Paul tugged on the horse's reins and called for the animal to stop.
George leapt from his seat in the front of the cart and ran to the fence behind the castle. He pulled the string on a bell by the gate to summon a servant. He waited for a long moment, then pulled the string again. Still meeting with no response, he called over his shoulder to his bandmates.
"Could one of you climb out and give me a boost?" he asked. "If I can look over the fence, then maybe I can get someone's attention and ask them to open the gate."
John and Ringo exchanged hesitant glances from their seats in the back of the cart, then returned to their card game.
Paul sighed dramatically. "If I climb out, the horse might run off with you two in tow," he reminded them.
"Right," John agreed reluctantly. He threw down his cards and climbed out of the cart, moving his legs carefully so as not to upset the tightly packed instruments. He jogged up to George's side and let him climb on his back.
"Would you look at that?" George gasped.
"How?" John asked. "I can't see over the bloody fence!"
"Everyone in the courtyard is asleep," George announced. He slid off John's back and cast an anxious look at his bandmates. "Do you suppose they all caught the plague?"
"More likely they've all collapsed from drinking," Ringo suggested. "I've heard half the kingdom has gathered here for Princess Aurora's birthday party. The revelry must have already started."
"Without us?" John groused. "That hardly seems fair."
"We four should be careful not to drink too much mead this evening," Paul cautioned John. "The apothecary warned us that alcohol doesn't mix well with that tincture of Preludin you insisted we ingest."
"We need the Prellies!" John countered. "Otherwise, we would never make it through both the long ride to the castle and a whole night of performing for the king's guests."
"C'mon," George interrupted, thumping John's back. "Let's walk to the front entrance and see if someone will let us in there. Paul, bring the cart around!"
Paul flicked the reins and called, "Giddyap!" to the old mare. The horse slowly pulled the cart away from the servants' entrance, then followed George and John around the periphery of the castle's expansive stone fence. When the four musicians approached the front gate, they were surprised to discover the doors had been left wide open. A group of sleeping sentries was gathered in a heap at the foot of gates, snoring loudly.
"So much for security!" Ringo laughed from his seat in the back of the cart.
John kicked at the helmet of one of the sentries. The guard sleepily brushed his hand in the direction of John's foot, then rolled over and curled himself into a tight ball. He resumed snoring.
"Don't harass the soldiers!" Paul admonished John. "That bloke might be sleeping, but he's still got a sword in his hilt. You shouldn't provoke him."
John kicked the guard once more, eliciting no response whatsoever this time. "Bloody hell, what are we paying our taxes for? With all the money we fork over to King Stefan, you'd think he could afford to hire a competent team of sentries to protect his castle."
"Perhaps the taxman's been hoarding the cash himself," George suggested. "And we're working for no-one but him."
Paul shrugged. He slid out of his seat, grabbed the horse's reins, and led the animal through the open gates. George and John walked in beside him, while Ringo remained in the back of the cart, clasping George's prized lute to keep it from jostling as the cart's wooden wheels bumped over the cobblestone path.
The grounds on either side of the path were littered with seemingly lifeless bodies. Finely dressed lords and ladies were sleeping higgledy-piggledy all over the neatly trimmed castle lawn. Courtiers slept upright, propped precariously against the crooked poles that they somehow still managed to grip in their sleep. Flags and banners hoisted atop the unsteady poles fluttered softly in the breeze.
George looked up and noticed that the soldiers guarding the turrets and balconies which lined the castle's upper floor were also asleep at their post. He nudged John and pointed to them. John rolled his eyes in irritation.
As the band members drew nearer to the castle's open front door, they found several large guard dogs curled up in peaceful slumber at the feet of a small regiment of snoring sentries.
"What's wrong with these people?" Ringo asked nervously.
"Maybe they've all come down with the Dreaded Sweat," Paul proposed, fear creeping into his voice.
"No, the Sweating Sickness makes you feverish," George pointed out. "These people are just asleep."
"And they're green too," John noted. "Or tinged with a hint of chartreuse, anyway. Even the dogs have an odd lime-colored look about them."
Paul tied the horse's reins to a post by the door. Ringo climbed out of the cart and joined his bandmates in entering the castle.
