Notes and Disclaimers: The characters from Shoujo Kakumei Utena are owned by Ikuhara Kunihiko, Saito Chiho, Be-Papas and several other corporate entities. Feel free to decide on your own if the characters in this story are them or not.
I would like to dedicate this story to Keats, Shelley, Browning, Rossetti (Christina, not her brother,) Shakespeare and others who understood the lure of the ride of the Fey. And to all the teachers that made me read these great ones.
I’d like to thank Alan Harnum for making me think harder about my work than I have in a long time. I may not agree with him, but I appreciate the incentive.
I’d like to thank my wife, because she is so very beautiful when she smiles.
Let me know if you liked this – I enjoyed writing it quite a bit. firstname.lastname@example.org
Added 1/19/01 – Thanks to Sabriel Natrioni, we now have an illustration for this fic!
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms!
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.
I see a lily on thy brow
With anguish moist and fever dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.
I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.
I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She look’d at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan.
I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.
She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
“I love thee true.”
She took me to her elfin grot,
And there she wept, and sigh’d fill sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lulled me asleep,
And there I dream’d—Ah! woe betide!
The latest dream I ever dream’d
On the cold hill’s side.
I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—”La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!”
I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gaped wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.
And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
– La Belle Dame Sans Merci – John Keats
The Tale of the Wedding Guest
The sun struck my eyes through a gap in the overhead branches and I was momentarily blinded. I stopped my progress through the woods, shaking my head at my folly. The wine had been too good, the food too plentiful and I had overindulged badly. I now suffered for my rashness though, and was slowly making my way on foot back to my home.
Or I would have been but for two things – that impetuosity which my mother had so often commented on, and the fact that I was now completely lost. I shook my head – another rash act I realized a moment too late, and was rewarded with a throbbing pain to add to my list of ills.
Dazzled by the bright sun, my brain addled by drink and rich food, I slowly made my way towards the sound of water. My hope, slim though it was, was to find the river that wound its way through this wood, and follow it to one town or another. I would get a ride from some tradesman, thus making my way home safely, if not wisely.
I could see a greensward open ahead of me, and my heart grew lighter. What oppresses in the gloom of a forest’s eaves will often leave us in the full sun, I have always felt. My hope grew stronger as the sound of water became clearer. The throbbing in my head lessened with anticipation of the pleasure of cool water on my brow and moistening my dry throat.
I staggered down the slope, plunging myself head first into the stream, gamboling like a child with the pure joy relief from discomfort brings upon us. Splashing myself with the liquid until I dripped from face and chest, I finally leaned forward to drink of God’s elixir.
Refreshed, I lay back on the grass, letting the bright sun dry and warm me, until my stiff body could once again move. My eyes closed in the warm afternoon and I slept.
An incongruent sound caused me to wake. The jingle of harness, the soft thud of hooves on the grass, the mechanical clatter of armor. I rolled over, but did not stand – not all travelers on horseback are benign, as I well knew, having lost my cousin to a drunken squire in a brawl. I could see a lithe figure, clearly young of limb, stepping daintily forward to water his horse – a fine white animal, reflecting the sun’s glow almost blindingly. In contrast, the young knight was dressed in unremitting black. I remember wondering how he could stand the heat of the day, so confined in his dark helmet. The horse lowered its head and drank, but the knight did nothing, simply standing with his back to me. No muscle moved, nor did he remove his helmet or attempt to drink from the stream.
When I realized I my chest burned for lack of air, I took a soft shuddering breath, but tried to make no noise. The horse’s ears twitched, yet the knight did not move. I was pinned to my place in wonder.
At last the horse finished and the knight let it graze, seating himself under a tree by the water’s edge. After what seemed an interminable time, he reached for his helm, and slowly, almost hesitantly, he removed it.
The hair that fell from under his helm was a shade of pink that practically glowed in the dappled sunshine. He combed it back with his fingers (now loosed from their gauntlets) and shook it out. What a beauty he was! The nobility of his face had me once again breathless. I had, of course, heard of such knights-errant – the good and noble knights who scour the land for evil and injustice, but never had I expected to see one. I thanked God once again for allowing me to witness the existence of this youth.
I know, I know, I’m waxing poetic again and you told me to keep to the facts. I hope that I haven’t wandered too far from my tale to be able to once again pick up the thread.
The youth sat impossibly still for the longest time. He moved so little I thought he might have died where he sat – fanciful, I know. I admit to a touch of fancy now and again.
A slow, painful breath wracked his body, and then another. He cast his face into his hands and began to sob so pitifully I thought I might break down and join him, ignorant as I was of the cause of his sorrow. But then, I knew. There is only one thing that carries such weight with the young, isn’t there? And I may seem to be doddering and old, but I am not so far removed from my own youth as it may seem.
