She took his hand in hers and led him up the garden path.
“I had persuaded the Prince to give up the fight, if but for a day,” the Knight said to her, “but a Prince is a tenacious thing, and I knew his wish for a Princess-bride had not diminished.”
They walked past the day-lilies, where petals lay scattered on the ground. “It was his sister, the Waif, I feared,” the Knight continued. “What had she learned from the forest fey? What weird mysticisms were hers to command?”
They arrived at the summer house. The Princess stopped him here, stretching her arms across the door. “I’ll be just a minute,” she said, and entered alone.
The Knight called to her from the doorway. “Surely, I thought, and hoped, there is no shortage of Princesses suitable for such a Prince. Perhaps he has already departed for sweeter lands.”
“But alas, this was not so?” the Princess called back to him.
Presently she returned from the depths of the summer house, a pair of glasses in her hand. “Wine glasses,” she chortled, “for wine.”
The Knight offered his hand for her to take, she brushed it aside without comment. “Come with me, to the grotto we shall go,” he said. “The wine is there. I did not expect to drink it so soon!”
The Knight leading, they followed the path down behind the summer house.
“For my shame, I lay secluded; hidden in my cabin,” he continued. “I could not bare to face you. But after two days of this solitude, I became insufferably restless. Some compulsion took me, and so, despondent and directionless, I set out upon the lonely forest. I walked for hours, without cause or purpose. My thoughts dwelt on little, trivial things. Patches of light amid the leaves, the roots of old trees, the feel of bark, the softness of your skin, the nape of your neck—”
They cut across a plot of hyacinth. The Princess danced around the flowers, the Knight stepped as he pleased.
“I had been wandering for ten hours when I saw it: the snow-white deer. From between the trees it crept, like the silver of the moon on a cloudless night.”
It wasn’t long before they came to the grotto, little more than a cave in the side of a cliff.
“Blood spilled from its wound,” the Knight explained, “where an arrow pierced its hide, a river of red that stained the very earth. Its beady eyes starred into mine for an endless hour. It fled, and this time I pursued.”
He took a lantern from the wall, lit it, and led the Princess into the cave. The passage soon opened into a cavern, deep and wide.
“I chased the doe for five days. Always, it escaped my grasp—trotting, bounding, leaping! Never did it stray from my sight, stopping only to tease me, to lure and beckon me onwards.”
The grotto cave was stacked from floor to ceiling with supplies. The Knight pointed to a box bounded by rope and wax. “A chest filled with gold,” he explained. “See the seal, still intact, and know I have no want for wealth.”
They passed a row of shelves. “And here, in these—tapestries, linens and jewelry, all carefully stored away. And over there—grains and lentils, never will they spoil. Vegetables, in preserve. This cave is the heart of the garden, the magic of spring is strongest here.”
They moved on. “These contain wine,” he said, shining his light on a stack of barrels, “while those have ale. All this stored here by the former Lords of the place. Enough to last a lifetime, if need be.”
He grabbed a small canteen from a lower shelf. “The promised wine.” He lead the Princess through the thick of things to a plain wooden table, set apart from the storage. “For five days I chased the white doe. She teased me, and wrested from me my greatest emotions—hate and determination, pride and contempt. Ceaseless I labored after her, never resting, until at last a languor and weariness settled over me—until at last I fell.”
He set his light down on the table and pulled a chair out for the Princess. They sat.
“I stumbled, yes—and the moonlit deer stopped to look at me. Its jaw hung loose. And now that my strength was sapped, the doe faded into the night like fog, leaving me alone in those dark woods. Beneath a blacken sky I stumbled blind. The deer, that I now recognized to be the Waif, was gone.”
He filled the Maiden’s glass and then his own. “I was lost,” he said. “The trees all looked alike, there were no landmarks. I thought it was a miracle then, when ahead of me I saw a cabin—my cabin! I had been led in a long twisted circle. Exhausted, half-dead, I stripped my armor bare and collapsed upon my bed.”
The Princess gave her wine a playful little sniff. She did not drink.
“She came for me in my sleep,” the Knight whispered. “In my dream I saw the wounded doe, burning in the night, but this time she did not run as I approached. I placed my hand upon her flank, her hide rippled and shimmered like water. With one sure tug I pulled the arrow free—and the doe took the shape of a woman.”
