Not long ago, there was a rich land ruled by an assembly of three known as a Triarch. Always there were three. One had a claim of blood. One was chosen by the people of the land. And one was selected by the other two. But all had to prove themselves worthy. All had to prove victorious, both standing alone and standing together, in a contest devised by a king who feared that his realm would pass to an unworthy heir.
Long ago, the land was ruled by a king, who ruled well, but worried over what would happen when his only child took the throne. He wondered if his son was worthy. And he came to see more and more that his son was not. His son was privileged and indifferent. He was given everything and earned nothing. He had seen jewels instead of hardship, known silks instead of struggle. He did not know the worth of anything, not even himself. And the king, busy with ruling, had not noticed until it was too late.
Among the king’s royal advisers, there were three he trusted best. The mage Sidora, who was well-respected by her fellow mages and advisers and by the people. The sprite, Charlock, who was as small as a sparrow, clever and passionate and well-loved by the people. And the black-bearded old warrior, Petrimund, who had no love from anyone, for he always spoke the truth, whether it was sweet or bitter. The king took them into his confidence and asked them to guide the prince when he took the throne.
When the king became bedridden from age and illness, the prince began to take control in his father’s stead. Among his first acts, he dismissed all of his father’s advisers. He was obeyed, for he was the prince, and that was the way of things. The king was not well enough to oppose his son.
Then at last, the king died. Upon his death, his final will was manifested. The king had declared that the monarchy should be broken. That the kingdom should be ruled by three, one who rules by blood, one who rules by truth, and one who rules by love. But all three must prove themselves worthy. The royal officiator of the law presented the scroll upon which the conditions of the new law were written.
The prince, believing that he was now king, also believed that he could overturn his father’s last decree. But the tradition of honoring the last decree of a departing ruler was strong in the land. The king had known this. And he had known that if he tried to change the law while he lived, he might have failed. For many would have opposed him. The prince was not so powerful that he could move against the decree, against a tradition that was upheld for ages. The king’s will even protected the officiator, declaring death for any who attempted to harm him, and ruin for any who associated with such criminals. The officiator declared that all could apply for the Triarch. Knights, nobles, mages, scholars, commoners, men, women, enchanted beings. The prince applied, as did many of his kin. And any who shared even distant kinship with the king. All the challengers were made to sign an oath of agreement and mark their contracts with a drop of blood.
Those who came found that the king had designed a contest to prove who was worthy. All who applied were to group themselves into threes. The three who prevailed till the end would rule the land together, as the new Triarch. The contest was to last three days. The prince chose two among those who were loyal to him. Twin brothers who were trained in the ways of sorcery and battle. And he balked when he saw that three of the king’s advisers that he had dismissed had arrived at the arena to try themselves against the royal challenge. They were the mage, the sprite, and the knight whom the king had favored so well. The mage had a distant claim of royal blood. The sprite was one of many challengers who had won the favor and the choice of the people. And the two had chosen the knight.
On the first day, all the challengers were led to a vast arena that had been built with muscle and magic in the nine days of mourning for the king. They were kept apart and kept out of the arena floor until it was their turn to face the challenge. On entering the arena floor, each triad was greeted by the cheers of the spectators. Each saw three great hoops of metal. One circle was forged of silver. One of copper. And one of iron. The triads were given a simple instruction. Each of the three challengers must pass through one hoop, but that hoop must be different from the one the other members of their group chose. On the second day, they would face the hoops again, and each challenger was to pass through a different hoop from the one faced the day before. And on the third day, each challenger must pass through the remaining hoop.
Many of the triads asked among themselves what would happen if many made it through the hoops, for it seemed no great task. But they suspected that the hoops were enchanted and there would be some challenge in the contest that would eliminate many.
All who took the challenge won the first round.
For the first challenge, the hoops were placed such that iron circle was surrounded by a lake of molten rock. The silver one vanished and reappeared around the arena, hovering at the height of a man’s head. And the copper one hung in the air, high above the heads of all.
When the triad of mage, sprite, and knight entered, it seemed an easy choice. Charlock flew up into the air, making his feathered wings glow green and blue, and he passed through the copper hoop to the sound of much cheer. Sir Petrimund watched patiently and perceived the pattern in the silver hoop’s movements. He stood where he expected the silver circle to appear and when it did, he leapt through it. Sidora watched the hoop that was surrounded by molten earth and wondered which of her tricks to use. The silver hoop still appeared and reappeared and it did appear near the island on which the iron ring stood, moored to the ground like a small gate, but it did not appear close enough for the mage to ride it and jump off. At last, she pulled a small lodestone from her cloak. She raised it toward the iron hoop. And far and large though it was, the iron hoop was affected by the enchanted lodestone. The iron hoop broke from its mooring and turned and twisted as it whipped toward her. Sidora hopped up as it passed her and the challenge was won. The three smiled at and nodded to each other.
