Once there were two princes who were twin brothers. One of them kept his hair short and the other let it grow long, so telling them apart was no big deal. The King, however, was still in a tight spot. Seventeen years earlier, when his wife the Queen had died in the process of giving birth to a second boy a few minutes after the first, the people in the castle delivery room had been so shocked and baffled by the freak occurrence that they forgot to keep the babies separated. So the distinction of being the first-born son was literally lost in the shuffle. Needless to say, the castle doctor was promptly decapitated upon the King’s return from the diplomatic mission he had been away on.
Now King Leopold felt himself growing older. He did not like to think about it, but he knew there would soon come a day when one of his boys would have to assume the throne. Which would it be? How would he determine which son should take his place?
The question was answered one evening at the dinner table.
“She loves me,” said Geoffrey, the long-haired prince. “She told me so last night.”
“Yes,” said Frederick, the prince with short hair, “but she loves me as well. She told me so this morning.”
Now the King had heard this all before. In fact, he was growing rather tired of it. For the past four years or so both of his boys had been courting the same girl, the young maiden Evangeline, widely regarded to be the most beautiful in all the land. The brothers had grown up very close but those were only memories now.
“And I love her,” continued Frederick.
“I love her ten times as much as you,” said the other prince.
Frederick wrinkled his brow and said, “My good brother Geoffrey, I love this girl so much that I can not bear to live another day without knowing that she will be mine, and mine alone, forevermore.”
Geoffrey threw his spoon into his stew and stood up, saying, “And I would live without her? I would not plunge myself on my own sword if she were taken away from this world tomorrow? I tell you man, I love her more than my own life!”
Now the King saw the opportunity right away. He was a smart old king, a little ruthless and cruel, but actually quite intelligent. He looked up at his two sons and admired the fierce, defiant looks they were aiming at each other. Frederick had stood up to face his brother and a thick tension hung in the air between them. One of them would make a fine king, thought Leopold, and he would soon find out which that would be.
“My sons,” he said in a calm, authoritative tone, “please sit down.” They did, but neither turned his determined gaze away from the other. The King continued. “Both of you claim to love the fair Evangeline so much that you would rather die than live without her.” He paused for just a moment as each of them nodded. “Obviously, then, one of you will have to die.” This was enough to finally break their icy stare. They looked to their father with just a hint of wariness. The King smiled. “Might I suggest,” he said, leaning forward with another pause for effect, “a duel to the death.”
It was not a suggestion, or a question, or a request. It was the only way to go. He was proud to see his two sons lock eyes again and nod simultaneously. One of them would make a fine king.
The appointed day arrived quickly and Nature could not have served up a better forum for the occasion. It was the early days of spring and green was returning to the land. Wildflowers were pushing up from the fields and the streams and rivers were splashing with melted snow from the highlands. Birds chirped in and out of the trees and colorful butterflies flipped through the air. The sun had returned from its long winter hiatus, high in the sky and surrounded by solid light-blue.
All of the people had come out. Colorful banners waved in the breeze, children scooted in and out of the crowd, and young men professed their love to young women. Two young men would soon fight to the death over a young woman, and the people were very excited about it. They would finally find out who their next king would be, and their respect for Leopold was at an all-time high. They had been getting tired of his ruthless and cruel ways, and the fact that he was prepared to watch one of his own innocent sons get killed showed them that he had really just been doing his job all along.
As for the young woman the two young men would soon be fighting over, she was none too happy with the whole situation. Like the two princes had said, she was in love with both of them, and the thought of one of them dying a gruesome bloody death was not very appealing. Also, she didn’t like all the attention she was getting. She didn’t like being placed up where everyone could see her and she didn’t like the fact that a guard had been appointed to watch over her every minute of the day. She didn’t look forward to becoming a princess and she dreaded the appointment of queen even more. Perhaps the thing that she was most upset about was the fact that nobody had consulted her in regards to what opinions she might have. To the King and all the people she was simply a beautiful thing to be treasured, protected, and fought over.
“My proud people!” called Leopold, summoning them to gather round. “Prepare to watch your next king fight for the hand of the most beautiful maiden in the land!” A great cheer went up. “And,” he said when the noise had died down, “for the very honor of being your leader in the promising days to come!” Another cheer, and it was clear that the King would say no more. He was a man of few words and he sat back down on his throne.
First he nodded to Evangeline. She is beautiful, he thought. She will make a fine queen for one of my sons. The girl’s head was held high and the nod that she returned was just barely perceptible. And strong, he thought. Good, she will keep my son in line.
Next he nodded to the contenders, one on either side of the circle of people who had gathered around. His sons were clad in their silver armor and he was proud to see how the sun shone upon them, making them seem so much larger than life. Both of them returned his nod and then the King signaled to a guard who brought out two swords, both identical and forged especially for this duel. Swords in hand, the brothers looked from each other to the King, waiting to see if anything else would be said. The crowd was quiet and the only sounds were those of a baby crying and a dog barking, the splashing from a nearby stream and the flutter of banners in the breeze. The King held out his hand, the signal for them to proceed.
