This was it. The final obstacle between the knight, Merek, and the kidnapped princess. The tallest tower in all the land and all he had to do was scale it. Up, up, up to the window, several stories above his head and he’d have gotten further than all the other knights. Save for one. Merek spied the other knight’s crossbow bolts in the cobbled stone. Makeshift footholds, the knight Merek assumed as he wedged the toes of his boots where the uneven wall left spaces. To come so far, only to turn back? Merek could not fathom it. This other knight had brought back no princess and no explanation.
He reached the first crossbow bolt and looked back the way he’d come. Aster, his palomino mare no bigger than the size of his thumb at this distance, had strolled off to graze like she knew she wasn’t supposed to. Otherwise, the secluded canyon below was unchanged. He’d almost say peaceful if he hadn’t just hacked through yards of poisonous thorns, battled bridge trolls, and chosen the potion that was least likely to kill him. Merek steeled himself. He’d come this far. He would not fail.
The purchase of the stone tower narrowed dangerously, only fingertip’s width margin for error. A misstep here and the next knight to come to rescue the princess would find his decaying corpse at the bottom. He forced himself not to shudder. The bolts his predecessor left notched in the stone were less frequent, which meant he’d either run out or the knight Merek was near his destination. A good thing too, because the air had thinned and dried considerably from the ground up. Merek’s arms were sore and shaking and cut against the rough rock surface. Just a few more steps.
He reached the window with not a moment to spare. Slick with sweat from the effort, and his arms ready to give, he toppled through the window unceremoniously and succumbed to his exhaustion. He caught his breath on his back, staring up at the wooden ceiling. It was much darker than he expected, with the only shaft of light coming through directly over him.
Perhaps the last knight here had been humiliated by such an indecent entry. Merek could almost find that forgivable.
All at once, a shape appeared on the ceiling. No, that wasn’t quite right. It was a hooded figure. Stood over him.
“Here for the princess, are we?”
When they spoke, their voice was low and quiet. Merek strained over the sound of his own labored breathing, thinking about their words as he lay there. He could not definitively place the voice, other than that it sounded like a babbling stream on a warm summer evening.
“Do you know where I might find her?” The knight Merek hoped he didn’t sound as stupid as he felt. He hadn’t expected anyone else to be here and was not sure what to make of the stranger. They had not attacked him, but they did not seem keen on his presence. Merek started to prop himself up on his elbows.
The figure regarded him briefly while he struggled before they swept away with a slight flourish of their cloak. In that same, even tone, they said
“You’re too late. She’s gone.”
Merek was on his feet.
The figure had their back turned to him. All the knight Merek could see was the back of their hood, the way their cloak draped over their rounded shoulders and halted just as it brushed the floor. The hooded cape might’ve once been a brilliant deep purple, but it had since faded into a muddled, dark blue, blended with the shadow.
Had they killed the princess?
Had they, too, tried to rescue her? Been unsuccessful? Too late? Trapped here forever?
Merek could think of too many questions.
“Yes. Poof.” The figure continued to cross the room. “I’m afraid she’s never coming back.”
Merek noted the distinct lack of malice in the stranger’s voice. They were too detached to be sad, but not angry enough to be bitter. They spoke plainly. It was a fact.
The princess would never return.
The knight Merek took in his surroundings as his eyes adjusted to the light. The room was hardly large enough for the stranger to get too far away from him. A woven chair sat by his elbow, angled to look out the window he’d come in through. Before the toes of his boots, a long, worn rug stretched to cover most of the room. It lay across the floor, past the fireplace (which Merek had not recalled seeing an exterior chimney to), under the small table in the middle of the room, and stopped short before the bed on the far wall. That was where the stranger had stopped too, sat on the foot of the bed with their hands on their knees. Cloaked in darkness and a sort of dank smell he associated with the cellars in the palace, Merek itched to put his hand on the pommel of the sword on his hip. But if this stranger were to attack him, what they waited for he couldn’t be sure. So he spoke, instead.
“I’m not really a knight.” Merek, not really a knight, announced. His unsure voice plastered itself on the walls like a tapestry. Insulated in truth. The stranger’s hooded head turned towards him, but they stayed cast in shadow. They waited for him to continue.
“I stole this armor. From my brother. His quest, too. I was…” Merek cleared his voice from the tremble it took. “I was going to bring back the princess. Collect the reward money. Leave before anyone knew I was gone.”
Merek’s cheeks burned as the last of his confidence expelled from his chest. Impersonating a knight was a serious crime in the kingdom. He hadn’t thought much about the consequences when he spoke, like usual. He just wanted this stranger to trust him.
