The sound of leaves echoed in his ear. With every step and stride they crunched beneath his heel, with every gust of wind they rustled, shaken from their trees.
Today the forest was equal to the beauty and color of the garden itself. The very air was thick with the scent of pine, the whispering wind, and the colors of fall. It was a fullness he could not describe.
The Knight felt a twinge of guilt. Leaves of gold, and red, and fire—the Princess would never know this autumn. “Would she speak words of poetry, or merely sigh, contented by the October air?” he wondered. His heart yearned to see her loose, to walk these woods if but for a single afternoon.
He would have coveted it, this autumn, had he not known, in his heart of hearts, that fall was also the season of death.
The Knight came to a stand of trees. Here there was a sickly tree that had turned before the rest, and shed its colors early. Its naked boughs looked all the more thin and lonely next to its fuller brothers. Leaves had piled at its base, where exposed roots had made a protective hollow.
Huddled together, they’d been gathered by the wind.
He crouched down and chose five perfect leaves from the pile, cradling them in his hands like delicate, fragile shells. “But I am stubborn and she is stubborn, and I cannot, will not, yield now.”
He ventured on to the Princess’s cage.
When the Knight wrenched open the garden gate a warm wind blew against him, a deep exhale. A spring mist hung in the air, dew clung to the tops of petals, the tips of buds. The air was heavy and moist, it soothed his parched throat.
He turned and locked the autumn dryness out.
The meadow was littered with green and lilac, yellow and vanilla, a thousand colors, a thousand scents in bloom. Softly, silently, he stepped through the petals of an endless spring. They stuck to his heel and were ground, muddy, into the earth.
He found his Princess by the summer house. She had pulled a heavy table from the grotto, and set it outside in the shade of the fig, leaving a long, dirty rut in the grass where she had dragged the table through the field.
And here she sat, book in hand.
The Knight approached. He stood at attention, still as a statue, waiting for her to acknowledge his presence.
The Princess gave him the slightest of nods, then read on, her fingers dancing, with the upmost of care, over the thin, tissue-like paper of her book.
He glanced down; the feet of the antique table were caked with mud. He grimaced.
The Princess read for a few minutes. She read slowly, and deliberately. More than once she flipped back a page, or two, reading and rereading particular passages, until, apparently, she had gleaned some hidden meaning from them.
Satisfied, she laid her book down. “Thank you for waiting.” She beckoned for the Knight to sit. He sat.
“Speak, and tell me your ills,” she said. “For once again I sense your heart is troubled. What do you think is the cause of your suffering today?”
The Knight spread his leaves out on the table for her to admire. “Look Princess,” he said, “I have brought you a present of the outside world. The signs of fall, the prophets of winter. Consider their colors a fire, of decay: whilst green is the color of life, these hues herald only death.”
The Princess looked them over. “The leaf dies so the tree may live,” she said. “Is this not natural?”
“And in spring the tree is born anew,” the Knight agreed. He snatched up a leaf in his metal claws. “I have no quarrel with this, Princess, it is the way of things.”
He made a fist and crushed the leaf to dust. “In winter we mourn the naked bark and wait for spring—for bud and blossom. And in autumn we admire the changing of the leaves. But under the heat of summer—when the tree is most alive—we give no thought to the leaf, only the shade, and think the tree eternal.”
The Princess plucked a maple leaf from the table. She held it by the stem, twirling it between her fingers. Light danced across the palette of rust.
“Birth and death and absence,” the Knight said, “that is when we praise the leaf. Today, the forest is thick with the dead. Like a charnel house, they littered the ground, in piles, discarded, cast aside, their purpose served in beauty.”
“Cadavera vero innumera,” sang the Princess. She let the wind take her leaf; it skittering across the ground, off towards the meadow, the lake and beyond. The Knight watched it go.
“Have I ever spoken of that fabled Knight,” he asked, “the Lady Penthesilea?”
“No, my Knight, you have not.”
“Ah, well, perhaps I will tell the tale?”
The Princess extended her hand. “Please do.”
“There are several versions of the story,” the Knight said, “or rather, how it ends. They all begin the same. Born with blessing, she made her cause upon the battlefield, and became the scourge of men; a whisper, a terror, a legend—untouchable!”
The Knight snatched up another leaf. This one too he crushed to dust. “She had knowledge of pressure points, and humors, and knew all man’s weakness. With twitch of hand, or flick of wrist, Penthesilea could pierce the vital arteries—for a master of the art was she.”
The remains of the leaf slipped through his fingers. “On the front lines the invincible She-Knight would cut her foes down by the dozen, her razor-thin blade flickering in the light, barely visible.”
A hollow gnawing ate at the Knight. He clutched his breast.
