The castle had been wiped from memory. There were some old legends, of course, but I’d never have known it had actually existed if I hadn’t indulged a love of old maps while waiting out the rain in the library one day. This’d be the cursed castle, then: the place no one who’d set foot in ever returned from. It’d be a ruin now.
I didn’t think there’d be much left of it – maybe a few buried foundations – but I’m a sucker for creepy folklore and I can always use an excuse to go for a walk, so I went to check it out as soon as the weather was decent. Finding it was another problem. I’d copied down the map as well as I could, but they weren’t great at drawing to scale in those days: not to mention that most of the roads would’ve changed course by now. Once I’d gotten kind of close I pretty much couldn’t do anything but wander around a bit and keep my eyes on the ground.
Then I found the rose thicket, and the castle evaporated from my mind.
It was a warm day in June, and the roses were in full bloom. They climbed trees and clung to branches, so thick I couldn’t see more than a hand’s-length in, so wide I couldn’t see how to get around them. And caught between the brambles, tangled in thorns, were hundreds – thousands – of corpses.
Birds. Squirrels. A deer, antlers caught in the thicket, neck twisted in long-gone terror. Some of them still boasted furry red bits of skin: others were nothing more than naked bone.
Like I said, I’m a sucker for the creepy stuff. I took a few photos, liberated a rat skull, and went to see how far the thicket went.
Thirty metres or so farther on the thicket thinned. It was almost like a doorway, a passage through the wall of thorns, though there were still enough of them that a machete would’ve helped. I didn’t have a machete. I did have large stick, after a cursory search of the area, and that would have to do.
By the time I’d beaten my way through a metre or two of the stuff I was wishing I hadn’t worn a binder, or at least that I’d thought to bring water with me. I wasn’t just sweating but dizzy, desperately wanting a place to lie down that wasn’t covered in thorns. The bones were older back here, some of them crumbling – and then I saw that one of the skeletons was human.
More than one.
I should have called the police. The death obviously wasn’t recent, but you’re supposed to report it when you find human skeletons in the woods. Instead – whether because I was too low on oxygen to think straight at that point or because, having started to hack my way through the thicket, I was determined to see it through – I allowed a brief moment for the grinning face of the dead person to spur me on and then redoubled my efforts.
When I finally burst through to clear skies, it felt like a victory. I sprawled down on the ground just past the thicket, assured myself that I was absolutely, definitely alone, and pulled off my shirt and my binder so I could breathe again.
By the time I felt well enough to put them back on, I’d managed to have a look at this side of the roses. Human skeletons had nothing on this: I’d found my castle. I’d found it, and it was more than a foundation, more than a single ruined wall. There was barely a stone out of place.
Castles don’t just vanish. They don’t just fall from history’s memories, not when they still look like this.
I went to explore it – of course I did – but every step I took felt like walking towards the brink of an abyss. This was the Unknown. This was a place so wrong, so impossible, that rules didn’t apply to it. A walking shadow with glowing eyes could have stepped through a wall and swung a sword at my head, and I’d have pissed myself, but I wouldn’t have been surprised.
There were corpses inside, too. Skeletons, strewn across the floor of almost every room – some still clutching knives, plates, things that couldn’t rot away – this was an archaeological miracle. Just by being here, I was contaminating the site: I should go back, go home, call the police, forget this ever happened. But I couldn’t. The police were a world away, and I’d never have a chance to see anything like this again.
I thought of the stories, of course. You know the one: cursèd princess pricks her finger on a spindle, castle falls asleep, roses hide it away from the rest of the world. But she woke up again after a hundred years. The people in the castle never died. They weren’t even really sleeping: it was more like stasis, a bubble of space in which time stood still. It wasn’t like this.
It wasn’t like this, unless something had gone wrong.
I climbed the tower with my heart in my throat, terrified of what I’d find, unwilling or unable to turn back. The door at the end was old, but undamaged: I pushed it open and ducked into the room.
She was there, my princess, still clutching the whorl of a spindle whose shaft had rotted away. A thumb and a finger fell from her hand as I lifted it, twined my fingers between her bones, kissed the jewel of her ring.
My tears couldn’t bring her back. I’d come hundreds of years too late to save her.