Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Knights of the Jewel: Princess Cordelia and the Jewel

            Troy was the first to awaken that morning. It was early enough that the sun was only a sliver of gold on the smoky horizon, and yet late enough that it could be seen at all. The others were still asleep, stretched out as comfortably as they could manage in the soft patches of grass. Troy was dismayed to notice that grass stains and streaks of dirt had appeared on Lovisa’s white gown.
            There was nothing to do but wander. Perhaps venturing out into the woods would yield him a deer or another wild pig for the company’s breakfast. He took up his rifle and stepped quietly around the sleeping forms of his new comrades, while at the same time he was stung by the thoughts of his old comrades, who he had left behind with no explanation. What would they make of his sudden disappearance? Would he be accused of desertion? A chill ran through his body at the thought, and though he tried to push it away, it would not leave his mind once it had made its way in.
            The woods were as still and quiet as if they, also, were still asleep. Troy toyed with the idea of returning to the clearing where he shot the pig the night before, but decided that with the woods in such a state of inactivity it would be more likely for him to catch fish in the way that Alicia had. When he reached the stream, he was taken aback by the sight of a woman lying stretched out along the bank. Her silver diadem and the showy jewel that she wore at her neck indicated that she was wealthy, but she wore an outfit as simple and practical as any woodsman’s. She looked so peaceful and content in her sleep that Troy decided to leave her to it as he searched the ground for a suitable branch to fashion into a spear. Still, he wondered why she was sleeping out here in the woods. Had she come out for a stroll and lost her way? Had she ventured out here for the sole purpose of falling asleep beside the stream? Or had she, like himself and his company, been led out here from another world by those mysterious lights? As this latter possibility registered in Troy’s mind as the most likely, he knelt down beside the woman and shook her gently. “Miss?”
            The woman didn’t stir. He shook her again, more firmly this time. “Are you all right, Miss?” As she began to awaken, he wondered what she would think when she saw his rifle, and thought for a moment of taking it off. But there was nowhere to lay it where she wouldn’t see it. As she opened one eye, he said abruptly, “I’m not going to hurt you, Miss. I was just wondering if you’re all right.” She opened her other eye, rubbed the dust out of both, and rolled over to look at him. For a few moments, she just stared at him as if trying to register his facial features. Finally, she smiled at him, and Troy suddenly had the idea that this had been planned, that she had been waiting here for him. He wasn’t sure how to feel about that.
            “So you have arrived!” said the woman, confirming Troy’s speculation. “But where are the others? Were there others with you?”
            “Well, yes,” said Troy, “there are others. They’re all asleep back at the camp we made.”
            The woman held out her hand for him. “Take me to them,” she said.
            “First, I want you to tell me who you are,” said Troy.
            “Princess Cordelia,” she told him, “of Rasta. I’ve called the eight of you here to my land because you are meant to protect and defend its most precious artifact. You are meant to become Rasta’s Knights of the Jewel.”
            “You called us here?” Troy asked.
            The princess took hold of the jewel she wore at her neck and held it up for him to see. There, reflected in the brilliant, trillion-cut stone were all eight of the colors of the lights that had guided Troy and the others here: red, blue, green, orange, pink, purple, turquoise blue, and shining onyx black. They were eight colors, in a single stone, that otherwise never would have gone together. But in this stone, they blended in with one-another so naturally that they came close to forming an entirely new hue. Troy had to blink to adjust his eyes to the effect, which was oddly disorienting in that his eyes had never beheld anything like it before. When he regained his senses, he finally said, “They were your lights?”
            “They are Rasta’s lights,” said the princess, “Rasta’s colors.”
            Troy took the princess’ hand and helped her to her feet. She dusted herself off and he patted the dirt off of her leaf-colored flannel. “Follow me,” he instructed, and the two of them headed back towards the meadow where Troy’s seven comrades were surely still asleep. “By the way,” he said, “I’m…”
            “Troy Conrad,” Cordelia cut in. “You are Troy Conrad, a lieutenant in the Arcadian military.” She smiled good-naturedly when she took note of the astonishment on his face. “I know all of the Knights of the Jewel, Troy, and I trust that they have been chosen well.”
