And on he rode, neither looking to left or to right, and his damsel rode behind him – that he was sure of. Beneath his horse, the dusty road moved slowly; beside him, barely noticed, tree replaced tree; in front of him, a long way off, were mountains upon which he seemed to fix his eyes, though he had learnt long ago to mistrust his judgement of appearances. Only he and his damsel and their horses were the fixed points in the enchanted fabric of the plain.
When it became so dark that he could no longer see the road before him, the knight wearily dismounted to rest his back against a tree. He spoke no word to his companion, nor even looked at her, for he had sworn an oath and so she slid quietly from her dappled steed and unnoticed began to prepare the food that later she would meekly place behind his back, before retiring behind a neighbouring tree.
He stared into the distance, deaf to her urgent silence. The moon rose over the distant mountains – at their foot, perhaps, he would find the city he was seeking. He had come this far, with his eyes always to the front, his quest to find this city where he had heard the greatest adventure lay. And he had sworn a holy oath that until he had faced that greatest challenge, he would not look on his lady’s face, for she was beautiful and deserved such honour. On the way, for her sake, he had fought giants, confounded sorcerers and defeated many a gallant knight in combat. These knights he had sent back to the king’s own court as testimony of his devotion.
And she was grateful for the fire she had made. As patient as she had once been beautiful, she had learnt to accept this hard trial her knight had undertaken, had learnt to follow him but keep her own company. And yet it would have gone hard with her that first winter, had not a peasant taking pity flung a bearskin about her shoulders.
She had scarcely looked about her, so constant was her gaze upon his swaying back, but she remembered snatches of the inhuman landscape that had passed them by, and yet the road had wound on through unscaleable gorges, through dangerous caverns, past eagles’ eyries, skirting bottomless lakes, till they had come to this unchanging mystical plain that scratched at her faith in her lord.
And he rose briskly in the morning for he was sure they were nearly there. And she, roused by an instinct from exhausted sleep, quickly gathered her pots and pans, kicked out the fire and mounted her horse to follow him.
And all too soon, they reached the forest of damsels forlorn and her ears were besieged by the woeful cries of maidens who had lost their knights. She shivered and her horse stumbled, but she kept her eyes on her lord’s straight back, knowing that his dented straw stuffed helmet made him deaf to all plaintive cries.
And when the gate of the dark city opened before them, she felt the spirits of dead knights rushing in the air. But he rode on past the grey buildings to the central square, where hung the giant bell, which he would ring to summon the greatest adventure. About the bell lay strewn on the ground a thousand shields of dead defeated knights.
And even as he dismounted, he remembered his oath to her, and would not look back. He could see her still in his mind, the fairest maid in flowing silks, and so commended himself to her. And she for fear could scarcely look as he strode to the bell. lifted the hammer in his mailed fist and struck a resounding blow that echoed through the empty streets. Pulling her shawl of tattered damask about her shoulders, she cursed the storytellers.
Sure enough, as they had foretold, a knight in crumpled armour stood before them. This knight held a great sword, hacked and rusted at the edges and a dented shield with no design. And this knight was the keeper of the city; this knight had killed a thousand knights. He was ready to fight again.
She saw her own lord advance to meet this deadly foe, heard as from afar their muffled threats and challenges, then closed her eyes as they hurled themselves into battle with a great clash of metal and such a cloud of dust that when she looked again, she could scarcely distinguish one combatant from the other.
He had fought for what seemed like an hour and truly his opponent was his match. A stronger, more skilful man-at-arms, he had never encountered. Many a shrewd blow had been parried, but continued buffets on his broken crest had sent blood running over his eyes so that he could barely see the other through the narrow slit of his battered helmet.
By now they were both tired and blows came more slowly in shuffling desperation. And sometimes – who could tell? – he thought he had caught the other with a telling blow on the shoulder, or at the thigh that made him stagger, but still they fought on. He began to feel despair.
But this doubt was but an enchantment to leaden his senses. He fixed his mind on his damsel, with her flowing silks and soft looks. He remembered his pledge to her. And with sudden strength he began to batter his foe. And his mighty strokes were but weakly returned.
And now, in a glorious moment, he stood over the defeated nameless knight, who lay at his feet in the dust. He had passed the ultimate test. He had fulfilled his quest. Quickly he leant forward to unlace his enemy’s helmet. Eagerly he gazed at the dead face that no man had ever seen before. It was his own face and his heart stopped in shock as behind him an old woman screamed.