There was a princess.
Prince Frances, stalwart and true, stood before the wall of thorns and contemplated his approach. He looked up, following the thick growth as it twisted and snagged up crenellated walls and towers. There was a castle beneath the briar and, if rumour proved true, a princess in magical sleep, awaiting a kiss.
Frances hadn’t rescued a princess before, though he was familiar with quests and had won a few. The sword he jabbed experimentally at the thorns had been dipped in the blood of a giant magical boar he’d killed in some great wood a few years back. The blade was now tough enough to cut through anything but dragon hide. Killing a dragon and bathing his sword in its blood would come later. After the princess, before any heirs. He had time for quests yet, even after he rescued and married this girl in the castle.
The briar appeared to be nearly solid, growing densely a full stone’s throw from the castle wall. The woody trunks Frances glimpsed in the tangle were as wide around as his mailed torso. He pulled on thick leather gloves and wished he’d thought to bring a helm. It hadn’t seemed necessary when he set out on this quest. There were no beasts to fight, just thorns, which the mail would protect against. It had been picked up on a quest too, one with dwarves. There’d been no killing on that quest either, just a simple find and fetch.
Frances guessed at where a door might be and began to hack at the dense briar, keeping one arm up to protect his face. The sword grew heavy as he worked and he dropped his arm to use both hands to swing. He hawed a respectable swath into the thicket, still far from the castle wall, but a wide enough tunnel that he wasn’t as worried that he’d put an eye out.
Hunger caught up with him after awhile and he backed out carefully. His squire sat under a tree with the horses, juggling pebbles. Frances ate staring at the briar. He looked at the towers and tried to guess which one the princess lay in. His squire chewed his bread and meat silently, gazing into the middle distance. He’d gone with Frances on quests before and was a trusty right-hand man, but not one for conversation.
Frances went back to the thorns, edging closer to the castle wall. His technique began to grow sloppy and as he turned to hack at a particularly twisted branch a thorn as big as his thumb raked down his face. The cut burned from cheekbone to jaw, deep enough to leave a scar. Frances shrugged it off. It would be additional proof of the completed quest, a badge of honour to go with his blushing bride. He kept hacking at the thorns.
The squire had bored of juggling pebbles and was now stacking them on the back of his hand, tossing them up and trying to catch them, palm down. It was a shepherd’s game he’d learned as a boy, something to do while you wait. He waited a lot. Sir Frances liked to do his quests alone. All the squire really did was take care of the horses and hand over the shield when necessary. It wasn’t the most exciting job, but it was better than a lot of things.
The horses made uneasy sounds and he looked up. Sir Frances was running towards him. The squire stood and reached for the shield. He’d barely unhooked it when he felt a heavy hand fall on his shoulder. The squire turned to Sir Frances, who clasped him tightly and bared his teeth in a scream as he bit firmly into the squire’s face.
A hundred years is a long time. The more monstrous a place is, the more gossip inflates a challenge and its reward, the more people dare to try it.
Angus was good and truly lost. And he didn’t like his horse. He didn’t like horses at all, really, but it was easier to get around with one than tramping about on foot, which was how he’d been travelling until this beast was given to him.
He’d done a village a favour, made their well start pumping sweet water again. There’d been some demon frog living in it and he’d wrung its neck. So he’d been given the horse and thanks and rode off and now was lost.
Questing wasn’t something Angus normally did. He was a general thug-for-hire and handyman. Sometimes a person needed to collect protection money from a shady tavern, or their well had run dry mysteriously. More often than not such a job would be straightforward, but sometimes it turned out the tavern was run by actual shades, or the problem was a cursed frog, not a rock.
For the past day he’d been letting the horse take the lead, since he’d no specific place to go. Bored, Angus got down and walked the horse for a while. A castle popped into view like an illusion, but when Angus retraced his steps he saw that it was a trick of the winding animal path he’d been following. The castle was half-forest itself, covered in thorny briar to the tops of the towers. The grounds had been cleared once long ago, but flourishing second-growth forest covered the lawns. There were hints of ancient landscaping gone wild—towering rose bushes mingling with ferns, a crumbling stone bench next to a lily pad-choked pool.
