The paths look different in the dark.
No sense of cardinal directions here, the creature who maps these woods is not swayed by any magnetic north.
She’s more partial to nightingales, anyway.
Still, the will-o-wisp’s steps are sure, as they trace the winding shapes of a dream-logic’s journey.
The paths look different, but that’s the trick. To not bother looking, to trust in the dreamer’s innate sense of wonder, to get hopelessly lost.
This particular will-o-wisp, who stole a name from the wind almost a century ago, who keeps it in her lantern where it plays the role of heartbeat, is especially good at getting lost.
Her name is Aerie, although no one calls her that. Instead, she introduces herself as Secret, with that curling smile that always betrays her punchlines.
That’s fine. She’s never been one for landing.
Secret knows she’s getting close when she starts to shiver. She’s a summer child, glows best in the mists of warm nights and false sunrises. The Winter Court always felt as distant as a dream.
Until, of course, her dreams showed her the way.
She spins, takes in the snow as it falls around her, raises a hand to encourage it to stick. With it, she collects enough to make a dress, simple and soft and as white as her surroundings.
Will-o-wisps are not traditionally ladies. But little summer creatures don’t traditionally pray to winter monarchs, either. And she has chosen both, and everything that comes with them. Pronouns and presentation, shaking frost out of her curls as her lantern flame takes on the shadows of snowflakes.
There are rules, to entering another’s Court. But rules and the dreaming don’t always get along, sleep making the hard lines slippery, vague.
Is she really even here? Secret couldn’t say for sure. All she knows is when she wakes up, it’s to cold lips, and a breath she can see, just for a moment.
It doesn’t need to be real to be true, and Secret’s never been terribly tied to reality, but she knows Truth as well as any fairy.
She dances through a side entrance that doesn’t exist in the daylight and is met with the most beautiful music.
It was the music that led her here that first night, sweeter than any lullaby. She couldn’t tell you the tune, if you were to ask her while waking, but when caught up in the dream, she knows every word.
And if she were ever to forget, to stumble, there’s cold hands waiting to catch her.
She may be just a small thing, but she knows a sovereign when she sees one, even if it’s not one she belongs to. She’d bowed the first time, frozen in terror at having disturbed the King of the Winter Court, in all of her glory.
But the King had laughed, pulled her up with a grip that showed ice could be soft too.
“Hello, dream thing,” she had said, and Secret had responded in kind. “Are you lost?”
“I hope so,” she’d responded, dazzled by every bright angle of this beautiful lady.
Her laugh sounded like ice crystals, and Secret can remember how much she wanted to throw up her flame, to be caught in the refracting angles of the King’s voice forever.
Theirs is not a forbidden romance, a tragedy in two courts. Nothing so dramatic as all that. Just two sleepers, keeping each other company. Kisses like frostbite and matches, an ease to it all that neither of them is awarded when the sun is watching.
The King greets Secret with an embrace, and Secret shines her brightest, just so she can see what shadows the two of them cast, when they are close to being One.
“Hello, Aerie,” she says, and that’s how Secret knows it is a dream—she feels no fear, with how the King speaks her true name.
“Hello, Khi,” she says back, and lets herself be led to Khi’s quarters.
“Tell me of the flowers,” Khi asks, and Aerie does, words spilling from her lips like little blinking lights, to guide them both home.
Some of the stories are even true.
There’s no harm in truth, here. Not in dreaming.
In dreams, everything is just a touch north of true.
And so two creatures sit, an impossible meeting, and one should shatter and the other should splutter, but neither do.
Instead, they just are. Here, in a place that doesn’t exist, not really.
But something doesn’t have to be real, to be truth.
And that’s as true a story as any.
|Ziggy Schutz (she/him/he/her) is a queer, disabled writer who is at all times looking for ways to make his favorite fairytales and horror stories reflect people who look a little more like her. You can find more about his writing on Twitter at @ziggytschutz.|