a short fantasy tale set in a kingdom of rugged mountains.
In a kingdom of rugged mountains, flowing streams and sweeping fields, a maiden of the queen's court met a knight at the last Royal Ball of winter. The festivities went on for a fortnight and they spent every opportunity together. They continued their friendship as winter faded into spring.
When spring began the royal family and their loyal servants went on holiday. While the royal family was away, a coup occurred and citizens that were loyal to the kingdom went into hiding.
The royal family and their convoy roamed the neighbouring lands in exile where they found shelter and hospitality while longing for their home. Royal troops sent regular reports of their resistance to the rebellious groups. As the maiden travelled with the monarchs, she wondered what had happened to her knight friend.
As the royals travelled into the outer provinces of their realm, villages befriended them and some of their convoy remained as liaisons. The maiden decided to stay in a quiet village nestled in a mountain valley while the monarchs travelled farther south. The maiden stayed with the village innkeeper and his family and worked at the inn and the bakery.
As summer faded to autumn and then into winter, the maiden heard the rebel numbers were dwindling because few nearby towns wanted to give them allegiance. Most of the knights had fled the castle when the coup occurred and little cavalry remained. The maiden found her thoughts wandering to the knight.
She stayed in the village through winter and had saved enough money by spring to rent a small cottage on the outskirts of town. There she planted a garden and sold flowers to villagers. She wandered the forest paths and found new seeds for her garden. Bulbs of bright blue, light pink, yellow, and orange shone from her tiny lawn. Other villagers soon had window boxes with their own flowers. Whenever she took her walks in the mountains she saw dots of colour throughout the valley.
On one of her walks, the maiden came across an injured horse lying in the slushy snow. She returned to the village to gather a group who brought the horse to town to nurse it back to health. Then the group searched the woods around the village but did not find the horse’s owner.
The villagers kept the horse in the town stables to recover. Children loved giving the horse carrots and the maiden often visited to check on the horse's progress.
One day the maiden visited and noticed a cloaked figure in the shadows of the horse's stall. She approached the figure but before she could see who it was, the figure darted out of the stall, out the stable door and disappeared into the narrow, crooked street.
During the visit the horse had not spooked, so she figured the horse must know the figure. The maiden checked on the horse and noticed the hay had been refilled and the water was topped up. She checked around the stables again, but saw no one. She told the stable boy about the shadowy figure and then went home.
Over the next week, the stable boy told the maiden that the figure had been spotted twice but ran off.
The horse was recovering faster since the mysterious figure had started visiting.
The maiden was on a walk from the mountains one day when she spotted the cloaked figure emerging from the stables. She approached the figure quietly and followed as the person made their way through the village and disappeared down a path into the forest.
When she returned to the horse, she found the hay and water had been restocked again. On the windowsill near the horse's stall, the maiden left a couple of flowers she had gathered on her walk and then went home.
The first week of summer, the village held its annual festival. Flowers adorned window boxes and tables, and hung from strings crisscrossing above the streets. The maiden helped the bustling bakery serve pies, strudels, buns and cookies. Children gave carrots to the horses, groups danced in the streets and square, and the festivities wore on long into the evenings.
On the last evening when the maiden made her way home after the crowds had left the streets, she went to visit the horse.
When she entered the stables she saw the cloaked figure at the horse’s stall but this time they remained at the stall as she approached.
“Thank you for taking care of my horse,” the figure said without looking up. The man’s voice was deep, coarse and unfamiliar.
“We looked through the forest but couldn't find you,” the maiden told him as she came to stand beside him.
“I avoid most villages,” the man said, “until I know it's safe.”
He lifted the hood away from his face and then turned to her.
The maiden noticed a long white scar ran from below the man’s right eye, across his cheek, to below his chin and beneath his cloak.
Then she met his eyes. Relief swept through the maiden as she recognized him as the knight from the ball the year previous.
“I wondered what had happened to you after the coup,” she said and smiled. “I’m so glad to see you again!”
He held her gaze and studied her for a long moment before he looked back to his horse and stroked its mane. From his pocket he pulled a carrot, which he placed on his outstretched hand and fed to the horse.
