DISCLAIMER: This is an original fairy tale and therefore property of me. Like almost everything I write, it contains a same-sex romance and took me entirely too long to finish, and I accept full responsibility for both.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To eldritchsandwich[at]gmail.com
True Love's Kiss
The only sound was the clicking of the witch's bootheels on the marble floor.
They were solid, work-worn boots, cracked brown leather with thick soles, not at all the kind of boots anyone in attendance would have expected a witch to wear. Of course, the witch wasn't quite what they'd been expecting in any respect.
She was an older woman, true, but not so old, and the red in her unkempt hair still outweighed the gray. She was dressed in the plain clothes of a shepherdess or a working woman, neither the finery of those assembled around her or the black robes they'd thought to look for. One might have had cause to doubt that the woman was a witch at all...until he looked into her eyes.
A dozen pairs of those were on her as she made another circle around the bed. The king and queen stood together, hands clasped in pained unity, while the guardsmen and servants hovered nervously around them. The only people who weren't looking at the witch stood at opposite ends of the bed: on one side, a handsome young man with blond hair in elegant red; on the other, a girl with her black hair done up in braids, wrapped in the plain gray dress of a maidservant.
Like the two of them, the witch was looking at the princess. She was laid out in the center of the bed, soft blond hair splayed across the pillow, fine pink dress flowing away from her still body. Her lips were parted ever so slightly, and her eyes were closed.
The witch circled the bed a third time before she looked up, finding the king's gaze. He swallowed.
"You already know the answer," the witch murmured, her voice like her boots, "or you wouldn't have called me here."
The witch's too-green eyes turned first to the queen, then to the two figures by the bed, then finally back down to the princess. The young man in red drew himself up to his full height with a scowl.
"Who's responsible for this? Who cursed her?"
The witch tilted her head carefully, eyes still on the supine form. "The sleeping curse is the very oldest of magics, and known in more circles than any other. It could be anyone. A jealous rival. A spurned suitor." Her eyes met the king's. "Perhaps someone who sought to strike at her father through her."
The king stiffened, jaw set firm under his thinning beard. "Take care how you speak, witch. My daughter's life is no game!"
The witch said nothing, merely turning back to face the princess. The king closed his eyes and let out a slow breath.
"Please. You know why we have brought you here. Return our daughter to us, and anything you desire is yours."
"There is only one cure for the sleeping curse. And you know it as well as I."
"No!" the young man in red shouted, his fist coming down hard on the head of the bed. "You're wrong. This...this is something else."
The girl standing across from him lowered her eyes, a blush on her cheeks. The witch looked between them, then turned her attention to the king. "The sleeping curse can only be broken by the kiss of her true love upon her lips. This is the oldest magic, and neither king nor witch nor bridegroom can change it."
The young man turned and marched angrily from the bed, servants scattering as he stomped to the door. The witch's eyes never left the king's.
When night fell, the family and the guardsmen and the servants retired, their own sleep fitful and troubled with thoughts of the princess'.
Only the girl in the gray dress remained.
She did as she had done in the days since the princess failed to wake, washing her mistress' face and brushing out her hair and sitting obsessively by her bedside holding her hand until she herself would drift off to sleep and her head gently drop to the princess' richly-appointed lap.
"You attend her very well."
The girl, half-asleep, jerked up in her seat with a squeak to find the witch standing in the doorway, half in shadow. The girl swallowed.
"I...I have served her since we were both so young. How could I leave her side now when...when she was always so kind to me?"
The girl began to fidget as the witch's eyes studied her, until finally they turned back to the princess.
"Her husband-to-be has already kissed her," the witch observed, and as she had before the girl blushed.
"It...it was the first thing they tried. But she didn't wake."
"Because he is not her true love," the witch replied simply.
The girl winced. "If not him, then who?" she said wistfully.
The witch smiled ever so slightly. "Who indeed."
Unbidden, the girl's eyes went to the princess' lips, full and pink and still. She didn't notice as the witch stepped back out through the door.
