The villagers had told the Prince that there was a tower, and indeed there was, a phallic spike of black stone cocooned in crimson thorns. It thrust up from the valley at the bottom of the great hill like a clenched fist, a silhouette in the rain.
The Prince, whose name was Sy, put a hand to the head of her black horse to soothe him. For a moment he huffed and blew like a bear, then under her cool touch grew still. He was a monster, this horse, nine feet tall and vast, with blood of the Fae Lands in him; when he caught a scent of dark magic he made his distrust in it known.
“Let’s go on,” said Sy. “The locals didn’t think we’d make it even this far. A forest is nothing to us.”
The black horse did not answer, for unlike the brethren of his own country he could not speak. He was only clever, intuitive, and silent, a storm in a vapour of mane.
“Come on,” said Syl, again, gently this time. “I’ll leave you where it is safe. You need not go into the tower with me.”
This time the horse moved, entering a run of thudding silence over the wet heath towards the wood of thorns.
The rain was such that it was like nightfall, grey clouds quenching the sun. Still the snarling red bramble gleamed like a cut throat on the horizon, and as the Prince and her horse drew nearer they saw the blood that gleamed on those cruel stems, old and new.
The horse screamed, and Sy, cleft to his back like black and silver water, grit her teeth as he reared at the forest as if before a wall of flame.
It did not surprise the Prince that the villagers stayed far from this place.
Corpses hung like cherry blossoms amongst the coiling vines, all adults, thank the Gods, no children.
No child in the world would have the arrogance to see such horror and still choose to approach. That was a grown up’s game.
Prince Sy dismounted the horse and kissed him even as he twitched and throthed against his bridle.
“My beautiful Devil,” said the Prince, and stepped towards the thorns, drawing her sword from its scabbard.
The blade sang with soft white light, having been blessed by Priestesses in the Seventh City with the powers of their God. It had cut down wights, goblins, the mutants of the Barren Hills, and would slay even deities, if any should stand in Sy’s path.
But she did not bring the sword down upon the briars, for when she looked up the Prince saw other such enchanted blades caught and snapped into pieces by their tangled snare.
These thorns had powers of their own, it seemed, far stronger than any yet the Prince had come across on her quest.
She walked up and down the perimeter of the wicked forest, breathing through her mouth so that the ripe stink of flesh did not smother her.
The bodies hung, pierced and dismembered, their jaws hanging slack in screams of agony. Some were naught but bloody bones, others so fresh that their innards swung like ropes of red jewels, steaming in the cold.
Rain fell into the vacant eyes of the dead and washed their ichor into the grass.
No armour could hold up against the thorns, it seemed, penetrating chainmail and plate with the strength of a tyrant’s pike. Even the magical items Sy recognised from their gleam were torn as easily as foil, the flesh beneath gouged and churned into scum.
“This is no enchantment,” said Sy, staring up the thirty foot fortress. “Surely it is some curse. Why were all these people so keen to break it when they saw so many others before them had failed?”
Devil snorted at the Prince’s hypocrisy, and Sy laughed, gently.
“You know that I am no ordinary person; these unfortunates seem merely to be human, and not all of them knights and heros. There are maidens here, and Sisters of the Seventh religion. What were they attempting to prove by rallying against such battlements?”
But already Sy knew the answer, having been ushered here by the same reason. This place had a certain call, a wordless voice that tempted visitors to its keep. Sy had felt it from miles a way, a vibration in the air, like the tension of thunder, but her resistance to magic had kept her strong.
She had eventually come of her own volition, her curiosity a stronger power than that which stroked the vertices of her mind.
When asked, the peasants that lived near the tower had not been able to agree what lay within it- a sorceress waiting to take on a worthy challenger, some said, or a dragon with teeth of silver and scales of gold, worth an unimaginable price.
The castle and its forest of thorns had been there long before the bordering villages had even existed, and thus the fortress’s story had been lost, washed away by the waters of time.
Yet perhaps it was not lost, Sy thought, but muddled on purpose to prevent the country people merely taking up their torches and razing the abomination to the ground.
Cautiously the Prince edged closer to to the thorns, observing the bodies with the bland scrutiny of one who has seen too much to feel the substance of dread. Presently Sy murmured, “No weapon will take the thorns. No magic, either, it seems. What, then? What is there left to do?”
With one gloved finger Sy stroked the length of a thorn, avoiding its point, and to her amazement it withdrew from her and released a trembling moan, or rather many moans, for all around her the dead mouths opened, assimilated by the forest itself.
“It’s alive,” said the Prince. “Sentient. So these adventurers- it killed them because they all tried to enter by force.”
Devil blew through his nose and shook a spray of rain from his long ears. As sensitive to each of his sounds and gestures as an unnamed language Sy responded, “Yes. I, then, must use the opposite of force.”
