The Tale of the Wedding Guest
- Continued from Samhain 2000 issue-

By Erica Friedman

The scene changed to that of her learning to fight. At first the youth in blue was her mentor.

“My first teacher was a mere boy by their standards, but he and I became close friends. You may have noticed I use no names. I will not sully their glorious names with my profane tongue– I no longer deserve to utter them.” She fell silent once again.

I tell you this so you will not think me irritating for withholding names of these Fairie lords and ladies. I never learned them, or I would tell you now.

“When I became more of a challenge I was handed over to my first implacable opponent in the court.” The lord in green stood glaring down at the girl, who stood staring confidently back. They fought and the girl, though soundly defeated, had made a definite impact upon the lord– his arm had to be bandaged and slung by a cloth for several weeks. “He never liked me, nor I him, but he was a good man and an honest one and he taught me many things.

One night, after a particularly hard match, he took me aside. In a low tone he asked to me to beware my final teacher– that he would hurt me, as he had hurt many a beautiful mortal. He said nothing else and when I questioned him he would not respond. Never again did he mention the subject. I suppose he felt that if I did not find my way through obscurity to understanding, I was not fit to be warned.” This last spoken in a dryly humorous tone.

“My next teacher was...” Her voice cut off abruptly. I waited for her to clarify but she did not. The vision was of that magnificent and graceful beauty in orange. Her red-gold curls bounced tightly as she moved. Her movements were the epitome of economy and deadliness. My lady was better as a fencer than she had been, but never as good as this woman.

“She was,” the voice was tight, choked now, “beautiful and cold. Everyone loved her and she would love anyone, it was said.” I could see her lunge into my lady’s attack, trapping sword and girl in one swift movement. Even swifter, she bent her face down to kiss the little prince, leaving her breathless and hopelessly lost in a moment. Time and time again the clinch, the kiss. I felt my breath becoming somewhat ragged, more fascinated than propriety should have let me be. The poor girl, now grey with fatigue and worry, finally confided her problem to the Queen, or so I assumed, as my lady no longer spoke.

The Queen smiled, her eyes moist and soft. I too was coming to love this Fairie Queen, although I knew it would be a hopeless love. To my surprise I found the two figures walking in an opulently lit hallway, to a carved door. A knock, the door opened, a few words, the girl steps inside, the door closes.

The Queen removes herself and the hallway is silent, only the glow of the lights to watch. Still no narration. I could hear nothing, except, maybe, the smallest of sounds. Her breath, again, ragged, as if she were trying not to cry. I longed to turn and embrace her, but I remained trapped in this vision.

After the longest time her voice returned, raw and rough. “Good sir, you have listened so well to my tale. Can you answer me one thing? How many people can a single person love and lose?”

The sound of sobbing, then a few sniffs. “After that I learned quickly and at last faced my final teacher. The words of warning hung heavy over me and I resolved to be strong.”

The lord in red faced her in a duellist’s stance. He looked calm and cool, if anything could be said to be imperfect in his form it would have to be a surfeit of confidence, a shade too much sangfroid.

You’re laughing at me again. Yes, I can see that I must sound like a sot in his cups to you.

The girl prince faced her opponent calmly, no emotion at all on her face. She had grown, it was obvious, no longer a child.

The red lord attacked. I held my breath as they clinched, parted and the match was on in earnest. If I could have, I would have shouted, supported her with my voice as I already did with my heart.

“I am sorry, I should not keep you waiting. It is just…I have so much to say and no idea how to say it.”

The match ended, my lady had lost. She smiled and bowed in thanks, saluted with her sword and walked off the dueling ground. Smiles met her passing; she inclined her head graciously in answer.

“What a fool I was. He was never anything but courteous, kind, and a most efficient and intense teacher. I looked so hard for things to hate in him that I found myself obsessed. I knew what the Queen would say if I told her. I chose to say nothing. Instead I watched and waited to be betrayed by the man I trusted with my life.”

A dark day, a stormy sky. Two opponents in masks, with swords raised. No spectators.

Salute, pause, swords touch, pause, touch again. Feint, counter, parry, pause.

“I was better that day than I have ever been again. I had never beaten my last master, but him– I knew I had to defeat him so that he could never hurt me.”

Touch, parry, counter. The figures moved with precision timing, their steps so immaculate it appeared that they danced, rather than fenced. The speed of their movements increased slowly, until their blades were a blur. She thrust with the weight of her whole slim form behind it and he parried, but not quite fast enough. His sleeve parted and blood was visible against the pale skin. His face flushed, but no other change came over his countenance. He pushed her away and began another attack.

This time the speed with which they fought was blinding. I could not follow attack or counter. I prayed to God that I would not see a horrible tragedy take place.

