The Warrior and the Prince
Author’s note: This story originally appeared in Free Lit Magazine‘s “Identity” issue. Please support the magazine and the artists who work to create it.
Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, there was a prince and a maiden, and they were in love. But the maiden was a peasant, and so the king detested her, though he had never seen her nor learned a single thing about her. In disgust, the king demanded that his son no longer see her.
There is no stopping true love, however, and so despite the king’s commands, the prince continued to meet with the maiden in private, seeking her out beneath the gentle solace of the moon and her cloak of stars.
And it was beneath this cloak of stars, on the night before his sudden incarceration, that the prince said to his beloved: “My love, thine eyes glitter like sea-foam, and thy hair is more sable than a raven’s wings, but thy speech, thy understanding, and thy kind touch—that is why I love thee so. To see thy smile stay, I would pluck the very stars from their sinewy haven and give them unto thee.”
The maiden smiled, but it was a sad smile, there beneath the moonlight.
“But alas, my smile should not stay,” she said, “for one day soon thy father will undo us—never could he rejoice over the gaining of a peasant daughter. Therefore listen to me: a warning call we must have.”
Then the maiden made a sound. It was a soft, high-pitched sound, and it floated on the air like an unremembered dream. It was sweet and it was natural and it was music. No matter how many times the prince heard the maiden make the twittering song, he longed for more.
She sounded something rather like a nightingale.
But even as she sang the cheerful notes, the prince saw how sad his love had become—even her caramel skin had turned ashy—and so he reached up Up UP into the night sky, standing on his tip-toes, and enclosed his fingers around a particularly bright and striking star.
When he held out his clasped hands to her, they were at first accentuated with moonbeams that shot from every crevice and nook they could escape from. After a moment, the light faded and the prince opened up his hands. There, in his palm, was a white opal more magnificent than any gem the maiden had ever seen.
It pulsed with an internal polar light.
The maiden was overwhelmed at this gift, and after she pocketed it the two embraced, holding onto each other tightly as the night passed in the usual too-quick way that pleasant nights do.
Neither the prince nor the maiden knew that it would be the last of their secret meetings, but even if they had known, they would have been just fine with the one they got.
“Hold thy smile,” whispered the prince into the maiden’s ear, “until I may see thee again and greet it with mine own.”
And with that the lovers reluctantly broke apart, departing with the rising sun.
So it was that by the next day the king had discovered their secret by means of a spying night watchman, and presently locked up the prince deep within the castle walls, where no light—and certainly no maiden—could reach.
The maiden herself vanished, and no one could quite say as to where to.
None of this sat well with the people of the kingdom; seeing their beloved prince trapped and fettered like some sort of vile creature caused an outbreak of rumours and discomfort throughout the populous. The king knew he had to act, and act quickly, lest he should have an uprising on his hands.
It came to pass, then, that the king made a decree—he stated that should a warrior of great and noble prowess complete three tasks set forth by his highness himself, then not only would the prince be freed, but his liberator would receive a substantial sum of gold.
This, thought the king, was the proper solution. He could avoid simply freeing his son to calm his restless subjects—for what should the prince do then, but seek out his peasant love? Further, whoever—or whatever—managed to complete his challenges would be worthy of being called the greatest in the land, and in this person’s hands the king would gladly allow his son’s life to be held. Not only would he be safe, but his mind could be removed altogether of maidens, and filled with thoughts of more important things—battle tactics, for instance.
The king’s three tasks were as follows: the first was a dual with the greatest of the king’s knights, a man known best for his unrelenting will and wicked swordplay. He was highly regarded amongst the people, for he had protected them from evils many times over. The second was a feat of pure strength, which required the task-taker to lift a weight the likes of which had rarely been seen, for it was said that the object the king had chosen was made entirely of shadow. The third and final task no one knew; the king would not speak of it, and not a soul could get past the second undertaking to discover what it might be.
Nonetheless, from far and wide came the applicants, both great and small. There was stumpy Byford the Brave, who with his ruddy face and sharpened ax was quite formidable to behold, and who claimed that he would be the first to lift the un-liftable object, for he had never met a weight he could not master. Unfortunately for Byford the Brave, he could not get past the first task and was swiftly dispatched by the skillful knight.
Then there was Firth of the forest, who smelled of pine needles and moss after a fresh rain. Boasting his power as ethereal and branding himself a wizard, he somehow managed to get past the knight. But when it came to the second task he faltered, and was labelled as a fraud by the people, who laughed him straight out of the kingdom.
