The Brave Knight




You may think of a knight riding on his horse, metal armor clanking, sword drawn, fighting for king and country in some distant battle. But this is not always a knight’s career, especially when there are no wars to be fought and his country is enjoying great peace and prosperity.


In the days of King Ramiro, in the north lands of the Dark Sea, there lived two knights: One brave and one cowardly. One eager to do battle and one afraid of war. One who enjoyed the King’s good graces and the other enduring nothing but his majesty’s wrath.


It happened that the King had a son who one day, playing along the shore, asked King Ramiro why was the water in the Dark Sea black and not clear like the rain that falls from the sky. Now, King Ramiro was a smart man, thoughtful and worldly. He knew many things, but he did not know why or how the Dark Sea got its name.


Did I say that King Ramiro was a proud man? Well, he was, and he disliked being wrong, too. But not having any answer at all was even more distasteful. So he sent his knights throughout the land to find the answer, even as far as the most distant corners of the country. But none of the King’s countrymen knew.


What then? Someone must know, thought the King. It stood to reason that the answer must lie in the countries beyond the Dark Sea. So by boat he sent two knights, one brave and one cowardly, to discover why the waters of the Dark Sea flowed black. The brave knight he chose because he trusted the brave knight could endure whatever danger lurked in the Dark Sea. He sent the cowardly knight because, should some evil befall them, he did not want to lose his two best knights.


II


The Dark Sea, though black, remained calm and the sun shone brightly. The knights made quick time, landing first on the south shore where lived the Pinkish Elves, names for their ruddy skin and dainty features. Although it had taken the knights nearly nine days’ journey to reach the elves, it took but a few minutes for these men and women, who didn’t care to know why the Sea was so dark, to waive them off with their small hands and crowd them back into their boat saying, “That is a question for men of larger stature,” and pushed them in the direction of the west to the land of the giants.


There lived in the west only 40 giants, but so tall they loomed that the knights could see their heads a full day before they saw land. At the sight of these, the knights’ eyes grew wide with fright. Even the brave knight’s face turned pale upon seeing these men and women whose knees reached his forehead. The giants, however, were not a smart race and they did not see the boat when it came within a normal man’s sight. This gave the knights time to think twice about landing on such an island, and they almost turned their boat in another direction when the cowardly knight’s voice rang clearly.


“If we turn back now, we will either have to lie to the King or admit our cowardice. I, for one, have been flogged enough and I don’t mean to be hanged as well. If you, brave knight, wish to move on, then move on. As for me, I mean to land here even if it means death, for the King’s wrath I can no longer endure.


The brave knight, now shamed by his own cowardice, pledged to stay with the other and they neatly landed on the west shore.


The giants eyed them suspiciously, but did not go near. The brave knight, seeing that the giants themselves were afraid, regained his courage and pushed away the cowardly knight as if he had never feared the giants at all. He told them of King Ramiro and their quest to find the answer as to why the Dark Sea’s waters flowed black. The giants remained silent for some time, as they didn’t quite understand the question.


“Why don’t you ask why the grass is green?” said one, finally. This made the other giants laugh and they grew braver, falling upon the little knights, calling them stupid and saying, “Don’t bother us anymore. Go away before we eat you up.”


The giants pushed the boat eastward. “Seek those in the east, as they are dark like the sea.”


The knights, tired and confused, frustrated and fearing their journey to be in vain, plodded on for three more days. Reaching the eastern shore, the knights were met with silence. No people did they see, no movement did they perceive.


III


In the land of the east, the people were too fearful meet the knights at sea. The sun was setting and the knights needed shelter and sleep. They walked to the edge of a village and met a man carrying water from the well. The knights tried to tell the man the purpose of their journey, but the man turned and walked away before their story was finished.


They continued walking along the main road, but met with no one and, though they knocked on many doors, none were opened to them.


“What a fine mess,” said the brave knight. All four shores had been reached, but still they had no answer for King Ramiro. Both knights knew it was not right to return to the boat, so they continued walking as the town turned to forest and then stopped at the mouth of a cave.


The night was warm and comfortable for sleeping and they did not enter the cave but made their beds at the foot of a tree nearby.


The knights lay themselves in the soft grass and slept until the sun’s morning rays shone upon their faces. A good rest it was compared with the hard wood of their vessel. The knights soon found a river in which to wash themselves. They drank to their fill and ate, too, for fruit trees were plentiful in that place.


The two knights sat together, their thirst and hunger satisfied, and each knew the other’s thoughts: What now? When they spoke these words, the brave knight said plainly: “It is clear that no one knows the answer to the Dark Sea and, even if someone had known once, it has been forgotten. There is no use in continuing our journey. Besides, what place is left to explore?”


The cowardly knight agreed, but he did not look forward to returning home. For while the brave knight was in good standing with the King, and may indeed be excused for returning with no answer, certainly the cowardly knight would not get off so easily. More likely, he would pay dearly for returning empty handed.


