Alfred looked down the corridor, but it was empty just like all the others before. He thought he could hear voices for just a second and he sprinted down the cold stone corridor, but at the end of it, there was just another set of uneven stone steps leading up.
It wasn't his fault he'd gotten lost – the tour guide had just been so boring and Alfred wanted to explore the old castle more, so he'd gone up a set of stairs while the tour guide was still talking. After all, Alfred was ten years old and definitely old enough by now to go look around a little bit by himself and not get lost. Now, though, Alfred couldn't find his mom, dad, Mattie, or any of the other people in their tour group.
He clutched his Nintendo and climbed up the next set of stairs. He was getting tired too. These old English castles were just made of hundreds of stairs. Alfred was the one who had begged to come see a castle while they were visiting England. These were the places where all the old kings and princes and people like King Arthur and Robin Hood used to live. How cool was that?
But now Alfred was lost and it was starting to get dark and he really did not want to be in the castle any more. Alfred had never thought about it before, but back when people actually lived in these castles, no one had awesome things like lights and stuff. It was probably super creepy at night, and already, the shadows were getting bigger and it was getting cold and Alfred was still in his shorts and T-shirt. It was still light enough that slits of late-afternoon sunlight still came through the narrow windows that Alfred knew were so small so people could shoot arrows out of them but no one on the outside could shoot in – pretty cool in the daytime, but not so awesome now that it was getting late and dark. Alfred wanted all the light he could get in here.
Also, if it was nighttime, then the ghosts might start to come out. English places were always haunted cause they were like a gazillion years old. Alfred hadn't really paid attention to the tour guide, but now he wondered if there were any ghosts living here.
He shivered and sprinted up the last couple of stone steps.
"Mom? Dad?" Alfred called, quietly just in case any ghosts heard him. "Mattie?"
He'd walked into a small room this time, but at the far end of it, there was another heavy wooden door.
It took both hands and all the effort Alfred could put into it to pull the half-rusted old door open. A gust of stinky, stale air came out accompanied by billowing dust like no one had opened that door in a very long time. The tour guide had said something about half the castle being off limits because it was in danger of falling apart, Alfred remembered. He should also probably leave this room alone because clearly his parents weren't in here.
But Alfred stopped when he saw what was actually in the room. It was a strange room that was surrounded with those slotted windows even though it had to be close to the center of the old castle. In the middle of the room was what looked like a bed except that it was made out of rock. What was the strangest about it though, was the person lying on that big slab of rock, and even though that bed couldn't be very comfortable, the person had his hands folded and his eyes closed like he was really asleep.
"Hello?" Alfred asked and walked into the room, letting go of the door.
As he got closer to the man, Alfred realized he was old. The sleeping man was a grown up at least in his twenties or something, and wearing very weird clothes that looked like they were from one of his mom's Jane Austen movies or something with the puffy white tie and a vest and cufflinks and everything. He also had huge eyebrows and hair messier than Alfred's was when he woke up in the mornings.
"Hey, you shouldn't sleep there," Alfred said and shook the man's arm. "I don't think you're allowed to."
The man didn't move so Alfred shook his arm harder. "You're going to catch a cold if you sleep here," he said. The man had to be very tired because he just kept sleeping even when Alfred shook him. "Did you get lost from your tour group too?" he asked.
Alfred sighed when he got no response, and looked to the door again. It was even darker now, and if Alfred didn't leave soon, he might be stuck in the castle all night and that would be really scary. But Alfred couldn't just leave this guy sleeping here even though he was a grown up.
"Are you lost?"
Alfred jumped at the voice and automatically backed up a few steps before he realized the sleeping man was sitting up. It was too dark to tell what color his eyes were, but Alfred could see the man smiling at him. "U-Um, yeah…" Alfred said. "Do you know how to get out? You shouldn't be sleeping here," he added.
The man just smiled. "I need to be here," he said and then stood up and extended his hand. "Come, I'll take you to your parents," he said.
Alfred brightened up and took the man's hand. "I'm Alfred. Alfred F. Jones," he told the man. "Do you work here?" Alfred asked as they walked down the corridors and stairways. "You're wearing really weird clothes," he said.
"In a way," the man said.
"You have an accent so you're English, right?" Alfred continued, at ease now that he had a grown up who knew what he was doing. "I'm on vacation with my mom and dad and my brother," he said. "Did you know kings and stuff used to live here?"
"Yes," the man said.
"Isn't that cool? I want to sword fight too," Alfred said cheerfully. "But mom and dad won't let me learn how. They say I'd hurt myself." They were always saying that about Alfred, but just because Alfred had broken his leg jumping off the roof before to see if he could fly, and just because he'd broken an arm and a collarbone before playing football, and just because he nearly got a concussion that one time he went to learn karate, it didn't mean Alfred was "accident-prone" like everyone else said he was. Alfred just had a sense of adventure!
