THE KNIGHT AND THE KING by Christina Ruth Johnson
Others have tried to solve this mystery and failed-
You have 3 nights to discover my daughters’ secret...A lone traveler walked along the road, his clothing nondescript, his destination only where the road might end. He did not think that he had traveled this particular road before, but then his memory was not what it used to be.
He wore a sword comfortably at his side, and his body bore the marks of a soldier’s trade. Traveling was difficult as he pushed through the aching of bones that had never used to ache before, but—homeless and aimless—he kept walking. The other travelers saw reflected in his eyes memories of different days, but there was sadness, too, for memory was all that remained.
News of this uncommon soldier came to the ears of the king whose city lay at the end of the road. As the soldier approached the gates, the king had him brought to the castle, for a man with both memory and loss in his eyes might be just the sort of man to solve his kingdom’s greatest mystery.
In an audience chamber hung with fine tapestries, the king sat on a dais behind a long table meant for feasting, though it was currently bare. His face was lined with pain, but he sat upright and regal. The soldier bowed low. When the king spoke, his voice did not waver.
“I welcome to my hall one who has known pain as I know pain.”
“I am sorry for your pain, my lord,” the soldier replied.
“And I for yours.”
The soldier frowned. “My sword arm has strength yet. My heart has courage.”
“But your shield arm is gone,” came the reply, without malice.
The soldier shifted his shoulders, which made the empty left sleeve of his shirt sway back and forth.
“My pain is easy to perceive. What form, my lord, does yours take?”
“You have a pain greater than the loss of an arm, I think. I have two pains as well. The first is a wound that does not heal and that will not allow me to rise to pay you the respect that you deserve. For I know your second pain . . . knight of Camelot.”
The man bowed his head and tried not to weep.
“I am a knight no longer,” he said, “But I swear by the King Who Was—if you will accept such an oath—that I will help you cure your pain. In doing so, I may find a balm for my own.”
The king nodded graciously. “Such an oath will always hold honor in my kingdom, sir knight—you deserve the title still—but, alas, my first pain cannot be healed. Instead, I plead with you, aid me with my second. In this, I believe you can truly help.”
“To my utmost ability.”
“For nearly a year, my daughters have kept a secret from me. They disappear from their rooms every night and reappear at dawn, their shoes tattered, their hems dirtied. Despite my pleas, they will not tell me why.
“Others have tried to solve this mystery and failed, and this is the challenge I set before to them: you have three nights to discover my daughters’ secret. If you prevail, you may choose one of them to be your wife, as she is willing.”
“Forgive me, lord, but many years ago I had a wife, whom I loved. I will not replace her, now that I am past my youth.”
The king smiled. “You are yet young enough to barter with a king! But if a wife does not suit, you may choose any other reward that I am capable of giving.”
“And if I fail?”
“Then I ask you to swear yourself to my service for the rest of your days.”
The knight dropped to one knee and laid his remaining hand across his heart. A tiny light glinted off of a delicate ring on his smallest finger.
The knight was given a room along the same hallway as the princess’ suites. Just before sunset, there was a gentle knock on his door. The king’s eldest daughter smiled and offered him a cup of mulled wine, fresh from the fire. He bowed over her hand and asked her name.
“Elaine,” she replied.
“Thank you, Lady Elaine.”
“You are welcome, sir. I wish you a comfortable night.”
No sooner had she left and he had drunk the wine, than the knight did indeed fall into a comfortable sleep, from which he woke only when the morning sun was high.
When Elaine offered another cup the following evening, he feigned drinking and poured it out when she was gone. He waited until he heard movement in the hallway: the soft shutting of doors, the hush of female voices. When he judged the moment was right, he looked down at the delicate ring on his finger—gold with a simple dark stone—and twisted it so that the stone faced inward.
Its magic still worked, even after years of disuse, and invisibility settled comfortably upon him.
Over the following hour, he trailed the princesses as they made their way through a hidden panel in the wall, down a concealed staircase made of polished white marble and into a world that only existed in the most extravagant of dreams. First was a winding gravel path lined with trees with limbs of gold, leaves of silver, and hanging fruit of the richest gems.
The knight removed a single ruby, to take back to the king as evidence.
Next, there was a cave, whose ceiling was so high it disappeared into an eerie canopy of shadows. Underneath was a vast lake, clear as pure crystal with a depth to rival the height of the ceiling. Twelve little boats were moored along its shoreline of water-smooth pebbles.
The princesses efficiently climbed into the boats and pushed off toward the far side. The knight slipped into the last boat with the last princess as quietly as possible—no easy task with one arm. She gasped as the boat rocked, but his invisibility preserved him.
He waited while she disembarked at the far shore and then followed her toward a wondrous scene.