You’ll tell me to make sense, won’t you? But only because you do not understand, you have never been in love. What else can make so fair a visage blotch with pain and suffering? Not physical pain surely – not a strong, young body as his. No, only a broken heart can wreak such havoc with a youth such as this.
My heart broke for him and I could no longer bear to watch. I turned away and let him ease his pain in peace.
Time passed and silence once again fell upon the glade. I sat up slowly, moving as quietly as I dared and made my way closer. The knight was once again stony and still, and no sign of pain or heart’s ache clouded his beauty. I came closer still when he did not speak or move.
At last I was but a short stone’s throw from him and I halted. Upon closer inspection I could see his features, so finely crafted – high cheekbones, intelligent brow, soft blue eyes. He was ethereal in his beauty, as though he had come down from the heavens itself.
And I could see at last, that his armor, though black, was not unadorned. A crest of a blood red rose lay over his heart. It gleamed preternaturally and I began to wonder if he might not be from heaven – or hell.
“You may as well come over here.” When he spoke, I started, for I had been deep in thought. I took a hesitant step forward, then paused. I could hardly explain my presence away simply. If he were not an idiot he would know I had been here the whole time.
“Come.” The note of command was strong enough to shake me from my paralysis and I walked forward, bowing a little in apology.
“I didn’t mean to intrude…” I began rather lamely, but he interrupted. I straightened to see that he still stared out over the stream, not even turning to look at me as he addressed me.
“You have not interrupted me. You have been sent here to be…” He sighed sadly and bit his lip. ” How do you come to be here?” His voice was light, almost girlish, but sad and old all at once.
“I am lost.” I laughed in embarrassment. “I was returning from a wedding where I had imbibed more than was good for me. I was asleep over there when you arrived.” I pointed to my original location, now hidden slightly by the curve of the slope.
“Yes. So, it is to be the proverbial wedding guest.” The youth laughed – a dry, unhappy sound. He spoke quietly, almost as if someone who sat close to him had asked him a question. “Yes, I’ll do it, though it gives me no pleasure.” His voice became louder, addressing me once again. “I am sorry.”
At that moment he finally turned to meet my eyes and instantly, I wished he hadn’t. They were not young; instead they were old, older than time itself and held such pain and horror that I could not bear them. They were the eyes of a madman, the eyes of those who are haunted for their lives by the ghosts and phantoms of their minds. I could see so many things of wonder, of delight, of loss, in his eyes and one more thing, something I cannot yet bring myself to speak of….
When he looked away, I fell to my knees, gasping for breath, as if I had fought a great battle with a foe much my superior. I thrust my hands into the grass and supported the weight that now lay on my shoulders, the crushing burden of the youth’s defeat. And I, weak fool that I am, I began to weep.
He…or should I now be honest and say out loud what I had not been willing to admit until that moment…she…looked at me with the deepest sympathy imaginable.
“I am sorry.” Her voice was soft and sad, but inescapable. What burden must she carry to be so inured to the horror of that vision?
I shook my head, my vision still blurred by tears. “It is not your fault.” I gasped between sobs, my face down to the solid earth below me. I looked up and wiped the moisture from my eyes and cheeks to see her once again.
She sat, staring at me in what could only be surprise. Her mouth hung open slightly, her eyes round, her hair lifting from her brow in the light breeze.
I took a moment to sit back on my haunches and stare back at her, amazed at my own daring. This woman, if not a witch herself, had been touched by magick and if I had any sense I would have run as far and fast as my legs could go. You know very well I have never had any sense at all.
She closed her mouth at last, and of all things that she could have done at that moment, she did the strangest. She smiled. A small wry smile to be sure, but it made me all too aware that she was young…and very beautiful. Not a classic beauty, but her strength and nobility shone from her like a beacon and I found myself drawn to it as a ship is drawn to the shore by the signal from a lighthouse.
When she glanced towards me again I flinched, but this time I met her eyes with no ill results. I relaxed a bit and wondered once again what fate had brought her here.
She watched me with her lips pursed. “Would you like to know my story, then?” And I flinched again, afraid that she could read my mind, and worried if I had been thinking anything less than polite.
Looking down at the grass in front of me I spoke as humbly as I could. “I would, if you would not take it as an impertinence.”
Her smile reappeared, still bitter, but better by far than her frown. “I will, not only because you wish it, but because I am under a geas to do so.”
I looked up in surprise at those words and wondered what creature she was, to have walked out of a tale and fallen to our own green Earth.
She patted the ground next to her, gesturing that I should come and sit in the shade, so as not to be uncomfortable in the heat. The sun was lowering, but it was still quite hot out and I joined her with alacrity.