The interior of the palace looked just as strange as the exterior. Everywhere the four musicians looked, they saw royal guests and servants slouching on top of each other in listless slumber. John approached another unconscious guard and kicked his helmet with a gleeful relish.
"Sshh!" Paul hissed at him. "I told you before! You can't do that!"
"Everybody's green!" John replied, raising his voice so that it echoed through the cavernous hall.
"Not so loud," George chided him. "King Stefan might hear you!"
Paul squinted, then pointed to the far corner of the room with a knowing look on his face. Beneath an enormous tapestry, the king and queen were both slumped against the back of their thrones, their eyes closed and mouths agape.
"Some Royal Command Performance we got ourselves invited to!" John sneered. "Rattling all the jewelry in the world couldn't wake up that pair of snoozers."
"Do you suppose this castle is cursed?" Ringo asked.
"There's no such thing as curses," George answered. "There's just good karma and bad karma."
"And instant karma," John added. He crouched down and examined a sleeping soldier who was drooling profusely onto a carpet. "Gonna knock you right in the head, I am," he threatened.
The guard released a loud snore, then rolled away from the toe of John's boot.
"I just hope we don't catch whatever ailment it was that made them all so sleepy," George said.
"We won't," John assured him. "With all the Preludin we quaffed, none of us will sleep for a week!"
"Yes, but if the royal family and their guests don't wake up soon, we won't have an audience to play for," Ringo pointed out.
"Or a patron to pay us," Paul piped in.
John threw another squinting, cursory glance around the room. "Perhaps we should just leave," he said with a sigh. "I've played for semi-comatose audiences before, and I don't fancy doing it again."
"Good idea," Ringo agreed. "Let's go back to the cart."
The four musicians returned to the front door, then looked in dismay at their horse. Her head was hung low. Drops of mucus had dried at the corners of her tightly-closed eyes.
"C'mon Mamunia," Paul said, tugging at the horse's mane and blowing into her ear. "Wake up, girl!"
The mare made a soft snuffling noise, then lowered her head further.
"Damn, this is not a good development," Ringo said.
"Neither is that," George replied. He pointed to a dense hedge of black bramble that was mysteriously rising like a scaffolding around the perimeter of the castle.
"Fuck," John cursed. He looked up at the darkening sky. "Those spinning grey clouds don't look promising either."
"Perhaps we ought to go back inside and find a torch before night falls," Paul proposed.
His bandmates didn't even bother replying in the affirmative. They simply turned on their heels and ran back into the castle.
"There aren't any lit torches hanging by the doorways," Ringo noted, his voice trembling.
"And all the candles on the tables have been extinguished," George added.
"There must be a fireplace in one of the upstairs bedrooms," John suggested. "These royal folk aren't peasants, you know. They like to sleep in comfort."
"Good idea," Paul agreed. He ran to the marble staircase at the end of the grand foyer and leapt up the steps two at a time. His friends followed close at his heels.
George peered into the first open doorway at the top of the stairs. "I smell some peat smoke in this room. There must be a hearth."
The four men ran into the room and spied a huge vaulted fireplace shaped out of roughly hewn stones. But instead of housing a hearth, the fireplace's archway surrounded an open door. A faint green light shone into the room from the back of the mysterious passageway.
"Do you think we should go through that weird little door and find the source of the light?" Paul asked.
Ringo shook his head vehemently. "No. I don't."
John stumbled across the dimly lit room towards a tall, arched window. "Night is falling," he announced. "The inside of this castle is going to be pitch black in a few minutes. If we don't find a torch or candle now, we'll be trapped in the darkness with all these comatose creeps for the next twelve hours."
"Yeah, but…" Ringo protested.
"The hopelessness around you…in the dead of night," George whispered ominously.
John stepped away from the window and poked Ringo in the back.
Ringo shrieked, then slumped his shoulders in resignation. "Okay, I'll go through that damned door. But I'm not walking in first."
Paul led his bandmates through the mysterious opening at the back of the fireplace, then down a long and winding hallway, and finally, up a tall, narrow, and seemingly endless circular stairwell. The green light grew brighter as they ventured further along their route. At the top of the staircase, there stood an open door that led into a vaulted chamber. The four men shuffled into the room.
