I will never forget the first day I laid eyes on the princess. My formal initiation into the king's royal knights had been my first prolonged visit to the castle keep. Weary of the rowdy celebrations held in honor of my fellow initiates and myself, I had wandered from the great hall to the relative tranquility of the castle gardens. Of course I had heard of the princess Ariana's dazzling beauty and uncanny intelligence, but I never put much stock into rumors. These reports, however, fell dreadfully short of describing the angelic girl I encountered that evening. She stood facing the side, her slight figure curved picturesquely over a flowering bush as she admired its fragrance. Frozen in place, I could only stare stupidly and drink in her beauty. Her long and golden hair curled gloriously down her back, and swayed gracefully when she pivoted to return my gaze. Her face struck me with its perfect symmetry, straight nose, and flawless skin. When she smiled slightly, I noticed her teeth resembled straight and white pearls. Her eyes gripped me the most. Large and dark, they sparkled with intelligence. Those eyes appraised me as she straightened and politely congratulated me on my initiation.
Remembering myself, I bowed formally, expressing my thanks. She simply smiled and silently floated down the garden path. At that very moment she became my obsession. I had to see her again. I frequented the gardens as often as I found the opportunity, rejoicing each time I caught a glimpse of her. Occasionally she rewarded my visits with snatches of conversation. Within weeks she came to know me by name; her smiles encouraged my hopes that she enjoyed our chance meetings.
Then, one winter day in my first year as a castle guard, I heard news that the princess had fallen deathly ill. The healers failed at all attempts to restore her health; I was in a constant state of despair. The night her illness reached its worst, a great commotion spread throughout the castle. Everyone in her room, healers and attendants alike, had been sent away. Only the king and his alchemist remained with her that night.
The next morning, as I searched frantically for news of her health, I spotted the princess strolling down a corridor towards the garden. She appeared perfectly healthy, having already regained all of her color and vibrancy. Overjoyed, I rushed to speak with her. However, she seemed oddly distracted. Throughout the following days her brow often furrowed in confusion, as if she were having difficulty remembering something, but I thought nothing of it. She had just barely escaped death; I assumed it was natural for her to be a little disturbed.
The illness returned every few months, progressing in exactly the same manner as before. Each time, the king and his alchemist ordered everyone from the room the night before she miraculously recovered. Still, with each instance, the princess's mental capabilities dwindled. Her personality became duller, her intellect less sharp. I continued to speak with her every chance I found, but my language often confused her, forcing me to explain the ideas with childish simplicity. It became apparent to me that the princess was never truly being healed, but was being robbed of her soul piece by piece.
Nearly a year and half after my initiation, an uprising in a distant province summoned me to battle. After four months, I began the much anticipated journey back to my post at the castle, and the princess who dwelt there. However, throughout the journey, new rumors haunted and tortured my mind. The princess had fallen ill once again, but, as usual, had recovered miraculously in one night. This was no longer surprising; it was the detail that followed that disturbed me. Townspeople, farmers, and beggars alike reported that the princess's numerous close encounters with death had brought her so close to the spiritual realm that she herself had become holy. As a result, she could now only speak the "language of the gods." Worried and confused, I hastened to the castle.
My first visit to the gardens rewarded me with her presence. I found her sitting by a pool surrounded by sweet-smelling grasses, apparently deep in thought. As I crouched beside her, she turned to look at me with strange, empty eyes. It seemed as if she did not see me at all. The sight tore at my heart, yet I smiled, greeting her in a soft, gentle voice. In response, she made only horribly strange noises that reminded me of a babbling infant. I could not bear to hear my princess's sweet and once intelligent voice distorted in such a disturbing manner. 'Language of the gods?' The phrase was a horrible, cruel joke. Tears welling in my eyes, I bid her good night and fled the garden almost immediately.
Within weeks she fell ill again, inevitably leading to the time for the alchemist to once more administer the "miracle cure." Now fully suspicious of the nature and side effects of this cure, I listened at the door to her chamber when the king and the alchemist began their nightly vigil. At first, I heard only hushed voices, deep and ominous in their seriousness. My struggles to make sense of the words proved futile. Suddenly, the tones cut off into a moment of sharp silence. A series of painful scraping noises followed, tearing at my eardrums like claws. I clenched my teeth and clasped my hands over my ears in a pathetic attempt to escape the terrible noise. Just as suddenly as it started, the noise ceased. The silence was deafening. I opened the door hesitantly and peered in. The room was empty, but a passageway I had never seen before had appeared in the stones of the far wall.Having already come to this point, I felt there was no choice except following whatever path lay beyond that dark opening in the wall.