The forest was denser around the castle, more underbrush, thinner trees crowded closer together. It was also quieter and Angus didn’t like it. He unsheathed his sword and kept walking. There was a shuffling sound that sped up, crunching twigs and stumbling into bushes. Angus spun towards the sound, hand on the horse’s head collar, bringing the beast around. A man was running towards them. Angus kept loose and ready, holding the nervously shifting horse. The man did not slow.
With a weird yell, the man launched himself at them, landing on the horse. Angus let go of the collar and backed away, bringing his sword up. The man tore into the beast with hands and teeth as it bucked and kicked. It managed to fling him off and the man fell in a still heap on the bracken where Angus was able to get a better look at him, from a safe distance. His clothes were tatters and the air around him had a graveyard smell. There was a giant dent where the horse had landed a hoof in his skull.
Angus looked for the horse. It hadn’t run very far and stood trembling in a bit of clearing, eyes showing white. There were more shuffling sounds, shadows flickering in the wood. Angus moved cautiously closer to the castle, though its thorns were not something he’d want at his back. The horse let him get a hold on its head collar again. The bite marks on its flanks were ragged and edged in sweaty foam. As the shadows grew nearer, they revealed themselves as men, or close to it. Some were severely missing parts of themselves and didn’t seem capable of moving as fast as the others. Horrified, Angus raised his sword and fought.
He found, as he cut at them, that what should be mortal wounds were not. By luck he learned that a sky blow to the skull, or a good slice that severed the spine, dropped them. The horse held its own for a while, after he’d released it from being a shield. After it fell, its body served as a distraction, so he thankfully did not have to fight more than two or so of the creatures at a time.
Angus spun to meet his next attacker and found the clearing empty, save for the tattered, often headless, mounds of his foes. On edge, he moved to one laying face down and turned it over with the point of his sword. It looked like a corpse. More accurately, like a long-dead corpse. If he hadn’t just chopped its skull in, he would have said it was a recently exhumed body of a man buried a year.
This was not a good situation. It stank, literally, and flies were beginning to gather. He leaned against a tree, looking around. The remains of the horse, considerably chewed on, lay off to the side. It stirred. Angus sighed and walked over to put the beast out of its misery. As he drew closer it gathered its feet and stood. Angus stopped. There was no possible way the beast should have the strength to stand. It looked around shakily and zeroed in on Angus. Its wounds had clotted up and as it wheezed he could see a torn lung flopping lankly within the exposed ribcage.
There was a rustle from behind. Angus turned, keeping the horse in view. The briar was curling up, opening a gap to the castle and revealing the rotten wood of a servant’s door. Reluctant as he was to enter the castle, Angus’ sword was no good match for the horse’s shod hooves, which were now pawing the ground angrily as it sighted on him with milky eyes. He moved cautiously to the opening in the thorns and tested the door. It was stuck.
He threw his shoulder to the door, listening between blows to the horse tapping closer, still moving cautiously but speeding up. The door finally gave, spilling him onto a stone floor. He scrabbled up and closed the door, lowering the bolt in time to hear the horse’s hooves crunch against the wood.
He quickly got some distance from the door—he didn’t think the horse could manoeuvre quickly in the tight turns of the hall if it broke through, but it wasn’t worth betting on. He wished he had his pack and flint, it was unnervingly dark. Sword before him, the fingertips of the opposite hand brushing the wall, Angus moved down the hallway’s turns until he barked his shins against what turned out to be stairs. They led a short distance up to a door that thankfully opened with ease onto a courtyard. As he closed the door behind him, Angus could hear the horse’s shoes echoing on the stone floor of the hall.
The courtyard was a horror. Bodies slumped against walls and on the paths as though they’d dropped dead in the middle of whatever they were doing. They were all in the same state of partial decay as the creatures he’d fought on the castle grounds, though this group looked more desiccated. There was no purification, but the layers of cobweb and dust that coated them belied their partially preserved state. The corpses should have been dissolved into brittle skeletons by now.
Angus crossed the courtyard to a door that looked like it lead to one of the towers. Going up was not the best plan, but it would give him an idea of the castle’s bounds and hopefully a way out. He carefully skirted a dusty corpse and felt a hand clasp around his ankle.