            “So we are meant to be knights,” said Troy. “But why did you choose us? Not everybody has a warrior’s background. I mean, there’s a guy who plays the harp, and a young girl who I’m sure has never had any fighting experience.”
 “That does not trouble me,” Cordelia assured him, “for not everyone can be a warrior. But certain attributes have been identified in each one of you that make you desirable protectors. A warrior’s spirit and prowess in combat are not the only qualities that make up a knight.”
            “I understand that,” said Troy with a slight nod. “I just hope that you know what you’re doing, and that the others are as cut out for it as you think they are.”
            “I have no doubt about it,” Cordelia said knowingly.

            Eluani was awoken by a vision—not a dream, she was certain, but a real vision. A woman was standing in the meadow just a few steps ahead of the camp, looking at her with a smile that was warm and friendly, yet somehow secretive. She wore a starry silver diadem that a princess might have worn back in the days when the world had a need for princesses. Her well-tended hair was kept in a braid trimmed with gold and silver ribbons, her face was clean and smooth and seemed to glow in the starlight that hit her, and at her neck was a golden necklace that contained a spectacular gemstone. This gemstone gave off a bright glare that caught Eluani’s attention above all else, and when she looked into the gem and saw the eight colors in the light it gave off—the eight colors that had appeared in her scrying pool before she had been spirited away to this world—she woke up with a start. She sat up, passing a hand over her tired eyes. The others were still asleep, some peacefully and some noisily, but Troy was gone. Eluani’s first instinct was to wander off in search of him, but as quickly as this came to mind, she knew that it would not be necessary. Troy would return, emerging from the woods to the northeast of the camp. But he would have somebody with him, and Eluani could not determine who it was. All she could do was watch and wait.
            Troy emerged from the woods, leading a woman by the hand, and the two of them were making their way towards the camp. Eluani saw this before it happened, and when it did happen she let out a gasp when she saw that he was leading the woman from her vision. Her surprise quickly turned to understanding; he needed to find this woman. He was meant to, for she knew something that they did not know and that they needed to. It had been apparent in her eyes and in that secretive little smile. Eluani stood up in order to call Troy’s attention. He looked to her and waved his hand. Eluani wondered if she ought to wake the others, but she decided to wait and see what Troy and the mysterious woman had to say.
            When she and Troy reached the camp, Cordelia smiled in much the same way she had in the vision. “Hello, Eluani,” she said, and when Eluani’s eyes widened, she went on, “Eluani Adash, of Calner’s House of Sight.”
            “Another clairvoyant,” Eluani determined, but Cordelia shook her head. “I am no clairvoyant,” she said, “but I know exactly who you are, for you have been personally chosen to protect and defend the pride of my land of Rasta.”
            “Have I, now?” Eluani said thoughtfully. “And is that true for all of us?”
            “It is,” said Cordelia with a nod, and then she took hold of the jewel at her neck and held it up for Eluani to see. There were the eight colors that had appeared in the inky waters of the scrying pool, and in her vision. Eluani knew then, and she gave Cordelia a nod. “I’ll wake the others,” she said.
            “There’s no need,” said Cordelia. “Let them rest. They will need it. The two of you ought to rest as well.”
            “And what will you do?” Troy asked.
            “I will wait,” was Cordelia’s cryptic answer.

            Alicia awoke to a fresh dawn sky streaked with orange, gold, and rose. She sighed happily at the sight and rolled over, brushing blades of grass and fallen leaves out of her hair. The others were still asleep, and she felt that now would be a reasonable time to wake them. She chuckled at the sight of Sanjaia sleeping beside her with his arms wrapped around his harp, holding it to his bosom as if it was a favorite stuffed toy. Quietly, she crept over to him and gave his shoulder a gentle shake. “Sanjaia,” she called with her voice barely above a whisper. “Wake up, Sanjaia!”
