The Fée Knight

My brother taught me my first song when I was just a girl. On grim days, when the sky darkened to smoke and the sea to ash, we hid in the abandoned tower up on the cliff's edge. With the ocean rumbling and crashing far below, waves dashing themselves against the rocks like knights charging into battle, Amis whispered terrifying poetry into my ear.

Amis favored songs of the chevaliers, of Roland and fair Percival, and he hid in the tower on sunny days as well, to watch the knights ride out to war. But I preferred the thrill—the tip of his finger tracing shivers up the back of my arm, his voice low and promising every delightful horror—as he told tales of the Fée. He warned me, if I ever met a Fée, I should have a poem in my pocket, in my little head, preferably, because poetry astounded fairies. Some would beg to hear more, promising to grant any wish in exchange; some would gallop away, like a deer startled by a widgeon, some would stand transfixed by the words and the power they carried.

"Why?" I asked my brother. "Why does it have such power over them?"

He laughed and cuddled me on his knee. "How should I know, Olive? I'm not a fairy. When you meet one, you can ask him."

I knew then that one day I would meet a fairy. That same day, I learnt by heart my first poem.

I might have been a silly child, but I knew better than to waste an advantage. 

* * *

 Unlike other children, I did not leave my love of the Fée behind as I grew, and more grown-up pursuits failed to interest me. When my age-mates began to speak of kisses and love under the roses like Tamalane and Janet, I found myself moved by the imagined sight of the Queen of Fairies, shimmering in elven grey, riding through the velvet night to bring tribute to the King of Hell.

Some wondered why Tamalane, why anyone, would allow himself to be seduced into becoming a fairy. But I wondered what in the mortal world could possibly draw him back.

My brother suffered my oddities with good grace. When a broad-shouldered knight with a prickly black beard stole a kiss from me at the spring, I protested vehemently enough that Amis stepped in. It was not the only time he did.

"How many times will I have to fight a fellow you've refused?" he asked, sighing and cracking his bruised knuckles.

I linked my arm with his, pleased by his guardianship. "I'd rather meet a Fée knight than marry a mortal one," I told him.

Amis's lips twitched. "Your lack of appropriate horror when it comes to the Fée concerns me."

"Your lack of fear of going on crusade comforts me no more!" I responded. It was true, but I did not believe he would ever really go. We were farmers, not knights. "You should be glad of the practice I give you. How else will you impress the Comte into taking you along to the Holy Land?"

He shook his head and swung me on his arm like I was still a child. "At least you're clever," he said. "If you do meet the Fée, I know you can take care of yourself."

* * * 

It was not long after when I first saw with my own eyes the effects of poetry on the Fée. Late on an afternoon, at my secret morel patch, I turned my knife as I sang the rhymes of an old country ballad. But as I laid another uprooted mushroom into my cloth-lined basket, the birds stopped singing. Even the tiny kinglet that had been following me, piercingly declaiming its cheerful cry, fell silent.

I shifted my grip on the knife and raised my head.

The morels grew among the roots of an ancient oak. Its trunk formed a deep three-pronged cup, ferns curling out from pockets of rotted earth in its cracking bark. Beyond it, the warm green glow of the summer forest shifted into dark shadows, the trees growing thickly, their leaves forming more of a cave than a canopy. In this darkness appeared the shape of a knight on horseback.

Grey hair and sallow cheeks, on a bone-white steed—man or Fée?

The charger stepped out into the light. As the knight emerged from shadow, his grey hair warmed, taking on a hint of gold. His sallow cheeks tinted rose. His black-hued cloak became blue. But his steed stayed bone-white and skeleton-thin, with large hollow sockets for its flat eyes. A Fée horse, and on it, a Fée knight.

"Say it again?" His voice creaked as he spoke, the words thick with an unfamiliar accent. "So long. So long since I've heard that song."

A snare tightened around my throat. I could not even draw breath, how could I sing? I shut my eyes, my hands clenching into fists. I had wished for this for so long, and now it was here and I was afraid.

I began again. "Fair frog sits in his bower singing, as the cinquefoil grows gay."

A stanza in, he joined me, his rough, unused voice an odd crackling counterpoint to mine. His words differed on occasion, but followed the same tale, the same shape. And as he sang the roughness faded, leaving his voice light and chiming, like the handbells rung in church on the happiest days.

When we finished, he smiled sadly, and his face took on the elfin aspect of a beautiful young boy, with a sorrowful pink mouth and eyes like smoked bronze. They glistened with unshed tears.

