In every kingdom there exists children who dream bigger dreams than most, but few who have the determination to make those dreams a reality, and only a handful who work hard enough to overcome a mountain of adversity. Albert was one such child, the son of a farmer, diligent, kind to his siblings, obedient to his parents and bursting at the seams with determination.
Albert grew into a fine young man, and when he turned an age appropriate for marriage, his mother and father set out to find a suitable companion, this being a time when dating was still a foreign concept. They informed him that love could blossom over the years, but nothing could replace the perfect pairing of two families' agricultural resources and livestock.
While normally respectful of his parents' advice, Albert thought their views on marriage were outdated. What harm could come from seeking out love and respect from the fairest, most beautiful maiden in all the land?
While tending to the pigs one day, Albert caught the eye of a young princess named Catherine. She admired his strength and focus, fascinated by the way he joked and played with his youngest sister Tabitha between chores. His actions were different from the dukes in the castle, who only cared about how much land they owned, the speed of their stallions or their jousting abilities.
Catherine dared to approach this commoner in her father’s kingdom, and Albert understood the implications of conversing with the king’s daughter. Even though the two young adults grew up with different responsibilities, expectations and education, they managed to find common interests. Both enjoyed outdoor adventures, fishing and the simple joys of gardening. They agreed to meet daily over the course of a month, a length of time that passed swiftly.
On the last day of the month, along a river on the edge of the farm, Catherine and Albert discussed how their lives had crossed, their future plans and how they might tell their parents of the courtship. As the afternoon slipped by and the sun beat down, they enjoyed the shade of a large oak tree. The princess took her favorite book from a picnic basket and began to read aloud a fable called The Huntsman and the Fox. When finished, she handed the book to Albert and asked him to read the next story.
“Catherine, I’m the humble son of a farmer. I never learned to read or write. It serves no purpose in our vocation,” he said.
“Albert, I’m surprised at you for the first time. You must understand the beauty and power in the written word. A man who is well read is a formidable force,” she said.
“One day, I will have a queen who will read and write for me. I will tend to the animals and garden while she manages the kingdom. Our love will sustain us.”
Catherine didn’t want to upset Albert. Moved by his sincerity, she told her parents that evening of her marriage plans. Albert told his parents of his intentions as well, excited to prove that he didn’t require their matchmaking skills. His mother and father were thrilled by his fondness for the princess, a match that would provide their family with financial security for generations.
“How wonderful!” his father exclaimed. “Not only will you have love, but you will have property and more land than any single farmer could manage.”
“How exciting!” Tabitha exclaimed. “My sister-in-law will be a princess and one day the queen.”
Catherine’s parents, while disappointed Albert did not come from royalty, were wise and experienced in these matters. Her mother, the current queen, had been the daughter of a baker and her skills as a chef won over the heart and belly of the king.
“We can’t argue with your choice, as we did the same when we were your age. You have our blessing. We’ll start planning the wedding immediately,” the king said.
All seemed well in the kingdom, a happy ending on the horizon, but then that wouldn’t make for a very interesting story. A villain is necessary, and in this case a shrewd, nasty, no good, rotten villain named Lucian. His hair was long and black as crow’s feathers, skin pale as flour and eyes dark and shifty. He managed to slither his way onto the king’s court as an advisor.
Lucian secretly grew fond of Catherine and jealous of Albert. He hatched a plan from the depths of his small, cold heart in hopes of stealing the kingdom.
Lucian approached Albert one day while the young man tended to the field.
“I’m happy to have caught you alone, since this is a matter of utmost importance, and one that might lead to some embarrassment with the princess if not handled discreetly,” Lucian said.
“If it involves my future wife, then please tell me at once,” Albert said.
“You have not procured a ring for the princess in order to finalize the engagement.”
“I have very little means, and I know Catherine doesn’t care for trinkets.”
“This is written by decree from the king, but if you don’t believe me, I can fetch the scribe so you can read the law for yourself.”
Lucian said this, knowing that Albert could not read.
