Ryan found himself wandering along an unfamiliar trail. A minute later he came to a clearing in the trees and there she was, a proud dark-haired stranger with gray-blue eyes, sitting on an ornate Persian rug. She wore a full-length silk gown and a regal cape.
“Excuse me,” he said, “you haven’t seen a mountain bike around here, have you? I wiped out going down a hill. I must’ve got knocked out. When I came to, I couldn’t find the bike … or the trail I’d been on either.”
“Art thou mad?” she asked with a strange accent.
“Let me guess—the drama club is on a field trip, right? Look, if you or any of your buddies have ripped off my bike, I’m calling the cops. Just tell me where you put it so I can go home.”
“Thy words indeed condemn thee! Thou art demented.”
“Hey, c’mon, the play’s over, okay? Where’s the rest of the cast anyway? I bet the guys’ll come in waving little cardboard swords.” He touched his forehead. “My head is killing me. I must’ve hit it on a rock when I landed. Mind if I sit down?”
“I sit not with commoners.”
He sat down anyway. “You’re really carrying this too far you know.” He decided to see if he could get a normal conversation going. “You like football? I pretty much go with the Bears.”
“Doest thou expect me to believe thou livest with bears?” She stood up. “Guards!”
Nothing happened. “Missed their cue, huh? I wish they’d come too, so I can find out what happened to my bike.”
“Hay fever? I get it too this time of year. My doctor gave me a prescription that seems to work. Here, I’ve got ’em here with me.” He handed her two pills. “Just don’t operate any heavy machinery for a couple of hours.” He smiled. “Of course in that outfit I doubt you’ll be doing much of that.”
“Thinkest thou to tempt me with an evil potion?” She threw the pills on the ground.
He stood up. “That’s it. I’m out of here. When I come back I’m bringing the cops. That bike cost a lot of money. Oh, I suppose you’d like to know what it cost me in farthings, right, your majesty?”
Suddenly four soldiers with swords drawn rushed into the clearing. “Oh, wow, real swords, like I’m really impressed. Okay, which one of you took my bike?”
“Throw this demon into the dungeon!” she called out.
The guards rushed him.
“Hey, cut it out!”
They started dragging him down the hill. He called out to her. “I’m going to report this. When I get done, you people will never have another drama club picnic in your entire life!”
He lay in his cell, listening to water dripping down the rough-hewn rock wall, and tried to figure out where he was. First of all, it was not a stage set made out of cardboard and wire. It was a real castle. A castle with a moat, working drawbridge, and plenty of armed guards. Why would there be a castle around here, he thought. Was Disney secretly building something?
At dusk a guard opened the door and placed a wood bowl of soup and some bread on a table and started to leave again.
“Wait. Where am I?”
“Where, indeed, but the dungeon of King Frederick, as indeed thou shalt be until the end of thy days, which because of the way Princess Kathryn raileth against thee, shouldst not be many more days hence.”
“Look, you’re not scaring me. I know this is just a dream.”
“Are the chains which bind thee a dream also?”
He pulled at the chains as hard as he could and pinched himself at the same time, hoping it would wake him up, but it didn’t do any good. “What’s going to happen to me?”
“The king will have thee brought before him. Be wise how thou answerest the king. If thou doest not answer well, thou wilt surely be put to death.”
The next morning Ryan was taken before the king.
“This is the cur who dealt so poorly with me yesterday,” Princess Kathryn said. “I want him put to death for insulting my honor.”
“My daughter says thou art a demon,” the king said.
“That’s not true, your majesty.”
“Didst thou not say to her that thou livest with bears?”
“They’re not real bears. And I don’t live with them. I just like to watch them carry the ball.”
“Seest thou what I mean,” she said to her father.
“To the dungeon!” the king called out.
“No, wait! I can explain this. I come from another kingdom. There must’ve been some kind of a time warp. Anyway, now I’m here, I can help you.”
“How?” Kathryn asked.
“I have powers.”
“Prove these powers to us,” she challenged.