She lowered her mouth to the thorns and said, “I seek what lies in the great tower. Allow me to pass.”
With a slow, crackling rustle the red wall split in half, spilling the dead onto the ground beneath as it cleared a way for Prince Sy’s path. She stared at the parted ground, mapping a direct route up to the palace entrance.
“Leave my horse in peace,” Sy murmured, as she passed through the gap. “He means you no harm. Leave him untouched and we’ll have no quarrel.”
The thorns whimpered and rustled, and the Prince glanced at them with cautious fascination as she headed up to the rusted castle doorway.
Tugging the doors apart the Prince was taken by the fug of decay that rushed out into the moist air. It was the moulder of a catacomb, all dust and skeletal remains. Still Sy entered boldly, although she kept her sword engaged at her side.
Cobwebs swallowed each colossal room Sy passed through as if a bloated spider lay in wait somewhere in the belly of the castle. But it did not; there was nothing living within that the Prince could see, nor dead, either, come to that.
It seemed that anyone who had entered the great castle had reached the tower, at the very least.
As Sy moved through the castle she was aware of a renewed pressure of magic, the kind that generally attached itself to living beings. She’d felt it before, in her cruel, eldest brother, Saven, in the wolfmen of the Fifth City who drew their power from the moon.
Yet the sensation of it was so strong here, so pervasive, that it felt like passing through the innards of a God.
Glancing up at the ceiling the Prince felt a rare coil of trepidation seize her. She didn’t like that there were so many things in world she still did not know, that were, perhaps, even unknowable.
At last Sy reached the inevitable staircase, and here the ubiquitous magic throbbed at its full strength.
“The tower,” said the Prince, quietly. “Of course it’s the tower. What else?”
She mounted the stairs, sword drawn, cutting swathes of web like white wheat until it fell on either side of her, mountainous, snowdrifts of accumulated death.
The steps were almost vertical, and although there were thin, slitted windows in the stone walls they let in such scarce light that only Bryllig, Syl’s sword, eased the darkness.
There was a sensation of being watched, as there always was in such cursed places, and a thick, attentive quiet.
The quiet that portended the hovering omnipotence of a listener, somewhere nearby.
Sy did not like it. She felt her skin rise like hackles, poised for combat with an assailant that, as yet, had not shown itself. Even her senses, which were sharp to that which was concealed, detected nothing: there was no scent but dust, no motion but her own.
The Prince was alone in her climb, a lone knight crawling the battlements.
Gradually Sy ascended until, at last, she reached the room at the top of the tower, a vast, circular structure only discernable from the other chambers by a raised dias. Upon this stone lay what appeared to be a sleeping woman- appeared, not necessarily was; Sy had learned from her many adventures that few things were as they seemed.
The Prince veered around the plinth in a cautious semi-circle, her boots sending up clouds of dust from the floor like a chemical mist. She kept Bryllig drawn, her other palm open above the slumbering figure, who lay under a veil of web so thick that only the slight flutter of breath suggested the persistence of life beneath.
It was clear that the woman was very beautiful, delicate as a flower stem, her white hair almost indistinguishable from the dust.
“Who are you?” murmured the Prince, peeeing down at the still face.
Then, and only then, did an answering voice sound itself, not from the figure on the dias but from everywhere, a soft, slow voice that could easily have been male or female or neither, androgynous as the wind.
“I will not answer until I see your face, Sir Knight. Remove your visor.”
Tense with caution, Sy said, “It is not the sleeper who speaks. Why should I appease you? I’ve seen cursed dreamers before, and their assailants often linger. If you seek a fight then show yourself, also.”
“A fight,” the voice repeated, and laughed, the sound causing all the filaments of cobweb in the circular room to shiver. “I have waited nearly two thousand years for someone to conquer me, but not in battle. Show your face and I will reveal my nature.”
With great reluctance Sy unclipped her helmet, placing the silver dragonhead with its violet plume on the floor beside her. She shook loose her hair, which roared to her waist like a white flame, and stood, self-concious, within it.
The voice rasped, “You are no Knight.”
Sy smiled thinly; she had heard these words a hundred times before.
“I am Prince Sy of the Serpent Court, she who will be king after Queen Selesta dies, the first since my father was lost to the Forest Lands.”
The cobwebs shifted again, ponderous.
“But you are a princess, are you not?”
“I reject that title,” said the Prince, her voice clipped. “Now it is time to hear yours, and what you require from me in order to wake the maiden, and end whatever curse draws innocents to their death on your thorns.”
There was another rattling shiver of laughter, and the Prince stiffened at its mockery.
“My name,” the voice said. “The name I will give you is a title people had for me long ago, that is now forgotten. It is all I have. I was the Sleeping Briar, a flower bed, springing up from dead grass. And what I want-“
There was a pause, velvet with anticipation.
