“I’ll get one of the brothers to take your steed to our stables. Please, come in.”
Bewildered, Patrick stepped in, and let the monk escort him through the bare corridors into a simple dining hall. The half dozen tables were all empty and the room itself was completely dark except for the light emitted by a small fire. “Please, sit down and warm yourself.” The monk indicated one of two wooden benches near the fireplace. “My name is Father Thomas. I see the swamp has given you a hard time.”
Looking down at his clothes, Patrick found the strength to laugh. Mud covered every inch of him, from his waterlogged boots to the royal insignia embroidered in gold on his velvet tunic.
“I shall never again believe a dwarf when he counsels me on a shortcut. If I ever see that little blighter again, I’ll be sure he returns my gold ducat! Not only did his ‘shortcut’ take me directly through a swamp, but it also took double the time that my planned path would!”
Father Thomas coughed lightly to hide a smile.
“It will most likely be difficult for your highness to reacquire the coin. Dwarves in this country are known not only for their voracious greed, but also for their penchant towards gambling. I fear your ducat is long gone, sire.”
“How do you know who I am, Father?”
Father Thomas reached into his pockets and took out a small knife and a half-finished carving. His gnarly hands began to whittle away. “I do not know who you are, young man.” Father Thomas said rather severely, his misty gray eyes focused on his work. “But I was expecting you. Prince Conrad had mentioned—“
Patrick, who had been leaning forward to catch the monk’s softly spoken words, now sat bolt upright.
“Conrad’s here? Where? I must speak with him.”
“Not anymore,” Father Thomas assured him. “He left this morning, saying to me that, should his youngest brother, Prince Patrick, be sent to find him and bring Conrad back, I was to give that brother a message-”
Again, Patrick couldn’t help but interrupt,
“Let me venture a guess,” he said without enthusiasm. “The message was: ‘Not even the prospect of death will daunt me on my perilous quest. Alas, my only memento I can leave for you is my memory whenever you stare west.’ He always quotes the same idiotic poem!” Patrick pounded the bench with his fist. How many times had his parents sent him to find Conrad after his older brother had ran off in search of adventure? It was tiresome always digging him out of trouble and hauling him home.
“What is it this time?” Patrick asked Father Thomas. “I think I can manage as long as it’s not another werewolf terrorizing the villagers—Oh, fates please don’t let it be a werewolf! I don’t think I could live through Conrad fighting another werewolf.”
"It is not a werewolf," Father Thomas reassured him. "Prince Conrad seeks what everyone who comes to this land eventually goes in search of: The Sleeping Princess of Acrasia."
Patrick let out a moan, which turned into an unbidden yawn. "When Mother and Father told Conrad to go and find himself a bride, I don’t think this is what they meant." He suppressed another yawn. "Well, at least I know what country I’m in. Acrasia…I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of it."
“That is not much of a surprise," Father Thomas conceded. "Acrasia is a small kingdom, and since we have been without a ruler for a hundred years, there has not been much opportunity for us to make ourselves known to the world of nobility."
"You are without a king? But this country seems so peaceful."
Father Thomas stroked his bristly gray beard.
"We are an organized, quiet people, and not very populous. It has been hard, but not crushing, I assure you. But I delay you sir, and have not yet told you the most urgent piece of information. Your brother is putting himself in a great deal of danger. I am very old, and I have witnessed many brave knights set off to rescue the Sleeping Princess. Their battle prowess failed them all. Either they returned defeated by the ravenous dragon guarding her or they themselves were slain. I would advise you to spend the night here and tomorrow morning, make haste to the castle before he comes upon the dragon and talk sense into him."
Patrick mulled over this for a while, and then stiffly got to his feet. "Well, I did come to find Conrad, and I haven’t technically done that yet, so I shall take your counsel, good friar. I know I will not succeed, but as always, I will try.”
The next morning, Patrick left the monastery, thanking all of the brothers for their hospitality and excellent cooking, and rode away. Father Thomas had told Patrick he would know the castle grounds by the towering green wall of briars surrounding them.
