In a forest, in a valley, in an ancient land you probably haven’t heard of, there was a castle. It was a rather large castle, made mostly of stone. But unlike most castles of the time, this one had armor plating on the outside made from pure red ruby, and so people called it the Ruby Castle.
Inside this castle lived a noble family of knights. Although “noble” might be too strong a word. “Important” works a bit better. There was the lord of the castle, a rough, angular man, with eyes that made everyone he looked at think he hated them. He had two sons, his first a talented swordsman and an excellent speaker, who could learn any skill in a fortnight. He was also very handsome, and whenever ladies came calling they would swoon over him. He wore fine armor dyed a glowing red, and people called him The Ruby Knight.
I was a bit less impressive. It took me years to grasp even the basics of swordplay, and I was clumsy, absent minded, and a very boring conversationalist. So, whenever my brother went off to lead armies or kill dragons or save maidens, I was left behind to clean the stables or wash the dishes. My father also refused to spend as much on my armor as he had on my brother’s, so he gave me a suit of cheap copper. I wore it while cleaning the stables or washing the dishes (by the way, never wash dishes in a suit of armor) and became not very well known as The Copper Knight.
Now it happened that across the valley there lived another family of knights. They lived in a blue castle called the Sapphire Castle, and were our mortal enemies. Every day my father would go to the top of the castle and shout insults across the valley. A woman, the mother of the Sapphires, would always shout insults back at him, although my father liked to think of them as pleas for mercy.
Now it was decided that to settle the feud each family would send out a champion into the enchanted forest between our castles. The champions would meet in a glade in the middle and fight to the death. That time was coming up and of course I expected my brother to be chosen. He always was for this sort of thing, and besides, the Sapphires would have sent their best fighter, and so it was only expected that our best would go.
The morning of the battle I was shocked to learn that my brother, while getting water from the well, had broken both of his legs! (it is still a mystery to me as to how he did this) Reluctantly my father called me forward.
“Son,” he said sternly, “This day we must send out a challenger or be utterly humiliated by the Sapphires. So, with your brother incapacitated, I have decided to send the butler as our champion.” Unfortunately the butler had just fallen down a long flight of stairs and was bedridden, the cook had suffered from food poisoning, and all the maids had come down with colds at the exact same time. So once again he called me forward and said “Son, because everyone in the castle is injured or sick, I have decided that you must take care of the grounds while I go myself.” Not five seconds after he said this the chandelier (well actually we only have half a chandelier) fell down for no apparent reason and rendered him immobile. “Well...” he said awkwardly, luckily not badly hurt but pinned to the ground. “I guess you should go.”
I was rather reluctant at first. After all, I had never actually been on a quest before, let alone one of such importance. I put on my copper armor, put on great copper boots, sheathed my mighty sword, got a stout spear from the armory, and a small dagger. I must have been an impressive sight, shining in my copper armor and armed to the teeth. My father rolled his eyes when he saw me and simply said “Try not to die.”
I set out with the morning sun shining off my armor and the forest before me. For an enchanted forest it was quite calm. Birds sang merry tunes and the trees were a lovely green. Pale light filtered through the leaves, and because the forest was not too densely packed I could see the path clearly. It was disused, with a bunch of twigs and overgrown grass.
I was not that far into the woods when I heard a snap from above me. I barely dodged to one side as a strange little creature fell right where I had been standing. He zoomed to his feet and I could immediately tell that he was not a little creature, but a man that stood a foot taller than me. He wore ragged clothes and had clearly not had a bath in a day or two. Strangely enough he had neon green eyes that seemed to follow me wherever I moved. He was extremely pale and thin, so thin that it seemed like he’d been left on the rack too long.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I am the Tartex,” the man said with a flourish and a bow. “I will ask you a question. Answer it and you may cross the river.”
I looked around but saw no river anywhere in the vicinity. “What river?”
“The one that’s about a mile down the path,” The Tartex said. “Usually I would ask right before you crossed but you caught me by surprise and I didn’t have time to prepare.”
“I can’t cross the river unless I answer your question?”
“Exactly. My life can be measured in hours, I serve by being devoured. Thin I am quick, fat I am slow, wind is my foe. What am I?” The Tartex said, smiling.
I thought about it for awhile. I could think of no servant or creature that fit that description. Chicken? No, they lived longer than hours. A pie? No, how would wind be a pie’s enemy? I thought about it and thought about it, but no answer came to mind.
“Come on now, give me an answer,” The Tartex said, “You can’t cross the river unless you answer. No pressure. FIVE! FOUR! THREE! TWO! ONE! ZER-”
“Dog!” I cried in panic, which of all the answers I’d considered seemed the least likely.
