There was a boy and he was the son of a miller, not a king. He was not the first or last child but somewhere in the middle of ten, and he had no more noble intent on his mind than gathering firewood. He had no sword, only a small hatchet used for splitting logs. He was neither outstandingly kind or cruel, and no cleverer than he should be.
So, when he heard a voice as he stooped to gather a birch branch, it came as a complete shock.
It said “help me.”
It was a girl’s voice.
The boy looked around. He was in the woods that encircled their town, woods too thickly planted to even hold wolves. No game was plentiful enough to support a hunter’s cabin. Where had the voice come from?
The voice had been fine and cultured. It had been despaired.
The boy took two steps into the deeper wood and then looked back where he had come from.
The voice drifted on the breeze like a perfume: “please help me.”
A voice with manners, then.
The boy neatly stacked his wood against a boulder and walked into the woods. Because though he was not especially kind or cruel, not especially noble, he would not turn a deaf ear to a cry of help.
He tread with caution, using his hatchet to lift branches rather than hack his way through. There were no tales of mischevous forest spirits, no witches or warlocks to lead children astray in his home. Perhaps, then, it was something more mundane. Some city soul had trekked into the forest and gotten lost.
The boy began to leave nicks in the stumps he passed.
So what were they doing out here? Besides a cluster of huts too small to call a village, there was nothing around of worth. No, perhaps not a traveler, then. Perhaps a child of the village who had run away and gotten turned around. He tried matching a memory of the voice to the short list of faces in his head. It had been hard to tell the age of the voice, so thin it was, but he was sure he had never heard it before. A stranger? A forest spirit?
Of all the things he had been expecting, the castle had been the least.
The boy gaped at the largeness of it. He had never been to the city. There weren’t even mountains around, so he had no precedent for it. Spires and gables and stonework that looked like it had flown into place, so fine was the craftsmanship. And the whole thing was being eaten by the mother of all brambles.
“Help me,” begged the wind.
He searched for an in.
there were tales for this, he knew. He had heard the word castle, but had never been able to place it. Castle. Now he could see how one could get lost in a single building, and now he saw where he lay in the scheme of things. Someone calling for help in a castle like this could only be a trapped princess. And he could only be…
The boy regarded vines and weighed his own virtue. He had not been given an enchanted sword to hack the curling thorns back. He was not blessed with an abundance of persistence. Could he really rescue anyone?
The boy pitched back and squinted up at the tallest, cruelest tower. It only had arrow-slits up its impossible length, but there was a glint at the top. Windows? Or perhaps someone signaling with a mirror.
There was a path before him, a crawl scarcely big enough for a fox. He scuffled on his elbows and stomach and found a door. It was not locked.
No, he was not the son of a king or blessed by luck, but he would try.
The interior was pitch black. He felt around for a door, which let him onto a hall so dim it was like being underwater. But light was light. As his eyes adjusted, he could see the moldering pennants and woodwork falling to mites. Even in its disintegration, it was finer than anything he’d ever seen. He wondered, as he paced the long hall, how long it had stood here. How long had it rotted in the forest, unseen by human eyes?
He had never heard of a castle. No one had even alluded to something like this squatting in the trees. How long ago had there been a king? Had these woods been farms, then, and had there been more than just the handful he knew now?
He studied a decorative seal. Not one he recognized.
Not in living memory had they been independent; they bowed to some distant power that manifested itself yearly through tax collectors. They were no longer a kingdom. They were the little toe of a large empire.
The thought made him slightly sad as he knocked the latch from a door with the blunt end of his hatchet. Had a curse undone it all? Trapped the princess, choked her country with vines until nothing remained to tell? He did not mourn for self-governance, for he had never known it. But the unjustness of such a loss stung him.
When his foot went through the floor, he was in such deep thought he could barely throw out an arm to save himself. The hatchet slid away. He hung by his elbows, heart hammering. The rotten board bounced down to some horrendous depth. The boy eyed a long, conveniently close pennant, but decided to try his luck on his own instead. The stonework for the floor was uneven, it did not have to be flush because it would be covered with rugs. Now he found cracks big enough to wedge his fingers into and worked himself out inch by inch. He simply lay flat, embracing the stones. The pennant shredded in his curious fingers, he could imagine himself grabbing for it only to slip back into the darkness.
Plaintively, “help me, please,” whispered past his ear.
The boy gritted his teeth and got up.
Through a door at the end of the hall(he hugged the wall now, mindful of loose spots) was a great room with windows that spanned the height of its walls. The glass had been sunbursts of color, now vines choked the light into murky pondwater.
In the time it took for his eyes to adjust, he realized that something was moving in the room. He flung himself behind an overturned chair, trying not to choke on the dust.
They were the height of a man and evil to the eye. Some wicked hand had set an animal’s head backwards on a man’s shoulders, so the beasts walked one way and spied the other. In his hiding spot, the boy had to wonder how they subsisted. Did magic sustain them for however long it had taken to forget a kingdom? Or did they feed on something even less savory?
