in an eyeblink, infatuated. I’d had many women over the decades, and this was the first one to make me ashamed of loving none of them.
Then the day–no, the dream, though by this point dreams seemed more real than waking –we were lying in the meadow near the compound, not the meadow near her home. Nineteen, I was saying. You are a child. And I am ancient.
Ancient, she said laughing. You can’t be thirty.
I pulled my hand through my hair, drew it away from my temples in a fist. Grey hairs, I said. It takes many more years for a sorcerer to get them. You know that, don’t you? Magic changes us. We age less. Those near us, as well. If you stayed longer, you too would age . . . differently.
Still, you are getting awfully shaggy, she said. She scrutinized my mouth, half hidden by untrimmed beard. I smoothed the rough hairs with my thumb, pressed them down. Then I reached to her with the same thumb, touched her upper lip in the same place, traced the smooth curve of her unkissed mouth.
I thought to myself: this is a bad idea, for all it is only a dream.
She turned onto her stomach in the warm grass with her eyes closed and was quiet as I stroked her back through her thin blouse, traced the bones I could feel through the covering of soft flesh and skin: backbone, shoulders, ribs. I leaned close. Princess, I whispered into her hair. Come back to me. She turned onto her side, facing me, unbuttoning and sliding the blouse to the grass, and I breathed out a chestful of air onto her neck in a sigh. My princess. Her hands in my clothes, tangling.
I wanted to kiss her mouth. Wanted to breathe her in, devour and be devoured. I turned my mouth to her ear instead and then sat up, away from temptation.
She opened her eyes and smiled. She stretched her arms up above her head, a languorous, content movement, and at that moment, a grasshopper lit on her breast. Our tender moment was interrupted by her little jump and startled scream. I brushed it away with a flick, and we laughed as we made love.
I woke repulsed. She’s not real, I told myself. I left the compound before mealtime, and avoided her as best I could all that day. We slid past each other, silent as an underwater current. I didn’t see her that night, I stayed away. Solitary dreams didn’t last long, though. I searched her out, and found her waiting. Though I spent my days conflicted, that dream of loverlike abandon became another, and another. The year of the princess’s safety passed in this lopsided fashion.
All was a rush of surprised voices and curious eyes and grasping hands when we returned after the year of solitude was finished. The princess home, at last, from the safety of anonymity to the safety of a castle bound in a filigree of spells from scores of sympathetic sorcerers and fairies. Fingers caught in the tangles in her hair, the King and Queen bowed to me, murmured their gratitude. She was pulled from me and I stood alone. Alone and exhausted after our journey. She looked back at me from over her shoulder, and that was all.
The party celebrating the last day of her nineteen years had finally arrived, and I entered the castle with the well-dressed throng, feeling only a little out of place. I was not the most oddly dressed for once since it was a great, motley group, though I was, as always, the tallest. I had shaved off most of my beard, trimmed my hair. I felt lighter, and a stranger.
She was wearing white, a dress smooth as gull’s wings, its brightness broken only blue stones on a silver chain that fell to her waist. Blue rings on her fingers. Her hair braided and bound. Someone had stroked her cheeks with color, brightened her lips. She looked like my dream princess. She looked so beautiful my chest ached.
I was struck by the remembrance of one particular dream: lying in a bed for once instead of a meadow, thick warmth between our bodies, her hands tracing the space in the middle of my chest. Sweet silken skin, the spot for my hand on her waist where my fingers slid back so naturally to her backside. Pulled her close, drew her leg over and I entered her again, entered this place inhabited by her, inhabited now by me too, but only for a small time. I would always have to leave. I would want always to go back. I had traced her forbidden lips with my forefinger, her breath on my palm, before we woke.
I bowed to the handsome betrothed hovering at her shoulder, knelt and received her cool hand, heavy with rings, to kiss. Looked up and saw her face, stilled by the awareness of onlookers. They watched, I knew. They spoke in undertones of our journey, wondered, whispered. But then they turned to the prince, of course. Who else would choose this strange sorcerer, this odd hermit lucky enough to bring their princess home? Well done, but no match for this royal child generations in the making. After so many sons, a queen. A queen for alliances, a queen for beauty and grace. At long last, a beautiful queen for no one else but a handsome prince.
I felt the music falter, felt the stillness of attention as I knelt before her, too long. My knees began to ache but I was caught. Rufus, she said. I owe you my life. Her voice was meant to be loud enough to hear nearby. The tension eased.
No, Princess. There is no debt.
She took my hand and raised me to my feet. I noticed that she was standing on the first step of the dais. She still had my hand in hers. She tipped her head.
Rufus, she whispered. They want me to marry him.
Words like sand in my mouth. Yes, Princess.
She leaned further forward and so her forehead almost touched mine. Lowered her eyes and sighed, her spice-scented breath a warm cloud between us and the throng, and we were alone.
I could hear her heart beating. I could hear my own. She said, I can if – if – and she faltered.
If what, Princess?
If I can still come to you in dream, Rufus. Please, let me come to you. I could even bear royal heirs if I can be yours when we dream.
I jerked my head back, to look at her, the cloud around us remaining. Her face with the thinnest of nothingness over grief. It was her, the whole time.
How? I asked. How did you do it?
I didn’t realize what I was doing, she said. After you brought me in your dream, I would search, until I found you. I thought it was just me. I thought I was just dreaming.
I should have known. I should have known that she was another dream-traveler, but we are so very rare the idea was ludicrous. We were considered by many to be extinct, or a folk tale of ale origins.
It was her. Always her. I’d found my match, only to lose her to my greatest gift. I could never have her in real life, only in dream. I wasn’t sure that could ever be enough now.
The clock stirred, chimed, began its sounding. Midnight. The curse would fail at midnight when she turned twenty. So most said.
