It was noon on a brilliant Sunday, but beneath the thorn trees I needed a flashlight.
In the tales, the thorns are three feet long and reach for the seeker’s flesh as though they breath malice and are guided by a wicked hand. But the truth is that they are merely grown so tightly together that you cannot pass without shedding your own blood.
That is, in effect, exactly the point.
They cut through cloth as though it were butter, and leather is like well-cooked steak. I’m told that no corselet has ever protected any seeker, nor plate mail, nor flak jacket, fiberglass, Kevlar, nor Dragon Skin.
I have only my Johnny Strabler knock-off jacket with matching gloves, a pair of Levis, and steel-toed boots. So, by the time I could see the shadow of her tower, strips of my skin hung off my arms and thighs, and blood had soaked into my socks. My limbs burned and tingled, but all the pain centered on the gash throbbing under my right eye. I was fairly certain my cheekbone was breathing dank air.
The tower pushed up through the trees like a moldy rainbow. Yellow lichen and blue moss striped the discolored stone bricks, while trains of emerald ivy curled around its bulky circumference, speckled by pink and red flowers. At the base a black crevasse sucking at the thin rays of sunlight. I dropped my flashlight and entered, knowing its glare would offend her eyes.
Cold pricked at my wounds, and the constant trickle of blood slowed. Goose flesh ripped down my back and arms. I trailed my fingers over the damp inner walls, eyes wide but finding no slight purchase of light to affix upon. The steel toe of my right foot hit the first step and I slowly wound my way upward, hands out at both sides. I heard a drip from somewhere above. That, plus my own breathing, the pound of my heart, and the squish of my heels in my blood-soaked socks.
Up and up I went, and my body hardened as the chill seeped in, turning me to ice. My foot stumbled upon something soft and I fell to my knees. My hands caught against a dry heap that crumbled under my weight. A bouquet of dust and rot billowed out. I blinked and coughed, and drew my hands along the surface of the thing. Ribbons of old cloth over a shattered cavern of ribs, neck, and naked skull. I let out a breath slowly. He would not be me.
I shoved him aside, and continued up as his bones fell apart and clattered down the spiral stairs. Three more times I found bodies, faltering in my blindness, before the hint of sunlight fluttered around a bend.
My pace quickened, and the surge of heat caused my blood to flow again. I stripped off my gloves as I entered her chamber, and the leather tore away blood-sticky skin.
The walls of the chamber were dark with age. Whatever riches might once have slept with her hung like spider-webs and black vines. The bedclothes were tattered and her hair drooped in tangles and knots. It had once been blond, I guessed, but was now patched with green and grey. Her skin was mottled pink and ivory, with hints of yellowed bruises at her wrists and throat and thighs. She healed more slowly than stone, it seemed. Once she’d slept in a gilded gown, which now was torn from her and only bits of a corset clung to her waist, and a stocking hugged one calf.
I strode over the six dead men rotting in the strips of sunlight and knelt beside her bed. Her eyeballs moved as she dreamt – of living and dancing and loving, I hoped – and her lips curved in a Mona Lisa smile.
Men had come before, and women, to wake her and to wake themselves. Most died in the thorn forest, and others from the cold. Still more could not carry the burden of her sleep within their own hearts without collapsing into death. I would not be one of them. My mentor had taken her sleep centuries ago, and he told me his truth: love her.
Love the sleeping maid.
Not for her beauty, nor her nakedness, nor for the gift she might give you. Love her for the tragedy of her tale. For the pain of her everlasting life.
I brushed my bleeding hand to my lips and leaned in to offer my life to her. Her mouth was cold and soft as a peach. First there was nothing. I used my tongue to put my blood against her teeth.
She bit me, and opened her eyes. They were black, black with green and blue and yellow swirls like the outside of her tower. They swallowed me and her hands clutched into my arms. I cried out into her throat and she dragged me on top of her, digging her teeth into my lips. Her strength was of iron and I panicked. I struggled and pulled away from her hunger. But her fingers held me in place and I saw her eyes begin to close: and I recalled the lesson. Love her.
I closed my eyes and kissed her again. She took everything from me. The blood drying on my thousand-thousand thorn-cuts glued me to her as she drank. I forced my hands beneath her and cuddled her to my chest. I kept myself open and whispered my name to her again and again.
She threw me away and I slammed into the stone floor.
Then she was on top of me, tearing away the shredded remains of my leather jacket, of my jeans and steel-toed boots. She kissed every wound, her movements faster than life, faster than the world. I blinked and blinked, my vision like a strobe-light as she kissed and rubbed my blood over me like she was creating me new skin.
And she was gone and I panted and stared up at the arched wood of the ceiling. The air was hot. I tingled and burned again, but it was with different pain. Holding up my hands I saw beneath the blood was whole flesh. I sat and my thighs and abdomen and arms were healed. I stood. I stretched. I laughed.
She slept, sprawled on the bed as if she had never stirred. Her tangled hair, her mottled and naked skin, her tiny bare feet exactly as I’d met her.
I knelt beside her again and kissed her, tasting her dead, peachy lips. I could hear the rattle of air inside her ribs – so slowly like the shudder of wind in an ancient forest.
Beyond her cradle a balcony opened into the afternoon. I stepped out into the sunlight, a king among men.