La Belle Dame – Sabrina N. Balmick

Metaphorosis_2016-03The scribe met the knight on the old stone road. The castle was a couple of hours away. Three, at the speed his donkey was trotting. He’d meant to deliver his news of no news and stumble off to a bath and, if he were lucky, into a warm bed with a warm wench. Instead he found himself conversing with a knight who hunkered in a smear of blue-violet twilight. Cloaked in shadows, he looked like Death himself, waiting to claim unwary travelers.

But that was foolish. Death certainly wouldn’t bother sitting in the road. And He would likely smell better. No, this was definitely a man. Why he lurked here, half-rotting, Tom could hardly guess.

Tom’s lips opened to greet the knight, but his jaw snapped shut when he recognized the dirty surcoat. Of gold and scarlet, it was: the king’s colors. He urged his donkey closer for a better look. In the dim light, the coat looked roughly the color of mud, but beneath the mud glinted the king’s eagle emblem and within the eagle’s mouth dangled a rose, the sigil of the king’s champion. This was no ordinary knight.

“Sir Thomas?” said Tom. “We’ve been searching for you.” Shortly after Sir Thomas disappeared, the king had dispatched knights and scribes all over the countryside carrying letters inquiring after his most valued knight, and the queen’s own brother, besides. He was also betrothed to the king’s cousin, Lady Enid. And here he was, right under Tom’s nose. Where had he been for the last seven months? What had he done to find himself on this lonely road looking half-dead?

The knight scarcely stirred at the sound of Tom’s voice, as though no sound reached him but the evening wind whistling through a scattering of shabby trees. Tom dismounted from his donkey and approached the knight.

Was he truly dead, then? It would be Tom’s questionable luck to find Sir Thomas and lose him in exactly the same moment.

Sighing, Tom reached for the wine skin in his cloak pocket and pulled a long draught and then another. Red wine sloshed around the half-empty skin as he drank, his mind filling with blood as he filled his mouth with wine. He cringed and stoppered the skin, shoving it roughly inside his pocket. He’d never liked the sight of blood. It was why he had become a scribe instead of a knight—that curious sense of self-preservation others might have dubbed cowardice.

Tom nudged the man with his foot and, expecting him to tip over, nearly wet himself when the knight’s head turned and he spoke.

“Why are you kicking me?” Summer blue eyes bored through Tom, barely seeing him, searching the sky, the far corners of the world for goodness knew what.

Tom, unnerved by that bright blue stare, gathered his wits. “I thought you were dead,” he explained. “Obviously you’re not. Honest mistake, really. Are you hurt? Why are you sitting here? Don’t you know the king’s been searching for you all this time?”

The knight sighed. “That,” he answered, “is a relative question.” A golden harp lay beside him. He reached for it to pluck out a languid tune.

“Which question? All of them? Or just one?” Tom slumped down next to the knight, half-listening to his song. Pleasant it was, like a snatch of summer wind.

The knight shrugged. “One. None. All of them. It doesn’t matter. You should go. There’s nothing to be done here.” His fingers stilled and his song faded.

Tom studied Sir Thomas with interest, now that he was certain the knight wasn’t dead. He appeared well enough, though pallor clung to his cheeks. His lips were stained with blood, but his face, the same face ladies all over court and creation swooned over, remained unharmed. Golden brown hair fell over his brow in greasy hanks, skimming a nose that had been broken years ago in a fight. His jaw was shadowed with beard.

If Tom was truthful, and often he was, he’d admit to being more than a little jealous of the knight. He should have disliked him thoroughly. Only Lady Enid’s indifference to her betrothed endeared him to Tom. The scribe clung to her indifference, rather. Would she be indifferent to Sir Thomas now, if she saw him? She had a weakness for a lost cause.

They were as different as two men could be, thought Tom. The only thing they shared in common was a name. A name and Enid.

