A fat frog sat on a lilypad, sunning itself in the morning air. It kept a watchful eye on the swans as they gathered by the rocks where the bulrush grew. It watched the dragonflies as they danced beneath the willow trees. It watched the fish as they swam in the lake.
And as the frog watched these things, so too did the Princess watch the frog, and follow its gaze. “What is your purpose here, what do you hope to accomplish?” she asked.
The frog croaked, jumping into the lake with a splash. The sound echoed in the Princess’s mind like the ringing of a church bell. She smiled, and closed her eyes, committing the scene to memory.
“What do you want from me?” she asked the Knight again.
“Surely you must know,” he huffed.
The Princess smiled. “I do have my suspicions,” she said.
She watched the swans as they pruned and paddled by the rocks. Today, the surface of the lake was like a clean, clear mirror.
“I want to know your intentions from a single glance, a brush of the hand,” said the Knight. “The weight of your steps—”
“So, you wish to know me?”
The Knight nodded. “Your thoughts are mysteries to me,” he said, “your words are riddles. You wrap them around yourself, a cloak I cannot pierce. If only I could strip away that cloak, and know that which lies beneath—”
The Princess pointed out over the water to the swans. “The lake is still,” she said. “Look. The wind may sometimes stir the surface, the swans can splash and fuss, but the water is clear below, down to the lake bed. It is pure, and clean. And at night, if you are very lucky, you can see the moon’s reflection.”
She turned to the Knight. “I hide nothing.”
“But you do! You hide!” he cried. “I have yet to touch your heart.”
“What do you know of the heart?” the Princess snapped. “You—you lech, you villain! Coward! How could I possibly love you?”
The swans scattered to deeper waters. The Princess sighed, collected herself, and followed them along the lake shore. The Knight lumbered after her.
“It will happen, in time. Lech, villain—call me what you will, but my success is inevitable,” he said. “I will secure your love. This I must believe, and would be lost without.”
The Princess made the slightest noise of protest. “‘Secure my love?’” she huffed. “How foolish.”
“I am not unfamiliar with a Maiden’s needs,” the Knight said with a wave of his hand. “My ardent aim is to see affections grow and thrive. Our love could rouse a tale, a fable of old! Why, together we could earn a place in the night sky—twin stars, an eternal constellation!”
“Princesses are meant for Princes,” the Princess laughed. “I will not have a Dark Knight.”
“But a Dark Knight, a Fair Maiden, I see a symmetry there. We could twixt legend, and stir bards’ hearts. One day, they will sing songs celebrating our love!”
The Princess sat down on the bank by the lake and chewed her words. The grass was wet with dew, it stained her dress.
“Although,” the Knight continued, now full of muse, “I do not require the approval of any. I seek neither praise nor fame, having drunk my fill of both commendation and condemnation.”
He puffed up his chest. “Either extreme mean little to me,” he said. “A man who lives by the standards of others is little more than a leaf in the wind, blown here and there by the whims of fancy.”
“I have taken my leave of society. I depend on none, and exist as a man apart.”
The Princess dipped her fingers into the water. She felt the cool of the lake and admired it. “Such pretensions, Knight. A man apart? Apart from what?”
“Everything,” the Knight said. He broke a bulrush from its stock, ringing the plant beneath his fist. The Princess watched the soft, cottony seeds spill out from between his fingers.
“Mankind is dirty, this profane existence clings to us, and us to it,” she said, shaking the water from her fingers, “but still, we strive. Even mud can shimmer in the light. Have faith in the strength of others. Be filled with love, and kindness.”
“Faith in others?”
“Humph.” A gust of wind swept over the lake. “In that case, have faith in me,” said the Knight. “You would find me a gentle sort, tempered by love’s virtue, though love cannot hide a lion’s passion.”
The bulrush seeds were caught up in the wind, they drifted out over the water. The Princess watched them until they disappeared, lost to the glare of the sun.
Satisfied, she got to her feet. The Knight threw his bulrush to the ground and offered her his hand.
“I wish to kiss your cheek, and feel goosebumps on your skin,” he said, “and hold your breast against my own, and feel our hearts beat as one.”
The Princess frowned. She brushed aside his offered hand. “You—”
“To work in you until your fall—that would be my satisfaction—and yours,” the Knight continued.
They started back down towards the garden path. The Princess swept through the meadow like a summer breeze.
“You—who keeps me here against my will. You, who has forsaken all oaths. You, Dark Knight, who hides even his face from me. How could you possibly think your actions here will ‘secure my love?’”
The Princess sighed. Then, a thought occurred to her.
“However—” she said, “avatar I be, woman I am, member of this brave humanity. If you love me, than you could love another, any other, all others.”
She trailed off. “Perhaps—”
“It is for you alone I act, Princess,” the Knight said. “Forget all others.”
“How could I? Am I not an ‘other’ to you? And you to me?”
“That is the cloak I wish to pierce,” said the Knight.
The rhododendrons were in bloom, rows and rows of them, all along the way.
“Ha! I suppose, you’re right, that is the trouble,” the Maiden said. “The problem of I, and the troubles of thou. Very well—let us close that gulf, that trembling gyre, just a little. Tell me a story that would woo a Princess, then. Tell me of your wondrous exploits, your daring adventures, your ill-deeds and infamy.” Her fingers danced over violet petals. “Whatever it is you think will secure my heart.”
“I—” the Knight stuttered.
