by E.K. Rivera
When I wake up, he's gone. The crying man slips back into the shadows, and I'm alone in my room, a summer breeze bringing the scent of roses into the palace. I'm safe from him here, locked behind gilded doors, guarded by the finest knights in the land.
"Anything to protect my princess." That's what my father, the king, has decreed, but he's still afraid, as is the entire kingdom. In two days I turn sixteen. In two days, I may die.
"The curse of your birth," I've been told again and again, so often that I can't stop the story from playing in my head. A sorceress, overlooked and uninvited, arrived at my christening to offer a deadly gift: on the first night of my sixteenth year, I will prick my finger on a needle and die. A younger sorceress, less powerful but more loving, claimed she could change the spell.
"She shall prick her finger on a needle, yes, but our princess shall not find death, only sleep. She shall slumber until she is freed by true love's kiss." The young sorceress had confidence in her spell, but there was no way to be certain until my sixteenth birthday.
So needles were kept away from me. I learned no embroidery, practiced no needle-point with my ladies-in-waiting. I was protected and guarded every single second of every single day of my life, if you can call that living. I am a pretty bird in a pretty cage, and though I don't want to die, I want to truly live.
By the time the sun sets tomorrow night, I will be far, far away from my father's kingdom. I will ride into distant lands and escape the confines of my cage and the confines of my destiny. I will be free.
Now just relax. This won't hurt a bit."
I want to scream, I want to run, but my body feels as heavy as lead. Needles. There are needles everywhere, piercing my skin, drawing blood again and again, and that voice, that horrible lying voice, saying, "There now. That didn't hurt, did it?"
But it does hurt. It hurts so much, I just want it to stop, but I can't get away because the crying man is there, crushing my hand, holding me down. It has to stop. Please, it has to stop.
"Milady?" Someone puts a hand on my shoulder. A shiver runs through me and I blink. Its all gone: the needles, the pain, the weeping stranger. I'm back in the woods atop my steed. Clarice, my handmaid, is beside me atop her mount.
"Are you unwell, milady?" she asks, concern wrinkling her brow.
"A daydream," I say, though the tremble in my voice gives me away.
"It was the dream again, wasn't it?" Only Clarice knows of my nightmares. With all the worry about my upcoming birthday, I didn't want to disturb Father with foolish dreams. Clarice alone knows how much they terrify me.
"They are simply dreams." She pats my hand to reassure me. "Anxiety."
"They're horrible," I say. "I can feel them as if they were real."
"Please, milady," she says, "Try not to dwell on them. We are all here to protect you, no matter what." Her voice is strong and comforting, but there is doubt in her eyes. There is doubt in everyone. Can I really be protected from the curse? We all want to believe it, but I do not know.
"I'm sorry to worry you." I try to smile, though I still feel the terror. My dreams are far worse than death. Dying will hurt, but death itself will not. I am not afraid of death.
But what if I do not die? What if I sleep instead, then what nightmares will haunt me? Will it be an endless torture, trapped with the crying man? I don't want to find out.
"Your Highness." One of the new knights comes to us, glowing in his armor. His steed is as white as his armor and his eyes are as blue as the sky.
"We must return, your Highness." His voice is as clear as church bells. "His Majesty, your father, is waiting for you."
"Lead the way, sir knight." I let him and Clarice proceed me. This will be my only chance to escape. When they are ahead of me, I will pull my horse's reigns and she will speed me away. The young knight and Clarice call to me, but I have to get away from them. I have to escape these dreams.
"You cannot leave me. I cannot lose you. Please."
The crying man squeezes my hand, but its only one small pain among the others. My head throbs. Breathing hurts. I am lying on a bed, cold and coarse. There are roses by the bedside, like the roses from the palace gardens, but instead of giving me joy, they mock me. I will never see my garden again.
I am trapped here.
"Poor dear. She's so young." There's someone else there, but I can't see her. "Is she better today?"
"Thank-you, Clarice," the crying man says, and then its just us in the room. The walls are white, but with a sickly green tint. I want it all to go away, but it won't. None of it goes away.
"Stay with me, please," the man pleads, and then the needles come again.
There's a draft in the high tower, and a musty smell like old books. I didn't escape.
"Why did you try to run away?" Father asked, but I couldn't answer him. Beneath his stern gaze, my nightmares seemed petty.
"Forgive me, sir," was all I can say. He locked me in the high tower, for my own safety he said. Only a single knight stands guard, but the tower is so high and isolated, Father believes that I will be perfectly safe. But I know better. A day from now I will either be dead or trapped in a nightmare. I hope I'm dead.
"Your Highness?" I look up from my crying, hastily wiping the tears from my face. It's the young knight from this afternoon, the one who caught me and brought me back to my father.
"Leave me alone." I turn away from him. He sits on the bedside, disobeying me.
"Am I just a lowly prisoner to you, sir knight? Only good to torture?"
"I would never wish you any harm, Highness." He puts a hand on my hair. "I only want to help."
"Then you should have let me go," I say coldly. He sits in silence for a long time, still stroking my hair. I should feel uncomfortable, but I don't mind him there. It reminds me of when I was a child, when father would tuck me in at night, and tell me stories of knights and dragons and beautiful princesses in distant lands.
"I know about your nightmares," the knight says at last.
"That's none of your business." My face is red with shame.
"Itís nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone is afraid of pain." I flinch as he takes my hand into his, like the crying man does. Instead of crushing it, though, he holds it gently.
"Please go away," I say. He shakes his head.
"None of this will go away until you face that man. Your pain, your fear. They will haunt you forever until you conquer them." My blood runs cold.
