by Rina Grant
The knight arrived at our city at midday. Or so we think, although none of us later remembered seeing any sun. But then again, you don’t look skywards if your eyes are lowered in prayer. And we were praying hard that day — praying to the Lord to lift the siege and drive the enemy away from our town gate.
Our sentries saw the knight from their towers first. His horse raised dust over the caked ground. A fine suit of armor swayed over the saddle, and the cloak swept the horse’s tracks off the wasteland.
The knight had a banner in his hand, a marvelous image sewn with gold and colored gems. He held the other hand at his side, and the gauntlet glistened, dripping crimson, and every drop made a steaming little hole in the dust.
He stopped at the gate.
We couldn’t open the gate to anyone. For seventy-seven years, not one living soul had stepped out onto the road. It was better this way. Whether the enemy was still here or not, we didn’t know. So we needed to exercise wisdom.
His face was uncovered. He raised his head and looked at us. Pale, clear eyes. Many old people still can’t sleep at night when they think about those eyes, and they cry, and beg the knight who’s long gone to come back and forgive them.
We could see that it hurt him to move. The horse stood still and looked at us, too. In the castle uphill, abandoned just as the siege had begun, there’s a half-burnt tapestry in the ruins of the dining hall, with a unicorn and many other pretty beasts woven into it. The knight’s horse had the very same eyes as that unicorn.
We wanted to open the gate for him. But we dared not. We didn’t know his business. He could be the enemy’s messenger, disguised as an angel, riding a dragon disguised as a horse with the eyes of a unicorn. We heard about such things happening, although not in our town. We thought he would wait a little and go away.
The knight raised his hand, heavy and weak, and tried to wave it toward the gate. And, lo —
The cast iron moaned, the chains and gear wheels tightened, the bridge stiffened in the air, readying itself to drop. We stepped back.
“We need to do something,” we said amongst ourselves.
Some of us climbed up the town wall and, from its relative safety, addressed the knight: “We can’t let you in, good man! Go away in peace! Our powers are exhausted from the siege and our spirit is weak — leave us and go your way.”
“He’s wounded — he can’t go far,” some of us argued. “We need to help him.”
But others objected,
“For seventy-seven years we haven’t opened this gate to anyone. The enemy may be outside, just waiting for us to lower the bridge. Let the knight go his way. Let him die outside alone rather than let the evil-doers destroy our city of carved marble and painted glass.”
We listened to them and agreed.
The knight stood on the bridge and looked forward with these half-shut eyes as if he could see everything in town. He stared through each of us — crowding by the gate arch, our mouths open in wonder, even those who’d hidden behind their garden walls. The sick on their deathbeds, their grey frames shaking with hunger, he could see. Our sentries, their eyes blood-shot with strain and suspicion; our children, whoever was left of them.
And the dark blood dripped from under his gauntlet and dried out on the hot stones baked with sunshine.
“Go away in peace, sir knight,” we said.
“You’ll attract the enemy’s spies,” we said.
“Your presence will give us away,” we said.
The knight lifted the marvelous banner in his hand, and we saw that blood had soiled a quarter of the golden needlework. Slowly the horse stepped back, and turned. The knight now faced the southern hills covered in yellow forsythia flowers. Behind those hills, a glow rose to the sky where once the cloister had been. The knight watched the hills, and the blood dripped faster and faster from under his hand.
“Sir knight,” we said, “do kindly go and take shelter there. The burnt-down ruins are cold; the good fathers are all gone. One day seventy-seven years ago, they stood for our town one last time, weapons in hands, a prayer for our enemies on their lips. All perished, striving to protect our flesh and our souls.”
“Go to the cloister,” we echoed. “There, no one will disturb your recovery.” The knight looked and looked at the ruins, and the horse sighed and glanced at us sideways. But what could we have done? We’d been watching the good fathers fight from behind our locked gates that day, saw them fall and be taken captive. We are too weak to leave the town. All we can do is hope.
The knight lifted the golden banner in his hand, and we saw that blood had now covered half of it. Slowly the horse stepped back, and turned. The knight now faced the western hills covered in wild rose blossoms.
Behind those hills, we knew, our enemy stood camp. We knew it because many years ago a messenger had come from that side with a letter. We hadn’t let him in. It could have been a trap. He’d stood at our gates, and snow covered his armor and the letter on the spike’s end. Then he’d turned round and left us, and we hadn’t heard from our enemy since then.
The knight watched the hills, and the blood dripped faster and faster from under his hand. And from within, a great hope came and took over our hearts.
“Brave knight,” we said, “you are a man of battle. Can you tell us how long this war will last? Can you tell us how long will our children die in their sleep from exhaustion and hunger while their mothers spend their time in worry?”
He didn’t speak.
“Brave knight,” we said, “is it true that our allies are gone? Is it true that we’re the last outpost on the enemy’s way? Tell us if there’s hope, so we can open our gates and mourn our dead.”
“And feed our children.”
“And finally say our prayers in peace.”
The knight lifted the marvelous banner in his hand, and we saw that blood had covered three quarters of it. Slowly the horse stepped back, and turned, and the knight faced the north — faced the town gate. Now we could see his face, and it was peaceful — and the blood dripped faster and faster from under his hand.
