One morning, the Knight brought the Princess a present, a marvelous wooden box. No more than a foot square and perhaps ten inches deep, lacquered a dark and rich brown, clasped with ornate brass, emblazoned with intricate imagery: boars and oxen, bears and lions.
He carried the box with pride as he strolled through the garden—down along the rows of rhododendron, past the gazebo, along the bank of the silver stream. His steps were light.
A lark followed after him, fluttering from bush to brush to flower.
When he reached the edge of the meadow, where the grass meet the poplar and the sacred groove, he stopped, and dug his heel into the earth. He laid the box down amid the iris and the daffodil, still wet with dew.
“Princess?” he called out, “Are you there?”
As if in answer to his question a great wind swept through the meadow—and the Knight thought he heard the ringing of distant bells.
From the depths of the garden she appeared, her bare feet dancing amid the flowers of the spring meadow. The Knight lowered himself, head hung in shame, knee bent in genuflection, arms downcast in supplication.
The boughs were thick with new growth, they cast a patchwork of light upon the ground. Light and shadow teased each other, never touching, and between them both the Princess toed.
She stood over him. “Why do you insist upon such formality?” she asked. “I have no use for false modesty. You dare bow to me, your captive? What mockery.”
“But a Knight must bow to a Princess,” the Knight said, “even if she is his prisoner.” He lowered his eyes. “But perhaps I can make some small amends. I have tried to bare myself to you, yet you remain far away. The fault is mine. In my haste, I neglected the needs of a Maiden.”
He gestured to the lacquer chest. “Take this box, this chest—fill it with your secrets, so you might gain a power over me, and regain a measure of privacy. Not for mine sake, but for thy own.”
The Princess raised a finger to her cheek. “Whatever do you mean?”
“I want you to keep mysteries from me,” the Knight explained, “for I have robbed you of your feminine allure, the secrets a Princess tempts and tantalizes with.”
“Oh, have I lost my luster, then?” the Princess asked.
The Knight shifted uncomfortably. “For me your allure could never dim, and would remain a staple of the age,” he said, “but I fear for a woman’s vanity, and I know its frailty. I wish for no distance between us, save for that which you create. A letter, a locket, a lock of hair—choose wisely, a secret to hide away.”
Bowed, knee bent, he scooped up his present and offered it to the Princess, arms extended. She took the chest and gave him her curtsy, and bade the Knight the stand.
She inspected the box: opening it, closing it again, turning it in her hands, running her fingers over the lacquer finish, the brass hinge, the velvet lining.
Satisfied, she set it down. “As empty as your heart,” she concluded. “If love is your aim, this box is a mistake.”
“Explain,” said the Knight.
The Princess danced her fingers over the lid. “True love has no secrets. Secrets are the domain of doomed lovers, seeking to prolong a spring romance, stoking the embers of a temperate lust.”
The Knight’s heart beat like a kettle drum.
“Regardless,” said the Princess, “I do not want gifts.” She gave the chest one last look before handing it back to the Knight.
“Perhaps you are right,” the Knight said. “Secrets can turn to poison in the heart.” His gauntlets scraped against the lacquer.
The Princess nodded. “Tell me,” she said, “what will you do with it—that box?”
The Knight considered his options. “It is a useless thing to me now, for you have rejected it,” he said. “A shame; the craftsmanship, none can deny. I will place it in the storehouse, and there it shall remain—safe and sound.”
“Safe—and forgotten,” said the Princess. “Ah, but I have a better idea—wait here but a moment.” She stole up along the stone path and out of sight.
The Knight closed his eyes.
He dreamed about her dress fluttering in the morning air, her dancing feet, and the nape of her neck. He tried in vain to calm his violent heart, for fear it would burst from his very chest.
He felt nothing but the pain in his breast.
Presently he heard the Princess’s voice again, as it came, singsong, on the breeze, wafting through the wildflowers. “A birdhouse, Knight.”