"You probably would," the man said. "There's the door. Your family is waiting outside."
Alfred brightened up. "Thanks, mister!" he said and ran out the door, eager to see his parents and brother again.
Just as the man said, the entire tour group was waiting outside and his parents looked quite relieved to see Alfred.
"Just where did you wander off to, young man?" his father said as soon as he saw Alfred.
"You had us worried," his mother scolded him even as she hugged him. "Don't go wandering off like that!"
"Sorry, mom, dad," Alfred said. "But this nice man…" Alfred realized then that he didn't know the sleeping man's name. "He found me and helped me get out," he said.
"It was probably a tour guide," his mother said. "Make sure to tip extra," she told Alfred's father.
Alfred looked around for the sleeping man, but he didn't see him anywhere in sight. Even when their tour guide came and everyone headed for the bus, the man still didn't appear.
The castle was a pale gray against the darkening sky, and Alfred was being pulled down the path towards their tour bus, but that sleeping man…
Alfred woke with a jolt and sat up. It was the same dream again – or maybe a memory. He fumbled for his glasses on his bedside table and managed to knock over his alarm, lamp, and a stack of books from university before he found them.
"Ugh…" Alfred groaned as he threw back the covers and stumbled up to his feet, scratching his head and yawning as he headed for the bathroom. He tripped over a pile of dirty laundry, a smaller pile of video games, and a stack of research papers before he finally made it to the door.
It was Alfred's recurring dream. Other people got dreams about falling or showing up naked in school – Alfred got recurring dreams about being lost in a huge castle in England. He thought it might have started when he and his family had gone on vacation around Europe when he was ten years old some time before his parents got divorced. He couldn't remember if he'd ever actually gotten lost then, or if he'd imagined it all, or if it was just a recurring dream that was so real that he thought it was a memory when it wasn't. The dream didn't make any sense, after all. Some strange man in strange clothes in an old castle – it was just too bizarre to be real.
These days, he'd been getting the dream less often. After all, Alfred was an adult now. He was in graduate school, studying abroad in England for his thesis on medieval archaeology – a major he'd chosen because he wanted to go on adventures just like Indiana Jones.
Alfred brushed his teeth and then hopped in the shower. He wasn't entirely sure why he'd chosen to come to England of all places, though. Alfred didn't even particularly like England. It was way too gloomy and rainy, and it had bad food, and everyone spoke in a weird accent. It wasn't even the best place to go for archaeology – Egypt or Turkey or Italy would be a lot more interesting to go to, Alfred thought. But England had been his first choice when he'd applied to graduate schools, and when he'd gotten in, he hadn't even hesitated to accept and move to England.
Of course when Alfred had first decided on his major, he'd expected the great adventures although most of the time, archaeology was a lot of studying. He did get to go to quite a few interesting places, but digs were fairly boring for the most part too – finding bits of pottery and analyzing how old things were wasn't exactly Alfred's idea of a cool job.
He'd woken up earlier than usual today thanks to the dream, so Alfred took his time with a big breakfast, and then gathering up the research and notes he was supposed to take to school today. In his current course, he'd gone on several trips already. There was one where they went to Italy to explore medieval catacombs, and then another one where they went to look at old Russian museums and some of the old art and statues they'd uncovered there. Then there was once they'd gone to Ireland for Celtic tombs, and another time they'd gone to Turkey to see some artifacts recovered from old Constantinople. Most of the time, since they were in England, Alfred spent his time going to old medieval castles in England or the chateaus across the Chunnel in France. Nearly all the castles and ruins were the same and although it wasn't like Alfred didn't enjoy going to old castles and studying them, it was starting to get repetitive.
Today, he was scheduled to visit another old castle up north, closer to Scotland. When Alfred got to the university, his mentor professor and his fellow graduate students were almost all there. Most of the other students in the program were British, but there were a couple of other transfers like Rebecca who was also from America, or Walter who was German, or Ivan, the new transfer all the way from Russia.
"I can't wait to see this place," Rebecca was saying when Alfred walked up to the group. "Oh, hey, Al," she said.
Alfred grinned and waved.
"Anyway like I was saying, you know that castle is supposed to be like from B.C. times," Rebecca continued. "It's one of the oldest castles in England."
"Isn't the Tower of London oldest?" Alfred said.
"Rumors, babe," Rebecca said. "And anyway, this is one of the ones that people say is haunted."
"All old castles are haunted, yes?" Ivan said.
"Well this one has a special ghost then," Rebecca said. "They say that there was a queen who went insane there after her husband died. Her brother had to keep her locked up in a tower for years and years and years," she said.