She was very silent, for a long time, looking out into some far distant place or time. I tried not to stare at her, but failed completely. To have seen only one knight in a lifetime was not, maybe, remarkable, but that this knight should be a beautiful woman and one so clearly touched by who knows what infernal power….
I see you are laughing at me, thinking this a tale of a drunken old man. And maybe it is, I can no longer tell.
I cannot recall when she began speaking, for it was more than just her voice. The scenes themselves appeared before me, as a vision unfolding in my sight.
I could see her, or one I presumed to be her – the hair was alike – walking through a field of grain. She was dressed oddly, but it suited her well. Wide pants legs, almost as if a skirt had been slit and sewn together to make pants, and a man’s jacket of some vaguely military cut. She looked neither masculine nor feminine, but something of both, perhaps. Certainly the best part of both. Her hair was unbound, not did she wear a hat and her head was thrown back to feel sun and wind on her face.
As the scene played out in front of me, I was aware of her voice softly weaving this strange tale.
“I am alone in this world, my parents are long gone. I took what schooling I could find, and made my way as I needed to. As a child I had been saved from the tragedy that took my parents life. A Prince on a white charger had rescued me.” I could hear the smile in her voice, although I could not see her face.
“What girl does not dream of her Prince? But I was different – I did not wish to be his Princess and get captured by the evil Knight, awaiting rescue. No, I wished to be like him, to save fair maidens, and taking only a chaste kiss in payment then ride off into the next tale.” Her voice became sad. “The world, as I now know, has no place for Princes and Princesses.”
I wished to speak, to deny this, but I could not – the spell was too heavy on me. I stopped struggling and let her tell me her tale as she would.
“There I was, at the first flower of my adulthood, a not unattractive girl, my heart filled with dreams as all other girl’s heart are filled. And if my dreams had more swords and battles in them than most girls, I expected to be forgiven for it.
“You see me? I had left my home, hearing that in the city there was a palace – a place where I could be educated, where I could be with others of my own age, where I could be close to the Princes and Princesses of the realm.
I made it there with little mishap – perhaps that should have worried me, but at that age we are all so idealistic, aren’t we? And you see me in what we laughingly called the uniform of the school. Well, close to it. I was willful and wish to wear the boy’s uniform, as I was a Prince. I compromised by wearing something neither fish nor fowl and for some reason I was allowed to do it. Another warning sign of my fate? Perhaps, perhaps.
“And so I was 14 years of age, in a world of golden wheat and blue sky and all the ordinary magic of a life full of hope.”
I could hear the sound of hooves, distant, but approaching quickly. I wished to turn away but could not move. Slowly I subsided, understanding that the hooves were in the story I was being told, not riding me down in the world my body occupied.
The pounding grew closer, more urgent, but was now accompanied by other sounds. Bells, harness creaking, shouts and laughter and song.
A company of brightly dressed riders appeared. Their beauty shone from their faces, their light voices pealed and I immediately knew, having never seen them before, that I beheld a riding of the Fey. Horses caparisoned in golden and silver bells came trotting along, weaving around and around each other in complex patterns, never slowing, never faltering. Yet their pace did not suffer and they grew close enough for me to see them. Each wore a bright outfit that muted the very colors of the rainbow.
“You know them, do you?” The young woman’s voice came again and I was not sorry to be reminded that this was but a vision. “They are the Fey ones, the Princes and Princess of Faerie and I knew them immediately, as do you.
“They surrounded me, laughing, joking, nudging. I was scared, but feared more to show my weakness than my dread. And so I smiled, bowed and replied to their jibes with my own witticisms.”
I could see the Faerie folk on tall horses, surrounding the girl, moving closer to stare or comment, then further away as they were neatly parried by her wit.
“One of them, I think, was insulted that I should not be in awe of them and drew his sword.”
In my vision a lordly figure dressed in green drew a glittering weapon and held it overhead, drawing menacingly close, while his mount snorted and stamped terrifyingly close to the girl.
“But a voice came from beyond them telling him to desist and leave me be.”
I could see the figure in green pause, while all the Fey ones turned to watch the two figures that rode over the field to join them. Dark they were, as dark as the others were fair, and more beautiful than can be described. They rode side by side, she on a black horse, and he on a white one. Although they were dressed in fine clothes, it was their bearing that told of their royalty.
She wore her hair up in a strange style – it glistened darkly and contrasted with her bright green eyes, while he, lighter-skinned, had pale, silvery hair that fell past his shoulders and was gathered together loosely. All the Fey Folk pulled back as their Queen and King arrived to see what sport they had found.
“How unearthly they were – how beautiful.” Sadly she continued. “I was foolish and gallant and made my courtesy to them, as befits a Prince.” A small figure, barely visible in the light of the Beautiful Ones, she kneeled. The Queen leaned her head back and laughed and although it was faint, I could hear it as a kind of memory, as if of something sweet but barely remembered. I would have died to have that voice laugh for me.
