“I sing of Ladies and Cavaliers, of Love and War, of Chivalry and daring feats in those times of high endeavor when the Moors crossed the sea from Afric to wreak havoc in Frankland; when their King Agramant, in his youthful rage and furious heat, swore vengeance upon Roman Emperor Charlemagne for the death of Trojan . . .”
—Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso (1516)
In which we meet an Ungrateful Princess,
a duplicitous King and a True Knight
It was not until the two exhausted knights took a pause in their mutually ferocious pummeling that they discovered, to their shared astonishment and consternation, that the beautiful damsel over whom they had been murdering one another was gone. She had taken her horse and fled, which they ruefully agreed was absolutely Not Playing the Game.
The damsel, Princess Angelica of Cathay, was not particularly interested in the finer rules of chivalry, but then neither was she particularly chaste, innocent nor faithful, though the abandoned knights had of course been incapable of believing that such beauty could exist independent of these gentle qualities. She was, however, an extraordinarily beautiful woman in much the same way that Aminita muscaria is a beautiful mushroom. She had been the most beautiful woman in the world since the age of twelve—before which age she had been the most beautiful child and before that the most beautiful baby and even before that the most beautiful of thoughts—and had long since grown accustomed—indeed, resigned—to being kidnaped by lovelorn knights and princes. Her annoyance was caused not by the inconvenience, but rather by the fact that her abductors were so invariably dumbstruck by her beauty or morally hamstrung by chivalric codes that not one had been able to bring himself to deflower her. Indeed, violation of her virginity was not even the point. She was, as might be expected, no great admirer of chivalric ideals, especially when she was forced to watch girls much less beautiful than she (which, of course, included all other women, however good-looking; this is admittedly an unfair distinction since no other woman in all the world was more beautiful than Angelica; this fact cannot be emphasized too often) romping with recklessly randy abandon while she, whose incomparable body vibrated with sexual potential like a plucked mandolin string or, better yet, an overcharged Leyden jar, remained undeflorated.
It was not very long before Angelica’s lust began to turn bitter, like a luscious fruit or vegetable left too long on the vine, its sweet juices withering and souring. She was like a once-precious vintage whose curvilinear bottle and finely-engraved label mask a quart of vinegar. In the meantime she discovered that her stupefying beauty had much the same effect on men that a drover’s prod had on his oxen; with it she could command them as easily as a farmer uses a table scrap to get his dog to roll over or to beg, his pleasure mixed with contempt for the groveling, eager creature. She had therefore been able to satisfy her physical hungers with relative ease and opportunity, but her need for love had long since atrophied—or, rather, metamorphosed into pride, misanthropy, self-indulgence and greed. She was like the rainbow that shimmers atop a pool of black oil. In beauty she outshone the most sublime creations of the sculptor Phydias, and in all other qualities she also may as well have been as solid clear through as one of the Greek’s masterpieces.
She had been sent by her father, Emperor Galafron, to the court of Charlemagne for the express purpose of destroying it—what the Saracen armies failed to do he hoped her beauty would accomplish. She nearly succeeded too, and would have if Charlemagne had not sequestered her under the watchful eye of his most trusted advisor, Namo. She escaped even his sexless scrutiny and this is how she now found herself in a distant part of Frankland being fought over by a pair of love-crazed knights.
Long before the two men noticed her disappearance, the princess had plunged deep into the surrounding forest; it was not long before her palfrey could no longer run, but had to pick its way carefully through an almost impenetrable tangle of roots, brambles, limbs and branches as complexly intertwined as the capillaries in her beautiful liver. Boney fingers plucked at her silken gown and veils. The gossamer fabric parted like wet tissue paper. So dense was the overhanging canopy that the brilliant sunlight quickly faded to a submarine gloom and the warm, dry, summer air became humid, cool, dank and clammy. The initial thrill of flight transformed into a worrisome doubt that perhaps she had impetuously traded frying pan for fire. As her horse gingerly hunted out its path, its eyes rolling with anxiety, its breath puffing visibly in the same damp chill that had found Angelica’s gossamer costume such an insubstantial barrier, the princess began to see in every shifting shadow all of those creatures whose threat to her would be not one whit abated because of her magnificent good looks. Indeed, she imagined an army of starved and carnivorous bears, lions, weasels, wolves, tigers, basilisks, stoats, badgers, manticores, amphisbaenae, snakes, catamounts and panthers all of whose hot eyes would be less impressed by her pulchritude than by her potential food value. She shivered and though that initial shiver was caused by the chill it quickly transmogrified into that same shudder suffered by the defenseless fawn that has seen its mother dismembered by a hungry leopard and, fleeing in terror through the forest, sees the sable monster in the movement of every limb, leaf and shadow.
