Clara felt the magic trickle up from the bare skin of her palm. With a cold crackle, the almonds transformed. Seven perfect diamonds. Even in the dim light of fog and cloud, they glittered. Clara sighed as her vigor was drained by the spell.
She looked ahead to the bridge. She had not expected fog. A shape emerged from it.
She held out the handful of diamonds. Enough to pay the toll for the next thousand travelers.
“It is not enough,” the bridge troll said.
“It’s all I have.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Let me search my cloak. I may be able to find a few more.”
“You mean you can make more.” The troll took a step closer. Clara retreated. He sneered. “Yes, you can make more, and so you are the true treasure. You are the toll.”
Clara stepped back again, her heart’s beat quickening. “If I am the toll, then I cannot cross the bridge. And if I cannot cross, there is no reason for me to pay the toll.”
The troll stepped toward her again. She was not yet on the bridge, but Clara was perplexed. She could have sworn she had already paid the toll. She could have sworn that the troll had happily accepted the diamonds and let her pass. She had come upon an inn. So tired was she that she’d paid for a room, ignored her hunger, and…dropped into sleep.
“I’m dreaming,” she muttered to herself. It was no wonder that she could feel her heart beat.
The fog seemed to surge, engulfing the troll, rolling past Clara, and sinking until it was just to her knees. The troll had vanished. Another stood in his place. She wore a cloak of purple velvet. Her hair was loose upon her shoulders, but on her head was a crown. The crown glowed like moonlight against the dim fog.
Clara’s breath caught. She was in a dream, and so this might be an illusion. But Clara dared to bow.
For standing before her was the Royal Dreamer. The very person Clara had been seeking. The sovereign of the kingdom in whose borders she now slept.
The Royal Dreamer spoke. “What have you brought into my kingdom?”
“A plea, Your Majesty,” Clara said. She lifted her left hand and showed the signet ring on her thumb. “An urgent plea for your aid.”
“Your plea is welcome. Your curse is not.”
“My plea concerns my curse,” Clara said. She straightened but did not meet the Royal Dreamer’s gaze.
“Turn back,” the queen said. “I want no curses in my kingdom.”
“Forgive me, but I had to come closer to your borders to be sure that you could reach my dreams.” Clara explained as quickly as she could. “I am not the only one who is cursed. My sister. My husband. I have traveled far. I have tried a hundred different ways to break or alter these curses. I would have gladly taken their curses upon myself. But I couldn’t touch them. If I touch anyone or anything that I love, they turn to diamond.”
“And it was one who cursed you all?”
Clara nodded. “A gnome. He stole my husband’s treasure. We stopped him. Imprisoned him. But he managed to hide one pearl and one gold coin. Enough to grant him the power to escape. He taunted me. He told me that what I love would become what he loves. And what he loves best is treasure.”
“My sympathies are with you,” the Royal Dreamer said. “I would help you find this gnome, if I could. But gnomes do not dream. You must seek him yourself.”
“I have sought the one who cursed us, and seek him still. But in my travels, Your Majesty, I came upon a story of you. My sister is cursed to sleep. Perhaps with your help…I might be able to speak to her. Rose is a scholar of potions and healing. If our places were reversed, if she were the one who was awake, I am certain she would have broken our curses long ago. I need her guidance.”
“My heart is not hard,” said the queen. “I am moved by your plea. But I cannot abide curses in my realm. You must turn back.”
Clara lifted her gaze, only to see that the Royal Dreamer had vanished, and the fog was rushing toward her…
Clara woke to the sound of chirping and trilling. A beam of spring sunlight warmed the room in which she’d slept all day and night.
Outside, through the window, she looked down upon freshly opened buds glistening with dew. All would have been beautiful if not for the curse upon herself and half her family.
And if not for her failure.
Clara’s heart was made of diamond. But that is not why her heart was so heavy that morning.
In the first months of her quest, she had tried to make diamonds as payments and gifts for the people she encountered, trying to do some good with her curse. But rumors followed her a few times, of people finding treasures left behind by some “diamond fairy,” and then being robbed. Thankfully, there was no word of beatings or deaths. But Clara knew that the gnome followed, that he was the diamond thief. So she stopped making diamonds. For she had made a plan. And the first part of that plan was to draw the gnome out.
But that plan had failed.
Surely, the gnome had tired of waiting. Surely, he had cursed many others and was off collecting the fruits of their misery. And the more stolen treasure he amassed, the more powerful he became.
That was Clara’s second reason for deciding never to make another diamond. She did not desire to grow her enemy’s power. It was difficult not to mistakenly touch something she loved. She loved so many foods that there was little she could eat that would not turn to diamond as soon as her lips touched the food. She was not certain how long she could maintain her resistance.
