The Riddle Game
Autumn crept up on the forest with sideways slanting light and a good dose of early dusk. Evenings shortened more sharply as the harvest deepened, so Lucy, barely sixteen, with her nut brown curls and dark and roving eye, with her basket full of the season's first apples, found herself just crossing the meadow, just passing the hunting lodge, as the wood began to blur into evening. A single light twinkled in the lodge.
'And who's this pretty fair miss?'
Lucy turned toward the voice. The badge on his cloak named him an agent of the King. 'Lucy.'
'Lucy, you are a dainty young thing, aren't you? Twice as sweet as those apples you're carrying, I'm sure.'
Lucy sniffed. 'I am also Sir Harold's daughter. He keeps the house above the wood.'
'Ah,' he said. 'No wonder you are so bold; these are nearly your woods. Of course, the law forbids me from possessing the daughter of a nobleman.'
He was tall, Lucy thought. Tall in a rustic, woodsy sort of way. And he kept the hunting lodge for the king; he was no factor or priest. He must be a servant, barely above a poacher. What came over her next she never could understand. 'Now, my dear good man,' she said. 'Do not be perplexed. Suppose we play a riddle game.'
'A riddle game?' The gamekeeper removed his hat and ran one very large hand through his cropped but still curly hair. 'What sort of riddle game would that be?'
Was there an edge to his voice? Lucy felt the moon rise somehow. She felt the wind all through her body. 'Suppose,' she said, 'I ask you six questions. If you answer all six of my questions correctly, then you may have a chance with me. Choose not to play, or answer even one incorrectly, and you'll see me again only in broad daylight and only accompanied by one of my father's men.'
In the dimming light, the gamekeeper smiled. 'It would be foolish to refuse to play, wouldn't it? As this is my only chance.' He led her to a bench at the edge of the meadow. 'Sit down, then, and let's begin. If I win this riddle game, you may learn my Christian name. For now, you may call me 'sir'.'
'Very well, sir.' Lucy chuckled at the thought of an artless fellow like this winning a riddle game with a knight's daughter. It was funny to say 'sir' to such a man. 'I will ask the first question.'
The gamekeeper nodded gravely, that smile still flickering across his face in the dimming light. 'By all means,' he said.
'What,' asked Lucy, as if she owned the forest and all the land beyond, 'is rounder than a ring?'
'Mm,' replied the gamekeeper. 'This is an old riddle, and I know the answer. The earth is rounder than a ring!'
Lucy held up one finger. 'That's one right,' she said, 'but you still have five to answer. Second question: what is higher than a tree?'
The gamekeeper shook his head. 'You insult me, my pretty fair miss. Heaven is higher than a tree.'
Lucy's cheeks burned. Two questions right. Perhaps the gamekeeper was not as simple as she'd thought. 'These are the riddles my mother taught me,' she said.
The gamekeeper chuckled and gestured for her to proceed.
With two fingers now aloft, Lucy asked, 'What is worse than a woman's curse?' Around them, the night seemed to close in: sounds fell away, and not even the songbirds scolded.
'Oh, pretty girl,' whispered the gamekeeper. 'Only the devil is worse than a woman's curse.'
How soft his voice was. Lucy felt warm and cold at the same time. There was time, she thought vaguely, time to jump up and throw all the apples at this strange, knowing man, time to flee into the forest and take the little paths through the undergrowth, time to run. At the same time, she felt the next question on the tip of her tongue. It was a phrase she had to say now, like a prayer response at mass, written into her heart. 'What is deeper than the sea?'
Did the gamekeeper's smile soften? Was there more to him now than a man playing a game with a pretty girl? The fourth question, now. If he got that one right, he was on the winning side. 'Hell is deeper than the sea, miss. Hell is deeper than the sea.'
Lucy panicked. 'Which bird sings first?' she blurted out. 'And-- and, which one sings best, as well?'
The gamekeeper chuckled. 'That is really two questions,' he said. 'But we will pretend, if you like, that it is only one.' He brushed his finger across her cheek. 'You are such a beautiful girl,' he said. 'The lark sings first, but I think the thrush sings best.'
The realisation that she would lose this game came to Lucy, gently and with finality. It came to her in the slow way the sixth question formed in her head, the unfamiliar pleasure of that warm, strong finger upon her face.
'Where does the dew first fall?' she asked. She was unable to stop herself from asking.
'The dew falls in many places,' replied the gamekeeper. 'But the only place it is sure to reach and sink in, its only true destination, is the earth itself.' He took both her hands. 'Now stand up for me, sweet girl.'
Lucy stood up, leaving the basket of apples on the bench.
'Let me take those for you,' said the gamekeeper solicitously. 'Here, take my other hand.' He led her into the hunting lodge by the hand, then slipped a hand around her waist as they went up the stairs. 'We wouldn't want you to fall.'
Down the hall and into a large bedroom he led her. 'Go on and lie next to the wall,' he said. The bed was made of soft down, a bed for a nobleman or a king. He placed the basket of apples on a table by the small window, and he barred the door. And one by one, he gave her only the sweetest apples, until she was full and sleepy, and then he pulled her into his arms and whispered his name into her ear.
Night fell over the wood, a harvest night with a huge, round moon and the promise of grain and more apples, just days away. A mile to the west, Lucy's father paced the floor, anxious for his daughter and his apples, while his wife accepted with resignation why she'd suddenly remembered the riddle game.