I wrote this just because it came to me, and the Drakewhistle household subsequently performed it as a mime and series of tableaux for a Shire feast. It worked pretty well. I’m still not entirely sure what I meant by it.
There was a noble knight, who did valiant deeds in battle against infidel and marauding monster alike, and who in the fullness of time returned to marry the lady under whose favour he had fought. And if he was valiant, as is expected, she was beautiful enough, and their wedded bliss sufficiently blissful. And in the fullness of time, they had a daughter, heiress to the vast lands won by the knight in his days as champion. And after this birth, the knight’s lady died, and he dwelt alone with his daughter.
As may be expected, the knight’s daughter grew to be a lady of surpassing beauty, whose hand was sought by the princes and champions of the land, for none was more beautiful than the Lady Madrigal. But she was proud and imperious, and none won her favour. For, although it is doubtful whether she knew what it was she desired in her lord, none of the brave warriors who came to lay at her feet their trophies or deeds of valour, found favour in her eyes. Indeed, at times she would not come to the Great Hall where her father received his guests, but sent messages of denial by her maid. Even if she did consent to see those who came to woo her, she remained cold and distant, and often would not hear their deeds of valour or accept their gifts, be they perfumes of Araby, silks of Cathay, peacocks, jewels or singing birds. And so she remained unmarried.
There came to her father’s castle one who made no show of great deeds, but who humbly came before the lady, and besought her to set him some task by which he could prove his worth and his love. And it seemed to the Lady Madrigal that here was one more to her taste, and where others were sent forth from her presence without a hearing, to this knight she consented to speak. And to him she told of her desire to possess the Giant’s Ring.
Greatly was the poor knight confused, and sadly did he ask the lady to describe further the thing she desired – “for,” he said, “there are many giants, and I would wish to know how this ring may be distinguished.”
And the lady Madrigal told him, “The Giant’s Ring will fit easily about my wrist, and its wearer dwells beyond the Forest Perilous, and beyond even that. And the power of the Ring is over fire and air.”
And the humble knight knelt at her feet, and kissed her hand, and rode off into the Forest Perilous, and came no more to her father’s lands, and in time even his name was forgotten.
In time, other knights came to the castle of the Lady Madrigal’s father, knights of greater or less renown, and they too departed in search of the Giant’s Ring, and came not again. And the lady Madrigal remained proud, and cold, and unwed. It is to be thought that she wearied of it, yet still returned she imperious answer to the suitors who came, fewer now but still numerous, to seek her hand.
There came a day when the Lady Madrigal’s father feasted with some few of his knights, and while the pageboys still presented the bowls of water for washing, there came a thunderous knocking on the great gate of the castle. And the Seneschal went without to see who desired entrance. Then there entered a young knight, and the hair of the knight was golden beneath his helmet, and his cheek was boyish, and the surcoat to his mail was of a bright and joyous green. And the device on the coat was argent, a leafy branch surmounting a voided rondelet. The young knight knelt before the lady’s father, and to him said, “My lord, I seek the hand of your daughter.”
The lady Madrigal’s father said to the knight, “How are you called? What is your condition?”
And the young man answered, “Sir, I am yet a young knight and untried, but I am heir to lands, and yet I would be known only as the Slender Knight.” And yet he had not removed his helmet, but went covered, and all wondered at his secrecy.
Then the lady Madrigal’s father sent courteous messages to his daughter’s chambers, desiring her presence. And she sent back answer by the hand of her maid, that she was not disposed for company, and did not wish to hear the devotions of her latest suitor.
Truly did the lady Madrigal’s father blush for his daugher, yet courteously he bade the Slender Knight sit at his right hand upon the dias, and feast, and pages were sent for bowls of water, that the Slender Knight might wash from himself the dust of travel. Then grace was said, and the food signed properly, and the feasting began.
When it was over, the Slender Knight knelt to his host, and begged a boon. And the boon that he asked, was that it be granted him to go forth to the Forest Perilous and beyond, and search for the Giant’s ring.
