There is an old castle of black stone that sits atop the hill overlooking the quaint town of Bottlecreek ruled by the widower King Adam, who has just seven “infuriatingly acute daughters who have an incredible lack of desire to marry.” The Black Castle, as all of Bottlecreek has taken to calling it, is in turn ruled by any number of wicked creatures. I’ve heard tell of vampires and dragons, giant serpents and living gargoyles, starving werewolves and giant man-eating cats. But no one knows for sure since nary a soul is brave enough to cross the bridge arching over a moat of steaming water.
That all changed, or should have in any event, when the fourth princess, Princess Tanith, disappeared last year. The king, while desperate to marry off the eldest, Princess Cornelia, neglected to pay any attention to his other six daughters. Though five of them were content to lounge and study everything from abbreviations to zymurgy, the Princess Tanith was a little more venturous and the king soon learned his fourth daughter had been lured into the Black Castle.
You can only imagine the terror and fury the king flew into (at supper, no less) when he learned of her disappearing act. I saw it, as a squire back then attending to the royal court at the time my lifelong friend vanished, and it wasn’t pretty; rather messy, actually.
It was the court jester, oddly enough, who came rushing in excitedly halfway through the minstrel’s appallingly bad song, boringly about two blue jays singing in a tree one sunny morning, during supper to tell the king the Princess Tanith was gone, most likely to the Black Castle, and to inform him that it was most fortunate since whoever rescued her should, by rights (and according to stories and legend), be married to her whether or not she wanted to be married. It would at least get rid of one princess.
Things didn’t go as the jester had probably planned as he said all this rather calmly. The minstrel choked on his note and broke a string. Ladies gasped and Lords stood so fast that they took a tumble right into their own plates. The servants and squires had saucer wide eyes and turned to one another for healthy gossip over what this could mean and which knight would be sent out in the hopes of attaining a royal hand in marriage, or who would be the unfortunate soul to rescue and marry a woman far smarter than he. The six remaining princesses sighed heavily in regret, each wondering why none of them had been bright enough to vanish into the black void to avoid marriage (to them, marriage’s only meaning was “avoid at all costs”). And the king’s face went red with fury before immediately turning ashen with terror. He yelled and screamed and roared so the dining hall echoed and all the other lute strings snapped. Dishes, silverware, and food went flying. He probably would have thrown someone, too, had he been able to get his hands on someone weighing a mere three pounds.
It was the year prior to my knighthood and I had to help suit up and equip the knights the king sent to fetch Tanith back. I longed for the day I would be suited up and equipped to take my turn at rescuing her. I knew it would come. You see, every single knight came running back in terror with his stallion galloping not far behind with wild eyes, without ever having placed a toe on the stone bridge arching over to the Black Castle.
I dreamed that I would be the one to rescue her, and all the other squires called me foolish. I didn’t really care, though. Tanith was my best friend and I wouldn’t let her suffer in the Black Castle. There was no telling what was happening to her in there. It terrified me to think that she was being tortured or drained of blood by a thirsty vampire.
I would have nightmares over her safety and sometimes I fancied I could hear her screams echoing throughout the basin. I often wondered what her sisters thought and wondered if they, too, could hear her screams. But they just sighed and plaintively asked why they hadn’t thought of it earlier. This talk disgusted the king and, in no time at all, they were packed up and shipped over to his sister in Roseweed, a good fifty-eight and a quarter miles away.
Then, on the dawning of my next birthday (I couldn’t tell you exactly how old I was since we went from Baby to Toddler to Kid to Youth to Little Adult to Adult to Older Aged to Graying to Getting on in Years to Ancient and even to Decrepit), I was summoned to the Great Hall, ceremoniously given one last test, and knighted as Sir Shane of Bottlecreek. Immediately following, a squire suited me up in beige armor. All the white armor had been used by the other knights (who had shortly after returning from their sojourn to the Black Castle gone into hiding behind their couches and couldn’t be coerced to come out). Then I launched myself at my very own stallion and was soon riding up the hill to the Black Castle.
As I neared the castle, I felt my mount stiffen beneath me and was forced to dismount since he wouldn’t move another inch. When I did dismount, he took off in the opposite direction, sliding and skidding down the hill, leaving me alone to face the castle.
I recall muttering something to the effect of “imbecile, half-witted chicken horse” before squaring my shoulders as best I could beneath the clanging armor and marched through a muddy puddle to the bridge.
“Okay, Shane, you’re not a chicken like that horse of yours,” I said to myself. “You’re a respectable knight out to rescue the fair princess, your best friend to boot. Don’t botch this, man. This is your only chance.”
After my little pep talk to myself, I withdrew my sword from its beige scabbard and went running and yelling in a deep booming voice that threatened to make me hoarse down the bridge, ignoring the steam that felt oddly cold in my face, before I could lose my nerve. Then I stood trembling at the giant black doors, trembling in my boots and frozen to the spot. Various monsters raced through my head and I wondered which of them I would be faced with, which one of them would kill me.
Then I heard something like a latch being pulled open and, a moment later, a little door cut into the larger one was yanked open. Without a second thought, I went racing in, swinging my sword wildly, without even realizing it had vanished from my hand until I heard a tongue clucking behind me.