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The Sleeper and the Spindle

Neil Gaiman

  For Holly and Maddy, my daughters who woke me up


  For my daughter Katy, on the beginning of her quest


  t was the closest kingdom to the queen’s, as the crow flies, but not even the crows flew it. The high mountain range that served as the border between the two kingdoms discouraged crows as much as it discouraged people, and it was considered unpassable.

  More than one enterprising merchant, on each side of the mountains, had commissioned folk to hunt for the mountain pass that would, if it were there, have made a rich man or woman of anyone who controlled it. The silks of Dorimar could have been in Kanselaire in weeks, in months, not years. But there was no such pass to be found, and so, although the two kingdoms shared a common border, nobody crossed from one kingdom to the next.

  Even the dwarfs, who were tough, and hardy, and composed of magic as much as of flesh and blood, could not go over the mountain range.

  This was not a problem for the dwarfs. They did not go over the mountain range. They went under it.

  Three dwarfs, travelling as swiftly as one through the dark paths beneath the mountains:

  “Hurry! Hurry!” said the dwarf at the rear. “We have to buy her the finest silken cloth in Dorimar. If we do not hurry, perhaps it will be sold, and we will be forced to buy her the second finest cloth.”

  “We know! We know!” said the dwarf at the front. “And we shall buy her a case to carry it back in, so it will remain perfectly clean and untouched by dust.”

  The dwarf in the middle said nothing. He was holding his stone tightly, not dropping it or losing it, and was concentrating on nothing else but this. The stone was a ruby, rough-hewn from the rock and the size of a hen’s egg. It was worth a kingdom when cut and set, and would be easily exchanged for the finest silks of Dorimar.

  It would not have occurred to the dwarfs to give the young queen anything they had dug themselves from beneath the earth. That would have been too easy, too routine. It’s the distance that makes a gift magical, so the dwarfs believed.

  he queen woke early that morning. “A week from today,” she said aloud. “A week from today, I shall be married.”

  It seemed both unlikely and extremely final. She wondered how she would feel to be a married woman. It would be the end of her life, she decided, if life was a time of choices. In a week from now, she would have no choices. She would reign over her people. She would have children. Perhaps she would die in childbirth, perhaps she would die as an old woman, or in battle. But the path to her death, heartbeat by heartbeat, would be inevitable.

  She could hear the carpenters in the meadows beneath the castle, building the seats that would allow her people to watch her marry. Each hammer blow sounded like a heartbeat.

  he three dwarfs scrambled out of a hole in the side of the riverbank, and clambered up into the meadow, one, two, three. They climbed to the top of a granite outcrop, stretched, kicked, jumped and stretched themselves once more. Then they sprinted north, towards the cluster of low buildings that made the village of Giff, and in particular to the village inn.

  The innkeeper was their friend: they had brought him a bottle of Kanselaire wine – deep red, sweet and rich, and nothing like the sharp, pale wines of those parts – as they always did. He would feed them, and send them on their way, and advise them.

  The innkeeper, chest as huge as his barrels, beard as bushy and as orange as a fox’s brush, was in the taproom. It was early in the morning, and on the dwarfs’ previous visits at that time of day the room had been empty, but now there must have been thirty people in that place, and not one of them looked happy.

  The dwarfs, who had expected to sidle in to an empty taproom, found all eyes upon them.

  “Goodmaster Foxen,” said the tallest dwarf to the innkeeper.

  “Lads,” said the innkeeper, who thought that the dwarfs were boys, for all that they were four, perhaps five times his age, “I know you travel the mountain passes. We need to get out of here.”

  “What’s happening?” said the smallest of the dwarfs.

  “Sleep!” said the sot by the window.

  “Plague!” said a finely dressed woman.

  “Doom!” exclaimed a tinker, his saucepans rattling as he spoke. “Doom is coming!”

  “We travel to the capital,” said the tallest dwarf, who was no bigger than a child. “Is there plague in the capital?”

  “It is not plague,” said the sot by the window, whose beard was long and grey, and stained yellow with beer and wine. “It is sleep, I tell you.”

  “How can sleep be a plague?” asked the smallest dwarf, who was beardless.

  “A witch!” said the sot.

  “A bad fairy,” corrected a fat-faced man.

  “She was an enchantress, as I heard it,” interposed the pot-girl.

  “Whatever she was,” said the sot, “she was not invited to a birthing celebration.”

  “That’s all tosh,” said the tinker. “She would have cursed the princess whether she’d been invited to the naming-day party or not. She was one of those forest witches, driven to the margins a thousand years ago, and a bad lot. She cursed the babe at birth, such that when the girl was eighteen she would prick her finger and sleep forever.”

  The fat-faced man wiped his forehead. He was sweating, although it was not warm. “As I heard it, she was going to die, but another fairy, a good one this time, commuted her magical death sentence to one of sleep. Magical sleep,” he added.

  “So,” said the sot. “She pricked her finger on something-or-other. And she fell asleep. And the other people in the castle – the lord and the lady, the butcher, baker, milkmaid, lady-in-waiting – all of them slept, as she slept. None of them has aged a day since they closed their eyes.”