The prince and his two won the challenge as well. For one twin enchanted the prince and raised him up through the copper crown, then passed through the silver himself. And the other twin brother used powerful enchantments to cool the molten lake enough to make a crust of hard earth upon which he could walk.
On the second day, the arena looked much the same. The hoops were the same. The iron hoop was still moored to an island. But instead of a molten lake, there now was a lake of thick dark pitch, filled with poisons and poisonous creatures, for it produced bitter and acrid odors and its surface moved in ripples though there was no wind. The pattern of the silver hoop had changed. It now appeared at different heights and seemed to be vanishing and appearing faster and faster. The copper hoop was nowhere to be seen.
This time, mage, sprite, and knight had to cooperate a bit. For the sprite had sharp eyes and saw where the copper ring was, but he had already flown through it the previous day, so he had to tell the others where it was, right up against the wall of the stadium, still high above their heads. The mage used her skill to quickly weave a rope from her cloak, the sprite tied the rope to the hoop, and the knight pulled it down and walked through it. All three watched the silver hoop and discerned no pattern. The sprite being fastest could dart back and forth around the arena until he passed through the silver hoop by chance, but that would mean the mage would have to pass through the iron hoop, and that would be against the rules, for she had already passed through it on the first day. So the sprite winged toward the island, toward the iron hoop. But as he did, great dripping tentacles whipped out of the poison pitch and tried to strike him. Charlock was quick, but there were too many and he had to fly up high to get out of their reach. The mage saw this and gave the knight poisons of her own to tip the arrows, darts, and daggers he had carried into the arena with him. And when next the sprite darted toward the iron hoop, the knight fired poisoned arrows and the mage threw poisoned darts and daggers, and they stunned many of the tentacles as they rose into the air. The sprite again flew up out of reach until the tentacles grew slack and splashed back into the pitch. Then he flew back down and through the copper hoop. The mage and the knight clapped and hoorayed with the rest of the crowd in the arena as the sprite darted upward in spirals and blinked his spritely light.
The knight and the sprite placed themselves out of the way against the walls of the arena so that they would not unintentionally stand in the silver hoop’s way. They had passed their challenges, but just in case the rules did not allow it, they did not want to ruin their chances with carelessness. The mage drank a healthful potion so that she might have the energy to leap and dance about. Her fellow challengers watched and smiled and clapped and sang to encourage her, until the silver hoop at last appeared and by chance she jumped through it.
During this round, over half of the other challengers failed. But the prince and his twin allies again won out. They too passed through the silver hoop only by chance. The twin brothers grasped the hoop when it appeared between them, holding it in place while the prince walked through. Then the brothers transformed their cloaks into wings. One of them flew up and found the copper ring and flew through it. Then he helped fend off the tentacled beast while his brother flew through the iron ring.
On the third day, all remaining challengers expected that the hoops would be still more challenging. They had prepared weapons, potions, strategies. But as each remaining triad entered the arena, they found that all three hoops were moored to the bare solid ground, next to each other with no obstacles in sight. All challengers were wary, and so they should have been.
When mage, knight, and sprite entered the arena, they gathered around the silver hoop and glanced at each other. The sprite had yet to pass through the silver. The mage had yet to pass through the copper. And the knight had yet to pass through the iron. They were given no guidance about who should go first. For if some harm came to one, the other two might be able to help. But at last, they decided that as they would rule together if they won the challenge, they should go through their respective hoops together.
When the three companions passed through their appropriate hoops, they found themselves alone. The mage was in a wood. The sprite in a jungle valley. And the knight on a mountain. Each turned and saw the hoop that he or she had passed through shrink and drop to the ground, now shaped like a wristlet of a size to fit the one who had passed through it. Each accepted the wristlet that seemed meant for him or her and donned it. Each moved cautiously, not daring to call out. Each came upon the remains of other challengers. And each moved with even more caution.
The mage, at last did away with caution, climbed as high atop a tree as she could and used one of her concoctions to send a fountain of light high into the sky. She waited and watched for half a day, sending up her signal twice more. She exhausted her supply of that concoction. But as she had hoped, by twilight a darting light appeared and it was her companion, the sprite.
The sprite had flown for leagues and as he rested, the mage told him that she would try to use the lodestone to find the knight, for he wore the iron band. They could not linger, tired as they were, for come the next day, they must reappear in the arena or they would lose the contest. The lodestone worked and gave them a direction. The mage walked while the sprite rested in the hood of her cloak. The mage moved as quietly as she could, for they encountered more and more dead challengers. None of them wore wristlets of copper, silver, or iron. And the mage wondered if the wristlets had vanished upon their death, or if they ever had any wristlets. She had thought there were only one of each hoop. She could see no marks upon their bodies. She walked on until it was full dark, noting that there were no sounds of bird or beast. Feeling safer in the trees, she climbed and took her rest, while the sprite who was now refreshed stood watch.