Patrick hoped Conrad hadn’t hacked his way through already, only to be turned into a pile of ash by the dragon. Naturally, Patrick couldn’t be sure the dragon was a fire-breather, but from the staggering eighty-percent of knights that had never returned from the castle, it could safely be assumed. Despite popular belief, Patrick knew that dragons were not cunning predators. Their minds were as stagnant as scummy puddles. This made the virtually impenetrable scales on their back quite useless. On top of that, all dragons had exceptionally poor eyesight. If a knight could avoid being squashed to death under its foot, (a more common occurrence than one might expect) it was normally a simple task to kill it. Both princes had been required to memorize "The Twenty-Six Rudimentary Ways to Kill a Dragon", when they were young, so he knew all about it. Of course, fire-breathing dragons were a totally different matter. The only way to kill one of them was to run really fast in the opposite direction and hope the beast had a sudden fit of narcolepsy and hit its head on the way down.
By afternoon, Patrick was gazing at the massive hedge, which looked suspiciously well trimmed, as if the gardener had just popped by before tea to prune it.
"You there, dragon!" Conrad’s all too familiar voice boomed. "How would you like a taste of my steel! H’yah! Take that! –grunt—I’ll extort the life out of you—you princess-pilfering-pyrotechnic-pontificator!"
As Patrick trotted his horse around the perimeter, the shouting grew louder and clearer until he came upon an untidy gap in the hedge. There, only halfway through the thorny foliage, was Conrad, hacking away with his sword and bellowing insults to an unseen dragon.
“I say, Conrad! Is it dead yet?"
Conrad whirled around and brought his sword up to defend himself. As soon as he saw Patrick though, he groaned. "Oh, goblin snot, it’s you. How’d you get here so fast? The dwarf was supposed to send you through the swamp. I want my silver galleon back.”
Dismissing his brother’s remarks with an eye roll, Patrick stepped forward. "Do you need a hand?" He reached for his own sword, then, thinking better of it, turned to his saddlebag and produced a bottle of vine-killer Father Thomas had given him that morning. It was an ordinary fairy concoction the monk had claimed worked wonders in his garden. It supposedly sliced and diced all forms of prickly weeds on contact. But the moment Conrad saw the bottle his mouth turned down in a scowl.
"Those cheaters already offered that to me. I don’t need magic to cut down a pathetic little bush like this! Keep away from me! How’d you get here anyhow?"
Often had Patrick experienced Conrad’s inflexible attitude towards magic and the inconvenience it caused. Putting the bottle back in the saddlebag, he entered the leafy tunnel, keeping far away from Conrad’s wild swings. Choosing to ignore his brother’s question, he asked one of his own. "So, exactly why is this princess asleep?"
Conrad’s chest puffed up, "Well, since you don’t know…many years ago, at the banquet to celebrate the birth of the baby princess, all the fairies came with gifts such as golden hair or the ability to sing as sweetly as a dove. But the wicked fairy Morfea, who hadn’t been invited appeared in a cloud of smoke and cursed the poor child: On her eighteenth birthday, the princess would prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die. After Morfea left, one remaining fairy came out and used her gift to change the curse so the princess would not die, but merely sleep for a hundred years, guarded by a fearsome dragon, only to be awakened by a kiss. All happened as foretold and she’s still there to this day, waiting for a dashing prince—like me.”
"There are so many problems with that story on so many levels," Patrick said with a shake of his head. "But that’s not what we really should be worrying about now."
"I completely agree with you," Conrad grunted. "What we really should be worrying about right now is my sword becoming dull from cutting all these leaves."
That hadn’t been what Patrick had meant, but he decided it would still serve his purpose.
"Exactly." He raised his voice. "And if your sword is dull, you won’t be able to fight the dragon. So we might as well go home right now, sharpen your sword, and have the magicians give you a fireproofing spell. I’m sure if the princess has really been asleep for a hundred years, she can wait another week."
Conrad’s face puckered up and he actually stopped his onslaught to turn to face his younger brother. "Never!" Conrad’s voice quivered with indignation. "I will kill this dragon today, or die trying!"
"Alright, have it your way." Patrick sighed.
