Nobles, courtiers, and peasants gathered in the courtyard, pennants snapping in the wind as the trumpeters announced the arrival of King Endrik.
“Today begins the final trial for the hand of my fair daughter, Princess Leonore,” the king began. Only a slight stoop to his shoulders and a smattering of gray in his beard revealed the age of this once-warrior king. His voice was still powerful and strong as it floated to the ears of all onlookers.
“The valiant knight that succeeds in this trial will marry the princess and win half of my kingdom. Sir Wolfram and Sir Gaven, both of you have proven your might and valor where so many others have failed. You have found your way through the labyrinth and returned with a golden apple and have fought the mighty dragon and returned with a single, silver scale.”
The crowd cheered the two men standing near the king on the platform. The first, Sir Wolfram, towered over the other and stood even taller than the king. His silver armor shone in the early morning sun, blinding any onlooker who stared at him for too long. Still, he drew the eye, his size and form causing maidens, matrons, and even a few of the men to feel faint. Here was a man who seemed destined for legend.
Almost lost in his shadow stood the second of the two challengers. Sir Gaven was slight and wore only light, leather armor. Where Sir Wolfram wore a giant battle axe on his back, Sir Gaven had nothing but a dagger. His features were pleasing enough, but lacked Wolfram’s rugged good looks. If he hadn’t been a challenger for the hand of the princess, one might have thought him a passing minstrel rather than a knight. No one would discount his chances now that he had succeeded at the first two trials, but the betting in the crowd was distinctly in Sir Wolfram’s favor.
“Our court wizard has prepared this final trial. He has erected a mountain, made of glass, and placed our beloved daughter and princess in a tower at its pinnacle. The first of these knights to reach the princess shall prove himself worthy of her and shall gain half of our kingdom as well. We wish you good fortune and god speed, sir knights!”
Cheers rose again as the two men mounted their steeds, a huge war horse for Sir Wolfram and a light charger for Sir Gaven. The crowd parted to allow the men to proceed out of the castle and depart for the glass mountain, towering over the forest surrounding its base. A few children ran after the horses, cheering and shouting, but fell away soon, returning to chores and lessons. They would wait with the rest of the kingdom for the return of the conquering hero.
Once on the open road, Sir Wolfram’s larger horse left the smaller, lighter steed far behind, cantering through the forest toward the goal. Sir Gaven made no attempt to spur his own horse out of a light trot, allowing the larger knight to charge ahead.
Sir Wolfram arrived first, his giant steed’s heavy hooves clomping over the path leading to the base of the mountain. He spurred the horse to a charge and they made it ten, fifteen, even twenty yards up the steep mountainside, before the horse lost traction and they slid back down. Sir Wolfram merely circled around and tried again, this time gaining thirty yards up the slick slope before sliding back down. Undaunted, he dismounted and slipped the reins over his horse’s neck, leaving him to graze while he approached the mountain on foot. On his own, he was able to climb a little further than he had while mounted, but the end result was the same, he slid back down the glassy surface within a few dozen yards. The slope was too steep and too slick for him to get purchase. He merely shrugged and unstrapped his battle axe from his back, drew on heavy gauntlets, and began the laborious task of carving hand and footholds in the slope.
When Sir Gaven arrived, he looked on, making no attempt to climb the mountain. As the sun rose, he turned away from the slope and found a shady spot among the trees. He dismounted, released his light charger, and sat down on a stump. Making himself comfortable, he sat and watched Sir Wolfram swing his axe into the mountainside again and again. After a while, he went to his horse, removed his tack and saddlebags, and pulled out a compact, leather bound book. He returned to his stump and, leaning his back against a handy tree, he opened the book and began to read.
The day wore on and Sir Wolfram actually seemed to be making progress. After an hour of work he had the beginnings of a path carved into the slope and had stopped to remove his heavy, hot armor. Giant muscles bulged under his skin as he drove the massive axe into the glassy surface of the mountain.
Sir Gaven turned a page in his book.
Around noon, Sir Gaven finally stirred. He went to his saddlebags and pulled out some food and a flask of water. He walked toward the base of the mountain and called up to Sir Wolfram.
“Are you hungry?”
“Pardon?” Wolfram called down.
“I asked if you were hungry? That looks like hard work and I thought maybe you might want to take a break. I have enough for two here,” Gaven held up the food invitingly.