He turned his face to the locks and bars and stared at them, and we heard a jingle, like that of a great many fine silver chains and bells, and with that jingle the bars and locks started to unlock and fall, unlock and fall.
Down went the locks and the bars, and we wailed in great fear and sorrow, being exposed.
Slowly the bridge’s end floated down and rested on the ground, not disturbing one grain of dust on the road’s edge. The horse came in and its hooves echoed under the arch. Now we could see the knight close, and his eyes were half shut with pain and exhaustion. Our hope grew.
“Sir knight,” we said, “Has someone sent you to help us? If so, please stay and protect us from the enemy. We live in hope and we pray in vain, and you are the first living soul who’s heard our appeal and come here to save us.”
The knight didn’t answer then, either. He rode up our streets, and we followed. A streak of crimson marked his path. Past our watchtowers, past the open windows where our children turned their heads to the noise. We knelt and crawled along his trail, begging him not to go further.
“Good knight,” we said, “you can’t go that way, it’s a dead-end street. Come back and speak to us. Tell us there’s hope for us in this endless vigil.”
He wouldn’t listen. The horse walked, rocking from side to side, looking curiously at our homemade weapons. It headed for the dead-end as if it knew the way. We were weak and fell far behind.
A great sorrow started among us, and our children heard it through the open windows and cried too. First we lamented; then we angered.
“Why send us a knight if he will not stay and protect us?” we said. “Why give us hope and take it away before it’s quenched our hearts?”
We couldn’t believe he’d just go. After everything we’d told him. After he’d seen our misery. We kissed the crimson trail and begged the Lord to leave our silent protector with us. We’d lock him in our town, too, in the relative safety of its walls and gates. The enemy wouldn’t know.
“Wait, sir knight,” we shouted and our calls echoed down the streets. “We have changed our minds. We’ll heal your wounds and give you food and shelter. Just don’t leave us.” But he was too far and couldn’t hear.
“He’s useless,” some of us said, and anger clenched our heads with many red-hot iron rings. “He’s no better than the enemy. His manner is not the manner of a soldier.”
“We can’t drive him out, he’s too powerful,” some objected.
“Let’s kill him!”
“They’re many of us and he’s alone, no matter how strong.”
“And he’s wounded.”
“He won’t resist much.”
We clasped our weapons and followed the crimson trail, now that we had purpose.
We came to the dead-end street, and there the knight stood, waiting for us. We call it a dead-end street because it ends at a cliff no one can climb up or down. A great abyss lies below, and on its bottom a river flows from our town to other parts of the world. With time, wild rose and blackberry bushes had covered the cliff and there it lies in the sun to this very day.
The knight lifted the marvelous banner in his hand, and we couldn’t make out the pattern any longer because it was all covered in blood. Slowly the horse stepped back, and turned to the east, and the knight faced the abyss below the cliff. But he didn’t look down. The knight looked up, to the east, where the sun stood high in the pale midday sky.
“You children of doubt, raised in cowardice,” he said. His voice was quiet and kind, as if he knew and forgave us for whatever he could see in our minds. “For seventy-seven years you’ve been guarding this town from your own fear. But even your cowardly little prayers have been heard, for no cry for help stays unnoticed in this world. Look up! Let the sunrays warm you, let the birds’ songs fill your hearts with joy. For the biggest fear takes refuge within your own hearts and your biggest enemy hides inside you. You cannot hide from it behind stone walls. An open heart is the only protection from fear.”
In the sky, we could see and hear a few birds. But human beings are not created the same as birds.
“Look at this banner, covered in blood,” and the knight lowered the stained shaft. “Every heartbeat of yours, filled with despair, hurts me, forcing the blood out of my veins. Don’t you recognise me? I am your city’s guardian, and God knows I’ve tried hard to protect and direct you. But one cannot reach a soul that is deaf and blind in its fearfulness. So today, I leave you. And today is this city’s last day.”
Desperation filled our hearts, and we cried, hopeless. Wouldn’t we love to leave, too! Freedom lay so close, we could abandon the town and flee any time. If only we could get out there, into the turquoise celestial fields. If only we could fly. But we couldn’t.
And then lo! the knight’s horse stepped onto the air and walked on it like on the stone road. Following its path, we looked upwards to the sky, for the first time that day, and cried out in awe.
The sun hung high amid the glorious sky and we covered our eyes, unable to stand its heat. Between our fingers, the haze wove itself into a path, crimson as the edges of our fingers against the sun. The path was empty.
Cautiously, we took our hands away from our faces, and the path was still there. We closed our eyes, and we could still see the sun — the golden-white sun against the velvety-black of our eyelids. And when we opened them again, the sunrays filled the sky and formed the shape of a temple like our own Cathedral on the main square, only larger and greater.
“Follow me, all who dare,” said the knight. “Or do you want to stay forever in the safety of your fear?”
There, in the middle of the sky, the sun shone over the temple’s wavering walls. We all could see the white translucent stone and the shimmering gold of its domes. Its windows stood open, and the stained glass panes blinded us with light spots.
We looked back at the city, filled with our anger and loss. We looked across the valley, at the ashes of the cloister. We looked at each other, and a great shame and a great relief filled our hearts.
We looked at the abyss under our feet, and stepped onto the path.
Copyright © 2006 by Rina Grant