While her body slept, her mind dreamed.
It was an easy thing to simply let her mind drift, letting a watercolor wash of translucent images ebb and flow around her. Dimly she felt the keep and its folk sleep around her; dimly she was aware of the slow, inexorable growth of the thorn-wall. Time was meaningless and fluid while she dreamed; days and months and years blurred together into a smooth, endless, unbroken ribbon.
She ought to have died. The spell had been meant to kill her, she knew. Death on the tip of a needle, swifter and surer than poison. But hers was a strong mind and there was magic in her blood; she had fought, and she had gained some small purchase. Instead of dying, she merely slept, and the keep slept with her.
It was the young men that finally roused her. There were three together, friends all, full of energy and eager for glory. She felt them draw near together, felt that bright, eager energy turn to pain and fear as the thorns slew them. It shocked her from her dreaming. They came for me, she realized, sickly. They came because I am here.
And then, more troubling: How many others have come, and died, while I dreamed?
She could not let more die while she lay passively dreaming and waiting to be rescued. By the gods, she would not. She was the daughter of a lord and the blood of an elven-king, however diluted it might have been by countless generations, ran in her veins. She would fight for herself.
She found, though, that her power was limited. She could not break her own sleep, nor unmake the dreaming that held the keep. Nor could she kill the thorns, by now a massive wall thicker than a moat and taller than a palisade. When more young man came, in ones and twos, she tried to aid them, but found they could not hear her. They flung themselves at the thorns, one after another, and the thorns killed them while she cried out to them from the dark silence of her sleep.
This cannot go on, she told herself wearily. It must be ended. I must end it.
Somewhere there must be someone with enough magic to hear her, enough heart to come to her, enough wisdom to find a way through the thorns, enough power to help her break the sleep. She only had to find that person; all it would take was time.
Time she had, in abundance.
She sent her mind questing outward beyond the sleeping castle and the grim thorns, searching for the one who could help her. Sparks of life sifted past her, like glittering multicolored grains of sand scattered all about. She touched them, one after another; some were deaf to her calls, and some she shied away from in fear of what she saw within them. None answered her.
She reached farther, sought wider, called louder. And, when still no one heard, she quested farther yet from herself, her tenuous link to her sleeping body stretched to its trembling limit. And there, at the fading fringe of her reach, the one she sought reached out and caught hold of her as one might catch another by the wrist.
Who are you? he demanded, and then, I am dreaming.
A man, then; a young man. She supposed she should not have been surprised. Yes, she whispered to him. And no. You are dreaming, but I am real enough, and I need your help.
Caution, and a lingering doubt, rang in his voice. What do you want of me?
Your help, she repeated insistently. I am trapped here.
And I can free you?
Honesty was demanded, so she gave it. I do not know. I think… you can help me free myself.
He was silent for a while. I don't understand, he said at last.
I am sorry, she told him. This is not the way I would have chosen to come to you, had I any other.
How can I be sure this is not simply a dream? he asked her.
I pledge you it is not, she said earnestly. Please, you must help me. There is no one else.
Still he hesitated. Tell me who you are.
Liadan, she told him, after a pause. I am—Liadan.
Liadan. He tested the name, tasted it. Then, at last, he told her, I am Gareth, and I will help you if I can.
Thank you, she whispered, and then, strength flagging, she fled back into herself.
She waited a little longer than she might have to try to reach him again. She told herself it was because she needed to regain her power before reaching so far another time. More truthfully, she feared she might not be able to reach him again—or, if she did, that he would have changed his mind. When at last she did reach out to him, though, she found him waiting for her.
Gareth? she inquired hesitantly, and was met with unmistakable relief.
You're back, he said. I wondered… I was afraid I'd dreamed you after all.
You are sure now? she asked him, faintly amused and—yes—a little relieved herself.
Yes, he told her seriously. I was asleep before, but I'm awake now. I know you're not a dream.
And you still want to help me?
How can I not? he asked frankly. You called me.
It touched her, this simple declaration. Thank you.
You're welcome, he told her, then asked, Where are you?