“I could eat,” Wolfram shrugged and half slid down the mountain. He had made impressive progress, but had a long way to go.
The two knights returned to the shady spot Gaven had been enjoying all morning and ate in silence awhile.
“Are you not even going to try?” Wolfram asked when the food was gone.
“Oh, I’m working on it,” Gaven said, tidying up from the meal.
“You know that most of the court thinks you cheated on the first two trials,” Wolfram leaned back against a tree and picked his teeth with a pine needle. His damp skin glistened in the dappled sunlight under the trees.
“I try not to worry about what others think of me.”
“Fair enough, and I’m not saying I think so, just that many others do. I will warn you that I won’t allow you to sit all day and then follow up my trail. That would be cheating and unfair to me besides.” Wolfram tossed aside the pine needle and rose to his full height, towering over the smaller, seated knight.
“I have no doubt, Sir Knight,” Gaven bowed from the waist, without rising. “I wish you luck and give you my word as a knight that I shall not use any of your hard work in my own ascent of the slope.”
Wolfram paused, staring at the lounging knight, then shook his head and returned to the punishing work in the hot, afternoon sun.
Gaven might have dozed, there in the comfortable shade, as Wolfram’s steady strokes echoed throughout the valley. He certainly never moved until after sundown.
As the first rays of sun glinted off of the glassy surface of the mountain, Wolfram topped the summit, clambering with a grunt over the edge of the last step onto the mountain’s peak. Sitting at the base of the tower, was the princess, her black hair flowing down her back and her creamy skin glowing in the early morning sun. She was indeed fair and beautiful, everything a man might desire in a bride even if she were not a princess. Lounging next to her, a smile dancing in his eyes, was Sir Gaven.
Wolfram bowed to the princess. “Well met, your Highness. Having seen your beauty, I am devastated to see that I am too late to claim you as my own.”
The princess smiled at Sir Wolfram, “You are gallant, Sir Knight.”
Wolfram turned and glowered down at the smaller knight. “How? Just tell me how and I won’t kill you and claim the princess even now.”
“You won’t do that whether or not I tell you, you’re too honorable for that,” Gaven said, the smile never leaving his eyes.
“You have the right of it, but still, I would like to know. You have won the last prize, can you not be generous in victory?”
Gaven thought about it and then said, “Magic.”
“You have a mage helping you?” Wolfram lifted his head and turned to look askance at the other knight.
“No, I am a mage.” Gaven shrugged.
“You can’t be a mage and a knight!” Wolfram looked shocked.
Wolfram stopped and thought about it, his head tilted. Finally, he laughed. “I don’t know, actually. There is no rule against it, it’s just not done.”
“It is now,” Gaven smiled.
“So now what, Sir Mage? You settle down to rule this small kingdom with your princess and wait to take over for King Endrik one day? No more adventures for you?”
“It is what you would have done if you had arrived first, isn’t it?” Gaven asked, leaning forward.
“What else?” Wolfram shrugged. “I suppose I’ll find another kingdom with another, lesser princess on offer.” Here he bowed to the princess who waved him off. “After all, it’s what knights do.”
“What if I have a better idea?”
Wolfram slowly lowered himself to a sitting position and the three began to talk.
The two knights rode into the courtyard later that morning, the princess mounted between them on a horse of her own. The gathered court was silent as the knights dismounted and helped the princess from her mount. The three stood in front of the king in silence as the gathered crowd shuffled their feet and murmured.
The king looked from one man to the next and then to his daughter, looking for a sign to tell him which man had succeeded in this final trial.
Finally, Sir Gaven spoke, “Your Majesty, may we have private audience with you?”
The king frowned and the crowd protested, but he nodded and led the way into a private antechamber.
Once they were alone, he spoke first, “What is the meaning of this?”
“Your Majesty, we have a proposal,” Wolfram began.
“What kind of proposal? Obviously one of you won through to the princess and rescued her, earning you half of my kingdom and her hand in marriage. What else could you possibly want?”
Gaven spoke up. “Sire, your daughter is lovely and intelligent and would make any man happy, but have you asked her what her wishes are in this?”
The king looked at his daughter who stared stonily back.
“She has mentioned something about my horse master, but that’s ridiculous, he’s not even a knight!” King Endrik spluttered.