Ryan set his digital watch alarm and it started buzzing. The king, the queen, and the guards quickly backed to the wall—everyone except Kathryn. He thrust the arm which held the watch in her direction. “Be careful, Princess, or I’ll turn you into a frog. No, that’s not horrible enough. I’ll turn you into a fly that’s eaten by a frog. No, that’s not lasting enough. I’ll turn you into an ox that pulls a peasant’s plow all the day long. Do not trifle with me, Princess, or you will meet my wrath.”
He was surprised, but she believed him and was frightened. He smiled. “Sorry, just kidding.” He turned to the king. “It’s okay. You can sit back down again.”
The king returned to his throne. “Thou hast spared my daughter. Wouldst thou like to marry her?”
“Well, that’s real nice of you to offer, but see, the thing is, I always planned on graduating from high school and then going on a mission before I got married.”
“When wilt thou go on this mission?” Kathryn asked.
“What year is this?”
“The year of our Lord fifteen hundred and forty.”
“Oh, well, I guess I’ll have to wait about 453 years before I can actually go.”
“I canst not wait that long for him,” Kathryn complained.
“I know, I know. Art thou interested in this stranger?” the king asked.
“Perhaps a little. Would that he were a prince; then might I have interest.”
The king stood up. “If thou canst pass the Test of Life, thou shalt be a prince.”
“You mean I have to take tests here too? Is it multiple choice? I can usually do okay on them.”
“Thou shalt surely have choices. If thou doest well, thou shalt receive my daughter to wed as well as half my kingdom and the right to be king someday.”
“All that for passing a test? I wish they’d do that in the school I go to. Especially the part about half the kingdom. I’d study a lot more.”
“Thou must first do battle with the Swordsman of Keldar. Tomorrow at dawn. My servant Michael will help thee prepare for the contest.”
Once they were alone, Ryan asked Michael. “How good is this Keldar, anyway?”
“There is a field of graves that telleth how good he be. But I have a plan how thou canst defeat him.”
“I can steal into his tent and place a potion in his drink. It shall take away his strength. Or I can take his jousting stick and cut it part way through.”
“No, that’d be cheating. Just give me a few hints of how this game is played. We’ll set up torches and practice tonight.”
They practiced until two in the morning, and then Ryan went to the stable and spread out some straw and tried to sleep.
At dawn, he sat on his horse in a suit of armor, facing at the other end of the field the dreaded Swordsman of Keldar. The king and queen and Princess Kathryn sat in their royal chairs surrounded by other nobility of the kingdom.
A trumpet sounded. The two armored opponents spurred their horses. Both held their jousting poles ahead of them. Ryan leaned first one way and then the other, catching the swordsman in the chest and knocking him off his horse.
Ryan got off his horse and knelt down beside Keldar, who opened his eyes slowly. “You okay?” Ryan asked.
Keldar got up. “I submit to thee,” he said solemnly and then walked off the field.
Ryan watched him leave. “What does that mean?”
“It meaneth he surrendereth his house and everything he owneth to thee for pillaging.”
An hour later he and Michael entered Keldar’s house. “Anybody here?” he called out.
“All have fled to the woods,” Michael said. “They have fear of thee. Thou mayest commence pillaging.”
“Uh, could you give me a couple of hints? I’m kind of new at this.”
“Behold yon window of stained glass. Throwest thou a rock through it. Behold the curtains. Setteth them on fire. Behold the fine set of pottery. Throwest thou everything down and breaketh it.”
Ryan paused. “See, the thing is, where I come from this is called vandalism.” Ryan picked up a brick and faced the stained glass window. “What happens when I finish pillaging?”
“Keldar returneth with his family. If there remaineth an abode, they enter unto it again.”
“Keldar has a family?”
“Aye. Three children.”
“What if I break this window? How will that affect his kids?”
“It shall be even more cold than usual for them at night, but worry thou not; it is thy right.”
“Pillaging isn’t much fun when you think about how it will affect the people you’re doing it to.” He shook his head. “I’m not going to do it. Let’s go.”
“People shall not respect thee if thou doest not pillage Keldar’s house. People shall say thou art not a man.”