Once Conrad had run himself ragged, Patrick took over trying to cut through the thorns, reasoning that the fastest way to get Conrad back home was to let him have his own way. Although Conrad had bested him at every turn for twenty-one years, forcing Patrick to play the despicable role of whiny side-kick, the last thing he wanted was his brother’s death. But what could he do?
Only once had Patrick attempted to force him back home. Conrad had been harassing a giant, yelling at it to come out of its cave and fight him. This particular giant had been suffering from a migraine and hadn’t felt in the mood for playing games, nor was he particularly keen on the idea of being responsible for pounding the living daylights out of his country’s crown prince. When Conrad had kept it up for three hours, though, he had finally stuck out a hand and flicked the pesky knight with a redwood-sized finger. Patrick had tried to drag Conrad back home, but the silly fellow had stood right back up and started slashing away at the giant’s hand, making paper cut incisions. Patrick had only been able to pull him away when the giant had given Conrad a good firm swat that knocked him unconscious.
Around dusk, Conrad insisted on making the final swipes to the briars. As soon as there was a hole large enough, Conrad leapt through it and onto the other side, shouting, "Aha! Dragon, prepare to meet thy death!"
Patrick poked his head around his brother’s brawny form.
A magnificent white castle rose before them, only twelve feet from his nose, basking in the last pink and orange touches of the sunset. At its foot lay what must have once been a moat, now reduced to a very weedy, deep ditch. The castle’s drawbridge was down, and Patrick could see a large cobblestone courtyard inside. There was no one in sight, and most importantly, no dragon.
"The spineless worm must be hiding," Conrad muttered, and stalked towards the drawbridge.
Patrick rolled his eyes, and doggedly trotted after his brother. As soon as he stepped through the hedge, he caught the strong heavy scent of fairy magic. It got inside his nose, sharp and acrid, burning the back of his throat. As he walked, he seemed to kick up more of the foul stuff and began to sneeze.
Red eyed and sniffling, Patrick entered the courtyard. It was not empty like he had first believed. About a dozen people were in the courtyard—all asleep. At least, he assumed they were asleep and not dead because it fit the story. Even the horses hooked up to carts and the birds on the windowsills were peacefully snoozing. It would be giving any dragon far too much credit to believe it would let all these people lay here for a hundred years without snacking on a few.
“Can’t all this wait until morning?" He motioned with one hand to the quickly darkening sky. Before Conrad could protest, he went on shrewdly, "After all, you want the princess to see your handsome face when she wakes up, don’t you? I mean, the girl has been asleep for a hundred years, I don’t think one more night is going to kill her."
"I know what I’ll do!" Conrad snatched up his sword.
"Please don’t say ‘take a torch’," Patrick muttered under his breath so his brother couldn’t hear.
"We shall return to your horse, set up camp, and wait until morning! Maybe the dragon will be back by then."
"You can’t be serious."
It was the crack of dawn, and Patrick’s brain was still foggy with the agitated sleep he had been mercilessly dragged away from only minutes ago. Conrad was bursting with energy, and had bolted towards the castle that morning, like a setter on the scent of a fox. He had sniffed around, with Patrick following groggily behind, until he had found a lone tower in one corner of the castle. The door had an emblem of a gold crown inscribed on it. Utterly convinced this was the door that would lead to the sleeping princess, Conrad had flung it open to be greeted by a spiraling stairway. Before Patrick could protest, he bolted up the steps, taking two at a time. With considerably less vigor, Patrick trudged behind.
Three hours later, just as he was nearing the top, he heard a clatter of footsteps from above him, and suddenly had to plaster himself against the wall to avoid being trampled over by Conrad’s bovine-like body. His brother didn’t even look at him as he rushed by, his eyes wild with fear. “I cannot believe it didn’t work…bad omen…voices of ghouls…"
Before Patrick could say a word, Conrad was gone.
"Well, I’m not giving up now that I’m up here!" Patrick called to the sound of his brother’s retreating footsteps and he continued to plod up the stairs.
Five minutes later, he reached a door. There was a stone plaque with letters carved on it that read:
“Here sleeps Princess Deirdre of Acrasia until after a hundred years have passed from the twelfth day of Yune, 988. Whence that time arrives, she shall be awakened by a kiss, and the rule of the royal family shall continue.”
