here was once on a time a king
who had a daughter he desired to see wed. His stepson should be no less than a
hero, he said to himself, someone who can beat the odds with his physical
prowess, his wit, his endurance; and to test all these qualities the emperor ran
a contest his kingdom had never seen before: Each candidate was required to
first defeat a selection of wild beasts – no less than a wolf, a bear and a lion
–, thereafter he should find his way through a dismal, labyrinthine forest,
dotted with treacherous moors, after that swim a couple of strals through the
rapids of a river, moreover climb a tower with pure hands only and finally
traverse a dangerous ridge on top of one of the province's highest mountain
ranges. All that in one single day. This is quite a list of tasks, and while
each one of them might have seemed possible to get through in itself, put
together in succession and in such a short time span they meant the sure death
of every combatant who tried his luck.
Indeed, the challenge yielded gruesome results! It reaped the most valiant
knights and heroes of the kingdom who thought they had to prove something
already at the first few days. Then there were several dozens of desperate and
lovesick ones who failed likewise, and also the dreamers of course, who thought
they could somehow outwit the hazards of this torturous journey, but reality
taught them one final lesson. Once a youth committed to enter the contest, it
was as if he had signed his death sentence. Only a handful were wise enough to
give up once they had started as they eventually understood the hopelessness of
their endeavor; most of the candidates however continued to trudge on in blind
confidence of their abilities, only to eventually stumble to their deaths in
various embarrassing ways.
Among the many who tried their luck there was a youth, who truly loved the
princess from the bottom of his heart. Needless to say, he was foolish enough to
enter the challenge. Before he began though, the young man put on a mask and a
hood, so that he couldn't be recognized by the spectators. For in case that he
should meet an untimely death he would be spared the humiliation that went with
it. Were he mauled by a beast or were he to drown in the swamps, nobody would
know who the unfortunate one really was, and he would at least take this secret
with him to his grave.
However, to everyone's surprise the masked challenger remained victorious
against wolf, bear and lion in the first stage of the contest. He fought boldly
with the verve of an outsider and slew one beast after another. Indeed, his
stance was fierce and determined as if he had nothing to lose; and, truth be
told, he hadn't, for he had made up his mind beforehand to go all the way and
now followed through with almost suicidal passion. Full of pride for the outcome
of his superhuman effort, which he hadn't even anticipated himself, the youth
received the token for his triumph: It was a gem placed at a stone altar close
by and made up the first piece of a medallion. Upon completion of all stages of
the contest the candidate was meant to hand it over to the princess in exchange
for her hand in marriage. Bloody from the monsters he had slain, with torrents
of sweat dripping from his brow, the youth went on: The next challenge already
So the masked contestant entered the dark, haunted forest. It harbored all kinds
of vile monsters and spooks, or so it was said, ranging from misguiding
will'o'wisps over phantoms and wraiths to gobbleswaps, magical creatures that
destroy you by gobbling you up and take on your appearance... Nobody usually
dared to go in these woods. In midst of them moors hampered any quick progress,
and in parts the trees grew so close that they forced any adventurer to turn
around and seek other paths to move forward. Whatever the young man encountered
in that forsaken forest, he wouldn't tell afterwards. But what's for sure is
that he didn't allow himself to be lured to his death, and thus came out on the
other side safe and sound to pick up the next desired piece of the medallion
that brought him one step closer to his beloved. He hadn't turned into a
gobbleswap either, for gobbleswaps rarely leave their territory, so it was the
masked youth alright who had made it through, and he was still alive and well.
On he went, hurling himself down a waterfall into a wildly foaming river. The
waters were rushing through a rocky vale as if driven by a voracious demonic
force, grabbing, clutching, pushing under anyone who dared to enter the
torrential ride with icy fingers. The masked youth, already exhausted from his
previous ordeals, came very close to his demise this time, for he was tossed
around by the aggressive force of nature like a leaf carried by the current;
there was little resistance he was capable of putting up against the
overwhelming power of the element of water. However, like a leaf that never
really goes under, his lightness and spryness kept the young man afloat, and
more by sheer luck than by intent he escaped each single whirlpool that he got
sucked into without ending up smashed against the nearby rocks. Bruised and
barely alive he arrived at last in more peaceful and calm waters, where he was
washed ashore. He staggered towards another piece of the medallion, pocketed it
and was off again. There was little time to rejoice.