“Her sword bloodied, the day won,” he said, “at first, the field medics would be relieved, and joyful to find so many of their countrymen alive—survivors of Penthesilea’s bite. Yet always this joy would turn to grief.”
“Grief, my fair Knight?”
“The wounded—or rather, the crippled—always were her victims beyond the aid of any mortal medicine. No, they did not die—nay—they lingered, their strength cut from them, forever more. This was her misery, you see: to rob men of their grandeur.
“Oh, make no mistake—some of her victims could stand, or walk, but none could ever run again, hold sword again, fight again. Sword and spears replaced with canes. Backs once straight and true, now hunched and bent and broken.
“Homes filled with the forever weak, the veterans of her misery. With one foul strike, Penthesilea turned the proudest of warriors into old men—and restless half-lives they lived, burdens to their families.”
The Knight paused. “But she never killed, she never took a life.”
The Princess ran a finger down the spine of her book. “She sounds like a Knight of the highest order.”
“I know you mock me, but her skill and honor none could deny. She never hurt an innocent; never was a crowd or a craven. Bravely she charged into battle, the first onto the field, the last to leave it.”
The Princess smirked. “And she reveled in her cutting.”
“As a child, I looked up to her, ah, what a Knight was she. Her conquests were my bedtimes stories, ones I longed to hear. My father—”
The Knight cleared his throat. “My father knew all her stories, and loved to spin her yarn, what high regard he had for her. But as I grew older, and became a Knight myself, I realized what contempt she must have had for all brave men.”
The Princess picked up another leaf. The wind did not catch it, so instead she brought it to her lips, and kissed it. Off it went, dancing through the air.
“But why?” she asked. “Why such contempt?”
“I do not know,” said the Knight, “but I have often wondered. Disdain, hate, some cruel pleasure, to rob men of an honorable death? Who can say but she? She who was just another—one of many—a horror of war. Penthesilea: the Armored Heel.”
The Knight sighed. “But more than her, what of her victims? All warriors, headstrong would they go to death, yet shrink from a life of dependency? What can one say? Are we cowards, the lot of us?”
There was one leaf left. He stared down at it, afraid to even touch it.
“The Sword of Autumn—that was her title, one of many! Imagine, if you will, a leaf unknown to autumn, that clings to life and branch, refusing to turn to the red, while all around, its comrades die and fall. What would you think of such a novelty? When all the trees are bare except for that one last lonesome leaf, forever green? Would you pity the leaf—when all his brothers and sisters have gone before him, and he alone is denied a beautiful death?”
The Princess did not answer.
“Back then, I wonder—all those Knights and men I’ve killed—what did I think I was doing? That I was letting their colors ripen, painting glorious death in autumn red? That I was giving them something sweet and just, allowing them the privilege to die in service and in battle? No, no! I was looking only for my opportunity to shine. I thought of them not at all.”
“Did I think myself better than her?” the Knight wondered.
The Princess raised an eyebrow.
A quiet fell over the meadow. The last of the spring mist had dried away, and all the garden seemed new, and washed, and pure. The Knight watched the willows as they moved gently in the morning breeze. They made nary a sound.
It was a long time before he spoke again.
“Of her fate,” he said at last, “there are many stories. Some say the Autumn Sword was struck down by some young Man-at-Arms, anonymous, his name forgotten; that Penthesilea received the death she to denied others.”
“A fitting end?” asked the Princess.
“Perhaps.” The Knight nodded. “Another story claims that Penthesilea chanced to face her sister in battle, and without thought, struck her down like any other foe. Horrified, repentant, Penthesilea threw away her sword—and tried nurse her sister back to health, to undo the curse she had so carelessly wrought. She consulted the great physicians, holy men, even the Waifs in the woods—but none of them could cure the blight of steel.”
“Stricken with grief, Penthesilea turned her own blade upon herself.”
“Is this how all your tales end,” the Princess huffed, “with pain and suffering? Tell me, did she live? Or did she die?”
“Does it matter?” the Knight asked.
“I should think so!”
“There is one more legend of her fate, more mundane,” said the Knight. “Worn and weary of the death she swam in, the Lady-Knight surrendered her blade and took a husband-fair. With her groom by her side, she founded a great kingdom, became a glorious Queen—”
The Knight grew very still. “—and died a maternal death.”
The Princess leaned forward. “And what of the truth? Which story is true? What was her fate?”
Slowly, gingerly, with trembling hands, the Knight reached for the last leaf. It tore in his hands. “She’s dead,” he whispered. “I killed her.”
The Princess recoiled.
“The first person I ever killed, but hardly the last.” The Knight stared down at the broken, ruined leaf. “I stole her blessing,” he said, “kept it for myself. And Penthesilea bled and bled until she was no more—”
He turned away from the Princess. “The end,” he cried. “No more stories for today.”