On the morning of his wedding day, he woke to dawn light glowing pink and gold through narrow arched windows, diffracted by tiny panes of glass into rainbow patterns on the rugs, the furs, the stone floor. He rose, pulled on his boots and paced out to greet the day, holding up a silent finger to his lips as he passed the soldiers outside. Past the battlements, the turrets, and the great hall he strode, as the castle stirred into life around him. Before the sun had cleared the horizon, he had crossed the courtyard and reached the drawbridge, permanently open across a dry moat. He must see about getting the moat filled again and pulling the drawbridge up at night, now that the impenetrable forest of thorns had been penetrated. By him.
Oh how the men joked about that. They were still euphoric, high as hawks on an updraft. They had done the thing that couldn’t be done. They had walked straight into a legend and taken it for their own. The naysayers had claimed that there was no kingdom past the forest, that it was all a story. Then, when the towers became visible, that it would be a ruin. Then, even then, on the day they stood at the threshold and gazed out a perfectly preserved landscape, glossy cows sleeping in meadows and neatly pruned trees frothy with apple blossom, they had said that the princess was sure to have died a hundred years ago and would be a mummified corpse high in the highest tower, skin shrunk tight against her delicate skull, vermin nesting in her hair. It was only when they stepped onto the dewy grass that they were silent. The spell that had stopped time shuddered through their bodies, lifting the hair on their arms like a cold breeze. They paid attention to their breath, and let the words fall away, walking silently through the sleeping fields, flanking him all the way to the base of the tower, where they gladly stopped so he could make the final ascent alone.
Here he was alone again now, on a day ripe with promise. Midsummer. His wedding day. White mist was rising from damp hollows and steaming fields, forming a haze in the distance. Birdsong surrounded him on all sides, blasting out exuberantly from meadow, forest and sky. In the distance, acres of roses released their dying scent. They would have to be burned at some point, when the wood was dry enough. But what then? The kingdom was so innocent, so quaintly steeped in the past. Its subjects were not ready to meet the outside world. They had struggled even to accept him and his men until the queen, his soon-to-be mother in law, took him aside one day.
‘Think of it from their point of view’, she advised him carefully.
‘They didn’t know they were asleep. One minute they were going about their business and the next, an army appeared from 100 years in the future and surrounded them without ever coming through the gates.’
He had noticed the courtesy of the word ‘their’, not ‘our’ and it had inclined him towards gentleness. She was right, also. He must woo them if they were to be his loyal subjects, not overwhelm them. The success of his future reign depended on it. He modified his language, becoming courtly, using the old words they used without smirking, showing due deference to the current king. He kept a close eye on his men and made sure they were doing the same. Nothing could stop them from making ribald jokes in their barracks at night, however. The acres-deep forest of rose trees had been christened the Chastity Belt. The tallest tower was now the Prince’s Massive Tower. There were multiple songs based on the rhyme of rose and hose.
He squinted into the distance. His family would be arriving today. What would they make of all this? His father would be proud, he knew. A third son had done the impossible and gained a kingdom. His brothers would be both jealous and impressed. He could hear Theo now, casting doubts on the fertility of the bride (‘A hundred year old womb? I’m just saying, it’s a risk I wouldn’t take’). Arthur, nothing to prove, would be all manly pats on the back and galloping horses around the boundary. Sweet Johnathon would gravitate towards the women, talking herbs in the kitchen garden. Sweet Johnathon, for all his brothers’ scoffing, had more luck with the girls than any of them. Rumour had it that he already had three bastards by the time he was married and it didn’t stop there. Of course, they would bring their wives as well, and the little ones all dressed in their finery. He was childishly excited to see them, to make them proud. Look at what I have done! And soon, he hoped, he would have children too. Plenty. Assuming of course that the princess could conceive.
The princess. She of the enchanted sleep. He felt a tremor of unease. He had told nobody the real story of that day in the tower. How he had entered with cautious reverence into the warm golden light of the room; how even the dust motes had glowed with magic. She had been sprawled on the bed like a child, her right arm flung out with unself-conscious abandon, her skirts rumpled, her skin plump and flushed with sleep. Her neck was as white and slender as a swan’s, her elegant clavicles outlined in soft shadow. As he approached, he had become aware of the swell of her breasts and felt an instant stab of desire. He imagined grasping her supple body, spending himself in the warm cleft between her thighs. It was not until he was above her that he realised her eyes were open, unseeing. It unnerved him so that his kiss, after all the anticipation, was perfunctory and he turned abruptly away. Anyone watching would have said he was frightened.
Perhaps he was still frightened. Today she would be his bride and yet there was a coldness between them, like a bank of river mist. It was merely maidenly reticence, everyone assured him; girlish modesty in the presence of her future lord. His concerns had not been eased, however. A hundred years in a tower at the centre of a powerful enchantment – who knows what effect that may have? Madness. A poisoned bloodline. A hostile womb. He shuddered, then set his face resolutely in the direction of the sunrise. He would not be swayed by doubt, like some common page. He would overcome all obstacles. He would cut through every forest of thorns. It was midsummer, the morning of his wedding day. His glorious future had begun.