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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Epic

An Incomparable Pearl

 

An Incomparable Pearl

 

Jon Jacks

 

 

Other New Adult and Children’s books by Jon Jacks

 

The Caught – The Rules – Chapter One – The Changes – Sleeping Ugly

The Barking Detective Agency – The Healing – The Lost Fairy Tale

A Horse for a Kingdom – Charity – The Most Beautiful Things (Now includes The Last Train)

The Dream Swallowers – Nyx; Granddaughter of the Night – Jonah and the Alligator

Glastonbury Sirens – Dr Jekyll’s Maid – The 500-Year Circus – The Desire: Class of 666

P – The Endless Game – DoriaN A – Wyrd Girl – The Wicker Slippers

Heartache High (Vol I) – Heartache High: The Primer (Vol II) – Heartache High: The Wakening (Vol III)

Miss Terry Charm, Merry Kris Mouse & The Silver Egg – The Last Angel – Eve of the Serpent

Seecrets – The Cull Dragonsapien – The Boy in White Linen – Porcelain Princess – Freaking Freak

Died Blondes – Queen of all the Knowing World The Truth About Fairies – Lowlife

Elm of False Dreams God of the 4^th^ Sun A Guide for Young Wytches

The Wendygo House – Americarnie Trash

 

 

Text copyright^©^ 2015 Jon Jacks

All rights reserved

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. It remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be reproduced, copied and distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes.

Thank you for your support

 

Chapter 1

The Treasure of the Angels

 

This is not the foolish old crone’s tale you and your weary, dispirited knights are expecting to drunkenly jeer, King of the Elmet.

There’s also no earthly reason why your bleary minds will fully fathom its portent; for although a short history, it contains the creation of the world as a passing, insignificant event.

You would think for instance, wouldn’t you, that the God of Light would require a darkness for us to recognise his beauty, his magnificence, his goodness.

But of course, there was no ‘us’.

There was no darkness, either, some tales tell us: not until he – and I say ‘he’ only for the sake of convenience – let his shadow fall. And in his other guise as the Goddess of Wisdom (didn’t I say ‘he’ was a mere convenience?) she granted her shadow the Knowledge of Self.

Thereby another was allowed to arise, a God of Darkness. And he was called ‘Samael’, which means ‘Son of God’.

Now the God of Light did not need a God of Darkness for him/herself. Yet, of course, in our world there can be no light without darkness. And so light and darkness were necessary to create form, to create the Creation.

Indeed, it was Samael who wore the crown of the five elements of Creation (Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Spirit), an inverted pentagram bearing a precious gem at every one of its ten points – bar that of Spirit, which lay out of sight to Samael’s rear.

The Creation, however, became an abyss between the two gods, within whose waters the God of Darkness could only ever see his own beautiful reflection.

He claimed it as his own, leading to war in the Heavens.

Some say that war still rages. Some that this god, or that god, was the victor.

But all agree that during that raging battle, Samael’s crown fell to Earth, shattering and spreading its unworldly metals, its precious gems, throughout the kingdoms. And seeing this, the God of Light shed a tear that fell into the abyss.

This is what we call the Treasure of the Angels; these remarkable metals, these heavenly stones and jewels.

Red sard. Translucently green peridot. White-streaked onyx. Burning coal-like karkand. Night-blue lapis lazuli. Brilliantly honeyed zircon. Gold veined topaz. Leek-green heliodor. Tri-coloured jasper.

And, most precious of all, an inconceivable pearl.

 

 

*

Chapter 2

‘Doesn’t that make ten – not nine?’

The queen irritably glowered at the old woman as she finished her tale.

The old woman frowned, as if puzzled by the queen’s query.

‘You also said an inconceivable pearl: are you really saying we’re incapable of even imagining it?’ the princess seated alongside the queen demanded with a haughty, dismissive chuckle. ‘Don’t you mean, say, an incomparable pearl?’

‘I mean,’ the queen said, explaining her own point a little further, ‘you said the crown had nine precious stones: and yet, I’m sure, you just described ten.’

‘And didn’t I also say,’ the old woman retorted, ‘that there’s no earthly reason that can be applied to this tale?’

‘Watch yourself, old woman!’ the king snapped angrily, yet remaining drunkenly slouched on his tall, wooden throne. ‘I’ve had men tortured until they scream for lesser insults to the queen.’

Despite their own drunken stupor, some of the king’s knights leapt to their feet, clasping the pommels of sheathed swords as if ready at any moment to avenge this insult to their queen.

The old crone who had been invited into the hall to provide an entertaining story had the imposing air about her of a wyrd woman, a possible witch capable of curses if not exactly enchantments.

Her hair was raggedy, her face wrinkled as if that of a centuries’ old woman. Her manner of dress was wild, a mix of homemade leather and cured furs, of black crow feathers and ravens’ claws.

It endowed her with a false bulk to a body that, lying beneath it all, was undoubtedly withered away to virtually nothing, and most likely close to breathing its last.

She stank. She stared from eyes bulbous with craziness.

Even on the required revelation of her name, Korax, the crone had cackled as if it were, at best, some secret joke, or, worse still, an outright lie.

She was not the type any knight would kill without first quickly working out the risks to his or his family’s future health or wellbeing. Not a few of them silently sighed with relief when, with a casual wave of a hand, the queen imperiously dismissed their unnecessarily exaggerated displays of loyalty.

‘Leave her; the poor woman quite obviously suffers from an addled brain.’

Bringing her dismissive wave to an end, she let her hand fall reassuringly upon the king’s own hand, listlessly draped over the combined armrest lying between their two thrones. She glanced, however, towards the smaller throne to her left, her wide eyes prompting a reaction from her daughter seated there.

‘You must always take advantage of someone’s discomfort to project your own sense of power,’ the queen had instructed the Princess Episteme, regularly instilling within her the need to ensure her inheritance of the kingdom by displaying her fitness to rule.

‘How is anyone supposed to make any sense of such a tale?’ the princess demanded haughtily, glaring at the old woman standing before them with a malevolence equalling that of her mother’s.

‘Doesn’t it tell us that even our most treasured and beautiful offspring aren’t necessarily worthy of our bequests?’ the woman answered.

The princess moved surprisingly swiftly for one who had supposedly only been taught the arts of writing, tapestry and dancing. Even as she rose from her seat, she used the flow of the movement to grab and expertly throw the dagger lying beside her meat platter.

The dagger struck the old woman full on her heart; and with a dulled clang fell uselessly away from her furred cloak, clattering once more as it hit the stone floor.

Throughout the large hall there were awestruck gasps, the clink of overturned goblets, the thud of chairs thrown back. Everyone urgently rose to their feet.

The king was close to having her thrown out for her impudence, the disquiet she was bringing to his court. And yet he hesitated, having recognised within this husk of a woman a sense that – were it not for Fortune – even his miraculously beautiful queen could be drawing close to looking like this.

The old woman chuckled quietly at his reaction, grinning calmly as she took in all their surprised faces.

‘Your court and knights are all so foolishly easily impressed, King Odos,’ she sneered. ‘A sign of weakness your many enemies would be wise to take advantage of, if they ever learn of it.’

She pulled apart and flung aside her fur cloak, revealing the metallically sparkling breastplate she was wearing beneath. Her withered legs, right up to her hips, were completely bare bar her raggedy old boots.

Many turned away in distaste.

The old woman grinned all the more.

‘I would ask a favour of some of your pretty squires,’ the old woman said, eyeing some of the younger men with a playfully coquettish stare, ‘to undress me, and take away this heavy burden of mine.’

She held out her arms by her side, waiting for the reticent squires to approach and unstrap and remove her heavy breastplate.

‘This is no game!’ she snapped, noting the way everyone hung back from helping her. ‘See,’ she continued, pointing to the elaborate design etched and painted onto the front of her breastplate, ‘these are the settings for the jewels your men must find if your kingdom is to survive!’

An inverted pentangle was inlaid in gold, a small jewel glittering at each of nine of its sharply angled points, both inner and outer. Only the lowermost point lacked a sparkling gem. The pentangle was split into upper and lower halves, and set against a rectangle of depressions where larger jewels might have once been displayed.

Twelve depressions?’ the queen spat incredulously, having been the first to notice that there were a dozen empty beds for the missing jewels. ‘How many jewels must our men search for, you old witch? Nine? Ten? Or twelve? And why should they waste their time searching for jewels that, so far, only seem to exist within your nonsensical tale?’

‘Take a long, hard look at your “men”, Queen Telete!’ the old woman snorted. ‘Your kingdom is surround on every side by those who envy your lands, with only this uneasy peace allowing you to survive–’

She was interrupted by angry protests from the insulted knights. But the objections were slurred, incoherent – the cries of drunken men who feared there was a great deal of truth to the crone’s accusations.

The queen observed the protesting men scornfully. They had grown fat, lazy, soft. Even when they had been in their prime, they had lost a number of battles that had disheartened them more than their enemies had thankfully realised.

The king appeared disinterested, too drunk and too resigned to his fate to care. His command of his men on the battlefield had lacked the spark of genius that might have saved them from the worst of their considerable losses; instead, he had secretly found himself panicking when he should have remained calm, unable to think quickly enough to respond to either unforeseen setbacks or opportunities.

He had been too cautious, too fearful for his own life. For if he had died in battle, he had no male heir to take over what remained of his knights and his kingdom. Even now, the most powerful amongst his knights were covertly vying for control; they might not even wait until he was dead.

‘But then, the kingdom of any king lacking a princely heir is living only on borrowed time,’ the old woman added, staring intently at the king as if she had read his mind.

Having sat down, the princess leapt to her feet once again.

‘Treachery!’ she stormed. ‘These are words of treachery, punishable by death! I am more than capable of ruling this kingdom, should anything unfortunate ever happen to Father!’

Out of respect to the princess, there were muted cries of agreement; yet it was obvious to everyone there that there was no real passion or belief behind each supposedly supportive yell.

The old woman chuckled once more at the effect she had caused.

Still no one had approached to unstrap her from the breastplate.

‘No matter,’ she mumbled, as if to herself.

She twirled her hands, her arms still outstretched to either side. The breastplate’s straps unbuckled, as if pulled at by invisible hands. The breastplate rose up and moved away from her body as if borne by unseen squires.

Now, bar her shoddy boots, she was completely naked. She was as scrawny and bony as the most regularly beaten and underfeed mule.

Not that many noticed this. Most were gaping wide-eyed at the magically hovering breastplate, watching it slowly pass across the floor, sighing in astonishment as it slowly and carefully lowered and settled in an impossibly upright position upon the long, high table set before the royal family.

‘Find the gems, and you find the pearl,’ the old woman explained, ‘a pearl within which you will not only be able to discern your future, but will also ensure the continuation of your kingdom!’

‘How can a pearl do all this?’ the queen vehemently protested. ‘I have chests full of pearls: beautiful and priceless. But none of which could accomplish what you promise!’

The king stilled her protests with an extend arm.

Even if this quest the old crone spoke of was a fool’s errand, it had advantages in that it would give his men a renewed sense of purpose. It would also remove from his kingdom those seeking to make alliances that could bring about his downfall.

There was still a problem with it, however.

‘This quest you propose; it could take years!’ he said, eying the old woman suspiciously, demanding more of her. ‘Yet as you yourself have pointed out, I require something more immediate to bring stability to my kingdom. Are you aware of any witc – any medicines that might ensure the queen bears me a male child?’

Both the queen and the princess visibly bridled at this request of the king’s, yet each had the good sense to hold her tongue.

‘I can provide you with a heir of your bloodline,’ the woman replied assuredly.

‘When? How?’ the king asked elatedly, at last sitting up straight on his throne.

‘How soon can you lie with me?’ the old witch replied.

 

 

*

Chapter 3

‘When…when do you transform?’ the king asked nervously as he lay with the old woman in his bed.

He grimaced in disgust as his bared skin touched her leathery, hard-boned body. He was barely touching her, keeping contact between them to a minimum.

He wished he could hover above her wasted, withered frame.

He wished he hadn’t agreed to lie with her.

‘Transform?’ the old woman asked innocently, pressing her hard body against his as if admonishing his lack of passion.

‘As…as you said in the hall. You said…said you were really a beautiful woman!’

‘Did I?’

Of course, the court had descend into an almost riotous uproar when the old crone had demanded that the king should lie with her. The queen and princess had been especially scandalised.

This time it had been the queen herself who had thrown a dagger towards the old woman’s heart. And this time, of course, the woman’s bared chest had no hidden armour protecting it.

Just as before, however, the dagger had struck her skin as if striking an impenetrable material. The sharpened blade hadn’t even scratched the old woman’s sadly drooping teat.

The dagger had clattered to the floor, joining that which had earlier been flung by the aggravated princess.

The gasps of awe and fear had been even more voluble and pronounced than those which had arisen after the previous and similarly failed attempt on the old crone’s life.

Rising from his throne, the king had stilled the court with a sharp, furious yell.

‘Let her speak!’ he had ordered. ‘And if she seeks to mock me; then I promise I will find the blade that can penetrate that odious flesh of hers!’

‘Hah, I see you are interested in lying with me,’ the old woman cackled with a mischievously wry grin.

‘You disgust me–’ the king spat.

‘Then you consign your kingdom to ruin, King Odos!’ the old woman fearlessly interjected. ‘And for what? Have you never heard tales of hideous crones who, for the night-time pleasures of their chosen, transform into maidens beautiful beyond belief?’

Naturally, the king had heard many such tales. And so he was also naturally intrigued; just what kind of fay-like beauty lay beneath this semblance of witchy hideousness?

Yet so far, he had seen absolutely no transformation in the repulsive creature who lay beneath him in his bed.

‘But wait,’ the hag continued in her answer to the king’s query, adding a wicked guffaw, ‘I do recall what I said; that the tales referred to a beauty beyond belief!’

 

 

*

Chapter 4

The king awoke in a crumpled, sweat-stained bed.

His eyes widened in dawning horror as he gradually recalled the previous night.

He spun around, fearing what he would see lying alongside him.

It was a child.

A new-born child, still glistening with birth waters, yet soundly asleep.

The king frowned in anxiety.

Was this the witch transformed?

Had he been completely duped into granting this hideous witch his kingdom?

The bedroom floor was littered with innumerable cast-off wedding veils, glistening like shed, delicately translucent skins.

‘So, your eyes begin to drowsily open at last, King Odos!’

The voice came from by the window; from a naked woman, beautiful beyond belief.

Droplets of the freshest milk still clung to the teats of her fulsome breasts. Milk that still similarly clung to the wet lips of the babe lying beside the king.

‘Why couldn’t you come to me like this last night?’ the king demanded irately.

She was every bit as beautiful as his queen had been when a fresh, untouched princess.

‘I did,’ the fay protested, garbing herself in a magically created gown that clung to her curvaceous body as water clings to smoothly formed rocks. ‘But you were asleep, dead to the world. I fed our child: your heir was ravenous, devouring more milk than any other child would drink within at least ten years.’

The king glanced proudly at the child lying alongside him beneath the bed sheets. When he looked up once more, the beautiful fay was already exiting through the bedroom’s large double doors, elegantly swirling past the gawping guards and patiently waiting attendants and couriers.

The doors swung to behind her, but not before those outside had had the opportunity to see the freshly born babe lying alongside the king.

‘I initiate a new beginning,’ the fay cried out over her shoulder, ‘one I hope won’t finish as I fear the old one will.’

The king’s elated gaze fell on his child, his heir, once more.

His kingdom was saved, its future security assured.

Reaching out, he picked up the child, pulling it out from beneath the bed sheets.

And he gasped in horror.

His ‘prince’ was missing ‘his’ own precious little jewel.

 

 

*

Chapter 5

‘A prince – my heir – is born!’ the king proudly cried out as he emerged from his bedroom, draped within a bed sheet as if it were a Roman toga.

He held his child up high, a child similarly regally draped in a toga-like torn strip of bed sheet.

The waiting crowd, already excited after their initial sighting of the babe, the flouncing departure of the gorgeous fay, erupted into relieved, grateful cheers.

A pair of female attendants, those who were most likely to have been chosen as nursemaids for any new babe born within the court, reached up to take the prince off the king’s hands. Subtly, however, the king managed to continually keep the child out of their reach, moving aside as they drew closer, their arms extended upwards towards the surprisingly calm child.

The king acted as if he were too proud, too relieved, too protective, to let his precious child out of his hands. And who amongst those thronging around him could blame or criticise him for such actions?

On his earlier discovery that his ‘prince’ wasn’t really the heir he had sought, the king had naturally been on the brink of yelling out the command to restrain and arrest the fleeing, devious fay. But – he had immediately stilled the cry.

The fleeing woman was a fay, capable of magic, of charms and spells.

She must have known she would be in danger of arrest after fooling the king in such a way. And so, surely, she must have also known that she would – somehow – be able to avoid capture.

Besides, whether she were held or managed to escape, the end result would be the same; his warning cry would alert everyone to the fact that something had gone amiss.

The king would be humiliated. Everyone would know he had been tricked by the fay.

He would be deposed. His kingdom would fall.

And yet – why should that be the case, when his entire court had witnessed this magical fay promising an heir? Many had seen the babe in his bed, after he and the fay had lain together.

They had also been witness to the fay’s magical powers, for she had transformed overnight from hag to great beauty.

(And in any future tales told of this remarkable event, the king decided, the transformation would take place before they had come together in his bed.)

Only he was aware that his heir wasn’t quite the heir the fay had promised.

If only he could ensure that no one – bar, perhaps, a carefully chosen few sworn to secrecy, on pain of death – ever saw the child naked, then she could be raised as a prince, as the promised heir.

Would it be possible? How long could he maintain such subterfuge?

He had no real idea.

And yet he knew he had to try.

 

 

*

Chapter 6

Thankfully, the king’s problem wasn’t as great as he had initially feared.

The queen, of course, wanted nothing to do with the child, this ‘spawn of magic’.

Would-be nursemaids were kept at bay when it soon became obvious to anyone allowed access to the child that ‘he’ suffered no hunger pangs. Neither did he require bathing, nor the expected changing of soiled clothes.

He did, however, require a contestant updating of his wardrobe of clothes. For in little more than three days, he transformed from babe to a child of around twelve.

Only then did he at last ask for food. And yes, he asked, for he was capable of speaking, as if he had gained his twelve years quite normally. He was also skilled at riding, at wielding the sword, at moving effortlessly in the heaviest and most secure of armour.

His training, under the tuition of the kingdom’s most respected warriors, only added to his already remarkable capabilities. He now also grew and developed at the same pace as any regular boy, his brief spurt of rapid growth having come to an end.

Like any regular boy, too, he took part in mischievous escapades that outraged the court, but amused his doting father.

He released the stabled horse of the knights, allowing them to roam free until they were all carefully rounded up once more.

He clambered through the trees of the nearby woods, ambushing anyone passing along its winding path with hails of apples and soft berries.

He played tricks on the sorely suffering servants, not least when he replaced the dead hog prepared by the kitchen staff with a live one that ran through the royal hall.

The king only drew the line when he heard of the prince’s plan to swim the castle’s great moat.

As a royal prince, the king warned his son, it would be very unbecoming for him to be seen naked by anyone.

 

*

 

 

The queen and her daughter the princess fumed at this usurpation of their power.

‘You told me I was to be queen, Mother!’ the princess wailed at the queen.

The queen understood her daughter’s frustration at the king’s attitude to his son.

Whenever the opportunity had arisen, she had whispered into the king’s ear everything she could think of that would create doubt and foreboding in his mind.

‘How can we trust this fairy child? A child not of our blood?’

‘Of mine; he is a child of my blood!’ the king had confidently retorted.

‘How can we allow what could be a viper into our home, so close to our chests?’ the queen had said on another occasion.

‘If he’s the viper that strikes at our enemies, how wonderful would that be?’ the king had responded.

‘He’s not wholly human!’ the queen had insisted.

‘If fairy magic can be used, better that it works for us rather than our enemies,’ the king had replied.

There was other fairy magic to be utilised, of course, the king realised.

The quest for the heavenly stones: at the very least, sending his knights out on such a task would help remove the worst of them from his court, cutting them off from anyone else they had intended to draw into their many plots to oust him from his throne.

He had the breastplate, with its twelve empty settings for the jewels, placed on display within the main hall, an especially constructed stand of crossed beams raising it high above and behind what were now four thrones.

And one day, a sparkling red jewel abruptly and magically appeared within the very first of the settings.

 

 

*

Chapter 7

The appearance of the jewel was accompanied by the most mournful playing of a harp that anyone within the court had ever heard, a discordant melody that struck deeply within each and every one of them.

They felt more sorrowful than they had ever felt, even when in the throes of the deepest despondency.

Within seconds of the jewel appearing within its setting on the breastplate, a bedraggled knight also appeared out of nowhere before the four empty thrones.

‘Sir Heduin!’ the king exclaimed, spinning in surprise on his heels, turning away from the courtier he’d been in conversation with farther down the hall.

Sir Heduin briefly appeared even more surprised than the king and the handful of clerics from the exchequer, called to attend a discussion of the kingdom’s finances.

‘My lord, I’ve recovered–’

He stepped towards the king, holding up a golden harp so large he had to hold it using both hands. Even though he wasn’t the one plucking the harps strings, they wavered, vibrated, the obvious source of the fearfully affecting music.

The knight got no farther than two strides.

He was abruptly lifted off his feet and pushed back as if by an extremely powerful yet completely invisible surge of wind. The harp flew from his grasp, only to rise up into the air rather than fall towards and shatter upon the stone floor.

The knight was brutally pummelled as he was swept back through the hall, only stopping when viciously flung against what could have been a wall, yet one that was once again unseen, invisible.

The violent impact knocked the wind from him. His eyes bulged; he was fruitlessly fighting for more air, his arms flailing uselessly as he bizarrely hovered above the floor as if weightless. He was trying to rise higher, but was obstructed by a ceiling that, like the wall, remained invisible to the horrified watchers.

Sir Heduin was drowning, drowning in an air-filled hall.

Those near to him reached up towards him, hoping to grab at his ankles, to pull him down to safety. But he was, bizarrely, too buoyant. He struggled, too, against their efforts to help him, as if he feared he were about to be dragged even deeper into the unseen waters by devious water sprites.

As the invisible waters swelled around the harp, they didn’t prevent it playing but, rather, made the already intensely melancholy tune more thundering hollow and dark.

It was a tune of death, of dying. One so affecting that everyone there who heard it that day would forever swear that they themselves sensed they were dying along with Sir Heduin: life itself was being remorselessly sucked from them, dragged screaming from their helpless bodies towards a patiently waiting darkness, where it was absorbed, devoured.

They were being torn between two worlds, each realm laying claim to their body, their soul, neither wishing to fully relinquish its prize.

Gradually, the knight’s floundering struggles ceased.

His body went limp. Like the harp he’d released, his body rose up, floating at the top of the invisible waters, bumping against the invisible ceiling. They both swirled, both bumped against each other, and began to sink lower as the unseen waters appeared to be rapidly draining away.

As Sir Heduin’s lifeless body sank silently to the floor, the king and a few of the clerics gathered around it, at first hoping that they had been mistaken that he had appeared to drown before them. Yet, despite him being quite dry, he was indeed dead.

Another cleric retrieved the harp, bringing it towards the king for him to inspect.

It was lighter than it looked, obviously constructed of gold-leaf covered wood rather than pure gold. It seemed to have no special qualities to it, apart from an empty depression in the forehead of the angel that the body of the harp had been carved into, the obvious setting for the jewel that was now embedded within the breastplate.

The king strode towards the breastplate, touching the jewel in the hope that it possessed some magical quality that would have made Sir Heduin’s sacrifice worthwhile.

Nothing happened.

There was nothing magical about the jewel at all.

The king looked back towards the limp, lifeless form of Sir Heduin with an irate frown

It seemed a high price to pay: a jewel, for the life of one of his bravest knights.

 

 

*

Chapter 8

A number of months later, another jewel appeared within the breastplate, along with another dead knight strewn across the hall’s floor.

This time the knight had been killed by the object he had attempted to retrieve, a sword whose blade had been deeply embedded within his chest, whose pommel featured the empty setting where the jewel had once glistened.

His death was accompanied by the awed wailing of a vast crowd, yet it was a crowd that remained invisible to everyone within the court.

The jewel was a translucent greenish yellow, a peridot, that sat in the second of the prepared depressions on the breastplate. When inspected by those who were recognised as being specialists in such matters, they each declared that the jewel, like the first, appeared to be nothing more than a regular precious stone; it possessed no special qualities whatsoever, let alone any magical or otherwise wondrous abilities.

‘Is this what our bravest, most accomplished knight has sacrificed his life for?’ the king fumed.

Attempts were made to prise the jewels from their settings within the breastplate, with the intention of placing them once more within the hollows provided for them on the harp and sword pommel. But no matter which implements – from the delicate probes of jewellers to the usually more brutally efficient chisels of blacksmiths – were used in the numerous attempts to remove the gems, they remained firmly and immovably in place.

‘Can’t you put a stop to this farce?’ the queen raged at the king in private one day. ‘Can’t you admit you’ve been tricked? Your best knights are being killed one by one!’

The king was morose, and in a mind to agree with the queen. What could be the point in collecting jewels that seemed incapable of granting him the otherworldly powers he had hoped for?

‘How was such a renowned knight so easily bested in a fair fight?’ the king complained, recalling that an inspection of the poor knight’s corpse had revealed an earlier deep wound that would have easily felled any lesser man, a wound that would nevertheless have weakened him greatly. ‘It can’t have been a just fight; there’s your answer! Treachery must have been involved in Sir Dradfur’s death!’

‘And this prince,’ the queen snorted disparagingly, ‘don’t you think that he’s a part of this trick being played on us all? Didn’t he spring from the very same witch who’s the cause of all your troubles?’

The king glared warningly at the queen, a stare unmistakably informing her that he believed he had already allowed her more leeway than he should have done. Even a queen could be accused of insulting and betraying her king.

Noticing this, Princess Episteme pulled aggressively and irately on the strand of gold she was snaking through the embroidery she was diligently working upon.

The king liked this prince too much. He didn’t seem to understand or care that his daughter felt betrayed by his actions, this endorsement of this usurper to the throne whose blood was only half royal. Were it not for this half, however, the prince would be denounced for what he truly was: the issue of a witch.

‘A wise king always puts his kingdom first, Father.’ The princess spoke as calmly as she was able, under the infuriating circumstances. ‘Your enemies are bound to see it as a weakness that you’re prepared to sacrifice your best knights for a handful of useless gems.’

She plunged the needle home into the crown she was forming as part of her embroidery, working it wormlike through the head of the king portrayed wearing it. She pulled once more on the thread, expertly drawing it taut, slightly lifting the king’s head with it, making the already completed face frown in thought.

The king frowned in thought.

‘I can’t afford to show weakness.’

‘Yes, Father; you have to be strong…’

‘Even to the extent of completing necessary tasks you yourself disagree with…’ the queen added, her voice, like her daughters, little more than a whisper, a suggestion.

The princess pulled on another strand, one threaded earlier through the heart.

‘Some things are so difficult…’

‘Things we don’t always want to do…’

‘This spawn of a fay…’

‘This offspring of a witch…’

‘Suckled at the witch’s teat…’

‘A witch’s brood…’

‘Her litter…’

‘Shouldn’t we kill this seed of–’

The door to the room crashed open. The prince ran into the room.

‘Father, Fath–’

‘Have you no manners, boy!’ the queen spat furiously.

‘How dare you burst in wh–’

‘Sorry, I’m sorry,’ the prince stammered nervously, wondering if he was doing the right thing interrupting a sister who, yet again, was already livid with him, ‘but it’s Sir Grandhan: he’s returned with a jewel. And he’s alive!’

 

 

*

Chapter 9

The Haven’s Eye

 

We had travelled through a number of kingdoms, and yet this was easily the worst part of our journey so far: ascending the Mount of Curses was arduous and cold, the going difficult even for our sorely suffering mounts.

The wind ate at and tore away our already torn and shredded cloaks. The snow swirled around us, like angry wasps, stinging us with their freezing cold barbs. The ground was hard, rocky and treacherous, with every stone and pebble ready to shift at the slightest touch of an exhaustedly placed hoof.

And after all that, when we reached the peak, we found our way blocked by a towering, insurmountable wall. Each stone was huge and perfectly set, with not even a hair’s breadth between them. And yet this remarkable wall stretched off across the hills to either side, apparently endlessly, and with no sign of towers, steps or gates.

We had no choice, we decided, but to split our band up into two halves, with two of us heading one way, two of us the other. In this way, we would double our chances of finding a way through or over this seemingly impregnable wall.

Sir Roshaban and I travelled for mile after mile, our mounts almost dead on their feet, becoming little more than wasted flesh on walking skeletons. We ourselves were hardly better, our supplies running increasingly low, with no hamlets or even the hovels of shepherds’ to provide us with sustenance. We were too exhausted to hunt game, living only off the roots of the few shrubs we found on our journey.

It was only as we rose over what seemed to us to be the hundredth hill that we at last saw a change in the surrounding landscape; lying before us was a great sea, stretching out as far as the eye could see. Better still, there were signs of habitation along the coast, where a large sea port lay.

Although the port’s harbour was vast, there was only one ship moored there. It was a great ship in its own right, however, like a palace built to float on the waves. Moreover, although the buildings we passed seemed to have suffered the destruction of a great storm, they were substantially constructed houses, a sure sign that the port regularly brought in great wealth from abroad.

We sold our horses and our armour and took up lodging, with the intention of using what money we had left to seek passage on a ship that would land us lower down the coast, on the other side of the wall. Unfortunately, when we asked the innkeeper about the best way of going about this, he assured us that the wall extended far along the coast, and no one – not even their finest seafarers – had found a point where the wall ended.

The wall had been constructed centuries before the port of Zebulun had existed, he informed us, built by Hiram, the builder of the fabled Temple of Solomon. In the same way that he had constructed Solomon’s temple, and its two great, decorative pillars, he had built the wall using neither hammer nor axe, using instead the Shamir; a Great Wyrm capable of piercing stone. And he had controlled this Great Wyrm by means of a sparkling jewel!

Here, we thought, must be one of the jewels we seek!

We asked the innkeeper if he knew of the whereabouts of this remarkable jewel, yet he laughed, saying Hiram had long ago thrown the precious gem into a deep well: for the Queen of Sheba herself had found herself attracted to this remarkable man, and the envious Solomon had hunted Hiram down, with the intention of killing him!

The innkeeper did, however, know of an artefact even more remarkable than this fabulous jewel; for it was a magical lantern, upon which the port’s own success heavily depended. This whole area was one of regular, destructive storms, yet this lantern, carried on the port’s flagship, ensured both it and its accompanying fleet would never be struck by any of these storms. This was why the port was so free of ships, he further explained, because they necessarily sailed as one in a great fleet, for to sail as a lone ship was to invite trouble.

But what of the ship lying now in their harbour? we asked.

This was from another land, and had been fortunate enough to avoid the storm that had almost wrecked the port only a day after the fleet’s usual propitious departure. This ship would be sailing soon, he informed us, before the next storm struck the port: for the fleet was due back quite soon, and it always seemed to be the case that storms struck a day before the lucky fleet’s arrival.

On hearing this, we ourselves hurried down to the harbour side, hoping to seek passage on the departing ship. It seemed we were only just in time, for even as we ascended the gangplank stretching between boat and shore, the vast sails were unfurling, the rows of oars dipping in the waters to pull us away from the harbour walls.

We quickly searched for the captain, indeed anyone of the crew who could direct us to the captain, so that we could pay for our passage.

But the entire crew was obviously busy in working the oars, or somewhere out of sight high up in the mast’s rigging, for we saw no one we could talk with, every door to every possible workplace being securely bolted and refusing us access.

At last coming to a room with doors that effortlessly opened before us, we entered to find ourselves walking on a metallic floor burnished to a mirror-like finish, one so smooth it was almost impossible for us to remain on our feet without constantly slipping. If we had still been wearing our armour, rather than having been placed in the humbling position of having to sell every inch of it, we would undoubtedly have fallen and been unable to regain our feet.

Within the centre of this huge, mirror-floored room, we came across two soaring pillars, each decorated with a carving of an entwining Great Wyrm rising to the very top.

Sir Roshaban walked between these two great pillars: and, I’m afraid to say, promptly vanished.

I never saw him again, and even now fear for him, endlessly wondering what could possibly have befallen my brave friend and fellow knight.

I would have followed him, in the hope of rescuing him from whatever had ailed him, yet the ship was immediately hit by the most violent storm I have ever encountered. On the ridiculously smooth floor, I had no chance of staying on my feet. I was sent bowling back across the room, farther and farther away from the soaring pillars.

I erupted through the room’s open doors. I spun uncontrollably across the bucking floors of other rooms. I crashed through the wooden railings running along the ship’s sides.

And, suddenly, I was plunging through freezing waters.

If I had still been wearing my usual armour, I would undoubtedly have drowned. As it was, the cheap, voluminous dress we had had to garb ourselves in saved me, the air ballooning within its great folds, and safely suspending me on the surface of the raging sea.

Even saved in this way, of course, I would soon have perished were it not for the sudden calming of those self-same raging seas. The ship had long been carried off by the storm, of course, and I found myself all alone in the middle of a vast sea, both surprised and horrified that that magical ship had somehow managed to transport us so far from land in what had seemed a remarkably short duration of time.

Thankfully, other ships were heading my way, however: a whole fleet of them. The fleet of Zebulun!

Thankfully, too, these ships were crewed by visible men! Noticing my plight, they hauled me aboard, granting me warm clothes, drink and food. They laughed good-naturedly, telling me my luck had now quite obviously changed: for I was aboard the Haven’s Eye, flagship of the Zebulun fleet.

I glanced everywhere I could as quickly as I could, wondering if I might see somewhere close about me the fabulous lantern the innkeeper had spoken of: the magical light that kept the fleet safe from harm.

The seas about me where as placid, as stilled, as the mirror-like floor Sir Roshaban and I had discovered on the mysterious ship. There was hardly a breeze to be felt, and yet it was obviously more than enough to fill the sails of both the Haven’s Eye and its surrounding, attendant ships.

They could have been sailing on the most favourable of days, rather than one that had just suffered a storm capable of tossing around the magnificent, mysterious ship as effortlessly as if it had been a twig caught in a raging river.

Noticing my curious stares, one of the smiling crewmen indicated with a pointing finger that I should direct my glance upward towards the very end of the soaring mast: and here I saw a lantern that, even in the brightness of daylight, cast a rich honeyed glow over everything nearby.

‘The real Haven’s Eye,’ the grinning seaman explained, ‘the one our blessed ship is named after.’

‘It’s not an earthly light,’ one of the other crewmen added with a thankful frown, ‘but one from heaven itself: a jewel that fell to earth long ago!’

A jewel! It had to be one of the jewels I had been seeking!

So placid was the fleet’s journey that, when night fell, everyone retired to bed, knowing that no malady would befall them. I had, of course, deliberately stayed awake, and I was surprised by the lack of noise amongst the whole fleet, the only sounds been that of the most gentle of creaking planks, the quietest of lapping waters.

I climbed the mast, heading up towards the lantern as silently as I could. It’s golden glow still shone everywhere across the sea and, as I drew close, I could have sworn the fabulous jewel set inside the lantern blinked at me, as an eye would.

I had hoped I could open the lantern up, and take the jewel alone, but it appeared firmly encased within the lantern, the glass of which seemed to have been carved from a large crystal. Fortunately, I had brought a thick bedsheet with me, hoping to shield the jewel’s glow as I stole it away; and I threw this over the whole lantern, as I carefully unhooked the chain it was suspended from.

The darkness that abruptly descended across the fleet was far more complete than I had expected, however. Worse, the ship suddenly began to rock from side to side, from fore to aft, the movement whipping me back and forth as I was so high up its mast.

Rain began to fall heavily about me, and a sharp wind picked up as if from nowhere, whirling everywhere across the waters, thrashing the formally placid sea into rolling waves.

High above me, the heavens cracked open, a sheet of lightning rushing down towards the earth, the skies rolling and thundering as if suffering the most fearsome charge of heavenly cavalry.

Within that furiously crackling streak of light, I saw every ship of the extended fleet being everywhere pummelled by rapidly swirling winds, their sails already torn to shreds, the hulls being thrown and tossed around on the raging waves as if weightless.

