10.6.11 | By: Megan Langham

The Warrior's Tale

I don't write very many short stories these days. They tend to turn into large and discouraging novellas before I've got anywhere near something resembling a climax—which, you know, isn't a bad thing necessarily, but novellas just aren't short stories. And they take longer.

Anyhow, that's to say that a couple days ago I did manage to write a story that stayed within the limits of short, and ... here it is. I don't think I understand it fully, but it felt as if it needed to be written. 

It was like a scene out of one of the old tales: the knight charging down the sloping road with his spear held out before him and the plumes of his helmet blowing behind him, set on redressing a wrong or upholding a right. Early morning sunlight glinted off his chain-mail, giving him an otherworldly aura, and his grey horse sounded convincingly clopping as it drew nearer.

I rose from my chair near the window and flung open the door. At once the knight reined in his horse, lowered his spear, and lifted his visor. Even then I could see little of his face, but his voice when he spoke had a ring of youthful strength to it.

“Good day!” he called out. “Do you know of an inn nearby where I might obtain refreshment for myself and my mount? We have ridden far, and the way is dusty.”

This last statement, at least, could not be denied. And the horse did look both exhausted and thirsty, with its proud head drooping and its mane stringy with sweat…

“I don’t know of any place like that near here,” I replied, “but you can come in if you like and I’ll get both you and your horse something to drink.”

The knight dismounted effortlessly and led his horse towards my door. “He won’t run away,” he said in answer to my concerns over the lack of a hitching-post. “Or at any rate he never has, and I don’t think that he will begin after all these years.”

I shrugged my shoulders. “Come with me, then. I haven’t very much laid by, but there’s—let me see—biscuits in the cupboard, and crisps if you like those, and I think—yes, I’ve got nearly a full bottle of wine here. I don’t drink it much myself, but my father takes it for his health, or so he says. Ah, look here! Roasted chicken. I don’t know if you’ll want that with the wine, though…”

“I will gladly accept whatever your kindness might offer, my lady,” the knight said, smiling. “But perhaps the wine would be better served afterwards, with the biscuits.”

While I dished up the chicken and crisps onto the nicest china I could find, the knight removed his armour: first the helmet, then the shoulder braces, and then, with a sigh of relief, the silvery chain-mail. Dressed in only his deep blue tunic and drab brown breeches he looked very young, almost more of a boy than a man. He had fair hair and a smooth-shaven chin, which no doubt added to his look of youthfulness; but his eyes, a calm clear amber, were old in his face.

“Here you are,” I said, sliding his plate towards him and taking a seat with my own plate in front of me. After a pause (how close to golden his eyes were!) I said, overcome with curiosity: “If it’s not rude to ask, who are you exactly? Knights are rather scarce these days, you see; especially knights like you who probably never existed outside of a storybook.”

“How can you be sure this isn’t a storybook?” the man replied, his eyes laughing. “Anyway, whether it is or not, I am here. I am real. And you, my lady—you are more real than you know.”

“If I am real, it is because I am alone,” I said, tears stinging my eyes. “I am less lonely when I am alone.”

The man drew in his breath. “Ah. I had expected that… Tell me, small woman of the haunted grey eyes, what do you wish for most in the world?”

This was unlooked for. Even if I had been willing to tell my heart’s wishes to a stranger, I would have had difficulty forming the words. There are some things that go deeper than speech, deeper even than thought, and to bare them is banal.

“Peace,” I said at last, thinking that just distant enough from the truth to be safe. “I want peace and quiet.”

“But you have that now, with your family away.”

I shook my head impatiently. “Quiet, maybe, but not peace. Never peace, and very seldom quiet, even when I am alone. There are always niggling whispers.”

“Ah,” said the man again. “I know the sort you mean. Do you—I suppose you sometimes feel that you are the only one so haunted?”

“Often,” I admitted. “It’s silly of me, and I don’t always think it: only sometimes, when my soul is so weary that my mind won’t tell me the truth.”

“I could tell you a story,” said the man, with an expression in his eyes that I could not quite read—it might have been sympathy, or amusement, or even love. “It is not much of a story, but it may help to ease your soul; and then, perhaps, it will not be so hard to hear the truth.”

“Anything for a chance at that,” I answered, smiling so I would not cry. “But first—your wine. I’m afraid the crisps will only have made you thirstier.”

After I had poured the wine we settled ourselves comfortably in the chairs nearest the front-room window. Though my appetite was gone, I nibbled on a biscuit while I waited for the man’s story to begin.

“Long ago,” he started at last, “in a lush and fertile valley, there lived a woman. She was not a particularly lovely woman, except in that her spirit was meant to be beautiful; stray streaks of beauty kept glancing through the drab uncertainty, lighting the way for others and not herself. Demons beset her in dreams, and sorrows surrounded her in the shape of spirits. Young she was, but she was not defenceless; a great warrior loved her. He protected her when she could not see him, and he cared for her when she hardened her heart to love.

“One day when she was walking alone, thinking only of her own sorrow and not of the beauty that filled her eyes, the warrior came to her. He was not wearing his armour; perhaps it would have been better for him if he had been, as the girl was wearing hers.”

“The girl went about in armour?” I interrupted, bemused.

