Once upon a time in a land far, far away, there was a merchant’s son named Eryn who was unhappy because he could not find his true love.
First he tried to find his true love in the young ladies of his village, but his love was not there. He tried then in the older ladies of the village, but his love was not there either. When his father’s moneylender caught him unawares in the counting office and pressed him close and kissed him, making his heart flutter and his sex swell, Eryn began to understand why he had no luck in finding his love with ladies of any age. Even so, the moneylender still was not his love, and in the country in which Eryn lived, a man could not love a man publicly and keep his social standing. Frequently men who admitted to loving other men lost not just their money and their position but their lives.
Eryn had always lived a privileged life, and he was not interested in losing his comfortable situation as his father’s heir, not even for true love. And so for a time, Eryn tried to take his pleasures in the darkness, and he made his family’s business his love instead. But affairs in the dark wore on Eryn’s heart, and no matter how his coffers filled or his stature rose, his soul remained empty. He also began to have erotic, vivid dreams, and sometimes he thought he even saw his true love inside of them.
The man in Eryn’s dreams was slim and slight and pale in a manner which even in Eryn’s northern country was unusual but which Eryn found to be very beautiful. The man in his dreams had hair like night and skin so fair it glowed like new fallen snow. And there was a great deal of skin to glow, for in Eryn’s dreams, his lover was always naked. He rode down a flower-strewn path in a golden carriage laden with silks and cushions, sitting naked in the back window as he laughed and beckoned Eryn closer. In his dreams, Eryn always rode a white horse as he chased after his love. Whenever he caught the carriage, it turned into a great glass bed, and Eryn made love to the beautiful man as white flowers as fair as his lover’s skin rained down around him. But as they kissed, the glass bed would turn to ice, and the man would slide through it and become trapped inside. Eryn always ended the dream with his face pressed to the glass, calling in vain as the beauty below him fell into a deep, deep sleep.
The dream became so vivid and engaging that even though the end was tragic, soon Eryn found himself doing whatever he could to lure himself to sleep so that he could see his lover again. But the ache to know his true love in the flesh persisted inside Eryn still, growing with every passing day. And so one spring, as the flowers bloomed and the merchant ships sailed once more out to sea, Eryn arranged for the sale of his business, kept the receipts from the profits with his mother, and prepared to leave the home he had always known.
The road, Eryn knew, could be dangerous for a man traveling alone, and he knew that to be safe he should hire men to travel with him and protect him, or he should take less money and wear more common clothing so that he would not be a target for bandits. But Eryn could not bear to think of hunting down his true love with anyone along to discover his secret, so he did not hire a guard. And though Eryn was a good, kind man, he was also proud and vain, and he disliked the idea of leaving his fine clothes behind. After all, how would he woo his love looking like a pauper? As a compromise, he traveled alone but in clothes which, while flattering, were not quite so fine as he would like, and he sewed his stash of coins inside.
With hope in his heart, he set off down the road, seeking both his true love and a land where he could love him freely. Eryn walked for many, many miles and many, many weeks, passing first through one country and then the next, until at last he came to a fork in the road at the foot of a mountain, and there he sat on a stump and measured carefully his next decision.
Eryn’s country was north and east of the mountains, and most of its commerce was carried out by sea because the mountains were difficult to pass. A single traveler, however, or a small caravan could edge between the steppe and the foothills to the warm and wealthy countries of the south, but bandits roamed the plains, and this road could be dangerous. Heading north would lead Eryn to a great forest, but many magical creatures were rumored to live there, some of them malevolent. Eryn wished there were a road cutting through the mountain itself, for the land he most wished to see was to the west, where legend said a godlike prince ruled from a castle in the clouds, benevolently shepherding his people with a sense of equality and fair-minded justice.
Eryn thought this mythical land would be the one most likely to allow him to fall in love with a man and live in peace. He had spent the many nights of travel imagining what his yet-unmet husband might be like. A merchant like him, perhaps? A courtier to the prince? A lawyer or a scholar would do nicely too. Would he be better off, Eryn wondered, with a younger man, who would be pretty like the man inside his dreams, or would it be better to fall for an older man who would go gray first? There were so many different ways for his quest to end well, and Eryn often made himself dizzy with possibility.