“That silly ninny!” Patrick laughed out loud. “He’s a whole year too early!” The year was 1087, not 1088. Stepping into the room, he saw an ornate canopy bed with the princess on it.
“What?” A female voice said. “Back for more are you?”
Patrick spun in a full circle, frantically searching for the speaker. At a complete loss, he sprang over to the bed. The princess must not be asleep after all, maybe she was just pretending. But no, there she was, lying on top of the covers, her breathing deep and relaxed.
Patrick swallowed hard and tried to remember his manners. “Sorry to disturb you, err, Miss.”
“Oh! You’re a different one!” The disembodied voice gasped. The lips of the princess remained motionless. The voice softened. “I’m so sorry… It’s been ages since I’ve gotten two knights in one day. I just assumed you were that blockhead of a fellow who was just here."
“Actually, I’m his younger brother.” Patrick hoped his next question wouldn’t be taken the wrong way. "So…are you the princess?"
"Here we go again." The voice sighed. "Why don’t you sit down while I explain— unless of course, you’re in a hurry to catch your brother?"
"Not particularly." Patrick coughed. "I’ve been chasing him around all day, and I’m rather sick of it." Sinking into the nearby armchair, he noticed a candy dish full of licorice drops. "Do you mind if I eat one of your licorice drops?"
"Oh, by all means, help yourself," the voice encouraged. "It’s not like I can eat them!" A
sweet laugh rippled through the room. "Now to introductions and formalities: I am Deirdre, the princess you are trying to rescue. Of course, you’re a whole year early, so it’s quite impossible for you to break the spell. Would you mind giving me your name, title, and age?"
“Why do you want to know all that?”
“I keep a record of every knight and prince who has entered the tower. It’s fascinating to track family lines. You’re number one-hundred and ten, in case you’re interested.”
“I am Prince Patrick of Menolaine, and I am eighteen years old. My older brother is Conrad, and he is twenty-five. I don’t expect he told you that.”
“He was awfully spooked when I started talking to him.” Deirdre laughed. “Now, let me see…do you know a ‘Terrence Yorke’ by any chance?”
“I think my grandfather’s name was Yorke. He died before I was born.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Deirdre sounded sad. “He was one of the nicer ones. I imagine you inherited your good manners from him.”
“Before I go,” Patrick said, “Could you explain to me what you’re doing up here? I’ve heard the legend, but it doesn’t quite fit.”
“Certainly! When my parents first told me about the deadly curse Morfea put on me, I resolved to find a way to break the spell. I discovered that curses only last until the fairy dies. Morfea was already very old and couldn’t possibly live for over fifty more years, so I could avoid the curse by outliving her. I have some fairy blood in me so I came up with the idea of casting a spell on myself and the entire castle to sleep for a hundred years.
“Still,” Patrick said. “It’s very odd that you can talk.”
“That was a complete accident—an unforeseen side effect, and not an entirely a bad one, in my opinion.”
An awkward silence followed. He took a good look at Deirdre. Conrad had said the fairies had blessed the princess with golden hair, but in fact, the waves that cascaded over the pillow were a lustrous chestnut. Her skin had a generous sprinkle of freckles, which Patrick thought made her look like she had a sense of humor. He glanced out a window in time to see a tiny speck in the courtyard running toward the drawbridge. It must have taken Conrad all this time just to get down the tower.
“Patrick?" Deirdre asked.
"Nothing," she assured him, her voice full of relief. "I was just curious if you were still there. You’re the first person who hasn’t accused me of being a ghost, do you know that? I only hope my people don’t think I’m a ghost once I’ve woken."
"Oh, I doubt that very much," Patrick chuckled, but inside he felt torn. It felt wrong to just leave. He wished there was something he could do for the princess, to prove to her that he wasn’t like the other princes. On an impulse, he said, "Would you like me to take a look around Acrasia? I could give you a report on how things are going. That way, when you wake up next year, you’ll be ready to take up your duties as princess again."
“Oh, could you? I’ve worried so much that once I wake up, I won’t even recognize it anymore!”
"It would be my pleasure, your highness.”
