Monday, June 8, 2015

The Knights of the Jewel: The Arrival

Ion opened his eyes to a sky streaked with golden beams. He blinked twice, held his hands out in front of his face, and sat up when he was sure that he was able to move. His lance lay beside him, and he took hold of it and held on as if it was the only thing that anchored him to reality. He had lost his horse, his opponent, and the raucous crowd that had been cheering them on at their joust, and even the jousting arena itself had vanished without a trace. He remembered that he had been pitched from his horse and that his lance had been forced out of his hand, and the overwhelming shame he felt upon hitting the ground and realizing that he had been defeated; Mighty Ion of Lamorak, never before bested in joust or battle, done in by a country boy just barely into knighthood! As the world blurred before his eyes, he longed for the comfort of death rather than a life to live in dishonor.
            If this was death, it did nothing for the shame, for it came flooding back upon the memory. He fought away the tears that burned his eyes, for even a humiliating first—and final—defeat must be handled with dignity. Closing his eyes, he could see the colorful lights that had been the last thing he saw before going under. There were eight of them, in eight different colors of equal brilliance. Ion had allowed them to overpower him, trusting them to lead him to the peace found n death. Wherever they meant to take him was preferable to returning to Lamorak, where he would live the life of a knight stripped of his honor; the life of a pariah, mocked by all of those who once revered him.
            Ion rose to his feet and examined his surroundings. He was alone, surrounded on all sides by lush green fields that stretched out into a distant fir forest. It had been May Day in Lamorak, but out here it was as warm as a day in midsummer. If this is heaven, wondered Ion, then where are the saints? It cannot be hell, for it is too peaceful. But if I am to be alone, with nothing to satisfy my need for combat nor to challenge me and test my might, then perhaps it is my private hell.
            He took a few steps, though he wasn’t sure how productive it was to wander in a place like this. He still held tightly to his lance, the only memento of his life as Mighty Ion of Lamorak. If I am dead, he pondered, then how and why has my lance crossed over with me? There must be a need for it. Yes, there must be an enemy to overcome, somebody to defeat...redemption for my shameful performance in the joust! Ion began to run, though he did not know where he was going. The idea of a battle brought his energy back to him. Though his ceremonial lance was no serious weapon, he was driven into action by the very idea of a fight, as well as his passion for such affairs.
            He halted in his tracks when he caught sight of a pale little figure emerging from the fir trees. From a distance, he could only see golden hair and the shimmer of a moon-white gown. A dainty physique indicated a woman. He took off his helmet so that he might not look so intimidating, waved his hand, and called out to her. He saw her turn to look in his direction, and then she came towards him, hitching up her skirts so that she might pace herself. As she came closer, he saw that she was young—perhaps eighteen—and that her soulful sapphire-colored eyes seemed to take up her entire face. The front of her golden hair was braided, the rest trailed down like a veil. Her lips were the color of an early spring rose and the shape of a heart. Her white gown was tiered like a wedding gown and accented with a velvety sash the color of the sky.  Ion wondered if she might be an angel, or even a saint. She did not look like any of the saints that he had learned about from the priests, but he wondered if even priests could be so sure of what the saints really looked like.
            The maiden stopped in front of Ion and looked up at him with a mixture of shyness and curiosity on her angelic face. He smiled cordially and held out his hand to her. “Salutations, my lady,” he said as gently as he could manage.
             “H…hello,” she shakily stammered. She took his hand and he shook it lightly. “Do you…do you think you can tell me where I am? I’m awfully lost.”
            “If you are lost,” said Ion, “then so must I be. I haven’t any idea what or where this place may be, though when I arrived here I thought that it might be heaven or hell.”
            “Heaven or hell!” the girl exclaimed. “My goodness, I hope that it’s neither! I’m not ready to go to either place, and if I’ve died, I can’t possibly imagine how!”
            “I woke up here after I was thrown from my horse,” said Ion.
            “Oh dear!” cried the girl. “Are you all right?”
            “Only my pride is injured,” said Ion, wincing at the shame.
