Updated: Jun 11, 2020
By Glenn Anderson
“Be quiet, you simpering child!”
Meryl was never in the mood for her squire’s games, but today the boy was incorrigible. Despite her scolding, he continued to bounce behind her.
“But I just want to know if we’re close, I’m terribly excited!” The youth was completely unaware of the harshness in her tone. She sighed. He was a good squire. Dutiful, obedient, attentive, perfect for Dame Meryl, but he was also unambitious, and still so very far from knighthood. Then again, she herself had been knighted less than a fortnight past.
Meryl pushed a branch away from her face. “Yes, Lyndon, we are close. But you must show respect once we arrive. We are not seeking out an Oathstone so you can play, we’re going so you can learn. You must be quiet while we are there.”
Lyndon clapped excitedly and squealed, at least momentarily appeased. She could not fathom his excitement. Oathstones bored her almost as much as the rest of Calbrian pageantry. Studying the wisdom of dead knights was loathsome, particularly compared to the thrill of battle.
This Oathstone, however, was different.
Underfoot the two traded autumn leaves for emerald grass. Now outside the forest, a vast, verdant clearing burst into view, and Meryl could not help but feel a faint smile. Midday sun bathed the grove in heavenly warmth, and pristine grass rolled into an inviting hill. The hill was dominated by a great stone pillar, engraved with golden paints and encircled in honorifics. Lyndon could not contain himself.
The boy sprinted up the hill to the place where Meryl had first decided to become a knight. It was an isolated, infrequently visited Oathstone, and had taken the two much time to reach, but that made it feel all the more like it belonged to her. She was curious to see if her squire found its wisdom as inspiring as she had when she was just a girl. Lyndon crested the hill and disappeared from sight. So much for quiet reverence, she thought, though in truth what the boy gained from the stone’s words was more important than his behavior surrounding it.
Lyndon had been bestowed upon her mere days after she was dubbed, and perhaps she would have delayed her ceremony had she known such a liability would be forced upon her. Uncertain of what to do with him, Meryl decided her first act as a knight would be to bring him here. Gaining a squire had made her doubt whether she was truly ready for knighthood, but something about this moment felt right. She allowed herself a rare moment of pride and anticipatory joy.
But when she finally caught up to her squire, her joy turned to rage.
The Oathstone was unreadable; almost entirely covered in vines. Queer flowers laced the right side, each one weeping its own unique, viscous sap. Half the stone was stained by other colorful liquids oozing from the vines and flowers, and only a few of the gold-painted markings peaked through the unnatural growth. The surrounding gifts were desecrated as well, wreaths had sprouted thorns; the swords rusted into garbage. To restore the monument to a legible state would take days of labor, much less restore it to its proper glory. Lyndon stared at the stone, and then at his feet.
“I guess nobody’s visited this one in a long time,” he whimpered.
Meryl stared, incredulous, her mailed hands crunching into fists. Her perfect moment, her chance to prove her leadership as a knight, and a boy’s hope all gone in an instant.
She scanned the trees on the opposite side of the clearing. Bright orange Calbrian leaves surrounded the entire glade, so bright the forest almost looked ablaze. But part of the forest didn’t look right, it had the same unnatural vibrancy as the growth that strangled the Oathstone. Her Oathstone.
Suddenly she understood.
“No… someone has been here,” she said, slowly unsheathing her sword. Dame Meryl started down the other side of the hill, moving with purpose towards the arcane wood.
“Where are you going?” Lyndon shouted, trotting down after her.
“The Oathstone is not overgrown because of neglect,” she shouted back at him, “it is overgrown because of magic.” She spat. “An enchantress is near.”
Lyndon’s eyes grew wide. “You think if we defeat her the stone will be clean again?” Meryl did not reply, she simply continued on her warpath.
“We’re going on a quest!” he shouted with stupid glee.
“We are not going on a quest,” Meryl hissed.
“But we’re hunting down an apostate to bring glory back to an Oathstone! How is that not a quest?”
Where had he learned the word apostate? “Fine. We’re going on a quest to restore an Oathstone. But you must stay hidden, I’ll not have you getting in my way.”