Fearing for their lives, the crew of the Haven’s Eye were clambering out onto its deck, rushing to trim sails, to bail out waters that were already flooding in through splintering planks. They noticed straight away, of course, that the honeyed glow of their magical lantern had vanished.

It was so dark, however, that they failed to realise I was responsible, that I was scrambling down the mast as quickly as I could while holding firmly onto the bedsheet-covered lantern. Even so, seeking to discover the problem, as well as to control the angrily flapping sail, many of the seamen were already rushing up the mast towards me with all the agility of trained monkeys.

I would have been discovered and captured if the storm itself hadn’t decided to take a hand. With a particularly ferociously blow, it sent the ship into the most sickening lurch, while wrenching hard on the flailing sheet covering the lantern.

Losing my already tentative grasp of the mast, I was sent flying out into empty, dark space, as if thrown down into the very deepest well.

I landed once more amongst storm wracked waves, but fortunately this time I found that the hollowed crystal of the lantern was sufficiently buoyant to save me from drowning.

And so I passed through the fleet as it was torn apart by the frenziedly lashing storm, unseen in the darkness as I clung to the ferociously bobbing, darkly covered lantern.

The storm violently threw us all ever farther apart, until it seemed I was all alone in the middle of the sea, the waves rising so high all around me – even when I myself soared high on a rising wave – it was impossible to be sure.

Fearing for my life, realising I would drown unless I used the magical powers of the lantern to calm the ferociously bucking sea, I tore the covering away from the crystal, flinging the bedsheet aside to allow the jewel’s gloriously honeyed glow to light up everything around me.

And as the glow ever so rapidly spread, it instantly brought calmness to everything it washed over, like a godly hand placating hell’s demons, the sea flattening, stilling, becoming around me quite mirror-like as it became so miraculously becalmed.

The enveloping squall was rapidly pushed ever farther from me, its tumultuous waves, its raging winds, all consigned to ever greater distances until I found myself lazily wallowing in the very centre of the surrounding storm.

Yet although that storm at last receded into the very farthest distances, I realised it was never, ever really completely calmed.

In fact this gem, I also realised, was not the blessing it appeared to be, but a curse.

For the Haven’s Eye was no such thing: it was the Eye of the Storm!

 

 

*

Chapter 10

The brilliantly honey-coloured stone now glowed brightly from its setting upon the breastplate (where, as a reminder of the dangers the quest had inflicted upon the court, the unsheathed sword that been withdrawn from Sir Dradfur’s corpse had been slung between its shoulder straps).

Rather than the third setting, however, this third jewel had taken up home in the depression lying at the very end of the second row, where the sixth jewel would have been expected to appear.

Everyone who noticed and was surprised by this wondered why the settings lying in between the already recovered gems remained empty.

Yet as Sir Grandhan finished his tale – with an explanation that he had found himself within the king’s great hall only moments after touching the uncovered lantern – the prince directed his own questioning stare not at the glowing breastplate but the knight himself.

‘But was it a fair, or the right thing to do, do you think Sir Grandhan, to take this jewel from people who had aided you?’

Sir Grandhan appeared puzzled by the prince’s question.

‘But my lord; we have been charged with recovering the jewels…’

He looked to the king for support.

‘Sir Grandhan’s right,’ the king declared sternly, glowering disappointedly at his son. ‘You must realise that, as a prince, it is expected of you to place the wellbeing of your future kingdom and its peoples above all other considerations; no matter how personally distasteful you might find any action you have to take to ensure its security.’

The prince bowed his head in subservience to his father, displaying for all to see his acquiescence to his father’s wise words.

‘I am sorry, Father: I did not mean to earn your displeasure with my question.’

The king rewarded his son with a slight if satisfied smile, waving aside his apology.

‘You have much to learn, and Sir Grandhan will surely forgive you for your lack of understanding regarding this matter.’

Just as the prince had bowed to his father, Sir Grandhan now bowed submissively to his prince.

‘Thank you for your forgiveness, Sir Grandhan,’ the prince said graciously.

Out of the corner of an eye, the prince caught his sister grimacing in displeasure. Originally, as their father had publically reprimanded the prince, the princess had smirked almost gleefully. The queen had, as usual, appeared to remain perfectly unaffected by the exchange, yet the prince suspected that she was every bit as overjoyed by his earlier humiliation as her daughter had been.

‘Despite all these pleasantries, there’s still no sign of this precious pearl,’ the queen sneered, as if weary of it all. ‘Please correct me if I’ve somehow failed to understand this quest correctly, but wasn’t it the case that its whole object was to find this pearl? And yet, goodness knows how long after all this ridiculous thing was set in motion, we’re still no closer to even hearing anything more of its existence, let alone its whereabouts!’

‘Yet I sense, my lady,’ Sir Grandhan gamely replied, ‘that our goal lies beyond the Mount of Curses!’

‘Ah, yes; in effect, you mean, beyond this endless wall, with no gates…’

‘And you say you only sense this to be the case,’ the princess added sceptically, emulating the queen’s own disdainful dismissal of the knight’s claim. ‘You do not know it to be true?’

The poor, beleaguered knight gave a resigned shrug of his shoulders.

‘Surely, my lady,’ he answered unsurely, ‘we would have heard of this fabulous pearl by now if it lay somewhere on our side of the wall?’

The queen let her gaze liquidly drift towards the breastplate and its handful of glittering jewels.

‘And yet, we had originally heard of none of these jewels so far retrieved: even though they were all recovered from our side of this unbreachable wall…’

The queen’s eyes merely abruptly narrowed, blazed furiously: yet those watching realised she was suddenly both surprised and angered.

A new jewel had appeared set within the breastplate she was almost distractedly staring at. As others around the court noticed this, there were gasps of amazement.

The jewel was of multi-coloured jasper, a mix of red, yellow, green, and embedded within the very final setting.

There were even louder gasps as a poorly dressed man appeared from nowhere before the court’s four thrones. Standing alongside Sir Grandhan, who still remained in front of the king and queen after relating his tale, he was holding in his hands a small, triangular shaped plinth carved from the heart and twirling branches of a stag’s antlers.

‘Sir Roshaban!’ Sir Grandhan cried out in joy, elatedly wrapping his arms in greeting around his friend’s shoulders. ‘I thought you were lost!’

Although briefly shocked by his abrupt appearance within the hall, Sir Roshaban’s expression changed to one of joy when it dawned on him that he was standing alongside his friend once more.

‘Lost? No, no! I found myself–’

His explanation abruptly came to an end when he realised that his king and queen were seated on their thrones. He bowed deeply before them.

‘My lord, my lady!’

He held out the carved antler horn before him, irately frowning when he noticed that its setting for the gem was empty. Glancing up at the breastplate, he was relieved to see that the multi-coloured jasper now magically resided there.

‘We’re pleased to see you safe, Sir Roshaban,’ the king announced authoritatively, rising from his throne as a way of offering his greeting to his knight. ‘When we heard Sir Grandhan’s tale, we feared that you might have come to grief on the mysterious ship he spoke of.’

‘My lord, there were two immense pilla–’

‘Yes, yes: we’ve heard all this,’ the queen interrupted irritably. ‘And that you stepped between them: but what happened then, Sir Roshaban? How is that you have not only returned safe to us, but have also returned with – what I presume – is the jewel of this remarkable builder of these pillars and this fabulous wall?’

‘Yes, I believe this is this Hiram’s jewel,’ the knight agreed, fleetingly glancing his friend’s way to check that he didn’t need to give any further explanation to Hiram’s identity. ‘If it had been thrown into a well, as we had heard tell, then obviously someone had recovered it: perhaps the owner of the mysterious ship.’

‘What lay on the other side of the pillars?’ Sir Grandhan asked, perhaps more curious than anyone else there because he had witnessed his friend’s sudden disappearance.

‘It was another land, I thought at first, when I found myself looking out from high up a mountain over a land I didn’t recognise. Then when I looked back and to either side of the two pillars I’d stepped through, I realised they acted as a gateway for the wall we’d been unable to pass through. I would have stepped back through the pillars, only I was suddenly faced by the most astonishing sight: it was a hart, a white one, and one who carried a glowing orb between the horns of his antlers – an orb that shone like a fiercely roasting, parching sun.’

The knight was surprised to see that it was the prince, not the princess, who looked with horror towards the piece of antler he held in his hands.

‘This plinth isn’t made from the hart’s antlers, however,’ he hurriedly explained, briefly holding up the carving. ‘Rather, the hart began to slowly move away, glancing back at me strangely, as if unsure just what sort of creature I was; even as if he was hoping that I would follow him. I did, of course, as I thought this hart is so trusting, he will be easily captured – and it was a long time since I had eaten well. On following him, however, I was led to a point where a full sized rainbow arched down from the sky to touch a section of the wall. It was here that I found a small doorway leading down into an elaborate yet minute chapel buried beneath the wall: and there, lying on this triangular plinth, I found Hiram’s jewel.’

‘The jewel that controls this stone-eating Great Wyrm?’ the princess asked somewhat doubtfully. ‘This…Chimera?’

‘Shamir, my lady,’ Sir Grandhan politely corrected.

With a regretful narrowing of his eyes, the king looked back towards the resplendent gems embedded in the breastplate.

‘Unfortunately, these gems seem to relinquish their magical powers once they have been retrieved,’ he stated morosely.

‘Hence why we should put an immediate halt to this foolish quest!’ the queen snorted dismissively.

‘Far from it!’ the king snapped back. ‘Haven’t you been listening, my dear? If we find this ship, then we have a way through to this other land lying beyond the wall!’

‘And that of course, my lord,’ the queen nonchalantly replied, ‘is only possible if this ship miraculously survived the great storm caused by Sir Grandhan’s removal of the protective gem!’

 

 

*

Chapter 11

With neither shield nor sword to aid him in either his defence or attack, the prince was tempted to deliberately throw himself aside to avoid the slashing sword accurately aimed towards his throat.

As he had been relentlessly taught, however, he kept on his feet: even if he swiftly recovered from an athletic roll, as he could easily do when only lightly clad, he would rise up only to find the other man-at-arms already waiting there to hack him to pieces.

Instead, as part of a well-practised side step, he deftly curved his heavily armoured arm upwards, coming up from beneath the swinging sword then pushing it outward, letting the flat of the blade uselessly slide aside along the smoothly surfaced iron.

As he did this, he reached out with his own hand towards the assailant’s hand, once again using the heavy metal of his gauntlets to crush bared fingers and loosen the grip on the sword’s handle.

With a swift backward wrench of his arm, matched with a forward thrust of his other arm towards his opponent’s face, he’d made the attacker’s sword his.

The second man-at-arms held off from his own attack to enthusiastically applaud the prince’s expertise.

‘Well done, well done my lord!’ Sir Roshaban proclaimed as he thankfully removed his sweat-drenched helmet.

Sir Grandhan, however, was grimacing in pain, rubbing his bruised fingers.

‘I tried to hold onto the sword, my lord: but you’ve obviously learnt how to make the most of a hand’s weak spots!’

The prince removed his own, far heavier helmet, breathing in fresher, cooler air with a gasp of relief.

‘If it’s true that you weren’t restraining yourselves too much,’ he replied a little doubtfully as his squires began to expertly remove the rest of his heavy armour, ‘then I owe a great deal of thanks to Sir Trent’s training regime.’

Lifting his own helmet clear of his head, Sir Grandhan hung his head a little sadly.

‘If only Sir Dradfur were still alive to teach you the tricks he’d learnt out in the field…’

Sir Roshaban chuckled bitterly.

‘I still find it hard to believe someone bested him in a fair fight!’

They had both reacted as much with surprise as dismay when they had learnt how their fellow knight had appeared in the hall already dead, the magical sword deeply embedded within his chest.

‘We know it can’t have been a fair fight,’ Sir Grandhan pronounced assuredly. ‘The sword’s jewelled pommel must have given it powers we can only guess at! That’s how poor Sir Dradur was defeated!’

The even stranger manner of Sir Heduin’s death had also shocked the two knights. Even so, they had determined that they would set out on the quest for more jewels as soon as they had equipped themselves with new armour and horses.

With the prince’s own armour now fully removed, he announced he needed to bathe after such an arduous training session, exchanging the expected polite bows and goodbyes with the two knights and dismissing his squires and attendants.

It had become a custom amongst the royal family that no one should ever see them naked, a habit adopted on the marriage of the king and queen, when the latter had insisted that she was never to be disturbed when bathing, not even by the king himself.

The prince set off towards one of the pools that lay within the private garden set aside for both himself and his sister, an area that he fully expected to be deserted at this time of day, for the princess had informed everyone that she intended to obtain a certain ring she had long coveted.

On his way there, however, he heard singing coming from behind one of the garden’s walls. It was his sister who was singing, he was sure, and yet he had never heard her singing so beautifully, so entrancingly.

‘I arise today,

‘Through thy strength to pilot me,

‘Thy might to uphold me,

‘Thy wisdom to guide me…’

Yet when he peered curiously around the edge of the wall, there was no sign of his sister. Or, rather, there was a sign that she had been there recently, and perhaps might even be somewhere quite close, for she had set up her stool and embroidery stand as if she had been working on it out in the fresh air.

Stranger still, it might have been some odd trick of the light, the way it filtered through the massed leaves of the surrounding trees, but the prince could have sworn he could see a slender stem of ivy threading its way through the embroidery.

Before he had a chance to confirm this, however, he was distracted by what at first seemed to be an even more amazing trick of the light; a coruscating play of brightly flickering, multi-coloured rays coming off one of the nearby tree trunks. It was as if a million minute gems had all been simultaneously brought together within a rapid whirling of air.

It was the furious beating of translucent wings, transforming light into a resplendent universe of overlapping, conflicting rainbows.

It was a fairy, a creature Prince Argaret had always presumed was nothing but a mythical figure.

 

 

*

 

 

The prince had to hold himself back from crying out in surprise. He didn’t want to risk disturbing or frightening off the resplendently fluttering fairy.

He – or was it a she? – was, just like the prince a moment earlier, staring wide eye at the empty seat, the magically weaving embroidery. He appeared to be entranced by the gorgeous singing of the princess, which was itself almost increasingly angelically magical in its beauty.

‘Thy eye to look before me,

‘Thy ear to hear me,

‘Thy word to speak for me,

‘Thy hand to guard me…’

The fluidly rhythmic flow of the music never stopped even as a dagger abruptly thudded into the tree truck just a thread’s thickness above the hovering fairy.

The fairy didn’t seem in any way aware, however, that he had literally been a hair’s breadth away from being exiled from this world: he remained completely charmed by the singing.

He didn’t even seem to notice that the split tree had released a thick globule of sap that, erupting from beneath the tree bark as if it were a long imprisoned bubble, swiftly drooped over and enveloped him.

The fairy struggled only half-heartedly, as if not sure what was happening, perhaps even uncaring, the magical music still falsely reassuring him that there was nothing to fear.

‘Thy way to lie before me,

‘Thy shield to protect me–’

The prince, realising that the fairy was in danger of being entrapped with the swiftly setting amber forever, rushed forward to help, his sudden appearance at last bringing the glorious music to an abrupt halt. Wrenching the deeply embedded knife from the tree trunk, he began to use its blade to prise the sticky sap from the bark, where it was beginning to set hard much swifter than he believed possible.

‘Argaret! What are you doing?’

Suddenly, the princess was alongside him, glaring at him sternly.

‘It’s this poor fairy,’ he quickly explained as he cupped the entrapped creature in one hand, plunging the knife blade back into the bark. ‘She’s been entrapped in this tree sap!’

‘Of course she’s been entrapped, silly!’ The princess sounded exasperated by his foolishness. ‘I want her for my ring!’

Ignoring his sister’s protests, the prince was striding off towards the pool, hoping he would be able to wash away the sap from the fairy before she either drowned or suffocated in the rapidly hardening amber.

‘She’s a living thing! You can’t just go using her as a piece of jewellery!’

‘Oh don’t be ridiculous! All sorts of insects get entrapped within amber! Besides, if the only thing worrying you is that she’s alive–’

Without any warning, the princess suddenly plunged the dagger she’d retrieved from the tree trunk towards the defenceless and virtually stilled fairy.

Argaret reacted quickly, moving his hand aside enough to save the fairy’s life, yet not enough to prevent the blade from slashing through the setting amber and painfully piercing his palm.

He grimaced, but otherwise gave no sign that he was flinching from the pain. The blood rose from his hand, swirling around inside the golden sap.

‘Now see what you’ve done!’ the princess complained, stamping her foot irately as she swung around and stormed off still holding the bloodied knife. ‘It’s ruined! Useless!’

Ignoring his sister once again, the prince continued his urgent rush towards the pool. Reaching the sun dappled waters, kneeling by them, he immediately dipped his bleeding hand and entrapped fairy within its surprisingly cold embrace.

With a careful, deft use of his fingers, the prince began to wash the thickening sap from around the fairy, some of it falling away in clumps, other parts of it drifting away like a particularly viscous honey.

Freed of the golden covering, the fairy iridescently glowed once more, rising up from the green waters with a splutter.

The prince had no chance to see if the fairy was grateful for her rescue or not. The golden sap appeared to be spreading throughout the pool, expanding endlessly, transforming the cool waters into a brightly glistening syrup. It clung at his hands, sucked hard on them, refusing to let him withdraw them from its fierce clutch.

As the fairy rose into the air, glittering like so many entrapped rainbows, the bewildered prince lost his balance, tipping forward from his knees and plunging into the waiting pool.

He sank into its golden glare. Thick, glutinous, it was no longer like water at all, but pulling on him as if with the grip and urgency of countless hands.

He felt himself dropping, dropping, as if down into an endlessly deep pit, the darkness lying ahead of him seemingly solid, the golden glow he was leaving behind him gradually dimming like a dying sun.

Was he, like so many insects and small creatures from the Earth’s past, going to find himself entrapped forever within a massive slab of amber?

 

 

*

Chapter 12

Within the darkness, the prince saw a few, odd flashes of white.

They were angular, regimented, as if a camp of tents.

But no, they moved, in rows of two. They were helmets, the shining helmets of uniformly black-clad troops.

‘You’re obviously lost,’ the nearest of the darkly robed soldiers said to him. ‘Come with us: we’ll help you back.’

It wasn’t a man’s voice, however. It was a woman’s.

They weren’t men-at-arms after all. They were nuns, dressed purely in sheerest black and purest white.

The prince was surprised that he could walk normally, freed of the sticky clutches of the amber pool. They walked to a nearby, high-walled nunnery, the buildings soaring against a deeply blue sky.

Passing through a gate, the wood of its doors so polished they shone as if also made of amber, they came first into a courtyard and then a cloister, its covered walkways surrounding a garden dominated by a soaring pine tree. From here, they entered the nunnery’s great church, its interior awash with the golden glow of sunlit windows.

In some ways, however, it differed from any other church the prince had previously seen. In the place of stone sculptures, the alcoves and plinths were decorated with carvings of amber, many of which contained entrapped creatures or flowers of various sizes. The vast waterfalls of glass, too, were replaced here with seemingly ever-rising sheets of amber, the effect being one of a constant flow of honey.

This wondrously illuminated church wasn’t their intended final destination, however.

The small column of nuns continued their unhurried progression, passing through a door into an even more magnificent room, one filled with pieces of amber of unimaginable size, the plants held within them being as tall as trees, the creatures being elephants with elaborately curling tusks, tigers with gigantic teeth, and even dragons, some with wings as the legends told. The prince couldn’t be entirely sure, as he wasn’t given time to linger and study these amazing stones, but he caught a glimpse of what could be a giant, even a man with wings, as if an angel.

From each stone, small forks of lightning crackled, arching across to other stones, making them glow as if miniature suns.

‘This is the lyngurium of the Sisters of Gad,’ the prioress announced to the prince with no sense of pride, no sense of wishing to display this fabulous treasure trove to him. Rather, she led him away from these more magnificent pieces, taking him instead towards a low plinth standing within the middle of the great hall. Here there lay yet another piece of amber, yet one that could have adorned any fortunate lady’s ring.

‘Here traces of the past linger,’ the prioress continued, as she and the other nuns moved aside to allow the prince closer access to the small yet strangely resplendent oval of amber. ‘Remembrances of a past that may aid you in your quest.’

‘My quest?’ The prince was puzzled: he knew of no quest, other than the one his father’s knights had been sent out upon.

‘Yes, of course; ultimately, the quest is yours, though no one, not even yourself, has realised this until now.’

The prince stared into the glistening amber, restraining a gasp of surprise and joy as the glittering light seemingly caught inside the stone took on a more globular, pearl-like form.

Had he found the pearl everyone sought?

The glistening white blaze of the pearl continued to rise up through the golden glow of the amber, drawing ever closer to the eagerly waiting prince.

The closer this glittering white light drew towards him, however, the more he realised he had been wrong to mistake it as a pearl; rather, it was a flower in bloom, the most gorgeous lily he had ever seen, and of the very purest white.

He frowned in bewilderment: why was he been shown this lily?

Recognising his confusion, the prioress said, ‘It’s told of the jewels you seek that one struck Cain, son of Adam and Eve, on his forehead, forever staining him with the reddened mark of the serpent. Like many stories, however, this is not entirely true, yet is simply a means to try and help us realise the truth.’

As she spoke, the lily within the glowing amber was dissolving, transforming into the innumerable bright sparkles of the stars in the heavens. One was brighter than all these, for it was the bright and shining Morning Star, tumbling ever closer towards earth.

It plummeted through soaring trees of the most beautiful and perfect kind.

It hurtled through the most wondrously coloured bushes and blooms.

It passed by creatures who stared in wide eyed innocence at this remarkable sight, this result of a rift in heaven.

Yet, of course, it wasn’t a gift from heaven.

It buried itself within the fresh soil of this most perfect of gardens, as an insect buries its young in its prey, such that later they have food to eat when they hatch.

But this was worse than any insect brood; it grew from the nourishing soil, like a bulb drawing whatever it required from the goodness around it, and transforming it into its own materials, its own forms. And here, he decided, his form should be other than his own, more natural form.

Yes, she thought: that makes perfect sense within this new world.

From this bulb, a shoot snaked up from the darkness of the earth, reaching for the light above. It burst forth, sprouting through the green grass serpent-like in its eagerness to taste this world, to make it its own, as she desired, as she felt righteous and fair. For hadn’t this world sprung as much from her designs as his? Wasn’t it formed as much in her image as his?

And so she writhed upwards, her body strong, needing no support of grasses or tree.

She needed another name, of course. Not Samael, as he had previously been called. No, she would be as the lily: she would be Lilith.

The irresistibly perfumed lily. The softly curvaceous lily. The sensuously yielding lily.

The lily that freely and completely and alluring opened herself up, that unashamedly revealed her inner gorgeousness.

The lily of the purest white. Of untouched, unblemished flesh.

The lily bloomed, like full, enticing lips. Hungry lips, seeking pleasure equal to that which they promised.

From between these lips there came – gradually, and not wholly at first – the very first woman.

First there came her upper half, burgeoning from this glorious flower, sharing the perfume, the captivating curvaceousness, the compliant softness, the tender, responsive flesh.

Her lower half came next, the serpentine stem too revealing of this particular woman’s true nature to be forever retained; and so the jarring, writhing body was shed as if nothing more than old skin.

She stepped forth with legs as smoothly and desirably contoured as that which had already sprung from the white softness of the lily.

Could any newly sprung fruit really be any more tempting than this?

Strange as it may sound, a great many people defend Lilith’s actions, claiming that – recognising the creation was flawed, quite rightly fearing it possessed not one iota of heavenly spirit – she wished to grant at least man with a fragment of her own angelic being.

Of course, she failed to realise that she was already too much of the darkness, endowing her descendants only with the recognition that they would never receive the light.

Now Adam heard the rustle amongst the bushes; wondered if He was walking amongst the trees. He saw instead, amongst the multitude of greens, the bright tones of countless flowers, the sparkle of purest, softest white.

Amongst all the incredibly beautiful things that surrounded him, that had been freely given to him, this was the most beautiful, most alluring sight of all. And, naturally, this newly arisen wonder of the already fabulous garden awoke within him far more senses than simply that of mere sight.

There was a scent, a scent like no other.

There were honeyed words, ones he could listen to, ones he could speak.

There was her skin, so delicious to touch, to taste. And she similarly touched and tasted his skin, his form, too.

And all this created feelings within him that had nothing to do purely with touching.

It all also created within her a son; a son they named Cain.

‘But I thought…’

The prince looked up from the images playing out before him within the amber, frowning in puzzlement once again as he appealed to the prioress for an explanation.

This story wasn’t the one he had read in his many teachings and trainings.

At first, the prioress answered him only with an indication that he must continue to watch the story being related by the magical stone. Here Lilith was walking away from Adam, heading back into the dark green undergrowth, until it hid her from his view.

‘There is another son to be born – of another father,’ the prioress said.

‘Another father?’

‘Of Samael.’

‘Samael?’ The prince found this supposed explanation of the prioress’s even more confusing than ever. ‘Yet I thought that Lilith was…’

His voice faded away uncertainly.

‘Samael?’ the prioress helpfully finished his doubtful question for him. ‘Yes, you’re right. Yet just as it’s said that the serpent is of neither gender but both, then why would you think such a thing impossible for Samael?’

Within the amber’s golden glow, Lilith was lying down once more amongst the green grasses.

And here she gave birth to another son by another father; to a serpent.

On the birth of this future Great Wyrm, this Shamir, the images the prince was watching began to fade, to drift away, slipping back into the darker hues of the amber.

‘I can’t see how any of this could help me discover the incomparable pearl,’ the prince admitted humbly.

‘It is just one piece of the many pieces you must gather together, if you are to overcome all that besets you,’ the prioress explained. She peered quizzically at the prince. ‘Besides: don’t you require this gem?’

The prince was briefly taken aback; had his bewilderment been mistaken for avariciousness?

Of course, he realised this may well be one of the magical gems being sought by his father’s knights: yet he had seen how the jewel would always miraculously appear within the breastplate, meaning it was being effectively stolen from its original owners.

He didn’t think it right that he should take this wondrous gem from the nunnery.

‘You seem doubtful?’ the prioress observed. ‘Surely, just touching the gem won’t harm it?’

Is this one of the jewels from Samael’s crown?’ he asked.

The prioress shook her head.

‘No, though I know of the jewels you mean. This, however, is a tear torn from a weeping world, one that recalls its original and true golden nature.’

The prince stared at the gem; from what he had witnessed of the confusion of the knights appearing within his father’s great hall, he presumed that they too had merely touched or grabbed the gem, and in each case had magically reappeared within the court.

‘I’m not sure how it works,’ the prince explained honestly, despite his temptation to take the priceless stone, ‘but I fear that if I do touch it, it and I might abruptly vanish from your nunnery.’

‘Oh, I’m sure that won’t be the case,’ the prioress said, slightly scoldingly. ‘Please: all you have to do is touch it…’

The prince shook his head.

‘No; I don’t have the right to take it.’

‘Yet you need it, yes?’

The prince gave a swift, embarrassed nod in agreement.

‘And yet – you won’t take it?’ the prioress continued.

The prince shook his head once more.

‘You need it here far more than I do.’

‘You must take it.’

The prioress took one of his hands in one of hers as she reached with the other for the glistening amber. Quickly, before the prince could refuse, she placed the gem in the middle of his palm, where it glittered as if it were some wondrous creature’s eye.

The prioress, the nunnery, all suddenly vanished.

The prince was standing within the great hall, facing the thrones and the glittering breastplate hanging above them.

His hand was empty.

The amber jewel glowed like a miniature sun from the breastplate’s seventh setting.

‘Oh no! What have I done?’ the prince wailed sadly.

 

 

*

Chapter 13

The abrupt appearance of the gem embedded within the breastplate caused far more consternation than the prince had expected.

Amber wasn’t one of the gems that the crone had described within her description of the nine stones decorating Samael’s crown. It was the first of the extra jewels required to fill the twelve settings waiting for them within the breastplate.

It was the first, too, to take up its place on the row lying between the split pentangle representing the shattered crown.

The prince hadn’t told anyone that he was the one responsible for the jewel’s unexpected appearance. How would he be able to explain that he had retrieved it from a nunnery, one that he had managed to approach through strangely magical means?

Unlike the knights, he wasn’t supposed to have undertaken the quest. He had travelled nowhere: he hadn’t even left the confines of the court.

The queen was particularly distraught by the discovery of the jewel.

‘Why is no one admitting to the recovery of this jewel?’ she demanded one day. ‘Does no one wish to lay claim to the honour of bringing it back here? Or does he wish to remain like some strange thief in the night, who brings a jewel to us, yet then sneaks away from court, before he is discovered?’

Of course, there was no knight newly arrived back at court who could conceivably explain that they were responsible for the jewel’s appearance. Although not as furious as the queen, everyone was understandably perplexed by this lack of a brave knight prepared to step forward and relate the adventures he’d undergone to retrieve one more of the sought after stones.

Fortunately for the prince, before more penetrating questions could be asked in the queen’s endeavour to solve this mystery, another jewel soon appeared within the breastplate.

It was one of laps lazuli, one of the richly blue evening sky, flecked with the gold of countless stars.

And this time, a knight also appeared before the court: and he, thankfully, was more than ready to entertain everyone there by recounting his many glorious deeds.

 

 

*

Chapter 14

The Ass who Carried the Moon

 

The city was surrounded by an iron wall that soared so high, the sun could not shine into it from any angle.

It had been constructed eons ago, I was reliably informed, by a sorcerer; or, as they are called in their parts, a ‘galdyr’.

And this city was still one of the darker arts, of astronomy, astrology – even, it was also said of this strange place, arts that held sway over demons and spirits.

I was, of course, loath to enter such a terrible place of inequity. Yet my informants had assured me that it was deep within this permanently darkened city that the incomparable pearl resided, for many had seen it here, though none had been capable of retrieving it.

Indeed, a great many had never, ever returned from their quest. They had perished, to the extent that they had vanished completely off the face of the Earth.

Strangest of all, however, was that all the land surrounding this ominously dark city was pleasant, those toiling in its fields willingly putting their shoulders to the great ploughs they drove through the rich soil.

They worked every bit as hard as the overburdened asses who worked alongside them, poor beasts whom they treated with such surprising kindness that I could have sworn they were recognised as being almost human. And stranger still, everyone I met toiling here was happy, accepting their burdens almost gratefully, despite their claims to be of no higher status than that of a servant paying tribute to his master.

They received their wages within the city, yet it was a remuneration of labour that involved neither currency nor favours that had to be repaid: nor, indeed, anything that I was capable of fathoming.

They didn’t live in the darkness, they said; they lived in the light.

To seek their aid and goodwill, I shed and offered them my armour (rust-hued with its skin of dried blood), my shield and sword, all of which could be beaten into new ploughs. My horse, too, was there’s to do with as they will, I assured them; and despite it being sorely, perhaps mortally wounded during a fight earlier that day, they accepted it joyfully.

They accepted my gifts eagerly, offering me an opportunity of ‘payment’: and so I found myself being led through the darkness towards the centre of their city, where they assured me a towering temple lay.

As I was led there, I felt quite naked without my armour, which I had been raised to fight in almost since birth. I missed the security it afforded me, despite also relishing the sudden lightness of my limbs, the ease of unconstricted movement.

They closed two great doors behind me, leaving me on my own within this profound darkness.

Fortunately, it dawned on me that my eyes were gradually adjusting a little to what I’d only erroneously presumed was a complete and total darkness: and I flattered myself that I could see, lying towards the centre of what must have been a truly vast room, what at first appeared to be the picturesque dial of an elaborate clocklike mechanism, showing the planets swirling around a glimmering, gold flecked stone.

As my eyes became as one with the darkness, however, I saw that it was in fact a great shield, one so strong and heavy it might have been made by the iron smith of Mars himself, for it was one only a god would effortlessly wield.

From wherever the light came from to light up that relatively minute stone, I can’t be entirely sure. I wished only to understand what was expected of me, what this strange temple I knew so little of would reveal from within its inner trove of secrets.

Somewhere high above me, from somewhere so deep within the darkness that I couldn’t really contemplate what was happening, a small, bright light sparkled, as if someone somewhere had pulled back the most minute of openings within the temple’s upper reaches.

This narrow conduit of light fell directly upon the stone, upon the glittering flecks of gold; and, suddenly, the entire room was transformed into the night sky, with its constellations of stars, its long, milky band, its brightly glowing spheres.

There, there was Orion. There the languidly rising planet Venus. There the one carrying water, there the archer, half man, half horse.

And I was amongst them, able to freely move about them, to study them at my leisure.

Yet even amongst all these wonders, I saw something that stopped me immediately in my curious wanderings; a vibrantly glowing orb.

A pearl, I was sure!

I rushed closer, only to sigh in disappointment; for this was no pearl at all, being nothing more than the brightly glowing moon.

The moon with its sparkling crown of seven stars.

Together, they slowly arched through the dark spaces lying between this rich multitude of blazing stars. And as I drew closer still to this moon and its attendant stars, I saw the reason for their steady, plodding movement: for they were being carried by an ass, struggling under such a great burden.

‘What a poor beast to choose to carry such a fabulous burden!’ I thought. ‘Why, if a grand stallion had been chosen in its place, the moon and stars would be capable of rushing headlong through the heavens!’

 

As if capable of knowing my thoughts, the ass spoke sullenly to me.

‘Don’t just see what lies here, or what you wish you saw here,’ he scolded me. ‘See also all that doesn’t exist here.’

‘How can I see that which doesn’t exist?’

‘There’s no hunger here, unless you count hunger for knowledge. No war, except the warring within ourselves as we seek greater wisdom. No pestilence, bar the infection of wise words. There is even no death, for those achieving true revelation.’

‘So what is this true revelation?’

‘Everyone will receive true revelation when I reach and pass through the gate lying before me.’

Turning my head, I peered out into the darkness to see where he was headed. And would you believe it, there was no gate there at all? But there was, even more remarkably, the very brightest, the very purest of pearls, glistening so brightly it was almost blinding in its glow!

And then I realised, of course, that the ass was undoubtedly correct after all; for doesn’t the good book, the greatest, most sublime book of all, inform us most truthfully that the twelve gates of heaven are of pearl?

This ‘gate’ was undoubtedly the purest of pearls!

This time, there was no mistake – it was truly a pearl!

No wonder this foolish ash was slow in his approach! No wonder he was slovenly in his supposed haste there!

As one of God’s most lowliest creatures, he had no choice but to recognise that entry to this glorious city must ultimately be denied him!

I started to run towards it, of course. Yet the more I ran, the farther it appeared to stretch away from me.

Indeed, despite my running, the slowly plodding, over-burdened ass still lay alongside me

‘How do we reach it?’ I asked. ‘This gate, this pearl? Is it even possible?’

‘Of course it’s possible! Why else would I spend forever attempting to reach it?’

‘Is there no way of achieving it – quicker?’

‘It helps if the gate makes the effort to come towards me.’

‘What type of seeking is that? Where you expect someone else to do most of the work? Isn’t that laziness?’

‘Why? It spends all its time avoiding me!’

‘Then perhaps it sees you as being unworthy of its prize!’

‘Of course it does: there are far too many distractions, and so many lose their way.’

‘How is it possible to lose your way when it lies so clearly just directly ahead of us?’

‘Seeing isn’t believing: I know of a knight who sought the gift of true sight, only to fail in his quest because he believed only in what he could see.’

‘So, what did he see?’ I asked curiously, wondering if this tale might offer clues on achieving my own success.

‘He only ever saw what he wanted to see, of course!’

And as the ass asserted this, he let me see the moon change upon his back, such that it related to me the scenes of the story he told.

‘This wandering knight, when arriving at a truly fabulous city, saw a city of canals, of richly cargoed ships in its harbours, believing he had found a city more wondrous even than Venice; and so he failed to recognise that it was truly a city afloat, with every building connected by the bridges he presumed were merely spanning the waters. He failed to see that the city moved towards and embraced the rich ships, ensuring they were always the first to appreciate these fabulous wares brought from every corner of the Earth.

‘Despite all these wondrous riches, however, the city’s most prized possession was a magical harp; a harp that could see inside people, read their very emotions, and play an angelic music that could instil that very same emotion in anybody fortunate to hear it.

More remarkable still, she could detect the anger of a storm, the calmness of a sea, the stolid indifference of a much-ploughed soil. And these, too, could be transformed by the harp into the most gorgeous music ever heard, her strings rippling like waves, her face – carved into the main body of the harp – weeping with the sorrow or joy of it all, the magical red jewel that gave her her remarkable gifts glowing like an extra eye within her forehead.