The cowardly knight said this to the other but the brave knight only waived his hand. “I am staying no longer,” said he, and began walking toward the main road.


But the cowardly knight stopped him. “Let us look around a little longer. I wonder what is in that cave there. Perhaps we can find some treasure to bring back to King Ramiro.”


The brave knight agreed and the two men entered the cave. It was large and well lit but as they made their way further, the cave turned into a tunnel. They kept walking and soon were in complete darkness. After a few more steps, they heard a low, growling noise. “Perhaps a bear,” whispered the cowardly knight.


Another deep, low sound issued from the depths of the cavern. “Perhaps a dragon,” said the brave knight whose fearful eyes could not be seen in the darkness.


At the third, much louder growl, the brave knight turned on his heels and ran out of the cave.


IV


He waited for his companion, but the cowardly knight did not follow. Instead, a terrible cry issued from the cave. The brave knight ran toward a tree, climbed it, and waited.


Inside the cave, the cowardly knight, in trying to run out, tripped on a rock and fell. Then he heard a deep voice say,


“I am the troll who dwells in this cave. Who goes there?”


The cowardly knight answered, “It is only a cowardly knight. I shall leave quickly.”

But the troll said, “Stop! I am the troll who dwells in this cave. Come closer.”

The cowardly knight took three more steps. It grew lighter in the cave. He could see a candle burning along a far wall.

“I am the troll who dwells in this cave. Let me see your face.”

And so the cowardly knight took three more steps and found himself face to face with the ugly troll.

“I am the troll who dwells in this cave. What brings you here, cowardly knight?”

“I have come only to fetch a small token for my king. I did not know you lived here,” the knight said, trembling with fear. "I will go now and promise never to return.”

“You will stay,” said the troll. “Who is your king?”

“It is King Ramiro of the north shore.”

“Why have you come here from so far away?”

“My king sends me to learn the secret of the Dark Sea.”

“And have you learned the answer, cowardly knight?” asked the troll.

“No, I have not.”

“You will learn it now.” The troll made the knight to sit down on a large boulder and told him a marvelous tale.


V

Meanwhile, the brave knight waited high in a tree all the rest of the morning and afternoon. The sun set and suddenly there was a rustling sound among the trees. The cowardly knight called to him.


The brave knight was curious to know what had happened to the other, and he climbed down.


“Not a bear nor a dragon,” said the cowardly knight, “but a mean and ugly monster, a troll, who dwells deep in the cavern. He has told me why the waters of the Dark Sea run black.”


At this news the brave knight’s face lit up. “Tell me the answer,” he pleaded.


But the cowardly knight would not tell. He was angry at having been left alone in the cave. All the brave knight’s pleading would not warm the cowardly knight’s heart. And so the brave knight devised a plan.


“Let us stay here tonight and leave in the morning,” said the brave knight. “The weather is fine and since you know the troll so well, we have nothing to fear.”


The cowardly knight agreed and they made a bed for themselves under the tree.


But the brave knight did not sleep. All was silent except the rustling of leaves and the quiet murmur of the cowardly knight.


It was as the brave knight hoped: He would learn the secret after all. In little more than a whisper, the cowardly knight said in his sleep, “The rocks. Swim to the bottom and you will see great black boulders of coal. It is these which make the Dark Sea black.”


“Aha!” thought the knight. “So this is the secret the troll revealed to him. I will teach this wretch to keep secrets from me. Upon our return I will race back to the King and tell him the secret of the Dark Sea and keep the reward for myself.”


VI


Upon returning to the north shore, the brave knight made true his promise. He went straight to King Ramiro and told him of the black coal stones that lay in the bottom of the sea.


This pleased the King, who was prepared to reward both knights. But the brave knight, still angry with the cowardly knight for keeping the answer secret, told King Ramiro that it was he who spoke to the troll and the cowardly knight who ran away.


King Ramiro was not surprised, but still his temper flared. He threatened to throw the cowardly knight into the dungeon for the rest of his life. The cowardly knight, on hearing this and learning of the brave knight’s lie, ran into the forest to escape.


Two days passed. The King and his son – as was their custom – walked along the shore of the Dark Sea, the small prince often running into the water, swimming and wading, splashing and tumbling about.


Once, farther from shore, he dove to the bottom and brought up three stones. Pleased with them, he called out to his father and placed them into his hand. On seeing the smooth white stones, the King grew angry and went straightaway to the castle to call upon the brave knight, who had received a reward of 500 gold pieces.


When the brave knight looked at the stones, his anger arose and he said aloud, “I have been tricked!”


But King Ramiro’s anger was even greater, and he threw the brave knight into the dungeon.


On learning of the other knight’s misfortune, the cowardly knight returned to the castle and spoke to King Ramiro.


