Heart’s Desire Part 1 (Part of the Tangleroot Universe)

“It seems his blade was no sharper than his wits,” quipped Marcellus. He was holding the peasant’s knife in his gauntlet-gloved fist. The emeralds on the gauntlet glimmered, even in the dim light of the tavern. The peasant was sprawled out on the tavern floor, one leg dangling from an overturned stool. Blood mixed with beer, pooling together beneath the peasant’s head. The other squires laughed, like a great gaggle of geese. I sat in my corner and remained distant, silent, as I often did whenever my brothers of Gran Stone proved themselves less than knightly. The peasant’s friends lifted him up and carried him outside, into the rain. The man’s nose had been displaced by Marcellus’s emerald-encrusted backhand. I could not but have blanched at that sickly sight and sound: the splattering eruption of blood from the poor man’s nostrils like the splash of a large catfish upon the water. Worse was the incongruity of our supposed aspirations as squires working toward knighthood and the petty predation that had recently concluded. It was not becoming of our ideals. We did not behave like true knights.
But it was to be expected— at least from my fellow squires. The scene reminded me too much of our days of training under the tutelage of our various mentors. Such predations were frequent then, and always beneath the guise of knightly notions. The smaller, weaker squires were smashed thoroughly during our arms practice— smashed beyond what was a becoming measure—and yet it was justified as being “Good for each in his turn”. Often the knights would laugh while a novice boy was pummeled beneath the edgeless sword of his opponent. I never laughed, nor did I strike any harder than I ought to have, but to the lot of them it was all such merriment as befitted a festival. Bruises and blood were just festoons for the festivities.
“What are you doing sulking in the corner, Aegis?” Marcellus said to me. He dropped the peasant’s knife onto my table, the rusted blade clattering unpleasantly. “Do you disapprove? He had overstepped his position and was reprimanded within appropriate means.”
“He was drunk,” I said. “And you goaded him with mockery.”
Marcellus grinned widely, his green eyes wheeling about the room and finding the rest of the squires in equally devilish moods. “I was merely offering him advice for self-improvement.”
“By telling him he ought to take his wife to market?” I said quietly. I knew full well the impact of repeating the insult, even quietly, and was not disappointed. The whole company of squires laughed anew, as if having heard it for the first time. I could not hide my disdain. It was very much like when they mocked Edmund, the Cloth squire, during training. Endless amusement for them and endless debasement for their victim. And yet how was I any better? I did not partake of their joy, but neither did I shield their victims. That two-headed goat, Hypocrisy, chewed at my earlobes.
“Some men are born for other men to beget jokes upon them,” said Marcellus. “Just as women are born for men to beget heirs upon them. It is all Fate’s decree. We should follow its arbitrations in due course. And if the fools of the world do not accept Fate’s determinations then it is for us to remind them of their place in life.”
I felt my lips tremble. Whether it was fear or anger or both, I knew not. “And yet I labored under the impression that knights were fated to protect the weak,” I said.
“Only the submissive are worthy of protection,” Marcellus said, and the other squires nodded, including those who had been treated poorly during our training. “Only those who do not succumb to uppity notions and misplace themselves in higher regard than they merit.”
“Virgin maidens!” a squire shouted; most likely Aiden, the Carmine squire.
“Hear, hear!” shouted the other squires in agreement.
“And the monks!” cried another squire— perhaps Barric, the Bronze squire. “Because they make us our beer!”
Another roar of approval and a lifting of mugs, the downing of draughts and dregs, and the false chumminess of shoulder-to-shoulder bumping and singing.

“For knights are known throughout the land
as soft of heart and heavy of hand
and should day come that knights may fade
then the world shall fall and be unmade!
For knights are known as lords of lords
with shields and spears and bows and swords
and upon the day that knights should die
there be no honor between earth and sky!
For knights are known as heroes to all
who obey the laws, both big and small,
and should day come that you disobey
the knights will come to make you pay!
For knights serve order in the realm
encased in armor, mail and helm,
and should day come you forget your place
then we will break your knees and face!
For knights are known…!”

This song was an interminable refrain that was always growing, like a sea dragon in warm waters as it traversed the world and ate of its many fish. I merely sat there, silently, and abided. I knew well how possessed my fellow squires could become when in beer and in boasts, especially after a brawl. The stormy song of their pride swelled and deafened the storm beyond the tavern walls. Had I not fear of rust and lightning bolt I would have gladly exchanged one storm for the other and ventured forth into the elements. At least the wild elements were fair with their humiliations. The squires were not. Many patrons in the tavern left due to the ruckus and the promise of more mischief, and I did not doubt that the tavern’s owner would have booted us out had he the men to do so. My fellow squires were intolerable at the best of times.
Nor was it surprising that they should be so cruel. I had trained with them for over ten years now, under the guidance of my own mentor, Sir Brenold, the Brass Knight. He taught me much, including the fickleness of the hearts of men.
“Ideals,” he often said, “are the reins upon the Heart, but once the flames rise and the earth shakes and the Heart bucks and shies, many find their Ideals wanting and cannot rein in that compulsive beast as it retreats, crowned in cowardice.”
I knew even then that Sir Brenold was speaking of not only my brothers, but his own brothers in arms. He had fought alongside many of the knights whose squires trained with me, and he did not say anything remarkable about any of them. His discretion was a matter of his aversion toward engaging in criticism and did not owe to any virtues embodied by any of his brothers. Had they virtues, Sir Brenold would have extolled them readily, as he often did of many people whom he admired. But his silence was as much a loud condemnation as a town-crier’s early morning vociferations. So, too, were my habitual silences.
Naturally, we squires had taken after our mentors and their propensities. Marcellus was the Emerald squire, and so his mentor was the Emerald Knight, which explained Marcellus’s unbridled enmity toward the peasantry. The Emerald Knight had no compunctions about beating a peasant senseless, and would often provoke a peasant’s ire if only to tenuously claim himself wronged as he struck same such hapless peasant down for defending himself or his wife’s reputation. It was a snare with decoy bait, to be sure.
Presently, I felt outrage on the peasant’s behalf, but I did nothing. I only wished the peasant’s knife had not been so dull. Perhaps then Marcellus would have been righted by his own wrong. But there was little accordance with justice in this world, especially where peasants and knights were concerned. Having been born one and raised to be the other, I can attest to it from both sides of the helm.
“A toast!” Barric boomed, raising his mug yet again. “To Princess Felicia and the Knights of Gran Stone!”
“May we find them and glory!” Aidan added, raising his own mug.
Another cheer went up and another draught of beer went down.
It was a strange journey I was on with my brothers. To rescue not only the Princess from the mysterious Black Knight, but to seek our mentors who had disappeared while pursuing the same purpose. Many among my brothers hoped that they would be knighted in place of their mentors, and while I wished to be knighted, I did not wish that it happen for many years, and certainly not that it be hastened because something mortal had happened to Sir Brenold. I cared too much for that virtuous man to aspire toward rank upon his ruin.
Did I not?
Marcellus returned to the other squires at their long table and ordered another round of drinks. I knew, with dawning dread, that with their drinking would come more brawling, perhaps even amongst themselves, and so I retired early from the tavern to my room upstairs, wanting to avoid the ensuing combat. Hopefully, I thought, swords would not be unsheathed.
Upon my ascent I passed a rather fetching young maiden with raven hair and a pallor of face that contrasted so sharply with her red lips that had she not been moving I would have thought her dead. She was as white as birch bark. Her eyes were an uncanny shade of gold that seemed to glow in the dim illumination of that corridor.
I will not deny that I glanced over my shoulder, following her beauty with a beguiled eye. She disappeared down the stairs and I opened the door to my room, entering. As I was closing the door I realized that someone was standing at the threshold, their face obscured with shadows. I was so startled that my hand instinctively clenched for combat.
“What is it that women most desire?”
The voice was gentle, soft, musical, having the same effect as a mother’s song on a child. I felt myself lulled by the cooing croon of her voice. I could not but answer honestly.
“It depends on the woman,” I said.
The figure stepped toward me, and the shawl of shadow was peeled away by the candlelight of my room. She was the beautiful maiden I had just passed in the hall.
“And what is it that you most desire?” she asked. With a tug and a shrug she had slipped out of her robe and stood before me, denuded, like an ivory statue sculpted by in accordance to a lecher’s most debauched dreams.
“I…”
She slipped her hands over my shoulders, pulling me down, gently, toward her face until I could see nothing in the world except her strange golden eyes.
“I…I most desire to be a true knight,” I said.
The enchantment was dispelled and her beautiful face snarled like a hound’s ready to snap for throat and life. She donned her robe quickly, like a turtle retracting into its shell, and left my room with only a hiss and the slamming of the door as a farewell.
I knew not what to think of it. I was as shocked as a cat in water. I retreated to bed, taking off my chainmail and my armor plates and slipping in between the sheets. Beyond the window the storm raged, yet it was not half so fierce as that beautiful lady with the golden eyes.

