The night is utterly dark, without moon. The tall, black knight rides his high, black steed slowly through the forest. Just an occasional firefly echoes the stars above. The horse snorts nervously, his legs move jerkily. Great birds swoop among the tree-tops, visible only when they obscure the stars. The knight presses on into the blackness. The forest is cold and damp, smelling of earth and moss. His horse becomes more anxious. It quivers, pricks up its ears, and moves uncertainly from side to side, reluctant to go further, obliging the rider to prod it on.

Up ahead the fabric of darkness seems to have light behind it. As the knight rides on, the blackness clears like smoke dispersing, while his horse is ever more fretful, tossing its head. The path turns back on itself, before it unexpectedly runs into a clearing swathed in eerie twilight. The light comes from everywhere and nowhere. On crossing the clearing, the rider sees a circular lake, with a small island in its centre. The island is covered by a dense thicket of trees and bushes.

Samodin dismounts, tethers his nervous horse and walks to the water's edge. It is an unearthly silence; his footsteps are almost inaudible. He senses a movement on the island. It looks like a lone branch swaying from side to side. Yet there is no wind at all. Samodin is almost hypnotised as he watches this barely discernible movement.

Suddenly, silently, a pink flame shoots up. It engulfs an entire tree, dispelling the darkness all around. Yet nothing is burnt. Another flame sprouts even higher into the sky, accompanied by an explosion that shakes the ground beneath him. Water erupts out of the lake, dousing Samodin, followed by a loud, dry cracking sound, as if a large tree were rent in half. A shower of solid objects falls, beating on his head and arms, causing him to flinch. Samodin protects himself with his shield against the hard rain. He picks up one of the objects - it is a nut. The nuts continue to pelt down onto him, leaving light-trails behind in the air. Another flame rises up behind him, of brightest crimson. As he turns around, a dark figure is silhouetted by the fire. It sweeps up into the high branches then swoops down on Samodin, knocking him over. As he regains his feet to confront the figure, it bows to him and asks courteously, "What do you seek in the wood?"

Samodin smiles. His anger has evaporated. Instead, curiosity possesses him. "Who are you?" he asks. "I will show you," the voice answers. It is now unmistakably female and has an edge of mirth. The figure flings back the hood.

Samodin starts. Her loveliness transfixes him. It touches something deep inside him, that has never been touched before. No mortal woman could be so beautiful. A dark enigma is written into her face. It is not the classic beauty that artists paint. There is a trace of grotesqueness, as well as strangeness in her features, rendering her doubly fascinating. Her face speaks of dark enchantment, hinting at perilous rocks that threaten to sink a man's ship. Samodin's mind is in utter turmoil; he is unable to react. The strange vision before him half smiles. Her long black hair partially hides her face.

Then without appearing to move, she sloughs off the black robe. Her body is partially concealed by a shimmering semi-transparent fabric. How could any woman be so desirable? She is the end and the beginning. Fascinated, consumed by yearning, Samodin is excited and paralysed at the same time. His heart races, his breath is stuck in his chest, and he feels simultaneously cold and hot. He waits for her to speak. The trance is broken when a bird passes overhead, uttering a rending cry. Samodin looks up for a moment. When he looks down again, she is not there. His eyes search the shadows all around, but in vain. Realising she is gone, he sits down with his head in his hands, wondering whether he imagined the meeting. All that is left of her is a poignant feeling of loss sitting in his chest.

He sits for some time, then goes back to his horse and rides off slowly. The horse treads lightly now, relieved to leave the clearing. As Samodin passes out of the wood, he is surprised by gentle laughter, silvery in tone, wafting down from the tree-tops. "Come tomorrow," a female voice invites, so softly that he wonders whether it is his imagination.

Samodin has no sleep that night. He keeps trying to recall her face as he gazes at the stars, but only the haziest image forms in his mind. It is like a wonderful dream that must fade in the morning light. He is so disturbed he cannot keep still in his bed. Not until dawn breaks does he succeed in falling asleep.

The day is empty, it passes in a torpor. He does everything mechanically, unable to concentrate. Samodin cannot get her presence out of his thoughts. Sometimes he fears it was just a dream. Nothing in his life has prepared him for such an experience.

His excitement mounts as the day draws slowly to an end. The deepening colour of the sky increases the beating of his heart. When the sun sinks behind the distant tree-tops, he rides out over the drawbridge. Samodin passes through the darkening forest in a trance, driven by burning expectation. He has no trouble finding the lake - at least this much is real. He ties his horse to the same tree and walks quickly to the water. Sitting down on the same spot, he strives to wait patiently. When twilight ends the birds are quiet again. Nothing happens. The evening wind sighs among the black trees. Samodin strains his ears for any sound. There is only darkness, the gentle breeze, silence. Presently the breeze, too, dies away.