The scribe snorted. Sir Thomas, knight of the realm and collector of hearts. Tom, scribe of the realm and collector of wine tankards. Even Tom’s surname, Rhymer, mocked him. He lacked talent for verse, the first of his name with a tin ear for meter. For this reason, he’d ended up a mere scribe instead of a bard, as his father and his father’s father and countless forefathers had been. Great shame of the family, it was. The knight, he’d heard, had had a gift for music once. Pity to waste it, but that was knights for you.

Reaching into his pocket, Tom fetched out his wine skin once again and pulled the stopper out with his teeth, handing the skin to the knight, who accepted it with the faintest nod. He raised the skin to his lips for a long drink, driblets of purple trickling down his chin and throat. He returned the skin and wiped his mouth with the back of a grubby hand. Tom stoppered the skin and placed it back in his pocket. “Are you Sir Thomas?”

“I don’t know who I am anymore,” drawled the knight. “But, once, I did answer to that name.”

Tom rolled his eyes. “Whatever name you call yourself, the king’s been looking for you. No one’s caught sight of you since summer tournament, not once.”

“They wouldn’t have,” said Thomas. “Not where I’ve been.”

“Well,” said Tom good-naturedly, “It’s a fortunate thing I’ve found you. You can go home now. It’s not very far. My donkey’s good and stout. She’ll carry you there, even with that armor.” He resigned himself to walking. Gladys wouldn’t be able to carry them both.

The knight’s eyes fixed upon him once more, blazing with blue flame. “I’m not going back. I must wait here. For her.”

“You’re coming back with me. Even if I have to club you with your own sword.”

Sir Thomas’ shoulders rose and fell with his sigh. “I must see her first. Besides, I’ll be dead before I reach the kingdom. Too much trouble for your poor donkey.”

“D-dead?”

The knight opened his fists to reveal several nightshade flowers, industriously chewed. “It doesn’t act as quickly as I thought, but I’m glad of it nonetheless.”

The scribe groaned. The king would definitely be angry. “You have to make a tea with it if you want to . . . to die more quickly. This way, you sort of . . . linger.” He shuddered, recalling the stories he’d transcribed of men trapped half-in and half-out of death. A cruel thing. He threw the knight a sidelong glance, stunned and a little frightened to see him smiling.

“Good,” Thomas said cheerfully. “She can’t deny me now.”

“You’re an extremely strange person.”

“I’ve had an extremely strange time.”

Tom fumbled the wine skin back out of his pocket and took a good long drink. “I suppose you’d better tell me about it, then, while we wait for . . . whoever it is you’re waiting on.”

Thomas’s smile faltered a moment, and returned. “It began on the first day of summer tournament, a week after I became engaged to Lady Enid. Tell me, Tom, have you ever heard of the road to enchantment?”

#

I met the lady among the hawthorn trees. I’d slipped away from the celebrations, drunk on claret, my eyes heavy with sunlight, and found an agreeable patch of trees in the forest.

With everyone distracted by their merrymaking, no one would have missed me. Enid’s attention had waned after Sir Clarence unseated me, and she drifted into a circle of ladies, chattering with them about the wedding.

I used the opportunity to slink away. I didn’t want to speak to Enid that afternoon, or to anyone else, least of all my lord father. I still remember how his eyes brimmed with disappointment over my performance. Father was always disappointed in me, his favorite sport after flaying enemies. I could come home from battle having slain all but a handful of men and he would shake his head at my incompetence. And so I snatched a tumbler of wine and loped away into the forest.

I roamed for what felt like miles before no sound met my ears but the singing of swallows and the answering rustle of trees dressed in their summer finery. The afternoon sun shimmered like gold dust among the trees, falling softly to the earth and settling at my feet. I grew sleepy from wine, from wandering. For the first time that day, I felt at peace. The sun’s dappled light in this wood, the whispering of trees soothed my soul.