“For it is told,” he said, “that the ring will fit easily about the Lady Madrigal’s ankle, and that its powers are over fire, and air, and sea, and that it lies beyond the Forest Perilous and the Hooded Mountain, and even beyond.”
Then the lady Madrigal’s father was saddened that so promising a youth sought death so young, and begged him to seek other quests, since none had returned from the Forest Perilous. And yet the Slender Knight would not be dissuaded, but begged leave to set forth. And the lady Madrigal’s father must perforce agree, if his daughter willed it.
Further messages were sent to the lady Madrigal’s chambers, and she professed herself willing that the Slender Knight should undertake her quest, if he so desired. But still she would not enter the Great Hall to gaze upon her latest champion. And, indeed, often did she so deny herself.
Then upon the morning, the Slender Knight arose from the fair chamber allotted him, and girded himself in his mail, and his grass-green surcoat, and rode forth across the castle bridge towards the Forest Perilous. And many were saddened to see him go, but the lady Madrigal came not down to the great gates, but abode in her room, and watched not her champion ride forth.
And the castle prepared to regret the passing of another champion.
The morning was pleasant, and the way smooth, and the Slender Knight’s horse good, and he rode merrily to the borders of the Forest Perilous, and entered therein singing, for the day was beautiful.
Now this was the way of the Forest Perilous: that its grass was fresh and its trees green, but the further inward did a wight proceed, the graver grew the silence. And it seemed to the Slender Knight, after some hours, that the trees pressed heavily upon him, and the sound of his singing fell flatly, as into a fog. Until at last, great trees stood all about him, and he could go no further, and behind, he could not go back. And his horse stood dully, as though tired. And all about him was a great silence.
Then the Slender Knight would have shouted for assistance, but bethought him instead, and instead stood listening. And it seemed to him that faintly, in the distance, he heard the ringing of an axe.
The Slender Knight dismounted, although indeed he was hard pressed for the space to do so, and he made much of his horse, and reassured the animal with promise of a speedy return. Then he swung himself up into such branches as presented themselves easily, and moved through the trees in that direction whence seemed to come the sound of the axe. For indeed, he was a nimble young man.
Almost at once, indeed, it seemed that the trees thinned, and speedily the Slender Knight found himself in a clearing, with the maimed stumps of great trees all about. And before him, swinging great blows with a great two-headed axe, was a great man, fully nine feet tall, and broad-shouldered; and he was clothed in a strange habit of green leaves, and the hair of his head and the skin of his body were a bright grass-green, although much grimed.
And as he entered the clearing, the Slender Knight cried out in sadness at the maiming and striking down of such great trees.
Then the green man saw the knight, and laid down his axe, and cried out in a deep voice, “Well! What have we here?” And he strode to meet the Slender Knight.
The Slender Knight bowed courteously to the woodman, and said, “I am the Slender Knight, and I seek the Giant’s Ring, great enough to pass easily around the ankle of the Lady Madrigal, and it lies beyond the Forest Perilous, and the Hooded Mountain, and beyond even that. And your forest has my horse.”
The green man laughed, and his voice was deep. “Truly,” he said, “the Giant’s Ring lies beyond the Forest Perilous, and the Hooded Mountain, and beyond the Desolate Tower, and beyond even that. And its girth is great enough to serve as a necklace to your disdainful Lady Madrigal, and its powers over air, and fire, and sea, and the green growing things of the earth. What would you of me?”
And the Slender Knight said, “Why do you cut these trees? For they are noble, and have stood many years, and do no harm.”
The green man gazed awhile at the Slender Knight, and then laughed once more. “You are right,” said he. And, behold! The great trees grew as ever they did, and the wind sighed in their branches, and the birds sang. And through the trees came the Slender Knight’s horse, neighing most gratefully.