“She smiled at me, as did he, and they talked to me, asking me my name. I told them, comforted now by their presence. They did not seem to want to harm me. In fact, they asked me to join them in their feast.”
I started once again, but my head stayed riveted on the story in front of me.
“Yes, I ate with them. I knew what that meant, but they assured me (as I instinctively knew) that it wasn’t death or danger for me to eat their food, but entirely the other way around – they cannot bear the touch or taste of our food or drink. I was not completely naïve, but I was willing to take the risk. To die in their company would still have been a princely act.
“I sat between the Queen and King. They asked me many questions, and called me their little fox, as they had run me down in the hunt. I found that they were brother and sister and I wondered that they were equals in ruling their people. But I watched and I could see that for all they were equals, the brother had the darker mood of the two, while she…she was light and beauty itself.”
Her voice fell silent once again and I watched the figures with a mix of prurience and excitement. The Queen would reach out and stroke the girl’s hair, or cheek. The King would lean in to feed her a morsel. Many of the Fair Folk pressed round her, treating her to a tidbit, a light touch. A cold beauty in gold and the antagonist in green stayed apart, glowering at her, while a tall princely figure in red would follow his King’s lead, making much of her.
The girl’s face became red with wine and embarrassment. Hands stroked her hair, her shoulders, her arms. She smiled unsurely into green eyes and was rewarded with a smile and a nod.
The Queen sat up from her lounging position and clapped her hands. The girl was lifted from her place and seated upon the Queen’s horse. The Queen remounted and in a twinkling, the company was gone.
“Yes, I rode off with them. God help me, I wanted to go. I wanted to be one of the Fair Folk.” He voice caught with emotion, my throat tightened against the wave of sorrow I felt for her. So young, she was. Maybe it was a tragedy to be taken to Fairie, whether it was by choice or not.
“I saw things that I cannot describe to you. The words “gemstones” or “luxurious” are no longer adequate for my needs. I was taken to be the Queen’s favorite. And she called me her little Prince.”
The figures arrived at a glittering palace, where each room was a marvel and would continue to be one, no matter how many times you might see it. The glorious light, the music – all came to me in that dim echo of remembrance and I longed for it, – no, I actively struggled to get closer to see or hear a little more.
“That night I came to her and she stroked my face, telling me she loved me, that she would keep me with her if I would stay. That I would be young and strong forever…and always be her Prince.”
I could see the figures outlined behind a sheer curtain, hear a murmur of voices, soft and intimate. Musical laughter rang out from time to time. I craned to see what was happening. When I realized the truth of it, I could feel as a slow flush crept up my neck and once again I tried to look away.
“No, please. Don’t turn away. Hear me out. It was love I say – I still say it, though it tears my heart out to do so. She loved me and I her and I will never, never deny this.” Her voice was strong again, and she continued. “I remained with her and learned the ways of her land. At first the courtiers treated me as one might a favorite pet, or a small child. Quite possibly because I *was* a child.” She laughed a little and I was relieved to hear that she could still do so. “She treated me as much as she could as an equal. And I was as polite and pleasant to those in her favor as I could be.”
Four figures approached, bowing deeply. One, her early opponent in green sneered a little at the girl, but the fellow clad in red smiled warmly at her, as she sat by the Queen’s side. She was dressed now in the finery of a princeling, her boots and sword gleaming in the light, a smile wreathing her face. When the Queen turned and put her hand out, I could see the girl prince reach for it and kiss it gently.
With those two lords of the land stood a beautiful lady in deep orange, and an apparent youth in blue. Both made opulent courtesies to the Queen, then King, then finally to one another. The tall men in green and scarlet faded back, each to one side of the court. From nowhere visible glittering swords appeared in the woman’s and youth’s hands. For a moment they stood in silence.
At an invisible signal they each saluted, then lunged. The fight was fierce and all the people at the court began to shout. I could hear the noise – it sounded like the waves that are caught in the shell you bring home from the beach, or like the blood in your head late at night.
The two figures moved back and forth, the fight all but equal. With a final feint, the tall lady in orange swept the blade from her opponent’s hands and made the final point. The court went wild. Flowers were thrown to both participants. The Lords in green and red stepped forward with goblets and cloths. All four figures bowed once again to the Queen and King, then to her great surprise to the girl at the Queen’s side. Immediately she stood and bowed back. Four smiles greeted this performance, while the court continued to applaud the spectacle.
Later, the Queen beckoned the four figures forward. Once again my lady took up her tale. “I met these four and remembered they had been there at my “capture.” I was gladdened when they asked if I had enjoyed the bout, and ecstatic when the Queen asked if I too would like to learn to fight with the sword. Of course I said yes.
