He wore a regal sash, his clothes were pressed and prim. His shoes were spotless, as was his traveling cloak. He carried himself with pride, with wide shoulders and a long stride. A golden sword was clasped to his side. Chest-proud and tall: the raven-haired Prince.
He paced along the garden gate and bashed against the bars. “Come!” he shouted. “Emerge! Show yourself, why do you hide from my righteous blade?”
He peered through the iron bars and up the stone path—but there was no one there. Had his quarry not heard him, or was the Knight simply indisposed?
The rhododendrons swayed gently in the afternoon breeze.
Perhaps he was being ignored. “Knight! Hear me, Knight!” he shouted again, louder this time. “Foul Knight! Dark Knight! Come, coward! Let justice be done upon you!”
The Prince cocked his head and gave the forest a cursory glance—was the Knight lurking there in the shadow of the woods, watching him like some grim specter? No, impossible—he had been promised: the Knight was in his garden.
“Knight of infamy! Knight of death!” the Prince cried again, “I challenge you! I know the prize you keep! Release the Princess, release my future bride!” He huffed and puffed and made all manner of noise and commotion, until at last he collapsed against the bars, exhausted, laughing at his own clumsy enthusiasm.
He sat, and wiped the sweat from his brow, letting the cool of the day wash over him. He turned his attention to the forest. The woods were alive: a vole was scampering about in search of wild berries, and somewhere a woodpecker was boring her way into a hardwood tree.
He closed his eyes, and listened as the rat-a-tat-tat mixed with the song of a warbler and the cry of a blackbird. Despite the task in front of him, he found peace in this brief respite.
Even a shy fox came to visit the Prince, eyeing him from the brush cautiously, before disappearing back into the thicket, satisfied he was no threat.
The Prince laughed again, and wondered how anyone could be afraid of this deep forest—but then he heard a horrid noise, the squeal and scrape of metal against metal, and the dull thump of heavy boots.
It was the Knight. He came the shadow of the hemlock, from the shadows of the garden, fully armored, clad in black, all form obscured. Spiked and maliced, a gauntlet curled around the hilt of his sword.
The Prince jumped to his feet. So complete and terrible was the Knight’s disguise that he reconsidered the possibility that that black armor was empty, a shell animated by some manner of ghost.
“Come, foul beast, and face me, face your death!” the Prince cried. He puffed out his chest, he flashed the silver of his belt.
The Knight looked around, confused, as if he was expecting a whole host or company. “And who are you?” he asked the stranger.
“I am the handsome Prince who has come to save the Princess. I am the hero of this story,” said the Prince, “and you—you are the villain.” He drew his sword.
The Knight ignored this goad. “Tell me, how did you find this secret garden?” he asked. “I thought it hidden, lost to man and myth, perhaps nothing more than a beautiful, sullen dream—”
“I have nothing to say to you, fallen one,” the Prince spat. “Now come. Come, open wide this gate, and welcome your death!” He brandished his sword, demonstrating his skill with thrust and counter—but the Knight did not move, or speak.
It was another voice that answered.
“Good Prince, I beseech thee,” called the Princess. She drew up beside the Knight and offered the Prince a curtsy. Her gown clung to her shoulders, her hair rippled in the sun. Beads dangled from her wrists, her every step was a dance.
And the Prince fell—just a little—in love.
“Please,” the Princess pleaded through her prison bars, “how did you find this garden?”
Not forgetting his royal lessons, the Prince returned her curtsy with a regal bow—slowly, back straight, a hand on his heart. “Although imprisoned,” he thought, “she is bathed in majesty.” And his heart raged at the thought of how she must be suffering at the hands of the Knight.
Still, he kept his composure. “How? How did I find this place?” He smiled. “With all my art and cunning.” He gestured to the wide, free forest behind him. “Some hunters employ hounds, others birds of prey. I choose a subtle lure, and under cover of darkness, tracked this Knight to roost.”
