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Falk's Oath

Falk was the youngest of seven princes in a kingdom that was not particularly rich. The three eldest went out on a ritual quest in hopes of finding wealth and honor, but on their way home, having indeed found both wealth and honor, they fell into the hands of an evil king who imprisoned them, claiming they'd committed a hideous crime. Some say each of the princes had done something foolish, and some tell it that they had done nothing at all. This evil king, it is said, had told his officers to accuse any wealthy traveler of serious crimes, that he might enrich himself thereby, stealing their possessions and—when chance allowed—demanding a ransom to free them.

A prince—certainly three princes—suited this king's ambitions. He was certain he could wring substantial ransom from their father. So word was sent to their father that vast sums must be paid, hundreds of gold pieces for each, or the princes would be enslaved for the rest of their lives. With great difficulty, Falk's father collected almost the sum demanded, and sent Falk (not wishing to risk the next eldest brothers) to pay the ransom.

Falk was then just of age to be knighted, a youth of handsome mien and very popular for his gracious manners and his generous nature. As the youngest, he had no pride of place, and—his mother having died at his birth—he had never been indulged, but rather blamed for her death, as sometimes happens. He loved all his brothers, though they were—as elders can be—sometimes less than loving to him. He did imagine that he might do great deeds someday that would impress his father and his brothers, as any youth brought up on ideals of honor and courage might, but on the whole he did what he was bid day by day without complaints. So he took the gold, which he knew was not enough, and hoped to convince the evil king to free his brothers anyway.

When he arrived at the evil king's palace, and was announced, he was brought before the king, and there on one side were his brothers, half-naked and bound in chains, gaunt, with the marks of ill-treatment on them. Falk would have gone to them and embraced them, but the king prevented him, saying "Have you brought the ransom?"

"I have," Falk said. He could not bring himself to lie. "As much as my father could gather," he added. He handed over the bags of gold, and there before the king one of the king's men counted them out, lip curled scornfully that not all were the large gold pieces, but many were silver or even copper. And the count was short, as Falk knew it would be: ten full gold pieces short.

"How dare you!" the wicked king said. "You waste my time with this! You have coins in your wallet, I daresay."

And Falk did, money to feed himself and his brothers on their way home. But at the king's wrath, and though he knew it would still be too little, he emptied wallet and pockets of everything he had, and stripped the birth-ring from his finger, and the king's man counted this too. It was still short, by eight gold pieces and two silvers.

"You waste my time," the king said again. "If I were not a merciful man, I would imprison you as well and take this gold for my time you have wasted, but it is enough to ransom some of you. Choose who will go free."

"Let them go, and take me," Falk said, looking at his brothers. He could not imagine going back to his father without all of them. He could not imagine leaving one behind.

"What, and then he will send another without the right ransom again, and I will have the feeding of you all that time?"

"No," Falk said, though he felt the cruelty in that king's gaze, and knew that the "feeding" would be all too little, if the king agreed. But he was young and thought he could endure it better than his brothers. "No, I will swear to serve you as you please for a term of years—a year for each?—to make up the missing ransom for the one."

"And your own," the king said, stroking his beard. "A year for each is not enough." Looking on Falk's youth, the king took pleasure in the thought of spoiling his life, and the joy of his brothers and father as well. "I do not know what your work is worth, certainly not near eight gold pieces a year. My serfs are not worth so much. Let me think—you are one of seven brothers. Two years for each of you—fourteen years, are you willing?"

"Yes," said Falk, though he felt a great hollow inside at the thought. How could that be fair, when three of his brothers had never been prisoners here? And could he survive fourteen years of servitude under such a man? Yet other men did; some were slaves for a lifetime. Surely he, a prince bred and trained, could stand it if they could. "Free them," he said, as if the order were his to give.

So there in the king's hall, the king's men stripped Falk of his princely clothes and threw them to his brothers to wear, and he was put in chains and led away, not allowed even one parting embraces or touch of his brothers' hands. The youngest of those, who had been Falk's favorite, called out "We will keep your place for you!" and a guard hit him across the face. Then the brothers, afraid to curse the evil king for fear of what he would then do to Falk, took their leave and struggled home, hungry and exhausted, for they had no money; they had Falk's horse, but sold the horse halfway home, for food.