***

That night I slept but restlessly. My mind was beset with fears and frets and visions. Vividly, I dreamed of the day that Princess Felicia was taken away. It was to have been a tournament in her honor. She was newly come of age and we all were attending to present our wishes and our oaths of fealty to her, and to batter each other in contest for her personal blessing. That poor fool, Edmund, had humiliated himself in front of the whole kingdom by giving the Princess a rose he had woven himself from fabric. Everyone laughed, and the Princess blushed in embarrassment. I felt sorry for the audacious fool, but also knew that he brought much of his suffering upon himself. There was nothing worse in a squire’s mind than to be proud of womanly work. We were supposed to pride ourselves on sword and shield, not thread and needle.
Be that as it may, the celebration’s proceedings were soon thrown to chaos. The Black Knight came riding in on the very air, green flames rushing up from his black stallion’s hooves and eyes. Green fire billowed out from his armor as well. He was a tall, imposing figure with a helmet adorned in dragon horns, a demonic chestplate, and a voice that boomed from within that night-black armor like a troll beneath an abyss-straddling bridge. To see him was to see Death embodied and emboldened.
“NO MORE WHIMSY!”
That was a puzzle in and of itself. What did he mean by “No more whimsy”? It was a curious thing, and continued to confound me. Regardless, the diabolical brute snatched up Princess Felicia without hesitation and rode away with all the haste of the stormy winds.
“NO MORE WHIMSY!”
I awoke in a cold sweat to find myself in a room flickering with fulgurous illumination. The storm raged on outside, splattering the window with rain, and the foreboding I felt was as a storm in my own skull. I sat up and wiped my forehead. I heard noises in the next room. Grunting and groaning, just loud enough to be heard beneath the pounding storm outside. Which squire was in that room? Aidan? Zanton? I could not remember.
My mind unsettled, I took a turn about the room, pacing while my thoughts raced. I thought about what ensued after the Black Knight had departed. The wailing of the Queen. The roars of the King. The nervous chatter among the spectators. The loud proclamations of the knights to restore the Princess to her kingdom.
There were few people that were quiet during that uproar. I was one, and I minded the others. There was Edmund, of course, who was quieter than me. There was also Master Avon who merely smirked at the proceedings and then walked away from the tourney grounds as if he had seen something utterly humorous. For being the Master, he did not seem to care much of human affairs. Perhaps having unlimited magical powers, and eternal life, made a man so detached. He was said to have power enough to rule and right the world, but he chose instead to dabble in innocent nothings. Sir Brenold said it was his wisdom that determined his life, but I could not think that Fate always seemed to impart power to those most likely to misuse it, or to not use it at all.
Eventually, the King of Gran Stone gathered his knights about himself. He promised them their heart’s desire if they should return to him his golden-haired daughter. They each pledged to do so, and to do so in privilege of rank, the Gold Knight setting forth the first week, and the Silver Knight the second week. It was our custom in Gran Stone. Rank and honor were hand-in-hand, even if one hand dwarfed the other.
One by one the Knights ventured out from the great rock walls of Gran Stone to rescue Princess Felicia from that mysterious phantom. Yet, a year later and not one among them had returned; not the Silver Knight or the Bronze Knight or the Diamond Knight, or the Gold Knight. My mentor, Sir Brenold, had also vanished, too, though he did not receive as much concern voiced on his behalf as the more celebrated Knights of the kingdom. The Brass Knight was esteemed sparingly by the people he protected.
We squires were bound to remain behind, for we were not of age nor of experience to aid our mentors. Instead, they took with them soldiers from among the army, ten to a knight to serve him. None of these soldiers returned, either.
The King despaired at no word from his knights. Fretful, he finally relented and charged us with seeking out our mentors, and, in turn, his daughter. Thinking it safer for us to travel together, we did so. The only exceptions were the most illustrious squires of the kingdom— Gold, Silver, Diamond, Sapphire, and so forth— who ventured forth alone due to pride and their own privileges. Edmund, the Cloth squire, also did not ride with us. He disappeared shortly after the abduction. Perhaps he hid himself in shame after embarrassing the Princess with his flower. Perhaps he doubted his mettle in meeting the task.
Taking another turn about the room, I continued to pace and to remember. Suddenly I stopped, wondering what it was that my mind found amiss. I realized, shortly, that the grunts and groans were no longer coming from the one side of my room, but now had found their way to the other side. It seemed that a different squire was making jollies on his own maiden. Was it that golden-eyed maiden that approached me? The thought of her bare body made me surge with envy and other ignominious passions. Who she could be, I did not know, but that beastly vigor and ardor were dreadful to think on. Perhaps there were many women involved. Yet, the only woman I saw besides the golden-eyed temptress was the innkeeper’s wife, and while she was not ugly of face or of figure, I doubted she had the endurance for multiple squires, particularly after a long day of cleaning and cooking for the visitors to the inn.
It was no matter. I returned to bed, thinking no more of it, and soon feel asleep, albeit with fits and starts and impatient yawns.

