The Knights with No Lords
Chapter 17 – The Elusive White Stag
By Rock Kitaro
The next morning, Morgan woke up with darkness in her heart. Her eyelids opened without any drag or drowsiness in her, just an eerie clarity as if she had been awake for hours.
She sat up and scanned the room. Her mother was sleeping on her pillow. Elaine was at her left while Annaliese, Fierva, and Giselle slept on feather beds that were brought in.
Dusk came with thick clouds casting a blue tint over the castle. Silently, she slipped out of bed and put on her black cloak of wool, before walking to the mirror and combing her fingers through her dark hair, glowering at herself with unblinking contempt. Then, carefully she picked up the enchanted red ruby jewels and wrapped them around her right wrist, fastening them tight with twine.
The hallway outside her bedroom was quiet. The wall-mounted torches had fizzled and there was barely enough light for her see the doorframes and nooks. The guards were still standing, but their eyes were closed, snoring from the pit of their throats. And just across the hallway, sleeping with their backs against the wall were Gawain and his little brother Agravain.
The sight of Gawain in a blissful slumber made Morgan twitch into a scowl. A rush of heat immediately spread up from her chest and burned in her cheeks. The right side of Agravain’s face was resting against Gawain’s shoulder while Gawain’s chin was nestled over Agravain’s bowl-cut hair.
Morgan reached out like a talon ready to rip at Gawain’s face but stopped just as the tips of her fingers touched the curls of his bangs. Her hand moved closer to his neck. She could feel his breath. Her cheeks quivered as an internal battle waged within.
Abruptly she pulled back and stood up straight. The scowl faded. Her purple eyes gazed upon Gawain with the sudden realization that he was simply beneath her. With bated breath, Morgan put on the hood of her cloak and hurried down the hall, disappearing down the shadows of the spiral staircase.
The blue fog had enveloped and spread throughout Chadwyck Forest. The sun was peeked over the horizon but thick rainclouds extended the twilight and pushed back the morning light. Birds huddled on swaying branches. Dew, like glistening pearls blanketed the forest floor, making it soft and slippery
The Lion of Dumnonia was on the prowl. In stealth, Tristan held steady the nock of a single arrow pulled within his longbow. He had anticipated a blue day and as such, Tristan was wearing a pale blue tunic with light brown pants. A dagger was holstered on his waist and there were twelve arrows in his quiver, twelve arrows he carved himself. His leather boots had thin soles, perfect for feeling the soil beneath his feet, careful to avoid snapping any sticks or twigs.
His cold blue eyes were locked with the focus of an apex predator. A fly landed on his cheek and he didn’t react in the slightest. His entire body seemed to glide through the forest in a slow controlled pace. A long eared owl was watching him. Following him. Studying him.
Keeping low, Tristan entered a narrow groove in the forest. A herd of fallows was just beyond the ridgeline but Tristan wasn’t hunting fallows. Tristan was chasing a legend, a myth that only those who had seen dragons and mermaids would be foolish enough to believe. Tristan was searching for the elusive white stag.
According to legends, the white stag was said to appear when the hunter had committed some grave sin and no one but the sinner knew what he had done. It was also said that when a white stag appeared, it was a signal for great tidings in a knight’s quest.
Tristan didn’t care about legends or contradicting superstitions. He’d been festering ever since the Hibernians landed at the Port of Talons. He knew everyone suspected he was just some mindless lapdog, loyal and obedient to the king’s every whim. But that’s only because Tristan respected the importance of discretion.
In truth, Tristan was furious. He clashed with King Mark behind closed doors for more hours than the king had spoken with his own council. Tristan reminded the king of what Morholt did to his parents and his entire village. Tristan reminded the king of old oaths to never trust the Hibernians, to help him avenge his parents. Watching his king break bread with the enemy was sickening. And now that King Mark intended to wed one of them, Tristan didn’t know what to do with himself.
Thus, Tristan came to Chadwyck Forest with every intention to bathe in the blood a white stag. The muscles in his forearms and shoulders began to burn as he kept the bow armed, ready to fire on impulse. His stern gaze scanned the blue forest, penetrating branches of green and brown in search of any flash of white.
Suddenly, there was a crack of splintering wood. A branch snapped. His eyes darted left. There was a glimmer of white. Tristan raised his bow and fired. Almost as soon as he did, a paralyzing fear gripped at his lungs. He had just shot Princess Isolde.
