A Story From: Iceland
Read Time: ["20+mins"]
For Ages: 8 to 10yrs.
Stefan and Geirald the Coward ~ Legends Stories for Kids
ONCE UPON A TIME there was a son of a poor knight whose name was Stefan. This young man was sent by his father to town to do some business. Here Stefan met a young man named Geirald the Coward, and the two of them became friends.
Now Geirald was the son of a rich man. For some time, Geirald had set his heart on traveling into foreign countries. After he had been talking for a little while to Stefan, he asked if his new friend would travel with him on his journey.
"There is nothing I would like better," answered Stefan. Then he shook his head sorrowfully. "But my father is very poor, and he could never spare me the money."
"Oh, if that is your only difficulty, it is all right," cried Geirald. "My father has more money than he knows what to do with, and he will give me as much as I want for both of us. Only, there is one thing you must promise me, Geirald. Supposing we have any adventures, you need to let the honor and glory of them fall to me."
"Yes, of course, that is only fair," answered Stefan. "But I cannot go without telling my parents. I am sure they will think me lucky to get such a chance."
Stefan's parents were indeed delighted to hear of his good fortune. His father gave him his own sword, which was growing rusty for want of use, while his mother saw that his leather jerkin was in order.
"Be sure you keep the promise you made to Geirald," said she, as she bade him good-bye, "and, come what may, see that you never betray him."
Full of excitement, Stefan rode off. The next day he and Geirald started off to seek adventures. To their disappointment their own land was so well governed that nothing out of the ordinary was likely to happen, but soon they crossed the border into another kingdom where all seemed lawlessness and confusion.
They had not gone far, when, riding across a mountain, they caught a glimpse of several armed men hiding amongst some trees in their path, and they remembered suddenly some talk they had heard of a band of twelve robbers who lay in wait for rich travelers. The robbers were more like savage beasts than men, and lived somewhere on the mountainside in caves and holes in the ground. The robbers' band was called 'Hankur' and their chief was known as Hankur the Tall. All this and more rushed into the minds of the two young men as they saw the flash of swords in the moonlight.
"It's impossible to fight them - they are twelve to two!" whispered Geirald, stopping his horse in the path. "'We had better ride back and take the lower road. It would be stupid to throw away our lives like this."
"Oh, we can't turn back," answered Stefan, "we would be ashamed to look anyone in the face again! And, besides, imagine if we could teach those robbers a lesson. Let's tie our horses here, and climb up the rocks so that we can roll stones down on them."
"Well, we might try that, and then we could always return to our horses," said Geirald. Silently and carefully, they climbed the rocks.
The robbers were indeed waiting, expecting every moment to see their victims coming round the corner a few yards away. Suddenly, a shower of huge stones fell on their heads. Dazed, the Hankur band was not difficult for Stefan and Geirald to defeat. Stefan wrestled in hand-to-hand combat with chief Hankur the Tall himself, finally defeating him, too. Then Stefan took from Hankur the Tall a beautiful ring set with a large stone, and put it on his own finger.
The fame of this wonderful deed soon spread through the country.
In a few days, they left that kingdom and rode on to another, where they thought they would stop through the remainder of the winter, for Geirald liked to be comfortable and did not care for traveling about through ice and snow. But the king would only grant them permission to stay on one condition: Before the winter was ended, they should give him some fresh proof of the courage of which he had heard so much.
Stefan's heart was glad at the king's message. As for Geirald, he felt that as long as Stefan was there, all would go well. So they both bowed low and replied that it was the king's place to command and theirs to obey.
"Well, then," said his Majesty, "this is what I want you to do: In the northeast part of my kingdom there dwells a giant, who has an iron staff twenty yards long. He is so quick in using his staff that even fifty knights have no chance against him. The bravest and strongest young men of my court have fallen under the blows of that staff. But as you overcame the twelve robbers so easily, I have reason to hope that you may be able to conquer the giant. In three days from this you will set out."
"'We will be ready, your Majesty," answered Stefan, though Geirald remained silent.
"How can we possibly fight against a giant that has already killed fifty knights?" cried Geirald, when they were outside the castle. "The king only wants to get rid of us! He won't think about us for the next three days - that is one comfort - so we will have plenty of time to cross the borders of the kingdom and escape."
"We might not be able to kill the giant, but what celebration we'd bring to this kingdom if we do manage to do it!" answered Stefan. "I know what sort of weapon I shall use. Come with me now, and I will see about it." Taking his friend by the arm, Stefan led Geirald into a shop where he bought a huge lump of solid iron, so big that they could hardly lift it between them. However, they just managed to carry it to a blacksmith's where Stefan directed that it should be beaten into a thick club with a sharp spike at one end. When this was done to his liking he took it home under his arm.
Very early on the third morning, the two young men started on their journey. On the fourth day, they reached the giant's cave before he was out of bed. Hearing the sound of footsteps, the giant got up and went to the entrance to see who was coming. Stefan, expecting something of the sort, struck him such a blow on the forehead that he fell to the ground. Then, before he could rise to his feet again, Stefan drew out his sword and cut off his head.
"It was not so difficult after all, you see," he said, turning to Geirald. Placing the giant's head in a leather bag which was slung over his back, they began their journey back to the castle.
As they drew near the gates, Stefan took the head from the bag and handed it to Geirald, whom he followed into the king's presence.
"The giant will trouble you no more," said Geirald to the king, holding out the head. The king fell on his neck and kissed him, and cried joyfully that he was the bravest knight in all the world, and that a feast should be made for him and Stefan, and that the great deed should be proclaimed throughout the kingdom. Geirald's heart swelled with pride, and he almost forgot that it was Stefan, and not he, who had slain the giant.
