The Little Knight - A New Fairy Tale
by Kayla Aldrich, Read to Them Staff
Please enjoy an original fairy tale written by Read to Them staff member, Kayla Aldrich.
The Little Knight
Once upon a time, in an age long before our own, a girl with hair as orange as a newly-lit candle was born.
You will burn very bright, her mother said. Brighter than any of us, Flicker.
As the youngest of six, Flicker learned early on that if she wanted to be noticed at home or elsewhere, she must take bold steps. Flicker dyed her tunic red while the majority of the kingdom wore brown and blue; she kept her hair chopped to her shoulders while the other girls ran about with braids to their waists.
Boldest of all, on the day of her fourteenth birthday, Flicker declared: “I shall be a knight.”
All noise around the table stopped. None of her family said anything even if most of her siblings frowned. Her mother patted the back of her hand, smiling.
“Well, what are you still doing here, then?”
Flicker lurched out of her seat and set off into the sunshine.
She cut through the rows of homes to cross the main square, heading for the grounds flushed with tents and dirt pits for sword practice. In the distance, she could already hear the clash of blades, the singing of steel on steel. From the time Flicker had watched her first tournament, she’d spent hours training daily with a wooden sword, bashing tree bellies and fighting off invisible foes. Her foot work was lightning quick, and, with her small stature, Flicker was always underestimated.
She wandered through the crowd, moving between training yards with a gleam in her eye. Flicker paused to watch two knights, one in blue and one in green armor, partake in the dance of swords; the blue was brutal, but the green was swift and fast, as if always two steps ahead.
That will be me, Flicker thought. I shall be a great knight, with time.
“What are you doing here?” said a boy who’d noticed her. He asked this loudly, with a voice that carried.
“Lost your way?”
There were no other girls wandering about. Just young boys, squires, and knights.
With her mother’s confidence wrapped around her shoulders like a winter cloak, Flicker declared: “I am here to become a knight.”
Laughter rang out, and Flicker did not let it touch her. Even when the taunting began, she let the words brush over her without feeling their impact:
“You? A knight? What a laugh!”
“You’re a fool.”
“Can you even lift a sword?”
Another thing Flicker had learned as the youngest of six: one must know when to pick their battles. The melee had stopped. The ear of the crowd was tipped close to Flicker and her opponents. She let them hear her:
“I have trained, and I know my skill. Let me show you,” Flicker said, making to unbuckle her wooden sword, for only squires and knights were allowed one of steel. “Let me prove myself.”
More laughter, meaner than the first wave.
“There are no lady knights,” the first boy snorted. His name would be lost to history. “You will not be the first.”
“Yeah,” another boy agreed loudly. His name would be forgotten, too. “Just go home.”
A long shadow had fallen over Flicker. The voice belonged to the knight in emerald armor that gleamed like the sun shining through a spring leaf. Flicker had never seen such metal, could only guess that it and the knight came from another, distant kingdom.
“Do not laugh at this spitfire,” the Green Knight continued, and though the knight spoke quietly, the declaration rolled over the crowd and lulled them into mute curiosity. The Green Knight did not laugh like the others. “I quite admire your spirit. What is your name?”
“Flicker,” she said. Flicker latched onto the chance hanging at arm’s reach, unwilling to lose it. “Allow me to demonstrate my skills, Sir.”
The Green Knight raised a hand, and Flicker refused to deflate.
“I shall take you on as my squire,” the Green Knight said. It took everything in Flicker for her jaw not to drop open. “On the condition that you retrieve a scale from the Dragon’s back, and bring it here before sundown tonight.”
Where the crowd had initially gasped in shock, laughter, once more, made a home in the air.
Everyone knew about the Dragon’s cave in the forest. How all who dared to enter and accept the Dragon’s challenge never made it out. No one had even seen the creature, but there was strength in stories, and every tale declared the Dragon to be fierce and unforgiving.
It was an impossible task. It just couldn’t be done. And Flicker didn’t even know for sure if the Green Knight’s word was good. It was a gamble she took with both hands, and refused to set it free.
“I accept your challenge,” Flicker said, because there was nothing else she could say, and the laughter died. Before she could lose her nerve, Flicker turned on her heel and left the training ground.
The cave wasn’t hard to find, not when every child in the kingdom was raised on stories about what it housed inside. It had taken hours to reach the location, longer thanks to Flicker avoiding any fairy circles and sinkholes made by troublesome gnomes. Already, the sun had moved past the center of the sky, and Flicker knew she had to work quickly if she were to meet the Green Knight’s conditions.