"Thank you," he said. "I owe you a boon."

I could only gape at this creature who had bloomed with the words of the song. I had been told of the power of poetry over a Fée, but I had not expected it to be able to transform one. And how had he known the song that only the people of our campagne sang? Who was this Fée?

"If you are in need, call upon me." He leaned over from atop his horse, offering me a shimmer of grey, a scarf. I took it, my fingers slipping against the fabric, which was as light and delicate as if had been spun of spider's silk.

* * * 

I did not know how to call upon my knight, nor had I any idea what I would ask for. Yet the scarf absorbed me enough that my brother grew concerned. I would sit for hours by the fire, just turning it in my hand. When our Comte called him to the castle to tend his horses, Amis found me a place serving the Comte's lady wife, an invalid, who spent her days abed. I was set to fetching and carrying, bringing her meals and emptying her chamber pot.

Industry brought me back to myself, but the Fée knight lingered in my mind. I found myself often humming the song that had brought him back to this world. The Comtesse heard me and asked me to sing for her. She liked my song, and afterward she often asked me to distract her from her pain with a ballad or tale.

The covey of ladies who kept the Comtesse company rustled with rumors of a new knight who had come to the castle. Very handsome, they all said, though Clarisse, who had been in the Comtesse's service longest and had mature tastes, waved a hand. "Too pretty for my liking, so blond and fey he could be a girl."

Everyone giggled, but the description rang familiar and concern ran through me. Had the Fée knight joined the Comte's company? Had the silken scarf I wore around my wrist called him here? If so, I feared the ill luck the presence of a Fée would visit upon the castle.

* * * 

One evening, the Comtesse calling for me, I hurried through the dim halls of the castle. I rounded a corner too quickly and could not stop as I collided with a warm body. Hands closed around my arms, saving me from a tumble. My knight gazed down at me, expressionless.

"It's you," I said.

"Have you decided what boon you wish of me yet?"

I shook my head.

A slow smile crept like the fog across his face. "You still have the scarf?"

"Yes," I said, suddenly concerned he wished to have it back. It had become a talisman, kept knotted around my wrist at all times.

"Good. If you think of a boon, do ask it. I will remain here until you do." He brought my hand all the way up, holding it a whisker's breadth before his lips, so close I could feel his breath, and then he released it. "Good day, my lady."

His step as silent as a deer in the forest, he disappeared down the shadowed hallway. When I reached the Comtesse, I doubt I was coherent. 'Fée touched,' they called that sort of madness, and in this case, how accurately.

* * * 

The presence of the Fée knight, for me, cloaked the castle in strange shadows. No one else seemed to note the marks of the Fée on him. Even my brother fed and patted his skeletal steed like it was a healthy gray.

But an incident at a tourney minded me that a Fée was not a mortal, and no matter how lovely, his mind was as alike to a mortal's as a rabbit was to a gemstone.

A young page, watching the joust, slipped from his perch upon the lists wall and tumbled into a horse's path. At full gallop, unable to turn in the lists, the horse tried to leap the boy but caught him a powerful blow in the chest. The page lay gasping for breath that did not come.

Onlookers shouted for the barber, the priest. My knight went to him, kneeling at his side and gathering him up into his arms. I could not see what then occurred, but a squire stumbled back in horror and a red stain spread across the sawdust like a flood. The knight had whispered a word in the page's ear and then stuck him like a pig with his rondel dagger.

The boy died instantly.

Horror spread through the onlookers. Some claimed that it was murder, that the page could have lived. Others were certain that the knight had only spared him suffering. But all agreed that the knight should have waited for the priest.

When the page's body had been brought to the chapel, I found the knight washing his bloodstained arms in a bucket behind the pig run.

"Why didn't you save him?" I asked. He was Fée, he surely had the power to.

The knight looked up at me. The color was washed out of his eyes and skin—both were grey against the red of blood. "Why didn't you?"

"I—" I had not even thought to use my boon to save the boy's life. "I only have one wish. If I used it on him—"

What if tomorrow it was my brother who lay in danger of death? What if I saved the page from this death only to have him die in a week, murdered by bandits? What if doing an apparent good had evil results? Would any wish I could make be clearly the right one?

These doubts felt too cold-hearted to speak aloud. A boy was dead. I had the ability to save him and had not done so.

"If either of us had saved him, in a year he would have followed your Comte to the Holy Land and died of plague," the knight said flatly.

"You know this?"