***

The rains had ceased, much to our relief. A fellow traveler had assured us that it would not rain for at least three more days. I wished to believe him, but who knows how men determined such things? Sir Brenold spoke of an ache in his elbow that could tell him when the day was to be deluged. Being young, I had few aches with which to discern the future, except that ache of a longing for fame. All squires suffered that ailment, it seemed.
We were traveling on horseback through an ancient woods given to an unsettling silence. If not for keeping in such a large and garrulous company I believed the rest of my fellow squires would have been as perturbed as I was. The shadows moved unnaturally in this ancient forest, following neither form nor light, but as if living creatures of their own will. I could not help feeling that we were stalked on all sides.
There had been too much rain and too much shade in that ill-founded forest. Mushrooms bulged everywhere like the heads of subterranean terrors peeking up from the earth, searching for prey. Lichen, too, glowed ominously upon the blackened bark of the trees. It reminded me of the Black Knight with his shadowy armor and green fire. Unnatural things, one and all. But my brothers paid them no mind, so taken were they with their braggartly banter.
“It would take no more than a good swing of my ax,” Barric said, grinning. “And I’ll fell that Black Knight like a sapling taken to rot.”
“My arrows will meet their mark in his eye,” Zanton said, “ere you unsling your ax.”
Barric laughed dismissively. “It will be hard to meet your mark with so much frightful trembling. You’d be more likely to feather friend than foe.”
“I always have a true aim and a steady hand,” Zanton said. “Were I adrift in the whirlwind my arrow should find its mark.”
“My arrow always finds it mark, too,” Barric said, “between a maiden’s thighs.”
The rest of the squires erupted with good-natured laughter and Barric guffawed indulgently. Even Marcellus smiled. Everyone was of a loose mood, except myself. I began to suspect the camaraderie was owed to more than brotherly bonds. Every one of my fellow squires had upon his face a boyish grin which only ever meant either mischief or the intent for mischief. Since I was the only one excluded from understanding, I assumed I was chief among the mischief’s victims.
“What are you all so pleased about?” I asked Aidan.
“I cannot speak for my brothers,” he said, still grinning widely. “But I had the most pleasant rest last night.”
“As did I,” said Barric. “The…hospitality of that inn was lovely.”
“No one enjoyed such hospitality as I,” said Marcellus, hoisting an eyebrow arrogantly. “A most welcome sort, I assure you.”
“Did you make victim of another peasant?” I asked, restraining my anger as I assumed this mirth to be at the expense of yet another innocent fool.
“I would say I hardly made victim of her,” Marcellus said. “Rather, she invited herself into my room for a nightly conquest. I gladly obliged her. Nor was she wanting by the end of it.”
Marcellus continued to grin broadly, but the grins belonging to the rest of the squires faltered into uncomfortable bafflement.
“Are you saying that a young maiden visited you in the night also?” Aidan said, turning redder than his Carmine cloak.
“Indeed,” Marcellus said. “And with the loveliest golden eyes I have ever seen. In fact, the only golden eyes I have ever seen. Like Gildread coins, those eyes.”
The other squires gasped and gurgled in dismay, exchanging fretful and furtive glances of unease.
“A golden-eyed maiden visited me in my room last night, too,” Barric said. “She prattled some nonsense about a woman’s desire and then doffed her clothes in utter shamelessness. We made congress and I fell asleep shortly thereafter. When I awoke she had gone.”
“So too did it occur in my room last night,” Aidan said, wide-eyed with wonder.
“And mine!” said another squire.
“And mine!” said yet another squire.
Every squire was either blanching or blushing. Some steadied themselves on their mounts, lest they pass out from nausea.
Marcellus’s face lost its grin, gradually, and he reared his horse about, confronting the other squires contemptuously. We all halted, and Marcellus’s voice struck at the air like his warhammer on rocks. “Surely she did not sleep with everyone here?!”
I could have interjected to say that her advances toward me went for nought, but I said nothing. Wiser was it to remain silent.
“Perhaps she has a twin,” another squire offered. “Several twins. One for each of us.”
The squires again exchanged uneasy glances. Some were perturbed. Others were outraged and mumbled curses. Even Marcellus’s confidence was shaken briefly until he rallied himself.
“What is it to us?” he proclaimed. “What is it if a wanton passed between our beds? We have shared beer and bread before. Why not beauties, too? That is what we are owed as defenders of the realm, is it not?”
The squires nodded meekly, doubt still veiling their faces.
“We do not baulk at what would give other men pause,” Marcellus continued. “Think of her as no more than a mare we rode in turns, if you must think of her at all. It does not besmirch us our honor in the least. We are true squires of Gran Stone. Such is our privilege. Such is our duty.”
The squires nodded vigorously now, forcing themselves to concur with Marcellus’s conclusion even if they privately doubted it. Yet, I saw them for what they were: young men lost in the woods, trying to convince themselves that they were set upon the right path.
I remained silent, going unnoticed as each squire tended to his conscience. Though I did not engage any of them, I must confess that I was curious as to their answers to the golden-eyed maiden’s strange questions. No doubt she asked them the same questions that she put to me. Yet, she had not left them in such a furious humor as she did when I answered. Nor did I regret her abrupt departure. Rather, I was relieved to be spared that shared experience with which my brothers were attempting to reconcile themselves.
Or so I told myself.
We continued on our way, riding beneath the tall columned trunks of that ancient forest. The squires passed the hours by recalling the night’s pleasures, as if by speaking of the encounter somehow nullified its power over them.
“She had a shapely rump,” Aidan said. “Far greater than any I have seen in Gran Stone.”
“That is because you do not look at your sister’s rump,” Barric said. “She has the best rump in all of Gran Stone, though I must admit that the golden-eyed maiden had a rump of nearly equal roundness.”
“I have told you not to speak of my sister,” Aidan said, chafed. “Unless you wish to be unmanned.”
“Most men would be unmanned by your sister,” Marcellus remarked. “She has a dragon swimming about her moat, if rumors be true.”
Aidan could only fume. Against Barric he might win a duel, but Marcellus was the best fighter among the present company of squires. That was why Marcellus assumed his position as leader of our group. His warhammer was arbiter of everything.
“Her breasts were a lovely pair, too,” continued Barric. “Ripe like plums and tipped in cherries. The most delicious fruit I have ever tasted.”
“Your mother’s breasts are far larger, though,” Aidan said, pouncing on his own chance to humiliate Barric. “It is such a shame that only you and your father have had the privilege of the cream from those mountains.”
“That’s how I grew big and strong,” Barric said, unashamed. “A wet-nurse gives a boy her strength, and my mother gave me her strength. What floppy-tittied wet-nurse fed you, Aidan? She must have given forth runny swill to beget your girlish frame.”
Aidan scowled at Barric, but Barric was too amused by his own jest to heed it.
My mind turned again to that golden-eyed wanton. She filled me with misgivings, even as my brothers spoke so idolatrously of her. I was unsettled by more than her unnaturally golden eyes and her promiscuity. The way she hissed after I told her my heart’s desire hinted at something inhuman. It was not that she was a wanton— for wantonness was surely a human trait as much as jealousy or honor or love of family— but it was the method of her wantonness that I misliked. It did not seem that she was a meretricious maiden compulsively seeking partners in congress. Rather, it seemed as if she had done so in accordance to some unfathomable plan or strategy. It all stank of malice and machinations.
“You foul-mouthed SWINE!”
I was shaken from my thoughts by Aidan’s curses as he leapt off his horse and onto Barric. Barric’s horse bucked, dumping the two of them to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs and capes.
Had I been of higher rank among the squires I would have halted the ensuing fight, but Marcellus was the leader and he merely turned his mount about so he could better watch the scuffle. The rest of the squires halted and watched, too, cheering the two combatants onward. It was a one-sided battle. Barric was too taken with laughing about Aidan’s sister to offer much retaliation, even as he took several mail-meshed fists to the face. Aidan, meanwhile, was undeterred by Barric’s impervious laughter, striking him harder and harder the louder he laughed. After the seventh blow, Barric sobered from his laughing fit and struck Aidan across the cheek with an open hand. Aidan flew backward with the slap and fell on the mossy forest floor, dazed while Barric’s large handprint glowed red, even in the shadows of that woods. It was like a birthmark, so long-lasting and vibrant was it on Aidan’s face.
Some of the squires groaned, knowing the fight was over. Barric stood up, walked over, and picked Aidan up from the ground. He then tossed the Carmine squire on the back of the red-saddled horse, prostrate and backwards, Aidan’s arms and legs hanging to either flank and his face resting against the horse’s hindquarters.
“Let him awake at the behest of his fair mare’s sweet whispers,” Barric said. He guffawed loudly, despite the blackish knots that were crowning his bald head. He then took his own horse by the reins and pulled himself upon the saddle.