Almost imperceptibly at first, a sound impinges on his awareness. It begins as a soft humming, then becomes a purring, as a cat might make, but much deeper and louder. Squinting, he can distinguish a blackness moving through the darkness. It is a large beast. When it is a little closer it resembles a cat, though as high as a horse. Slowly, it steals towards him among the trees. The creature is jet black and silent now; its eyes shine like small candles. As it nears him, Samodin's hand reaches reflexively for his sword, but he does not draw. The giant cat is twelve paces away. It growls. Samodin watches, but does not make a move. The black cat is just six paces from the knight now. Then three paces, then two, then one. Samodin is totally still, afraid yet confident. The great cat purrs more loudly than before. Very slowly, it slides past him, rubbing its velvet coat against his cheek. Then it is gone.

The silver laughter flutters down again. He thinks he can distinguish the words, "Come tomorrow".

The evening of the next day finds Samodin again sitting beside the lake. Suddenly, a dry twig snaps just two paces away. An old crone is shuffling past. She is dirty, smelly and ancient. "What are you doing in my forest?" she demands brusquely. "I am waiting," Samodin answers.

"I know a fool when I see one!" and she laughs with harsh cackles. Samodin shrugs sheepishly, uncomfortable before her stare. "What are you waiting for? A fairy princess?" She dissolves into a fit of laughter that ends in coughing. She spits before her, almost hitting him. Her smell reminds Samodin of rotting fish. Then she stumbles over a root and falls over. "Help me up, fool," she croaks. Samodin helps her up. "I am hurt," she wails. "Help me walk. A fool makes a good staff." Samodin is annoyed but he allows her to lean on him as she hobbles painfully. They walk together for almost an hour in silence. When they come to a grizzled old oak, she says: "I will rest here - go now. Good-bye". He walks back towards the lake. As he reaches the shore, the silvery laughter mocks him again: "Come tomorrow".

On his third return he has not long to wait. A shimmering white light appears on the island. It gradually condenses into a human figure, which seems to walk across the lake on the water. Samodin can now see it is a woman. She is beautiful beyond description, and her hair bewitches him. It is a luminous, pale yellow, tantalisingly soft as well as utterly feminine. Silently, she crosses onto land. Her lusty golden laughter reminds Samodin of tinkling glass. She gently takes his arm. "Come with me." It is a command. Bemused, he follows along a path that turns unexpectedly every few paces. They enter a huge thicket with large, dangerous thorns. After walking a long distance, they reach a small clearing evenly carpeted with soft green moss.

"Come lie with me," she invites. Samodin shakes his head. "My heart belongs to another," he answers. "She will not care," and the vixen beckons to him again. "Besides, what makes you think she is yours?" "I do not know," he mutters. Suddenly, she is naked, more inviting than drink to a man dying of thirst. Samodin steps back, afraid of his own reaction. Though fascinated, he forces himself to look away. Fearing that he might weaken, Samodin does not look back. He feels stupid as he walks back to the clearing, unwinding her spell with each turn of the path. The laughing voice, more amused than before, invites him to return once more.

The following night, lit by a slender but brilliant crescent moon, he again sits by the lake. Suddenly, she is sitting right next to him, her face covered by a silver veil. He hesitates, then with utmost gentleness, he draws the veil aside. Samodin sees her face at close quarters for the first time. He is dazzled: she is even more beautiful than he thought, or was able to imagine. He absorbs her image, afraid she will vanish at any moment. Tentatively, Samodin reaches out to her. As gently as he can, he caresses her cheek. She smiles as Samodin loses himself in her eyes, unable to look away. Her eyes are deep wells reflecting the moon, or perhaps his soul. She looks boldly into his eyes, with no pretence of shyness, and allows him to take both her hands in his. Her hands seem perfect to him. Smaller than his own, they feel warm, soft and delicate, yet strong. Samodin feels protective towards her.

They sit together in complete stillness, outside of time. Regretfully, Samodin breaks the silence at last, finding his voice, which is rasping at first: "I will be faithful to you, always, because you are all women." Touched, she smiles warmly, saying, "You are worthy of my love. I hope I prove worthy of yours." Then in an odd voice, she asks him: "What do you want of me? I shall grant you three wishes, but at a price." Samodin is taken aback. He struggles to focus his thoughts. Presently, he speaks:

"One, you must grant my every desire with your body." She nods her head readily, smiling.