            “You were in a battle?” she asked him.
            “A joust,” he answered. To change the subject, he asked, “What is your name?”
            “Lovisa,” the girl replied. “And yours?”
            “Ion, Mighty Ion of the Knights of Lamorak. Do you know of Lamorak?”
            “I’ve never heard of such a place,” said Lovisa. “I’m from Eridell.”
            “I can’t say that I’ve heard of it,” said Ion.
            “It’s a wonderful place,” said Lovisa. “It’s very peaceful. I was out wandering, just seeing where the road would take me, and I suppose it decided to take me here. You don’t really think that this might be the afterlife, do you?” The girl’s sapphire eyes displayed unconcealed fear and uncertainty, which softened Ion’s heart. “I had my suspicions,” he said to her, “but I don’t think that you are dead. Did you wake up here, as I did, or did you simply wander in?”
            “I’m sure that I wandered in,” said Lovisa, “but it was on account of some strange lights that appeared before me.”
            Ion looked her in the eyes. “Tell me about these lights,” he said gravely.
            “They weren’t very bright, but they were very colorful,” Lovisa explained. “There were about eight of them. They appeared on the road right in front of me, and I thought that they might be fairies or pixies, so I followed after them.”
            “What were the colors?” Ion inquired.
            “I remember that one was green,” said Lovisa, “another was red, and one was a beautiful turquoise blue…”
            ‘I have also seen these lights,” said Ion. “They appeared in the blackness that enveloped me when my head hit the ground, and they led me here.”
            “Are you sure that these were the same lights?” Lovisa asked, the rate of her voice quickening in excitement.
            “I am not,” said Ion, “but…there’s somebody approaching.” He moved to stand in front of Lovisa, who craned her neck to get a better look at the figure that was heading towards them. They wore a deep red hooded robe trimmed with golden threads, which completely obscured their features. A priest, thought Ion, or a mage. He maintained a tight grip on his lance. “Don’t move,” he warned Lovisa. The two of them stood their ground as the figure slowly approached them, kicking its long robes at the hem as it walked. It stopped at Ion and Lovisa’s feet and stood quietly, examining them behind its hood, and Lovisa instinctively took a step back. They could see the bottom half of a face the color of tea cream. Finally, the hood was removed to reveal a woman of about thirty, with hazel-colored hair tied in a braid around the crown of her head.
            “You are spirits?” the woman asked.
            “We are not,” replied Ion. “I am Ion of Lamorak.”
            “I am Lovisa,” Lovisa said, “of Eridell. And if we are spirits, we certainly don’t know it!”
            “Interesting,” the woman said, brushing the sleeve of her robe with her hand. “So this is not the spirit world?”
            “Not that we know of,” Lovisa answered, “but we are not sure exactly what this is, or where it is.”
            “How did you arrive here?” Ion asked. “And what is your name?”
            “Eluani,” the woman replied. “I was…” But she was interrupted by the sight of others emerging from the horizon, coming forth from the forest, scrambling over the field. There were five of them, and by the looks of them they were human, or at least humanlike. “Here, over here!” Ion called out to them, waving his hands. They paused and turned to look in his direction. Only one of them heeded his call without pause or hesitation, an autumn-haired young lady with long ears pointed like those of a storybook elf. Her long, fast legs carried her over the field as quickly as those of a running deer. After a period of indecision followed by assessment, the other four finally decided to follow after her, though they were unable to keep up with her pace. She reached Ion’s party several feet ahead of the others and took a moment to catch her breath. Her face was angelic and ethereal, the only genuine example of a perfect face that either of them had ever seen. Her clean creamy skin, willowy physique, and pointed ears suggested a member of the fair folk in every way. The girl was struck dumb, confusion and fear as plain as the nose on her face. Eluani nodded cordially and said, “Don’t be afraid. Speak. Tell us who you are.”
            Behind her, the others had caught up. They stood several paces behind the elven girl, gawking at their unexpected company, shifting around on their feet, and muttering to themselves. The girl quickly glanced at them before saying, “My name is Alicia. I am an Earth Sylph, from Clan Meadow-Vale of Areida.”
