Douglas galloped his horse along the path to the palace. Every now and then he slowed to let the panting animal rest while he thumbed through the hairy godfather’s book. He recited several poems out loud, enjoying the rhythm and beauty of the words, and tried to commit them to memory. Then he spurred his steed onward.
By mid-morning he arrived at the palace and entered the tournament. All of the competitors lined up on a field facing the royal box in which the king, queen, and princess sat with their courtiers. As fate would have it, Douglas was positioned next to his two stepbrothers, but they did not recognize him.
The king stepped forward. “Thank you, gentlemen, for answering my invitation,” he announced. “This tournament is to determine which among you is most worthy for the princess. We shall begin with a hunt. You have two hours to slay something for tonight’s banquet. A variety of weapons will be provided, and you may use the weapon of your own choosing. You must bring your kill back to the place you are now standing, by your own strength, without the use of a horse, where it shall be judged.”
Everyone chose their weapons. Douglas chose a bow and arrows. The stepbrothers never had much luck shooting targets with arrows, so the eldest stepbrother chose a sword and the other selected a club.
“Are you ready?” shouted the king.
The men cheered.
“Then let the first challenge begin!” The trumpets blew and the men ran off into the king’s forest.
Once under the cover of the trees, the men immediately spread out, trying to isolate themselves from one another.
Douglas knew this would not be a difficult challenge for him, as he had to hunt nearly every other day to feed his hungry stepbrothers. He made his way deep into the wood, to a clearing where he knew he would find his prey. Sure enough, he came up on a small group of deer. Soundlessly he took an arrow from his quiver and shot the largest stag. He hoisted the body onto his shoulders and began the long walk back to the palace.
After a while he stopped to catch his breath. While resting he heard the sound of a turkey in the brush. He drew back his bow and shot it. Now he would have two offerings for the king’s table!
Carrying both animals, and feeling quite confident, he continued toward the castle when he heard a strange cry from a glen. He rounded the corner and found a most unusual sight.
It was old nun, laying in the grass, crying.
“Hallo, old Sister! Did you know that at this time the forest is filled with hunters and that you are in danger? You must leave at once.”
The nun reached out to him. “I would leave if I could, but I am caught in this trap.”
Douglas set down his quarry and approached her. Sure enough, her foot was crushed between the two jaws of a steel trap, and she was bleeding. Douglas knew he could get her foot out of the trap, but then what? He couldn’t leave an old nun to bleed to death in the forest. But he couldn’t carry his kills and the woman either.
“Don’t worry, Sister. I will bring you back to the palace, where they will take care of you,” he said as he freed her from the trap. He lifted her in his arms and left the stag and the turkey behind.
Douglas was the very last to arrive at the field. He was so tired and it took all his effort to get to his place in the line and carefully lower the woman to the ground. The people in the stands started to laugh. He looked up and down the line and he could see dead swans, deer, pheasants, turkeys and ducks . . . and Douglas had a nun. What would the judge think?
To make the situation even more embarrassing, he realized that the judge was none other than the princess herself. She walked down the line, noting each animal that was harvested. All those who had brought in small game or nothing at all were dismissed. When she came to Douglas, she folded her arms and frowned. “I am not sure what they do in your country, masked man, but in this kingdom, we do not eat old women. I hope you have a good explanation for this if you want to advance to the next challenge.”
Before Douglas could defend himself, the old woman clasped her hands and begged. “Please, Your Royal Highness, if it weren’t for this man I would have perished. He left two kills in the forest to bring me here. Please, let him remain in the tournament because of his good heart.”
The princess studied Douglas, pursed her rosy lips, and nodded. “Very well,” she said, and she moved on to Douglas’s stepbrother.
“What an impressive stag!” she exclaimed. “Truly, it is the most magnificent one I’ve seen today.”
With pride, Douglas’s stepbrother went into detail about how he had dropped out of a tree, landed on the back of the deer, and slit its throat.
“But,” said the princess, as her eyebrows knit together, “this deer has an arrow wound; not the wound of a sword.” Her eyes flicked to Douglas, and he swore he saw a small smile sneak out on her face.
“And this turkey!” she exclaimed, moving to the second stepbrother. “How did you kill such an incredibly monstrous turkey?”