A day would come when she would fail.
The dreaming queen was her best hope. She would not anger the one who was her best hope. But she could not turn back. Not yet.
Even queens needed riches. This queen most of all. For it was rumored that she had drained the royal coffers in her quest to save her own family. The mother and father who were stolen from her. But Clara’s diamonds could easily refill those coffers. If only the queen would return, so that Clara could make the offer.
“I must convince her,” Clara muttered to herself.
Clara moved no further into the kingdom of Queen Lunette, known to her people as the Royal Dreamer. But nor did Clara turn back.
She skirted the border, pacing in a nearby wood, rehearsing what she would say to the queen, fearing that she had already spoiled her one and only chance.
“Snow-bright skin and night-black hair,” a voice said.
Clara stopped mid-step and spun around, searching for the owner of the voice, finding him.
“And there are those eyes of twinkling sapphire,” said the gnome. “All these many moons of rough travel, and still you are a beauty. Though…those early months were not so rough.”
He was perched upon the root of a tree that sat on a rise of earth.
“You searched for me in earnest then,” he said. “You sought to kill me.”
“That I did.”
“You’ve succeeded now in drawing me out.”
“And foolishly, you have shown yourself.”
“You will kill me now?”
Clara drew in a careful breath. “You would evade me, if I tried. You are too powerful now.”
“Is that why you gave up on trying to kill me? Here, what if I place myself at your mercy?” He gestured to the dagger at her belt. “Drive it through my heart. I’ll stand here and let you do. No tricks. No illusions.”
Clara glowered at the gnome. “Have you grown tired of your life? I’ll do you the favor of ending it, as soon as you end all the curses you’ve ever laid.”
The gnome laughed. “It is said that humor and beauty are never paired. Are you an exception? Or is the saying untrue.”
“I will not kill you, gnome.”
“Because as long as you are alive, you can lift the curses on me and my kin. And if I kill you, I will destroy my soul. I will lose myself and all whom I love.”
“And so, I offer you a bargain instead.”
The gnome lifted a brow. He slapped his palms on his kneecaps and leaned forward. “How intriguing.”
“Lift the curses from my sister and my husband, and I will make more diamonds for you. As many or as few as you desire.”
The gnome shook his head. “There is one problem. That brute of a husband will come hunting me just as you have. Or maybe it will by your gentle sister. Or even her own meek little husband. But perhaps, if I lay a spell of forgetfulness…”
Clara’s anger flared. “No! No more curses!”
The gnome seemed unmoved. He crossed his arms. “Perhaps, as a show of faith, I will lift the curse from one of your loved ones. Choose, your sister or your husb—“
The gnome began to laugh. “Ah, then she must be the more useful of the two.”
He declared that he had no reason to grant Clara any favors. He rejected her offer of a bargain. As she approached him, he slipped away and ran off.
Clara’s stomach bubbled like a cauldron stirred with all her troubles. She ate and drank her dinner with no pleasure, but only to maintain the strength of her body. But her mind and soul too needed nourishment. So she welcomed the diversion of hearing a story. She listened to a bard tell the tale of a mage-witch who wore an enchanted cloak of blood, and her familiar, a wolf who could turn invisible. The tale was almost as entertaining as the whispered corrections of the man who sat at a nearby table. He confidently explained to his companion that witches actually dressed in black and had cat familiars, and other such facts.
His manner was not arrogant, but earnest. And so Clara was amused and grateful for the company of strangers who did not share her troubles.
But too short was the respite from grief and failure.
That night, against all her hopes, Clara was again visited again by the Royal Dreamer.
They stood in a dream, but in that dream was the very room that Clara had rented in the inn that stood just within the border of Queen Lunette’s realm.
“You have not turned back” the queen said.
Wasting no more chances, Clara made her offer of diamonds, being honest in her warning that the gnome would attempt to steal them.
The queen did not respond to Clara’s offer. But she did speak, as she paced about the room, fog pooling at her steps.
“I attempted to visit your dear ones in their dreams,” she said.
Before Clara could ask how, the queen raised a hand.
“Distance is different in dreams,” she said. “The borders of my kingdom do not mark the limits of my reach.”
She did not explain further, but only confessed that she had failed in her attempts. The curse on Clara’s husband transformed him into a bear. The queen could not venture into the dreams of beasts.
