The Knight and His Lady

Submitted into Contest #176 in response to: Start your story with someone witnessing magic from a hiding place.... view prompt


Fiction Fantasy Romance

The first time he saw her, he was tucked up in the branches of an old oak. On clear, cool nights like these, after a day spent working away under the scorch of sun, he found himself drawn to the ancient forest, climbing up into the rough arms of trees to see the stars.

On this night, he ventured deeper into the woods than he had on any other, as if some invisible thread was gently tugging, tugging him in. The air was sweet with late summer blooms and damp earth, the soft buzzings of nocturnal life the only sound accompanying his footfall. He let the thread pull him deeper and deeper into the woods, until all at once it vanished, and he stood before the oldest oak tree he had ever seen. The broad trunk and sprawling branches glowed silver in the moonlight. A narrow waterfall poured into a small lake nearby, the water oddly still and reflecting the stars.

The wanderer wasted no breath in climbing into the tree, back facing the water, and settling into a comfortable nook. He turned his gaze to the sky; the full moon and glitter of stars shone bright against the endless, inky black of night.

No sooner had he stilled than the whisper returned, the thread pulling at his back now. He turned and watched in awe as a figure emerged from the waterfall, not a drop shining on her pale hair or ripple made in the water. The beauty of all the stars in the sky forgotten, he climbed down the tree.

That night he learned she was bound to the waters. The night after that, he learned what must be done to break her curse. On the third, he vowed to free the lady from her lake.

The sun had just crest over the horizon when the knight saddled up and set out on his quest. Now, it stood high and proud as he approached the Swamplands.

The smell of wildflowers and summer breeze were overwhelmed by decay and stale air. Tall pines and ancient oaks gave way to thick-trunked, gnarled trees that choked out the bright light of midday, painting the world a murky green. With a promise to return he tied his horse to a tree encrusted with drooping, yellow mushrooms and set off on foot, taking only his sword and shield. His every step sunk into the muddy ground, roots tightening on his ankles and threatening to pull him under.

Yet soon he found the treacherous swamps. Three enormous huts sat on an island in the middle of fetid waters that belched foul air, littered with stones and logs that had the misfortune of tumbling into the gloomy lake. Exhaustion weighed heavy, but he knew his battle had only just begun.

The knight thought of the reason he was here in these poisonous lands.

Finally, he was old enough, finally he was strong enough to embark on the quest, to break the curse confining his lady to the waters of a small lake in the old forest.

“My cursebringer is long gone from these lands, but her stain remains,” she had said. “She bound and stifled the magic of most creatures of this forest, so only the most powerful or the most monstrous remain. You must acquire three items to set us free.”

The first were the antlers of the Great Deer, gifted to the Fairy Court many centuries before, but since stolen by the three troll brothers of the Swamplands.

“My brave knight, be warned that the Swamplands are perilous, and no mortal who has set foot in its boggy waters has ever returned.”

The knight had placed a closed fist over his heart. “Dear lady, I swear I will complete this quest and return. I will set you free.”

Even at this distance he could see the imposing antlers hanging on the door of the largest hut, a brazen dare for those who sought them. He saw no reflections in the brown waters yet felt the gaze of many lost and forgotten. A moss covered stone he kicked into the water swiftly vanished, the moss burning away as it sunk, giving no sign to the water’s depths. It brought up more of the poisonous air in burbling bubbles.

The knight advanced with meticulous care, prodding each stone and log with the tip of his sword before leaping to the next. At last, after many swift and silent leaps, the knight was across the swamp and standing before the largest hut.

Without a moments rest, the door swung open, and a giant troll exited the hut carrying an ax as large as the knight’s horse.

The lumbering beast caught sight of the knight, a dopey smile spreading across his lumpy face. It released a guttural howl and two other trolls appeared from their huts, neither as tall as the first, who was twice as tall as the knight. Rags hung from their hulking forms, their skin as green as the corrupt waters.

“Brothers,” said the first, “It seems we will be feasting on man tonight.”

The knight lunged for the troll on the left carrying a wooden club as thick as he, who, with lazy confidence, brought the weapon down upon the knight again and again. The knight, with brighter brains and mightier brawn, deftly rolled and struck the beast, bringing it to its knees in moments, slaying it with one final blow.

The forest trembled from the roars of the remaining trolls. The smallest one, now carrying a spear, charged with rage in its eyes. The knight was swift and merciless, a killing blow struck in seconds. 

The knight turned to the final troll, breathing heavily but with his sword still held high. It trembled before dropping its ax and cowering before the man.

“Please, spare me knight,” begged the troll. “I do not want to fight and perish by your sword as my brothers have.”

The knight regarded the quaking creature. “You may live, troll,” he said, “so long as you remain within the borders of your rotten lands. If ever I discover you leave, I will find you and finish this fight.”