He prided himself on being a clever Prince.
The Princess gave him a curious smile, but said nothing, and so, to fill the void of silence, the Prince found himself explaining: “My sister, a Waif,” he began, “has pledged her magic to my cause. Transfixed into state of animal, and loosed in yonder woods.”
“You call your sister ‘Waif?’” The Princess clucked her tongue. “You are a Prince, this is plain to see. Is she not royalty like you, like me?”
The Knight turned to the Princess, then back to the Prince. “A fair question.”
“My sister?” The Prince was confused. “No—she is not a Princess. What of it?”
“Is there a story here to tell?”
“We are secure behind this iron gate,” the Knight said. “If rescue is your cause, this small admittance you must make.”
The Prince lowered his sword. This was not going as he envisioned. “My sister—peasant-born, a bastard child,” he explained. “I found her in the royal woods, a weak and frail thing—and in her eyes I saw my eyes. She had my jawline, my features; my father’s indiscretions exposed.”
The Princess stared into him. She did not blink, but kept her eyes fixed on his.
“I kept her safe, kept her hidden,” the Prince said, shying away from her gaze. “To a coven of fey I entrusted her, and there she learned their craft.”
The Princess smiled at this, a kind soft smile, and the Prince felt a wave of tranquility, of pure calm, wash over him like a summer breeze. He thought back to the day he met his sister, of her scrambling up the trunk of an apple tree. It was a good memory.
He laughed, and raised his sword again. “But enough talk, have at you, blaggard! I shall take your life, and my Princess!”
The Knight shifted his weight, from left leg to right and back again. He ran his fingers down his sheath, over the pommel of his sword, ready to draw. “The Princess and my life? I admire your ambition, good Prince. But tell me, answer me: what demands would you make of her?”
“Princesses are meant for Princes. No demands, only the promise of marriage.”
“Do not make promises you cannot keep,” the Knight admonished, fingers on his hilt. “I have cause to keep her, and have laid ambitions of my own.”
“Princesses are meant for Princes,” the good Prince sneered. “Not for Knights, black or white. Not for the likes of you. She will never be yours. Surely, deep within your shriveled heart, you know this to be true.”
The Princess rolled her eyes at their posturing.
“Now, fight me! My skill with the blade is highly praised; justice shall be done today.”
The Knight shook his head. “A Prince takes tutelage, a Knight lives it. All the years of my youth, spent on mastering the sword. The pain of discipline is mine, my body is testament to my years of service. If you challenge me, you will die.”
The Prince laughed again, but this time it rang hollow. He had confidence in his skills, but now, looking at this Knight, he knew their words were true—he was sorely outmatched. Still, something pressed him on; a Prince was nothing without his poise.
“‘If’ I challenged you?” he asked. “Have I not made my intentions clear? I am your death. You say you are my better, but behind a fence you hide, and will not draw your blade.”
The Knight sighed. “As you wish.” He began to reach for his sword, but the Princess stayed his hand.
“Come, my Knight,” she whispered in his ear, “I grow weary of his brag and goad. Come, for I hear the peacocks calling. Won’t you help me feed them?”
He withdrew. “Yes, of course.” He turned to the Prince. “Run along home, little Prince. I have no wish to see you dead. You seem to me to be a very fine Prince, if a little foolish, and perhaps a little young. It would be best if you left—never to return.”
This incensed the good Prince. “I am here to rescue my Princess.” He pointed the tip of his sword in her direction. “Or has she been beguiled, and would rather feed the birds, and connive with some fallen Knight, than know, once more, the joys of freedom?”
The Princess scowled. “I did not ask for your help, interloper. Yes—I seek freedom, and liberation. But your desires are not my desires. You seek to liberate me for your own ends, your interests are the same as his—my hand, and my bed. You carry a sword, you brag and you goad. You do not understand me.”
Her voice grew colder. It echoed, booming. A cold wind blew, goosebumps rose on the Prince’s skin.