The notorious tower was next. It was a spire made all of glass, and the hopefuls
had to climb it to the very top. This meant to cover a distance of more than a
hundred peds upright. No ropes were to assist the competitors getting up, rather
there was merely the odd brick here and there protruding from this unique
structure, permitting to get a grip or a foothold. The tower's surface was also
smooth and slick and the sun's dazzling beams turned them into blinding, burning
mirrors that the few who had reached this stage of the challenge had perished
altogether in the attempt. His beloved in mind, the youth nonetheless didn't
falter and after resting for a short while to regain his strength he fearlessly
went ahead. He looked up for a bit, decided which route to climb and then
quickly scaled the building without reconsidering a single footstep. Well, he
did it as effortlessly as a capou-capou monkey from the Nybelmarian jungles. He
knew that should he tarry too long at one spot the heat of the glass would
become unbearable, and so he grit his teeth and went about it as if it were a
game. To everyone's surprise he was up on top in no time to claim his well
The last stage involved the ascent of one of the province's steepest mountains
and the crossing of a ridge on top of it to get to its majestic peak. The ridge
was exposed to the untamed forces of the wind and the one possible path was full
with rubble; it was icy and narrow and offered only very few opportunities to
hide from the windy blades in an occasional natural alcove. Indeed, a gale was
howling when the masked youth at last reached the ridge, the final part of his
journey, and so cold was it that he almost froze to death on the spot. But a
fire was burning in his heart that drove him on, and on, and on, and while he
even had to get to his knees to crawl the final part of the distance, nothing
could stop him now anymore, not the piercing, shrieking wind, not the
bone-chilling cold, nor his painful agonizing exhaustion. And so the youth
defied all adversities and made it to the peak. He took the final part of the
medallion from a rock to which it was fastened steadfastly, and was careful
enough not to haste his decent, lest he gave away his victory.
Well, he arrived in one piece again back at the foot of the mountain before the
day was over, and enthused he put together the parts of the piece of jewelry,
his key to a new life. Soon, very soon now, his dream would be fulfilled and
he'd hold the princess in his arms.
Thereupon a coach arrived as the victorious challenger was at his way back to
the castle to prove everyone what he had accomplished. When the carriage door
opened, his heart began pounding rapidly and his soul was filled with instant
joy as he saw that it was the princess herself who emerged from carriage.
"You indeed are a true hero," she said to him as he bent down to gracefully kiss
her hand. With a broad smile she took the medallion in her delicate hands,
caressed it fondly, as the token of love that it was. "Oh, what incredible,
inconceivable deeds you have done," she praised him. "You slew beasts, found
your way through the enchanted forest, beat the rapids, climbed the glass tower
and crossed that dreadful windswept ridge – all to my honor. Oh, I still cannot
understand how a single man could possibly do all these things... for me!" The
princess hugged the courageous masked survivor fervently.
The youth could hardly stand on his own feet, but he felt as if heavenly bliss
had now descended on him and he savored every moment of the princess's presence.
Soon she will be on my side forever, he thought.
As the fresh hero finally wanted to remove his mask and kiss her, the princess
however stopped him: "Wait, valiant stranger, there is something I have to tell
you," she said, her tone suddenly changing.
"What is it, princess?" he asked. "You probably know by now that I'd do anything
for you," he added jokingly. "So go ahead, if you have one more wish, just ask."