“Oh, I shot him with an arrow,” he said. “See the arrow wound?”
“But where is your bow?” she said with a nod to his club.
“Oh, I’m sure you left it in the wood,” said the princess.
“Yes, yes. Yes, I did,” nodded the second brother with a red face. “Left it in the wood.”
The princess smiled. “In that case, congratulations. I look forward to seeing you both in the next round.”
As the royal servants gathered animals to be prepared for the feast, the men were escorted to the next challenge. There were fewer contenders now, since only half of them had made it through the first round.
The men were led into an arena where there was a huge pile of logs. “Your next challenge is one of strength and stamina. Each of you will be given a log, an ax, and a wagon. You must chop up the log into firewood as quickly as you can and load your wagon. Those who finish the task in under an hour will move on to the next round.”
Douglas grinned. Another easy task. A crowd of villagers gathered around the arena to watch. At the king’s command, each man raised his ax, and the race began.
Douglas brought his ax down against the tree, cutting into the trunk at an angle. He readjusted his grip, tilted his ax head slightly, struck again at the opposite angle and a huge chunk of wood broke off the log. He did this again and again, as wood flew off in every direction. Meanwhile, his stepbrothers struggled, laboriously hacking away at their logs and stopping often to stretch their backs, ask for water, and complain that their axes were dull.
“His ax must be sharper than everyone else’s,” the younger stepbrother said, pointing to the masked, mustachioed man.
Douglas stopped chopping, wiped his brow and held out his ax to the younger stepbrother. “I’ll trade you.”
The brother snatched the ax from Douglas and gave him his “dull” ax. They went back to chopping and the crowd cheered when Douglas chopped even faster than before. By the time Douglas filled the wagon, most of the men were still working on their logs. His stepbrothers barely finished in time to qualify for the next round.
Now there were only a dozen men left, and as the sun set the final challenge was still a mystery. They were sent to bathe in the royal bathhouse and then gathered in the castle for a magnificent feast. The tables were set with the roasted game that had been harvested that morning. Three roaring fireplaces, stocked with the wood that had been chopped that afternoon, blazed at one side of the room.
The king, queen, and princess sat at the head table and enjoyed watching the hungry men feast as they discussed their favorite contenders. Douglas thought he saw the princess look at him several times.
The king stood and raised his cup. “And now for the final challenge,” he announced, and the room hushed. “Your final task may be the most daunting of all. Servants, please clear the tables and remove them from the room!”
What could the final task be? The men whispered among themselves. Fencing? Boxing? Wrestling a wild boar?
The candelabras were lowered from the ceiling and lit. The king clapped his hands and lords dressed in fine silks and ladies in luscious gowns flooded into the room. An orchestra in the corner began playing a waltz.
“For the final challenge you will each have a turn to dance with the princess and impress her with your grace, wit, and charm. You will only have fifteen minutes.”
When the princess appeared, no eyes could look any place else but her lovely face and figure, and every man yearned for his chance to hold her in his arms. Douglas was glad he would finally have a moment alone with the princess to warn her about his brothers, but she was so beautiful that for the first time he dared to think what it might be like if he could win.
Some of the men proved to be quite graceful dancers and others not so much. To Doug’s dismay he observed that his stepbrothers excelled at dancing and led the princess effortlessly around the room. Douglas rubbed his sweating hands on his coat.
Finally, it was his turn. Taking a deep breath, he walked to the princess, bowed, and offered his hand. They began to dance, or at least, they tried to, for Douglas kept stepping on her toes.
“How about,” offered the princess, “if we modify our 15-minute dance into a 15-minute walk?”
Douglas blushed. “I would appreciate that.”
They left the ballroom and she took his arm as they strolled down the grand hallway.
“I will ask you the same question I ask all of the men,” she said. “What would make you a good husband and future king?”
Douglas said the first thing that came to his mind. “I am very good at washing dishes.”
The princess smiled. “Do you enjoy washing dishes?”
“Not particularly,” he said. “But I like it better than dancing.”
The princess laughed. “Then what do you like to do?”
The princess’s eyes lit up as if he had said a magic word. “Is that so?” With a furtive glance to the left and then to the right, she pulled him toward some large doors. “Come in here,” she whispered. When they entered, Douglas couldn’t believe what he saw.