The knight shrugged. "He was always meant to die in youth. It is difficult to care about any man if you have seen the end of their string of fate. Even simply knowing they all have ends and are all cut far more bluntly than they expect makes the lives of men seem little more valuable than the lives of insects."

I could not reconcile the young knight who had been brought to tears by a simple country song and this cold cruel Fée. I could not reconcile my own knowledge of the truth of his words and the certainty that in letting the boy die when I could have prevented it, I had done some great damage to my soul.

* * * 

Who was this knight? What had taught him to care so little for a mortal life? I found myself obsessed with these questions. Perhaps if I knew the answers I would know what sort of wish would not be wasted, and understand the secrets that he kept.

One evening, from the high tower, I spotted the knight saddling his spectral grey in the lengthening shadows of sunset. It was unusual for anyone to leave the castle so late. I took up my gathering basket and followed him.

I trailed his passage through the wood, a soft evening mist making familiar ways strange, keeping the gentle thump of horses's hooves within the range of my hearing. Then the sounds ceased.

I followed my memory of the sound toward the rush and trickle of the river. Stepping into an enclosure made by the branches of a willow tree, the familiar skeletal shape of the grey came into sight. He stood ghostly sentinel over a heap of clothes and armor abandoned on the ground. From beyond the willow barrier came a gentle splashing.

I crept closer, parting the curtain of branches, and peered out. In the river shallows, I glimpsed a figure, drenched in moonlight. But surely this was not the figure I sought. A wet linen shirt revealed a well muscled frame. Hair, dark with water, clung to face and neck. As I watched, the woman crouched, dipping a long cloth into the water and bringing it up to wrap turban-like around her hair. As she straightened, moonlight pierced the shadows on her face, and I recognized the features of my fairy knight.

I do not know if I made a sound or took a step, but right at that moment, my knight's head twisted sharply, seeking me out. Then her shoulders loosened, her mouth curved.

"My lady," she said, her voice soft and barely audible above the sound of the water. "You are out late tonight."

I could hardly recall what it was like to draw breath. A strange ache filled my stomach. "I knew you were of the Fée," I said. "But I had not expected this."

She stood in the river, still as the stones the water rushed around. "Are you appalled?"

Was I appalled? I was mesmerized. My limbs tingled oddly, as if becoming numb. In my chest my heart beat its wings with the fury of a bird in the mouth of a cat. "It's like a romance," I said. "The lady who became a knight. Were you escaping treachery, or following your lover to war? My brother would adore such a tale."

A small smirk quirked up one side of her mouth. "And you?"

"I love any story with Fée," I said. Suddenly all my casual mentions of charming romances turned strange on my tongue. Was she like Tamalane, a mortal who became a Fée? Did she choose to leave her mortal life behind? "Who are you?" I asked. "Where did you come from? What is your true name?"

The knight laughed and raised her hands in defense. "Oh no. I have already promised you one boon, and you are very slow in deciding. If you have my mortal name and begin a new bargain with it, I may never be allowed to leave."

Her feet left trails of ripples as she stepped carefully toward the bank. As she left the moonlight, her motions seemed to shift, just slightly, into a more boyish gait. The form of a man settled as naturally upon her as the wings of a moth grew from a grub. Reaching the shore, he pushed through the reeds to reach his armor. He bent to lift his cape, and through the wet shirt I watched the flex of his arm. Droplets of water glistened on his throat.

"Names can begin a new bargain?" I asked. "Names and poetry. Why do these things have power over Fée?"

He cast me a sharp look. "Is that your wish? An answer?"

"It is just an idle question," I answered swiftly. I had too many questions to waste a wish on only one. As long as I did not wish, he would stay, and I would have a chance to discover the answers for myself.

With a swirl of deep blue wool, the knight enswathed himself in his cloak, stepped into trews and boots, and mounted his steed. He lifted his head, gazing up toward the star-paved sky. "A name, a familiar song, it reminds us of what we once loved. It binds us to our mortal past, and how our past selves cared."

I had not expected an answer, and it overcame me like an ocean wave. He was indeed like Tamalane. He was a Fée knight with a mortal past.

Before I could transform my bewilderment into words, his steed had reached the edge of the glade and he was gone.

* * * 

The first question I decided to investigate was that of my knight's mortal name. My curiosity was paramount, but it was also a strategic decision. If I knew the name, I could make a second request. Then, my one wish would no longer be of such monumental importance and perhaps I could finally choose a boon.

I suspected that the knight had come from this area originally. He had responded to the song I had sung in the woods, known the lyrics local to our campagne. If it had been powerful enough to bring him into this world, it must have been a song he knew since childhood.