“You were lucky to find a peaceful village,” the knight said as he fed the horse a small second carrot. “You have your flowers here and a quiet life. A kingdom in refuge is not really a kingdom at all, though the remaining coup members hold control of what’s left.” He turned to her, “I escaped. Barely. Not all the knights wanted to resist the coup and they pursued those who disagreed with them. They were strong at first, stronger than they are now.” He looked to the horse. “It’s better to stay in the shadows than to admit failure as a knight. Better to never have been a knight at all.”
The maiden moved closer to him and placed her hand over his on the stall door.
“You’re not a failure to me,” she said. Then the maiden lifted her hand and left the stables toward home.
The next day as the maiden tended her garden, the stable boy ran up to the fence.
“The horse is gone!” the stable boy called.
“Have you told anyone else?”
“No…” he admitted, cheeks reddening, “I never told anyone but you about the cloaked figure visiting the horse before either. I didn’t want people to think I couldn’t do my job. And now….”
“Let them go,” the maiden reassured him.
“Shouldn’t we pursue them?”
“I think it was the horse’s owner.”
“How can you be sure?”
“I met him. I know he is an honourable person.”
“Then why retrieve his horse at night?”
“Because he does not believe he is honourable.”
The stable boy quieted in his worries and helped the maiden tend the garden. They delivered flowers to the villagers and then the maiden went into the mountains to gather seeds for her garden.
On her return trip she stopped at a stream for water. In the trees farther along she heard rustling and looked up. Across the water from her stood the knight’s horse but it disappeared into the forest as she finished drinking.
She returned to the path and soon came to a clearing. Rustling sounded again and the horse trotted out of the trees toward her. She stroked its mane in greeting.
A stick crackled and her gaze darted to the forest path. There at the edge of the clearing stood the knight, his hood up around his face.
“You are leaving,” she said.
“Yes,” he replied and remained where he was.
“Will you keep wandering, even when you admit this village is different from the rest?”
“They accept you. Beauty yields more beauty. I am brokenness and defeat. I yield contempt.”
“You yield what you desire to yield. What you place on yourself. Do you believe wandering in exile, a nomad of self-denied worthiness, will help the kingdom revive any faster?”
“I am no longer worthy of a village life. I could not protect the last land I was assigned.”
“At least then to live as a free man, you are still worthy of that.”
“My dear maiden, I was not on the side you wish me to be on.” He removed his hood to meet her gaze and walked closer. “I was one of the knights who began the coup. We drove out those who remained loyal to the kingdom when you and the monarchs were away,” he sighed. “When my doubts began, I too was banished.”
“Fitting then, to have driven so many from their homeland, to become an exile yourself.” The maiden met his gaze. “Still, you seem a more decent man than that.” She stroked the horse. “What happened to your horse, anyway? When he was first injured?”
“He fell from a ledge when the path grew narrow and he lost his footing. Before I could make my way down the steep slopes to check on him he had been rescued. I hid in the mountain caves during their search and visited only at night. I know your village is safe…but what would they make of a former rebel knight?”
“I cannot say. But I know they welcome any man worthy of trust and honour.” The maiden began down the forest path. “The rest is for you to decide.”
The maiden made her way down into the valley, brought her seeds to her home and went to the bakery to work.
As the maiden and the other workers ate braided rolls and soup for dinner, the stable boy entered the back door. Out of breath, gesturing silently, he led the way through the side alley and onto the thoroughfare.
The maiden saw the horse first, surrounded by children rushing forward to welcome it back. Then, from behind the horse, the knight appeared in his hooded cloak. The stable boy approached the knight as the children returned to their parents on the sides of the street.
“Are you the owner of this horse?” the stable boy asked and the knight nodded. “Then why not visit in the light of day, or come to claim the horse as your own?”
“If you’re the owner,” the baker began, stepping forward, “why did you abandon your injured horse in the forest?”
“Those decisions were made with my wisdom of the situation at the time,” the knight said to the baker, and then turned to the stable boy. “I can pay you for my horse’s care. You’ve tended to him very well.”
“Then you can pay and leave!” the baker demanded. “We don’t need careless wanderers wreaking havoc here. You’ve been lurking around in the darkness longer than I’m comfortable with.”
“Unless you intend to stay,” the stable boy offered. “Your horse could use a bit more time to recover.”