            Out of the corner of her eye, Alicia saw that there was someone awake and sitting up. Turning to look, she saw that it was not a member of her company at all. It was a woman, wearing a silver crown with a green flannel shirt and brown cotton pants. How strange, Alicia thought, to wear a crown with plain clothes. Her own crown was reserved for formal events or public affairs, where it served to properly designate her as the princess. The woman watched the sky as if the visuals of the sunrise enchanted her. She must be from the castle that they saw yesterday, Alicia determined as she slowly approached the woman. She stopped a few paces away from her, momentarily silenced by the shyness that so often got the best of her. Just as she was about to say hello, the woman gave her a welcoming smile and said, “Hello, Alicia!”
            “Oh!” Alicia abruptly stepped back and nearly tripped over her own feet.  The woman’s eyes indicated her amusement at such a reaction. “I am Princess Cordelia of this good land of Rasta,” she said, “and you are Princess Alicia of the Earth Sylphs’ Clan Meadow-Vale, hailing from the land of Areida.” 
            This must be a dream, was Alicia’s first thought. Then she said, “Yes, I am. It’s a pleasure to meet with you, Cordelia.” The custom for meeting with the royal figures of other lands was to extend a branch of holly or laurel, a symbol of welcome and cordiality. Since there were no shrubs of holly or laurel available, Alicia hoped that a stalk of asphodel would be a viable substitute. Cordelia unhesitatingly accepted it.
            “What have you come to see me for?” Alicia asked.
            “Before I tell you,” said Cordelia urgently, “I need you to wake the others. They must hear this too.”
            “Of course,” said Alicia. “I was just about to wake them anyhow. If you will give me a few moments…”
            Cordelia stroked the petals of the asphodel and waited patiently as Alicia roused the members of her company one-by-one, and they all awoke with varying degrees of willingness. Alicia began to suspect that this was not a dream at all, and she mentally debated the plausibility of waking others up in a dream. When Eluani was roused, Alicia was astonished to hear her say, “Hello again, Cordelia, and a good morning to you.”
            “You know her!” Alicia exclaimed.
            “We had a bit of an early-morning meeting,” Eluani told her.
            “And I’ve known her even longer,” said Troy, “at least forty-five minutes longer than she has.”
            Morgana was the last to be roused. “Get away from me,” she growled in response to Alicia’s gentle coaxing. “I’m not moving.”
            “But there is someone here who wishes to speak with all of us,” said Alicia, “and it would be awfully rude not to allow her that.”  
            “She can come back at a better hour,” said Morgana.  “Otherwise, she can leave me alone and so can you.”
            “It’s disgraceful to speak to a princess in such a way!” said Ion, raising his voice. “So I suggest that you clean up your manners before I am forced to intervene!”   
            “I dare you to come near me,” Morgana snapped, rolling over and covering her face with her arm. Ion began to advance on her, but Cordelia tapped his shoulder and said, “Please don’t, I will handle her.”
            “She is out of line and she must be put in her place!” said Ion, but Cordelia ignored him. She knelt down beside Morgana and said very softly, “You don’t need to get up, Morgana. You only need to listen.” Morgana responded with a growl.
            “She will not behave respectably unless you give her an incentive to do so!” Ion insisted.
            “But we don’t want to make any trouble, either!” said Lovisa.
            Cordelia dismissed the interruption. “Morgana,” she said, “listen carefully. In fact, I want all of you to listen to what I am about to say. You are all here in Rasta because I sent for you. I sent for you on behalf of the Jewel, our greatest treasure and our pride.
“For centuries, the Jewel has served as the provider and the guiding force of our land. It was given as a gift to Rasta’s first king by Aliandra, the queen of the fairies. It is an otherworldly thing, imbued with powerful magic from those fairy realms, and by the era of Rasta’s third king this magic had been identified as the source of Rasta’s ceaseless fortune and prosperity. The Jewel is a living thing, and it is the true guardian of Rasta; kings and queens are only figureheads. The Jewel shapes the land and ensures that the weather conditions are always ideal for a bountiful crop season. It gives the warriors of Rasta the strength and the willpower to fight, and the unlucky few who have challenged these warriors were quick to discover that they are unmatched in their prowess and ferocity.”
            They ought to tangle with the Knights of Lamorak, thought Ion.
