Find Me a Man

On the first day of the year, a wizard had come to the castle of a mighty king and kidnapped his daughter, the princess. “She will die in a year,” the wizard proclaimed. “Until then I shall keep her secured in my tower.” Then the two of them vanished.

A thousand of the king's best men had been sent to the tower and a thousand of the king's best men had failed to return. Despairing of ever seeing his daughter again, the king sent out a call across his lands and to lands beyond, promising any reward to the man who could return his daughter safely. Days passed, then weeks, then months, yet none were brave enough to take even the greatest reward. They had heard the tales.

Just as the year was coming to a close and it seemed the princess would be forever lost, a knight in glossy black plate with a red tassel upon his helmet entered the castle. He knelt before the king, who bid him rise. “I have heard your call, great king,” the knight said, his voice hollow behind his great helm. “I come to name my price.”

“Anything,” the king said.

“It may be too much,” the knight warned him. “Think carefully before you say something foolish.”

“Anything!” the king promised. “I will give up anything for you to free my daughter from her prison.”

The knight rose from his knee. “Her hand in marriage,” the knight said.

“Of course,” the king agreed.

“A duchy, comprising all lands west of the Rimehold.”

The king paused only a moment before he said, “Agreed.”

Finally, the knight said, “From here unto the end of time, you and all your people must worship the Disc and follow all the customs of Galvetrus.”

At this, the king finally hesitated. “Optierus has been the guardian of this land since time immemorial,” the king said, hand going to the orb around his neck. “His temples are many, his priests more. You would have me turn them against the kingdom?”

The knight nodded, his hollow voice saying, “Yes. The Lord of Light has led you astray. Where have your prayers gotten you? Your daughter is still gone. A thousand good men are dead. Do I truly ask too much?”

With a sigh, the king slowly nodded his head. “Your demands will be met, as long as you rescue my daughter.”

“It shall be done,” the knight said and turned with a flourish of his crimson cape.

The tower was many days away by foot, but the knight walked day and night without rest, never once eating or drinking or doing as much as removing his armor. The king had sent men to follow him quietly, silently, but they grew weary trying to keep pace and had to abandon the trail after only a few days.

Upon reporting to the king, he wondered aloud, “What dark creature have I bargained with?”

The knight, meanwhile, continued his relentless journey to the tower. On the fifth day, as he crossed a stream over a narrow bridge, a brigand stepped from behind a tree and bid him stop. “I stop for no man,” said the knight. “I shall not stop for you.”

“A hundred of the king's best men said the same thing, but could not pass,” the brigand said. “At least not with their valuables.”

“And yet nine hundred did pass you by.”

With a shrug, the brigand said, “I stand here not every day. Your armor is fine, but too heavy for me. That helmet, however, has a fine tassel and I will take it.”

“My face is not for your eyes,” the knight said and drew his sword.

The brigand raised his axe to attack, but before he could swing the knight had struck. “Well fought,” the brigand said, axe falling in two pieces and body following.

The knight traveled on. On the sixth day, the knight came upon a pile of bones laying beside the road. As he examined them a heavy thud from behind caught his attention and he spun around in time to see a giant twice his size with a club nearly as large.

“Run, little man, or I will devour your meat and use your fat to make soap,” the giant bellowed.

“I do not fear you,” the knight said, “for Galvetrus gives me strength.”

The giant laughed. “Two hundred of the king's best men claimed their god's protection, and now two hundred skulls sit aside the road!”

“And yet there were seven hundred who escaped you.”

“A single man can feed me for a day or more,” the giant said. “You will feed me well, I can tell.”

The giant raised his club and swung it down with such force that it cracked the earth, leaving two deep chasms in the road. Yet the knight had split it down the middle with his sword as it fell, and so it struck him not. He followed by slicing the giant in two, so that his blood spilled and filled those chasms to create twin ponds of vile red blood.

The knight traveled on. On the seventh day, as the Orb set in the north, two long palps, like spikes made of bone, burst from the earth and slowly dragged a horrible kaled into the air. The creature, resembling the skeleton of a man from the waist up, palps instead of forearms, and hanging entrails from the waist down, glared at him with empty eyes.

“Your soul will feed me,” the kelad said, its voice a harsh whisper in the night wind.

The knight held up his disc and said, “I am a knight of Galvetrus, the lord of the night. You cannot touch me.”

“It is true I am of the night and the cold of the darklands, which Galvetrus claims,” the kelad said. “But three hundred of the king's best men came before me and had their souls devoured, so the wishes of that god concern me no more.”

“And yet four hundred passed with their souls intact.”

“Not all came during the night, knight,” the kelad said, its laugh a rasp of dead leaves.

