The maiden fair slumbered atop the tower. She had been kept the night before tending to her kingdom’s business for many a long hour and returned weary. Thus, the ferry of the princes to their lessons fell once again to the knight.
It was not a long journey, but one fraught with peril. Great precaution was to be taken and much preparation necessary if the young lieges were to arrive safely and seek knowledge. For it was knowledge and wisdom, not brute strength, that made true leaders of men.
The valiant knight was not afraid. He stood before them brave and true.
“Awaken, my lords,” he beckoned. He stood in the doorway and his frame blocked the light from the outer hall. He spoke to the young princes in a way that was at once respectful of their status, cautious of the ability afforded to them through privilege to make his life more difficult should they choose, yet firm with the confidence that his lifetime of experience had bestowed upon him. “Knowledge awaits!”
The young men arose groggily from sleep, rubbing their eyes and acknowledging that they had heard the brave knight while neither speaking to, nor looking at him. He stepped aside, resembling a great wooden door swinging open, and allowed them to exit their bedchamber and begin the day’s preparation.
It was an early morning. Because they three were the only ones awake in the castle, the knight attended to the princes’ appearance. He made sure their garments were ready and then properly adorned. The younger of the two boys made the knight stoop to fasten his buttons. The knight suspected this was more out of desire for attention than inability, yet he said nothing and silently did his young master’s bidding.
Once suitably attired, it became clear that the hair atop the heads of the young princes would require tending. With wet fingers, he fashioned their locks into a more presentable display, something more befitting of their importance. This task took longer for the older of the princes. His brother’s hair was of fairer construct and lay down upon his scalp. The hair of the older of the two reminded him of a horse’s. But he had faced one thousand more difficult challenges in his travels and would surely tame this child’s curls.
The knight thought to himself then what a stark contrast to the state of his own appearance all this illuminated. His hair frequently fell over his ears and down onto his forehead, even before his eyes when he allowed it to grow long enough. His face would grow dark shadows upon it for days at a time. The garments the boys wore shone brilliantly compared to his own. This, in turn, caused him to ponder that knighthood was not all he had thought it would be when he was their age. He had grown to find that the life of adventure and recognition he had imagined was one of responsibility, honor and commitment. His purpose was to battle, to struggle, to champion the cause of these boys so that they might live up to expectations. The search for personal glory held little significance compared to this. The future of the kingdom rested upon their small shoulders. He was but their protector and this was a load he had become happy to bear.
At last presentable, as royalty ought to be, the good knight ushered the princes to the castle gate. Once there, he handed them each a cup of milk and a biscuit.
“Eat as we ride,” he instructed them. “You shall need your strength, but we must make haste.” Then, upon opening the gate, he said, “To the wagon.”
The knight secured the gate swiftly behind them then rushed ahead of the young men in order to assist them into the wagon, which he had seen to it was already waiting out front.
The sun had not yet broken the horizon but an orange glow swelled over the treetops to the East. As the wheels of the wagon began to roll forward along the road, a light fog hung in the air. Such fog at the start of a journey would make some feel trepidation, but the knight knew fog of this manner was of no danger. It would burn off as soon as the sun was allowed to touch it directly. Meanwhile, it allowed them to travel relatively unnoticed.
The trip went smoothly. The boys ate their meal and spoke of what the day’s lessons were to hold in the back of the wagon as it slipped through the fog without a single encounter. Little time had passed when they found themselves before the great hall where the princes were to spend their day seeking knowledge.
As the knight brought the wagon to a stop, he surveyed the area. He knew that this was the most perilous moment. The time when they were so close to the end was the precise time that the most obstacles and distractions made themselves clear. They had arrived early as planned, without a soul manning the gates to the hall. This was the time the brave knight used to prepare the young men for the challenges they would face.
“We shall lie in wait here until the gates are open,” he said. “When the time to advance arrives, you must move quickly and do as I say.” He looked them both in the eyes as he spoke, hoping to teach them by example of how to communicate with respect. “You will keep you head up and remain alert so that you are not struck by another wagon. You will be tempted to stop along the way and make merriment with the various knaves who wait near the tree line. You mustn’t stop and address them. You must go forward and into the hall without hesitation. You will receive all the enrichment you could ever want once inside. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” they answered as one. Then the older prince asked, “But what will you do, good knight? Shall you not accompany us?”
“I shall be near you, keeping watch,” he told him, “but I cannot go with you into the hall of learning. It is strictly forbidden. I shall return here to escort you back to the castle when your time is over.”
“I will miss you, brave sir,” said the younger boy. “Will you not miss us too?”
The knight paused as he felt his throat tighten. “I shall miss you dearly,” he responded quietly, “but I shall see you again before the sun has set. This I promise you.”
“And will you teach us to fight?” the older boy asked excitedly.
“I will not,” the knight said sternly. “Should I teach you anything, it will be to act with honor and respect towards your fellow man. And I shall teach you to defend your family, not to fight.”
Both children nodded and looked upon the knight with awe.
“It is time,” he said and snapped them back to their task. The gate raised and a bustle arose around it. “Gather your equipment. Stay your path. Be ready now. Do not run, but move quickly. The time has come.”
All three leapt from the wagon and strode toward the gates to the hall. Fear pricked at the backs of the princes’ necks, but they knew the knight was there, ever watchful and they tried to be brave as they believed he would be. A few rogues called to them from the bushes, attempting to lead them from their destination, but they focused on the gates as they had been told. They were nearly inside already.
The knight was suddenly flanked by one who meant to distract his gaze. He wheeled around and said, “Stand down, miscreant, or taste my steel. I’ll deal with you when the task at hand has been completed.” Thinking the knight had not noticed him, the other started then scurried off into the brush as he turned back to the princes.
He had taken his eyes from them just a second too long. Just as they were reaching the gates, a threat arose. It appeared to be another pupil, though the valiant knight could not be sure. So often he had heard tales of evildoers blending in with those around them, even tell of black magic employed to shift one’s shape. The life form, be it man or creature, ran at the princes, moving faster than would allow the knight to close ground. As it neared them, it raised a fist and the claws that protruded from its hand left little doubt that it meant to do them harm.
Without a notion that they were in any danger, the princes crossed the threshold into the hall. Just then, the gatekeeper’s axe blade met the wrist of the would-be attacker. The severed hand fell to the ground and the beast ran away, squealing in pain.
With a knowing nod, the knight thanked the gatekeeper from a distance as he lowered the gates and secured the hall. All had been rendered safe for now. Silently, the knight began his journey back to the castle.
While the princes learned, he had another task at had. In the dungeon of the castle sat a room filled with mystical objects. He would use his free time that day to unearth the many treasures kept within it, and organize them. He believed this was where he had left his mighty hammer. Should he find it, he could then use it to hang up those picture frames that the maiden fair had been bugging him about and perhaps have enough time left over to enjoy a pint of mead in the courtyard.