The Tale of the Wedding Guest
By Erica Friedman

The sun struck my eyes through a gap in the overhead branches and I was momentarily blinded. I stopped my progress through the woods, shaking my head at my folly. The wine had been too good, the food too plentiful and I had overindulged badly. I now suffered for my rashness though, and was slowly making my way on foot back to my home.

Or I would have been but for two things – that impetuosity which my mother had so often commented on, and the fact that I was now completely lost. I shook my head – another rash act I realized a moment too late, and was rewarded with a throbbing pain to add to my list of ills.

Dazzled by the bright sun, my brain addled by drink and rich food, I slowly made my way towards the sound of water. My hope, slim though it was, was to find the river that wound its way through this wood, and follow it to one town or another. I would get a ride from some tradesman, thus making my way home safely, if not wisely.

I could see a greensward open ahead of me, and my heart grew lighter. What oppresses in the gloom of a forest’s eaves will often leave us in the full sun, I have always felt. My hope grew stronger as the sound of water became clearer. The throbbing in my head lessened with anticipation of the pleasure of cool water on my brow and moistening my dry throat.

I staggered down the slope, plunging myself head first into the stream, gamboling like a child with the pure joy relief from discomfort brings upon us. Splashing myself with the liquid until I dripped from face and chest, I finally leaned forward to drink of God’s elixir.

Refreshed, I lay back on the grass, letting the bright sun dry and warm me, until my stiff body could once again move. My eyes closed in the warm afternoon and I slept.

An incongruent sound caused me to wake. The jingle of harness, the soft thud of hooves on the grass, the mechanical clatter of armor. I rolled over, but did not stand – not all travelers on horseback are benign, as I well knew, having lost my cousin to a drunken squire in a brawl. I could see a lithe figure, clearly young of limb, stepping daintily forward to water his horse – a fine white animal, reflecting the sun’s glow almost blindingly. In contrast, the young knight was dressed in unremitting black. I remember wondering how he could stand the heat of the day, so confined in his dark helmet. The horse lowered its head and drank, but the knight did nothing, simply standing with his back to me. No muscle moved, nor did he remove his helmet or attempt to drink from the stream.

When I realized I my chest burned for lack of air, I took a soft shuddering breath, but tried to make no noise. The horse’s ears twitched, yet the knight did not move. I was pinned to my place in wonder.

At last the horse finished and the knight let it graze, seating himself under a tree by the water’s edge. After what seemed an interminable time, he reached for his helm, and slowly, almost hesitantly, he removed it.

The hair that fell from under his helm was a shade of pink that practically glowed in the dappled sunshine. He combed it back with his fingers (now loosed from their gauntlets) and shook it out. What a beauty he was! The nobility of his face had me once again breathless. I had, of course, heard of such knights-errant – the good and noble knights who scour the land for evil and injustice, but never had I expected to see one. I thanked God once again for allowing me to witness the existence of this youth.

I know, I know, I’m waxing poetic again and you told me to keep to the facts. I hope that I haven’t wandered too far from my tale to be able to once again pick up the thread.

The youth sat impossibly still for the longest time. He moved so little I thought he might have died where he sat – fanciful, I know. I admit to a touch of fancy now and again.

A slow, painful breath wracked his body, and then another. He cast his face into his hands and began to sob so pitifully I thought I might break down and join him, ignorant as I was of the cause of his sorrow. But then, I knew. There is only one thing that carries such weight with the young, isn’t there? And I may seem to be doddering and old, but I am not so far removed from my own youth as it may seem.

You’ll tell me to make sense, won’t you? But only because you do not understand, you have never been in love. What else can make so fair a visage blotch with pain and suffering? Not physical pain surely – not a strong, young body as his. No, only a broken heart can wreak such havoc with a youth such as this.

My heart broke for him and I could no longer bear to watch. I turned away and let him ease his pain in peace.

Time passed and silence once again fell upon the glade. I sat up slowly, moving as quietly as I dared and made my way closer. The knight was once again stony and still, and no sign of pain or heart’s ache clouded his beauty. I came closer still when he did not speak or move.

At last I was but a short stone’s throw from him and I halted. Upon closer inspection I could see his features, so finely crafted – high cheekbones, intelligent brow, soft blue eyes. He was ethereal in his beauty, as though he had come down from the heavens itself.

And I could see at last, that his armor, though black, was not unadorned. A crest of a blood red rose lay over his heart. It gleamed preternaturally and I began to wonder if he might not be from heaven – or hell.