Angelica, still more afraid to turn back than go ahead, pushed ever further into the forest. For a day and a half, without thinking that she was lost, she buried herself ever deeper until finally, as though she had reached the eye of a terrible storm, she discovered an open glade in the center of the forest. A meadow of emerald grass, dewed like a velvet blanket sprinkled with rhinestones, confettied with wild flowers of every color, with a giddily burbling brook of the most crystalline water she had ever seen. Every pebble of its bed was visible, alternately magnified and shrunk by the rippling liquid lenses, like jewels caught in the bright reticulation. She climbed from her poor, quivering horse, which with a great sigh began grazing gratefully on the luxuriant vegetation.
She pulled off her slippers and sighed as her bare toes, each as individually exquisite as an elliptical pearl, burrowed themselves into the cool, fragrant moss. She wandered to the circumference of the meadow where she found berries of every variety growing in abundance. She hadn’t realized that she was so hungry, but her stomach gave a little frisk of anticipation and her mouth filled suddenly with saliva. She licked her lips, which nature had made redder than the most luscious berry, and began to eat, unmindful of the juices that ran off her chin and stained her gown like blood.
Near the berries she discovered a shady bower, arched over with hawthorn and roses and lined with pillows of velvety moss, as inviting as the coziest nook in her father’s palace. The brook escaped the meadow nearby and its liquid murmuring made her eyes heavy; she yawned like a cat. Unwilling to resist the soporific urgings of Morpheus, she curled into the hollow and was soon sound asleep.
She must have slept for some hours before she was awakened; the shadows of the forest had crept halfway across the glade as the sun settled into the treetops. She blinked for a moment, not certain what had stirred her. Then she realized that she had heard the regular thumping of hoofbeats as her ear lay against the moss. She thought that it surely must be her own horse, but was nevertheless cautious when she peeked from her leafy grotto, which proved wise because not more than a dozen paces from her an armored knight had descended from his horse and was drinking from the limpid stream.
She held her breath, thinking it might be unwise to reveal her presence. Perhaps, she thought, he’d merely slake his thirst and move on. Her lips compressed in annoyance as, instead of remounting his horse, the knight sat by the edge of the brook and rested his chin in his hands, evidently losing himself in some profound dejection. She watched him for more than an hour, but the armored figure did not move. Angelica became convinced that he was the victim of some spell or enchantment that had transformed him into stone and she was about to emerge from her hiding place when the man suddenly threw back his head and let loose such a mournful howl that the girl felt the hairs on her nape bristle atavistically. It was a sound so mournful, so weary and bittersweet that the princess felt involuntary and unfamiliar tears well up in her eyes as the roses and flowers around her drooped and wilted in sympathy; the stream, embarrased by its senseless cheer, became quiet and still and even the birds looked chastened and melancholy. The sun dimmed slightly in deference to the man’s anguish—though it might only have been the effect of a passing cloud.
Tears rushed copiously down the man’s cheeks and neck and gushed from every interstice of his armor. He beat his fists against the steely carapace, which rattled like a tambourine, clanging and bonging like a cymbal, accenting his words as though he were chanting some funereal litany.
“Oh, Allah!” he wailed, “You set my heart aflame with a desire that burned at my very vitals, and then turned it to an ice that congealed blood and marrow! What am I to do? After all my long travels and all my fervent longing, I arrived too late and another had gathered in the crop. If it is Your desire that I be denied both fruit and blossom, why do You make me still yearn for her? A virgin is like a rose, alone and safe in its garden. No one dare disturb her so long as she remains surrounded by her thorns. Only the soft breeze is privileged to caress her, only her mother the earth, the innocent dew, the pearly rays of dawn, only these can pay her homage. Amorous boys and girls can decorate their brows and breasts with her petals, but no sooner is she plucked from her stem then she loses everything. She withers away, losing all of the beauty with which nature graced her. The virgin who allows her flower to be plucked loses everything that made her attractive to her suitors. Sooner should she wish to lose her life!”