By-and-by a whisper went round that a beautiful lady who lived in the castle would be present at the feast, with twenty-four lovely maidens as her attendants. The lady was the queen of her own country, but as her father and mother had died when she was a little girl, she had been left in the care of this king, who was her uncle, until she was old enough to rule by herself.
The lady was now old enough to govern her own kingdom, and was looking for the right husband to help her in managing the affairs. Prince after prince had offered himself, but the young queen would have nothing to say to any of them, and at last told her ministers that if she was to have a husband at all she must choose him for herself, as she would certainly not marry any of those whom they had selected for her.
Now when she heard how the two young men had slain the giant, her heart was filled with admiration of their courage. She declared that if a feast was held she would certainly be present.
And so she was. When the feast was over, she asked the king, her guardian, if he would allow Geirald, the hero known to have defeated the robbers and slain the giant, to fight a tournament the next day with one of her pages. The king gladly gave his permission. He ordered the tournament lists to be made ready, never doubting that the great champion would be eager for such a chance of adding to their fame. Little did he guess that Geirald had done all he could to persuade Stefan to steal secretly out of the castle with him during the night: "For," said Geirald, "I don't believe they will set a page against me at all, but a well-proven knight, and how can I, so young and untried, stand up against him?"
"The honor will be all the higher if you gain the day," answered Stefan; but Geirald would listen to nothing, and only declared that he did not care about honor, and would rather be alive than have every honor in the world heaped on him. Escape he would, and as Stefan had sworn to give him his company, he must come along.
Stefan was much grieved when he heard these words, but he knew that it was useless attempting to persuade Geirald. Suddenly his face brightened. "Let us change clothes," he said. "I will do the fighting, while you shall get the glory. Nobody will ever know." To this Geirald readily agreed.
Whether Geirald was right or not in thinking that the so-called page would really be a well-proven knight, it is certain that Stefan's task was much harder than he had expected. Three times, Stefan and the page came together with a crash which made their horses reel. Once, Stefan knocked the helmet off his foe, and received in return such a blow that he staggered in his saddle. Shouts went up from the lookers-on, as first one and then the other seemed gaining the victory. At last Stefan planted his spear in the armor which covered his opponent's breast and bore him steadily backward. "Unhorsed! unhorsed!" cried the people. Stefan then dismounted and helped the page to rise.
In the confusion that followed it was easy for Stefan to sIip away and return to Geirald his proper clothes. And in these, torn and dusty with the fight, Geirald was the one who answered the king's summons to come before him.
"You have done what I expected you to do," said he. "Now, choose your reward."
"Grant me, sire, the hand of the queen, your niece," replied the young man, bowing low, "and I will defend her kingdom against all her enemies."
"She could choose no better husband," said the king. "If she consents I do, too." The king turned towards the queen, who had not been present during the fight, but had just slipped into a seat by his right hand. Now the queen's eyes were very sharp, and it seemed to her that the man who stood before her, tall and handsome though he might be, was different in many slight ways, and in one in particular, from the man who had fought the tournament.
How there could be any trickery she could not understand, and why the real victor should be willing to give up his prize to another was stranger still; but something in her heart warned her to be careful. She answered, "You may be satisfied, uncle, but I am not. One more proof I must have; let the two young men now fight against each other. The man I marry must be the man who killed the robbers and the giant, and the man who overcame my page."
Geirald's face grew pale as he heard these words. He knew there was no escape for him now.
The tournament was fought. In spite of Geirald's fears, Stefan managed to hang back to make attacks which were never meant to succeed, and to allow strokes which he could easily have parried to attain their end. At last, after a great show of resistance, Stefan fell heavily to the ground. And as he fell, he knew that it was not alone the glory that he gave up, but the hand of the queen that was more precious still.
But Geirald did not even wait to see if his comrade was wounded; he went straight to the wall where the royal banner waved and claimed the reward which was now his.
The crowd of watchers turned towards the queen, expecting to see her stoop and give some token to the victor. Instead, to the surprise of everyone, she merely smiled gracefully, and said that before she bestowed her hand one more test must be imposed, but this should be the last. The final tournament should be fought; Geirald and Stefan should meet singly two knights of the king's court, and whoever who could unhorse his opponent should be master of herself and of her kingdom. The combat was fixed to take place at ten o'clock the following day.
All night long, Geirald walked about his room, not daring to face the fight that lay in front of him, and trying with all his might to discover some means of escaping it. All night long he moved restlessly from door to window. When the trumpets sounded in the morning and the combatants rode into the field, he alone was missing. The king sent messengers to see what had become of him, and he was found hiding under his bed. After that, there was no need of any further proof. The combat was declared unnecessary, and the queen pronounced herself quite satisfied and ready to accept Stefan as her husband.
"You forgot one thing," she said, when they were alone. "I recognized my father's ring which Hankur the Tall had stolen, on the finger of your right hand, and I knew that it was you and not Geirald who had slain the robber band. I was the page who fought you, and again I saw the ring on your finger, though it was absent from the hand of Geirard when he stood before me to claim the prize. That was why I ordered the combat between you, though your faith to your word prevented my plan from being successful, and I had to try another test. A man who keeps his promise at all costs to himself is a man I can trust, both for myself and for my people."
So they were married, and returned to their own kingdom, which they ruled well and happily. And many years after, a poor beggar knocked at the palace gates and asked for money for the sake of days gone by, and this was Geirald, who was ushered in, and welcomed.
Question 1: Keeping a promise was more important to Stefan than marrying the queen. Why did the queen like that about him?
Question 2: Is there ever a time when it would be all right to break a promise?
Retold by Elaine L. Lindy from "How Geirald the Coward was Punished," from The Brown Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang (Longman's, Green & Co.: 1904).
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