The Tartex was confused. “How on earth did you get dog out of that? You must be an enormous idiot. Most knights get the answer right on their first try. Oh well, I’m afraid I won’t let you cross the river now, so I guess I’ll let you go back the way you came.”
I was perturbed at being made to look like a fool, and even more so knowing that this fellow would stop me from meeting my Sapphire enemy. In a fit of anger I drew my sword and chopped his head off. It was the first time I had ever chopped someone’s head off, and it was considerably cleaner than I’d imagined it. His body actually remained standing as his head rolled over the forest floor.
“What did you do that for?” the head cried angrily, practically killing me through shock alone. “Here I am, thinking that we can have a civilized time asking riddles and you go chopping off my head! You my friend have anger management problems!”
“You’re still alive?” I wondered.
“Of course I am!” the Tartex yelled, stooping to pick up his head. “I have no idea how I’m going to reattach this darn thing! Twenty years asking riddles and you’re the only one who’s ever had such an extreme reaction! I hope something very mean and nasty happens to you in the near future!” He marched off into the woods, carrying his head which still shouted insults at me. I was unnerved. That was an unusual occurrence at the very least. I silently hoped that none of the other dangers I faced would be like him.
I set off walking again, the morning sun shining from the cloudless sky. I found myself whistling as I went along, enjoying the nice weather. However, soon enough the ground started to slope down farther into the valley and I had to advance cautiously, for tripping meant a heavy fall in my armor. Slowly sweat worked it’s way onto my brow.
I turned a corner and saw that there was a well not too far down. I was quite thirsty from the walk and so increased my pace with anticipation. Unfortunately the well was farther than I judged and I accelerated faster than I would have liked. My armor’s inertia increased to the point that I was racing to put one foot in front of the other to keep from falling. It took immense concentration, and my speed continued to increase.
Suddenly a white glowing pixie zoomed across my field of vision. It was so fast and so bright that my eyes followed it instinctively. My concentration was disrupted, but it was not destroyed, and I would have been able to stay on my feet if the pixie hadn’t yelled “Hey! Listen!” at an annoyingly loud volume. That was enough to shatter my focus and I tripped.
I didn’t fall down the slope so much as bounce. I flew up into the air and came back down with a crash. I went down like this, small bits of metal flying off my copper suit. And although I hesitate to admit it, I was screaming like a little girl the entire way.
I came to a sudden stop against the well, my weight knocking one of the bricks down it. I lied there for a long time, trying to get my wind back. The armor had protected me from the worst of the impact, but small pieces had broken off. I was disappointed to find that my dagger had snapped off at the hilt.
Slowly, on shaky legs, I got to my feet. After a fall like that I really needed a drink of water. I turned to the well and started turning the crank, lowering the bucket down into the black depths. Suddenly a loud crack echoed up and someone at the bottom shouted “Ow!” Obviously I had just hit someone on the head.
“Sorry!” I apologized, wondering what kind of creature lived in a well.
“Oh you will be!” the roar came from within, and I heard claws scratching against brick as something crawled up from the bottom. I backed away from the well, readying my spear to face whatever the creature was. Suddenly a scaly dragon’s head came into view, holding small claws under it, the way a squirrel might. “What’s the big idea?” it spat while crawling out of the well, a long red body following it. Soon it’s nearly twenty foot long snaky form was out. It had tiny, useless wings on it, and another set of claws near the end. It was a dragon, but not the flying, fire-breathing type. It glared at me with small, squinty eyes. “How would you like it if someone knocked the ceiling of your house in on your head?”
“I’m sorry,” I said again, “I didn’t think that anyone would want to live in a well.”
“What?” the dragon responded angrily, “Insulting my way of life now? You’ll pay for that!” He charged at me, teeth bared. I lunged forward awkwardly with my spear, trying to hit him in the belly. I missed and he grabbed my arm, getting a firm grip although his teeth could not penetrate the armor. I hit him on the head with the flat of my spear, stunning him long enough for me to get free. We faced off once again, and I readied my spear. When I thought I saw an opening I lunged forward. I had, however, failed to take into account his tail, which whipped forward and struck me square on the forehead.
I fell down heavily. The world swam in front of my eyes. Dimly I realized the dragon was slithering towards me, opening his mouth to take a big bite. He reared up over me and without really thinking I shoved the spear into his gullet. He quivered for a moment and then slumped to the ground, dead.