“No, that won’t be necessary. I will fashion her a ring myself,” Albert said.
“That’s not possible. The ring’s monetary value must equal one-sixth of the royal treasury’s holdings. I’m certain this is why the princess dared not share those details. She doesn’t want to humiliate you due to your low status.”
Albert hung his head in shame at Lucian’s pronouncement, thinking his marriage could not proceed. The king’s adviser pulled a ring from his pocket. An intricate silver band held an opal gem with a blood red river of ruby running through it.
“I wouldn’t come to tell you this if I didn’t have good news to temper the blow. This ring is for you to give her, but you must tell her it’s an heirloom. If she were to discover it came from me, then it could not be accepted.”
Albert left at once to give the ring to Catherine. While she did not often wear jewelry, the sight of an unexpected gift from her future husband made her happy. After Albert placed the ring on Catherine’s finger, her disposition changed. A sly smile formed and her eyes, once radiant, were dulled by deceit.
“We should celebrate our official engagement. Kill me a deer from the royal forest, and I will have a feast prepared,” Catherine said.
“It’s forbidden. Every villager knows only the king can hunt from the royal forest. It’s a death sentence otherwise,” Albert said.
“A man who can’t read or write is going to tell me the law!” Catherine shouted. “As the king’s daughter, I can grant that right to anyone of my choosing. If you can’t provide, I will find another man who can.”
“No, I will do as instructed. I’m sure it’s as you say.”
The next morning Albert took his bow and entered the royal forest. A young buck found its way into his sights, and with nervous anticipation, Albert let loose an arrow. No sooner did he stand over the animal’s dead body, than did a ranger hold him captive by the point of a sword. Albert appealed to the princess, but she denied the allegations, so he pleaded for mercy from the king.
“Give me one year to prove my innocence and commitment to Catherine. I will demonstrate I’m fit to marry your daughter,” Albert said.
The king agreed out of pity, and he placed Albert under the care of the jailor. Lucian used this opportunity to propose marriage to Catherine. To everyone’s surprise she accepted.
Albert’s youngest sister, Tabitha, visited him often. Old books, an ink well, a quill pen and homemade parchment were all she carried. The brother and sister spent many hours together over the course of a year, until the time of Catherine’s wedding. On that day, Albert sat in shackles while he listened to the villagers gather and dance to the festive music being played in the streets.
Lucian and Catherine stood at the altar in an extravagant church, ready to exchange vows in front of the king and queen, and a large group of spectators. Before the ceremony began, the king addressed the couple and the people. He opened a scroll and read from a set of prepared remarks — not by him, but from Albert:
My Dearest King,
Tabitha taught me to read and write during her visits. My hope is that you will honor my persistence and consider the evidence. Lucian betrayed your trust, and I finally discovered the source of Catherine’s dishonesty through careful study of ancient texts. Remove the opal ring from her finger, hear her own words, and if she does not confirm my suspicions then I will submit to the executioner.
Beads of sweat formed on Lucian’s brow as he backed away from Catherine. The king approached her, removed the ring and the radiance in her eyes returned. Her obvious confusion at her current predicament dismayed everyone.
“It’s true, Father, I never agreed to marry Lucian of my own free will. Albert is the victim of your advisor’s treachery and forbidden dark magic,” Catherine said.
“We will indeed have a marriage and an execution on this day,” the king proclaimed.
Albert, albeit a frailer, dirtier version, soon stood at the altar with Catherine. The two finally exchanged vows and Lucian received a just punishment for his misdeeds. The king commissioned a bronze statue in honor of the couple on their one-year anniversary. Engraved on it were these words:
For the prosperity and safety of the kingdom and its people, every man, woman and child will be taught to read and write, no matter their status and position. For love is only at its strongest when it can be freely expressed and understood in both word and deed.
Darn. I forgot to say I love your artwork too. It's been jumping out at me lately. Multi talented. And I forgot (too many distractions here sometimes with 3 dogs demanding dinner) to say I'm glad Albert learned to read and write and save the day!
Fantastic story, I loved the twist.