There was once a man who was a Jack-of-all-trades; he had served in the war, and had been brave and bold, but at the end of it he was sent about his business, with three farthings and his discharge.
"I am not going to stand this," said he; "wait till I find the right man to help me, and the king shall give me all the treasures of his kingdom before he has done with me."
Then, full of wrath he went along the road and came to a huntsman who was kneeling on one knee and taking careful aim with his musket.
"Huntsman," said the leader, "what are you aiming at?"
"Two miles from here," answered he, "there sits a fly on the bough of an oak-tree, I mean to put a bullet into its left eye."
"Oh, come along with me," said the leader; "the two of us together can stand against the world."
The huntsman was quite willing to go with him, and so they went on till they came to a man standing on one leg, and the other had been taken off and was lying near him.
"You seem to have got a handy way of resting yourself," said the leader to the man.
"I am a runner," answered he, "and in order to keep myself from going too fast I have taken off a leg, for when I run with both, I go faster than a bird can fly."
"Oh, go with me," cried the leader, "three of us together may well stand against the world."
And to make the long story short, he went and gathered a few more companions, each with a grander claim to some super-ability than the others.
Meanwhile, the old king had tried to persuade his daughter to marry the young and respected son of a duke, for he had no sons and was thinking that the future duke might once make a good king too. Unfortunately the young princess had read a few books too many, and was fond of imagining herself as quite the real Amazon. She demanded of her father that if any man is to win her hand, he must best her in a contest of speed, endurance and military skill, like some ancient queen was said to have chosen her husband. And any man entering the contest must be willing to bet his very life on the outcome.
Now the king was fairly open minded for that age, and more than willing to admit that some women could make fine warriors. His people were still remembering the fierce shieldmaidens of the northmen, for example. But his daughter had always been a sickly bookworm, always short of breath, and also a little on the chubby side. The thought of her besting a trained knight was too much.
Wisely, the king said he'll go to his room to think about it, and laughed himself nearly to death into the pillow.
Still, he figured out that it's simpler than arguing with his daughter. So he agreed to send the town cryer to proclaim the decision. Secretly, he also sent a runner to the duke, urging him to send his son with the swiftest horse to enter the contest he cannot possibly lose.
Unfortunately for the duke's son, the ex-mercenary and his merry band were just entering to city as the cryer proclaimed the news. Thinking that with the help of his marvelous companions he cannot lose, he went straight to the king and asked to be tested against the princess.
The king was taken aback by the audacity of a common man to ask to marry a princess, but he realized that his announcement hadn't actually mentioned any restrictions. Fancying himself a man of great honesty and honour, the king agreed to keep his word and let him try, and sent for the princess to decide the test. She chose a race to a far away well, and the first who would make it back with a pitcher full of water would win.
"Easier than I expected," thought our ex-mercenary. "My runner will surely best any man or woman in the land." And asking for a little time to prepare, he went and asked his man with a detachable leg to dress in his clothes and run the race in his stead.
So the court gathered to watch, and at the blow of a horn the two competitors were off... much to the amusement of everyone present. The princess was soon panting and tripping over her long skirt, and making very poor progress. Unfortunately, her opponent was making even poorer progress, limping and cursing and dragging a leg behind him.
By evening, the race was over, with the princess handing her father the pitcher a good ten minutes before her opponent.
The ex-mercenary was aghast, He went to the man with the detachable leg and started screaming at him, "What was that all about?! What did you think you were doing?! Why didn't you run faster than a bird, like you said you would?!"
"Dude, " said the other man to his defense, "I thought you were kidding and I answered in kind. Haven't you seen a wooden leg before? I lost my real leg to a cannonball at the siege of Altdorf."
The conversation would have continued longer, but a squad of the king's guards showed up and took our depressed ex-mercenary to the king.
"Son, " said the king, "I figure you've lost fair and square, and it's only fair that you keep your end of the bargain. You have until morning to make your peace with God, assisted by the castle's priest. But since I like your courage, you shall not hang like a common rogue. You shall be beheaded at dawn, by sword, like a knight or noble would."
"No, father, wait!" intervened the princess who, truth be told, was starting to find the man more handsome than the groom her father had chosen for her. "This man has shown great valour in taking the challenge. Should we not give him a second chance?"
The king rolled that thought around in his head for a bit, then spoke, "That is very chivalrous of you, my daughter, and it would hardly be befitting me to stand in the way of such chivalry. Fine. Choose your next challenge, then, and tomorrow he shall face you again for his life."
This time the princess chose a contest of archery. Our hero politely inquired if he may use a gun, saying that it was a more familiar weapon to him. The princess agreed. With that, the king called the meeting over, and asked the guards to lead the man and his companions to a guest room in the palace.
So this time the ex-mercenary asked his hunter companion to dress like him and go in his stead the next day.
The next day, two large targets were set at a hundred paces away. The two contestants were given a dozen arrows and respectively a dozen bullets, and told to start shooting.
Again the princess did rather poorly, only now occuring to her that reading about ancient Scythian archer women didn't actually count as archery training. Only half of her arrows hit the target at all, and none of them went even close to the bullseye.
Unfortunately our hero's sharpshooter did even worse, with barely two of his shots even touching the target. As the court jester remarked, he did at least get one bull's eye. He actually shot the eye of a bull across the road to the right, dropping him dead on the spot. But since it wasn't on his target, it didn't count.
Again, our ex-mercenary was shocked and he went to berate his huntsman, "What in the Lord's name was that all about?! Didn't you say you could hit a fly in the eye from two miles away?! How could you miss a five foot wide target at a hundred paces?! I could have shot a higher score myself than you and that tomboy put together!!"
"To be honest, " the hunter answered, staring at his own shoes, "that was a joke, and it never occured to me that anyone would take it seriously. I mean, really," he continued as he showed his gun, "this is a smoothbore musket. You said you were in the army, for crying out loud. Two miles? It can't even shoot a ball past two hundred paces. Even at one hundred, as my old captain used to say, the only way to hit a man is if you aimed at another man."
And as the guards were taking him first to the king, and then to the place of his execution, it occured to our hero that maybe he should have tested his employees instead of simply believing any wild claim.