He lay on the grass. His head was pounding, his temples throbbed, the cool of the evening brought him no comfort. “I am troubled,” he said, “and beset by miseries.”
The sky faded from blue to black as dusk waned to dark. “I’m weary. I’m tired.” A shadow passed over the moon, a lark called into the night. One by one, stars appeared.
“I have seen the end! A vision—a dream! You run, I pursue. Through the shadows and the night we chase and stumble and fall. You spit curses; fairer thoughts are abandoned, and there is naught but violence left between us.”
The Knight sighed. “We come to a moonlit bog. You skim across the silver surface like a haunt or wisp, but I sink into the muck. My armor weighs me down, and with each step towards you the I sink a little more, until at last I cannot move at all.”
He shut his eyes, he held his breath. In the silence of the night he could feel her presence.
“As I am swallowed by the mire, as the bog seeps into my armor, as my lungs fill with mud, as the life is choked from me—you return. I beg for your mercy, and pity, but I am not forgiven.”
His head buzzed. “You watch me drown with a smile on your face, and the corners of your mouth are crooked and bent and cruel.”
Lights danced behind his eyelids, there was bile in his throat. “A cold death; I deserve no less.”
From behind him, from above him, from her idle perch, the Princess cooed: “Dreams are dreams, do not dwell on them.” A wind ran through the meadow. The leaves rustled, the grass swayed, a lone cicada called for a mate. “Nor would I smile to see you drown,” she assured the Knight. “I would help you, if I could.”
“And what of it?” he asked. “You are friend to all manner of men and monster. Your words do not move me, for they are not for me alone.” His fingers tingled.
“Tell me of your dreams,” he asked the Princess. “Are they sweet? Tell me, what do fair Maidens dream of? Suddenly I wish to know.”
He sat up. “Do you dream of handsome Princes and high towers? Stalwart Knights and grand balls? Of days of yore?”
He craned his neck and searched for her. “Or do you dream of me? Do I consume your thoughts, as you do mine?” She was high above him in the trees, and in the dark he could only make out her silhouette amid the leaves.
“I dream of mountains, and I dream of valleys,” the Princess called down to him, “as all men do.”
A bough creaked, the leaves shivered. “And fire,” she whispered.
The Knight clutched his throbbing head. “Don’t!” he cried. “Don’t! Do not pretend to be an ordinary person! Ordinary people have worries you do not: of old age, sickness, and death.”
“Do you think I am unfamiliar with such things? That I am above or beyond such worries? The suffering of man is my sole concern.”
The Knight rapped his helmet.
“Expand your circle of compassion. From one to many to all, for are we not all tied to the same fate, the same yoke, the same wheel?”
“My circle has expanded,” said the Knight. “From one to two—there was solitude before, but now, now my thoughts include another.”
The Princess raised her hand, she flattened her palm, she released her breath to the wind. “Attachment.”
The Knight shivered. “Don’t speak to me of such things.”
“Why?” the Princess pressed him, “why?”
“Do you not know? Can you not guess? There are no paths left for me but the one that leads to you. Do not mock me, do not tell me that I am doomed to suffer this earth alone, unloved!”
“Your charity is second only to your chastity,” the Knight lamented. “Why do you give one so freely, yet clutch the other to your bosom, so furtive and afraid?”
The Princess clicked her heels. “This angers you?” She slipped from her tree branch to the ground below.
“I ramble, I rave,” said the Knight. “My words mean nothing.”
The Maiden cut a circle around him. She placed one foot in front of the other. The trim of her dress fluttered in the night like a moth.
“A restless day leads to a restless night,” she said, “and a restless night leads to a restless day. Remember: you are not your thoughts.”
The Knight sighed. “I know what you ask of me, but I have not the temperament.”
“So say all, at first. It is a practice. I am asking you to practice.”
“How?” the Knight asked.
“How does one practice?” The Princess considered the question. “Clumsily, at first, I suppose.”
“Clumsily—” The Knight trailed off. Silence filled the night. He closed his eyes and the pounding in his head redoubled.
“There’s more,” he said.
“Come to my side, lend me your ear: hear the tale that binds me.”
The Princess completed her circle and began another. She drew symbols with her hands.
“I offer you a story,” the Knight asked again, “will you listen? A fair exchange, I think?”
The Princess gave him a certain look. “Fair indeed. Tell me, Knight, what troubles you so? Another bog, another chase?” She ran her fingers across her chest. “Another sin?”
“A chase, yes.” The Knight nodded. “Three night ago, I was awoken by the thunder of a distant storm; my head was hot and heavy. Compulsion took me, I craved free air—and solitude. And so, before dawn, the sky still thick with clouds and dark, I set off to explore the woods, leaving my cabin far behind.”