            “The Jewel speaks,” Cordelia went on, “and for centuries it has whispered the hidden answers and secrets of this life to our thinkers and philosophers, who have all gone on to publish books and essays in hopes of sharing this knowledge with others who have searched for it. That being said, the education system in Rasta is known for producing the finest scholars that have ever walked this world. Those who opted to pursue the arts of enchantment and healing have discovered magic within the Jewel that they were able to tap into and harness, and so hundreds of mages, clerics, healers, and wizards from surrounding lands have come into Rasta to reap the benefits of this magic. They returned home as sorceresses, grand wizards, and healing priests of the highest caliber.”
            “So essentially,” Troy interjected, “this Jewel is some kind of physical deity.”
            “It is not a deity,” Cordelia said, “but it is the physical embodiment of the fairy queen’s personal blessing to Rasta. And now, it is in peril.”
            “What’s happened to it?” Rodin asked.
            Cordelia looked at the ground for a few moments, her hands clasped behind her back and her shoulders heaving with a long sigh. Raising her head and fixing her eyes upon all eight at once, she said gravely, “It is at the center of a war.”
            “And you have chosen us to protect it,” said Ion.
            “Yes,” said Cordelia. “Rasta’s neighbor, the country of Aldine, was once its ally. This alliance was formed centuries ago, when it was noted that Aldine’s people would often come into Rasta to reap the benefits of the Jewel. It was agreed that the two countries would form an alliance, and that the Jewel’s gifts would be shared between them. But the recent death of Queen Alora of Aldine, the last living monarch after King Ruther, has called for their son Harkinian to ascend to the throne. Harkinian is a man whose ultimate purpose in life is to consume, to take as many things as he can for his own personal gain. The very moment of his coronation, he decided that the Jewel should belong exclusively to Aldine. He’s determined that Rasta has had it for long enough, and that it’s time for Aldine to experience the full extent of its power. But knowing Harkinian, he does not want the Jewel to benefit his country; he wants it to benefit himself, and that is all.”
            “So now we know who we must go after,” Ion said, his heart pulsing with the anticipation of a battle. “But tell me, why have you chosen the eight of us? You’ve mentioned that Rasta has its own collection of warriors—elite warriors, by the way you’ve talked about them. What can the eight of us do that they cannot?”
            “I have not chosen you,” said Cordelia, “the Jewel has. I am only its messenger. When I received the news that Harkinian meant to declare war upon Rasta for the Jewel, I was heartbroken. I fell at the Jewel’s side and wept, and I begged it to tell me what I could do to ensure its protection. There was nothing that I would not do—if it was necessary, I would even take up arms myself. But that’s when it showed me your images in its eight colors. Looking at you now, I can see clearly that you really are the ones the Jewel had shown me. But I was as skeptical as you are now, and for the first time in my life I questioned the Jewel’s judgement. How might maidens and fairies and ordinary citizens be able to fight in a war?”
            “You don’t know what I can do,” Morgana harrumphed.
            “You must be right, Morgana,” Cordelia said with a light chuckle. “The Jewel insisted that you were meant to be its knights, and that it didn’t need warriors, but knights. I realize now what it meant—a knight must be more than just a warrior. A knight possesses certain traits that may just as easily be found in a bard or an elven princess or even an ordinary country boy. The Jewel told me your names and the lands where you reside, and then it instructed me to take up its beacon, this pendant I wear at my neck. It said that if I signaled you, then you would come.
            “But you didn’t come,” Cordelia said disappointedly. “From day to night, I waited outside of the Palace of the Jewel, watching for your eight forms to appear over the countryside. When you didn’t show up, I wondered if the Jewel had really been mistaken. But the Jewel had been around for centuries, and it had never once been wrong. Now was not the time to doubt it. I decided that I would go looking for you, and felt very confident that I would find you.”
            “And you did find us!” said Lovisa.
            “We found you,” corrected Troy. “Or at least, I did.”
            “And you have no idea just how grateful I am for that,” Cordelia said with a sigh of relief. “And now, the eight of you are to accompany me to the Palace of the Jewel, where you will be knighted.”

            It was agreed that the company would have breakfast before they set out. Rodin sat with Cordelia, who had declined Alicia and Troy’s invitations to the hunting and gathering. “May I see the Jewel’s beacon,” he asked, looking upon the colorful gem with fascination. Cordelia unclasped it and held it out to him.