The sprite heard something rustling through the trees on the ground below, but not even his sharp eyes could discern what it was. But he heard the screams of men and women in the night and knew that other challengers were suffering and dying. The sounds woke the mage. Forgetting the contest and the kingdom, both feared only for the knight, hoping he too had taken shelter above, and they feared for themselves as well.
The knight had seen one of the fountains of light from his place on the mountain and he had felt the tug on his wristlet and remembered the mage’s lodestone. He followed, but with caution, for he wondered if he were being led astray by the contest or by other challengers. He soon came upon a large landing large enough for someone to have built a few huts. There were goats milling about and a chicken or two. He snuck about and saw that the hut was empty. He searched for a donkey or a horse. He followed a trail of rough-hewn steps down to another landing, larger than the first. In the barn that stood on the landing, he found an old but sturdy horse and left a bag of gold coins far beyond the animal’s worth. His companions had playfully mocked him for bringing the bag of coins into the arena. He planned to chide them back after he found them safe and sound in the forest and took them safe and sound out of it. He knew the country he was in, for he had visited it once before, as a soldier. It was the land that neighbored their own, and had long ago been enemies. But moreso, he knew the dangers of the forest that lay beneath him, the forest that held at least one of his companions.
When night fell, he was still on the mountain, but close enough to the forest to hear the wails of the dying. He had all but stolen a horse in the hopes of returning to his companions and winning a contest to secure a throne. But in the pitch dark night full of horrors unseen, his fears and hopes were only for his friends. Sidora was certainly in the forest, for only she could make a fountain of light. And Charlock might well be with her, for even if he had stepped through the hoop as far away from her as Petrimund was, sprites could fly quick as fire. The knight could do nothing until the dawn. For he knew the legends of the creatures that stalked the dark of the forest. They would vanish upon the first rays of dawn. Unable to rest, the knight waited for the sun to rise.
The mage and the sprite did not know what creatures lurked below, but soon enough, they heard a voice calling out for help. And the voice was familiar, but they were wary, for it might have been a trick. They listened for a while, and soon, the sprite felt pity for the caller. He told the mage that he would go and search, ensuring her that his speed would guard him from whatever lurked in the forest. The mage tried to convince him to stay with her, told him it was not likely they could help. But she could not convince him. And so she insisted on helping him. For they were companions and they must live or die together.
They both feared that using light would reveal them to be preyed upon by the creatures of the night. But they could not move about the forest without light to see their path. They planned to dash as fast as they could toward the cries for help. The mage had bottles of potions ready with chemicals that would burn and maim and choke. And spells that could confuse, if indeed they worked on whatever creatures they would face. They descended to the forest floor and as the sprite lit up his whole being, the mage pulled an orb from her cloak and twisted it so it would glow. Their light was a shield against the encroaching darkness of the forest. For so thick was the canopy that the dim light of the stars and the sliver of moon were blocked. The companions encountered no creatures, though they heard the shuffling movement around them and behind them. And they realized that they were protected by light. But that light would not abide till dawn. And even if it would, they did not trust that the night phantoms, as the mage called them, would stay away.
When they found the one who had cried for help, they saw why the voice sounded so familiar, for it was the prince. He appeared unharmed, but frightened, huddled in the hollow of an old oak. He told them that his companions were gone, one dead and one lost and probably dead. With fear-filled eyes and trembling voice, he ordered the mage and the sprite to protect him. And the mage told him they might be safe up in the trees, but the prince insisted that they build a fire, for the creatures that hunted them seemed afraid of light. The mage insisted they could not build a fire fast enough before the light they had already would dim. And as she spoke, the sprite’s light dimmed for he had not the energy to keep himself lit. The prince commanded the sprite to glow again, but the mage explained that if he did, he would die. Still the prince insisted. The mage spoke gently then, and humbly, for in the dimming light of her orb, she saw that the sprite was weary. She understood that the prince thought nothing of sacrificing them to keep himself alive. For in his view, he had a right to their lives. She convinced him, through kind and fawning words that they must climb, for the night phantoms were already coming closer. She succeeded and they climbed. And as they climbed, they heard the scrabbling of hands and grunting and breathing in the branches below. The night phantoms were trying to climb after them. So they climbed higher and higher. And the prince struggled for he had never climbed a tree before. The mage cared not for the selfish prince, but helped him only because she knew it was the sprite’s wish. Charlock was so tired now that he had to lay again inside mage’s cloak hood. As they climbed higher, they left the sounds of the night phantoms further behind. They made their camp in the trees.
