There is no joy greater than her love returned. When her departed Musidorus had stepped down from the back of the golden stag, the distraught Philoclea had barely dared to hope, stood shaking the way she was, utterly disbelieving. No, no, I know what’s real, she’d wept.
And I am real , he’d insisted, shining and stood right there , across the way yet still too far to touch. It had taken everything she had left within her to move, to force her feet to move her, to bring herself closer, to know .
It takes his touch to be sure. How could she mistake the beating of his heart? I’m mad about you, she tells him, and beams as he echoes her confession. And for a moment, in his arms, everything is perfect, so terribly, wonderfully perfect.
It is later, long later, after their happy honeymoon bliss when she starts to wonder, again. What is real, and what isn't. See, there is another thing she cannot unremember. The moment where, for what had felt far longer than it was, the entire world had seemed to fall apart. When her father, blinded by rage, had pierced the armour of the Amazon, Cleophila, and through it, mortally wounded her beloved Musidorus. Her beloved Musidorus, who’s last living action had been to push her out of harm’s way.
And she remembers that wound. It had been such a frightening thing, a deep gouge in his side that from which had so quickly bled out the life of her childhood playmate, her still so-newly discovered sweetheart. She had scarcely time to be horrified, couldn't think even to try and press her hands to it, to desperately try and staunch the bleeding, so blinded by tears was the aghast Philoclea.
She remembers the look on his face as the light blew out in his eyes, the way he had stared up and then beyond. I am no more , he had said, which was true. And I am everything .
How perplexing, how heartbreaking , she had thought, as she’d wept. For her love, for herself, even for her father, brutal fool that he had been.
Her mother and sisters had helped to clean and shroud the body of Musidorus. She had tried to do it herself, she had , but when they’d stripped the ruined armour from him and she’d seen the wound uncovered, that horrible wound which had taken him from her? She’d had to leave the tent, weeping, her tears doing naught to wash away the image of it, now so seared into her memory.
How then, can he be here, before her? With her, in her bed, bright and clean, kissing her all over with his skin totally unmarked?
At his side there is no wound. There is not even a trace of a wound, not even a scar.
How can that be ?
They lie together and her hand lingers at his left, tracing up and down a scar that is not there. She curls around his body at his left and draws out the wound over and over with her fingertips.
Musidorus, at first, does not seem to notice this. And they are free and happy to live, freely and happily during the daylight hours. They occupy themselves with Philoclea’s princessly duties, Musidorus or sometimes Cleophilia stood tall at the royal daughter’s side. They amuse each other, speak with subjects, sometimes visit the fields (though he is no longer a shepherd by profession, Musidorus nonetheless wants to be sure the animals are well cared for.) They dance, dress each other up and they laugh, light and easy under the sun.
But when it’s dark, and they lie together in Philoclea’s bed, her fingertips still worry at his left, until finally, just one night, he asks.
“Philoclea,” he says, his hands finding hers. On his lips is still the faint smudge of Cleophila’s rouge, and it makes her smile. “My love,” he adds, as is his way. “Why does your hand linger here, so?” And he points to the spot just below his ribs. “If it is of no significance I shall drop the subject, and I beg a thousand pardons for my asking, but… I did have to ask.”
Philoclea looks dreamily into his eyes and sighs. “It is not nothing,” she confesses. “But please do not think strangely of me, or believe me to be foolish?”
He tilts his head close. “I could not ever,” he says, earnest.
Philoclea takes a breath.
“Do you remember when my father killed you?”
Musidorus’ eyes go wide, his sweet, silly face almost comical in its surprise. “I… do not like to, but yes. For me, the experience does go unforgotten.”
Philoclea nods. “You were wounded. Gravely,” she says. “But now...there is nothing.” Her hands slip from his, and she touches them to his side. “I saw the wound, it was right here . Right here, and it was real. I know it, saw it, I felt how it--” she hesitates, the words sticking in her throat. “--how it killed you.”
Musidorus nods, his expression serious. That is strange to Philoclea, when he is normally so jovial and talkative, words growing complex the more carried away he gets. His silence leaves her a little lost, and it takes a moment for her to gather her thoughts, her courage to say what she needs to, ask what she needs to.
“This is...real, isn't it? You? You are real, aren't you?”
In an instant, he grabs for her hand again, and hurriedly presses it to his chest. Beneath skin, muscle, bone, she feels it sure as ever. The beat of his heart that she knows so well, that she’s known so long and could never mistake.