            “Was this made by a fairy too?” Rodin asked, looking over the gem with enchantment in his eyes.
            “It wasn’t,” said Cordelia. “The Jewel’s beacon was crafted by Hepsilon, one of the now legendary mages of Rasta. Hepsilon had an understanding of the Jewel that less than a handful of people possessed. His relationship with the Jewel was closer than that of the closest brothers, stronger than that of the most devoted friends, and more intimate than that of the most passionate lovers. He knew the Jewel intrinsically, and the Jewel knew him just as well. He knew the precise workings of its magic, the extent of its power, its inner feelings and emotions. It was this empathy and this understanding for the Jewel that allowed him to craft the beacon. The Jewel needed a method of contacting its people when it needed to send a message or it needed assistance. It needed a messenger, and there was no better messenger than Hepsilon. He synchronized his own magic with that of the Jewel and created a container for the synchronized magics. In this way, he created a beacon; the Jewel would send the message, but Hepsilon would carry the signal. Hundreds of years after his time, Hepsilon is still carrying the signals, right here in the beacon. Any good mage knows that he can never truly die, that he must live on through his magic.”
            “That’s lovely,” said Rodin, handing the gem back to Cordelia.
            “When the Jewel must send a message,” Cordelia went on, “it chooses one of its most trusted confidantes to take up its beacon and send out the signal. In doing so, it entrusts them with its own magic and with Hepsilon’s, and it acknowledges their ability to work the magic.”
            “The Jewel must really love you, then,” said Rodin with a hint of longing in his voice; what he would have given to earn the love and trust of a magical entity!
            “I am its keeper,” said Cordelia, “and like Hepsilon, I am its messenger. I understand the Jewel on a level that others could never hope to.”
            When the others returned, there was a breakfast of fish and fresh-picked fruits. Lovisa had collected water from the stream in Rodin’s water bottle and it was boiled over Morgana’s to fire make it drinkable. It was not the sort of feast they had enjoyed the night before, but it was enough to get them through the long trek to the Palace of the Jewel. Cordelia led the way, with Ion and Troy flanking her on each side. Rodin followed close behind, allured by the princess and her connection to the magic stone of a fairy queen. Lovisa walked behind him, with Alicia carrying the long skirts of her gown so she would not trip over them. Sanjaia shouldered his harp with one arm and Eluani with the other. Only Morgana walked alone, occasionally dragging her feet and lagging behind.
            To the company’s dismay, traversing the sandy road was to be no easy task. Sanjaia was forced to limp in his flat slippers, and Lovisa tripped twice in spite of Alicia’s help. Morgana grumbled and growled and, when she could stand it no longer, kicked sand at the legs of those in front of her. Eluani felt a clump of sand break against the hem of her robe, and she immediately turned on Morgana, her eyes full of fire. “I don’t suggest you do that again,” she warned.
            “You couldn’t see it coming, Miss Future Sight?” Morgana asked saucily.
            “This is your only warning,” Eluani said, turning around. “If I feel anymore sand, then you may find yourself in a very unpleasant situation.”
            “Of course you’re going to feel sand,” Morgana said with a jaunty toss of her hair. “It’s all around us.”
            “Please don’t fight!” Lovisa cried. “It’s disrespectful! We are meant to be knights, you know.”
            “Go in front of us, Morgana,” Sanjaia said, moving aside to let her pass.
            “No thank you,” Morgana said, tossing her hair again. But the princess turned around and looked at her knowingly, and though she was smiling just as warmly as she always seemed to be, there was something in the way that she locked eyes with Morgana that caused the fairy to avoid any further trouble. 
            Along the middle of the walk, Eluani said, “I can see the six towers. These towers belong to your Palace of the Jewel, correct?”
            “You are correct,” said Cordelia, “and what an eye you have. But there is still quite a way to go before we reach the palace.”
            Sanjaia played his harp for entertainment as they walked, but the oppressive summer sun and the struggle through the thick sands made it hard for any of them to keep their spirits up. Their skin was sticky from the heat, their faces grew red and puffy, and they had to stop several times to rest their tired feet. Nobody blamed Morgana for swearing under her breath and kicking sand around, so long as she did not kick it at any of them. The six white towers that had finally appeared in the distance seemed to taunt them, pulling away from them as they suffered a dismal walk that never came to an end.