"Then, when her brother finally died, a maid went up there to have her attend the funeral, but she found the queen dead on her bed. It turned out she'd died years ago but no one ever noticed," Rebecca said, lowering her voice. "Rumors are that the ghost of that queen kidnaps any young man who goes in there, thinking he's her husband. They say all she wants is a last kiss from her one true love. Isn't that romantic?"
"That's what half the stories say," Alfred said. Ghost stories still creeped him out, but in broad daylight with Rebecca telling this ludicrous story that all old castles seemed to have, he was hardly scared. He'd been in enough of these old castles too, to know that most stories had only a grain of truth.
"All right, everyone, let's go," Professor Germania called. He was the supervising professor who was some sort of genius when it came to old Germanic and English history.
Alfred found himself drifting off in the van as they drove up to the castle.
Maybe he'd try transferring somewhere else soon even though Alfred's thesis was on medieval England. Maybe he'd try underwater archaeology or go somewhere more exotic like Peru or Brazil, or maybe even somewhere closer to home like Native American studies or something. Or maybe he'd change majors altogether and go for something more interesting like becoming an astronaut or something really active like a police detective. Not exactly practical, but hey, it wasn't like his parents were around to criticize him about his choices now – both of them wrapped up in their new lives after they'd divorced ages ago.
It was a two-hour trip before they got to the castle, and by then, Alfred was all too happy to get out of the van to stretch his legs. He was a lot taller than he used to be, and sitting in a cramped van for so long really was uncomfortable. Next to him, Ivan, who was usually fairly quiet though friendly in a bit of a creepy sort of way, also looked rather relieved to be out of the van.
"Not too comfortable, huh," Alfred said, grinning at him.
Professor Germania was talking to a man who had come out to greet them.
"This is Mr. Bellairs," Professor Germania introduced them. "He'll be our expert today. If you'd like to give us a brief background?"
"Of course," Mr. Bellairs said. "This is one of our long standing castles here in the U.K. – we've had it closed to the public a few years now to do some maintenance…"
Alfred looked up at the castle then, and everything else faded to the background because he recognized this castle.
It was the castle in his dream. The old stone ruins were in the same shape although smaller than Alfred remembered it being – possibly because he'd been a child the last time he saw this castle. In the pale light of the cloudy mid-morning, it also looked much more worn down than he remembered. The dream wasn't a dream after all – it had to be a memory, though how much of the memory was real, Alfred didn't know.
Mr. Bellairs took them into the castle as he went through history that Alfred didn't listen to, too busy trying to remember what it had been like in his memory. If that much was real, he wondered if he had gotten lost back then. The tour guide, his family… and that sleeping man.
Alfred looked at the corridors, the windows, the rooms, the floors as he followed Mr. Bellairs and the rest of his class through the castle, trying to remember where exactly he'd gotten lost in his dream. Had that room with the sleeping man been real?
"There's a fairytale attached to this castle – does anyone know it?" Mr. Bellairs was saying when Alfred recognized a set of stairs from his dream. They were uneven and sloped up, barely wide enough of a corridor for Alfred to fit in, and he was sure that if he went up these stairs, down two corridors, and then up another set of stairs, he'd get to the room with the wooden door at one end. In his dream, the stone stairwell it was unbarred, but now, there was a piece of old yellow construction tape blocking the way up.
"What's up there?" Alfred interrupted.
Mr. Bellairs paused. "Excuse me?" he asked.
"Up those stairs," Alfred said, pointing.
"Nothing much. There used to be two towers up there, but one of them is long gone now, and the other is in disrepair," Mr. Bellairs said. "We've had it blocked off for decades now," he said. "Moving on, you'll see what used to be a bedroom on the right that most likely belonged to the royal children," he said as the group began to walk again.
Alfred frowned as he looked back at the stairway. It couldn't be right. If he'd visited here when he was ten, that was barely a decade ago, and it hadn't been blocked off back then… at least not in his dream. Unless he had dreamt it after all. But why would Alfred have such an accurate memory of a place that he hadn't visited?
Alfred watched as his class disappeared around a corner, and then he took a deep breath and stepped over the construction tape. He had to know. At the top of the uneven stone steps, Alfred recognized the corridor, dustier than he remembered in his dream with chunks of debris and old, dead leaves scattered in the corners. It must have been ages since anyone had come up here. The slotted windows were the same as his dream, though, and when Alfred walked to the end of the corridor, sure enough, there was the second corridor. He walked down that one too although this one was in much worse repair than the first corridor. In some spots, the wall had broken off completely and Alfred could see down into the courtyard of the castle. He could hear his classmates talking from somewhere a story or so down, though he couldn't see them.
