Caught in the battle of a lifetime, Prince Rainier’s land is nearing surrender. Years of war have destroyed his once beautiful land and virtually everything he held dear. His forces are dwindling, his gold almost gone, and he’s facing the prospect of an arranged marriage in order to buy allies in a last ditch attempt to save his kingdom.
On a fool’s errand, he races out in search of one last hope—an old fairy tale his father had once told him of a sleeping army that could win his war for him.
The only wrinkle? He’ll have to kiss a beautiful princess in order to do it. Unwilling to let his people suffer, he’ll do what he must in order to save them all. And perhaps that princess won’t want him once she awakens… considering he doesn’t want her.
Only his princess isn’t all he’d expected.
Can he find a way to save his people and not curse two people to live in a loveless marriage?
And what’s all this nonsense about true love?
This story originally appeared on Manlike Fantasies as a short story. It has been expanded—tripled in length—and professionally edited.
There was good reason for the horse to be spooked. He cast a look to the side. Off in the distance, stood a huge ruined castle or fortress of some kind. It was hard to see, between the moon’s glow and the dense overgrowth surrounding it. A shiver raced down his spine. Something evil resided inside that place, he sensed it in his gut.
Steeling himself, he refused to let his instincts show. He’d never get Bailey to calm if he let his concern show. He ran a hand along the horse’s strong neck. “Not far, boy.” He led the horse a bit farther away from the brambles that grew closer to the structure. Noises sounded behind him… noises that didn’t sound natural…
He kept walking, leading Bailey through the dark stretch of road.
Once they rounded a corner, the moon came out from behind a cloud. Brighter, the horse seemed to calm. Rainier climbed astride and urged his steed forward. It wasn’t long before they came across an inn at the crossroads.
“I think we’ll call it a night,” he murmured to his horse, which whinnied his approval.
After leading his horse to the stables and paying the stable master a florin to get the animal cared for, he bid his horse ado for the night and ambled into the inn. A rowdy bunch was well into their cups as he edged through the crowd. Over a drunken chorus, he paid for a room, ale, and dinner before moving to a seat close to the fire.
Rainier scanned the room, searching for any signs of danger. Traveling alone was never wise, but he had no choice. He was in dire need.
The innkeeper brought over his ale and trencher filled with mutton stew. “I’ve got a room being tidied up fer ya now,” the robust man said. “Should be ready by the time ye’ve eaten.”
“Many thanks,” Rainier said before nodding to the man and taking a long drink from the pint.
The food didn’t last long. He hadn’t eaten all day. It was too salty and a bit too overcooked, but he was starving, so he ignored all that. After a refill of his pint to wash down the salt, he again scanned the room.
It had grown a bit quieter as he’d eaten. He searched over the faces of the men inside, only to have a plump woman land in his lap.
“Need someone ta warm that bed o’yers?” she asked with a coy smile.
“I doubt you’d like my bed,” he muttered before pushing her to her feet.
“A handsome chap like you? I think I’d like that verra much.”
Rainier lifted an eyebrow. He had more important things to do than argue with her. A fuck wasn’t the reason he’d come this far, alone. But then, maybe she could answer his questions.
“How much?” he asked.
Her smile widened. “One of them florins ye’ve got should do.”
“How about I pay you one of those—if you have some news to share with me?”
A frown crossed her face. “News?”
“That fortress I passed on the way here—the one covered in vines—can you tell me about it?”
Her eyes grew wide. “Yer not thinking of going in there, are ya?”
He shrugged. He was desperate. And he’d heard the myths… if they were true, he needed something inside. “Perhaps.”
“Issa dark, dark place, that. Ya don’t wanna go there.”
He held up a coin. “I just want you to tell me all you know…” He dropped his hand. “Unless you don’t know anything.”
The woman flopped down across from him. “O’course I do.” She eyed him before lifting her chin arrogantly. “Dinner, ale, and that coin, and I’ll tell ya whatever ya want.”
Rainier sighed. “Dinner and the ale.” He leaned forward. “And if your information is strong, then I’ll pay you the coin.”
She considered him a moment before nodding. He lifted a hand and called over the innkeeper. Once he’d paid for the woman’s food, the old man muttered as he walked away.
“The story goes that there’s a princess inside that place,” she said. “Some call her Sleeping Beauty. Say she’d the fairest lass the land’s ever seen. But I say there’s no way anyone’s alive in there, asleep or not. It’s been a good three hundred years now. All’s in that place is cobwebs and bones. ‘Cept for—”
She paused as the innkeeper delivered her food. Immediately, she took the ale and drained what had to be half.
The woman lowered her tankard. “‘Cept for the dragon. He’s been in there, guarding the Sleeping Beauty for all these years. I’ve heard him myself, I have. Roaring in the middle of the night.”
Rainier averted and rolled his eyes. A dragon. Sure. There hasn’t been a dragon sighting in a thousand years or more.
“They say the whole castle fell asleep when she did… the king, the queen… his court… his army… and his guards and knights.” The myths that surrounded the king’s elite guard and those knights were stuff of legend. They’d been powerful… unstoppable… and all brought down by a girl who couldn’t remain away from a spindle.
“That’s what I hear. A kiss from her true love will awaken the entire castle. Whoever does it will get rewarded in gold, lots of it.”
A smile crossed his face. His country was in ruins… his armies nearly destroyed. An evil tried to claim his lands.
Reawakening that sleeping army, the guards, and the knights was his last chance. The gold reward could help buy his troops the supplies they desperately needed. His neighbors had already been defeated… his country was the last bastion of hope.
He wouldn’t let his people down.
If he had to kiss some girl, so be it.
“Wait a minute? True love? The one to kiss her must be her true love?”
“So I hear.”
Rainier frowned. “The tale I heard said anyone who could get past the brambles, the mighty dragon, and awoke the princess with a kiss would receive a grand reward.”
“No telling,” the woman said. “The story’s older than I am. Either of us could be right.”
Rainier smiled ruefully, irritated at a new wrinkle in the tale.
“No reason to smile,” the woman said between bites of the stew. “Yer never gettin’ in.”
“You think so little of me, hmm?”
“Ya think yer the first who’s tried? There are bones of great knights in those brambles, even more inside with that dragon. Many a man has died trying to get the princess. None did. And they all died trying.”
He didn’t want the princess. He wanted something far greater.
Reaching into his pocket, he caressed the map he held there. He’d stumbled across it in his library months before, a token his father had received from someone. It showed a secret passage into the castle. If he could bypass the bramble and sneak in to see whatever guarded that castle, perhaps he’d have a better chance.
He withdrew the map and showed the woman a portion of it. Pointing near the spot where the tunnel began, he looked across the table.
“Know where this is?”
She cocked her head, the fork stuck between her full lips. Staring as she chewed, she finally slid the implement out before gazing at him wide-eyed. “That’s near the mill.” She pointed to a small spot. “That’s it, I’m sure.”
“You can direct me there?”
“Follow the road to Iveyville. Sign is right out there. Ya will see the mill’s blades after a few miles or so.”
Rainier smiled and handed her the coin. “Thank you.”
The woman smiled. “I can still keep ya comp’ny tonight if ya want. No additional charge.”
Rainier shook his head. “Not tonight. I have a big day tomorrow.”