During the following weeks, Patrick spent his days traveling around Acrasia, his evenings reporting his findings to Deirdre, and his nights in one of the castle’s guestrooms. After he had visited all the villages in the kingdom, Patrick found himself coming up with excuses to stay longer. One week he restocked the firewood supply and the next, he gave all the furniture a good dusting—anything to help the sleepers continue as normal once they awoke. Although Deirdre insisted she had taken special precautions with her spell to protect the sleepers in the courtyard from the elements, Patrick felt compelled to drag all of them inside and put them someplace comfortable. With winter approaching, it just didn’t seem right to leave them outside to be covered with snow.
Time galloped by like a spooked horse, threatening to throw its rider from the saddle. Every time he made the journey back down from the tower, he felt more and more like he was leaving a part of himself behind. He and Deirdre shared so many of the same interests and visions. They loved to tell tales from their countries about the fates and magic. Sometimes they would swap riddles, or Patrick would read a book out loud. He could tell she craved conversation and companionship and his visits lifted her spirits. She was a wonderful listener, and yet at the same time, she was never afraid to voice an opinion. When he was emotional, she was his voice of reason. When she despaired, he tried to cheer her up. Serious, or laughing, Patrick felt himself irresistibly drawn to her.
At exactly a minute past midnight on the twelfth day of Yune 1088, Patrick slipped through the tower room door and shouted, “Happy birthday, Your Highness!” in a voice so loud it could have been heard at Acrasia’s border. He had spent the last several hours lighting all the torches around the castle, in honor of the day.
“I can feel the magic swirling around me,” Deirdre’s voice was tight with excitement. “I almost feel frightened.”
“Well, you have every right to be nervous.” To be honest, he felt nervous tool. They had never actually talked about it, but he assumed that—since he was the only person there—he would be the one to kiss Deirdre and wake her up. That thought alone was enough to send a tingle down his spine. He hoped she wouldn’t be disappointed when she saw him. Maybe she might expect him to be dashingly handsome and muscular. Many years ago, his youngest sister had told him that all girls liked men with dark features. If this was so, Patrick thought, running a hand through his crop of blond hair, he was certainly in trouble. Restless, he began to pace around the room.
“What will I do if it doesn’t work—if my spell went wrong, and I don’t wake up?”
Patrick went over to the curtain and lifted it so he could look down on Deirdre’s face, torchlight now playing across it. He reached out a finger and ran it across her delicate cheekbone.
“It will work,” he assured her. “It must.” Then, he hesitated, not sure if he needed to ask her permission before kissing her.
“Patrick, after I’ve woken up, are you intending to stay…in the castle, I mean?” Deirdre’s voice faltered. “Or will you go back to Menolaine?”
Patrick suddenly found his mouth very dry. “I’ll stay as long as you wish.”
“Then I wish you’d stay forever,” Deirdre’s voice was a barely audible whisper.
Patrick’s heart leapt at the words, and without any further hesitation, he bent over and kissed her.
For one eternity, Patrick could feel the beating of Deirdre’s heart melding with his own, and then a great force surged around them. The smell of magic became stronger and stronger until it was almost overpowering. Then—in an instant—it completely vanished. The next thing he knew, a soft hand touched his wrist, and he was gazing down into the most captivating pair of sterling gray eyes he had ever seen.
Two Knights in One Day
(A Sleeping Beauty retelling)
By Tahlia Merrill
A lone knight pounded on the thick oak door of the fortress with all his rapidly waning strength. A sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach told him no one would answer. This was a bad turn of events for him. Moving on in this weather meant risking getting lost again or being attacked by bandits. The knight hoisted himself into the saddle and tried to push away some of the hair plastered to his forehead. He was just about to snap the reigns when a shaft of light appeared from the door.
“Is someone here?” A creaky voice, almost swept away by the wind, called.
“Yes!” The knight replied, jumping off the saddle.
A shriveled old man stood in the doorway, dressed in the mundane robes of a monk and framed by an inviting glow.
“Prince Patrick of Menolaine, I presume?”
The knight could only nod. How did this man know who he was? He was quite sure he didn’t look like a prince tonight!
The monk pointed to his horse.
"The Miller's Daughter" by Claire Martens (a Rumpelstiltskin retelling)