“ARE YOU INSANE!?” she screamed.
Princess Isolde was standing on higher ground next to a tree with massive roots. She was wearing a regal white dress with green trimmings and knee-high traveling boots. Tristan’s arrow had sailed between her legs and snagged the tree behind her, pinning her gown to the trunk.
Tristan squinted with disappointment as Isolde pulled and tugged at the arrow. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get free. Meanwhile, Tristan turned around and scanned the clearing. The fallows were gone. Even the owl had flown off. If there was a white stag in the vicinity, he had no doubt Isolde’s screaming just scared it away.
“Christ! Why can’t I get this?!” Isolde complained as she tugged at the arrow with all her strength.
Tristan approached and gave the arrow a quick yank. The gown was free. Isolde lost her balance and fell from the ridge. Tristan calmly caught her in one arm and set her upright.
“What are you doing here?” he said.
“You just stuck me with an arrow!” she shouted.
“Correction. I struck your dress. I’ll ask again. What are you doing here?”
Isolde scoffed. She was about to storm off before Tristan’s big beefy hands latched onto her arm. He thought he was being gentle, but to Isolde it felt like a bear trap snagged her.
“I said, what are you…”
Before he could finish, Isolde began smacking him with tight close-fisted punches. By the seventh blow, Tristan grabbed her wrist and turned her around.
“As I was saying. What are you…”
“WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!” she screamed. “You’re not even a knight. How dare you lay a single finger on me. How dare you! I’m a princess!”
“Then act like one!” Tristan growled in her ear.
“Insolent knave! I’ll see you flung for the cliffs for this!”
“Well since you put it like that, I might as well kill you now and blame it on some wild beast,” Tristan snarled.
“At least you’d be telling the truth. Because you are a wild beast, you big ugly brute! There’s no sort of gentleman in you. No gentleman at all! LET ME GO!”
Tristan let go. Again, she lost her balance and fell to her knees. As Tristan reached to help her up, Isolde whipped around brandishing the dagger she stole from his holster. The two glowered at each other, her eyes more offended than his.
With a heavy sigh, Tristan peered in deep reflection, poring over the situation, wondering if there would ever be an end to their hostility. To Tristan, the princess had been a pain in the neck since the moment he first laid eyes on her. She was always wondering off, doing whatever the hell she wanted, never adhering to any rules but looking to push her luck and getting away with it every time.
Even so…this woman was to be King’s Mark’s wife, the Queen of Tintagel. Tristan would one day bend the knee to her children, guiding them, fighting for them, serving them.
Isolde gasped. With astonished eyes, she watched as the Lion of Dumnonia bowed before her, his stringy blond hair draped over his bulky shoulders.
“Forgive me, milady. I had…have no right to treat you in such…I don’t know. I have no notion of propriety. I don’t know what the nobles would say here. And you’re right. I’m no gentleman nor was I born into some royal family. I am just a brute, unrefined and savage at heart. So…so just give me a break.”
Still waving the dagger, Isolde smirked. “Where did you come from? Who are you to possess such strength and audacity? You say you weren’t born of nobility, yet you enter citadels as if everyone else is just lucky you haven’t killed them yet.”
“I don’t know, Isolde. I don’t much care.”
“Help me up.”
“Help me up!”
Tristan took her by the hand and lifted her up. He also took back the dagger while Isolde patted the dirt off of her dainty white dress. There were leaves in her hair. Tristan assisted in picking them off.
Then, that intimate moment happened where everything seemed to slow down. Isolde’s blue gemstone eyes stared up into his. The indigo mist surrounded them and clouded the rest of the world. The lust was one-sided. She knew this and it did little to dampen her confidence. For within his cold stare, Isolde saw beneath his hardened exterior. Or at least, she thought she saw something. Tristan tried to look away but Isolde grabbed his face and forced him to look at her. He grunted like a horse and finally stole away.
“Don’t do that. Let’s go,” he grumbled.
He started to walk off but Isolde didn’t follow. She stayed right were she was with that devious smirk on her face. The faint crackle of thunder rumbled in the distance, irritating Tristan even further.
“Tell me what you think of me,” she instructed.
“Just tell me!” Isolde insisted.
“I think the king will have his hands full with you. Can we go now?”
“If King Mark fancied a woman that you loved, tell me Tristan, would you give her up? For him?”
