He’d kept watch for the past three days, but there had been no sign of the Prince or his woeful sister. The forest of the world was empty once again. Had they abandoned their quest?
The Knight was surprised to find that he was actually looking forward to their next encounter.
Secure in his solitude, he stripped himself of his armor and let the cool air sooth his neglected, detested skin. Today the morning air was misty, and dense, and he felt the first chill of the coming autumn.
He walked through the forest, running his calloused fingers over the craggy bark of the oaks and the cedar. The leaves were still deep and green, but he could feel the tension in the trees, the signs of the changing season. The forest, and all the lands beyond, now held their breath. The pace of life had slowed.
He considered his lonely cabin. “Winter is hard on Errant-Knights,” he thought. “He who relies on the kindness of strangers; she without a home.”
He sat and watched the sun rise through the glimmer of the forest. He sat, and tried to deaden himself to the pain in his lungs, to his aching throat, to his cracked, peeling skin. The sun rose and warmed the woods and burned away the morning fog.
It was time to visit the Princess.
He started from the bottom up. First he secured his bindings, wrapping them tight until they bound and suffocated him. Next, his old gambeson, worn thin. Then sabatons. The legs: greave, cuisse and poleyn. Fauld and tasset, and above them, his black cuirass, over bindings and breast.
Next, he fixed his forearms, and his vambrace. Then the upper cannon, and the couter. Spaulders over shoulders. Gorget to protect the neck. Finally, his gauntlets and his helmet.
It was a ritual, step by step.
“Ah, I am myself once more!” he declared, although he did not feel it.
He set off through the woods, clanking and creaking. The animals of the forest ran from him. The little squirrels hid in their trees, and made neither chit nor chat. A raven stretched its wings and preened its feathers. A forest mouse, timid and brown, briefly considered begging the Knight for a scrap of grain, but thought better of it, and scurried back home again.
The Knight did not notice the mouse, or the squirrels or any other creature. His head was filled only with thoughts of the Princess: her flowing dress, her flowing hair; her smile, both cruel and coy.
“Perhaps today,” he thought, “I will produce in her more than a modest glance. Perhaps I will see her face anxious and red. Embarrassed, or flustered or angry, any reaction would satisfy me.”
Twice he made his way around the perimeter of the garden, inspecting the fence for signs of intrusion or of tampering, but there was nothing to be found. The lock, too, remained untouched. The Prince, it seemed, had not returned.
Satisfied, he threw open the gate and welcomed the endless bloom of spring. Once again, the lilacs and cherries and rhododendrons had burst in their eternal rite, of pink and white and pale gold; a hundred thousand petals falling like an endless rain.
He followed the stone path through this ecstasy up to the head of the meadow.
This is where he found the Princess, on a bed of flowers, asleep under the shade of a cherry tree, a book clutched to her breast, her chest rising and falling with her every breath.
He stepped closer. The cherry trees had sprinkled her with blossoms; they fell without measure. He bent low, plucked a petal from her hair, flicked it aside, then reached for another. His hands shook. One, two, three—for each petal he plucked, two more fell to take its place.
His fingers were a mere inch from her cheek when she woke. “You have gentle hands,” the Princess murmured, “yet would they wander?” She wiped the sleep from her eyes and yawned, stretching her arms out over her head.
The Knight offered her his hand, and she accepted it. “My apologies, dear Maiden,” he said as he helped her to her feet, “I meant no trespass. Simply ask it of me and I will leave you to your rest, and return again another day.”
The Princess stifled another yawn. “No, no,” she said, “stay a while, stay with me.”
She shook her dress and scattered the blossoms that clung to it; they piled on the ground. “Will you sow my favor?” she asked. “Fetch me a broom, and we will sweep these walks, together—and talk.”
The Knight balled his fist and raised it to his heart.
He shambled down the little path, sprinkled with color. He tried to avoid the fallen petals, but with every tip of toe and daft maneuver, his heel came down on another blossom, or two, and he knew he could not avoid them all.
The tool shed was hidden between the bushes, its wooden door worn smooth by a thousand springs. When he flipped the latch and pulled it open, the dry, rusty hinges squeaked in protest. Inside he found a scythe and a shovel, a trowel and a tool box—with bit and auger.
And a pair of bamboo brooms.
He ran a finger over the bristles of one of the brooms. There was something honest about them, he thought. A month ago, perhaps two, he’d been hunched over a workbench, bundling up little bushels of straw. The Princess had sat by his side; she’d hummed a pleasant tune.
