Princess Emelye has no idea that two knights have fallen madly in love with her. How could she? She has never met either of them. And yet the two cousins, both prisoners in a tower, are both arguing about who saw her first, and who loved her first. One of them is released from prison - but banished from Athens where Emelye lives. The other can see her everyday, but only from the bars of his cell. Will either of them ever have the chance to meet her?
Poor Prince Arcite. He was now a free man, but his heart was still a prisoner - a prisoner of mine, actually, though I did not know it at the time. He returned home to Thebes, consumed with grief, for he longed to see me again. Every time he pictured lovely little me walking in the rose garden, his heart broke anew. He ached to return to his jail where he could at least glimpse me from his window.
I do not want you to think that I am conceited, but I do feel that I should let you know how much he suffered over his love for me. You see, he took on pining as a full-time occupation and gave himself no relief in sleeping or eating, but instead would spend the day weeping and wailing. Then for a change, he would lie awake all night, moaning and groaning.
Enough to make any girl big-headed!
One morning, he caught sight of his reflection in the mirror, and for an instant he did not recognise the lank, pale, red-eyed man who shot a crazed glance back at him. It was this unsettling sight that inspired a plan. He would return to Athens even though a sentence of death hung over his head there. He would not need any great disguise, for he was unrecognisable as his former self. Even better, if he dressed down like a servant, he could find a job in the palace and see me every day.
And this is exactly what he did. Immediately he set off for the city of Athens where he went straight to the palace of Theseus and offered himself up for service. He said that his name was Philostrate, and no one had the slightest inkling who he really was.
All who met him were impressed by his skill and dedication, and claimed that they had never come across such a refined servant. Meanwhile, he was regularly in my company in Theseus’ court and at banquets, attending hunting parties and military drills. After two years of dutiful service, his diligence and charm had been noted by Theseus who offered Arcite the greatest privilege possible for a servant, to become the king’s squire.
You may be wondering what has happened to Palamon during all this time and so I shall fill you in. Fortune had not been so kind to this young knight. Although his cousin had been released, he remained imprisoned in the tower. Each day he waited for the morning hour where he might gaze upon me down in the rose garden. But when winter came, time passed slowly as there was no sight of me to cheer him from his gloomy existence and he missed the company of his cousin and sank into a deep depression.
Seven years in total had passed in this pitiful way when at last Palamon’s luck took a turn for the better. He had befriended the young serving boy who brought him his daily rations and the little boy had grown so fond of the wretched knight that he decided to help him escape.
One summer evening, when the air was close and the amber glow of sunset spilled through the barred window, the little boy climbed the spiral staircase of the tower with a tray of supper for the jailer and his captive. He knocked on the prison door as usual and the guard walked over to meet him.
He grunted at the little boy as he took the tray and let the iron door slam shut in his face. He had not noticed that the child’s hands were shaking with nerves. So much so that the wine almost spilled from the goblets.
The jailer slumped back in his chair and began to feast on roasted chicken legs which he washed down with a goblet of wine. Palamon watched him intently from the dark corner of the cell where he was chained, careful not to touch any food that had been brought to him.
Soon he noticed that the jailer was struggling to keep his eyes open. Thinking the drowsiness was brought on by the heat, the jailer took swig after swig of the thick red wine, but that only seemed to make him ever more drowsy and there was a reason for this.
The serving boy lived with his elderly aunt who was considered the wisest old woman in Athens. She practised medicine, and some people even believed she was a witch. From her, he stole a sleeping draught that was meant to be taken one drop at a time, and no more. He was not going to take any risks with his plan, and he mixed half a bottle of the sleeping medicine into the the jailer’s wine, which was why he was now passed out on the floor and snoring like a wild beast.
Palamon watched the guard intently to ensure that he really was sound asleep. He could feel his heart racing in his chest, and beads of sweat trickling down his brow. He tensed his hands and tried to slide them from their shackles. The knight was surprised to see how easily his wrists slid out of their bonds. During the seven years of captivity, his once brawny arms had wasted through poor food, lack of exercise, and pining (for me).
The boy returned and, careful not to make a sound, he reached down to the sleeping man to unhook the keys. As fast as he could, he unlocked the door to Palamon’s cell, and the knight swiftly thanked him for his freedom, and darted down the spiral staircase of the tower.
When he emerged from the tower, night had fallen and he had to make his way in the dark along the pathways to the palace gates. Luckily he had spent everyday of his captivity looking out across the gardens and so he knew the layout like the back of his hand.
When he reached the gate house, there was nothing for it but to walk briskly past the guards keeping his eyes down and not looking back. Fortune was on his side as the guards were so engrossed in an arm-wrestle that they did not even notice him walking past.
He walked on through the city streets, always afraid that someone was on his tail. But the Athenians he passed had no reason to suspect him and just smiled or greeted him as they went about at their leisure on this pleasant summer’s evening.
Before long he found himself on the road that led out of the city and nearing a forest. Weary from that evening’s adventure, he decided to spend the night in the forest and continue his journey back at dawn. He would return to Thebes, implore his comrades to wage war with him on Athens, and win me as his bride - how chivalrous!
It is now time to return to the second of our knights, Arcite. For, when dawn arrived, he had set out to stroll into the forest as was his custom. Here he would find the privacy to drop his guise and sing of his love for me.
But this young lover’s mood was rarely constant and once he had sung and danced, shouting his passion to the tops of the trees, he sank down against the trunk of an oak and let out a heavy sigh. He bemoaned the fact that he had given up his freedom and must serve Theseus to the end of his days; that he had lost his Theban birthright as a prince; that he would never be called by his own name again, (at which point he sounded it out on his lips several times); but, worst of all, he would never be considered a worthy candidate to be the husband of lovely me.
Fate would have it that the privacy he had sought was not as private as he believed. For resting nearby in the grove behind the large oak, was his cousin Palamon, who had been woken by Arcite’s joyful singing.
By listening to Arcite’s speech, he discovered that not only did he have a rival in the suit of his beloved (me), but that this rival was his cousin. He learned that Arcite had enjoyed his freedom in my company, while Palamon had suffered the hardship of imprisonment. In a fury, he burst out into the clearing grabbing Arcite by the throat.
“Of all the greatest betrayals imaginable” he brayed, “you would try to steal my love while I was rotting in a prison cell. I will see you dead before I see you marry Emelye! I am unarmed, but I shall fight you all the same!”
“You are a fool to believe that you alone have the right to love this girl. But let’s settle this properly. Tonight I shall return to the grove with weapons enough for two men, and a duel at the break of day shall decide who is worthy of her love” replied Arcite.
Not only were these two knights obsessed with me, but they were now ready to fight to the death over this obsession!
At twilight, the young man returned with weapons and food and drink, so that both men could prepare themselves for the match that lay ahead. The next morning as the first light of day crept in through the trees, they awoke and dressed each other in their armour, more like comrades in battle than opponents.
The fight was long and furious as thrust was met with parry and cut was cleared with block. All morning long they laboured in the struggle, until the sun had risen directly above the treetops. Now, it was customary for Duke Theseus to lead the royal hunting party on the last day of every week, for he believed that nothing tasted finer than meat killed by oneself. I detested such sport, but enjoyed riding along with my sister, Queen Hippolyta, not to mention that I had been made a green velvet hunting gown and matching hat, that did look rather fetching.
On this morning, we had not long entered the forest, mounted on our horses with a pack of dogs and the chief huntsman at the front with his horn, when we heard the clashing of swords and the heavy groaning of a fight to the death.
Entering the clearing we all gathered to see the two knights in the midst of a passionate duel. Theseus immediately rode up to the men:
“Stop Stop this brawling ! “ he cried out. “The next man who gives a blow shall be sentenced to death, I say! “
More out of sheer exhaustion than obedience, the knights halted their fight.
“What is the cause of this quarrel?” Theseus demanded to know.
Palamon spilled out the whole tale to the duke, including the love they both felt for me and Arcite’s true identity. You can imagine how I was taken aback. I had received attention from men before, but this was far more extreme than a compliment at a party!
On hearing Palamon’s confession, Theseus was furious that he should have been deceived in such a way. Driven with rage, he sentenced both men to death.
Now Hippolyta and I both knew that the duke at times had a quite a temper, but were surprised by his severity. I was overwhelmed by the fact that these two boys would lose their lives on account of loving me. It didn’t seem at all right. And so I dismounted my horse and joined by my sister, fell at the king’s feet, and begged him to lessen the knights’ sentence.
And if you would like to find out whether Emelye and Hippolyta’s pleas will soften the heart of Duke Theseus, or whether Arcite and Palamon will be executed, you will have to return for the next episode at storynory.com