‘She would play in front of massed crowds who gathered in the city’s squares just to hear her wonderful music, to feel the emotions of lovers, of warriors, of lions, whales, and storm-wracked forests. For, briefly, they themselves were this lovelorn girl, this victorious king, this great, powerful beast or force of nature.

‘Our wandering knight, watching from within the midst of such an affected crowd, couldn’t believe the immense range of emotions he was feeling. Only when the music briefly stopped did he wake up from what could be termed an ecstatic trance, yet he still looked about himself in amazement; for the crowd still moved as one, like a vast sea with rolling waves, its swells and its ebbs.

‘Of course, nothing is more unstable than our emotions, of love, anger, hate, for they flow through us as unstoppably and uncontrollably as a flood of water: yet here was an angelic creature who could dictate the very state we were in, controlling the emotions that have such amazing control over us, would we truly know and recognise it.

‘When the concert came to an end, and the knight finally walked away from the square, he found himself suffering a particularly uncontrollable emotion; avarice. He could grant the jewel to his king, as he was bound to do, but as for the harp: that he would retain for himself – and the harp, of course, was a far greater prize than the glittering gem!

‘You see, in the emptiness of his own heart, he saw only the importance of the earthly, the material. He could only ever perceive the body, never the soul. And so he failed to see that, within our earthly existence, one without the other will forever be nothing.

‘After each concert, the harp was taken back to the mayor’s house, where – the knight soon learned, from a people who failed to detect the avarice in his heart – it was kept locked safely away in a cellar, well below the waterline, and guarded by a number of armed men.

‘Of course, not even the strongest locks can resist the turning of a key taken from a dead man’s belt. The knight swept through the armed men as if they were nothing but corn awaiting harvest. He was well practised in killing, inured to the agony he caused, going about his business as calmly and efficiently as any farmer will carve up his pigs for sale.

‘The harp sensed that agony, however. She played a tune so full of horror and remorse that, had the knight heard it, he would have – for the first time in his life – empathised with the terror of his victims, the pain he was inflicting on them.

‘Yet he had prepared for this very eventuality: he had thickly padded the inside of his helm with rags of every size, blocking out any sound, even the clash of swords, the screams of dying men.

‘The harp also felt the deep coldness in the knight’s heart: and this confused her far more than the wails of men being forced to leave this life too early.

‘As the knight drew nearer, she could have resorted to a refrain calling for help. And yet she chose not to.

‘She chose instead an intensely sad, mournful melody. She played it with an intensity that had never been heard, even in her own unimaginably wonderful repertoire. For this was a symphony of sorrow, of suffering: and this was how she herself felt.

‘For what many saw as her gift, her blessing, had always been nothing more than a curse.

‘She had endured unrequited love, the loss of loved ones, the humiliation of defeat. She had experienced hate, jealousy, greed, envy, fear, pain, all in great measure.

‘Happiness, on the other hand, had always been so short lived, so fragmentary and brief.

‘It was a great shame that her abductor was incapable of hearing her music. For it was the most sublime piece of music anyone had ever heard or would ever hear again.

‘It was so beautiful, even the sky began to tremble with sympathy, to cry out in thunderous horror at the suffering it now witnessed and shared.

‘The sea rose up in protest, unable to bear any longer this sense of the most torturous agony, the injustice of such punishment being inflicted on someone so inherently good and pure.

‘The stones themselves wept, their strength and steadfastness crumbling, dissolving.

‘When the knight elatedly grabbed at the harp, the walls could offer no resistance to a sea remorselessly beating at them. They gave way before the pummelling waves, waves urged into a frenzy by a shrieking wind.

‘Even though the waves flowed around the harp, they didn’t stop her playing: rather, they absorbed the tune, vibrated with it, making each note more hollow, adding to its emotion of a great emptying, a withdrawal of all that was known, a retreat into the unknown.

‘For the harp knew what it was like to die: oh yes, she surely knew. For hadn’t she died on so many innumerable occasions? She had sensed and shared the fears, the dread of the oncoming darkness, of so many people who had died around her, death brought about through every means known.

‘It was a song she had never dared play, however, fearing the effect such a mournful, dreaded harmony would have on those still living.

‘Now, of course, she saw no reason to hold back from playing this song she had secretly held within her own heart for so long. The only person nearby was already dying himself; he already knew this tune of death.

‘Moreover, she herself was dying: yes, she knew it’s feeling so well, she was perfectly capable of recognising the real thing from the mere experience.

‘Yet this was a whole new experience to her, this sense of an irresistibly oncoming, overcoming and overwhelming darkness, this sense of being fought over by two worlds, the soul being dragged one way, the body another. She had felt it all before, but now, she knew, it was filed with an unavoidable, crushing finality.

‘She would soon be all alone. Lost. Forsaken.

‘Unlike the knight, this didn’t fill her with any sense of dread. She welcomed it.

‘And as she let herself go in this way, to accept the inevitable, the worldly experience of tearing ceased: and though a simple soul such as I can’t possibly know what lies on the other side of that darkness, I know that there is another side that welcomed her, that didn’t forsake her.

‘Did the knight see this other world? Was he welcomed there?

‘Of course, he saw only what he expected to see. The emptiness that existed within his own heart.

‘For in his earthly naiveté, he could never see that in this other world, the body is forever nothing.’

And as the ass finished his tale, the moon became once more a blank, a sheet of nothing more than a glaring, blinding whiteness.

‘You could learn much if you stayed here with me,’ the ass assured me, glancing up at me as he wearily bowed his head under his great burdens. ‘Even for those incapable of achieving the true revelation, much can be revealed to those who seek it. In seeking the truth, you open yourself up to living forever.’

‘Truth, indeed, is what I seek,’ I answered, my eye still on that glittering pearl seemingly lying just a few short strides ahead of us.

I had found what I sought; found it forever lying just beyond my grasp.

And yet…that wasn’t true.

‘Then welcome,’ the ass declared in reply to my assertion that I sought only the truth. ‘This can indeed be your home.’

I only half heard his welcome: for it had dawned on me that this glorious pearl was within my grasp after all.

For wasn’t it contained within this universe, a universe which was itself contained with the gem of lapis lazuli?

And so I stepped away from this foolish, over-burdened ass.

I grabbed the stone, wrenching it away from its useless surroundings; a stone fitting so easily into my hand.

As I blocked off the light reaching down to the stone, everything darkened.

The universe vanished.

For now I held it all in my hand!

 

 

*

Chapter 15

As the knight finished his tale recounting his retrieval of the lapis lazuli, he theatrically opened up his clenched hand to reveal it: and gasped in horror when he saw his palm was empty.

Everyone within the court, even those who tried to restrain themselves, laughed at his abrupt shock and discomfort.

The king stilled their laughter, drawing the poor knight’s attention to the stone of royal blue now adorning the breastplate.

‘Don’t fret, Sir Jafren,’ he said. ‘The stone is here, safe and well.’

‘And yet, I see no pearl!’ the queen observed sourly.

‘My lady, the pearl we sought is safely contained within the stone! I saw it there for myself!’

Once again, there was a burst of barely restrained, doubtful chuckles and guffaws from the assembled knights and ladies.

‘Are you saying I would lie?’ Sir Jafren snapped, turning on them all angrily.

‘And so where is this fabulous clock, that reveals so much?’ the queen scornfully demanded.

‘The clock was but this fabulous jewel’s setting, my lady!’ the knight insisted. ‘Just some unimportant device used to display it!’

‘And yet…’ the queen continued sceptically. ‘We see no universe. No pearl.’

‘And yet, Mother,’ the princess declared imperiously, ‘I clearly see the ass standing before us!’

 

 

*

 

 

The embroidery the princess was diligently working upon while she sat within the great hall was quite magnificent, everyone had to agree.

It was a vivid illustration of a section of the tale told by Sir Grandhan, when he recounted how his journey had been broken by a great, impregnable wall, with not a single gate along its vast length. A wall that been constructed by a stone-devouring Great Wyrm.

It was this remarkable event that the princess had decided to portray. As people witnessed its creation, however, they had murmured doubtfully at its depiction of the Great Wyrm as possessing the upper body of a naked, perfectly white-skinned woman.

‘It serves as an allusion to the Fall,’ the princess pointed out imperturbably whenever tentatively questioned about this. ‘For doesn’t this great, white wall have the most surprising connotations to our ejection and banishment from the Garden, when a naked Eve was tempted by the serpent?’

Naturally, it was an explanation that satisfied anyone who requested clues to the illustration’s meanings.

Only the prince, secretly, was dissatisfied by the princess’s answer.

For she had also portrayed nearby a gloriously white flower.

A lily.

Did his sister, the prince wondered, know of the tale of Lilith? Or was it all just an amazing coincidence?

His sister was still working on her embroidery. Still drawing the serpentine thread through the material, bringing the wall into being as surely and solidly as the Great Wyrm himself had done.

She was always at work on her embroidery, the prince thought as he inquisitively drew ever closer to her. She worked at it as if it were the most important thing in the entire world.

Since he had last looked at her embroidery, she had added Hiram the Great Architect himself. And, across his forehead, she had strewn a snaking swirl of red thread.

‘The Mark of Cain!’ the prince blurted out in surprise. ‘Why would you place such a thing upon Hiram’s forehead? The lineage of Cain failed to survive the Great Deluge; only Noah and his family came safely through the Flood!’

Giving the impression that she was suddenly surprised by his presence, the princess glanced up into her brother’s shocked face with a witheringly wry expression. Then, with equal nonchalance, she reached towards the stain of the red serpent and, with a flick of grasping fingers, pulled at the loose red thread.

She snapped the thread clear of the material, leaving Hiram’s forehead completely unmarked.

The prince blushed as red as the discarded thread.

‘I take it, brother,’ the princess sneered, going back to work on her embroidery, ‘you have never heard of Naamah, Noah’s wife?’

Still hugely embarrassed, still blushing a bright pink, the prince shook his head.

‘Naamah, consort of Samael, friend of Lilith, descendant of Cain–’

‘That’s not possible…’ the prince interrupted her unsurely.

The princess chuckled gleefully.

‘Unfortunately Brother, you missed the ridiculous tale told by a useless old crone who visited our realm: yet even she was wise enough to counsel against applying earthly reason to a time before such reasoning even existed.’

‘Why would you know all this of this Naamah?’

‘Because I made it my business to seek out more details of her life, of course, as it’s Naamah we must thank for showing us how to weave. Her brothers were also responsible for a civilising influence upon us all: Tubalcain introduced the working of metals, Jubal developed music, Jabal farmed cattle. Then again, wasn’t it Cain who first ploughed the land, who gave us the first great, walled cities – Ninevah, Erech, Akkad, Lagash – that protect us from the world?’

Unlike the prince, the princess didn’t seem in any way perturbed by an abrupt yelling that, transforming into angry cries, and wailing screams, swiftly flowed through the royal buildings. Drawing ever closer, ever louder, the cries were abruptly magnified as the great hall’s double doors were thrown open with a dully echoing thud.

A band of men-at-arms rushed in, urged on by a fiercely shrieking queen.

‘Take him, take the prince! He’s murdered our king!’

 

 

*

Chapter 16

Although the prince was both surprised and horrified by his mother’s accusation that he had killed his father, the instinct instilled within him by what were now many years of training took over, alleviating his panic, telling him to arm and protect himself by whatever means.

He spun away from his sister, rushing toward and leaping across the four thrones. Reaching up toward the breastplate hanging above them, he lifted it up and off its supporting beams, bringing with it the sword slung amongst its straps. It was this sword he required most desperately, most urgently of all: taking it firmly in his hand, he swung around to face the oncoming men-at-arms.

The soldiers slewed to a nervous halt. Yes, they outnumbered the prince; they would undoubtedly bring him down. But the prince had been expertly trained in the use of the sword, in fighting – he would undoubtedly take many of them with him. And the most likely to die would be the first to approach him.

‘Take him, take him!’ the queen shrieked in frustration, angered by the men’s unwillingness to approach the prince.

‘I didn’t kill anyone mother!’

It would have been expected of the prince to withdraw his dagger from his belt, giving him a weapon in each hand. Instead, he began to carefully, skilfully, slip into the loose straps of the breastplate, roughly tightening them as soon as it was in place.

‘Why would I kill my father, the man I loved?’

‘To take his throne, of course!’ the queen spat.

She was pushing hard on the backs of the armed men nervously crowding before her. Now that the prince was protected by a breastplate, they were more reluctant than ever to approach him.

The prince was warily backing away, heading towards the small door lying in the hall’s farthest corner, the entrance used by attendants and kitchen staff.

The princess continued to calmly work on her embroidery as if she remained completely unaware of the drama taking place around her. She pulled on a handful of silver threads – and five of the men-at-arms began to unsurely, hesitantly, advance towards the retreating prince. Their expressions weren’t those of men set on completing an onerous task, but ones of shocked disbelief that they were acting so stupidly.

‘Strand back,’ the prince warned, noting their caution and fear. ‘I will kill you!’

‘There, you have it from his own mouth!’ the queen declared triumphantly. ‘He’s prepared to kill to achieve his aims!’

The prince wasn’t listening to his mother’s outrageous claims. He’d noticed the way his sister was pulling on the threads of her embroidery, noticed the bewildered reticence etched across the faces of the cautiously advancing men.

He rushed towards the men, only to suddenly throw himself aside, to roll across the floor – and rise to his feet with his sword hanging over his sister’s head. He deftly brought the blade down, severing the threads she was using to manipulate the men.

On the cutting of the controlling threads, the men almost sagged dazedly to the floor, suffering the stupor of bewilderment.

Taking advantage of their confusion, the prince whirled on his heels, sprinted towards the servant’s door – and vanished through it, resigned to killing anyone who attempted to block his flight.

 

 

*

 

 

The prince knew of every secret passageway running through the castle’s walls. Passageways deliberately constructed as part of the very fabric of the castle at the time of its creation, there to provide routes of flight for the king or his heir should the fortifications themselves ever fail to protect them.

The king, his father, had shown him every one. Lead him down them all.

‘It’s all just a precaution, of course,’ he had reassured the young prince. ‘Our fortress is well built, intricately designed; no army could take it by legitimate means.’

The castle had fallen, in its way. And through the most illegitimate means too.

The murder of the king.

The murder of his father.

He had no time to weep.

No time to wonder how it had been achieved. Who had killed him.

He had to escape.

The final part of the tunnel complex leading towards the outside of the castle’s great walls was little more than a sloping, narrow, low chimney, it’s exit blocked and hidden from view to anyone outside by a plug of hollowed wood painted to look like stone. The prince had to slowly and gradually push this long, thin plug out before him, hoping to avoid the attention of anyone passing outside.

The chimney’s minute exit opened up into an area of deep shadow far away from any roads. It was also hard to view from either the battlements high above or the ground far below. Even so, anyone could be out in the nearby fields, even at this late hour chosen by the prince to make his escape.

Using the rope that was securely attached at one end to the tunnel walls, and to the wooden plug at the other, the prince first slowly lowered this plug down to the ground, then clambered down the dangling cord himself.

The plug of hollowed wood had been deliberately designed to provide floatation across the moat, yet the prince was nervous as he silently pushed it out into the cold waters, fearing that it might not be able to take his weight.

He found himself lying dangerously low in the water, but the wood kept him afloat despite his heavy breastplate and his determination to keep a hold of the sword.

It was an undignified way to leave the castle that should, by rights, have been his on the death of his father – but at least he was alive.

And that meant he could return one day, and claim what was rightfully his.

 

 

*

Chapter 17

It only took a few days to wipe the prince’s mind clear of any thoughts of returning to reclaim his kingdom.

He was so weakened from hunger, from sleeping out in the cold and rain, that his usual deftness with the sword seemed to have completely deserted him.

Naturally, he took shelter when he could amongst the trees. He ate the roots he dug up from fields, the small game he managed to catch with the snares he’d been taught to construct from twigs and leaves.

He had deliberately darkened the bright sheen of the breastplate, covering it with a cloak he’d obtained after ashamedly resorting to thieving. He would have paid for what he stole with the breastplate’s gems, but found them impossible to remove. Besides, he realised, paying for these things with either the jewels of anything else from his person – a dagger, his empty purse, a belt – would only draw the attention of the pursuing soldiers, letting them know the direction he was heading.

Not that he knew where he was heading.

He had never been this far away from the castle. Not even on extensive hunting expeditions.

Even when he eventually cleared the last hill of what should have been his own lands, he refused to let his guard down: his mother the queen could well have sent out demands for his return to every surrounding kingdom. He was relieved, therefore, when he arrived in a city that floated upon the great mirror of the sea, its every building and square linked by arching roadways.

He could rest, at last, while still traveling ever farther away from his vengeful mother.

Within the great squares, he was aware of and felt deeply the despondency of the people who gathered there, crowds mourning the loss of the wondrous harp who used to entertain them with her impassioned songs. Hearing of their wretchedness, he wished to make amends for their loss by returning the red jewel that had granted the poor harp all of her talents and powers.

Even amongst the many other similar great houses, of elaborate porticos and richly painted colours, the mayor’s house stood out: it was the only one, after all, that had suffered damage to its cellar and walls, when the abducted harp had played her mournful tune. The entire house had had to be carefully shored up with a framework of timbers that hung about the crumbling stone like an external skeleton.

As the prince knocked on the door, it dawned on him that he looked little better than a wastrel: he would be turned away by anyone answering the door. Quickly, he flung back the cloak hiding the breastplate and its settings of resplendent jewels. Just as quickly, he used the edge of the cloak to clean all the encrusted dirt away, ensuring that at the very least the front of the breastplate shone like a miniature star.

When the mayor’s servant answered the knocking, he glanced at the prince’s face with disdain – a disdain that immediately vanished on his gaze dropping towards the glittering gems.

Whether the servant was capable of recognising the importance of the jewels or not, he was fully versed in being able to spot their worth. Far from being a vagabond who should be instantly dismissed, this caller was a person of wealth and importance who should be granted audience with the mayor.

On being presented to the mayor, the mayor’s eyes also immediately fell upon the jewels; and, unlike the servant, he couldn’t fail to notice that one of the bright gems – the sard of most spectacular red – was the one that had been stolen from their kingdom years before.

He gasped, a gasp not just of surprise but also full of doubt and wariness; what was this bedraggled young man doing with their precious stone? How had he come by it? Why was he here? Was he even aware that it was a stolen gem?

The prince couldn’t help but be aware of the mayor’s stupefied gaze.

‘Please,’ he said quickly and bluntly, ‘I’m here to return the stone stolen from you by one of my father’s knights.’

 

 

*

 

 

‘Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to return with the harp,’ the prince apologised, not wishing to raise the poor man’s hopes too high. ‘It may be that, one day, I’m in a position to return it to you.’

Despite the prince’s admission that the harp would remain unreturned at least a while longer, the mayor’s stance changed from one of stupefaction to one of joyful relief.

‘Ah, yes, our poor, poor sadly missed harp: but the gem you’re returning is the real her – her soul, if you will, whereas the instrument was merely the body.’

‘The jewel seems firmly fixed, I’m afraid…’ the prince admitted apologetically once more as, bowing his head, he reached for the red sard and tried to remove it with a few hard twists of his hand. (He had considered using his dagger’s tip to prise it free, but was worried that drawing his weapon might unnerve an already edgy mayor.)

‘Why, but here it is…’ the mayor declared in surprise.

Glancing up, the prince saw that the mayor was pointing to a glowing red sard lying on a nearby tabletop. Glancing back towards his hand, he saw that the sard he had tried to remove from his breastplate was still firmly fixed there.

Looking between the two brightly gleaming stones, it was impossible to discern which was the original, which the copy. If, indeed, either one was a mere copy.

Had his intention to yield the gem being enough to ensure the precious stone was returned to its rightful place? And if so, did that also mean the amber he had taken from the nunnery also continued to exist in some way with the nuns? After all, he hadn’t wanted to take it, had he?

‘Will you have another harp made?’ the prince asked. ‘I’ve heard of the remarkable talents she possessed.’

The mayor rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he observed the sard lying on the nearby table.

He shook his head.

‘No, no: it wouldn’t seem right to try and replace her in such a way, I think – no matter how clever or exact the copy.’

‘Then…I’m truly sorry.’ The prince hung his head in shame. ‘If you don’t think she can be revived then, through my father’s irresponsibility, I’m accountable for her death.’

The mayor appeared shocked by the prince’s embarrassed announcement.

‘Please, please, my lord,’ the mayor blurted out, ‘you can’t hold yourself responsible, not when you’ve made such great efforts to right such a wrong! No, no: we may not resurrect our poor, lamented harp – but her soul can undoubtedly live on within some new instrument we can forge!’

‘Then I’m grateful to you for easing my heart by saying this,’ the prince replied with a thankful bow of his head before turning to leave.

‘No, wait, my lord – where are you staying?’

As the prince turned in response to the mayor’s question, he saw that the man was once again displaying his powers of observation, taking in the boy’s impoverished state of worn boots, soiled cloak and torn leggings.

‘For reasons too numerous to explain, my good mayor,’ the prince began, deciding instantly that he would have to tell the truth or be damned as a liar by the sad state of his apparel, ‘I find myself sleeping wherever I find warmest for the night.’

He slept, he was loath to admit, under the welcoming boughs of a surpassingly large tree incongruously gracing the very centre of one of the lesser squares.

The mayor’s observant gaze was once again drawn to the magnificent jewels decorating the prince’s breastplate.

‘The son of a king cannot sleep under the stars when we have rooms here that are available,’ he said, indicating with a wave of his hands that he was referring to rooms within his own house.

The prince grimaced ashamedly.

‘As you saw, I’m afraid what appears to be my wealth doesn’t give itself up easily.’

‘My lord,’ the mayor responded with wide, aggrieved eyes, ‘in the return of our precious jewel, you have more than paid for any lodging I can offer! I insist you must allow me to repay you in some way, at least until we reach our destination!’

The prince – realising the mayor had been affronted by his careless assumption that payment would be expected, realising too that the city’s destination may well be another land where he could return yet another jewel – said, ‘Then I find myself apologising to you once more, my good mayor, as well as once again gratefully accepting your kind offer. Though, may I ask – what is your destination?’

‘The kingdom of Asher, my lord.’

Naturally, the mayor didn’t miss the prince’s frown of unfamiliarity with the name.

‘It’s a kingdom suffering the worst of misfortune, my lord: and that is not so much despite it being ruled by a wise and beautiful princess but, rather, because of it. For as anyone is well aware, a kingdom must necessarily have a king – and so she finds herself constantly under siege from unsuitable suitors, each of whom regularly assures her that she must take his hand for the good of her people.’

‘A country suffering misfortune?’ The prince grinned ruefully. ‘It wouldn’t take a great leap of the imagination to assume one of my father’s knights might be in some way responsible!’

 

 

*

Chapter 18

Within the City of Reuben’s great squares, the most sublime music played once more. Regularly, no matter the weather.

(Although they were now passing through the Seas of Zebulun, there had been none of the storms usually feared within this area since the disappearance of the Haven’s Eye, the mayor informed the prince. The people of Zebulun were in no rush for the stone’s return, it seemed, at least not until they had developed a better means of utilising its immense powers.)

As when the harp had played within the great, elegant squares, vast crowds gathered to hear the sublime melodies.

They came from the homes and workplaces of Reuben. They came from the ships who docked in the harbours. They came on a form of pilgrimage, having heard of the return of the musical performances.

They came to be swayed by the emotion of the airs: buoyed by the swelling harmonies; moved by the deft phrasing; briefly drawn into the depths of despair by reverberating chords.

It was all as it had been years before, when their wondrous harp had been so deviously snatched from them. The only difference, of course, was that it was no longer the magical harp who entertained them. It was now a magical golden flute.

Naturally, the timbre of the music was thereby different too. Yet it had always been the inherent emotion of the melodies that had counted most, of course: and all that brilliance of absorbing and capturing and relating that vast tapestry of conflicting yet lastingly entwining emotions was all there, as if it had never, ever really gone away.

With nothing much else to do while the city languidly drifted across the seas, the prince would listen every day to the flute’s renditions of victors celebrating war, or of those lands lamenting its effects; of ships wrecked in storms, or trade winds reuniting dispersed families; of those coveting the beauty of others, or time and age unconsciously stripping such good fortune from those previously born with it.

The prince found himself experiencing emotions he hadn’t even known existed, let alone been aware of their power to either raise someone up, or dash them to pieces on the rocks of fate.

Cowardice, terror, fear.

Aggressiveness, intolerance, mercilessness.

Envy, greed, gluttony.

Compassion, selflessness, sacrifice.

But of them all, no matter how amazing they were, the most wonderful of all was love.

Love had many facets, such that it seemed to him to encapsulate in some form or other all other emotions.

It could enflame a sufferer, or burn them agonisingly.

It could send you soaring up to the heavens, or consign you to plunging unstoppably towards hell.

It could grant a whole new sense of life, or have you wallowing in suicidal despondency.

It could be an apparently deeply incurable wound, whose only remedy was its very cause.

There were those, the prince heard within these vibrant, moving melodies, who sought love, those who ignored it for other causes or loyalties, those who had to fight against its myriad effects.

There were those lucky in love, those far less unfortunate, those who degraded themselves, seeking their love in all the wrong places.

There was love for another, love for a sibling, love for a parent, a child; love for so many, differing things.

And yet he, the prince, had never experienced it in any of its many greater or lesser forms.

And yet it was this very thing, love, the mayor informed him, that held the land of Asher in its present impasse, the princess insisting that love must play the most important role in her choice of husband and king.

As well as providing the prince with lodging while he stayed within the floating city, the mayor had also kindly granted him a purse of coins, a horse, extra items of armour, and a sheath for his sword. While he was preparing these belongings in readiness to disembark, polishing his sword before returning it to its new sheath, the flute was brought up from the newly repaired cellar rooms, on the first part of its journey to the main square.

‘Stop!’ the flute urgently whistled.

Despite the wonders they had all heard from the mouth of the flute, this sudden command blurted from its golden lips startled them all: for no one had ever realised that it was capable of speech.

‘There’s something I must say, a tale I must tell!’ the flute insisted, its voice one of whistle and chirrups, as if a bird had learned how to talk.

‘We weren’t aware you could speak!’ responded an awed mayor, as the procession escorting the flute towards the square came to an abrupt halt.

‘It’s the sword,’ the flute explained, ‘the sword the prince holds needs to speak through me!’

 

 

*

Chapter 19

The Pierced Heart

 

In the same way that a whale hears the eerie, echoing whistling of another whale and fully perceives it to be a lament of longing, of love, a heart hears and understands the beating of other hearts.

Indeed, many warriors would swear that a finely wrought sword, too, can hear and understand the singing of other swords; their own laments of battles lost, the triumphant ululations of wars won, even the shivering shame or quivering glee of a forthcoming treacherous strike.

Whether that particular belief can be substantiated or not, we can know with certainty that the sword that would become known as the Prophet was undoubtedly given the power to pierce the hearts of men and know of the secret longings shielded therein.

And this was because the sword itself was granted a heart.

Its forging was painstaking and detailed, a process more mystical than mechanical: the astute collecting of its earthly metals, the regular softening over hungrily licking fires, the swift yet steady beating within the cooling air, the religious dousing in blessed waters, all carefully calculated to ensure it emerged in possession of spirit.

To give his sword a heart, however, the smith would have to be prepared to sacrifice something of immense worth; a daughter, perhaps, or a son.

Would any creator be prepared to make such a sacrifice, even for his most wonderful creation?

Now the smith, although a renowned and premier worker of metals, loved his offspring far too much to even contemplate such a move. And so it might have been that the Prophet, like many another truly remarkable swords, remained ultimately heartless.

Fortunately, this smith possessed something of immense worth that he was indeed prepared to sacrifice for the benefit of his most accomplished creation; an heirloom, passed down from generations who might otherwise have been long forgotten – a translucent stone of greenish yellow that had once graced an angelic crown, fallen to Earth during the War in Heaven.

For once, a sword’s ribbed handle was as artfully constructed as its veined blade, the two connected by the smith utilising entwining threads and hair obtained from his sister’s own remarkable work at the loom, the pommel holding tightly within its grasp a gem treated as if it were indeed a beating heart.

In this way, the sword was gifted the miraculous power to hear the secrets of the heart: to discern the minute differences in pulsation that revealed an opponent’s intentions, such that no man could face its wielder without fearing that his every action would be anticipated and thwarted.

Like almost everyone else, the smith was lost in the Great Deluge; but the sword was thankfully saved by his sister, becoming itself an heirloom passed on through tribes and nations, frequently at the right hand of just leaders and kings, hearing correctly the truth amongst the lies.

It gained a formidable reputation, forged through the justice and wisdom of its wielders’ judgements, as much if not more than prowess on the battlefield.

Naturally, uncountable numbers of brave and accomplished knights came specifically to test themselves against the bearer of this remarkable sword. Yet no matter their level of skill, no matter how experienced they were in wielding their own blades, they invariably found themselves yielding to and beseeching the mercy of this remarkable instrument.

And mercy, of course, was granted every time. For the Prophet’s skill of truthfully perceiving a heart’s whispering came only from a heart that was completely free of the guile or hatred that would cause misinterpretation.

The Prophet’s gift of anticipating an opponent’s intentions were widely lauded and acclaimed, such that the true depths of his skills at acutely perceiving what truly lay deep within men’s hearts were gradually forgotten and unrecognised.

I would hear and I would be heard, the sword attempted to whisper to them. I would be pierced and I would pierce.

Now it came to be that – acting on a reliable rumour that he would find this wondrous sword in a particular king’s possession – one of Christendom’s most renowned and premier knights came seeking the truth behind the tales of this miraculous sword.

His arrival within the kingdom was fêted, his presence regarded as an honour, the king himself elatedly announcing that a Grand Tournament would be held immediately so that the citizens might witness the knight’s famed martial prowess.

No one could have been disappointed by the display the knight put on for them.

In matters of the lance or mace or double-handed sword, he brought down opponent after opponent over each day, such that no one could ever be in doubt that he would be proclaimed the victor in both fields on the final day of fighting.

Indeed, it was soon universally agreed that it was only when it came to fighting with the sword that he would have to graciously accept a second placing. For in this class, as expected, as the crowds had witnessed many times before, the king ruled supreme, moving up effortlessly through the rankings towards the tournament’s final confrontation.

No one could fain surprise when the king and the good knight were the ones matched against each other in this last test of skill.

It drew the crowds from miles around for, though the king was expected to win, through his possession of the Prophet, everyone wondered if a knight famed for ingeniously overcoming other magical instruments – the Helm of Hector, Socrates’ Shield, the Lance of Longinus – might also work out a way to at least delay the magical blade’s victory.

As according to custom, king and knight knelt and bowed before each other, vowing on their honour and on the blessing of their swords that they would fight only with good grace and fairness, allowing no use of foul play or treachery to taint their hearts.

Even as they rose to their feet, however, the king dishonourably launched himself forward, striking the good knight so fierce-fully hard across the top of his helm that it would have instantly felled a lesser man. As it was, the knight’s helmet was severely dented, and he wavered unsteadily on his feet, rendering him unable to avoid a second and third blow, each as aggressively unforgiving as the first.

The crowd gasped in dismay and surprise: was it the king or his sword who was so in awe of this knight that he sought to strike out first, even to the loss of his honour?

‘Forgive me,’ the king cried, his visor still raised and unprepared for the fight, ‘my sword’s suddenly cursed! I can hardly hold it back from striking you a death blow!’

Even as he complained that he was powerless to prevent the frenzied onslaught, ever more pummelling blows rained down on the beleaguered knight, his shield shattering beneath the relentless strikes, his armour battered out of shape.

‘Run,’ the king warned him. ‘Run for your life!’

‘On my honour, I can’t flee!’ the knight spat back from a bloodied mouth. ‘But I will yield! I offer you my sword!’

‘Then I offer you mine…’ the king hollered back above the cacophony of steel thrashing steel.

Those amongst the crowd fortunate enough to hear this declaration sighed with relief: if the king cast aside his sword, this instrument of merciless cruelty, this whole charade of a fair fight would swiftly draw to an end.

For what had they perceived to be happening before them?

Why, of course, they saw only a poor, harassed knight, fighting justly for his honour. And so their hearts had gone out to him.

The treachery residing within the knight’s own heart was naturally forever veiled to them.

In many ways, this was surprising, for rather than attempting to hide his malice from the king’s sword (as many a previous knight had fruitlessly tried) the knight had let his hatred clearly sing out: he meant to murder the king, make the sword his own – and then who could possibly resist him?

The knight had observed that as the king grew weary in his earlier battles, his weakened arms slowed the actions of even this remarkable sword.

And what would weary the king more than having to struggle against the actions of a sword trying its best to protect him? A sword celebrated as an instrument of mercy, and therefore ultimately incapable of killing even a man wishing to murder the king!

And now the king was foolishly prepared to throw aside the only thing able to protect him!

The sword’s dilemma caused it to tremble with fear and anguish for the king, a fierce pulsation that, like an irresistible charge of static, froze the king’s fingers around its handle.

It feared and felt anguish, too, for the hatred in the hearts of the people.

The very same people who had once admired his actions of mercy now loathed and cursed him, little realising it was a blessing that their king was still alive.

Incapable of ignoring the intense hatred of the crowd for treachery, for dishonourable acts, the sword drew on and absorbed into itself that incredible animosity, making it its own; absolving them of the responsibility for what must happen, what they indeed secretly wanted, for they had of course unknowingly chosen the wrong object of hatred

The Prophet must endure shame and scorn for their sake.

Unable to throw the Prophet aside, the king instead plunged the blade deep into the treacherous knight’s heart; a heart so completely pierced, it gasped in surprise that its deeply ingrained guile had been discovered and expunged.

And the crowd wailed in horror, tearing every hair from their heads, raining insults on their Prophet, who was now completely without honour.

They see only the death of a man.

They don’t perceive a king saved.

If someone will forever remain deaf to what you hear, blind to what you see, then how can you possibly show them what they are missing? I would hear and I would be heard.

And so the Prophet and the truths he knew off, the truths he would have hoped to reveal to them, were lost to them. I would be pierced and I would pierce.

‘Our sword is broken,’ the people wailed miserably. ‘It no longer has a heart! It has lost all sense!’

They were partially right. They were partially wrong.

The sword still retained its heart.

But it was one pierced and hurt by those who should have adored it.

 

 

*

Chapter 20

As the city docked alongside the kingdom of Asher, the sea was calm, more mirror-like than the prince had ever seen it.

Here his horse was not his own, but a good one nevertheless, one that was more than adequate for enabling him to safely and swiftly travel through this land of valleys, so unlike his own land of hills.

There were many similarities to his own kingdom, however, such that the lands almost mirrored each other, as he found in his many conversations with the people he came across as he travelled towards the land’s capital and heart.

The kingdom had suffered for so long for lack of an heir. Just as their princess had to keep her lords under control and ranged against each other with promises of marriage and thereby kingship, her mother the queen had similarly had to rule the land through the exact same system of promises, none of which she had any intention of honouring.

‘Yet if there was no marriage,’ the prince had curiously asked on first being told this, ‘then how was your princess born?’

‘It’s said a fairy king fathered her,’ came the reply. ‘Unfortunately, he was called away to his own kingdom, promising to return within a matter of weeks; alas, how was anyone to know that what passes for mere days in the land of fairy is a lifetime in ours?’

On at last arriving at the princess’s palace, the prince announced that he was here to return the precious stone stolen from their kingdom by one of his father’s knights.

‘A precious stone?’ the princess said with a suspicious frown when she granted the prince audience. ‘I know of no stolen stone: is this just some suitor’s ploy, ensuring you’re introduced to me?’

‘Ploy?’ the prince responded innocently.

‘A ruse to help you work your way into my heart, just as my many other suitors come with promises of allegiance, of undying love.’

‘I have no such things to offer, my lady,’ the prince admitted, even though he had indeed been struck by the princess’s remarkably pure beauty. ‘I apologise, my lady,’ he continued, ‘if I was wrong in presuming your kingdom lacked a precious stone that ensured its stability.’

‘How could a mere stone be held responsible for maintaining a kingdom’s stability?’

‘I…I had heard that your kingdom suffered misfortune–’

‘You’re sure you’re not here to offer me your hand in marriage,’ the princess snapped scornfully, ‘to alleviate my kingdom’s misfortune of lacking a male heir?’