We continued for an hour or so, and Aidan woke with a start.
“By the blazing throat of Mathara!” he exclaimed. “Why am I reversed upon my horse?” He sat up in his saddle, backwards, and rubbed his cheek. “And why do I feel as if I have been kissed by a donkey’s hoof?”
The squires sniggered and exchanged furtive glances, waiting for memory to dawn upon him. His confusion was short-lived. The moment he saw Barric’s grin his memory returned to him, and with it his fury.
“You jest-festering jackanapes!” Aidan’s fury launched him senselessly off his horse, like a floundering fish, and he fell face-first into the mossy mud.
Another round of laughter greeted Aidan as he stood up and wiped the mud off his chin.
“Nay, keep it!” Barric said. “You shall never grow a beard half so manly with your fair hair.”
Aidan’s blue eyes were ablaze. He stooped and scooped up a clod of mud, balled it together in his fists, and hurled it at Barric. Aidan had a deft aim, but Barric ducked and the clod struck another brother— Lanwell, the Amethyst squire— whose jewel-cluttered sarong was his most prized possession. Lanwell cursed, then immediately dismounted his horse and took up a clod of mossy mud for his own aim. Unfortunately, his aim with mud was as sure and true as his aim with his spear and it went awry of its target, striking Zanton, the Tin squire, in the chest. Zanton leapt down from his horse, stooped and scooped and lurched, throwing his own clod with the full momentum of his body. The missile flew apart and struck two other squires who, enraged, clambered down and sought their own missiles. Soon everyone had dismounted and was digging up the fetid earth for salvoes to hurl.
The horses distanced themselves from the warring humans, banding together near a thick copse of trees. I, too, stayed out of range, watching from afar and wondering if my brothers would keep to this childish skirmish until dusk. It was ludicrous. We were supposed to be seeking our mentors and our Princess in earnest, and yet my brothers were running about, hiding behind trees and flinging earth at one another. Sir Brenold had often warned me of the effect of idle hours on the minds of men.
“Paranoia, pettiness, and petulance,” he had said. “And, of course, the further peopling of the earth.”
At length, I tired of being witness to such folly and fetched twigs and branches with which to strike a comfortable fire for the coming night. We would not be breaking free of the forest before nightfall. It was obvious by the doubling of the shadows and the darkening of the canopies overhead. Despite how much it displeased me, I knew we would have to sleep in that untrustworthy woods at least once. Nightfall came prematurely in that deeply shaded woods.
I made ready the fire— after much toil with flint and stone—and then sat down. We were fortunate that the forest was heavily comprised of birch trees here, for even when wet they were good for striking up a fire and sustaining it. Their oils, I have heard, make them excellent firewood.
Once the fire had blossomed to a fulsome bloom, I entertained the idea of hunting for prey. Wild game roasting over the flame would have been better than stale biscuits and salted meat. But it would not have been wise to venture off in search of quarry in this haunted woods, so I chewed on a dried biscuit and thought of better meals ahead.
Gradually the other squires tired of their childish war and came to sit down by my fire. They were like gruesome phantoms from some bloody battlefield. In the flickering light the smeared mud and moss on their faces looked like horrific mortal wounds struck by merciless blades. It was an ill omen. They sat down, grinning and bleeding mud, and I wished I had either gone on this quest alone or else just forfeited my title as squire. I could not look at them without being disgusted by every wrong in the world they represented.
It soon became too dark for the throwing of mud and the rest of my brothers came to crowd about my fire. They squabbled over space. They bemoaned their “ruined attire”. They voiced their irritation at having only salted meat and hard biscuits to eat for their supper. In time, they became quiet, chewing bitterly on their meat and their resentments. Then Lanwell rose to his feet, distraught.
“This is not mud!” Lanwell exclaimed, sniffing at his sarong. “It is horse shit!” He cast a baleful eye around the circle of squires. “Who did it?! Who threw feces on my sarong?!”
Barric snickered unto snorting, then erupted with explosive laughter that sprawled him out on the ground. His laughter rose and echoed in that arboreal night.
“Barric, you imbecile!” Lanwell raged. “You’ve ruined it! You’ve ruined my family’s most important heirloom!”
Had Lanwell’s spear been in his hand, and not sheathed on his horse’s saddle, he would have impaled Barric on the instant, without hesitation. That much was plain in the murderous hate of his eyes.
“Do not fret it overmuch, Lanwell,” Marcellus said calmly. He raised a hand out toward the aggrieved squire. “I know the means by which you can clean horse shit from any article of clothing.”
Lanwell was still glaring daggers at Barric from across the fire. “And what means is that?” he asked, his voice thick with skepticism.
Marcellus’s voice was all sweetness. “Hand it to me and I shall show you.”
Lanwell regarded Marcellus with a suspicious frown.
“Do you not trust me?” the latter asked, as if injured. “Surely you can trust me, Lanwell.”
“Very well,” Lanwell sighed— a seething sort of sigh. He doffed his sarong, with some effort, and handed it to Marcellus. “But if you cannot purify it then I will have satisfaction from Barric. In lashes or gashes.”
Marcellus nodded. He then peered at the sarong, with exaggerated care. The amethysts glittered in the firelight. I awaited the next bit of devilry with my breath held. I knew no good would come of this.
“Pretty enough for a maiden to wear,” Marcellus remarked. “I always wished to have it as a boon for a lady of worth.” Holding the sarong in one hand, he slipped his dagger out with the other and began popping the amethysts off of the sarong.
“Stop!” Lanwell cried. He stepped forward, but halted. There were tears in his eyes, and they glistened like the amethysts that Marcellus plucked and pocketed. “Please…”
When Marcellus had finished, he threw the soiled sarong into the fire I had built.
“You may have neither lashes or gashes,” Marcellus said, “but you may have ashes.” He then sat down and smirked up at Lanwell, obviously pleased by Lanwell’s gawping helplessness. “What is the matter?” he added, goading Lanwell. “It is what you wanted, is it not? To purify your heirloom?”
“Why?” was all Lanwell could muster. He dared not say or do more.
“It is your own doing,” Marcellus said. “You hit me with a clod and dirtied my cape.”
“Accidentally,” Lanwell said.
“You hit me with dirt,” Marcellus said with a matter-of-fact tone, “so I threw the horse shit on your sarong. It was what you deserved.”
“But you were throwing mud, too…”
Barric was still sprawled out on the ground, and he laughed even more loudly now, shaking a tree near his head. “He thought I did it! Ha ha hah! He…ha hah…thought…ha hah…it was me!”
Some of the squires laughed. Others remained quiet, like myself, and stared into the flames. Eventually, Lanwell sighed and sat down, defeated. He stared into the flames, too, though I knew he was not seeing the flames, nor anything near at hand. He was seeing his father and his mother waiting for him at home: their disappointed faces when their son returned without the symbol of his family’s proud heritage draped across his chain-mail.
Would any of this have happened if I had not made that damn fire?