There in the cool shade, I removed my armor before stripping to the skin, for my walk and the wine had warmed me. I settled finally beneath a blooming hawthorn tree to dream. Blossoms brushed my face, their scent lulling me to sleep. A thousand-thousand bells chimed in the distance, their song twining through my dreams, singing me beyond this realm, this world. Then all singing ceased and my dreams blurred, ghosts swirling through them, mouths agape, eyes ablaze. Their hands reached out to me, but whether to grab or warn me away, I hardly knew. The words they spoke I could not hear.

One ghost turned his shrunken face toward mine, his empty eye sockets writhing with worms. He flashed a rotting grin. His face reminded me of my father’s scorn. I winced as something sharp and cold grazed my bare skin. I heard my name called from very far away and I turned from the ghost.

“You have wandered into my greenwood, sir knight,” admonished a voice low and sweet as harp song.

I might have dreamed still when I opened my eyes to the wood gazing back at me, its eyes a deeper green than any summer wood, everlasting beyond winter. This, at least, was a better dream. A moment later, I realized I looked into the eyes of a woman, clad all in green, her golden hair flowing freely down her body like sunlight across the forest floor. She held a sword that shone with silver fire, its pommel flashing like starlight. She smiled crookedly to reveal a chipped tooth. Her face was too strong to be called beautiful in the ordinary way. But there was something about this woman dressed all in green I couldn’t turn away from.

Her sword lifted to touch my chin. “Well, sir knight?”

“Aye,” I answered. “Though I was unaware this forest belonged to anyone other than the king. Surely His Majesty will be surprised.”

“Surely. Though I suspect he will have far more to say about one of his knights abandoning his post.”

“I didn’t abandon any post,” I said. “We are at peace, if you call tournament peaceful. My head was far too full of wine and the afternoon was hot. The shade beneath this tree was quite cool.” And mercifully empty. I had wanted to be free of Enid and the rest, if only for a little while.

“And your lady?” she asked. At my look of astonishment, she added, “Her eyes followed you here, though she remained behind. So I followed for her.”

“Her eyes were not for me,” I answered. “My lady loves another, I’m afraid.”

She smiled again, a curious curling smile. “I suppose you will do well enough.” She picked up my tunic with her sword and dumped it on my bare chest. “Dress, sir knight, and ride with me.”

“And why should I follow you, my lady?”

“Because you wish to do so.” The lady’s manner tugged at me, unraveled any doubts I might have had. I made no further protest and began to dress, my skin prickling with warmth beneath her gaze. “Mustn’t we have a horse upon which to ride?” I asked, my lone concession to sense.

The lady lifted a brow. A cool wind blew over my face, and a mare the color of mist shimmered into sight, dressed in a harness of silver bells, her long white mane also woven with tiny crystal bells, her bridle shaped of silver. She nosed at my face and snorted, her breath perfumed with mint and honey. I stroked her warm nose, keenly aware of how the lady watched me. Not even the king possessed a horse so fine. Would she object, I wondered, if I rode this beast back to the castle?

“She is not yours to command,” said the lady, as though reading my mind. “She goes where she wishes and no further.”

“I was merely admiring her,” I lied.

As I dawdled, she mounted the horse’s back. “Hurry, unless you wish to ride naked.”

And so I hurried. When I replaced my armor, a difficult task without a squire’s aid, she pulled me up onto the horse’s back. Unbalanced by more than her strength, I gripped the lady’s hips to steady myself. Though she was cloaked in green wool from throat to heel, I felt how warm she was, and how soft. But she was stronger than I expected, stronger than most men I knew, to have pulled me up like that, and I reminded myself this was no ordinary woman.

“Ready, Sir Thomas?”

“How did you know my name?” I asked, surprised.

“I heard it whispered on the wind, of course. Does it matter?”

“No. Wherever you lead me, I will follow.”

“So you shall,” she murmured.

“And your name, my lady? What shall I call you?”

The lady laughed, a pretty, trilling tintinnabulation, and didn’t answer.

We rode through daylight, through dusk, through night itself. The greenwood fell away, swallowed by purpling twilight. Owls hooted from the treetops. A nightingale sang. The lady leaned forward and spoke softly to her horse, which ran so swiftly the landscape blurred past.