John fumbled across the floor, holding out his hands towards the bright speck of green light that was shining out of a recessed alcove. He bumped into a wooden spinning wheel. It fell to the floor with a loud crash.
"Ssshh, be quiet!" Ringo admonished him.
"Why? There's nobody here," John replied.
George gasped and pointed to the far corner of the room. Princess Aurora was lying unconscious atop an unmade bed, behind a pair of half-drawn curtains. The green light from the alcove shone down upon her, revealing her lovely face. Her bejeweled tiara reflected the greenish glow with an array of emerald-hued sparkles. She clutched a single, long-stemmed rose in her lifeless hands.
"It's the princess!" John exclaimed.
"Look at her complexion," Paul noted sadly. "She's all green! Used to be she was all peaches and cream."
Ringo gazed at her luscious, red mouth. "Lips like strawberry wine," he sighed longingly.
George cast Ringo an admonishing look. "She's sixteen," he reminded his friend.
Ringo shrugged. "She's beautiful."
"And she's Prince Phillip's," John added with a note of sourness in his voice.
"That's really not fair, is it?" George challenged. "I mean, Princess Aurora doesn't exactly belong to him, now, does she? She's a person in her own right."
"She was betrothed to him at her Christening Party," John reminded him.
"The same day the Evil Fairy placed a curse on her," Ringo added.
"There's no such thing as curses," George replied. "There are just people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion."
Paul shrugged. "Perhaps. But this whole business with the sleeping castle and weird green light and giant wall of hyperactively growing thorn-bushes seems pretty real to me."
"Maybe we should try to wake her," Ringo suggested. "She might be able to tell us what's happened to her castle." He took a step towards the princess.
John put his hand on Ringo's shoulder to hold him back. "Please don't wake her. No, don't shake her. Leave her where she is. She's only sleeping."
Ringo gazed pitifully at the sleeping princess and slumped his shoulders. "Such a crap thing to happen to this poor lass on what should have been her coming-of-age birthday party."
George nodded in agreement. "Sweet little sixteen."
John smirked. "She's got the grown-up looks."
George glared at John. "Watch it."
"Hey all," Paul called out. He pointed to the balcony at the edge of the room. "Something's happening outside. I hear some funny noises."
The four musicians ran to the terrace. Bolts of lightning started streaking across the sky.
George looked down at the ground. "Check it out! There's a bloke in a red cape riding up to the castle on a white horse," he observed. "He's cutting through the brambles with a giant sword."
A plume of green fire rose up from the ground in front of the man and pierced a hole in the clouds. A few seconds later, an enormous black and purple dragon came flying down to Earth through the rift in the sky. The dragon curled its sinewy neck, spread out its wings, and dove directly at the man on horseback. It released a stream of green flames from its mouth.
"That dragon doesn't seem to like the poor bloke," Paul noted.
"I don't much care for the dragon," Ringo replied.
"I wish I'd brought my specs," John groused. "I can't see this fight very well from up here."
"The dragon is winning," George informed him. "It just knocked the man off his horse and set the brambles on fire."
"No, the bloke seems to be holding his own," Paul countered. "Look, he just bonked the dragon on the nose with his sword! And…Woah! Look now! He's climbing up the side of that sheer, rocky cliff!"
"I don't remember seeing any sheer rocky cliffs near this castle when we were riding up here earlier today," John protested.
"Sshh!" George admonished him. "Wow! Get a load of that! The dragon has forced the man to the edge of the cliff. He's fallen on his back. And…oh shit…he's dropped his shield!"
"How's he going to fight back the dragon's fiery breath without his shield?" worried Ringo.
"Oh, look, he's back on his feet!" Paul exclaimed. "He's…he's…he's throwing his sword at the dragon's belly…and…it pierces the dragon's heart!" He turned to Ringo and high-fived him gleefully. Then he looked back at the unfolding spectacle. "Oh crap. There's blood everywhere now. It's all purple and manky. Fuck, this is dreadful!"