“You did return, after all,” the maiden said.
“Here,” the knight handed a pouch of coins to the stable boy.
As the knight turned to his horse, the baker reached out toward the knight’s shoulder.
“Hold on,” the baker said, grasping the cloak.
The cloak fell from the knight’s head and revealed his face. From where the maiden stood she saw his scar. The knight stood still as the group was caught equally frozen.
“That’s the mark of a traitor,” a man in the crowd said. “You were part of the coup!”
Muttering swept through the crowd as the knight tried to edge toward his horse, but the baker caught his arm and pulled him back.
“So, this is where those who started the coup are now – lurking in shadows, ashamed to show their faces! The kingdom didn’t fall so quietly, did it?”
“But he left the rebellion,” the maiden said. “That’s why he has the scar.”
“You know this man?” the baker asked the maiden.
“Even so, disloyalty will not be tolerated! The sooner he learns that the better!” the baker said and shoved the knight toward his horse, “And you can leave farther than the mountain caves this time too!”
The knight pulled his cloak up around his face as he turned toward his horse.
“Wait!” the maiden said as she rushed between the knight and the baker. The knight did not turn to her as she approached him and gently touched his arm. “I’d like to know…why did you leave the rebellion?”
He sighed deeply and stroked his horse.
“They wanted us to convert the nearest villages to the castle to the rebellion…all of the villages agreed but one…mine. I let them escape to freedom instead of killing them…. When the coup leaders found out what I had done, they gave me this scar and burned the buildings…leaving me for dead.”
He mounted his horse and moved slowly through the crowd at first, then gathered speed through the streets as the crowd thinned. The maiden stood stunned at the knight’s story and felt a hand on her shoulder.
“Thank you,” the baker said as he rushed passed her.
The maiden walked home with the baker’s phrase in her ears and watched as three riders on horseback galloped toward the opening in the forest where the knight had disappeared. As she tended her garden, planting the seeds she found earlier that day, her mind wandered to the baker, his son and the stable boy, and wondered if they could convince the knight to return…again. He had come back at her encouragement, but the welcome was less inviting than she had envisioned. The maiden’s sleep that night was uneven, full of hopes, fears and stories.
The next morning the maiden delivered flowers to the villagers before going to the bakery. The baker, his son and the stable boy had not returned. Work was quiet and the days passed uneventfully. The villagers checked the horizon periodically for the horses and men but it remained quiet. The maiden helped the stable hands tend the horses in her spare time, worked at the bakery and then went to sleep exhausted.
On the third evening the maiden woke to a commotion in the streets so she dressed hurriedly and went out to investigate. From the mountain pass there were not three but six horses approaching the village, the two in the rear pulling a narrow carriage. When the carriage reached the village square, most of the villagers were awake and crowding on the lawn to see the visitors.
The baker and his son dismounted their horses and stood. The maiden looked through the crowd to try to identify the other riders. Then a booming voice echoed across the crowd and the maiden caught sight of a person on a bench above the villagers. She immediately recognized him as one of the princes of the displaced monarchy.
“Thank you for your attention,” the prince began, “I came to inform all of you that the coup in our kingdom has been suppressed and my father has regained control of the castle and lands. On behalf of my father, I also want to thank your village for helping us capture a member of the coup. He will be brought in front of my father to be held accountable for his participation in the injustices that have befallen our kingdom.”
A tap on her shoulder made the maiden turn; the stable boy stood facing her with a worried expression.
“They have him,” he said. “His scar…they knew he was in the coup…we tried to explain….”
“All the villagers,” the prince was saying, “have fought valiantly....”
The maiden stepped back from the group and the stable boy followed.
“Where are you going?” the stable boy asked, but the maiden kept moving toward the front of the group.
When she reached where the prince was speaking, he looked down at the movement below. His eyes widened in recognition.
“Ah, and you’ve kept our maiden safe as well. We can return you to the castle soon,” he said to her, “to your post where you will be most honoured.”
“This village has become my home, Your Highness,” the maiden began, “may I request to remain here?”