“Yes,” said the knight. “But it was not the visible sort.” He took a long drink of his wine and continued. “He knew of her plight, as he had known her since she was a small child, and he had seen some of the tainted streaks of beauty that shone from her soul. The two of them had met before, many times but never for very long at once, and each time they met his love for her only grew. As he approached her then, his hand held out in greeting and his eyes smiling in friendship, her heart sought his own. But she had been sensitive and vulnerable for so long that in fear of being further wounded she had walled up her heart and hidden the key. Yearnings were weakness; attraction was futile; and so, by way of protecting herself, she was cold and cruel to her protector. After she had abused him for longer than most men would have endured, the warrior left her in sorrow, letting her barbed arrows fester in his heart.

“Days passed into weeks, and weeks into months. The woman heard no more from her well-meaning lover; at first she was glad of this, for she had learned to be strong on her own. But as the months passed into years her heart began to weep for the man she had wounded. Life was dull to her now, like a page she had read twenty times over. She had left her family, but she had not found peace; the absence of their senseless chatter merely intensified the clamour of her cruel doubt. Angels and demons alike win wars in solitude.”

“True, that is,” I murmured, half-unconsciously.

“When at last she could bear it no longer the girl put on her old cloak and left for the manor home of her warrior-lover. She had no clear thought in her mind for what she would do when she saw him: though she missed his presence, she did not love him. I think perhaps she wanted to fall at his feet—or, failing that, greet him with cold courtesy. But she would not consent to place her heart in his hands.

“As it happened, her intentions mattered little. He was not at his home, nor at the home of her family, nor in the surrounding forests where their paths had often crossed. For hours she searched relentlessly, but he was nowhere to be found, and neither had anyone seen him or heard of him.

“She had cared little for his friendship while it was hers for the taking; only now, when it had slipped from her grasp, did she realize how deeply she desired it. And so she searched for it. She searched for him. She searched—I do not think she knew this, but it was true all the same—she searched for that elusive idea called peace.”

The knight stopped rather shortly and drank from his wine glass again; this time, however, he scarcely touched it to his lips before setting it back down again. For a long moment he was silent, his tawny eyes staring into an infinite void somewhere between the wall clock and the wine glass.  I coughed once or twice, and when that availed me nothing I pressed, impatient, “Did she ever find him—the girl?”

He started and turned to me, his reverie broken. “No,” he said, and then: “Well, not for a very long time. She found peace before she found him, and the way in which she found it is not a tale to be told all at once. Of all the strange threads in that untold tale, the strangest is this: it was the warrior who led her to the place of peace, though she could not see his hand.”

I do not know why this realization hurt me as much as it did. It was only a story, after all, and not a long or especially well-drawn one: but it burned me with a truth beyond reality. “Did he know?” I ventured at last.

“Did he know where he was leading her, do you mean? No, not fully. He did not even know for sure that he was leading her at all—in the way of most men, he was hindered by spiritual shortsightedness. I think that for much of the time all he knew was pain, and not the good that his pain would one day bring his beloved. Later, of course, he knew. But not at the start…we hardly ever know at the start, and perhaps it is better so.”

“Perhaps,” I repeated, feeling troubled. The story had not eased my unhappiness, as its teller had practically promised it would; it had stirred up my soul instead, jolted my passive dreariness into something very like dread. No, that is not quite right: the result was not a cold damp emotion, as dread generally is, but a feeling of fire and fortitude. It was not comfortable.

“Well, perhaps; but I begin to think there are better things than being comfortable.”

It was not until I saw the man’s quizzical smile that I realized I had quoted the line out loud.

“George MacDonald,” I explained. “Diamond. At the Back of the North Wind.”

“Ah,” he said, and smiled. “It is a wise saying, though not a pleasant one. But I think I know what your George MacDonald would say to that.”

“What would he say?”

“That wisdom and pleasantness go seldom hand in hand. When they do, they are called—well, heaven. Or a place very like it, generally coming after the House Beautiful and before the Valley of the Shadow.” During his last words the knight had gotten to his feet; he stood before me now, looking a little sad, a little merry, and very much thoughtful.

“Thank you for the refreshment,” he said, gravely courteous, “and for the pleasure of your company.”

I smiled, frantically trying to remember whether the situation called for a curtsey. But I was too late; he had taken my hand and kissed it.

“Will you come back?” I whispered.

Instead of answering me directly he let my hand fall, catching my eyes with his gaze. In the gentle steadiness of his look I saw his story reflected: his eyes were the eyes of a warrior, and the lines about his mouth spoke of hardship and victory.

I saw him into his armour, onto his horse, and over the sun-stained slope. For a long time after the dust behind him had settled I stood looking out across the desert. My knight would return, I was certain of that…

…and though I did not love him, I already missed his presence.

4 missives:

Keaghan said...

Wow. This is SO good! You have a talent for describing a setting and character with vivid language.

It's a beautiful story. You captured some very deep emotions in it--something that can be very difficult.

Thank you for sharing it!

~Keaghan

Megan L. said...

^.^

Thank you very much, Keaghan. I'm glad you enjoyed it! (And yes, emotions are difficult to convey. I'm always shocked when I manage to somehow get them across without sounding sentimental. >.< )

Katie said...

Oh, Megan, this is beautiful. I concur with Keaghan, the description and emotion you weave into your stories is flawless.

I felt a strange sort of similarity with the woman in this story -- even though I doubt I could tell you why if I tried -- and it did me good to read it. Thank you for writing this, thank you for posting it. Your talent is amazing. ^.^

Megan L. said...

Aw, thank you, Katie. I'm so thankful you found something in the story to bless you: that is very, very encouraging to hear.

I love you. ^.^

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