A dark company shadowed our heels. Glancing back, I counted twelve riders, cloaked in black, their black horses’ hooves drumming a war song against the dirt. A thirteenth horse, rider-less, blood-red as sunset before a storm, brought up the rear. Silver bells upon silver bridles clanged and jangled an answering war cry. A rider blew a horn, its deep bellow swelling the sky and shaking the earth. I resisted the urge to tighten my grip around the lady like some simpering child.

As for her, my nameless lady didn’t appear to be concerned. She laughed and threw a strange word shaped like thunder over her shoulder. The horses took wing and climbed a starry stair into the sky and rode ahead, their forms winking like faint stars. The horn blower’s eyes lingered on the lady. He was the last to climb into the air, his song a frayed ribbon in the wind.

“They are only my hunters. You needn’t fear them, though I’ve sent them away to ease your mind.”

“I wasn’t afraid,” I countered, though I was. It was bad luck, they said, to see the hunters riding the wind. A bit of lore strayed across my memory. “Did I call the hunt somehow?”

“No, sir knight, not this time. You merely stumbled into my wood and dreamed. It was a good dream, I hope.”

My brow furrowed as I recalled my odd dreams. “I don’t remember waking.”

Her hair tickled my face as we flew across the landscape. I brushed a wisp of gold out of my eyes. “Is it true the hunt harries the souls of the damned?”

“The damned are none of our concern. Only the truest souls are worthy of the hunt.”

“You hunted me. I must be worthy, too.”

“That, sir knight, remains to be seen.”

“What do you want of me, my lady?”

“For you to complete a task or three, if you are true.”

Intrigued, I asked, “And the tasks?”

“We shall come to the first one soon.”

We crossed a river darker than wine, its surface rippling with starlight. The smell of water and loam drifted up and filled my nostrils, as though we burrowed far below the earth. And yet I knew that couldn’t be true, for her wild hunters wheeled above yet, their cries brightening the sky with lightning. Wherever we were, we had journeyed far from the world I knew.

We paused before a clearing where three paths forked. “Here lies your first task. Where we are going is up to you. Each path leads to a different realm. The path of sorrow is dark and pebbled with use. Though it is fraught with danger, its rewards are many. The path of ecstasy is the most beautiful of our roads. Though its toll is heavy, it too is well-worn. The path of enchantment is lightly traveled and you must travel light. Few humans have dared to tread it. Fewer return. Choose.”

Her words echoed deep in my bones as I studied the paths. They all looked the same to me, all dark and overgrown, as familiar and unfamiliar as any road. How would I know which one to choose if I’d never walked them? Sorrow . . . why would anyone want to journey down a road made of sorrow? Ecstasy and enchantment, well, those both sounded the same. Why was the road to enchantment so lightly traveled, and why did so few return? “What kind of task is this?”

“You ask too many questions, sir knight.”

Stubbornly, I asked another. “Where does enchantment lead?”

She gave a liquid shrug. “Wherever you wish.”

“And will you be with me?”

“Always.”

“You never told me your name. If I come with you—”

“In time, though you must first complete this task to my satisfaction. Choose, sir knight.”

I heard myself answering, as though I stood a far distance away. “Then I will walk the path of enchantment with you.”

She loosed a soft breath. “You are certain, Sir Thomas? You may never return to your world, your king, your Enid.”

I shook my head. “I can’t be certain of anything right now, except that I wish to be with you. How else might I learn your name?”

“Perhaps it’s kinder,” she mused, “that you do not know.”

“You don’t seem kind to me.”

She trilled her bell-like laugh. “That,” she said, “is the first sensible thing you’ve said.” She urged her horse on, murmuring softly in its ear. The discarded paths dissolved like mist on a summer morning and fell away from the earth, if earth this was. We met no one else along the road. The path of enchantment swallowed us like a song, a low, sweet note swelling the air, our bodies humming with its music. Even my lady seemed taken by the sound, her hands slackening on the horse’s reins.