Now the two princes were ready to go at it. They dropped the visors on their helmets and raised their blades, preparing to charge into each other. Then, intruding on the tense silence that hovered over the circular battlefield, came the unmistakable sound of a girl clearing her throat.
As all eyes turned to Evangeline, she closed her own. And she did not open them. Everyone stared at her lovely face and marveled at her silent protest. Long brown locks curled down over shoulders wrapped gracefully in a flowing white dress, but many there had a flash of what she usually looked like: her hair a mess, her blue eyes bright with life, and a worn green tunic stained and ripped from long afternoons exploring the forest.
There was nothing for the princes to do but just charge each other and get it over with. Their simultaneous movement brought the attention of the crowd back upon them, and a great cheer went up as the blades were wielded. The CLANG of their first meeting resonated above the sound of the audience, but the next two strikes were lost in the great uproar that followed.
The combatants backed off and sized each other up, hearts beating wildly and lungs unable to produce enough breath. The awful finality of their engagement was more apparent then ever and it was Geoffrey, light-brown hair streaming out from under his helmet, who took an extra step back. Frederick, still facing his brother, did the same. Then both of them, oblivious to the cheering mass and the impatient scowl crossing their father’s face, looked over to the girl who they were both in love with.
Her eyes were still closed. She would not open them to watch what was to follow. The crowd picked up on this and soon it was nearly quiet again. Aware that she was probably the focus of everyone’s attention once more, the girl thought quickly. What could she do? She looked deep inside for answers and that’s when she realized that it was kind of flattering that all of this was going on just because of her. A lot of people were counting on her to be a good queen, especially the two princes, and who was she to let them down? If both of them were willing to die for her…
But how could she live with herself knowing that she was the cause of a good man’s death? No, she could not show her support for this. All she could do was remain there with her eyes closed in silent protest.
There was nothing for the princes to do but just charge each other and get it over with. Both of them were skilled fighters. The King himself had taught them how it was done, and his firm belief that a good defense was more important than offensive maneuvers actually made for a fairly dull fight. Along with this was the fact that, after years of training together, the brothers knew each other’s moves as well as, if not better than, their own. Every swing was blocked and every stab avoided. So it turned into a test of endurance and the King looked on approvingly. What better way to test the two candidates than by seeing which one really wanted it more? And what was ‘it’? The girl? The kingship? Life itself? In the eyes of the King it really didn’t matter. The true heir to his throne would eventually be revealed.
And what about the girl? Well, after the first hour of fighting, when the roars of the crowd settled into a mellow tone as the people realized the duel would take longer than expected, she grew bored of standing there with her eyes closed. So she turned around and opened them. Standing before her was the guard, young and strong, intent on watching the fight. They’re all the same, she thought. She climbed down off the scaffolding and began to walk away.
“Where are you going?” asked the guard.
“I have to use the lavatory, if you don’t mind.”
So the guard followed after her, distressed about missing any part of the duel but secretly pleased about having such a beautiful girl under his charge.
When she returned she could not help but notice that both of the princes were sprawled out on the ground. She screamed in horror at the thought of both of them being dead. But her shout brought them back to life. Each jerked up off the ground and she realized that they must have just exhausted themselves after one final volley. With the re-emergence of their reason for living, the brave warriors went at it again, each lifting his sword but neither with enough strength left to do any significant damage.
Leopold sensed a certain restlessness in the crowd and said, “Hold.” All eyes turned to him immediately. The princes leaned upon their swords and raised their visors, waiting to see what their father would decree. “We will continue tomorrow,” he said. There was a lot of murmuring out among the audience. There were fields to tend to, there was work to be done. Why not just get it over with right now? Why not have them remove their armor and let the blood flow easily? The King felt like he should explain his decision but then he realized, as he often like to do, that he was the King, and the King didn’t have to explain anything to anybody. In truth, he was proud of his two sons and he loved them more than ever. Their brave and gallant fighting warranted another night of life.
So as the crowd began to disperse with a grumble, the girl began to make her way to the two princes, who were still standing in the same spot, exhausted. “Young lady,” came a voice from behind. She turned back to see King Leopold waving her up to the throne.
She curtseyed before him and said, “Yes, my liege?”
“I would have you stay away from my sons until after the contest.” She started to open her mouth in protest but he held up his hand. “It would only…confuse matters.”
The King was not quite sure if he trusted the girl. He knew she would make a good queen some day but right now she was only a young girl, and there was no telling what she could do. He thought it rather odd that none of the people looked down on her for openly professing her love to two different men. And the fact that she spent long secret hours out in the forest didn’t seem to bother anyone either. Well, it bothered him. “You will be my guest in the castle tonight,” said Leopold. “Guard, please show her to the guest chambers in the southeast tower. I’ll be in to check on you later, Evangeline, and the guard here will certainly see to all of your needs in the meantime.”
