The old knight stepped down from his horse and gazed out over the lake. Mist drifted over the surface of the water, masking the damp shore and the black reeds. He wished that he had come at a more beautiful time of day or that he could wait for the sun to burn away the fog, but necessity drove him. She had told him that this was the most beautiful lake in the whole world, and so it must be, he thought.
Her whisper had been so faint as she told him of this place. With eyes gazing wistfully into her memories of it. “Down goes the shore, past the tall willow tree on your left, and a fallen log on the right where the lilies grow.”
This was the spot. Though he thought it looked more mournful that she had described. He prodded the ground with his boot. Wet. He cursed softly through his grey beard. He led Penny, his horse, uphill some ways to a spot overlooking the lilies and the tree. Here the view was better and there was less mud. He hoped she would forgive his initiative. He petted Penny’s nose and went to take the bundled corpse from her hindquarters.
He took her in his arms and laid her gently on the ground, gazing upon her for a moment. He’d wrapped her first in her bedsheets and then in the finest robe he could find, purple with golden lace. He took one more glance at the lake to make sure the view seemed pretty enough, then took up his shovel and began to dig.
He was about halfway through the digging when he first noticed he had company. They’d tried to come in quietly, and the thick air hid them as they approached. There was a rustle and a snap of a twig, and before he’d made it halfway to Penny’s side, a black-gloved hand had her by the reigns. The hand drew aside the horse’s head like a curtain and peered around at him.
“Good morning, Sir Wilfrid,” said the owner of the hand.
Wilfrid sighed and planted his shovel in the dirt. He sniffed and wiped sweat from his face with the back of his hand. “And to you, Sir Cole.”
Cole was a younger man. Thirty, maybe. With a face as pale as snow, black hair and black stubble. And chainmail, Wilfrid noticed grimly.
Out of the mist on the left, another figure congealed; very tall, stern looking, with a hawkish nose and grey eyes. Sir Edmund, foremost of the house knights, and the closest thing Wilfred had to a friend these days. He smiled, but there was not much warmth in his smile.
“Ed,” said Wilfrid.
“Wilf,” said Edmund back. “This is a fool’s errand.”
Wilfrid beamed at him and leaned with both hands on the shovel. “I was going to say that. You needn’t have come, and I’ve only got one shovel…”
Cole smirked. Edmund was just shaking his head.
“You know what I mean.” Edmund took a step forward and looked at the body on the ground. “She belongs in the crypt with her forebears. The King commands it.”
Wilf shook his head, looking at his hands. “She begged me. She knew that it was the end for her. She begged and pleaded with me to take her here, to her favourite place. It was her last command to me.” He only felt the tears in his eyes when they spilled down his cheeks.
Cole scoffed. “You were too close to her. The King is her father. Not you. He decides where she is buried.”
“You misunderstand. I decide nothing,” said Wilfrid. “The princess decided.”
“The words of a true knight,” remarked Edmund.
Cole went on like he had not heard. “Then it is not her decision either. It is her father’s decision where she will lie. He rules us as he rules her, as he rules all these lands.”
“My service lies there with her. As does my fealty, as per the oath I swore her father, to serve none other but the Princess until my dying day, to carry out her commands and let none harm her.”
Edmund nodded sharply. “As it should be. But we serve the King.” He slid his long sword from the sheath.
Cole shrugged, glancing back and forth between them. When he saw Edmund draw his sword, he did a double-take. “Surely you’re joking…”
Edmund looked at him and then spoke to them both. “His Grace was explicit. Retrieve the princess’s remains. By force if we must.” He pointed his sword to Cole and Wilf in turn. “I know what my duty is. Do you?”
Cole stared for a moment, then looked reluctantly at Wilf. Cole spat on the ground. Then drew his own blade and scowled.
Wilf’s sword was in its sheath, strapped to Penny’s sadle. He could get to it in two or three quick steps, probably, but Cole was still holding the reins. Wilf wasn’t sure if they had noticed his sword there or not, but at the very least, Edmund probably had.
“Come then and make your choice—” Ed said, striding forward on long legs, his sword rising.
Wilf swung the shovel up, spraying dirt at his face. Then he hammered it into Ed’s stomach, knocking him back with an “oof.” Cole was coming at him now, slashing almost lazily with his sword, his heart half in it.
Wilf pretended his shovel was a sword and swung it like one. Cole saw it coming with alarm in his eyes, but he’d misjudged. The edge of it caught him in the cheek and turned his head aside, opening a thick red gash.
“God damn you to hell,” the younger knight cursed. His eyes wide with fear and pain. He turned, leading with the tip of his sword, and thrust it into Wilf’s gut.
The familiar agony of a swordpoint, like nothing else there is. His eyes closed against tears for a moment before he closed his hand over the blade and pulled it out. Blood spilling down over his groin, soaking his pants. He grunted.
Holding Cole’s blade fast with his left hand, he stabbed with the shovel in his right. The cutting edge of the shovel went in under Cole’s chin and he made a choking sound and blood bubbled out of his neck and began pooling in the curved part of the shovel.
Wilf watched the younger man fall, his hands grasping and eyes staring. Blood sputtered from his mouth.
Edgar came back into the fight at that moment, cleaving mightily with his sword. Wilf saw it coming and tried to dodge, but he still took a wicked cut that slammed through the front of his collarbone and dug down into his ribs, popping several of them.
Wilf staggered back as Edgar stooped over the dying Cole. He placed a comforting hand over Cole’s eyes and forehead, then pressed a dagger into his heart. He drew it out again, red to the hilt. He closed Cole’s fluttering eyes and stood.
“That was cruel,” Ed said. “To cut his neck like that. To not be clean. That’s not like you.”
“I did what I—,” Wilf moaned. Speaking hurt deep inside him. He went to Penny’s side and pawed for his sword. He could barely seem to find it with his hand even though he could see it before him. “Had to. Had to,” he whispered. The fewer words, the less it hurt. He felt warm blood on his lips.
Ed planted the tip of his sword in the ground and waited. “Get your sword, my friend.”
It ended with them on their knees collapsed against each other. Blood everywhere. White agony. Wilf’s sword was in Ed’s gut. Wilf felt like their pain was shared. Like he could feel the tears and rips in Ed’s body as well as he could feel his own. Whispering, softly, to each other. Reminiscing about older times.
“We won’t go to hell,” Ed croaked. “You did your duty. We did ours.”
“I know. But that’s not why I did it.”
Ed smiled. “She’ll have a fine escort to the gates of paradise. You saw to that, you old goat. And between us, this is a better place to end up than that old crypt.” Then his head lolled back and he was gone.
Wilf finished digging the grave for the princess and buried her and placed one of the lilies from the shore on it. He put a wooden cross in the ground. Then he put Cole and Ed on Penny’s back and led them off into the forest. Staggering, delirious. He dug two graves for the knights and laid them within.
He stood over them for a moment, speaking prayers to God. Then he rubbed Penny’s nose and kissed her, and tried to put his foot in the stirrup and get up. He could not do it. Much as he tried, each time he tried to mount, he seemed to be less of the world. He put a hand on his chest and the palm came away bloody.
He dug another grave and laid in it, and was dead.