It was good to get out of the castle.
Prince Henry reined in his horse, allowing his huntsmen chance to catch up, and enjoyed several grateful breaths of cold air. Away from his father’s courtiers, the endless untrustworthy smiles, the machinations of the royal advisers, he felt able for a change to be just himself.
This was not home to him. As the custom was, he had been sent off at the age of seven to the castle of a distant lord to be trained in the skills and practices of knighthood. That was where he had grown up, among a group of other noble youngsters, jostling, joking, quarrelling, making friends and enemies. He had been a young man by the time he was recalled to his father’s court and had discovered, to his horror, that a suitable bride had been arranged for him there.
He had known of course that this would have to come at some time. He would be a king and kings had to have heirs. But his father was not old or sick. Surely there was time …
Unfortunately, his opinion on the subject had not been sought. He found himself splendidly dressed and escorted to the royal chapel which was already thronged to capacity with the lords who owed service to his father – one of whom, he assumed grimly, had succeeded in getting his daughter selected as the future queen. The girl had been brought in, swathed in so much rich fabric as to be almost invisible, and the marriage ceremony had been conducted.
Afterwards, there was a great feast in the King’s Hall. He did not remember much about it. There had seemed an endless succession of rich dishes and everybody drank a lot. After a while, the women left the room. A while later – he was not sure how much time had passed – he was swept along, on a great tide of drunken good humour and coarse jokes, to the chamber where his new bride awaited him.
She looked small and pale in the huge bed and he felt sorry for her. He assumed she was no more enthusiastic about all this than he was and had probably been allowed as little choice. Somehow, they would have to find ways to get along with one another. He attempted to open a conversation with her but failed. She had clearly been trained to be obedient, not responsive. She was polite, acceding without question to whatever he said or did, but showing neither interest nor pleasure. In fact, the only trace of emotion he could detect in her, on that night or succeeding ones, was a faint, cold distaste.
She spent her days with her women, behaved impeccably when they met at meals and at formal court occasions, and came to his bed when required. He could only hope that she would soon be with child so that this phase of their lives would be over, at least for a while. He was sure this would be a relief to both of them.
Meanwhile, the uncomplicated pleasures of a day’s hunting lay ahead and he gently stroked the sleek grey head of the goshawk on his wrist. His little squire came level with him, panting with exertion and excitement, and Henry grinned down at him. He had tried to be kind to young Jehan, remembering clearly what it had felt like to be a youngster in a strange court and as a result, to everyone’s amusement, Jehan adored him.
They all rode out into the crisp morning with high expectations of good game to be had, but after an hour’s hard riding the deer were still to be found. They stopped at a stream to water their horses and Henry sent scouts up a nearby hill to spy over the countryside. The news was good – a large herd of deer just to the west of them. A slight change of direction after re-mounting and they clearly sighted their prey.
A doe that had stopped to feed when the rest of the herd moved on was their first target. This one Henry designated as fresh meat for the castle. The body was swiftly cleaned and strapped across the back of a spare horse. Two of the knights then set off, retracing their steps, to present this first kill as a courtesy from the prince to his king.
Henry and his remaining huntsmen next turned their attention to the main herd and as the deer shifted position, he saw what he wanted. The antlered buck towered above the rest. “That one’s mine!” he laughed and his men laughed and cheered with him, anticipating good meat that night. But they had already come a long way. Their horses were not as fast as they had been and the buck was not eager to be caught. He led them a rare dance over unfamiliar countryside and the shadows were lengthening before Henry finally brought him down.
Amid their satisfaction with the day, they had to give thought now to what they did next. They would never get back to the castle before nightfall. They could build fires, roast their meat and sleep out – they had done it before – but tonight was going to be cold and some shelter would be pleasant. One of the men had climbed a tree to look around and now shouted down that he could see a building, so they mounted up and went eagerly to investigate. As they got closer, however, they moved more slowly.
Henry had seen no building like it. He was reminded of an old poem he had once read about a solitary traveller coming across “the ancient works of giants”. How could stones be so neatly cut – and then made to stand one on another like that? This was a ruin, but it still looked grander in some ways than his father’s castle.
However, it seemed to have a roof, there was nobody else around and there was certainly room for them. “Here we are for the night,” he said, moving swiftly towards the great door.
“Sire…” came a small voice from just above his knee as Jehan tugged at him, trying to hold him back. Henry looked down, slightly irritated, until he saw the look on Jehan’s face. The child was terrified.
“Whatever is it, lad?” he said, bending to catch the whispered words.
“Sire,” said Jehan urgently, “I lived in these parts. Nobody comes here. ‘Tis said it’s haunted.”
Henry laughed, came back to his full height and dropped an arm, at once reassuring and commanding, across Jehan’s shoulders. “Well, lad,” he said firmly, “it’s definitely going to be haunted tonight – by a lot of hungry hunters. Find a place to put my horse, then come help light a fire. Can you do that?”
The child swallowed hard, but managed a slightly uncertain “Yes, sire,” before going off with the two horses.
The huntsmen worked efficiently together. They were good at this. In much less than an hour, fires were lit, thick slices of meat were roasting, warm robes had been brought in and the mead was broached. Even Jehan relaxed enough to eat some meat and drink some of the mead. They had left the door open to give them light, but the fires they had lit also gave light as well as warmth. They were all comfortable and the party was relaxing into merriment when the light from outside was abruptly and totally extinguished, a loud howling was heard and the ground began a rhythmic shaking.
“Bar the door,” said Henry and all the men rushed to obey him, struggling frantically to force the great oaken beam into position, blocking the entrance.
