Once upon a time, King Peter and his daughter, Mirabelle stood in the throne room, shed their concerns like warm clothes in summer and traded them for different concerns.
‘It’s the garden boy, father, I swear.’ she said.
Peter grimaced, gripped the arms of the throne and leaned forward.
‘A garden boy rode a war horse, clad in black plate armour and leading a host of warriors.’ he said.
Mirabelle blushed and looked away.
‘It sounds ridiculous, father, but please. Did he remove his helm?’ she said.
Peter shook his head and sighed. Mirabelle emitted a tight, shrill cry of frustration. Within her, raged a delighted fury, at how he could thwart her interest without pushing her away.
Peter sat back in his chair and closed his eyes, rubbed his temples with his fingers and smiled.
“I will proclaim a great festival. It shall last for three days, and you shall throw a golden apple. Perhaps the unknown knight will come.” he said.
Mirabelle sighed and looked upwards, twirling a lock of her hair around her index finger.
‘Perhaps.’ she said.
A king’s power lies in the gap between thought and action.. Peter gave the word, and arrangements began, at first in the pronouncement and then the preparations. Eilhu kept himself apart from the others, but word reached him and he fought the subtle, winding thrill of anticipation which burned within his chest.
Eilhu went out into the woods and called The Wild Man.
‘What do you need?’ he said.
‘To catch the princess’s golden apple.’
“It is as good as done,” said Iron Hans. ‘And further, you shall have a suit of red armor and ride on a spirited chestnut horse.’
When the day came, Eilhu galloped up, took his place among the knights, anonymous in his scarlet armour. The elder nobles and warriors noted the design, borrowing from the designs of the Caliphate, in the engravings which ran down the greaves and braziers of the armour. The chest plate was without decoration and Eilhu had a one handed sword sheathed on his left hip as he sat astride the chestnut stallion. Its coat had the gloss of health and it obeyed Eilhu’s command without question.
King Peter had no real taste for the vulgar, he was, despite his title, a simple man. His people, however, demanded a celebration after the horror of war. His flags flapped in the breeze, people pressed against the barriers, clamouring for a good position to watch the events. Such trappings served two roles, one to allow for celebration and the other was to draw out a man who had beguiled his daughter and saved his kingdom.
He called for the first tourney, a display of melee combat with a pitched mob of warriors, knights and free folk lashing out at one another with varying levels of skill and experience. Eilhu drew his sword and strapped a shield onto his left forearm before entering the fray. He ducked beneath the whistling point of a spear and smacked his blade into the knee of the assailant, before giving a swift kick to the man’s head, knocking him into the earth before moving onto the next opponent. There was joy in battle, and after the sullen deprivation and mocking of the last few years, he took pleasure in the lack of nuance. He turned, yelled from the bottom of his stomach and charged at the next opponent.
He was the last man stood in the tourney. The chorus of cheers thrilled him, but he kept his helmet on. He accepted his victory in silence, taking in Mirabelle stood with the golden apple in her hand. Her favour, a small green silken scarf, dangled from her wrist as she tossed the apple into the air.
He was the only one who caught it, and as soon as he had it, he galloped away.
‘How did it go?’ The Wild Man said.
Eilhu chuckled and tossed him the apple. The Wild Man caught it. In his hands, it resembled a golden grape. He tossed it back and shook his head.
‘Will you keep it?’ The Wild Man said.
Eilhu laughed, said the gardener’s children would never forgive him if he kept it.
The Wild Man leaned forwards.
‘Same time tomorrow?’ he said.
On the second day Iron Hans had outfitted him as a white knight, with a white horse. He entered the joust which drew applause from the crowd, and whispers as he fought in silence, without giving a single clue to his identity.
He rode against Sir Carrey of Blood Lake, a man who rode with such skill, he was part horse himself. Eilhu held firm against him, even when Carrey struck him in his right shoulder and on the last tilt, Eilhu lowered the tip of the lance and drove it into Carrey’s pelvis, sending him crashing into the dirt.
Eilhu dismounted and helped him to his feet, clapping him on the back before leading his horse away. Again he was the only one who caught the apple. Without lingering an instant, he galloped away with it. Mirabelle watched him leave, parts of her in his possession and with few words spoken between them.
Peter called his knights into his throne room. He sat amongst them, face tight with frustration and embarrassment.
‘Each time, he comes, he wins and leaves without lifting his visor.’
He thought of his Mirabelle and soured with a father’s anger.
‘He must appear before me and tell me his name.’ he said.
Before anyone could object, he continued to address his men.
‘Tomorrow is the last day. If he catches the apple and flees with it, you are to give chase and order him, in my name, to stop.’ he said.
Sir Carrey raised his right hand, wincing as Peter glanced at him.
‘What if he continues to flee?’ he said.
Peter sat back in his chair and closed his eyes.
‘Stop him, but do not kill him. We owe him a debt for his actions.’ he said.
On the third day, he received from the Wild Man, a suit of black armor and a black horse.He fought in lance and melee, won both with undisputed victories aside from a mace to the side of his head from a brutish hedge knight and a lance knocked him to his left, but he remained upright and in the saddle, until the end of the tournament and he rode his black horse to claim victory.
Mirabelle tossed the apple to him. He stared into her eyes through his closed visor, struck by her beauty. She had not given her favour. Eilhu knew he could lift his visor and end the charade but he acted from a place within himself, resisting definition but requiring a rough-hewn faith in himself
He caught the apple and galloped to the woods.
Sir Carrey gave the first shout, his sword raised as he led a host towards Eilhu.
‘Halt in King Peter’s name.’ he said.
Eilhu pushed the stallion on but the king’s men were fast and experienced, flanking him on either side.
‘Why do you run? He wishes to honour you.’ Carrey said.
Eilhu kept the horse at a gallop. Carrey drew his sword, turning it in his hand with lethal ease. His face was tight with intention as he stabbed the point of his blade forwards.
The blade slipped between the plates of armour on his thigh. It glanced off bone, but the wound was true, enough to make Eilhu lurch backwards as agony seized him between its teeth.
His helmet fell off, and the knights, to a man, saw the mane of golden hair flowing in the wind before Eilhu tugged the sword from his thigh and roared out his pain. The horse gained an awful, final burst of speed and disappeared into the trees.
Carrey took his horse around and retrieved his sword from the ground. He raised it to his eyes, saw the smears of blood on the blade and sheathed it. He returned to the castle, puzzled and discomforted by the day’s events.
It was dark when they returned, and Peter summoned him for an audience. Carrey gave his report before returning to his own chambers.
Eilhu limped into the garden, head turning from left to right as he saw the head gardener’s children. He managed an agonised smile, retrieved three golden apples and held them out before him.
‘What a day I’ve had.’ he said.
He fell into a deep and instant faint, with the cries of the children’s alarm following him down into the darkness.