The next morning, as she had done in the days since the princess had failed to wake, the girl made her mistress ready for visitors. She ensured the princess' hair was brushed soft, that her gown was smooth and covered what it should. But this morning, she found her eyes straying back to the princess' lips.
She had only been a little girl, playing in the out-of-the-way places within the castle while her parents cooked and cleaned, when she was chosen to be the personal handmaid and confidante of the young princess. She had been terrified, frozen by her parents' warnings about what happened to servants who disrepsected their masters. But the princess had not been allowed the company of other children like she had. And so the moment she tiptoed into the oppulent bedchamber, the princess squealed, sprinted across the room, and pulled her into an embrace.
The maid smiled sadly as she brushed the last of her mistress' hair from her eyes. Then, her finger strayed downward, toward the gentle pink curve of the princess' lips. She realized she was crying around the same time she realize she was leaning down.
As their lips touched, the maid whispered, "Please wake up. I can't...I can't endure without...without you. Whatever price I have to pay, I'll pay it, just let her wake up. Please."
And, with a breath, the princess did.
The girl threw herself back, knocking the water bowl from the bedside table with a clatter. The princess winced at the noise, a stiff hand slowly rising to comb through her hair. "Oh, my head. I think I've slept too late."
Before the maid could summon up the courage to speak a word, the doors burst open.
"What was..." The young prince's words fell away as he took in first his bleary-eyed intended, then the blushing maid standing over her. His eyes narrowed.
The girl shrieked as he crossed the room, grabbing a handful of her hair and drawing his sword in a single motion. "You whore! How dare you? What have you done?"
The girl could barely hear the princess' confused muttering over the sound of her own head cracking against the wall, the prince still growling threats. The maid's eyes squeezed shut, the swish of the prince's sword through the air the last thing she heard before...
"What is the meaning of all...oh, Lord!"
The two both turned toward the door, the maid's eyes nervously fluttering open to find the king, the queen, and the witch all standing in the doorway. The king's and queen's eyes were wide. The witch, however, was smiling.
"Father? What's going on?" The princess blinked the last of the sleep from her eyes, and finally saw the tableau to her left, her fiance's throat around her handmaid's neck. "What are you doing? What..."
Any further questions were forestalled by the blubbering queen throwing herself into her daughter's arms. The king, however, was more restrained. Glancing cagily between the witch and his newly-awakened daughter, he strode purposefully over to the room's other occupants.
"What...happened?" The king's voice was low, but his daughter still pulled out of her mother's embrace.
"Yes! Why is everyone acting so strange?"
"This filthy little whore-"
The king hissed a warning, and the prince fell silent. When the king's gaze turned to her, the petite maid's face flushed bright red, a hand sweeping up to touch her lips before she could stop herself. It was more than enough. The king's expression did not change; he merely rolled his head back, then forward, then sighed. Then finally, he turned to face his daughter.
"Father? What's wrong, what's happened?"
The king glanced toward his future son in law, then toward the blushing, softly crying girl on the floor, then back toward his daughter. He dropped down by the side of the bed and took her hand.
"My love, you...you were placed under a curse. You were sleeping for almost a month."
The princess blinked. "What?"
"You could only have been revived by the kiss of your true love." The girl kneeling behind him swallowed a deep breath, then her eyes went wide as the king's hand fell upon the prince's shoulder. "His Highness' kiss broke the spell."
The princess' bleary eyes shifted from the strangely tense-looking face of her fiance to the utterly devastated one of her maidservant. "But...what was he yelling about, what...what's wrong?"
The king's gaze turned hard as it fell on the dark-haired girl. Before she could speak for herself, he spoke for her. "I'm sorry, my darling. This...peasant whore was working with those who cursed you."
The girl's eyes went wide. "What? No! No, my lady, please..."
"Shut her up!" the king hissed. "Take her to the dungeon."