“This is real,” he says. “And I am real. As you are.”
“This is real,” she echoes. “But your death? The place beneath your ribs where you met your end at my father’s hand?” Her voice rises, anguish colouring every climbing octave. “ That was real , Musidorus, as real as your heartbeat!”
She suddenly wonders why her sight has grown so blurred, why she can now hardly see him though he’s barely inches away.
“Oh,” says Musidorus, his arms suddenly around her. “My love, I did not know how this vexed you.” He rubs her back, squeezing her tight before pulling away to look seriously into her eyes. “How am I to assuage your fears? For you, I would do anything to prove my…” He pauses, his brows furrowing in concentration. “My solidity .”
Philoclea laughs wetly. “It is not a question of your solidity, Musidorus.”
He releases her from his tight embrace to look her in the eyes, lifting a hand to brush tears from her cheeks. “I will think of something, Philoclea. I will not stop until I find a way to convince you, even if it means I must fall upon a sword once more.”
“I pray, do not let it come to that!” Philoclea says, the words coming out a rush. “I would rather have you in a wonderful dream a thousand times over than bear losing you again in such a fashion.”
Musidorus beams. “Then it will not. But I will think of something. For now, can our proximity be enough to keep thy fears at bay?”
Philoclea allows her head to fall upon the pillow, and then she guides his head down next to hers.
“For now, yes. And I hope, for always.” She sighs, pressing herself to his chest as close as she can, so his heartbeat drowns out everything else, so it’s all she can hear and all she can feel. To that thunderously loud drumming, she falls sound asleep.
The next day, Musidorus is absent by the time Philoclea awakens. This is not terribly unusual - shepherds tend to wake earlier than princesses need to, and he always leaves her a note. Today is no exception. It is, in typical fashion, enormously long, full of tender metaphor and multiple declarations of undying love. She reads it end to end and takes a moment to hold the scroll of parchment fondly to her heart.
(In the postscript, he explains he has errands to run on the outskirts of the city, and he will return by nightfall.)
It is not torturous to be away from Musidorus - certainly not as it was on the fateful hunting trip the royal family had been on not two months ago, when she’d swallowed her feelings and rejected his proposal and then laid awake and missed him every night, weeping into her pillow instead of sleeping.
(And most definitely not as torturous as that night-and-day where he had been gone from her, and existence, entirely.)
A single day without him is no awful cross to bear. She simply misses him a little, sometimes turns to her right where she expects him to be only to find no-one there. And though her heartbeat quickens with worry, she holds onto the words he’d left her that morning, and they are enough to carry her through the day.
Musidorus returns, as promised, just as the sun is setting. She rushes to him as he crosses through Arcadia’s gates and rises on tiptoe as he bends to kiss her lips, but when she throws her arms around his middle he yelps and she immediately jumps back. His hand hovers at his left side as though protectively and Philoclea is immediately terrified, her pale hands grabbing at his shirt, dreading what she’ll find beneath the fabric.
There are bandages around his middle. Philoclea’s gaze slides up to his face, which has taken on a chalky-white pallor. He looks more than a little caught-out, his eyes very wide.
“Musidorus, art thou injured?” Philoclea asks, her voice shaking. “I would know of it, and pray you do not keep its severity a secret, if indeed it is severe!”
Musidorus shushes her and makes a point to embrace her tightly, keeping his wincing to a minimum for her sake.
“In truth, I feel a tenderness in the spot you uncovered, but rest assured that I suffer no injury so severe that it should crease thy brow with worry. Tis simply a mild abrasion to the skin, a scraping, if you will, and the physician across town thought best to keep protected from the dirt and rain until it heals.”
Philoclea’s troubled expression softens, though she remains just a little unconvinced, much as she tries not to be. But Musidorus simply throws an arm around her shoulders and propels her up toward her chambers, already regaling her with tales of his day away from her, and making sure to emphasise what a lonely aeon it had seemed without her.
The next day, Cleophila takes the place of Musidorus at Philoclea’s side. Philoclea delights in any day with her sweetheart, but especially does she thrill to clothe and beautify her lady love. They spend an extra hour that morning, to comb and style the the long blonde wig that transforms shepherd to Amazon, and Philoclea, though not as experienced with makeup as Pamela or Mopsa, nevertheless applies colour to the lips and cheeks of her love, and watches coyly as Cleophila dresses herself in peach-coloured silk, concealing the mysterious (yet not severe) injury Philoclea’s beloved had sustained.
