The day Jennifer returns home from Eladeria, she goes to school, turns in her essay, aces a surprise pop quiz, eats her lunch, plays volleyball in gym, and rides home on the bus.
When she gets home, she promptly locks herself in her room and bursts into tears.
Her parents mean well, they do, but she wishes they would stop hovering. They keep pushing her. They want to know what’s wrong, and more importantly, how they can fix it.
Jennifer is at a loss as to what to tell them. How can she possibly explain?
Well, Mom, Mama, I was transported by magic to a land on another planet, or in another dimension, or something. I was adopted as a princess and befriended by a prince under a spell and threatened by an evil duke and kidnapped by a wicked witch and almost transformed into a harpy. Oh, and I found a magical scroll that gave me powers to fight the sorceress and save the kingdom. And the whole time, I thought it was a dream and wanted to wake up and be home, and now that I am home the thought of never seeing my friends again is unbearable.
But she can’t say that. Instead, she cries.
The first year is the hardest.
She has nightmares almost every night, nightmares where Swenhild wins, Samson is killed, Jennifer is transformed, and the other princesses never freed. She wakes up screaming after a dream where she as a harpy swept down upon Prospero and tore him apart with her talons.
That dream is nothing, though, compared to the one she has the next night.
Jennifer strolls through the royal garden on a cool, autumn day. The leaves are just starting to change color. She’d only seen Eladeria during the height of summer, but seeing it like this …is wonderful. She wonders if they have Halloween, or something similar, here.
“Jennifer!” she hears, and turns. Julia is smiling and waving at her from a patch of grass, where a picnic is laid out. “Jennifer, come join us!” Theobald and Prospero are there, too, and Jennifer picks up her skirts and runs over to them ---
-- And her alarm goes off. The dream fades quickly. It’s like trying to catch wisps of shadow in her hands.
Jennifer buries her face into her pillow, and sobs.
Jennifer copes the way she does best -- throwing herself into her schoolwork. She works ahead in every class, does every extra credit assignment offered. When her homework is done, she goes to the library and checks out as many books as she is allowed to, cramming them into her overstuffed backpack until it groans under the weight.
She does homework until she’s exhausted, and then reads until she falls asleep, trying to get away from the dreams.
Her mothers are more and more worried about her, and she overhears them having whispered discussions about taking her to the doctor or maybe a psychiatrist, to figure out what’s wrong.
“I wish you wouldn’t hurt yourself like this,” says Prospero.
He pours her a cup of tea and hands it to her. Jennifer wraps both hands around it and brings it close to her face, savoring the warmth and inhaling the scent. It’s nothing she can name, and unfamiliar, but it smells delicious. She blows on it a few times, to cool it down.
“But I’m not hurting myself,” says Jennifer. “I’m fine.”
Prospero looks at her kindly. “Swenhild is gone, Jennifer. You don’t need to study as though your life depends on it, anymore.”
“But I do!” cries Jennifer. “I need to learn! I need to find out how to come back! I can’t bear it! I can’t--”
When she wakes up this time, she cries silently, so no one will hear her and try to check on her.
She learns to fake being well better, to appease her parents and teachers and the kids at school.
“I lost seven years of my life,” says Julia. “I would not wish for you to do the same.”
They are seated in the sitting room of a suite very similar to, but not quite the same as, the suite of rooms Jennifer had been given as the Princess Miranda. Except this room is much warmer and personal, clearly decorated to Julia’s own tastes.
“But I’m not a harpy,” says Jennifer. “I defeated Swenhild. She’s gone!”
“You have a life, Jennifer, that you’re ignoring,” says Julia gently. “You have parents, and friends, and lessons to learn. And you’re neglecting all of them.”
Jennifer wants to snap at Julia that she most certainly is not neglecting her schoolwork -- but she can’t argue about her family or her friends. She swallows around the sudden lump in her throat.
“But I miss you,” whispers Jennifer.
“And we miss you, too,” says Julia. “Corbold especially -- but never mind that. You may find your way back to Eladeria one day. I hope you do. But I don’t want you to miss out on living your own life in your own world in order to do so.”
“I’ll try,” whispers Jennifer.
She does try. For the next several months.
The dreams comfort her as well -- long talks with Julia, Propero, and Theobald, about her life, about Eladeria’s restoration.
(She never, ever dreams of Corbold. She tries not to think about that.)