What a fool he is! thought Angelica with beautiful cynicism.
“Oh Allah! [he continued] Why have You become my enemy? What have I ever done to You? Have I not dispatched enough wretched Christians to their miserable, antiseptic heaven? Why should so many others be satiated while I die of need? Must I no longer find her attractive? Should she now repel me? I’d rather die first! This day may as well be my last, if I’m no longer to be able to love her!”
Good heavens! thought Angelica miserably. It’s that fool, Sacripant! Is there nowhere on this planet where I can escape my lovers? I could have an anchor tied to my waist and be dropped into the deepest abyss of the ocean and I’d still find, in some glowing corpse with pearly eyes and waterlogged heart, someone who once ardently pursued me. It’s very, very discouraging.
She was right, certainly so far as Sacripant was concerned, and the rest, too, no doubt. Sacripant, the King of Circassia, had indeed been one of her innumerable suitors. If she noticed him particularly more or less than any of the others, it was only due to the dedicated, even compulsive, fervidity of his ardor. When he had learned that she had fled Cathay in pursuit of Count Roland, he had immediately followed. He knew little more than that she had headed into the west, but that was enough. He had ranged up and down Europe before he finally learned that she was in Paris, where the great Charlemagne had set her like the crown jewel in the diadem of his empire. Sacripant had taken part in the fierce battle that had ultimately, if temporarily, dislodged the emperor, but when he went to find the princess, she was gone, either with the curséd Roland or taken along by the retreating Christian forces. In either case, he was in no doubt concerning the fate of her hitherto immaculate flower.
King Sacripant’s tears and words had much the same effect on Angelica as a basketful of paid receipts would have on a bookkeeper whose accounts had, until that moment, been in arrears. She had heard all of this before, more or less, since Sacripant had not been only an assiduous and indefatigable suitor, but a melodramatic and maudlin one as well. Now, however, for the first time she paid some attention to his words. She was not inspired by pity, though. There was only a kind of clockwork engine that beat beneath her beautiful breasts, for something was needed to keep her blood flowing, in lieu of a more passionate organ of flesh and blood, sympathy and ardor. It would take a great deal more than Sacripant’s whining to stir a soul which had long ago decided that only the greatest of heroes deserved it. And, whatever virtues the poor king may possess, he was neither Roland nor Roggero, which is to do him no injustice for no other men were or could be their equal.
In any case, Angelica decided to take advantage of Sacripant’s devotion. She was in need, she realized, of someone who could get her safely beyond the forest and Sacripant was ready-made for the task. She was not so silly as to scorn a life preserver simply because she didn’t care for its color or shape.
She gave no thought toward alleviating the knight’s pain, certainly not a thought of allowing him even one of the pleasures he craved—and perhaps had even earned. Not that she valued her favors, seeing that she had spent them so freely in the past, and with less in return; she was rather more like a miser, rich beyond all accounting, willing to spend any amount on her own pleasure, loathe to spend even as much as a penny on another’s. Instead, she decided to fabricate some plausible story, one that would fuel his hopes only long enough for him to help her escape from the forest, after which she would invent some equally plausible excuse to abandon the man.
Having made this decision, she stepped from her hideaway and into full view of the king. She was only just able to keep from laughing at the way his eyes bulged and his adam’s apple bobbed up and down like the float at the end of a fishing line. To him, she must have looked like a ghost that had just risen from the earth. In fact, that’s exactly what he did think.
“Peace be with you, my lord,” she said, “and God protect you and my good name—which you’ve been slandering so freely. Why are you being so hard on me? It makes no sense.”
Imagine the joy of a mother, believing her only son lying dead on some muddy battlefield, upon seeing her child unexpectedly alive and unharmed. Imagine a holy man, hermited in a cave, praying for decades to an immaterial god that suddenly appears before him in all it’s ultramundane glory. Those would be nothing compared to Sacripant’s joy upon again seeing his adored princess—and in her tattered gown almost half-naked. He could not speak, he could not rise from his knees—he could only hold his shaking arms out toward her, as a newly-released prisoner might stretch his hands toward the sun, though that star dazzled no one’s eyes as thoroughly as the princess dazzled Sacripant’s. She stepped toward him and, taking his hands in hers, raised him to his feet as though he were a weightless child. Tears continued to pour down the pale, unshaven cheeks and, now that she could see him closely, Angelica found his face no less repugnant than she had found it months earlier. It was wet and bristly, the prominent eyes were bloodshot and the bulbous nose was red from crying and drooled snot.