With a time constraint in place, Flicker hadn’t stopped to gather any supplies. Her training sword, which was wooden and would do nothing against dragon fire, was her only weapon other than her mind and her wits. It must be enough— it had to be.
She stepped up to the cave. It looked like it grew in size the longer Flicker watched it. The structure was made from obsidian and smoothed from centuries of exposure to the elements. All plantlife shied away from it, as though frightened of being burned. There was no denying she’d found the right place, further confirmed when a voice like thunder rolled out of the mouth of the cave:
“Who dares disturb my peaceful slumber?”
Flicker did not scream. She jumped, though, and her training sword thumped against her calf hard enough to make her wince.
“I—,” she cleared her throat which had been gripped by fear. “I wish to accept your challenge.”
A pair of orange eyes, each the size of her head, blinked open. A snout that could crush a shop stall in a single bite pushed out of the shadow, allowing Flicker to see the face of a massive red-scaled creature. The Dragon flashed his teeth, smoke billowing from slitted nostrils.
The Dragon, after a pause, said:
“To enter my cave is to step out of the light,
To accept the task is to face my might.
The victor that wins must choose right
And be one who shall always burn bright.”
Flicker swallowed down her nerves. The challenge itself was never clear, and the Dragon’s rhyme did little to clarify things. Its specifics had been left out of the stories, and Flicker, too happy to take on the Green Knight’s terms, hadn’t thought to ask what she must do.
“I’m ready,” Flicker said, willing her voice not to shake.
The Dragon said, “Once you accept, you may not leave unless you choose correctly.”
“Yes,” Flicker said. “I know.”
A pause, like ink solidifying as it dried, filled the cave. Flicker held her breath.
The Dragon swung his tail away from a hollowed space in the cave wall. Flicker saw three objects waiting in the dim. First, a treasure chest draped with strings of pearls, overflowing with precious gems and enough gold that no one in the entire kingdom would have to worry about going hungry again. Next, a sword that glittered even in the low light, silver and lethal, metal ringing with the ghosts of a thousand victorious battles. Flicker, briefly, imagined herself wielding such a mighty weapon and almost smiled.
Last, and seemingly least, a shield. It wasn’t very big, nor sturdy; it was little more than a plank of wood with a leather strap secured to its base. Flicker had seen larger tools for fly swatting.
“Make your choice,” the Dragon said. Smoke kept coiling out of his nostrils, crowding the space with its acrid smell. “And make it quick.”
Flicker dared to step up and over the Dragon’s tail, and picked up the shield. A splinter wedged into her thumb with a tug of the strap sent it breaking.
“This is my choice.”
The Dragon stared, unblinking.
“Explain your logic, child.”
So Flicker did:
“It’s a test of heart, yes? If I’d have picked the gold, it would’ve filled my family’s food stores and made us wealthy beyond measure, but I’d have lost because of my greed. And the sword—,” its impressive, jewel encrusted hilt glimmered, still. “—would’ve made me a shining star on the training grounds. The envy of the other squires, but it’s the wrong choice, too.”
This close, Flicker could see that the Dragon had a large gash over his eye. An old wound, but one that ran deep. Squinting further, at the shape of his massive form she could barely make out in the shadow, more and more wounds were visible; marks of those who’d tried and lost in ages past.
“I don’t want to hurt anyone,” Flicker said. “I don’t want to hurt you. I only wish to defend those who might not be able to defend themselves. So, I picked the shield.”
“And that is your final choice?”
Flicker nodded. “It is.”
The Dragon reared. She did scream, then, as his mouth opened and a stream of fire draped along the ceiling. Torches caught and began to crackle, filling the cave with light; where Flicker hadn’t been able to tell just how large the space was, just how large the Dragon was, she had no issue in telling, now. The creature was coiled, wings folded against his sides. If the Dragon were to unfurl them, Flicker was sure they could blot out the sky.
“Brave little knight.”
“I am not little,” Flicker said.
“No,” the Dragon hummed. With the torches lit, she didn’t think the Dragon was so scary. “You are not, and you have won where many fools have failed. I suppose you would like treasure for your reward? You’ll have to journey further into the cave for that.”
She could only imagine the hoard of gold that could be found in the Dragon’s nest. The finery in that treasure chest was likely a mere sampling of the Dragon’s total riches. Flicker shook her head.
“I would like one of your scales, perhaps one you’ve lost already,” Flicker said, visibly surprising the Dragon a second time. She did not wish to bring the Dragon any pain, after all. “To prove I met you, and that I won your challenge.”