“Will you dance with me today?” asks Philoclea, as Cleophila twirls to show off her clothing. Cleophila nods eagerly, reaching down for Philoclea’s hands. She is much taller, in her Amazon’s shoes, and it always makes Philoclea feel so tiny by comparison. Tiny, but not insignificant, of course. Cleophila has never made Philoclea feel anything less than the centre of the universe.
“Of course I will, my love,” says Cleophila. “We have all day together. I shall not leave your side once, unless you wish me to.”
“I most certainly do not wish that,” Philoclea says, slipping her arms around Cleophila’s waist, forgetting why she shouldn't ‘til she sees a momentary twist of pain to her darling Amazon’s expression.
“Oh, Cleophila, I’m so--” she says, immediately drawing back.
“No, no,” says Cleophila, hurriedly pressing herself closer. “It is no great pain. Come! Let us away to the ballroom, perhaps we might find Mopsa, and your sister. Make our dance a party. I witnessed some very interesting performers at the docks yesterday, and I think I may be able to recreate what I saw.”
Philoclea is not a bad dancer, but no-one has ever come to her gushing about her grace or elegance. As is the case with her face, her movements are indeed unextraordinary. Yet when she dances with Cleophila, she feels as though she is lighter than air, that her feet barely touch the ground, so swept up in her lovely dance partner. In Cleophila’s shoes, her love is far more elegant than in shepherd’s garb, and so brave as to lift and twirl, dip and carry Philoclea across polished marble floor with no clumsy fear of dropping her.
“My love,” Philoclea says, catching her breath as Cleophila delicately sets her down. “Thou art a goddess on the dancefloor.”
Cleophila beams, primly tossing golden curls over her shoulder and preening at the compliment.
“You flatter me, Philoclea. The credit must go to you, for I only ever feel graceful in your presence. You are the sun that shines upon me that in turn makes me what I am.”
Philoclea ducks her head, blushing so fiercely that her whole body feels warm. Words are lost to her, so she decides to kiss her feelings out, reaching up to pull her most tall, most elegant love down to her level. She is met with eager response, her Amazon kissing back with the same fervor and emotion.
As night begins to fall, thoroughly danced out, the two ladies return to Philoclea’s chambers to prepare for bed.
The air is cooling and yet the sounds of the people’s merriment outside still carry up on the breeze through her window. It is not yet terribly late, but Philoclea reaches up to remove Cleophila’s wig, and suddenly her beloved is Musidorus again. He sits at her dressing table and she runs her fingers fondly through the short brown curls that have been hidden all day, and giggles as he squirms beneath her touch, trying to get closer. She gently pushes his head back - stay, I do not want thy painted face to stain my dress! - and she holds him by the shoulder at arm’s length ‘til her fingers find the cloth she’d prepared to clean him. He cringes and scrunches up as her face as she wipes away coloured powder from his cheeks and red pigment from his mouth, and Philoclea laughs even as she scolds him for it.
Cleophila’s makeup gone, all that remains before the pair can retire is their clothing. Philoclea removes the band from her head and then her corsette, her dress slipping from her shoulders the moment the bodice falls away. She allows the fabric to slip as it pleases, giggling as she watches Musidorus watching her, his eyes wide, his cheeks red now not with powder but with anticipation, admiration. The carnation-pink garment cast off, she crawls forward across their bedcovers, reaching for him, pushing the dress from his shoulders. He lets her, his eyes still on hers, utterly lost in hers. She tugs the dress down and it falls away from him, and then she sees those bandages again and her breath stutters. He notices, of course, and suddenly scrambles to hide them.
“Perhaps we should change your dressings,” Philoclea says, hesitantly. “If I could see--”
“No,” Musidorus says, hurriedly, suddenly scrambling back and off their bed, suddenly looking lost and worried. His right hand presses to his left side, the action upsettingly familiar to Philoclea, who finds herself sinking back, tears starting to well up in her eyes. He’s clutching himself where he had as he died once, and though it’s absurd, panic rises up in her throat and she worries he might just die again, right here and now, in front of her. All over again. And she feels so utterly pathetic, bursting into tears as she is, but try as she might the tears keep falling and though he’s only across the room she feels like he’s a hundred thousand miles away.