The shaking of the earth began to feel like giant footsteps that were getting nearer. Then they stopped. With one single crash the oak beam broke in two, the door creaked open and the men sprang back, swords drawn.
It was clear, however, that their swords were going to offer no protection against the thing that entered the hall. Its head almost touched the roof beams. As it stepped forward, those nearest the unbarred door ran through it, disappearing into the darkness. By the time it came up to Henry, still standing with drawn sword in the centre of the hall, he was the only one left.
“No!” came a fierce little voice and he looked down to see Jehan standing in front of him, fiercely confronting the monster that threatened his prince.
Henry almost wanted to laugh. Instead, he bent and took Jehan’s sword from his hand, replacing it in the scabbard and holding his own hand over it to keep it there. Then he looked up at the monster. “He cannot hurt you,” he said calmly. “Let him go.”
The monster picked up the squire, carried him not ungently over to the doorway and sat him down by the wall. Jehan remained there, either unwilling or unable to move, and the creature turned back to Henry.
Oddly, although it was a monster – or a fiend from Hell – something about the way it moved made it appear female. Having no other resources to fall back on in such a situation, all Henry’s knightly training came into play.
“How may I serve you, my lady?” he asked.
The voice seemed to boom around the hall. “Meat,” it said.
The butchered carcass of the deer still lay by the wall and slices of meat abandoned in panic were all around the fire. Henry gestured towards them.
It shook its head.
“Live meat,” it said. “Kill your goshawk, Prince Henry, and give it to me.”
Henry glanced involuntarily towards the rafters, where his hawk waited patiently for scraps. He had reared and trained her himself. She trusted him. He could not do this.
“My lady,” he began, “I cannot …”
He got no further. The head moved, glancing away from the bird towards Jehan, still sitting by the door. The message was very clear.
In despair, he summoned the goshawk and she came readily to his wrist. Murmuring to her in the way she recognised, he offered her a piece of meat left from the meal and she picked it delicately from his fingers. She had just started to eat when the fingers that had fed her moved swiftly to break her neck. She died instantly but he continued to hold her for a moment, still smoothing the glossy feathers, before he laid her gently at the monster’s feet and turned his back.
The sounds of enthusiastic and uninhibited eating were almost more than he could bear. When the sounds stopped, he turned back to find that only feathers remained.
“More meat,” it said. “Kill your hounds, Prince Henry, and bring them to me.”
He knew now what the terms were. With a heavy heart he took his hunting knife and summoned his dogs one at a time, each by name, feeding and fondling them until he killed them. He took the warm, limp bodies and laid them at her feet.
He had to steel himself to keep still through the tearing, grinding and chewing that followed.
His horse went the same way.
With no livestock left to lose, he faced her again. “What more might my lady require?”
“Drink,” it said briefly.
Clearly, vast quantities were needed. Luckily, she had left the horse’s hide. He cut strips of the leather and tied the bloody skin up at the corners to make a vast cup that he placed at her feet before pouring into it all the remaining wine.
This time he faced the monster as it drank, seeing its need and urgency and wondering how long it had been hungry and thirsty to feed so desperately.
Finally, the creature dropped the empty wine skin and he questioned it again.
“What now, lady?”
“A bed. Make a bed soft for me.”
This he could do. The men had already fetched in piles of grass and straw and he gathered it all together, topping it with his own fur-lined cloak.
He gestured towards the freshly prepared bed and made to withdraw politely and leave her to sleep, hoping to be able to scoop up Jehan on the way out.
But the horror was not over yet.
“Take off your clothes, Prince Henry,” it said. “This night I must be your wife.”
“My lady,” he stammered, “It cannot be. I already have a wife.”
“She does not want you,” came the utterly unexpected reply. “Come to me.”
As he still hesitated, appalled, she rose up in the makeshift bed and glanced towards the doorway.
That was all it took. Courteously, he took the outside of the bed so that she lay between him and the wall, protected from any harm, and laughed humourlessly at himself even as he did so.
But as he joined her on the bed and she reached towards him, he had another thought – that he had never before been wanted like this. In that respect, the nightmare was very instructive. Her eagerness for food and drink was mirrored in her eagerness for him, and once he had firmly closed his eyes, he had no problem fulfilling her wishes. Indeed, he did so throughout the night and slept exhausted just as dawn was breaking.
He was awakened in the early daylight by movement next to him and he turned cautiously towards his bed-mate, dreading to see what she really looked like. What he saw made him close his eyes very tightly and open them again. The result was the same. Tucked in between him and the wall lay the most beautiful young woman he had ever seen.
“M-my lady!” he stammered.
She smiled up at him. “Good morning, most noble and courteous prince. You have broken the spell that held me for many weary years. I’ve often been supplied with food and wine by the knights I have encountered, but only you in your courtesy have fulfilled all my needs.”
Her eyes twinkled at him and he felt himself blushing. He reached for her, speechless, but she laughed and slid from his arms.
“The spell is ended and I return now to my own people. But I shall remember you always as my perfect knight.” Approaching the doorway, she gave a low call and a white mare came running to her. Before he could move again, she was on its back and gone, one white hand raised in farewell.
By the time he had dressed himself and roused Jehan – who seemed to have little recollection of the night before – his shame-faced huntsmen were appearing, hugely relieved to find him alive. He told them about the feast of food he had been obliged to provide, but made no mention, then or at any other time, of the other feast in which he had involuntarily shared.
It was those memories that stayed with him, though, and clouded all his thoughts on the journey back towards the cold bed that awaited in his father’s castle. He was glad to have freed her from her spell, he thought – but he wondered what it would take now to free him.