“Is that all?”
Part of her wanted to tell the Dragon that she’d like to come here again, to flesh out the stories that, she realized, were built more like rumors. She wanted to ask about the battles the Dragon had seen, both those won and lost. Flicker, feeling brave, even wished to wonder if the Dragon had any friends or when travellers weren’t accepting his challenge, if he remained alone in this cave.
That was an adventure for another day.
“Yes, please,” Flicker confirmed, something like sunshine zipping through her bones. “One scale will do just fine.”
Flicker had to run to beat the punishing pace of the setting sun. Through trees, the wheat fields, and into the kingdom, she gripped the scale in her fist; given the scale was thick as her thumb and the size of a pup, the task was easier said than done. Flicker knew she must look like a mess, but that did not matter.
She could see the banners of the training ground. Swords crashing, the cheers from a winning crowd and the grunts of a losing one. Flicker looked around for any sign of that emerald armor, for any sign of green that wasn’t of the earth.
“Hey! She’s back!”
“What’s she holding?”
A hand closed around Flicker’s shoulder, and she searched no further. The Green Knight’s helmet was still in place, and Flicker offered up the scale as onlookers pressed close. A new anxiety budded in her belly. What if it was all a trick? What if the task had been for nothing, and Flicker still returned home with nothing to show for her efforts? Time went thick and stretched, stunned, then—
“Well done,” the Green Knight said, holding the scale up to the setting sun. It glowed ruby red. “Well done, indeed.”
“How do you know it’s real?” one of the boys from the morning called out. Murmurs of agreement sounded out from all sides, and Flicker didn’t shrink. Her shoulders did not shoot up to her ears nor did her spine abandon its steady posture.
“Because,” the Green Knight called back. “I, myself, have met the Dragon. A great, red creature with orange eyes, yes? Wings as wide as eleven tents?” Flicker nodded, nearly said probably twelve tents, but refrained. “Come along, now.”
Flicker smiled broadly, falling in at the Green Knight’s side. Her head was held high as she passed the group of gaping boys and wide-eyed squires. None of the other knights in vicinity had shed their helmets, either, and Flicker wondered what expressions they wore beneath their visors. Did any of them smile for her? Were they gaping, too?
She was led to a quiet alcove far enough from the grounds that no faux-battle sounds met her ears. Flicker didn’t know whether or not she was allowed to do more than grin, if the Green Knight would think less of her if Flicker were to punch the air or jump up and down. So she followed, and began to speak:
“I want to thank you. For believing in me, I mean. I will do all I can to show you that I am worthy of being a— ,” and the Green Knight made a gesture that sent Flicker’s mouth clicking shut. Hands raised to that emerald helmet, and between blinks, the helmet was removed all together.
The woman was pink-cheeked and fair, with a curtain of golden hair falling around her face. She smiled at Flicker, small and pleased, and Flicker understood, now, why the Green Knight had not laughed with the others.
“People told me that I couldn’t be a knight, too,” the Green Knight murmured. She had warm eyes, like newly tilled soil. Without an audience, her voice was less raspy and low. “Yet, I am here. I came to the challenge as you were, retrieved a scale from the Dragon just as you did. It will be hard work, and you will be challenged each day both by myself and your peers. You will face cruelty and doubt from those around you, but you are brave, young one. You did not rise to their bait, did not taunt when you arrived back in victory.”
“Isn’t part of the knightly code to defeat ignorance? To hold my temper through patience?”
“Indeed it is,” the Green Knight smiled. “Take out your sword. Kneel.”
Flicker unsheathed her training sword and sank down onto one knee. It felt more valuable than the Dragon’s blade in the presence of the Green Knight. A shaft of bronze light slipped into their space, haloing the Green Knight’s hair when she said:
“Are you prepared to swear yourself to valor? To be virtuous to all, and provide aid to those who seek it out? To uphold the weak? To be truthful, and strong?”
The sunshine in her bones burst from Flicker, leaving her with a radiant beam. “I am.”
“Then rise, Flicker the Brave,” the Green Knight said. “Use this night to rest. Come tomorrow, we begin.”
She would be at the training yard before dawn, wooden sword at her hip, and hair with a fresh chop to her chin. First, though, Flicker got to her feet and pitched her arms around the Green Knight. The hug was a surprise to both of them, but the Green Knight did not shove her away. A gentle hand smoothed over Flicker’s hair, over the fire in which she was named, before squeezing her shoulder and nodding toward the opening of the alcove.
Accepting the dismissal, Flicker ran for home, ready to spill her tale across the dinner table.