“You may as well come over here.” When he spoke, I started, for I had been deep in thought. I took a hesitant step forward, then paused. I could hardly explain my presence away simply. If he were not an idiot he would know I had been here the whole time.

“Come.” The note of command was strong enough to shake me from my root and I walked forward, bowing a little in apology.

“I didn’t mean to intrude…” I began rather lamely, but he interrupted. I straightened to see that he still stared out over the stream, not even turning to look at me as he addressed me.

“You have not interrupted me. You have been sent here to be…” He sighed sadly and bit his lip. “ How do you come to be here?” His voice was light, almost girlish, but sad and old all at once.

“I am lost.” I laughed in embarrassment. “I was returning from a wedding where I had imbibed more than was good for me. I was asleep over there when you arrived.” I pointed to my original location, now hidden slightly by the curve of the slope.

“Yes. So, it is to be the proverbial wedding guest.” The youth laughed– a dry, unhappy sound. He spoke quietly, almost as if someone who sat close to him had asked him a question. “Yes, I’ll do it, though it gives me no pleasure.” His voice became louder, addressing me once again. “I am sorry.”

At that moment he finally turned to meet my eyes and instantly, I wished he hadn’t. They were not young; instead they were old, older than time itself and held such pain and horror that I could not bear them. They were the eyes of a madman, the eyes of those who are haunted for their lives by the ghosts and phantoms of their minds. I could see so many things of wonder, of delight, of loss, in his eyes and one more thing, something I cannot yet bring myself to speak of….

When he looked away, I fell to my knees, gasping for breath, as if I had fought a great battle with a foe much my superior. I thrust my hands into the grass and supported the weight that now lay on my shoulders, the crushing burden of the youth’s defeat. And I, weak fool that I am, I began to weep.

He… or should I now be honest and say out loud what I had not been willing to admit until that moment…she…looked at me with the deepest sympathy imaginable.

“I am sorry.” Her voice was soft and sad, but inescapable. What burden must she carry to be so inured to the horror of that vision?

I shook my head, my vision still blurred by tears. “It is not your fault.” I gasped between sobs, my face down to the solid earth below me. I looked up and wiped the moisture from my eyes and cheeks to see her once again.

She sat, staring at me in what could only be surprise. Her mouth hung open slightly, her eyes round, her hair lifting from her brow in the light breeze.

I took a moment to sit back on my haunches and stare back at her, amazed at my own daring. This woman, if not a witch herself, had been touched by magick and if I had any sense I would have run as far and fast as my legs could go. You know very well I have never had any sense at all.

She closed her mouth at last, and of all things that she could have done at that moment, she did the strangest. She smiled. A small wry smile to be sure, but it made me all too aware that she was young…and very beautiful. Not a classic beauty, but her strength and nobility shone from her like a beacon and I found myself drawn to it as a ship is drawn to the shore by the signal from a lighthouse.

When she glanced towards me again I flinched, but this time I met her eyes with no ill results. I relaxed a bit and wondered once again what fate had brought her here.

She watched me with her lips pursed. “Would you like to know my story, then?” And I flinched again, afraid that she could read my mind, and worried if I had been thinking anything less than polite.

Looking down at the grass in front of me I spoke as humbly as I could. “I would, if you would not take it as an impertinence.”

Her smile reappeared, still bitter, but better by far than her frown. “I will, not only because you wish it, but because I am under a geas to do so.”

I looked up in surprise at those words and wondered what creature she was, to have walked out of a tale and fallen to our own green Earth.

She patted the ground next to her, gesturing that I should come and sit in the shade, so as not to be uncomfortable in the heat. The sun was lowering, but it was still quite hot out and I joined her with alacrity.

She was very silent, for a long time, looking out into some far distant place or time. I tried not to stare at her, but failed completely. To have seen only one knight in a lifetime was not, maybe, remarkable, but that this knight should be a beautiful woman and one so clearly touched by who knows what infernal power….

I see you are laughing at me, thinking this a tale of a drunken old man. And maybe it is, I can no longer tell.

I cannot recall when she began speaking, for it was more than just her voice. The scenes themselves appeared before me, as a vision unfolding in my sight.

I could see her, or one I presumed to be her– the hair was alike– walking through a field of grain. She was dressed oddly, but it suited her well. Wide pants legs, almost as if a skirt had been slit and sewn together to make pants, and a man’s jacket of some vaguely military cut. She looked neither masculine nor feminine, but something of both, perhaps. Certainly the best part of both. Her hair was unbound, not did she wear a hat and her head was thrown back to feel sun and wind on her face.