            It was sunset when they finally reached the Palace of the Jewel, and the nine of them collapsed with exhaust at its golden gates. For the longest time, they lay there as they fought to regain the feeling in their tired legs, staring up at the six white towers that all this time had seemed to beckon them. With the exception of Ion, Alicia, and Morgana, none of the eight had ever seen a real palace before. This one was smaller than the average, but that did nothing to interfere with the beauty of its glassy white stones and the majesty of the six towers breaking through the rose-gold clouds of twilight. Even Morgana could not rightfully say that she was unimpressed.
            Cordelia rose to her feet and turned to face the company with a smile that established their friendship. “Welcome,” she said, “to Rasta’s Palace of the Jewel. I know it’s been a long and tiring journey, but I ask that you please rise and follow me. The Jewel has waited long enough for its knights.”

            They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and therefore nothing in this world can be inherently beautiful or ugly. The fact that beauty will always vary from person to person ensures that there is someone out there who will consider the most picturesque scenery to be an eyesore, and that even the loveliest of maidens will always find someone who will mercilessly nitpick at her flaws. The eight members of the company had their own vastly different perceptions of what constituted as “beautiful.” Lovisa could easily find beauty in everything that she laid eyes on, but felt that its ultimate manifestation took the form of a perfect rose. Sanjaia preferred the auditory over the visual, and found that true beauty existed in a perfect melody that takes over the mind of the listener and opens their eyes to dreams. The fanciful Rodin found real beauty in his own imagination, as he conjured up images of golden-haired fairy queens in flowery gowns and the picturesque fairylands that they resided in. Morgana would find these images to be ridiculous, and she herself reveled in the subtle beauty within a bolt of lightning or the flame of a candle.
            But when the eight of them were led into the Jewel’s chamber and they beheld the sight of the Jewel for the first time, the eight of them could contend that this object surpassed any idea of perfect beauty that was harbored by either one of them. No matter their highly varied ideas of beauty, the Jewel appealed to each and every one. It was indeed a jewel, a brilliant polished stone the size of a medium boulder. It was perfectly rounded on all sides in a way that even the most experienced of gemsmiths and the most adept of rock tumblers could never quite manage. There did not seem to be a single word to describe its luster, which could be perceived as a shine by one observer, a glow by another, a polish by a third, and another still may call it a gloss. Its color could not be determined; from one point, it appeared to be the crimson red of a fine ruby. From a different angle, it was a deep twilight purple. Another viewpoint produced the sight of a firey orange color that was so rarely seen in a stone. From where the eight stood, they could see that the stone was not any one color. The color of the stone was formed by the blend of eight different colors, coming together as one and yet still managing to retain their own radiance: red, blue, green, orange, turquoise, purple, pink, and glossy black.
            The eight, who were confident and rational when faced with the ordinary, were moved to silence and inactivity by this Jewel. None of them seemed to know how to act, what to say, or how to conduct themselves in the presence of this unearthly object. But there was Cordelia, who approached the Jewel as casually as she might approach a familiar acquaintance. She embraced it and kissed it like a dear friend, and spoke to it as if it was any trusted confidante. “Here they are,” she said, “the knights that you have been waiting for: Ion, Lovisa, Troy, Sanjaia, Alicia, Eluani, Morgana, and Rodin. You might imagine their confusion when they received the signal of your beacon and entered Rasta, and when they received the news that they were to be knighted. But they are here now, and they have accepted what you have planned for them.”
            The resulting silence did not seem as empty as silence tends to be. The eight were aware that there was conversation, though they could not pick up on the hidden language in which it took place. Cordelia did understand it, however, and she listened with the respect and rapt attention that a scholar would give to his professor. Finally, she turned to the eight and beckoned them to her side. “The Jewel would like to speak with you now,” she said. “Listen well and understand well. Remember that the Jewel has selected you out of trust and respect, and that you must extend that same courtesy to it.” She left the chamber then, gently shutting the door behind her. The eight were left there before the Jewel, and the Jewel began to speak. 

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