But for now his quest had ended, for he could not decide which direction would be the quickest, safest route to his true love. The thought of choosing the wrong path paralyzed him, so he sat there for some time pondering, which was why he did not see the old woman until she practically stood before him.
“What is a fine young man like you doing so far from home?” she asked Eryn, waving at him with the end of her walking stick. “One such as you should be with his wife, not wasting away his life sitting on a stump, waiting for a bandit to come along and steal the coins he thinks no one will know he’s sewn into his tunic.”
The old woman, Eryn now knew, must be a witch, for only such could discern so much simply by looking at him. He thought carefully before giving his reply.
“I do not have a wife,” he said at last, “and I am sitting here because I am seeking my true love, but I have come to a crossroads and do not know now which way to go.”
He had thought himself clever to phrase his reply just so, not revealing that he knew his true love to be a man without denying his yet-unmet true love as well, but Eryn quickly learned that however clever he might be, he was not half as much so as the witch.
“What way you take depends upon what lies within your heart.” The old woman poked Eryn in his leg with her cane. “Come. I can see you have seen your true love’s shadow, but you keep it too close to your heart. I know the secrets of these lands, and if you confide your longings to me, I will help you realize them.”
Now Eryn was very afraid. The country where these crossroads lay had a cruel custom that men who confessed to enjoying sex with other men could be named deviant, and as such they could be stripped of title and wealth and sold for profit at the slave market. Eryn had never met a witch before, and he feared this one might be dangerous. And so once more he tried to find his way out with cleverness.
“My longings, old woman, I will keep to myself, but if you will tell me which road will lead me quickest to a soft bed and hot supper, I will give you one of the gold coins you have so cleverly surmised I carry.”
The witch tapped his leg again, sharply now. “Only once more I will ask you: what secret do you hide about your true love? Share it with me, and you shall be rewarded.”
But Eryn’s fear was too deep, and he could not confess what he knew, and so he rose and made as if to leave. “I have no secret, old woman. Move aside, please, and I will be on my way.”
This time she did not poke him with her cane but aimed it instead directly at his heart.
“Foolish man!” she cried, still waving her cane. “Foolish, selfish man! You say you seek your true love, a love so bright and strong it carries you halfway across the world, and yet you are so ashamed of this love that you will not claim it, not even as a shadow to a stranger. You do not deserve the love which has called you. He who waits cannot be saved by such a coward.”
Eryn’s heart ached to hear the witch’s words. Her damning him as a coward was difficult enough, but to hear that she had known his true love was a man all along—and to hear that his love had need of saving—caught at the edges of Eryn’s heart. Too late, he realized the witch had been meant to be his helper, not his enemy, and he fell to his knees before her in his despair.
“Then strike me down, good sister,” he said to her, “for after such failures I surely do not deserve to live.”
But the witch only regarded him with impatience. “And what good will that do? You are more foolish than I thought. No, I will not destroy you, for then he will have no hope at all. But for your lack of trust, instead of helping you, I shall impede you. The way to your true love was practically upon you, but now it is a long, lonely road full of danger and confusion. You denied your love to me three times because you loved your safety more than his discovery; now you must declare your love of men three times before you will find him, and each declaration will be more dangerous than the one before. The cleverness with which you attempted to distract me will be no help to you anymore—it might help others, but your wit and charm will never directly aid you again. You must shed your pride and your fear before you find your true love. And you will not so much as catch a glimpse of him until you lose every last one of the gold coins with which you tried to bribe me away.”
“But how am I to find him,” Eryn asked, filled with despair, “if I have no money, no cleverness, and no safety?”
“You will find him as you have always done,” she replied. “With your heart. All else is distraction.”
Eryn’s fear was a leaden weight upon his chest. He could not see even a shard of the way to his true love before him now, and he did not know how he would ever find the strength to take another step. He mustered up enough courage, however, to ask the witch one question more.
“Will you give me no counsel at all, good sister?” he pleaded. “Will you not give me even one ray of light by which to see my love?”
At last it seemed he had said the right thing, for the witch smiled at him, looking suddenly much, much younger than Eryn had assumed her to be. “You seek the Sweet Son,” she said.
And as her words echoed in Eryn’s ears, she faded away before Eryn’s eyes, leaving him standing in the middle of the path, alone.