When they arrived, the eldest begged his father to raise an army to invade and free their brother, but the king refused. "His mother died to birth him; if it comes to that, he owes a life to the crown." Then the king announced a celebration for the brothers' return. He sought for them beautiful wives, and one by one they married and had children, and they did their best not to think of their brother's fate, who had bought their freedom.

Falk's suffering under the evil king can well be imagined: hunger and thirst, beatings and hard work, day on day and into the night, season after season. He did every kind of hard and dirty work the king could think of, under the king's hardest taskmasters, for the king enjoyed seeing his humiliation. It galled the king that Falk did not complain; he fainted sometimes, from hunger or overwork, but never refused to work until he dropped. The king had him punished unfairly, sure that would make him complain, but it did not. Falk held to his oath, and to the knowledge that he had freed three of his brothers from prison and three others from the need of trying to rescue them.

As the years passed, the work and ill-treatment took their toll on Falk's body, but not his spirit. No longer the handsome, princely youth, now he looked like any mistreated serf, scarred, stooped, stiff of joint. He forgot the flavor of fine foods, the feel of soft cloth, the comfort of a soft bed and warm blanket in cold, or a cooling bath in summer.

And yet, now and again, unbidden and beyond the evil king's control, some comfort came: the scent of wild plum in spring, of roses in summer, the sound of birds singing: all those came over the walls behind which he lived. The other servants gradually came to admire him, where first they had mocked, and now and then one slipped him an extra nubbin of cheese, or spoke a kind word to him. He cherished these as gifts of the gods, as proof that he was right to have sworn that oath, and right to keep it, and he did what he could to ease the anguish of others from the nothing that he himself had.

At last the years of his servitude were up, though he had lost track of the time himself, and it was only by the king's accountant mentioning the matter that the king was reminded. He had long grown tired of the game anyway—though he would not have loosed Falk sooner for that—for Falk as a scarred, crooked man looking older than his years was no sport now. So on the morning of that fourteenth year's completion, Falk was bidden to the king's hall for the first time since he had left it fourteen years before.

"My accountant tells me your debt is paid," the king said, peeling a peach. "Do you have anything to say?" He still hoped Falk would make some complaint, and give excuse for a final whipping.

"I kept my oath," Falk said, after a moment of silence.

"You were a fool to make such an oath," the king said. And to his men, "Strip him and send him away naked as he was born, for fools have no right to mercy." So his men stripped Falk of the loincloth he wore, and pushed him out of the hall, the courtyard and beyond the palace walls, jeering all the way.

But outside the walls, when Falk had stumbled a few paces into the little shanty village that lay there, the people came out and spoke kindly to him, for they knew his story. This one brought him water, and that one a hunk of bread, and another brought a patched shirt, and another a pair of ragged pants, too wide and too short, with a length of twisted straw for a belt. From the village well, someone drew a bucket of water for him to bathe before he put the clothes on. He could scarcely speak, but they patted his shoulders and sent him on his way with soft words of encouragement.

When he arrived back at his own land, after a difficult journey during which he had worked for food on farms and in towns, he was but little stronger, and he was almost turned back at the border. "How do we know you are that prince? Where is your ring? You look nothing like the men you claim as brothers!" the guards said. But at last he was allowed on his way, and at last he came to his father's palace and there he found his father still on the throne, but now more gray, and his brothers ranged on either side, their wives with them, and their children playing at their feet. Where there had once been seven seats for the princes, now there were but six.

"Who is this beggar come to the king's hall?" asked the king his father of the steward.

Before the steward could speak, Falk replied, "It is I: Falk, your son who was held captive."

"Is it fourteen years already?" the king said, glancing at his other sons. "If I had thought, we might have had a feast prepared-" He looked more sharply at Falk. "You have changed," he said.

"I kept my oath," Falk said.

His third brother rose from his seat and said, "Falk, I am sorry—I should have kept better count—but come, here is a seat for you!"

