I shall set down the first part of my romance. A most pleasant tale of Sir Waine, a very perfect knight, and the faithful cat who friended him.
In the old time, many a knight rode out to do high deeds and win renown. So it was with Sir Waine.
After riding through sweet meadows starred with flowers, he entered a great forest and saw a winding path, dappled by the sun.
Ere long the path grew dark, and his horse stumbled as if he bore too great a weight.
Soon a heaviness of soul and body pressed on Sir Waine, too. He resolved to go no further. He turned his horse, but saw the trees had closed behind them.
“Certes,” he sayt, “I’m in the faery world where all is trickery.”
To ease his horse he dismounted, and walked. The path of no return led him to a castle. The gate was open, and he went into the court.
A knight in blood-red armour came out with drawn sword. He challenged Sir Waine to mortal combat.
Sir Waine reached for his sword, but it had vanished. And he saw he was now clad in light silks and velvets, though he staggered beneath their weight. He sayt, “Gladly would I fight you, but I must yield. I have neither sword nor armour, and can scarce defend me.”
“You’ll not be the first unarmed man I’ve slain, nor the last. Why should I not kill you?”
“I’ve never wronged you, nor any man I know of. And I’ve ever been a defender of women, be they widows, wives or maidens.”
“A saint,” sayt the Red Knight. “Or an idiot. But as you’re so fond of women, I’ll spare you if you tell me what it is in this world they most desire.”
“In truth,” sayt Sir Waine, “I know not.”
“I’ll grant you a year and a day to find the answer. Then we’ll meet again.”
Sir Waine left the castle, and saw a path that led him from the forest. He travelled for a year, seeking an answer for the Red Knight.
Some men sayt that women desire meek husbands, lusty lovers, great possessions, good fortune…
Others sayt, the fairest face, the finest gown, the richest jewels, the sharpest wits…
And others, that women desire any thing they cannot have. There’s no pleasing them.
Too many answers. And none seemed true.
On the appointed day Sir Waine rode into the forest with a sorry heart. Again the trees closed behind him. When the path turned dark and the going heavy he went on foot, leading his horse.
Then a hare sprang past, and turned herself before their very feet. His horse reared up with the strength of ten, and plunged into the trees.
Sir Waine tried to follow. He drew his sword to cut a way, but stayed his hand.
He’d glimpsed a faery lady, seated with a spotted cat.
Then he saw his eyes had trickt him. What he took for a lady was a dead and rotting tree. A cat eyed him from amid its branches.
And what a cat. You never saw one as ugly.
She was so starved her bones showed through her yellow coat. She was covered with oozing cankers. Her amber eyes leaked black tears that crept down her nose to her whiskers.
Sir Waine wished to do one last good thing before the Red Knight killed him. He had with him a piece [snack], and he invited her to sit with him and eat a slice of ham.
“I thank you, Sir Knight,” sayt the cankered cat, most courteous, “but I am sworn to eat no flesh.”
He offered her a crust of bread which she took with thanks. Then she sayt, “I see you have no horse, Sir Knight.”
“Alas, Dame Cat, my horse is lost.”
“All paths lead to the Red Knight’s castle, though they come and go. You may find your horse there.”
“That’s where I’m bound,” sayt Sir Waine.
“Then I’ll come with you, and beg a drop of milk from the dairy.”
He arrkst her why she wept such bitter tears.
“Would you not weep, if you were me? But I think you also have your sorrows.”
He told her of his plight: how the forest made him weak, and that the Red Knight would slay him because none knew what women most desire.
“What?” cried the cat. “Every she-creature in the world knows. Even I, sick and starving as I am, know.”
Sir Waine did not believe her, but he sayt, “Then pray tell me, Dame Cat.”
“Be not so hasty, Sir Knight. If I tell you, will you take me as your wedded wife?”
In jest, he swore he would.
“I’ll whisper in your ear,” sayt she. And Sir Waine knelt before her. (He could not bring himself to lift her in his arms, she was so loathly.)
They came to the castle gate. Dame Cat sayt she would wait there for his return.
“I fear you’ll wait forever,” sayt he.
As before, the Red Knight came out with drawn sword. “Have you an answer for me?”
“I have. What women most desire is their will. That is to say, their own way.”
The Red Knight roared with rage. “The cankered cat told you that!” But he spared Sir Waine’s life, as he’d sayt he would.
When Sir Waine came out, Dame Cat was seated on his horse. He sayt, “Did you not wish to visit the dairy?” For he hoped she’d forgot his promise.
“Now I’m to be your wife, Sir Knight, my days of stealing milk are done.”
The path through the forest lay open, and carried them away. Their horse made good speed, but Dame Cat kept looking back as if some faery thing followed.
Sir Waine arrkst her what she saw.
“Nowt but a leaping hare. She brings good fortune.”
“Good fortune!” cried Sir Waine, who knew that witches sometimes take the shape of hares. “I pray she’s not the hare who affrighted my horse.”
“Had your horse not run off, you never would have found me,” replied Dame Cat, and turned again to look behind her.