“Few reach thus far,” said the green man. “For if the silence of the forest does not drive them mad, they are too proud or armour’d too greatly to climb through the trees like an ape.” And he laughed again. “And if they do come to my clearing, they anger me, and my axe finds better work than maiming trees.” And again he laughed. “Yet you are a bold knight, and a courteous, and only one other has proved himself so nobly, and if he was the first, perhaps you are the last. Go in peace.”
And he strode away through the trees, laughing.
Then the Slender Knight mounted his horse, and rode away. And very shortly came he to the edge of the forest, and before him stretched a wide valley, and at the end of the valley stood the Hooded Mountain, its tall head lost in clouds and mist. And the Slender Knight went forward.
After a space of hours, the Slender Knight stood at the foot of the Hooded Mountain, and the wind whistled shrilly about him. But he descried a narrow path winding upwards, and did not flinch, but urged his horse forward. And soon were they lost in cloud and mist, and they were dampened thereby, and the wind blew coldly. Yet did the Slender Knight keep on his way, giving at times a word of courage to his horse.
And almost had they reached the top, when came a blast of wind greater than any thus far, and with it snow, and hail, and ice. And the Slender Knight was blown from his horse, and would have plunged to his death down the mountain, but that he caught at some small stump of a tree, and hung there over nothingness. And above, he heard his horse shift uneasily, and neigh its displeasure, and small stones tumbled down about his head. And he could not move, but hung helpless, and the pain in his arms was great, and his fear was greater. And, behold! On the path above him he heard footsteps.
Then the Slender Knight cried out, “I pray you, traveller, beware the icy blasts that will blow you from the mountain! And if you have mercy, look to my horse!”
Then a voice spake close above him, “Your horse is well, young knight, and the wind is no more. Take my hand.” And a grey-maunched arm reached down, and seized his hand, and he was pulled to safety. And he stood on the narrow path, and saw a figure, grey-robed and hooded, and behold! It was a woman, silver-haired and majestic. And he marvelled at her strength.
Then the lady said to him, “Who are you, young knight? Why do you venture here?”
The Slender Knight bowed courteously to the lady, and said, “I am the Slender Knight, and I seek the Giant’s Ring, great enough to serve as a necklace for the Lady Madrigal, and it lies beyond the Forest Perilous, and the Hooded Mountain, and the Desolate Tower, and beyond even that. And my thanks for your rescue.”
The lady laughed, and her voice was clear and melodious. “Truly,” she said, “the Giant’s Ring lies beyond the Forest Perilous, and the Hooded Mountain, and the Desolate Tower, and the Lonely Moor, and beyond even that. And its girth is great enough to serve as a girdle to your disdainful Lady Madrigal, and its powers are over air, and fire, and sea, and the green things of the earth, and the wind and storm. Many have plunged to their deaths down the Hooded Mountain, through discourtesy, and distrust. But you are a bold knight, and a courteous, and only one other has proved himself so nobly, and if he was the first, perhaps you are the last. Go in peace.”
And the mists moved, and the wind blew, and the lady was no more.
Then the Slender Knight mounted his horse once again, and continued; and after a time the path no longer wound upwards, but downwards, and the mists seemed thinner, and the wind warmer, and at length the cloud blew away, and behold! the Slender Knight stood at the foot of a narrow, rocky valley, and at the valley’s head was a tall tower of dark stone.
Then the Slender Knight urged his horse forward, and they went carefully through the rocks and thorns of the valley, until they were nigh upon the Desolate Tower. And then the ground trembled, and small stones slid, and from about the towers foot uncurled a monstrous serpent, shining-scaled, fiery-eyed, and clawed most fearsomely. And it reared up, and towered over the Slender Knight, and spake, saying in a voice of hissings and malevolence, “Who is thissss? Whenccccce came you? What issss your desssssire?”