We all stood silent and unmoving until the chimes ended and in the tumult, I heard her say, I am free. The curse is done. Shouts and cheering loud as fireworks. Deep within the echo of the voices, there was silence between us. She tipped her head a little, curved one shoulder, lowered her eyes, and kissed me.
There was a flash of understanding in his eyes before he slumped to the floor, mouth askew from my cursed kiss. Voices silenced. Around me, the quiet sodden thumps of hundreds of bodies, punctuated by the claps and bangs of instruments and plates and silverware, all hitting the floor. I was circled by sleeping souls, settling in to sleep for a hundred years. Because of me. My stupidity.
I jumped when the windows groaned. The walls scratched and screeched as if an enormous cat was working its claws, but from the floor up to the ceiling. One crimson glass pane burst and the branch of a plant entered. It snaked up the curtain, growing quickly to the thickness of a wrist. Then it burst into bloom, and stopped growing, and the echo of the enormous horrible something outside stopped as well. Roses, I saw. The fairy had bordered the castle with rosebushes. So no one could escape. So I could not escape. I sat too hard on the stair, my knees sagging.
I knew without looking that I was not alone. The fairy herself – who else would it be? — stepped from a curtain shadow. She used her wand as a cane as she tottered her way between the sleeping piles. She stopped to grin at a snoring man in a golden shirt, bent backwards over a table, mouth agape.
This is unexpected, she said, still smiling, moving loser and closer. She had black curling hair wild with white streaks and wide black eyes. White skin, folded like white roses. A pointed chin, cheekbones draped with drooping skin. Mesmerizingly ugly, but at once hauntingly beautiful.
I figured the man was going to do the kissing, same as always, the fairy said. But you turned things around, girlie. You aren’t one to take a curse lying down. Now, who is the lucky man?
Her dress rustled like book pages as she bent to turn Rufus’s face toward her. She worked his cheeks thoughtfully with thin fingers like vines, pulled his chin this way and that.
Very handsome, she said finally. I know him. She looked up at me, straightened with a smirk on her lovely sour mouth. So. True love with Rufus, the infamous sorcerer womanizer that the council banished to the northern border because he was too hard to handle. But apparently not for you, sweetheart.
The fairy leaned back her head and laughed through echoes of her own laughter, loud for such a tiny, wrinkled creature. True love, she cackled. My favorite curse of all. No one can resist.
She reached, touched my nose lightly with one forefinger, and winked. You look so tired. Almost as tired as me. But then, it’s been a long day for you. Sweet dreams, Princess. Sleep well tonight.
And she was gone.
I shuddered. She couldn’t know. She didn’t. But still.
It was getting dark already, with the windows blocked. I curled next to Rufus before it got too dark to see. And slept.
And dreamed. I found him in his dream, far away. This was the hardest dream of all: he was very far away but finally I found him in the meadow at the northern border, sitting in sunshine. Where we made love for the first time. He adjusted his legs so that I could lay with my head in his lap and cry as long as I wanted.
Princess, he said. The curse will never be broken. There are times when one must concede defeat. You are young, Princess, but you are old enough to know this.
I was sitting up now, but I had my face against his neck. I’d pulled apart the edges of his shirt so I could press my cheek to his naked skin.
She doesn’t know you are a dream-traveler. She knows that you are a princess and therefore you have never been taught magic. But you can save yourself. I can teach you.
Teach me what?
Teach you how cast a spell to sleep for a hundred years. You will survive, and wake, and live, one hundred years from now. It will be complicated, Rufus cautioned. There is the incantation. And the herbs, which I hope you can find there in the castle. And then there is you.
Yes, Princess. The food will spoil very soon. And you can’t leave to get more. If this doesn’t work, you will starve to death.
The next day the fairy re-appeared, but she was visibly weaker, her visit short. Good, Rufus told me that night. She’s dying, the hag. She’s about a thousand years old, it’s about time. The curse weakened her. Curses require energy to continue. This was a tough one to keep going for almost twenty years.
The following day, her visit was shorter yet. She never came back.
So I searched boldly for the herbs I needed: cheering moth weed, trice, among others, hunger growing in my belly. I tired of apples, which outlasted everything else. Days and nights, awake and asleep, alone and with Rufus, I reviewed, I practiced, I memorized the incantation.
And then the night I lit a fire from my carefully preserved coals under a bowl. Smudged the smoking herbs and curled up next to the prince’s sleeping side. Said the incantation twice as required, and partway through the third, I fell asleep.
For one hundred years.
When I woke, it was my fiancé’s–the prince’s–face I saw. He had woken already, was on his knees next to me, holding both my hands, tears in his eyes. His hair dropped over his forehead, a silken brown wave like a sparrow’s wing.
I dreamed of you, he said. I dreamed you were dead. I dreamed it for one hundred years.
I felt my chest tighten. I’m not dead, and neither are you, I said, pulling away, standing up.
No, he said, stepping close and taking my face in his hands. We were standing on the dais, above the waking crowd. The prince stroked my hair with one hand, held my face with the other. He looked into my eyes, and I into his. He had brown eyes, faceted with bright sparks of gold and green.
I will never let you go again, he told me. It was an announcement. A promise. He went on: I will never let anything hurt you, ever again. He kissed me, and the crowd around us roared. The handsome prince has kissed his bride, they screamed. The fairy’s power is over. The curse is truly broken.
There was morning light streaming through the opened windows. The roses were gone. I had a whole day to decide. I looked my handsome prince in the eyes again, and to his surprise and mine, I kissed him back.
Linda Kirk has had work published in the online journal The Apeiron Review and by Running Press. She lives next to a river and she bakes muffins at least twice a week.