            “An Earth Sylph,” Lovisa said in awe. “I have only heard of the kind that live in the clouds and the skies, and even then, only in stories!”
            “How did you arrive here?” Ion asked.
            “I thought that I was answering the call of the Elementals,” Alicia explained. “In our lore, the Elementals of the Earth signal those that they mean to give their personal blessing, and this blessing can be anything; the ability to manipulate fire, the power to call upon the auras of the air, a simple perk such as fast feet or a quick-thinking mind. I was thrilled to have been selected, because it is an honor that most only ever dream of! I answered the call, following the signal until it faded away…but the Elementals did not appear! Instead, there were only these humans, and this woman who claims to be a fairy from the land of Arganell.”
            “I do not claim,” a woman behind her spoke out. “I am a fairy—a fairy of the twilight, to be precise—and I am from Arganell.” She was not an especially small woman, and she did not have wings, as might be expected of a typical fairy. But even in the sunlight, she glowed as if she were made of stars, and the effect contributed to an odd distortion in the air around her. She shifted uncomfortably, and now and again shot a disdainful look towards the sun that was as warm and intense as on any morning in midsummer.
            “Right, of course,” Alicia said abruptly. “I am sorry, Morgana! Anyhow, I asked where the Elementals might be, and if it was now their way to give blessings to others outside of the Earth Sylphs. They told me that they knew nothing about Elementals, and that they all had their own reasons for coming here. Like Morgana, for instance, told me that she had been enticed by the sight of a globe of colorful lights that had appeared in the night sky above her.” 
            “I thought that it might harbor some great power,” Morgana explained.
            “My horse was startled and bucked me off his back,” said a jet-haired young man in dirty cutoff jeans. “I was thrown down a ravine, and when I finally stopped tumbling and rolling I ended up here.”
            “Did you also see lights?” asked Ion.
            “My head was spinning too much for me to see anything,” the young man replied. “But I remember a sort of colorful dazzle in my eyes.”
            “I saw the lights,” said a man with a silver harp at his side. “They appeared to me suddenly while I was working on my melody. It’s a melody that I’ve played often enough, but this had never happened before! The lights appeared—I counted eight of them—and their glow seemed to resonate with the chords that I was playing. I played and I watched them until I fell into a sort of daze. When I was freed from my trance, I found myself in this lovely meadow.”
            “This cannot be a coincidence,” Eluani determined. “I’ve also seen these lights, in my scrying pool. There were eight lights, and at least most of us have seen them. There are eight of us, and all of us have been led here, to meet in the same place. It’s all too convenient for there not to be a purpose behind it. There is a reason for our being here. We’ve all been chosen for something, by someone.”
            “There’s no one around to have chosen us,” said the jet-haired young man.
            “No one that we can see,” Ion pointed out.
            “What if we were chosen for some nefarious purpose?” inquired an armored man with a rifle at his shoulder.
            “It’s too beautiful out here to be nefarious,” Lovisa said.
            “Never think that way,” the rifle-wielder said sternly. “It is how you get wrapped up in a false sense of security.”
            “What should we do?” asked Alicia. “I don’t feel entirely safe about just wandering this place.”
            “I will choose two of you to set out with me to survey the area,” said Ion. “The rest of you will stay here and remain together. If there are any threats, holler and do what you can to fight them off. Eluani, come with me.” He turned to the rifle-wielder. “I want you to come with me as well.”
            “Please be careful,” Lovisa said to Ion as Eluani and the rifle-wielder took their places at his side.
            “There is nothing out there that could pose a threat to me,” Ion assured her, patting her head.
            “If you don’t come back…” Lovisa began.
            “We will,” said Ion. His natural passion for the fight had returned to him, and the shame of his first defeat was already a distant memory. Whatever was out there, he would take it by storm. The rifle-wielder unstrapped the weapon from his back and checked it. Ion donned his helmet. The others, as instructed, stayed close to one-another, huddled together like campers around a fire. Only Morgana sat alone, wincing and grimacing at the touch of the sun’s rays. The rifle-wielder removed his shoulder pads and gauntlets in order to take off his uniform jacket and drape it around her.
