The Heartless Knight
By Chandler Groover
It was once upon a time a poor serving girl’s misfortune to be smitten by the countess in whose employ she labored. This countess was a beautiful woman, and for that reason she was permitted a certain savage leeway in her comportment. It was not uncommon, for example, for the countess to have animals slaughtered before her at the table, and then top her goblet with freshly spilled blood. More heinous whispers circulated regarding her nocturnal activities, but these were legendary feudal days, and a criminal aristocracy was not unusual—nor is it, truth be told, today.
It may be asked why the serving girl was attracted to the countess, and the answer is power, which always exerts a classically seductive influence. Besides, if the countess was cruel to others, she had never behaved cruelly towards the girl. This was because she considered the girl as she would have a comb or candlestick—as an object, a tool, not a person. The girl, in short, was beneath even her cruelty.
However, one day it came to her attention that the girl loved her. Never mind how that happened—perhaps she caught the girl glancing at her in a mirror;—the important thing is what resulted from the countess’s new comprehension.
The countess was sitting in her boudoir one night, braiding her hair, and she summoned the serving girl to an audience. The two were alone. The other servants had been dismissed. A log was crackling in the fireplace, its glow outlining the countess’s silhouette with a flickering caress in the darkness.
“Who are you?” inquired the countess.
This question was answered bashfully, with the girl stating her name and explaining her situation in the household.
“That isn’t what I mean,” replied the countess. “Who are you to presume that you can love someone like me? Isn’t it clear that I’m superior, as angels are superior to vermin? What impudence for a rat to admire a seraph.”
Although her words were barbed, the countess was smiling, and she spoke very gently and sweetly.
The serving girl did not know what to say. Indeed, she had been paralyzed with shame, and could only stand there, staring at her feet, wringing her hands, while the countess observed her like a choice cut hanging in a butcher’s shop.
“Tell me, would you do anything that I demanded to prove your devotion?” the countess asked nonchalantly. “Anything at all?”
The girl seized this rare chance.
“Then cut off your finger,” the countess ordered, and she nodded at a knife upon a dressing table.
Now perhaps it may seem foolish that, although with some anxiety, the serving girl approached the dressing table, took the knife, and proceeded to remove one finger at the knuckle. But the serving girl was smitten, remember, and love can be a fatal motivator.
The countess, though, only inclined her eyebrows after having been presented with the severed digit.
“It seems a little thing to spare,” she said. “After all, brides are known to offer their hands in marriage, and how can a single finger compare with that? If you truly adore me, then cut off your hand.”
It was done, but the countess grumbled.
“A hand… well, a mere hand… for love? When people are willing to give their arms and legs for less? I think you owe me more than just a hand.”
The serving girl commenced further dismemberment.
“And yet,” said the countess, “people throw themselves bodily into their greatest passions, don’t they? Arms and legs cannot compete with whole bodies…”
Over the next hour, coaxing her along in this manner, the countess encouraged the girl to carve herself apart piecemeal until only her heart was left, which was precisely what the countess had desired from the beginning. She then plucked up the heart and locked it, still beating, inside a gilded birdcage that had once enclosed a parrot (the parrot having been roasted for supper years ago). She had no usage for this heart; it was only a curiosity; but that was more valuable to her than the serving girl had been.
As for the other body parts, which were scattered along the floor, the countess dumped these through an open window and thought no more about them.
In the forest not far from the countess’s castle, there lived a witch in a cabin. Nobody disturbed this witch. She dabbled in the dark arts, and could sometimes be glimpsed in the local graveyard lugging a shovel. It took her by surprise, therefore, when she heard somebody knocking at her door around midnight—not a normal knock, but various little thuds knocking in tandem. When she answered the door, she discovered bones, organs, and entrails heaped there on the stoop.
“Forgive us,” said these bones, organs, and entrails. “We don’t mean to annoy you at such a late hour, but we desperately need your assistance.”
Thankfully, because the witch was a witch, she didn’t bat an eyelash at her visitors, but instead invited them inside, whereupon they collectively piled across the threshold. She even offered to brew tea, but they demurred.
“We’ve come here on a mission,” they explained. “You may not be able to tell by looking at us, but we’ve got all the parts to make a person, except one. The countess has our only missing part locked in a birdcage, and she dumped us outside through a window. That’s why we’ve tumbled over here, hoping you might be able to join us back together like a jigsaw puzzle.”
The witch considered their request. Finally she asked what part they were missing, since a few were essential to make a person, and the surgery couldn’t be done without those.
“We haven’t got a heart.”
Well, the witch announced that there was no problem in that case, and she went to fetch needle and thread from her sewing basket.
A fortnight later, a grand tournament was convened on the countess’s estate, with all the noble houses from the surrounding countryside in attendance. Numerous colorful tents were erected across the lawn, and knights and squires were parading, their standards flying, their armor shining, for the spectating crowd’s entertainment.
Some knights had gathered beside a pavilion to discuss the vespers, during which individual competitors had demonstrated their jousting proficiencies earlier that morning. A favorite had emerged fast from their ranks—a mystery knight self-styled the Chevalier Sans Cœur.
“Is this mystery knight French, do you suppose?”
“It’s a mystery.”
“They say the Chevalier unhorsed twenty knights and broke as many lances.”
“Never mind what they say—I was there and the Chevalier unhorsed me!”
“There’s a rumor that he’s nothing more than empty armor brought to life.”
“Empty armor never drove a lance like that.”
“With a witch serving for his squire, anything’s possible.”
“Some sorcery must be involved. You feel as though a battering ram’s riding down the lists, not a human.”
