It was a sunny day when the knight set out from his hometown. His friends and family gathered around, wished him luck, and watched him ride atop his steed until he was a faint speck on the horizon.
“Come back safe!” one called, giving him an encouraging smile.
“I shall prepare the chapel for your wedding ceremony before you return,” the priest assured him with a hand on his shoulder.
“Look at my big, strong man,” his mother chattered to her friends, “riding off to meet his destiny. I couldn’t be more proud.”
Their sentiments echoed in the knight’s head as he rode along, heaving a long sigh. This was what he was made for—born, raised, taught and guided for. Trapped in a tower since they’d both been children, the princess of the realm needed saving, and fate chose him as her rescuer. It was a solemn duty, and one his family had sworn him to as soon as the opportunity arose. They spoke of destiny, of fate, of fairy tales and happy endings. For as long as he knew, this was what his role was in life.
His contemplation was interrupted by a long, imposing shadow over the path ahead. His horse reared back in fright and he calmed it, looking up only when the shadow’s owner spoke.
“If thou wishest to take this path, thou must answer the riddle I hath,” it declared in a booming voice. On a close glance, he identified it as a sphinx, its golden coat shining in the afternoon sun.
Before he could open his mouth to speak, the sphinx leaned down to inspect him, then shook its head.
“Nay, nay, I ask in vain. Thou art a warrior of brawn, not brain. Thou must simply be cloven in twain.”
Without another word, the sphinx leapt at him, claws and teeth bared to strike. He blocked a glancing blow with his shield as his horse reeled away, galloping a short distance from the beast. As it approached, he dismounted and drew his sword, taking a well-practiced—if clumsy—stance. The sphinx let out a growl and lashed out again, raking across his plackart without harming him. It recoiled in pain as a piercing scrape rang out from its slash and the knight saw his opening. With a grunt, he slammed his shield into the side of his foe’s head, knocking it out. He caught it as it fell, gently placing it on the ground to prevent further injury. After ensuring it was still breathing, he sheathed his sword, mounted his horse again, and rode on.
The sun was beginning to set as he reached the next obstacle in his path: A simple signpost at a fork in the road, each path leading deep into a copse of trees. He stepped down from his horse, carefully reading the writing on its face. On the left was an arrow pointing to the left fork, labelled “The way of the soldier.” Opposite it was an arrow pointing down the right path, labelled “The way of the scholar.” His heart leapt at the words, though he was unsure why. With a furtive glance around and a wide smile his face hadn’t known in years, he led his horse to the right.
Eventually he came to a clearing. In the center was another sign, and on the far end was a slab of stone with small, circular impressions in it. He stepped up to read and nearly tripped over a stone basin at its foot, full of round stones engraved with various animals. Recovering his balance, he took a moment to read the sign.
“The first is a hoot, the second a murder. Your final recruit is a natural herder.”
He rooted through the basin, spreading out the stones on the ground. In all, there were ten: horse, dog, lion—he shuddered briefly—bear, crow, turtle, sheep, fish, rabbit, and owl. He stood up and paced, armor clanking with each step. After a minute’s consideration, he chose three stones, walked to the wall, and set them in place: owl, crow, dog. The wall cracked and crumbled when he inserted the final stone, and a way opened for he and his horse to pass through. Overjoyed, he lifted himself onto his horse once more and continued.
The two stopped for rest when they reached the edge of the wood and resumed their quest in the morning. By noon the next day, they reached the citadel where the princess was said to be held. He left his horse several yards from the gate with an apple and a pat on the nose, then proceeded into the open gate. He did a double take as soon as his eyes met the scene inside.
A great, imposing chimera lay slain in the middle of the hall, its head on the flagstones several feet away. Next to it was a woman, robed in ragged regalia and leaning on the haft of a double-bladed war axe. At the clank of his armor, she whirled around, then shook her head at the sight of him.
“Well, well,” she said sarcastically. “Let me guess. A knight in shining armor, come to save the poor, helpless princess? Check another castle, everything’s under control here.”
“Thank the gods above,” he dropped his shoulders and removed his helmet, leaning against a pillar.
“What?” she was taken aback. “Aren’t you here to save me?”
“Technically,” he shrugged, “Not by choice, though. No offense,” he added.
“None taken…” she trailed off, then looked back at him. The anger was gone from her expression, replaced with curiosity. “Don’t tell me you were forced into this over some ‘destiny’ griffin dung too?”
He nodded, “Training since I was six, they told me it was my destiny to save the princess and live happily ever after. Something always felt wrong about it, but I was too young to question then, and it had been too long by the time I could.”
She gave an exasperated sigh and leaned against the pillar beside him, “Gods, someone gets it. You know, I wasn’t actually ever captured? My parents just locked me in a castle—by myself—when I was a kid. They kept changing out the guardians, thought I was getting too attached to them. Never liked that one, though,” she noted the corpse in the middle of the hall. “So what do you want to do?”
He considered a moment, “I want to learn. I don’t want to fight anything, I want to know what there is to know, maybe share that with people who don’t know it. I think I could be an alright teacher,” he laughed. “Can’t very well go back home, though. Not without ‘fulfilling my destiny.’”
“Neither can I,” she groaned, “the lunatics will just lock me up again.” She suddenly stood upright, “Tell you what. Let’s travel for a bit, see if we can find places to settle down. Think I’d like to get a little better with this axe, maybe do some more fighting—that was a rush. I think we’ll get along just fine.”
A smile broke out on his face and he nodded, following her to a life of his own choosing.