A/N: Written for fun, edited via a summer creative writing class for a free shot. Because knights and dragons and princesses, oh my, will always continue to have a hold on me.
Chivalry is the most delicate form of contempt.
Once upon a time, there lived a lord who was thrice-noble and quite honorable. He could have nearly anything he desired, for he was a brave subject of the King, loyal and true. He had carried the pledge to his country all his life, and was commended regularly for his service. His lands prospered, and his serfdom grew larger each day.
Truly, he was a happy man.
But there was one problem.
He never quite figured out how to stop himself from growing old, and not once had he taken a wife. Without legitimate children—sons, to be exact—all his land would be divided amongst his serfs, and his name would be lost forever. All the noble effort thus far would go to waste without a woman by his side.
The lord would simply not take any woman to wife, however. So for many days and nights, women were offered to him. But none of them quite deserved his attention. They were either too dutiful, too lazy, too quiet, too loud, too pretty, too plain.
Not one of them suited him.
Except for her.
She looked simple, almost hardly like a woman at all, until he saw the way she looked at him.
Her eyes were endless, impossible to read, bright as an ocean under the sun.
Her finery was stark, without frills.
She did not belong with the others. And he needed her.
He pushed his way past all of them, past the rest of them. Other men could have them all.
He wanted her.
"My lady," he breathed reverently, "what is your name?"
"Mary," she said with a curtsy, hardly daring to meet his eyes, "if it so please you, my lord."
The name of a virgin.
He picked her chin up, forced her to look at him. Her eyes startled him again, his grip slightly weakening.
But after some effort, he found words.
"Should you like to come away with me, Mary?" he whispered, reverently.
Something he did not expect.
"With all due respect, my lord," she said, swirling her skirts and pulling away, "I have other things to attend to."
And just like that, she walked away, and though she did not know it, she held his heart in her hand.
He looked into her, demanded to know everything there was to know about her.
He knew she was below him, that her noble blood had long since gone to waste. Her forefathers had suffered a sad fate, and had been lured into bed by common women. They were stripped of their power and their land for it. Seven generations before her, they all lived like serfs. She herself was a serf among his own, but this mattered little to him.
She was beautiful despite her hard labor, strong because of it.
She resisted his urging and his poetry, his invitations and his offers.
She was unable to be pinned down. She was a challenge: what he had been seeking all along.
She was something to be tamed, won over, brought to her proper place.
And he would see it through.
He finds her laboring in his grape fields under a high sun, her face flushed with humidity.
For a long while, there is silence, he sweating in his cape, she sweating under her thin blouse and skirts.
She leans upon her hoe, the shape of her hip visible through her skirt.
The lord finds that it is very difficult to breathe.
"I could save you from all of this," he tells her. "I could. Come away with me. Marry me."
"I think not, my—"
He loses his patience.
His sword is sharp, thin against her fearful neck. Drops of hot blood run down the blade.
Of course nobody dares move to help her.
"I-I would be honored, my lord," Mary said, so quietly he had to strain to hear her.
"Truly this means the Lord has blessed me. Nothing would make me feel more alive."
At last, she was his. She would bear him many sons, to serve country and family alike. Legend would remember her ascent into grace well, if he was the one to write the story of her—his—their—family.
Before he leaves her, he kisses the mark where his sword touched her neck.
She spits at his feet, but he is too euphoric to notice.
Of course, he would do anything in his power to protect her. Even when he was far away, he thought consistently of her.
He was often away on crusades for the King, to stomp out infidels and run their dark skin through bloody mud. It was a mission he is too happy to carry out, that he prides himself in. He won battles and fame alongside each other, and was offered many spoils, but never thought twice of the beautiful things presented to him.
There was her, only her. And he was terrified of losing her.
Her, who he won by fear, at the edge of his blade.
That is why he wrote to her often. He knows she cannot either read nor pick up a pen herself, but he has entrusted men to read them to her. He strove always to teach her things, and left warnings at the end of them.
He told her to have someone test food for her, lest it be poisoned; not to trust wandering, elderly women, for surely they were jealous of her and would try to kill her; not to stray near the caves, where dragons surely lurked.
"But above all things, my fairest lady," he wrote to her, "you shall beware errant knights, and the dragons they train. Trust no danger they put themselves in, for they themselves are the cause of it. For they will often strive to win your heart, and set up marvelous traps to win you over."
He hesitated for a moment, a moment too long, and then added:
"Remember that no one is keeper of your heart, save myself."
He signs it with his noble insignia, with no afterthought or implication of love.
A wondrous, foolhardy mistake, for when the letter arrived at the castle, the lady asked, quietly, if her lord mentioned love.
The messenger replied with a solemn "No, my lady," and then asked, stupidly, if she was faring well.
She was not so strong when she heard this. She was pale, quivering. Tears shone in her eyes.
Truly her lord's heart may have broken to see her this way.
She showed no other weakness, brushed it all away, and smiled brightly at the messenger.
"I fare well, so you need not worry," she said simply. "We choose what hurts us."
"Very good, madam," he said, and waltzed away, not even seeing how his lady's eyes lingered on the horizon.
On the horizon, where errant knights roamed the forest, ready to rescue her at a moment's notice.
Ready to rescue her from the place where she had no real voice.
Where she had no real love.
It came as no surprise that the bird had flown by the time the lord returned.
Mary left everything that had been lavished upon her: the gowns, the jewelry, the silver and gold, everything that the lord had given her to prove that he did love her.
The things said it, and he never had.
And away she went.
Wandering soldiers under the lord's commands found Mary dead, about a fortnight after her escape.
There was a wedge of apple lodged in her throat.
And the lord was no prince, and his kiss could not save her.
For Mary had chosen to not love him, to still run free while she had a chance, to find love and happiness and a future on her own terms.
Fearful ideas that led to a fearful end.