“That man,” said the damsel in distress, gesturing. “There he is again.”
I peered through the slit window down at the road leading to the castle, On the other side of the moat was a knight on horseback, a spindly squire some distance behind.
“That knight?” I asked the damsel in distress. “What about him? He looks a perfectly normal knight to me.”
“Normal?” the damsel in distress snorted. “He’s not normal. He’s horrible.”
I glanced back at the knight. He was dressed in the usual chain mail and conical helmet and had a big shield with what seemed to be a winged snake on it. The snake was grimacing as though trying to apologise for how ridiculous it looked. In his other hand he carried a lance so long that it looked as though it could poke out some bird’s eye if it weren’t careful.
“I don’t see what’s so unusual about him,” I confessed. “You know him from before, do you?”
“Do I ever,” she said. “Keep him away from me and I’ll tell you all about how I met him.”
“He’s still got a long way to go before he gets here,” I said. “Tell me the story, and then if you want I’ll send him away.”
“All right,” sighed the damsel in distress, wiping her brow. “Listen.”
I am, as you know (said the damsel in distress) the daughter of the Archbishop of Whiteamoor, though, truth be told, my dear mother once confided in me that I was really sired by the late Pope. Whatever the truth, you will understand that I come of good ecclesiastical stock, and am not a common scullery wench.
I was brought up in the great castle of Whiteamoor, where my mother was a lady-in-waiting to the wife of the baron, and very nicely she was treated too. I remember being given clothes which the Baron sent back from the Crusades, taken from heathenish folk out in the Holy Land, but they were strange uncouth stuffs, not comfortable to wear, Still and all, it was a good time – until my sixteenth birthday.
That was the day I first met that accursed knight down there.
When the Baron had left to go crusading in the Holy Land, he had left some knights behind to guard his lands against brigands. giants, dragons and other beasts. He had, of course, not neglected to lock his wife in a chastity belt – nor had my father the Archbishop, who had gone along to provide spiritual succour to the Crusaders, forgotten to lock my mother and his other concubines in similar bondage, Of course there were secret keys – but that is another story.
Now, the knights who remained, having grown frustrated at the chastity belts and also heard tales of the great fortunes to be made in the Holy Land, went off a-Crusading too. So the castle would have been left quite defenceless, and us women at the mercy of the common knaves of the towns and the villeins of the fields, not to speak of giants and dragons, and we were growing worried at the thought.
But then, a few days after the last of the old knights had left, spitting curses after his attempt to violate one of my father’s junior concubines had been – in spite of her own enthusiasm – foiled by her chastity belt, we received a message saying that a most noble and chivalrous knight called Sir Dirk the Dauntless had taken it on himself to protect us against all dangers. I can tell you that we were excited at the news. Of course, we didn’t know what Dirk the Dauntless was like.
I remember when he first entered the hall where my mother and the other ladies in waiting were sitting around the baron’s wife. He was tall and thin, with a face covered by hair and beard, through which a long nose protruded – rather in the manner of an inquisitive rat. And just like the rats which scurried through the castle’s rooms, it twitched and whiffled excitedly as he spoke.
He began by introducing himself, and spoke of how he could never let himself rest as long as any ladies remained in danger from foul enchanters and giants, monsters or dragons, and that he would immediately place himself at our complete service, eschewing any and all other temptation. You can imagine how glad we were at that. Well, we didn’t know him yet.
That was my sixteenth birthday, as I said, and that evening my mother and the other ladies-in-waiting had planned a little celebration for me. Now, we had just begun it, and one of the women was tapping on a drum while the rest danced, when there was a most tremendous knocking on the door. When I opened it, outside was the knight, fist raised to strike again so that if I had been only an instant slower he would have hit me on the nose.
“Quick,” he demanded, raising his lance, which he held in his other hand, and pointing it around the room so that it nearly killed half a dozen people and did knock over the table with all the food and drink, “where is the hell-demon? Where is it hiding?”
I was speechless, but my mother was not. “What are you talking about, Sir Dirk?” she demanded. “There are no demons here.”
“There must be,” he said. “I distinctly heard music and dancing. There it is!” With his lance he ran the poor drum through, quite ruining it. “Now,” he said with satisfaction, “the demon is dead. It can no longer threaten innocent women. But there are others!” Glaring around, he stalked through the room, stabbing the furniture and cushions at random with his lance, finally bringing the chandelier down with a tremendous crash on what was left of the food.
“I think I’d better go to bed now,” I said.
“I will go with you,” he announced, “and make sure the room is safe for your slumber.”
“But-“ I began.
“Not another word. I have undertaken to protect the women of this castle and I will protect them.” So saying, he went off to my room, and by the time I had reached it before him, he had stabbed my bed with his lance several times so that all the stuffing had come out.
“No dragons or enchanters hiding there,” he said, disappointed.
“They should have named you Sir Lancelot,” I told him, bitterly, “seeing as you lance everything in sight.”
“I’m better than Lancelot,” he said seriously, before leaving me to my ruined room. “You just wait and see, I won’t let a thing happen to any of you.”