Nevertheless, she forced herself to draw him to her breast, clasping her arms around his neck—something she would never had considered doing in her father’s palace, but then, there would have been nothing to gain from such a display.
“What’re you doing here?” he asked, his voice muffled by her bosom.
“Are you speaking to me? I can’t hear a word you’re saying.”
“Please, your highness,” he protested, “Neither can I breath!”
She released her hold upon his head and he looked up at her from within her cleavage. His face had purpled nicely from the lack of oxygen and she thought the color an improvement. She felt a twinge of disgust at how the now-wet silk of her bodice clung clammily to her chest. As for the king, he immediately regretted his protest. If he’d had to die, could he have chosen a better place?
“Has Mohammed brought you here in answer to my prayer?” he asked.
“No,” she said, “I don’t think so.” She then sat beside the king and recited a judiciously edited version of her adventures since leaving her native Cathay, how Roland had again and again saved her from death and worse than death, but how through it all her virginity had remained as intact as it had been the day she left her mother’s womb. This would have been scarcely plausible to anyone giving it a moment’s thought or who knew her even slightly. To Sacripant, however, who certainly had not a rational thought to spare, let alone any inclination to doubt either the word or the purity his goddess, her word was no less than Truth. He would have believed anything she told him, and did.
If that prig Roland, he thought, was so stupid and careless as to allow Angelica to escape him, well, then, there’s no reason for me not to profit by his mistake. God’ll never again offer him so rare a gift; far be it from me to repeat his error.
Upon that last thought he brought his dazzled eyes to bear upon the princess, who was so beautiful she was literally phosphorescent. The last rays of the setting sun were lancing through the highest branches of the surrounding forest and they passed through her gossamer gown like Roentgen’s magic rays; the curved figure within was revealed in glowing outline, like a ship’s figurehead radiant with St. Elmo’s fire. It struck the king’s poor heart like a hammer, but the blow to his mind was even worse.
All his resolve, all his knightly duty, all his vows of chivalry, melted away like hoarfrost under the glaring sun of the princess. If I delay in plucking this rose, such a chance may never come my way again. I’ll be as big a fool as Roland.
Besides, his thought continued, there’s nothing a woman desires more, even when she pretends to protest, even when she cries and screams and beats against your chest! Angelica will no doubt do the same, but I know what she really means and what she really wants—which is at bottom no different from what every other woman wants—and I’ll not let her false protests deter me!
Angelica, in her cold disdain of anyone’s feelings, failed to notice the sudden glow in the knight’s eyes, or the squint they acquired, or the reddening of his face, or the quickening of his breath, or the tightening of his lips in resolve. Therefore it was a complete surprise when he lunged at her and grasped her by her wrists with an iron grip that made her cry out with shock and pain.
“Careful, you big lout!” she cried angrily. “You’re going to give me a bruise!”
“You’ll be receiving a bruise all right, my lady,” snarled the king, bearing her to the ground as easily as a shepherd throwing a lamb for its shearing, “but not where you’re thinking.” Angelica was about to protest petulantly, when she looked closely into the man’s eyes. Then, instead of scolding peevishly, she screamed. This did not particulary distract Sacripant, but the sound of a horse and the jingle of armor did.
A knight had appeared out of the forest. His figure was clad in a gleaming white-enameled brunia, or byrnie—a kind of mail-covered long-sleeved leather shirt that covered the figure to the knees. It was more or less the standard armor for the time (plate armor being some four centuries in the future) and the overlapping white scales of this, combined with the long, feathered plume that waved from the crest of the bullet-shaped helmet, made him look like an enormous bird, perhaps something like a vast cockatoo. There was neither sign nor device to indicate his identity—which anonymity gave the snowy figure an uncanny, supernatural mien. He was mounted on a horse not a whit less white or noble than its master. The animal snorted and its breath puffed in the cooling atmosphere like steam escaping from a charcoal-maker’s kiln.
Sacripant considered this an intolerable interruption, just as he was about to enjoy the pleasures he thought Angelica had been coyly offering him. He leaped to his feet and, with a malign scowl, clasped his helmet over his head and picked up his lance. The other knight seemed to not notice his presence, but merely approached with a maddening insouciance.
The king mounted his own horse, and called to the interloper.