The princess could only watch in horror as the closest thing she'd ever had to a friend was dragged out by the guards, , thrashing violently, trying to scream around the hand over her mouth. When the doors closed, the blonde's eyes went back to her father's.
"But...that can't...we've been together ever since we were girls, you're wrong! She can't have!"
"His Highness found the paraphernalia of dark magic in her quarters, and the remains of a note giving her instruction. Did you not?" the king aimed pointedly in the prince's direction. The young man set his jaw, then just nodded.
The princess shook her head. "But...why? How could she..."
"Perhaps she was paid. Perhaps she was merely...resentful of your station. I swear to you, my darling, we will find out. We will learn the names of her co-conspirators no matter the cost. But regardless, you are free from the curse..." His hand guided the prince's to hers, forcing a smile. "And soon you will marry your true love."
The prince tried to smile. The princess just sat, head shaking, watery eyes fixed on the door.
The witch, not having the least attention paid her, slipped from the room.
She'd cried until there was nothing left. The guards had tossed her in a black and tiny cell, taking unseemly pleasure in tearing off the thin gray dress to leave her in the slip underneath. In the time since then, she'd cried, and neither heard nor seen any evidence of another living soul.
It occured to her that since the king didn't actually believe she was a conspirator, she might never even be interrogated. They might simply leave her there to starve.
"It is a heartbreaking fact that the world is not equally kind to every form of love."
Her eyes snapped up. She hadn't heard the cringe-inducing squeal of the iron-barred door opening and closing, but there was the witch, leaning against it. The girl swallowed hard.
Her voice was so small and quiet it didn't even echo in the stone cell, and the witch smiled kindly. "As soon as I saw the way you looked at her."
"Did you know this would happen?"
The girl sucked in a breath of cold, musty air, then let it out much more slowly. "She's awake. She's awake and safe and...and that's all that matters."
"What should I say?" she snapped, sucking in a hiss of air and burying her head in her raking hands. "I tried to help and it took away the only thing I loved! What do you want from me?"
"I want the truth."
The girl's head snapped back up to find that the witch was no longer in the cell, and the face on the other side of the bars was the last one she ever expected to see.
She started to cry again, and whether the princess had the same urge her fair, marble countenance never betrayed.
"Is it true?" The maid answered with more tears, and the blonde's hand tightened around the bar in her grip. "Is it true?"
"No my lady please, I would never harm you, I'd die first," the girl hiccuped, "I swear it, I swear, I'll go to the gallows and never speak a word, but please, don't believe it!"
"Then why should you go to the gallows?" The blonde's voice was a mix of ice and confusion, and the girl winced. Never once in their life together had her mistress spoken to her in anger.
"Please don't ask me that," the girl muttered. "Please don't..."
"You say you wouldn't harm me, and yet my life is worth nothing to you."
"No, my lady, please..."
"I was cursed! I was as good as dead, and you won't speak! You...you selfish cow! If my lo...if His Highness hadn't kissed me..."
The girl's weeping was interrupted by a torrent of laughter. The princess, her princess, already hated her. What reason did she have left to keep it a secret?
"He kissed you weeks ago!"
The blonde's icy facade cracked. "What?"
"'His Highness' kissed you as soon as we even suspected a curse. Every day for a week he kissed you, and you still slept!"
The blonde's hand was slack on the bar. "You're lying."
The maid just shook her head, too tired to protest any longer. She was cold and broken and had no reason left to fight. "Then leave."
Her mistress didn't move. "How did they wake me?"
"They didn't," the maid answered sullenly. "I did."
The princess swallowed. "How?"
The girl looked up, eyes shining with unshed tears...and with something else.
"The only way I could."
The princess blinked, frozen aside from that tiny movement. Then her face disappeared from the hatch, the frantic clack of her fine shoes on the dungeon floor echoing after her. When it faded, the girl began to cry again.
