The Princess slept.
It had taken two days to climb the Stair, and should have taken three. Now, in the gloaming, she slept like a wounded animal, turned into herself. She seemed so fragile in the dying light, skin like paper, bones as brittle as kindling.
The Knight traced her outline with his eyes, her shoulder beneath threadbare wool, the curve of her ribcage, knowing but not seeing how the fall of her young breasts was lost in the drape of the cloak, then down to the swell of her hips, childbearing hips, a woman’s hips on a child’s frame, and he thought to himself, not for the first time, you are a monster.
It had been Autumn on the Barrens. On the Highlands Winter had already come and the air was bitter. The Knight stood. To the west, the sky was the color of embers, to the east, black as seared oak. There will be stars tonight, the Knight thought.
Looking down from the heavens, what will those stars see here?
Her breathing was soft, regular. Her hair was a golden tangle, matted with the sweat and oil of how many days? In sleep her face was smooth, blank, her muscles slack. She could be a lamb curled in the sheltering shadow of her ewe. She could be a babe asleep on her mother’s breast.
Save that her mother was years dead, and her father dead not long past.
How did they kill you, old soldier? the Knight wondered. Did they do you the honor of taking your head cleanly? Given that the Yrrowaine were barbarians, the Knight thought not.
The Princess was a shadow among shadows now, but memory supplied the line and curve of her, the fullness and the hollowness of her.
It isn’t what you’re thinking, the Knight told himself once again, whatever the King saw in you, whatever truth he accused you of seeing, it isn’t this. It can’t be this.
The night came on, and with it the Winter. There was ice in the teeth of the wind.
She’ll die out here without you, the Knight thought. Then, that might be better. That might be better than what you’re thinking.