“A strange sight did I see when I went to visit your sister,” said the queen. “I saw her lying upon a pallet beside a window, with a fresh red rose pinned to her hair. But she was not there before me. I saw her through a mirror. The mirror was tall and wide enough for me to step through it. So I did. But when I emerged onto the other side, I had stepped right back into the room with the mirror. And I saw your sister still sleeping within it. I called out to her. But she would not rouse. I tried again to step through the mirror, and again I stepped only into the same room, facing the same mirror. I have never encountered such an illusion before, either in dreams or in waking.”
Clara was not as surprised as the queen, for she had knew well how adept gnomes were with illusions.
“I will lead you to her, but be wary of the illusion,” the queen said. “It is…sticky.”
The Royal Dreamer opened the door of Clara’s room. The door did not lead into the hallway of the inn as it would have in the waking world. It led into another room, just as the queen had described. It was bare of any adornment or furniture, save for a long oval mirror set on a stand. Just as the queen had described, the mirror showed an image of Rose lying on a bed with her hands folded at her stomach, and a rose in her hair. Their mother must have put the rose there. Even in enchanted sleep, Rose’s lips were by nature as red as rose petals.
“This is the limit of my reach,” the queen said.
Clara knew that she should turn to the Royal Dreamer and curtsy. But she had not seen her sister in nearly a year, and she could not tear her gaze away from the sleeping Rose.
“I am indebted to you, Your Majesty,” she managed to say. “When I wake, I will hold true to the offer I made to you.”
“You owe me no treasures,” the queen said. “Only carry your curse away from my realm, and your debt is paid.”
Clara turned her face to the queen and nod. “It will be done.”
“Then farewell, dreamer. May you defeat all the curses that trouble you.”
Queen Lunette stepped back through the door they had entered.
Clara approached the mirror. “Rose,” she called out, gently at first, then louder. But Rose would not wake. Clara reached toward the mirror, finding its surface and pressing past it. She reached toward Rose, but she was too far. Clara would have to step through. She hesitated. If the Royal Dreamer had found it a challenge to evade, then surely Clara would become trapped.
Her heart pounding as it no longer did in the waking world, Clara stepped through the mirror.
Just as the Royal Dreamer had described, Clara stepped into the same room she had just left behind. When she turned around, she saw the door to the room. In front of her, she saw the mirror, and in the mirror, she saw Rose.
She called out again. And she stepped through again.
Clara resisted waking, clutching and clawing at sleep. The weight of her sorrow was so great that she could not rise from her bed.
Two times, she tried, and two times she failed. She failed to rouse herself, as she had failed to rouse her sister.
Her name was spoken in a whisper. But Clara was certain she’d heard it. She sat up.
A panicked anger filled her, for she thought it was the gnome come to taunt her again.
The whisper spoke again, and Clara recognized the voice.
She followed the voice.
It led her to a small mirror hung on the wall above the washbasin.
On the mirror’s surface, she saw the fleeting shape of Rose’s face before it turned to mist and vanished, even as the last remnant of sleep vanished from Clara’s eyes.
Clara clutched the mirror.
She gazed into its surface, but Rose did not reappear.
She returned to the bed. Morning daylight filled the room, as did the noise of birdsong and bustling. The scent of baking bread and honey seeped up from the kitchen below.
But Clara’s sleep had been fitful for many nights. When she closed her eyes, she slipped back into sleep.
When she opened her eyes, her chamber was dark saving for the dim light from a sputtering candle. Clara still clutched the mirror from the wall. She smelled no smells. She heard no sounds, save the beating of her heart.
“I’m dreaming,” she whispered to herself.
She approached the door to her room and opened it. She did not find the hallway beyond, but another room. A bright room bare of adornment or furniture, save for a tall mirror.
Clara approached the mirror.
Rose was still asleep.
Clara called out to her, called for her to wake. She looked at the small mirror she still held in her hand. She gazed into its surface, where she had seen a waking Rose for a fleeting moment, where she saw nothing now. Clara glanced between the two mirrors. Her mind was stirring with a thought, but before the thought became clear, her hands were holding up the small mirror to the tall mirror.
“Rose,” she called again. “Rose, wake up.”
Rose stirred. Clara gasped.
Her eyes opened, and she blinked them slowly, as if they might drift down and close again.
“I am a mirror,” she said. Her voice was weak, but clear. “I am a mirror. Come not near.”
The whisper spoke again. It was also Rose’s voice. But it came from the small mirror. Clara turned the mirror around. Rose’s face shown on its surface.
“Clara….Come not near. You have much to fear. I am a mirror.”
Clara woke, chanting the words her sister had repeated over and over. She had heeded Rose’s warning and come no closer.
But she did not understand the rest of her sister’s words.
Maybe Rose had meant to say, “I am in a mirror.” Maybe Rose had not meant to say anything at all. Maybe it was only a dream.