***

The next morning we awoke to find Lanwell gone. He had taken his horse, and his pride, and either gone on, alone, or returned to Gran Stone. I knew not which, but I hoped it was the latter. It was a dangerous journey for someone as unskilled as Lanwell to venture forth alone.
“What a petty child,” Marcellus remarked. “He will never be a true knight if he flees from every little reckoning.”
I bit my tongue and mounted my horse. There was no use in warring with Marcellus, especially since he was so obviously hungry for battle. He hoisted his warhammer and gave it a few strikes against a tree. The tree shuddered, groaned, and fell with a crash. The other squires gave up a cheer. I felt a chill in the marrow of my bones.
“This,” he announced, “is how the Black Knight shall fall.”
Dutifully, the squires cheered him again.
We breakfasted as we rode, nibbling biscuits and salted meat as we continued on through that twilight forest. As we went I could not help but think of Lanwell and his mistreatment, as well as my own inaction. I felt that two-headed goat, Hypocrisy, chewing at my ears. It was a persistent beast, Hypocrisy, and always had a hankering for its due.
Uncomfortable with such thoughts, I turned my mind to the forest and its dubious stillness. This did not ease my me, but it did distract my conscience.
“How big is this forest?” Zanton asked. He also seemed unnerved by the shadows that clung to everything in the woods.
“Not so wide of breadth as your mother,” Barric replied, laughing.
“Nor so explored as your mother, Barric,” Zanton retorted. “Or so well mapped.”
Barric’s face wrinkled with a confused frown. Then the light of comprehension flashed in his eyes, and he laughed. He was always laughing, it seemed.
“A worthy riposte,” Aidan remarked.
“And it deserves another lunging thrust,” Barric said, “as does your mother.”
On we rode, halting only to obey Nature’s demands. Occasionally someone would glimpse something in the corner of his eye and exclaim in astonishment, but upon turning to look at it directly would find nothing but the colonnades of trees endlessly receding, and the strange shadows pooling and crawling in the distance, ever beyond semblance and seeming. This happened so often to me that I began to suspect the forest of playing a game of shadow puppetry. Perhaps they were phantoms manifested from a guilty conscience. My conscience was heavy of late.
Then came a figure that was not a shadow or a shame. It came hobbling at us like a wounded crow unable to fly, and just as black. Though it was but a short, bent figure, the horses were spooked to a halt and we all drew our weapons.
“Have mercy! Have mercy!” cried the blackly draped figure in a voice like cracking timbers. “Have mercy on me, please!”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“What are you?” Marcellus demanded, more loudly. He extended his warhammer high in the air. “Speak quickly or I shall bury you with one blow.”
“I am a victim of black magic,” the figure said. Her voice sounded almost like a woman’s; an old, old woman’s. “I have been ensorceled and cannot save myself!”
Marcellus squinted, in both suspicion and curiosity. “Show me your face,” he said.
“You do not wish to see it,” the bow-backed figure said, trembling.
“Show it now or be gone from us.”
The figure raised two spindly arms with gnarled hands toward the black hood that covered its head. Fingers like birch branches slowly, reluctantly, peeled back the hood from the head. What was revealed was human in general outline, but horridly aged in texture and color, like the ragged bark of an ancient, weathered tree. The nose was long and angled painfully to one side, as if twisted there by the constraining skin that hardened like bark on the face. The hair that fell from beneath the hood was white and dry and cracking, like summer-roasted straw, and it was evident that her back was humped, a clenched mass of flesh bulging under her muddy robe.
A gasp of disgust rose like a sudden wind among the squires. Nor was I exempt from revulsion, though it shamed me as I grimaced. Marcellus raised his warhammer above the old hag’s head.
“Have mercy!” the hag cried, shrinking away. “I am not evil! I am wronged!”
Marcellus dithered, the warhammer’s emerald-inlaid head hovering uncertainly.
“Stop, Marcellus!” I yelled. I climbed down from my horse and approached the old woman. Marcellus did not look pleased with me, and I suspected he might well bash my brains upon the forest floor for daring to speak out against him. I ignored him, however, and addressed the old woman. Her eyes were the color of wet dung. “How have you been wronged?”
The hag’s eyes widened with hope. When she spoke I saw rotten teeth in the black hole of her mouth. “My beauty has been stolen from me!”
“Too true,” Marcellus said. “But one doubts such a creature as you ever had it to begin with.”
The squires all chuckled and snorted.
“I was not as you see me now,” the hag said. “But the mirror erred in its reflection! It entrapped me! It is the mirror’s fault! That beastly mirror with its conniving and its stealing and its magicking me away from myself!”
“A mirror?” I said, at a loss.
“The mirror that shows and takes,” she said, wringing her birch-fingered hands anxiously. “The mirror that makes manifest dreams!”
Aidan jested flippantly. “There have been many women who have been wronged by a mirror, showing them what they do not wish to see.”
“This mirror showed me what I most wanted to see!” the hag said, rallying in anger. “And so gave life to what I wanted!”
Barric laughed. “One should hardly think you would want to look in a mirror at all.”
There was a round of chuckles and the old woman cried out in frustration and sorrow. “It did me wrong with my reflection! It showed me as I was not, and made me not as I am!”
“She speaks in riddles,” Aidan remarked.
“Or perhaps she speaks a spell,” Zanton suggested. “One to bind us all.”
“No spell,” she said, “but what has misplaced myself!”
“Enough!” Marcellus said, losing his temper. “Aegis, if you wish to rescue this…damsel in distress…then be off with you. The rest of us have a Princess to save, and our legends to write.”
“A knight is charged with aiding whosoever requires it,” I said.
Marcellus snorted, but lowered his warhammer. “Then do so. I am sure you are knight enough to handle this old wretch’s woes by yourself.”
I looked again at the old, unnatural hag. I felt my own reluctance keenly. Yet, my stubbornness was also bolstered by Marcellus’s taunts. My conflicted heart knew only shame on either side of impulse and the restraint: restraint in being repulsed by the old hag’s appearance and impulse at being driven to defy Marcellus. There was no honor in my reasoning for either choice.
“I will stay and help you,” I told the old hag, regretting it upon the instant, especially as I watched that wretchedly wizened and twisted face crinkle and crack ever more with what I assumed to be a needy smile.
“Oh thank you!” she effused, her voice like a tall timber splitting down its center. “Thank you so much, my young, pretty boy!”
“‘Pretty boy’ she calls him!” Marcellus laughed. “She’s a fancy for you, Aegis. We will leave you two to get better acquainted. Is that wedding bells I hear? And so soon!”
I blushed, from embarrassment and hatred. The old hag affected to wipe the tears from her eyes, which only deepened my shame.
“Come, brothers,” Marcellus said, spurring his horse to a trot. “Leave the fool to his maiden. We have superior aims at mark.”
The squires hurried their horses forward, eager to be away from the loathly lady. Some of them spared me glances of pity. Others merely grinned at my misfortune. Barric blew a kiss at me. Sadly, as stricken as I was with such petty puerility, the old hag was equally self-aware and quickly shrouded her head in her hood and seemed to shrink in upon herself. This again shamed me and rallied those twin sensibilities, humility and compassion, and thus compelled my honor to see right done by this old, humpbacked hag.
Or so I told myself, even as regret fettered me with its tight shackles.

***

I walked with the loathly lady through the woods, leading my horse by the reins. I would have offered to let the old woman ride, but my horse was skittish around her, keeping its distance. This did not ease my mind as to my choice. They say that horses are honest animals, and so possess a natural aversion toward dishonesty and wickedness. Was this hag leading me toward peril? Having trained with aristocrats and peasants alike, I was naturally given to a certain prevailing suspicion about everyone in the world. I was well aware that Man was beholden to latent motivations that were not often easily discernible. Thus, I was suspicious of the haggard woman as she hobbled ahead of me. Deceit and counterfeit affectations were rife in the King’s court. Sir Brenold had educated me to their diversities, but I was not yet possessed of the acumen or experience to distinguish them. What I did know, or at least suspected, was that the old hag was leading me into an ambush or trap.
“What is your name?” I asked the old woman.
She was silent for a long time and I thought she had not heard me. I repeated my question, raising my voice for the sake of her hearing.
“What is your name?”
“I do not know,” she said at last, her voice quivering and crackling.
“How can you not know your name?” I asked.
“I do not know,” she answered again.
“Where do you come from?” I asked.
“I do not know,” she answered once more.
This perplexed me, and deepened my suspicions. “Surely you do not live here all by yourself,” I said. “Have you children in a nearby village? Family?”
“I know nothing but what the mirror left me,” she said, trembling. “I remember the pane, but not the reflection.”
I recalled what Master Avon told us of names and their supposed power. He said some wizards believed knowing a name gave you power over a being— such as a fairy or a witch or even a wizard— but he said that was true in some instances, and nonsense in others.
“It may work for dogs,” he said. “And it may work for reputations in courts and kingdoms. But dragons are not dogs. Hydras care little for reputations. Trolls are deaf to their own names. It is much the same as with any willful beast, such as a cat. You may call to a cat, but if it is disinclined to come you will be calling a long time for nought. Most dangerous things care little if you know their names. To them it is nothing more than the same fearful cry of any other prey before claw and teeth find them.”
I wondered if the same was true of some humans. Knowing a man’s name might mean nothing as he brings his hammer down upon your head.
As we walked I thought of what jokes the squires might be enjoying at my expense. Doubtlessly, they considered me a fool. Yet, were I to die as a fool led astray into some witch’s stew then I could console myself as not providing a fire for their cold night. That was revenge enough against judgment, I suppose. True, it was petty, but even I had to succumb to human nature occasionally. Ideals could only do so much.
And, truth be told, most of the knights in service to Gran Stone were less than ideal. The Bronze Knight, Sir Wallen, was a chauvinist if ever there was one. He might have trained boys to be men devoted to saving women, but he entertained rather dismissive notions of the fairer sex. I had overheard him jesting about a washerwoman’s breasts as she bent over a stream. In a most vulgar, suggestive tone he spoke of wanting to help spread her“sudsy froth”. As was often the case for him, whenever he spoke so bawdily, he did so with a leer and a high-pitched chortle that contrasted sharply with his portly frame and deep voice. Barric’s ribald tongue flourished under Sir Wallen’s tutelage, as did his propensity toward merrymaking at the expense of other men’s prides. Aidan, having a lovely sister, was often the target of Barric’s more friendly mockery. The rest of us, with the exception of Marcellus, were victims to his more malicious mischief. Often Sir Wallen and his squire worked conjointly to humiliate someone with mean-spirited jests. I had been one such collaboration when I found my sparring helmet full of manure. Luckily, I made the discovery before I had donned the helmet. When I had voiced my rage, Sir Wallen asked for the helmet, which I handed to him. Immediately upon receiving the sullied cap he righted it up and stuck it on my head, plastering my hair with manure. He and Barric laughed endlessly. Sir Brenold was as angry at me as he was Sir Wallen. He told me I should have fought for my honor. But I was so astonished that a sworn knight would do such a thing that I could only stand and gawp in dismay, like a slow-witted imbecile.
Nor was Barric’s mentor the only knight that had trampled what I presumed to be knightly virtues. Aidan’s mentor, Sir Ruttel, the Carmine Knight, was of a gentler approach, but no less dishonorable intentions. He was considered by many women to be both gentlemanly and charming, and was considered by many more to be handsome. Consequently, he tipped his jousting lance in more nightly tourneys than any man had right to, especially a man beholden to knightly principles. His eloquence with women was legendary, for he could speak whole epics in praise of a single woman who had flared his fancy. Yet, when he spoke to squires— if he had to, for whatever reason— it was with a terse, sneering tone of intolerance and condescension. When Sir Ruttel had to train us for melees he did so with few words and many whacks. I had the audacity to block his practice sword when he was correcting me, and he struck at me in such a rapid and violent succession that he would not have satisfaction until he had knocked my helmet backwards about my head and then, for further satisfaction, doubled me over with a strike to the gut with the flat of his blade. Sir Brenold nearly came to blows with him over it, but the Carmine Knight merely snorted and walked away, a swagger in his hips. Hence forward, whenever he corrected me, he did so with a more resounding smack than the other squires. He despised me, and I despised him.
If I was honest I would have admitted to some pleasure at the thought of Sir Ruttell having run afoul of some man, beast, or mishap. If any knight was in need of an impediment to his swagger, it was surely the Carmine Knight. Often I dreamed of being a goodly knight just so I might better shame those who tarnished the gleam of that esteemed shield of protection. Sir Wallen and Sir Ruttel were but two of many stains upon that shield, and I should have very much liked to be the one to strip them clean from it so as to better its virtuous shine.