He opened his eyes. The Princess was holding a small toolbox. “Come,” she said. She drifted past him through the meadow.
He hurried after her.
They walked along, following the treeline until they found the remains of an old oak that had fallen over. It lay flat, and the moss had grown thick on the bark. Here the Princess sat, back straight. “The songbirds may not appreciate the lacquer or the brass,” she said, “but they will find a use for it still.”
The Knight sat down beside her.
She swept the dust from her toolbox and opened it, presenting the contents to the Knight: a hammer, a handsaw, an auger. A chisel, a bradawl, and tacks to bind.
“I have only meager skill with such instruments,” the Princess said, “for my talents lie elsewhere.” She laid the lacquer box on her lap. “But still, to drill a hole, to add a perch—”
“A simple task for fine hands,” said the Knight.
The Princess took her auger from the box, gripped the brace and turned it. The bit was good and solid. With the drill in her hands, she could strike at the core of the earth.
“It is said that a woodcarver’s hands cannot lie,” said the Knight, “for all his work conveys the truth, his soul within. An artist may use paint to color both truth and lies—but a chisel, the straight edge, the saw—these are honest instruments.”
The auger was dirty with the grime of disuse. The Princess raised the hem of her dress an inch to wipe it clean. “Something is bothering you,” she said. “I can tell.”
The Knight did not answer.
“You thought a box would ply me?” the Princess teased, “that I would be so vain?”
The Knight looked away; a pair of butterflies were danced through the meadow. He wondered how long they had to live. Their beauty and their grace seemed to mock him. How did they fly on such weak wings? When he turned back, the Princess was watching him as a cat would a mouse.
He cleared his throat: “Have I told you the tale of Echidna,” he asked, “as was recounted to me many years ago, on an idle summer’s day?”
“No,” the Princess said, “but if this thought has arisen, satisfy it. Tell me, Dark Knight, is this a story with monsters in it?”
“Monsters, yes.” The Knight nodded. “Echidna was a Princess, and like all Princesses she studied the royal arts. From dawn til dusk, her life was spent with tutors and teachers, memorizing the steps of dance, the rules of edict, the principles of governance.”
The Knight sighed. “And though she had naught but the finest instructors, her curtsy was off-kilter. Her dance was wrong, her song off-key. A double step, a misstep, a misquote.”
“A shame,” said the Princess.
“Indeed,” said the Knight. He turned to her. “While you, my dear, are blessed. Divinity is your birthright and flawless is your form.” He watched as she set the bit against the grain. “A Princess through and through.”
“Such is my title,” said the Princess. The Knight thought he heard a sadness in her voice.
“Yes, well, where was I?” he asked, returning to his story. “Oh yes—grave Echidna—despite all tutelage, she could not master the royal arts. A shame, as you say, but this was not her crime.”
The Princess turned the auger. The tip of the drill dug into the box.
“She had a mind for mathematics, abstract thought, philosophy and logic,” said the Knight. “She knew of matter and of form, of Plato and of Euclid. But such scholarly pursuits meant nothing to her. No—she neglected her talents, and chased instead only that which eluded her. And like so many before her, her envy turned to hatred.”
“Pride,” said the Princess.
“Pride,” the Knight agreed. “Bit by bit, her heart turned black. She thought, ‘I am the Princess of these lands, and soon I will be Queen. My wisdom will be absolute, my authority: far-reaching. I must be, will be, a Queen without peer, a Queen without flaw.’”
The auger bore, peeling off lacquer in long, thin strips that curled and coiled around the drill bit. The Princess brushed them all away.
“‘Surely, it is the dance, the song, my teachers, that have failed me,’” the Knight continued. “‘They are wrong, my methods are the proper methods, my quotations are the correct quotations. My modifications and improvisations have only improved the dance, the song, the story.’”
The Knight laughed. The bit scraped against the grain. “And,” he continued, “and on her coronation, when she became Queen Regnant—Echidna began to purge all that which she fell short of. Ancient scriptures destroyed by fire, replaced with her ‘corrected’ works. Teachers and scholars threatened and beaten, made to revise their own lessons.”
