Baron von Kopfschmerz applauded himself for the solution he found for a suitable husband for his daughter, Flora. “For any man to marry you, daughter, he must demonstrate courage, cleverness, and judgement.” The Baron drank red wine from his goblet. “To that end, I’ve constructed three tests. The first to pass them wins your hand.”
Lady Flora dropped her fork. “But father, I want to marry Sir Hackenberry. Can we not arrange it so?”
“My dear, I don’t think the young man could pass the first one. He’s not even a proper knight.” The baron knew that this boy of her infatuation was one of the self-trained, barely capable nobles from the lower country, whose title didn’t even allow him a place at the knights’ table.
“Please, father. Give him a chance. Let him try.”
The baron ruminated through the rest of dinner. “I do him no favor by allowing it, but he may take the third slot. Sir Achselschweiss and Sir Pantsalot have already signed up.”
He gave Flora no time to answer, for he was finished with dinner and wanted to make preparations.
The next morning, Sir Achselschweiss presented himself to the baron for the contests.
Flora whispered. “He’s hideous, father.”
“Grow up, my dear.”
In the knights’ practice yard, he’d arranged for a large cage with nothing in it except for his daughter’s tiara on a pedestal in the middle and a gigantic tiger. A section of the cage on the left side from the grandstand had been closed off with gates on each side to provide safe entrance. The gates were almost the height of the walls. High on the right side of the main section, a feeding chute was installed. Five beast masters encircled the cage, each with an extra-long spear in his hand.
A few of the baron’s advisors attended, as well as his two sons and most of the proper knights, including Sir Pantsalot. Sir Achselschweiss approached the grandstand and bowed before the baron.
“This is your first test,” said the baron. “With nothing more than a sword and a slab of mutton, you will collect the tiara from inside the cage and present it to Lady Flora.”
The knight bowed and took to the task, his cohorts cheering him on. He opened the outside gate, and the tiger stopped pacing. Achselschweiss closed the outside gate, opened the inside gate, threw the meat on the floor in front of the tiger, and went for the tiara.
The tiger beat him to it, crushing his shoulder in his jaws and bringing him to the ground. The beast masters thrust their spears at the tiger, pushing it off the knight, then one of them fell away, went into the cage, and pulled the man out. The baron’s physician pronounced him dead.
In a somber procession, the knights carried him off.
The next morning, Sir Pantsalot entered the access cage and closed it. Instead of going straight in, Sir Pantsalot, cut a small piece of mutton and dropped it into the tiger’s side. The beast came over, growled, then ate the morsel. With its attention on the bigger slab, Pantsalot threw it to the far end of the cage. As the tiger went after it, Pantsalot burst through the inside gate and grabbed the tiara.
The tiger whirled and lunged at him. Pantsalot dodged, swung his sword, catching the tiger on the shoulder as its claws strafed the side of his armor, then he leapt through the gate and slammed it shut. He stood up, and came out of the access cage, wet blood on one side of his armor, the tiara in his hand.
“Baron von Kopfschmerz and Lady Flora,” he took a knee. “I present to you the royal tiara.”
The second test was a problem set up in the front courtyard in front of the elevated water tank. The baron was quite proud of it. There were two water barrels about four feet high set up on a low wagon, a spigot installed on each one. Tools, lumber, pre-made troughs, piping, and more were arranged next to them.
“This is the water supply for the school children. They’ve been told to drain the left barrel before going to the right, but they are oblivious and disobedient, constantly draining the right one first. With only the supplies provided here, create a system in which the right one always remains full until the left one is empty. You have until the lunch bell.”
Chairs had been provided for the spectators, so they sat and watched the knight work.
Pantsalot gave it a valiant effort, setting up troughs and devising ingenious valves. The contraption even looked like it might work, but the lunch bell rang well before he could finish it.
“I plead with your lordship that I might continue after the meal.”
“No,” said the baron. “I am well impressed by you, Sir Pantsalot. But you will not be married to Lady Flora.”
As the baron escorted Lady Flora to the grandstand the next morning, Sir Hackenberry waited by the stairs and smiled with a naive glee that made the baron pity him. “I’m going to win your hand today,” Sir Hackenberry said to Flora.
“Please,” said Flora. “Don’t do it,” she said. She turned to her father. “I will join the nunnery, father. There is no need for any of this.”
“My dear, grow up. The man is here to win your hand, and I will not deny him the opportunity.” The baron felt a tinge of guilt, for he didn’t believe the boy would make it past the tiger, and he conjectured that his daughter thought the same.
Sir Hackenberry bowed to the grandstand and entered the outside gate. He threw the piece of mutton down on one side of the access cage, and the tiger started in his direction. He opened the inside gate, and, staying behind it, quickly shoving his sword through the latch of the inside door into the hinge of the outside door, jamming it in place to effectively make a cage wall blocking the tiger from him.
The tiger entered the access cage, regarding him from behind the bars. The baron could almost see the cat shrug as it went to the other side and bit into the mutton. Hackenberry pulled the sword out and slipped through, closing himself into the main cage with the inside gate, the tiger still eating the mutton in the access cage.