“Father, I did more than mention Geoffrey to you. I told you that I loved him and wanted to marry him. If he must be a knight, then you can knight him. He has brought wealth and prosperity to our kingdom with his breeding program and could do even more.” The princess spoke passionately but stopped with a sigh when she saw the color rising in her father’s face.
Sir Gaven stepped in before the king could protest. “The princess is wise, your Majesty. Knight this horse master for service to the crown, send him on the same quests and let him prove his worth. I think you will find he is willing and, if he succeeds, no one can doubt his right to wed your daughter and rule half of your kingdom. If he is the man your daughter loves, isn’t it worth taking the chance?”
“What does love have to do with this?” the king asked, hotly. “Love is for peasants. What does a horse master know about ruling a kingdom?”
“What does a knight know?” Wolfram asked. “You kings insist on selecting husbands for your daughters based on their ability to fetch an apple or kill a dragon or climb a hill. What kind of future king are you looking for, someone who will care for your daughter and kingdom, or someone who cares only for adventure?”
The king frowned, but more in thought than anger. “You might have a point, but still, this man was born a peasant, what does he know about being a monarch?”
“Less than I do,” the princess said, standing tall and looking her father in the eye. “I know as much about running a kingdom as you do, Father. I know about diplomacy and economics and I know how to judge disputes and how to manage nobles. I have been watching and learning my entire life. My husband need only care for our herds and our family, I will care for our kingdom.”
The king stared at his daughter as if seeing her for the first time. He started to speak then stopped, started and stopped, and finally, he nodded.
“I think this may be the most foolish thing I’ve ever done, but I will let your young man make the attempt. I will announce to the crowd that both of these knights have failed the final task.” Here he flashed a sharp glance at the two men who stood on either side of the princess. “I will open the contest up again and your suitor may join the next wave of knights. However, you must promise to accept the winner of this next contest, even if it is not the man of your choice.”
The princess bowed her head in acquiescence and followed her father out to the dais to make the announcement.
Alone in the chamber, Sir Wolfram shook the tension out of his shoulders and Sir Gaven sat down in a nearby chair.
“I didn’t think you would convince him so easily,” Wolfram said. “I’m still not sure you did not use your magic on him.”
“No magic. He’s a wise man and a kind father and just needed to see a way to please his daughter while keeping the traditions. The plan is a good one and I have no doubt the princess’ young man will win through. At least they have a chance now.”
The king returned to the chamber alone and Gaven rose from his chair to bow to the king.
“What now for you two? You are both mighty and capable knights. I am sure we could find a place for either or both of you in our army.”
“We thank you for your kind offer, sire, but no. We are going into partnership together,” Wolfram said.
“Yes, we have decided that we can accomplish more together than alone,” Gaven said.
“No more princesses, then?” The king asked.
“No, sire,” Gaven said, “I never wanted a princess, I was looking for something else, entirely.” He gazed up at the taller knight who gazed back.
The king coughed and Gaven looked over at him and smiled.
“Let me introduce myself properly.”
Gaven waved his hand and air shimmered around his form. When it settled, he was gone. Standing in his place, her curves filling out the leather armor in new and interesting ways, was a blonde woman with Sir Gaven’s impish smile and sparkling eyes.
“My name is Lady Gwendolyn, youngest daughter of a small kingdom far from here,” she said, curtsying to the astonished king. “I apologize for the deception, but I find it more prudent to travel in the guise of a man than in my true form. It is difficult to be taken seriously as a knight or a mage when one is also a woman.”
The king shook his head and looked back and forth between the two knights. “Then you two…”
“Time will tell, your Majesty, for I have been on a quest of my own, looking for a knight who would accept me as an equal.” Gwendolyn smiled, her gaze lingering on Wolfram’s broad shoulders and straight form.
“It will certainly be an adventure,” Wolfram said, his mouth twitching as he fought back a smile.
“Let me wish you good luck and adventure, then,” the king said.
The lady Gwendolyn made an arcane gesture and air shimmered around her form. When it settled, Sir Gaven had reappeared. He and Sir Wolfram took their leave of the king and headed for their mounts, waiting patiently in the stable yard.
The two knights rode from the castle in the direction of the setting sun, ready to take on their next adventure, together.