It took me a moment to realize what I had just done. I stumbled to my feet, leaving the spear in his head. For a moment I stood over my defeated foe and wondered how my brother would react when I told him I’d killed a dragon. The thought made me grin. I tried to pull my spear from the monster’s mouth, but it refused to come. I put my back into it and the shaft snapped, breaking off in my hand. I gave up on the spear and continued on my way.
I continued along the road, hoping that I was going the right way and hoping that I wouldn’t run into much more trouble. It was a futile effort, but I had to keep up hope. I was deeper in the forest now and the trees were much thicker. The forest was darker than it had been, with less light breaking through the trees.
As I walked along I could feel eyes watching me. I saw dark shapes scuttling along the branches. I was wondering what a demon squirrel might look like when I heard a screeching sound in the distance. It sounded like a cross between nails on a chalkboard and a grown man screaming in pure terror.
This unnerved me to say the least, and my sword was in my hand a second later. More chittering and scuttling noises emanated from every side, and I turned around in circles trying to face them. I heard the chattering of sharp teeth, the licking of lips, and the pitter patter of hundreds of tiny feet. Whatever the things were, they were all around me, and they were hungry.
I ran. I’m not proud of it, but I admit it. I ran like the dickens. I ran as fast as any man ever has in full plate armor. Each time my foot came down a metal clank rang through the woods, attracting more of whatever the little creatures were. I ran faster and faster, hoping to find some respite, jumping at every shadow.
I turned a corner and saw a small, broken down tower next to the road ahead. I sprinted towards it, panting and puffing, running as fast as a knight on horseback. Suddenly something loomed up in front of me, a tall, dark shape. Without thinking I slashed at it.
And got my sword stuck in a gnarly old tree. I’m actually quite proud of the blow’s strength, because no matter how hard I tried to pull it free, it stayed stuck. I bet that if it had been a real enemy they would have died. Unfortunately, the creatures chasing me were coming and I didn’t have time to marvel at my own strength. I left my sword, rushed into the tower, and slammed the door shut behind me.
“That’s it!” I yelled at noone in particular, “I’m done with this stupid quest! I don’t care about this stupid feud! It’s useless! And hard! And I hate it!”
“Who are you talking to?” a disembodied voice said.
“Um...” I trailed off, “I didn’t think I was actually talking to anyone. You know, just myself. Wh-who are you?”
“Oh, well I’m of those things...um, you know... I died but I had unfinished business so my... my what do you call it? Soul! That’s it: soul! It stayed around to finish my... stuff.”
“You’re a ghost?” I wondered.
“That’s it!” he cried, “I’m a ghost! Of course it’s been so long since I died I’ve all but forgotten. You’re the first to speak to me in many years. Many, many, MANY years. I was an old wizard you see, this used to be my tower. I’ve nearly forgotten what my unfinished business is too. I think it involves two warring families... maybe three...”
“Are you talking about the feud between the Sapphires and the Rubies?” I asked.
“No no, they weren’t called the Sapphires and Rubies,” the ghost said, “But I do remember them being red and blue... red and blue...” he trailed off. I decided that this would not be a bad place to snag a short nap and so I pulled off my boots and found a place that wasn’t quite so uncomfortable. I was tired. Although it was only about midday I’d already experienced enough adventure to last a lifetime. Slowly I let my eyes droop shut.
I was woken in an unexpected sweat, the kind you get when you have slept for too long in daylight. I was surprised to see that my boots had gone missing. “Hello?” I called, “Old ghost? Did you take my boots?” There was no answer. Cursing the ghost (although I don’t whether it was he who stole the boots, to this day I still don’t know), I got up and peered out of the tower. There were no foul creatures outside, and based on the position of the sun it must have been around 3:00 in the afternoon. Nearly time for battle.
I marched out of the tower and down the road, and only a few minutes later I arrived at the meadow. It was a large circle of green grass with a oddly shaped stone in the center. The Sapphire Knight had not yet arrived, and honestly I was annoyed. I had lost all of my weapons, along with my boots, and my dignity. I had chopped off a man’s head and still not managed to kill him, slain a dragon that was sub-par as far as dragons go, tried to kill a tree with a sword, and had my boots stolen by a poltergeist. I was hungry, thirsty, sore, and quite ready to finish this wretched adventure.
So I waited for the Sapphire Knight to arrive. And waited. For hours the Sapphire Knight did not appear. The shadows lengthened and still he did not appear. I began to hope that he had died on the way and we wouldn’t have to fight. But just as I was about to leave he stumbled through the brush and came to face me.
He was not what I expected. He was not wearing the Sapphire armor associated with his family. He wore a leather vest, and not even a helmet. He was actually quite thin and spindly, not built like most knights. I could tell right away that he must have been a better knight than me, because his long brown hair was in perfect place and there was not a spot of mud anywhere on his body. He carried a light sword that was absolutely covered in elaborate markings, so much so that it seemed to have no actual edge.