The fight came to an abrupt end. A single misstep and the attack, so perfectly timed, so flawlessly executed, was parried and a counterthrust made. The thing that happened next I could not believe, even witnessing it with my own eyes. The two opponents, standing facing each other, eye to eye, both slumped to the ground. In that single instant…they had pierced each other to the quick, through padded armor and protective gear. A pool of blood welled slowly beneath each form as they struggled to sit, to breathe, to understand.

The lord in red made a final, weak salute and passed out, while my lady, now on her knees, crawled to him, weeping in horror at what had happened. She collapsed, her head on the lord’s chest, her hair spreading across his body, the pink growing darker as it settled into the blood spreading over his chest.

“I awoke in the Queen’s Chamber. She sat by me on one side, the King on the other. They told me it had been close, but I was going to be fine. Ironically, I didn’t even scar. I have nothing to remember him by but the fact that the event is etched into my mind. He was a good man, a good teacher and I believe, at the last, that I loved him in a way. He might have been the older brother I never had, but it was too late. Stroking my brow to soothe my fever, the Queen told me that he was dead. I had killed him.”

The scene changed once again to a ball– the kind of masquerade one instinctively imagines upon thinking of the Fey at all. Grotesque masks of incredible beauty and complexity, music that seemed to come from the heavenly choir itself, sparkling light, otherworldly faces.

“Time passed and I was now seen as a lordling among these people. I had made my place among them and never did I miss my life upon earth. Indeed, I laughed as they did, at the dull plight of mortals.”

The night wound its way down, the crowd thinning. The King stepped forward and spinning my lady onto the floor smiled down at her. She blushed slightly, but laughed.

“How do I even tell of what next occurred? The night had passed and the guests were all gone. I awaited the Queen in her chamber, but she came in only to tell me to sleep, that she was called away. This was not unusual. She was, after all the Queen. And she and her court had ridden away to the hunt to the mortal world more than once while I had been there. I could not go with them, of course– one step onto this plane would doom me to remain and in no way would I risk my happiness to return to that mundane existence.

“But this night something made me curious. I wondered what she could be up to that could not include me. So I followed.”

A curtain was drawn back to reveal an empty room. In stark contrast to the rest of my vision of this enchanted world, I could see no decoration of any kind. This simple room was lit with plain lanterns and the gloom was close around the figures that stood grouped in the center of the tableau.

The Queen lay, apparently unconscious, in the arms of the King, while he brandished a blade of some magical material. It glowed with an unearthly light as he made his salute. To my surprise, the Queen then stood upright, stepping delicately to the side to watch the rest of the proceedings.

The lord in green strode forward, saluted and took a ready position. The King, with only the barest smile, matched him. The fight was short but intense. With very little effort he had his opponent unarmed. The green-clad lord stood back and bowed and, unsmiling, walked away into the dark. The remaining figures bowed to the King and took their leave.

“I did not understand what I had seen, but I followed the Queen once more after she and the King left the room. They retired to his quarters. It did not take much imagination for me to figure out what occurred there.”

A candle lit chamber, two figures embracing– the scene went abruptly dark as she picked up the thread of her tale.

“Again and again I followed her. Not always did the King win, but the reward for the victor was always the same.” Her voice was bitter. “I did not understand, and I could not help my jealousy. But I did not speak of it. I would not. How could I ask about that which I was not to have witnessed?

“One day I made my way to the chamber early, determined to see the conflict from the beginning. I waited in a hidden alcove, prepared to face the truth at last.”

A single lamp, then another, lighted the darkness. At last several figures gathered together in the center of the room. The darkness wavered and a silhouetted figure appeared in my vision, close, but unrecognizable.

“She found me instantly. I expected anger or recrimination, but she smiled tolerantly at me and led me out of the alcove and set me to watch. She told me that whatever I saw, I was never to take up a sword in this match, or it would mean the end of my stay in this world. I found myself literally sitting on my hands as I watched. The current champion appeared to be one of my remaining teachers.”

The lady in orange stepped forward, kneeled before the Queen and rose to her feet. Coming closer she held her hands out to the Queen, who placed them on the center of her chest. They leaned towards each other and kissed. As their lips touched a sword appeared, its hilt thrust out of the Queen’s very body.

I gaped at the sight, and I know you are thinking me thrice an idiot now. But I swear by God that this is what I saw in my vision. The lady in orange drew this blade– it was the same I had beheld earlier in the King’s hand. The Queen righted herself and stood aside. Today the challenger was a tall lord in black I had not yet seen.

The match was slow and deliberate, but never in doubt. The orange-clad lady won neatly and she and the Queen retired together.