  “There were roses,” said the pot-girl. “Roses that grew up around the castle. And the forest grew thicker, until it became impassable. This was, what, a hundred years ago?”

  “Sixty. Perhaps eighty,” said a woman who had not spoken until now. “I know, because my Aunt Letitia remembered it happening, when she was a girl, and she was no more than seventy when she died of the bloody flux, and that was only five years ago come Summer’s End.”

  “. . . And brave men,” continued the pot-girl. “Aye, and brave women too, they say, have attempted to travel to the Forest of Acaire, to the castle at its heart, to wake the princess, and, in waking her, to wake all the sleepers, but each and every one of those heroes ended their lives lost in the forest, murdered by bandits, or impaled upon the thorns of the rose bushes that encircle the castle –”

  “Wake her how?” asked the middle-sized dwarf, hand still clutching his rock, for he thought in essentials.

  “The usual method,” said the pot-girl, and she blushed. “Or so the tales have it.”

  “Right,” said the tallest dwarf. “So, bowl of cold water poured on the face and a cry of ‘Wakey! Wakey!’?”

  “A kiss,” said the sot. “But nobody has ever got that close. They’ve been trying for sixty years or more. They say the witch –”

  “Fairy,” said the fat man.

  “Enchantress,” corrected the pot-girl.

  “Whatever she is,” said the sot. “She’s still there. That’s what they say. If you get that close. If you make it through the roses, she’ll be waiting for you. She’s old as the hills, evil as a snake, all malevolence and magic and death.”

  The smallest dwarf tipped his head on one side. “So, there’s a sleeping woman in a castle, and perhaps a witch or fairy there with her. Why is there also a plague?”
br />   “Over the last year,” said the fat-faced man. “It started in the north, beyond the capital. I heard about it first from travellers coming from Stede, which is near the Forest of Acaire.”

  “People fell asleep in the towns,” said the pot-girl.

  “Lots of people fall asleep,” said the tallest dwarf. Dwarfs sleep rarely: twice a year at most, for several weeks at a time, but he had slept enough in his long lifetime that he did not regard sleep as anything special or unusual.

  “They fall asleep whatever they are doing, and they do not wake up,” said the sot. “Look at us. We fled the towns to come here. We have brothers and sisters, wives and children, sleeping now in their houses or cowsheds, at their workbenches. All of us.”

  “It is moving faster and faster,” said the thin, red-haired woman who had not spoken previously. “Now it covers a mile, perhaps two miles, each day.”

  “It will be here tomorrow,” said the sot, and he drained his flagon, gestured to the innkeeper to fill it once more. “There is nowhere for us to go to escape it. Tomorrow, everything here will be asleep. Some of us have resolved to escape into drunkenness before the sleep takes us.”

  “What is there to be afraid of in sleep?” asked the smallest dwarf. “It’s just sleep. We all do it.”

  “Go and look,” said the sot. He threw back his head, and drank as much as he could from his flagon. Then he looked back at them, with eyes unfocused, as if he were surprised to still see them there. “Well, go on. Go and look for yourselves.” He swallowed the remaining drink, then he lay his head upon the table.

  They went and looked.

  sleep?” asked the queen. “Explain yourselves. How so, asleep?”

  The dwarf stood upon the table so he could look her in the eye. “Asleep,” he repeated. “Sometimes crumpled upon the ground. Sometimes standing. They sleep in their smithies, at their awls, on milking stools. The animals sleep in the fields. Birds too, slept, and we saw them in trees or dead and broken in fields where they had fallen from the sky.”

  The queen wore a wedding gown, whiter than the snow. Around her, attendants, maids of honour, dressmakers and milliners clustered and fussed.

  “And why did you three also not fall asleep?”

  The dwarf shrugged. He had a russet-brown beard that had always made the queen think of an angry hedgehog attached to the lower portion of his face. “Dwarfs are magical things. This sleep is a magical thing also. I felt sleepy, mind.”

  “And then?”

  She was the queen, and she was questioning him as if they were alone. Her attendants began removing her gown, taking it away, folding and wrapping it, so the final laces and ribbons could be attached to it, so it would be perfect.

  Tomorrow was the queen’s wedding day. Everything needed to be perfect.

  “By the time we returned to Foxen’s Inn they were all asleep, every man jack-and-jill of them. It is expanding, the zone of the spell, a few miles every day.”

  The mountains that separated the two lands were impossibly high, but not wide. The queen could count the miles. She pushed one pale hand through her raven-black hair, and she looked most serious.

  “What do you think, then?” she asked the dwarf. “If I went there. Would I sleep, as they did?”

  He scratched his arse, unselfconsciously. “You slept for a year,” he said. “And then you woke again, none the worse for it. If any of you big people can stay awake there, it’s you.”

  Outside, the townsfolk were hanging bunting in the streets and decorating their doors and windows with white flowers. Silverware had been polished and protesting children had been forced into tubs of lukewarm water (the oldest child got the first dunk and the hottest water) and scrubbed with rough flannels until their faces were raw and red. They were then ducked under the water, and the backs of their ears were washed as well.