‘My lady, my own kingdom long suffered such a misfortune–’

‘Ah, so you do see it as a misfortune! A misfortune that I was born, rather than some prince who would bring peace and light to a previously endarkened land!’

‘I meant only…only that…’

The prince stumbled on his words.

What had he meant? Wasn’t the princess right in her interpretation of what he had intended to say?

‘You may know a great deal about your kingdom, but obviously little about mine,’ the princess declared contemptuously. ‘If my mother the late queen had exited her private birth chambers announcing her son and heir, she might as well have also announced our deaths: it wouldn’t have thwarted the ambitions of Mother’s suitors so much as turned their hearts to murder, for any promise of marriage and kingship would have vanished.’

The prince bowed his head in shame and supplication.

‘I beg your forgiveness, my lady. With your permission, I’ll take my leave immediately, for I have many stones I have to return–’

‘Wait!’ The princess held up a hand, stopping him from turning around. ‘As you turned away your riding cloak swung aside, offering me a glimpse of your breastplate for the first time – might I please take a closer look, my lord?’

‘These are the stones I have to return,’ the prince explained, drawing his cloak aside to reveal the glittering gems inlaid within his breastplate.

The princess stared with interest at the glittering rainbow-hued jasper.

‘I wonder…’ she said curiously as she graciously moved towards a balcony overlooking her lands.

Standing alongside the princess on the balcony, the princess marvelled at how far it was possible to see from here.

The princess’s lands of deep and gorgeously rolling valleys gave way to the rising of a range of steep mountains, ones stretching so high into the cloud-studded sky that they were topped with a covering of glistening snow – such that it was hardly possible to see where one realm began and the other ended.

‘Those are my lands too, the land of Naphtali,’ the princess stated without any hint of a boast or pride, ‘though much of it remains inaccessible to me, lying on the other side of the mountain and beyond an ancient and impregnable great wall. No one living knows what lies beyond the wall, yet I had noticed that something had changed there, only to content myself that I was merely imagining it: or that what I could always previously see there was now hidden to me in a concealing mist–’

She exhaled deeply as a rainbow abruptly appeared above the highest mountain peak, the bases of each seemingly linked, the rich colours curling up into the sky, the myriad hues mirrored in both the glistening snow and the reflective undersides of the scudding clouds.

‘It’s there again!’ the princess sighed elatedly, turning to look back at the prince. ‘How did you–’

The prince was grasping the inlaid jasper as if about to wrench it free. When he brought his hand away from the jewel, however, it firmly remained there.

‘The intention to return it always seems enough to replace it,’ the prince explained with an embarrassed, shy smile, having noticed the princess’s puzzled frown.

‘It seems, my lord, that I’ve misjudged your heart,’ the princess apologised. ‘In return, I offer you my blessing to travel freely and unhindered through the lands under my control: and should you manage to overcome the wall, I also offer you this further blessing for you to recite if you seek concealment:

‘My love in the heart of the man who thinks of me,

‘My love in the mouth of the man who speaks of me,

‘My love in the eye that sees me,

‘My love in the ear that hears me.’

The prince didn’t recognise the words, yet he knew the melody.

For he had heard it once before: sung by his sister, when she had seemed to appear out of nowhere alongside him.

 

 

*

Chapter 21

A room within the palace was provided for the prince, while his horse was most comfortably stabled amongst the freshest hay.

The prince’s bed was sumptuous and large, yet seemed to him to move whenever he lay down upon it, an illusion caused no doubt by the many bright mirrors that lined not only the walls but even the ceiling and floor. Truly, not even the great Solomon had possessed such a remarkably wonderful bed, for its frame of wood and precious metals was wrought with all manner of symbols.

As he lay there naked that night, the door to his room opened.

The princess demurely entered, bearing a cup of the finest pinks and reds the prince had ever seen. Like him, she was naked, yet emanated neither shame not lust.

For the briefest of moments, the prince fooled himself into thinking he saw the white pearl he sought amongst the layered pinks of this most wondrous of cups: but when he looked closer, he saw that it was the glistening of a pure darkness extending back and back towards the very beginnings of the universe.

This was not one of the stones he had set out to seek, he realised: and yet he was entranced by it completely, as if it were indeed the most precious object he could ever hope to find.

‘This is the cup,’ the princess whispered huskily, approaching the prince’s bed, ‘that both changes and transforms. It is the Cup of Love: and as such, it can be can be either a blessing or a curse, a Spring of Memory or a Cup of Forgetting, a cup of eternal life or the poison of eternal death: and it is the one who drinks who makes it either one or the other. The question is, Prince Argaret, do you take the risk, do you drink: or do you refuse, and live only the half-life of the foolish and dammed?’

‘I drink, my love,’ the prince replied, bringing his lips towards the lips of that most glorious cup, ‘I take you in, as if you were my very soul!’

 

 

*

 

 

The prince wasn’t quite sure what he was supposed to drink.

The only thing lying within the cup was that precious jewel of supreme darkness.

As his lips embraced the cup’s lips, however, the darkness quickened, flowed, as if transforming into something far more fluid. It swirled like a dark, embittered gall. It glistened, as if with the light of many stars.

‘Whatever veiled darkness exists within your soul,’ the princess whispered in warning, ‘this will embrace: if there’s little there for it to become one with, then it will eventually envelop and contain the darkness it finds there; but if there’s a great deal of concealed darkness to contend with, then I fear the darkness will envelop us.’

As the darkness swum down Prince Argaret’s throat, he stared into the darkness of the princess’s eyes, seeing himself reflected there, as if revealed within the brightest of mirrors.

He swum in that darkness, as if dazed, drunk. Within those darkest waters of love, they merged, entwined, curled and coiled around and about each other. And when separateness becomes serpentine, it ceases to be, and can only become as one; becomes strangely unaware of presence, of he and she, and is truly only ‘I’.

He was as one with her, their bodies having ceased to exist within the darkness, there now being no male, no female: indeed it was impossible to say who had been the male, who the female, as they both brought to the union what the other lacked.

She had brought his missing jewel, he its all-embracing setting.

They marvelled to each other’s touch for, of course, s/he had rolling mounds where s/he had none, s/he had embracing valleys where s/he had none, and vice-versa and versa-vice.

It is from the darkness – of pitch, coal, tar, oil – that the greatest flames might arise, given the right spark. And so it was from this darkness, given the heat of union, the glow of love.

I would eat and I would be eaten, the flame whispered amorously.

At first it was a flickering, a dance of hot flames. Then an enflaming of the darkness, then an inferno, burning all that was material, all that was flesh, away.

And beneath flesh lies souls with no surface, no boundaries. And spiritually, two become entwined.

 

 

*

Chapter 22

‘We lay together as any man and woman would,’ the Princess Lorica announced to the gathered assembly the next morning. ‘A future king begetting a future king: and so the future of our kingdom is assured, with only the most treacherous of souls refusing to accept this.’

Within the cup, a flame glowed, brighter than any red, erupting from the sheer blackness of the purest, darkest agate as if it were the finest of coals. Before the eruption of the light of love, the glow within the cup had been nothing more than the shimmering light of a precious stone; but now it was a bright and shinning light, inextinguishable accept by those who had lit and now maintained it.

Cupping the flame in her hand, the princess placed it against the heart of the prince, saying, ‘This is its new home, the Cup of your Heart: never let it falter or die, for it is the most precious bloom of all to me, and as such you can water it with your love.’

The prince felt the flame burn within his heart, yet he knew it was a flame that would wound him the more it faltered.

Within his breastplate, a precious stone of the purest black agate had appeared alongside the one of amber.

‘It is one of the gems you needed to collect,’ the princess gasped happily. ‘And perhaps I know of another you need: the gold veined topaz that sparkles upon your symbol of a shattered crown.’

 

 

*

Chapter 23

The Mirror of Angels

 

If any group of people have been most sorely misunderstood, it is the alchemists.

It has falsely come down to us in stories and legends that they sought only to transmute lead into gold, as if seeking nothing but material wealth; when in truth they sought the transformation of man himself, man transmuted into his heavenly image while remaining here on Earth.

The successful transformation of lead into gold was regarded as nothing more than a proof that they were close to discovering the Philosopher’s Stone.

And yet – the proposition that a base metal like lead might be changed into purest gold is ideal for gaining the support of avaricious kings.

The alchemist Mystae used this promise of unlimited wealth to persuade his king to obtain for him the many ancient texts he required to work out the secrets of manufacturing a Philosopher’s Stone.

If a manuscript couldn’t be purchased, then it could be stolen, or its present owner persuaded to relinquish it through torture or murder.

If an important scroll was held by another kingdom, then it could fall into his hands as the spoils of a conveniently declared war.

Material considerations were unimportant when you were seeking the very transformation of man into his true, angelic state.

The language of these texts was ancient, frequently untranslatable; and even when he had managed to begin to gain a glimmer of the truth hidden within their words, each tract was deliberately arcane in its use of symbolism, deterring all but the most determined seekers.

He read of many truly remarkable stones, including many that had once graced an angelic crown, a crown that had shattered on falling to earth during the War in Heaven.

This was, depending upon the scroll or ancient clay tablet he read, the Treasure of Heaven, The Treasure of the Angels. Individual stones could be the Gift of Orion, or the Gift of Venus, enclosed within a casket, or lying under a shield.

The most important of all these stones, he decided, was one of the darkest, brightest green: the Tabula Smaragdina, or the Tablet of Hermes the Thrice-Great. It was a form of beryl, heliodor, and was said to have been inscribed with the Commandments of Samael; the very designs of the world itself, revealing the secret of primordial substances and transmutations.

This was the stone, he read, that had given Solomon’s architect Hiram the power to control the great serpent Shamir, who could burn any normal stone.

And yet – Hiram had thrown the stone away, casting it into a deep well!

Mystae had to know more, to obtain other ancient tracts.

At last, he found what he was looking for: Solomon had retrieved the precious stone, and placed it within his temple upon a triangular plinth.

But – the Knights Templar had diligently searched Jerusalem, dug deep into the areas around where Solomon’s great temple had once stood: and they, to the best of his knowledge, had found no such precious gem. They hadn’t even found the great twin pillars of Boaz and Jachin that Solomon had also placed within his temple.

Wait!

Mystae urgently pored over his notes, his vast collection of scrolls and tablets.

Yes, he had remembered correctly!

The two intricately carved pillars had been constructed by Hiram himself!

So, perhaps, Solomon hadn’t found the discarded precious gem after all: but he had discovered the two pillars, placing these within his temple instead – because the wise ruler had recognised that Hiram had recorded the designs and codes within the famously symbolic carvings.

Naturally, that meant he still had to find the missing pillars: but how much easier to find would they be than a precious stone?

 

 

*

 

 

When Mystae decided he was at last ready to track down the two pillars, he placed his most comfortable chair within the very centre of his courtyard, then seated himself there with a large satchel containing nothing but his most important books and scrolls.

Then, using what little magic he was capable of, he caused a tree to begin to grow directly beneath his chair.

As the tree swiftly grew, it carried him upwards until, branching out, it left him comfortably seated within the crook of its forking trunk.

Next, he caused the vast canopy of leaves to fill with air, air he heated with spells, until the captured air amongst the shielding leaves was far lighter than the surrounding air.

Shrugging its roots free of the constraining earth, the tree began to rise. To float through the sky, passing unhurriedly over the rolling green landscape below.

Mystae’s diligent searching of the ancient texts had finally informed him that he would find the two pillars on the floating City of Rueben.

He found it hard to imagine, of course, that a whole city could float upon the sea: and yet this is what his most reliable of tracts assured him was true, and so why should he doubt them?

And so, naturally, he wasn’t as surprised as he might have been when he finally caught sight of the fabulous floating city: a Venice of the Oceans, a city not just with canals but one that also channelled the power of the seas.

Mystae brought his floating tree down in one of the lesser squares, where he let it take root, and where it stands to this day, solid confirmation that everything told in this tale is true.

The city’s mayor enthusiastically greeted this magician of the air, having no qualms about letting him inspect the great, twin pillars standing in a room beneath his own home. As Mystae was led by the mayor down into this deep cellar, he heard the most amazing playing of a harp he had ever heard; one that surprisingly made him feel ever more determined to achieve his long sought-after goal.

On entering the room, he was even more surprised to find that the harp standing there wasn’t being played after all but, rather, was somehow magically strumming its own strings, a bright red gem embedded within the forehead of the wondrously carved angel glistening as if it were a tenderly beating heart.

Despite the wonder of this sight, it distracted Mystae only briefly from what he had really come here to see: the two immense pillars, each of which was graced by a coiling serpent.

He found his excitement hard to contain. Even as he drew near, he recognised symbols carved into the pillars’ sides that he had frequently come across during his many years of poring over scrolls and tablets. To anyone else, they would probably appear as little more than elaborate patterns, yet each entwining link turned them into a message, a code that had to be broken.

Avidly referring to his book of painstakingly crafted notes, he began slowly circling the two pillars, taking in their every detail, recording symbols he hadn’t come across before, planning on studying and comparing them later to find any similarity with other symbols he was aware of.

As he studied and drew, and made extra notes, he wandered innocently between the two pillars – and instantly found himself standing out in the cold air, on the side of a snow-capped mountain.

He glanced back at the pillars, briefly considered moving back through them, back – he presumed – into the mayor’s cellar.

Before he could decide on the right course of action, however, he was startled by a gloriously white hart seemingly appearing out of nowhere alongside him. And within its brightly glowing antlers, it held the glowing orb of Mercury (whose marriage to the copper of Venus throws off the leaden old man of Saturn’s Sun of the Night, giving birth to the sparkling gold of the Rising Sun, Hermaphroditus).

And within the blink of an eye, the orb became a heart.

‘The Deer’s Heart!’ Mystae breathed elatedly, recalling the name any alchemist worth his salt gives his material when it has been boiled long enough.

The deer, as if startled just as much as Mystae, turned and began to unhurriedly prance away. Mystae followed, recognising the deer as being symbolic of the soul – the soul we must couple with the unicorn of the received spirit.

Would the deer lead him to the much sought after unicorn?

Above him, the air quivered with a vein of reddened light, a red he recognised as being similar to the precious stone embedded within the harp.

As this glow snaked through the air, it came to and coiled amongst the glow of other colours, a rainbow that arched down towards the base of an apparently endless wall surmounting the mountain’s summit.

The hart now turned off, galloped away, but Mystae continued heading towards the end of the rainbow, spying there the doorway to a small temple or chapel built into the wall’s foundations.

Within the temple, he came across a triangular altar of antler, supporting a brightly sparkling gem.

His heart leapt.

And then, in an instant, he was supremely disheartened.

This wasn’t the green stone, the Tabula Smaragdina!

Yes, the stone lying before him undoubtedly contained a bright, glittering green. Yet it also contained honeyed hues, as well as the deepest red of the harp’s own stone.

It was jasper; a rainbow coloured jasper – that was all!

But wait, wait, wait!

He glanced up, following the soaring course of the arching then splintering rainbow.

Just as the streaks of red curved off towards the pillars he had walked through, as well as towards some other areas lying well out of his sight, the band of green similarly split into at least two branches, one of light green, one of darkest green – could that lead him towards a further set of pillars, beyond which he would find the Tabula Smaragdina?

He strode out urgently now across the harsh landscape, his eyes only on the glittering, serpentine green band, his mind on processing all this new information.

Had the rainbow jasper been Hiram’s stone, and not the Tabula Smaragdina? If the jasper linked up in some way with these other stones of similar hue, it might have given him merely a shade of their true power: a partial yet not ultimate control over Shamir!

As he walked, however, his original exultation was once again transformed into disappointment. Rather than arching back down to earth, as he had expected, the green band of shimmering light appeared to course through the air as endlessly as the wall.

He discovered why when he came across the two pillars: they had been knocked over, shattered. They lay in a multiple of splintered pieces upon the ground.

Who could do such a thing? he fumed.

 

 

*

 

 

When Mystae arrived in the land of Simeon, he was greeted there by a surprisingly large band of alchemists, every one of whom was, like him, seeking the Tabula Smaragdina.

Finding the pillars that should have led him to Tabula Smaragdina shattered, he had traced his way back along the snaking green streak of light, deciding to follow instead the lighter green band that had led him to a complete set of pillars.

Stepping through and beyond them, he had found himself in a land that had used its own heavenly jewel to grant a sword the power to anticipate the intentions of its wielder’s opponents.

It was undoubtedly a remarkable gift: yet it was hardly equal to the unimaginable powers promised by the Tabula Smaragdina!

The innumerable alchemists Mystae found himself surrounded by seemed to agree, the sparkling pastel green of their own gem spurring them on to seek the darker gifts of the Tabula Smaragdina.

Impressed by Mystae’s grasp of the problems involved in its manufacture, they opened their extensive laboratories up to him, expecting (foolishly) a fair share in his greater knowledge and glory.

For Mystae now knew far more than he was willing to divulge to them, his close study of the pillars having provided him with many extra clues to the processes of transformation.

He was ready, he believed, to attempt the creation of the Philosopher’s Stone!

With a specially sharpened blade of only recently forged iron, he carefully carved into the wooden floor of his laboratory a large pentagram; a representation of Samael’s Crown.

At one point of the pentangle, he placed an upright jar.

At another, he set down an inverted jar.

At the third, he laid a jar on its side, its open, wide-lipped mouth facing inwards towards the diagram’s point.

Almost directly opposite this, at the fourth point, he laid the jar down such that its open end faced the third’s.

Rather than a jar, the fifth point required the placement of a child’s skull, specially cleaned of every speck of flesh.

The necessary incantations were recited in a language that anyone listening in would fail to recognise as a language at all. He even nervously breathed, as ridiculous as it may sound, Ab’r-Achad-Ab’ra, the Sun-and Only-Sun – as indeed it seems to be when shining at its brightest.

Out of nowhere but empty space, a dark, leaden earth fell into the first jar.

The charged, misty air of a storm rose up into the second.

Into the third, there flowed a viscous, quickened water.

Into the fourth, a dancing plume of flame.

And into the patiently waiting fifth vessel – nothing.

Or, at least, it appeared that nothing was there.

But then, what did spirit look like?

For all Mystae knew, it could already be there: he had just expected to witness, perhaps, a spark or some such sign around the darkly hollow eyes of the skull.

And if not already there, it might well appear at some later point within the procedure.

For what reason, after all, would he be denied this most important element in the process? Hadn’t he given over his whole life to this venture?

Working with a resigned slowness, as instructed within his ancient scrolls, Mystae brought each vessel towards the diagram’s centre, where he had already prepared a plinth of coiled brass and copper.

He poured the water into the jar containing the earth, baptising the body, granting a knowledge of self.

He placed the one containing air on top, opening to opening, baptising the whole with the holy breath, and raising it spiritually towards its higher self.

He lifted this entire entity up onto the jar of flames, precipitating a merging into the universal one.

The skull went on the very top of everything, its gruesome, toothy grin somehow mocking.

It was nothing more than a slimy darkness bubbling away in the glasses stacked above the elemental flame. In that darkness lying behind the glass, he caught himself reflected, as if in the pure, glistening blackness of purest agate: and he saw that he was old before his years, wizened by a lack of healthy pursuits, of sleep.

His every might had been spent bending over poorly lit manuscripts, seeking a transformation for the better; only for his transformation to be for the very worst!

The ores of the wet earth began to streak through the darkness, like the pained veins of lightning in a tumultuous sky. A rust red, a stricken yellow, marbling the now otherwise pure black.

The veins entwined, like oddly hued vines.

And then, miracle of miracles – gold ran like crazed streams through the darkness.

A spectrally reflective gold, in which he caught sight of himself yet again: and in these streaks of purest material he wasn’t aged at all, but was young, vibrant, glowing – angelic!

He saw himself face to face as a heavenly being!

Of course!

This cracked, shattered gold, this gold of the splintered heavenly crown, revealed the seed lying in the dark material, the black soil of his body. Potentially, it revealed, he was of the highest heavenly royalty!

Yet then, abruptly, this image of the godly Mystae vanished.

Within the darkness, he was still aged, haggard. Within the quickened streams of gold – he was nothing!

What did it mean?

Had something gone wrong?

He glanced up towards the smirking skull, fearing he might never have captured spirit in there after all.

Unable to see beyond the sheer darkness of the eyes, he reached up for it: yet his hand was almost as translucent as the glass jars, the skull perfectly visible through what should be solid flesh and bone.

The flames beneath the glass roared, as if suddenly fed with the most favourable ether, making them stronger than ever. The glass itself began to melt, to drip like a candle of clearest wax.

He tried to stop the process, to remove the jar, to knock aside the flame. But his body was continuing to fade, so insubstantial now that he had no effect on the physical world about him.

Then – he stopped panicking.

He laughed.

Chuckled with satisfied delight.

I am a mirror to thee who perceivest me, he whispered to himself exultantly, remembering what he had read, what he had taken in and wholeheartedly believed. I am a door to thee who knockest at me.

He had achieved his goal!

His was an angelic being!

And while still here on Earth too!

 

 

*

 

 

The jars and mixture melted, merged, only the angled streaks of darkness and gold remaining separate, a blackened sky rippled with an eagerly onrushing dawn.

As it all became fluid, it ran in rivulets down through the flames, beginning to douse them with the odd irate hiss, the splutters of indignation.

Even when Mystae passed his arms directly in front of the heart of molten materials, he could clearly see everything, as if he were hardly there at all!

As the liquefying jars and their contents sagged, pooling across the plinth’s top, slowly hardening into a mirror, the skull dropped lower, its pitted eyes now staring directly into his.

And at last, those eyes of deepest darkness revealed the glowing white presence of spirit! A spirit that was being drawn into the skull through those black sockets.

Where was it coming from, this spirit? an intrigued Mystae wondered.

He glanced about the room, surprised once more to see that he was still swiftly fading. Surprised to see through those perfectly transparent arms a dead body lying on the floor.

The lifeless body of an old, haggard man.

The ‘heavenly’ Mystae gasped; a last gasp.

And he gave up the ghost, his very spirit disappearing as a final whisper into those eyes of sheer, unforgiving and endless darkness.

 

 

*

Chapter 24

As they had parted, Prince Argaret insisting he must continue his quest to return the stolen stones, promising also that he would return in a matter of weeks, Princess Lorica presented him with a shield; one proudly emblazoned with a dark circle of black agate, surmounted with the seed of the royal tree they had now founded. She also gifted him with a prized lance, it’s long, flowing pennant graced with a bright, soaring flame emanating from a chalice.

Seeking to avoid the impassable wall, the prince set off on the road leading towards the far off coast, intending on catching a ship there that could help him somehow circumvent that ridiculously immense obstacle.

The lands of Asher belonging to the princess that he travelled through seemed to be blessed with material wealth, the fields rich with corn, the herds and flocks as well fed as the people, the many farms and towns prosperous. Not long after passing over Asher’s borders, however, and entering the princess’s other lands of Naphtali, the lower slopes of the Mountain of Curses, he soon came to a wide strip of land that was little better than a wasteland.

Its fields were stripped of crops and scattered with the bones of its slaughtered herds and flocks.

It struck the prince that the wide band of destruction could have been made by a Great Wyrm, devouring everything lying before it as it snaked its way across the countryside.

‘What kind of blight have you suffered here?’ the prince asked a family now barely making a living on one of the farms he passed.

‘A blight of men!’ the mother of the hungry children spat. ‘A large battalion of armed men, led by a beautiful princess! She charmed us, asking us to give whatever we could spare to feed her men. Then they decided we could spare whatever they needed!’

‘I’ll find these men and this princess,’ the prince assured them, ‘and see if I can bring their unthinking and selfish destruction to an end!’

Tracking the serpentine course of the armed band took no effort whatsoever, for they had left behind them nothing but the detritus of their greed and insatiable hunger: the wasted lands, the cast away bones of the cattle and geese they had devoured. It was a long and winding track that eventually took him towards the endless and impenetrable wall he had intended to avoid.

Even as he approached the soaring walls of purest white, he saw that the trail of discarded bones appeared to end there, as if the men had been magically spirited over the looming battlements. Where the snail’s trail of detritus ended, the wall’s regular pattern of cut and mortared stones was broken by a huge white circle, what could easily be taken to be either a gigantic pearl or a minute moon, depending on your state of mind.

Of course, it was neither of these things. Rather than being an object, it was a large and perfectly circular hole carved into the wall. Indeed, it was easily large enough for a mounted man like the prince to comfortably travel through, requiring him to neither bow nor slow his mount.

Just as the wall was unbelievably high and long, it was equally unbelievably thick, yet the hole became a long tunnel that snaked through it, the edges as smooth and regular as if the stones had been seared rather than crudely hacked at.

Despite this, there was no smell of burning or singeing until he was so deep within the tunnel that it was womb-like in its closeness and darkness, the light of the sun unable to penetrate even dimly down here. It was the smell of bonfires, of burning wood.

The prince’s horse came to a halt, refusing to progress any farther into the darkness, no matter the prince’s urging and pleading. Dismounting, he reached out into the darkness to see if he could discover why his horse so suddenly refused his directions. He found that the tunnel was blocked, a cave-in of roughly shattered stones, of splintered timbers, the ends charred and of brittle charcoal.

Although it was impossible to guess the nature of whom or what had created this smoothly made tunnel, the cave-in was quite clearly man-made. A huge fire had obviously been lit here, one presumably so ferocious that it had cracked the stones above, bringing them crashing down and sealing the tunnel.

Far from finding this disheartening, this knowledge gave the prince hope that the blockage’s extent might not be as deep as he had first feared: the wall’s stone surely wouldn’t have been easy to crack?

Removing most of his armour, he began to carefully pull out some of the looser stones towards the top of the pile, reasoning that this would probably be its narrowest point. Moreover, the removal of the higher stones was less likely to bring even more crashing down.

After a while, after much scrambling around, and the painful dragging out of some of the more firmly set stones, he caught a glimmer of light flickering in through a small gap he’d managed to create.

He sighed with relief.

That weak ray of light not only meant that the blockage wasn’t completely unsurmountable, but also that he must be much nearer towards the end of tunnel than he had originally surmised.

Nevertheless, he realised with a pang of sadness that he would have to set his horse free. Although its heavily muscled flesh had undoubtedly served him faithfully as he’d travelled through all the other lands, it would naturally be far too large and cumbersome to squeeze through any hole he could make.

Loading the horse’s saddle up with all his discarded armour, he also fixed the lance to its fleshy flanks, keeping for himself only his breastplate, shield and sword. With a hard slap on the horse’s rear, he sent it on its way, heading back down the dark passageway towards the far-off light of the lands they’d only just left behind.

He regretted most of all relinquishing the pennant bearing the symbol of his love: but, after all, the real flame still burned deeply within his heart. And that flame surged painfully now, the farther he travelled from his love causing the greatest agonies. And the stronger the flame burned, the stronger became his sense of irretrievable loss.

‘With you, I am blessed,’ he had said to the princess as they had parted.

‘Then without me, you are not,’ she had chided him.

The thought of his love made him think of the song she had taught him, the song she had promised would bring him protection should he ever need it.

‘My love in the heart of the man who thinks of me,

‘My love in the mouth of the man who speaks of me,

‘My love in the eye that sees me,

‘My love in the ear that hears me.’

Misty eyed with the hurt of his estrangement, he began to clamber up the pile of rock and earth, finding it far firmer and more stable than he had hoped to expect.

Navigating through the small gap he’d created was also much less of a scramble than he’d feared, the abrupt swiftness of the wind he felt curling across his body cooling him down. The light of the sun now visible at the exit drew him on to make that last, final effort to squeeze his way through the narrowest part of the opening.

He leapt surprisingly lightly to the floor, trotting quickly towards the tunnel’s beckoning exit.

Then he stopped; the opening was guarded by at least two armed men.

Hearing the prince’s approach, one of the men glanced back into the dimness of the tunnel.

‘Now where did you come from?’ the man demanded curiously.

 

 

*

 

 

‘No matter where it came from,’ the other soldier said, drawing his sword and stepping into the tunnel with a highly pleased grin on his face, ‘let’s thank the heavens for providing this gift of lunch!’

Rather than retreating, the prince stood his ground. He reached for his sword, prepared to bring his shield up high for protection.

But he no longer had a sword. Neither did he have a shield.

Worse still, he had instead of arms only the most slender of legs, ending in hooves.

The oncoming soldier was licking his lips with anticipation. Suddenly, his companion reached out, grasped him firmly by the shoulder, dragged him back.

‘Are you crazy?’ the second man demanded of his companion. ‘A gift of the heavens is right! Haven’t you worked out yet what these deer who end up in these cursed lands really are? If it’s flesh, it’s not flesh I’d be prepared to eat!’

The soldier stopped in his tracks, looked down at the prince with sudden distaste.

‘Is that what you think it is?’ he asked his friend unsurely. ‘I mean, he doesn’t look like all the others…’

‘A youngster, a fawn,’ the friend said, staring at the prince with a mingling of awe and horror. ‘All the others we’ve seen must be adults: maybe this is what all the poor bairns who end up here look like when they first arrive.’

A fawn? Is that what I am? the prince wondered.

What magic is this? Is this the result of the princess’s song, granting me protection by shielding me from view?

He drew closer towards the men, uneasy in the way they now loomed over him. Yet they shied away from him as if he were the one instilling terror.

‘Set the damned hind loose!’ one of them breathed fearfully, stepping back and leaving the way completely clear for the prince to exit the tunnel.

As the prince ambled past the terrified men, ducking easily between their legs, one of the soldiers aimlessly lashed out with a kick of his boot, doubtlessly hoping to quickly send him on his way.

The other man shivered with fright and disgust.

‘Through the strength of heaven,’ he murmured, ‘is this what every poor child becomes in this cursed land? I wish I knew what other manner of things were being concealed to us!’

 

 

*

 

 

The lower parts of the mountain soon gave way to gloriously rolling grasslands.

Here the little fawn found himself amongst herds of harts and hinds, as perfectly white as new-born souls, their antlers glistening like ice-laden trees.

And within each of these tenderly cupping branches, the prince saw a wondrously glittering pearl.

It was only as he drew ever closer towards these peacefully, gracefully grazing deer that he recognised this pearl as being an orb of sparkling light, within which a naked babe appeared to be comfortably nestled.

Surrounded by these wondrous creatures, he was filled with a sense of purest contentment. They refused to be startled even when the air was shriekingly rent by the wail of serpentine horns, the kind he had witnessed being used to draw men together, to organise them into phalanx or square within the midst of pitched battles.

The howl of the serpents seemed so out of place here that the fawn rushed to see what the source of its withering call could be. On surmounting the rise of a nearby hill, he found himself looking down on an encampment of heavily armed men.

Armour, lances and shields were stacked on supports standing outside gaily coloured and heavily pennanted tents, the whole camp laden with the heraldic symbols of swans, bulls, martingales, suns, stars and moons. The wraith-like shrieks that had drawn the prince here came from the dragon horns standing within the very centre of the camp, the lightly gusting wind passing in through elongated tails coiled like Great Wyrms, then emanating as terrifying moans from snarling maws.

Such a rainbow hued encampment was always a beautiful sight yet, just as if it were no more than the gorgeous veiling of the ugliness of some horrifyingly ugly beast, a slimy trail of devoured carcasses lay snaking behind it, stretching right back to the wall.

Above the wailing horns, there fluttered the long, slender banner of the army’s commander. It was of the brightest, emerald green, graced by a large eye, one of an equally blazing-green.

The prince stepped back, briefly fearful that the all-knowing gaze of that glaring eye had somehow penetrated his disguise.

It was the symbol of his sister, the Princess Episteme.

 

 

*

Chapter 25

The prince was not aware, of course, that the eye of his sister’s serpentine banner had been embroidered by her own fair hand.

Had he known this, he might have been wary of approaching the encampment.

At the very least, he might have glance every now and again at the banner, and caught the way it’s ever-watchful gaze was intently following his every move.

He wanted to draw closer, however, in the hope of hearing any men talking, giving him clues as to why his sister was here in this land beyond the Mountain of Curses.

Not unnaturally, he assumed that these men must be responsible for the hole in the wall, even though he couldn’t understand how they had managed to carve it out of such thickly impenetrable stone so quickly, so smoothly.

Towards the centre of the camp, beneath the urgent flapping of the all-seeing banner, the Princess Episteme drew back the flaps of her tent. She stepped out across the heavily trodden grass, eager to see this curious fawn that had been drawn to her attention.

It had, after all, such a truly gorgeous pattern. One not just of light and dark hues of brown, but also a sparkling breast of the colours of falling leaves; reds, yellows, greens.

Its eyes, too, were of the most sparkling amber: so revealing, she thought, to anyone prepared to stare deeply into them and penetrate the mysteries they might divulge.

Such a dear, beating little heart too – pounding so terribly fearfully, as if it might give way at any moment.

The fawn was startled to be so abruptly confronted by the smiling princess, who seemed to appear almost out of nowhere.

‘Don’t be scared now, my pretty little thing,’ the princess said kindly, reaching out a hand as if to draw the fawn closer, to pet it tenderly upon its head. ‘I mean you no harm, my dear: indeed, I mean only to keep both you and myself entertained for a little while.’

She sat down on a patch of untouched grass, bringing her skirts about her, making herself comfortable.

‘I’d like to tell you the most delightful tale: one I’m sure even you will find quite deliciously amusing!’

 

 

*

Chapter 26

The Lake of Eternal Youth

 

There was once a queen who, whether she needed to or not, insisted on bathing at least once a week.

Stranger still, rather than bathing in a tub of heated water, as her elevated position entitled her to, she always insisted instead on bathing out in the open, in a lake not far from the king’s castle.

And so her maids, whose more usual task would be to heat the water and fill the tub, found themselves acting as guards throughout the nearby woods, armed with swords and shields, with orders to kill any approaching man bar the king.

Naturally, the king frequently took advantage of this remarkable opportunity to replicate the innocence of the Garden of Eden. His wife’s beauty was legendary and, naked, her beauty was even more incredible, beyond the imagination of any man less fortunate than the king.

His love for her was as great as his longing, his lust. Her love for him was returned in equal measure.

Not surprisingly then, she was with child, and within a few days – it was affirmed by all the kingdom’s astrologers and sages, after studious consultations of charts, planets, entrails and ancient prophesies – of bearing the king a son and heir.

One morning, as she prepared to set off for her bathing session, she tenderly caressed the rising mound shielding her child, whispering lovingly, I would be born and I would bring to birth.

Turning to the king, she seductively whispered an invite to join her as soon as he was able; I am a lamp to thee who beholdest me.

As soon as he could, the king eagerly made his way through the undergrowth towards the area of the small lake where he knew his wife would be bathing. The maids he came across let him pass, veiling their knowing smiles.

At the very edge of the lake, the queen was just beginning to rise from the waters, the droplets clinging to her sparkling like so many diamonds in the sunlight.

She shone, a blaze of white fire against a setting of the blues and greens of the lake and its surrounding woods, the perfectly rounded mound protecting their child glistening as if it were the world’s most precious pearl.

The king felt dazed by such an unimaginably beautiful sight, by his great fortune to possess such priceless jewels.

His rapture was brutally interrupted in the most inconceivable of ways: for his naked queen also suddenly appeared alongside him, stripping herself of a tangle of snaking, binding ropes.

‘My love, my love,’ she screamed in warning, ‘it’s all an illusion, a demon who means to kill you!’

Two queens, too beautiful to imagine, the most perfect mirror images of each other.

Who was really whom? What was the king to think?

‘No, my love, it’s a trick!’

The harsh, croaking voice came from the lake. And when the king turned to look, he saw not his beautiful queen but an old, withered crone, dripping with rotting weeds.

‘Hah! Her concealing charm has come to an end!’ the queen beside him announced triumphantly, pulling hard on the last threads still attached to her limbs as if they were a puppet’s strings. ‘Kill her now, my love; while your mind isn’t addled by her witchcraft!’

With a shake of his head, as if throwing off the last residues of a dreadful spell, the king rushed into the water towards the still oncoming, still fearfully wizened woman.

The crone threw her arms about him, as if to greet him within a loving embrace. The king naturally recoiled in horror and disgust, bringing his own hands up to wrap tightly around her throat.

‘My love,’ the harpy choked in surprise, her horrendous ugliness made all the worse as she struggled for breath, as her eyes wretchedly bulged, ‘what madness is thi–’

‘Fool, fool!’ the king shrieked in his madness at been taken for a fool. ‘Your own inner ugliness as revealed you for who you really are!’