A pearlescent tear slipped down her cheek. I longed to capture it with a kiss. Was this how love felt? I’d never known anything as sweet, not with Enid, not with anyone except this nameless lady.

“Listen,” she said. My ears strained against the sound, picking melodies from the breeze, plucking stray notes from the ether, filling my heart until it felt too heavy to carry. I could have stayed on that road forever, grown old there and died, so long as that music never left me, so long as she stayed by my side. Several heartbeats passed before I realized I too wept. Her cool fingers brushed away my tears, her green eyes shimmering as she turned to watch me.

“Now you see. This is enchantment. Nothing is as beautiful as that song. Now that you’ve heard it, nothing else will match its beauty.”

There was something more beautiful. “Is this Heaven?” I blurted. “Are you an angel?”

She shook her head. “No—to either question. This realm is older than your Heaven and your Hell, though its name has been forgotten by all but a few.”

“Then tell it to me,” I said impulsively. “Tell me and I will remember, always.”

“In time, Sir Thomas. In time.”

She pulled her horse to a stop beneath a silver tree and slid from its back. “Come, Sir Thomas. You must be hungry after our journey.” As I watched her stride away, I realized I hungered for more than food.

Clumsy as a child, I dismounted. I wondered whether to tether the horse, but when I glanced back, the mare melted into soft grey smoke that curled into the air and disappeared. Distracted by the fading horse, I almost lost sight of my lady. Her bright hair and green cloak fluttered in the breeze as she left me behind. I scrambled after her, matching her long, loping gait to catch up to her. Golden leaves crackled beneath our feet as we walked; the sound of water churned from somewhere near. She sighed and threw me a smile.

Emboldened, I slipped a hand into hers, twining our fingers together. Her skin was soft, softer than rain.

“You are overly familiar, sir knight,” she chided, though her voice was smooth and playful, and she didn’t seem in a hurry to reclaim her hand.

“You are the only familiar thing here.”

She led me through the forest into a clearing bordered by an emerald river. Rainbow trout darted through the shimmering water, their mouths snatching insects from the surface. Gold and silver trees bowed their glittering heads together, watching as we strolled along the riverbank. A gleam of ivory tugged at my sight, drawing me away from the lady. It looked like a teardrop dangling from the boughs.

“That particular fruit is bitter for all its beauty. I’ll find you something sweeter.”

To make her blush, I added, “And if what I want is you?”

She didn’t blush when she replied, “You’ll try me soon enough.”

We meandered among the trees, filling our pockets with sweet fruits and edible flowers, most of which I’d never seen. My fingers were stained with berry juice by the time we settled down to eat in a green field. From within her cloak, she produced a flagon and a pair of silver cups. She poured berry-dark wine and offered me a cup. I brought it to my nose, scenting herbs, spices, and something very sweet. “Think carefully on what you’d like it to taste like,” she told me. “And it will.”

I smiled around the rim of my cup as I drank. Of course I thought of her, and only of her. The wine was tart with a hint of sweetness, and a hidden note I could not place. “Delicious.”

We ate in companionable silence, our eyes tracing the landscape and each other, our fingers meeting and straying at turns. A low trumpeting sounded in the distance. My lady’s gaze lingered on the sky. “Why did you choose this path?”

“You,” I answered. “It was the only one that reminded me of you.”

This time, a soft blush dusted my lady’s cheek, her white throat. “In what way am I like a road, Sir Thomas? And do choose your words carefully.”

I laughed, not wishing to offend her. “I know nothing about the road or you, but I suspect at either end lies a great adventure. And . . . you did kidnap me.”

She made a soft noise of assent, but didn’t answer.

“What is my next task?” I asked, remembering she had mentioned three. A golden bird fluttered before us singing a sweet song. It circled the air, trilling and piping before transforming into a golden harp at my feet. I turned to the lady, a question hanging on my lips.

“For your second task, the realm requests a song,” she explained. “You play, do you not? I suspected you might, for you chose the correct path. My hunters so rarely play.”

