The princess was in the castle, sleeping. That much he knew. Everyone knew it. It was what commoners called "common knowledge". That was part of Henry's problem. Everyone knew it, so he couldn't surreptitiously ask for help without revealing his hand.
"I heard three more suitors went up to the castle just this weekend," one man was saying, sitting at the corner of the bar in this run-down village pub. Henry glanced in the man's direction. "Any success?" he asked.
The man let out a huge guffaw and his nearest companions chuckled. "Don't you know there's a curse?"
"Well, yes, of course. The princess is sleeping... ZZZzzzz," he imitated snoring. "We all know that, don't we?"
"There's more to it, friend. Buy me a drink and I'll explain."
Henry was skeptical. A frown formed as he looked at this strange man. "What do you know that the rest of us don't?"
A man seated between the talker and Henry leaned in close and breathed out pungent fumes as he said, "Skallen's not just nobody, mister, he's a palace guard, y'know." Henry's frown deepened.
"Was. Was a palace guard," the man called Skallen clarified. "I was out of the palace grounds on a patrol when the curse took effect. Still keeping an eye on the gates, but from a distance. Those brambles she put up to keep out suitors keep out marauders, too. Not a lot to guard right now."
The bartender was watching this back and forth like a tennis match, waiting for an order. Henry caught his eye and put some money on the counter. "Two ales, one for me and one for him," he gestured at Skallen and moved around the breathy drunk to sit closer to his new informant.
"There. I bought you a drink. You said you'd tell me something everyone doesn't know."
Skallen drained the mug he'd been drinking before the bartender placed a fresh one in front of him. "You know about the thorny brambles that encircle the castle, leaving the princess trapped inside until the right suitor finds a way through to her."
Henry nodded. "Tell me something I don't know."
Skallen leaned in. "First, they're a maze."
"They're amazed at what? And who is amazed?"
"No! Listen! The brambles are a maze. There's no telling how many suitors are lost in the maze, or - it's been what, three years? - probably dead in the maze by now."
Henry's eyebrows rose. That was good to know. "Why aren't they just hacking straight through to the gate?"
"The first ones did, but the brambles grew back behind them, and I guess that scared some of the others. You get in, see there's a place to turn, and think, 'why chop and hack and waste time cutting at tough branches when a path is here?'" He paused. "I guess. I mean, I haven't watched the attempts in a while."
Skallen might be the kind of person who could actually help Henry. He had to be careful not to give away too much, though. "I think I saw the castle's silhouette before I came in here," he offered, pausing to take a drink before adding. "It doesn't look too far away."
Skallen laughed and gulped at his ale. "It isn't, for one who knows the way."
"Is that so hard?" Henry had come a long way. Presumably most suitors were local. "I guess now you're going to say there's a secret path to get to this enchanted castle."
Skallen drained his mug, eyeing this stranger askance around the side of his mug as he drank. He slammed the empty mug down. "I haven't seen you around here, have I?"
Henry took a long drink from his own mug and motioned to the barkeep to refill Skallen's. Then he said, "Probably not. But I've seen that castle's silhouette from about every angle as I cross this country. Never been close. Never tried to get in, but I see it. Just in silhouette."
Skallen's brow creased in thought. "Always from a distance? Never getting closer even if you think you should?"
"I guess," Henry was keeping it nonchalant, but that was precisely it. On his own, he could not approach the castle from any direction. The silhouette receded before him.
"Maybe she thought of everything. I'd like to see that in action. Care to ride closer?"
"Naw, 'course not." He leaned in. "We'll leave in the morning. You and me, together. Maybe you don't know how to go, or maybe she cursed the path of ... a true suitor. Lotta losers around, y'know."
Thanks for visiting my #AtoZChallenge! I intend to continue writing flash fiction on Fridays for the indefinite future. All of the stories this month were inspired be reader prompts, and that is my preference, so please continue offering ideas!
Do you have a writing prompt to suggest? Don't worry about choosing a letter of the alphabet, just leave me a word, a thought, a place, a concept... anything! and I'll add it to the list.
"Catching Z's" came from the prompt "Silhouette" provided by Anstice Brown of Curious Daydreams, in a comment left on my F post, here. I also took inspiration from a suggestion provided by Gail M Baugniet of Gail M Baugniet - Author, in a comment left on my G post, here.