Shaking it loose, Angus cursed and ran the rest of the way as the bodies around him began to stir. The door had no bolt, so he plunged into the depths of the castle, looking for a way up or out, or for somewhere he could at least barricade himself and plan.
Thankfully, this wing was better lit. Windows of stained glass shone ruddy light onto the sickly crumpled forms that stirred as he passed. Angus sung wildly with his sword at grasping hands, more often than not merely batting them away. He stumbled into a room, saw that the door had a heavy cross bar and closed himself in. Hands scraped at the wood and he heard a thud as one flung itself bodily against the frame. This bunch seemed slower than the ones outside the castle, moving like somebody freshly pulled from heavy sleep. From the sounds outside the door, however, it appeared they were waking up.
Something stumbled into one of the lush, rotting chairs behind him and Angus spun, sword ready. Two of the creatures, outfitted in decaying household livery, were coming towards him. He beheaded both. The bodies crumpled to the ground, heads rolling beneath a lounge. Angus surveyed the room, trying to ignore the increasing frequency of crashes at the door behind him.
Tall casement windows let in some light, though it was mostly blocked by the overgrowth outside. This had been some sort of sumptuous sitting room, before the years had eaten away at it. A needlepoint frame sat in a corner, the fabric bowing under a thick layer of dust. Angus looked at the tapestries lining the walls. Though darkened by time, he could make out florals and cheerful bestiaries. It must have been a ladies’ sitting room.
A particularly loud crash rattled the doors. Angus hoped that the creatures weren’t learning to work in unison. Or that they could use weapons. There appeared to be no other door in the room, so he began checking beneath the tapestries, their stiff weight fighting against him as decayed threads came off on his fingertips.
He finally found a portal behind a dingy depiction of ladies playing badminton. Angus tore the tapestry down and fashioned a makeshift torch from pieces of it wrapped around the pole it had hung from. It was after he’d finished that he remembered his flint was probably still tucked into the pack on his dead, if walking about, horse.
The sounds at the door were growing frantic as he rummaged the room to find something to make fire with. There wasn’t anything by the fireplace itself and he was speculating on the stupidity of the rich when he found a tinderbox tucked between the cushion and arm of a chair. There was a clear line of exposure across it, dividing the painted phoenix design in half—one side nearly illegible, the other still holding some of the paint’s bright colours. He lit his torch and plunged into the passageway, taking any turn that led upwards.
The absence of bodies and the things hunting him made Angus uneasy, though grateful. Following endless turns he lost his sense of time and direction in the dark corridors. His path ended abruptly in a door. It was small, nearly child-sized, with three bolts and covered in claw marks around the handle and frame. Angus peered closer and saw a few broken-off fingernails embedded in the wood. The scratches weren’t new, the wood they exposed was as grimy and dark as the rest.
For the first time since he’d started up the maze of passageways Angus heard the faint scrabbling sounds of something following him. The turns of the corridors and vaults of stairs made it impossible to gauge how far away the noise was. Looking again at the bolts, Angus saw that they were the kind used in stables that needed to be pushed in and slid at the same time, requiring a mental and physical dexterity beyond that of most horses, or apparently, these not-quite-dead creatures that populated the castle. Angus threw the blots, hoping there was a way to block the door from the inside. Leading with the smoking torch, he entered.
The room was empty but for a four-poster bed draped in cloudy curtains and cobweb. The door did not have a bolt on the inside. Angus strode to the bed, hoping it was light enough to drag in front of the door and heavy enough to properly block it. It took effort and a squeal of wood on stone that probably advertised his presence to any of the creatures who hadn’t already sniffed out his escape route. Barricaded in, Angus went to one of the four windows and tried to figure out where he was.
The thorns hadn’t grown completely over this tower, allowing him a decent view of the surrounding countryside. The village he’d ridden from was a dot on the horizon and Angus wondered why the people there hadn’t warned him of this place. He looked down. The tower was at a corner of the castle and if he could get down, there was just a forest to cross and he’d be free of this place.
Angus went back to the bed and fingered the draperies. Time had been kinder to them than the tapestries in the rooms below, but there was no way they’d hold his weight. Leaning against one of the posts, Angus realised the bed was occupied. He stepped back quietly and picked up the torch he’d left guttering on the stone floor. Pushing aside the curtain with his sword, Angus raised the torch to light the motionless figure of a woman on the bed.
