All along the lake wildflowers bloomed, in white and gold and red—their roots crept down between the rocks on the southern shore, they gathered thick along the marsh, they grew amongst the tall grass, where always the sounds of bees could be heard.
The sun was warm, they reached for it.
“What is your secret?” the Knight asked. “Day after day—this calm of yours, this serenity. My crimes have not diminished you in the least.”
He shielded his eyes from the light as it shimmered on the lake. “Can nothing stir you?”
“And what reaction, Dark Knight, would you prefer?” the Princess asked.
The sat on the bank by the bulrush. The swans of the lake swam here and there, pruning their feathers, waiting to be fed.
“Should I break down and cry?”
The Princess ripped up little bit of bread, throwing the pieces to the swans as they gathered by the shore. Her hands shook, but her voice was calm. The hungry swans pecked greedily at the meal, and fought amongst themselves.
“Or would you rather I was angry? Furious, even? Is that what you want?” she asked.
“I do not know,” the Knight admitted. He avoided her gaze, turning his attentions to a pair of swans on the far side of the lake.
The Princess swept the hair from her shoulders. “I will not show weakness to you, but make no mistake—your actions cause me harm,” she said. “I want to breathe free air again, my heart is heavy for its lack.”
“Free air?” The Knight spread his arms, extending his reach to every corner of the garden. “Look about you. Here lies a pleasure grove, the likes of which Xanadu could not compare. A prison sweeter than any other!”
He gestured to the swans on the bank. “Look at them!” he said. “They do not fly from here, but have made this land their home—and they are right to do so! This garden is Eden, unspoiled by snake or apple. You chide and condemn, but within these walls, I have given you everything.”
The Princess looked around, to the lake, to the wildflowers and bulrush that had found root along the rocky shore. They’d grown tall, and doubled over under their own weight.
She considered the modest summer house, cast in wood. The little gazebo, overgrown with vines and lily blooms. The sacred grove and silver stream. The great meadow, the winding path, the rhododendron garden, the hidden grotto. The iron fence, the barred gate.
She folded her hands on her lap. “A prison remains a prison,” she said.
The Knight laughed. “I should hath thrown you in a dungeon! With none to keep your company but the rats and lepers. Where the air is foul with death and dank! A small squalid box, far below the earth.”
He jumped to his feet and threw the last of his bread to the swans. A lone swan squawked and hissed, the others paid him no mind.
“Yes! I should have chained you! Kept fresh water from you, fed you only stale bread, and left you with nothing but the novelty of your own misery! You would be begging for the comfort of my bed.”
He loomed over the Princess. She rose to him, and stared him down. “And here I thought you loved me.” She smiled.
The Knight retreated. “Love! Yes, love can be cruel. I admit my shame: I have hurt you, my clumsy heart has caused you harm. Clumsy, yes, but not cruel. I would sooner kill a dove than see you grieve. Please, I beg of you, believe that, if nothing else.”
“I would find that easier to believe,” said the Princess, “if you did not make threats.” She ripped up another piece of bread for the swans. “Still, it is not too late to make amends. Let me go.”
The Knight stood and walked down to the rocky shore. “It was a mistake to sequester you here, I admit,” he said. “I have tried to woo the wind—an impossible task. A deed once done cannot be undone, but yet, perhaps, there is a remedy.”
He bent down and picked up a flat stone, worn smooth by the lapping of the lake.
“It is your designs that keep you here,” he explained. “Your confinement is beyond my power now, you alone hold the keys to your escape. You have but to give your heart to me!”
He turned the stone in hand. He felt the weight if it, and scratched his metal claws across its surface, drawing lines of white.
“I am patient. Of all my attempts to seduce you, surely, one will work, that alone I hold to faith, and I would be naught without. See the manifest of my devotion, again I say, a paradise, second to none.”
The Princess inhaled sharply. “A paradise spoiled,” she said, “by one quality—I did not choose it.”
The Knight threw his stone. It hit the water with a smack and sank. Ripples spread out across the surface, the swans bobbed over them without a care.
“I understand,” he said. “I have stripped you of your agency. It is a most precious thing.”
He reached for another rock. It too made a marvelous splash. “My own—how hard I’ve fought for it, that freedom of choice,” he said. “But now—I can feel it slipping, ebbing away. Day by day I am losing myself, and I fear soon there will be nothing left of me at all.”
“Oh, how I weep for you,” the Princess said. “You are a Knight-Errant. All the world is open to you, for quest and glory.”
“And you are a Princess!” the Knight replied. “Do not lecture me on the roles of the triumvirate! I have relieved myself of those burdensome shackles!”
A swallow darted out over the lake, gliding low, its little wings skimming just above the surface as it searched hungrily for pond-skippers.
The Knight took a long, deep breath. “Let me tell you a story,” he said, “let me tell you the tale of the Halcyon Blade.”
The Princess sat up, resting her chin on her palms. “Oh?”
He smiled, happy to have piqued her interest. “Halcyon,” he began, “‘The Tranquil Blade.’ A strange name for a terrible weapon, but a fitting one. It is a title of promise. To quell and calm—by force!”
He sat down beside the Princess with a thump.
“A sword of four-foot length, forged from the finest steel,” he explained. “Tempered in the fires of Etna by Hephaestus himself. A hilt wrapped in aged and stained leather. A perfectly balanced pommel. With a supple fuller, and an edge sharp enough to split a hair—and then split the splits again!”