“Get out of here common bandit,” he said, “I’m waiting for a noble knight of the Ruby Family. You’re repulsive dirtiness will scare him away.”
“Hey!” I knew that The Sapphire Knight was a better fighter than me, but his remark made me so mad that I charged at him, and lacking a weapon intended to bash him with my fists. He struck with his sword first however, and for a moment I thought I was doomed. I got lucky. The sword may have been elaborately designed, but it had also been badly made, for broke the moment it hit my armor! My momentum was unstoppable as I rammed into him, carrying both of us onto the ground.
The Sapphire Knight screamed rather girlishly and squirmed out from under my weight. “Look,” he said, “I have already gotten dirt on me far too many times today. I have no desire to get more on me. This is a honorable battle between knights. Let us not battle on the ground like animals.”
I had figured out my greatest advantage however, and was not about to give it up. So I took a clump of dirt and threw it at him with all my strength. He dodged to the side and screamed again, still with a girlish tinge to his voice. I took another fistful of dirt and soon we were chasing each other around in a circle, yelling at the top of our lungs and throwing dirt at one another.
This was not exactly how I imagined a battle between two knights. I suppose people are eager to make battle a little more romantic than it actually is. We went on like this for quite some time, until the sun peeked over the valley and disappeared. Finally we were both so tired, hungry, and frustrated that we flopped to the ground next to one another, not having the energy to continue.
“Oh heavens I’m hungry,” I said.
“Me too,” The Sapphire Knight said, “You know I still have a bit of food left from my lunch. I suppose we could share it if you like.”
“Why thank you, I’d love to,” I answered, a bit surprised at the Sapphire Knight’s offer. So he got out a small brown bag and we had a lovely meal together. As I ate I began to muse. “Nothing in this adventure has gone quite the way I expected it too. I fought a riddler, and a dragon, and had dealings with a ghost, but all has happened in the most unexpected and unheroic ways.” I left out the part about running away from the little creatures.
“Yes, same here,” The Sapphire Knight agreed, “I forced a horde of demonic squirrels to flee from me all the way to the other end of the forest, played at riddles with a strange fellow who was holding his head in his arms, encountered a very annoying fairy, and also had dealings with a ghost. Yet each one of these events was rather rushed and clumsy, not like the old tales at all. I very much wish I had never left home.”
“This might have gone very differently if brother had come instead of me,” I admitted, “He probably would have faced all the challenges of today very differently. He’s a true knight.”
“Probably,” The Sapphire Knight agreed, “If I wasn’t such a dandy I might have faced all my challenges quite differently too.”
For a moment we reflected on our days. That is when I came to the realization that we were the same, The Sapphire Knight and I. We were both sick, tired, and miserable. We had both gone on adventures and faced many challenges. We were both knights, raised to uphold the code of chivalry and fight our family’s enemies. This thought finally gave me enough courage to ask a question.
“How is mother?”
“She still hates father,” The Sapphire Knight said, “Loves me and our sisters though. And how’s father?”
“He still hates mother, and is currently trapped under a chandelier, and probably very hungry, I’d imagine,” I said with a laugh.
“And what about our brother? What exactly stopped him from fighting me today?” my other brother asked, laughing a bit as well.
“He has broken both of his legs,” I said, laughing again, “And that is the only reason I did not spend all day doing dishes while he was out adventuring. But you know, I don’t think I’m really all that interested in another adventure. I think I’d like to take up law actually.”
“It would be nice to have a lawyer in the family,” The Sapphire Knight admitted. “Might make splitting up the furniture easier. We still have our half of the chandelier you know. I personally want to go into home decorating. Adventures are a bit too dirty for me.”
“Our castle could use a bit of sprucing up,” I told him, “I don’t suppose you could have a look at it?”
“Probably not,” he answered.
For awhile we just sat next to each other, looking up at the stars. And then he said it. “You know, I think this whole ‘fighting to the death thing’ is a little silly.”
“You know, I think it really is. And actually, why don’t you and our sisters ever visit for things like Christmas? Even if our parents can’t be in the same valley without fighting doesn’t mean we have to hate one another,” I suggested.
“You know, that is a good idea,” my brother said. “And maybe you could come over for tea some time. You do make good company.”
“Oh thank you brother,” I said, “You are very good company too.”
After a little more talking we said our goodbyes, and started trudging back the way we’d come. Fortunately, the feud between the Ruby Family and the Sapphire Family was destined to last only one generation.