It’s another cold, gloomy fall morning as she takes the bus to school. Exactly one year after her journey to Eladeria. She tries not to get her hopes up, but if she can get back any day, it must be on Eladeria’s midsummer day, the only day the original spell worked in the first place.
She keeps her eyes tightly closed as the bus takes the rise up the hill. She waits for the jolt, and the silence.
It never comes.
Jennifer doesn’t open her eyes until the bus pulls up in front of her school and starts letting students out. Her tears have dried by then.
The dreams stop, after that.
It takes years for her to believe again. It takes a miracle and a call for help across worlds to make her realize what she should have known all along -- that Jennifer alone was the one who had the power to bring herself back.
In the end, what brings Jennifer back to Eladeria is the same thing that brought her there the first time -- the threat of Swenhild.
But it’s not a scared child that confronts the sorceress in her lair, but a grown woman, tempered by years of anger and despair, but hope, too, and joy. Jennifer has lived a full life, and if she dies today, she won’t have any regrets.
“Oho, what have we here!” cackles Swenhild. “The Princess Miranda, returned after all these years, too late! Too late!”
But truthfully, she has no intention of dying today, or any other day. Not for a long, long time.
Jennifer tilts her head. Smiles.
Her fist makes a satisfying crack as it smashes into Swenhild’s jaw. The witch’s eyes roll back into her head as she slumps to the floor with an equally satisfying thud.
Jennifer shakes her hand, and grimaces.
Quickly, before doing anything else, Jennifer rips up strips of Swenhild’s robes and uses them to bind the sorceress tightly. As she ties each knot, Jennifer focuses her concentration on how she wants these bonds to hold Swenhild, to negate her power and keep her unconscious. Jennifer can feel her own power infusing into the bindings, enforcing Jennifer’s will.
When that is sorted, Jennifer stands and crosses the room to the crystal ring. She waves a hand, and the ring shatters, just as the first one had, so many years ago.
There’s a man lying asleep on the dais at the very center of the ring.
The man’s eyes flutter, and he groans as his eyes open. He focuses on Jennifer’s face, and frowns faintly in confusion.
“Hello, Corbold,” says Jennifer, offering him a hand to help him sit up.
Watching his expression change as he recognizes her is like watching the dawn break, after so many years of darkness.
“Jennifer,” he breathes, his face alight with joy. “You’ve returned to us! Finally!” He reaches out to embrace her, and Jennifer hugs him back, just as fiercely.
The hug lasts forever, and not long enough. When they pull apart, Corbold starts scanning the room, and his eyes widen when he sees Swenhild trussed up on the floor.
“Those bindings won’t hold her long --” he starts, but Jennifer cuts him off.
“They’re magic -- my magic -- and I say they will hold her for as long as I want them to,” says Jennifer.
Corbold smiles. “I believe you.”
It’s a huge pain, lugging Swenhild’s unconscious body down the mountain, but Jennifer is damned if she is going to let Swenhild get away again, and come back in another twenty years.
(Or ten, actually. Jennifer and Propero have yet to find a pattern with how long time passes between her world and their world, but for this interval, twenty years had passed in Jennifer’s world, while only ten had passed in Eladeria.)
“You were a child,” says Corbold incredulously, when Jennifer expresses this sentiment to him. “You saved us all! You can’t possibly blame yourself for this.”
“I don’t,” agrees Jennifer. “But I’m a woman grown now, and I know better this time. Let’s get her back and put her on trial, or however you handle things like this in Eladeria.”
They are met at the foot of the mountain by a contingent of the royal guard, led by Julia herself. The princess dismounts swiftly and rushes to embrace her brother and her friend as soon as sees they are well. It’s a tearful, happy reunion all around.
Swenhild is tied to a packhorse and guarded night and day by twelve soldiers in rotation, as well as frequently by Jennifer and Corbold themselves.
Throughout the entire trip, she does not wake.
Theobald and Prospero greet them all joyfully when they return home. Swenhild is swiftly put into custody, and Corbold is sequestered with the healers and with Prospero, to ensure he is recovered from his ordeal.
Jennifer, meanwhile, goes to her rooms and falls face down into the bed provided.
The next day, Corbold comes to see her, after being given a clean bill of health.
There’s so much unspoken between them, so many questions to ask, so many answers to give. Jennifer hardly knows where to start.
But apparently, Corbold does.
“How long can you stay?” he asks.
And that answer, at least, is easy.
“Forever,” says Jennifer.