Dame Mathilda rides.
She is a bold knight, Dame Mathilda, born into a time of legends. She wears shining steel mail. She wields a bright sword. It’s long and it’s sharp. The hilt bears a lady’s favor. Its balance is fine, and the Pope blest its blade.
Dame Mathilda rides to rescue a princess. That princess has been kidnapped by a manticore. Dame Mathilda considers this typical, which should explain a great deal about her life and her situation.
Mathilda dismounts by the manticore’s lair. It’s a cave adjoining a grassy field. She brushes back her horse’s mane. “Stay well, Morningshine,” she says. “If things go poorly, I’ll need your swift feet.”
The horse whickers. “I plan to stay well,” he informs her. “I do not want a manticore to eat me.”
“That’s good,” she says. “Also . . .”
“I will not get stuck in a tree again,” Morningshine drones. “Or wander off a cliff. And that wardrobe experience — I shall not repeat it.”
“Good,” Mathilda says. She pats his nose. “Then I go.”
She enters the manticore’s lair. From within, the sounds of battle rage. Then comes a shout: “Flawless victory!”
Mathilda emerges. Her sword drips with blood. She carries a previously-stolen princess slung over her shoulder. She looks for Morningshine. Morningshine is not there.
Carefully, Mathilda reviews the situation. She looks up. Morningshine is not stuck in a tree. She looks down. Morningshine has not fallen into a pit. She looks around. She sees a squirrel. The squirrel looks innocent. Mathilda concludes that the squirrel did not steal her horse.
“Can I put you down for a moment?” Mathilda asks the princess.
“Of course,” the princess says, haughtily.
Mathilda does so. “Don’t wander off,” she says.
“I wouldn’t wander off,” the princess sniffs.
“You wandered off and a manticore kidnapped you,” Mathilda points out.
“That was not wandering,” the princess insists. “It was peregrination.”
“Before that, a chimera; and before that, an evil duke; and the time before that, I believe it was some jelly.”
“The jelly did not kidnap me,” the princess argues. “It was more that its tart, crisp flavor kept me enchanted.”
“Nevertheless,” Mathilda says. “Please stay put.”
Mathilda ranges through the field. She looks under every stone. She studies the clouds. She walks beyond the field and into the woods. She scours the earth. In frustration, she summons forth the dryad of the trees.
“Hello!” the dryad says.
“Hi,” Mathilda agrees.
“I’m a dryad!” the dryad explains.
“Have you seen a horse?”
“Horses go da-da-dun da-da-dun da-da-dun when they run,” the dryad says.
“Yes,” Mathilda agrees. “They do.”
“Da-da-dun, da-da-dun, da-da-dun, da-da-flutter.”
“It’s a canter,” Mathilda says.
Mathilda catches a glimpse of white out of the corner of the eye. It is high in a tree. She hands her sword to the dryad. “Please hold this,” she says.
“And stay here.”
“I’ll stay here!”
Mathilda climbs the tree. She takes the white thing down from its branches. It’s a card. The card is white. The card is crisp. The card is clean. Its black letters say MORNINGSHINE.
“I cannot but think,” says Dame Mathilda, dropping lithely to the ground, “that Morningshine has transformed into a card; and this somewhat tops his normal straying tendencies.”
The card nickers apologetically.
“Well,” Mathilda says, philosophically, “at least you are portable.” She tucks her horse away in her pocket and goes to collect the princess.
A dragon flutters down into the meadow. Its neck is long. Its eyes are bright. Its wings are powerful.
“I am having a complicated day,” Mathilda explains.
“You are a knight,” the dragon says. “I am a dragon. This is not complicated.”
“This much is true,” Mathilda says. “But I just rescued the princess from a manticore, and it is traditional to return her to the castle before she is captured again.”
“I don’t see a princess,” the dragon says, puzzledly. “I had thought this was an essentially coincidental encounter.”
Mathilda frowns. She looks around the field. The dragon, curious, follows suit. Finally, the dragon spots a card.
“PRINCESS,” the dragon reads, holding the card up. It cocks its head sideways. It stares at Mathilda. “This is very low-budget, Dame.”
“It’s not my fault,” Mathilda protests. “She was a real princess when I left.”
The dragon thinks. “Well, are you willing to fight to win her back?”
“I suppose,” Mathilda sulks. “Let me go collect my sword.”
“Of course,” the dragon agrees.
A few minutes pass.
“Don’t get lost!” the dragon cries into the trees.
A few more minutes pass.
Mathilda stalks back. She holds the SWORD card in her hand. It is short and flat. It has the word “Sword” on it. It is blest by the Pope.
“Ha!” the dragon laughs. The dragon exhales the FLAME card. The card falls out of its mouth and sizzles on the ground. The dragon frowns.