"But I can't! He's too . . . he's . . ." I don't know how to explain.
"Does he hurt you?" the knight asks. I shake my head.
"He doesn't hurt me. His tears hurt me. Watching him sit there and cry." My voice feels thick in my throat, but I continue. "Watching him cry hurts more than the needles, more than anything else. I want to help him, but I can't. It just hurts so much." And I'm crying. I'm crying for this stranger in my dreams who knows no consolation. I don't want to feel his pain anymore.
"It will be better, sweetness." The knight cradles me in his arms. I put my arms around him, hugging him tight. I'm shivering so hard that we're both trembling.
"I don't want these nightmares. I'd rather die."
"There don't have to be anymore nightmares," says the knight. "You can make them go away. You can be at peace."
"How?" I don't know why I am listening to him, but I do. There's something about his eyes, so knowing, so calm, that I trust him instinctively.
"You will face him, but not alone. I will be there to help you. We will do it together. At sunset tomorrow night."
"Will it hurt?" I ask.
"Yes, but only a little. Then it will be all over. No more fear. No more pain. Just peace."
And I believe him. I believe this brave knight. Holding him, being in his arms, makes me feel stronger.
Father never held me like this. He was always so afraid he'd hurt me.
"I don't want to break my fragile little princess," he'd say. I wish he had held me, because after tomorrow night, I don't know if he'll ever have that chance again.
I fall asleep in my knight's arms and for one night, I sleep without fear.
A year ago, my father held a grand ball for my birthday. Princesses from across the lands came, dressed in their best finery, but I was the most beautiful, the most radiant of all. I danced with all the young knights and made every head turn. And when midnight struck, I danced with my father alone, just the two of us.
"I can never lose you," he said, and kissed me on my forehead. I had never felt so alive.
Tonight there is no party. Only silence. And waiting. Its as if I'm already gone.
I'm alone except for my knight and I don't want to do it. I don't want to face the crying man.
"I can't." I pull away, afraid. "I can't face him. Its too painful."
"You will suffer worse if you do not face him." His blue eyes plead with me. "Please." I'm still afraid.
"I don't know you. I've never met you before yesterday. How can I really trust you?"
"How can you trust anyone?" Sunset pink gleams off of his eyes, now saddened by my doubt. "In this life, the only thing you can trust is death. Everything else is a gamble. Life involves risks. If you truly want to live, if you truly want to be free, then you must risk something."
I don't know. I don't know what I should do. All I know is that I don't want to dream anymore. No more pain. No more white rooms and needles. I don't want to see him anymore, the man who looks like my father, who sits by my bed and crushes my hand and says, " Wake up, princess, please. Just open your eyes." I can't stand that anymore.
I have to stop it. For the both of us.
"Show me what I must do," I say at last. The knight nods, then holds aloft a single sewing needle in the dying sunlight, a short white thread trailing from it. I feel a chill run down my spine.
"Is this what I must do?" I ask, appalled. He nods.
"You must prick your finger on this needle. It will hurt, but you will be stronger. You will be able to face him and find peace."
I can't take my eyes off of it. I want to run, but where to? My nightmares will follow me, wherever I go. I cannot escape my own dreams. Live with fear or risk death and know peace. I know what my choice is.
"Hold it steady so I do not miss," I say. Good-bye, Father. Good-bye, everyone and everything that I love.
I jab my finger onto the needle.
The bed is cold. It hurts. Everything hurts. The walls are white, unnatural. Green light, sickly light overhead. Can't shut it out. I see it with my eyes closed. Tubes, tubes are running out of my arm. I can't move. My body is so heavy. I want to cry.
He's crying. My hand, in his. He's crying. Please, don't cry. Please stop.
"I don't want to lose you. I don't want to let you go."
Let me go. Please, let me go.
"I love you so much, but I can't. I can't."
"I can't stand to see you in pain like this."
He's there. Behind the crying man. Sky-blue eyes. So beautiful. So blue. When was the last time I saw the sky? He's smiling at me.
"I have to let you go. I'm so sorry, but I have to let you go."
Let me go? I feel my face relax. Am I smiling?
Thank-you. Thank-you so much, thank-you. I wish I could hug you. I wish I could dry your tears. I wish I could see you smile again.
The man with the blue eyes, he's reaching for me, trying to touch my face. It hurts so much, make it stop.
"Forgive me, princess. Please forgive me."
He kisses my hand, tears falling on me, but I don't feel them. Of course I forgive you. I forgive everything.
"I love you so much."
And then it stops. The pain is gone. My body, it feels so light and airy and free. And the pain is gone.
I'm in his arms, safe in my knight's arms. We're drifting away from the nightmare. I look down and see men and women in white, comforting the crying man. He's not listening to them, but holds onto the hand of a young, young girl.
"Who was he?" I ask. "Why was he crying?"
"His daughter was very sick. He knew that she would die young, but he did everything he could to prevent it, even though it caused her more pain. It was a living nightmare for the both of them."
"Then why did he do it?"
"Because he was afraid, for her and for himself. But last night, watching her dream of far off kingdoms, he realized that he had to let her go. He had to let her drift off into those happy dreams. But before he could, he had to know that she understood. He had to know that she wanted to go. When he saw her today, he thought he saw her smiling at him, as if she understood. So he released her. He kissed her 'good-bye' and let her go."
"He kissed me, too. On the hand."
"Yes. True love's kiss."
We're rising higher and higher into the air, rushing away from the nightmare, the freedom making me feel giddy. From so high up, I still see him crying.
"Good night." I put my hand to my lips and blow down a single kiss. "I hope you have sweet dreams from now on."