When morning came, the mage could not convince the prince to climb down, even after the sprite flew down and reported that the forest floor was clear and that the forest teemed with life, as if the night of terror had not happened. In the light of the day, mage and sprite noted that the prince had no wristlet of metal. Charlock asked the prince about it, and the prince said that his wristlet had vanished after his companion was killed. Mage and sprite realized that Sir Petrimund must still be alive, for both still bore their wristlets. Using the mage’s lodestone, they moved toward the mountain. Even the prince did not complain of the speed, nor flag in his pace. All of them wished to leave that dark forest.
A few times, they heard sounds and hid for fear of more enemies. They found some surviving challengers, who joined them as they too wished to leave the forest. None of the challengers they found bore wristlets. That meant all had lost at least one companion among their triads. By the time the sun reached its highest point in the sky, they heard the clopping of hooves and soon saw Sir Petrimund walking toward them, leading a horse mounted by a wounded challenger. He was followed by still more challengers. And again, none bore wristlets.
The mage, the sprite, and the knight were the only complete triad that seemed to have survived the night.
And when they met and greeted each other, their wristlets grew, slipped over their hands, and fell to the ground. The circles of metal fell flat beside each other and grew large enough for a person to step inside. Some of the challengers encouraged the triad to step into the rings. But the prince spoke bitterly of his blood right to the throne.
He swatted down the sprite, who was too stunned to move away. He shoved the mage to the ground, and before anyone could stop him, he leapt into the iron ring and though the ground looked solid, it swallowed him up. The knight helped the mage up and they both rallied to their companion, who lay still on the ground. The prince’s blow had knocked him senseless. There were healers among the twelve challengers who remained with them, but none had the tools and medicines they needed to tend to the sprite. His best chance was to return to the arena if they could. The rings still lay on the ground, just three metal hoops. The mage gave the sprite to the knight, believing her chance to return had been taken by the prince. The knight stepped into the silver hoop, but unlike the prince, he did not vanish into the ground. He merely stood where he was. They did not want to trust their companion’s life to the magic of the hoops, but the knight tried anyway. He placed the sprite inside the copper ring. Still nothing happened. A challenger suggested that the triad must be completed. So the mage stepped into the iron ring.
All three companions sunk into the ground of the forest. And all three companions rose up onto the grounds of the arena to the sound of cheers and the sight of flowers of every hue raining down upon them. Healers ran toward them and the knight gently lifted up the little sprite and gave him to their care. The mage meantime stepped out of her ring, bent down and touched the ground inside the ring, and found that her hand passed through. She felt another hand clasp hers and she pulled up another challenger, not feeling his weight at all. They pulled all of the challengers out.
The royal officiator of the law came out to meet the knight and mage and declared them and the sprite the victors of the contest. As he did so, the arena vanished. All found themselves in a vast cavern-like chamber, its walls glittering with crystal. Lying on the ground around them were all the challengers, still alive and well, though some still bore injuries. One of the twin brothers who was loyal to the prince had poisoned himself rather than endure the horrors of the forest. He was still gone. And his brother wept bitterly over his remains. There were broken limbs and cuts and bruises and shattered nerves. But none others were dead.
The hoops had transformed into circlets, which the officiator had collected, for they would be the circlets that would adorn the heads of the Triarch. The officiator explained that the people were told of the king’s last decree, but not of how the Triarch would be appointed. And all challengers were bound by a blood oath of secrecy, the contract they had signed. They could not speak of their ordeals, even if they wished to, for the contracts were enchanted.
As for the prince, none could find him. He did not appear in the cavern with everyone else. When the officiator was told what had happened in the forest, he declared that the prince had tried to usurp the crown when he passed through the iron ring before the victors did. The hoops had punished him, but the officiator did not know how. For those who made the enchanted metal circles were known only to the king.
After the sprite was healed, he and his companions were crowned. Nine of the challengers who had survived with them and returned with them were named as their advisers. The remaining three wished to leave the court and live the rest of their lives in peace. The Triarch began their rule of the land and strove to rule with wisdom, love, and truth.
They searched for the lost prince and found him half a year later in the castle’s own dungeons. He had forgotten who he was and the jailer had not recognized him. The sprite took pity on him, the mage thought it justice to keep him in the dungeon, but the knight thought patiently and spoke his thoughts to his companions. The prince deserved to be punished, he said, but he was no good to anyone in the jail. His punishment should be to serve the people, for that is what he was meant to do. It was not too late. So the prince who was no longer a prince was sent to the far edge of the kingdom, where a forest full of phantoms encroached upon their borders. He was one of many who were sent to keep the fires lit and keep watch and raise the alarm should the night phantoms cross into their lands. He was one of many who dug and lifted stone and labored to build a great stone wall that would one day protect the peoples of their land.
And so it was that the Triarch ruled and when one would die, the remaining two would step down and the contest would be held again. Over the ages, most survived the contest, few won it. But those who did ruled justly together, trusting each other, doubting each other, questioning each other, respecting each other, as only those could who had faced death and horror and light and joy together.
Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.