He pushed aside a fern and made his way downhill. The brush was thick here. Blessed by eternal spring, the thicket had grown tall and wild. Lichen, moss; branches bristled with buds, life sprouted from every corner, from every rocky crevice.
It was a sacred grove.
Here he found her, hidden amongst the trees, nestled between the exposed roots of an old hollow oak. The willows had given way to her, the trees had bowed, the ground was softened by her touch.
He cleared his throat. “Princess!” he called, “I have returned.”
She rose to greet him. Her gown clung to her, a single shoulder strap lay loose, forgotten in the afternoon haze. Light filtered through the canopy, she basked in the warmth of a sunbeam.
“Good day,” said the Princess. “I thought I saw a raven this morning.”
“There are no ravens here.” The Knight bowed. She accepted this, then sat: elbow to knee, hand to chin, beckoning for him to join her. “Won’t you sit?” she asked. She looked away, towards the trees.
“As you wish,” said the Knight.
He began to move towards her, but a strange stiffness took hold of him; his armor seized, his strength was sapped. “I-I could not find you in the meadow, or the grotto,” he said. “The vineyard is empty. The peacocks fret, the swans are lonely. The summer house is cold without your company.”
The Princess gave him a certain look. “I have been right here,” she said, and she spread her arms wide, gesturing to the elms and the oak and the climbing ivy. “Sitting, and thinking, and enjoying the sound of the wind through the leaves.”
He turned from her. “I though you had escaped me.”
She narrowed her eyes and studied the Knight. He could feel her eyes pierce his armor and his soul, searching for something hidden.
“The fence is tall, the gate is iron,” she said after some reflection.
A thrush fluttered through the canopy, its shadow dancing over the brush below.
“Impenetrable,” the Knight assured himself. “Inescapable.”
“Quite so,” said the Princess. “Thus we remain, together—here, beneath the poplar tree.”
She made a fist, then unfurled her fingers, spreading her palm flat.
“You know my desires,” the Knight said. “You know the conditions of your freedom. A pittance, I should imagine, compared to an eternity within these small and stifling confines.”
The Princess smiled but said nothing. This spurred the Knight on:
“Yet, my Princess,” he said, “I hope these conditions are not unbearable. I seek your hand, and am loathed to tie them. This garden, this prison—it is a masterpiece, the finest and most tranquil of cages. Your needs are tended here, with pleasures enough to last a lifetime.”
“There is only one thing I want.”
“A triviality most live without,” said the Knight.
“This is true,” the Princess agreed, “but still, it is both what I want, and what I seek.” She tilted her head to the side. “Is it not the same for you?”
This only frustrated the Knight. “Yes!” he said. Then: “No!”
He sighed, and tried again. “Some swear fidelity, or loyalty,” he explained. “Marriage, treaties, the rule of law. All manner of men and Maiden have sacrificed some portion of their cherished freedom. Can you not do the same?”
The Princess raised a hand to her lips. “More folly from the Knight of fools,” she yawned.
Behind his helmet the Knight frowned.
He started pacing, trampling down the thistles and ivy beneath his boots. “I understand better than most!” he said. “Life is sacrifice, dear Princess. No man can be all things. Carefully he must pick and choose, and balance his dreams against his fortunes.”
“This is also true,” the Princess said.
A little brook ran through the grove—babbling, tripping over the rocks, dribbling between the willow trees. She dipped her toes in it, let them cool and shiver.
“Consider a ship,” the Knight continued, lost to his thoughts, “built by the finest craftsmen. Shipwrights with years of experience, using the best of materials. Royal elm and teak, the sturdy trunks of ancient trees. Three sheets to the wind, anointed with oils.”
He counted off his fingers. “Confidence, strength, grace. These are the foundations of a good life.”
The Maiden swirled the water with her feet. The minnows of the brook were caught in her current.
“But the sea is cruel. So man seeks help. Friends and lovers and family. Others. Men who know the boat and her timbers.”
“Man is, if nothing else, a social creature,” the Princess said.
“But to what end?” the Knight asked. “The Seafarer has sacrificed. In wage, in time, in rhyme—ships are not free, labor is not cheap, a crew requires due patronage. The Seafarer has sacrificed, and perhaps in vain. Against all the might of Poseidon, is a simple raft, handmade with shame, any better than the finest yacht?”
The Princess wriggled her toes. “Your point?”
“When the waters rise, all men drown the same.”