‘My love, my lo–’ the dying crone gasped pleadingly, her attempt at struggling free from the king’s tight grasp weakening, her limbs, her whole body, going limp within his arms.

And as she died, she transformed once more into the beautiful woman she had been only moments before, such that he doubted his sanity, doubted the sense of his act.

His whole body sagged with sorrow as he let the cold, lifeless body slip into the water, let it drift away from him.

What had he done?

His doubts dispersed as rapidly as a concealing mist as he sensed the hot, naked flesh of his queen alongside him.

‘She came at me from the water lilies, a sea serpent!’ the queen explained, her voice quaking with recalled horror, her arms warmly enwrapping him. ‘When she changed before me – became me! – I was every bit as bemused as you were, my love!’

Her body warmed him, brought him back from his coldness, quickened that sense of deadness that had pervaded his own flesh.

He had made the right choice.

Here was his beautiful queen.

There, floating away on the swirling waters, was the demon, concealed by nothing more than a semblance of beauty. Remarkably, the sun still shone, still made her wet flesh glisten, her rounded belly like a moon reflected on dark waters.

‘Let the darkness that spawned her take her,’ the king spat, turning to his queen, embracing her in his own far more powerful arms.

‘That serpent won’t trouble us further, my love,’ the queen whispered breathlessly, tenderly snaking her arms around his waist, drawing him out of physical waters and into her own. ‘But I can’t allow you to risk being endangered like this ever again! You must promise me to stay away whenever I’m bathing!’

And as she spoke, her waters broke: and she gave birth to the most beautiful princess.

 

 

*

 

 

Like the queen, her mother, the princess possessed an almost ethereal beauty.

Indeed, the queen’s own mythical beauty had never faded, despite the passing of the years, the ageing of the king.

It was her means of bathing, it was whispered around the courts, the towns, the kingdoms: a ritual involving the secrets of eternal youth. A ceremony invoking Nature herself, calling on the goddess to aid the queen in her quest for a boundless beauty.

No one, of course, could know for sure.

Not even the king.

He had kept to the promise he had made that day, so long ago, when he had almost been fooled by enchantments into falling into the deadly embrace of a water serpent.

The longer the years passed, however, the more he regretted denying himself the sight of his gloriously beautiful wife, naked amongst nature’s most perfect setting.

How many times had they once regularly lain naked together alongside the lake’s contentedly rippling shoreline?

How many times had he been threatened by a serpent so determined to devour him that it had veiled its ugliness within a semblance of his wife?

How many times had other serpents been spotted in the lake? (None: he had obviously killed the only one residing there.)

The odds, quite clearly, were on his side.

He would surprise his wife as she bathed. And he would help her recall all those happier times.

As soon as the king silently appeared before them, each maid naturally and subserviently moved aside to allow him to pass. Although loyal to the queen, ultimately their loyalty was to their king: and besides, like him they had been denied the right to approach the queen while she bathed, and they too wondered what her famed ritual of eternal youth involved.

The closer the king drew towards the edge of the lake, the more silently he moved through the undergrowth, not wishing to unduly startle his wife.

When he at last caught his first sight of her, he gasped.

Bathing half in, half out of the lake’s silvery waters, she appeared more beautiful than ever, her flawless skin still lily-white, her hair as long and lustrous as the most prized fields of golden corn.

Around her, water lilies had gathered like a dark green cloak of finest velvet, their snowy blooms the stars to her gorgeously mercurial body.

It was as Venus that she unhurriedly rose from those glittering waters.

Venus rising, sparkling, entrancing.

She appeared, as she rose, to be dragging the emerald leaves with her. Clinging to her waist, to her legs, like the most iridescent scales.

The king gasped, gasped in horror.

The queen heard, heard his horror.

She struck swiftly, a lighting strike of brightest green crackling through the air.

Her body was incredibly long, incredibly flowing and serpentine.

She was on him before he fully realised what was happening.

Her fangs sunk deep into his flesh. The venom flowed through his veins, transforming them into green strands, into shredding threads of life.

His body, cold and lifeless, quietly swirled away on the hidden currents of the lake.

Perhaps, if he was unusually lucky, his beautiful wife would greet him in the other world he had exiled her to so long ago.

 

 

*

Chapter 27

The prince recognised the most important elements of the tale.

He didn’t find it either amusing or delightful.

Rather, he wept.

Now, his fawn tears were such unusual things they fell to the ground as amber, shattering there into many pieces, yet each one remaining as great as the whole. Within each one, emotions lingered in their entirety, there to be recalled at any moment.

‘Hah!’

The princess leapt to her feet, the urgency of her rising drawing about her broken strands of emerald grass. Her head spun around, her teeth bared hungrily as she shrieked out into the air:

‘A hunt, my lords! I want a hunt to bring the most delicious fawn to my table!’

 

 

*

 

 

The prince ran.

His legs were spindly, his body weak and ungainly.

He didn’t hold out much chance of staying ahead of any determined hunt.

Fortunately for him, there was a delay in the hunt getting underway, the knights gathering around the princess expressing their doubts of the wisdom of a hunt in this cursed land.

‘My lady, this is not flesh…’

‘These are not deer…’

The princess stridently dismissed their doubts and fears.

‘There are no fawns native to this land! No one but us trespasses here free of conflict of time or age!’

The hunt was thereby relatively swiftly assembled, the knights mounting up with but little armour, their lances light hunting spears rather than the heavy, cumbersome weapons favoured in war or tournament.

As if sensing the danger he was in, other deer rapidly collected around the fleeing fawn, their presence reassuring to him despite the way the arrows of the pursuing men slid through the blanched bodies as if they weren’t really there. They moved as if one, as if fully aware of each other’s needs and intentions.

They moved over the rolling hills as smoothly, quietly – even as serenely, despite their haste – as scudding clouds weave across the sky. The mounted men flowed after them, a rainbow of bright colours, their arrows falling like frozen rain.

In spite of the insubstantial nature of his many protectors, the raining arrows that might have struck the fleeing fawn passed through their bodies the way light hits water: deflected, dissolving, dispersed. Not that the men could see their target clearly either, the crowding creatures a mist of concealment, the fawn veiled as if existing on some other plain.

Yet more arrows abruptly darkened the sky, falling it seemed from black clouds and wracking havoc on the pursing men.

These arrows of darkest rain penetrated armour as if it wasn’t really there, striking the flesh cowering beneath, the flesh of both horse and man. The soldiers and their mounts fell, like corn at harvest, the bodies piling up in a solid wall preventing all further progress for those coming on behind.

Of course, the pursuing men could have ridden around the wall of their own dead. But the storm of arrows coming their way would have dissuaded a far larger force, so they spun their mounts around, spurred them hard, and raced back the way they had originally come.

The fawn wasn’t completely sure that the danger was over, however.

For there was now another troop of riders rushing towards him, this time from the opposite direction. A few of the horses fell to a last, parting shot of arrows from the retreating men, but otherwise they were a strong and irresistible force.

The deer surging around him appeared calm, yet they had hardly seemed unduly disturbed either when his sister’s men had been chasing him. Nevertheless, their rushed, steady gallop became a canter, then a languid trot.

The oncoming riders were naked from the waist up and, despite what the prince had believed earlier, they carried neither bows nor spears, nor wore elaborate helms as he had first surmised.

The closer they came, the more he understood the cause of his confusion: they were centaurs, ridden by men with the heads of horses. Those closest to him could have been wielding invisible bows, yet it was just the way they held and gently rippled their arms in front of their chests, their eyes on the storm clouds gathered above. Through these simple movements of the hand and arms, they were controlling the gathering and diffusion of the clouds, moving them across the sky with the pull and tweak of unseen threads.

Like a purer, spiritual reflection of those storm clouds – now being dispersed, and sent on their way – the white cloak of deer surrounding the fawn also began to turn around and make their way back towards the mountain they had left behind them in the chase.

The centaurs and their riders drew to a halt before the prince, smiling and nodding their heads in greeting and welcome.

In response, the prince nodded his own head: and was surprised to find that it was his own head, and not that of the fawn’s. He was wearing his breastplate once more, as well as wielding his sword and shield.

He thought he had been transformed back into a boy once more.

But he was wrong, he suddenly realised: for from the waist down, he was still a weak and stumbling fawn, if a slightly older and larger one than before.

 

 

*

Chapter 28

‘You’re safe here, from the Spawn of Lilith.’

The speaker looked down kindly on the prince as he trotted alongside the centaurs and their riders.

Strangely, they passed the fallen horse-headed riders without a care, the prince wondering at this as much as he wondered at the way the fleshy skins of the centaurs glowed as smoothly white as the deers’. The riders were of darker hues, as if these wholly separate portions had never been intended to be enjoined or related in any way.

‘I know no one amongst them who could be this Lilith’s son,’ the prince admitted with a bemused frown in answer to the centaur’s statement, assuming the centaur must have made a mistake.

‘We recognised him for who he is, despite his concealed form,’ the centaur continued assuredly. ‘As with her progeny through the originally spiritless Adam, the Sons of Cain, Lilith’s offspring are of the darkness, not the light; fully of this Earth, and nothing of Heaven. And so their knowledge of Earth is great, yet their knowledge of Heaven remains forever non-existent, any chance of spiritual sight lost to them, imprisoned within the forehead where it’s said Cain was marked. They wander forever in the darkness of the material world.’

The prince glanced back to see the last of his sister’s fleeing forces vanish over one of the rolling landscapes many hills. The white cloud of placid deer was still in full view, heading for higher ground.

The centaur noted the prince’s curious gaze.

‘They’re returning to the Mountain of Blessing,’ the centaur explained.

Once again, the prince met his comment with a bemused grimace.

‘The Mountain of Blessing?’ he repeated, confused. ‘But surely it’s the Mountain of Curses they’re returning to?’

This time it was the centaur who met the prince’s innocent comment with a bemused smile.

‘No: the Mountain of Curses lies on the other side of the wall where, thankfully, they have no need or wish to return to.’

‘There was nothing cursed on the other side of the wall,’ the prince insisted, more bewildered than ever by the centaur’s strange statements.

‘That is how it seemed to you, undoubtedly: but only because you have never experienced what it is like to be truly blessed.’

‘I see that your breastplate is incomplete,’ a nearby rider appeared to say, surprising the prince, who had assumed that the horse-headed man might not be capable of speech, or maybe even rational thought.

‘Are you here seeking further stones for it?’ the speaker queried, the voice not coming from the rider’s equine mouth after all, but from the centaur carrying him.

The prince shook his head.

‘I’m here to return them. Do any here belong to your kingdom?’ he asked.

Both centaurs shook their heads.

‘We have no lands of our own, unless you count this small hillock loaned to us,’ the centaur explained, indicating a small, barren knoll they were heading towards. ‘And none of the stones on your chest belong to either us or those who own this land.’

Lying beyond the small hill, but remarkably close by, was a walled city. The hill itself was surmounted by a tree that had long ago shed its leaves and was, perhaps, even quite dead, been almost devoid of even twigs and branches. Yet it sparkled like a flame at its heart, where the trunk split into three, like a cross. The flame was actually a precious gem, one of red with veins of white over black.

It was such an odd place to pin this most precious of things, the prince thought, there for anyone to freely take when there could quite clearly be thieves on either side.

‘What do you know of them, the people who live here?’ he asked the centaurs.

‘We know many stories,’ the first said despondently, ‘but then, isn’t the problem with stories that you never know which divulge the truth and which are full of nothing but myths?’

The other centaur chuckled, apologising for his friend’s pessimism.

‘All of us here once spent our lives telling stories, meaning well, yet little realising that those listening unavoidably bring their own preconceptions to the tale, moulding it to their own needs.’

‘Not that that can be a terrible thing in itself, of course,’ his friend added, speaking more brightly this time. ‘If it makes the story relevant to them, and thereby aids them. The problem lies when it is misinterpreted for their own ends.’

‘It’s true we put too much faith in our stories,’ the centaur admitted morosely, ‘little realising that we were as blind as the flocks we were flattering ourselves we could lead.’

Now they were closer to the tree, the prince saw that the flaming glow of the stone was similar in so many ways to the flame he carried within his own heart.

I would eat and I would be eaten, the flame whispered devotedly.

‘Fortunately, there are some tales,’ the other centaur said, ‘that the listener instinctively realises carries an important message for them; and so they recognise the truth and beauty of it even as others dismiss it as been quite ridiculously wondrous.’

‘The greatest story,’ his companion agreed, ‘is one that most people will accept as being obviously true, because they wish it to be so, because it inspires, reassure and elevates them – and what, indeed, could be wrong with such a story ever being told?’

The prince and his hybrid companions parted company where the road split in two just before the hill, the centaur assuring him that the people of the nearby city would allow him entrance later that evening if he rested here awhile.

The centaurs rode off at a gallop, those without riders seemingly untroubled by the lack of any guidance; indeed, these were the ones who seemed to travel with extra speed and lightness, freed of what might only be a constricting and heavy burden after all.

Seating himself as comfortably as he were able beneath the spreading tree, the prince prepared himself for a long wait. As he patiently waited, he noticed that what he’d taken at first to be nothing more than the mottled fur of his lower body was in fact a fragmenting of light into multiple shades, a dappling extending far beyond himself and stretching across the ground.

He glanced up, wondering if, by some miracle, the tree had abruptly burgeoned into leaf, the innumerable leaves scattering the light falling all about him. But no: the tree wasn’t full of leaves but, rather, ablaze with flickering flames, each one of which flared like the reddest leaf about to fall.

Upon the trunk, the mottled light played across the heavily textured bark. Most amazingly of all, here it was the pattern of a fawn’s fur, the shades of dark and light brown gracing its head and torso.

The rest of the fawn was indelibly joined to the extended limbs of a boy or girl.

And the boy’s hands and feet were pinioned firmly to the crossed beams of the trunk by brightly flaming nails.

 

 

*

Chapter 29

The prince leapt to his feet and, attempting to free the poor boy nailed to the tree, immediately began wrenching hard on the blazing nail pinning the feet.

The fire burnt hard and painfully into his palm. Even so, he still kept a firm hold of the nail, trying to wrench it clear of the flesh, the bone, the wood.

Who could do such a thing? he wailed inwardly.

The cruelty of such a thing was unimaginable.

Worse still, it was all a grim parody, an insult, to the sacrifice of our Lord, all of which he had learnt about as an essential part of his training to be a king.

He couldn’t let this poor creature, this hybrid of beast and boy so like himself, die in such a torturous way.

The flickering flames amongst the branches were already rapidly spreading, their power gaining, the wood warping in the great heat of the roaring flames and threatening to pull the pinioned boy apart limb from limb.

Unable to free the deeply embedded nail from the lower part of the trunk, the prince decided he would have to climb into the burning tree itself, in the hope that he could free the boy’s hands.

Unleashing and throwing aside his breastplate, he clambered up, his fawn legs scrambling for purchase like those of a mountain goat, his hands grasping overhead branches and helping pull him up into the ball of searing flames.

He feared he might already be too late. The flames were already coiling up the boy’s body, ascending from the burning nail that so securely bound his feet.

As if the agony of his burning hands wasn’t bad enough, the flame in his heart seared him even more agonisingly. It felt to him as if the fire there would burst free, a conflagration that would leave him as dead as the fawn-boy pinioned to the tree of death.

Like the fire roasting away within his own heart, the boy’s heart was equally enflamed, the fire expanding uncontrollably, burning away the fur of the poor creature – not a fawn, as the prince had first presumed, but now more recognisably a donkey or an ass – withering its flesh, its muscles, cracking its ribs. The flames were rapidly enveloping the whole of the body, including the outstretched limbs, the lowered, buckled legs.

The heat was so intense, the prince might as well have been pinioned there himself upon that cross, his own body aflame, roasting away to nothing.

The flames rose, up through what little remained of the body, a body as much flame now as flesh.

I would be freed and I would free.

The prince thought he heard a whispering, a whispering coming from the mouth of the cruelly dying boy.

I would be saved and I would save.

The flames around the boy’s head were now like those of a lion’s thick mane, the four beams of the cross now also transformed by those same flames into flickering red wings.

Within the roaring red of the flames, the boy’s body became blackened, charred. Flickering veins of white within those flames suddenly snaked across that darkened flesh, as if from nowhere, or as if released, perhaps, from below the horrendously cracking skin.

It spread, this entangling of white veins, as a mystical ivy might rapidly spread, seemingly holding the whole all together: until, finally, the darkened material crumbled away into nothing, a figure left sparkling in its place as if made entirely of this white, spiritual flame.

The prince was unavoidably caught up in all these soaring flames, sensing that his own flesh was being inescapably seared from his own body.

He fell, in an agonising daze, to the hard ground.

I would eat and I would be eaten, the flame whispered adoringly.

 

 

*

 

 

When the prince awoke, he was surprised to find that he was still alive.

Surprised to find that his flesh hadn’t been entirely burned away to nothing after all.

In fact, he was no longer enjoined to the body of a fawn at the waist. He had the legs of a boy once more.

The only injury he appeared to have sustained was a wound to his left palm, where a searing hot nail head had burnt him.

He glanced over towards the tree, expecting this at least to be a charred mess. But it stood exactly as it had looked before it had seemed to burst into flames: the trunk splitting in a way that suggested a cross, the dark, crooked branches devoid of any leaves.

There was no smell of fire, of charcoaled wood.

There was no body, no blackened husk, pinioned to the tree.

The only thing pinioned there, as before, was the resplendent jewel, its hues of red, white and black glittering like a flame.

He looked over to the breastplate he had taken off to enable him to more easily clamber up the tree. Within the last place of the first row, a similar jewel to that set within the stone now blazed there.

He caught a glimpse of his reflection in the shiny plate of the armour. Amazingly, his hair had grown to a ridiculous length, as if it had never, ever been shorn throughout his entire life.

He rose to his feet unsteadily, surprised that he had to get used once more to walking on two feet rather than four hooves, as if newly-born and unprepared for this new world.

‘You have transformed the cursed Tree of Death into the blessed Tree of Life.’

The prince whirled around, wondering who had spoken.

It was a lion, lying placidly upon the ground.

The prince couldn’t believe that he hadn’t spotted him before: yet his skin was the colour of the earth, his gracefully rounded form blending into the surroundings as indelibly as a natural mound.

The prince briefly thought of reaching for the sword and shield he had placed to one side when he had first rested here. Now he put that thought aside, fully aware that they wouldn’t be needed.

Rising to his feet, the lion languidly approached. Rising up on his two hind legs, the lion transformed into an unashamedly naked man, one with golden skin and flaming red hair.

‘I was sent with this,’ he said, producing a golden crown as if from his own side. ‘Not to praise you as our king, understand – but as is our custom, to discover what the Fates have intended for us.’

The crown boasted only one precious gem, one of the brightest of reds found within a burning coal.

Stepping closer, the man gently placed the crown neatly and securely upon the prince’s head.

And ever so briefly the prince’s mind spun, such that it felt his head was being penetrated by the most vicious barbs.

 

 

*

Chapter 30

The Clock That Told Time to Hurry Up

 

There was once a king who wished to be emperor.

Of course, that means we could be talking of any time within the life span of the Earth. Talking of any land.

Most kings wish to be emperors, as bakers wish to cook the prefect cake, and mariners hope to discover new lands.

The praise his couriers showered upon him meant nothing to him.

‘What is the point of being called the greatest king, when any emperor is obviously far greater than I?’ he complained bitterly.

‘These are nothing but dreams,’ his wisest and bravest advisors informed him, pointing out his lack of wealth, of men, to achieve the ends he desired.

‘Yet as an emperor,’ he replied scornfully, ‘I would have all these things!’

Even so, even though he had such foolish advisors put to death, he realised that he could only fulfil his dreams of empire through alternative means: skulduggery, cunning, treachery – or maybe even magic!

And so through skulduggery, cunning, and treachery he had managed to imprison his kingdom’s greatest magician, Epoptae. And he had threatened Epoptae that he would rot in his stinking prison unless he came up with a marvellous device that would grant the king the freedom to do as he wished.

Then one day, Epoptae said he had an announcement to make.

He had done it, he claimed.

He had developed a device that would give the king power over time itself.

 

*

 

 

‘It’s a clock!’

The courtiers sneered as the device was wheeled into the centre of the hall on a low wagon.

At first, the court as a whole had gasped, mistaking it from a distance for a vast yet beautifully enamelled shield, one that could only have been constructed by the land’s greatest smiths. Closer observation, however, revealed the labyrinthine mass of gears and cogs it shielded beneath its immense, curving form.

‘It is just a clock!’ another agreed contemptuously. ‘I’ve seen these devices before, my lord,’ he continued, turning to his king. ‘Marvellous, yes, in the way they can tell us when it is midday: in case we haven’t noticed that the sun is at its height!’

‘Or that it’s night, if we’ve failed to spot that the sun’s asleep!’ another guffawed, joining in with the jest.

Despite their ridicule, any fair-minded person would have readily admitted that the contraption presented to them was a beautiful work of art.

Its surface was a mosaic of fragmented mirrors, each sliver a glistening blaze of darkest blue and speckled with gold, a universe in miniature. Around this simulation of a gold-sparkled heavens, brightly coloured representations of the planets waited, immobile, yet doubtlessly eager to whirl into motion.

For those who know of such things, there were two representations of Venus, her aspects of both Morning and Evening Stars, the difference denoted by lighter and darker hues of copper. There were also two differently hued suns, the brighter one being the rising sun, the duller the one that took shelter within the underworld on a night.

Naturally, the leaden old man of Saturn sat furthest away from the shield’s centre, a boss featuring Earth’s green disc surmounted by a circular blue sea of purest lapis lazuli.

It was the glow of this gold speckled stone that the carefully angled mirrors were reflecting, the stone itself being magically lit by a sparkling moon suspended above this Earth and its seas. The moon was held there by the tightly curled head of a rising serpent, whose mouth almost fully devoured it as if it were an egg, leaving only a lower crescent of light to shine.

‘There doesn’t even appear to be any mechanical heart or suchlike to power it,’ another sour-faced courtier complained, walking around the huge device, bending low to stare curiously beneath it all. ‘The few I’ve come across have all had springs, pendulums, or at least some form of water channelling to grant the whole thing a beating heart.’

‘Ah, yes my lord,’ Epoptae replied in polite agreement, ‘but such things themselves depend on the passage of time: and so any “clock”, as you call it, can itself do no more than record time’s passing.’

The courtier frowned, puzzled.

‘So, this vast contraption doesn’t even tell us the time?’ he scoffed in disbelief.

Epoptae nonchalantly turned a little to face his equally perplexed and disappointedly scowling king, pointing out the relevant planets as he spoke.

‘My lord, I call this device an Antikythera, or Anti-Kyhtera: for isn’t our Lady of Kythera the Goddess of Love, the Morning Star who is Aphrodite? As the Evening Star, however, and lover of Mars, she is the Goddess of War!’

The king at last brightened on the long-awaited mention of war.

‘And this device…’ he paused, realising he couldn’t really see how this cumbersome contraption could enable him in any way to conduct a war. ‘This device can help me win battles?’

‘No, not battles, my lord,’ Epoptae declared confidently, despite the abrupt murmurs of discontent already weaving around the court. ‘Entire wars.’

 

 

*

 

 

The court’s murmurs of discontent had changed to those of amused disbelief.

The king, however, stepped down from the raised floor where his and his queen’s thrones sat, quickly tripping around this intriguing machine while eyeing it with interest, perhaps even elation.

The queen stayed seated, her own expression, like the tone of her speech, entirely sceptical and scathing.

‘What do you do with it, wizard?’ she taunted Epoptae disdainfully. ‘Throw it at them? No doubt using the world’s greatest trebuchet, which – hopefully – you already have prepared for us, waiting outside?’

Epoptae remained calm and assured as – as if prepared for this dismissal of his contraption – he produced a long thread of cotton, dangling it in the air from one hand before him as he unhurriedly approached the king.

‘My lord, if I may provide a simple demonstration of how my much and unfairly derided “clock” works…?’

Even though he frowned uncertainly, the king nodded his assent.

To uneasy chuckles from his audience, Epoptae began to merely run the fingers of his other hand up and down the dangling thread.

‘If life really were nothing but a loose thread, as many tales of the Three Fates indicate, then this would be the only movement such a simple thread, a simple line, allows us,’ Epoptae observed. ‘Up and down: and no other moves at all, unless we wish to throw ourselves out into an unknown and unforgiving space!’

He snapped his fingers away from the thread, waving them like a fluttering then dying insect, as if demonstrating the foolishness of such an action.

‘Fortunately, life is not really so simple,’ he continued, using his fluttering fingers to conjure up more threads from the air, weaving them swiftly in and out, deftly transforming the first, single thread into a tapestry of a beautifully dressed maiden.

‘Is this whole thing descending into nothing but childish trickery?’ the queen irately growled. ‘Is this all our renowned magician is good for, after all? Hoping his jests amuse the simpleminded, as friars wish to claim they’ve saved souls, and seamstresses dream of creating the most perfect dress?’

‘It’s true it’s a childlike trick, something conjured up from within my sleeve,’ Epoptae admitted nonchalantly, ‘but one that serves a purpose: for what do we have now, but a square rather than a mere line, granting us a means to travel not only up and down – but also from side to side. A height, and width.’

As he had demonstrated a moment before with the sole thread, he used the movement of his fingers to show how they could now wander over, even caress, this portrayal of a maid.

‘And yet, no matter how hard we try, we can never grasp her,’ he added, demonstrating once again how his fingers could not ever hope to probe inside the tapestry’s image. ‘The only way we can achieve that is if, like us, like a stuffed pillow, she exists completely within our world.’

With a twirl of his fingers, he conjured up more threads in the air, along with a flurry of duck down feathers, interlacing them all together so that the maiden was now like a cathedral sculpture, but one soft and pliable.

At last, of course, he had something he could hold, as if she were a real woman, but one rendered in miniature.

‘Tricks, silly tricks!’ the queen continued to sneer. ‘No doubt our enemies are supposed to die of boredom!’

Ignoring the queen’s scorn, the wizard used his fingers once more to show that he could now move them up, down, from side to side, back and forth – and even around this figure.

‘This is our world, existing as if we are effectively within a box, with height, width, and depth. Three planes; and, it seems, no more.’

He looked about him throughout the court, his gaze challenging, daring anyone to contradict him.

‘What about the reflection in a mirror?’ someone asked bravely.

‘Ah, and have you ever grasped the delightful form you see standing before you in your mirror every morning?’ the wizard as equally daringly asked, raising appreciative guffaws.

‘Then what of a lake, when…no, no – of course, we can’t grasp that either, can we?’ another courtier said, correcting himself before he was also ridiculed.

‘Anyone else? Can anyone think of a fourth plane?’ Epoptae assuredly demanded of the court.

This time, it seemed, there would be no takers to his challenge.

‘And yet,’ Epoptae said within the silence that had descend throughout the hall, ‘are we really to believe that our Lord in Heaven restricted himself to the three planes he’s confined us to?’

‘The spiritual! The spiritual plane!’ an archbishop abruptly bellowed assertively, certain that he would not be refuted, still less made fun off.

‘Hah, and just how often do even you walk upon – or even grasp – this “spiritual” plane on your daily travels?’ Epoptae queried light-heartedly, immediately adding with good grace, ‘But, being more generous, I would allow that our esteemed archbishop is correct; in that his god allows himself a plane apparently denied to us until we exit these Earthly realms.’

As he spoke, he produced as if from nowhere a large darning needle, aggressively forcing its glittering point through the heart of the pillow-like maiden he still held.

The queen briefly gasped, as if she feared that it was somehow her own heart that he had pierced.

Working the hole larger, the wizard pulled a single thread through the pierced maiden, handing one end, the bared end, of the thread to the king, while retaining the other end in his own hand. He ensured the thread remained level, the maid hovering between them both: and then, as he slowly raised his own end of the thread, the maid began to slip towards the king’s hand.

‘This, of course, is what the thread of the Fates really means to us; it is the duration of our lives, which they can cut short at any moment.’

He produced, once again as if from nowhere, a pair of small shears he readied to cut the thread, preventing her from reaching he king. And yet, before he snapped the thread, he lowered his own hand, allowing the maid to slide back towards his own hand.

‘Now where is the glorious lady, my lord?’

The king glowered at the wizard, as if worried he was being made a fool of.

‘She’s almost with you, of course!’ he snapped.

‘But a moment ago, she was almost within your grasp.’

‘Only because you lowered your part of the thread, wizard!’ the king insisted furiously, dropping his own hand so that the maid rushed towards his own hand.

Instead of being frustrated by the king’s action, however, Epoptae was exuberant.

‘This apparently simple thread is time, my lord,’ he announced, running a finger and thumb along the thread as he had done earlier.

My Lord Lofuerine,’ he added quickly, making a polite, reverential bow to the courtier who had earlier mocked the machine’s lack of any evident power source, ‘spoke of power: yet what has more power over man than time?’

‘Philosophy, wizard,’ Lord Lofuerine scoffed, to the amusement of the queen, ‘and I know of no philosophy that wins any battles, let alone wars!’

‘And yet,’ the wizard answered, lowering his own end of the thread yet again, letting the maid rush towards him, ‘the maid has fled once more from the king’s grasp: and now she is mine and mine alone!’

Letting his end of the thread drop, he triumphantly grasped the maid.

‘But no one can control time like this, letting things move back and forth!’ the king protested.

‘Not letting, but making, my lord,’ the wizard carefully corrected the king. ‘And so imagine, if you will, if the threads of the Fates can be persuaded to fall our way: being able to force the return of a spy who flattered himself he had escaped, to refight a battle you thought lost – or ensure the blow you otherwise wouldn’t have seen coming was actually something you prepared for yesterday!’

‘There’s no device that can change the direction of time!’ a courtier hollered contemptuously from somewhere deep within the awestruck crowd.

‘This was true,’ the wizard coolly replied, ‘there was no such device until yesterday!’

 

 

*

 

 

With the repositioning of a simple lever, the wizard set his glorious device into motion.

The planets began to whirl in their resplendent motions – yet whereas some turned anti-clockwise, others turned otherwise, as if caught in the sparkling, starry scales and coils of the serpent, whose head so securely clung on to that sheared, glowing moon.

Even those planets turning correctly about the earth and its moon were caught within the spirals of yet another serpent, this one whose head had only just become visible, in the sphere beyond even Saturn, its long, forking tongue supporting the very brightest of sliver orbs.

‘What devilish order of the planets is this, wizard?’ the queen protested ferociously.

‘It’s the mantel of the universe created by Persephone on her great Loom of Time, my lady,’ Epoptae answered calmly, ‘itself copied by Hephaestus, the iron smith of Mar’s, when he created a shield for her and Zeus’s son, Dionysus.’

The queen, unconvinced, was about to continue her protest; yet she found that the strangeness of this unnatural universe no longer concerned her, for she felt calmer, more contented, than she had for a long, long, long time.

She smiled: and she hadn’t smiled so pleasantly for a long, long time.

She laughed, laughed with pleasure, not malice: and she hadn’t laughed so free of malice for a long time.

She was fully aware, naturally, that the revolving of the planets controlled our lives, dictated our fates. Yet she thought it odd that her life now seemed to be so readily affected by the revolving of mere copies of those planets.

It was a thought that only briefly registered, however.

In an instant, that thought was gone. And even within that brief spurt of existence, it had never really been anything to worry about anyway.

She was young, she was beautiful, and in love with the most wondrously handsome man: and when you have all those things within your life, what on Earth do you have to be anxious about?

 

 

*

 

 

The king had his empire, vast beyond all normal imagining.

His sons and daughters had even greater empires, each one claiming lands stretching into the empires of their siblings.

Each courtier also each became a king or queen, or at the very least finally attained a richness and comfort they believed their rightful due.

For can’t we accomplish anything within the safety of our minds, unconstrained by worldly realities?

And how much freer and greater are our imaginings when we are young?

Indeed, as the planets whirl about us in reverse, and we become ever younger, we no longer fear what the future holds for us, no longer overload our past with regrets.

Soon, like the creatures of the earth, we have no concept of future, of past, of even the present, apart from the knowledge that we must live.

Does the present last only briefly?

Or is the present the only element of time that truly exists forever?

In which case, of course, it must also contain and be thoroughly entwined with our past and our future, such that we remain strangely unaware of their presence.

Certainly, for a child, one hardly aware of either past of future, each month seems to last an age.

And so we should not feel sorrow for the court as they throw off the cares of age, as they return once more to the womb: for what would their other alternative be, but that they became husks to be eaten by wyrms and transformed once more back into the darkest soil.

To each, their lives were long, and full of significance.

It’s only within the full, glaring light of the universe that they each appear as they truly are, just the merest weft in a vast tapestry.

But please; let the bakers continue their proud, individual search for the very lightest of loaves.

Let vineyard owners seek the perfection of their wines.

And let magicians continue to ensure their jests amuse the simpleminded.

 

 

*

Chapter 31

The prince came out of what had seemed to him to be the very briefest of trances.

And yet he was now surrounded by lions, every one of which was bowing to him.

He was bemused by their praise.

Hadn’t the message of the crown being that even kingship is fleeting and, ultimately, insignificant?

Even if, by some strange means, they had been made aware of the message, surely it amounted to an admonishment of kingly pride?

Yet here these lions were, paying subservience as if he were indeed their king. The man who had placed the crown on his head was similarly bowing low towards him, having dropped to one knee.

The prince reached up for and took the crown off his head. Handing it back to the man who had placed it on his head, he thanked him, adding his hope that he had passed whatever trial he had been set.

He left unsaid his other hope: that the man would explain the perplexing behaviour of both himself and the lions, but no explanation was forthcoming.

‘It’s unusual for us to have to take someone back towards the lands of the lapis lazuli: but this is obviously where you seek and need to be,’ the man said, at last rising to his feet, transforming once more into a magnificent lion. ‘I would be honoured if you chose me as your mount to take you there.’

 

 

*

 

 

The prince’s long, flowing hair was now hardly different to the mane of the lion he rode, such that had anyone been fortunate enough to see them pass, he would have thought them one rather than rider and mount.

Upon the prince’s breastplate, firmly embedded within the first place of the second row, a bright burning coal of karkand now glistened, one similar to that which had graced the crown.

Nearby, of course, was the gold speckled lapis lazuli, the stone he had determined to return: and quite obviously the lion had somehow been made aware of this promise.

At the borders of his own lands, the lion apologetically advised the prince to dismount, explaining that he had no wish to strike fear into the lands inhabitants.

‘You won’t have far to walk before you come across an ass, who’ll be more than willing to accept you as his burden,’ the lion said, departing with yet another respectful bow of his head towards the prince, his mane flaming in the sun’s light.

As the lion had stated, the prince soon came across an ass toiling in the fields. Remarkably, the ass was picking up with his mouth the stones littering the otherwise neatly tilled soil, placing them one by one within baskets suspended on his flanks.

The prince glanced around, looking for the beast’s owner, but couldn’t see anybody close by.

‘Can I help you?’ the ass asked the prince politely, if a little miserably.

The prince silently admonished himself for his foolishness: why had he presumed this ass would be incapable of speech, when he had just spent time amongst a pride of talking lions?

‘I believe this stone belongs here, within your lands,’ the prince answered, indicating the glowing blue stone set within his breastplate.

The ass nodded in agreement.

‘Ah, yes: you’re right! It’s the stone stolen from our prized Shield of Dionysus!’

The prince breathed a sigh of relief that the ass – far from being angry that he was standing here with the stolen stone – spoke with a mix of relief and elation.

With a shrug of his body, the ass caused the heavy baskets to fall to the ground, spilling the stones he had been so diligently collecting. Walking across the tight weave of furrows, he made his way towards the prince, joining him on the roughly beaten track.

‘If you’re prepared to get on my back,’ the ass said humbly, lowering himself before the prince, ‘I’ll take you to our city, where they’ll be more than pleased to receive you!’

 

 

*

Chapter 32

The fields they passed through were full of toiling asses, with no man or woman in sight.

The asses brayed mournfully as they worked, as if resenting their every act.

They dragged behind them heavy ploughs, dug at the soil with violent kicks of their hooves, or, like the prince’s own mount, they had set themselves the arduous task of clearing the furrows of the upturned stones.

The prince found their tortured groaning surprising: hadn’t the knight who had stolen the stone told of a land where everyone bore their many burdens almost gladly?

And yet the only ass here who seemed even remotely satisfied with his condition was the one he was riding, who chuckled as he observed the constant moaning of those about him.