But the king said, "Never mind that—he is filthy and unkempt. Let him bathe and dress properly and then we shall talk of what is to be done."

Falk was taken to a guest chamber, not the best, and there bathed, his hair and beard trimmed, and given clothes to wear. The servants did not seem to know how to treat him, until he was dressed again in princely garments, and even then frowned more than they smiled. At dinner that evening, everyone stared at Falk, some with worry and some—including his brothers' wives—with contempt when he dropped a bit of food or his fork clinked on the plate. He had not eaten at a proper table for all those years; he had forgotten how to handle the implements and his scarred crooked hands were clumsy.

And yet, free once more, neither hungry nor confined, he was happy enough to surprise himself. Looks of contempt did not matter; he had had nothing else for fourteen years. For the next few tendays, he wandered the palace, reminding himself of the places he had so enjoyed as a youth: gardens, fountains, beautiful rooms, music played in the evenings, comfortable clothes, his soft bed. He went to the stable, and was assigned a mount, but he found mounting and riding painful now, from the damage to his hips and knees. Still he kept trying, riding slowly through the orchards and along the fields, rejoicing in being free of chains and locks, unthreatened by whips.

He noticed that most of his brothers avoided him, all but the third, who spoke kindly to him and had another seat moved to the king's hall so that Falk could sit at the high table. He did not try to approach them. Gradually his strength returned somewhat with good food and rest, though the gray in his hair and beard, that made him look older than the others, did not darken, and his scars did not disappear.

Finally his father called him in. Falk knelt, though it was painful, and waited to hear what his father would say.

"I am sorry for your suffering," the king said. "But the fact is—I can find no wife for you. You have no look of royalty anymore and bear no resemblance to our house. You're too old. And I have six sons—six other sons. Why not move out to the country, into the hills where the shepherds range? There I will give you a nice house, some land, I'll provide some servants-"

"You're ashamed of me," Falk said. "Though I kept my oath."

The king turned red in the face, and Falk saw in his father the same cruelty he had seen in the evil king's face. "Take the house," his father said. "But leave my court. You are not the son I knew before."

So Falk left his father's court, and the king's third son also left the court to go with Falk, bringing along his wife and their two children. It had been Falk's idea to wander the world and help those in need, but his brother and his brother's wife convinced him to settle somewhere for the sake of the children. Falk would not consider the house the king had promised, or even his father's kingdom, so they traveled for a time. Falk's tale spread and when he settled at last, people came to him for protection and for advice on how to live with honor.

Because Falk's brother had known himself a prince all his life, and had more pride in his birth than Falk, he believed that it was Falk's royal blood that made him capable of both making and keeping such an oath as had saved the brothers. And—having been a captive only a short time—he retained the face and body of a prince. He it was who told Falk's story abroad, in one noble household after another, making it such a tale of high courage and honor that other youths whose hearts were set on honor came and begged to learn of Falk. Thanks to Falk's brother, it was mostly those of noble birth who came to be taught. Yet other tales of Falk went from one peasant to another, from the village outside the cruel king's castle all across the land, and from those tales came those under cruel rulers, asking Falk's help.

Thus the tradition began, and in later times the followers of Falk, unlike those of Gird, believe that leadership ability and a love of honor is inborn and more likely to occur in those of noble birth. Falk himself was gracious to all, even the most humble who sought his teaching, and insisted that they not be excluded. Both of them, Falk and his brother, and then his brother's children, taught the importance of honor and oathkeeping in all things, as well as the arts of war, to be used to protect the helpless.

* * * *

It is not known where Falk lived, or exactly when, or how he died. Many tales have been told of him, and some may be true. Certain it is that great deeds have been done in Falk's name, and many who call upon him have found unexpected aid in peril. Still, Falkians have dwindled since the time of Gird. Only one training hall for Knights of Falk remains, somewhere in the forests of Lyonya. There each Knight of Falk receives a small ruby, a symbol of the blood Falk shed to save others. It is said that if a Knight of Falk betrays the oath of service to Falk, the ruby disappears.

The End

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