The Knight raised his visor half an inch and took a long drink of wine, his helmet clacking against the glass. The Princess gave him a sideways glance. “Surely,” she said, cupping her hands on her chin, “it is easier to drink without your helmet?”
“You would ask a turtle to go without his shell?” the Knight replied.
“But what have you to fear?” the Princess asked. She ran a finger around the rim of her glass.
The Knight ignored her question. “I woke in a cold sweat,” he said, returning to his story, “and the Waif was there, at the foot of my bed! Moonlight spilled over us and I saw that she was naked. She came to me, and offered me her company. I refused, but she took my hand in hers, her fingers were like icicles. It frightened me.
“She dug her fingernails into my flesh, and wherever she touched, I fell numb.”
The Knight poured himself another glass. “Does such brazenness disgust you?” he asked. “Tell me the truth, and I will spare you all the sordid details.”
“I could stand to hear a little more.”
He took a swig of wine. “This Waif, this Witch—she pressed her breast against my own, her chest burning like a searing fire—a swollen flame, given form! ‘Come Knight,’ she rasped, ‘come and know me better.’ She wrapped her hands around my neck, and made to choke the life from me. I tried to run, to shout, to throw her off, but her touch was paralyzing and I was helpless before her.”
The Knight paused to clear his throat. The Princess gave him a little smile, and fiddled with her glass.
“She strangled me,” he continued, “and my eyes grew dim and my body grew heavy and all thought faded into nothing. I thought myself dead—but then, with one final burst of strength, I threw her off, and stumbled to my feet, sputtering, gasping for air. I ran from the cabin into the night, away from her, this woman; my death.
“I fell into a clearing, and beheld an awful sight—the Waif’s brother—the Prince, was crouched over an open longbox, its lock still caked with dirt. Next to him, a mound of earth, a hole freshly dug. He had found my darkest treasure—the Sword Halcyon!”
“The Peace-Blade?” the Princess asked.
“The very same.”
“I must admit,” said the Princess, “I had my suspicions that you’d hidden it here, in the garden.”
The Knight chewed his words. “The prudent option, yes, but to bring it here, to paradise, oh no—that would be tantamount to blasphemy.”
“But of course, how silly of me.”
“But the Prince—he lifted that dreadful sword from its silk-lined box and stood in awe of it. Even without my weapon, without my armor—on a different day, under different circumstances, perhaps still, I’d have given him a decent fight—but against that tranquil power, I was truly at his mercy.
“So such was my surprise when the Waif appeared behind me, naked, and the good Prince dropped his boon and blade.”
“Yes! He ran to the Witch and covered her with his cloak. ‘What foul hand hath you laid upon my sister,’ he cried. ‘Princess first, and now fey-friend, is no woman safe from your perversions?’”
The Knight downed his glass and filled it again. “‘No, Brother,’ rasped the Waif, clutching at his cloak, ‘I am to blame.’ She leaned upon the Prince. He had refused to claim and call you, she explained to me, and was content enough to take my sword and steel. But she—by her hand and spell, she sought to free you, with murder and with violence.”
“That does not please me to hear,” said the Princess.
The Knight laughed. “Still, I cannot blame her.”
The Princess frowned, her wine untouched. The Knight continued: “As her brother hesitated, she called to him. ‘Other prizes remain—grasp the Halcyon Blade, and claim it as your own.’ But the Prince was conflicted. ‘If my sister says she has not been wronged by you, I will take her claim as true,’ he said. ‘But why,’ he asked me, ‘why bury the blade?’”
“Why indeed?” the Princess chortled. The lantern flickered in the dark.
“He begged me to explain. ‘With destiny in hand, made manifest, one could be ruler of all these troubled lands. None could stand against you,’ he said. ‘So why,’ he asked, ‘in backwoods, forgotten, do I find this fabled sword?’”
The Knight drank. “I told him as I have told you, the fear; my precious freedom. But he chastised me, he told me I did not understand a Prince’s duty. He said, ‘If my country demands it, I would take up the Halcyon Blade and lose my agency—gladly!’
“He held his sister close, a protective arm around her shoulder. ‘Knight!’ he cried, ‘I am not as high-minded as you! War is good for no man. I would use the blade from a desire to do good: to save lives, as many as possible. To quell war, to deter violence.’ The sword, the Prince explained, could be a tool for peace.”