As the scene played out in front of me, I was aware of her voice softly weaving this strange tale.
“I am alone in this world, my parents are long gone. I took what schooling I could find, and made my way as I needed to. As a child I had been saved from the tragedy that took my parents life. A Prince on a white charger had rescued me.” I could hear the smile in her voice, although I could not see her face.

“What girl does not dream of her Prince? But I was different – I did not wish to be his Princess and get captured by the evil Knight, awaiting rescue. No, I wished to be like him, to save fair maidens, and taking only a chaste kiss in payment then ride off into the next tale.” Her voice became sad. “The world, as I now know, has no place for Princes and Princesses.”

I wished to speak, to deny this, but I could not– the spell was too heavy on me. I stopped struggling and let her tell me her tale as she would.

“There I was, at the first flower of my adulthood, a not unattractive girl, my heart filled with dreams as all other girl’s heart are filled. And if my dreams had more swords and battles in them than most girls, I ex-pected to be forgiven for it.

“You see me? I had left my home, hearing that in the city there was a palace – a place where I could be educated, where I could be with others of my own age, where I could be close to the Princes and Princesses of the realm.

I made it there with little mishap– perhaps that should have worried me, but at that age we are all so idealistic, aren’t we? And you see me in what we laughingly called the uniform of the school. Well, close to it. I was willful and wish to wear the boy’s uniform, as I was a Prince. I compromised by wearing something neither fish nor fowl and for some reason I was allowed to do it. Another warning sign of my fate? Perhaps, perhaps.

“And so I was 14 years of age, in a world of golden wheat and blue sky and all the ordinary magic of a life full of hope.”

I could hear the sound of hooves, distant, but approaching quickly. I wished to turn away but could not move. Slowly I subsided, understanding that the hooves were in the story I was being told, not riding me down in the world my body occupied.

The pounding grew closer, more urgent, but was now accompanied by other sounds. Bells, harness creaking, shouts and laughter and song.

A company of brightly dressed riders appeared. Their beauty shone from their faces, their light voices pealed and I immediately knew, having never seen them before, that I beheld a riding of the Fey. Horses caparisoned in golden and silver bells came trotting along, weaving around and around each other in complex patterns, never slowing, never faltering. Yet their pace did not suffer and they grew close enough for me to see them. Each wore a bright outfit that muted the very colors of the rainbow.

“You know them, do you?” The young woman’s voice came again and I was not sorry to be reminded that this was but a vision. “They are the Fey ones, the Princes and Princess of Faerie and I knew them immediately, as do you.

“They surrounded me, laughing, joking, nudging. I was scared, but feared more to show my weakness than my dread. And so I smiled, bowed and replied to their jibes with my own witticisms.”

I could see the Faerie folk on tall horses, surrounding the girl, moving closer to stare or comment, then further away as they were neatly parried by her wit.

“One of them, I think, was insulted that I should not be in awe of them and drew his sword.”

In my vision a lordly figure dressed in green drew a glittering weapon and held it overhead, drawing menacingly close, while his mount snorted and stamped terrifyingly close to the girl.
“But a voice came from beyond them telling him to desist and leave me be.”

I could see the figure in green pause, while all the Fey ones turned to watch the two figures that rode over the field to join them. Dark they were, as dark as the others were fair, and more beautiful than can be described. They rode side by side, she on a black horse, and he on a white one. Although they were dressed in fine clothes, it was their bearing that told of their royalty.

She wore her hair up in a strange style – it glistened darkly and contrasted with her bright green eyes, while he, lighter-skinned, had pale, silvery hair that fell past his shoulders and was gathered together loosely. All the Fey Folk pulled back as their Queen and King arrived to see what sport they had found.

“How unearthly they were – how beautiful.” Sadly she continued. “I was foolish and gallant and made my courtesy to them, as befits a Prince.” A small figure, barely visible in the light of the Beautiful Ones, she kneeled. The Queen leaned her head back and laughed and although it was faint, I could hear it as a kind of memory, as if of something sweet but barely remembered. I would have died to have that voice laugh for me.

“She smiled at me, as did he, and they talked to me, asking me my name. I told them, comforted now by their presence. They did not seem to want to harm me. In fact, they asked me to join them in their feast.”

I started once again, but my head stayed riveted on the story in front of me.