The loathly lady and I continued deeper into that dark forest. It was midday and yet it was ever twilight in that colonnaded court of oaks and elms and ashes. There was no underbrush, besides the mushrooms that cluttered bark and stumps. So little light penetrated that thick foliage overhead that few things grew up from that mossy forest floor.
“It lies ahead,” the old hag said. “The beastly mirror. Beware its reflections. It is not to be trusted.”
My horse whinnied and would not go further. Thus, I let it stay and graze on whatever grassy shoots it could find upon that mossy ground. The hag and I continued afoot, pressing further within that black veiled bosom of the woods. The closer we came to the heart, the more crowded the trees became.
And then, quite unexpectedly, the trunks fell away into the darkness, even as we continued walking into that abruptly spacious umbral glade. I peered into the sky above us and saw nothing but eternal night there, and yet there should have been no canopies stretching over us. It was as if the shadows themselves had forged themselves together and formed a dome to entrap the earth.
“Where are we?” I asked.
But the old hag shook her head. Her lips were sealed into a grim, wrinkle-notched frown. I misliked it very much: her frown and the glade. The cold air of the woods was suddenly subsumed by a warmth. It was not the reassuring warmth of a Summer’s day, or of a mother’s . The warmth was mocking me upon every nerve and inch of skin. My hair stood on end, though I felt no chills, and the warmth teased me forward into that grand darkness that lay all about us.
And then I saw a light in that darkness. The light was like a sudden revelation in one’s heart; a fanciful euphoria akin only to the rise of a Summer’s sun in the dead cold of Winter, or the radiant discovery of true love while in the lonesome depths of despair. It was a sensation both intoxicating and irresistible, not unlike realizing one’s great destiny. As we approached the glade I saw the mirror first and foremost. It was an ovular sheet of flawlessly clean glass that shined even in the dark murk of that woods. I could not see but edges of the tree in which it was embedded, nor did my eyes linger long on that peripheral insignificance. What mattered most was the mirror. It entranced me. The old hag spoke to me, yet I did not understand her words. I did not care to understand them. She grabbed hold of my wrist, and though I thought she meant me harm it was meaningless in the reflection of that mirror. I approached it, dragging her as she attempted to wrest me away. In its perfect shimmery reflection I saw elucidated the limpid dreams and desires of my heart. I saw myself victorious in my return to the great rock steps of Gran Stone, the walls and parapets and streets crowded with people cheering my name. In my arms was the Princess Felicia. On my body was the lustrous armor, helm, and shield of the Gold Knight. Behind me, in an envious procession, were the squires and the knights that had failed in their mission and in their morals. Marcellus was downcast, loping along like a beaten ape. So, too, were Sir Wallen and Sir Ruttel, their arrogant visages as broken and stripped as their Emerald and Carmine armor. I carried the Princess to the King, and the King took his daughter in his arms and embraced her. Then he entreated me down from my horse and, on that very spot, in front of the whole cheering kingdom and the envious knights and squires, he proclaimed us bound in marriage and in kingship…
A horrendous blow to my chest staggered me and dropped me to my knees. Breathless and clutching my chest, I looked up to see the old hag holding my shield. Her eyes were wide with fear, but not of me. Before I could glance up again at the mirror, she stepped between myself and that magical oval, blocking my view with my shield. I saw the crest of Sir Brenold’s upon the shield. It was of a brass turtle shell with a crenelated ridge. Fortress and defense. Carapace against the onslaught. Protector of the innocent. Humility and self-sacrifice. Shield to skin to blood to bone to soul. Brass soul. Brass Sir Brenold’s tenets came to me, shaming me and rallying me against the allure of the mirror.
I rose and took my shield from the hag. She looked afraid, thinking I might harm her. She cowered and shrank from me as I approached the mirror a second time.
“Do not worry,” I said. “I have come to my senses.”
The mirror’s glass showed me again what I thought was my heart’s desire. I looked beyond the vision in the pane, searching the edges of that bewitching glass for the make of the tree in which it was embedded. I did not realize how tenebrous the woods were until now. I could not see well beyond the mirror. Its glow darkened by contrast the rest of the woods beyond it, the area circumscribing it being like a moonless, starless night. The umbral depth struck me as unnatural. It was the dark heart of the woods, and its silence was mischief.
Lifting my shield, I struck the mirror at its center, where Princess Felicia and I kissed before the joy of the crowd. My shield rebounded, the mirror cracked diagonally across its face, but it remained strong. Suddenly, the mirror quivered, and a great roar bellowed from above, the sound of it deafening and painful. The trees shook all around, and so too the ground beneath me. The old woman fell, moaning and clasping her ears. I picked her up and slung her over my shoulder and fled from that dark glade. As I glanced back I saw the mirror moving, jerking this way and that with the contorting tree. Then I saw, to my horror, that the tree was uprooting itself; that it was no tree at all, but some ghastly creature that was struggling to free itself from the ground.
When I found my horse I took its reins and put the old woman astride the saddle. She clasped onto the affrighted horse’s mane and the horse neighed wildly. The horse was upset from the quakes, but certainly did not want the hag on its buck either. I allowed it no time to protest. I lifted myself atop its back and then spurred it forward, through the woods and away, at full gallop. There were moments when I fought to keep the horse under control. There were moments when I fought to keep the old hag in the saddle. There were moments when I yet fought the enchantment of that dream deferred in a glass darkly. Even now, in my fright, I felt its power calling me back to it.