‘Don’t worry,’ he said to the prince, glancing back over his shoulder, ‘they’re not usually like this; although, admittedly, it’s been like this ever since that disreputable knight stole our precious gem!’

‘Then don’t you think we should let them know I’ve brought it back?’ the prince asked.

The ass shook his head, chuckling happily once more.

‘Oh no, no! That would deny them the intense pleasure they’ll feel when – even though they aren’t expecting or prepared for it – the stone is actually returned, almost instantly releasing them from their sense of burden!’

‘But they look so miserable…’

‘Oh, they don’t mind the toiling; naturally, they’re fully aware of their condition, and recognise they must accept it. Even an ass has a flame in his heart allowing him to dream of being a lion; for aren’t we all, in our way, kings and queens, if we would but realise it? It’s just that now – for the moment, at least! – it all seems so worthless, with no reward or promise of an understanding of their condition to spur them on!’

The prince scowled, puzzled that the ass could regard such a poor reward as a reason to continue their suffering.

‘If you didn’t toil,’ he pointed out, ‘then you wouldn’t need to understand why you toiled.’

‘If we didn’t toil, then we would surely die. But now recognising why that is so: that, surely, is a just wage for our efforts?’

‘And so why is it so?’ the prince asked curiously.

‘Ahh, now in expecting me to simply present you with the answer to your question, you’re either taking me for a fool or wish to permanently make one of yourself! You have to accept your burden first: otherwise, if you think you quite clearly understand the answer, then quite clearly you don’t.’

 

 

*

 

 

Inside the vast hall, once the two great doors were closed behind him, it seemed to the prince that here nothing but darkness could ever reign.

A darkness so intense, he sensed it was penetrating deeply into his very soul.

At last, he saw the slightest sliver of dim light, snaking down though that darkness from a slit somewhere high up in the room’s far off and unseen ceiling. Within its eventually diffused, fragmented glow, the prince caught the dull glimmer of minute, brightly coloured orbs, of shards of light reflected within a heavily shattered mirror.

The shield, he breathed inwardly; it had to be.

He stepped confidently through this apparently solid darkness, keeping his sight purely on his goal of the unlit, unmoving planets. As he arrived at the shield, he touched the stone of lapis lazuli set into his breastplate: and immediately, an exact copy of the gem appeared within the shield’s very centre.

The slit in the ceiling widened, the burst of light increased in strength and purpose – and the room was abruptly a universe of sparkling stars, of constellations, of spiralling galaxies.

He walked in awe amongst these glittering spheres, these endlessly revolving balls of flame, these coils of eternity.

And there, just ahead of him, as the knight had spoken off, was an ass burdened with the moon and seven stars.

 

 

*

Chapter 33

Rushing over towards the overburdened ass, the prince asked if there were any way in which he could help lessen the load.

‘No one should be cursed with carrying such a great burden on their own!’ he added, observing the wondrously glowing sphere, the dazzling stars, each throwing out its own bright ray into the darkness as a writhing stream of light.

‘It’s not a curse, as some might easily believe, but a blessing in disguise,’ the ass replied, ‘though I thank you for your offer of help.’

The gate the ass was ever so slowly attempting to approach wasn’t how the prince had imagined it when he had heard the knight’s tale.

He had thought of it glowing every bit as gloriously as the moon being carried upon the poor ass’s back. Yet the white orb of the gate only glowed brightly towards its very base, as if lit mainly from below, the whole effect being one of brightly lit curling horns, as when we see the partially veiled moon: which, admittedly, made it appear more gate-like than ever, with the glowing crescent of the almost circularly curling horns serving as supporting pillars.

But yes, as the knight had claimed, as it was such an obviously circular crescent, it was easy to imagine it as a fragment of the greater sphere, with the darker, veiled areas merely waiting to be more fully illuminated.

‘I think,’ the ass continued casually, ‘that you should have more concern for your own burden.’

‘I’ve returned your jewel: and I only have one more to return.’

‘Ah yes, the brightly glistening peridot I see there embedded within your breastplate: taken from the Sword of Simeon, if I’m not much mistaken?’

The prince was surprised that the ass had managed to spot the breastplate’s glistening gem, for he hardly seemed to take his eyes off his goal of the gate.

‘You seem to me to see far more than anyone would give you credit for,’ the prince chuckled good naturedly, recalling the way his father’s knight had spoken so disrespectfully of this poor ass.

‘That’s my role, for as long as I’m confined here.’

‘You’re imprisoned?’ The prince stared about himself worriedly. ‘Yet I thought all this was nothing but an illusion! I can help you es–’

‘I’ve heard it said that when we live, our souls are dead. While when we die, our souls revive and live.’

‘It seems wrong, I think, to be so dismissive of our time here on Earth.’

The ass nodded.

‘Good, good: I see you have eyes to hear, and ears to see.’

‘Don’t you mean–’

‘I see you heard me correctly.’

Was this ass playing him for the ass? the prince wondered. If so, it was working, for at best the ass was obviously hoping to impart some secret knowledge to him that he remained incapable of grasping.

‘Weren’t you told a tale earlier,’ the ass added helpfully, ‘by the Seeing Stone who heard the sword, the sword with the stone who hears and therefore perceives?’

‘The sword unfortunately no longer either hears or perceives; not, at least, until I return this final stone.’

‘Ah, how simple our lives would be, if our only burden was to make amends for the faults of others.’

‘Then this isn’t my burden? So is it my burden to gain the pearl, after all? Yet I believe – having listened carefully to the tale I was once told – that the pearl isn’t one of the twelve stones my breastplate requires; because a pearl, of course, isn’t a precious stone.’

‘Ah, it’s so rewarding isn’t it, to flatter ourselves we have worked out the answer? But how rewarding is it in reality if it brings our quest to an untimely end?’

‘But isn’t it the tear, the tear of god? Falling into the abyss, falling to the earth like the crown?’

‘And what happened to that heavenly crown after its precipitous fall, from one sphere into another? Why, it shattered of course!’

‘Surely the pearl–’

‘Shattered just as surely, scattering its many splinters everywhere about the earth!’

‘Then – it’s lost! How can anyone possibly find something scattered into innumerable pieces?’

‘Perhaps you should be thankful, then, that finding this pearl is not your ultimate burden?’

The prince sighed with relief – then immediately realised it was misplaced relief.

‘I can’t think what my burden could be!’

Now it was the ass’s time to sigh, only sadly.

‘What greater burden could there be, than to fail to recognise it and thereby deny yourself your goal?’

He groaned, as if finally made aware of the weight of his own great burden.

‘I see I must make some effort to help you hear the whispers lying within your own heart.’

 

 

*

Chapter 34

The Great Helm of Phanes

 

How many people realise that, as they dream of being kings and queens, many kings and queens actually wish they could be released from their burdens?

The wearing of a royal crown brings with it many pleasures and benefits, yet set against these pleasant jewels of kingship there also comes responsibility, obligation and loneliness.

Loneliness?

With an entire court, an entire people, constantly surrounding them?

But let’s, for a brief moment at least, enter the mind and thoughts of a queen who indeed feels lonely, cut off completely from those around her, even those who – when she was younger – were her closest friends.

‘Oh, to be as I was when I was just a princess: to have no more cares, to have time to myself, to run through meadows and bathe innocently in pools! To know that when people speak to me, they speak the truth – rather than flattering me in the hope of favours; or of keeping their heads! No one can even offer me the morning’s greetings without first carefully weighing their every word. They no longer see a woman, with the needs of any other woman, and see instead only this damn crown I’ve been fated to wear until I die!’

Now at first sight it may seem strange, but the only person who could speak freely with the queen was her maid and seamstress, Kalligeneia.

For Kalligeneia, of course, was more aware than anyone else of the queen’s secret longings to regain those things she had lost with the passing of her youth: ‘Please tuck my dress in here, Kalligeneia!’ ‘Give me more lift here!’ ‘Give me something regal, yet also something graceful, feminine…’

The queen, Kalligeneia realised, was tired of being forever held responsible for the wellbeing, wealth and safety of everybody throughout the body of her realm. In the rare privacy of the royal apartments, where the queen could at last exhaustedly set aside her crown, Kalligeneia was privileged to have revealed to her the overwhelmed young lady who wore it.

‘Just as you have been inescapably born to wear the crown, my lady,’ Kalligeneia observed one day, ‘the preordained role of your subjects is to bow in subservience before it: and so I believe you require a crown that shows when you wish the woman to be seen as separate from the queen.’

The overburdened young lady sighed in appreciation, as if this were indeed the most perfect of dreams.

‘It would have to be a magical crown, then Kalligeneia,’ she chuckled bitterly. ‘For no such artifice could possibly exist in this world!’

‘Yet there is a tailor I’ve heard of, my lady, who claims to weave magic in amongst his threads: he makes the ugly feel beautiful, the stumblers graceful, the sartorially inept shine.’

‘Hah, then if he makes such outrageous claims, perhaps I should have the charlatan called up before my learned justices!’

‘If he is indeed a charlatan, my lady, then he rightfully deserves your punishment; and yet if he tells the truth, you have the crown of your dreams!’

 

 

*

 

 

Everyone noticed that the tailor Kalathos was in a surprisingly bad mood after his audience with the queen.

He kicked the dogs in the streets. He kicked the cats in the gutters. He would, if it had been in any way possible, have also kicked his own ‘big, fat, useless ass.’

He had agreed to the queen’s ridiculous request!

Just how stupid was that?

But what was he supposed to do, when she was sitting there, wearing her damn crown? (Letting him know for sure who was boss around here. And who was the subservient, inconsequential peasant who does as he’s told.)

Tell her it was a stupid idea?

Tell her it was impossible?

That would have been the very quickest way of losing his big, fat stupid head!

A crown that inspired reverence whenever the queen demanded it: yet also somewhat magically (miraculously, more like!) allowed her to appear approachable (and all cuddly and soft, too, no doubt!) whenever she desired it to be so!

‘Oh they’re ten-a-penny, crowns like that, my lady!’

Thankfully, he hadn’t said that.

Stupidly, he’d said, ‘When would you desire for it to be delivered, my lady?’

He just wished he could hide his head away in waste basket, and completely cut himself off from the rest of this unfair, cruel world.

 

 

*

 

 

Fortunately for Kalathos the tailor, he had a secret.

Not a closely guarded secret, however: for, quite cleverly, he had regularly yet surreptitiously promoted the idea that he included magic within his creations, thereby naturally ensuring that no one believed magic could possibly be involved.

Everyone knew, of course, that magic would only ever be involved secretly! Not shouted about from the roof tops, or even whispered about in the coffee shops.

Unfortunately for Kalathos the tailor, even his magical aids scoffed at the possibility of producing a crown to the queen’s specifications.

‘That’s stupid!’ Waft declared

‘Impossible!’ agreed Weft.

Kalathos glowered down at the two minute fairies, reminding them who was boss.

‘Er, ah, well…’ Waft began both a little fearfully and a great deal doubtfully, ‘I suppose the, er , Great Helm of Phanes fits that description…’

‘Yes, yes!’ his wife Weft agreed ecstatically. ‘The Great Helm of Phanes would be ideal!’

‘The Grate Elm of Fain?’ Kalathos repeated unsurely, wondering if his two captive elves were using this as an opportunity to make fun of him, even to trick him.

‘Yes, it reveals the secrets of men’s hearts: then magically changes!’

Miraculously!’ his wife elatedly corrected him.

‘Miraculously changes?’ Kalathos pondered this, intrigued by the possibilities, then asked, ‘And so how…in what way do I come by this magical tree?’

‘Tree?’ Weft was perplexed by Kalathos’s query until the reason for his confusion abruptly dawned on her. ‘Oh no, no!’ she said. ‘Not elm, as in tree. Helm, as in helmet!’

‘Why, you simply have to call up the Goddess Metis,’ Waft explained. ‘Although, I would advise you, oh great master, that that isn’t wise, unless you wish to be wise!’

‘And just how wise do you think I’ll be if I lose my head?’ Kalathos snapped irately. ‘Call her up, this goddess: though I can’t think how she can help me unless everything you say about this magical helm is true!’

 

 

*

 

 

‘You have to drink from our cup, from the kykeon,’ Waft explained, pointing towards the small chest the cup was safely stored within.

Kalathos glared suspiciously at Waft: he sensed he might be being played for the fool. Weren’t fairies infamous for their treachery? While he was in a stupor, wouldn’t the fairies use it as a chance to escape?

He had come across the fairies by chance as they themselves had drunk happily, deliriously, from the kykeon.

The drink had made them careless, almost stupefied: and when they had indeed finally passed out, Kalathos had used this as an opportunity to take them prisoner.

Now he rewarded them as often as he could for their hard work with yet another drink of the seemingly endless draught of the kykeon, keeping them in such a stupor that they were usually completely blind to the world.

Cruelly (and unbelievably ineptly, for Kalathos truly was a most unaccomplished tailor), he had loosely stitched each fairy’s wings together, allowing them just enough movement to be capable of rapidly weaving in and out between each other, thereby ensuring they could create their miraculous materials.

Of course, when it came to cutting these materials, he made sure they could only get their little hands on overly large scissors, ones requiring them both to grasp the handles.

Out in the wild, the loose threads binding their wings would cause them to soon become entangled, to tear their delicate wings further.

As an extra precaution however, whenever they weren’t working – as now – Kalathos securely fixed to these threads iron chains that were themselves deeply embedded into the wood of the workbench.

So even if drinking from the cup did send him into a stupor, these stupid fairies were still incapable of escaping, Kalathos reassured himself.

So he drank from the cup – and patiently waited to see what would happen.

 

 

*

 

 

‘Nothing’s happening: I think all this will just be some ridiculous illusion anyway!’

‘If you think, something must be happening,’ Waft chuckled, his reward being an irate swipe of Kalathos’s hand that sent him bowling uncontrollably across the workbench.

This is the illusion,’ Weft said, indicating their surroundings with a casual waft of her hand, ‘while it is the supposedly illusionary world that is real!’

‘You were thinking of me?’ a woman said, entering Kalathos’s workshop.

‘May I help you?’ Kalathos asked, putting on his most ingratiating smile, yet unintentionally tainting it with a grimace of terror as he moved to block the woman’s view of the two fairies. ‘This is my workshop, and out of bounds to my customers!’

‘I thought you were calling on me to help you?’ the woman replied.

Kalathos was finding it difficult to think clearly.

‘And you are…?’ he asked.

‘Metis, the Goddess Metis, of course.’

‘The Goddess Metis?’ sneered Kalathos, worried once again that he was somehow being deliberately made a fool of.

‘Oh yes, yes: I can assure you it is me,’ the woman said brightly, ‘though I can understand your suspicion, for it’s well known, of course, that Phanes frequently appears in my guise. Can you believe that?’

‘Phanes? Is this the man with the magic helm? Shouldn’t he be here in your stead if you’re really wanting to help me?’

‘Ah, he’s a very busy man, I’m afraid. But naturally I know of the helm you’re referring to: the one that–’

‘Yes, yes; I know what it does. What I want to know now is, where is it?’

‘Why, it’s here of course,’ the woman said, producing a glittering crown as if from behind her back, as if out of nowhere.

‘But…it’s a crown,’ Kalathos breathed disappointedly.

‘Well, yesss…’ The woman appeared briefly perplexed by Kalathos’s dissatisfaction.

‘Well, isn’t a helm a helmet?’

‘Not if, say, you’re a king, or an emperor: so what would it be if you’re the First Born god of light, of procreation, gestation, and the generation of new life – one whose very name means “appearing”, “I bring to light”?

‘Never heard of him!’ the confounded tailor scoffed.

‘I thought not,’ observed Metis astutely. ‘He was a hermaphrodite, as well as being Eros–’

‘Ah, Eros: love!’ Kalathos grinned, glad that he could help.

‘Different kinds of love. The carnal, as the child of an illicit relation between Mars and the Evening Star of war. But also the higher aspirations when, as a serpent, Eros becomes one with the female Psyche, transforming into Hermaphroditus, offspring of Mercury and the Morning Star of love.’

‘What’s all this got to do with the crown I’m after?’

‘I’m simply trying to help, to explain the three phases of Phanes: like a glorious sun, one that necessarily sets before it can rise once more. He later became Mithras or Dionysus, himself born from a serpent Zeus who – when the Moon’s rays had been veiled, and as Mars dallied with Venus alongside him – wormed his way past the virgin Persephone’s own guardian serpents to seduce her.’

‘All myths, myths; of no use at all to me. How are they going to help me keep my head! Can’t I just try on this helm you’ve brought?’

‘But don’t you know that both Mithras and Dionysus were said to have been crucified, with torchbearers either side, one destined for the underworld, the other for heave–’

‘Please, please: I’m a very busy man. Busily trying to keep my head! So please, can I just try on the crown, please?’

‘Of course,’ Metis said, seemingly preparing to hand him the crown., yet holding it back at the very last second. ‘But are you sure you don’t want me to explain the meaning of, say, the Grail procession? The two torchbearers? The lance of Longinus, representing the crucifixion’s removal of the veil and the revelation of the light of truth? The way the Grail arrives on a silver platter that shines like the horns of an earthshine Moon, while the heart of the cup glows as bright as a full Moon?’

‘No!’ Kalathos insisted, grabbing the crown thankfully, even though he still wasn’t sure if he was being made a fool of or not.

As Kalathos put the crown on his head, he glanced shyly into a mirror, wishing that if he were indeed being ridiculed he could hide his head away in a basket once more and–

And in the mirror, through the gaps in the close-knit weave, he saw that his reflection was wearing a basket: not a crown!

It worked!

This crown of Phanes or Eros or Herma-something or whoever he or she was, actually worked!

His head was saved!

 

 

*

 

 

Kalathos excitedly pulled the basket off his head.

‘How much do you want–’

She wasn’t there. She had gone.

And so had Waft and Weft, along with their cup.

The binding iron chains and threads had been cut as cleanly as if by a single sword strike; a small set of iron-smith’s tools had been left upon the workbench, no doubt provided by that treacherous woman!

Still – Kalathos laughed.

Why should he bother that they’d gone?

He didn’t need them anymore.

When he presented the queen with the Great Helm of Phanes, he’d be rich and famous beyond his wildest dreams!

But wait a minute!

All he had in his hand was a woven basket!

Had he been tricked after all?

But then, magically – miraculously – the basket changed as he held it within his hand.

It became a crown once more.

The sparkling Crown of Phanes!

 

 

*

 

 

The queen was naturally amazed when the tailor Kalathos arrived at court, claiming to have already created the miraculous hat she had requested.

Bowing low before her, he presented her with a light wooden chest. When she opened the chest, she saw a crown nestled there amongst padded silk.

She frowned.

‘It looks just like a normal crown to me!’ she complained.

‘My lady: you have to place it on your head to access the magic of my most divine creation!’

The queen took the crown in her hands, slipped it gently onto her head and looked towards the nearest mirror.

She was wearing a crown.

A beautiful if extremely old crown: but still a crown.

Not a magical crown, which revealed her deepest desires and thoughts.

If it really had been a magical device, it would have changed into an executioner’s hood

Because she was furious; furious with this charlatan of a tailor, who had tried to make a fool of her.

Of course, she wasn’t to realise that the role of the Great Helm of Phanes is to reveal our own role in life, as predetermined by the Fates.

Her role, of course, being to wear the crown of a queen.

Naturally, the poor tailor was instantly beheaded.

And his head, as the crown had so percipiently foreseen, ended up in a basket.

 

 

*

Chapter 35

Now the prince understood why the crown had remained a crown when it had been placed by the lion-man upon his head.

He was destined to be king; and to bear all the burdens that came with such a role.

Noticing the dawning of understanding flooding across the young prince’s face, the joy that replaced the misery, the ass grimaced in hard admonishment.

‘I fear you listened and saw only one part of the tale: didn’t you see that there were other things to be heard?’

The prince was surprised by the ass’s rebuke, feeling at once that he was being unfairly judged.

He had taken on board that kingship would bring extra, unseen burdens with it!

Why would the ass think he had missed such an important part of the tale?

‘I see, once again going by your expression – this time one of hurt – that you are still under the illusion that you heard everything you needed to take in!’ the ass fiercely reproached him once more.

‘Sometimes we sense that the truth is almost within our grasp, yet it unfortunately remains elusive; other times, we feel we have grasped the truth, only to realise too late that we hold nothing but air.’

The ass shook his head, this time admonishing himself

‘Maybe it’s my fault; maybe I’d have been wiser telling you a more familiar tale, such as how Perseus used his gleaming sickle to destroy that lowest of beasts, Medusa…’

On his back the moon appeared to be melting, weeping both tears of silver and gold, the gold leaving behind a track of the finest leaf. Where it wept silver, however, it revealed a pure, reflective blackness beyond, as if through a dark glass.

The silver pooled at the base, collecting into the horned-curve of an earthshine moon, glistening like the curling sides of a silvered platter.

Within the fragmented streaks of gold, the prince saw his reflection – and momentarily retreated in horror.

He appeared there as a gorgon himself, his hair a mass of writhing serpents, their hissing heads the glittering of the seven stars.

Then, as if the sickle moon had abruptly and thankfully decapitated that beastly head, the gorgon vanished: and was even more strangely replaced instead by a glorious view of his beloved, the Princess Lorica.

Her hair wasn’t that of snapping serpents, but one of lustrous locks.

His heart flamed, as if it were a dangerously overflowing cup.

See thyslef in me who speaks, the Mirror of Angels whispered.

 

 

*

 

 

Around him, everything had changed

He was no longer in the chamber, with its vast reflection of the universe, its overburdened ass.

The mirror lying before him was now ridiculously small, no larger than a precious stone.

A precious stone of gold flecked topaz.

A stone identical to the one now firmly embedded within his breastplate. The very first of the last row.

‘Ah, I wondered how long it would take you to get here.’

The prince recognised the voice of the woman who had spoken.

He spun around; he was right.

It was his sister, the Princess Episteme.

 

 

*

Chapter 36

‘Why are you following me?’

‘Following you, “Brother”?’

The princess smirked, while also managing to appear shocked by his accusation.

‘I’m not following you,’ she added with a wry grin. ‘I’m chasing you!’

The princess was surrounded by a large number of heavily armed men, each standing by a kneeling, naked man or woman, each holding a sword to the throat of his captive. Although entirely naked, blindfolded, and seemingly bound with their hands tied behind their backs, none of the men or women displayed any sense of shame.

Despite their predicament, the captive people also seemed shockingly free of fear, their expressions both innocent and blissful, an angelic people who appeared completely unaware of the danger they were in.

They were a gloriously beautiful people who would have no chance – even if entirely unbound, even if they were somehow provided with weapons – against the vicious, armed men from the lands of the prince’s kingdom.

And who had unforgivably put these innocent people at risk?

He had, the prince realised.

If he hadn’t come to their lands, then neither would his sister, and her trained band of killers.

These beautifully innocent men and women didn’t deserve to lose their heads simply so he could continue with his ridiculous quest to return the stones.

‘Let them go,’ he said to his sister, turning away from the mirror and approaching the princess with his hands offered out before him, ready for binding. ‘The crown of the kingdom is yours, if that’s what all this is about. I place myself at your mercy, Sister.’

‘At my mercy?’ she sniggered as, with a wave of a hand, she commanded a soldier to step forward and bind the prince’s wrists behind his back, to blindfold him too, so that he was as helpless as all the other captives.

‘And what makes you so sure, “Brother”,’ the princess chuckled maliciously, ‘that I possess any facet of mercy within me?’

 

 

*

Chapter 37

‘Ah, it seems I do have a sliver of mercy lying unseen deep within me after all,’ the princess joked as the blindfolded prince was led towards her tent. ‘Unlike our other captives – oh, I won’t be letting them go, of course – I won’t insist that you’re stripped naked: that, I fear, would be far too revealing, don’t you, “Brother”?’

‘Your men, Sister: were they the ones who bored that snaking hole through the wall? How did they do it?’

‘Remarkable, wasn’t it?’ the princess replied with an inappropriate joviality. ‘Truly remarkable, don’t you think, what you can do if you put your mind to it and–’

Her comment was brutally cut off by a shriek of pain from behind them. Other screams followed, cries of horror and shock, of viciously injured and dying men.

‘No!’ the prince himself screamed, whirling around on his unseen sister. ‘You can’t kill them! They haven’t done you any harm!’

His sister either suddenly wasn’t there or refused to respond, let alone bring the massacre to an end.

The cries of the dying were more anguished than ever. There were other sounds too, the slew of sharp blades piercing or hacking flesh and bone, the rush of fleeing or struggling bodies, the wails of mercy cut short in a harsh gurgling of blood.

The one thing lacking, of course, although usually a normal part of any battle, was the metallic rings of swords on armour. Rather than this, there was the dull thud of hard iron against soft flesh.

The prince could smell the blood being splattered about him. He could even taste it, he believed, every now and again.

Frequently, too, he sensed the urgent struggles taking place close around him, felt the brush of movement, the rush of displaced air.

But he couldn’t see any of it. He was blind to it all.

He slipped to his knees, weeping behind his blindfold.

Weeping for the death of such an innocent and helpless people.

Weeping at his own ridiculous sense of hopelessness, his complete lack of any capability of aiding these people.

There was a waft of air behind him as a blade deftly severed his binding threads with one swift swipe. (But unfortunately catching and granting a slight wound to his feet.)

As his arms and hands came free, his wet blindfold was torn from his head.

He looked about him – and sighed in horror.

He was surround by wolves, wolves standing on their two hind legs as if the most bestial of men.

 

 

*

Chapter 38

The maws of the wolves were bloodied. Strings of shredded flesh were caught between their massive teeth.

Their fur, too, was caked in blood. Claws were as bloody red as their teeth.

Each proudly held a lance, lances whose blades no longer glittered, for they were sheathed entirely in red gore.

On the ground, there lay the torn and violently crushed bodies of men-at-arms and knights, their armour battered into misshapen hulks.

As for the naked men and women, there was no sign at all of them.

Then the prince noticed that the wolves nearest to him had rope bindings around their wrists. Indeed, some of the wolves were removing the very last of these binding wreaths with a deft swish of a claw.

So, these people weren’t so innocent after all. They had hidden depths undreamt off by normal men.

And normal men had paid the price for their lack of this inner knowledge.

The wolf nearest to him reached out and grasped his shoulder, the lance he held so incredibly bloodied that the blood ran right down to his furred hand.

The prince bent and bared his neck, accepting that he was about to lose his head, like so many of those lying about him.

‘We thank you for offering your life for ours,’ the wolf said, using his grasp on the prince’s shoulder to help the boy rise to his feet. ‘Though there was no need, as you can now see; for we were never in any real danger.’

As the wolf said this, the claws of his hand retracted, slipping back inside the fur like the most expertly sheathed swords. Even the red-stained lance slipped away into the palm of the wolf’s right hand, vanishing as smoothly as the claws, as if an inedible part of the creature.

The fur rippled, like darkly rotted corn in a windswept field, and this too rushed back inside the beast’s flesh. Muscles flexed, rolled like the waves of a sea, and quickly shrunk.

In a moment, a naked woman stood before the prince, not a wolf.

Around her, other wolves had also become once more the smooth-fleshed men and women who, only moments before, had been held captive. Others, remaining as wolves, were utilising their incredible strength and litheness to remove the corpses, lifting them up effortlessly two at a time, throwing them into the bright material of downed tents in readiness to drag them away.

The prince also saw, with relief, that other wolves were guarding humiliated and disarmed men who’d had the sense to surrender. They were now the ones on their knees and securely bound.

‘If you could do this – why did you wait?’ the prince asked the woman.

‘We gathered they were waiting for someone to use the Mirror of Angles: we realised we might have to help them when they appeared.’

‘My sister!’ The prince looked anxiously about him, unable to see her either amongst the prisoners or the dead bodies. ‘Did she…’

‘She escaped, somehow,’ a nearby man explained. ‘It’s not often anybody can avoid us, if we set out to capture them: yet she seemed to vanish, as if by magic.’

‘She might still be a danger to you,’ the prince pointed out.

The woman shook her head doubtfully.

‘No, it’s you she wishes to destroy, it seems to us: and she would have done so as soon as she found a reason that the men of your kingdom would have accepted.’

‘You’re probably right,’ the prince agreed sadly. ‘I didn’t realise the crown of our kingdom meant this much to her.’

‘Crowns mean a great deal to many people,’ another woman said. ‘Here we would rather lose our heads than accept any crown offered us, for it only brings bondage to worldly powers.’

‘Our Saviour proclaimed the Kingdom of God,’ the man added with mischievous guffaw, ‘and the Church claimed the crown.’

A lance reappeared in the first woman’s hand as she offered further explanation: ‘Amongst the Sons and Daughters of the Right Hand, it is the lance that is sacred, for it reminds us of the sacrifice we must make for the overall good of everyone else.’

‘You should take a look once more within the Mirror of Angels,’ the second woman said, indicating that she wanted the prince to follow her as she unhurriedly made her way towards the sparkling topaz set upon a stone plinth.

The prince shook his head, unsurely hanging back.

‘I’ve already looked into the mirror: and I didn’t understand what I saw there.’

‘Things have changed since you last looked,’ the first woman declared, her lance once again slipping away into nothing within her palm as she nodded towards the captive men. ‘Your own men no longer pose a threat to you: that makes a great change to what potentially awaits you.’

 

*

Chapter 39

The prince stared yet again into the fragmented gold, the streaks of reflective black.

The stone was small but, when standing close, it was like peering into the dark mirror of your lover’s eye where, surprisingly, you can see yourself reflected.

The prince couldn’t see either himself or the Princess Lorica reflected here, however.

The darker streaks, in which he was supposed to see his earthly, darker side, was like the darkness of the cosmos, gradually being veiled by scudding clouds.

The veins of gold, in which he should perceive the latent self, was similarly fogging over, as if suffering a diseased mist.

Both black and gold were blanching. Merging, as they became equally white.

Forming into a most perfectly glistening sphere.

Like a moon.

No: not a moon.

For this was a gloriously shining white.

Like the most glorious pearl.

 

 

*

 

 

It was such a wondrous sight that – despite his earlier reservations about the pearl actually being a stone – the prince glanced down eagerly at his breastplate, fully expecting a glittering pearl to have magically appeared there, safely embedded within one of the two remaining spaces.

Unfortunately, the settings remained empty.

The prince looked once more into the mirror, wondering if he’d missed something.

The image there was already changing. From the top down, it was running, like water.

Like tears.

Like the tears that had run down the moon carried on the ass’s back.

Here though, rather than being of silver and gold, the tears were perfectly white, such that they themselves looked like so many miniature pearls, falling and collecting in an equally blinding white dish.

Behind them, from where they had started to run, they left only a pure darkness, a darkness increasing as each pearl-drop tear collected within and became a part of the dish’s sides.

The falling drops began to turn, to swirl, like the stars of a whirling cosmos.

The darkness swirled with it, coiling, entrapping the curls of white within its serpentine form, squeezing the life, the light, out of it, until the only light was an orb of white within the mirror’s very centre – and abruptly this vanished too as a grinning serpent head devoured it in one brutal gulp.

The prince prepared to recoil in horror, wondering if he was once again going to see himself there as a serpent-tousled gorgon.

But no gorgon appeared there.

Neither did he see there any reminder of the beauty of his Princess Lorica.

He had been wrong to assume all the light, the brightness, had been absorbed by the black serpent. The light that had pooled within the mirror’s base, that had clung to and curled up its sides, like horns, was still there, seemingly glowing more brightly than ever.

Like a sickle, fragmented moon.

Or, maybe, a fragmented pearl.

As you see yourself in water or a mirror, so see you me in yourself, the mirror whispered.

Bewildered, the prince shook his head, turned away.

He was more confused than ever.

 

 

*

Chapter 40

The prince still remained unsure as to what the mirror had attempted to reveal to him.

Weren’t the black streaks supposed to reveal his darker side, rather than merging with the angelic gold?

He tried to hide his puzzlement, though, as the captured men bowed before him and pledged their allegiance to him.

They were more than willing to do this, they explained to both the prince and their captors, for they had heard that the queen had transformed the kingdom while they had been away, allowing black demons to rule over the land.

‘Then I must return to save my people from this,’ the prince vowed adamantly, appreciating at last that his quest must come to an end, that this was his appointed role and one he couldn’t simply shrug off.

As each knight recognised the prince as king, and promised to follow only him, his weapons were returned to him.

‘I beg forgiveness, my lor…my…lady?’ a befuddled Sir Grandhan had stammered, the first to be brought before the prince and possibly still suffering from the hard blow to the head that had felled him.

Realising that his overly long hair had probably added to the poor knight’s confusion, the prince explained, with a satisfied and forgiving chortle, ‘that he would have to get it shorn as soon as possible, to prevent any other possible mix up!’

The Sons and Daughters of the Right Hand appeared highly amused by the knights’ many promises of subservience, yet accepted these rites as just being the customs of another land, admitting that they themselves had once subscribed to similar pledges. Moreover, a land bordering theirs still adhered to comparable beliefs, and they suggested that the dead amongst the prince’s men would find peace there until ready to move on again.

‘The dead?’ the prince had declared in surprise: only to be more surprised than ever when he saw that the men killed in the short but brutal battle had indeed risen to their feet once more, waiting in line to make their own pledges to their new king.

‘King Teleion will welcome them,’ the woman assured the prince. ‘And while there, they will recover any lost limbs and be made whole again.’

Of course, the once loyal horses of the dead men now shied away from their touch, refusing to draw near, let alone carry them anywhere.

And so these men straggled behind the column of mounted knights, on foot and without armour.

A thick black cloud hung over them all the way to the Land of Simeon.

It was a swirling, ever growing cloud.

It was a cloud of hungrily squawking ravens, every one of which eagerly pecked and rived at the dead flesh.

 

 

*

Chapter 41

The Land of Simeon, everyone agreed, was the most beautiful land they had yet come across on this side of the wall.

It was, in fact, the land most recognisably like the kingdoms they had left behind.

Great white walled castle and cities were scattered across the landscape of neatly ploughed fields and well-tended woods, every gate they came across open and welcoming, as if they had never feared or suffered the hardships of war.

The brightly coloured tents of packed and excited tournaments were everywhere, while the hunting parties flowed through the woods, horns blaring, pennants flying.

It was a land of pageantry, heraldry, and chivalry.

Like a dream

A paradise.

They came across King Teleion and his court as they took part in one of the great hunts, every lord and lady there supporting a hooded and tightly jessed hawk or falcon on his or her wrist. And far from being horrified or startled by the disturbing presence of the swarming crows, the lords and ladies who first extended their greetings to the prince’s men insisted that the carrion would readily disperse as soon as they were sated.

‘The crows are a necessity,’ a lady reassured the prince, noticing his surprise at her amusement as she observed the raven’s repugnant antics, ‘ensuring progress within our own realm; despite them not being of this kingdom, but of one indelibly entwined with it.’

In spite of this bizarre callousness of the king’s court, they warmly welcomed the prince’s men, and most especially the crow-pecked stragglers, almost as if they regarded them as kindred spirits.

No one was more felicitous in his welcoming pleasantries than King Teleion, the only pause in his greeting being a brief one when – it seemed to the prince – his eyes fell upon the stones on his breastplate, and the sword strapped to his horse.

The king was too polite, the prince recognised, to accuse him of possessing the Prophet stolen from his lands.

‘I have something of yours: two things, in fact,’ the prince announced, carefully withdrawing the sword to ensure his actions weren’t mistaken as a threat. ‘But to offer them both to you, I believe I must first return your sword.’

As the king still supported his hooded hawk upon his wrist, he accepted the sword with one hand, apologising for his gracelessness.

‘Although I might add,’ he said, ‘that this a sword without honour, and I hope it has brought you no ill fortune, as it has my court.’

‘I know of its history,’ the prince replied, ‘and I would assure you that its heart is true; its own misfortune was to perceive the treachery of the knight who stole it.’

Before he had the opportunity to explain anything more, he was interrupted by the thundering hooves of another rider ferociously galloping towards them from out of the nearby woods. It was a very young girl, dressed in nothing but the pure white of a single wedding veil, although the only part of her body the lace didn’t cover was her face. The diaphanous material clung to her smooth skin, making it glow as if created from the most diligently polished ivory or horn.

On her wrist, strangely, she carried not the peregrine expected by the prince, but a black-feathered crow, its beaded eyes glistening like the choicest berries.