"Two, give magic power to my sword, so that I will never succumb to an enemy when my cause is just." She agrees without hesitation.

"Three, you must never lie to me." This causes her to think. She hesitates, then pronounces: "Agreed."

"Now I will tell you the price."

"One, you must never betray me with any female, whether woman or spirit." He nods.

"Two, you must never strike me." He nods again. "Should I strike you, you may use your shield as protection," she adds laughing.

"Three, you must never spy on me on the seventh day of each week. I will go away from you on that day, and you must not even ask me where." Samodin nods again.

"If you break any of these promises, I will leave you forever. I shall have no choice." "Agreed," he replies solemnly. She adds: "For my part, I am unable to break the agreement with you, but you are a man and therefore free."

With that, she throws her arms around him and kisses him with abandon. Samodin is totally overcome and has no chance to recollect his senses. Her lips are hot, her tongue darts into his mouth.

They spend the entire night on love, exploring every possible way in which man and woman can unite for pleasure. She refuses him no part of her person, but gives whole-heartedly of herself. Her passion is alike to his, so that it is equally a joy for her as it is for him. They hardly speak, but just before dawn, she whispers in his ear: "I am queen of the woods and of its spirits. But I have no soul. I can gain a soul only through the love of a man whose heart is pure." With that she bids him ride home to his castle.

Each evening thereafter, he rides into the forest with joyful expectation in his heart. The hours before dawn are devoted to the games of love - pursuit followed by capture, then by enchantment. She delights in playing tricks, eluding him and being chased, or pretending modesty and then surrendering after a struggle. He must win her anew each night. She is an artist of love, bringing to it all the power of her magic. Above all, she is ever fresh, as if he always meets her for the first time. Thus she never loses her mystery.

Each morning he feels as refreshed as if he had slept soundly, though in fact he sleeps not at all. When he rides out of the forest her perfume is on his chest. The essence of lily of the valley, it is her natural scent. He longs for her whenever he gets a whiff of it during the day. Though he does not know it, it is this faint perfume that protects him from his enemies during the day.

One day she asks him playfully, "What do I mean to you?" Samodin thinks for a moment then replies, "You are all I hold most sacred and precious. It is you I think of before every battle, and the thought of you gives me the greatest courage." He adds, "You are the bringer of joy."

With amazing speed, three years pass in this way. Each night is different and yet the same. Though never comfortable in the world of men, she sometimes consents to accompany Samodin out of the woods.

One hot day at noon, Samodin is strolling with her outside the forest. They come upon a hunting dog caught in a trap. Samodin wants to free it, but she, on the spur of the moment, grabs his knife and plunges it into the animal's neck. Involuntarily, Samodin strikes her. He is as shocked as she.

Without a word, she rushes into the depths of the forest. Samodin runs as fast as he can after her, but she is more fleet of foot, so that he drops further and further behind. He turns back, runs to his horse, then gallops into the woods. He reaches sight of the lake just in time to see her dive into its dark waters. He does not see her reappear.

Samodin returns to the lake the evening of the next day. Then the next, and the next. He returns ninety-nine times. Still she does not appear. Then, on the one-hundredth day, he sees her on the island. She is wearing a long hooded black robe, and is weeping. The air is so still that her low voice carries across the water.

She says, "I come to say goodbye. We will never meet again."
"I beg you. Please reconsider," Samodin replies.
"I want to, but I cannot." She looks down.
"But you have a soul now." She looks up.
"Does our love not mean anything?"

She remains silent for a long time. Then she speaks with an air of finality: "I will return in ten days' time."

On the appointed day, she again speaks to him across the water: "I forgive you, but that is not enough. To win me back you must sleep next to me on the forest floor for one hundred nights, without speaking to me and without touching me. If you fail, there is no second chance. As for me, I will die." Samodin nods his head.

It is a hard test for Samodin. She sleeps in a diaphanous gown that reveals as much as it conceals her body. Fearing that he might involuntarily touch her, Samodin sleeps with his hands in a pouch tied to his belt. One hundred nights pass so in silent tension. Troubled by her proximity, his dreams are feverish and violent. They often wake him, and he is tempted to touch her while his mind is still befogged.

On the one-hundredth night, just before dawn, she wakes, tips a pail of cold water over him, then strikes him on the face. Samodin does not react. Now the cock crows.

Weeping, laughing, she throws herself into his arms.

"Now I am yours, forever, and without conditions."

Tad Boniecki

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