She thought very hard of a map of her family's holdings; the river flowing so at the southern border, the crooked line of the edge of the western forest so, the uneven crescent of the lake so to the east. She thought of the keep as she best remembered it, white stone stained rosy by the light of a fiery sunset. She showed all of these things to him, as best she could.
I see, I think, he said at length. Show me again—the river.
She showed him the river, in another map; this one of the whole kingdom, woven into a tapestry that yet hung in the solar unless it had rotted while she slept. She remembered running her fingertips along the woven band of blue, trying to memorize by touch its curves and its twists.
Yes, he said immediately. Yes, I see. I can get there. Tell me what I will face.
It is a spell, she told him. A spell of sleep. It was meant to kill me, but it failed… it holds us all, but I am the key.
I know something of magic. His confidence heartened her.
There is a wall of thorns around the keep, she said. No one has gotten through it yet.
Ah, he said, and did not elaborate. After a moment he added, I will prepare, and come as soon as I am able. It will take time, he warned.
I have time, she said solemnly.
Then we will speak again.
They did speak again, often, as he traveled. After so long alone with her dreams, it was a relief for her to have someone to talk to.
She told him about the witch, and how the curse that had nearly killed her had come to pass. She always resented that she hadn't been invited to the celebration of my birth, I think, though my parents never spoke of it—they always feared what she might do. But when she came to my birthday feast, and Father insulted her so terribly…
That hardly excuses trying to kill you, Gareth noted dryly. You didn't do anything to her. She might at least have struck at the one who insulted her. You were innocent.
No… she said slowly. Not innocent. I did nothing to her, but—I do not think I was kind, and I should have been.
Perhaps, he said, but for good or bad, it's done now. I'm just glad she didn't succeed at what she intended.
So am I, she agreed emphatically.
Changing the subject, he said, You never told me your family name.
'Wept over,' he mused. It suits.
I am not sure that's complimentary.
I think it's quite pretty, he said cheerfully.
Well, she asked, what about you?
He was all innocence; What about me?
I told you my family name, she said. What is yours?
Gareth Koerin Talejar, son of Audaron, he said promptly. Isn't it awful?
'Son of Audaron'? she demanded, shocked. You're a prince of the realm?
Well, he said, somewhat sheepishly, you didn't exactly ask. Anyhow, I have three older brothers, so it isn't as though I'll ever be king. Quite frankly, I don't want to. Can you imagine going through life as Kedrynth Legaydan the Thirteenth?
The Thirteenth, she mused. Our king was the Tenth.
Gareth's amusement faded. You've been asleep a long time.
Yes, she said soberly. Yes, I have.
"Roses," he said. He stood just beyond the thorns, and she could nearly hear his voice.
"They're roses—your thorns," he explained. "You didn't know?"
No, she said, I didn't.
You sound pleased.
"I am," he answered. "My father does a great deal of gardening. I know roses."
His cheer was infectious. Multitalented, you are.
"Yes indeed." He was so close that she could feel him heft his ax experimentally. "So. We begin."
It was long, grueling work, and she was with him every step. He did not charge in directly. Instead he went about his work much as a gardener might have attacked a sadly overgrown rose garden, cutting away the dead growth and dragging it out, then returning to do it all again, slowly creating a tunnel that twisted like a riverbed. Once or twice he came across the bleached bones of the ones who had come before him.
They couldn't hear me, she said, regretting the deaths anew.
"Poor, brave fools," he said sorrowfully, and pressed on, promising to help bury them later.
The thorns tore his clothes, and his hands stung with scratches and cuts. The friction of the ax's haft rubbed blisters that burned on his palms. A dull, persistent ache had rooted in his arms and was slowly blooming there. Just past midway through, he stopped, and she could feel him gasping for air. "I'm sorry," he said, "I've got to rest. My arms feel as though they're going to come apart."
Rest, she urged. You've come far. It's only a little more.
"You should have chosen a big, sturdy farmer lad with muscles like an ox," Gareth said wryly, "instead of a soft young princeling who wouldn't know an honest day's work if it strolled up and bit him."
I have no complaints.
"Heartening," he replied, and she knew he meant it. "Just let me catch my breath."
I'll help, she murmured, reaching out to him. His startlement as she bled her energy into him was almost amusing.