“You are mistaken. I haven’t played in years. And my music would be nothing as sweet as the songs we’ve just heard.”

“Nonsense.” She swept her hair behind her shoulders and reached for the harp. The instrument caught the afternoon light and flung it into my eyes, dazzling me. Before I could protest, she pressed the harp into my arms. The lady knelt before me. “I’m never mistaken and I wish for you to play.”

“You are most demanding, my lady,” I half-grumbled.

She rocked back on her heels, waiting. I gave a long-suffering sigh and went through the motions of tuning the instrument, though, to my amazement, it was perfectly tuned, its notes like wind over water, as golden as sunset. The lady smiled and reclined on the green grass, her eyes slipping shut as she stretched like a cat in the sun. “Play, Sir Thomas. Play.”

“What song does the lady request?”

“Something beautiful. But,” she cautioned me, “mind what you play. If you echo the songs of the hunt, you will summon them forth. You must not play those songs unless I ask it of you.”

“I will remember, my lady.” I recalled the swelling tune that greeted us on the road to enchantment. Any song I played would seem ill-formed compared to that. But the lady commanded me, and so I played. Music floated to the surface of memory. My fingers moved over the strings, plucking out my memory, filling the air with the sound of my heart. My lady’s eyes opened and slid toward me, her expression unfathomable. I licked my lips and played on, this time a light, lilting melody of my own invention. At the end of the song, I lowered the harp, and awaited the lady’s judgment.

“Was I so terrible?” I joked when she said nothing.

The lady stared at me, her eyes shimmering, not with tears, but with some emotion that makes my throat close now even to describe it. “Where,” she breathed, “did you learn to play like that?”

“No one taught me. When I was a child, I found one of my mother’s smaller harps and began to play.” My brows crept together. I hadn’t thought about my mother’s harp in years, or the look of grief that crossed my father’s face when he learned of my playing. “My father told me that harping was no proper occupation for a warrior’s son. He had me set to squire that summer. I haven’t played since. It wouldn’t . . . it wouldn’t be proper.”

The lady plucked the harp from my hands and laid the instrument on the ground gently. She pressed me to the cool, soft grass and straddled my hips. “Now I want a different kind of song, Sir Thomas.”

“Any song you would like, my lady.” I kissed her, tasting honey and wild fruit on her lips, drawing her near. My mouth wandered from hers and lingered at her jaw as I lost myself in the scent of apples. She shivered, her fingers tangling in my hair.

I made love to her there beneath the trees, her breath puffing at my throat, her sharp nails grazing my chest. She was as sweet as I expected, and her sighs more beautiful than the realm’s song. In my ear, she whispered a word like night melting across the firmament.

It was full dark when we lay nestled together, her hair blanketing us both while we watched silvery stars wink in and out of the sky.

“I was brought here once long ago,” she said. “Almost, I recall my life. Sometimes I dream it, though they are not good dreams.”

“Who brought you here?”

“Someone much like myself. Like you, I dreamed beneath a hawthorn tree.” She shifted, her green eyes holding mine. “Summer is passed. Autumn is passing. Did you realize?”

“That can’t be right. I’ve been gone scarcely a handful of hours.” But when the words left my lips, I knew they could not be true, for I felt I had known the lady far longer than a handful of hours.

“Time passes differently here.”

“I would remain forever, if I could.”

“You should rest, sir knight. You’ve had a long journey. Your third task lies before you yet.”

“My lady—”

“Sleep.”

I kissed her gently. “I love you,” I said and laid my head on her breast. As I drifted off to sleep, I was sure I heard her reply softly, “I will hold you to that.”

Shadows met me in my dreams once again. “Only the truest ride the wind.” Scores of them stood before me, filling the air with muttering. Grey as ash they were, endless as winter. Their breath reeked of death. I shivered as they hurled cries against my bare skin. They lifted me in their arms and carried me toward the precipice, chanting. I struggled against their grasp, writhing and flailing, until I freed myself and fell through a night like nothing. Soft hands caught me, lifted me into light as sweet harping enfolded me in its song. The lady’s voice curled through my dreams, singing an aching tune that seared through my soul. “Remember,” she whispered.