“Only natural, after over a year,” the prince considered, “very well.” He turned to the villagers again. “I must return to my quarters by nightfall, after which a long journey to the castle awaits, so I bid you my leave. Thank you again for your loyalty and service during this dark time.” He bowed to the group and stepped down from the bench.
The maiden followed the prince as he walked from the square to his carriage and the two remaining horses. Royal guards stood nearby and she noticed movement from within the carriage as she approached. Her eyes flitted to its small window and the figure inside backed away.
“Maiden,” the prince turned as he noticed her following him, “is there something else you wish to discuss with me?”
“Yes,” she nodded to the carriage, “the knight.”
“Ah, yes, those village men tried to make a case for him. But, a person willing to sacrifice the comforts of many for the selfish whims of some is far from vouching for.”
“Please, I will vouch for him,” the maiden said and she noticed movement near the carriage window.
“Do not trouble yourself in such matters maiden, he will be dealt with by my father.”
“The knight believed he was acting in the best interest of the land, but when he saw the coup’s true intentions he left.”
“Betrayal was his true intention, dear maiden. Nothing but that,” the prince stepped up the stair and sat at the reins. “My father will swiftly and accordingly attend to all betrayals.”
“It’s no use,” a soft voice floated down from the carriage window, “but thank you for your efforts. I don’t deserve them.”
“Correct indeed,” the prince shouted. “We must be off.”
The maiden sadly watched the prince’s carriage leave and then she returned home. As she approached her house, she noticed the knight’s horse was tethered to her garden fence. She gently stroked its mane before going inside.
Leaving her house in the care of the baker, the maiden and the stable boy set out after the carriage had departed. They took a shortcut through the mountains.
The next morning they stopped at a village beyond the mountains to let the horses rest. When they reached the castle a few hours later, they noticed a single monarchy flag flew from the highest tower and some of the houses were reoccupied.
At the main entrance the maiden and stable boy tethered their horses and then joined the long line of people being slowly ushered toward the king’s chamber.
When they neared the front of the group, activity at the castle gates caught their attention. The maiden and stable boy looked up and saw the prince’s carriage arrive.
The carriage stopped in front of the main entrance and the prince dismounted. He opened the carriage door and the knight stepped out. The maiden saw that his cloak had been removed, he looked exhausted and he was bound in shackles.
Guards escorted the knight toward the front of the crowd. The maiden hurried forward in their wake and managed to slip unseen into the king’s chamber behind them. After the stifling crowds the maiden found the receiving chamber echoing and vast.
“Father, I bring you this traitor,” the prince said as he strode toward the king’s podium. “He was found in the outer provinces. It is my understanding he was part of the coup when they tried to bring the villages nearest the castle into submission.”
“I told you, I helped saved them!”
“Silence!” the prince commanded. “He was found in the mountains. No doubt trying to escape.”
“Kneel,” the king ordered the knight. The maiden watched from the shadows as the knight reluctantly kneeled at the base of the king’s podium and looked at the floor. The king sat observing the knight. “I remember you from your knighting. You worked hard for that honour.”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” the knight answered, still looking at the floor.
“I saw potential in you. Was I misguided?”
The maiden crept closer, hid behind a pillar and saw the knight shake his head.
“Speak when my father asks you a question.”
“You weren’t misguided,” the knight said.
“Then why did you conspire to betray me?”
“I thought they’d do well…that it’d be better.”
“Do you know where your co-conspirators are now?” the king asked.
“I know not of their whereabouts. I left them.”
“No,” the prince retorted, “they left you…for dead.”
“I don’t know where they are,” the knight repeated, trying to keep his voice steady.
“They are in prison, the few who aren’t dead,” the king said. “Your two options.”
“Please,” the knight looked up, “let me go. The coup was wrong. I was wrong. But please, let me go.”
“That is a mighty favour you ask, considering what little power you possess,” the king said. “Son, since he has declined to choose, what will his fate be?”
The knight turned and looked pleadingly toward the prince. The maiden snuck closer and hid in the shadows of the front line of pillars.
“Son?” the king repeated. The prince was studying the face of the knight and their eyes connected. “Son?”
“Which village did you let go free?” the prince asked.
“One to the east,” the knight answered. “The one they burned.”
“They were all burned…eventually,” the king said, “when citizens were sleeping. Son, what is your decision?”
