When she awoke, she did not remember dreaming.
At first she didn't open her eyes, thinking surely it was still early, surely she could sleep a while longer. The bed was so warm… She went to turn over, reaching her hand to arrange the pillow beneath her head. Then she froze.
Cautiously, she tried to move her hand again. Again, the movement was met with a gentle squeeze.
Someone was holding her hand.
Her eyes flew open to see a man sitting on the edge of her bed. She blinked. He smiled and kissed her hand.
"Good morning," he said.
Her voice seemed to have disappeared. She sat up, and in spite of her initial shock found him so handsome, his smile so warm, and his lips so close to hers, that she kissed him without a second thought. She saw then the crown on his head, and the richness of his clothes, and asked him sweetly,
"What prince are you, sir, and how came you to find me?"
"I am the prince of a neighboring kingdom," he said, "and I have passed through a great wood and deep to find if indeed there was a princess sleeping here, and she the most beautiful on Earth."
"What wood is that, Prince? I know for certain there is no such wood to be found in my father's kingdom."
"Such a wood surrounds this very castle, my lady. Perhaps it came to grow there as you slept."
"As I slept? How could such a thing be? A wood like you describe, so great and deep, could not spring up in a night."
"No, my darling princess, surely not. But you have been abed for many years, and in this span might well a mighty forest have sprung up."
At this she broke away from him and rose from the bed.
"Who are you, villain, and what has brought you here? Villain you must be, who could dare to pass the guards of my father's castle."
"Sweet princess, your guards are all asleep, and your father nowhere to be found."
"What lies are these?" she demanded and ran to the door, throwing it open and rushing down the stairs. Through every room in the castle she ran, but found everywhere her father's lords and ladies and guards and servants in the very likeness of death. She rushed outside, then, through the palace gates, and halted.
The courtyard was eerily silent, the great water-fountain stopped, all people and beasts that once busied about it lay or sat or stood in perfect stillness like so many statues. And there, thronging the outer wall, was a wood so dense, so dark, so forbidding, and so tall that it obscured fully half of the bloodied-red evening sky.
"Lovely, is it not, my sweet?"
The princess turned at the sound of the cold voice and saw an old woman coming toward her.
"I may be old, you wretched little wench, but I can still kill you."
The woman flicked her hand and set the great forest aflame, staring all the while at the princess, all the while coming closer—
"Prince!" shrieked the terrified girl. "Prince!"
The witch was nearly upon her when, with the single despairing thought that her prince would not come for her, the princess cried aloud and fell to the ground.
When she awoke this time, she remembered dreaming.
She opened her eyes. There was no prince, no old hag—nothing that immediately struck her as out of the ordinary. Until she noticed where she was.
Had she been here in the dream? It seemed so. That was odd. Why should she be in the finest of the castle's apartments? Why was the bed-quilt embroidered in silver and gold? And why, by all the faeries, had she been sleeping in her best gown? It had been so in her dream, too, she was sure. What a strange dream it had been! Or nightmare, rather. It had been pleasant enough, of course, to waken with a handsome prince attending her, but the rest… the silence, everyone dead, her parents gone… the dreadful wood, and that horrible witch…
The princess shook her head and rose to examine herself in the golden looking-glass on the table beside the door.
"Oh!" she cried, her hand flying to her mouth in shock. For a moment she was sure the old hag was staring back at her from inside the glass, but when the image's hand imitated her own, she stooped to look closer. Then she gasped. Those, she knew, were her very own eyes looking out of the mirror. But her face—her lovely face was wrought with deep wrinkles, her coral lips drooped, and her long flowing hair was silvery-gray. A low, chilling chuckle broke out behind her. It was the witch.
"My dear, how lovely you look."
"Who are you?" the princess demanded, backing into the table. "What do you want with me?"
"I am one so terrible I would not stoop to speak my name to such as you. And I want you to suffer, as you were meant to suffer." She took a step toward the princess.
"Whatever am I to suffer for?" the girl asked.