The knights might have continued their gossip, but at that moment the Chevalier in question appeared from around the pavilion—not to upbraid them for their frivolous dialogue, but simply en-route to another contest. Indeed, the Chevalier had no interest in their gossip, and hadn’t heard it.
The Chevalier was wearing blood-red armor that, rather than glinting in the sunlight, seemed to absorb it, making the metal plates bake. His steed was caparisoned in black leather, and on his shield the Chevalier bore a device depicting a human heart scientifically pictured with veins, valves, and ventricles. Beside the Chevalier rode the witch upon a donkey, and over her shoulder she was carrying a pole streaming with pennoncells, their fabric stitched with blood drops in red thread.
Around the Chevalier a malaise lingered. It was difficult to describe, and seemed to emanate from the mystery knight himself, like a killing intent. The other knights cowered, their horses grew skittish, but the countess watched the Chevalier with an indolent interest from her viewing box while she nibbled strawberries.
When the time came for the mêlée and the knights were ranged in lines for this mock war, the Chevalier Sans Cœur was given a wide berth. There was a great anticipation, as usual preceding a mêlée, but it wasn’t for the general combat; it was centered around the Chevalier, who remained stoic, seemingly oblivious to the attention. At last, the bugle sounded—the knights leveled their lances—and the two lines charged each other with a crash that rang over the forest.
Immediately lances cracked, knights toppled, and this first charge’s survivors turned with a splendid pivot to reengage what foes had ridden past them; but none turned, after that opening salvo, with more ferocity than the Chevalier back on his fellow knights. He smashed through the other combatants, wielding his splintered lance as a bludgeon, targeting not one man for a duel, but any man that dared come close enough. They could never outrun him, and never repel his attacks. Again and again he broke into their fighting clusters and left them groaning, unhorsed, on the ground.
There had never been such a mêlée in anyone’s memory. It was not a competition, but a deathless carnage, and had the tourney been a true battle, there was no doubt that death would have been involved, for the Chevalier could not be resisted.
The mêlée ended when the lawn was littered with twitching bodies. All the spectators were silent, as if they were holding their breaths, and perhaps they were—but then they began to applaud. The Chevalier Sans Cœur knelt before the countess’s viewing box to receive these ovations.
“That was a gallant triumph,” said the countess. “Who are you?”
“I am called the Heartless Knight,” replied the Chevalier.
“It’s not a proper name.”
“I’m not a proper knight.”
“You are still the best knight today, and as such it falls to you to choose the Queen of the Tournament.”
“Can there be any other but yourself?”
This was just what the countess wanted to hear, because she had grown rather enamored with this mystery knight as she watched him rampage during the mêlée, and she had designs for him later that evening. She bent down to give him a rose, the bugle sounded again to mark the combat’s end, and then the feasting started.
It was dark when the countess invited the Chevalier Sans Cœur to her boudoir. From lower levels in the castle, merriment carried, filtering through the stone walls into the chamber like strange music as the tourney banquet continued below. But the countess and the Chevalier paid it no heed. All the servants had been dismissed, and the two were alone.
The countess was sitting on an ottoman, unbraiding her hair, and eyeing the mystery knight in an effort to penetrate his mystery. The Chevalier only stood there, however, unreadable in his armor. Eventually the countess asked how he had managed to compete with such valor.
“I did not,” said the Chevalier. “One cannot have valor without first knowing fear. I have no fear because I have no heart, and no emotions. The world is just action and reaction from my perspective.”
Rather than discouraging the countess, this detached philosophy only made her pulse quicken. She felt that she had found a kindred spirit, and she asked the knight to open his visor.
What she saw took her aback.
The Chevalier Sans Cœur was not the serving girl, of course—when a person is deconstructed, they can never be repaired to their original condition—but the Chevalier had been the serving girl, and now that girl unsheathed her sword and put its tip to the countess’s throat.
“I must confess something,” she said. “It was my intention to kill you after I had won the tournament today. But in my new existence, I can sympathize—because now I know what it means to be heartless like you. I only have one objective remaining: to reclaim what is rightfully mine. Where is it?”
The countess indicated the birdcage in the corner, where the Chevalier’s heart was sitting perched behind the bars. It was preening itself, and had grown wings with tropical plumage, which made it resemble the parrot that it had replaced. When the Chevalier whistled, the heart flew from the birdcage to alight on her shoulder.
“I loved you once,” the knight told the countess, “but that seems like a dim memory from another life, as intangible as a dream or a nightmare. I cannot say who I am now—perhaps nobody anymore—but if this is love’s natural conclusion, then I intend to keep my heart myself.”
Sheathing her sword, she bowed to the countess, and then she departed without further conversation, walking back downstairs into the celebrating crowd—passing unnoticed—until she had entered the courtyard where the witch was waiting for her on the donkey. The two rode out together from the castle, across the moonlit landscape towards the forest, until they disappeared among the trees. What subsequent adventures the duo may have encountered, the current chronicle does not relate.
Only the countess saw them leave. She was watching through her window, and when she lost them in the dark, she felt that she had lost her own heart with the Chevalier. The festival sounds drifting into her room now seemed to have a melancholic quality, and the countess sighed deeply. It may not always be the case, but in this situation it applies: we want most what is inaccessible.
* * *
Chandler Groover was born in Atlanta and now lives in NYC. His new fantasy novel, Finnian's Fiddle, is currently available as an ebook through Amazon.
This particular story was inspired by Elizabeth Báthory, history's archetypal evil countess. I also wanted to give my knight a French pseudonym such as Lancelot had when he was styled Le Chevalier Mal Fet.