She is nine when she first meets him.
She has escaped her governess for once, and she runs out of the kitchen door, across the lawn and towards the stables where she knows she isn't allowed to go. She can hear the horses when she approaches, so enticing a sound, and she tiptoes carefully over the doorstep. It's cold inside and dim and it smells strange, and she feels like a daring adventurer exploring a hitherto unknown cave.
She is already a few steps in before she sees him. He has bent down to pick up the hoof of a big white horse, so their eyes are level when he looks at her. She is unsure about what to do. Will he be angry? Will he hand her over to her governess? But then he smiles at her and waves, and she smiles back and decides that she likes him.
He asks her if she would like to pet the horse, and she does and stretches out her hand and giggles when the soft nostrils of the horse tickle her fingers. He lifts her up then and sits her down on the bare back of the animal. She clings to its mane when it starts moving, and she laughs as she gently sways from side to side. She can look down on his head from her perch, down to where he has his hand on her leg, holding her steady, and he looks up at her and laughs back.
She is happy. She wishes he would lead the horse outside and never stop walking. She wishes they could get away from the palace just like that, that they could follow the path into the forest and never turn back. It seems so easy.
Just when they are out the door her governess finds them and takes her back into the palace. She gets locked into her room to reflect upon her misdoings, but all she can think of is him. She draws an image of him with her colour crayons; she draws him like a noble knight with shiny armour and a beautiful white horse, and she adds a bright sun and green trees so that he would be happy and keep smiling forever and ever.
Even months later, she never stops daydreaming about him. He is her knight who would rescue her. He would fight down the guard and her governess with his sword, come into her room and take her by the hand. He would climb up the wall to her window, and she would open it and scramble across the window-sill into his waiting arms. He would fight dragons for her and bring their heads as trophies, and as a reward she would be given to him. And always he would lift her up to his white horse and place her in front of the saddle, and together they would gallop into the evening sun. They would laugh together when the wind touches their cheeks, and he would support her so that she doesn't fall.
She draws countless more images of him, but although she gets older and more practised, she is never again satisfied with the result. So she keeps that first picture and hangs it over her bed where she can always see it.
She is thirteen when she falls in love for the first time.
It's him of course whom she falls in love with. Who else could it be? She hasn't seen him since, but she still dreams about him. She still imagines how he would rescue her. Now, however, she thinks that he would kiss her, first on the forehead, then on the nose, and then on the mouth, ever so gently. She would lean into him, then, and he would hold her in his strong arms, and they would dance. And when they finally ride into happiness, she would cling to him from behind and feel his warm body beneath her hands.
If she knew his name, she would write it down and draw a thousand hearts around it, but she doesn't know anything about him. She calls him my knight, but that is not the same. So she takes down the picture that she's drawn years ago and adds hearts and roses to it. The elegant drawings she can do now look odd on the clumsy child's scribbling, but she likes it and puts the picture carefully back in its place above her bed.
Whenever she is particularly lonesome and heartsick, she sneaks into the hall with the red tapestries and sits down on the window-sill from where she can overlook the stable. She sits there for hours then, never moving, oblivious of the cold marble beneath her. She watches people and horses, but she never sees him, only a white horse from time to time of which she isn't sure if it's the one she first saw him with.
She is fourteen when the still-too-big crown is placed on her head and her childhood ends. She has been prepared for this moment since she was born, and so she has learned that dreams and romance have no place in her life anymore. From now on, her life will be ruled by duty, and even her marriage will only be a tool, not a matter of the heart. She bows, as it is expected of her, and climbs the throne and follows the protocol to perfection. When she gives her first speech and shouts her first orders, it doesn't even feel strange.
That night when she goes to bed, she removes the picture of him from the place over her bed, folds it and puts it in a box together with her stuffed animals. She hides the box in the back of her wardrobe under a winter coat she never wears and forgets about it.
Even the square-shaped spot on the wallpaper which indicates what she took away fades over time.
She is sixteen when she starts a war.
It is then that he finally comes to her. She doesn't recognise him at first. He is so very old, with weary lines in his face and grey streaks in his hair. His armour isn't shiny as she'd imagined it in her dreams, instead it is scratched and mended multiple times and full of dark reddish stains that look as if they'll never come off again. There is nothing noble about him as he stands there; he's just a simple soldier without even a sign of rank. She nearly sends him away, but he smiles at her then, if only briefly and hesitantly, and she remembers.
His face turns grave again, and she can see what he is going to say before he even opens his mouth and wishes he would keep silent. But he doesn't, and his words are harsh and he wants to know, Why? Maybe he is a noble man after all, daring to step up to her, speak his mind and question her. But how can he possibly understand? She has been trained to make this decision since the moment she could talk, and she has a staff of consultants who work for her. How can she ever explain to him?
She doesn't say a word for a long time and just leads him inside with a silent wave of her arm, wishing he would forget his question if only she distracts him long enough. But he insists, Why? She reminds herself that she owes him no explanation and that she has faced worthier opponents without ever hesitating, but still, disappointing him is the hardest thing she's ever done. She can see how her rejection hurts him and how he is puzzled and searches her face for clues, and it is harder to ignore the emotions reflecting in his eyes than it should be. Something stirs inside her then, an aching knot deep down in her stomach that she isn't prepared for. All her training falls apart within an instance, and when she tells him how she feels in words which she has no practice using and which sound strange and clumsy, he understands. He lays his hand on top of her head, and she gives in and sinks to her knees.
It is nothing like in her dreams. It isn't glorious. He isn't holding her in his strong arms, he isn't kissing her or whispering his love in her ears. Instead, she is like a disobedient child seeking for redemption, kneeling down in front of him, and he is like a father willing to forgive her. And yet he is her knight who has come to rescue her.
He takes her to the window then, and it's the window that looks out on the stables, the very window where she has often sat and looked for him and where her heart had skipped a beat whenever she saw a white horse passing by. It is so easy now to remember it all. Those feelings she thought she had buried years ago are back stronger than ever, and she wishes more than ever that he would take her with him and that she could leave the palace behind for good. For a brief moment she doesn't see the bleak sun, the grey sky, the mists of war, but the green forests he would take her to.
Yet at the same time she knows she won't follow him outside. The green forests are gone. Except for that one time when she was still a little girl, she's never been outside on her own, and the idea that once seemed so enticing frightens her now. When he finally does speak of love, she wonders what he sees in her. Does he recognise the child she once was? Her heart aches as if it were breaking and her crown falls down and lands with a clatter on the floor, and she wishes she hadn't heard those words. They only make harder what she has to do. She can't let him walk away from her; it would have been best if he hadn't come at all.
So she steels herself and smiles at him, and when she leads him to the door and asks him to wait, he smiles back at her. And waits.
When she gives the order to shoot, she has herself under control again, and it is no different from any other order she has ever given. She goes to her bedroom and drags the box out of the wardrobe, the one she has hidden there a lifetime ago, and opens it and stares down at the folded picture. Without unfolding it, she takes it and throws it into the fireplace.
She is seventeen when she wins the war, though it feels as if she has lost more than she has won.