“The people had left! In the one I freed they burned it after the people were gone!” the knight said. “When the coup leaders found out….”
“Silence!” the king demanded. “Son!”
“Son!” The king motioned to the guards. “If you won’t make a decision then death, that’s my decision!” The guards lifted the knight from the floor and the prince watched as he was led away.
“No! Stop!” The maiden stepped from behind the pillar. “Please!”
The guards stopped and the king turned toward the maiden. The prince shook out of his reverie and focused on her.
“Who are you?” the king demanded.
“She is one of the royal maidens, Father.”
“And yet you stand and defend this traitor? Perhaps you’re just as bad as him! Betrayal in my knights and now the maidens! Get her out of here!” Other guards began toward the maiden and she backed toward the pillars.
“Son, this has gone on long enough!”
“Father, please listen! The village he saved, that’s the one I was in. He saved my life.”
“You and your brother were never that close to the castle! You were defending rural provinces in the west.”
“No, Father. We came to the castle to try and fight. That village was as close as we got before the rebels came.”
The king looked from the maiden to the knight and then to the prince.
“How are you sure this is the same man?”
“I looked into his eyes, Father. Have you never done that?”
“My subjects are not for me to bond with but to guide and protect, Son, as you will one day learn. Emotional attachments only hinder the protection I can provide.” The king stepped down from his podium and walked toward the knight. “Still…your method may have some merit….” The guards turned the knight to face the king. Before the king, the knight kneeled. As the king inspected him, the knight kept his gaze on the floor. “Alright…look at me….”
The maiden saw fear burn in the knight’s eyes as he held the king’s gaze. His fate rested in those eyes, in the hands of the king he had betrayed.
“Son,” the king began, still meeting the knight’s gaze, “what is your decision?” The king’s tone was noticeably gentler than his earlier inquiries.
“The mountain village in the outer provinces where the maiden lives said they would accept him. He could live there.”
“Maiden,” the king turned toward her. She numbly walked forward and kneeled. “Your village would accept responsibility for this man?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“They have been loyal to me?”
“Yes. They kept our convoy safe during our visit. I felt very welcomed so I stayed.”
“She has agreed to be a representative of the crown in that village, Father.”
The king looked back to the knight.
“Stand,” the king ordered and the knight stood. “Free him of his shackles,” and the guards unchained the knight. “You are hereby relieved of your title as a knight,” the king began and the man flinched, “but you are also forgiven of your betrayals against my kingdom. You are hereby freed from persecution unless future transgressions deem it so. Is that clear?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” the man answered and met the king’s gaze.
The king’s scribe scrawled a note on a piece of parchment then the king sealed it with his ring and handed it to the man.
“You both may go,” the king said and turned to the maiden, “I expect you have your own transportation to the village?”
“Yes, Your Majesty,” the maiden replied as she stood.
They were escorted from the king’s chamber and the next person in line was led in.
Many people stared as the maiden and the man walked to where the stable boy waited with the horses.
“That’s the mark of a traitor,” a woman walking past them muttered loud enough for them to hear.
“Excuse me,” the maiden turned to the woman and her group, “but not everything is as it seems. This man saved an entire village.”
“A village that was only in danger because of his kind,” the woman scoffed.
“You’ll find that peace will not come until we accept the darkness in each of us,” the man replied.
“Even I, a maiden of the kingdom, am not perfect.”
“Humph,” the woman turned away and hastily left with her group.
At dawn the next morning the trio returned to the quiet mountain village and made their way to the stables to settle the horses in for a long rest.
“Thank you,” the man said to them as he stroked his horse’s mane in greeting. The horse nuzzled him affectionately, grateful for his return.
“You’re welcome,” the stable boy said. “Our maiden friend was right, you are an honourable person. Here,” the stable boy handed the man the pouch of coins. “You need this more than I do.” The stable boy smiled and left before the man could object.
“I stand by what I said before,” the man said, “you were lucky to find a peaceful village.”
“So were you,” the maiden said. The man looked up and met her gaze. “We’re glad…I’m glad…to have you here.”
He smiled, leaned forward and then looked away.
She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. He blushed.
The man looked over at her and leaned forward again.
She leaned forward as well, their lips met and they kissed.