The briars had been there since I could remember. They made a wall so thick and thorny that not even my dragon–the best climber I knew–could find a way through. That did not stop us from trying.
“If I have to stitch these clothes up one more time, Dez, I will feed you to the wolves!” Mother said when she had had enough.
“You could take a pack of wolves, Mell,” I whispered to my dragon when Mother was not looking, but Mell just gazed up at me with big, round eyes, deep and clear as a cavern pool. She is only a baby dragon, after all. I did not push it.
It took us a while, but eventually we begged, borrowed, and stole enough leather bits to cobble together a suit of armor. A cuirasse that was too small for Ifron’s chest, greaves and gloves swiped from the Academy armoury–they would never miss them–and when Char sniffed out what we were doing, he made us some sturdy trousers, and promised not to tell Mother. We would storm Sleeper’s Castle yet, my dragon and I.
My brothers tell me there is a princess inside, behind the tangled vines. They say she was cursed by one of the fey. They say the whole castle was trapped by the spell, the king, the queen, their servants and soldiers. They say she is beautiful, or was, before she slept. But they know nothing, for the last living soul to gaze upon the princess died years and years ago, before I was born.
“Are you ready, Mell?” I said as I stroked her snout. Her iridescent scales rippled and changed as she burbled in pleasure.
The wall of briars towered above us. The sun hung high; the air was clear as birdsong. It was a cool day for summer. I was sixteen.
It was not easy, but we were well-practiced. We climbed higher than ever before, and that day, we reached the top. The briars covered the castle like a dome, blocking out nearly all light. And yet, we found a way through, and stood upon the topmost rampart.
Ruins. Below us, rubble and beams were strewn about, heaped like cow dung and choked with brambles. Needles of sunlight pierced the darkness. If the princess lay somewhere in this wasteland, it was in permanent sleep.
Scrambling down the broken stones was easy enough. Mell even stretched out her wings and glided a ways, though her landing was less than graceful. We poked around the rubble and vines. Everything was covered in them, tightly constricting whatever lay beneath. Once I thought I saw an ivory thigh bone protruding from a knot of briars.
We explored deeper and deeper, and soon the bramble-covered bones were unmistakable. Mell sniffed at the dome of a skull buried deep in vegetation, leaping to my shoulder when the vine seemed to twitch.
There it was. In a shadowy corner, a heavy iron door was angled into what would have been a lower level of the castle. Ornate swirls of briars and roses adorned it, and it extended almost twice my height.
“This is it, Mell…” I breathed. She was inside, I knew it. The Princess of Rohr, asleep… or dead.
I took hold of one of the thick rings welded to the door, and pulled. It wouldn’t budge an inch. Thwarted just like that? Of course not!
“Mell!” I cried. “Torch it!”
Little Mell coughed and a hint of smoke curled from her lips.
“Come on, Mell,” I pleaded.
I was not expecting the hot blast of flame she breathed, warming the hinges. I tugged again, and the heavy door creaked open. A blast of rose- and must-scented air hit our noses. It was dark inside; the shards of sunlight did not reach this place.
I swallowed. I was brave, but there was something sinister about the crypt. The air seeping out made me feel drowsy. I swallowed again, then took one bold step into the darkness.
“Mell, a little light?”
A short burst of flame illuminated a surprisingly small chamber, and two glinting eyes.
I sprang backwards so violently that I landed on my behind, sliding and scrambling to find my feet. As I shakily stood, a figure, gown pale pink like a rose, swayed out of the crypt on fragile feet and into the dim light.
“Tell them I did not mean it,” she said, voice wavering. “I did not know what would happen. I did not know I would kill them.”
“Kill whom?” I asked, fear growing in my belly. Mell nudged my hand–we needed to leave.
“Please help me get out of here,” the princess continued. “It has been so long, and I am so hungry!” A shard of sunlight pierced through the briars and landed on her face. She smiled, her teeth sharp and green like thorns.
“Come closer, won’t you?” she beckoned with a graceful arm. Her frail body was hardly able to stand. “I have been so lonely.”
The faint scent of roses tickled my nose. My eyelids drooped. Mell bit my hand and I came to my senses.
“No!” I cried. Panic rose in my breast. We needed to trap her within the crypt once more. But could I approach her without losing my life? I knew nothing of her powers. I looked to Mell.
She braced her four tiny feet on the ground, and let loose the largest blast of flame I had ever seen her produce. The princess shielded herself with her arms and took small, quick steps backwards. Before she could retaliate, I swept forward and gave her a mighty shove into the crypt. The door was so heavy! The last thing I saw before it slammed shut were her dark fangs and wild, pink glare. A shriek of despair and frustration echoed on the other side of the thick metal.
Now you see why we trapped her there, said Mell in my head. It was the first time she had spoken to me. The people have forgotten, but you must remember.
And so I began my watch.
This one’s a little longer than my usual. Tell me what you think in the comments!