This story is by Michelle McKay and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
He was covered in spiders.
Thousands of the tiny creatures blanketed him as he lay on the ground. He struggled to keep still as they seemed to be the only thing keeping the dragon from noticing him.
The innkeeper had failed to mention there was a dragon protecting the castle, instead prattling on about how the dreams Lincoln had been having were evil and not to be trusted. Lincoln swore if he survived this he was going to have a serious conversation with the old man.
He watched the dragon’s slowly circling shadow slip further off over the forest that he had spent most of the day fighting his way through to find the castle. At least the forest hadn’t been on fire then. The dragon moved off a little further and Lincoln threw himself to his feet, scattering his eight-legged protectors, and pelted up the crumbling walk to the castle.
“This had better be worth it!”
The dragon circled back, losing time having to make a wide turn over the burning forest. Lincoln reached the imposing doors and darted inside, slamming them shut just as the dragon released another torrent of flame. He took a step back, wincing at the heat from the other side.
He turned and looked about the large grey room, pulling strands of spider silk from his face. Old tapestries hung in faded tatters against the grey stone walls. Two doors stood open on either side of the room, a quick look showed him nothing of interest inside. He walked up the large staircase at the back of the room, his boots echoing loudly on the bare stone with every step.
The dreams he’d had of the cursed castle had shown him the princess asleep in the highest tower but nothing of the rest of the castle. He hoped it wouldn’t take too long to find the door to the tower. The castle, from what he had learned, had a nasty habit of disappearing at sporadic intervals and sometimes not returning for years at a time. Lincoln had no intention of being trapped in the castle and was prepared to run at the first sign of trouble, the princess and her whispers of great rewards be damned.
The rooms he searched on the landing were the same as the ones bellow, empty but for dust and cobwebs. The wizard who had bestowed the curse must have looted the castle. He found a few forgotten trinkets lying in the dust and slipped them into his pocket. Not worth much and not boding well for his great reward. He should forget about finding the princess and get out while he could.
A whisper of sound, like a sigh that set goosebumps rising on his arms, swirled through the hall behind him.
“Hello?” he called, his voice echoing as he stepped out into the empty hall. Movement caught his eye and he looked down. Spiders scuttled along the floor, the same kind as the ones he had encountered outside. The spiders were headed down the hall and he followed them to the end. The spiders marched up the wall on his right and as he watched they formed the outline of an arch on the stone. He touched the stone inside the arch hesitantly and drew his hand back in surprise as he felt the texture of wood instead of stone beneath his fingers. He reached out again and found a handle though he could not see it. He pushed the hidden door open and stepped through.
He looked about the room at the faded red and gold tapestries, the endlessly long tables that stretched out in front of a dais with three empty thrones, grand scenes of battles and feasts in the stain glass windows, the light from the setting sun casting everything in the colour of blood. He stepped closer to examine one of the windows where a dark-haired woman stood in the midst of battle embracing a wounded man, her face hidden against his shoulder as he looked towards the sky.
That same whisper of sound drew Lincoln’s attention and he turned just as the door he had come through slammed shut. The noise echoed through the room and was replaced by the sounds of many voices talking and laughing. He turned and walked up the aisles of the long tables, now filled with hundreds of feasting men and women. He could smell the food and it made his mouth water. The tapestries were rich and whole once more and more gold than he had ever dreamed of gleamed at every setting along the great tables. He itched to reach out and take something but kept himself in check; he’d have more riches than he could carry soon enough.
He reached the dais where a large man, a gold crown on his head, now sat in the furthest left throne. The two thrones to his right remained empty. There was no table in front of the thrones; the king was not partaking of the feast.
“Your Majesty,” Lincoln bowed, his voice barely heard through the revelry. I—”
“Silence!” the king bellowed. Instantly every other sound in the room stopped. The king leaned forward, studying Lincoln’s face. “You have come to free my daughter.”
“Yes Your Majesty. I have come to put an end to this curse and free you all!” His voice echoed through the room. He expected a cheer to ring out from the court but they remained deathly silent.
The king sagged back. “Then we are hers once more.” He heaved himself out of the throne and dropped both large hands onto Lincoln’s shoulders. “Follow me.” He pushed his way through a door hidden in the wall behind the throne.
Lincoln looked back out over the throne room. Everyone stared silently up at him; there was something angry in their silence. He hurried to catch up to the king and fell into step behind him as the king set a painfully slow pace up the seemingly endless flights of stairs. Lincoln forced himself to check his impatience and keep to the king’s pace though he wondered at the lack of enthusiasm from a man who was about to be freed from a curse and reunited with his daughter.
Finally they reached the top of the stairs and the king paused in front of a tall wooden door. “We were once the greatest warriors in the land. My daughter,” he said choosing his words with care, “became skilled with magic. She found new ways for us to fight, to live even when we should have died. Blinded by greed I did not see the danger of what we had become until it was too late. When the wizard trapped us here I railed at the harshness of it, now I fear that his punishment was not harsh enough.”
Lincoln hoped the king didn’t expect his little speech to get him out of paying him. He shrugged. “So do better this time.”
“I wish it were so easy.” The king looked at Lincoln then shook his head and pushed the door open. They entered the tower room; the light coming in from the high windows was filtered and soft. It was cold and quiet like a tomb. Lincoln shivered.
The king went to the bed that stood in the centre of the room and gently pulled the curtains back. Several spiders skittered along the fabric and disappeared beneath the bed. A young woman lay asleep on the bed. She was as beautiful as the image that had been haunting his dreams, her dark hair a stark contrast to the pure white of her skin and the bedding around her.
“My daughter, Amara,” the king said softly.
Lincoln sat down next to the sleeping princess. He pressed his lips gently to hers as the dream had shown him and the room filled with chilling whispers. He lifted his head and her eyes opened. She smiled and reached up to touch his face. Her hand wrapped around the back of his head, fingers tangling into his hair. With surprising strength she pulled him down to her, her teeth sinking into his neck. He struggled but couldn’t break her hold as she stole his blood. He felt himself growing weaker.
“I am sorry,” the king murmured.
The castle shook as the curse shattered around them. Lincoln’s eyes closed. He felt himself falling into the blackness of death.
“I haven’t forgotten your reward,” the princess’s voice stopped his fall, wrapping around him and holding him in place, strands of shadow biting into his skin like barbs of ice. “Rest now for when the sun sets in three days you shall rise and join me at my side in everlasting life. We shall ready our armies and the world will bow to us.”
Lincoln struggled against the barbs but couldn’t escape, trapped somewhere between life and death. He should have run when he had the chance.