“-What I want I fear you will not understand. Look at that which you call a maiden. Look close.”
Sy turned back to the woman on the dias and leaned over her.
“What is it that I’m meant to see?”
“This,” said the voice, and the mouth of the comatose maiden moved around the word beneath the web.
The Prince stepped back, her violent clank of her armour the only sound in the room.
“I do not understand,” she said. “You mean that you control this woman?”
“No,” the Briar replied, patiently. “Pull away the web. You will understand.”
Sy slipped her sword beneath a loose edge of the dusty substance and pulled it gently upwards, releasing a scattering of motes into the air. She stared at what lay beneath, her eyes darting in a dozen directions.
“Do you see?” asked the Sleeping Briar. “Do you see now?”
Sy forced herself to nod, awestruck. The maiden’s form, naked under the web, was joined with the very slab she lay upon, a biological part of it, flesh seeping into stone.
“She is me, and I am her. We are a woman, and a tower, and a field of thorns. Since we were made, long ago, we’ve been alone. Once, we yearned for friends, now- now something more.”
The woman’s eyes opened, staring up at Sy with a wild need. It overwhelmed her.
“Where- where did you come from?” asked the Prince, haltingly, barely able to put her thoughts to words.
“The tears of a fae creature,” said the Sleeping Briar. “She was spurned by the King of the First City, before it was a city at all. She wept her need for revenge. Her tears were seeds in the earth, that grew into me. No one knew who I was, nor dared approach me. I had nothing but my roots in the soil, which let me hear people, and learn things, and listen to their stories.”
The whole room, the tower, the castle itself heaved with a sigh, and the Prince felt the breath of it run circles around her.
“What I wanted most was a lover,” said the Briar, its voice wistful. “I wanted one so badly. They need not be a Prince, merely any person that could attend to my desires. And so I called to the curious to find me. There were few who passed my thorns. Fewer still that could comprehend the truth when they ascended my stairwell and found the vessel of their want.”
“You are not human,” said Sy, gently. “Why, then, only call humans to find you? They make poor lovers. They have seen so little of the world.”
This time when the Sleeping Briar laughed the whole tower seemed to shake lightly, as if an earthquake had set it into motion.
“But you are human, too, are you not?”
Sy leaned down to the maiden’s face and kissed her cool lips, feeling a pleasured shudder rock the great tower. As she did so the armour on her back sloughed away, the plates ignited by the stirring of magic beneath.
Wings opened out where the armour had fallen, each the length of that great room and as leathery as turtleback. They were black, shadows cut out from the lunar pale of Sy’s hair and soldier’s garb.
The wings of a dragon.
Around the Prince the tower murmured its amazement.
“How can this be?”
“It is my quest to answer that,” said Sy, her lips against the maiden’s cheek. “Now, how do I take you? I’ve never made love to a Fae Seed before. Tell me how.”
She slid onto the dias, over the woman that was only part of a greater being, and slipped with tongue and fingers her caresses around the delicious body, which smelled sweetly of rose petals now that the the dust had been swept away.
The tower echoed with whimpers and moans, and seemed to sway with each ripple of pleasure the Serpent Prince elicited from its eldritch form.
The sweeping wings knocked down all the cobwebs to the floor, and then clenched, briefly, before folding away into the nude expanse of Sy’s shoulders again.
Gently the Prince kissed the strange, beautiful face beneath her and stood, replacing her armour.
“Stop signalling ordinary humans to their deaths,” she said. “I will visit you, when I can. I have heard that Fae Seeds can take entirely human forms, if they possess certain artefacts. I will find one for you, and free you from this tortured isolation.”
“I concede,” murmured the Sleeping Briar, and the maiden’s odd eyes slunk shut. “I will await your return.”
The atmosphere in the tower became suddenly restful, and the Prince descended from it quietly, as if to avoid waking the very being she had made scream with delight only minutes ago.
As Sy emerged out of the front doors into the rain she felt a sudden tilt of depression, more intense than any magic. She dropped to a crouch in front of the living castle, too heavy within herself to stand.
Then, as the red briars parted before her and murmured gently the Prince got up again, got up and walked towards the horse, still waiting, as she had left him, with his mouth full of wet grass.
Sy made a soft sound with her mouth and Devil came to her, his ears flicking at the rustling thorns with dislike.
“I let it live,” the Prince breathed into the horse’s ear. “For once, I am letting a monster live. I will try to make a habit of it. Death weighs on me like a shadow.”
She mounted her colossal beast, settling herself on his broad back, and led him away, looking over her shoulder at the Sleeping Briar only once.
A suddenness: the sparse red thorns had bloomed madly with flowers.
This is, I hope, the prologue to a fantasy novel I want to write!