Beauty's tower loomed against the sunset, a column of blackness against the swirling red clouds.
The Wanderer peered into the briars. There were skeletons amidst the tangle, some in crumbling armour, some still clutching rusted swords.
He shivered and wrapped his dreams around himself. It had cost him his name to come here. Now he would be the first to pass the test.
He touched the hedge and the thorns drew blood. The sudden pain brought the feeling back to his numb fingers. He watched the dripping wounds and finally understood what he must do.
Slowly, the Wanderer shucked off his coat and stripped. Naked as well as nameless now, he turned his back on his clothes, closed his eyes and stepped towards the hedge of thorns.
No pain. Nothing but the bare earth underfoot and the icy Autumn wind clawing at his puckering flesh as he passed through the hedge of briars.
When the earth gave way to scratchy heather, the Wanderer opened his eyes and stared up at the tower. She was so close now, he could almost hear her call. Surrender was the key.
Behind him the briars coiled and thrash, obliterating his path. But he did not look back. Half running, half scrambling, he struggled up the side of the hill, the dry heather scratching his bare feet and legs, drawing blood from his hands each time he fell.
At last he faced the familiar stone gryphon that guarded the gate to Beauty's castle. Despite the cold and pain, he smiled. This really was the place from dreams.
The Wanderer waited until all trace of the sun had gone and the courtyard was a black void, peopled by borrowed memories of strange pageantry and solemn processions.
Now it was time.
No longer cold, he stepped into the darkness. Instinct guided his feet to the doorway at the base of the tower. Inside, a spiral staircase went up, and down.
He chose down and plunged deep into the hill, feeling his way past entrances and landings until masonry gave way to damp bedrock and a faint glow registered on his light-starved retina.
A last turn of the stair and he stood blinking in a cavern illuminated by glowing five-pointed stars painted on its vault.
His eyes adjusted, and there she was, naked and snow-white on her plinth. He stumbled forward, his arousal growing. But when he reached her, he found nothing but marble effigy.
The unknown sculpture had captured her perfectly, down to the slight wrinkling around her eyes. "My God, you were beautiful!"
The unnatural stars twinkled, lending movement to Beauty's frozen limbs, but he was a thousand years too late. This was no lady to be rescued. This was a tomb.
But why depict her naked with her long legs tensely spread? And why such anatomical detail in the secret place between them?
Just as his erection became almost painful, his toes stubbed against something cold and hard – a heavy chain leading from the foot of her plinth to a bronze collar around the neck of a skeleton. Seamless bronze fetters enclosed the wrist and ankle bones, and a cup – some sort of codpiece – lay on its pelvis.
He squatted and pulled the collar free of the human remains. There was no lock, just two hairline cracks to show where the hinge and opening were. It was designed to be put on, but not removed.
Was the man a willing sacrifice following her to the afterlife, or another rescuer arrived too late? Either way, the Wanderer envied the man, dying at Beauty's feet.
The collar fell open. Perhaps she needed sacrifices, not suitors. He lifted it to his throat and snapped it shut.
The Wanderer had become a prisoner.