The tavern rang with the songs of drunken soldiers. A burly man clad in band of iron boasted in the center of the room. Others gathered about the knight, clearly impressed to have one so powerful in their midst.
A cross-eyed waitress lifted her skirt over a man passed out upon the floor and the others in the room burst into fits of forced laughter at a muddled comment by the knight. Two young men crowded close to the knight. Each boy tried hard to impress the other men in the room; one boy grew fuzz upon his face too scraggily to be considered a beard, the other, near a foot shorter, stood upon things trying to appear tall.
The shorter boy tripped, spilling his drink across the table and unto the knight.
"Clumsy cow!" the brother with the failed beard cried in exaggerated alarm.
"My brother is a fool. He tries too hard to impress you. He wants to be a soldier, but truth is, he fights worse than a nymph!"
"A nymph, you say?" The knight wore a look of amusement upon his face.
The shorter boy squirmed and shrunk back, trying to find a place to escape, while the boy with the hairs upon his face swelled with pride to think that he had brought the knight amusement.
"I doubt very much that you would last a second against a nymph."
The room broke out in laughter again. The fur-faced boy reddened deeply. He too looked for a place to retreat, as he was assaulted by a hundred rude jeers.
The knight lifted his hand and frowned, "None of you could take a nymph!"
The men in the room cheered, lifting their glasses as a toast.
The knight only drowned deeper, and then bellowing, he shouted over the cheers. "Fools! I am serious. I lost my best friend to a nymph."
A few nervous laughs echoed about, as the room suddenly chilled. After the ridicule subsided, the youngest boy dared ask, "Your friend? Was he a knight?"
The older brother spoke, not wanted to be outdone. "A nymph? What kind of man would fall to a nymph? Our kind threw out the Elves long ago, and Nymphs were the weakest of that kind."
"So thought my friend Sirdanc was his name. He entered the Grimwood, near Silvanus, and never returned a whole man again."
"He returned. The nymphs saw to that. I thought he was dead. Ten years passed before I saw what the nymphs left of him. He came riding on a pony with a golden mane. It was braided with flowers."
A snicker was quickly stifled by a bath of ale.
The knight stared about the room with stern disapproval. Every smile in the room shrunk at his correcting gaze.
"What was he doing on a gold pony?'
"He had come to compete in the tourney, or so he claimed. Made a mockery of everything we knights stand for. That's what the nymphs did. They changed him. The other knights even called him Sirdanc the Changed."
"A tourney? Did they let him compete?"
"They had to. He was a knight-sacred, ordained of the people and of God. " The knight shrugged, then straightened himself as an evidently horrible memory spilled out of him. "He held aloft a great lance of rosewood. Upon the end were flowers of every color. Sirdanc was pale, his hair a hue of orange. He was adorned in armor made fro fine chains of silk and slick fabrics which raise a man's spirits to touch- not that I touched them, mind you."
None in the room dared to laugh. The two boys stared at the knight with wide eyes, slumping slightly to their normal posture.
The knight stiffened again, and continued, "He spoke with an unusually high, frail voice. He was perfumed like a lilac bush. He wore tiny bells that made his clothes chime. His eyes fluttered as butterflies unaware of any threat. When he dismounted from his steed, he pranced upon his toes like a rabbit."
"What did he say? Was he normal in speech?"
"He giggled mostly. Then, spinning about, he challenged each of the knights to duels. We didn't want to fight him. He looked so frail, but the code of knighthood demanded we accept. Before his change he never did the tourneys, and so we all expected to win. But my friend had changed. I had the first duel with him. He mounted that horse of his, took the lance of flowers and made ready for the fight. So changed, he was.
The boy with the scruff upon his face, lifted his eyes and said, "Sirdanc the Changed defeated you in battle?"
"Heavens no, boy!" The knight bellowed. Fury ringed his eyes. "I knocked him clean off his horse. The horse fainted of fright. Sirdanc passed out. When he came to, he cried. Weeping and wailing upon the field."
"So he lost? How is that changed?"
"Not only did he loose to me, He lost to every man there and a few women. He couldn't fight at all. They changed him! After he lost, he wanted to hug me. Then he went on to the next competition and another competitor. A complete mockery of knighthood. The Nymphs did it. The way he flitted about, from warrior to warrior, getting his tail kicked each time," the knight paused and sniffled. "Well, it is enough to make me cry."
"And he died?"
"No, Sirdanc is out there, somewhere." The knight's eyes grew wide. "He got on his horse, after nursing his many wounds, and wandered away in a daze, singing a song- a song about flowers and small furry things."
The knight sat in a stupor, lost in the horrifying memory.
"Nymphs did all that?" The younger boy gazed up at the knight whose mouth hung slightly open. His brother shivered. The other men in the room wandered away; some found rinks, others hid behind a fan of cards. The room remained silent, save for the clatter of clay dishes carried by the cross-eyed waitress.
Finally the knight rubbed his head, and signaled to the waitress, who ignored him. He coughed and lowered his hand, looking back at the two boys-all that remained of his audience.
"Nymphs. Never underestimate them, or you too could end up like Sirdanc the Changed. Be glad you live here in the depths of the Valley of Wonders. There has not been an Elf here for over two hundred years, and with luck, you won't need to worry about them."
The two boys turned to gaze at each other. Sighing a deep breath of relief, they suddenly remembered their parents, their chores, how late it was in the evening, and how foolish they felt gawking at the knight who came to visit. The two retreated from the tavern, stepping into the night air. They said nothing as they walked home, staring at the road.
Finally, the younger brother said, "You don't suppose that story was true?"
"Nah. He told it to scare us. You spilled a drink on him."
The younger brother nodded then with a sigh of relief, he smiled and said "Ah. Good."
A bright flare sparked in the night air, directly overhead. The crickets ceased chirping. The two boys look up in wonder at the dazzling light. Neither spoke, and without another sound they launched in to a quick run, which would not stop til both boys tucked themselves safely beneath thick quilts in their beds of straw.
by Ray Bingham, Triumph Studios