When my knight had killed the page at the jousting grounds I had seen an old woman there, watching. As blood soaked the sawdust, she had shown no surprise nor horror, just shaken her head. She had lived in the castle since before the current Comte. If anyone might remember tales of a girl who was taken by the Fée, or a girl who became a knight, she would be the one.

I tracked her down to the undercroft where she was overseeing supper preparations and offered her the contents of my gathering basket in exchange for stories.

"I don't have time for stories, girl." She sorted through my mushrooms with sure fingers, casting aside the ones with imperfections and collecting the best ones in a cloth. "I hear you're the teller of tales."

That pleased me a little, that I had become known in the castle as such. "I cannot bore my audience with repetition," I said. "I am always on the hunt for more. But I am more interested in your memories than tales. Did you ever hear of a girl becoming a knight?"

Her fingers hesitated amongst the mushrooms. "It is not as uncommon as one might suppose."

"But did you ever hear of it happening nearby? Perhaps with the assistance of the Fée?"

The old woman's mouth turned down. Her eyes fixed on me. "You seem to know the story already."

"I don't."

"Well then." She returned to sorting the mushrooms, but her movements were less brisk. "There was one I heard of, before my time, in the family of the Baron a little to the south. His daughter refused to be treated as a girl. She wished to be recognized as his son and heir and become a knight, but he forbade it. She ran off. They say she returned later, just before he died. The Fée had taken her soul in exchange for the gift of a man's form. She said if he acknowledged her as his son, she would save his life. He refused, and she, cold and soulless, watched him die."

The old woman huffed a short breath out of her nose and shrugged. "That was the story at least. Fanciful rumors. I doubt she ever came back. Girls who run off rarely do."

But she looked at me again after she said that, eyes sharp, as if waiting for me to agree or deny.

"What was her name?"

The old woman's dour expression lightened in surprise. "This was all a long time ago. I can't be sure. But . . . I think it was Yde."

* * * 

How clever I thought myself. How much I did not mind the life I had then, serving the Comtesse, telling tales, and singing songs. Amis had been elevated to assisting the knights in their training, and hoped to be taken along on the expedition to the Holy Land in the summer. And secretly, in the fields or in the wood, I met my knight. Each time he asked if I had yet decided upon my wish. Each time I told him no. He carried sadness in his eyes, and his smile tugged at my chest. I wondered if my inability to choose a wish was clever foresight or simply because I did not want him to go.

Once that exchange was out of the way, we spoke of many things, of Fairie, of local plants, of distant lands, and of our pasts, though his was much longer than mine.

"Did you always wish to be a knight, or did you simply wish not to be a girl?"

A strange look came over Yde's face. "I never was a girl. Not here." He pressed his fist to his chest. "I was simply treated as such. I could not understand why there was such resistance to treating me otherwise. I knew I could not bear to become a wife or mother. But a knight—that was what I had always been meant to be."

I heard no echoes of those words within myself. There was nothing I felt with that kind of strength and certainty. I was unsatisfactory in many ways, but I did not care enough about my disinterest in finding a husband to wish to change myself, nor did I feel such an aversion to the status of wife that I wished to flee. If anything, I longed for that certainty and self-knowledge that Yde possessed. But all I had ever truly wanted was to see Faerie, but to wish for that was to leave the mortal world and my mortal life behind.

* * * 

In the way that a wish granted so often turns out to be a curse, my unspoken desire for the same sort of certainty my knight had was granted. Amis fell, injured on the training ground, a deep cut in his leg.

In spite of the attentions of the barber, the wound grew septic. I stayed by his side, watching the dark lines spread up from the wound toward his heart. He clasped my hand in his. "You are clever, Olive," he said. "I know you will take good care of yourself."

When the priest was called, I went to Yde.

"You've chosen," he said. The Fée coldness had returned to his countenance.

"He's my brother."

"If he does not die now, he will go on crusade in the summer and die then."

His words sounded like a prophecy, hollow and resounding.

"You can't be sure."

He smiled, but it too was cold and enigmatic. "If it is true, would you choose this anyway?" His fingers laced between mine. He pressed our palms together. "These mortals will all die. You are clever enough to see that. Choose yourself. Choose to come with me instead."

He spoke as if he knew what I had always wanted. And it was true. Save for Amis, I did not care about this world, not enough to desire power or wealth or love or any form of happiness it could offer. I could leave it all behind. But how could I give up Amis to become a Fée?