"What did you do?" he asked amazedly. "I feel nearly fresh."
I lent you my strength, she told him, pleased to have helped him.
"So you did, and I thank you. Well then," he decided with renewed vigor, "back to work."
Even with the extra strength, it was harder going, and she shared every ache as he neared the other side. "I will never be less than respectful to a woodcutter again," he told her wearily.
It's nearly finished, she encouraged him, wishing helplessly she could be there beside him to share the labor.
"Yes," he agreed. "I can see the gates through the roses." Another few cuts, one last long trip to drag the cut branches to the mouth of the tunnel, and at last he was through, blinking dumbly in the noonday brilliance that lit the courtyard.
"Gods above," he gasped. "I think I have never been so exhausted in all my life."
You made it through. Hope bubbled up in her like a fresh woodland spring.
"Yes…" It was little more than a sigh.
"Sorry—" he whispered. "Just so… tired."
It is only a little farther, she urged, suddenly anxious.
"I know… just need a moment." He staggered, his back scraping against the stone of the wall as he sat slowly down against it.
This was wrong. She realized it nearly too late. No, Gareth! It's the sleep-spell—fight it!
"Yes, sleep…" he muttered. "Just a few minutes…"
No! You can't! Anger took her. With all her might she screamed into his mind, Wake up!
He jerked upright as though he'd been struck. "There's no need to shout," he told her testily, voice crisp and very much awake.
I'm sorry, she apologized. It was the spell—it tried to take you.
"In that case, thank you." He sounded chagrined. "I feel rather like a fool."
It's all right. The world spun dizzily around her.
"Liadan?" he asked, concerned. "Are you all right?"
I feel so strange…
"I can barely hear you. Liadan, tell me where you are!"
She felt as weak as water. The northeast tower…
His voice seemed to come from a long way off. "I'm coming. Liadan, hold on!"
Blackness crept about her, enfolding her with velvet petals. Trying—
Liadan Aravel woke from darkness to the gentle touch of a kiss against her mouth. Her eyes opened slowly, the lids curiously heavy, as though they had been closed a long while. For a few moments the world was no more than a brilliant blur of color and light. "Oh," she said, not immediately understanding. "Oh."
Slowly her eyes focused. She lay on the floor, rushes scattered all around her. Leaning over her was a young man, his narrow, anxious face framed by tousled black hair. "Gareth," she murmured, the name coming to her through a fog of confusion.
His relieved smile lit up his face like the sunlight. "Liadan. Thank the gods. How do you feel?"
It was coming back to her in stages. The curse, her long sleep… she had called him. He had come through the thorns—and then—"What happened?"
Gareth's face sobered. "I was afraid I'd come too late. I couldn't hear you any more… I found you here; you were so still and pale I wasn't sure you were alive."
"You broke the spell." She lifted her hand wonderingly toward his face. Everything seemed so bright and fresh and clear. "We did it, then."
He smiled again, capturing her hand in one of his and cradling it as though it were something precious. "I didn't do anything. However you woke up, you did it all on your own."
"I owe you my life," Liadan told him gravely.
Gareth should his head. "No, I don't think so." He quirked a quick, charmingly lopsided grin. "On the other hand, if you were to offer me a change of clothes, I don't believe I'd refuse." He cast a rueful look at the soiled and ragged sleeve of his once-fine tunic of green wool.
She smiled at him fondly. "I'm sure something can be arranged."
He brought her hand tenderly to his lips, noting, "Your finger is bleeding."
An absurd little laugh bubbled up in her throat. "Yours are worse."
"Mm." His hands were slender and artistic, raw with angry red scratches. A scrape across his temple leaked a trickle of blood down the side of his face.
Somewhere outside, Liadan could hear voices beginning to stir. "The others are waking up."
Gareth nodded. "They'll be confused."
"Shall we go down and try to explain?" she asked, smiling at him.
He shifted to help her stand. "Of course."
She found herself stiff and unsteady, and had to lean on Gareth to keep her feet. Looking up at him, she asked softly, "Will you stay?"
His smile was as brilliant as the sunrise. "Of course."
Hand in hand they stepped out together to greet the new day.