“So many books!” he said.
“Yes. This is our library. It is my favorite place in the palace. I think we probably own every book that was ever printed.”
“Do you own this one?” Douglas said, pulling out the little book his hairy godfather gave him.
“I don’t think so. What is it about?”
“It is a book of poems. Here. Let me read one to you.”
They sat before the fire and he recited his favorite to her.
“Oh, that is lovely!”
Douglas handed her the book. “If you like it that much, you can keep it.”
“Oh, no. I couldn’t take your book. You keep it, and maybe sometime we can read again together.”
“I would enjoy that very much,” said Douglas, “but I don’t know if we will have another chance. Here—” Douglas carefully tore out the page, “—you may have this page with the poem. Then you can read it whenever you want.”
“I will keep it forever,” she said. “You are so kind, even if you are a terrible dancer.”
“But an excellent dishwasher,” Doug said with a wink.
Just then the clock struck twelve and Douglas leaped to his feet. “My time is up! I’ve got to go!” he said.
The princess protested. “No, you don’t. We have at least four minutes left!”
“No, I’m so sorry, but I must go now!” And he fled from the room, as if he were being chased by a lion. He ran down the steps of the palace and demanded the reins to his horse from a startled servant.
The princess reached the top of the stairs, just as her mysterious suitor mounted his horse and galloped away. She held the page of poetry to her heart. “I will find you,” she whispered.
Halfway home Doug’s steed dissolved beneath him and he tumbled to the ground.
“Get off of me, you stupid, stupid boy!” said a voice underneath him. Douglas rolled off of the mound of rags and to his surprise he saw an old woman pushing herself up off the ground.
Douglas gazed at the woman, quite confused. “I thought you were a rat,” he said.
“I was a rat,” said the woman, looking at her hands and arms in glee. “But the curse has been lifted! I am me again! Ha!Ha!Ha!”
“I apologize,” said Douglas. “If I had known you were an old woman, I would have never ridden . . .” But the woman paid him no mind and hobbled away into the woods.
Douglas walked the rest of the way home, scratching his head and marveling. It was definitely a day for the journal. Competitions, nuns, dancing, talking rats . . . His mind kept returning again and again to the princess, and each time he found it difficult to suppress his smile. Then he stopped and smacked himself in the forehead when he realized he had forgotten the very reason he had entered the tournament in the first place. “I’m so stupid! I never warned her about my stepbrothers!”
The next morning Douglas woke up early, as usual, and chopped wood. He started the fires in his stepbrothers’ fireplaces, made them breakfast, and, since they were still asleep, carried it up to their rooms. He washed the dishes and then started on his other duties. By noon, his brothers were still asleep, so Douglas and his stepfather were the only ones there when the royal messenger appeared at the door.
“Hear ye, hear ye! The king is pleased to announce that the tournament winner has been selected, and his name will be publicized in the very near future. On a completely unrelated matter, the princess lost a book that is special to her. She will be travelling the kingdom today to search for the book. Please make yourselves ready to receive her.”
Douglas’s heart dropped. A winner had been decided? Did this mean it might have been one of his brothers? He wasn’t there at the end of the ball, and didn’t know what more had transpired since he had left.
Douglas’s stepfather stormed up the stairs, and Douglas heard him yell, “GET UP! GET UP, YOU WORTHLESS DOGS!”
The brothers stumbled out of bed, groaning. “I am so sore. I can hardly move my arms!”
“I feel like I’ve been trampled by elephants.”
“Listen,” said the stepfather. “Get yourselves dressed. Comb your hair. Gargle some water. The princess will be here soon, and you may still have a chance.”
Douglas, listening, realized that the winner must not have been announced last evening, and that any one of them could still be in the running. A grin crept onto his face.
The two brothers got moving. They hurried around their rooms trying to get ready and shouting demands to Douglas. “How come I have no clean clothes!? Where are my clean clothes, Dougie?”
“My breakfast is cold! Why is my breakfast cold, Dougie? I can’t marry the princess on an empty stomach!”
But Doug’s mind was elsewhere. Perhaps he was the winner. Why else would the princess be looking for that book? Afterall, he had been disguised, and he hadn’t given her his name, so she would have no way to trace him. But she was smart, and she probably knew that if she found the book she would find him . . .