Isolde stepped closer, batting her lashes as she leaned under his chin. Her charm, her seduction would have reduced most men and broke down walls…but Tristan was a fortress, an anomaly, completely immune.
“Isolde, you asked me what I thought of you. Fine. I’ll tell you what I think. I think you are a woman who enjoys excitement and adventure. I think you’re a woman who was created to be wanted, longed for, and coveted. I believe that you’re a woman of great promise, a woman born to rule. You don’t need protection. It’s everyone else who needs to be protected. By you. From you.”
“Don’t…” Isolde whispered.
“I truly believe that deep down you know, as a princess, you are destined to rule and protect all those in your dominion. You want to be young forever but you can’t. The days of your freedom are numbered no matter whom you marry. It’s the curse of royalty. All women want to be beautiful princesses and queens. But that life doesn’t belong to the individual. It isn’t yours. Your life belong to the state.”
“Stop…” Isolde said, gradually breaking down.
“As a princess, as a queen, you’re aware of the sacrifices you’ll have to make for the good of your people. Years and decades of murdering and pillaging, Isolde you were born with the power to end all of this. All you need to do is give your heart to King Mark. Cherish him as I know he will cherish you. And if you remain faithful to him for the rest of your days, I swear to defend and fight for you for the rest of my life.”
Again, Tristan was kneeling before Isolde. The tearful princess shook her head with frustration as she crossed arms and stared in stubborn anguish. Tristan rose and carefully placed his hands on her shoulders.
“I swear to you. King Mark is kind. He will never hurt you. You will be happy and safe. If my presence here is a burden, I beg of thee, send me away. I’ll understand.”
“Ugh!” Isolde groaned before a tearful chuckle. “You talk too much. Has anyone ever told you that?”
“Only you and Morgana,” Tristan said as he wiped her eyes.
“Oh god! Yes, I’m sure she and I will get along. And that scream. Hell’s bells!” Isolde sniffled.
“Have I ever told you what she did to me at the Serapine Gate?”
Isolde giggled and shook her head no.
“Well, there I was, seconds away from catching those little rascals, Morgan, Gaheris, and that upstart Agravain. They were trying to slip out the city like thieves in the night…”
As Tristan began escorting the princess back to the castle, he regaled her with the first of many whimsical stories. At last, the two had finally appeared to be putting aside their differences. It appeared to be the start of a long, fruitful, and genuine friendship.
However, to someone else, their little exchange appeared to be so much more. It appeared to be conflict, pain, and repressed desire. It appeared to be a blossoming love affair and it looked all too familiar.
“You filthy raping whore,” Morgan hissed with bloodshot eyes.
Over a hundred yards out, the black-cloaked Morgan was spying from the shoulders of her obedient tree giant, Bark. Morgan honed in on the two blonde luminaries. She couldn’t hear what they were saying but their body language spoke volumes.
It gave Morgan a new idea, one that might spare her of a death warrant for having murdered Isolde herself. And Isolde needed to die. After last night’s horrendous vision, Morgan knew there was no going back. She’d have no peace until she was staring over Isolde’s corpse. Her soul demanded it. Her heart screamed for vengeance.
Seeing Isolde smile and giggle with Tristan made Morgan convulse with an intense scowl. Angry tears trailed down her cheeks but she didn’t wipe.
“Set me down,” Morgan said softly.
Bark raised his vine-covered limbs to wrap around Morgan’s waist until she was secure and harnessed. He gently placed her on the forest floor. Morgan lowered her hood and tied her dark hair into a high ponytail. The thunder was getting louder. She tilted up to the gray sky as a single drop tapped the center of her forehead. More drops followed as the patter of trickling rain sprinkled throughout the lush forest.
“Good. Let it rain,” She whispered.
“Morgan?” Bark cautiously asked.
“Silence,” She whispered.
Morgan closed her eyes and concentrated on the pleasant sound. She inhaled the rich smell of vegetation and raised her arms, stretching out wide and spreading her fingers like a lark prepared to take flight. She could feel the blood coursing through her veins, the cool air that passed through her breathable cloak.
Then she whispered, “Hakome das chullis!”
The spell echoed like wind in a hollow cave. When Morgan opened her eyes, the forest appeared dark and devoid of any daylight as if the sun had vanished. What she saw was the glistening white outlines of the trees, the leaves, the ridges, and the streams. More importantly, she saw a constellation of beautiful bright blue lights, like tiny stars sparkling throughout the forest. Morgan’s incantation granted her the ability to see ethereal, the mystical energy by which all creatures of magic absorbed to survive.