“The woods?” The Princess continued her circle. The meadow danced to her rhythm, the wind whispered her name.
“The forest, where men fear to tread, where I have made my home,” the Knight explained. “That surround us now, and this garden, like shroud and shield.” With every circle and every step his headache eased away.
“So through the woods I wandered. For hours, full of weakness, and a weight I could not shake. Dawn came. And then, by chance—in a clearing, in a glade, in the light and warmth of the summer sun—I found a white and wounded doe.”
His eyes glistened at the memory.
“Her coat was stained with blood, a dark red against a perfect white. An arrow pierced her hide, and her hooves were dirty from running. She’d escaped the hunters and their dogs, lay exhausted from the chase.”
The Princess inhaled deeply. Her footfalls were soft, the air was cool.
“And her coat shimmered in the sun like fire!” the Knight cried. A chill ran through the garden.
“And blood dribbled from her mouth, and where it fell, flowers bloomed!” The Knight shuddered. “And when she turned her head to me, her eyes were like two black pits. The doe was the sun, and I—I was nothing more than the shadow of a shadow.”
“And?” the Princess asked.
“And in all my dark armor, in all my terrible weight—I took one single step towards the doe. And she ran from me.”
“Hmm,” hummed the Princess.
“Please understand,” the Knight pleaded, “I thought to give chase—to catch the deer and tend its wounds, to bring her here and keep her safe. But—”
“But, I hesitated. I thought perhaps she was not as badly hurt as I first imagined, and were I to gave chase, I might aggravate her wound, and do more harm than good. Yes, I second-guessed myself—was I right to do so?” The numbness crept back into him, a cold sweat wet his brow.
He grasped his helmet. “Ah! Should I have run the beast to ground? Cradled her in my arms as she fought and bit at me, as I carried her to you? Oh, my Princess, she would not have run from you! What beast doth not grow tame in your presence?”
The Knight moaned. “Did she see some flaw in me; saw my nature? Perhaps was she a ghost, luring me to a gruesome end. Or Artemis in disguise? Perhaps a witch—”
The Princess stopped him here. “Enough,” she said, “enough. Perhaps this, perhaps that. I am not concerned with possibilities, only actualities. What action did you take? Speak, now.”
“No action,” the Knight said. “I did nothing. The doe bolted, skittish, on unstable legs, into the safety of the thicket. And I watched her go. I was paralyzed by indecision. I am still paralyzed by indecision.”
The Princess looked up at the stars above. “Can you feel the spin of the earth?” she asked. “What is done is done. The past is past, why do you linger there? You did not give chase, yet still your thoughts pursue.”
The Knight followed her gaze. The stars flickered like fireflies before his weary eyes.
“Do you want me to reassure you, and tell you that you did the right thing?” the Princess asked, “or perhaps chastise you for doing the wrong thing?”
“I do not know.”
“Do not think me cruel,” said the Princess, “but why do you worry?”
“What do you mean?”
“For whose benefit do you worry?”
“For my own sake,” the Knight said automatically, “to ease my conscience.”
The Princess raised an eyebrow. “Really? And is your mind at ease?”
The Knight tried again. “Then, out of concern for the deer?”
“But does such worry help the deer now, lost and alone in the woods as she is?”
“No,” the Knight admitted. “But—”
“The next time, the next deer—”
“A better answer.” The Princess smiled.
“Better, yes—” The Knight reached up and took her hand. His headache was gone now. “The grass is cool, the night is young, and my heart feels a little lighter.” He squeezed her fingers. “Lay here, with me, and count the stars.”
He gave a little tug, and pulled the Princess down on top of him.
“Wait—” she cried.
He let go of her, and she fell back. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I meant no harm.”
The Princess brushed the dirt from her dress. “No harm done.”
“The stars are very beautiful tonight,” said the Knight. “You are very beautiful tonight.”
The Princess hesitated for a moment, then she reached out and placed her palm on the Knight’s breastplate. She ran her fingers down his chest, feeling every dimple and imperfection in the steel.
“Listen to me,” she said, “there is another path still open to you. A path that welcomes all who walk it.”
She laid her head on the Knight’s breast. “It is a very good path. A noble path. I could show you, if you wanted. We could walk it together, I could give you my cloak and—”
She pressed her ear to his chest. At first she could not hear his heartbeat, only the rasp of his lungs as they struggled for air—but as she leaned closer, she found that she could hear his heartbeat, and it was strong and steady.
“—and do not tell me that you do not have the temperament,” she said. “I do not believe it. I would not believe anyone who told me that.”
The Knight whispered something she could not hear.
“But enough talk. You are right, the stars are very beautiful tonight, and sometimes—sometimes that is enough.”
And they counted the stars until a bank of clouds, blown in by the western wind, covered all the garden in darkness and not even the moon could be seen.