There was once a youth with aspirations of nobility. From boyhood he studied the code of chivalry, lived piously, and learned stories of heroism and great deeds.
It happened that the fairest maiden in the land lived in the next village over. Being of marrying age, the youth determined to ask her father for her hand in marriage.
Up the road he came, with staff in hand and traveler’s cloak thrown over his shoulder. Her father, though of only moderate means, owned a fabulous sword, with a golden hilt encrusted with rubies.
“My good sir,” he said. “I have come a-wooing. I ask for your daughter’s hand in marriage.:
The father, leaning on the sword, looked the young man up and down. “Many have come,” he said. “And many have left disappointed. To win my daughter’s hand, you must slay the Dragon of Penshire, over the hill.”
The youth blanched, but he appreciated the symmetry: fair maidens deserved great deeds, and what had his youth prepared him for if not this? So over the hill he went, and after a quest extending over several months, involving stumbling across a dead knight’s lance, solving three riddles from a sage in exchange for the secret of the dragon’s weak spot, a crafty trick involving drenching sheep in a sleeping potion, and some hair-raising (and hair-singing) last-minute panic, the youth returned over the hill, bearing a single scale from the Dragon of Penshire on his back.
“I have slain the Dragon of Penshire,” he told the lass’s father. “I have come again, a-wooing. I ask for your daughter’s hand in marriage.”
The father replied, “It is true that you have performed a brave deed, but the fearless might be a knave as easily as he might be just. To win my daughter’s hand in marriage, you must convince me you are a man of honor. Go, and do not return until you bear a medal from the King.”
It so happened that the kingdom was embroiled in a great war, so when the youth entered the valley where the army was encamped, they readily accepted him. He was a mere pikeman at first, enduring cavalry charges, but over the following weeks he learned to wield the bow, the flail, and the longsword. Soon he was charged to serve as one of the bodyguards of the young Prince, who was there to learn the ways of war. One of the bodyguards, bribed by the enemy, made an attempt on the young Prince’s life. The youth caught him in the act, unsheathed his sword, and dispatched the assassin, saving the Prince’s life. For this, he was awarded a medal from the King Himself.
So up the road he came, sword in sheath, shield on back (made from the scale of the Dragon), and medal on chest. He cut a dashing sight, and the maiden, watching from the second-story window, could not but fall in love with him.
“I have received a medal from the King, and thus shown you that I am a man of honor,” the youth said. “I have come a-wooing, and I ask for your daughter’s hand in marriage.”
The father took in the sight of the youth, and said nothing, but made a signal with his hand. From behind the house came a wagon and ten men with nets and clubs. They set upon the youth, entangling him in their nets and beating him with their clubs. Then they threw him in the wagon.
“I have sold you as a slave!” yelled the father, as the wagon departed. “If ever we meet again, I will grant you my daughter’s hand.”
The youth’s sword, shield, and medal were all taken from him, and the wagon arrived at a larger caravan, whereupon he was chained to the rest of the slaves. As he marched under the lash, his clothes fraying, he grew angry. “All I ever wanted was to be a hero!” he raged. “I lived piously! I slew a dragon! I saved the life of a prince and earned a medal from the king! And my only wages were captivity!”
But no one cared, and the caravan marched on.
One night in the desert, the caravan was attacked by bandits. The bandits were in the pay of the same enemy kingdom that had tried to kill the prince. They had received word that the great warrior who had foiled the assassination was traveling with the caravan, but they did not know what he looked like.
“Ten guineas and freedom for the slave who can tell us who he is!” they said.
The youth stood and pointed at the leader of the caravan, a large and well-built man, and said, “That is the man.”
“No!” said the caravan leader. “HE is the one!”
“Do I look like a great warrior?” said the youth. And indeed he did not. Starvation and hard labor had taken their toll on him. His shirt was gone and his pants were in tatters. Rags wrapped his feet.
So the bandits killed the caravan leader and took control of the caravan as a bonus. They were in a jolly mood, so, true to their word, they paid the youth his ten guineas and set him free, with a dagger, a waterskin, and directions to the nearest town.
So up the road he came, with no shirt and torn pants, a waterskin hanging from his back and a dagger in his hand. His beard had grown, and he looked just like one of the vagrants who often passed by on the road—and perhaps he was one. The girl’s father looked at him with disdain.
“You sold me as a slave, and told me that if I came back, you would give me your daughter’s hand,” said the youth. “I have come a-wooing, and I ask for your daughter’s hand in marriage.”
The father, leaning on his sword, looked closely at the suntanned face before him. “It is you,” he said. “But I have one more task for you. There is a mountain—”
In a flash, the youth was on him, holding the rusty bandit-dagger to his throat. “I think I am quite done with those, oldster,” he said. “I am leaving here with your daughter, and possibly your head.”
“You are a ruffian—”
“I have lived piously all the days of my life.”
“You are a coward—”
“I have slain a dragon.”
“You have no honor—”
“The King Himself considers me a friend.”
“You are not suitable for my daughter—”
“If you can find my equal, then give her to him instead.”
At this the old father’s eyes acquired a crafty look. Slowly, he took the wise man’s hand, and moved the dagger-blade away from his neck.
“I see,” he said. And he called his servant, and asked him to fetch his daughter.
“Daughter,” he said when she arrived, indicating the ragged, half-dressed scoundrel within his gates. “This is the man you are to marry.”