"Then perhaps it's best I can't witness it," John said resignedly.
"Oh my my!" Ringo cried out. "The dragon has fallen into the fire in the brambles!"
"Did the cursed beast take the bloke down with it?" John asked.
"Hhm, I can't tell with all this smoke," George replied. "No, wait. Hold on a sec. The smoke is clearing, and…yes! The bloke is still on top of that rocky ledge! And now…Oh, hell…I don't believe this…"
"His white horse is on top of the rocky ledge now too!" Paul shouted.
"How the hell did a horse climb up a sheer rocky cliff?" John asked.
"I couldn't tell you," George replied. "It must have happened while those dark, smoky clouds caused a fog upon the lay."
"This whole scenario is bloody daft, if you ask me," John grumbled.
"Hey, look at the sky," Ringo said. "The dawn is breaking."
"Already?" John asked. "Night was just falling a few minutes ago."
"Look for yourself," Paul replied.
John, George and Ringo turned their attention to the brightening sky.
"Here comes the sun," George noted.
"Bugger! I hear something," Ringo said, fear returning to his voice. "It sounds like footsteps!"
"They're climbing up the endless staircase!" Paul exclaimed.
"Bullocks, let's pull back the terrace curtain and hope whoever it is doesn't step onto the balcony," John suggested.
George obligingly closed the curtain. But then all four men snuck to the side of the terrace and peeked over the edge of the drape so they could see who was entering the room.
"It's that bloke with the red cape!" Ringo whispered.
"He's leaning over the princess' bed," Paul added.
"It looks like he's going to kiss her," John noted.
"That man needs to learn a thing or two about informed consent," George said dryly.
"Oh, look, the princess…" Ringo interrupted. "She's…she's sitting upright!"
"She's smiling," Paul agreed.
"Sshh!" John warned his friends. "They're starting to sing!"
"I know you, I walked with you once upon a dream!" sang the princess.
"You walked out of my dreams, and into my arms, now you're my angel divine!" the man replied. "You're sixteen, you're beautiful, and you're mine."
"She's kissing him now," Ringo whispered.
George shrugged. "Well, perhaps this bird knew the bloke before all this weird business began. This situation might not be entirely creepy."
Paul smiled. "She waited for his kiss, waited for the bliss, like dreamers do."
"They do really seem to dig each other," Ringo agreed. "And the bloke doesn't look much older than a teenager himself."
John nudged George in the ribs. "He was just seventeen. And you know what I mean."
"Yeah, I do, Johnny," George sighed. "But it's still creepy."
"Sshh!" Ringo hissed. "The princess is climbing off her bed. They're starting to leave the room."
"I hope that's Prince Philip," John said. "Otherwise, there's going to be hell to pay."
"Well, now that Princess Aurora is awake, we should go downstairs and collect our instruments," Paul proposed. "After all, we were hired to perform for her birthday party."
"Right," John agreed. "But let's give the lovers a minute or two of a head-start before we return to the ballroom, so it doesn't look like we were spying on them."
The other three men nodded in agreement. A few minutes later, they heard a crowd of people cheering below.
"Sounds like everyone woke up," Paul said. "Let's go then. We've got a gig to perform."
"Right," Ringo agreed.
The musicians ran down the long and winding staircase, nearly tripping over each other in excitement. When they reached the ballroom, they heard loud, lush music playing.
"Where the bloody hell is that tune coming from?" John cursed. "We're supposed to be playing the music tonight!"
"I don't see any instrumentalists," Paul noted. "The music just seems to be streaming out of thin air."
"Maybe it's part of the magic spell," Ringo suggested. "You know, like the dragon and the thorn bushes and the sleeping curse."
"There's no such thing as curses," George muttered. He started to smile. "There's only little things that will change you forever…that appear from out of the blue…making fools of everyone who doesn't understand…This is love!…This is la-la-la-la-love!"
John laughed. "Wrong movie, Harrison. Cinderella sings 'This is Love' to her prince. But now let's slip out and grab our lutes before whoever is performing this ethereal waltz steps forward and tries to claim our retainer!"
Inspired by the Walt Disney film "Sleeping Beauty" (1959).