"Ah, for that perhaps you should ask your mother. But oh—oh wait, that's right—she is dead, isn't she, and such a pity. Of course, if I had my own way, you would be dead." Her smile was twisted. "Oh, do not look so shocked, you bastard daughter of an ingrate. That filthy little pest of a faery saved you from death, and decreed that you should dream of what's to come—but she could not bar me from your pretty head, you see. And do you not like what I've done with it? Of course it isn't really my own doing. You were enchanted to sleep for a hundred years, and so I show you only how it should really look after a full century's slumber." The woman cackled. "But sweet my child, you look faint. Perhaps, before I have finished with your dreams, you shall wish I still had the power to kill you."
At that the princess swooned, and all went black.
When she awoke, she remembered dreaming.
At first she did not dare to open her eyes. Would she see the hag? Would she be a hag? Or perhaps…perhaps…
She cautiously flexed her fingers. They touched warm flesh. Her eyes still closed, she asked softly,
"Is it you, my prince?"
"I am your prince, if you will be my princess."
She opened her eyes and met his smile with her own. After a moment, however, it faded. Could she be dreaming again? Surely not. The witch had only been her imagination, and the prince…
The prince. Why did the prince look just as he had in her dream? You should dream of what's to come… This must be really happening, then. That was the foreshadow, so this must surely be the reality.
"I dreamed that you were here," she said.
"I must admit I never dreamed I should be here," he replied. "Nor, indeed, that I would hold the hand of such a beauty." He touched her slender fingers to his lips. "But come, my dearest," he said, keeping hold of her hand as he stood. "Let us be gone from this dark tower, and this strange palace, and let us marry, that I may truly have you as my own."
"Should I be married," she inquired as she rose, "without the consent of my father, the king?"
"Your father, sweet princess?" His voice faltered slightly. "Then do you not know—"
"He is gone and all remaining are asleep?" She stared at him, wishing he would contradict her.
"So they are, my darling." He did not say it comfortingly, though he then seemed to see his mistake in her eyes. "Do not trouble yourself, sweet creature. You have slept long, and now shall have not only a prince for a husband, but my father, the king, as your own. Come, dear beauty," he urged, drawing her close and kissing her. "Let us away."
"You'd best go with him, child," came the witch's voice from the shadow of the doorway. "He does not well abide contradiction."
The princess looked at the old woman, then back at the prince. He didn't seem to have heard her.
"Another of your dreams, you lying hag?" she demanded coolly.
"Indeed, my sweet. But as the enchantment promised, you dream no other than what is to come." The witch chuckled, and it was cruel and cold.
"Can you not leave me one happy dream here with my prince?"
"Happy, dear princess? Is this scene…happy? Tell me, child, do you truly wish to go with him?"
"I will have none other than a prince for my husband," the girl said, "and why not this one?"
The old woman shrugged. "I suppose that is for you to decide."
The princess looked back at the prince. His arms were still around her, and he gazed at her, apparently oblivious to the other conversation. She studied his pleasant features, his sweet brown eyes, his dark hair, his well-jeweled crown. Then she kissed him.
When she woke up, she remembered dreaming.
There again was the prince, sitting on the edge of the bed, holding her hand.
"Good morning," he said.
"Is it morning?" she asked him.
"Not by the sun, my sweetest princess. But this evening is the morning to your so-long night."
"How long have I slept?"
"A hundred years, my darling, so I'm told."
"A long night indeed," she murmured, gazing at the ceiling.
"Does something trouble you, dear sweet my lady?"
"No, good my prince. But I pray you," she said, turning to look at him, "bend down and kiss me, that this dream may something sweet contain before the witch appears."
He kissed her, but the sensation was marred by the sound of a now-familiar cackle, cold and low. The prince straightened and seemed to freeze as the old hag approached.
"I daresay you are learning now, my pet."
The princess sat up. "Tell me, witch," she inquired, in a voice mockingly casual, "what is my enchantment, and how did it come to me?"
"I would show you, precious, if I had leave to present anything but what shall be. As I cannot, we shall both have to content ourselves with the telling. Do you mind if I sit? I may be full of magic, but even that grows old." She conjured a chair beside the bed and settled herself into it, and the princess saw a strange mockery in the scene, as if the witch were playing a grandmother or kind old nurse, there to comfort a frightened child with pleasant stories. She stared straight ahead, not looking at the hag, and did her best to suppress a shudder.