I awoke fully then and found myself on a dark road. I smelled winter crisping the air. More than a season she had me, yet not long enough for my liking. Earthly stars twinkled dully above. It was then I realized what my third task was to be, though I knew not how I could complete it.

Confounded, I stared at those stars until my eyes burned and my breath grew ragged. I searched for the road to enchantment, though it had closed behind me. A wiser man would have followed the earthly road home, back to Enid, to the world I knew, but the lady had kept my heart, even as she banished me from her side. Only a fragment of my time with her remained: the golden harp, and the lady’s final song. I held them both to me, for they were more precious than my own life.

“I will find my way to you,” I swore.

I harped. The lady’s tune fell clumsily from my hands. Above, the sky was still. The hunt did not come. Perhaps I played the wrong tune. Perhaps I was mistaken.

I walked for ages without eating, without washing. I kept to the shadows, haunting the forests, longing for a single glimpse of my lady.

One night, bandits set upon me as I slept, meaning to steal my boots, my harp. The boots I could have done without, but not the harp, and so I killed them. I wiped my blade in the dead grass, and I laughed mirthlessly as understanding struck me.

There were other roads to enchantment, after all.

It took me longer than I had hoped to find the plants, for the season had grown cold as I trudged. My eyes snagged on a patch of nightshade in the end, and so I consumed the plant leaf by leaf, savoring its slow death, and sat down here to summon the hunt. I harped to the winter wind, seeking the lady’s ear through her song. I’ve waited many days now, and nights. Still, no one has come but you.

#

The knight’s voice faded as he concluded his tale. Night had fallen, the stars a net of silver enclosing the deep blue sky. Thunder rumbled above. Or was it, as the knight suggested, the wild hunters at their back? Were they coming for the knight, after all? It was the worst luck to see the hunt.

But those were just stories. Just idle stories whispered over campfires. Tom himself had told some of them to Enid, who’d shown particular interest. He shivered as though a snake had slithered over his grave. Stories crept into a man’s bones if he wasn’t careful, and Tom’s bones ached from sitting on the hard road listening to the knight’s mad account. He stifled a groan as he sorted through the story, sifting truth from truth. Sir Thomas, at least, seemed to believe it. Only one thing, from what Tom gathered, could be true.

“You met one of the fair folk in the forest the day you disappeared,” Tom mused.

“Aye.”

“You fell in love with her.”

“Aye.”

“And you’ve half-killed yourself and played her song to call the hunt to . . . to find your way back to her.”

The knight sighed. “Aye.”

Tom swallowed drily. He tipped his wine skin to his lips. Only a drop or two remained. He’d sipped it steadily as Thomas spoke, though Tom’s head remained distressingly clear. He should have packed another wine skin. A stiff dose of truth often called for more wine.

He sighed and tossed the empty skin into the dust, where it was as useful. His mouth opened in reproach, and snapped shut. Instead, he drew a deep breath, and regretted it. Too near to the knight he sat. The scribe scowled. He resented the smelly knight and his noble death; that Tom would have to carry this unhappy news—and the dead body—to the king and queen. And to Enid.

Tom’s fingers clenched and unclenched. He wanted to shake Thomas, perhaps brain him with the harp and drag him back to the castle. Fairies! The wild hunt! Whether the hunt took the knight or not—Tom didn’t quite believe that—the nightshade would. Idiot. The knight had suffered a blow to the head at tournament and wandered off insensible. And now he’d turned up, half-dead, mostly mad, bearing strange fictions—fictions Tom would have to repeat to the king.

The scribe’s eyes slid over the knight. Thomas was half-alive, too. Perhaps Tom hadn’t found him in vain. They weren’t far from the castle. The king’s physicians might heal him. There was time yet. They needed to hurry—

“Go on back to the castle,” said Thomas. “Carry my tale with you. I shall not return, whether the hunt comes or not.”