There was a sudden perfume, a scent of something that did not blossom in this part of the world. The boy could no more deny it than the ache in his bones. The smell seemed to beckon him to a door behind the great golden chairs that stood on a dais, made of strawberry wood and metal curlicues.
The beasts lay in the way. He watched them tread tirelessly back and forth, back and forth as if it were all they were made to do. And he saw the long runner that licked up the center of the room, its gilt rotting and flaking away. And as the beasts passed, he pulled.
The trumpet of their alarm was deafening. He had never heard such a sound, and it almost petrified him.
“Help,” whimpered the air.
He was so sure, so sure the door would swing open to his touch that he crashed headlong into the wood. The latch refused to move. He pawed in with increasing franticness as the beasts began to right themselves. In desperation, he battered the door with kicks. On the third it sprung open. Sobbing, the boy fell inside and crammed his body against the frame. It was pitch dark again, so he could not see anything to build a barricade. Stupid, stupid. He slid to a sitting position and felt around for something, anything. His hand came upon a long rod that, as he felt it to the tip, had a candle at the end. He could hear them coming.
The boy stood up and nearly fell over the steps before him. Steps! He wedged one end of the stick in a corner of the steps, the other against the door. But the wood was old and the metal thin. The boy practically crawled up the steps in his haste to escape.
There was another door at the top that he did not have to kick open. He found light in the new room, enough to see by, and a bolt on the door. He slid it home and then held his body against the door, calming his heart. The hatchet, tucked into his waistband, had given him a pattern of bruises on his side. His knees ached from the sharp corners of the steps. And as he looked up, he saw a long helix of stairs still waiting for him, to climb up and up in his agonized body.
Something big hit the door from the other side. The boy made himself move.
What had been the impetus behind this, he wondered as he eased over a fallen lamp. What slight had called for this reckoning? The only history available to him had been young as a sapling compared to this oak of a place. Was it a witch or a wizard or just an evil spirit?
What did it do to the princess?
Was she fair and light with hair of gold? Was she dark as ebon wood or rosy as copper? Was she musical or did she sew? Did she slumber through this misery or had she been trapped to watch her kingdom fall?
That gave him pause.
How long had it been? Surely the curse could have been broken a thousand times over by now. And yet here she stayed. Was she impatient? Was she grieved that she alone remained of her people? The voice had certainly been plaintive.
The boy looked up. He tried to imagine a thousand years of waiting, a thousand years of being thwarted, a thousand years of scanning the treeline, waiting…
“Help me,” prodded him to his feet. He climbed.
Surely there had been others. Not lately, but when the curse was new. Even a dumpy princess would have had at least one man trying after her hand. Maybe not the son of a king, but a lord or a duke or even a miller’s son, like him. What had happened to them? He hadn’t seen any bodies up until this point. Not even bones.
He slowed again.
He looked down.
He took a step.
The next stair crumbled beneath his foot. He was ready for it. He tried the next one with his toe and when it held firm he swung his weight up.
There were more long candlesticks along the wall, one he took to test the steps before him.
There was a landing that he eyed before setting a foot down. There was a door that was so ornately decorated that it had to lead somewhere important. And there was another beast, waiting before it.
Perhaps if he had been the youngest or oldest son, perhaps if he had been a prince with a blessed sword he might have leapt ahead to bury it in the beast. But he was only the middling son of a miller with a hatchet to defend himself, and he stepped back as the monster came forward and the landing crackled to nothing beneath its feet. He heard it scream all the way down, watched it flip from stair to wall and finally land with a crunch. He looked at the place he might have been only a moment earlier.
How long, he wondered, how long watching and waiting and…what?
He was a simple boy. A decade was an unthinkable span for him. Fifty, almost impossible. What would a thousand years of waiting do to a person, watching everything they loved crumble away, watch every attempt at rescue end in failure…or come too late.
He turned around.
“Help me” shrieked at his back.
He took a step.
“Help me.” The voice sounded young, yes, but there was something about it that was too hungry, too accusing.
He felt all the steps before him. Some crumbled away. Some stayed firm.
“Help me,” became a ceaseless gale, became a furied wind that tore at his ears. There was no please anymore.
A chunk of stair broke away, too big to step over. The boy watched it fall and shatter near the glassy-eyed beast.
There was a sunburst window next to him, and a vine that had pushed through. He broke the rest of the panes with his hatchet.
The voice screamed.
The boy stepped out, clinging to the vine. It had iron strength it had taken from the castle, and thorns too big to prick him that served as ladder steps. Hand over, hand, he made his way down.
No, he decided, it was not one of those stories. And as he set his feet on firm earth and kissed it for its solidity, he knew what he would tell.
He followed the knick-marks back to the clearing, and he gathered up his wood and limped home. And after that, people avoided the forest entirely. For the castle finally had a story.