He had made a dozen or so of these little bushels, all trimmed and straight. Then he’d gathered them up into one big bundle, tying them up around the base of a bamboo pole.
The Princess was waiting for him by the rhododendrons.
He handed her a broom, and she took a practice sweep, brushing away the debris and dust and petals that soiled the stony path that snaked its way through the garden. “A simple task,” she said, “but therein lies the pleasure.”
The Knight grunted in agreement.
“Now, tell me,” the Princess teased, “about this armor you wear, so black and so cruel.”
“Another tale, another regret,” the Knight said, taking up his broom, “but you have asked, so I will answer.”
They made their way up the path, working in tandem, purifying the steps and the stones. Each little flick of the broom puffed up another, new scent—dust and lilac, vanilla and peach.
“My armor,” the Knight began, “is a dreadful, terrible thing. This is by design.”
He swept, and tried to mimic the Princess, slowing his own sweeps in time with hers. Her gentle brush made a far sweeter sound than his poor scrapings, as if the straw bristles of her broom had been replaced with thistledown.
“Once upon a time I shined,” the Knight said. “Noble armor, without dent or scratch or stain. Worn in service of my Lord, all the people of my kingdom knew of me and my flawless beauty. Polished daily, my armor had no equal.”
The Princess nodded as she worked, and hummed her pleasure. The Knight raised the end of his broom and inspected the bristles. Was her broom softer than his? Impossible, he had made them both himself, with his own bare hands.
He set the broom down again and began sweeping. “My shining armor was my pride,” he continued. “A symbol of my quality, and testament to my deeds and virtues. I ask you, what separates a Prince from a street rat? Is the cut of cloth enough to blind the eye, or are his princely airs inalienable, a product of birthright and bloodline?”
The Knight felt a lump in his throat. He lowered his head and focused on his broom. “Ah! But of all the Kings and Queens I have met, you, Princess, tower above all other. Majesty in its purist form—sainthood becomes you, my little Bodhisattva.”
“Don’t call me that,” the Princess snapped. “I am not worthy of the title.”
“But there is some force within you, as crucial to your being as heart or soul, that defies all mundane regalia,” the Knight said. “You’ve had no earthly teacher.”
The Princess flicked her wrist, sending a puff of dust his way. “Your musings are neither here nor there,” she said. “I asked for the tale of your black armor, yet your thoughts turn back to me.”
“You are worthy of daily praise.”
The Princess gave him a side-glance. “So you say.”
She worked her way up the little path and the Knight followed behind her. What was her secret? Her every motion was effortless—stance and sweep and nothing more.
“Now then,” she said as she swept up a pile of cherry blossoms, “your armor, please. Where, and when and most importantly of all, why?”
“Well,” the Knight began, “after the discharge of my service—”
He trailed off.
“After I murdered my Lord, my King,” he began again, “I thought a Knight’s duty profane, fit for fools. I had to separate myself from that foul brotherhood.”
He closed his eyes, and opened his mind. He focused on the Princess’s broom. Sweep, sweep she went, softer than a mouse’s footsteps. He began to move his broom in time with hers.
“I abandoned my comrades-in-arms,” he said. “I abandoned my kingdom, my country, my past. Even my name.”
He felt his breathing slow in time to match his sweeping. Inhale, exhale. Back and forth. They were one and the same.
“I ran away. Far, far away to where none and no one knew me. Yet, in my shining armor, I could not escape the binds of duty. Women and children still approached me as if I were a hero. Townsfolk called upon me, as if I were bound to their service.”
The Knight flicked his broom to the left.
“‘Dear Knight,’ they would cry, ‘save our village from these murderous bandits.’ ‘Slay the vile serpent that stalks the woodsman’s grove.’ ‘Quest for the magic lyre, so we might quell the raging river.’”
The Knight flicked his broom to the right.
“I would oblige and they would praise. ‘Oh, what a noble Lord that must exist, to employ such a brave and bold and beautiful Knight, so loyal and so true. At whose round table doth he sit?’”
He stifled a laugh, turning it into a deep, wet cough. “Their assumptions turned me bitter.”
The Princess nodded silently.
The Knight swept, and swept again.
He glanced over at the Princess. They were in tune, and flicked their brooms as one. He laughed again, and this time it was a good, happy laugh. How strange it was, he thought, that his body had found a rhythm, and stranger still, now kept it.
The Princess sensed his sudden awareness. “I think you are beginning to understand the broom,” she said. “Still action stems from still mind. Peace flows outward.”
She put her weight into her sweeps and they were flawless.
