The afternoon sun shone lazily on the arena. Flies buzzed annoyingly close to Ilona’s ear as she mounted the steps to the shaded platform where her papa sat. In the field beyond him, she could see the band of competitors, standing in groups on the drying grass. Emil and Detlef were among them…as were the silent, red-faced man and the bald ambassador. And farther beyond them were the archery targets.
“Come, my dear, and sit beside me.” Her papa spread his fingers toward a chair. “You should watch the games, as they will help us decide which man is right for you.”
Ilona took her seat. “You wish me to marry an archery champion?”
“Ilona, the man who marries you may very well one day become king in my stead. The council reminds me of the importance of this daily. Therefore, it is our hope that you will fall in love with a capable warrior.”
Ilona turned her eyes to the field as 40 men took aim and fired at the target. Those who missed were eliminated, and the targets were moved farther away. Ilona wrapped the edge of her sash around her finger. “The council is worried I may choose incorrectly?”
“Fire!” Twenty-some men took aim and released their arrows. Fifteen met their mark.
The king cheered. Then he patted Ilona’s arm. “The council wishes to choose your husband for you. They think it is their duty to ensure the future of the kingdom through your marriage. But I will have none of their arguments. You are first and foremost my daughter. You should get to choose your own husband.” He waved his arm toward the field and the targets were repositioned for the next round.
As the afternoon wore on, the number of competitors dwindled. Each round eliminated men until only 4 men were standing: Emil, Detlef, the red-faced man, and a man whom Ilona vaguely recognized as Detlef’s older brother, Matthias.
Emil turned and winked at Ilona as men carried the targets to their greatest distance. Ilona blushed, and her papa, seeing the look, chuckled.
“Ready, your majesty,” a servant prompted.
The king stood up and shouted in his booming voice. “Ready, men! Take aim! Fire!”
Four arrows launched into the air. Ilona held her breath. Thunk! The arrows hit their targets. Emil’s missed his target entirely. The red-faced man’s caught the edge of the target. But both Detlef’s and his brother’s arrow hit dead center. Detlef turned and caught her eye with a look that made her heart beat faster, and she almost missed seeing Emil’s apologetic shrug.
“Men!” Her papa’s voice carried all the way across the field. “My servants tell me that we barely have time to let the ladies dress for this evening.” A chuckle rippled through the crowd. “So we will call our results a tie between King Rowan’s sons, and retire to the castle. Well done, men! All of you! There will be fencing tomorrow!”
(by Esther Brooksmith)