“Yes, I ate with them. I knew what that meant, but they assured me (as I instinctively knew) that it wasn’t death or danger for me to eat their food, but entirely the other way around – they cannot bear the touch or taste of our food or drink. I was not completely naïve, but I was willing to take the risk. To die in their company would still have been a princely act.

“I sat between the Queen and King. They asked me many questions, and called me their little fox, as they had run me down in the hunt. I found that they were brother and sister and I wondered that they were equals in ruling their people. But I watched and I could see that for all they were equals, the brother had the darker mood of the two, while she…she was light and beauty itself.”

Her voice fell silent once again and I watched the figures with a mix of prurience and excitement. The Queen would reach out and stroke the girl’s hair, or cheek. The King would lean in to feed her a morsel. Many of the Fair Folk pressed round her, treating her to a tidbit, a light touch. A cold beauty in gold and the antagonist in green stayed apart, glowering at her, while a tall princely figure in red would follow his King’s lead, making much of her.

The girl’s face became red with wine and embarrassment. Hands stroked her hair, her shoulders, her arms. She smiled unsurely into green eyes and was rewarded with a smile and a nod.

The Queen sat up from her lounging position and clapped her hands. The girl was lifted from her place and seated upon the Queen’s horse. The Queen remounted and in a twinkling, the company was gone.

“Yes, I rode off with them. God help me, I wanted to go. I wanted to be one of the Fair Folk.” He voice caught with emotion, my throat tightened against the wave of sorrow I felt for her. So young, she was. Maybe it was a tragedy to be taken to Fairie, whether it was by choice or not.

“I saw things that I cannot describe to you. The words “gemstones” or “luxurious” are no longer adequate for my needs. I was taken to be the Queen’s favorite. And she called me her little Prince.”

The figures arrived at a glittering palace, where each room was a marvel and would continue to be one, no matter how many times you might see it. The glorious light, the music – all came to me in that dim echo of remembrance and I longed for it, - no, I actively struggled to get closer to see or hear a little more.

“That night I came to her and she stroked my face, telling me she loved me, that she would keep me with her if I would stay. That I would be young and strong forever…and always be her Prince.”

I could see the figures outlined behind a sheer curtain, hear a murmur of voices, soft and intimate. Musical laughter rang out from time to time. I craned to see what was happening. When I realized the truth of it, I could feel as a slow flush crept up my neck and once again I tried to look away.

“No, please. Don’t turn away. Hear me out. It was love I say– I still say it, though it tears my heart out to do so. She loved me and I her and I will never, never deny this.” Her voice was strong again, and she continued. “I remained with her and learned the ways of her land. At first the courtiers treated me as one might a favorite pet, or a small child. Quite possibly because I *was* a child.” She laughed a little and I was relieved to hear that she could still do so. “She treated me as much as she could as an equal. And I was as polite and pleasant to those in her favor as I could be.”

Four figures approached, bowing deeply. One, her early opponent in green sneered a little at the girl, but the fellow clad in red smiled warmly at her, as she sat by the Queen’s side. She was dressed now in the finery of a princeling, her boots and sword gleaming in the light, a smile wreathing her face. When the Queen turned and put her hand out, I could see the girl prince reach for it and kiss it gently.

With those two lords of the land stood a beautiful lady in deep orange, and an apparent youth in blue. Both made opulent courtesies to the Queen, then King, then finally to one another. The tall men in green and scarlet faded back, each to one side of the court. From nowhere visible glittering swords appeared in the woman’s and youth’s hands. For a moment they stood in silence.

At an invisible signal they each saluted, then lunged. The fight was fierce and all the people at the court began to shout. I could hear the noise – it sounded like the waves that are caught in the shell you bring home from the beach, or like the blood in your head late at night.

The two figures moved back and forth, the fight all but equal. With a final feint, the tall lady in orange swept the blade from her opponent’s hands and made the final point. The court went wild. Flowers were thrown to both participants. The Lords in green and red stepped forward with goblets and cloths. All four figures bowed once again to the Queen and King, then to her great surprise to the girl at the Queen’s side. Immediately she stood and bowed back. Four smiles greeted this performance, while the court continued to applaud the spectacle.

Later, the Queen beckoned the four figures forward. Once again my lady took up her tale. “I met these four and remembered they had been there at my “capture.” I was gladdened when they asked if I had enjoyed the bout, and ecstatic when the Queen asked if I too would like to learn to fight with the sword. Of course I said yes.

“I had learned so many things…but I had so many lessons yet to learn.” Her voice was wistful now. “What I have lost, what I have lost,” she muttered.

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