“I had learned so many things…but I had so many lessons yet to learn.” Her voice was wistful now. “What I have lost, what I have lost,” she muttered.
The scene changed to that of her learning to fight. At first the youth in blue was her mentor.
“My first teacher was a mere boy by their standards, but he and I became close friends. You may have noticed I use no names. I will not sully their glorious names with my profane tongue – I no longer deserve to utter them.” She fell silent once again.
I tell you this so you will not think me irritating for withholding names of these Fairie lords and ladies. I never learned them, or I would tell you now.
“When I became more of a challenge I was handed over to my first implacable opponent in the court.” The lord in green stood glaring down at the girl, who stood staring confidently back. They fought and the girl, though soundly defeated, had made a definite impact upon the lord – his arm had to be bandaged and slung by a cloth for several weeks. “He never liked me, nor I him, but he was a good man and an honest one and he taught me many things.
“One night, after a particularly hard match, he took me aside. In a low tone he asked to me to beware my final teacher – that he would hurt me, as he had hurt many a beautiful mortal.” He said nothing else and when I questioned him he would not respond. Never again did he mention the subject. I suppose he felt that if I did not find my way through obscurity to understanding, I was not fit to be warned.” This last spoken in a dryly humorous tone.
“My next teacher was…” Her voice cut off abruptly. I waited for her to clarify but she did not. The vision was of that magnificent and graceful beauty in orange. Her red-gold curls bounced tightly as she moved. Her movements were the epitome of economy and deadliness. My lady was better as a fencer than she had been, but never as good as this woman.
“She was,” the voice was tight, choked now, “beautiful and cold. Everyone loved her and she would love anyone, it was said.” I could see her lunge into my lady’s attack, trapping sword and girl in one swift movement. Even swifter, she bent her face down to kiss the little prince, leaving her breathless and hopelessly lost in a moment. Time and time again the clinch, the kiss. I felt my breath becoming somewhat ragged, more fascinated than propriety should have let me be. The poor girl, now grey with fatigue and worry, finally confided her problem to the Queen, or so I assumed, as my lady no longer spoke.
The Queen smiled, her eyes moist and soft. I too was coming to love this Fairie Queen, although I knew it would be a hopeless love. To my surprise I found the two figures walking in an opulently lit hallway, to a carved door. A knock, the door opened, a few words, the girl steps inside, the door closes.
The Queen removes herself and the hallway is silent, only the glow of the lights to watch. Still no narration. I could hear nothing, except, maybe, the smallest of sounds. Her breath, again, ragged, as if she were trying not to cry. I longed to turn and embrace her, but I remained trapped in this vision.
After the longest time her voice returned, raw and rough. “Good sir, you have listened so well to my tale. Can you answer me one thing? How many people can a single person love and lose?”
The sound of sobbing, then a few sniffs. “After that I learned quickly and at last faced my final teacher. The words of warning hung heavy over me and I resolved to be strong.”
The lord in red faced her in a duellist’s stance. He looked calm and cool, if anything could be said to be imperfect in his form it would have to be a surfeit of confidence, a shade too much sangfroid.
You’re laughing at me again. Yes, I can see that I must sound like a sot in his cups to you.
The girl prince faced her opponent calmly, no emotion at all on her face. She had grown, it was obvious, no longer a child.
The red lord attacked. I held my breath as they clinched, parted and the match was on in earnest. If I could have, I would have shouted, supported her with my voice as I already did with my heart.
“I am sorry, I should not keep you waiting. It is just…I have so much to say and no idea how to say it.”
The match ended, my lady had lost. She smiled and bowed in thanks, saluted with her sword and walked off the dueling ground. Smiles met her passing; she inclined her head graciously in answer.
“What a fool I was. He was never anything but courteous, kind, and a most efficient and intense teacher. I looked so hard for things to hate in him that I found myself obsessed. I knew what the Queen would say if I told her. I chose to say nothing. Instead I watched and waited to be betrayed by the man I trusted with my life.”
A dark day, a stormy sky. Two opponents in masks, with swords raised. No spectators.
Salute, pause, swords touch, pause, touch again. Feint, counter, parry, pause.
“I was better that day than I have ever been again. I had never beaten my last master, but him – I knew I had to defeat him so that he could never hurt me.”
Touch, parry, counter. The figures moved with precision timing, their steps so immaculate it appeared that they danced, rather than fenced. The speed of their movements increased slowly, until their blades were a blur. She thrust with the weight of her whole slim form behind it and he parried, but not quite fast enough. His sleeve parted and blood was visible against the pale skin. His face flushed, but no other change came over his countenance. He pushed her away and began another attack.
This time the speed with which they fought was blinding. I could not follow attack or counter. I prayed to God that I would not see a horrible tragedy take place.