"As you doubtless know," the old woman began, "the king your father and queen your mother were many long years without an heir. Naturally, they assumed your mother was barren, and no one dared voice their suspicions that although your father had no illegitimate children, it was not exactly for any lack of trying. Many had the feeling that if any of his affairs had yielded him a child, he may very well have put off his queen and married the first woman that gave him a son."
The princess said nothing to this, as she herself had seen her father look and act toward other women in the castle in ways that that once had puzzled her younger eyes. And though she still wanted to stop the woman for slander, yet…yet there seemed no way to deny, now, that this witch was controlling her dreams. If she did not let the hag speak now, she was sure to hear it later anyway, and probably with even more nightmares in between. So she held her tongue.
"Luckily for your mother," the hag was saying, "you came along." Her eyes glittered strangely. "But you came at a price, my pretty, you did indeed. In fact your mother came to me, pleading what she should do. She knew by then that if she did not give your father a child soon, she faced the very real threat of being cast out from your father's court. I must say, it really is a shame your mother loved him.
"But in any case, she begged me to make her fertile, to help her get a child. So you see, even she herself did not suspect that in this whole business, the king was really the one to hold the blame. I charged the queen that if she truly believed she was barren, she should see if no other man could do the trick."
A moment's silence made the princess turn her head to look at the witch.
"She saw," the woman said, her gaze boring into the girl's eyes, which were beginning to water.
"And now, I see, do you," the witch added softly. "Only I and the queen your mother knew you to be none of the king's. No one else knew you were the fruit of a desperate wife and a handsome young guard of your father's—a guard who, by the way, was husband to one of your mother's lady's-maids—such twisted webs you royals weave indeed." She paused to look at the princess, whose look betrayed her quiet inward fighting with distress. "Shall I continue?" the woman asked.
The princess was startled at the question, but even more at the sudden softness in her tone.
"Is there proof of what you tell me?" the princess ventured.
"Only your dreams," said the woman.
The girl paused. "Then on," she said.
"Very well. As for your mother, I think it was your beauty saved you both. Had you not been such a lovely child, your father may have put the queen off anyway and gone looking for a son. But the queen, oh dear child, the queen your mother was terrified still that your father might discover what she'd done, knowing that if he did you both were dead. And so she forbad me from your christening. I imagine you can see her error."
The princess merely nodded.
"Someone such as I am is not to be slighted, nor my services employed nor counsel given if they are to be returned with spiteful ingratitude. Your mother dared to shun me, though 'twas I who taught her how to get your highness. Ill done of her, you know. Ill done indeed. So for her ingratitude I took away what I had given, and for her fear and spite she earned the death of that she prized over all.
"You, sweet thing, by me were meant to die. Not by my own hand, of course; I decreed a spinning wheel should be the fatal weapon. But alas," she sighed, looking at the princess again, "I was thwarted, and one of your precious little faery godmothers turned my well-dealt 'fatal' into a mere enchanted 'fateful.'
"It was she decreed you should sleep these hundred years, she who dared to meddle with my vengeance. And it was she who decided, since your awakening should only be occasioned by a king's son, that you would have dreams filled only with what should come." The woman snickered. "She assumed, obviously, that dreams of a handsome prince would all be pleasant. I, on the other hand, do know what lies before you. And I think you should see the life this so-called "good" faery saw fit to spare you for."
"But how can all my dreams be what's to come if each time the prince's speech and actions differ?"
"They differ, princess, because yours do. Keep watching, my girl. I think you'll understand."
She awoke again and knew that she was dreaming.
Her eyes again found the prince on the side of her bed, his hand around hers.
"Good morning," he said…again.
"Is it morning?" she asked him.
"Not by the sun, my sweetest princess. But this evening is the morning to your so-long night."
"A hundred years, my darling, so I'm told."
"Long indeed," she said. Then, with an innocent bat of her eyelashes, she added, "and lonely."
"My most darling sweetheart," he said, kissing her hand. "Come with me and you shall never be lonely again."