***

At midday we finally broke into broad daylight, coming to the Easterland fields. They were vast and rolling, with windswept grass billowing in pulse to my heartbeat. To see such widely yawning space after the crowding woods gave me pause. The ribbony grass was like the soft hair of a maiden in recline, the wind covetous of her attention. The very air itself was more filling and warmer than that stagnant cold air that lingered in the shadows of the woods. It was like being reborn into the world, and I was thankful for it.
I slowed the horse to a walk and hopped off to ease its burden. Taking the reins, I led it away from the woods, still fearing that the creature with the mirroring heart might emerge to menace us once again.
The wall of the forest ran for leagues behind us, North to South. As we left it behind my eye caught upon a singular ruin atop an up-sweeping hill that overlooked the wide meadows beyond it. The stone structure was like a broken tower felled disjointedly by a great missile cast down from the heavens. The base remained, and half of its circular stones, shattered like some broken fang.
“A tower,” I said.
“A bridge,” the old hag said.
“Bridge?” I said, confused. I looked out as far as I might across those receding lowlands. “But to where? There is no ravine, nor river or chasm or great fortress held aloft at a distance. The earth itself is safe to cross for miles hence forward.”
“It was not made to cross lapses in the earth,” she said. “It was made to cross the lapse that is the sky.”
I looked up above the ruined tower, toward the thin cirri that floated across that blue sphere like downy feather upon a lake. I knew not what I meant my eye to see, nor could I fathom the hag’s meaning.
“Wherefore the sky?” I asked.
“To commune with the most high Sylpths,” she said, “or perhaps less charitable creatures of immortal make. No doubt, the bridge displeased one of them and they smote it down in spite.”
As we moved closer to the ruin there came to light many figures standing within the stone ruins. Their plates gleamed in various colors as a volley of voices contended with one another for dominance of ear and heart.
“My brothers,” I said. “I would have thought that they would have made longer strides than this.”
Approaching yet closer, I could finally discern their voices from that otherwise silent ruin, and the imperius silence that ruled in all directions therefrom.
“You must tell us where you obtained that armor,” Marcellus said. “To deny explanation is to admit guilt to nefarious means.”
“Just tell us the truth,” said Zanton, “and we will believe you. If you acquired it by accidental discovery, there is no shame in it. We will return it to its rightful heir and…”
“And beat you through the streets like a dog!” Marcellus said. “Because there is no chance that you acquired the Gold Knight’s armor without wickedness. Not one so ill-skilled as you!”
The newcomer was indeed encased in the Gold Knight’s armor, with the exception of his helm. The helm remained cradled under his arm. Yet, I could not see his face, for his back was to me.
“I have bested all knights,” said the newcomer. His voice was arrogant, not unlike Marcellus’s, and yet it seemed familiar for another reason I could not rightly affix. “I have bested all and claimed all. I am the greatest knight in this land. I will rescue Princess Felicia and marry her and . This is my dream, and this is my destiny. So will it be manifest.”
The squires all around him scoffed and roared dismissively and booed him.
“I will ask you only once more,” Marcellus said, the edge of his voice striking like the edge of his warhammer. “Where did you obtain that armor? If you do not answer truthfully, I will answer you with force.”
“Then bring on your force,” said the newcomer, “and feel it wither in the shadow of a superior warrior.”
Marcellus donned his Emerald helmet and hoisted his warhammer, walking toward the Gold Knight. The Gold Knight donned his helmet, also, and took his shield from off his back. He used no other weapon— only his shield against the hammer.
And that was what told me the identity of the Gold Knight.
“You will lose, Aegis!” Zanton yelled above the hooting of the other squires. “Pray, reconsider!”
I saw…myself. I saw my facsimile fighting Marcellus atop the ruined bridge that rose like a broken tooth from the hilltop. It was me, yet it was not me. I had a full set of armor that shimmered brightly in the sun. It was not brass, nor bronze nor tin nor simple iron. It was Golden. I was the Gold Knight. I was the most venerated knight in the whole of Gran Stone.
Half of the squires cheered the fight on. The other half stood by in fearful stupefaction. Marcellus raised his warhammer and slammed it against the Gold Knight’s shield. But regardless of however well it fell trees, the warhammer could not crush my twin. His shield halted and turned aside those powerful strikes like rocks turning aside the tides.
“You have gone mad if you believe you can defeat me!” Marcellus shouted furiously. He swung overhead and the hammer met the Gold Knight’s shield, to no avail. “That hag has clearly enchanted you and given you power. But it will do you no good against me!”
My twin spoke, then, with a voice like my own, but louder and dripping with pride. “Had you the means of defeating me, you would have done so already. Now you talk to delay the inevitable.”
The clash continued, thunderous and violent. It seemed to me the whole ruin should collapse beneath them ere a victor was established. But then my mirrored image caught the warhammer with a hooked edge, just beneath that massive head, and with a well-timed tug and astonishing force, he wrenched the warhammer away from Marcellus, unbalancing the Emerald squire and catching him across the jaw with the return-swing of the shield. Marcellus followed his jaw, twisting to the side and diving headlong to the ground. There was an arc of crimson that traced his fall, promptly splattering the cobbled ruins beneath him. I thought him dead. Surely he had to be dead. But no, he tried to rise, his jaw twisted unnaturally and his mouth trickling blood. He was barely conscious— barely alive.
“You son of a whore!” Barric roared.
The biggest among the squires, Barric grabbed up his ax and came on like a whirlwind upon my double. He fell, too, my twin ducking beneath that crescent blade and ramming his shield into Barric’s knee. The knee caved inward, like a snapped reed, and the Bronze squire collapsed to the ground, screaming in frustration and agony.
What did I feel as I saw this? To think that I could have bested Marcellus and Barric was always a fancy I entertained. I never dared fight either of them, except in practice, and even then with prudent restraint, and yet I secretly reveled in the fancy as if it was as true a notion as ice melting to water and chickens laying eggs. I felt gratification. I felt pride.
And then I felt horror. My twin strode over to Marcellus, with the most casual gait, and raised his shield. There was a great gasping silence from the other squires, their shouts suddenly evaporating like frost beneath wildfire. My twin laughed.
“As easily said, so too easily done.”
Down upon the base of Marcellus’s skull he brought the shield. The Emerald squire’s neck snapped and severed audibly, like the clean breaking of a branch in tornado winds. My brothers cried out. I let loose the reins of my horse and began to run toward the ruin, my nerves afire with fear and fury and the numbing realization of floundering futility.
My twin was raising his shield over Barric when I called out to him.
“Stop!” I yelled. “Stop, you imposter!”
He turned to face me. I turned to face myself and found myself as stunned as I was when I gazed into that beastly mirror. Suddenly, my anger was replaced by the rapturous thought of what I could be. I wished to be him. I wished to be the ideal me.
But was he the ideal? He was all arrogance and cruelty. He served none of the tenets that Sir Brenold had given me.
“Who are you?” he asked, his golden eyes glaring.
“I am Aegis,” I said. “The Brass Squire.”
“Another foolish squire that wishes to challenge me? The peasantry is breeding overmuch in this part of the world.”
“I am Aegis,” I repeated. “Son of Unsel and Siri. Squire to Sir Brenold, the Brass Knight. Protector of the weak. Shield of the innocent. Defender of homes, hearts, and the humble.”
My brothers were all agog, gawping at my double and I like we were two-headed goats.
I raised my shield. I needed no other weapon, for I was trained a shield-hand, defending and defeating foes with the same heave and hoist.
“I challenge you!” I said.
He laughed and raised his shield.
“You claim to be me,” my golden-eyed twin said. “But it is no matter. A flawed reflection is soon reconciled. We will see the difference between the golden-hued wheat and the profligate chaff.”
He came at me with the flat of his shield pumping to and fro. I knew the attack for what it was: a feint to bewilder the enemy. Instinctively I stepped aside, and swung my shield with all of my strength against the upper edge of his shield. This diverted his shield downward, affording an opening for a blinking moment, but before I could strike his elbow he had stepped back and raised his shield once more, covering his flank. As I knew his moves, he knew mine, and could better them with greater skill and strength.
Again he rushed me, ever-smiling and unfazed. The gleam of his golden armor blinded me and I was forced to retreat as he struck toward my head and my torso and my knees with intimate knowledge of my strategies, guided by a superior skill. When I attempted a double-handed shield-smash, he sidestepped and brought his shield down toward the back of my skull. I leaned to the side and tried to roll away, presenting my plated shoulder. The meager armor did little to soften the blow. My shoulder exploded in pain and I tumbled to the ground, flattened out on my chest. MY shoulder was a searing ball of knotted agony and I feared that it was dislocated. I pushed myself to my feet with my good arm.
My left arm was useless now. I felt defeated, but knew I could not allow my cruel twin victory. Reluctantly, I threw aside my shield and drew my sword from its scabbard.
“You are going to use a sword now?” he taunted me. “And what good will it do for you with one arm? You cannot both defend and attack with one arm.”
“It is not ideal,” I said. “But I do not feel ideal right now.”
I rarely used a sword. I did not like to, not because I was a poor swordsman, but because I did not wish to kill anyone. The other squires never knew how deft I was with a sword, for I never used anything but my shield while training with them. To unsheathe my sword was to promise death, either to my opponent or to myself, for Sir Brenold had me bound by oath never to use it except when I had no choice.
“Only in mortal circumstances,” he had said. “When the threads of two lives threaten to undo one another, and one must be severed.”
A searching sword, I knew, needed a morally clear mind to rightfully guide it, and few instances in life were morally clear, even for a knight.
“I am a defender,” I said. “From shield to skin to blood to bone to soul, I fight. Come blade or arrow or dragon’s breath, I fight.”
“You think too highly of yourself,” my twin said, missing the irony. “You have less chance of winning against me than you do any volley of arrows or dragon-fire.”
“Only because you are too cowardly to fight a cripple with blade alone,” I said.
“No, merely better skilled, and having advantaged myself on my skill.”
“There is hardly skill required in slaying a one-armed boy,” I said.
“True,” he admitted. He tossed aside his shield. “Very well, then. Let foil find flesh on equal footing. A single-armed duel will make it more satisfying when I slay you.”
Our blades met and rebounded with a scintillating, metallic scurry of sparks. From the start I knew I would be yet disadvantaged. The throbbing ache of my shoulder slowed my movements and weakened my attacks. Time was not my ally, nor anything else for that matter. The only advantage I had, I realized, was the arrogance of my opponent. I decided I should beat him by doing what was not ideal. I would taunt him.
“I wonder if you shall defeat me ere the sun sets,” I said. “You are surely slow about it.”
“I wish to savor your death,” he said, thrusting.
I countered, striking air, evaded another attack, and riposted. “It will be difficult to savor anything when I cut your tongue from your mouth.”
He laughed, and sidestepped, thrusting at my face. I circled about, jerking my head away from the long, thin blade that darted at my nose like a heron’s beak.
“It will be difficult to be so witty once I have pierced your heart with my blade,” he said.
“Whereas I will always have wit, you are but a poor imitation,” I said. “A reflection as adorned and yet hollow as a gilded mirror’s reflection. I wonder if that armor you wear is but brass painted gold. Or perhaps it is fool’s gold. You seem deficient of the sense to discern the difference.”
This vexed him. “I am genuine in all things,” he growled. “Particularly in my hatred of you.”
“Merely because you know you are not the original,” I said.
“No, I am the bettered specimen,” he said, thrusting and back-stepping before thrusting again. “I am the aspiration. I am the ideal. You are the impoverished reflection. The imperfect little miscast miscreant in my narrative. You tarnish my existence with your continued existence.”
“That may be true,” I said. “You are better than me in every way. Except as a human being. You are an errant dream. You are a myth. You are not real. You will never be real.”
My twin roared. He feinted toward my good arm, then thrust toward my wounded side. I caught the blade with my forearm before it could stab my eye, the slender fang biting deep through the mail into the flesh and further, stopping only at the trembling bone. Before he could withdraw the blade, and before I could gasp out in pain, I thrust my sword into the arrogant glow of his golden eye. The blade slipped into his brain like a . His impaled head vibrated around the blade, then shattered into glass, his whole body crumbling down into glittering dust. None of him remained intact, nor his armor or his sword or his shield. All was gone to dissembled glass.
Then did I scream in pain and drop my blade, falling to my knees and clutching my crimson arm.
The old hag approached me while the other squires stood at a distance, still gawping at all that had transpired. Grabbing my arm, she inspected it. I openly wept at the pain.
“I must see to your wounds,” she said. Her spindly, birch-like fingers slipped over my uninjured shoulder and she ushered me away. “I will make a soothing poultice for your shoulder, with herbs and sap. For your bleeding wound I will staunch the bleeding with moss and burn the wound clean. It will fester otherwise.”

