Many years ago, the Good Queen was killed by a usurper Princess, and her only child lost. But the magicians say that the child, the true King or Queen, will come back someday, and make things right. So every ruler since then, no matter what they try to call themselves or what they do to the people, has been called only Prince or Princess.
In the mountains, there live fairies who know ways of taking a human outside of time. The child must be with them, given away by someone loyal to the Good Queen, to protect him or her from the usurper’s blade. But no one who went to look has ever gotten the child back.
The Prince now is very wicked. A young soldier in his army was too kind to an enemy, so he cursed him to become a tiger, to learn cruelty. The woman who loved the young soldier has a witch for a grandmother, though she has not seen her since she was a child. She puts the tiger on a leash and leads him snarling out of the Prince’s city, to the rocky hills where her grandmother once lived, not even sure whether the mad old woman is still alive. She hopes very much that the cure will be to kill the Prince.
The witch is alive, and in her house she has thirty-six cats and four children. The children are all strange in different ways. There is a frail, sweet, chattering girl with huge eyes who talks to all meat-eating beasts, and the beasts talk back; a silent, serious boy with one blind yellow eye, who can make himself unseen, and remembers everything he sees and hears precisely; a tall, stiff-shouldered girl who steps through walls and hills mistrustfully, sure that this will be the time the stone catches and holds her; and a tiny, pixielike clubfooted boy with gray in his hair and bitter black eyes, who can do nothing in particular, but who seems to know everything that has ever been written down in a book.
The other children find themselves doing what he tells them to in his sharp voice, without quite realizing it. Sometimes the witch’s granddaughter and her tiger do, too. And she does not like children – she has never liked anyone, except the man who became the tiger.
Her grandmother peers at her milkily, and tells her in a sullen voice, “Fine. I will heal your lover. But I need things for the spell. Go here, and bring me this.”
She sends her granddaughter on dangerous quests to strange, harsh places deep in the hills. But she always sends one of the magician children along to help. One day the walks-through-walls girl is cut by a demon’s sword.
Carrying the wounded girl home, the witch’s granddaughter finally realizes that the witch is using these tasks to test the children, for something. There will be no cure for her lover.
And unwillingly, she has begun to care for these strange children. She cannot abide this any longer.
She puts the wounded girl to bed, leaving the invisible boy to treat her, and goes furiously to speak to her grandmother, but cannot find her. The limping boy is in her workroom, covered in cats and reading a book. He looks up at the witch’s granddaughter, takes in her anger, and says to her matter-of-factly, “She took us back from the fairies, you know.”
She asks each of the children, and discovers that none remembers who they were before the fairies took them. (Except maybe the limping boy, who is the only one who knows how to lie – he went to the fairies later than the others, she suspects.) So one of these children is the lost King or Queen, and her grandmother is trying to figure out which. The witch’s granddaughter finds she can no longer entirely condemn the witch for being cruel to the children, for using her and her tiger – for the country needs the Good Queen’s heir.
But the children live all alone in the hills, and the witch’s granddaughter knows that it takes more to rule a country than the courage necessary to face a tiger or a demon. When the wall-walking girl heals, she begins taking them to towns to meet people, the people one of them will someday rule. They learn things and help people, and have different kinds of adventures. They begin to grow more human, except the limping boy, who was already very human; and he begins to grow kinder. The tiger, too, is becoming more human around the beast-talking girl, his curse wearing away; someday soon, the witch’s granddaughter knows, it will be broken entirely, and she will have him back.
It may be that the witch’s granddaughter is also changing. Once she would have killed the Prince, and anyone who tried to stop her, to bring her lover back; if, like the limping boy, she is learning to be patient with those worse than herself, she does not notice it.
The only one who never seems to change is the old woman. It is easy to believe that she will be with them and the same forever.
One night, the old woman wakes up suddenly with a pain in her chest. It is time that she makes her decision. The Prince rides out early in the morning, convinced he must, unable to explain why, and too cowardly to try to do so to anybody – so he comes alone, and secretly. He comes to the witch’s house late in the afternoon to find her sitting on the front step waiting. The witch’s granddaughter and the limping boy, in the kitchen cooking dinner, rush out with flour on their hands to defend her.
The Prince, his face drawn and gray with exhaustion from the long day traveling – he is not a young man – looks at her, and recognizes her face from a hundred paintings of his ancestors. Though he is wicked, he is also insecure; and he has listened to the story of the Good Queen’s child who will replace him all his life. He bows to the lost Queen, who was never taken by the fairies.
The old witch looks at her granddaughter and shrugs. She feels she has worked hard enough already.
And so the witch’s granddaughter became Queen. And she was a Good Queen. They all six went back to the city with the Queen and her husband, who was still a tiger until he’d been King for nearly five months, but hardly scratched anyone. And if the children were disappointed that their destinies were not as grand as hers, the limping boy was the only one to complain to her about it.
(This is not really a dream, because I kept waking up and editing it. The parts that I did dream were mostly ripped straight from Song for the Basilisk.)