The pain of watching Amis slip closer to death made the wish even more tempting. The Fée were cold. Once I was transformed, would the ache at watching Amis's suffering—his pain, his fear, the loss of his hopes—dissipate?

But I was not a Fée. I did feel, and I could not bear to do nothing and let Amis die.

"No," I said. "No. I want him to live. Can you not make him live a long life?"

"Not unless he joins me in Faerie, and then you would have lost him regardless."

The wish that had once seemed all powerful felt as flimsy as cobwebs now. My eyes stung. "I want him to live."

Yde touched my arm where the silk scarf was wound. "Bind his wound with this, and he will be well."

"And you'll be gone?"

He smiled a taut smile that held no pleasure in it. His hand found a space on my neck, cupping my jaw. "You have reminded me of how it felt to be mortal. Some of that I will be sorry to forget."

He pressed his lips to mine, one kiss, brief and chaste, and then he pressed my hand once more. "Hurry," he said. "It will not bring a man back from the dead."

The next time I looked, he was gone.

* * * 

Amis lived, but I was not content. With his departure, Yde had taken away the infinite possibility that the wish had given me. My future held nothing I could bring myself to want. Soon it held nothing I loved either.

Amis rejoiced in his miraculous recovery, clasping me in his arms, thanking God for his intervention. And then the Comte honored him with a place in his crusade.

I begged him not to go. I warned him that if he went, he would die. He held me and told me that God had given him a second chance and he must serve God. I told him I had given him a second chance, not God.

Amis drew away from me, his confusion becoming chilly disbelief. I tried to explain, but the idea that he had been touched by Fée magic gave Amis such horror that I could not continue with my explanation. I allowed him to leave.

A scant month later, news came that he had died of a vomiting sickness on the road. Yde's foretold future had come true.

My life was empty and cold. I regretted my wish. Surely I could have been cleverer, surely I could have saved Amis from all of this. At least I could have spared myself this pain.

I had failed Amis. I had failed myself.

I called Yde's name, quietly, in the wood, but there was no response.

* * * 

The Comtesse too died. The castle had no more need of me.

I wandered the cliffs, seeking brambleberries, eating only what I gathered. One evening I came upon the abandoned tower. I heard the voice of a child from within its walls, singing an old song.

"Fair frog sits in his bower singing, as the cinquefoil grows gay."

Like a blade, the words struck me to the heart. Amis. He had taught me to sing it.

Time had armored me against the pain of his death. Most days, I felt nothing. But those words cut through it, as if my hard scales were linen cloth.

Yde had been brought back to his mortal past by those words. It was great power that lay in a poem or song. My cheeks were wet, and I understood Yde's parting words too well. I had reminded him of how it felt to be mortal. The memories of a mortal life were a sear of pain anyone would wish to forget.

And yet, I would not wish to forget the sound of my brother’s voice, nor the memory of the joy and thrill his poems once gave me.

"Yde," I said, the word emerging like a gasp, carried instantly away on the sea winds.

Off in the distant sky, the clouds grew silvery grey—the color of Fée, the color Yde had worn before I sang him into pink and gold. Movement stirred them. The clouds tumbled across the sea, charging toward my cliff like a hundred-count of horses, hooves driving a maelstrom of dust into the air. And then, above the arching spray crashing over half sunken rocks, the clouds parted and a single rider emerged.

My Fée knight, pale horse proud, visage cold, waited just past the edge of the cliff. "Have you chosen what boon you will ask of me?"

Sadness lingered in his eyes. It always would. He had left the mortal world to leave the pain that his father's rejection had caused him. But in leaving he had also left his chance to heal. Mortals forgot. In time their pain would pass. But Fée wore their sorrow like silk, anguish ever fresh, unfading.

"Yes," I said. I looked up one last time at the abandoned tower, where the child I had once been had loved my brother and longed for Faerie. Those days were gone, but they were still so precious. I held out my hand. "Let me always remember Amis. Let the words of his songs always wound me.”

Yde tipped his head, and a smile softened his face. He took my hand. The silvery sheen of Faerie spread from his fingers, curling in grey wisps down my arm. I felt the Fée magic fill me, and as I did, I could hear my brother's voice, whispering soft words in my ear, tales of the Fée, songs and stories I had loved.

My heart no longer only beat. It bled.

Yde swung me up onto his saddle. His sad smile warmed me around the heartache, promising something more than loss.

Bearing us both, the pale horse galloped over the sea, carried on the winds and wet by the spray. Ahead, the mists shaped themselves into an uncanny circle, and through it shone the strange light of a different world.

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