“I waited all night in the Queen’s bed, not sleeping. I needed to know what was this form of deadly play. I was determined to learn of it. When she returned in the morning I asked her what it was that I watched. She comforted me, kissing my brow and assured me it was merely a game between them all. But once again she cautioned me to never join this play, that it would bring me nothing but grief.”

A succession of scenes, duels with various challengers and victors followed, so many that I found it hard to follow the tale it wound. The tall lady in orange frequently was victorious as was the King himself, yet never did they seem to fight each other.

“With each battle a desire grew in my heart to partake in this strange play. With each duel I longed to be the victor and escort my Queen to her chamber.” She paused a moment, as if reflecting on this last statement. “Do not misunderstand me. I had not yet lost her love and we still spent many nights together, but never could I possess her as the victor of the duel could, as reward for an uncontested victory. It filled my mind, to be part of this game, to take my place and face the Great Ones as one of them.

“That was when he came to me.”

A shadowed form in a hallway, a hand reaching out and spinning her into a close embrace. A dark face, with a bright smile leaning down over her.

“He was so beautiful that my heart was caught from the first touch.”

The King took my lady’s hand and led her to a garden where lanterns glowed brightly in a warm twilit scene. They walked and spoke together, frequently laughing, and on one occasion I could see my lady blushing as he drew close to her to point out some feature of the landscape.

“He was the soul of charm and wit and an unaccountable longing took hold of me. When he asked me for the favor of my company again the next night after the duel, I did not refuse him.”

The dueling ground, once again two figures in the aureole of lamplight. This time another figure strange to me, and the young lord in blue. He gazed apologetically at the Queen as he drew the sword from within her. His loss was surprising, as if he had not realized the skill of his opponent. The Queen walks off, her arm linked with the new victor.

My lady stands over to the side, leaning insouciantly against a carved pillar, the blaze in her eyes the only sign of longing visible. A second figure steps up behind her, leans down over her, and she whirls around, smiling with pleasure.

“He was very essence of charisma. Where the Queen brought love to her subject’s hearts, he brought yearning; longings to be fulfilled. And as I spent time with him, I grew dissatisfied with what I had, and could only think of that which I desired.

“One night as we sat looking at the stars, he pulled me close and asked me what I wanted more than anything else. I told him of my desire to be a Prince. He laughed as if delighted and asked me again if there was anything I desired. As he looked into my eyes something burst from ember to full flame within me.”

The pale hair dipped towards her in my vision and once again I wished to look away. They kissed for a very long time, as the stars moved in their sphere. The scene continued and I fervently prayed for my lady to once again take up the tale and make this sight go away. But she did not and I watched him kiss her neck and breasts, and slowly, as the stars wheeled above, her ivory body was revealed to me. He was a smoky shadow next to her, eclipsing her as the earth does the moon. I could feel tears fall down my face as the King took my lady in the most intimate of embraces. Dear God, I thought, please let her go on with her tale!

The scene changed and I would have cried out with relief if I could have done so. It was morning in Summerland and the golden light streamed into a richly furnished room. Two figures lay entwined, sleepy, but not asleep, in that happy world where all new lovers awake.

“I…I apologize, once again. I cannot…I must tell this, but it is very hard.”

Her voice was so young so fragile. What did he do to you? I cried out in my mind, but no sound passed my lips.

“You must not think me a wanton. I was not. For all my skills, I am, I was, merely a mortal. Favored perhaps, by the Beautiful Ones, but with my own fate to be met.

“That morning he offered me that which I desired most. He had read it in my heart as we lay together and I rejoiced that I could win the love of my Queen at last.

“He promised to train me himself, so that I would win the duel, and her.”

I could feel the tension in my arms and chest at these words, so coolly spoken.

“I see you understand the paradox. I did not, so consumed I was with my desire to be the Prince.” She paused, then, “Or maybe I did, but did not care to consider it.”

“He kept his promise to me– and for weeks, then months he taught me many tricks of sword craft. I was a dedicated pupil. At night, well, my payment to him was sincere and I learned much there too.”

I could see the tall pale-haired King fighting with my Lady; as time passed, their fights became more in earnest, more deadly.

“One night, after he had won the duel, I was left to myself to contemplate my plight. My lovers had both left me alone and I wondered how I would win the one and not lose the other. My brain was fevered all night, and my sleep restless. I awoke several times, thinking that I heard voices in my room, but when I awoke, there was nothing.”

My lady, walking down a hallway with a purposeful stride. The young lord in blue approaches, he speaks, she responds. The discussion becomes heated; my lady turns away, anger plainly visible on her face. She continues down the hall, until she is met by the lord in green. He says nothing but gives her a searching look, then continues on his way. My lady continues to walk, but her face is now thoughtful, contemplative.

