"Let us go forth a while, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our closed rooms...
The game of ball is glorious."

--Walt Whitman

Monday, July 09, 2007

Pelean's Jewel, Part II

Her advisors were all talking at once, as they often did, trying to reassure her that she would have her jewel by nightfall, or possibly the next morning, at the very latest. Queen Lilias did not seem very reassured, which only made them talk louder and faster, competing with each other to be the one to say just the right thing that would make her smile again.

"Oh, do be quiet for once, all of you!" she said after several moments of this, and the tone of her voice was unkind. They did all stop talking, for she had never spoken to them like that before. They stopped talking and they stared at her as if she had grown another head.

Lilias knew she had been impolite, and she knew she should be sorry for it, but she was not. She had lost the most precious thing her mother had left her, and all she wanted was a bit of silence in which to be sad for it. (It would probably also be fair to say that the rude way in which her advisors treated each other was a bad influence on her.)

"Leave me," she said. "I do not wish to be disturbed until my knights return."

"But, Your Majesty—" one of the advisors began.

"Leave," she insisted, and they left.

Lilias pulled a large and comfortable chair over to her chamber window and curled up in it, watching the gate for her knights' return. It was many hours before they came, trotting into the torch-lit courtyard with their heads bowed in defeat. Slowly she stood and left her chambers.

She met them in the throne room. They set up a great clatter in their armor, dropping to kneel before her as she walked to her throne. Once she was seated, the captain of the knights stood and came forward.

"You did not find it, Sir Brennan," she said softly as he approached.

"No, Your Majesty," he said. "We found the dragon quickly, but when we attacked it swam into the middle of the stream, where the water was too deep for our horses to go. It swam toward the mountain, and we followed on the bank, but the stream is very deep so close to its source, and the dragon never strayed into the shallows where we might have fought it. It disappeared into the mountain itself.

"I took off my armor and followed. Soon I found myself in a great underwater cave. I could not hold my breath long enough to explore even the hundredth part of it, Your Majesty. And had I found the dragon, I would not have been able to fight it, weighed down with water as I was. I have left five good men there to watch the entrance to the cave from the safety of the shore, and to follow the dragon if it should emerge. The rest I brought back here to receive your command," he concluded, and knelt once more.

Queen Lilias sat back in her throne, her fingers curled around the gilded knobs at the ends of its arms, looking thoughtful. An advisor opened his mouth to speak, but she glanced at him with a warning clear in the royal eyes and he thought better of it. He shut his mouth and shuffled his feet awkwardly. A rare, complete silence fell over her court.

Minutes passed before she spoke. "It is only a thing," she said as if she didn't really believe it, but felt she ought. "It is not worth risking lives over. Bring your knights home, Sir Brennan. The jewel is lost. I have others."

"But none so fine, Your Majesty," Sir Brennan said gently. "Nor so full of memories. We would seek it for you, gladly."

She tried to smile at him, but could not quite manage it. "I know you would. But I say you shall not."

"As Your Majesty wishes."

"Little this day has been as I would wish," she murmured to herself, so softly that only Sir Brennan heard. He closed his eyes for a moment, ashamed to have failed.

The young queen stood and faced her knights. "Thank you for your service," she said graciously. "Good night."

With that, she left her court abruptly, hurrying to the privacy of her own chambers and dismissing her maids the instant she set foot through the doorway. Her mother had once told her that a queen must never be seen to cry in front of her subjects, not even the servants. She flung herself onto the high bed, weeping into the silk coverlet until sleep stole her away.

Sir Brennan dispatched a rider to summon the five home from the mouth of the stream, and saw to it that his knights were well-fed and their horses cared for. Then he climbed the five hundred stairs to the top of the highest tower and looked out over the kingdom he was sworn to protect. It was late at night by then, and Sanmeara slept, her rolling hills which were so smooth and pleasing to the eye in the daytime had become strange lumps in the darkness, broken only by the occasional candle in a cottage window and the will-o-the-wisps dancing on the moors to the west.

He stood atop the tower and leaned his forearms on the low wall and thought. He thought of the dragon, the jewel, the young queen and the kingdom. One by one he made plans to recover the jewel, and one by one he discarded them as impractical or unlikely. He thought until dawn sent its bright tendrils creeping along the edge of the world, and he thought as he descended the long flights of stairs on legs stiff from standing through the night.

He thought as he ate his breakfast. He thought during early morning swordfighting exercises, midmorning jousting practice, and late morning tracking drills. Once, he thought he had a solution that would work, until he realized that he had no way of keeping a frost giant properly chilled all the way from the mountains of Kethelor and back again.

He thought through lunch, and during early afternoon quarterstaff sparring he thought so hard he nearly gave the little kitchen-boy, who always sat on the fence to watch them during his own lunchtime, a whack on the skull by accident. He thought while he exercised his horse in midafternoon, while he polished his armor before dinner, and while he sharpened his sword after dinner. (He took a break from thinking during dinner because they were served roast chard with scallions in bergamot sauce and really, who can focus on anything but their own immediate survival when Cook is feeling experimental?)

He thought as he crawled, exhausted, into his bed and fell almost instantly asleep. He must have been thinking in his sleep, too, for when he woke up in the morning he knew why he hadn't been able to find a solution, and what was required to change that.

© 2007 by the author. All rights reserved.

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