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Damsel in Distress? I Don't Think So.
Percival strode confidently towards the large, imposing door. He was fully aware of every tense, anxious eye that rest upon him; every sharp, anticipating breath being held for his sake. But there was no doubt in his mind that his lover had directed him to the door that would save him.
‘A pity,’ he thought, ‘That these people shall waste precious moments for me. For soon I shall be joined with a charming but useless maiden. There will be a few short, joyous moments, but the only time I can anticipate is that which I shall spend with my princess after we run away together.’
For you see, the night previous the princess, Helga, had visited him in the dungeons, disguised as a maid. She had told him that the next day she would direct him to the appropriate door. Once the crowd had gotten its show and the king was convinced, the two would sneak off together under the blanketed security of the night. But she would not reveal to him which door at that moment. As she told him, “My dear, we wouldn’t want to ruin that surprise, now would we?”
And so here he stood, with his head held high, reaching towards the door Helga had led him to; the door on the right. His hands clasped the cold metal handle, slowly turning it to heighten the effect for the crowd. He finally turned the handle to its limit and pulled the door towards him to reveal…
The princess sat, frozen in fright. Her stomach churned sickeningly at the sight of her beloved in the vast, low arena, walking purposefully towards the door which she had directed him. ‘How could I have done this?’ she thought. ‘How could I have been so foolish? I am sending him to this horrible fate, simply because the alternative is too much for me to bear? How can I be so selfish and cruel?’ Watching him stride so confidently to the door nearly killed her. ‘I cannot sit and watch this, I must try to help.’ She glanced at her father, who was too enraptured with the scene to notice her depart. Quietly, she rose from her seat, grabbing a carving knife from the plate they had feasted off of before the trial had begun. She snuck out in a manner she hoped would be discreet. Silently praying that Percy could defend himself until she was close enough, she sped down the steps. Percy’s startled cry and the hiss of the beast met her ears as she rounded the corner down the stairs and tears started to pour.
“Oh, Percy,” she whispered. “What have I done?”
Percy stood on the gravelly arena floor, dumbfounded. There, where he had expected to be the blushing maiden, crouched a massive tiger, hissing and contorting its face into a malicious smirk.
In those few precious moments it took for his body to catch up with his brain, time seemed to creep forward. He saw everything in perfect detail. It was as if he had been blessed with a moment, however short, to think. Unfortunately, that fact didn’t quite register with Percy, who instead whipped his head around to the elaborate thrones where the king and Helga sat. Or rather, should have been seated. In those slow moments, he saw and understood several things. The barbaric, grotesque smile stretched across the king’s face and his beloved’s devastatingly empty chair.
Up until that point, Percy had assumed Helga had simply made an honest mistake. But, seeing that vacant seat, it caused a surge within him. An ugly medley of emotion fueled him. Pure anger, confusion, and terror nearly overwhelmed him. ‘The coward,’ he fumed, ‘she sends me to the tiger’s den and can’t even stay to face the choice.’
Then, as shockingly fast as it had come, the miraculous slowing of time vanished, leaving him painfully aware of his situation. He was defenseless, trapped and alone in a deep arena, facing a terrifying tiger. Luckily, the tiger was just a little too large to have a swift stride, causing it to lumber heavily towards him. Percy backed up, knowing it was only a matter of time before the beast became familiar with the arena and would charge. He glanced frantically around the walls, desperate for some saving grace. He may be a skilled warrior, but he felt utterly lost.
The beast crept past the door, its silky coat dazzlingly bright as it reflected the sun. And then, without warning, it charged. It was the most beautiful and terrifying thing he had ever seen. Praying that the beast wasn’t incredibly bright, Percy ran towards the wall of the arena as fast as his terror-stricken body would allow.
With no time to think, he jumped in an arc at the wall, hoping to latch on to something and confuse the tiger. But, just as his plan seemed it might work, his foot caught a snag. The audience gasped and the tiger crouched, preparing to pounce. Percy was in mid jump when a horrified voice cried; “Percy!” and a knife flew through the air at him.
Helga stood, momentarily paralyzed, conjuring up ridiculous possibilities of what could go wrong if she didn’t get to Percy fast enough.
‘Fool!’ She thought angrily to herself. ‘No time for thinking now! Just run!’ The muffled gasps and screams bounced off her ears as she sprinted through the dank hallway. She would not be distracted. Finally, she reached the end of the hallway that opened right at the low side of the arena towards which Percy was racing. ‘What are you doing, Percy?’ she wondered. If he didn’t stop soon he’d crash into the wall. And then, he jumped. Helga gasped and prepared herself to throw him the knife. It all depended if Percy was ready and if she focused. Just as his foot made contact with the wall, she shouted desperately “Percy!” and, as he looked up, threw the dagger straight at him. Without pausing to see the outcome, she raced back downstairs to complete her impossible plan.
It would be an insult to Percy’s skill if his catch was described as magnificent. It was one of the luckiest, and yet, most skilled catches ever seen and remembered. Just as he kicked off the wall and arched over the attacking tiger, he caught the knife’s handle. The crowd erupted in cheers. It crossed Percy’s mind that he should look up and see the identity of his savior, but he had bigger problems at the moment. The tiger ran at him, but Percy was ready. As the tiger approached, adrenaline pumping through Percy’s veins, he leapt out of the way, piercing the tiger’s shoulder with the dagger. The tiger staggered, more shocked than injured. It wasn’t much, but it gave Percy time to regroup. He took several steps back but, before he could even begin to strategize, he was falling straight down a tunnel, watching the light of day shrink smaller and smaller. The darkness of the tunnel was worse than anything Percy had experienced. It was an ocean-like, thick black, suffocating him.
“What the-” He cried as he landed on a soft pile of moldy blankets. He looked around, stunned. He felt around blindly until his eyes adjusted to the nearly non-existent light and could make out blurred outlines in the chilled darkness. He was in a small room containing only the blankets on which he had fallen and a small stool. He felt his way to towards a locked wooden door. Pounding on the door, he shouted with all his volume.
“Hey! Someone! Help me!” This continued for several minutes until he heard footsteps nearing. He could hear the fumbling of keys in a lock and then the door burst open.
Helga breathed a sigh of great relief as her eyes met the disheveled but unharmed Percy.
“What!” he cried.
“Shh!” Helga urged. “Please! I’ll try to explain, but please keep quiet.” The light from her lamp illuminated the confusion and bitterness displayed on his face.
“I know, you have no reason to trust me after what I did, but please!”
Percy glared but responded, “Fine.” They rushed along the dark corridor, Helga frantically whispering.
“Percy, I am so sorry! I don’t know how I could’ve been so cruel!” Tears were starting to fall. “I just, just, wasn’t thinking and the idea of you with her-” But she was cut short by Percy’s furious voice.
“But didn’t you think of our plans? It would’ve all worked out!”
Helga looked down, ashamed, and nearly tripped. “I know. But you know how I get. My stupid rash decisions always cause me trouble. I’m just afraid this is one mistake I’ve made that can’t be undone.” They had stopped running and were staring into each other’s eyes desperately.
Percy contemplated this. Her quick choices and hot temper were some of the things he loved about her. How could he fault her for that? It didn’t matter anymore that it had almost killed him. He
would rather be with Helga the way she was than resent her for one bad decision. He took her in his arms and kissed her gently. She knew all was forgiven.
“So,” she said as the broke apart. “I think it might be best for us to get as far away from this dreadful place as fast as we can. Where do you think we shall go, my love?” They resumed their flee from the arena surreptitiously.
“Oh, I don’t know, dear.” Percy smiled dryly. “I do have one request though,”
“Oh? What’s that?”