“Why aren’t you helping me?!” Howled the younger stepbrother.
“Dougie, WHERE ARE YOU???”
The sound of the ax brought them all to the window. “Why is he chopping wood right now? The lazy good-for-nothing. We need him up here.”
But a thought occurred to the stepfather as he watched the fluid way his stepson swung the ax. “What about the masked man?” he mused. “He was excellent in all of the challenges.”
“Except dancing,” pointed out the elder stepbrother. “He was so terrible that he fled in embarrassment. There’s no way he could have won.”
“With all the balls that are thrown in this kingdom, it is unusual for a young man to not know how to dance. Unless . . .”
“Unless he had never been to a ball before,” said the eldest stepbrother.
Father and son looked at each other with knowing glances.
“Come, close, my sons,” said the father. “I have something I’d like you to do.”
Douglas was in the yard, repairing a wagon wheel when he first smelled smoke. When he finally turned to look, the barn, which sheltered the 245 books that he had saved from his father’s collection, was on fire. He dashed to the well, filled a bucket of water, ran to the barn, and hurled it at the flames. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed his stepfather and stepbrothers sitting on the steps of the house. “Hurry! We must put out the fire!” He ran back to the well, filled up the bucket again, ran toward the barn glancing again at his step family for help. He slowed to a stop. They had not moved an inch, and no concern showed on their face. They simply stared at him.
“Do you want the barn to burn?” he asked, incredulously.
The oldest brother spat.
Then Douglas understood. His jaw tightened and his fists clenched. He wanted to walk up to his brothers and punch each of them in the face. He was strong enough now that he knew he could beat them both together. But instead he walked to the fire, calmly tossed the bucket of water on the flames, dropped the bucket, and went back to the wagon wheel he was repairing.
When the barn was nothing but a skeleton of smoldering black boards, the princess’s carriage pulled up to the house. After she was welcomed warmly by Douglas’s stepfamily, she inquired if they had any books.
“We have no books,” said the stepfather. “But surely you remember my sons from yesterday. Did you notice how well they performed in the tournament? Did you notice their strength and stamina during the tasks and their grace while they danced?”
Politely she nodded and told them she did, but she needed to be on her way now. She glanced over at the young man working on a wagon wheel. “What about him? That boy over there? Does he have any books?”
The brothers laughed. “He can barely read!”
The princess started walking to the young man, but the brothers stood in her way. “He is just a hired servant.”
“And he smells.”
“And picks his nose.”
“Stand aside,” commanded the princess with such authority that the stepbrothers wilted.
“Young man,” she said.
Douglas stood and bowed.
“Do you know how to read?”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“Do you own any books?”
Douglas glanced wistfully at the smoking pile of ashes. “I did, once.”
The princess gazed at him in earnest. “Then you do not have the book in which this page fits?” she said, holding out the page before him.
“No, I do not, Your Highness,” he said, looking deep into her eyes with such a forlorn expression that it almost made the princess want to cry.
She turned and walked back to her carriage. Behind her she heard the soft words, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments. . . “
“Love is not love which alters when its alteration finds”
She looked down at the page in her hands, following the words as they were spoken.
“Or bends with the remover to remove. . .
“Oh no, it is an ever-fixed mark.
“That looks on tempests and is never shaken.”
“That is . . . my poem,” gasped the princess. “Father! I found him!”
Out of the carriage came the king, and everyone dropped to their knees. He walked to Douglas and said, “Rise, young man. You have just won the tournament.”
“What?!” Exclaimed the stepbrothers.
“The tournament was actually my idea,” said the princess. “I wanted to test your strength and skills, but I was also looking for kindness, honesty, compassion and humility.”
The elder stepbrother threw up his arms and yelled. “I can be kind!”
The younger said, “I can be humble! You just never gave us a chance!”
Douglas was taken to the palace right then and there (as he had no other place to sleep), and he and the princess spent the next few weeks reading together in the library. Soon after that they celebrated a glorious wedding. Together they ruled the people with such love and devotion that it began an era of peace that lasted over 200 years.
Meanwhile, his stepbrothers were sent to work in the royal kitchen where they became very good at washing dishes.
Stay tuned for the last chapter of Fairy Tales for Boys, coming Monday, April 13!