Over the next few days, he proceeded to make this claim come true. He never seemed to rest or eat or sleep. Nor did he ever want to let any of us rest or eat or sleep, except that he was there to check first. Why, my mother was about to have her annual bath, and he insisted on testing the water to make sure it was safe. When he dipped himself in it and out again and pronounced it usable, he left it so dirty that my mother had to pour it all away. Of course, she postponed her bath to the next year, and was happy enough to do it – but it’s the principle of the thing.
Another time, one of our maids came to my mother crying bitterly. Apparently, she and her swain – one of the young knaves of the village – had been engaged in a little affection when Sir Dirk came rushing upon them with his lance, and the young man had to run for his life so fast that he had to leave his clothes behind. The knight was quite unrepentant – he had only been protecting her virtue, he said, from a demonic satyr. Nothing, not even the clothes, would persuade him otherwise.
For some reason I was his especial favourite. I don’t mean he tried to molest me in any way – no, I didn’t even have the satisfaction that he found me sexually attractive. He just wanted to protect my virtue – against everything. One day I was out in the castle yard feeding the chickens – and, wouldn’t you know it, he came along and began chasing away the cocks with his lance. It might have been almost funny if he hadn’t almost taken my head off a couple of times.
In vain we pleaded with him to ease up, if he wouldn’t quit completely. “I have made a vow,” he said austerely, “to serve and protect you, and I will not abandon it.” Nor did he.
IN the end I realised that I would either have to kill him or run away. I couldn’t eat or sleep properly, let alone have a moment to myself. Even my fleas were getting jumpy, and no wonder, because my blood was getting so thin the poor creatures weren’t getting enough food.
I did think of killing him. The problem was that I was a small, thin girl who had never so much as murdered a chicken, and he was a huge knight in chain mail and armed with a lance that could run me through several times over. No, I wouldn’t be able to kill him. I wouldn’t know where to start. So I’d have to run away.
But where to run?
“Join a nunnery,” my mother suggested ambition aflame in her eyes. “As the daughter of the Archbishop – if you aren’t the daughter of the late Pope, that is – you’ll go far, All the way to Mother Superior, maybe.”
There was, of course, a convent right in the castle, but I had no desire to join the order. The nuns were all dirty and starved-looking, and the Mother Superior was an old harridan who detested me, because she was as aware as my mother was that my lineage gave me a straightforward path to advancement. Besides, they bricked up any nun who liked men, so that was out. “I’ll think about it,” I said, though I had no intention of so doing. Instead, I decided to escape.
That very night, I waited until the knight had come for the first of his routine checks of my bedchamber. The moment he left, I threw off my covers, and dressed hurriedly in whatever was close at hand. To buy whatever time I could, I left a dummy made of rolled-up clothing in my bed. Then, climbing through the window, I let myself down the wall with a rope I had purloined from the stables for the purpose. It was not easy, of course, and I nearly fell – but anything was better than risking contact with him again.
By morning I was far away, and though I was scrambling over stony paths half-dressed and without food or water, I rejoiced, for I was certain that at last I was free of him. Even when I found myself lost and wandering, freezing and starving, through the countryside, I kept myself going because I thought at least I was free of him. And then I came, as you know, to your door, and you imprisoned me here – but still, I have told myself, at last I am free of him.
But now he is here, and my world is shattered to pieces all over again.
“Don’t fret,” I told the damsel in distress. “I shall send him away, never fear.” Going to the window, I peered down at him again. He had reached the moat, and was staring up at the castle ramparts, frowning and scratching his beard so industriously I feared mightily for the safety of his lice.
“Hey you,” I called. “Go away.”
He turned his head in my direction. Because the window was so small – a mere slit in the wall – he could not see me, but he could hear me, sure enough. “I am Sir Dirk the Dauntless,” he yelled back, “and I am looking for the fair daughter of the Archbishop of Whiteamoor. I have heard that she is held in captivity by you, foul giant. I abjure you, therefore, to release her immediately – or I shall be forced to do you harm.”
“She doesn’t want to go with you,” I shouted down. “Go away, and don’t waste our time further – yours and mine.”
“Come down, then,” he bellowed back. “Come down and show yourself, so I can kill you.”
“We’ll see about that,” I said, and tramped off down to the main door, Letting down the drawbridge, I opened the door and walked across the moat to where the knight was waiting.
“Well?” I asked, expecting him to go weak in the knees with fear at my size. “Still want to fight?”
He had gone weak in the knees, but not with fear. “You’re...” he stuttered. “You’re a woman! A giantess.”
“So what?” I asked impatiently. “Are you going to fight me, or do you prefer to run off home? Make up your mind.”
A wondering look came over his face, what of it I could see through the beard.
“I’ll serve and protect you,” he yowled. “I shall protect you from all comers, oh my lady, for ever and ever. I vow it.”
Oh heavens, I thought. What have I done now?
“Go away,” I told him. “I’ll give you back your Archbishop’s daughter – have her and welcome. Just go.”
“To Hades with the Archbishop’s daughter,” he replied. “I want only to serve and protect you.”
And that is what he’s doing, right now, walking round and round the castle moat, his lance held high. It’s making me dizzy. And on the hour, every hour, he calls out to me to ask if everything’s all right. If I don’t answer, he begins to hammer on the drawbridge with his lance till I do.
I shall probably have to run away. Tonight, I’ll sneak over the moat and escape.
I just don’t know if the ends of the world are far enough.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2013