After walking a considerable distance, Morgan approached the base of a massive oak tree where a mother badger was nursing its litter of newborns. Morgan kneeled next to one of the tree’s thick protruding roots and began digging into the soil with the scabbard of her knife. It was only light rain but Morgan was getting soaked. Her black hair was drenched and she started to sniffle from a runny nose but she kept digging.
“Morgan. You look sad,” Bark said as he covered her with a branch.
“Bark, do your kind ever fall in love?” Morgan asked as she kept digging.
Bark’s hollow eyes pondered for a moment. Then he remembered with glee, shaking the branches of his crown as he answered, “Yes. We do!”
“Well then. If ever you find yourself a nice hazel tree and some chestnut comes in trying to uproot her, let me know. I’ll burn both of them all winter.”
Bark shuddered at the thought.
“There we are.” Morgan whispered to herself.
A sparkle of gold gleamed from the soil. Morgan set down her knife and gently scooped her hands into the soil until her fingers slid between the root of something soft and silky. What Morgan pulled up was a Golden Truffle, a rare mushroom the size of a tulip bud that sprinkled magical gold dust. Anyone who breathed in the dust was capable of going five days without sleep. Their stamina and senses were enhanced. Thus, Morgan held her breath as she slid four truffles into a small sack.
Next, Morgan bade Bark to stay put while she ventured on. She trekked until she came upon a small flowing creek in the middle of a clearing where lily pads and frogs flourished. A pair of otters swam in the clear stream, dipping beneath the surface without so much as a splash. Morgan approached a collection of smooth river stone. It was a spot where a large overhanging branch shielded the rain from falling.
Morgan pulled out a brown bag made from goatskin that was just small enough to hold a signet ring. She held the bag over the river stones and gave it a soft tap with the tip of her finger. Crumbs of honey cake sprinkled onto the stone. Then, with her wet slippery fingers, Morgan fashioned a snare out of a thin piece of twine. She set the snare around the crumbs and stepped ten paces away.
It stopped raining. Morgan watched and waited, squatting behind the curtain of a willow’s low hanging branches next to a patch of pretty green moss. With a strong resolve, she blocked out the finger-numbing cold. She did her best to fight off the flashes that haunted her the night before. She focused, her eyes fixed on the crumbs of honey cake until…She saw a flicker of blue light.
Morgan dashed through the hanging tree leaves and clasped her ruby-jeweled hands around what appeared to be thin air. However, once it was touched, it could no longer maintain its invisibility. In the palm of Morgan’s hand was a mystical water fairy called a Xice. This Xice was nearly half the size of Morgan’s pinky. It was naked with white eyes, the wings of a hornet, and the body of a prepubescent little girl.
The Xice struggled valiantly to push out from Morgan’s grasp but to no avail. Sitting on the river stones, Morgan took out her golden truffles and poured them on top of a smooth boulder. She bunched them together so that all four were touching. Then, holding the Xice out over the truffles, she pulled out her knife and gave the Xice a little prick on its thigh. The Xice squeaked in pain as its blue blood sprinkled onto the golden truffles.
She had what she needed from the Xice. However, upon its release the Xice became vengeful and unleashed its wrath. It started ramming into Morgan’s forehead. Morgan waved it away three times before she finally had enough and used her ruby powers to set it ablaze. The Xice burned and withered away quicker than a thin shred of paper.
After twenty minutes, the Xice’s blood began to liquefy the golden truffles, producing a pink milky substance. This was what Morgan needed. Taking out a clear glass vial, Morgan pressed it against the boulder to catch the pink potion as the truffles melted and oozed. The fluids only fill an ounce of the vial, but for Morgan it was more than enough.
Just as she was tucking the vial into a sleeve, she spotted a glimmering flash of white out of the corner of her eye. There, on the other side of the stream, a magnificent white stag with giant antlers was watching her. Morgan was awestruck by its beauty, its majestic grace and exuding authority as if it was charged with guarding the forest.
Morgan and the white stag were immersed in each other’s presence, like they engaging in some clairvoyant conversation. Whatever was conveyed, Morgan didn’t like it.
“Don’t judge me,” she snarled.
The stag grunted and pounded the earth twice with its hind leg. Morgan scoffed and turned away, promising herself to one day have its head mounted on the wall.