  “I am afraid,” said the queen, “that there will be no wedding tomorrow.”

  She called for a map of the kingdom, identified the villages closest to the mountains, sent messengers to tell the inhabitants to evacuate to the coast or risk royal displeasure.

  She called for her first minister and informed him that he would be responsible for the kingdom in her absence, and that he should do his best neither to lose it nor to break it.

  She called for her fiancé and told him not to take on so, and that they would still be married, even if he was but a prince and she a queen, and she chucked him beneath his pretty chin and kissed him until he smiled.

  She called for her mail shirt.

  She called for her sword.

  She called for provisions, and for her horse, and then she rode out of the palace, towards the east.

  t was a full day’s ride before she saw, ghostly and distant, like clouds against the sky, the shape of the mountains that bordered the edge of her kingdom.

  The dwarfs were waiting for her, at the last inn in the foothills of the mountains, and they led her down deep into the tunnels, the way that the dwarfs travel. She had lived with them, when she was little more than a child, and she was not afraid.

  The dwarfs did not speak as they walked the deep paths, except, on more than one occasion, to say, “Mind your head.”

  “Have you noticed,” asked the shortest of the dwarfs, “something unusual?” They had names, the dwarfs, but human beings were not permitted to know what they were, such things being sacred.

  The queen had a name, but nowadays people only ever called her Your Majesty. Names are in short supply in this telling.

  “I have noticed many unusual things,” said the tallest of the dwarfs.

  They were in Goodmaster Foxen’s inn.

  “Have you noticed, that even amongst all the sleepers, there is something that does not sleep?”

  “I have not,” said the second tallest, scratching his beard. “For each of them is just as we left him or her. Head down, drowsing, scarcely breathing enough to disturb the cobwebs that now festoon them . . .”

  “The cobweb spinners do not sleep,” said the tallest dwarf.

  It was the truth. Industrious spiders had threaded their webs from finger to face, from beard to table. There was a modest web between the deep cleavage of the pot-girl’s breasts. There was a thick cobweb that stained the sot’s beard grey. The webs shook and swayed in the draught of air from the open door.

  “I wonder,” said one of the dwarfs, “whether they will starve and die, or whether there is some magical source of energy that gives them the ability to sleep for a long time.”

  “I would presume the latter,” said the queen. “If, as you say, the original spell was cast by a witch, seventy years ago, and those who were there sleep even now, like Red-Beard beneath his hill, then obviously they have not starved or aged or died.”

  The dwarfs nodded. “You are very wise,” said a dwarf. “You always were wise.”

  The queen made a sound of horror and of surprise.

  “That man,” she said, pointing. “He looked at me.”

  It was the fat-faced man. He had moved slowly, tearing the webbing, moved his face so that he was facing her. He had looked at her, yes, but he had not opened his eyes.

  “People move in their sleep,” said the smallest dwarf.

  “Yes,” said the queen. “They do. But not like that. That was too slow, too stretched, too meant.”

  “Or perhaps you imagined it,” said a dwarf.

  The rest of the sleeping heads in that place moved slowly, in a stretched way, as if they meant to move. Now each of them was facing the queen.

  “You did not imagine it,” said the same dwarf. He was the one with the red-brown beard. “But they are only looking at you with their eyes closed. That is not a bad thing.”

  The lips of the sleepers moved in unison. No voice, only the whisper of breath through sleeping lips.

id they just say what I thought they said?” asked the shortest dwarf.

  “They said, ‘Mama. It is my birthday,’ ” said the queen, and she shivered.

  They rode no horses. The horses they passed all slept, standing in fields, and could not be woken.

  The queen walked fast. The dwarfs walked twice as fast as she did, in order to keep up.

  The queen found herself yawning.

  “Bend over, towards me,” said the tallest dwarf. She did so. The dwarf slapped her around the face. “Best to stay awake,” he said, cheerfully.

  “I only yawned,” said the queen.

  “How long, do you think, to the castle?” asked the smallest dwarf.

  “If I remember my tales and my maps correctly,” said the queen, “the Forest of Acaire is about seventy miles from here. Three days’ march.” And then she said, “I will need to sleep tonight. I cannot walk for another three days.”

  “Sleep, then,” said the dwarfs. “We will wake you at sunrise.”

  She went to sleep that night in a hayrick, in a meadow, with the dwarfs around her, wondering if she would ever wake to see another morning.

  he castle in the Forest of Acaire was a grey, blocky thing, all grown over with climbing roses. They tumbled down into the moat and grew almost as high as the tallest tower. Each year the roses grew out further: close to the stone of the castle there were only dead, brown stems and creepers, with old thorns sharp as knives. Fifteen feet away, the plants were green and the blossoming roses grew thickly. The climbing roses, living and dead, were a brown skeleton, splashed with colour that rendered the grey fastness less precise.

  The trees in the Forest of Acaire were pressed thickly together, and the forest floor was dark. A century before, it had been a forest only in name: it had been hunting lands, a royal park, home to deer and wild boar and birds beyond counting. Now, the forest was a dense tangle, and the old paths through it were overgrown and forgotten.