He hurries back to her, but not before throwing a shirt over himself first, hiding all evidence of anything unusual, and then just like that, Philoclea is enfolded in his arms and close enough to hear the thrumming in his chest, fast like he’s just run thrice the globe.
“Oh, I am sorry,” Philoclea sobs, hugging him tight, terrified to let go. “I just- I just --”
“There is nothing for you to apologise for,” Musidorus says, squeezing back. “ I am sorry. I have been unnecessarily secretive, and have worried thee without cause. I had wanted to wait until it was healed, but…”
He slowly extricates himself from Philoclea’s tight embrace, kissing her hands as he unwinds her arms from his torso. He removes his shirt once more and touches his fingers to the bandages, then he loosens where they are tied and wastes no time unwinding them from where they are pressed against his body.
The ‘abrasion’ revealed, Philoclea finds her tears stopping simply because she is so stunned.
Inked into his skin is the simple image of a heart, pierced through with an arrow. The design is yet a little inflamed, but still unmistakeable.
“Musidorus,” she says, eventually. “What is this?”
“It is a tattoo,” he answers. “Do you remember, those four summers ago when those foreign sailors landed upon Arcadia’s shores?”
Philoclea thinks back. “Yes, I remember I thought them quite remarkable.”
“And you remember I was quite envious that they held your attention so.”
Philoclea fights back a giggle, despite the tears still in her eyes. She does remember the foreign sailors, and how thrilling their muscled bodies and long flowing hair had seemed, their tanned, tattooed skin so unusual compared to the young men she knew. And she also remembers the sour look that had been an almost permanent fixture on Musidorus’ face, so jealous he was of the way all the young women’s eyes - including the eyes of his dear Philoclea - had been on those sailors and those sailors only.
“Yes,” Philoclea says. “I do remember.”
“Well, you recall some of the sailors settled here? And one of them gained some renown for the art of modifying the body.”
Philoclea nods. “It was he you went to?”
“It was she , but yes.” He pauses. “I did not wish to fall upon another sword, but I wanted to find a way to… A way to create a mark. Here. To remember.” His eyes lift to meet hers. “And...for you.”
Philoclea searches his gaze and then promptly bursts into tears once more.
“ Oh ,” Musidorus says, helplessly. “Oh, Philoclea, I’m sorry. I did it without truly thinking, such a spur-of-the-moment decision it was! I knew I should have spoken with you even as I was having it done and yet by then it was too late!” His hands touch her forearms, rubbing her skin up to her shoulders, desperate and imploring. Philoclea sobs again, trying to catch her breath and form words.
“No, no, it-- it isn’t-- isn't--” She wipes furiously at her eyes, takes a deep breath and tries again. “It isn't that , I-- I do not dislike it. Musidorus ,” she says. “You did that for me?”
He nods, still looking worried.
Philoclea breathes hard, and grabs his hands. “Did that not hurt terribly?”
His eyebrows pinch together, like he’s considering just how to answer. No is what he clearly wants to say, a pretty lie to spare her feelings, but they sudden steely look on her face gives him pause.
“It was certainly not a pleasant sensation,” he says. “But! It was not nearly so painful as being murdered.” He grins widely, and then realises how off-colour his statement might seem. He makes sure to kiss Philoclea’s hands again as he watches her process everything. “If it is worth anything at all, know that I would go through any pain for your sake. Any pain at all.”
Philoclea sighs, and looks down at the design again. As she does, he explains to her. What it is, or rather what it means . A heart, pierced by an arrow from Cupid’s bow. His heart, once stopped by a blade, now forever run through by his love for her.
“I do not want you to suffer any pain for my sake,” Philoclea says eventually. “I shall… have to think about this.”
“Of course,” says Musidorus, sitting back. “For as long as you need.” He reaches for his shirt, hastening to pull it over his head, concealing the tattoo. Philoclea smiles faintly, leaning forward to kiss him sweetly before pushing him back to lay down.
The next morning, it is Philoclea that awakens first. The sun is just starting to rise - her sleep had been uneasy, and even the very earliest rays of sunlight pouring into their room is enough to wake her. She blinks once, twice, before the sleep clears and she comes to. For a moment, everything is blissfully still, her mind empty of worry ‘til she remembers last night’s discovery, about the tattoo Musidorus had chosen for himself.
Philoclea bites her lip, her fingers finding the hem of his shirt. She steels herself, and pulls the fabric back, exposing his skin.