The king rapped softly on the chamber's doorframe. It was one of the rooms in the west wing, usually reserved for guests; his daughter had been avoiding her own chambers all day, and now that the sun was down it seemed likely she was planning to sleep here.
She turned from the starlit window to see both her parents standing in the flickering lamplight of the doorway, brows bent with worry.
"I understand you sent away the man with your supper."
"I'm not hungry, Father."
Her mother took a step forward. "Darling, you haven't eaten in a month."
She held the silence, then turned back to the window. The room overlooked the main village road, and the twinkling lights of evening speckled the landscape. She didn't see them. "I went down to the dungeon."
The king and queen shared a panicked glance. "My love, that...that's not safe."
"Did she really betray me? The only...the only friend, the only companion I've had all these years, did she really curse me?"
The king's jaw clenched. "My love...best not to even think about that. It's behind us. You can concentrate on what matters. You're going to be married. Happy ever after, just like you've always wanted."
"To my true love."
The princess turned, eyes fixed on her father's. "He is my true love. Isn't he?"
The half-darkness almost hid the queen's wince, but not quite. The king set his lips in a firm line that wasn't nearly the smile he intended. "Yes. Of course."
The blonde's hand clenched as she nodded. The king had started to turn when she spoke. "Then why was I asleep for a month?"
Her father blinked. "What?"
"If he's my true love, then...why wouldn't he have kissed me the moment you even suspected it was a sleeping curse?"
The king's face was growing pale. He swallowed. "We...we didn't know until we found a witch..."
"You never even suspected? After I'd been asleep for a week, no one could even guess that it might have been magic without a witch to tell you?" The blonde shook her head, ringlets shaking around eyes that had started to go wild. "All those stories we read when I was a girl, even I know how to break a sleeping curse!"
Her father didn't reply. She turned her eyes to her mother, who wouldn't meet them. "Mother. Why was I asleep for a month?"
The queen swallowed, painted lips quivering. "Don't do this, darling."
"Who kissed me?"
The king stepped in front of his queen, gently pushing her back through the doorway. "My love, you've been through so much. You're confused. We'll discuss everything in the morning."
"We'll discuss it in the morning."
That was the last word before he closed the door behind them, leaving the princess in her temporary quarters. She returned to the window, glancing out over the stars.
Unbidden, her mind returned to the time they'd done that together, one night as girls during her first womanly cycle when the cramps had her in too much pain to sleep. Her bashful young maid had suggested they lay one of the blankets out on the balcony so the cold would soothe her pain, and then had distracted her with a game, trying to find patterns in the stars. She'd fallen asleep to the feeling of warm, slender fingers stroking her hair and a slight, solid body supporting hers, the pain a distant memory.
When she opened the door, the guard at the end of the hall looked up. She motioned for him. "Summon the witch."
He blinked. "Now, Your Highness?"
She didn't look up from the window again until the door opened. The older woman thanked the guard, closed it gently behind her, and then turned her gaze to the blonde.
"How may I be of service, Your Highness?"
"Is it true?"
"Don't," the princess snapped. "Don't toy with me. I am sick to death of being ensorcelled and lied to and toyed with, just tell me!"
The witch's green eyes never left hers, and her non-expression didn't change. "Don't be stupid. Of course it's true."
The blonde's features tightened. "How could you?"
"I did nothing. Why do you think true love's kiss is a balm for curses? Because magic cannot touch it."
"What, then?" She ran a hand through her hair, eyes squeezed shut. "What does it mean? What is true love?"
The witch took a deep breath, then settled onto the edge of the richly-appointed lounge against the wall.
"It's not happy ever after. It's not a guarantee, or an obligation. It's not a protection from misfortune. It's not a forbiddance to love or bed or marry someone else."
The witch took another deep breath. "If you allow her to, she will love you, and you her, more purely and deeply than anyone else on this earth. True love is true...love. Nothing more and nothing less."
During the speech, the princess' hands had dropped from her head, now wrapped around the bodice of her dress. "What do I do now?"