            “Thank you,” she said dryly. Through the heather-colored jacket, a glowing aura could be seen.
To boost the company’s morale, the bard began to strum out a few chords, which evolved into a comforting melody. Lovisa watched Ion, Eluani, and the rifle-wielder as each step took them farther away, off into the unknown in search of who-knew-what. She shivered slightly with anxiety for the three and for the five camped out in this strange but beautiful meadow so far from their homes. She sat down beside the bard and hoped that the sound of his harp would drive away her unease.

The brightness of a golden morning made way for a warm and pleasant afternoon. The five could not be entirely sure of the time, but Rodin, the jet-haired boy, assured them that the position of the sun indicated that it was around one in the afternoon. Alicia danced to the rhythm of the upbeat jig that Sanjaia, the bard, played on his harp. Lovisa happily pranced around the meadow, plucking flowers to fashion into a nosegay. Her anxiety for Ion and his party had almost completely left her, though they still remained in her thoughts. She was in the process of arranging the daisies she had picked into a formation when she spotted the three making their way over the hill up ahead, Ion taking the lead with his helmeted head held high. “They’re back, everyone!” Lovisa cried, relieved to see that the three were safe. “Ion and the others are back! They’ve returned!”
“Finally,” said Morgana. Sanjaia ceased his harp playing and rose to his feet. The others watched as Ion and his party crested the hill and made their way across the field. By the looks of them, they had not run into any danger, though of course it is always difficult to tell by looks. Alicia was the first to greet them. “What did you find?” she asked excitedly. “Did you see anybody else? Did you find out where we are or why we’re here?”
Ion removed his helmet and took a seat on the grass. “First of all,” he began, “the forest that you see surrounding the fields can hardly be called a forest at all. It’s a small area of woodland that proved to be laughably easy to traverse. Troy, Eluani, and I expected a fight through thickets of brush and hanging vines and boots packed with mud. What we got was a rather leisurely trek through a grove of firs and shrubs, with the occasional wayward branch lying in our way—easily thrown aside. It was hardly any effort at all to make our way through to the other side, and when we did so we came upon a white dirt road. It looked as though someone had drawn a chalk line through the countryside, and there was no sign of civilization that we could see. We followed this road, and the thick white sand that it was made out of made for quite a difficult walk. Eluani was having an especially hard time of it in her flat shoes and long robes. I offered to carry her, but she would not allow it.  Troy offered her his shoulder, and she was agreeable to that.
“Eluani saw the castle before we did. She said that she could see, off in the distance, six white stone towers reaching up out of an otherwise unremarkable spot of country. Troy and I craned our necks, shaded our eyes, stood up on our toes, and did all that we could to see these towers for ourselves. But we saw nothing of the sort, either close by or in the distance. I suppose that Troy feared that dehydration was making her delirious, and he offered her a sip from his water canteen. But she rejected it and insisted that she felt fine. We figured that she had been telling a story, perhaps in an attempt to keep up our spirits on such a long and dreary walk. We did not say anything more about it.”
“But I wasn’t telling stories,” Eluani said, flashing him a cheeky grin, “was I, Ion?”
“Indeed, you were not,” said Ion with a good-natured smile. “After we had walked ahead for about a mile, maybe two, we found Eluani’s towers. There they were, the six of them rising up out of a little grove of fir trees. We realized then that Eluani has a gift of clairvoyance, of future sight.”
“And I don’t suppose a castle was very helpful to you,” said Morgana. “They never are.”
“For your information, my lady, we were not able to reach the castle.” Ion was stung by Morgana’s generalization. His own castle always did all that they could to help vagrants, wanderers, and travelers who had lost their way. “It was much too far off,” he went on. “To travel there would have taken up the rest of the day, and possibly a substantial amount of the night after that.”
 “I’m glad that you decided to return to us instead!” said Lovisa.