The kelad lunged at the knight, who merely stood impassive as its spiked palps sunk into his armor. Yet as the kelad pushed forward, its pale bones began to darken and crack. Thin tendrils raced up the thing's arms, reaching its head and down to its ghastly viscera, until the entire thing had turned as black as the knight's armor. The knight placed a hand on it and the kelad crumbled to ash and was blown away on the wind.

On the eighth day, the knight came finally to the tower. It was a single spire, jutting from the ground, crudely hewn from mismatched blocks. There seemed to be no way in or out, no doors or windows, even at the top where the princess was surely waiting.

From the tower itself emerged a man wearing a simple robe. The man had a tired face, but he stood defiant before the knight. “You come for the princess,” the man said.

“I do,” the knight said.

“Turn back now,” the man said. “I am a powerful wizard and I have trapped her inside this tower. It is a folly to try to remove her from it.”

“I have defeated all the dangers on the path,” the knight said, his voice ringing behind his helm. “Brigand, giant, kelad. I can slay a wizard as well.”

The wizard shook his head. “Four hundred of the king's best men came before me,” the wizard said. “And unlike the others, not one made it past me.”

“Then I shall be that one,” the knight promised as he drew his sword.

The wizard raised his staff and from it came the sound of thunder and the flash of lightning, faster than the knight could avoid. It struck his armor and sent the knight to one knee. The wizard raised his staff for another strike, but the knight forced himself to his feet and dashed forward. The lightning burst and the sword sliced and in the end, the wizard fell to the ground, wounded mortally.

“You doom yourself,” the wizard exclaimed with his last breath. As he died, the knight saw what he could not before; the door to the tower. The knight entered it and began to climb.

On the first floor, he met the ghost of the brigand. “You killed me for a woman,” the brigand accused. “Yet she knows nothing of you. You are as much a thief as I.” The knight slashed the ghost with his sword, but it shattered into a thousand pieces. Yet the ghost was gone, so he climbed.

On the second floor, he met the spirit of the giant. “You slew me for land,” the giant reminded him. “I craved, but only to feed myself. You will take more than you could ever use and are the true glutton.” The knight walked straight through this ghost and his tassel and cape burst into flames. But the spirit was gone, so he continued.

On the third floor, he met the soul of the kelad. “You destroyed me for your god,” the kelad said. “You force him on others. I devour souls, but you twist them until they snap.” The knight turned away from the kelad, and his armor, save his concealing helmet, crumbled off him. But the spirit had vanished, so he braved on.

On the fourth floor, he met the specter of the wizard, so freshly slain. “You killed me simply because you could,” the wizard said. “You know no motive other than death, and it is your death that shall find you here.” Then the wizard's specter vanished without harming the knight, so he ascended to the final floor.

On the fifth floor, he found the princess. Her long months of captivity had left her wasted and frail. Her fair skin had become sallow, her dark hair which could have touched the ground even as she stood had grown brittle, her bright blue eyes dulled. She weakly lifted her head to look upon him.

The knight approached her and fell to a knee. “My princess, the trials I have faced to reach you have left me naked before you,” he proclaimed, lowering his gaze to the floor. “But I am your rescuer, your freedom.” He extended his hand to her. “Come with me and we shall be free of this place.”

He felt her papery skin brush against his hand. “I am took weak,” her voice came in a rattle. “Come closer, my knight.” Heeding her command, he stood and moved closer to her. “Show me your face,” she commanded.

With shaking hands, he placed his hands on the side of his helmet and slowly removed it. When her eyes laid on it, she broke into a wide smile. “Why, you are barely more than a boy,” she said. For he was youthful, with skin as pale as hers, and messy black hair that hung in rings down to his jaw.

“I am a knight of Galvetrus, my lady,” he said, lowering his eyes again. “Since my birth I have trained for this. And I am not so distant from manhood that I would be an unworthy husband for you.”

The princess laughed. “An unworthy husband?” she asked. “That was the payment you extracted from the king, I suppose. My hand in marriage.”

“That was not all, my lady,” the knight said. “Lands, too, so you might never want for anything by marrying a simple knight. Faith, as well, so you are not embarrassed to be married to a man of Galvetrus in a land of Optierus.”

She smiled. “I shall never be embarrassed by marriage to you,” she said. “Come, my knight, my savior. Kiss me.”

He lifted his head to press his lips against hers, even though hers were cracked and thin from her imprisonment. But no, he suddenly realized, it was not her lips that were thin and cracked, it was his own. He fell away from the princess suddenly, his strength having abandoned him.

She stood over him and smiled. Her lips full and red, her eyes sparking blue, her skin flawless, her hair a cascade. “I shall always remember you for freeing me from my prison, brave knight,” she said with a throaty voice. “May you find your rewards in the next life.”

With a laugh that chilled the knight's bones, she descended the tower. Or was it merely the four ghosts coming to take his spirit along with theirs that caused him such cold?

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