The fight came to an abrupt end. A single misstep and the attack, so perfectly timed, so flawlessly executed, was parried and a counterthrust made. The thing that happened next I could not believe, even witnessing it with my own eyes. The two opponents, standing facing each other, eye to eye, both slumped to the ground. In that single instant…they had pierced each other to the quick, through padded armor and protective gear. A pool of blood welled slowly beneath each form as they struggled to sit, to breathe, to understand.
The lord in red made a final, weak salute and passed out, while my lady, now on her knees, crawled to him, weeping in horror at what had happened. She collapsed, her head on the lord’s chest, her hair spreading across his body, the pink growing darker as it settled into the blood spreading over his chest.
“I awoke in the Queen’s Chamber. She sat by me on one side, the King on the other. They told me it had been close, but I was going to be fine. Ironically, I didn’t even scar. I have nothing to remember him by but the fact that the event is etched into my mind. He was a good man, a good teacher and I believe, at the last, that I loved him in a way. He might have been the older brother I never had, but it was too late. Stroking my brow to soothe my fever, the Queen told me that he was dead. I had killed him.”
The scene changed once again to a ball – the kind of masquerade one instinctively imagines upon thinking of the Fey at all. Grotesque masks of incredible beauty and complexity, music that seemed to come from the heavenly choir itself, sparkling light, otherworldly faces.
“Time passed and I was now seen as a lordling among these people. I had made my place among them and never did I miss my life upon earth. Indeed, I laughed as they did, at the dull plight of mortals.”
The night wound its way down, the crowd thinning. The King stepped forward and spinning my lady onto the floor smiled down at her. She blushed slightly, but laughed.
“How do I even tell of what next occurred? The night had passed and the guests were all gone. I awaited the Queen in her chamber, but she came in only to tell me to sleep, that she was called away. This was not unusual. She was, after all the Queen. And she and her court had ridden away to the hunt, to the mortal world, more than once while I had been there. I could not go with them, of course – one step onto this plane would doom me to remain and in no way would I risk my happiness to return to that mundane existence.
“But this night something made me curious. I wondered what she could be up to that could not include me. So I followed.”
A curtain was drawn back to reveal an empty room. In stark contrast to the rest of my vision of this enchanted world, I could see no decoration of any kind. This simple room was lit with plain lanterns and the gloom was close around the figures that stood grouped in the center of the tableau.
The Queen lay, apparently unconscious, in the arms of the King, while he brandished a blade of some magical material. It glowed with an unearthly light as he made his salute. To my surprise, the Queen then stood upright, stepping delicately to the side to watch the rest of the proceedings.
The lord in green strode forward, saluted and took a ready position. The King, with only the barest smile, matched him. The fight was short but intense. With very little effort he had his opponent unarmed. The green-clad lord stood back and bowed and, unsmiling, walked away into the dark. The remaining figures bowed to the King and took their leave.
“I did not understand what I had seen, but I followed the Queen once more after she and the King left the room. They retired to his quarters. It did not take much imagination for me to figure out what occurred there.”
A candle lit chamber, two figures embracing – the scene went abruptly dark as she picked up the thread of her tale.
“Again and again I followed her. Not always did the King win, but the reward for the victor was always the same.” Her voice was bitter. “I did not understand, and I could not help my jealousy. But I did not speak of it. I would not. How could I ask about that which I was not to have witnessed?
“One day I made my way to the chamber early, determined to see the conflict from the beginning. I waited in a hidden alcove, prepared to face the truth at last.”
A single lamp, then another, lighted the darkness. At last several figures gathered together in the center of the room. The darkness wavered and a silhouetted figure appeared in my vision, close, but unrecognizable.
“She found me instantly. I expected anger or recrimination, but she smiled tolerantly at me and led me out of the alcove and set me to watch. She told me that whatever I saw, I was never to take up a sword in this match, or it would mean the end of my stay in this world. I found myself literally sitting on my hands as I watched. The current champion appeared to be one of my remaining teachers.”
The lady in orange stepped forward, kneeled before the Queen and rose to her feet. Coming closer she held her hands out to the Queen, who placed them on the center of her chest. They leaned towards each other and kissed. As their lips touched a sword appeared, its hilt thrust out of the Queen’s very body.
I gaped at the sight, and I know you are thinking me thrice an idiot now. But I swear by God that this is what I saw in my vision. The lady in orange drew this blade – it was the same I had beheld earlier in the King’s hand. The Queen righted herself and stood aside. Today the challenger was a tall lord in black I had not yet seen.
The match was slow and deliberate, but never in doubt. The orange-clad lady won neatly and she and the Queen retired together.
