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art by Billy Sagulo

Asleep

Jeremy Minton alternates between creating software and writing speculative fiction. When not at his desk in the Cambridgeshire house which he shares with various domestic Goddesses, he enjoys cooking, swimming, watching cricket, and sipping the odd glass of English wine. His stories have also appeared in F&SF and The Third Alternative.
A skull stares from the floor beside the bed. Grasses sprout from the hollows of its eyes. Ralph hardly notices. He scans the grass for hidden thorns, for anything that slashes, stings or bites. Finding nothing dangerous, he puts it out of mind.
It's just another skull. He's seen so many bones by now, they've ceased to signify. They're like the flies, the flowers, the green-tinged light. They're like the cracked and peeling walls, the rot, the dust, the creepers on the floor, the sleepers dozing in their cloaks of mold. Tom had said--
But Ralph does not want to think about Tom, not while Tom still hangs upon the thorns just twelve yards from the bottom of the tower. Trying to forget his friend (all freshly dead, still firm of flesh, not picked clean like the one who went before) Ralph perches on the bed. Flies jostle and buzz. Creepers fight for light. Ralph stares at the figure laid out on the counterpane.
This is Tom's goal, Tom's girl, Tom's prize, the thing he died for. Golden hair, pink skin, soft palms half curled in sleep. Ralph brushes cobwebs, dust and petals from her face. He lowers his mouth to hers. And almost chokes. Her breath is rank: thick with sleep and sticky, warm decay.
Tilting his head, he has another go. This, after all, is how it must be done. And with Tom dead, it's up to him to do it. But it doesn't feel good. He does not feel good. His heart's too full of grief to feel like kissing. And his body stinks. It is even worse than her breath. He is sweaty and dirty. His clothing torn, skin bloody from days spent hacking through thorns and creepers, nettles, suckers, and ivy.
Pretty poor show for a suitor. He wishes he could wash, render himself marginally fitter for meeting a princess. But how? There's no water in this palace, can't have been for years. The pumps are still as tombstones. It gets wet when it rains, he supposes, when water cascades through those cracks in the roof and quickens the mold on the blankets, drapes, and tapestries, on the courtier's fine clothes. But it has been hot and dry for weeks; for longer, even, than Tom and he spent hacking through the thorns. There is no water.
Ralph wonders: Should he return to the well in the courtyard? See if there's any water there which isn't green and stagnant? The thought is... unthinkable. It's not just the heat, the flies, and bones. There's Tom as well. Ralph can't face the thought of facing Tom.
There's a jug on the sill, piled high with petals and pulped fruit. Ralph crosses to it, skirting a shattered arm and a cage of ribs that birds have made their nests in. The jug's bone dry, a green crust round its lip. Ralph is footsore, heart sore, tired as death. He has to get this over with.
He returns to the sleeper, places his hands on the pillow, almost touching her hair. His lacerations slowly seep, leaving sticky palm prints. All he can think of is Tom.
Tom with his dreams, his plan to succeed together when so many others had so singularly failed. To brave the hateful, lethal thorns, to wake the sleepers, break the spell, split the reward for saving the whole palace.
They had almost made it. After days of watching one another's backs, looking out for lashweed, stingwort, rotrope, for thorns that tore and leaves which dripped with poison, they had beaten a path right to the final wall.
It only took one slip, one momentary lapse. Ralph heard the screams and turned to see Tom twelve feet up, a thorn noose choking his life. Flailing whip-like tendrils slashed his exposed skin, patterning white rose heads with fresh streaks of vivid red.
Ralph hardly recalls the last steps of the journey. Blind luck, not skill, had steered him to the broken door and up the stairs, along the avenue of bones.
Luck left him here, amongst the corpses and the dreamers, sitting by the Princess on the bed. He leans forward a third time. Then stops. Draws back.
This is how you do it. Everybody knows.
But how do they know? Who told them?
Encircled by flowers, by pollen and heat, by flies and slumberous rot, Ralph looks around. Sleepers and skeletons, dreamers and dead. So many dead. Dead in the courtyards, dead in the halls, dead on the stairway, dead right up to the door. A corpse at least for every living dreamer.
All these bodies and bones. Knights and princes, tricksters and rogues, heroes, thieves, and madmen. Some had died ten miles from here, caught and torn by the very first of the thorns. Some had made it right to the foot of the bed. None, it seemed, had taken the last step.
The Princess twitches in her sleep, her fingers flexing. Look at this place, Ralph thinks. Just look around. Forget what you know and think what you can see.
What he can see is a castle full of bones, a girl whose breath is rotten with decay, a princess sleeping snug amongst the dead. He sees a girl with nails of thorns, and flesh all plump and rosy and well fed. What he sees is a cave with many footprints going in, and no prints coming out.
Ralph takes a long, hard look at the Princess. And leaves her sleeping.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, December 5th, 2013


I wrote this on my birthday. It was like somebody gave me a gift. I was trying to fix a hole in an entirely different story and my subconscious delivered these characters, this situation. "No," I said sternly. "That won't do at all. That won't fix my problem. Although," I added, stopping to reconsider, "It sounds like a fun story. Somebody should write that story." So I did.

- Jeremy Minton

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