“Carry it yourself,” snapped Tom. “I’m taking you back. I’ll even let you ride the donkey. Mind, don’t kick her too hard. She’s old and she’s the only donkey I’ve got.” After this, he’d probably have to ride her scurrying out of the kingdom.

He tugged at the knight’s arm. The man was heavier than he looked. Must be all the armor and dirt he wore. Thomas made a noise of surprise and quieted. Tom glanced at him to see if the nightshade had taken him at last. It was then he noticed what had snagged Thomas’ attention. The knight’s arm slipped out of Tom’s grasp. Lightning parted clouds and shadows rode out of the sky on the sound of thunder and soft rain. They rode black horses, all except the figure at the head of the procession, who rode upon a mist-white mare.

The hunt touched down in the field. Tom froze, his hand tightening on the knight’s shoulders, the only real thing in this evening meadow.

Sir Thomas stirred. “My lady,” he murmured. “She’s come. At last, she’s come.” His knees buckled and he dropped into the road.

The woman dismounted and crossed the meadow in long, sure strides, her golden hair fluttering in the breeze. She was not beautiful, as the knight had said, but Tom was unable to look away from her all the same.

She knelt before Thomas, took his hands gently in her own. “You played my song. Your body is dying.”

“Dying was the only way I knew that would call you. And your song.”

“Only the truest make the sacrifice. Few remember the song. You’ve completed the final task.”

“So I am worthy after all.”

“I knew you would be.”

“And your name, my lady? Will you tell it to me now?”

The lady laughed. “You already know my name, sir knight. You’ve harped it all these days and nights.”

“I wish to ride with you, my lady.”

She kissed his brow gently and his mouth, before touching her lips to his ear. Thomas’ head lifted, his eyes shining with love, and together they rose. Her arm gripped Thomas’ waist as they drifted toward the mare. A horse the color of blood melted from the clouds and alighted besides the mist-white mare. The sprig of nightshade fluttered from Thomas’ fingers and fell forgotten in the grass.

“Your steed,” said the lady.

“Where are you taking him?” cried Tom. “He will die!”

The lady arched a brow as she noticed him for the first time. “All men die.” She added, “Go home, Tom Rhymer.”

“But . . . but what will I tell them? The king? He is the queen’s brother. And Lady Enid—”

“Tell them their knight was true. Tell your Lady Enid . . . .” Her eyes crinkled with a hidden smile. “Tell her. She will believe you, whatever you choose to say.”

He nodded weakly. “I fear I won’t live to tell her, my lady. No one does, who sees the hunt.”

Her lips crooked. “You will live a long time yet, though someday, some far day in your human future, we might meet again. Remember us, Tom Rhymer.” She led the knight away, the scribe forgotten. Already the rest of the hunt climbed the stars, disappearing into the sky. Thomas and the lady mounted their horses. Together, they rode along a beam of moonlight until they were but a wisp of winter cloud.

“Goodbye,” mumbled Tom. He needed more wine. A barrel, at least. Surely no one would believe him. He considered what he would tell Enid. She had cried for the knight once, her plump, pretty face arranged in careful sorrow while her dark blue eyes sought the scribe’s across the banquet hall. Tom drew a cold, sweet breath and shook his head, the vision clearing. He had time yet. Whatever tale he would tell the king and Enid would keep until morning. The knight would walk the path of enchantment. Tom, for now, remained here, his boots anchored in the earth.

As he turned toward his donkey, a glint of gold caught his eye. The knight had left his harp behind. Tom knelt and picked up the instrument, his fingers running along its silver strings. Soft sounds drifted up into the misty air. He stilled the strings and stood. Song had never been his talent, or stories. It came of being too truthful, he was sure. He considered harp and knight and lady, a story shaping out of shadow. A faint smile touched his lips. Yes, he would start there.

He stowed the harp in his saddlebag and clambered onto his donkey’s back, composing a traveling tune in his head as he rode to the castle, the twittering of night birds trailing him.

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