Somewhere, hidden in the thicket, a songbird cried. “Within her kingdom both art and science were twisted, and made profane,” said the Knight.
He looked to his Princess—a single bead of sweat clung to the bridge of her nose. “Echidna,” she whispered. Wood shavings piled at her feet.
“The Queen and mother of monsters,” said the Knight. “She warped the truth of things, and soon her lies warped her. Masterpieces of art no longer filled her with joy or muse, but only bitterness, and hatred, her wit reduced to rage.”
The Princess worked the auger. Her little hands were steady.
“Every remembrance or recital of the old ways was met with ire and vengeance, and with great cruelty she inflicted punishments that twisted the flesh. Under her baleful rule, men became misshapen, but none so twisted as the Queen herself—for Echidna flayed herself for every mistake, every failure she made—for she, above all, fell short of her own haughty standard.”
The drill broke through to the inside of the box, leaving a rough, round hole.
“Her people loved her and obeyed, and so did share her fate. After many long, cruel years, all humanity fled her and hers, and monsters they became, all.” The Knight’s breath caught in his throat. “Still she lives, and reigns from high atop her dire throne,” he said, “and births not but miseries. The Minotaur, the serpent, Medusa—from her broken womb they spill.”
The Princess set her auger down. “The vanity of a Princess, is it?” she asked.
The Knight chuckled to himself. “I always hated that story—gave me nightmares as a child.”
“Do you—is this your concern?” the Princess asked, “the downward spiral?” She searched her toolbox for a suitable perch. At the bottom of the box was a large and unusually thick nail. This would suffice.
“I am not Echidna,” the Knight said. “I know my faults, my sins, and I know full well the standards of which I fall short.”
The Knight hung his head. “I am a beast in human guise. I am a slayer of Kings, the scourge of Princesses. I have killed many Knights, both green and good, even Men-at-Arms whom I once called brothers.”
The Princess took a hammer from her toolbox. “How many have you killed?” She gave the nail one solid hit to drive it home.
“Many,” said the Knight. “When I was young, I swore to keep count, to honor those I’d bested and remember them.”
“I lost count long ago,” the Knight admitted. He stared at the ground. “What does it matter?” he huffed.
“Well—” The Princess smoothed the wrinkles from her dress. “I’m done. This box—it will to make a goodly home. I hope to see a robin nest within.”
They stood, and walked along, following the path until they came to the summer house. The lone fig stood tall, its branches reaching over the roof of the house, its leaves tickling the eaves, swaying in the breeze.
The Princess tacked the box against the trunk. “I liked that story,” she said, “I enjoy tales where the wicked and terrible are justly rewarded.”
“What harsh words, my Lady, I thought not your heart to be so cold,” said the Knight. “Do you hate me as well?”
“Do you want me to hate you?” the Princess asked. “I thought you wanted my love.” She flashed a coy smile. “Or perhaps my pity?”
“Pity?!” the Knight roared. “No! It is you who should be pitied! Imprisoned, helpless as you are. Alone!” He lurched forwards, ready to fight—but his sabatons slipped on the morning dew. He stumbled. Grasping, the Knight steadied himself against the fig.
The Princess gave the birdhouse one final, gentle tap with her hammer, then took a step back to admire her handiwork. “A very good birdhouse I think.”
The Knight bit his tongue. “I apologize, my Princess,” he said. “I am often angry, and bitter with myself.”
He bowed low, lower than ever before.
The Princess closed her eyes to him, dismissing the Knight with a flick of her wrist. “Pitiful indeed.”
Later, after the Knight had left, as the Princess sat on the porch of the summerhouse and read, a pair of sparrows came along, and made the box their home. All day long they flitted between the meadow and the vineyard, gathering up grass and leaves and other debris for their nest.
The Princess watched them long into the evening, until the sky was dark, and all the light had faded.