At last, they two could go no more West.
Her scream was so horrifying that Cymen at first ran ahead of his horse. There, at Known World’s edge, peaceful lime-colored trees had to stand aside. Whinnying mount staggered and braced back also, at what only this wild man galloping out before it could hear. Cymen Ruecross yelled and pulled at reins until the amber animal burst free of that final forest convinced that it, too, smelled fear.
In this clearing, a dead tree stripped of its branches had them stacked at its skirt. Every twig and shriveled leaf had been placed there, but none were thorns. Naked heels, no, but there were soiled slippers on the maid. Was she fair? Yes. Frightened, certainly. Drenched in sweat and fear and musk? Shh… Say I never thought it.
A head with a mass of black rose-curls hanged low and shrouded whatever grateful expression there must have been next. Well, there should have been. When the snorting sniffing golden charger sidled near, and Cymen Ruecross mounted up, them both leaned in, to cut Eve’s ropes.
“Oh, my Lady,” virtuous knight proclaimed, “You do not know how my heart aches to see you thus. What fiend has done this, tying you to a stake, and placing an obstacle beneath you—”
“Kiss me, glad as you threaten to be now, and I will kick you so hard that your forbears will ejaculate and pray to the Almighty Father that they never had begat sons.”
Her dark-ringed eyes settled on Cymen’s gold stallion, when Cymen set her on the ground. The stallion murmured and paced backward. She spooked and mumbled to herself,
“No no, be a good girl,”
…And then took herself away on toes, as if she were her own pet horse and chastised. Cymen tugged his mount along, though it protested. At least one of them tried to keep up with her fast-dancing, bare feet.
“There is nothing to fear, my love. I am Cymen Ruecross.”
“You cried and I heard you, days ago. I rode hard to find you, nearly starved myself for fear that even eating would waste precious time… how can you not know me? Ma’am, please!”
This woman hugged a middle-aged tree. It was neither old nor young, with no buds nor leaves yet. It dared make no promises to the land nor its chittering squirrels above. The raven-haired lady turned to the noisy rodents in the near canopy with an offended look.
“I am hurt, that you feign not to know me, my Lady, nor to kiss me when I fought hard for you,”
“…I would have untied myself and jumped clear of the sticks too, but the tall, unburnt stake sort of prevented it. So, I don’t think I’ll thank thee.”
“This, the thou—what? No, I must finish! Will you at least tell me your sweet name? Can I have the pleasure of that?”
The lady dug nails into tree and chipped flakes of bark. A wind came and blew her gray dress past the trunk on either side, revealed white legs and the start of scars very high up.
Then shuttered it all with a fistful of fabric. “I am Eve.”
“Captain Cymen Ruecross.”
“You bow like a gentleman, oh how very fine. And lie like one as well, how lucky for me.”
“Wait a moment. You aren’t really going to run off alone, are you? Isn’t there some kind of trouble… I want to seize the man who tied you, and—”
She turned, and suddenly had a black mane about her sharp jaw. It never had any slick, or shine to it, how odd. “…he wanted to burn me. Like a witch. If you still haven’t figured it all out yet, then you are welcome to go off and stab a holy man, be my guest.”
That was when Cymen’s horse refused to walk any more. “Oh, come you thing! Lady Eve, please let me at least escort you home to your kin, or the next town, or perhaps you could tell me more fully of your troubles so that I might help? I couldn’t possibly, in good conscience, simply leave.”
Cymen had to leave his horse behind in order to finally meet with her. Eve had them standing in a wild strawberry patch together. “Sir, if you intend to lie with me like some whore, then I will burn you alive—”
“Like the mysterious monk who managed to set you on a pole, above firewood?”
“I was knocked in the head first, thank you very much.”
“Your eyes are yellow. How is that possible—do you get into mushrooms? We are already standing in strawberries.”
“And you’re wearing gold plate. And that horse is the exact color of a brick of the same. And yet… and yet it did not occur to me to rob you right off.” She sniffed at him. “Damn me. Well, it’s a coincidence anyways. I called, I projected my very soul and it found you. Gold is my heart’s color I believe. I’ve always loved gold money too—I must be more special than other people, for it. Do you think it’s possible?”
“Oh, my sweet. Then you should be named Ambrosia.”
Eve opened her mouth, but not to laugh, or scowl. It was something of a disgusted, unbelieving far-aback-taken… nothing.
“My first rule is that you will cease courting me. I am a woman and alone, and dangerous—I am very dangerous, though I happen to think you are too pretty to die… yet. And while I like admiring my handiwork for now, while I eat strawberries,” she crouched and picked some, “I’ll inform that your second rule is that you will listen. Do not interrupt until I am finished getting rid of you. Third, I used magic, or power or whatever people like to call it, to seduce you here.”
Cymen set his chin in a palm, and blinked. Now they were facing each other and cross-legged, both eating handfuls of strawberries.
She reached round and munched anew. “You aren’t running in the other direction yet. Captain, you are either very brave or very, very stupid.”
“I love you, Eve.”
“When it all wears off and you get a blinding headache in the middle of the night, you won’t. Now then, on with the horrible tale of how I came to be, by what I lost, and the greatest measure of loss can only be attained through love, which I have sworn off of, mind you.”
“You are younger than me, but not by much, aren’t you? That is… well, once upon a time, we might be contemporaries?”
Eve smiled and swept arm sweetly between them to pinch his nose shut. Cymen Ruecross was forced to fight her, and fear her at last. She threatened to steal his breath away in a whole other manner, and when Cymen was done struggling for air, he took Eve far more seriously.
And the enchantress? Cymen’s futile attempt to live on in her presence caused Eve to genuinely laugh. It speckled her cheeks, it pressed light fingers (of the one free hand) to her lips. Cymen’s suffering was the first real joy she’d made herself over the last seven days.