But the princess's voice turned serious. "Listen, there is something I cannot
and will not hide from you, and as it is impossible to say it in any other way
than straightforward, well, here it is..." She swallowed hard. "All these years
– oh my dear hero, it must hurt you so much – all these years I've loved someone
else. Yes, it is true, don't despise me for being honest. I won't conceal this
from you. You, more than anyone else, has a right to know, for you won that
abominable contest my father had set up and which cost so many promising young
men their lives."
The masked youth looked bedazzled. He didn't understand.
"He is the one I've been secretly in love with for years and years," the
princess went on and pointed to the coachman, who now climbed down from the
carriage and bowed as well to the victorious challenger.
"I congratulate you, stranger," he said. "This is a day the kingdom will
The youth just nodded, unsure what to think or to say.
"Oh, you mighty hero," the princess spoke to him. "Forgive me for asking, but I
have to, even though I tread it so much: Could you bear to betroth someone who
is in love with another?" Her eyes filled with tears. "Believe me, it was not I
who devised the plan of having a contest like this! It was all my father's, and
he is domineering, stubborn and hideous. He wouldn't have backed off, not even
if half of the kingdom had been eliminated in this foolish challenge of his. I
didn't want any of this. I've chosen the one for me a long time ago, but he is
not the one my father would ever approve of. I myself forbade him to enter this
travesty, lest he be destroyed in it. Ah, it was hopeless, and still is. But,
stranger, if there is a way in your heart to make the impossible possible, maybe
you can play along?"
Crestfallen the masked youth heard the words of the princess. His face turned
white as she spoke and he looked at her listlessly, as if she had just dealt the
lethal blow he had been spared from during his numerous challenges.
"You know," the princess then offered with a shivering voice. "Everyone has only
seen you with your mask, so nobody knows who you really are, oh dear stranger. I
would give you all the gold and gems I have and trade them in for your mask and
your medallion, so that the one I love can present it to the king and receive my
hand in return. Pray, stranger, at least think about it, for the sake of true
The youth was quiet for a long, long time, for he couldn't utter a single word.
This was not what he had expected, not the answer he had come to hear, the
outcome he had fought for so desperately; this was not why he had escaped all
these trials and tribulations by a hairbreadth with his bare life. And yet he
stood there, triumphant and defeated at the same time, and at a loss for words.
"My dear princess," he finally spoke. "I've not come to earn a fortune, I’ve
come for the one I love. Know this: I love you with all my heart, and that's the
only reason why I undertook this perilous journey, for I cannot imagine anything
that would please me more than being on your side for the rest of your life.
It's all I ever wanted. Love, I have been told, makes one capable of moving
whole mountains, and this I did here and now, for you're the treasure my heart
has longed for a very long time, long before the king hatched this vile
challenge, albeit all that was unbeknownst to you. Alas," he sighed, "the Gods
have predestined that you should love another."
The princess looked at him full of worry, but the masked youth swiftly appeased
"Fear not, my princess! Rest assured, I will not take a prize offered to me by a
mortal when I see that it is not in accordance with the eternals' grand design."
His trembling hand wiped a tear from the princess's cheek. "You know, they say:
Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Well, now with my
treasure gone, my heart feels empty. But because of you I've learned a good deal
about my own heart, that it is great enough to undergo mighty hazards to gain
the treasure it seeks. And I trust in the Gods that this is what they wanted me
to know when they let me put my life on the line. I trust that there will be
other treasures they will bestow upon me, treasures, that are going to fill this
heart once more with delight – even though I cannot fathom it at this very hour.
Without you, dear princess, I wouldn't have had the chance to prove my heart and
understand what it is capable of. For that I have to thank you!"
Thus spoke the youth, tossed back his hood and took off his mask, showing his
true face. Thereafter the victorious challenger kissed the princess’s hand
again, this time to bid her farewell.
"Here," he finally said to the quiet man next to her, the one his beloved had
chosen over him. "Take this mask from me and pretend that you were the
one, and thus end this gruesome competition in your favor. My part here is done,
but remember that your journey has only just begun: Prove now that where
your treasure is your heart is also."