“How will you find her?” The excitement in his voice was rising. “What’s the plan to defeat her? I hear they wield all sorts of magic!” Meryl continued to ignore his annoying questions, still marching toward the trees.
Lyndon sprinted to catch her, childishly taking her hand. His touch was tender, but needy, and it flooded her mind with memories. The boy needs a mother, she overheard the noble whisper, why not… the girl? She’s just been knighted, hasn’t she?
Meryl whirled around with an intensity the boy had never seen, sword still in hand. She wrenched her hand out of his grasp and raised it threateningly. The boy stood there, as if he did not know what typically followed the gesture. He stared blankly, not wincing.
Time froze. The clearing was silent, save for a light autumn breeze. It was as if the world was waiting, testing her discipline, testing her worthiness as a knight.
Meryl backhanded Lyndon across the face. The boy gave a sharp cry and collapsed on the grassy hill. He slowly raised a hand to his bruised cheek. His eyes grew bulbous, though he resisted tears.
“I’m sorry,” he said, rising slowly, “I will try not to get in your way.”
His joyless tone destroyed her, though she did not convey it. She turned back around and entered the lushest part of the tree line.
A crystal stream sparkled to her left, making the enchantress easier to track than an army through snow. Meryl walked against the flow of the too-pretty water, stopping only momentarily to adjust her armor.
The vanity of the woman’s magic was unrelatable for Meryl. Men had often complimented her blond hair and blue eyes, but Meryl had never bothered much with her looks. No, her time had been spent in the courtyard, honing her martial prowess.
Lyndon still tarried behind. Eventually the silence grew too much to bare.
“I’m sorry,” she blurted, “it was not right of me to strike you.” She gritted her teeth, “It was not… knightly of me.”
“I was deserving,” Lyndon said, “whatever you choose to do, I will do my best to learn from it.”
Meryl felt a horrible mixture of anger, contempt, and failure. She had been a knight for less than a month, how could she know how to behave with gallantry at all times? Yet that was what Lyndon and Calbria expected of her. Any slip in her chivalry could lead the boy astray.
“You were not deserving, I was too harsh. I let the desecration of my… of the Oathstone get to me. My wish is to be an example for you, though I fear I’ve failed. I should have been more disciplined.”
Her apology seemed to return Lyndon’s mirth.
“I don’t think you’ve failed, it’s like the books say, you’ve only failed if you stop getting back up.”
“I shall have to remember that,” she said.
Up ahead the forest grew increasingly fey. The stream still sparkled, though she could not decide if it looked refreshing or intoxicating. The colored leaves faded into delicate hues of white, making the whole place feel less like a forest and more like a wedding. The earth had a faint glow, and every visible patch of it looked more inviting than a straw bed. Branches receded gently as she drew near, creating a distinct route through the glade.
It disgusted her.
Meryl motioned at Lyndon to hide. She gripped her sword tightly and followed the otherworldly path.
The whole place was enchanting, but also gaudy. She knew she would not be on equal footing with her adversary. This was her realm. But if she could defeat an enchantress on her own turf, every bard in Calbria would hear of it.
A figure emerged from behind a nearby tree, her painted fingernails caressing the oak.
“I would think you were lost or intrigued,” she purred, “but your naked sword tells me you aren’t here by accident.”
Like her glade, the woman was both beautiful and unsettling. Her reddish-brown hair was well-kept and lightly curled, her lips smooth and crimson. She wore a courtly red and white robe that seemed to warp the surrounding nature as she strode into full view.
“You desecrated an Oathstone,” Dame Meryl said, “I am here to make you answer for your negligence and blasphemy.”
“Blasphemy?” The enchantress scoffed “it is no crime to practice my magic in the wild.”
“If your allegiance was still with Calbria, you would not allow your taint to defile holy ground. I will not be convinced otherwise, like one of your weak-minded pets.”
“Aren’t insults beneath a lady?”
“I am a knight.”
“Then I surrender. Take me prisoner, your honor demands it.”
Moments ago Meryl had failed a test of honor, and now she faced another. Her emotions told her to charge the fey woman and cut her down, but Lyndon was likely watching from the shadows. She could not fail him again.
“Very well,” she said, lowering her sword with reluctance, “show me your hands.” The enchantress raised her hands in deference,