They knew a real wizard when they saw one.
After a while the people began to worry. Would there be anyone who could save their beloved prince from his bizarre fate, wasting away within his own castle?
Days passed and fewer and fewer applicants came. Each and every one of them left with their heads bowed in shame, confused and humiliated. Even the king himself began to wonder if there would be any being so mighty as to pass his grueling tests.
Then, one day, from on the wind there came a rumour.
The rumour was that there was a warrior who had heard of the generous sum that came with rescuing the prince, and so they were coming to retrieve it.
Now, normally, this would have been of little interest to anyone what with all the recent failures, but this warrior carried a reputation. It was said that the figure was impossibly strong, and always wore shimmering golden armour from head to foot. No one living had ever seen the warrior’s face, and so the true name of this mythical person had long been lost. But there were other names. The warrior was called Battle-Dancer, Will-Ravager, Steel-Strider, and, perhaps most ominously, All-Slayer.
A susurrous wound its way through the doors and windows of the kingdom, and people told stories of how the golden warrior had once swam up a waterfall, brought fifty men to their knees in weaponless combat, and stolen power from the starry heavens themselves. But despite all these stories, none in the kingdom truly thought that the All-Slayer would come.
And then the All-Slayer came.
They came on a horse pitch as midnight, with patches of silver scattered about its silky mane. The warrior rode through the kingdom in silence, helmeted head ever turned towards the king’s castle. The people stuck their heads out of their windows and stood off to the sides of the streets, watching in awe and joy as the gold-clad figure rode up past the castle gates and towards their imprisoned prince.
Once inside, the warrior found the king sitting on a throne at the back of the main hall. Rising, the king smiled.
“The whispers of thy arrival have not been spread falsely, I see,” he said.
“I am here for thy son, the prince,” said the All-Slayer in a strange voice, “and the gold thou hast promised.”
Said the king, “Indeed. Art thou prepared?”
The warrior said nothing, and so the king beckoned to a man who stood off to the side, leaning against a wall. He stalked forward and stood in the middle of the room.
The knight was dressed in deep green armour—though he lacked a helmet—and from his waist he drew a long steel blade. His eyes were like coal, and his beard and mustache were a faded brown. He did not look scared of the newcomer.
“Here is thy first task,” said the king from the throne. “Defeat my chosen knight.”
Still, the All-Slayer did not speak, but unsheathed also a weapon: a silver sword that looked to have been forged from ages long past, when the moon was young and the stars were yet younger. It had a bluish tinge to it, and glowed faintly even in the daylight.
Next to it, the knight’s sword looked clumsy and brittle.
Then they fought.
The knight attacked valiantly, unleashing strike after strike without so much as a pause between. But the All-Slayer danced about each strike as if knowing where the knight was aiming quite before the knight himself did, and in mere moments the warrior unleashed a devastating, single stroke that ripped the knight’s blade from his hands and sent it clattering to the floor.
The All-Slayer pointed the silver sword at the knight’s throat, and then turned their golden head towards the king.
The king nodded. “Well done. Now for the second task.” He gestured at a large object that sat not far from where the warrior stood. “Lift that.”
The warrior approached the object, but paused a few paces from it.
The object was a great stone, nearly the size of a boulder. At first glance it looked as if it were made of glass, with its innards swirling and shifting with shadow. But then it became apparent that there was no barrier between the rolling shadows and the outer world, for every few seconds a shade of grey or black would flicker out from the edges of the mass, licking at the air hungrily.
There, too, within the confines of the dark, the warrior spotted something else: a pair of shadowy eyes that belonged to something—a something that was lonely and angry and cold. But in an instant it was gone, sunken back down into the ever-collapsing shrouds of darkness.
The All-Slayer showed no fear, however, and attempted to lift the stone. But try as they might, they could not, and the swirling thing sat as immovable as ever.
The warrior paused, stared, waited. Waited for something.
Then, much to the king’s surprise and wonder, the warrior’s mailed hands began to glow a bright light—white as starlight—that shot out in tiny beams from their fingertips, soft and pure. With these pulsing, glowing hands, the warrior tried to lift the stone once more, and this time it budged. In fact, it did more than budge—the All-Slayer hoisted the object into the air without so much as a grunt, holding it high above their head.
