Once upon a time there was a magical kingdom. Everyone in the kingdom was magical, but their powers were all mundane. For example, Mr. Brown had the magical ability to fish. This did not mean he was any good at it, or even that he liked it. He just had the power to hold a fishing rod dangling over a body of water. Although this ability was magical, in fact it was identical in efficaciousness to an ordinary person’s ability to hold a fishing rod over a body of water. Likewise, everyone in the kingdom had a special magical ability to do something just as well as everyone else could do it without magic.
One day, the captain of the King’s Gourd decided to do something about that. He was in actuality the captain of the king’s guard, but the king made a spelling mistake and tried to pass it off as deliberate, saying that the guard was, in point of fact, primarily in charge of protecting his gourd (he rapped his head with a knuckle at this point to indicate what figurative gourd he meant), although not to the exclusion of the rest of his person. The Gourd captain’s name was Sir Pethinor, and his magical ability was to breathe through his nose. He was glad of the ability, but thought that magical powers ought to be a bit more powerful. He began to study the dark arts during his lunch breaks. He had some limited success, learning how to breathe through his nose evilly, but it still left a bit to be desired. He decided a quest was in order. He put on his magical armor (which magically protected him from blows up to but not exceeding the force required to puncture or dent the metal) and took up his magical sword (which could only be removed from stones by the One True King, or anyone else) and set out on his quest.
He began by visiting the village of Tumpledon, which was where witches lived. He asked for Madame Grizoul, the most magical witch in the kingdom. A helpful lad helped him gladly and directed him to a large house on a hill near the center of town. Sir Pethinor tied up his magical horse and walked up the walk and knocked on the door.
“Enter!” came a voice from inside the house. He entered.
There was an old woman there, stirring a large pot. “Is that a magic cauldron?” asked the knight.
“Yes, it is! It magically holds liquids while they are heated!” she cackled.
The knight was disappointed. It didn’t sound like her magic was any better than his. He decided to ask anyway, since he was there already.
“I am looking for magic that is more powerful than the lack of magic,” he said.
The witch looked up from the cauldron. “I might know the secret to that, but if I did I couldn’t tell you. But I might say that your magic works very hard to stay ordinary. It wouldn’t do for it to make you worse at breathing through your nose than normal people, would it?”
“How did you know that was my power?” cried the knight, impressed.
“Silly fool, everyone can tell what others’ powers are just from looking at them!”
“—thing’s easier, I know. Now, I’ve told you I can’t tell you, but I’ve told you enough anyway. Be off with you!”
The knight left her house, confused. She hadn’t made a lot of sense. But she did seem to be able to tell what others’ powers were, and that was definitely real, proper magic that actually did something extraordinary. Why did she think everyone could do it though? Maybe she was just crazy. He wondered if being crazy were the key.
He shook his head and begin riding home. Something still bothered him about what she had said. He was lost in thought trying to figure out what it was when he realized the bridge he was crossing was blocked. Two rough-looking men with halberds stood in the way, and he noticed that others were moving to surround him.
“What’s this? Out of my way! I am a royal knight of—”
“That’s enough talking. We ain’t here for talk, just your money. And your sword,” said one of the bandits.
Sir Pethinor said “Oh, you want my sword, do you? Well, I’m all too happy to oblige! Ha!” He drew his sword and began to lay about him with it. Unfortunately, the halberds gave the bandits better range and he soon felt himself yanked from the saddle by a hook. He yelped as he hit the ground and struggled to get up, but he was quickly disarmed. The bandits searched him and his packs as he indignantly protested. Finally, the bandit who had spoken before came and demanded that he remove his armor. It was the most valuable thing he had, and his father had given it to him. It was magical, but that particular feature didn’t increase its value.
“Never!” cried Sir Pethinor.
“We’ll throw you in the river in a minute, so it’s really just to save you from drowning. We’re not such bad types,” the bandit said with a smile. “And it is easier to remove knight armor if the wearer is cooperative, so let’s help each other out, eh?”
This isn’t good, thought Sir Pethinor. It’s drown or lose my most prized possession. If only my magical ability to breathe through my nose worked underwater. Why must magic be so useless?
He remembered the witch who had been able to see his ability. What had she done? She hadn’t seemed to know she couldn’t do it? Would that work? Maybe if he thought it would work, it would? He began trying to convince himself that his ability would work underwater.
“Well, it’s no skin off my nose!” said the bandit. “We’ll tie a rope around you and haul your armor back up when you’re done with it!” If you won’t let us remove it while you live, then we’ll see how recalcitrant your corpse will be!”
Sir Pethinor was briefly surprised that a ruffian knew such a big word, but then went back to thinking about how well his ability would work underwater. He began to believe it actually would, and so he smiled at the bandits as they tied a rope under his arms and began to push him off the bridge.
He splashed down into the water and sank like a stone. He hoped the armor wouldn’t rust. He’d have to give it a good oiling when he got back, since he could totally breathe through his nose magically and would, in fact, get back. He decided to give it a try.
Water rushed into his nose as he began to inhale, and he snorted it back out with the remaining air in his lungs. It wasn’t working! He hadn’t been able to fool himself. Did he need to be more convinced? But the witch had seemed like she knew she was fooling herself. She’d even interrupted him when he’d tried to correct her. She must have known what he was going to say.
Sir Pethinor suddenly realized the answer. The witch hadn’t been trying to fool herself into thinking it was normal to be able to see others’ abilities. She’d been fooling her magic! He needed to make sure his magic thought that breathing through the nose underwater worked for everyone and was normal. Except he was underwater and couldn’t talk. Oops, too late, thought Sir Pethinor as he began to lose the struggle not to pull more water into his lungs.