He took a step back.
“I am a pacifist,” the Princess cried, her voice deafening, her arms wide, “yet you have come with the intent of murder. I will not allow it! There will be no violence in my name or service! Not now, not ever!”
The Knight lowered his head. “I have done you harm, my dear, my love. He is not wrong in his hopes to save you.”
“See? See?” the Prince called, “treachery admitted; deeds: profane! Oh my Damsel, let me save you from this wretched beast.”
“And what of your deeds?” The Princess grabbed at her heart below her breast, as if she meant to tear it out. “You think a gallant rescue will win my love?”
The Prince was taken aback. “I am a good and handsome Prince,” he countered, with as much confidence as he could muster, “and Princes always win the day. It is the way of things. My swordplay shall make you swoon, my dashing charms will stir thy heart. Come away with me now, and rule forever by my side as Queen.”
“Enough of this!” the Princess cried. “I take my leave of you.” She flashed her wrist in a curt, silent goodbye.
She slipped into the shadows of the hemlock, back into the depths of the garden.
The Prince could only watch her go; he could think of nothing more to say.
Was this a failure?
The Knight cleared his throat. “I do not deny your skill or dedication,” he told the Prince, “but both are lack to mine.”
They were quite alone now, and the Prince felt naked in his presence.
“Do not throw your life away,” the Knight continued. “This land is populous with beautiful creatures most deserving of princely love.” He looked up the garden path, but there was no trace of the Princess but the lingering scent of sandalwood. “But she shall me be mine and mine alone.”
The Prince flashed his sword one last time. It felt awkward in his hand, his wrist fell limp.
“Go and wander,” said the Knight, “and rescue from tower, or dungeon, or deep eternal sleep: not all Damsels are Princesses but could be so through marriage.”
The Prince had been led to believe this Knight was little more than a brute—a mangy dog needing to be put down. Yet now his words did not carry the weight of lies.
He decided to try a different approach. “‘Go and wander,’ yes, those words apply to you as well,” said the Prince. “If you do not wish to fight, then do not fight. Go and seek another Maiden, one more inclined to your affections. Go, and be gallant. Go, and know again the ways of chivalry and courtly love.”
He sheathed his sword. He bowed his head. “Go in peace, and leave this Princess to her peace as well.”
The Knight shook his head. “No. What you ask is impossible for me now. I have been entranced, and moved to my very core; I could never love another. No—she opened my heart, and she alone can fill it. I have but one desire now, and the grim determination to see it through.”
He turned to leave but caught himself midstep. “What ye know of Actaeon, full of woe?” he asked.
And again, the Prince thought of the past—his mind flooded with memories of old, of the bedtime stories his mother had told him, of tales of gods and heroes. “He chanced upon fair Artemis, naked in her spring. She cursed him. He was changed into a stag, and chased by his own hounds—and devoured by them.”
The Knight nodded. “I thought her cruel to curse poor Actaeon. He made a mistake, it was an accidental trespass. A forest grotto, the splash of water in a stone basin, a dull and muffled cry—curiosity was his undoing.”
“Perhaps—” The Prince was lost in memory. How long had it been, ten years? He could not remember his mother’s face.
“Like Actaeon, one errant glance and I was changed,” the Knight continued, “but I was not driven away, I was called and compelled—headlong, to her company.” The Knight’s voice took on a lighter air, the Prince thought he heard a note of softness, or kindness. “Even now I can hear the dogs give chase, they hunt me for my crimes. They gnaw and bark and I am so very tired of running.”
Something stirred within the Prince, a feeling he could not name. Was it pity? Understanding?
He felt tired now, and all his bravery was gone. “I think,” he said with some hesitation, “I will take my leave—for now. You cloud my mind, you confuse my sensibilities—but the Princess seems to be in no immediate distress—”
He rubbed his neck, he kicked the ground. “Perhaps I will withdraw,” he muttered, “and regroup.”
