As Isabel tells the story of the Elf Knight to her sister on her sick bed, they hear a horn sound from the greenwood, sad and sweet and full of longing.
Isabel began the tale: “Once upon a time there was a brave clever girl, and her name was Mairi.”
“No, not me, you.”
Isabel looked down at her sister, distraught yellow curls damp on her pillow.
“But you are a brave clever girl.”
Mairi shook her head. “No, you.”
“All right. Once upon a time there was a brave clever girl, and her name was Isabel.”
Mairi closed her eyes. Isabel reached out her hand and touched her sister’s glistening forehead. It felt terribly hot, despite the cooling breeze that came in through the tower window from the bright day outside.
She began: “Isabel sat in the tower room, sewing flowers on the sleeves of her wedding dress.”
“Was she beautiful?”
“Not specially. A pleasant face. A trim figure, fit for dancing. But no great beauty.”
“Make her beautiful.”
“Then it would have to be you, darling.” If Isabel had the mettle of a princess, it was Mairi who had the beauty.
“No, you,” the child insisted.
“All right then. As Isabel sat, pulling her needle by the light of the window, she heard a horn blowing from afar in the greenwood.”
“Whose horn was it?”
A small voice: “The Elf Knight.”
“Yes,” Isabel said, “‘Come to me, Elf Knight,’ Isabel cried. ‘Come and lay your head on my bosom and sleep.’ At once, the Elf Knight leapt in at the window.”
“Was it very high?”
“It was this very window in this very room, up here where the wind is sweet.”
“Then what happened?”
“‘This is very strange matter, fair maiden,’ said he. ‘I cannot blow my horn but you call on me. But will you go to the greenwood side? If you can’t go, I will cause you to ride.’”
“She shouldn’t go.”
Isabel rose and went to the window. She looked out over the rich fields that girt the castle, and the great wild wood beyond. “Oh, but wouldn’t it be glorious to go?” she said. “Aren’t you sick of being cooped up like this? Wouldn’t you love to go wandering through the woods together, me with an elf knight for my lover, and you with a pixie for a friend?”
“They would steal us away!” Mairi cried, her small voice trembling. “They would steal us away and kill us.”
“Not if we were brave and clever. You know how the story ends. You know we could defeat them if they turned against us. And think what grand company they would be, while they were our friends! Oh, the wild lands and the palaces of faerie! Riding on dragons and diving with whales! And the dancing! Can you imagine the dancing?”
Isabel spun from the window, her skirts whirling around her, until she collapsed on the end of the bed, careful, even in her madness, not to land where she would jostle her sister.
“I don’t want to go!” Mairi cried.
“Do you like being cooped up in this room all day?” Isabel said, gazing gloomily upward at the vaulted stone of the ceiling. “Don’t you want to be outside where the sun is bright, and the sky is gay, and dreamy white clouds are dancing high? Oh, my brave clever girl, don’t you want to run and dance and shout at the wind?”
“I’m so tired. I’m too tired to be brave or clever.”
“Can’t I go then?” Isabel cried, though her words were addressed more to the walls than to the occupant of the bed. She rose and went to the window again. “Can’t I cry to the wind, ‘Come Elf Knight, come in by my window, and lay your head on my bosom!’ Can’t I go with him to the greenwood, and dance and laugh and be his lover? His lover, his deceiver, and his death?”
At that moment there came the sound of a hunting horn, far off beyond the castle walls. Mairi uttered a small cry of fear.
Isabel turned and addressed the bed once more. “I am so sick of this confinement, I would chance anything to go!”
“No,” Mairi whispered, and by the horror in her eyes, Isabel knew that she had filled her sister not with that delicious story fear that is the handmaid of delight, but with the grim dread of things real and implacable.
“Oh, no, no, no,” she cried, running to the bed and kneeling beside it, reaching under the blankets to grasp Mairi’s small cold hand. “Don’t be afraid, darling. It is just a fairy tale. That horn is just men out hunting. I’m sorry I scared you with my silliness. You know I can’t go anywhere, even if I wanted to. And I won’t leave you. Besides, you are a brave clever girl, and you know that the Elf Knight is not real.”
“Horrocks says that he is real.” The voice from the bed was very soft and frightened.
“Horrocks is just a gardener. He is full of superstition. It is just a story, I promise. Do you want me to finish it, or should I tell you a different one?”
“All right. Where was I?”
“He said he would make her ride.”
“Oh yes. I remember. He leapt on his horse, and she on another, and they rode on to the greenwood together. And when they got there, there was a great feast laid out on a cloth of green and gold. There were tiny cakes full of spice and luscious fruit, canapes heaped with melting foie gras and sharp salty caviar, and velvety creamed ices and more cake, and sweet wine. And there were oranges. Can you imagine! And they danced! Oh, how they danced! It was like flying. And oh, the warmth of him, and the strength of him, and the bold sweet scent of him! And when they had danced till they could dance no more, he said, ‘Fair maiden, will you marry me?’”
“No, no,” Mairi protested, shaking her head in feeble protest. “That’s not how it goes.”
“But this is better, darling. Nicer for you.”
“No,” the child insisted. “That’s not how it is.” And then she continued the tale in a half whisper, “‘Get down, get down, Lady Isabel,’ said he, ‘We are come to the place where you are to die.’”
The place where you are to die. Isabel turned so that her sister would not see the tears that had suddenly come into her eyes. The small hand she held was cold as ice. They were already in the place where Mairi was to die. She squeezed that little hand, as gently as she could. “Go on,” she said.
“I can’t. I’m too tired. You tell it.”
Isabel sighed and took up the tale again: “‘Have mercy, have mercy, kind sir, on me, till once more my dear father and mother I see.’ And then the Elf Knight spoke. ‘Seven king’s daughters here have I slain, and you shall be the eighth of them.’”
“She must be brave and clever now,” Mairi said, her words so faint that Isabel could hardly catch them.
“Oh, yes, darling,” Isabel said. “She is brave and clever. She says, ‘O sit down a while, lay your head on my knee, that we may have some rest before I am to die.’”
“And then?” The child’s eyes were rimmed dark though her cheeks were pale. Her chest seemed hardly to rise and fall.
“You should rest awhile.”
“No, tell me. It is nearly finished.”
“She stroked him so gently,” Isabel continued, stroking Mairi’s cheeks as she spoke. “With a portion of herbs she lulled him fast asleep. With his own sword-belt so fast she bound him. With his own sword so sore she stabbed him.”
“Because she was brave and clever.” The words were hardly a whisper, but there was a sigh within them, as if of contentment.
“And she said, ‘If seven king’s daughters here you have slain, lie you here, a husband to them all.’ There, that is the end. Rest now.”
She bent to kiss the child, but there was no response. Behind Mairi’s pale forget-me-not eyes, a soul no longer dwelt. Isabel held her sister’s hand in hers and wept.
Far out in the greenwood there came the sound of a horn, distant, aching, sad with longing, sweet with hope, and in her mouth there was a taste as of wild honey.