Then he felt himself moving upward, tugged by the rope under his arms. He gasped as he breached the surface, sucking in huge gulps of air. He heard laughter above him. “We decided to give you one more chance to give up your armor willingly! We won’t stab you when we get it off, we promise!”
“What care I for a dip in the river?” scoffed Sir Pethinor, only gasping a little now. “Everyone knows you can just breathe through your nose when you need air underwater! It was fun to hold my breath just now, but if you leave me under any longer I shall go ahead and breathe air through my nose down there, as anyone could!”
The bandits looked confused. “You think you can breathe underwater?” asked their leader incredulously. “Are you crazy? Don’t think we’ll let you go by pretending to be nuts. That’s the magistrate’s court you’re thinking of, not bandits. We just want money.”
“I’m perfectly sane,” declared Sir Pethinor. “Haven’t you ever tried it? You just breathe through your nose!”
“Ha! Then why do people drown then?”
“I supposed they must have been trying to breathe through their mouths at the time. Too bad they didn’t think to use their nose.”
The bandit leader gave him a strange look and then said, “Well, good luck with that!”
Sir Pethinor felt the rope go slack and he sunk back to the bottom of the river. OK, he thought. Let’s hope my magic doesn’t realize I was bluffing. He tentatively breathed in through his nose, and he found that he was inhaling air! I can’t believe it! It worked! He quickly wiped away his grin so his magic wouldn’t see his delight and get suspicious. He continued to breathe in and out through his nose as he wriggled out of the rope and began walking away. He walked down the riverbed until the shore was out of sight of the bridge and then walked up the bank.
“That was a bracing walk! I should do that more often. I have no idea why I haven’t done that before!” he said for his magic’s benefit, although he realized that he meant it. Walking underwater was pretty cool. He couldn’t tell anyone about it though; he had to keep his special ability secret so his magic wouldn’t catch on that it was a special ability. Oh well, he thought, at least I got away. And my mission was a success even if I’m the only one who knows. He began to walk home.
Night fell as he walked, and he began to make out a flickering light ahead. A campfire? He crept closer and saw that it was a campfire, with laughing people sitting around it. As he approached, they began to look familiar.
The bandits! He quickly dropped to his belly so they wouldn’t see him. He could see his horse tethered to a nearby tree. He thought about pretending to be his ghost, but decided that would be too risky. Better to wait until they go to sleep, he thought. But what then? He couldn’t leave them to be a scourge to travelers, but he didn’t want to sneak around slitting their throats either. That didn’t seem very nice. They had had the decency to give him a chance before drowning him, hadn’t they? If only the rest of the King’s Gourd were here to arrest them! Then he had an idea. He began to mumble to himself, too softly to be heard over the laughter around the fire.
The bandits were surprised when Sir Pethinor suddenly walked up to the circle. “A ghost!” cried one, scrambling away from the knight.
“Don’t be stupid” said the one who had spoken on the bridge, making Sir Pethinor glad he had decided not to try that gambit. “He must have made it to shore somehow. But he’d definitely a loony, to deliver himself to us again!”
“That’s not why I’m here,” said Sir Pethinor. “I’m here to arrest you in the name of the King’s Gourd!”
After a brief silence, the bandits laughed. “You ought to make sure you’re not off your own before you worry about the king’s!” cried one of them.
“I’m perfectly sane,” said Sir Pethinor. “I am not just any knight; I’m the captain of the Gourd! And judging from the moon’s position, right about now the rest of the Gourd is armed and in formation, ready for nightly inspection at the castle.”
The bandits looked a little lost. “Does he have a point or can we rob him again?” said one of the bandits.
Sir Pethinor smirked and said, “Not this time. Now it’s my turn to rob you! Only legally, so it’s actually confiscation of property, not robbery.” And with that he reached up to his face, covered his right nostril, and sniffed. Instantly, he was surrounded by his legion of guards. Sir Pethinor knew they were at least as surprised as the bandits, but through their armor visors it wouldn’t show if their expressions were anything near as humorous as those on the bandits’ faces.
“Drop your weapons, foul bandits!” he cried. The bandits were mostly still holding their dinners, but they dropped what they held and raised their hands in surrender. Sir Pethinor ordered his men to seize the bandits and their loot.
As they obeyed, the bandit leader looked around in disbelief. “What just happened?” he said to no one in particular.
“You don’t know?” Sir Pethinor smirked. “Don’t tell me you don’t know about how any Gourd captain can instantly summon all the other guards by inhaling sharply through his left nostril! Or, come to think of it, how he can also return to the castle with them, along with any confiscated goods and prisoners as they may have acquired, by repeating the process with the other nostril!” And before the incredulous bandit could argue, he covered his left nostril and brought them all back to the castle with a sniff. The bandit leader looked at Sir Pethinor’s nose with wonder.
He ordered the prisons readied for the prisoners, and said to the bandits, “Well, you are in a lot of trouble. But if you cooperate you may be given another chance at life by working off your debt to the kingdom.”
As a groom led his horse past, toward the stables, some dust from its flank tickled his nose. He felt for his handkerchief, but realized his armor was on over his pockets. He tried to hold back the sneeze, going “Aaaah, aaaaah—”. He looked around hurriedly to see if there was something nearby to use for a handkerchief, distracted from the bandit leader’s words. “…so if you think I’ll bow and scrape for you nobles—” The bandit broke off his words midsentence, his eyes widening in horror. “Wait! I was just kidding! I meant to say we surrender! We’ll work off our sentence! We’ll do what you want, just whatever you do, don’t sneeze!”