“I don’t care what they say. I’m still not going to do it.”
Later that night Ryan met with the king and queen and Kathryn. “Why didst thou not pillage Keldar’s house?” the king asked.
“Well, he has a family. I kept thinking of his wife and kids coming back and seeing how much damage I’d done to their home.”
The king spoke again. “Tomorrow is thy final test. Thou shalt face the Dragon of Doom. Art thou willing to face a fire-breathing dragon?”
“Sure, why not, especially since there’s no such thing as a dragon.”
“He shall go against the dragon!” the king called to the royal court. They all shouted their approval. “We will prepare a great feast for thee tonight. It may be thy last.”
“There’s no such thing as dragons.”
“Explain that to the brave souls who have died fighting him,” the king said.
Before the feast Ryan took a walk with Kathryn. “Have you ever had a date?” he asked.
“Dates I have had not, but once a fig had I.” There was a low rumble in the distance. “The dragon knowest thou art coming to meet it on the morrow. If thou doest kill it, then we shall wed.”
“Oh, yeah, right. I haven’t thought much about that part.”
“Doest thou find me beautiful?”
“Well, yeah, pretty much I’d say … overall.”
“Thou doest not sound certain.”
“Well you don’t use as much makeup as the girls I’m used to. You know, eyeshadow, stuff like that. Anyway, I’d say you’re real good looking for the 1500s.”
“Some say I am the most beautiful in the kingdom.”
“I guess it depends how big the kingdom is.”
She was insulted at first, but then began to laugh. “Thou makest me mirthful. I liketh that. Tomorrow I will accompany thee to the entrance of the dragon’s cave.”
Before the sun was even up, the entire king’s court rode out with him to the dragon’s cave. They stopped far away, but Kathryn insisted on riding with Ryan and Michael to the cave. “I shall wait for thee out here,” she said.
Michael handed Ryan a large sword and a torch. He stepped inside the cave. There was a strange smell inside. Up ahead he saw a vaporous cloud. He turned around and returned to the cave entrance. “Uh, excuse me, can I ask a question? The others who went in the cave and never came out, did they all take a torch with them? I mean nobody took a flashlight, right?”
“Flashlight?” Michael asked.
“Oh yeah, right. Well anyway, I think I know what your problem is. Move away.” Ryan stepped to the entrance of the cave, tossed the torch inside, and jumped to the side. A large explosion rocked the cave and fire flashed out of the entrance, lighting up the predawn sky. “There never was a dragon, Michael. It was just a natural gas buildup. Everyone who went in the cave with a torch set it on fire.”
“Enter therein with thy sword and makest thou large noises. Return then with a tale of how thou hast fought the dragon. Thou couldst become the most famous knight of all.”
“Making up stories wouldn’t be right,” Ryan said.
That evening at a royal banquet, the king spoke. “The test thou didst take wast designed to determine thine integrity. By refusing to take unfair advantage of Keldar, by refusing to pillage another’s property, by not inventing stories about the dragon, thou hast demonstrated integrity. One who has control of self can rule a nation. Thou shalt be the next king. I dub thee Man of Ethics and Integrity. On the morrow thou and Kathryn shall wed.”
“But we haven’t even had a date yet.”
“‘Tis no matter; we will have figs,” Kathryn said.
Suddenly Ryan opened his eyes and saw Kathryn wearing a white uniform and holding a clip chart in her hand.
“Thank you for wearing some makeup,” he said.
She smiled. “Ryan, you’ve been drifting in and out of consciousness since they brought you in here after your mountain bike accident. You must have been dreaming.”
“Does that mean we’re not going to wed on the morrow?”
She smiled. “Yes, that’s what it means.”
“I thought it was a little fast.”
“Just relax, okay? Your folks went down to the cafeteria for something to eat. They’ll be back in a minute.”
“In my dream I was dubbed a man of ethics and integrity.” He paused. “But it was all just a dream.”
“You can still be known as that kind of person,” she said.
Ryan thought about it. “I think I’d like that.”
“Can I get you anything to eat?”
He hesitated. “I don’t suppose you could get me some figs, could you?”