The troll let out a great stinking, sobbing breath before scrambling back into his hut and slamming the door behind him. The boom rattled the antlers which slipped and fell into the muck.

The knight strapped his prize to his back and though time-worn and mossy, he felt the undiminished power in the antlers. He began the journey back to his horse.

“East of this lake, there is a grove of pine trees. In the tallest is the nest of the Wise Owl. He will ask a riddle, and when solved, he will grant the answerer one of his emerald eyes. Again, I warn you dear knight, this will be no easy task. Many have sat before the Wise Owl and puzzled over his riddles for countless days and nights, and still failed to answer correctly, and still, he has both eyes.”

After a night’s rest and dreams of his lady’s sweet voice, the knight set off for the second part of his quest. He knew that he was no simpleton, and that there were men and women much wiser than him in this world, but above all he knew he could not fail his lady.

Three days later, the knight found the grove of ancient pine trees. The wind whispering through the branches, a rare coo from high above, and the crunch of ground underfoot the only sound. The knight led his horse through the grove, until he found a pine so tall he could not see the top. Fine bones of small woodland creatures coated the earth surrounding the trunk, occasionally broken up by a bone too large for any owl he had ever seen to consume.

The knight climbed long enough for the sun to begin setting in the sky. The branches of the tree were thick and sturdy, never once cracking beneath his weight. He climbed ever onward, until dusk, until twilight, until the tips of the other pines in the grove were a distant memory, until the stars began to twinkle in the night sky.

The higher he rose, the more he felt the sensation of being watched. If he’d looked closely between the branches, he’d have seen the silhouettes of owls large and small, in groups, pairs, or solitude, and he may have seen that each set of eyes glittered red and blue and yellow, though none an emerald green.

As the moon appeared, the knight crawled onto a branch holding a massive nest. The knight still could not see the top of the tree, but as he gazed about and saw great washes of green and blue, the great mountains in the distance, he knew he looked upon the entirety of the old forest. He wondered if he looked close enough if he might see his lady waiting for him in her lake.

The nest rocked. The knight braced on the branch as a large shadow, nearly as tall as he, rose out of the bundle of twigs and leaves, shook, and turned glittering green eyes to him.

The knight looked into the face of a giant barred owl, the Wise Owl, with his eyes of emerald stone.

“Knight,” said the owl with a voice like wind sweeping through the leaves, “why have you come to my nest so deep in this ancient forest?”

“Wise Owl, I have come to solve your riddle and earn one of your emerald eyes.”

The huge bird fluttered a wing. “Know that you may only answer once, and if you answer wrong, you may never answer again.”

“But I cannot fail, for I must rescue my lady trapped in her lake. I vowed I would free her, and so I shall,” said the knight.

“A lady in a lake?” The owl cocked his head, a shadow of amusement in his gaze. He seemed to ponder a moment, then said, “Very well. Answer me this, brave knight,” and the Wise Owl asked his riddle.

The knight leaned against the thick trunk of the great tree, closed his eyes, and thought. He thought and thought, until the moon hung bright and full in the sky. The owl, luminous in this silvery light, watched the knight with patience.

Finally, with a confident gleam in his eye, he stood and approached the nest.

“A queen,” said the knight. “The answer to your riddle, Wise Owl, is a queen.”

The owl seemed to smile within his feathery face. “Well done, Wise Knight. Come, you may take my eye, now one step closer to rescuing your maiden.”

The knight plucked the emerald from the owl’s face and saw a near perfect reflection of the night sky, a swirling, glittering mass of stars, in the empty socket.

The knight bowed to the Wise Owl before leaving his nest and beginning his descent, carrying a chunk of perfect emerald the size of both his fists.

With his final and most perilous quest ahead of him, the knight recalled his most precious memories with his lady. The first time they met as young children, that night the thread had pulled him to her, and how he had not understood why she would not leave the water to play in the forest. The first time he realized her dress never dampened in the lake. The first time he heard her sing. The way his deeply tanned hand contrasted so beautifully against hers, pale as snow. Everything about her was pale against his dark, her fair hair to his chestnut, her sapphire eyes to his amber.

“Your final task is to acquire a dragon scale,” his lady had said. “In the northern mountains is the Noble Dragon, the last surviving dragon of these lands. In his grotto, he guards his horde well and has little patience for visitors. Like the ones before, this will be no easy feat.”

After riding for many days and many nights, the knight stood at the mouth of a glowing cave. He had scaled the rocky face on foot, leaving his horse and sword in a small village at the base of the mountain.

His shadows danced upon the cave walls, illuminated by some unseen fire. Piles of gold grew in size and frequency as he maneuvered through the tunnels. He was soon overly warm despite the snowy weather of the mountainside.