Clara lay still, trying again to sleep, but sleep did not come.
She hung the mirror back up on the wall. She stared into it, searching for her sister’s face. But all she saw was her own reflection. And there was nothing to fear there, unless she feared her worn appearance.
Clara sighed at the dullness in her eyes. “Be it welcome or not, the mirror shows the truth,” she said to her reflection.
And then her eyes went wide.
Clara left the kingdom ruled by a dreaming queen. She turned back upon the bridge she had crossed to get there, tossing more diamond almonds to the troll who guarded the bridge.
She traced her journey back, finding things she loved, food, and drink, and fabric, and trinket. She touched as many of these things as she could—only the things that were not alive—and they all turned to diamond. Each time, she left a note for the gnome to find.
The more I make, the less they are worth.
She hoped that the gnome would chase her down to try and stop her. Though she feared that she was doing just as the gnome wished for her to do. She knew of no other way to find him. No other way to force a meeting between them.
Rose might have found a way. But Clara was not as clever as her sister. Yet still, she hoped she understood the words, the message, that Rose had spoken in a dream.
After many months of travel, Clara crossed into the borders of her own realm. Despite her weariness, she was glad to hear the burbling of familiar streams, smell the scent of familiar golden and pink blossoms, and feel the spring breezes ruffling her hair.
Though it was warm, Clara kept her skin covered. For there was much she loved in the land that was her home. A falling leaf had brushed against her cheek before she could move away. Where it should have landed softly on the ground, it plunked and sunk into the soft soil.
“Have you given up on your quest so quickly?” a familiar voice asked.
For all else that was familiar, Clara felt fondness. For this voice, though she’d hoped to hear it for many months now, she felt only a cold loathing.
The voice came from ahead. Clara walked until she saw him, sitting upon a fallen log.
In waking, her diamond heart did not beat or race as it would in this moment. She continued walking, hoping that he did not rise and flee. She reached into the pocket of her dress. And she did not answer.
“I would have thought you would do far more for the ones you profess to love so dearly,” the gnome said.
Rose passed by him without glancing his way. She took a few steps forward and pulled the mirror from her pocket. She pretended to check her own face in the mirror.
“Ah, vanity,” the gnome said, in false lamentation. “All is vanity.”
Clara shifted the mirror so that she might see her enemy in it. And she did. She saw her enemy.
She whirled around. “You—you have not—you’ve not defeated me.”
She had meant to pretend at stammering. But she needn’t have pretended.
Clara was frightened truly. She was frightened she would fail. Frightened he would strike her with another curse, strike her with a blow.
She saw the gnome’s gaze drop to her throat, to the jeweled brooch that pinned her cloak closed. It was a rose that appeared to be made of ruby petals and emerald leaves. But Clara knew and her enemy that the rose was made of pure diamond.
She took a hesitant step toward him, then drew back. And the gnome hopped down from the tree branch. Clara wanted to flee. For her doom was now walking toward her. But in her mind, and in her diamond-hard heart, she spoke the names of her sister and her husband to give herself a small bit of courage.
The gnome pointed to the jeweled rose. “Give me that.”
Clara clutched the rose. She had meant for it to draw his attention. But here too, she did not pretend. For she had made that diamond from a rose that her mother had grown.
She truly did not want the gnome to have it, or even to touch it.
Clara stepped back. “I can make you another.”
The gnome advanced upon her. “I want that one.”
Clara retreated. “I left a hoard of diamonds in my wake. Are you not satisfied?”
“So you’d hope to buy my mercy? I thought so.”
“I had hoped to make a bargain.” She glanced around, as she took off her gloves. There were no rose bushes in the area, but there were many wildflowers.
“No,” the gnome said. “I want that one. Give it to me.”
Clara fixed her gaze upon her enemy’s eyes. She knelt down as he approached her. “Give me my sister in return.”
The gnome gave no response, but watched as Clara removed the diamond rose and held out her hand. When he reached for the rose, she wrapped her hands tightly around his. The brooch’s pin pierced her palm, and her blood dripped upon the earth.
The gnome sneered at her. “If only you loved me. You could have killed me with a touch long ago. But could you love a gnome, my beauty?”
“You’re not a gnome. Not a gnome at all,” Clara said.
He tugged at her hand.
Clara smiled. And it was not a smile of triumph, but one of hope, blooming in her a heart like a flower, like a rose, a red rose.
“I take upon me your curse,” she said.
When first Clara met her enemy, he had appeared like a lizard. Rose and Clara had called him a dragon protecting his hoard. When next they saw him, he was a gnome. But he was never a lizard. And he was never a gnome.
