One misty morning, a clever young bookbinder named Tiltan Stumbledown prowled through the forest hunting for mushrooms, only to encounter the most beautiful young woman he had ever seen, trapped within a dome of shimmering magical energy. She waved at him, or maybe at something behind him. He stepped forward for a closer look.
"At last, someone has come," she said. "I am Aliarru, and you must rescue me!"
Tiltan approached the roiling barrier and sniffed it. Its bright purple color and aroma of fresh-baked bread told him it was Yi-yi Ka'tun, one of the most expensive imported brands of magical energy, worlds apart from the crap produced locally. With cheap local materials, he thought, a magic barrier would disintegrate in the first stiff breeze, or simply collapse from the shame of its inferior workmanship. But this, well, you could really stub your toe on this, couldn't you? Tiltan pictured a large black bear, charging at the barrier in deadly fury and then bouncing back off, and he thought about how hilarious that would look.
A pounding came from within. "Hey! Aren't you going to ask me how I got here, and how to get me out?"
"The first part has something to do with a wizard with a lot of money," Tiltan ventured, "and perhaps some sort of . . . breach of contract? I'm still working on the second part." He glanced around.
"No," she said, "you don't understand! The only weapon that can shatter this barrier, the Three-edged Sword of Meddling, lies far away in Spiral Cave, a place of great peril." Aliarru sighed. "Peril," she said, rubbing her shoulder with one hand. "Peril."
"You keep saying peril," said Tiltan.
"I like the sound of it."
"Oh. I bet you do. Anyway, go on." Tiltan picked up a rounded rock, considered it, then dropped it again.
"You'll have to descend to the bottom of Spiral Cave, where the sword is guarded by a vicious . . ."
"Dragon," said Tiltan, nodding.
"No, what's wrong with you? You believe in dragons?" Aliarru grimaced. "It's a Giant Frog!"
Tiltan chuckled and made frog noises. He picked up a flat, medium-sized rock and looked quite pleased with it.
Aliarru stomped one foot. "Don't take it lightly, it's extremely poisonous! If it even touches you at all, you are completely screwed, alright? First coughing fits, then mild hallucinations and difficulty operating machinery, then headache, then paralysis, coma and death. It is real peril. I mean true, all out, no-limits peril."
"That does sound p- . . . does sound like a nasty beast. This 'Giant Frog' is what, 20 feet tall? 30?"
"You're high right now, aren't you? I knew it. What's the biggest frog you've ever seen?"
Tiltan shrugged and put his hands about a froglength apart.
"Right," said Aliarru patiently. "So it's called a Giant Frog because it's giant for a frog. Like jumbo shrimp, or a giant clam, or an extra large hoodie. It's a frog up to two feet long."
In Tiltan's opinion, a 30-foot frog would have been somewhat more awe-inspiring, and he said so as politely as possible.
"Think about it," she said, "how would a 30-foot frog even get in there? Do you think Spiral Cave is over 30 feet in diameter the whole way? Haven't you ever gone caving?" In fact, Tiltan had indeed gone caving, and part of him suspected that a 30-foot frog could have entered whilst still small and then grown, like those obese people you sometimes hear about who no longer fit through their own front doors. But he chose not to make an issue of it.
Aliarru caught him smiling at the flat rock again, and she made a little snorting sound. She reminded him that no mere rock could shatter the barrier, that only the Three-Edged Sword of Meddling could do so. She explained that though the giant frog was the final guardian, reaching Spiral Cave was no easy task. As she listed out each segment of the journey and its many dangers, Tiltan put down the flat rock and picked up a stick. He walked around and around the barrier and examined it from all angles.
". . . climb up the waterfall and turn left at the twin pillars," she was saying. "Then enter the Swamp of Sorrows to find the amulet in a silver chest."
"Uh huh," said Tiltan. He leaned on the stick for a while.
"Are you paying attention?"
"What did I just say then? Repeat it back," she said.
Tiltan twirled the stick. "Something something swamp, something something breast."
"No it's not! You're not even listening!"
"Look," said Tiltan, "how do you happen to know all this? I mean, what are the odds that you'd know about the one thing that can destroy this barrier, and where to find it, and everything?" Aliarru replied that it was no coincidence, because she had learned these things on good authority from the wizard himself, remember him? The expert on the barrier because he created it?
"So some guy imprisons you, but then he turns around and gives you detailed, step-by-step instructions about what it would take to get out? That seems unlikely. He was just messing with you. Or it's a trap."
"Obviously he was taunting me with the solution, knowing I couldn't use it."
Tiltan looked thoughtful. "That's not a very good taunt, it's more of a clue, or a spoiler. A taunt would be more like: ooooh, look at this delicious cake just outside the barrier, bet ya'd like a taste of that, wouldn' ya?"
"He made a mistake in the heat of the moment," said Aliarru. "It's one of those character flaws. You need to go to Spiral Cave and get the Three-edged Sword of Meddling."
"Does it really have three edges?"
"It really has five, they just didn't want to brag."
Aliarru giggled for a long time, and finally said, "no, it's just a mistranslation."
"How many edges does it really have?"
"Zero." She winked at him. "OK, one. I mean it this time, it really has just one edge, and you really have to go and fetch it. Will you?"
"I have a much better idea." He leaned on the stick hard enough to push it into the ground, then laughed and grasped the flat rock again.
Aliarru tensed. "A rock can't shatter the barrier. Say it with me, a rock can't shatter the barrier. It's rated best in its class for rock-proof-ness."
"The barrier only goes down to ground level," said Tiltan. "We dig under, then you crawl out." He began to dig near the barrier using the flat rock.
"What? Dig? That won't . . . you're wasting your time."
After a short while of digging, Tiltan had moved enough dirt to create a roughly Aliarru-sized opening beneath the barrier. She wriggled through it, stood up, and brushed herself off. "Thanks," she said, and started to walk away.
"I imagined you'd be happier to be rescued," said Tiltan. "Happier, more impressed by my cleverness, more grateful, those sorts of things."
Aliarru stopped. "You didn't even try to get the sword. You didn't even make an effort. You just dug a hole."
"If I were on my way to Spiral Cave now," Tiltan said, "you'd still be trapped in that dome. I could be gone for days or weeks, and in the end maybe the frog would poison me after all. This way was quicker and much more reliable."
"Anyone can dig a hole. I could have dug myself out."
"Yes, but you didn't think of it! Most people wouldn't think of it. It's an elegant solution."
"Are you saying I'm not smart?"
"No, no, nothing like that. Just . . . most people wouldn't think of it, that's all."
"It's kind of obvious, actually," she said.
"It's only obvious now because you already know about it."
"I would have thought of it eventually."
"Eventually? You mean after the frog killed me and you had to go to Plan B?"
"No, if you had tried you would have triumphed and gotten the sword, I know it. Probably."
"Wouldn't you rather be free right now than eventually?"
"Of course. I said thanks." She started to walk off again.
"Wait, I just want to ask you one thing. If I had done all that business, and killed the frog, and gotten the sword, and come back and shattered the barrier, then would you have been impressed?"
Aliarru nodded. "In that case, yes, I guess so."
"So even though you got exactly what you wanted you're not impressed, but if only I'd used a worse solution that took much longer and had a high risk of failure, then you would be?"
"I guess so."
"Because anyone can dig a hole."
And so it was that Tiltan learned an important lesson. A valuable act can create a hero, but only if it is also very inconvenient.