The passageway was cave-like, cold, and dark. I could pick out the flicker of a torch a few meters ahead. With cold terror prickling at my skin, I trailed after the king and his emaciated daughter. Hanging back at a point just beyond the reach of the torch's prying fingers of light, I hugged the walls and clung to shadows. Clearly I was intruding on something secret, and possibly even sacred, though I had my doubts about the latter.
The long journey eventually took its toll on the princess. She began to stumble, forcing the king to take her onto his back. We hiked for what must have been an hour more before the pilgrimage reached its end. The tunnel seemed to grow in every direction, widening to a large circular room twice its original size. Pressing my back flat against the wall at the entrance to this chamber, I waited with bated breath to observe whatever might happen.
In the center of the room was a small pool, so perfectly round that it could not have been formed by any natural means. The king helped the princess off of his back, supporting her as she slumped helplessly against his side. The alchemist then slowly paced around the outer edge of the room, lighting sconces that jutted out from the walls. The firelight reflected rather prettily, though eerily, in the velvety, ebony waters of the pool, like a vast multitude of enormous stars swirling and glowing in a clear night's sky. I shrunk back further into the shadows.
The king turned his head so I could see the profile of his face silhouetted against the darkness of the cave. The shadows made him look terrible and hard, yet the torchlight reflected off of a tear that had begun to course down his cheek and into his beard. He smiled, and turned his daughter's face toward him. I shuddered at the thought of looking into those terrible, empty, nearly soulless eyes. He kissed her forehead and led her gently to the edge of the pool.
"Step into the pool, Ariana," the king spoke barely above a whisper, but the emptiness of the cavern amplified his voice so that it seemed to be coming from every direction. "The water will make you well again." I trembled as a rush of cold excitement ransacked my body at this glorious proof of my suspicions. A secret cure for the princess's disease—this pool—did actually exist. Still, I questioned the king's reasons for waiting till she was so near death, and worried about the terrible side-effects it seemed to have on her mind.
Now unassisted, the trembling princess teetered on the edge of the dark, placid pool. "Go on, dear," the king's voice shook, his tears now falling in torrents. He pressed the fingers of his right hand against the small of her back. She tumbled forward, entering the pool with only the tiniest of splashes. Immediately the water began to spin and churn, consuming the princess. I watched in horror as the king and alchemist stood motionless at the pool, their faces stone-like with stern control. Then the water's movements slowed, and finally calmed completely. The alchemist plunged his arm into the pool, pulling out the limp body of the princess. They had drowned her! My mind reeled. My insides turned to ice. My eyes fixated on the limp form of the princess. I could not bring myself to move. Then, to my amazement, I saw that the princess held another slight hand within her own. Combining their strength, the king and the alchemist hauled this second form to the surface.
The princess herself emerged, completely naked, but for her long and glorious hair streaming wet and curled about her. Clearly alive, she coughed a few times and shivered. Gently, the king wrapped his robe around her form like a mother bundling a babe in a blanket. My eyes traveled back to the first form. It was definitely the princess as she had come to the pool, her hair carefully braided, her countenance pale and ill, her nightdress and robe wet and clinging to her limp form. The second, living girl opened her eyes and I saw the pool and its lights reflected clearly and perfectly. This girl breathed and stood shaking with the help of her father. Her face glowed with a rosy color of health, but there was no spark of life or soul in those dark eyes, only the opaque waters of the pool.
Slowly, as if waking from a dream, I stood, unsure of when exactly I had collapsed to my knees. My mind felt clearer than it had in months; my responsibility as a royal knight was clear. Placing my hand on the hilt of my sword, I stepped confidently into the eerie, flickering circle of light. The rising crescendo of steel scraping against steel was sweet to my ears as I slowly drew the blade from its sheath. The accent of the final clang echoed throughout the chamber as the full weight of the weapon settled into my right hand. My eyes fixated on that gross imitation, that shell of a human being. I performed my duty, knowing that Ariana, the object of my deepest affections, had died long ago.