“A wise decision,” the Knight agreed. “Fare thee well.” He turned to leave.
“I will return in force!” the Prince called after him.
The Knight sighed. “Such is your prerogative.” He stole up along the garden path and out of sight, leaving the Prince alone.
From depths of the forest came the caw of an old ancient crow.
The day was starting to wane.
The Prince lingered for a time, by the garden, by its iron gate, and he contemplated many things: duty and honor, what it meant to be a Prince and what it meant to be a Knight. And, perhaps for the first time, he wondered what it meant to be a Princess.
He walked away, his shoulders slouched. The iron gate was as shut now has it had been when he’d arrived, but strangely this did not feel like a defeat.
He wandered through the woods, following the setting sun. The forest seemed empty now, and hollow, and as he continued on his thoughts turned to other Princesses, other adventures. Shadows grew long, and closed in around him.
“Perhaps not all Damsels need rescuing, least of all by me.”
A sudden noise pulled him from his thoughts.
A white doe appeared before him, creeping from between the shadows of a gnarled tree. It carried the moon’s glow, it walked without touching the ground. Its coat was pure and white, as if not a single speck of dirt had ever marred its hide.
“Sister,” said the Prince.
“Brother,” said the doe.
The Prince blinked, and in the deer’s place stood a Witch. She was indeed a Waif, all skin and bone, small and slender. Her hair was as dark as his, black as a raven’s beak and claw, but frayed and coarse and dry. Her regal dress did not suit her.
“Did you kill the Knight?” she rasped.
“Come,” said the Prince, “I will build a fire for the night.”
“Did you kill the Knight?” the Waif repeated.
“No. We talked, and I was filled with doubts. Tell me of other Princesses, other pursuits. With your help—” He trailed off. “Perhaps together—”
He sighed, and began his search for firewood. The Waif followed after him, walking on her heels. “You talked?” she asked, with a crook of her neck. “No sense. No purpose.”
“Talk is never bad, little one.” He piled up his collection of sticks and tender and started a fire. Before long it was blazing away.
His sister curled up by the fire. “There are many Princesses,” she hissed, “but in my search for your bride, dear brother, I have uncovered few so virtuous.”
The Prince nodded. “Prudence.”
“Courage,” the Waif rasped.
“A arduous task, but you have searched well. I rely on you, sister. Perhaps too much.”
The fire grew and grew, the only light in all the forest. The Prince fetched some dried meat from his pack. “Here, eat,” he said, offering his dinner to his sister. “I thought to fill my heart and soul with righteousness. To defeat a Black Knight, to rescue a Princess! I flashed my sword and made a terrific show, but I felt empty inside.”
His sister ate like a wild animal, ripping off strips of flesh with her teeth. He shuddered at the sight.
“Perhaps,” he said as he stoked the fire, “I will seek another. Have I made a mistake?”
“You deserve none but the finest, dear brother. She will come to love you.”
The Prince yawned. “Perhaps I need to—Oh, but I am weary—” He laid down by the fire. He felt a great weight press down upon him.
“Sleep, brother. I will watch over you. Nothing will harm you.”
The Prince closed his eyes. He listened to the crack and snap of the fire and the Waif’s wet, shallow breaths.
“I will find you a sister-in-law,” he murmured, “one with which to share a camaraderie. I know you are alone, save me. You need not be. Man is good. The world is good, or at least, it has been to me. Even that Dark Knight—they wished me well.”
The Prince fell asleep with a smile on his face.
His sister chewed her dinner thoughtfully. Then she crept over to the Prince, and whispered in his ear. “Nothing will ever harm you,” she said. “Now or ever. If there are lions, I will crack their bones. If there are bears, I will rend their flesh.”
She poked at her brother’s cheek with her fingers. He did not stir. “For I am your sister.”
Satisfied with the deepness of his sleep, the Waif transfixed herself into a will-o-wisp and set out upon the night, to explore the forest and learn its secrets for herself.