They cachinnated so abruptly that Merek startled. But it wasn’t a harsh sound they made. They were amused. Pleased, even. And Merek could not ignore how the sound of their laughter filled the paltry room with the warmth of a home-cooked meal.
“Two disgraces to the throne, in one room.”
The figure stood just as suddenly as their laugh had broken the silence. Merek stiffened as they crossed back towards him with purpose. A regal stride. As they moved, Merek took mirrored steps backward until his back was pressed against the stone wall. One of his shoulders found the open window. If he looked down now, he would see Aster, still grazing below. He did not look down, because that would mean he’d have to turn away from the stranger.
They stepped into the shaft of light from the window and pulled back their hood.
“Allow me to introduce you, Not Really A Knight, to your Not Really A Princess. You can call me Prince Isadore.” Prince Isadore said.
Any lingering pity for the knight who had made it this far, just to leave the prince alone up here, vanished from Merek’s heart.
Prince Isadore was very close to Merek’s face. In the burning orange light of the sun outside, Isadore’s skin glowed. It had certainly taken on a bit of pallor, starved for adequate sunlight, but he could hardly have been less handsome for it. His jet black hair was cut short and jagged, certainly a trim by his own hand (and without a mirror, if Merek had to guess). It framed his round face and stopped just short of his wide, dark brown eyes. Merek had to tilt his head up to meet them and hoped the gasp he’d let out had gone unheard. Almost black in the shadows, Isadore’s eyes bore into Merek a burnt, royal golden in the sunlight. This was certainly the kidnapped prince.
Desperately, Merek needed him to understand.
“I was going to take your reward money to leave the kingdom. Start over, elsewhere. As Merek.” Merek met Isadore’s deep-set eyes. He could almost hear the crackle of burning wood in them. “Probably still not a knight.”
“I can’t go back. They won’t have me. The last knight here told me himself.” Isadore spoke slowly like his words might’ve driven Merek back out the window. On the contrary, Merek couldn’t understand how anyone who looked at Isadore could say they wouldn’t have him.
“Come with me, then.” Merek, not really a knight, but still bold when he believed he was doing the right thing, gestured to Aster outside. This caught Isadore off guard. He hadn’t expected the offer. His eyes narrowed in a familiar skepticism. Now Merek was more determined than ever before to ensure Isadore’s freedom.
“If nothing but loneliness keeps you here, come with me. Don’t be lonely anymore. Isadore.” Merek wished he had Isadore’s sure and steady voice, but it shook with anticipation.
And across Isadore’s face blossomed the most brilliant smile.
Isadore didn’t have much to pack. He pulled back the rug before the fireplace, the one with no chimney, and Merek could see it was Not Really A Fireplace. The trap door beneath the rug gave after some determined pulling, and down, down, down they went. A darkened spiral staircase, Merek led the way with his sword drawn. Though the evil wizard had been defeated weeks ago, Merek was not going to take any chances with Isadore’s life. Not when he was just about to start living it.
The staircase spat them out a door (which, too, only gave after some determined pushing). This was opposite the side Merek had climbed, and swaths of ivy had concealed the door from the outside. They trudged through knee-high grass into the cooled evening air, and it was clear Isadore could hardly contain his excitement. He hadn’t stopped smiling.
“I have to ask,” Merek announced as he sheathed his sword. Isadore practically skipped next to him as they approached Aster, his swishing cloak lilac in the dying sunlight. “You knew the door was there, but you didn’t use it?”
A blush crept across the bridge of Isadore’s nose.
“I had no reason to leave. Nowhere to return to. Everyone was happy enough leaving me up there.” He shrugged, like a sheepish little boy. Merek almost felt his heart shatter, then Isadore added
“And I never would have gotten past the tests. The evil wizard ensured only the bravest knight could truly see them through.”
He gave Merek a wink.
Merek felt his leaden knees turn wobbly.
“You seem brave enough to me. Certainly braver than the palace knights.” Merek offered. They’d reached Aster, who stopped grazing long enough to survey Isadore before returning to her business. Merek secured his sword to her saddlebag.
“Oh, we all have our moments.” Isadore chided as he dug around in his pack for something. “But I’m not suited to be brave all the time. I’m a lover, not a fighter.”
He pulled an apple out of his pack and held it out for Aster. She accepted it happily.
Merek gave Isadore a boost onto his horse’s back and followed swiftly.
“Where to then, my valiant knight?” Isadore wrapped his arms around Merek’s stomach and pressed his cheek into his shoulder. Merek allowed himself a shudder this time.
“Guess we’ll find out, my prince.” Merek snapped the reins and his horse started at a canter that grew into a gallop. The wind started to whistle past his ears, but it was no match for Isadore’s bubbling laughter.
And off into the sunset they rode.
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