‘My lord,’ she yelled out excitedly, pointing up high into the air, ‘there are more birds there, can’t you see? Of every kind too – oh, I beg your pardon, my lord!’

On spotting the prince, she slewed her horse to a gentle canter, bowing her head in submission as an apology for her rudeness.

‘As the King’s Daughter, Hierkoracica always acts as if born only yesterday!’ the king explained with an apologetic shrug to the smiling prince.

Twisting slightly in his saddle, the king peered up towards where his daughter had pointed, shading his eyes with a hand as if attempting to veil his eyes from the very brightest of suns, the hawk on his wrist remaining unperturbed by the movement.

‘It used to be that she had finer sight than any of us,’ he continued with another sad shake of his head, ‘in touch with worlds beyond our own perception, in fact. But now, I fear, she always see birds where I fear there have been none since the murder of a good knight, this being the very misfortune I’d mentioned.’

The prince was unsure what to say. The sky was filled with a great many birds, and of every kind too, as the King’s Daughter had quite rightly announced. And yet the king and his court appeared completely oblivious to them, as if blinded by a blazing sun.

Perhaps this was why, the prince reasoned, they kept their hawks hooded and patiently waiting upon their wrists.

The young girl didn’t make any attempt to correct her father’s mistake, but neither did she appear angry at his strange insistence that the sky was empty of birds.

‘The Prophet!’ she said instead, elatedly rising in her saddle as she noticed the sword her father was holding.

‘But my girl, we all saw–’ the king began to morosely protest at his daughter’s enthusiasm for the return of the sword.

‘We don’t know what we saw, my lord: only that we didn’t see what the Prophet saw!’

‘Hierkoracica! I’m in no mood to suffer one of your lectures about being blinded to the truth by our own self-righteousness!’ the king snapped back irately, looking back to the prince with yet another apologetic shrug, ‘Daily she bludgeons us, saying that in the brightness of day we fail to see even the moon, seeing the sun and only the sun.’

The princess ignored King Teleion, her eyes briefly remaining fixed upon nothing but the sword.

‘But it’s a Prophet without his heart…ah!’

The eyes of the King’s Daughter lit up as she caught the gleam of the sparkling peridot upon the prince’s breastplate. And, as if she were the most completely open person the prince had ever met, as the prince reached for the precious stone, he himself clearly saw deep inside her heart, the very first time he had been able to access any of the stones’ remarkable gifts.

At heart, she swam within the waters of love, like the most glorious of water nymphs. Her cup overflowed, like a bridal cup readily offered to her intended, the love of the honey-moon that remains endless. It was bright light that shone within her, unrestrained, sharper and far more illuminating than any lamp or mirror.

Her heart leapt, more enflamed than ever, when she saw the stone returned to its true setting within the head of the Prophet.

‘The birds have returned!’

‘They’re back!’

Cries went up throughout the king’s hunting party, everyone eagerly pointing up into the sky, and already removing the hoods and jesses of their hawks.

And with a wave of an arm, each courtier let their hawk free.

 

 

*

Chapter 42

Although every knight within the prince’s party agreed that they would have wished to stay within King Teleion’s realm for ever, each also recognised that their loyalty to their king and the wellbeing of their people took precedence over their own worldly enjoyment.

Realising he couldn’t persuade anyone but the very unhealthiest to stay, Teleion offered the invaluable services of the King’s Daughter to be their guide back to their own lands, qualifying his kind offer with a warning:

‘Although my kingdom fortunately encompasses a gateway between our two realms, even the remarkable skills of my daughter might not be enough to help you safely back: for usually she only ever has to light the way from the gate to my lands.’

The king’s anxious tones almost dissuaded the prince from taking up this offer of relatively safe escort through the gate; yet he realised he had little choice in the matter if he wished to return to his own realm.

He no longer had any idea where to find the hole in the wall that he’d entered these lands by, and neither had any of his knights, Sir Grandhan admitting they’d had no hand in its construction: they had all been fully asleep, the tunnel miraculously appearing overnight, as if by a brief reawakening of the Shamir himself.

As the prince and his party followed the King’s Daughter across his pleasantly lit lands, he wondered why King Teleion had spoken of lighting the way, particularly as Hierkoracica didn’t appear to have brought any form of lamp with her as he might have expected. Rather, she was still attired as simply and as inappropriately as she had been on the day of the hunt: a white wedding veil, so delicately translucent it could have been nothing more than a thin, second skin.

Apart from her horse, and the curiously observing raven who could have been welded to her wrist, she had brought nothing to either protect her from inclement weather of grant her any sustenance. Although naturally beautiful, she appeared careless of maintaining the way she appeared, refusing to protect her delicate skin from either fierce wind or driving rain.

‘What use anything like a mirror to me now?’ she answered scathingly when the prince offered her anything she desired that could protect her from an increasingly storm-ridden sky. ‘I was made aware long ago of the darkness we must necessarily face.’

Although her own crow remained virtually motionless upon her arms, the crows that had earlier pestered the prince’s party were gathering in increasing strength once more. Their massing added to the darkness, giving it all the appearance of being alive, of flowing fluidly as the vast swarms of pitch-black birds rushed across the sky. Their beating wings made the air itself crackle, granting it a terrifying energy.

Even where they had passed, the areas suddenly cleared of their black presence remained dark once they had gone, such that the sky became blacker with each passing move. It became harder with each fleetingly transitory second to determine where they still clustered, where they had moved on.

No eye could easily penetrate such a profound, rolling darkness; it would have been easier to peer through the blackest of seas. The crows were like a dark mist of concealment, conjured up by the most fearfully breathed incantations.

It was no surprise to the prince that he began to sense the shudders of the men around him, for it seemed to them all that they were drawing ever closer to a gigantic scorpion, facing them and ready to strike: it’s claws raised and opening, its stinger curling up between them as if it were a venomous and already aggravated serpent.

And the more they rode on, the more this monster appeared to grow in size, to loom over them, as if the most fearsome thing they had ever encountered.

Only the girl remained completely free of fear, the prince recognising that this could well be because she had made this journey many times.

Even so, he admired the way she rode through the growing storm without the slightest flinch, ignoring the wind ferociously whipping up her veil, the rain pummelling at her flesh.

He flattered himself that he saw within her something akin to his younger self – the child who lived only for the present, unaware of the realities that dictated the future self, no longer recalling and remaining unforgiving of past hurts.

Naturally, the prince believed that the monstrous scorpion could only be a figment of their imagination. Yet no one was at ease, fearing that the land they were returning to would have changed beyond all recognition. Sir Grandhan had already informed the prince of the many alterations that the queen had immediately put into place on the death of the king, not least the miraculously rapid construction of an impregnable citadel made of the hardest stone.

Around the prince now, there were many sighs of relief.

The crows had risen on the soaring waves of the storm, their frenziedly fluttering wings no longer veiling the scene lying before the prince’s column of men and girl.

Now the crows chiefly crowded around the very top of what had appeared to be a raised stinger, spreading out like the wind-thrashed leaves of a vast, world tree, what could have been its immense trunk now at last revealed to be a single, looming black stone.

To either side there rose similarly immense yet nonetheless relatively smaller pillars, each topped with angled, curved copper bowls – one containing a roaring fire, the other an endlessly upward flowing stream of a mauve, fiery water that glowed even brighter than the flames.

It could have been a giant’s funeral pyre, concealing on its very top the body of a slain man given up to the air, to the shroud of hungrily, angrily cawing carrion.

Running up what could have been the spine of the soaring stone there glittered precious stones, equally spaced, even though there seemed to be no more than ten in all: unless others lay beneath the mass of writhing crows, or even set within the very lowest part of the towering obelisk, which still remained obscured by a weirdly endlessly swirling haze.

The ten stones matched the ones already collected upon the prince’s breastplate, those from the cursed lands alternating with those from the blessed.

Did this mean, the prince wondered, that the pearl he’d once sought lay somewhere beneath those whirling clouds of crows or lively mist?

 

 

*

Chapter 43

The looming stone had been carved into what could be the world’s most precipitous ziggurat, one with ridiculously shallow landings and dangerously high ascenders.

No one could possibly descended let alone climb such an insensibly constructed edifice.

More bizarrely still, the blessed stones were set within the perfectly perpendicular rises, while the cursed stones graced what could have offered at least some form of break in anyone’s ascent.

Six ascenders and six landings, including the very top; twelve stages in all to surmount, like the twelve stones he had been expected to collect upon his breastplate.

It was the most perfect instrument of cruelty.

‘The Tower of Silence,’ the girl breathed, as if at last expressing some sense of fear, or at least awe. ‘Dismount and wait here,’ she added with a tone that brooked no disagreement. ‘Your mounts must be left here anyway, so say goodbye to them if a fondness has developed between you.’

‘When do we follow?’ the prince asked as, along with the rest of his men, he followed the orders of the King’s Daughter and slipped down from his mount.

‘You’ll know,’ she chuckled.

‘And you’re sure…?

The prince was worried for her safety, yet feared insulting her by insisting he take her place. She seemed determined to do this on her own, her self-will evident in her resolved pose and fierce grimace.

‘It has to be me,’ she declared assuredly. ‘On my way here, I shed a veil at every gate, every landing – six veils, seven including this one. If I am to lead you back to your own realm, I have to re-garb myself, regaining all that is base and corruptible.’

She drew the veil completely about her face.

‘For the bees,’ she explained, seeing confusion cross the prince’s face, adding (as she saw his confusion increase), ‘they gather at the base just as the crows gather at the crown.’

Now the prince understood why the tower’s base appeared to be concealed behind an ever-moving mist.

‘Are there precious stones hidden by the bees and the crows?’ the prince asked. ‘Is one of them a pearl?’

Behind her veil, the girl frowned.

‘A pearl? A pearl isn’t a precious stone. It is, rather, Herador, serene gift of the moon.’

She looked up towards the massed crows.

‘What appears to us to be the top landing is that of the green stone, of judgement, the heliodor – or the gift of the sun.’

‘Appears to be…?’

‘On reaching the top, when you at first look down, then, yes: you might feel you are looking down a wall dug down into the deepest, darkest pit. Yet when you first find yourself on that landing of judgement, after arriving there from your world, it’s as if you’re looking up, with a vast ladder to climb: yet a ladder you nonetheless sense leads you to the true crown, an abode of strength – not a fake ascension of intoxication, but a true and ultimate blessing, shepherding us to mercy and redemption.’

‘And yet this stone isn’t the pearl?’

The girl shook her head in reply to the prince’s query. She glanced back surprisingly wearily at the impatiently waiting men, turned back towards the prince.

‘As men who aren’t much longer for the world, I see no harm in granting them a little while longer before they return in the correct manner through the gate,’ she said curiously, although the prince saw no earthly reason to impolitely query her remark.

‘Time has no real meaning here,’ the girl added a little more grimly, ‘which means we have time for a tale.’

 

 

*

Chapter 44

The Loose Thread

 

Princess Doxa was a very opinionated princess.

Fortunately for her, she had an incredibly understanding lady in waiting, Ginoskein, who loyally and ever-so patiently served the princess as maid, advisor, nanny, chaperone and seamstress.

A lady in waiting taking on the role as seamstress might seem an oddity, but the truth was that Princess Doxa came from a much poorer and backward kingdom than she would have liked to: and so whenever she was on her many travels to other realms, and the poor princess discovered once again that her wardrobe was so frightfully way behind the times, Ginoskein always took it upon herself to cut and sew every night until the dresses were no longer an embarrassment to Doxa.

Naturally, Princess Doxa was always extremely grateful for Ginoskein’s painstakingly hard work and many skills, gleefully informing her that she ‘had saved the day for me yet again!’

Of course, despite Ginoskein’s admirable efforts, no matter where poor Princess Doxa went she was always sniggered at from behind veiling fans: for what kind of princess only had one maid to serve her?

Most princesses had ladies in waiting who had their own maids, and plenty of them too!

Indeed, there was one particular kingdom where even the maids had maids, who themselves had maids, who of course also had to be served by maids.

Now despite Ginoskein’s best advice and warnings, Princess Doxa insisted on visiting this fabulous realm, having heard so many wonderful stories about it.

How everyone adhered to judiciously agreed rules of greeting and conversation, so that no one might be offended.

How all manner of dress followed a sensibly discreet if elaborate code, so that no one need fear that they appeared unusual and strange.

How correct patterns of behaviour for all occasions were prudently set out in vast tomes, ensuring everyone always acted thoughtfully and wisely.

On first arriving within this amazing land, the princess quite unintentionally aggravated the inhabitants of a border village when she politely and excitedly asked them if the road her carriage was on led the way to their capital city.

‘It’s not our capital city,’ the people snorted in disgust at the princess’s rudeness. ‘Quite clearly people like us, of such lowly stock, couldn’t possibly hope to own even one minute building in such a fine city!’

‘Not to worry,’ the princess trilled stoically, ‘that’s the whole point of having rules; so that we may learn them, and make sure we aren’t breaking them!’

Within the first town they arrived at, the princess wisely decided to avoid asking questions of people in the street and, rather, seek out the council officials and judges who she knew would be gathering within the guild hall and town’s chambers.

Such learned people, she not unreasonably reasoned, would be aware of the rules she had to follow. They would be more than welcoming when she asked them to introduce her to the many books they owned setting out these instructions.

‘You can’t come in here attired as if for some frivolous ball!’ the council officials and judges stormed when the princess entered wearing a dress Ginoskein had spent all night and a day altering, ensuring it followed the kingdom’s very latest fashions. ‘Have you no sense of decorum?’

‘There’s no point in worrying,’ the princess adamantly declared afterwards, resolutely holding back her tears. ‘Quite rightly, the high officials here wear elaborate gowns and wigs that grant them due authority, setting them apart from anyone naive enough to just walk in of the street.’

At last, they arrived at the brightly glistening and towering white walls of the capital city, entering by the imposing gate with its resplendently dressed guards.

Naturally, the princess hoped she could avoid asking anyone for directions to the palace, particularly as the way was quite clear, the tree-lined avenue leading to it being both wide and paved with highly polished slate.

Unfortunately, one of the guards approached her carriage, refusing to let her pass until she disclosed the reason for her visit.

‘The ball: I intend to attend the prince’s grand ball!’ the princess blurted out with relief, having seen a nearby princess allowed through after making the very same declaration,

‘And your signed and sealed Document of Intent?’ the guard said, holding out a hand as if expecting some official pass.

‘Oh, er, I don’t have…don’t have it yet,’ the princess admitted ashamedly, it being only a partial lie after all. ‘Er, how do I make sure I receive it in time for the ball?’

‘Ask when you attend your appointment at the chambers of His Most Royal Excellency the Grand Chamberlin.’

‘Erm, and how do I get an appointment?’

‘Ask when you present your pass at the meeting for the provision of appointments at The Royal Halls of Accommodation.’

And I get this pass by…?’

‘Ask when you hand over your Articles of Officiation within the Offices of The High Lord.’

‘Hah, and these Articles of Officiation will be from?’

‘Ask when you…’

And so it went on until, after over an hour of directions on how to collect the correct documentation, the guard finally waved their carriage on. However, he also firmly directed them to take a narrow, ramshackle road leading off into the poorer and more crowded part of town.

The poor princess was in tears.

‘I’m so worried, Ginoskein!’ she wailed, her lips quivering, ‘I’m never going to learn all the rules of conduct that they adhere to here! I’m just going to look like some dreadful country bumpkin to anyone attending the royal court!’

Ginoskein tenderly wrapped her arms around the tearful princess’s shoulders, giving her a loving and caring hug.

‘Don’t take all this nonsense to heart, my dear,’ she said, wiping the poor girl’s fevered brow. ‘Can’t you remember the fairy story I used to tell you, the one called The Height of Fashion?’

The prince leapt back out of the maid’s tender embrace, her expression both hurt and scolding.

‘Ginoskein!’ she snapped. ‘You see, even you’re treating me like some naive child! A story, a fairy story!’

Even so, she could indeed remember the fairy story Ginoskein used to tell her.

 

 

*

 

 

There once was a king who, unusually for kings, was reasonably intelligent, if not particularly wise.

He was admired throughout his kingdom for his astute decisions concerning everything from finances to farm yield, from wars with neighbouring realms to wares sold in the increasingly prosperous markets.

Despite his remarkable success as a ruler, he was constantly trying to improve himself.

Unfortunately, there was something about him that he had to recognise he would never be able to improve; his lack of height.

It could be quite embarrassing when visiting dignitaries towered over him, giving him all the appearance of a naive child when they attended his court.

Naturally, King Matheia came up with a solution to his problem; he asked his Royal Shoemakers to create a pair with elevated soles, immediately granting him the extra height he otherwise lacked.

Of course, when the courtiers saw this wonderful new style that the king had created, they too put their own shoemakers to work, creating ever higher shoes until everyone in court towered over anyone visiting from either the countryside or other kingdoms.

When leather heels could no longer safely sustain the increased heights fashion demanded, the shoemakers transformed into carpenters, working wood into a reasonably light latticework. When even the heels of wood had reached such heights that they began to crack or bend, the woodworkers became ironsmiths, assembling elaborate latticeworks of metal.

The king himself, of course, also had to keep up with this new fashion for ever higher heels, until one day he found himself precariously balancing on what could have been stilts – and he recognised, with a regretful sigh, that this couldn’t go on.

Naturally, King Matheia came up with a solution to his problem; he asked his Royal Wigmakers to construct for him a spectacularly tall wig, immediately granting him the height he otherwise lacked.

Naturally, too, when the courtiers saw this wonderful new style that the king had created, they too put their own wigmakers to work, creating ever higher wigs until the court’s many doorways had to be specially raised, while carriages had to have their rooves entirely removed.

As the height of the wigs soared, demand for hair soared too, until everyone in the land but the courtiers had all been left completely shorn. Not that it was difficult for the people to recognise any lord or lady who’d briefly departed the court; they stumbled as they tried to enter taverns, cursed as shop doorways took off their wigs, tumbled frequently when taking a simple stroll down a country lane.

It was a thoroughly inconvenient and, at times, even painful existence; but it was all worth the trouble, for how else could they ensure they all looked so absolutely wonderful?

Indeed, it was confidently proclaimed around the court, the very actions of maintaining balance required such a restriction of excessive gestures that it granted everyone a refinement so obviously lacking in the general public.

And it was while he was ever so elegantly adjusting his toppling wig that the king plummeted from heels now as high as a small tree.

The Court Doctors rushed to his side as quickly as they could – which wasn’t very quickly at all, of course.

The local pharmacy had cures of every kind for even the most terrible of falls – but no Royal Physician could pass through the ridiculously small doorway, let alone safely manage the rickety stairs leading down into the cellar where the potions were made.

The Ladies in Waiting appointed to nurse the ailing king did so as diligently as they were able – which naturally wasn’t really very thorough, as they remained unable to reach down to him as he lay suffering in his bed.

Naturally, King Matheia was incapable of coming up with a solution to his problem; and so the Royal Morticians were set to fashioning an immense coffin that could take both his heels and his wig.

On ascending the throne, King Matheia the Second came up with a solution to the problem that he was no taller than his late father.

He immediately announced that, henceforth, the Height of Fashion would be exactly five feet two inches.

And so now his courtiers walk around with hunched backs and agonisingly bowed legs.

It was a thoroughly inconvenient and, at times, even painful existence; but it was all worth the trouble, for how else could they ensure they all looked so absolutely wonderful?

 

 

*

 

 

Yes, Princess Doxa recalled the story of the Height of Fashion: but, as always, she refused to recognise its message.

‘Can’t you see just how important it is for me to attend Prince Atele’s wonderful ball, Ginoskein?’ she complained. ‘It’s days and days before it’s taking place: surely that gives me plenty of time to learn this kingdom’s customs and etiquette, enough at least to get me through an evening’s dancing?’

‘And who sits next to a Duke, and how do you extend courtesy to an Earl? How is the cutlery set, and when are courses delivered? Don’t they dance the Herakleotic here – when was the last time you practised any of its moves?’

The princess sighed.

‘Oh, you’re right Ginoskein: it is too much to learn in just a few days! I’m lost! What can I do?’

She glanced up hopefully at her maid: faithful, wise Ginoskein had come to her rescue so many, many times before.

Ginoskein sighed.

‘A dress,’ she said curiously, causing the princes to frown in puzzlement, ‘I’ll fashion you a dress of many colours: each one containing codes and symbols that will remind you how to behave in whatever situation you’re presented with!’

 

 

*

 

 

In between arranging the appointments that led to meetings that produced the passes that gained documentation allowing an appointment, Ginoskein assiduously toured the city’s innumerable dance and dining halls, its many kitchens and its even greater number of libraries; all stacked with heavy tomes detailing correct modes of behaviour.

On a night, she sat down at last to her sewing, including within the dress’s many folds clues to the most apt forms of conduct that the princess could refer to at any moment, flipping aside the flaps as if the whole dress itself were an informative book.

As the day of the grand ball drew closer, however, Ginoskein began to realise that she had taken on more than she could hope to accomplish within the time.

Here, in this strange city, it was the dance and dining halls that were treated as if they were great cathedrals – the vast stained glass windows portraying not routes to enlightenment, but reminding everyone that it was so easy to make a faulty move, to insult someone even though no insult was intended, to say the wrong word at the wrong time, even though the difference might only be a matter of seconds.

For once in her life, poor Ginoskein despaired.

Worst of all, she could find no real cathedral, not even a church, in which she could seek the peace of mind that might grant her some form of remedy to her problem.

Eventually, she did find the scant remains of a once proud abbey, now reduced to nothing more than a rain-soaked font and an ivy-ridden corner wall.

Here she knelt, clasping her hands together, her fingers bleeding at the tips from all her sewing, begging forgiveness for making such a rash promise to her poor lady.

She jumped a little in surprise as a large clump of ivy – as if heavy from and also weakened earlier by the rain – fell away from the wall.

Beneath its veiling of dark green, it revealed the glimmers of a rich purple glow, the air itself stained by the coloured glass the falling vine had uncovered.

It surprised her, too, that any glass had been left here, as it seemed to her that this once glorious abbey had been entirely cannibalised, its stone and windows used to create the magnificent dance and dining halls given such importance in this city.

What didn’t surprise her (for she had noticed this strange effect on many occasions) was that this glorious glow of an emperor’s mauve was spirited up by glass that, although so opulently coated in so many colours, contained no hint of purple itself.

Rising to her feet, and despite the pain of her bleeding fingers, Ginoskein began to pull more of the clinging ivy aside, revealing more and more of the stained glass window.

It was a wonderful rendition of the crucifixion and one, moreover, that featured to either side the similarly crucified thieves, one who would ascend to heaven, one who would fall down into hell.

Gestas, whose name means gestation, the rising sun, looking up towards the sun rising above him like a fiery torch.

Dismas, meaning sunset, looking down, away from the setting sun, a torch about to be doused.

Strangely, there were more planets represented here too.

Their hearts were those of winged Mercury for Gestas, of bloody Mars for Dismas.

The blood at their feet was the rich copper of Venus: the Morning Star of love for Gestas, the Evening Star of war for Dismas.

And above their heads, above even the two aspects of a rising and setting sun – and as if clasped within the very hands of the crucified Saviour – there was the almost moon-like tin of wise and merciful Jupiter, the dull grey of the leaden, sickle-wielding Saturn, the Night Sun and God of Death.

At the Lord’s feet there was, naturally, the Earth.

Near his heart, a third aspect of the sun, its full glory.

Above his head, a blazing crown of a horned moon and seven stars, the Tree of Death transformed into the Tree of Life – for the dark veil concealing the rest of the moon was about to be rent asunder, revealing the full illuminating radiance of the Queen of Heaven.

And he suffered all this, of course, because the mortal Jesus Barabbas (whose name means Son of the Father) had been freed in his stead.

The cruel lance has pierced his side, his heart like an upturned cup from which an entwined stream of fiery blood and water, of spirit and love, appeared to freely pour into a waiting and invisibly held grail.

But Ginoskein knew that the grail was the Cup of the Heart: that the water of love ascended, to be rewarded with the descending of the spirit, enflaming the heart.

‘Just as love for Selene’s horned moon brings on the sunset of ageless slumber,’ she whispered, her lips quivering, ‘so Eros awakens us from envy of the gods to full brightness.’

She cupped her own hands together, letting the blood run down from her fingertips, watching it mingle with the tears she freely let fall there. The blood and water swirled together, serpentine in their entwining, becoming neither one nor the other; becoming, rather, the mauve of emperor’s, of the king of kings.

It quickened, then congealed, then set: and Ginoskein looked in amazement at the energetically glowing amethyst she now held within her hands.

 

 

*

 

 

No one had seen a more fabulous ball gown than the one Princess Doxa wore to the prince’s dance.

It was of the most glorious mauve, it seemed: and then, at a turn of an elegant neck, a finely sculptured shoulder, it became any number of rich colours.

The princess, everyone agreed, seemed born to wear such a fine garment, her mannerisms excellent, her poise remarkable, her conversion scintillating.

Her dancing was the most elegant they had ever witnessed, as if she were powered by the most intricate clockwork ever devised by man.

And yet the princess had no hidden layers to access, had had no special codes to learn. By merely wearing this wonderful, most remarkable dress, she was quite naturally the belle of the ball!

For Ginoskein, too, everything had happened for her so ridiculously easy, she could only put her incredible good fortune down to a miracle.

As if the amethyst had observed every facet, every element of knowledge, it had spun out its contents as the finest of threads, weaving magically within the air, seemingly spiriting out of nothing this most improbable of dresses.

The dress was in fact one of many gossamer thin layers, each a colour of the rainbow, a dress of many colours that merged and became as one, a shade of spiritualised fire.

And now Prince Atele himself, the man who had declared himself the most perfect man, was approaching her princess, asking her to dance.

And the princess, naturally, agrees, offering him her hand, allowing him to take her out onto the dance floor, to the wonder and amazement and joy of most of the people gathered there. (For other princesses, and their parents, were not enthralled at all!)

‘Oh, but look,’ the princess declares unconsciously, picking at something she has spotted upon the prince’s jacket even as the dance begins, ‘you have a loose thread, my lord.’

Naturally, the prince is horrified to display such an unforgivable imperfection, particularly as it has been pointed out to him by the most perfect lady he has ever encountered.

Fortunately for Prince Atele, he himself notices that a nearby princess also has a loose thread in the waist of her dress, pulling at this as the Princess Doxa pulls at his, even as he ever so politely apologises to the unfortunate princess.

This princess is mortified too, until she espies the loose thread in her partner’s garment.

And so it goes on, everyone made suddenly aware of the imperfections in the manner of their dress, everyone and everything but the Princess Doxa’s dress found to be wanting and in possession of a horribly, embarrassingly loose thread.

And the dance continues, the garments unravelling as the threads are pulled, the strands winding around dancing couples, like whirling bobbins picking up ever more threads of spinning wool.

Eventually, yes, even the supposedly perfect dress of Princess Doxa, that apparent font of all knowledge, is found to have a flaw: the very tiniest one, yet a loose thread nonetheless, one that is urgently grabbed at until it, too, begins to rapidly unravel.

And the dance is getting ever, ever faster.

Uncontrollably faster.

There are endless streams of thread, it seems, and all of the most varied and vibrant colours.

Until the whole scene is like a rainbow rapidly unravelling.

 

 

*

 

 

Ginoskein found herself standing in an empty yet nevertheless beautiful field.

Holding only the most brilliant gem, an amethyst that glowed a most remarkable mix of blood and water.

Reminding her that she hadn’t simply imagined it all.

For the prince, the princesses, the courtiers; all had gone.

The dancing hall, too.

Along with the entire building.

The entire city.

They had all been so shallow, after all, with nothing of true substance lying beneath their most elaborate of gowns.

Yes, even her beloved Princess Doxa, truth be told.

 

 

*

Chapter 45

‘Some are more dead than others,’ the girl declared serenely as she prepared to walk off into the whirling mass of crows that, apparently aware of her intentions, had descended towards her once more. ‘As for the rest, they are both dead and alive at the very same time; although I know of tales that tell how those who are immortal may share their days or nights with those who aren’t.’

The prince thought the King’s Daughter might become as one with the swirling darkness; yet, rather, the fierce beating of a thousand wings caused her veil to rise and billow about her head, glittering like an earthshine moon in the glow of a naked body now burning as brightly as any torch.

I have become the tomb of light, the Tower of Silence seemed to whisper morosely.

As she calmly walked amongst them, the concealing mist of crows began to ascend towards the very summit of the tower once again, their darkness left behind them in the air, about the advancing girl.

Amongst that unnatural darkness, her glow seemed all the brighter, more wonderful than could be imagined, her flowing veil now the wings of an ethereal butterfly. As she stepped amongst the energetically swarming bees, that light was diffused, spread upwards.

She approached the base of the tower; and was gone, as if abruptly devoured by the massing bees.

 

 

*

 

 

A moment later, the girl appeared again, but this time on what could be called the first step.

Her glow appeared slightly muted, the prince thought, yet thought also that he could be imagining this.

He thought, too, that she must be clinging precariously to the incredibly narrow step, her bared feet agonisingly held straight to prevent her toppling back and down towards the waiting ground.

As abruptly as before, she vanished again.

When she appeared on the second ledge, her glow was duller still.

Hadn’t she informed him that she had originally shed her veils as she had descended the tower?

Obviously, the prince realised, she was now taking them on once again one by one, her once gloriously shining body gradually being encased in the beginnings of a cocoon of what could have been bright lace, or silken threads.

And so it went on as she slowly rose up the looming stone, the veils shrouding her, curbing her glow, until she could have been nothing more than an indefinable pupa within that silken purse.

Now the endlessly upward flowing stream of violet, fiery water curled and coiled, arching off towards the copper bowl of flames surmounting its twin pillar.

The fire responded in kind, rising up and curling about the waters, entwining as if enjoining; but no, it wasn’t a merging, but a separating, the spiritual fire of the waters being given up back to the flames. When the entwining at last came to an end, the fire settling back into its own cup, the waters into theirs, the stream was perfectly clear, pure, and foolishly spilling earthwards.

The girl had reached the very crown of the stone, where the crows still gathered, still concealed the landing in their dark, writhing mist, as if called up by some fearsome incantation.

The King’s Daughter now glowed relatively dully, her form also softened. Yet seen amongst and relative to this streaming darkness, she shone curiously brightly, such that she could have been a moon come down to earth, reflected imperfectly in darkly flowing waters.

The crows crowed at their good fortune, the ravens rived at her flesh, the rooks raked at her innards.

It seemed to the prince to be a murder, a conspiracy, an unkindness.

But no, it wasn’t a murder.

The carrion weren’t shredding flesh but bringing it, the light being given up, settling back within its tomb.

I am the tomb of light the Tower of Silence breathed mournfully.

And when the prince recognised what he truly was, he shivered.

 

 

*

 

 

The crows gave up their crown, flowing down, the very darkest of waterfalls.

The excitement of bees rose, rushing upwards, thousands of vibrating, virtually translucent wings glistening spectrally.

The darkness took over the base. And, as if rising from a dark soil, a body emerged from that darkness; a human body no doubt, but one clad in a black cloak of feathers.

‘We must hurry,’ the girl declared sorrowfully, her face unrecognisable behind many dark veils, ‘even I don’t wish to stay here long like this.’

 

 

*

Chapter 46

Passing through the great whirlwind of crows was like passing through a dark air that beat and pestered you, that didn’t want you to pass through it easily, let alone pass completely unscathed.

From this seething blackness, a ladder soared, seemingly forever upwards, its top shielded in a restless, silvery glow. Just as the girl had described it earlier, from here the tower was transformed, the very lowest now the highest, that which had been dark and foreboding now the light and inviting.

Similarly, at once it blocked their way through the pillars, and then it was abruptly behind them.

The prince and his men, closely following the girl, stepped out one by one into gloriously green, rolling hills. And as the last of the men stepped through the pillars, the tower vanished, taking its darkness with it so that the now shrunken pillars stood innocently amongst those undulating fields.

From the pillars, there streamed a bright, light gleam of pale green, of peridot, threading through the air until it merged with other shades, weaving into a tapestry of airborne tones.

The prince couldn’t fail to recognise this land and, as if to prove him correct, a shiningly white hart appeared nearby, an orb of the very brightest of lights safely cupped within its antlers.

It wasn’t a pearl, he recognised that now of course, seeing it rather as a wondrously coruscating moon – the nestling babe now replaced by the Saviour pinioned there, as if upon the white tree of horn.

‘Something’s changed here,’ the girl announced ominously, what little of her face that could be seen behind the veils creasing as if with anxiety.

‘I heard that a pair of the pillars had been destroyed here,’ the prince replied helpfully.

‘The pillars of heliodor, one of the gems you still seek,’ the girl said, glancing towards his breastplate. ‘But they were destroyed long ago, by Shamir herself.’

‘He was still alive after the construction of the pillars?’

‘Such a serpent never seeks death, for it is only of the darkest materials. She wouldn’t want anyone to have easy access to the elemental designs lying behind all earthly reason and judgement – ah, but it’s that that is the difference I felt!’

With an upward wave of a hand, the girl drew the prince’s attention to the strands of colours wafting above them.

‘See that? The darker green of heliodor has unravelled from the rest, no longer obeying its set course towards the smashed pillars: it’s heading instead to where the Pillars of Zebulun stand.’

She glanced down at the sparkling honey coloured stone on his breastplate, looked back up at him with what could have been accusing eyes behind her dark veil.

‘It’s one of the stones you didn’t return? The Haven’s Eye?’

The prince responded with a nod, an admission that, ‘I was told they were in no hurry for its return.’

The girl nodded too, as if this made sense.

‘The green gem has made these pillars its own: I suggest it may be the best way back to your own lands for you and your men, as it may even present you with an opportunity to gain yourself this eleventh stone.’

The river of green flickered in the blue sky, fibres that had broken free, that led back home.

‘I don’t need the stone,’ the prince declared confidently, ‘but if it takes us back to the other side of the wall, then that’s where we need to be.’

 

 

*

 

 

Although huge when compared to the size of each man, the twin pillars they walked between were once again the size of those they saw elsewhere within this land of rolling hills, of stags carrying a memory of the Saviour upon their crowns.

And yet as soon as they passed through to the other side, each pillar appeared to have miraculously soared to the ridiculous heights of those standing either side of the tower. Similarly, an unnatural darkness pervaded the whole land, making it unrecognisable to anyone as any realm previously seen on this side of the wall.

‘This is odd,’ the girl mumbled quietly to the prince so that no one else might hear or detect the apprehensiveness in her tone. ‘A sense of darkness I expected, after living so long in the light: but this is another form of darkness entirely, while the pillars…well, they shouldn’t be anywhere near this size, unless the towe–’

As she spoke, there was a roar of cracking earth, an eruption of a rushing spout of pure blackness between the twin pillars – and what could have been the tower began to urgently rise up from the darkness, causing the great pans of fire and water crowning the pillars alongside to appear as immense weighing scales, balancing one against the other.

Yet there was nothing but the briefest opportunity for them to ensure spirit and love were in equal measure, for the soaring column of sheer blackness caught the pans’ contents in its ferocious updraft, dragging them along with it like writhing serpents.

And in that glow of flickering flame, of silvery waters, the spiralling darkness was itself revealed to be a serpent of unimaginable size.

‘Brother!’ it shrieked gaily. ‘It took you so long to get here!’

 

 

*

Chapter 47

How can you fight a column of darkness?

Especially one that coils, curls, and strikes with unexpected, unbelievable speed?

The prince’s men, no matter how valiantly they attempted to fight, were scattered again and again.

Even when it seemed they might have clustered enough of them together to slow the beast down, to briefly constrain it, it seemed to abruptly vanish, only to equally unexpectedly appear amid another group of surprised men, striking them down at will.

It shrank and it grew, it slithered and it pounced, it veiled itself and announced itself by bringing death.

I would bring death and I would welcome death, it hissed triumphantly.

 

 

*

 

 

Each scale of the serpent was for the most part impregnable, constructed from only the most impenetrable of dark materials: devoid of any airy weakness, of watery malleability, entirely incapable of combustion, and entirely bereft of the trembling uncertainty of spirt, of which it had always been forever free.

It writhed through the darkness as if in its element, bringing death, an extinguishing of light within this world. Crumpled bodies lay everywhere, amongst the glistening of discarded swords, battered armour, and cracked helms.

A sparkling universe for the dead.