And the Slender Knight was at first too occupied in calming the terror of his horse, but quickly soothed the beast, and dismounted, and bowed to the serpent, saying, “I am the Slender Knight, and I seek the Giant’s Ring, great enough to serve as a girdle for the Lady Madrigal, and it lies beyond the Forest Perilous, and the Hooded Mountain, and the Desolate Tower, and the Lonely Moor, and beyond even that. And though it were a noble deed to meet so great a creature in battle, yet rather would I pass, and go on my way.”
Then the serpent hissed horribly, and said, “Truly, the Giant’s Ring lies beyond the Forest Perilous, and the Hooded Mountain, and the Desolate Tower, and the Lonely Moor, and the Silent Lake, and beyond even that. And its girth is greater than the shield of the knight who is father to your disdainful Lady Madrigal, and its powers are over air, and fire, and sea, and the green things of the earth, and the wind and storm, and the beasts of field and stream and wood. Many pass this way, and stay to fight, and none survive. But you are a bold knight, and a courteous, and only one other has proved himself thus nobly, and if he was the first, perhaps you are the last. Go in peace.”
Then the Slender Knight bowed once more to the serpent, and mounted his horse, and passed behind the Desolate Tower, and behold! there was a narrow pass leading out of the valley to the wide lands beyond. And the Slender Knight rode through the valley, and before him stretched a wild and lonely moor.
Now the moor was not desolate, but was sprinkled all over with sweet-smelling bushes, and pleasant grasses, and flowers. And so the Slender Knight went on most joyously, and his horse picked up its pace as though nearing home. And after a time, the moor sloped down to a peaceful lake, its waters dark and calm and clear. And on the silver sands of the lake shore rested a small boat.
Then the Slender Knight dismounted, and took his saddle from the horse, and bade the beast graze and drink its fill. And he took himself instead unto the boat, and found within it good oars, and rowed himself across the lake. And greatly was he amazed to see that the dipping of his oars in the water made no sound, and their touch made no ripples.
After a time, then, the prow of the boat grated on sand, and the Slender Knight found himself on the farther shore of the lake. Before him stood a small stone cottage, its roof of thatch, its garden bright with flowers, and the smoke pouring most comfortably from its chimney. And on the step sat a large black cat.
Then the Slender Knight climbed from the boat, and came up to the cottage door, and saw by its side a fine creeping rose, that twined about a support in the ground. And, looking closely, the Slender Knight saw that the support for the rose was a knightly sword, held in the earth. And he wondered exceedingly. Then he nodded kindly to the cat; and knocked at the door of the cottage.
The door was opened from within by a young man with a peaceful face, and the Slender Knight cried out in wonder, for it was the face of the Humble Knight, he who was first given the quest of the Giant’s Ring by the Lady Madrigal.
Then said the Slender Knight, “I am rejoiced to find you here, beyond the Forest Perilous and the Hooded Mountain and the Desolate Tower and the Lonely Moor and the Silent Lake; and I pray you, have you found the giant whose ring is greater than the shield of the Lady Madrigal’s father?”
Then the Humble Knight smiled, and said, “I am the Giant, and this is my Ring.” And he gave to the Slender Knight a plain silver ring which fitted most exactly the knight’s finger.
And the Slender Knight asked, “Does this then possess power over air and fire and sea, and the green things of the earth, and the wind and storm, and the beasts of field and stream and wood?”
And the Humble Knight replied, “The ring has only one power, and that is power over the hearts of men.”
And then the Slender Knight laughed most joyously, and said, “It has power over the hearts of men, but what of the hearts of women?” And he removed his helmet, and bright hair came tumbling down, and behold! it was the lady Madrigal.
And the Humble Knight laughed for joy, and said, “That power also.”
And thus the Lady Madrigal found what it was that she desired in her knight, and they rode back to her father’s lands, and were married with great rejoicing. And while they loved always the green things of the earth, and the beasts of field and stream and wood and the wind and storm, they had always only such power as it is proper to have over the hearts of men and women both.
Jehanne de Huguenin