The twelve princesses danced in a ballroom carved from living stone. Tables holding a feast of food and wine lined the walls around the dance floor. Colorful tapestries and finely dyed silks hung along the walls. Crystals suspended from chandeliers of polished metal gently vibrated to music played by unseen instruments. The sweet fragrance of flowers swirled through the air as the dancers energetically stepped and spun together. All was lit by an unearthly glow, as though from invisible candles, which, he now realized, had illuminated the entire journey.
And the princesses were not dancing alone.
There were twelve men partnering the twelve princesses. No, eleven. Eleven men and eleven princesses.
Elaine stood to one side, next to the only table empty of food. On it lay instead three objects: a red-stained lance, a broken sword, and a plain silver cup.
But these did not entrance the knight for long, for he caught a clear glimpse of one of the dancing men. His eyes quickly sought out the others.
Each man bore a face from his memory.
There was Gawain. There, Calogrenant. And, there, Kay. Every face he saw lifted his heart. Ector, Gareth, Bedivere, Dinadan, Tristram, Erec, Sagramor. Lancelot.
To see their specters here, after the lonely years since Camelot’s final days, was too overwhelming. The knight found a chair not far from where Elaine stood and quietly wept over his fallen brothers, watching them all the while.
When the unearthly light began to fade and the princesses made their way tiredly back to their boats, the eleven lost knights bowed graciously and faded into the shadows at the edges of the room, as if they had never existed.
The knight blinked and wondered if he had dreamed them.
Distressed and wanting more proof of this strange night, he hurried to the table with the three objects. He reached for the cup, thinking to fill it with the lake’s crystal water.
His ring burned, and his invisibility failed.
He could not stifle his cry, and Elaine, not yet in her boat, heard him. She turned back.
“My sister thought someone followed us,” she said, approaching the table.
“Yes. I wished to take proof back to your father.”
“The cup is not for you to take.”
“What of the lance and sword?”
“The lance has been claimed, sir knight, by myself and my sisters. Tomorrow night, we will take it to our father to help heal his wound.”
“It has that power?”
“With the sword and cup, yes. Otherwise, it will be but a partial healing. My sisters and I bargained with the keeper of these objects. If we spend one year of nights in this otherworld, then the lance is ours.”
“If the lance is yours, what of the sword?”
“Do you recognize it?”
He bowed his head.
“Yes, but last I saw, it was whole.”
“Its last act was the death of a son at the hands of a father. That is enough to break a world, much less a sword. To be mended, it must be wielded by a broken man for a true and good purpose.” She paused. “And I believe that man to be you, Sir Yvain.”
He did not deny the name.
“You are right that mine is a broken body.”
“And a broken heart, for your king is dead.”
Yvain spoke softly, almost to himself. “But if I take up this sword, I could heal another king. I can think of no truer or better purpose than that.”
The knight reverently folded his fingers around the hilt of Excalibur. A soft chime sounded, as from a distant bell, and the broken blade became whole once more.
When the king received him the following day, Yvain told the whole extraordinary tale. At the end, he placed the sword on the long, empty table. The king hesitantly laid his fingers along the mended blade, and a rush of healthy color flushed his face. Yvain knelt in his joy.
“Allow your daughters their final night of dancing,” Yvain asked, “That they may win you the lance also. I am sorry that the cup must remain, but I believe its time will come.”
“You have done me the highest of honors,” the king replied. “Such a blessing as this I cannot repay.”
“I do not seek payment, my lord. But I do ask for your blessing in return.”
“What would you ask of me?”
Yvain told him.
On the final night of the princesses’ bargain, Yvain accompanied them without disguise. At the ballroom of living stone, the knights greeted him with cries of surprise, welcome, and laughter. Elaine joined her hand with his, and together they danced with her sisters and his friends—twelve knights with twelve princesses.
When the light began to fade, the knights did not leave but rather stood at attention along the edges of the room. Elaine walked to the table with its two remaining objects and took up the spear.
“Will you help us take this to our father?” she asked Yvain.
“No, my lady.”
Elaine was not surprised. He bowed and, a little boldly, kissed her hand.
“Does my father know?” she asked.
“He has given his blessing.”
Elaine smiled and quietly joined her sisters at the boats.
She watched Yvain turn to his brother knights, once lost, now found. They clapped his back and embraced him with much laughter and joking. Somewhere in the midst of embracing them in return, she saw that Yvain did so with two arms, young and hale.
As she rowed away, it did not appear to her as if the knights faded into the shadows, but rather as if they walked together into a mist of golden light, whose reflection danced on the silver of the cup still sitting on the table.
Christina Ruth Johnson has her master’s degree in Art History and works as a teacher and an archaeologist. She previously wrote for Enchanted Conversation as the Vintage Fairy Tale Sleuth, and her short stories have been published in Scheherazade's Bequest (Cabinet des Fees) and in World Weaver Press' Frozen Fairy Tales. Her short story “The Stolen Heart” received a Pushcart Prize nomination.
Cover: Amanda Bergloff