Note: This is a rewritten telling of a folk tale I posted on the site a couple of weeks ago. Read the original version here.
The knight rose before dawn on his eighteenth birthday. He knew what was coming when the other townspeople woke, and wanted to take as much time as he could while he had it. He gently shifted an ornate-looking tapestry to look at his bookshelf. He didn’t have many books, as he spent most of his time training, but he kept those he did have neat and orderly.
His gear, by contrast, was caked with dirt from a fall during a practice bout the day before. His sword had a couple of dings he needed to buff out, and the strap on his shield was wearing out. He sighed and replaced the tapestry. It was his duty and honor to make a powerful impression on the town when he departed; he’d need to clean up his armaments before then. He went out to feed and brush down his horse, then returned to the problem at hand. His next several hours were spent cleaning and polishing his armor, sword, and shield as the sun rose into the sky. Finally, just as he was testing his newly fastened shield straps, there was a knock at the door.
Before he could answer, it burst open and his mother walked in with several of the women she liked to gossip with, “Is my big, strong man ready to meet his destiny?”
He gave a slight shrug she probably couldn’t see, “Yeah, Mom, just cleaning up.”
“Oh, look at you!” she exclaimed in her patronizingly proud, motherly way. “Taking such good care of your armor, and you could eat dinner off of that shield!”
“Don’t, the polish hasn’t evaporated yet, you’d die,” he said flatly.
She ignored him, or else didn’t hear. “Look how tall you are! You’re a whole head taller than I am! Were you this tall when you went to bed?”
“Actually, Mom, my height fluctuates overnight, so no, not quite. But it’s not enough that you’d notice, so you’re just saying the same things you always do to give yourself more excuses to fawn over me.”
“What’s that, Honey Biscuit?” she pointed at an upturned corner of the tapestry, where a bit of the bookshelf was visible.
“Did you really just-” he caught himself as he noticed where her gaze landed, “Oh, nothing, Mom.” He quickly reached out a leg to flip the cloth back into place. “You know, Mom, it’s great that you’re here and that you brought half the village with you, but I really need to get my armor on so I can head out. That princess isn’t gonna save herself, you know!” He corralled the various people who didn’t need to be in his house and pushed them towards the door. “Nice seeing you, be out in a bit, bye, Mom!” He shut the door between them, moving the bar in place to prevent them from entering again.
He breathed a deep sigh in the sudden silence. His mother could be exhausting to deal with, and he didn’t want to explain himself to her. He shook his head and began to don his armor. All she wanted was what was best for him. Who was he to argue?
Within the hour, he rode into the center of town, armor pristine and gleaming in the mid-morning sun. He patted his horse encouragingly with a gauntlet-clad hand and she slowed to a stop, coming to a rest amidst a gathered crowd of people.
“Well, dear lad, the day has come,” the village head addressed him. “Today, you ride off on the quest you’ve prepared for your whole life. For too long has our land been absent of a princess. For too long has she been held captive by monsters of unspeakable evil. Go forth, my boy, and free her from her captivity!” He gestured with an outstretched hand in the general direction of the village’s outer gate.
The knight prepared to ride off, but paused when the village priest approached to speak.
“I know you may be worried about this journey ahead of you, but worry not. We of the Church of the Almighty will keep you in our hearts and prayers until you return. And depart assured that, when you return, we will have arrangements prepared for your wedding ceremony. Couldn’t stand to delay that, now, could we?” He winked and the knight was glad his helmet hid the frown of discomfort that contorted his face.
Without delaying to hear anyone else’s words, he spurred his horse onward and departed, leaning into a gallop as soon as they were free of the village gates. The frown remained set on his face for several minutes, after which he slowed his horse to a trot and patted her reassuringly on the side.
“Sorry to push you so hard out of the gate, old friend. You know how much I hate goodbyes,” he chuckled sadly.
The horse whinnied and tossed her mane as if she knew something he wasn’t telling her, but she supportively maintained her pace. Before the sun rose to its zenith, the pair slowed to a stop as an imposing shadow fell across their path. His horse reared up in fright, and he looked up only after she had calmed down. Then, the creature before them spoke.
“If thou wishest to take this path, thou must answer the riddle I hath,” it declared in a booming voice.
The knight looked closely, identifying the creature before them as a golden-furred sphinx. It sat blocking the only bridge across a rushing river; one way or another, he would have to get past it. He opened his mouth to speak, but the sphinx leaned closer and cut him off.
“Thou art a knight of ignoble pursuit. To ask thee a riddle would bear no fruit. With blade and claw shall we end this dispute,” it leapt at him without another word. He quickly dismounted and stepped away, catching a claw across the arm for his trouble. He gave an aggravated grunt and set his weight behind his shield, blocking its next strike with the dreadful sound of claw against steel. It recoiled with a pained growl and he saw his opening. While it was reeling from the noise, he slammed his shield into the side of its head, jolting it from consciousness. He carefully caught it as it fell forward and gently set it down, ensuring that it suffered no unnecessary harm.
With a gentle nod, he mounted his horse once more and they trotted across the bridge. When they had traveled a safe distance, he stopped to bandage his forearm and clean himself up. From their position atop a hill, he could see the sphinx agitatedly patrolling the opposite side of the bridge. He gave a light laugh.
“Guess it didn’t like that answer too much. Glad to see it’s alright, in any case,” he looked down and patted his horse’s shoulder. “Shall we be off then?”