"Now? Now you forget everything I've said. You watch her hang for the crime of saving you, and then you marry a man you've never loved and now fear you never will. You die old, ugly, alone, and unhappy, haunted by the ghosts of the chance you never took and the girl whose only sin was loving you more than you could ever possibly love her. That is what you do."
The sound of the slap echoed against the stone walls. The blonde was staring at her own hand in shock, but the witch barely reacted. "No?" The witch smiled. "Then what do you do?"
The second round of tears brought on by her mistress' interrogation was long gone. When she pressed her eye against the crack in the top of the wall she could see the sun had gone down long ago, and they hadn't brought her food, water, or light. From the utter lack of sound, she didn't think there was even a guard in the hall. She was more convinced than ever that, rather than the scandal of a hanging, the king would simply leave her here until everyone had forgotten. Until even the princess had forgotten.
And then, suddenly, the stillness was broken. The sound of bootheels echoed on the stone, and the hatch on the door filled with orange light. Forgetting herself, starved for anything that would break her loneliness or answer her fears either way, she jumped to her feet and pressed her face against the door.
When a face appeared on the other side of the bars, she gasped. "My...my lady?"
"Step back from the door."
She complied on instinct, too used to years of heeding the blonde's commands, and by the time she thought better of it the door was open. The princess was wearing her riding cape and held a lantern aloft in one hand, eyes meeting the girl's in the glow. It took everything she had not to throw herself into the blonde's skirts, sobbing and begging for forgiveness, though she no longer knew for what.
"Do you remember my fourteenth birthday?" The blonde's voice was small and far away, and the maid blinked. "I had a new dress, and I was so proud, and the entire court celebrated. And then...I overheard one of the courtiers say 'How embarrassing for that poor girl, dressing a royal up in a red bodice like a whore.' And I burst into tears right in the middle of the party, and no one else knew why."
"You spent the rest of the night locked away in your rooms," she murmured. "You wouldn't let anyone in but me."
"And when I did, do you remember what you said?"
"I said..." The girl swallowed, hands worrying the frayed hem of her damp, dirty slip. "I said she was an idiot and that I...I'd never seen anyone look so beautiful."
The blonde had stepped closer as she spoke. All it took was the slightest movement of her chin.
And just like the last time they'd kissed, she was suddenly awake. Years of memories came rushing back, restless nights spent in each other's arms, the soft shiver of gentle hands brushing her hair, the inexplicable heat when those same hands helped her dress. When she pulled back, the lingering brush of lips like silk on fire, her eyes were wide. Her maid's were full of tears.
"Come with me."
The girl looked down to find her hand wrapped in her mistress'. She blinked. "Wh...where?"
The princess smiled, brittle and unsure but a smile nonetheless. "With me."
To hinder the efforts of escaping prisoners, the route from the dungeon to the stables was long and circuitous by design. Neither girl said a word, hands intertwined, glancing nervously ahead, behind, and at each other as they navigated the tight, black stone corridors of the servants' halls. Their path took them past the kitchens, where they stopped long enough for the blonde to fill a sack while her companion looked on in disbelieving awe.
When they emerged, they heard the clanging of the alarm bell.
"She's gone! The traitor's free! Protect Her Highness!"
"Run!" the blonde shrieked, grabbing the girl's hand tighter and practically dragging her down the sooty hallway. They turned the corner past the privies just in time to sidestep a guard trying to run as he pulled on his tunic, the princess pressing the maid's body into a narrow alcove. She let out a soft gasp as their bodies touched, and her eyes flicked up to her mistress'. Before she could be overcome, the blonde grabbed her hand again. They ran for the next corner, and this time it was the blonde who gasped.
The prince was half-dressed, hand on the hilt of his sword. "Your Highness! I..." His words died as he took in the totality of the scene, face falling and sword-hand going slack.
The blonde glanced at the girl tightly gripping her hand, then back at her intended. The first image she'd seen when she awoke, his sword raised over her head, flashed in her mind again. Her empty hand tightened into a fist, and her body tensed to run. "Please."