“I figured that we can camp out here for the remaining hours of the day,” concluded Ion, “and then early tomorrow morning, the eight of us will set out for the castle together. Even if those at the castle prove to be unhelpful, there is likely to be a city or a village nearby.”
“Let me speak to those at the castle,” said Alicia. “I’m the princess of Clan Meadow-Vale, and I’ll tell them that I’m there on behalf of my clan and that you are my company.”
“You are a princess!” Ion exclaimed. “My apologies, your grace, but I couldn’t have known!” He knelt down beside her and bowed his head, and Alicia was taken aback by his sudden formality. “There is nothing to apologize for!” she assured him. The Earth Sylphs’ troops did not behave in such a manner. She was their equal, and they would never kneel or submit to her.
“And what are you people going to eat?” Morgana asked. “I don’t suppose that you humans can get by off of light in the way that I can, and I don’t suppose that anyone thought to bring food with them on their unexpected trip to who-knows-where.”
“I just have a sandwich, an apple, and a bottle of water in my bag,” said Rodin. “I’m not sure how well I can split those among eight people.”
“Seven,” Morgana corrected him.
“I can manage off of foliage from the trees,” said Alicia, “but I don’t suppose it’s the same for humans. If we look through the woods, though, we might find some fruits to eat.”
“I’ve brought a few rations with me,” said Troy, opening up a pouch on his belt and producing some dried fruits and thin slabs of meat. “But since I’m the only one with a gun, I’ll go out hunting.”
Everybody had something to do. Eluani and Rodin calculated the number of people that Rodin and Troy’s rations could be split between. They determined that the sandwich could be portioned for four people and the apple could be cut in half. The water bottle was large enough to be passed to everybody at least once, so long as everybody took their fair share. The dried fruits and the slabs of meat could go to two each. The others, with the exception of Morgana, had gone out into the woods to hunt and gather. Lovisa and Alicia were frequently startled by the sound of Troy’s rifle.  Morgana assigned herself the task of making a cooking fire, a task that she insisted she could do without anybody’s help. The sparks that emanated from her fingers had startled everyone else and enchanted Rodin, who sat down beside her to watch her at work.
“Focus on your own tasks, boy,” Morgana said coldly.
“I’m sorry,” said Rodin, a bit taken aback by being spoken to in such a way. “It’s just that I have waited my entire life to see a fairy. My city of Shalorre glorifies the fairies and their magic, but to actually see one…well, most have never had the opportunity!”
“I suppose that the human existence is so dull,” was Morgana’s callous reply, “that they will place anything outside of their norm on a pedestal to be glorified.”
Rodin supposed that the fairy woman was still upset by her sudden displacement so far from her home. He left her to her work.

        Sandwich fragments, apple halves, and dried fruit were only a fraction of the dinner that was shared by seven of the eight that evening. Troy had managed to bring down a fat wild pig which had enough meat to go around. In addition to the foliage that she had gathered for herself, Alicia had used a makeshift harpoon fashioned out of a branch to catch fish from a stream. Lovisa and Sanjaia found and nearly cleared out a thicket full of ripe wild strawberries and blackberries. They had expected meager rations and been presented with a feast, and it made them lively and merry and prone to cheerful conversation, and even bouts of song and dance courtesy of the bard. Even Morgana, lying stretched out in a spot where the starlight easily reached her, was in good enough spirits to sing. The cacophony of chatter and song was interrupted by the clear, bell-like, ethereal voice that resonated so loudly above it. They could not understand the words that she was singing, but the sound was something pure and magical and it placed the seven of them under a sort of spell. Ion and Troy were reminded of the angels in heaven that they had learned about from priests and churches. Alicia thought of the sounds of the wind, the streams, the birds calling from their treetop perches, and the angelic-faced nymphs that co-existed so peacefully with the Earth Sylphs. Rodin’s mind was filled with fairy stories, fairy magic, and the fairylands that were rumored to be hidden within Shalorre and its surrounding cities. Here was a girl from one of those fairylands, lying on the grass right there in front of him and singing for all she was worth. 

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