“Lower your lance, sir, and allow me to knock you from your saddle!”
The other’s only reply was to lower his own lance and, spurring his great horse, charge the king. He did this without the slightest hesitation and the king was, for a moment, immobile with surprise. Then Sacripant jammed his spurs into his own mount’s flanks, which, with a startled whinny, took off like a rocket. The ground thrummed like the skin of a kettle drum beneath the pounding of those eight hooves. Two rutting rams never collided with a greater impact and the forest reverberated from the crash. Both shields disintegrated as the lances passed through them. It was not the lance points only that did not waver so much as an inch during the charge: neither did the stalwart horses, which met head on. The king’s, its head shattered like a clay pot, died instantly and fell to the ground like a sack of meal; Sacripant only barely avoided being crushed beneath it. As it was, his left leg was pinned beneath the dead weight. The white knight’s horse was also thrown back onto its cruppers, but as soon as it felt its rider’s spurs it leaped back onto its feet as nimbly as a gymnast.
The mysterious stranger, who had never lost his place, seemed satisfied to see his opponent unhorsed. As silently as he had appeared he turned and galloped off, disappearing into the glowering forest. By the time the king had extricated himself, the sound of his opponent’s horse had become nothing more than a fading series of echoes, like the thunder of a receding storm. Sacripant looked like a shepherd whose flock had just been hit by lightning, and who, rising to his feet, dazed and disoriented, sees himself surrounded by cooked animals. He turned and his agony was only increased when he saw that Angelica had undoubtedly witnessed his humiliation. He groaned and buried his face in his hands. Tears and mucus drizzled from between his fingers.
The princess came and laid a hand on his shaking shoulder.
“Don’t take it so hard, my lord,” she said, in an effort to recompose her anticipated guide. She was afraid that if he relapsed into his prior depression, or worse, he would never want to leave the forest. “It was the horse’s fault that you fell. It was tired and half-asleep. I’d say that, morally and ethically, the other knight was clearly the loser and can hardly add this fray to his credit. After all, he was the first to leave the field.”
“That’s true,” agreed Sacripant, cheering up somewhat. Indeed, the princess’ words were so quickly and effectively restoring his spirits that he began to consider reattempting his interrupted advances.
“Who’s that?” asked Angelica, quickly.
“What?” replied the king, angrily. “What is this? Market day?”
Hardly that, but for a remote meadow in the middle of a virtually trackless wilderness, even the lone rider who was now approaching seemed an excessive amount of traffic. It was, as it turned out, merely a messenger, a young boy, in fact, riding a pony. As he approached the couple, Angelica saw that the child was exhausted. His clothes were filthy and his dusty face was drawn and dispirited. His mission was some official one, for beneath the dirt were arms, though she did not recognize them.
“My lord,” the boy said as he came near the king, “and my lady, have you seen a knight errant pass by this way? wearing white armor with a white plume on the helmet?”
“You can see for yourself,” replied Sacripant shortly. “He’s just overthrown me and killed my horse.”
“Just now, my lord?”
“Yes, just now. You’ve barely missed him. He’s gone that way and you’re welcome to him.”
“Thank you, my lord! Thank you very much!” The boy started to turn his pony, but the king grabbed the reins and stopped it.
“Just a moment there, boy. Who was that knight? I’d like to know who threw me.”
“I can tell you that, my lord, gladly.”
“I can see, my lord, that you are a powerful warrior and that no common knight could unseat you.”
“You’ll get an example of my power first hand if you don’t answer my question!” cried the king, raising a mailed fist level with the boy’s insolent eyes.
“It was a damsel, my lord!”
“A damsel, my lord,” replied the boy, his dirty face glowing with reverance, suddenly unconscious of the fist that still threatened it, like the face of a martyr at the stake. “A damsel who is more than brave—she is wonderful and wise and beautiful! Her name is known from here to there—”
“And that name is?”
“Bradamant, my lord! It was Bradamant, daughter of Haemon, who stripped you of your honor!”
The boy took advantage of the king’s shock to spur his pony and gallop off. Sacripant let him go; he was too surprised, hurt and angry to protest. He was too ashamed to say anything and the more he thought about it the worse it seemed.
Without a word, he mounted
Angelica’s horse, helped her to a place behind him and rode off, defering his enjoyment
of her for a time and place a little more private and a little more peaceful.
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