“I see,” said the girl. “Well, sire, would you be so kind as to deliver a message to your two sons for me?” She said this loud enough for the brothers to hear.
Leopold smiled and said, “Of course.”
“Tell them that I think this whole venture is foolish and overdone and that I don’t know how I will go on living if either one of them ceases to exist!”
The King scowled but the girl was off for the castle without looking back, the dutiful guard close on her heels. The three men of the royal family looked to each other, but silence was all they shared.
The lone sentry on the ramparts looked up to the white crescent moon hanging in the darkness. He called out the hour and gave the “All’s well!” There were only five people still awake to hear him.
One of those was the King, who had been tossing and turning for hours, wrestling with his conscience and trying to come to a decision. That morning he had been sure that the duel was the answer, but now he had mixed emotions. Watching them perform so well, he had been keenly aware that his sons were never meant to fight each other, but rather to stand against a common enemy. Wouldn’t he be doing the kingdom a great disservice if their best fighting tandem was cut in half?
The King was considering another option. He could remove the nasty element of death from the contest and simply turn it into a grand tournament, the prize being split down the middle. The winner would have the option of choosing either the girl or the throne. He tried to convince himself that it was a good plan but he knew that there would be problems. First, he was fairly certain that either son would choose the girl over the throne, and how would that look to have a king who would rather not be there? Another issue was the lack of finality. There would always be questions, always the possibility of one of the brothers overthrowing the other. No, there was only one way to do this. They would have to fight to the death. He cursed the name of the decapitated doctor one more time and the sleep that he finally drifted into was a restless one plagued by unsettling dreams.
His sons could not sleep either. They each lay in their separate rooms, gazing through their windows at the southeast tower, neither of them tired since both had taken a nap after the duel. They stared at the tower and wished they could be with her, aching muscles nothing compared to the pain in their hearts. What did Evangeline want from them? Surely this triangle could not remain intact forever? Why did she have to love them both? Why did each of them have to love her so much?
It was all quite a frustrating mess and both of them knew that they wouldn’t get to sleep for awhile. At one point during the night they each ventured out for a walk and soon ran into each other while rounding a corner. There was an awkward moment before they both smiled, each seeing the familiar signs of agony in the other’s face. They returned to their rooms and came to similar conclusions about something they hadn’t given much thought to lately. The brothers loved each other. They had been inseparable throughout their lives and after the day’s events each had more respect than ever for the other.
And finally there were two other people still awake in the castle. These were located in the southeast tower. Evangeline was telling the guard how much she loved spending time alone out in the forest, and what a coincidence! He did too.
The following day was just as splendid as the last, maybe even a little bit warmer. The audience was larger and there was a great feeling of expectation in the air. The people wanted to know who their next king would be and almost everyone had decided that the fields and workshops could wait. All of the taverns had been filled the night before, with stories of the duel and the three young lovers. The bets had been placed and now everything was ready to go.
The formalities of the day before were repeated. The future queen still refused to watch the proceedings and the brothers raised their swords. They came at each other with furious barrages, each of them still trying to get it over with as quickly as possible.
But again the minutes stretched on and there was still no clear advantage to be seen on either side. Evangeline came and went a couple of times, always followed by the guard, and the minutes turned into hours. The exhaustion was beginning to set in again and the King was just about to have them take off their armor.
Then something happened to Geoffrey that made him cry out in pain. His leg was hurt, or his foot. He was limping and without his former mobility. Frederick jumped on the opportunity and landed a blow to his brother’s chest plate. Geoffrey fell square on his back and the way was open for Frederick’s sword.
The King leaned forward in anticipation and a great cheer was raised. Geoffrey looked up and watched his brother lift the blade, awaiting the death blow with quiet dignity. But then something unexpected happened. Frederick hesitated. The sword came down so slowly that Geoffrey was able to roll away unharmed. The long steel edge was buried deep in the soft earth.
The long-haired prince jumped up on his good leg and was immediately in position to bring his own sword around to meet the back of his brother’s neck. Frederick was just pulling his blade out of the ground and there was nothing stopping Geoffrey from claiming the girl and the throne, all in one fell swoop.
But once again something unexpected happened.
This time there was hesitation on Geoffrey’s part. He lowered his weapon. There would be no death blow.
They both dropped their swords and a huge groan emanated from the crowd, but the brothers did not care. They raised the visors of their helmets and smiled at each other, steel-mesh gloves resting on their shoulder armor.
“Brother,” said Geoffrey. “What are we fighting for?”
“Why don’t we ask her?” said Frederick. “Why don’t we find out which one of us she truly loves?”
So they both nodded and laughed and turned to Evangeline, the most beautiful maiden in all the land.
But she was not there. The guard was gone as well.
The King sat upon his throne, brooding.
They all stood around waiting for Evangeline and the guard to return, some eyes turned to the forest, but neither of them was ever seen or heard from again.
And the moral of the story?
Don’t count on love to solve your problems.