“I waited all night in the Queen’s bed, not sleeping. I needed to know what was this form of deadly play. I was determined to learn of it. When she returned in the morning I asked her what it was that I watched. She comforted me, kissing my brow and assured me it was merely a game between them all. But once again she cautioned me to never join this play, that it would bring me nothing but grief.”
A succession of scenes, duels with various challengers and victors followed, so many that I found it hard to follow the tale it wound. The tall lady in orange frequently was victorious as was the King himself, yet never did they seem to fight each other.
“With each battle a desire grew in my heart to partake in this strange play. With each duel I longed to be the victor and escort my Queen to her chamber.” She paused a moment, as if reflecting on this last statement. “Do not misunderstand me. I had not yet lost her love and we still spent many nights together, but never could I possess her as the victor of the duel could, as reward for an uncontested victory. It filled my mind, to be part of this game, to take my place and face the Great Ones as one of them.
“That was when he came to me.”
A shadowed form in a hallway, a hand reaching out and spinning her into a close embrace. A dark face, with a bright smile leaning down over her.
“He was so beautiful that my heart was caught from the first touch.”
The King took my lady’s hand and led her to a garden where lanterns glowed brightly in a warm twilit scene. They walked and spoke together, frequently laughing, and on one occasion I could see my lady blushing as he drew close to her to point out some feature of the landscape.
“He was the soul of charm and wit and an unaccountable longing took hold of me. When he asked me for the favor of my company again the next night after the duel, I did not refuse him.”
The dueling ground, once again two figures in the aureole of lamplight. This time another figure strange to me, and the young lord in blue. He gazed apologetically at the Queen as he drew the sword from within her. His loss was surprising, as if he had not realized the skill of his opponent. The Queen walks off, her arm linked with the new victor.
My lady stands over to the side, leaning insouciantly against a carved pillar, the blaze in her eyes the only sign of longing visible. A second figure steps up behind her, leans down over her, and she whirls around, smiling with pleasure.
“He was very essence of charisma. Where the Queen brought love to her subject’s hearts, he brought yearning; longings to be fulfilled. And as I spent time with him, I grew dissatisfied with what I had, and could only think of that which I desired.
“One night as we sat looking at the stars, he pulled me close and asked me what I wanted more than anything else. I told him of my desire to be a Prince. He laughed as if delighted and asked me again if there was anything I desired. As he looked into my eyes something burst from ember to full flame within me.”
The pale hair dipped towards her in my vision and once again I wished to look away. They kissed for a very long time, as the stars moved in their sphere. The scene continued and I fervently prayed for my lady to once again take up the tale and make this sight go away. But she did not and I watched him kiss her neck and breasts, and slowly, as the stars wheeled above, her ivory body was revealed to me. He was a smoky shadow next to her, eclipsing her as the earth does the moon. I could feel tears fall down my face as the King took my lady in the most intimate of embraces. Dear God, I thought, please let her go on with her tale!
The scene changed and I would have cried out with relief if I could have done so. It was morning in Summerland and the golden light streamed into a richly furnished room. Two figures lay entwined, sleepy, but not asleep, in that happy world where all new lovers awake.
“I…I apologize, once again. I cannot…I must tell this, but it is very hard.”
Her voice was so young so fragile. What did he do to you? I cried out in my mind, but no sound passed my lips.
“You must not think me a wanton. I was not. For all my skills, I am, I was, merely a mortal. Favored perhaps, by the Beautiful Ones, but with my own fate to be met.
“That morning he offered me that which I desired most. He had read it in my heart as we lay together and I rejoiced that I could win the love of my Queen at last.
“He promised to train me himself, so that I would win the duel, and her.”
I could feel the tension in my arms and chest at these words, so coolly spoken.
“I see you understand the paradox. I did not, so consumed I was with my desire to be the Prince.” She paused, then, “Or maybe I did, but did not care to consider it.”
“He kept his promise to me – and for weeks, then months he taught me many tricks of sword craft. I was a dedicated pupil. At night, well, my payment to him was sincere and I learned much there too.”
I could see the tall pale-haired King fighting with my Lady; as time passed, their fights became more in earnest, more deadly.
“One night, after he had won the duel, I was left to myself to contemplate my plight. My lovers had both left me alone and I wondered how I would win the one and not lose the other. My brain was fevered all night, and my sleep restless. I awoke several times, thinking that I heard voices in my room, but when I awoke, there was nothing.”
My lady, walking down a hallway with a purposeful stride. The young lord in blue approaches, he speaks, she responds. The discussion becomes heated; my lady turns away, anger plainly visible on her face. She continues down the hall, until she is met by the lord in green. He says nothing but gives her a searching look, then continues on his way. My lady continues to walk, but her face is now thoughtful, contemplative.
