Thanks to Dan Blum for the prompt.
The courtiers stared at me when I entered the throne room at the King’s command. They always stare, though they have seen me often enough to become familiar with my appearance: a knight in armor of unrelieved black from helmet to boots, without a patch of bare flesh visible anywhere save the window cut into the left side of my breastplate. There my shirt too has been sliced away, exposing the pale skin and flesh as a target of such seeming ease that it seems to silently mock. That catches the attention of my opponents, to be sure. But as I have said, the courtiers have seen it many a time.
I knelt before the King and asked, “What is your pleasure, my liege?”
Smiling, he gestured for me to rise. “In a forest there is a palace, and in the palace there is a labyrinth, and in the center of the labyrinth there lurks a creature. I order you to kill the monster and lay down its head and heart before the throne.”
“How may I find my way through the labyrinth?”
The King shrugged. “I’m sure a bold knight such as yourself will discover some method. Bring rope. Bring breadcrumbs. Break down the walls as you go, if you please.” He smiled again, showing his strong straight teeth. “Maps are of no use in this labyrinth. Even I can no longer penetrate it as I could when I was a younger man.”
The King laughed, and the courtiers laughed with him. I did not understand the joke. But then I rarely do, nowadays.
He dismissed me to the care of a steward, who gave me directions to the forest. I have ridden and walked through many of this kingdom’s woods to slay dragons and outlaws, giants and cameleopards, all at the King’s command. Perhaps this was one I had visited before. But I did not recognize the palace that loomed white and shining before me, nor did I recall the dusty treasures that lay abandoned within.
With so many poor and desperate in this land, I wondered that none had come to steal the cups carved of chalcedony and jade, or the tapestries woven of gold and silver thread. I supposed some enchantment lay upon the palace. Such spells cannot touch me, however they affect those around me. Often enough I have seen brave knights clutch at their breasts and flee screaming, while I walk on, not even knowing what phantoms affrighted them. It is for that reason that I only go questing alone.
I came at last to what seemed a great feasting room, but for the gray granite staircase in its center with steep uneven steps leading down to darkness. Surely this was the entrance to the labyrinth. I lit a torch, drew my sword, and made my way into the black. I did not make use of rope or breadcrumbs. If I slew the monster and found my way back into the light, well and good; what the King commands, I must perforce attempt. But I was not bound to follow suggestions, only orders, and I did not care if I ever returned.
The path forked at the base of the staircase. At first I thought there was nothing to choose between the two paths. But then I saw a red thread lying on the gray stone of the path to my left. I picked it up and tugged at it. It was stronger than it looked. Rather than snapping, it pulled taut.
Perhaps it had been placed there as a trap. Or perhaps it was genuine luck. Either way, the simplest course was to follow it, so follow it I did, through twists and turns, past echoing caverns and rooms heaped high with silver and gold. Perhaps I valued such things once, but riches no longer tempt me. I followed the thread, never pausing, pulling it through the black metal that encased my fingers. My torch burned low, then guttered and went out. I kept walking through the darkness. If the thread snapped, I would never be able to find it unless I took off my gauntlets and felt about with my bare hands. Moved by an impulse I could not name, I rubbed the thread across the skin over my breast. It was smooth and fine. Silk.
When one is in the dark for many hours, one’s mind creates light whether there is any or no. It was some time, therefore, before I realized that the ever-growing glow before me was real. Then suddenly I stood in a bower, all light and airy, and a golden-haired lady arose from her seat and came forward to greet me. In her delicate hand she held the other end of the silken thread.
“Sir Knight,” she said, as if she had been expecting me. “I have saved you much time and effort by leading you here. Will you reward my courtesy with a show of your own?”
My mouth went dry, and my hands trembled. Though I cannot feel as others do, one knight – since slain in a hunting accident in the King’s own party – told me I could guess at my heart’s commands by studying my bodily sensations. I believed that what I was experiencing was what others would call excitement, or perhaps fear. Surely this lovely maiden was a magical disguise wrought by the monster in an attempt to lull my fears in order to take me by surprise. It was strange, though. As I have said, enchantments have no affect on me.
“How so?” I asked.
The lady started and dropped the thread. Her eyes opened wide, and her own hands shook. When she spoke again, it was in a rough voice unlike her previous dulcet tones. “Take—Take off your helmet. That would be courteous. You see that I am unarmed.”
“You need no steel,” I said. “You are the monster of the labyrinth.”
“Is that what you were told?” she asked. “Go the labyrinth, and slay the monster within?”
“It is the King’s command.”
The lady began to weep, as monsters do when faced with death. I have seen this, and I have freed their blood to mingle with their tears. I lifted my sword.