“Some who seek perfection dull the mind with repetitive tasks, obsessing over thought and not-thought,” she explained. “Dull is not still. Still is open, and mindful. Dull is closed. It is easy to confuse the two.”
The Knight considered this. He breathed in through his nose, and out through his mouth.
The Princess smiled. “Finish your story.”
“If a kingdom is a ship, then a Prince is the rudder, the Princess the sails. Bound by duty, a Knight is the anchor that keeps the boat safe. If the Triumvirate had indeed failed me, then where did I belong?”
The Knight rapped his fingers against his breastplate. “See this blacken shell, charred and ruined. The poisonous thorn of a treacherous flower, antipode to all which once I was. Let that Shining Knight fade into legend, and let a new Knight emerge, untethered and unburdened. A true Errant-Knight, a Dark Knight!”
The Maiden clucked her tongue, but said nothing. The Knight looked ‘round the garden path. It was clean and clear and right for walking.
“I did pilgrimage to the Smithies three,” he said. “Brothers, artisans, crafters of armor and weapons worthy of title. Harbinger-Pike, Moloch’s Cloak, Sword of Dio: just three armaments of legend, forged in their fire pits.
“They lived within a grand monastery and dug ore from a private mine, over which they’d built their mighty forge. They were Monks, you see, and through their work they’d found transcendence.”
He stopped sweeping.
“T’was a marvelous thing, to watch them work,” he said. “They toiled for five months, backs bent over forge and anvil and drafting table. It was their souls’ passion, and truly, their tools were an extension of self. As trinity, the brothers worked as one; three bodies of one mind. Hammers felled blows in unison, a Smithy with six hands.”
He smiled at the memory. “And what the made for me was a masterpiece. Like no armor I’d ever worn before, the fit was perfect. A second skin, made for me alone. No surface left without blight, black with menace.”
The Knight sat down. His little broom fell to his side, forgotten. “I killed the Smithies three.” He buried his head in his hands. “I struck the youngest brother down first—and when I pierced his swollen heart, his wounds became his brothers’ wounds, and together they fell as one.
“With the brothers dead, I thought myself truly anonymous, for now none lived who knew the flesh beneath the shell. I was a Black Knight, unknown and unknowable, and the world was open to me.”
The Princess set down her broom, and sat beside the Knight. She laid her hands on his heart.
“But,” the Knight said, “change of armor cannot change all inside. What is a Prince without his pomp? True eyes can see beyond, and spot a Prince even in beggar’s clothes. Some lessons cannot be forgotten.”
He pushed the Princess away. “My plan was foolish and a failure. What good is a terrible guise, if none are terrified? What good is hateful armor if children still bring you flowers, if Maidens still offer you their hands to kiss?
“Did others know me better than I knew myself? What mockery! Distraught, aimless I became. I wreaked and ruined myself until none dared approach, until I’d well and truly earned the title of ‘Dark Knight.’ Until I—”
The Knight lowered his head, ashamed.
“‘For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’” the Princess quoted.
The Knight turned. “I don’t want your pity, I want your love!” he cried. “You! You who keeps a craven hold on a frosted heart! Always you hide behind your serenity and your sanctimony! A calm facade!”
He grasped the Princess by the chin. “You claim affection: natural, universal, transcendent! Spare a little extra for me! If you love all, can you not love one? I ask today for one favor: a simple, single kiss. No more, no less. A kiss without compromise.”
The Princess hissed. “Let me go.”
“Is even such meager affection beyond you?” the Knight asked. “Why do you deny me, deny yourself? Art thou afraid you’d enjoy the taste of my lips, the warmth of my body? Have you forgotten your own passions? I have not forgotten mine—they are all that I have left!”
The Princess pressed her palms together, and rocked her jaw between his fingers. Even through the slit in his helmet, he could taste the heat on her breath.
“I am keenly aware of my own passions,” the Princess said slowly, “and that which I deny. I deny you.”
The Knight moved closer. “Is a kiss such a crime?” he asked. “Come, I shall do you no harm.” He drew her in and traced a finger up her cheek. But his gauntlet scratched her, and cut a line of red.
The Princess winced. The cut bled and dribbled down her chin. The Knight recoiled in horror at the sight.
“Is this what you want?” she asked him.
The Knight stumbled to his feet. He tripped backwards over his broom.
He ran, ashamed.
The Princess sat very still, alone beneath the cherries. She smelled the red iron, felt the warmth on her cheek. “So,” she thought as she watched the blood stain her dress, “I’m human after all.”