After following the light and heat for countless twists and turns, the knight stood at the edge of a cliff that opened to a single massive hollow, as if the mountain itself were a thin façade for the true mountains of gold within. Towers of treasures filled the space; gems and jewelry, gold and swords, crystals and relics, such spoils he knew could accumulate only after centuries.

Atop the largest heaps lay the Noble Dragon, snoozing with his batlike wings tucked close, smoke curling from his nostrils. Red as rubies, the dragon slumbered, content in his riches. His snores rumbled through the caves, sending a tower of gold to tumble in some distant cavern.

The knight shouted, waking the last remaining dragon from his afternoon nap.

Slowly, the dragon opened one eye. The knight saw his entire body reflected in the shiny, gold pupil. A low grumble rolled through the caves.

You dare wake a sleeping dragon? a voice said in the knight’s mind, deep and thunderous, with the undercurrent of crackling flames.

“I come on a quest, Noble Dragon,” said the knight. “I require one of your scales in order to free my beautiful lady, cursed and bound to her lake in the forest.”

The dragon raised his great head and turned both eyes on the knight, talons clinking against gold. You come to face a dragon, to request a part of my body, unarmed and lovestruck by something so simple as beauty. Brave or foolish, I do not know, though I sometimes find there is no difference in the two at all. The dragon bared his teeth, the largest longer than the knight. No, you will have no scale of mine. Best be gone from my home quick, uninvited guest, for I find myself craving an early supper.

The knight held the dragon’s gaze, steady and sure. With a lightning crack the dragon snapped open his wings, the tips nearly reaching both ends of the cavern, and bellowed, loud and long, sending many towers to avalanche. Once the cacophony settled, the knight pulled his hands away from his ears and stood tall once more.

Brave or foolish, brave or foolish… the dragon muttered.

“Noble Dragon, I am no spellbound fool as you might think,” said the knight. “I did not chance upon this woman only days ago. We met as children, and for as long as I have known her, she has been bound to the lake, but we have spent any moment we could together since. We have danced, we have laughed, we have had the most wonderful conversations. She has a miraculous singing voice, lilting and sweet, and is the only person in this world who has heard mine. But I do it for her, for her alone because it makes her smile.

“But she is lonely and powerless. Despite my greatest efforts, there have been times when we were separated by months. She longs for freedom. You, Noble Dragon, may enjoy solitude, but have the freedom to choose it. You surround yourself with beauty and riches and I want for none of it. I only wish to free the woman I love.

“It is why I stand here before you today, a brave, and yes, lovestruck, man. Unarmed, I humbly ask of you a single scale.”

The dragon drew his wings close. After a long pause, the voice rumbled through his skull once more. We dragons have this gift to see into the hearts of men. The dragon’s eyes were focused and discerning. You, Knight-so-brave-and-foolish, carry only love in your heart, true and great. The dragon reared up and peeled one golden scale from his belly.

You may have your scale, Knight, said the dragon, dropping it into his open palms. But now you must leave. I was dreaming of sweet and fattened sheep before you arrived, and I should like to return to them. The dragon curled up, once more resting his gargantuan head upon his crossed claws, gold coins clinking.

“Thank you, Noble and Kind Dragon,” said the knight. Though the dragon seemed to drift off again promptly, he thought he saw the curl of a smile on the dragon’s face. The knight bowed deeply and departed the Noble Dragon’s grotto.

When the knight returned to the lake, he laid his bounty at his lady’s feet, and in a flash of moonlight she was transformed. No longer plain in dress, she wore a gown of spider silk embroidered with crystalline water droplets, a rainbow of gems across her brow. She glowed, the Fairy Queen of the Forest, but brightest of all was her smile for her kneeling knight.

“Rise,” she said, holding a golden crown of deer antlers, encrusted with sparkling green stones. “My dear knight, my dearest friend, my brave champion. You have proven yourself strong, wise, and compassionate in your quest. If you choose to wear it, this crown forged of your triumphs will grant you the power to rule these lands.”

The knight took the queen’s hand. “Only if I may do so with you for as long as there are stars in the night sky.” The radiance that emanated from her smile was answer enough. She stepped onto solid, dry ground for the first time in centuries.

The Rescued Queen and her Mortal King, now crowned and clothed in fabrics of moss and supple tree barks, left the lake behind. Together, they entered the old forest, a horse trotting behind, to reawaken the long slumbering magic of the lands.

December 11, 2022 02:07

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Maria Blackman
02:55 Dec 23, 2022

Some nice imagery and high fantasy themes!


C. J. Peters
02:58 Dec 23, 2022

Thank you!


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Wendy Kaminski
21:14 Dec 21, 2022

A beautiful fairy tale as they wove in times of old! I am so glad you brought your skills to bear in order to craft an enjoyable one anew. :)


C. J. Peters
01:55 Dec 23, 2022

Thank you kindly!


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