“A spectacle!” cried the king. “There is but one more task, which no one else has yet managed to reach. Bring forth the vermin!”
The knight vanished from the room, then returned dragging a man enveloped in chains. He was scraggily and malnourished, and his best years had long since gone. In his eyes there was the faintest light, perhaps a year, day, hour from being snuffed out for good.
The knight dropped the man heavily at the warrior’s feet.
“End him,” said the king, simply.
The All-Slayer looked at the king, and then at the scraggily man.
“What is this poor creature’s crime?” they asked in their strange voice.
“Treason,” boomed the king. “This foul wretch stole from mine own bedside, and thought to leave my chamber with the spoils of a rich man. To the law his life is forfeit, and in this instance I have named thee Law.”
The All-Slayer regarded the man closely again. He said nothing at all in his own defense, and waited on his knees in a stance so frail that the faintest breeze could have knocked him onto his back.
“If I am the law,” began the warrior, “then my judgment shall stand despite protest, even that which would cometh from the king. Take heed! This man hath suffered long for his crime. He is fay in mind so as he can hardly speak! And there, behold! his very ribs I can see through his aged flesh. Why, this man hath lived upon the edge of expiry such that his fate hath been worse than that which thou now asketh me to deliver upon him. So it is then, lord, that I shan’t end him, but free him.”
At first, the king’s face was one of rage and hostility. But he stroked his beard, and after a few seconds of pondering, nodded.
“‘Tis well,” he said, “for thou displayest good judgment in thy stiff manner. Thou hast not acted out of feeling, and though thou hast managed to thwart my task, thy decision is a worthy one.”
But the All-Slayer gazed at the king from behind their golden visor and said, “Thou wouldst do well, lord king, to feel more often.”
Then the king sent the knight off to retrieve the warrior’s earnings, and soon he returned holding in one hand a large sack heavy with gold, and leading the prince by the arm in the other.
The prince was not in chains, as the scraggily man was, but the look in his eyes made him appear just as—if not more—trapped. He shuffled over to stand by the king wearily, his clothes dirty and his brow creased. He looked upon the golden warrior.
“Meet thy rescuer,” said the king.
The All-Slayer dipped their head in a slight bow and said, “Young prince, it seemeth to me now that I have won thy freedom.”
“Indeed, I owe thee my life,” said the prince sadly. “But I cannot leave my kingdom, great warrior. For I have lost my love, and I know not where she could have gone. I am afraid I will be most useless for thy purposes, for I am useless without her.”
And then a strange thing happened.
Throughout the hall came a soft, high-pitched sound that floated on the air like an unremembered dream. It was warm and it was lovely and it was music, and it came from behind the helmet of the All-Slayer.
It sounded something like a nightingale.
Reaching up with both hands, the warrior removed her golden helmet, and waves of hair more sable than a raven’s wings cascaded down her back, contrasting with her shining armour.
The king and prince’s faces were equally astonished.
“A maiden!” cried the king.
“My maiden!” cried the prince.
“Thy maiden?” exclaimed the king, looking to his son.
The maiden-warrior merely smiled, and her sea-foam eyes glittered in the dusky hall light.
The king, still amazed, said, “Never have I set eyes upon a maiden so skillful and yet so lovely! I must have thy hand! Come, come, golden maiden! Come and be my queen!”
But the maiden-warrior frowned and shook her head, casting a dread look upon the king.
“I have chosen thy son,” she said. “I will not be chosen.”
With that, the maiden-warrior stepped forward and took her prince’s hand, and he, happy as could possibly be—and perhaps even happier than that!—followed her out into the late twilight. There they mounted the maiden-warrior’s pitch horse, who had been waiting dutifully, and then took off through the town, riding at a brisk pace.
The people of the kingdom heard the ringing of hooves and stuck out their heads, again from windows and doors, curious to know if the mythical All-Slayer had succeeded. When they saw their prince upon the horse’s back, they let up whoops and cheers, creating a din loud enough to swallow the whole kingdom.
But if one had been standing just past the edge of the kingdom, where the cobblestone streets turned to grassy fields, they might have noticed another sound, issuing from the riders—one all but invisible in the dark, and another who glowed with an intense polar light akin to a star—whose horse galloped toward the horizon.
It was a soft, high-pitched sound, and it floated on the air like an unremembered dream. It was beautiful and it was happy and it was music.
And, one might even say, it sounded something rather like two nightingales.