He stood as he spoke, still holding her hand. She smiled, drew back the quilt, and rose to meet him. As she did, she caught a glance of the old woman standing in the corner.
"Did you not say," she asked the woman while still looking at the prince, "that he does not well abide contradiction?"
"Why do you not test and see?" the old woman offered.
"Then it is my own actions that dictate the course of the dream."
"You certainly have power of your own speech and action," she affirmed. "Remember, though, that you cannot change who he is. You can only try to sway his course in your favor."
The princess gave a faint nod.
"I am flattered, dear prince, that you have deemed me worthy of your attentions, and that you should even imagine me worthy to be your wife. Any princess would count herself blessed in such a strong, noble, brave, and handsome husband. Yet let me first try your kiss, good sweet my soon-won lord."
He kissed her. And, she had to admit, he kissed her well.
"At least there is consistency in your lips," she decided.
"Though they lack something in constancy," threw in the old woman.
"What do you mean?" asked the princess.
"Find for yourself," she replied. "I daresay you've a few years' dreaming yet. Time enough to marry him, I warrant." The woman smiled. "But did you not yourself want to see how he deals with disappointment?"
"Ah yes," the girl remembered. "I was getting to that." She turned back to the prince.
"My noble prince, if I may be so bold, is there not some other maiden fair or princess most acclaimed that your…eyes have sought out for your own?"
"None so wondrous rare as you, dear creature."
"Yet surely there is someone in whom your highness could be contented, if not in me?"
"It is you, my princess most rare, most lovely, most fair—"
"He runs out of descriptions quickly, doesn't he?" she muttered to the old woman.
"—that I would have for mine above all others."
"But stay, good sir, and think if there should be…another lad on whom I've set my eyes. For indeed, though I be in blood above him, I've often noted a handsome young guard, among the king's rank, that I would have as mine."
"You do me wrong, sweet love, to speak your fondness for a guard before a prince. None but a king's true son should dare imagine you his own, and none but a king's true son shall have you so. Remember, lady, to me you are indebted, as it was I who ended your long sleep."
"And I do thank you for it, with all of my soft gentle princess heart. But my body shall not give you its thanks when my heart lies nested in another's trunk."
"Do not, most rare of maidens, force me to force you into my arms."
The girl looked at the old woman. "Would he do such a thing?"
"Do you care to find out?"
"Not by experience, no."
"Then I suggest you submit. Say you'll marry him; so shall he be stayed."
The princess sighed.
"My gracious prince and most noble ender of my dire enchantment, I would have you pardon my jest. I should be both happy and grateful to call you yet 'my lord.'"
"Then, sweet fair one, let us away and marry this eve, that as this night is morning to you, it shall not find us sleeping."
"He is hasty," she muttered to the old woman, who merely shrugged.
"He is a man."
A dream of months following assured her she would not be plagued with the trouble of her mother. That is, she and her new-wed prince would certainly have children, and without much delay. But the old woman was right about his constancy, and a short enough passing of time found the prince's pregnant wife quietly and gently shoved aside, sent to live in one of her husband's country estates, visited according to his own will and pleasure.
She had nearly had enough.
"Am I to spend my life here waiting, growing fat with these his heirs, while he gluts his vain desires on women who cannot hope to be half as beautiful as I? I, whom he swore most rare, and to be prized above all others? To be his before all others? Am I to sit here silent and still as if I were worth no more and wished no better than to be the attending servant to his every whim?"
"It was you, my child, who dubbed him thus your lord."
"And you who would I had not seen these days."
"At your birth the friendlier faeries gave you many wondrous gifts—your beauty, your grace, your wit, your voice, your skill. The last gave you these long years of your life, and each thought hers a gift to bring you joy. Yet happiness was not bound within those gifts." The old woman sighed as she stared out the window. "Indeed," she said, "they promised you no happiness at all."
When she awoke, she didn't know if she was dreaming. And she didn't want to open her eyes, whether she was or not. But then, perhaps…had he finally come to her again?
She could feel his hand around hers.
"Is it you, my prince?" she asked sleepily. "I have waited a long while."
--based on Andrew Lang's translation of "The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood" by Charles Perrault.