It grew, the stain, until she couldn’t hide it anymore, the villagers whispering behind their hands at the sight. She knew she’d gone too far, this time. She’d done more than wander the woods barefoot and wild-eyed, her hair tangled and speckled with leaves. How could she, they whispered. How could she think to…to associate with that kind, to bring with her the stink of their carefully tended fears? And she sat at her window and knit a little cap and dreamed of a white horse, shod in silver and gold. And the stain grew.
Her neighbors were restive, and she woke one morning to find her flock of spindly goats slaughtered, throats cut and blood drained and left in a large bowl on her doorstep. She looked into the bowl and saw her own death and she sat in the window and knit a little pair of socks while dreaming of a pale rider clad in silver and gold. And the stain grew.
The next morning she took off her shoes and she let down her hair and she ran into the woods, following a path of pale stones that glittered like coins where sunlight broke through leaves. It led to a well, and next to the well, a horse, shod in gold. And on the horse a rider, her beauty like a blow, and for once, the girl forgot her stain. And the rider gazed at her with something of pity and something far colder and her words were snow falling from her bloody mouth. So you are she who thinks she’s caught my cavalier. Well you don’t have him yet, my sweet– you’ve still a story’s task. Tomorrow at dawn my hunt rides, my cavalier among them. The game is this: as he rides by your post, take hold his heel and pull him down. If you can hold him, grasp his form, I’ll surrender him with grace. Fail or falter, sweetling, and I might make of you a pet. And the golden rider kicked her golden horse and the woods rang with her departure.
The girl fell to her knees on the spot, curling up around the stain. She slept through the night and woke to a horn, to a fleet, white shape and a baying pack of hounds, to riders thundering by. She saw the flutter of a gold and silver cloak and caught the corner in a fist, pulling a pale rider off a white horse, shod in silver and gold. She held him fast when the golden woman with drowned eyes turned him into a city in which she was a stranger. She clutched him to her heart when he became a labyrinth, and she the minotaur. And so on, from wolf to wind to things the recorded versions of the tale cannot agree upon. All iterations do end with the pale rider mortal, his frame his own and cradled in his darling’s arms, his eyes turned upon the other, the implied tormentor and jailer.