When she didn’t stir he prodded her sharply with the handle of the torch, taking care not to light the drapery on fire. The body rocked gently against the pressure, but not an eyelid fluttered. Angus ripped down the drapery to have a better view. Looking closer, he saw that she was much younger than he’d thought, probably in her late teens.
Unlike the bodies he’d found downstairs, there was no sign of decay. He held the flat of his sword to her face and it fogged. She was breathing, if slowly. Angus set the torch back on the floor and shook her shoulder, trying to wake her up. Her body was warm and moved loosely, but she didn’t open her eyes. Her youth and the persistence of her sleep were an undeniable definition of the situation.
With a sharp sigh Angus sat on the floor, with his back to the bed. Of course it was some sort of stupid quest set-up, he should have realised the stink of magic on the place when the first corpse came running up to him. Probably someone had been jealous of this girl’s beauty, or lineage, or was just pissed off and decided to even the score. The problem was, he didn’t know how to wake her and they were both trapped in this room.
There was a jolt at the door that startled Angus and he jumped to his feet, ready to shove the bed back if the creatures were able to move it. After a few more thuds that didn’t shift the bed, he figured he was safe enough for the moment. He looked down at the sleeping girl and decided there was only one way out of this.
The girl’s dead weight was in danger of throwing his balance, but Angus had strapped her securely with strips of drapery, so at least she wouldn’t slide off his back. He checked the hinges of the door, with the bolts removed, the door was now only held in place by the bed behind it. The bed itself had been turned, narrow end facing the door. He’d chopped the posters down, shredded the bedding and piled the whole mess in the middle of the mattress. Hoarse moans and scrabbling sounded on the other side of the door, which rattled loosely as the creatures took turns shoving at it. Angus took a deep breath and settled his shoulders, then used the torch and lit the bed aflame.
With a yell, he pushed the bed, crashing down the door and crushing at least one of the creatures. The bed caught for a moment on the fallen door, but Angus, energised by the quickly spreading flame, was able to plough through, shoving the bed before him. The creatures lit like tinder, the flame flaring as it hit pockets of fat. Though they still tried to attack, their motions were distracted and uncoordinated as the fire ate away their tendons.
The bed, with Angus behind it, rocketed down the stairs, finally coming to a stop on the landing. Covering his face and throwing an arm behind him to steady the girl, he vaulted over the bed, catching himself against the wall before continuing down the next flight of stairs, sword and torch foremost. He struck fiercely at each creature he encountered, either lighting them with the torch or making a mad swing at their head. He worked in a fugue, his skin tight with burns, the sleeping girl weighing on his back.
He reached the courtyard and was confronted by a group of these things. Quickly cutting the fabric tying the girl to his back, he let her fall to the ground and lunged, sword and torch swinging. He finished them swiftly and turned back to the girl, checking that she hadn’t cracked her head when he’d dropped her.
Angus searched his memory for what sort of things caused enchanted sleep. He felt her hair, but there was no no poisoned comb. He tilted her head back and opened her mouth, looking for any fairy fruit obscuring her throat. She wore no girdle, no jewellery, nothing that could be an enchanted temptation for a vain young girl. It was when he was checking her fingernails in a last, desperate hope that he saw the almost invisible splinter piercing the skin of her thumb. As he leaned over her, Angus saw still-smoking corpses staggering towards them. He tried to pull the splinter free, but it was too thin to grasp properly. Panicked, he stuck her thumb in his mouth and sucked at it. Her eyelids fluttered and he spat out the splinter. Gently, Angus set the girl’s hand down and picked up his sword.
The girl at his feet drew a deep, ragged breath and the advancing creatures crumpled, their bones clattering to the ground as the rest blew away in dust.
“What—where am I?” The girl was trying to sit up.
Angus watched the door a moment longer and turned to give her a hand. “Damned if I know.”
The girl held his arm to steady herself as she stood, then let go. She dropped her hand to her side and took a rocking step forward. Angus reached out to help her but she waved him off.
Whether she still stands there, I don’t know, but I do know that the young man took his sword and continued on his way.