The Princess coaxed him on a little more. “Tell me of your deeds heroic,” she said. “Tell me a happy story.”
“Happy?” the Knight asked. A change came over him, a change the Princess could not quite place.
She took him by the hand. “Please,” she said.
The Knight stared at her delicate fingers. They seemed brittle, and he was afraid that if he tried to hold her hand, they would splinter and shatter like bark.
“I do recall a tale you might be pleased to hear,” he said, “of my wanderings along the King’s Road.”
He withdrew his hand. “I was six months into my journey, a pilgrimage without destination. One evening, just before sunset, I came across a man lying in the middle of the road, prostrate. A great tyger was before him, its teeth bared, its immense body blocking the path forwards.”
The Princess raised a hand to her lips. “Oh my.”
“A terrible creature,” said the Knight. “Slinking to and fro, tendons and muscles quaking with power. Mind and body aligned in murderous intent. With stinking breath and pitiless eyes.”
The Knight raised his thumb and forefinger, as if he were holding an invisible prize. “To the tyger, the man had offered alms: a golden fig, his sole possession. He had thrown himself to the tyger’s mercy, you see—but his prayers were in vain. The beast was about to strike.”
They followed the stone path through the shrubbery. The path was narrow, the rhododendrons were far overgrown, and crowded out the passage.
“I drew my sword, and challenged the tyger, drew his attention from the man. And with a savage roar that shook the very trees, the beast charged at me!”
The Knight scrapped his knuckles across his breastplate. “Fifty feet between us—then thirty, then ten—I steadied myself, and, at the very last moment, took a single step to the right, slitting the brute’s throat as his momentum carried him past me.”
A wondrous buzz of life filled the garden, the very air was alive. Bees and birds were everywhere, feeding and drinking and playing in the flowers.
“The great tyger crash to the ground,” the Knight continued, “and loosed a single, pitiful, sorrowful cry as blood spilled from its gaping neck—and all the earth was stained by its passing.”
The Princess lowered her eyes. “I asked for a happy story.”
“I saved the man’s life, is that not happy enough?” the Knight asked.
“Yes—the man, prostrate. Tell me of him.”
They followed the path, and from amid the endless bloom, the garden gate appeared before them.
“The man—a Pilgrim—a Prince: half-dead he was. Not from bite or claw, but of thirst and hunger. Through parched lips—the Prince—he begged me for food or water, for was five days gone was he without respite.”
“And you, O Dark Knight, took pity upon him?”
The Knight nodded. “I did. What else could I do? I gave the Prince the last of my waterskin, I set a camp and a fire. I worked my sword as carving knife, and made a meal of the tyger.
“That evening, as I stoked the fire, the Prince told me his tale: his caravan attacked, a flight into the jungle. He’d spent the night in the woods, hiding under a crescent moon. Come morning he’d searched for his comrades but found himself to be the sole survivor, and was forced to carry on alone.”
The Knight laughed. “Do you know what he said to me, once he’d quenched his thirst, and filled his belly? The Prince, he said, ‘I did not know that I was cold until I felt the warmth of the fire.’ Ha! Can you imagine?”
“I can imagine,” said the Princess.
“Yes, well—” the Knight mumbled. He pulled a silver chain from under his armor. At the end of the chain was a key.
“Why did you save his life?” the Princess asked. “You gained nothing from it.” She did not look at the key. She turned her eyes from it.
The Knight considered her question. “He amused me, I suppose. He was a charming sort, as Princes often are. And he called me his hero, and made no mention of my dark armor.”
The key was heavy in his hand, like some lump of lead or gold. “Do not think me noble. Not even a tyger will hunt or kill without a cause.”
“And what of the Prince; his fate?”
“We talked. We spoke of our homelands, our travels, our destinations. The Prince told me his name, I did not tell him mine. We talked, and come morning, we went our separate ways. I to the east, he to the west. Renewed, restored, I have no doubt the good Prince successfully completed his pilgrimage.”
The Knight turned his attention to the garden gate. The silver chain slithered down his gauntlet like a snake.
“I have thought often of that night,” he said. “I can march ten days without rest or ration. I had no provisions, for myself or the good Prince. Yes, the water in my pack saved him for the night—but without the flesh of the tyger, he would not have had the strength to carry on. Had the beast—its dark eyes gleaming—not sought a meal of its own, then, surely, the Prince would have died.”
The gate was a massive thing, all wrought iron, and tall, strong enough even to withstand a battering ram.
“Now, tell me, my dear Princess, does the thrill of death not stir the ecstasies of life?” the Knight asked as he unlock the gate. “You know my wants, and my desires. If there is space between us, then let us close that distance entirely.”
The Princess stared him down. “No,” she said. “Let me go.”
The gate swung open. The Knight hung his head. The forest of the world stretched out before him.
“Then there is nothing more to say.” He stepped through, then locked the gate again, sealing the Princess inside the garden.
“No, Knight!” the Princess cried. She grasped the iron bars of her cage. “There is more to say. There is always more to say. And think. And feel.”
He stopped. “What is it, Princess?”
She swept her hair back, and off her shoulders. “I wanted to thank you. It was lovely story, I enjoyed it.”
The Knight bowed. “You’re welcome.” He walked into the woods and out of sight. And behind him, in the garden, up the path, past the meadow where the hyacinth bloomed—the fat frog sat and waited.
And the lake was still.