“You may think I had forgotten his words, but I had not. However, the King was my lover, I maintained he would not harm me. I would not be jealous if he had had and hurt other mortal women – the life of the Fey are very long indeed. What is a little carnal pleasure after all? Do not the animals on this earth all take joy in it? Why should not we who are human, and even more so those who are more heavenly than ourselves. Thus convincing myself I was in no danger, I passed through the day until the duel that night.”
The dueling ground once again. The gloomy interior no different, but the tension was palpable – even removed as I was, I could feel it. The tall, cold lady in orange stood forward calling on her challenger for the evening. My lady stepped into the light – and the silence was deafening.
The Queen says nothing, but pain is clearly visible on her face as she embraces the incumbent victor and once again the mysterious sword is made manifest. In complete silence the duel begins. No noise but the sound of feet, of metal striking metal, of breathing. It is a long duel. My lady’s former teacher holds nothing back, but slowly realizes that the challenger is up to the task. Her strategy changes, she will wear my lady out, but this too fall short of its mark. It will come down to skill, or luck.
At last, the final blow is struck, a parry is made, the movement is utilized and with a piercing cry, the lady in orange is defeated. Falling to her knees, my lady gasps for breath, her head hanging, her hair over her eyes. The Queen walks forward and holding her hands out to my lady, lifts her gently up from the ground. In the stillness of the night, the two women leave arm in arm.
“It was miraculous. What I thought I had had was nothing compared to what she gave me that night. I felt justified in my desire, satisfied in my victory and once again happy with my lot. My Queen would not speak of her warning to me, but I passed the memory of it off as the concern of a parent for a child who cannot keep up with a strenuous activity. While we were together, each night was as our last. I can now see that she knew our time together would be brief, but at the time, I thought only of the passion we shared and the pleasure we gave each other.” My lady’s voice was toneless. I instinctively knew that this was the only way she could tell this final act of her story and my heart ached for her.
“For the next few duels I proved over and over again that it was I and no other who would protect her and love her and never did she say a word against me.”
Scenes flashed once again, my lady defeating challenger after challenger. All determined to remove her from this deadly peril, by force if necessary, but with each duel her skill would grow, as if she were possessed with a magick of her own. Friends, foes, strange lords and ladies all stepped up to face her and all failed.
“I knew it had to happen…as I suspect you also know. He challenged me at last. And for the first time, I felt trepidation. For had he not instructed me? What skill might he have reserved for himself? But I trusted to my love to see me through.
“I was an idiot.”
The vision faded, stranding me in surrounding nothingness, and her voice alone continued. “He played with me. At the moment we touched swords I realized that I was facing my defeat and my heart hardened against him. Did he not understand? I was determined to defeat him, if it meant my death. All my ideals, all my strength, and all my desire fused into a single act of pure will. I would kill him if I could. And I could.”
There was silence and I was alone with the darkness. The void pressed against me and I shifted nervously. The quiet weighed uncomfortably upon me. I wished to have an end to this ordeal and see clear sky and trees once again.
At last the voice returned to me. “I could have killed him. I had the strength, the skill. My sword aimed directly at his heart, my attack was straight and true.”
The voice fell silent once more and the vision returned to me. Two figures, one leaping towards the other, death at the end of her sword, then a flash of motion, a third figure, a scream, another scream, then once again two figures. The light was fading fast, the terrible gloom moving in towards the center of the room. The King was gone. In his place on the ground lay the Queen; her arms still outspread, as they had been when she leapt in between death and her brother.
My lady held her, as her life spread quickly from her body. My lady’s head was lowered and I could hear her talking but no words could I make out. Once again tears fell from my eyes at the horrible inevitably of the ending, as the gloom at last overtook the vision and my sight was once again blacked out.
How long I sat like that in the darkness, I cannot tell you – you found me there, weeping, alone and lost, like a child. When I heard your voices I opened my eyes to find myself sitting underneath the tree under the light of a waxing moon. There was no knight, no horse, just me and my tears. In your kindness, recognizing me, you brought me here and have given me warm food and drink and have listened to my tale with only a little mockery, for which I am grateful.
You stare at me now, sure that I am insane, maybe dangerous. You may be right, but allow me to tell you the final part of my tale. If you do not yet think me mad, this will surely change your opinion.
For, my friends, I am convinced that she was released from her geas. My heart tells me that my love for her, my belief in her, has returned my lady to the realm of the Undying Ones, back to the arms those she loved too well. She had said it was a geas upon her to tell the tale, and it may well now have transferred to me, for having told it, I feel free and happy as I have not in many a year.
And now, as it is so late, I have but one request of you, my dear friends. Please return me to the glade in which you found me. I will wait there, to hear the pounding of hooves and the tinkle of golden bells, and to be taken by the Fey Ones in their hunt, that I may enter their world and serve the lady I have come to love and her Queen, for all eternity.