“You may think I had forgotten his words, but I had not. However, the King was my lover, I maintained he would not harm me. I would not be jealous if he had had and hurt other mortal women– the life of the Fey are very long indeed. What is a little carnal pleasure after all? Do not the animals on this earth all take joy in it? Why should not we who are human, and even more so those who are more heavenly than ourselves. Thus convincing myself I was in no danger, I passed through the day until the duel that night.”

The dueling ground once again. The gloomy interior no different, but the tension was palpable– even removed as I was, I could feel it. The tall, cold lady in orange stood forward calling on her challenger for the evening. My lady stepped into the light– and the silence was deafening.

The Queen says nothing, but pain is clearly visible on her face as she embraces the incumbent victor and once again the mysterious sword is made manifest. In complete silence the duel begins. No noise but the sound of feet, of metal striking metal, of breathing. It is a long duel. My lady’s former teacher holds nothing back, but slowly realizes that the challenger is up to the task. Her strategy changes, she will wear my lady out, but this too fall short of its mark. It will come down to skill, or luck.

At last, the final blow is struck, a parry is made, the movement is utilized and with a piercing cry, the lady in orange is defeated. Falling to her knees, my lady gasps for breath, her head hanging, her hair over her eyes. The Queen walks forward and holding her hands out to my lady, lifts her gently up from the ground. In the stillness of the night, the two women leave arm in arm.

“It was miraculous. What I thought I had had was nothing compared to what she gave me that night. I felt justified in my desire, satisfied in my victory and once again happy with my lot. My Queen would not speak of her warning to me, but I passed the memory of it off as the concern of a parent for a child who cannot keep up with a strenuous activity. While we were together, each night was as our last. I can now see that she knew our time together would be brief, but at the time, I thought only of the passion we shared and the pleasure we gave each other.” My lady’s voice was toneless. I instinctively knew that this was the only way she could tell this final act of her story and my heart ached for her.

“For the next few duels I proved over and over again that it was I and no other who would protect her and love her and never did she say a word against me.”

Scenes flashed once again, my lady defeating challenger after challenger. All determined to remove her from this deadly peril, by force if necessary, but with each duel her skill would grow, as if she were possessed with a magick of her own. Friends, foes, strange lords and ladies all stepped up to face her and all failed.

“I knew it had to happen…as I suspect you also know. He challenged me at last. And for the first time, I felt trepidation. For had he not instructed me? What skill might he have reserved for himself? But I trusted to my love to see me through.

“I was an idiot.”

The vision faded, stranding me in surrounding nothingness, and her voice alone continued. “He played with me. At the moment we touched swords I realized that I was facing my defeat and my heart hardened against him. Did he not understand? I was determined to defeat him, if it meant my death. All my ideals, all my strength, and all my desire fused into a single act of pure will. I would kill him if I could. And I could.”

There was silence and I was alone with the darkness. The void pressed against me and I shifted nervously. The quiet weighed uncomfortably upon me. I wished to have an end to this ordeal and see clear sky and trees once again.

At last the voice returned to me. “I could have killed him. I had the strength, the skill. My sword aimed directly at his heart, my attack was straight and true.”

The voice fell silent once more and the vision returned to me. Two figures, one leaping towards the other, death at the end of her sword, then a flash of motion, a third figure, a scream, another scream, then once again two figures. The light was fading fast, the terrible gloom moving in towards the center of the room. The King was gone. In his place on the ground lay the Queen; her arms still outspread, as they had been when she leapt in between death and her brother.

My lady held her, as her life spread quickly from her body. My lady’s head was lowered and I could hear her talking but no words could I make out. Once again tears fell from my eyes at the horrible inevitably of the ending, as the gloom at last overtook the vision and my sight was once again blacked out.

How long I sat like that in the darkness, I cannot tell you– you found me there, weeping, alone and lost, like a child. When I heard your voices I opened my eyes to find myself sitting underneath the tree under the light of a waxing moon. There was no knight, no horse, just me and my tears. In your kindness, recognizing me, you brought me here and have given me warm food and drink and have listened to my tale with only a little mockery, for which I am grateful.

You stare at me now, sure that I am insane, maybe dangerous. You may be right, but allow me to tell you the final part of my tale. If you do not yet think me mad, this will surely change your opinion.

For, my friends, I am convinced that she was released from her geas. My heart tells me that my love for her, my belief in her, has returned my lady to the realm of the Undying Ones, back to the arms those she loved too well. She had said it was a geas upon her to tell the tale, and it may well now have transferred to me, for having told it, I feel free and happy as I have not in many a year.

And now, as it is so late, I have but one request of you, my dear friends. Please return me to the glade in which you found me. I will wait there, to hear the pounding of hooves and the tinkle of golden bells, and to be taken by the Fey Ones in their hunt, that I may enter their world and serve the lady I have come to love and her Queen, for all eternity.

— Finis —


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