The prince's hand tightened on the hilt, and the maid let out a quiet sob, wrapping her free arm around the blonde's back. The princess slid in front of her, shielding her with her body, terrified eyes never leaving his. The prince scowled.
Then he shook his head, turned, and walked away.
The king had been awakened by the alarm bells; by the time he was dressed, the guards at the front gates were already yelling for him.
"Your Majesty! The traitor's escaped! She's stolen the princess' horse!"
He grunted as a guard helped him onto the wall. "Where?" He followed the officer's hand, and squinted down the village road into the pre-dawn light. "Who is that? Who's with her?"
The king and half the guards spun to find the witch leaning against the ladder, eyes flickering and flashing in the torchlight. "What have you done?" he growled, and the witch sighed.
"Nothing. As I told your daughter, true love is well beyond my power."
"Guards! Kill the witch!" The guards standing around them shuffled nervously, glancing at each other, but not one drew his sword. The king ground his teeth. "Stop them! I command you!"
"That's beyond my power as well, Your Majesty."
The king scowled. "I will not allow this, do you hear me? A witch and a...a whore! This was your aim all along, you twisted my daughter into...into degeneracy!"
The witch shrugged simply. "Who gave her a handmaid all those years ago? If anyone here set this course for her, Majesty, it wasn't me."
The king's face burned. "I will not allow this!"
"Then stop them. I said it was beyond my power, Majesty, not yours. They're still in range of your archers. You need only command them to shoot your daughter, and free her from the curse of loving someone you do not."
The king's glare twisted into grief. The guard officer's eyes flicked nervously between his liege lord and the woman staring him down. "Sir? What do we do? Should we pursue?"
The king didn't answer. As he dropped to the stone, the witch turned and headed back down the ladder.
No one even noticed the two women on horseback disappear over the horizon.
They rode until the sun was up; the village was past, and the river was in view, its banks dotted with budding poplars. The maid didn't see any of it; in the face of all the stress and excitement, then being wrapped in her mistress' arms atop the gently-bobbing animal, she'd fallen asleep as soon as they'd realized they weren't being pursued and slowed their pace from a gallop.
For an hour, the princess had watched her sleep, girlish face cradled against her breast. When she could no longer resist stroking a hand down her cheek, the girl's eyes finally fluttered open. "My...my lady?"
"We're away," she murmured. "We're away, and we're safe, and we're...we're together." She touched the smaller girl's cheek again, and a warm, dainty, callused hand wrapped around hers. The princess gave her a brittle smile. "I didn't...I didn't think...what do we do now? Where do we go? Do we go overseas, or into the woods, or...join the caravans, or..."
The main shook her head fondly, memories of all the stories they'd read, all the daydreams about far-off lands and untold horizons. "I don't know, my lady."
The princess' smile brightened. "I don't think you should call me that anymore."
"But it's what you are." Her grip on the blonde's hand tightened, her own coming up to brush the hair out of her shining eyes with a timid glance. "You're my lady."
The blonde let out a chirp of delighted laughter, and she leaned down for another kiss. She hadn't realized before how many sleepless nights she'd spent wanting to do it, but from here, sitting on horseback, the castle one way and the entire world the other, it was almost laughable. True love's kiss.
She pulled her up into another. When they pulled away, their shaking fingers were wiping the tears from each other's cheeks.
"And you're mine."
The girl's lips split into a delighted grin. "Will we...will we be happy ever after?"
The princess laughed. "I don't know." Her eyes turned down to the woman in her arms, her hands tightened on the soft skin against hers. "But...we're happy now. Aren't we?"
The maid laughed as well as she leaned in for another kiss. The rising sun had banished the chill, and the river gurgled merrily beneath them, and the air smelled like spring, and the only woman she'd ever loved was finally, at long last, holding her in her arms.
"Yes. Yes, we're happy now."
And they were.
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