She never woke up.
She crossed that threshold into death’s dream kingdom with the juicy tang of poison apple on her tongue from that single blushed bite. It was to do with her heart, she knew, and she knew her heart was no longer of any use to her, only her wits.
The pity of it was she had never been swift-witted, just good-hearted and soft-eyed, ready to trust, to love and to follow. Only in this faded-sun world, this broken stone kingdom with clouds of crows for a sky, she saw nobody to trust and much to fear. She ran from wolves with dinner-plate eyes and gnashing teeth. She played dead when a bear big enough to darken the sky came snorting and snuffling by, its claws a terror to consider, its coat a musty, shaggy mass of nightmares. When she found somebody, it was somebody like her. They stared at each other for a long time.
Blood dribbled from fingertips, sleep weighted long lashed lids. Their dresses were trailing ephemeral things, terrible for anything but sitting or sleeping. Upon both of their heads were the whispers of crowns, silly things that were like barely formed ideas.
“What do we do?” asked the first.
“We walk,” said the second. “We find a safe place.”
“Are we dead?”
The second looked down, perhaps remembering beasts from when she was alone. “I don’t feel dead.”
“Neither do I.”
They tore their trailing skirts, bound them up for better walking. Wolves howled on the edges of everything, but did not draw nearer.
“Are you hungry?” asked the second, after a time. Was the forest closer? Neither could tell.
“Never,” said the first. The apple was still caught unmoving in her throat, and hunger was a nearly-forgotten memory from the waking world. “Are you tired?”
“Of course not,” said the second, and they both laughed like ringing bells, the sound pealing off the ruins around them, though ruins of what they could not say. Had city walls once stood strong here? Cathedrals with big bronze bells calling prayer times with the joyous laughter of God?
Their shoes were also impractical things, delicate little slippers meant for dancing, and sedate dalliances of a long spring afternoon. There was nothing for it but to walk barefoot in this stone shadow world, rolling the whispers of silk stockings down off their soft pink toes. They carried all these things with them because they were loathe to lose anything more, and then they wondered why these things were suddenly precious to them and dropped everything they carried while they walked, leaving a breadcrumb trail of silly, useless finery to a long past party that was never as good as promised.
The forest loomed, dark and deep, and they happened upon a barrel seeping a red river of rust into the grass around it, a constellation of nails driven through its sides. Black-winged birds circled above, just close enough to see their hard tearing beaks, their sharp glinting eyes. The second stepped towards the barrel, despite the heavy iron tang in the air, and the first caught her arm.
“What is it?” the second asked.
The first didn’t answer for a long time, just stared at the barrel. “Sometimes,” she finally said. “I think sometimes the princess wins.”
They both stared at the barrel, the nails, the rust which seemed less like rust the longer they lingered, and the white rocks peeking through the grass seemed less like rocks and more like the skeleton of some large beast, perhaps a horse. The birds began to land as they entered the forest.
They huddled in close as the shadows, dark and deep, reached for them with grasping hands. They had no light but what streaked through the branches overhead, which sometimes caught flashes of white teeth. Voices came to them, whispering, singing, but the voices were not joyful, or inviting.
“Where are we going?” they asked each other, but they had no answer for themselves or each other. When the path forked, they went the way the wind blew.
They picked up swords and helmets, but they didn’t stay in those cobwebbed castles. They wrapped themselves in cloaks they found on toppled thrones, heavy and fur collared.
The next time the wolves came, they stood back to back, holding wavering sword points out, and though eyes glowed and jaws gnashed, the wolves slunk away bitterly unsatisfied, and chorused just out of sight with voices like people, chiding the girls, trying to lure them apart, trying to scrub away their new courage. But
They came to a river they could not cross. It was swift and deep and cold, roiling with copper coins, and they paused at the bank, holding hands, and thought.
“We will stay here,” said the first.
“But how?” asked the second, who had always lived in her castle.
“I’ll show you,” said the first, for she had lived in a forest once before.
Their pale hands grew dirty, soil ingrained in the knuckles, pearly nails broken off and black-rimmed. Their muscles ached, muscles they had never used, never knew they possessed. They shed sweat, and tears, and got splinters and bruises, as they picked up deadfall, and pulled branches from smaller trees, as they leaned them together haphazardly, and then gained the rhythm of it, found the ways to weave branches together. They spread the gaps with river mud that dried solid and kept out the wind that blew their house down more than once. They thatched a roof to keep out the rain that left them sodden and weeping, huddled together grasping for words of comfort for each other, their swords no defense against the elements, their cloaks so soaked that wearing them felt like drowning.
They worked day after day, or for what passed as days, in between deep dark nights filled with fading stars. As they worked, the wild noises in the forest became less threatening, more curious. Yellow eyes blinked at them from the shadows, but nothing came forth to threaten, or entreat, or to try and trick them once more. Hesitantly at first, and then more and more, stronger and stronger, the liquid trills of birdsong filled the air, harsh crow caws intermingled.
“Come see,” said the second, in the dawning after a thunderstorm. They’d whiled the time away playing cat’s cradle in their tightly cozy house, the roof finally watertight, little shutters shut firm over the window-spaces that only lacked glass. The first hurried, sword awkwardly slung, and there in the apron of the forest, on a thorny tangle of branches, bloomed a white rose.
“What does it mean?” asked the first.
“Maybe we’re making a new world,” said the second, standing straight and proud.
“Will we be princesses there too?” The first leaned in to smell the blossom. At first she smelled nothing, and then she smelled a whisper of green, the damp blush of the pale blossom, paler even then either of their complexions. They looked at each other, smiled.
“We can be whatever we want.”
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BIO: Jennifer R. Donohue grew up at the Jersey Shore and now lives in central New York with her husband and her Doberman, where she works at her local library and facilitates a writing workshop. Her work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Syntax & Salt, Escape Pod and elsewhere. Her novella “Run With the Hunted” is available on most digital platforms. She blogs at Authorized Musings, where she shares fiction and the tribulations of the writing life, and tweets @AuthorizedMusin.
Jen says: “So many story editors talk about how it’s a tremendous no-no to start a story with a character waking up. So I thought to myself, how many fairy tales involve princesses ensorcelled in sleep, to eventually be woken by princes? And, what if they aren’t awakened? That put me in mind of “death’s dream kingdom” in T. S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men”, and what it might be like for fairytale or folk tale princesses to navigate that landscape, what decisions they might make along the way, and how they might succeed.”
This 1910 public domain illustration was sourced from here.