***

It was an agonizing hour before the hag had cauterized and bound my arm and soothed my bruise-blackened shoulder. I was upon the ground, on my back, recovering from the ordeal. The hag had made a fire and was sitting nearby, silently watching the woods. Meanwhile, I was watching the other squires. They remained at a distance, making a splint for Barric’s broken leg. None had ventured to see to my health, and all eyed the hag suspiciously. Soon, they buried Marcellus in the earth, making a cairn from stones torn from the ruins. After they had said a few Matharist prayers, they banded together— two squires helping Barric walk among the others— and approached us.
“That hag did this!” Barric said, his face wrung with pain. “She has slain Marcellus! With Aegis’s help! We must avenge Marcellus!”
The other squires nodded, but none moved. I stood up, with great effort, and approached them. I tried to speak calmly, even as the pain bit at my arm like a wolf.
“You may blame me for what happened,” I said. “But surely you must know that
“Who was that golden knight?” Zanton asked. “Why did he look like you? Did the witch summon him to kill Marcellus?”
“No,” I said. “It was the mirror in the woods. That…creature with the mirror upon its underbelly…”
“He is lying!” Barric bellowed. “That damned witch summoned his double to kill us all! She gave Aegis magical armor and weapons to slay Marcellus. We all know that he could never have beaten Marcellus without her help!”
“But why did he fight himself?” Zanton reasoned. “Why did he risk his life to save your life, Barric? It makes no sense…”
“It is a demoness you face,” the witch said. “Vanus, the seductress of wants and desires. A vacuous, fickle creature, she desires no more than mischief and malice, like most imps and demons.”
“Not unlike young men,” I muttered, looking at my brothers in arms. “How can we defeat her?”
“WE?!” Barric thundered. “WE? No, we are not going to fall prey to your lies!”
Aidan stepped forward, looking at a loss and yet still trying to keep peace. “I don’t know what to believe,” he said. “It was all very…jumbled. What I do know is that we should not linger near these woods. They are cursed. Aegis, I do not believe you wronged us. But I do not trust that hag. So, if you are to keep in her company you should keep apart from ours.”
Several squires nodded at this. It seemed the fairest conclusion. Even I had to admit it, though I was disappointed yet again by my brothers.
“I do not break my vows,” I said. “I will see this mischief to its end, one way or the other.”
“Then good luck upon your errand.”
“Do not come back to us!” Barric said. “Should you survive, never return to Gran Stone, or I will tell everyone how you betrayed Marcellus in favor of this hideous witch! Everyone will know and your skull will be crushed upon the Judgment Pillars”
Barric’s eyes blazed with hatred, even as the two squires ushered him away. I knew that I would never be welcomed back among my brothers. They all thought I was a fool, or worse.
I could not overlook the irony that this final secession between myself and my brothers occurred at the remnants of a ruined bridge. It was no matter. A knight becomes his duty. If he must set out alone, then solitude becomes his brother where no other condescends.
***

My brothers had left us. The old hag and I remained at the ruined bridge-tower, sitting near the fire as night fell over the vast fields stretching out before us. The sky was purple, and then it was blue, and finally black. The stars shone, and the half-moon was like a demon’s malicious grin in the darkness of the cosmos. The hag sat across from me, the fire between us. The orange light and the dark shadows lined her face like a harrow in a field.
“Who are you?” I asked her. “Who are you, truly?”
“An old woman,” she said. She watched me with eyes unblinking in the flickering light.
“How old are you?” I asked, my skin crawling with some nameless fear.
“A long time,” she said. “That is how you become old. Living a long time.”
“Unnaturally old?” I asked.
A corner of her wrinkled mouth lifted with what seemed wry amusement. “It is unnatural to be old at any age,” she said. “When you age, you still believe you are young, and that you will remain young forever, even as your body wilts and withers all around you.”
She cackled and my horse neighed and tried to walk away, its hooves clopping loudly on the stone. I had tied my horse’s reins to one of the many trees that were growing up through the wreckage of the bridge-tower.
“You are evasive,” I said. “And it makes me uneasy. I have risked my life to help you, and I will continue to do so insomuch as you are honest with me.”
The old hag still did not blink. “I have lived for hundreds and hundreds of years,” she said. “Loneliness has been my crux for millennia. I have known no home but the birches in the inner heart of the forest. For I am the Birch Witch and I am the keeper of that darksome forest that you so detest.”
I tried to keep my face impassive, like a bluff of rock upon an ancient mountainside. I felt that my honor had been betrayed, but I would not allow my expression to betray the feelings of betrayal that I felt. “How did Vanus come to be in the woods?”
The old hag averted her eyes. “She has always existed there.”
“You are lying,” I said. “You have been lying to me all along.”
She looked at me, then, her eyes shrewder than they ever had been. “I summoned the demoness into my woods,” she said. “I made a pact with her. I wished that she should restore my youth. But she deceived me. She summoned my youth, but left me as I am.”
“And then you saw my brothers and I and thought to put us to use.”
“Yes,” she said. “And though you were the only fish I could hook, you proved to be the more useful whole than filleted.”
“How do I destroy the demoness?” I asked, trying to ignore her insults even as they irked me.
“By shattering its glass heart,” she said. “You nearly accomplished it earlier, but then you shrank from its fulfillment.”
“I was worried about your duplicitous hide,” I said. “I must venture back there. Alone. So I may engage the creature without concern for anything but her destruction.”
“No, I must go with you,” she said, standing up hurriedly. “You succumbed once before, and you will do so again. More importantly, I wish to be there when that deceitful creature dies. I wish for her to know it is because of me.”
I would not allow her to accompany me. As manipulative as she was, she was yet a life I had to preserve. Thus I abided my time, and slept until just before the early morning’s rise. Then, while the hump-backed witch was still mumbling in her sleep, I fetched my horse and hurried toward the woods at a fleet-hooved gallop.

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