The Princess laughed. “A noble weapon, if such a thing exists.”
“A masterwork, yes, but to what end?” the Knight asked. He unsheathed his own sword, and held it out for the Princess to admire. “Look,” he said, balancing the blade on his palms, “a fine weapon this is, as well. Three and a half feet, hollow ground, with brass inlay.”
The Princess gave the sword a casual glance then turned away, uninterested. The Knight frowned.
“But still, just a sword,” he admitted. He sheathed it again, and continued on. “The Tranquil Blade, however, is more than just a sword. Ask yourself—is it better to give a master a dull blade or an amateur a sharp one?”
“In all things, a master prevails,” said the Princess.
The Knight agreed. “A sword is the extension of the Knight, or the Prince, and that is where the talent lies,” he said.
The Princess threw another handful of bread to the swans. Full, they swam away.
“Ah, but someone once thought ‘Might does not make right. Why must I kowtow to the strength of others? Why must I suffer so? Why am I always afraid? No more! No more, I say! I will ensure my own peace, I will find my inner tranquility through outer domination. I will commission the ultimate weapon, and I will never be afraid again.’”
The Princess furrowed her brow. “Vae victis.”
“And lo’ the Halcyon Blade was born. An affront to all true Knights, those who have dedicated their lives to the art of the sword.”
“No faith in the strength of others, I suppose.”
“Or their own,” the Knight replied. “One does not wield the Peace-Blade. No—the sword wields the master, and guides her hand and actions.” He ran his palm over his heart. “The man is conduit—without thought or intent she parries, thrusts, dodges and counters. Her form is flawless, she is filled with grace. A dance of death, of impossible skill, guided by some force unseen.”
He took the Princess’s hands and cradled them in his. His gauntlets were cold and sharp and cut into her palm.
“More than power, more than strength, the Halcyon bestows unfettered foresight!” he said. “The enemy rejoined, retorted, their flank exposed. With Halcyon in hand a man alone can change the course of an entire battle. A spearhead unto itself; an exact and singular blade!”
“And this scares you?” The Princess withdrew from the Knight and started plucking grass from the rich soil. She pinched each blade between her thumb and forefinger.
“Please understand!” said the Knight. “The man of task—the Swordmaster, her thoughts matter not, her body is lost to her, her mind is haze, as if in a dream or trance she acts, as a doll or puppet thrust about. Controlled by a sword that has no mind but for victory in war.”
The blades of grass were thin and flat. The Princess raised one to her lips and whistled a clear note. “Oh, how fanciful!” She laughed. “I have found a Knight who fears strength in battle.”
The Knight frowned. “I fear a loss of self. My actions are my own, of all my deeds, from all this long life, I hold testament. Regrets follow me, but they are mine and of my making. What am I, but the choices I’ve made?”
“Even the mistakes?”
“Especially the mistakes,” the Knight said. “One fateful day, now only a memory: my Lord, my King, my… mentor—he summoned me home, to his grand hall. Walls of marble, regal banners shimmering in the sun—I can still picture it. The throne room, where man and Maiden played host to call, was empty, save for my King alone. A silence filled the air where minstrels once played.
“I was his First-Knight. I was his right hand, his tool of justice, his ambassador and his pride.
“Often in the city streets I would hear my praise: ‘Look, there goes the First-Knight of the Lord-King, a majesty in shining armor. See the hand that could cut you down with ease, and know that honor binds it. Look, look, little girl, smallest child, youngest son: one day you too might grow into a hero of renown, and might stand with such pride, back straightened, as yonder Knight. See the form that discipline crafts and wisdom tempers—’”
The Knight paused, his words had grown troublesome. “‘—and by code abides.’” He blinked, his eyes felt foggy.
The Princess place a hand on his shoulder. “My Knight?” He was as still as a statue.
“It’s nothing,” he said. “Now, where was I?”
“‘And by code abides.’”
“Ah, yes—my King had procured the sword of peace. From whence came the sword? What fate had befallen its former masters? I do not know, only that into the King’s possession it had come, and with sovereign decree he tasked me: take up the Sword of Halcyon, be ye who possesses and is possessed. Enter unto legend, claim the honor, bear the burden.”
“And I balked! This was to be my reward for years, decades of service? In that moment I realized my King did not love me, but saw me as tool, a weapon. Raised to be a dog, loyal and true. To lose my vital fire, this was a thought I could not bare.”
The Knight beat the ground. “What little love he must have had for me, for what stirred in my head and heart. Disgusted, I realized the truth: chivalry is a chain, loyalty a leash. Give up my will to choose? Never! On that day I made a choice. I held the Tranquil Blade aloft—then threw it to the ground! I drew my own sword, and with one precise thrust—stabbed my King through his heart.”
He slumped over. “I ran, Halcyon in hand, and never looked back.”
“And now you are free,” said the Princess.
“Yes, I am free,” said the Knight, “but the sword is still my burden. I keep it close but hidden, the Sword Halcyon, for I am now its master. I dare not wield it, nor will I permit any other hapless fool to be wooed by its promise of power.”
The Princess cocked her head. “Never?” she asked. “Not even in the most dire of circumstances?”
“Never, I will never use that sword,” the Knight said with a firm finality. “I would rather die.”