The Princess interrupted here. “That,” she said, “is a contradiction. Even sheathed—no, the threat of violence, or a display of power—these things do not still hatred. Peace, tranquility—they are more than the absence of violence.”
“You have quite a lot to say concerning power,” said the Knight, “for one who has rejected the throne of man.” He slurred his words.
The Princess gave him a little smirk. “Many a good individual has confused power with force,” she said, “and control.”
His eyes grew glassy. “I bent my knee to him,” the Knight said. “I offered him my sword. I have lead a selfish life indeed—but the Prince—the Prince—I held him to oath, made him promise, and he vowed to expand his compassion to all who dwell beneath this sun, and their generations hence; to strive for a brotherhood of man; to consider the ramifications of every blow, the weight of each life.”
“A very good oath indeed.” The Princess smiled.
“I gave him a title reborn: Prince of the Wounded Doe. He swore to this oath and his sister acted as witness to his pledge.”
The Knight offered the last of the wine to the Princess. She declined with a wave of her hand, so he tipped the rest into his own glass.
“There is not much left to tell,” he said. “The three of us talked long into the night. They spoke of their homeland, their kingdom, their search for a Princess-bride. The Waif and Prince petitioned for your release, and were only satisfied when certain promises were made.”
The Knight threw his head back and downed his glass. It spilled over his breastplate, he did not seem to notice.
“This wine was given as parting gift and sign of friendship. The Waif—she accepted your stout refusal of help—of rescue. From me. And the Prince, ha! The Prince embraced me, called me kin, offered counsel and gave invitation to the halls of his father.”
The Knight yawned, and stretched his armored limbs. “What a good little Prince—I think he had some hope for me. If I were a better Knight, if things had turned out a little differently—” His head buzzed.
How many hours of rest had he had this past week? Surely less than a dozen. He slumped over the table. A few last remaining drops of wine were jostled loose from the lip of the canteen. They shimmered the light of the lantern.
“‘Tis not yet midday,” said the Princess.
“Yes, but I grow drunkard and have ruined myself,” said the Knight. “I feel my legs, they threaten to stumble. I shall sleep here, ‘til head be clear, and thoughts flow free again.” He closed his eyes and stretched his arms out across the table. “A fine pillow. Yes, all it lacks is your warmth, Princess.”
His breathing slowed. “It’s wrong, I know. I’m wrong, I’ve always been wrong, but I can’t help it,” he murmured. “Why won’t you love me?” he asked. “Everyone deserves love, surely. If you cannot love me, who could? Please, I need you… I crave you… My dear sweet rose…”
The Princess watched the Knight for a long time, until she was sure that he was asleep, until his breath was slow and shallow, a weak wheeze, the only sound in all the cave, little more than a rattle.
She stood, and took a deep breath, and began pacing. She made a neat little circle around the grotto cave. From shelf to shelf and chest to chest, her feet skipped over the cold stone floor, but never once did her eyes leave the sleeping Knight.
“‘He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.’” Her lips trembled, she wrung her hands behind her back. “‘Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.’”
She stopped and stared at the slumped, sleeping figure. “That is what I’ve been taught—but I don’t hate you, I never have.”
The glint of polished silver caught her eye, shining out from under the Knight’s black gauntlet—the garden key. She considered it, and all the possibilities it represented.
She drew over to the Knight. “You’d chase me to the ends of the earth, wouldn’t you?” she whispered in his ear. “And would I want you too?” She clung to his shoulder. “You, my Knight, are a singular curiosity. There was a time when I cared nothing for the miserable and the wretched, but only for myself. To think, if we’d met back then—”
The Princess sighed, quite frustrated. “I thought to take shelter in the teachings, but have I just been hiding?” She rapped her fingers on his helmet for a good long while and mulled things over.
“Well, let’s have a look at you, at least,” she said at last. “Forgive me for this intrusion, I know it to be wrong.”
She gently slipped off his helmet, and brought the lantern closer to him, shining the light on his face. She swept aside his greasy, matted hair. She stared at him, taking in all his features. She ran a finger across the cracked, peeling lips and round the red, flushed cheeks and down the crooked nose, which, by her reckoning, had been broken at least twice.
She quickly replaced his helmet. Then she went over to the storage boxes and rummaged through them until she found a thick, cotton blanket. She draped it over the Knight, and let him sleep.
“Until tomorrow, then.”