There was a feeling of tension and destiny as the first fingers of light whispered on the horizon. Horses whinnied, traces clinked, and men talked in low tones. Detlef shivered in the cool morning air as he cinched his saddle in place. Summer was fading away and autumn was quick on its heels.
“You can ride mine.” Matthias stepped up beside him. “He’s faster than your gray.”
Detlef chuckled softly. “Thanks. But Timothy and I know each other. It’s better for me to ride him today.”
Matthias scuffed the ground with his shoe. “I never thought I would say this to my baby brother…” He lifted his head, his eyes seeking out Detlef’s in the half light. “…but I’m proud of you. The way you are standing up for what you believe, keeping your promises, and pursuing your goals…you might turn out to be a man after all.”
Horses milled about and Detlef scanned the horizon, embarrassed by his brother’s praise. The king was mounted; they would be leaving soon. “You better mount that fast horse of yours,” Detlef mumbled.
“I will. We’ll be hunting the princess today.” Matthias smacked Detlef’s shoulder and turned away. “Funny thing…my heart’s not in it anymore.”
Detlef watched his brother go. Then he leaned his head against Timothy’s warm neck. “Ride well for me today, boy. We’ve got a princess to save,” he whispered.
Moments later, he was mounted, as were the other men. He guided his horse toward the king.
“Foreign boy!” Emil swung his horse in front of Timothy. “The tournament stakes have been raised. What do you say? You and me in a race to the princess!” His blood red bay pranced nervously. “Your horse is the color of a rock. I hope it moves faster than one.”
Detlef’s dark eyes flashed, and Emil jerked his chin into the air in the acknowledgement of the challenge.
“Men!” The king’s voice bellowed over the gathered crowd. “I need not tell you the enormity of the stakes before you. It is believed that my daughter is held hostage by a rogue clan, hidden deep in the Great Forest. Your orders are to secure her at all costs.” His horse shifted from side to side.
“May I speak?” The queen’s voice pierced through the soft gray light that was creeping over the crowd. In a moment, she was lifted up onto a garden wall where she could be seen. “I thank you, men, for seeking to rescue my daughter. For better or worse, we believe the clan is looking for a husband for Ilona. Be prepared for tests of character, created by the clan.” Her voice was strong and clear. “Passing these tests will help you find my daughter sooner. And may God be with you!” At the last, her voice broke and she pressed her hand against her mouth to catch a sob.
The king lifted a banner over his head. “Gather your reins, men!” His voice rose to a mighty shout. “And…CHARGE!”
Horses leapt into full gallops -- across the fields, so clear and empty, toward the distant darkness of the Great Forest. The men spread out in fan formation, wider and wider, preparing to enter the forest as a wide swath of search and rescue. But by some design, Emil was racing next to Detlef, only 50 yards to his left.
Detlef lay low over Timothy’s neck, and the ground flew by, disappearing behind him like water poured over a rock. Over rolling hills they raced, until they reached the treeline. High above them, the tallest branches reflected bright green in the dawn. “Whoa, boy.” Looking back, Detlef saw Emil several paces back, also slowing his horse. Emil shrugged, trying to pass off his defeat.
Detlef held up two fingers. Two out of three. He won.
And at that moment, the sun burst over the horizon in his full glory. It lit the fields in gold, and made little patches of fog shimmer in its brightness. Far behind, the castle sat atop a hill, surrounded by its gardens and shrubbery and little orchards. And scattered across the fields between Detlef and the castle, the fan of men continued to make its way toward the forest, each man choosing his own pace.
Emil reached the forest edge, several yards down. He paused and pointed a finger at Detlef. “To the princess,” he challenged. Then he spurred his horse and disappeared into the forest.