“Hold!” she cried. “Even a monster should have one final request.”
I hesitated, my sword poised beside her slender neck. “What is it?”
“I wish to exchange names.” She scrubbed at her eyes and the tears on her face, until her cheeks flushed red. “My name is Rosamund. What’s yours?”
“I am the Black Knight.”
“That’s not a name.”
I felt trapped, though I had not agreed to the exchange and no one may bind me save the King. “I have none. I am only the Black Knight.”
“You do have a name. And I know what it is.”
I was silent, but I did not strike.
“Don’t you want to know?” asked Rosamund.
When I did not answer, she said, “Let me tell you how I came to this place. Once I was the mistress of your King. Rosa Mundi, he called me: the Rose of the World. He loved me once, and he built for me a beautiful bower in the woods. But later he grew wroth with me, and he offered me a choice: the dagger, or the cup of poison. I am not brave. I chose the poison.
I awoke here, to the sound of the King’s laughter. ‘You may not leave until a knight who is pure of heart carries you out of the labyrinth. And never will you find such a one, not in all my kingdom!’ And he walked away and left me here, alone in this cold place. Many a knight has come to rescue me, but none were pure of heart. Now I suppose the King has grown bored with the game.”
I felt my sword dip in my hand, though I was not weary. “But that is the same choice he gave to me. I awoke knowing nothing of myself, with a great scar on my breast and the King standing before me with a bloodied dagger. He told me that I had chosen the dagger, and so he had cut out my heart and hidden it.”
I gestured at the opening in my armor. “You see how many scars I have there now. But no one can kill me by piercing my breast. My heart lies within a diamond casket in an iron chest at the bottom of a lake in a lightless cavern below the castle of a giant – or so the King told me.”
“Have you not gone questing for it?” asked Rosamund. “Surely there cannot be an unlimited number of giants’ castles.”
“I have not.” I had not thought upon the matter before, but I did now, and the reason became clear. “Without my heart, I cannot care enough to seek out my heart.”
“It was a terrible thing the King did to you.”
“He made me invincible. I do not know that he did such a thing out of anger. Why did he imprison you?”
Rosamund looked at me steadily. Her eyes were not blue, as I had first thought. They were gray as the moment before the rain. “I fell in love.”
My entire body felt hot, and my vision blurred. The knight never told me what feeling matches such sensations. “Who—who was your lover?”
Rosamund’s mouth twisted, though with laughter or pain I could not tell. “Do you truly not remember?”
“I do not,” I replied, my own voice sounding pettish in my ears. “If I did, I would not have asked.”
She stepped forward and pushed my sword aside with the heel of her hand. Standing on the balls of her feet, she lifted the helmet from my head. Then she took me by the hand and led me to a mirror. It was small, and I leaned close to her in order to see my own face. Our hair mingled, hers gold, mine dark red and going gray. My face only seemed familiar to me insofar as I saw it beside hers.
“You are Queen Eleanor,” she said. “Before he took your heart and your memories—before he took your love and your life away—you were married to the King.”
“He is a monster!” I exclaimed.
I wondered at the passion in my own voice. Then I thought upon monsters, and upon my orders; upon Rosamund’s enchantment and my own.
I sheathed my sword. “The King ordered me to find the creature in the labyrinth. I have found her. He also ordered me to slay the monster and lay down its head and heart before the throne. That will be convenient. The monster already sits upon the throne.”
Rosamund stooped and snapped off a length of the crimson thread. Tying it around my wrist, she said, “There is your lady’s token. Fulfill your quest, and return to me. Perhaps the enchantment will end when the enchanter is dead.”
“I will take you with me,” I replied. “Do you not wish to see the monster slain?”
“I cannot leave until you find your heart,” she protested. Then she began to laugh. “Or perhaps I can. The King said that the knight who carries me from the labyrinth must be pure of heart, but he said nothing of where the knight’s pure heart must lie.”
I lifted her into my arms. Though my heart lay within a diamond casket in an iron chest at the bottom of a lake in a lightless cavern below the castle of a giant, I could feel it beating.
Rachel Manija Brown‘s short story “River of Heaven” was published by Strange Horizons, and she has sold poetry to Star*Line, Abyss and Apex, and Goblin Fruit. Her memoir All the Fishes Come Home to Roost: an American Misfit in India was published by Rodale, and her manga-style graphic novels Spy Goddess and The 9-Lives were published by Tokyopop. She also writes for television, and recently sold an animated sf series, Game World, to the Jim Henson Company, in collaboration with Sherwood Smith.
IMAGE:The Black Knight, Ivan Bilibin, 1900.