The baron looked at his daughter. She teared up, but smiled with hope in her eyes. She really was a beautiful prize.
Hackenberry grabbed the tiara, then pulled himself up and through the feeding chute, dropping on the ground. He approached the grandstand and took a knee. “I have your tiara, my love.”
Flora waved at him and laughed. The baron, on the other hand, scowled. The man hardly faced the tiger at all.
When the baron presented the barrels of water to Sir Hackenberry, he had a little more time than Pantsalot. However, when the baron said he must finish before the lunch bell, Hackenberry shouted. “What? No way!” He addressed the baron. “Your lordship, I can do this, but I need more time.”
“No,” said the baron. “If you’re worthy, you will complete it.” He was not about to give Hackenberry an advantage over Pantsalot, and certainly not after his cheat in the first test.
Hackenberry stared at the barrels, then back at Lady Flora. He looked crushed.
“Your Lordship,” said Hackenberry. “If I’m to complete this, I would like the students here as audience.”
“Very well,” said the Baron, and sent an attendant to bring them.
Before the students arrived, Hackenberry fashioned a short platform out of lumber in front of the right barrel. When the students arrived, about forty kids, he addressed them.
“Hello, students, I hope you are learning well. We count on your minds and your acute observation for the well-being of the barony and the kingdom. To that end, I would like you to observe a very important procedure. He held up a finger, then turned and climbed onto the platform. With a hammer he pried open the top of the right barrel and set the lid aside. He then dropped his pants and urinated into it.
The students groaned and the crowd gasped. He pulled his pants back up and resealed the barrel, then turned around and faced the students. “Which barrel are you going to drink out of?”
A chorus of “that one” with fingers pointing to the left erupted from the students. He sauntered over to the seated spectators and addressed the baron. “Problem solved, your lordship.”
The baron was none too pleased and mulled over how he was going to deal with this lower knight when the tests were over. He smiled to himself. The third test was his own kind of cheat because it gave the knight two options, and when the knight finished it, the baron could decide then which option was right and which was wrong. He glanced at his daughter with a tinge of guilt, but he was not going to let this scoundrel win.
After lunch, they assembled in the ceremonial room, the baron at the head table and the spectators to the side. Hackenberry sat at his own small table in the middle. “For the third test,” said the Baron. “You have to make a governing decision. Here is the problem. We are short on water.” The baron sneered and Hackenberry turned red. The baron had him just where he wanted him. “We have enough to keep the moat full or to keep my cherished orchid gardens irrigated, but not enough for both. What shall you do?”
Hackenberry sat and stared at the baron for a while.
“Your grace, for me to pass such a test, I must have true authority over your property so that I may dispatch the commands to have it done. Otherwise it would only be a weak hypothetical.”
The baron clenched his teeth with frustration, but turned to his clerk. “Make it so.” The clerk disappeared, then returned a short while later with papers for Sir Hackenberry to sign. When the formalities were done, Hackenberry conferred privately with the clerk and wrote a few notes, which he signed. The clerk left with them.
“Your grace, I have finished.”
“And what was your decision?” asked the baron.
Hackenberry folded his hands. “Asparagus in the land is happiness in the land, so I have dispatched your messenger to pull out your orchids and to arrange for a farmer to grow asparagus there. All water will be diverted for that project.”
“Why?” roared the baron. “Why have you done this?”
“I have given my reasons,” said Hackenberry.
The baron shook his finger at the boy. “You have failed! Not only have you failed at this, you failed the others too. You did not achieve the purposes for which these tests were designed—to challenge your courage, your cleverness, and your good judgment. Therefore, you failed.”
“With due respect, your grace, you are wrong. I have proven all three of those things.” His face was flushed but firm. “Facing a tiger in a cage with nothing but a sword and steak is stupid, not courageous. By using the arrangement of the cage and the tools in a different way than the test was designed, I proved my cleverness!”
“Demanding the complex task with the barrels in an impossibly short amount of time doesn’t measure cleverness. Therefore, I used my good judgment to scrap the approach entirely and find a different way.”
The knight walked to the front of the baron’s table and glared at him. “The judgement call between saving your orchids or keeping the moat filled is no judgement call at all. Neither your orchids nor the moat are contributing to the well-being of the barony. On the other hand, it takes great courage to defy the baron, who is far more dangerous than a mere tiger.”
Sir Hackenberry leaned in close. “As your son-in-law, I will always challenge your lordship for the good of the barony, and by the capricious way you gambled your daughter’s life upon three contests, I expect it will be often.”
The baron stared at him, stunned, not allowing himself to be stared down by this man. He smacked his lips, then looked at his daughter who looked back with fear and pleading in her eyes. He softened and looked back at the knight, then smiled.
“Huh,” the baron said. “Courageous, good judgment, and about four times clever.” He clapped his hands. “Okay. If she’ll have you, she’s yours.”
The knights cheered, Flora jumped for joy and ran around the table to embrace her husband to be. The baron leaned over to an attendant. “Go catch that clerk and bring him back here to nullify those orders.”