“Surely though,” the Princess said, “against a mere squall, or summer storm, the raft will fare worse?” She slipped her hand into the brook and teased the minnows.
“Yes and no. The raft builder, the Raftsman—he lives or dies by his wits alone—and suffers not the misery of man,” the Knight explained, still pacing. “The Seafarer in his grand ship has entrusted his life and livelihood to others; he has exchanged with them. Possessions, love, duty, honor, debt, law—he is bound to the mast.”
He thumped his chest. “Do you understand? As the Raftsman drowns, as the waves subsume his vessel—he can look to the heavens with pride, for he has failed on his own, beholden to none! His is the ultimate freedom.”
“O Dark Knight, I am confused.” The Princess laughed. “Are you advocating a ship, or a raft?”
“Or should I build my boat with your timbers, Knight, and take you as my helmsmen?”
He considered the question. This was his desire, was it not? “An exchange with one, only, then,” he said. “A small price to pay, I should think, to sail the ocean blue, and go where the winds may take you.”
“Hmm.” The Princess skimmed her fingertips over of the surface of the water.
The Knight cleared his throat and tried again. “I beseech thee—feel the pull of the tides, the ripple of the sea. Surrender to me.”
The Princess shook her head. “‘If a man going down into a river, swollen and swiftly flowing, is carried away by the current—how can he help others across?’” she asked the Knight.
He hung his head.
She leaned towards him. “Let me go,” she whispered.
The Princess sighed. “Well, then, we are at an impasse.”
“I suppose so,” the Knight agreed.
The Princess turned away from him, towards the pines, and stared into the middle space. She thumbed the beads on her bracelet and was quiet.
She had not dismissed him, nor did he feel like leaving so soon, so instead the Knight watched her—as she sat, as she breathed, as the sparrows danced above her in the eaves, as the dragonflies skimmed over the brook by her feet.
If she minded his presence, she did not say so.
He watched her—as she breathed, as her breast rose and fell and swelled with every breath.
Inhale, exhale, how easy she made it look.
All the grove was at peace, a peace that seemed to stretch to eternity, and in that suffocating calm, the Knight felt himself a trespasser.
A nameless dread welled up inside of him. It boiled and stewed until he could suffer it no longer. He turned to leave.
“Wait—” the Princess called.
“I am done here for the day,” she said. “If you would be so kind, and escort me back.” She stood, and brushed the dirt from her dress. “Help me, if you would.”
“Oh! Of course.”
He offered his arm to her and together they made their way back through the thicket. They stole up along the bank, over the ivy and through the hemlock, following the stream to the meadow and the lake beyond.
They emerged from the grove and were bathed in the golden light of a waning afternoon. “This was once my secret refuge,” the Knight explained. “I came here often, a long time ago. Now it serves a new purpose.”
“I will admit, it is very beautiful here—for a cage.”
The cherries swayed gently in the breeze as they crossed the meadow. Tall grass bent towards the lake, wildflowers bloomed in patches red and gold, white asphodel lined the path.
“What do you know of me?” the Knight asked.
The Princess wrinkled her nose. “I know you have broken your oaths, of course,” she said. “I know you are a wanderer, and nameless.”
She stopped and studied the Knight. She considered the fifty pounds of steel, the horrible black steel that concealed every inch of him, from his head to his toes. “And I have heard that you are some manner of phantom, or contraption, a suit of armor possessed, or given life.”
The Knight grumbled, it echoed through his helmet. “They say this because none now live who have seen beneath my armor—but make no mistake: I am alive; I am made of blood and bile.” He adjusted his vambrace, rubbed his forearms, uncomfortable as the metal dug into him.
“It is a weighty task, keeping you here,” he explained. “It taxes me day by day. Except for sleep, and rest—no, always I wear this armor.”
“Oh? Are you afraid of this poor defenseless Princess?”
The Knight grimaced. He took in the Princess, all her dress and silk, the lightness of her being. “Even a rose has its thorns,” he said.
This elicited a small smile. “Then when was the last time,” the Princess asked, “that you were truly free?”
“I—” The Knight thought for a moment. “Before we met—years ago now, I believe it was—on the road to Damascus.”
“A story, then?”
They came to the summer house, a tiny thing nestled amid the ferns and the foxglove, always hidden in the shadow of an old fig tree. Leaves littered the roof, moss grew in the gutters.