Then at the end of that corridor, there was the narrow stairwell just like in his dream. Alfred climbed that set of stairs even more carefully because parts of the wall were also completely gone and a misstep could send him falling several stories down into the courtyard. Mr. Bellairs hadn't been kidding when he said the castle was in disrepair, Alfred thought.
At the top of the stairs, Alfred finally came into the small bare room that he remembered. This was antechamber of the tower room, Alfred now realized, and at the opposite side of it was that heavy wooden door.
Alfred could feel his heart pounding as he crossed the room to the door. He grabbed the metal ring and pulled it – a little too hard because the door gave a loud creak of protest and one of the hinges came falling right off. Alfred winced. He was a lot stronger now than he'd been at ten years old, and the door wasn't nearly as big or heavy as he remembered it either.
He had to duck his head as he walked into the room. It was brighter than he remembered it being, but he'd seen it in the nighttime back then, and there hadn't been all these cobwebs and bits of feathers and dead leaves in here.
But all of that meant nothing, because Alfred stopped noticing anything else as soon as he saw that big rock slab in the middle of the room, just like he remembered. And just like in his dream, there was the sleeping man lying there on the stone pedestal, exactly as Alfred remembered.
Alfred just stared for a good moment. It was impossible. His dream – no, it was a memory, he was sure of it now – was real.
The sleeping man was dressed in the same clothes, though now that Alfred knew quite a bit more about archaeology and history, he didn't recognize those clothes being of any period he was familiar with. The sleeping man wore a cravat, a blue vest, and purple coat, all of which didn't make sense for the time period that this castle should have been inhabited. Maybe, Alfred thought, this man was an elaborate joke. A doll, maybe, that someone had left here for decades and Alfred had only seen it and made the rest up in his dreams. The man did look very still, and exactly the same as Alfred remembered except for being smaller and younger – but Alfred had been ten back then. The sleeping man couldn't be more than a few years older than Alfred himself, and he had a slim, wirey build unlike the strong adult that Alfred remembered in his dreams.
Alfred stepped closer. The sleeping man looked very real for a doll. He was covered in a layer of dust, and there was just no way that someone Alfred remembered from more than ten years ago could still be here and be alive.
Alfred wiped the dust away from the man's face for a better look and nearly jumped, because the man's skin was warm.
Alfred swallowed hard and looked a little closer. He touched the man's face again, and felt warm, soft, real skin. If his thick eyebrows and hair were fake, they were also the most realistic that Alfred had ever seen. Alfred wiped more of the dust away, and this time, when his thumb brushed the man's lips, they parted with a small sigh.
Alfred shook his head. It was impossible for a man from his dreams more than a decade ago to still be here, the same age and appearance to be alive. But he seemed to be.
"Hey," Alfred said finally and shook the man's shoulder the way he had back when he was a kid. "Hey, wake up."
He thought he saw a puff of dust go up in the air by the man's mouth like he'd breathed and Alfred shook him a little harder. "If you're real, then wake up!" Alfred said louder.
The man was still limp even when Alfred tried to pull him up into a sitting position, although by now, Alfred was sure he had to be a real human by the way his body folded. The sleeping man also had to be alive because his body was flexible and relaxed – none of the rigor mortis in immediate post-death and no signs of rot or discoloration that should show up if this was a corpse. He was real, and he was unconscious.
Alfred looked closer at the face of the man, wishing he'd paid a little more attention to the history that Professor Germania and Mr. Bellairs had gone over so far, but all he could remember was Rebecca's creepy little ghost story about the queen – which this man obviously couldn't be. It was also impossible for him to be a part of the history of the castle, though. Everything about him was just impossible. It was like something out of a legend or a fairytale…
Alfred glanced down at the man's face again and wiped away more of the dust as he lay him back down on the stone pedestal. It couldn't be. Fairytales weren't real, Alfred thought. Ghost stories and legends were all only stories, but this man also couldn't possibly be here.
In any case, it couldn't hurt, right?
Alfred looked down at the man and his parted lips, pink and soft with no signs of being weathered or chapped. He swallowed again, and then bent down and quickly brushed his lips to the sleeping man's own before drawing back.
Alfred studied the sleeping man, watching for any change even though it should also be impossible. Waking someone with a kiss only happened in fairytales…
Except then, a small puff of dust came from the man's nose, and Alfred watched as the man's face scrunched up. Slowly, his thick, dusty eyelashes blinked open, and then Alfred found himself staring at the greenest pair of eyes he'd ever seen in his life.
The man stared back at him in what seemed to be a mix of confusion and surprise. He opened his mouth a few times, as though trying to figure out what to say.
Alfred himself just stared at the man, too shocked to say anything at all.
Then the man frowned. "Oh, bollocks," he said.