“Your Majesty,” he said, “you have all these years treated me poorly and spoke of me as the cowardly knight. I am here to tell you who indeed is the brave and who is the coward.”


And the knight told his story in truth.


He told of the troll and how he had spent a full day in the dark cave with that sad creature as well as the mystery of the Dark Sea. This is the troll’s story:


VII


Once, the Dark Sea had been full of light and its waters clear. Every day the people of the east came there to drink of it or to cast their nets. The troll, then a young prince, loved the sea, too. But he was a spoiled boy and wanted everything without working for it. He would command a ship to take him out to sea, take the fishermen's catch and claim them as his own.


In time, his father died and the Prince became King. One day, a stranger came to the castle and offered to take the new King fishing on his boat – a beautiful craft, well built and equipped with the finest nets ever made. The King could not refuse and set off with the stranger.


No sooner did they lose sight of the shoreline than a terrible storm ensued. The King was frightened, but the stranger waved his hand and said in an easy manner, “Fear not, for I am a wizard and can save us with one wave of my wand.”


But the King, still spoiled and selfish, furrowed his eyebrows, shook his fist and said, “What do you mean you are a wizard! Put an end to this storm immediately and bring me back to my kingdom or you shall be sorry.”


The wizard looked upon the young King, waved his hand and stopped the storm.


“I have done as you commanded, Sire, but at great cost to you. From this time forward no King shall you be, but an ugly old troll.


"As for your precious sea, let the waters of it run black as coal. I place this spell upon you until the end of your days, or until some brave soul should have courage to look you in the eye and speak more kindly to you than you have spoken to me this day.”


With that the wizard left. The King-turned-troll landed alone on the eastern shoreline, to the great fright of his people. They had gathered when the storm ended and had watched the sea turn dark before their eyes, but knew not why. None would wait long enough to hear the troll explain his true identity.


Eventually, he found a quiet cave to live in. The people, believing the King had died in the storm, governed themselves, but lived in such fear of the troll that they rarely ventured out of their homes.


That was many generations ago. While the people of the east live and die, still the troll lives on for eternity, waiting for someone to save him and turn the waters of the Dark Sea clear once more.


VIII


When the cowardly knight finished his tale, he looked upon his own incredulous King.


“You do not believe me," said the knight.


“What evidence have I to believe you?” asked King Ramiro.


“Only one shred,” answered the knight, and took from his satchel a small glass vial. Inside it was a clear liquid.


“The old troll gave this to me before I left him. The wizard gave it to him to be poured into the Dark Sea on the day his spell is broken. He would have kept this vial for himself, but insisted I have it when I told him about my own plight – how my King had sent me on a mission to find the answer to the Dark Sea, and that if I returned with no answer how I might be treated with beatings or imprisonment.


"When he heard how cruel my King could be, the old troll immediately gave me the vial and said that I was to pour it myself, so that my King would not punish me.”


King Ramiro was astonished with this story, and eager to know the truth.


“We shall find out now,” he said and stood up, ordering the knight to follow him. Down they went through the great halls of the castle, out the large doors and into the sunlight.


Down to the shore they went, with a great many knights and ladies following them, too.


The King stopped at the water’s edge, but the knight continued on until the water reached his ankles. He stood silently for a moment.


“What are you waiting for?” asked King Ramiro. “Go ahead, and prove to me you are not a liar like the brave knight who proceeded you.”


The cowardly knight opened the vial and poured it into the Dark Sea.


Instantly, the waters lightened, turning from black to gray and then finally clear blue as it reflected for the first time in anyone’s memory the cloudless sky above.


As the water turned, the people clapped their hands and shouted merrily. In their excitement many of them doffed their shoes and waded into the wonderfully clear water.


King Ramiro, too, was excited and he ran out to meet the knight, shaking his hands and wrapping his strong arms around him.


When the excitement died down, the King said thoughtfully to the cowardly knight, “What of the troll? When you left him, had he returned to his throne?”


“No,” answered the knight. “That is the beauty of his new heart, your majesty. He was to remain a troll until the waters turned clear again. He had to wait for me to return to you and now, I suppose, if the wizard is true to his word, the troll has gained back his old form.”


In the eastern lands, the wizard was indeed true to his word. The old troll returned to his former likeness and emerged from the dark cave.


Happy were the people to see him, believing first that he had defeated the troll. On learning of the wizard’s spell, however, and how it was broken, they felt sorry for the King’s condition.


But he forgave their fears and they, in turn, forgave his old ways. He took his place as their King and served them selflessly.


As for the cowardly knight, he was fairly rewarded.


King Ramiro’s curiosity got the best of him and very soon left with the knight for the east to meet the former troll, “this wretched creature who placed so much trust in you when I, your own King, would have thought you a coward.”


When they reached the east, the troll King indeed remembered his old friend and gave him a royal welcome and the whole week was declared a holiday.


The end