The Knight moved towards the door, but the Princess did not. “Won’t you invite me in?” he asked.
“Not today, no.”
They continued on. The fig’s boughs were as thick as a man, its branches stretched up, far, far out of sight. Its shadow had grown long with the afternoon, and in its shade the Princess sat.
The Knight rested against the trunk. “Very well,” he said, “a story it is. But where should I begin? At my command, a multitude of words and turns of phrase, and yet none quite subtle enough to capture, to describe—”
“Once upon a time,” said the Princess.
The Knight huffed and shifted his weight from one leg to the other then back again. His armor groaned in protest. “You mock me, Princess, I should expect no less.”
“I do not fault the viper to bite nor a tyger to hunt. Your rage and fury and spite—however hidden—are art, and no less in your nature than your grace.”
The Princess frowned. “You call that flattery?”
“Hmm.” She folded her hands on her lap. “I see.”
The Knight began his story. “Once upon a time,” he said, “in summer, I was traveling along the old road to Damascus. I was wandering, alone, lost amid my thoughts, when I heard a distant buzz: the last of the cicadas. This sound I followed, the wind against my back.”
Summoned, called by name, a breeze rolled through the meadow.
“I found a humble field,” the Knight continued, “a field of goldenrod and barley, hidden from the way-stop, long abandoned, overgrown and neglected. Small, and bordered by grander sights—great hills and ancient valleys. Spring floods had washed away patches of top soil, leaving deep ruts in the earth. Weeds had sprouted everywhere, filling every inch of space, so thick and tall that one could hardly move.”
He squinted into the sun, trying to remember. “The field sloped down a gentle hill towards the valley beyond,” he said, “and shimmered gold. Like the ocean at sunset, it was.”
The Knight blinked, and blinked again.
“Go on,” said the Princess.
“Now, this field was guarded by a wooden fence, dulled as it was by time and weather, worn smooth like old driftwood. You could lay thy head upon the wooden posts, and find a softness there unmatched by even the finest down and pillow.”
He glanced over at the Princess. She had closed her eyes, her breath was light and steady. She was smiling.
“And indeed—a great weariness took me, for I had marched for many days without repose. I cast aside my sword, and laid my armor bare. Helmet, gorget, cuirass and faulds removed in turn. Gambeson too, down to my linen bindings. I lingered, I slept beneath the stars.”
“Describe it,” said the Princess.
“The field?” the Knight asked. “I just did, did I not?”
“No, no.” The Princess shook her head. “Describe how you felt; what you felt.”
The Knight tried to remember: the subtle scents and sounds, the tranquil air that had washed over him. “I thought the field a dream, the most perfect thing in all the world.” He could barely recall that feeling now, let alone describe it. He could only feel the tightness in his breast.
“I thought I’d found heaven.” He raised a hand to the Princess’s cheek, and thought to caress it, but his gauntlets were sharp, and he knew that they would cut her.
He withdrew. “Or so I was deceived.”
“I burned the field. I let the fires eat up its grace, for what golden dream could compare to even one hair upon your head? What is a sweet summer scent compared to a Maiden’s perfume, or the softness of a picket fence to a comely breast? No—I have found a desire beyond all that in nature, a treasure ripped from heaven! You! You, Princess, are the beauty of the world, and all that one should long for.”
The Maiden flushed red. At first he thought perhaps his words had embarrassed her, but then her eyebrows narrowed, and he knew that she was angry.
“How cruel you are, to tell me that,” she snapped. “To try and lull my heart! I wish you’d held your tongue, and stayed your hand.”
“A fire—” The Princess slumped over. “Leave me be.” She raised a fist to her breast, held it there for a moment, then unfold her fingers like a flower. “No more stories for today.”
The Knight felt a clutch rise in his chest, as if a mouse had made a nest in him. What had he said? He reached out—he thought to comfort her, but the Princess shrugged him off, and curled herself into a ball.
“Begone, Black Knight,” she hissed, “I’ll have no more of you.”
There was nothing more to say. The Knight lumbered to his feet. “I shall take my leave then.”
He stalked through the meadow, towards the rhododendrons and the great iron gate. His throat was full with bile, a terrible mixture of hope and despair that burned him from the inside out. The Princess had rebuffed him once again, and he had upset her, somehow—but she had listened, with genuine interest it seemed, to his stories.
The Knight smiled despite himself—but bearing in mind the Maiden’s words, did not return for three days.