The horse gave a whinny of contentment and began to gallop again, racing down the hill and across a verdant plain. As the sun descended through a darkening sky, they came quite suddenly upon a forest. At one step, there were no trees, at the next there was a row as far as the eye could see, with a narrow path winding through. The knight gave his horse another encouraging pat and urged her onward, weaving slowly along the road ahead. They halted once more when they reached a fork in the clearing, marked by a sign which shone in the evening sun.
“Look to the east for the warrior’s path, land of beast and home of wrath. Travel west and a puzzle you’ll find, the perfect test for a clever mind,” he read aloud. By instinct, he directed his horse to the east, but she refused to take another step.
“Come on,” he pressed, “we have to keep going!” She neighed stubbornly and he dismounted to look her in the eyes. “We’ve gotta go that way, girl, cooperate!”
She narrowed her eyes at him and raised an eyebrow, then tossed her head toward the western path.
“Wait… I can go that way, can’t I?” she whinnied at him and he continued, “Nobody is around to question me, they’ll never know! Let’s go!” he took her reins in hand and bolted excitedly down the western path, making her trot to keep up.
The western path led into a clearing with a sign in the center and a stone wall with a series of indentations carved into its face at the opposite end. He approached to read the sign and nearly tripped over a basin full of stone discs. When he regained his footing, he read it aloud.
“The first is a hoot, the second a murder. Your final recruit is a natural herder.”
He cast a confused glance downward, then noticed that the discs in the basin each had the image of an animal carved into one side. Intrigued, he removed them from the basin and sorted them out. In total there were twelve: griffin, turtle, owl, chicken, snake, dragon, dog, sheep, chimera, rabbit, fish, and crow. He checked the statement on the sign again, then picked up three of the discs and walked over to the wall. As he expected, the discs were the perfect size to fit in the indentations, and he set them in place one by one: owl, crow, dog. There was a flash of light and the wall crumbled to the ground, opening the way forward. He whooped excitedly, then flushed and looked around; he could have sworn his horse was laughing at him.
They rested the night in the clearing and continued onward in the morning. The knight rose with a smile on his face, still elated over the previous night. They weren’t far from the edge of the wood, and he chattered excitedly to his horse until they reached it. Coming out of the trees, he saw a high citadel in the distance and became solemn once more. They were close to the end goal of his quest, the “destiny” he had been raised to seek for so long. He steeled himself for what lay ahead and pressed onward, reaching its shadow by midday. With a reassuring pat, he dismounted and gave his horse a snack to keep her occupied, then strode warily up to the gate of the citadel. With effort, he pushed open the gate, then blinked and furrowed his brow at the sight that met his eyes.
Laying in the middle of the entry hall was a great chimaera, fur matted and disheveled. Several feet away lay its lion head, cleanly severed from the rest of its body. A woman stood between it and the knight, clad in ragged regalia and leaning on the haft of a double-bladed war axe. At the sound of the door, she whirled around, then laughed sardonically.
“Let me guess. You’re the stalwart knight, come to rescue the helpless princess in distress and take her for your own?” she raised a condescending eyebrow.
“Oh thank goodness,” he breathed, dropping to his knees and wiping his forehead. He felt as if a great weight had been removed from his shoulders.
“Wait, what?” it was the woman’s turn to be taken aback. “Aren’t you here to rescue me?”
“Technically, I guess so, but I didn’t want to!” he exclaimed, leaning up against a gatepost. “No offense,” he added, “I just really, really don’t enjoy all this warrior business.”
“No kidding?” she raised her eyebrow at him, then her eyes widened. “Don’t tell me you were forced into this over some load of ‘destiny’ griffin dung, too?”
“My entire village made it their lives’ work to shape me into some legendary warrior. They made me a tapestry. A tapestry! All about ‘immortalizing my path to glory’ or some such nonsense. And you should hear the way my mother talks about me. It’s like I’m not even there!” The knight didn’t mean to raise his voice, but he had never vented before and didn’t have much practice.
“Gods, finally someone gets it,” she raised a hand to her head and leaned against the post next to him. “You know, I was never actually captured. My parents locked me up in this castle when I was five. They kept changing the guard because I got too friendly with the dragon and the griffin. Who does that to their daughter?”
“The same kind of person that forces their son into grueling, daily training at the age of six and has arrangements made to hold a wedding ceremony a week after his eighteenth birthday when he gets back with some woman he’s barely met,” the knight sighed. “Nobody ever asked me what I wanted, they went along with this lunacy.”
The princess looked at him, “Well, what do you want?”
He hesitated, “I was serious, nobody ever asked, you’ll have to give me a moment.” He thought about his journey and found an answer. “I’d like to learn, learn what I want to learn and maybe share that with people. I think I’d be an alright teacher. I certainly can’t go home, though, they’ll just make me marry you and fight stuff again.”
“Well, I can’t go back either, the psychos will just lock me up here again.” She suddenly rose to her feet. “Tell you what. I think we could get along pretty well. Why not travel together for a while and see if we can find someplace better for us? I’ve come to like this axe quite a bit, I’d like to get better with it.”
He stood up beside her, “That sounds great! I could be your sparring partner if you like.”
She eyed him curiously, “But you said you didn’t want to fight anymore.”
He laughed and led the way out of the gate, “I don’t, but I know an awful lot about it. It won’t be fighting so much as teaching, and I know I want to do that.”
“What, are you saying you don’t think I could beat you?”
“Absolutely not, I don’t want to end up like that thing,” he motioned behind them. “But I’ve had a lifetime of training I didn’t want. It may as well work in my favor for a change.”
She chuckled with him this time, “Alright. Sounds like a plan. Better hope I don’t wipe the floor with you in our first match, Teach.”
He smiled and they forged a path forward to a life of their own choosing.