“I am unsure,” Mathilda says, “which of us has the advantage under the current circumstances.”
They move towards one another; and begin the dance of knight and dragon; and finally retreat, one from the other, to sit panting on the ground. Mathilda clutches her ARMOR card close to her slip. The dragon looks with grave disapproval at the CLAW, FANG, and SCALES cards scattered across the grass.
Mathilda finally says what both of them are thinking.
“I don’t want to fight any more.”
“Hm,” the dragon agrees.
“It’s too bad that we pretty much have to finish the fight,” Mathilda notes. “For honor, I mean.”
“Ack!” the dragon cries, and rolls over. “I am slain! I am slain!” It flops, limp.
“Flawless victory!” Mathilda shouts.
Mathilda stalks off. After a bit, the dragon gets up and slinks after her. When she hears its footfall, deep in the woods, Mathilda turns.
“Why are you following me?”
“Humans are clever,” the dragon says. “I figure you’ll find a way to turn the cards back. Then I’ll have tooth and claw and flame again.”
“Go away,” she says. “We’re deadly enemies.”
“I’ve never really done anything to you,” the dragon points out.
Mathilda scratches her forehead. “It’s still how things are done.”
“No,” the dragon says. “‘How things are done’ has you killing me, or me killing you. Then you raise your sword in triumph, or I lick myself clean, gleam magnificently in the sun, and crack open your armor to eat your tasty corpse.”
“I can still kill you,” Mathilda says.
“No,” the dragon says, practically. “You can’t. You don’t know how.”
“I . . .”
“You don’t, do you?”
“I have a SWORD card!” Mathilda shouts. Then she sits down and sulks, holding a small deck of cards close to her heart. After a while, she leans back against a tree. After another while, she falls over on top of the TREE card.
“I don’t really want to kill you,” Dame Mathilda admits.
The dragon examines the DRAMATIC CONVENTIONS card. “Oh,” it says. “I’m glad. You seem pretty cool, for a knight.”
Mathilda raises an eyebrow. “You haven’t seen my best side.”
“I know,” the dragon admits. “I had to take that into account.”
“Okay,” Mathilda says. “As long as you understand.”
“It’s getting faster,” the dragon says.
“How can you tell?”
The dragon hops. “Less gravity.”
“Ah.” Mathilda thinks. She reviews the rules by which her life has functioned. “Is there any obvious way to overcome this situation through the power of friendship, understanding, and facing our inner demons?”
The dragon squinches up its face and clenches its sinuous body, trying to face its inner demons. This fails.
“I don’t think so,” the dragon says. “However, I will happily be your friend.”
“Good,” Mathilda says.
There’s a silence.
Mathilda sits up. She looks over. She stands up. She walks over. She picks up the DRAGON card. It is warm in her hand. She walks into the silence, and two years pass.
Mathilda looks up sharply. It’s the first voice she’s heard in years.
“Who are you?” she says.
It’s a young woman. She’s fair and tall. Her eyes are deepest blue. “I’m Willow,” she says. “I’m the unmaker.”
“Hey.” Mathilda hesitates, and then permits herself to utter a small complaint. “Everything’s turned into cards.”
“Yes,” Willow says. “Everything everywhere but you. That’s why I had to come find you.”
“Why?” Mathilda asks.
“I looked at the world,” Willow says, “and decided that it would be better that way. But you won’t turn into a card.”
Willow reaches out. She touches Mathilda’s nose. Mathilda does not turn into a card. “See?”
“I see,” Mathilda says gravely.
“It’s efficacious enough,” Willow says. “I mean, everywhere else.”
Mathilda tilts her head to one side. Then she says, with gentle sympathy, “You need help, don’t you.”
Willow’s eyes mist over with confusion. “Why would you say that?”
“Don’t,” Willow says, sharply. “I’m your enemy. I’ve killed everything. See?”
Willow holds up the EVERYTHING BUT YOU AND ME card.
“Yes,” Mathilda agrees. “But you’re a damsel in distress.”
Willow’s eyes burn. Then she turns away. “You can’t care,” she says. “You’re a paper tiger. You’re a pattern knight. You don’t know how to rescue anybody. If you did, people wouldn’t be CARDS.”
“I used to rely on my sword,” Mathilda says. “I used to rely on my sword, and my armor, and the presence of dragons.”
“Right,” Willow snaps.
“But that’s not what it’s about,” Mathilda says. “Striving for the right. It’s not about the forms.”
Willow sits down on the nothingness. She shrugs angrily.
“It’s not about the forms,” Mathilda says. “It’s about helping people who are hurt.”
“But I’m your enemy,” Willow protests, again.
“You’re also the second-to-last damsel in distress in all the world,” Mathilda says. “So I’ll have to let that pass.”
Willow looks down. There’s nothing beneath her feet. Just the endless hungry void.