Clara only saw her enemy’s true form now, as the form of the gnome grew taller and leaner. He was a man. The man she had seen in the mirror.
He collapsed to his knees. “What have you done?” he cried. He held his palms to his face.
Clara rose and stumbled back. She feared her enemy still. She did not believe he was defeated. But in the moment, something else was attacking her, biting and scratching, clawing at her hands. She held out her hands and gaped at them. Her right hand was bloody with the wound from the pin. But there were no other wounds. No bites. No scratches.
She felt a cracking and constricting in her heart. She clutched her chest.
In her mind’s eye, she saw before her a great hoard of treasure. Towers of gold coins, endless strands of pearls, and mountains of jewels, and it was all hers.
All inherited with the curse she had claimed.
Clara had always dreamed of having great treasures, so that she could lavish that wealth upon those who needed it most. She always thought she would share riches when she had it, not hoard it as she had seen so many people do, and yet…
When she cast her mind’s eyes upon the treasures that her enemy had stolen and hidden away, when she tried to decide which gold chain she might give away, which exquisite bracelet of rubies she would not miss, she found they were all her favorite. She could not bear to part with the smallest mote of diamond dust.
But she had the power now to amass more fortune. She could keep all that she had and just obtain more for the giving away. It would be easy to do so now. Easier than making diamonds. She could just take whatever she desired.
Clara groaned. For she understood. When she had taken her enemy’s curse, she had taken his power. She could pretend, like her enemy had, that she could hold that power. But it was wild and ferocious. Biting and thrashing.
Clara tried to release it. But she could not.
I must choose, she thought. She remembered again her dearest ones. Her sister, her husband, her mother.
I choose them, Clara thought. But she still gripped the power, and the power, in turn, still gripped her. For her thought was only half-true.
Her enemy had risen. He rushed toward her and grasped her. She grappled with two enemies now. And she did not know how to defeat either. But she could not let her enemy regain the power that she now held.
She did not want to let go of that treasure. She felt such a great desire for all of it, such burning longing. She loved it. She loved the treasure. She loved the power.
When her enemy, disguised as a gnome, first told Clara of the curse upon her, he told her that what she loved would become what he loved. And he loved treasure most of all.
Clara smiled at the treasure in her mind’s eye. Through her desire, her longing, she caught her breath before she spoke the words she hoped to be true.
“I do not love you,” she said. She was not speaking to the treasure, the glittering, glinting, endless treasure. She took a gasping breath as something within her chest cracked.
“No!” her enemy cried.
“I do not love you!” Clara said again. Her limbs trembled and she felt to her knees.
Her enemy moved to cover her mouth, to wrap his other hand around her throat. Clara bit his hand as the treasure bit and scratched her. “I do not love you,” she said a third time.
Clara was thrown back.
She clutched her chest. Her heart was afire.
Lying in the dirt, Clara turned her head. The mirror that she had bought from the innkeeper, the mirror in which she had seen her sister’s face, that mirror was speaking to her in her sister’s voice.
She reached for it and brought it to her face. In the mirror, she saw that Rose had woken. Her husband stood beside her bed.
“We must go to Clara!” her sister said to him.
And the mirror cracked.
Clara sat up. The biting and scratching were gone. The flame in her chest diminished, and as the pain faded, so too did Clara’s weariness.
She rose to her feet.
“What have you done!” an unfamiliar voice cried.
The true voice of her enemy. He rushed toward her. Clara knew it was the moment of her death. She would fight him as best she could. But he was bigger, stronger, and filled with rage. She feared the pain she would feel. But she did not fear death.
Rose had woken.
Her enemy’s curse had broken.
All was well.
When the man lay his hands upon her, Clara felt her heart beat for the first time in many a moon. She felt magic burst from that beat, through her bones, through her muscle, through her snow-pale skin. Her flesh and bone turned as hard and heavy as stone. Her enemy pushed against her. But she did not move. He struck her, but she did not feel the blow. His eyes went wide. He pulled away from her. But she reached for him and gripped his wrist.
She knew she should be merciful and let him go. But he had caused much misery. She would give him over to justice.
Clara was met in the forest by many riders. One was a constable, and he took under his charge the man who was her enemy. One of the riders was Rose. Their mother waited for them at home, for all feared what they would find when at last they found Clara. But their husbands too had come. Clara’s husband dropped from his mount and ran to embrace her, but she halted him.
“Have no fear, sister,” Rose said. “You have broken our curses.”
“I have taken up another,” Clara said. Her heart, the only part of her that was still flesh, ached with longing and surged with hope. “But I have no fear. For my sister will save me, yet again.”
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel