The third and final part of Emelye's Tale. Prince Theseus orders that the two knights Arcite and Palamon must fight to decide who will win the hand of Princess Emelye. She is left wondering if she will have any say in the matter. In this bitter struggle, can there be any room for true love let alone chivalry? The story comes to a moving conclusion.
Read and written by Elizabeth Donnelly. Duration 17.46
As we knelt before Duke Theseus, Hippolyta and I begged him not to execute the knights.
“They may have been foolish,” I pleaded, “but they don’t deserve to die for it!”
The other women in the hunting party joined us. Even my annoying nurse Korinna began to cry
We looked on to see the duke’s expression turn from anger to pity. Our tears, it seems, had softened his hard heart.
He spoke sternly to the knights:
“You have both risked your freedom for this princess. And what is more, it seems that you are both prepared to sacrifice your lives for such a cause. A love like this is not easy to find! And for this reason, I would struggle to name two better candidates for Emelye’s hand in marriage.”
This was not at all what I had expected.
It was one thing not to want somebody to be killed, but it was quite another to be offered in marriage to these men. But which one was to be my husband? Duke Theseus ordered that so great a prize as me could not be decided in any old fight or brawl. He ordered that Arcite and Palamon must each gather 100 knights and fight to decide who would win me as their bride. The knights on both sides would take it in turns to fight a series of duels in one to one combat. Nobody was allowed to kill his opponent. Each man would fight only once, and should either Palamon or Arcite be wounded, his rival would immediately be declared the winner.
I must admit that I found this overwhelming to say the least. It was incredible to think that so much importance had been placed on a dispute over me. But to tell you the truth, it just might have have been good manners, I thought, if somebody had asked me about it first. There may be some women who feel flattered by a war being fought over them - there was that Princess Helen for whom they fought the Trojan War but frankly I'm not like her !
From first light the streets of Athens began to stir with excitement and anticipation. After a year’s preparation the day of the contest had arrived. The clammer of metal could be heard from the blacksmiths’ workshops ,as they made the finishing touches to spears and horse shoes. Barrows of fresh fruit were wheeled down the lanes and little boys ran in and out of the townsfolk riding on imaginary chargers. And as the sun rose, carriages travelled down the cobbled roads towards the palace, inside which sat lords and ladies dressed in their finery.
As the people of Athens approached the palace, music played throughout the crowds on pipes and trumpets, and horns and drums. Chatter filled the warm, sunny air as everyone wondered which knight would win me as his bride.
At noon, Theseus appeared on the balcony of the palace and sat on his throne.
Great cheers rang through the crowd of Athenians. And shortly afterwards, they were parted by Theseus’ guards to make way for the royal procession. The duke rode in front, flanked by the two Theban knights. I rode behind with my sister Hippolyta and I received so many cheers that I felt like a conquering hero. Women threw flowers in front of us and children waved as music and drumming blasted through the air.
We were the first to enter the stadium and were seated at the royal podium overlooking the arena, from which hung purple and gold banners with the Athenian coat of arms.
Meanwhile the knights’ armies had gathered outside the opposing entrances. Arcite led his men through the western gate, his ruby red banner held high as they passed the temple of Mars. Palamon entered through the eastern gate, brandishing a white banner as they passed the shrine to Venus. Both armies were equally magnificent and it would have been an impossible task to judge which was superior.
The men set themselves in position, one hundred on each side. As the trumpet was blown I held my breath, unsure if I would be able to watch the fighting. Never in my life had I felt such a rush of excitement and fear.
As the first pair charged towards one another, blinding beams of sunlight reflected from their suits of armour. With a clean strike, Palamon’s man was thrown clear from his horse, which continued to run around the arena until its reins were seized by an attendant.
The challenges came thick and fast, and as quickly as a new pair of riders charged at one another, another defeated man was carried off to the post where his wounds were nursed.
The first of the royal knights to compete was Palamon who looked magnificent in his silver armour, mounted high on a white horse. He was challenged by Arcite’s man Emetreus, the King of India. The men passed one another several times, each attempting to strike the other with sufficient force to throw him from his horse. But every blow that was struck was met with a parry of equal strength. It was not a blow that decided the victor of this duel, but a tactical manoeuvre. While the men were passing after an unsuccessful strike from King Emetreus, the Indian king turned back to make a second cut and caught Palamon unawares, piercing his flesh. Although the wound was deep, Palamon found the strength to attack Emetreus with one final blow that threw him from his saddle.
In spite of this small victory, the rules stated that a man with serious injuries must be removed from the conflict and his opponent declared the victor. Devastation swept over Palamon as he realised that he had lost the competition and forfeited his right to marry me.
Theseus stood from his throne to declare the contest over, and that a winner had been found. The crowd roared so loudly that the stadium seemed to shake.
Palamon, however, was not the only person displeased with the outcome, for high up on Mount Olympus, the goddess Venus was looking on and was furious that her pledge of my love had been forsaken.
Saturn the father of the gods approached the raging beauty.
“Venus, my child, you have no need to lament, Mars has fulfilled his pledge, now that Arcite has been victorious in battle, but the day is not yet over and you too shall keep your word to your devotee.”
Down below in Athens, Arcite was riding a lap of victory around the arena and removed his helmet, tossing it high up into the air. The crowd cheered with delight as the knight’s face was revealed and his jet black curls were swept back as he rode.
What happened next is certainly the strangest and most terrible thing that I have ever witnessed. Suddenly a thick cloud passed in front of the sun, casting a shadow over the arena. And from this shadow that covered the dusty ground, rose up what can only be described as a spirit, transparent and yet seeming to have a face. There was no doubt that this ghostly being had made its way up from Hades.
So afraid was Arcite’s horse that it reared up, throwing the Theban knight to the ground. He fell badly and without a helmet to protect him, received a great blow to the head.
The atmosphere among the thousands of spectators switched in an instant from jubilation to horror, as the newly found victor now lay on the ground, struggling for his life. Arcite was carried back to the palace where he was laid on a bed, drifting in and out of consciousness.
Theseus in an attempt to raise the morale of his people, issued an announcement that Arcite was not mortally wounded and would recover. He then drew the Athenians’ attention towards those knights whose wounds were being attended at the side of the arena, telling them to rejoice in the fact that no man had lost his life that day and all would be well.
Theseus, assured everyone that there was no cause for jealousy or anger between the two sides. Praise and glory were owed to both equally, and every combatant would receive a prize from the Duke.
While these prizes were being handed out, Hippolyta and I rode back to the palace to see how my newly acquired fiance was fairing.
As we entered the corridor that led to the chamber where Arcite lay, I saw Palamon pacing outside the doorway, consumed with worry. He said that there was nothing that the doctor could do for him.
An attendant came out of the room and told us that Arcite wanted to see us both. Approaching his bed, he appeared so much smaller and meeker than the mighty warrior I had first seen. His face had turned yellow and his lips were pale. With great effort he reached for my hand and looking me in the eyes he spoke,
(slowly, struggling to breathe..)
“Emelye, whatever you see before you, this pain and suffering of a wounded heart is nothing in comparison to the heartache I endured thinking that I would never be able to talk to you and make you mine. Fate has decided otherwise for me, but I want you to know that there isn’t a man alive more deserving of your love than my noble cousin Palamon.”
I was surprised to hear these words. I assumed that they would remain rivals to the bitter end. But should I have been surprised? They were both knights, and their code of chivalry and honour meant more to them than life itself. Looking back with time, I can see now that I should not be proud that they fought over me. But I am rightly proud that they were reunited in my name.
Arcite clenched my hand tightly and then closing his eyes, with a deep sigh moaned my name, “Emelye”. And with that final breath the last ounce of life departed from his body. Overwhelmed with sadness, I began to cry and was led away by my sister.
Theseus found a fitting place for Arcite’s grave. He remembered the woodland grove, which Arcite would visit when he was serving as the duke’s loyal squire. There he sang and rejoiced in his love for me. And so Theseus decided that this would be the perfect place to lay his body to rest.
Several mighty oaks were felled to build Arcite’s funeral pyre. As a result of which, the women and children whispered that many nymphs and fairies had been seen in the woods dislodged from their homes after the cutting of the trees.
A cloth made of the finest gold covered the young knight’s body. No-one present could restrain their tears on such a sad occasion. I was given the torch to light the pyre. Once I had lighted the fire, I stood back from the burning mound, and overwhelmed by the heat I fainted into my sister’s arms.
For the next few days and weeks I could not rid my thoughts of the final image of the dying man. I had had no idea of how much suffering I had caused him. It was only when he had compared his heartache to the physical pain that I had seen him endure, that I began to see how sad his story was. I then became tormented by feelings of guilt and pity.
Palamon also sank into a great depression at the loss of his cousin and could be seen taking long, solitary walks around the palace grounds, his mind lost in thought.
Theseus and Hippolyta were sorry too when they saw us both in such a sad state, and so decided that perhaps we might be of comfort to one another.
Over the months that followed, Palamon was invited to join us on several occasions. He dined in Theseus’ quarters, went on the royal hunt and attended the theatre festivals and games. As time went on he became a great companion of mine, for his wit excelled anyone I had ever met. And with time, our tears were exchanged for smiles and laughter.
It was on the eve of my next birthday that Duke Theseus invited all his royal courtiers to dine and once they had all gathered, he began to address the court,
“My lords and ladies, it fills me with great pleasure that you join me on such a joyous occasion, the birthday of our beloved princess Emelye. All of you will know that the events of the past year have offered us little to celebrate, but cast a great shadow over the harmony of our city. But I say to you, the death of a young warrior bestows upon him the greatest honour imaginable, for he has left this life at the height of his fame. Never will his reputation fade with the arrival of old age. And so, let us drink to the memory of the Theban prince, Arcite.”
As he raised his glass, the hall of guests rose to their feet and raising theirs echoed, “to Arcite”.
“ But let us turn to happier thoughts.” he continued, “Over the past few months, I have seen a beautiful friendship blossom between two lost souls and I believe that now that they have found each other they wish never to part.”
At this, I felt my cheeks blush. Yes it is true that the more time I had spent with Palamon, the more I thought about him, to the point where he was always on my mind. And when we separated even for a day, nothing could beat that first moment when I saw him again and he would look up at me and I would feel butterflies in my stomach. And when we were together I felt complete, it was effortless talking to him and sometimes we would just sit in silence, which after a while he would break with a smile. But I had no idea that Theseus and Hippolyta had noticed this. Clearly my secret love, wasn’t so secret after all.
And I have to say it was a true love that grew by itself. It wasn’t love at first sight - I did not fall, like any old storybook princess, for the first knight who came along on his horse. I got to know him first. And let me tell all you girls out there that are dreaming of a handsome prince who will sweep you off your feet one day - don’t just fall for looks and charm, because true love is based on true friendship.
And, of course, it was so much better that the Duke ordered us to get married only AFTER we fell in love, instead of expecting it all to happen the other way round.
We were married the following month and now live in our own quarters. I know this may all come as a surprise to you, that I, Emelye, once an Amazonian princess, who had prayed to Diana that I never should marry, might actually enjoy married life, but never could I have wished for a better companion. And so I am now living happily ever after with my knight in shining armour. And that is the end of my tale. I have to leave you now as we are going out for a ride in the woods.