In the light of the sun, there it is again. The simple outline of a heart, struck through with an arrow. Pierced by Cupid’s bow . She looks at it hard, and then notices something about the arrow.
Now, she wouldn’t call herself a warrior princess, by any means. But she had always liked them, in theory, and had even had brief aspirations to become one.
It had been the summer of her twelfth year, and of Musidorus’ thirteenth. Arcadia had held one of its first tournaments for her sister’s hand, and she and Musidorus had snuck away together to spy on the suitors - though both for different reasons - and they had seen one of the young men dash out suddenly, leaving behind his bow and quiver of arrows. In their tweenage rebelliousness, the young shepherd and his princess friend had gleefully stolen the weapons and run out to the unoccupied palace grounds to test them out.
They’d set each other a challenge, hastily drawn out a bullseye target on a tree and divided up the blue-feathered arrows, three for each of them.
Philoclea had tied a tiny sprig of violets to the end of each of her arrows with a loose thread from her dress, so that they might be able to tell whose arrow was who’s. Philoclea remembers that Musidorus had applauded her cleverness, but she doesn’t remember who scored closest to the centre of the target.
She does however, remember what had been the fate of one of her arrows, which she’d accidentally loosed right into Musidorus’ leg. Distracted by a palace guard coming looking for her, she’d whirled around and accidentally shot him. She remembers he’d shrieked and dropped to the ground faster than anything, and she remembers she’d shrieked too, throwing the bow away and hurrying to his side despite the guard’s shouts.
She doesn’t remember what she said to Musidorus as she’d fallen to her knees beside him, but she remembers that she’d cried, and she remembers that he hadn’t. The palace guard had hurried over and tried to usher her away, but the horrified Philoclea had clung steadfast to her childhood friend, sobbing and demanding he be brought into the palace to be taken care of.
The physicians had kept her out of the room while they’d removed the arrow, but she’d forced herself in through the door just as soon as they’d cleared away, assuring her the wound was not terrible, and she’d managed not to damage her friend in any way that would be permanent.
She remembers he’d glared at her when she’d come through the door, and punched her shoulder when she’d reached his bedside. She’d scowled, and punched him right back. Then they’d laughed. They’d laughed, and his tight fist had uncurled, the now-crumpled violets that he’d rescued from the arrow falling across his lap.
Violets , there are tiny violets around the feathered end of the arrow on Musidorus’ tattoo.
“I’d forgotten all about that,” Philoclea whispers.
“Forgotten about what?” Musidorus replies, and it’s then that she realises he’s awake too. She squeaks, and bats his face with a pillow. He makes an indignant noise, and snatches the pillow away, hitting her in the shoulder with it. Philoclea just rolls her eyes and then nods to his tattoo.
“That day, when we shot arrows into the tree, and I tied violets to the ends of mine.”
“The day you shot an arrow into my leg, you mean?” Musidorus teases, as he starts to sit up. Philoclea’s face flushes scarlet, but she presses on, ignoring his ‘correction’.
“That was the first time I ever had cause to truly worry for thee,” she says. “Do you remember? I fretted every day by you for a week.”
“I remember,” Musidorus says, breezily. “And it was only because of thee that I recovered so completely.” He pauses. “It has always been that way, Philoclea. You may have shot me, but I don’t hold thee in contempt. Your smile brightened my day enough to push through, to stand again. And when the life had been taken from me, if was the beat of your heart that awoke me.” He takes her hands, raises them to his lips. “My heart, pierced by love for you, is happy to be yours, wholly, completely, as long as you’ll take care of it.”
Philoclea smiles through blurry, tearful eyes. “I will .”
Musidrous kisses her, and for a moment, everything is wonderful once more. When their lips part, Philoclea sighs, so happy.
“Come, my love. We should rise, the sun has done so already.” She slips from their sheets, pulling him up by the hand. “What would you like to do today?”
Musidorus looks thoughtful. “Perhaps you could show me some more fo the finer points of embroidery. We have not tried to refine my needlepoint since Arcadia’s great trip.”
Philoclea smiles. “That’s a wonderful idea.”
They collect canvas for him, and violet and cream silk for her. Needles, maybe a thimble for Musidorus. Philoclea will make herself a dress. On it, she thinks, she’ll embroider a hundred little hearts, all pierced with Cupid’s arrow.