That’s what this is now!’ the girl yelled out fearfully to the prince as, sword in hand, he once more waited uselessly and hopelessly for the serpent to abruptly reveal itself. ‘That’s why it has the huge pillars! It’s become another, darker abode for the dead – one for the endlessly cursed, rather than the blessed – another choice for them: not that the choice is ultimately theirs!’

The ground beneath their feet rumbled, quaked, such that their legs trembled.

Everyone tensely clasped their swords, glancing nervously about themselves, wondering where the serpent would strike next; it had never waited this long before striking, and that only added to their anxiety. Wearied and bloodied – yet only with the blood of their friends – they faced up to the miserable hopelessness of their task, fretfully wondering only what the serpent might have in mind for them.

The ground continued to rumble without breaking, however; and, one by one, the knights began to swap grim, knowing grins. Some even twirled their blades, eager to be a bringer as opposed to receiver of death.

They recognised this sound, this feeling of a shifting earth.

It was the growing thunder of innumerable pounding hooves, the harbinger of a massed, mounted charge, something in its own right that was to be feared. And yet, in these circumstances, it brought only a wallowing relief – for at least it was something they were accustomed to, and had had to deal with many times before.

Of course, they should have realised that this was to be no normal mounted charge.

It was, rather, the first rushing gusts of a dark storm.

These mounted knights could have been of the same matter as the serpent’s scales, although they had indeed once been men. Men whose darkness had always emanated from their hearts, solidifying over the years, becoming at last their own very substance.

Their armour was of their body, black, and full of the whirls of chaos. An unnatural armour, neither iron nor flesh, but of both indelibly combined. Their mounts, too, were of their body, such that no one could really tell when they had ever been separated.

They struck the already sorely beleaguered knights as an onrushing force, a dark wave that flooded around them, bringing with it the harsh hacking of muscular swords, the pinioning of lances of bone, the crush of axes formed from firmly intertwined veins surging with dark blood.

Heads flew from necks, arms from shoulders, legs from hips. Men fell, unable yet again to strike back with any noticeable effect.

The blood that splattered everywhere was once more theirs and theirs alone, their own blades effortlessly turned aside by armour that had a life of its own.

Then the earth rumbled, quaking this time as if about to crack and split, clods of dark soil and grass erupting into the air.

The serpent soared up from amongst them all, a hurtling fountain of hardened darkness, columnar in its rigidity until it finally began to arch what passed for its neck, the head weaving only slightly from side to side, the eyes like wells drawing everything into their endless blackness.

With a whip-like snap, the serpent brought its head rushing down, its jaws open in readiness to devour its prey whole as it plunged inexorably towards the startled prince.

 

 

*

 

 

The girl pushed the prince aside, willingly taking his place.

The maw of the serpent hungrily enveloped her, even as she hurriedly shrugged off her many veils.

She shone once more, even as the serpent’s jaw began to rapidly and tightly snap about her, briefly leaving only the most fragmentary crescent of her light visible to the prince – before this, too, was fully devoured by the great and terrible wyrm.

The serpent’s head whipped back up into the air, his elevated body looming over the battle once more. Around it, as if it were a dark gravestone, men continued to die uselessly and hopelessly, the black knights as untouchable as a ferociously lashing sea.

With a slight tipping back of its immense head, the serpent swallowed the girl as if she were nothing but a tasty titbit, what could have been glee or satisfaction crossing its evilly creased face.

The men had thought the serpent’s dark scales entirely impenetrable to anything

And yet the glowing light of the girl glistened through them now, lighting them up from inside as she slipped farther and farther down that immense throat, drawing closer and closer to what could be the beast’s stomach; where everything dissolved, liquefying, vanishing.

The girl ever so momentarily smouldered there, her light once more firmly cocooned.

She was imprisoned far too high off the ground for the prince to hope to cut her free, even if it had been possible to hack through that indestructible body, to batter his way through the many dark knights barring his way.

As he fought, he cried, the tears falling down his bared cheeks, along the silvered breastplate, welling around the sparkling stones, settling within the settings still awaiting their own jewels. And where they became safely cupped within one of these beds, these waters swirled and mingled with the blood of his own wounds, freshly reopened and raw.

Like rising lava, the burning glow lying deep within the coils of the serpent began to shift, to bubble and strive for freedom, forcing their way up through even the most resistant of passages.

It expanded, grew, wormed its way up through the serpentine body, like the grubs some insects lay within living prey so that their progeny might have fresh food to sustain them on their birth. The Great Wyrm, plainly shocked by this unexpected turn around, painfully gagged and retched, choking on a meal it was clearly unaccustomed to and unprepared for.

The beast writhed and coiled in its agonies, its maw opening once more, this time to release a relieved scream, the fork of its extended tongue trembling in fear and pain as it heaved and threw up an incandescence that was blinding in the darkness of that unfortunate land.

The orb of purest light flashed and shimmered more brightly and wonderfully than the prince had ever seen – and then in the blink of his eyes, it was gone, the giant serpent vanishing along with it.

 

 

*

Chapter 48

Everywhere about them, the black knights fell, crumpling to the ground as if whatever had animated them had abruptly deserted them.

They lay upon the ground, lifeless black maggots, a mass of wyrms swiftly weaving in and out of their dark and empty substance, unravelling it all, turning it all back to well mulled soil.

In a moment, there was nothing to show the dark forms had ever existed, unless you counted as proof the wounds of the exhausted men, the corpses of their dead.

Amongst it all, the only sound was that of weeping.

The sobbing of a girl in utmost agony.

She lay where the belly of the serpent had last touched the ground.

With a cry of relief, the prince rushed over to her, kneeling alongside to tenderly help her turn towards him.

But it wasn’t the King’s Daughter.

It was the queen’s daughter.

His sister.

‘Brother: I never knew you cared,’ she sneered gaily.

 

 

*

 

 

‘Don’t worry; thankfully, I’m dying,’ Princess Episteme breathed painfully.

‘Thankfully?’ the prince declared both sceptically and harshly. ‘If you sought death, it could have been granted you long ago!’

‘And to have ceased to exist completely? Would anyone seek such a thing? Why else would I seek to deny you the pearl, unless I feared it would bring about my end? I was never as you, Brother, for I was always of nothing but the darkest materials: as all offspring of my mother inadvertently turned out to be. Naturally, she didn’t intend it to be this way: she had originally meant well, can you believe it? Bringing what she presumed must be her divinity to man, unaware that it wasn’t her gift to pass on the light of spirit. But at last, I have tasted that light; enough, I hope, even though it was my end, to give me the new beginning so long denied me.’

The deep black wells of her eyes briefly glimmered with a spectral mauve, the amethyst of a mingling blood and water.

‘Ah, I see, Brother, that you’ve partially attained your eleventh stone.’

She reached out to touch the fragment of sparkling purple stone that had at some point miraculously appeared within the setting lying to the end of the third row. It wasn’t a complete stone, but only a small segment of the whole thing, a piece that had hardened within the slightly cupped base of the setting.

The prince glanced down at the glistening gem, wondering when it had appeared there. He had been granted this strangest of jewels in the land where, at best, he had expected only to gain the green heliodor.

‘And this pearl you sought to deny me: does it really exist?’ he asked his sister hopefully.

His sister chuckled harshly, a racking cough bringing up blood and water.

‘Suddenly, you expect help from me, Brother?’ she asked mockingly, yet softening her tone as she added, ‘So, here it is, here’s my help: it really is – as that old crone who gave you life declared – an inconceivable pearl.’

‘That’s it? That’s your help? After all the trouble you’ve caused?’

‘There’s so little I know myself: so little, in fact, that I didn’t realise we really were siblings after all, “Brother”. Not until a moment ago, when at last I received the light. Our mother has hidden so much from both of us!’

Our mother? But…as you just said, the crone, the fay: she was my mother. And your mother was there, in the hall, when she arrived!’

The princess chuckled, a laugh that made her cough up blood and gasp for breath.

‘Oh Brother, Brother! You’re still constraining yourself within Earthly reason, allowing it to cloud your already ridiculous judgements, aren’t you? Where does past and future lie within a circle? Wasn’t she here, just now, even though we both know she also resides within the palace?’

‘Who? Who was here?’

The princess laughed again, yet weaker still this time.

‘Don’t you see? Towards the end, before you were born, even her better nature – the last of little light she had left, already withered to almost nothing, and ready to breathe its last – finally deserted her. Perhaps to make amends, for your birth is undoubtedly the beginning of the end of her: or maybe because, selfish to the end, the only way to replenish her lost light was generating a new branch of man capable of recognising her for whom she really is.’

The prince’s laugh was scoffingly disbelieving.

‘Is this your new way of denying me the pearl, Sister? Making me believe I’m some sort of god? That, somehow, I’ve inherited some sort of extra inner light denied any other man?’

‘Isn’t that why man creates his gods? So he can flatter himself he’s made in their image? And yet in your case, Brother, you falsely flatter yourself that you’ve almost attained what no other man could: refusing to acknowledge that maybe all those other men didn’t have the help you’ve benefited from!’

The prince shrugged uncomfortably, unsure as to how to take this; for no matter his response, it seemed to him, he would indeed be in some way flattering himself that he was superior to others.

The princess smiled at his discomfort.

‘Brother, the way you allow your self-righteousness to blind you to the truth has always granted me such amusement: perhaps I should help you, now it’s clear we’re of the same blood after all. The Queen of Queens – can’t you recall the tale our mother used to so gleefully regale us with, Brother?’

 

 

*

Chapter 49

Queen of Queens

 

How many tales tell of a primordial darkness, a chaos that has to be dispersed by the bringing of light?

Naturally, we tend to believe such light must be the Sun: and so, too, many supposedly learned men tell us that this must have indeed been the case.

How could it be otherwise?

But think about this for a moment. (If you must, use all your Earthly reason.)

Even just a moment of true and proper thought will enlighten you as to the true and proper nature of this light.

How could, one moment, there be nothing but darkness?

And, voila, the next moment, nothing but light?

Isn’t the latter just as blinding as the former?

What can you see when there is nothing to see?

How do you know how truly bright a light is anyway, when you no longer have anything to compare it to?

Surely it stands to reason that a light would, at first, appear amidst that darkness?

Not like the sun, therefore: supposedly exiling all of darkness, never to be seen again.

(And did that really happen? Have you never, ever come across darkness since that fabulous creation of light?)

For how bright does a light appear when we see it amidst the darkness?

How welcoming, too, is that glorious light?

Think now: what light do you know of that shines so wonderfully brightly amidst the darkness?

What light do you know of that, even on a night, when the sun lazily sleeps, brings the most wondrous illumination to everything it casts its silvery gleam upon?

Isn’t she glorious?

Isn’t she wonderful?

Isn’t she the Moon?

 

 

*

 

 

Now (now we’ve agreed on this), back to those tales, the tales of primordial darkness and creation itself.

The earliest tales – and if we’re going back to tales of creation, surely these must be the best, the most accurate portrayal of witnessed real events? – tell us that first, created amongst this darkness, there was an egg.

Wait!

You’re thinking of a hen’s egg, aren’t you!

(You see – I do understand the problems of Earthly reason!)

But long before there were hens, there were reptiles.

And long before there were reptiles, there were serpents.

(There is a difference! Haven’t you worked that one out yet?)

So this egg, of course, was more like a silver orb.

Yes, it’s the Moon again, isn’t it?

The Moon, the Serpent; you’re getting tired of hearing of these, aren’t you? But please bear with me!

Come to think of it, it might help if you just think of them as being the very same thing! Oh, and darkness also being a serpent! And think also of the way they’re entwined – for you can’t really have different shades of one without the other, can you?

That way, if you constantly bear all this in mind, I don’t really have to keep on repeating myself so much!

(Besides, I wasn’t the one who came up with this idea! I’m just repeating what you can read in just about any tale of the Creation, if you read it correctly!)

And so that age old question of which came first, the serpent or the egg, is neatly answered for you!

What’s the difference?

 

 

*

 

 

 

And so the serpent squeezed the egg.

Squeezed it until it cracked and Heaven and Earth and the Sun were brought into being.

And with the Sun came Night and Day.

Sunlight and shadow.

Spiritual and material

Wisdom and ignorance.

Good and evil.

Because once you’d started a forking, a branching, just where is it all supposed to stop?

Who’s been appointed judge of that?

No one, it seems.

Who could stop such a thing like that once it’s set in motion anyway?

The endless creation of opposites.

Of rivals.

Of conflict.

My word: what a curious thing to bring into being!

 

 

*

 

 

Naturally, there was a war; a War in Heaven.

And can we really say who came out best from that war?

Can we, indeed, looking at it all from our lowly vantage point of Earth, say that the side of light actually won in the end?

I mean, for one thing, it depends what side you’re coming from, doesn’t it?

Who really fell to earth that day?

(That day? That eon? Time is of no real concern, you know?)

The defeated, or the victor?

Or both?

You see, as even his most biased opponents are prepared to admit, Samael was truly beautiful – ‘Thine heart was lifted up because of thy beauty: thou hast corrupted thy wisdom by reason of thy brightness; I will cast thee to the ground.’

So yes, it was Samael who came down to Earth.

Yet why not? For wasn’t Earth his creation, made in line with his designs, his plans?

Here he could be judge.

Here he could still be beautiful.

For how could he fail to shine amongst such relatively dark surroundings?

 

 

*

 

 

But there is more to this tale than many are prepared to read into it.

Now quite naturally, there are many tales constructed for the benefit of the simpleminded, speaking nonsense about shadows of gods of light, granted life by the Queen of Heaven.

Yet quite obviously (obliviously?), these are tales for those incapable of listening closely to the far more numerous tales recalling how first there was a primordial darkness, an abyss – and then there was the Light, Word, Logos, or whatever name you prefer to call it.

In these tales, don’t you see, we already have our God of Darkness, our God(dess) of Light (not to be confused with her son the Sun, which is all of a different matter entirely).

So why would all this have to be repeated once more, with suns and shadows?

Can you see now that, when darkness fell to earth, he naturally had to bring the Queen of Heaven with him? For as light needs darkness and darkness needs light to be recognised, then they too are one and the same.

She wept at her own fall, of course. A tear falling down her cheek, down to Earth.

And now so few people recognise the once bright and shining Queen of Heaven, for she is increasingly veiled by the darkness.

For the light of the moon only seems bright to you because you have become inured to that darkness.

 

 

*

 

 

But is all this really Samael’s fault?

For a devious trick had been played upon him!

As many of the stories so honestly state, he was the real creator of the material Earth, and all the things within it. So, naturally, he had been promised control of all the elements to aid him in his work.

Earth itself, of course. But also Water. And Air. And Fire.

But no, not Spirit.

That, unfortunately, that true breath of life, of near divinity, had been kept out of his control.

His creation was spiritless.

Yes, even poor Adam.

And when it dawned on Samael that this was the case, he tried to make amends.

He descended to earth in the hope of granting the offspring of Adam a share of his own divine spirit. He became she, became Lilith; little knowing that he was now fallen, and had too little spirit to share.

Oh, if only she had waited!

For that tear, that tear of the Queen of Heaven, it shattered as it reached Earth.

It scattered, its innumerable fragments granting light and life and near-divinity to Eve and all her descendants!

And this, of course, brought with it its own unforeseen problems.

 

 

*

 

 

What problem could there be with man being granted near-divinity, a fragment of the Queen of Heaven’s own tear?

Well when the mortal Semele wished to see Zeus in his true appearance, she was blinded, and burnt to a cinder by his inconceivable brightness.

And man (who never bears any shame when it comes to self-flattery, to self-aggrandisement) floods himself with the supposed brightness of self-entitlement, of self-righteousness, blinding himself to recognising even that truly divine shard that lies within him.

In the brightness of the sun, even the moon becomes completely veiled.

And so man himself severs his link to the Queen of Heaven.

And unrecognised, despite that glorious gift of her tear, of that fragment of her wondrous light sleeping within each and every one of us – a Sleeping Beauty waiting only to be reawakened with the kiss of recognition and longing and love – even the Queen of Heaven begins to lose her brightness; to become ever more as one with the dark materials, indelibly entwined, as ivy weaves its way through stonework and makes it crumble before our eyes.

For she stays here too long in the hope of aiding us, and her hope is hopeless.

She recognises – with no sense of immodesty, with a sense of sad realisation only – that even a fragment of a fragment of her brilliance is too much for something as fragile as man to bear.

He believes that bright light to be his due, desires ever more of it, failing to realise he will never be capable of handling it, refuting any self-knowledge that might declare him no more naturally enlightened than the ass.

And so he forgets that there was darkness before there was Light.

That there must be darkness before there is light.

So now when man looks up, he no longer sees brightly shining there the Queen of Heaven.

He sees her shining only with a borrowed light.

No longer the Light of Darkness, she has become merely a light within the darkness.

 

 

*

Chapter 50

As his sister died in his arms, the prince wondered if they should bury her body.

‘Later; we must move on, my lord,’ Sir Grandhan advised sagely, having remarkably survived the onslaughts that had taken so many good knights. ‘We must take advantage of our fortunate victory; we cannot guess what else awaits us in this most forbidding of places!’

The prince nodded in agreement.

If they were successful, they could return to this land and bury his sister. And if they failed, they would be beyond worrying about unburied corpses: unless, of course, you feared that no one would bother burying your own empty shell.

What had his sister meant about it being an inconceivable pearl?

Did that simply mean that his earlier guess to its actual nature had been correct? That it was the tear of god and therefore – naturally – it hadn’t been conceived by any usual means?

Surely she couldn’t have meant inconceivable as in unthinkable? At best, that would, mean that the pearl was something he couldn’t possibly expect it to be.

And as for him being somehow gifted this extra inner light denied other men: how could that be possible, when this Lilith was quite obviously incapable of granting her offspring this light?

Unless, of course, this ‘better nature’ of his mother, this wasting light, had achieved it by separating from the darker aspect of Lilith.

As the prince and his men left the battlefield, leaving even the bodies of their own men to the hungry carrion already flocking around them, they noted that, far ahead, there was a flourishing glow of green reaching up into the already darkened sky, like some odd sunset, or a merging of a moss-strewn river and evening clouds.

The closer they drew towards this increasingly flickering radiance, the more they recognised it as a refraction of light, emanating from the enormous crystals whose highest peaks they soon began to glimpse every now and again through gaps in the rolling hills.

It was a city, a vast citadel with towering walls, constructed entirely of what could have been emerald.

The men around the prince gasped: not in awe, as he’d first supposed, but in a further spark of recognition.

‘This is our capital,’ Sir Grandhan wept bitterly, pointing out the familiar spires encased within the high walls, the ornamentation of their peaks. ‘This is our realm!’

 

 

*

Chapter 51

‘It could only be the work of my sister; of the Shamir,’ the prince mused as he studied the incredibly high walled city. ‘Nothing else could build walls like that, let alone in the short amount of time I’ve been away.’

‘Since the death of the king, of your father, my lord,’ Sir Grandhan said, ‘Queen Telete made herself the judge of everything here: but I would never have conceived that she would transform our realm into a kingdom of the dead!’

‘Do the dead protect her city now, do you think?’

‘I sense your hesitation, my lord,’ Sir Grandhan replied respectfully, but nonetheless striking out towards the silently waiting, apparently deserted city, ‘but this is no time to hold back your bow; for even if the walls are manned – if, indeed, that is what you can term it when up against these demons – then it’s better to advance now, while they remain unaware of the defeat of your sister’s “men”.’

All that seemed to stand between them and the gleaming, wide open gate of the otherwise unassailable city were empty fields of corn, flowing in a light breeze like a river of dark, molten gold.

The men were too impatient to wait for orders, too impetuous in their intent to avenge their fallen friends to worry about demonic soldiers, instinctively recognising that any delay would only give the defenders chance to close the gate and prepare for a siege.

They confidently strode towards wafting corn that whispered gently in the wind.

Corn that bowed to them, identifying them as conquerors.

Corn that hardened, rigidly.

That sprang upwards, like so many arrows.

And fell, reaping men.

 

 

*

 

 

Only the prince had hung back enough to avoid death from the rain of corn arrows.

Yet even he had taken strikes to his legs, his arms, the thick barbs tearing through flesh, bone, and protruding far out from the other side. Only his remarkably strong breastplate had saved him from blows that might have killed him

Sir Grandhan had placed himself at the very edge of the arrows’ range, his body now strewn with a whole bushel of hardened shafts. It was as if the entire corn field had abruptly shifted, its boundaries now only a step away from the prince.

The prince staggered weakly and agonisingly through this new crop, littered with the dead. Quickening his pace as much as he was able, he drew the sword granted him by King Teleion to replace the Prophet he had returned.

If necessary he would kill this queen, his supposed mother, himself. No matter who or what he faced inside this emerald citadel.

Taking his sword, and tightly grasping one of the arrows embedded deep within his leg, he cut the bent end of iron off the shaft. He uncontrollably howled with pain as the blow jarred the hard shaft against flesh and bone.

He gasped, sighed, and gritted his teeth as he pulled the shaft clear of his flesh. With slightly less pained grimaces, he pulled out the other arrows, cutting off any ends that had bent under the impact.

Where the corn had flowed and waved, there was now a barren wasteland, of dark soil and shed husks. A dirt track wove between what had been fields of crops, yet now appeared hardly different from the roughly furrowed soil.

The prince didn’t have the energy to follow that meandering track. He strode across the rippled spoil, taking the most direct route.

He soon regretted his choice, picking up heavy clods of soil with every step. He almost tripped a number of times: the furrows could have been specifically designed to cause him to lurch and reel uncontrollably.

He staggered as his feet struck a hard, immovable obstacle, a roughly hewn, narrow stone sunk so low into the soil he hadn’t seen it. It could have been a burial casket, but he’d seen stones like this before, out in the fields: covered troughs, carved out of a solid piece of stone, and placed here no doubt for grazing sheep who had long since been eaten.

He fell to his knees by the stone, urgently pulling aside its shielding cover, revealing inside its hollowed body a thin layer of surprisingly fresh looking water, the covering having kept it both cold and free of seeds or algae. Even if it had been as scum encrusted as he had expected, however, he was thirsty enough to have drunk it.

First cupping his hands and slaking his thirst, he next ran the cooling waters about his feverish brow, his sweat-stained skin, rejoicing in its sense of refreshment.

He glanced up towards the waiting gate, grateful for this chance to rest awhile, even though he was aware that this hollowed stone had been placed here solely to satisfy the demands of the lowliest of herds, of animals.

It seemed to him a miracle that it was here, where he needed it most.

But then the great gates of the citadel began to swing shut, to firmly close.

Had the trough appeared here, then, merely to delay him?

 

 

*

Chapter 52

The blood from the prince’s washed wounds swirled within the waters, serpentine in its coiling, writhing like the birthing of a new cosmos in this fluid, sparkling space.

On the breeze that had whispered through the corn, granting it a life that took life, a small leaf flutter by the prince’s head, dropping listlessly into the waters. Floating on the glittering waters, it glittered too, as translucent and bright as an expertly polished emerald.

And within that small leaf, in the way its threaded veins grew and branched and forked, there was the most perfect image of the great tree it had broken free of.

The prince plucked at this little gem, pulling it from the waters, where it still shimmered with dew-like droplets, magnifying each small part of it.

And here, too, the veins branched endlessly, each a minute tree in its own right.

The trees of the generations of man. The branches of the realm of animals. The stems of knowledge. The shoots of everything new.

Another leaf appeared in the water, and another, yet rather than coming in on the wind these were floating up from below, bobbing to the surface.

Peering into the water, the prince saw what could have been the reflection of many hanging branches dipping into the trough: and yet, of course, there was no such tree out here in this barren field that could have created such a reflection.

The more he looked, the more he saw of this tree: a tree growing upside down, and extending far down into the water, where everything became ever darker and unclear.

As he bent to look, the prince caught his own reflection within the water, caught the image of his own long hair drooping into the water like the sobbing boughs of the willow. The brightly coloured gems embedded in his breastplate sparkled amongst it all like miniature, whirling planets.

He had gathered another gem, he saw: the bright green of the heliodor.

The colours blazed within the water, dazzled as they danced. They whirled and spun, drawing the multiple tones together, melding them, merging it all into the purest white light,

So see you Me in yourself, the rippling waters whispered.

It glittered, this pure whiteness, as the moon glimmers when reflected in lakes and streams. And like the leaves, for the briefest of moments it bobbed to the surface.

It was the pearl.

An inconceivable pearl: unless it was spirited into existence right before you.

The prince reached for it – but it slipped farther away from his grasp.

He grabbed for it once more – only for it to yet again keep on falling away from him, dropping deeper and deeper into what now seemed an endless black, even its remarkably bright glimmer rapidly becoming ever dimmer, ever smaller and more insubstantial against the enveloping darkness.

The prince made one final, desperate grasp for the sinking pearl – but he was too late once more, his fingertips coming close to touching it, yet not anywhere close enough to stop it from continue falling farther and farther away from him.

 

 

*

Chapter 53

Urgently, the prince removed his heavy breastplate, his constricting leggings, even his undergarments, all of which could become waterlogged.

Although the trough was obviously far deeper than he had originally supposed, just how deep could it really be?

Taking a deep gulp of air, he slipped into the water, pulling himself deeper with a fierce stroke of his arms, swimming down into the darkness.

He could no longer see even a fragmentary glimmer of the pearl: it had dropped too far into the darkness, obviously.

He plunged deeper into the water, grabbing at the branches of the tree when he sensed the waters trying to drag him back to the surface. He used the tree as if he were climbing it, placing his feet on extensions of the trunk and pushing himself along, grasping at any handholds that would help him pull himself onwards.

In this intense darkness, the ever branching tree could have been a maze, each stem taking him off on the wrong track. Therefore he stuck to the thicker part of the tree, the part he realised that everything else, all these lesser limbs, must have sprung from.

He couldn’t be sure when it dawned on him that he was no longer descending but ascending, climbing up rather than sinking. Neither could he be sure when he had begun breathing naturally once more, the waters having become, it seemed to him, a fluid space of ultimate darkness.

Far ahead of him, at last, he began to catch the first glimmers of his goal, the glittering, pure white light of the sparkling pearl.

It lay, it appeared to him, at the very crown of this immense tree. It was a pearl that could have been of any size now, immense or minute, for it was impossible to judge distances within this darkness.

Around this pearl, there were now other lights too. Glistening like other, lesser jewels studded around this setting of the perfect pearl.

Evermore lights appeared, each one at the end of every dark stem of the tree, a universe of splintered slivers of glass.

The nearer he drew towards the peak of the tree, however, the more the pearl appeared to be once again receding from him. There was growing space, a dark space, between the tree top and the glowing pearl.

When he finally attained the top of the tree, swaying on its precariously thin branches, the pearl hung far above him, as if it were an ever elusive and unapproachable moon. Its embedded gems, each glare as sharp as a thorn, were her crowning of stars.

And the moon and stars were being carried on the back of an ass.

 

 

*

Chapter 54

Fortunately, the ass was unhurriedly walking towards the prince.

Unfortunately, of course, it would never, ever reach him.

The moon shimmered, quickened, becoming at once a white robed man riding upon the back of the ass.

In all am I scattered, and whencesoever thou willest, thou gatherest Me; and gathering Me thou go gatherest thyself.

Somewhere far beyond the heel of the ass, the prince caught the movement of the darkness; a rapidly oncoming presence, revealed by the way stars briefly blinked out of existence as writhing coils passed in front of them.

It slithered its way through the darkness, this even darker presence.

The prince couldn’t allow it to cause the ass to stumble.

What controlled the serpent better than the stone of bright green, the tablets of the designs of everything here on Earth? What could have been the point of collecting this and all the other stones unless its power was there for him to access in a time of dire need like this?

Everything on Earth must obey its laws, its instructions for all earthly materials.

As if viewing it all through the green lens of the stone, the universe was abruptly revealed to him as if on a forever revolving grid, of spheres, of triangles, of ever shifting numbers.

Yet where does such a beast as this Great Wyrm appear on such a great and enormous plan?

There!

The serpent is the universe!

Its shifting swirls.

Its multiple circles.

Its entrapping coils.

Its darkness.

Its beginning.

Its end.

And as soon as the prince recognised this, the serpent grew evermore immense and powerful.

 

 

*

 

 

Of course, the material universe fed on the material.

It was of its own substance, its own design.

How could the prince have been so foolish as to believe Earthly reason and rules would thwart the serpent?

And why, too, was he still applying Earthly reason in this other realm?

He climbed up the very last stem of the tree, and confidently stepped out into the darkness.

 

 

*

Chapter 55

If the ass couldn’t come to him, he would draw close to the ass.

The closer he drew towards the ass, the more the glow suffusing its rider became once more the pearl, one shining as brightly and reflectively as any mirror.

And yet the prince as he thought he was wasn’t reflected there.

Neither did he see, as he once saw when peering curiously into a mirror, his love, his Princess Lorica.

He saw staring back at him, rather, a hart, whose horns curled up as a brightly illuminated crescent moon.

The prince felt the flame burn within his heart, yet he knew it was a flame that would wound him the more it faltered.

The flame whispered amorously. And it is from this that the greatest flames might arise, given the right spark.

At first it was a flickering, a dance of hot flames. Then an enflaming of the darkness, then an inferno, burning all that was material, all that was flesh, away.

And beneath flesh lies souls with no surface, no boundaries.

The serpent writhed once again as it burned, shedding blackened, charred skin after darkened, charcoaled skin.

Yet beneath its flesh, there was no soul.

 

 

*

 

The Lord will add a son.

A whole pearl was now safely encupped within his antlers.

The pearl in which he saw himself was now the light crowning the coiling horn of a unicorn.

He was the light, yet this was perfection.

Urim and Thummin.

But – no.

This wasn’t for him.

‘I have to return,’ the prince said. ‘The people are my body.’

‘This then this is your burden;’ the ass declared bluntly, ‘to deny that which could now so easily be yours.’

 

 

*

Chapter 56

The prince was lying in a pitch-thick darkness.

He sensed he was wearing his clothes, his breastplate.

He was also encased within an incredibly constricting tomb.

With a sense of growing panic, believing himself to have been mistakenly buried alive, the prince frantically pushed up at the large stone sealing his burial casket.

The stone raised at his push, slid aside as he swung his arms.

He breathed in the air, took in the dim light with relief.

He stepped out of the stone trough, seeing around him an alien landscape of the strangest growths, entire fields of glistening green shards.

They were slivers of shattered and scattered heliodor, ranging in size from what could be blades of grass to gigantic meteorites.

He glanced over to where he had last seen the imposing citadel of emerald. Its walls had splintered, revealing once more the old capital he had so hurriedly deserted so long ago.

Within his breastplate, he now had the full complement of glowing stones, the amethyst no longer fragmentary but entirely whole.

 

 

*

 

 

These were the hallways he had run through as a child.

The gardens he had played in.

The rooms where he had been gradually taught the rules of kingship.

Now they were empty of people, everyone either having fled or now lying within the ground, food for wyrms.

Despite the size of the old place, his route to where the queen lay was clearly set out for him.

Immensely long, charred husks of skin lay everywhere, translucent and weirdly beautiful, as deceptively flimsy as the discarded wings of dragons. Within their chaotically warped blackness you could imagine many forms, much as landscapes are conjured up within the realm of clouds.

Here a ferocious wolf, there a foolishly overburdened ass, this a proud lion.

At last the prince came across one a little more substantial that the rest, gathered together about itself like the foolishly long train of a bridal gown, only here as black as funeral garb.

Following this took him through a number of rooms until he arrived – where else? – in the throne room.

At the end of the long, serpentine trail, the queen was sitting limply upon her throne.

She too was nothing but a dried husk of what she had once been, her once ageless beauty gone, her darkness and ugliness unveiled and plain for all to see.

And yet, for the very first time, he recognised and acknowledged the similarities between them. Why had he never seen it before? Because he could never admit that she was a part of him?

As the prince entered the great hall, the queen raised her head proudly, stroking her long, elongated neck as if striking a pose that would display her once renowned beauty at its most perfect angle.

‘Look at me, at what you’ve done!’ she chuckled bitterly. ‘I, who was once so beautiful, beautiful even in heaven: and that, of course, is real beauty!’

The prince saw little point in using his sword to finish her off: she was plainly dying. The only real surprise was that she was still alive, as if she had used what little life she still possessed to wait here for him, intending only to make a final mockery of his achievements.

‘You, you let me have the heliodor, the green stone, didn’t you?’ the prince asked.

She wearily chuckled once more.

‘Ah yes: I must admit, I was impressed when you figured that one out. Though why I bothered, heaven knows! That’s the trouble with this world, though: you cling to it, as it clings to you, even when everything is screaming at you that’s it’s time to go!’

‘My sister said something similar.’

‘Ah yes, poor girl: all my fault too, can you believe that?’

She glanced hatefully at the stones embedded in his breastplate, her ire particularly directed at the third row of gems, the jewels that had never appeared within Samael’s crown.

‘But no, I’m being far too hard on myself: for the fault wasn’t really mine, as I remained unaware of the deliberate limitation of my powers. The black agate: that was missing, so I wouldn’t pass on my royal seed. The Amethyst; that’s the true, received spirit, and obviously I had to be denied that! And the amber? Missing because my future punishment was written into the very fabric of Creation, even though that creation was mine! A creation that I intended would inherit my beauty: not become ugly and corrupt!’

She slumped back within her throne.

‘It’s time you recognised your inheritance, my child; you are blessed yet cursed, for what you flatter yourself you are master of, you only become slave to. Inexorably, I’ve taken on the veil of life, letting into weave into my very being, like some parasitic ivy.’

The prince stared at her quizzically.

‘Because you’ve failed, you believe I must too?’

The queen glared back at him, frowning in disappointment.

‘Ah well,’ she sighed resignedly, ‘I initiated all this: and so I must also finish it – and aptly, my last tale involves circumstances similar to my first.’

 

 

*

Chapter 57

The Shepherd who Married the Moon

 

Once there was a king who had decided that he would marry the Moon.

Not, of course, that he intended to take as his bride the Maiden, the Queen of Heaven

Nor (obviously!) the crone, the old and dying Queen Mother.

Naturally, for a man of his great standing, of his many remarkable achievements, it could only ever be the young, vibrant and brightly glowing princess, the Royal Daughter, whom he could take to be his wife.

His dynasty stemmed from a particularly ancient linage, one stretching all the way back to the very earliest annals of man’s history. And so although innumerable princesses throughout the land constantly presented themselves at his court pleading their love for him, he had determined that the only alliance he would forge would be one with a royal house every bit as esteemed as his own.

Unlike most people on Earth, he had been advised by the wisest in his kingdom regarding the true history of the Moon. And like most people on Earth, he wasn’t aware that the power of the Moon had gradually waned the longer she had stayed to oversee her charges.

Now of course, this powerful king wasn’t the only one who admired this most gorgeous of princesses. There were other suitors, some of whom many would say were far more worthy of her hand.

A rich merchant, a trader of the world’s very finest materials, admired the way she carried herself so elegantly, graced in silken veils the likes of which he knew would cost the combined fortunes of even the largest realms. Her youth and vitality would make the perfect adornment to his own already considerable prestige, he believed, while also being the ideal model for his own wares.

A handsome shepherd boy, however, saw her completely differently.

On a night, the light of her gracious smile gently caressed the sheep in his care, making them glow ethereally; such that they shone in the darkness, making it nigh impossible for them to become lost. Such kindness was remarkable in anyone so esteemed, he had reasoned, for no other princess had smiled down on him in this way – for they regarded him as being only a lowly peasant, incapable of providing for them in times of good fortune, let alone in times of great need.

Not that the king was in anyway troubled by these other suitors.

‘Like you, royal blood flows through my veins,’ he declared proudly to the princess, ‘and so our merging will be a blending of equals.’

Not that the rich merchant was in any way troubled by the declarations of the king.

‘Who but me could keep you in the manner to which you have become accustomed?’ he pointed out to the Royal Daughter. ‘Only I have access to materials made of silk finer and better spun than any spider’s web; only I could ensure your elegance is arrayed in the most fitting of garments.’

Now of course the poor shepherd was seriously troubled by the blandishments of the rich merchant and the king.

‘Sadly, truth be told, I’m little but a shadow in your most gracious of lights,’ the shepherd boy apologised to this child of the Queen of Heaven. ‘I’m almost as lowly and uneducated as the flock I so tenderly care for: their love for me is returned tenfold, but I could never expect my love for you to produce the same results within you.’

The Royal Daughter promised to consider all these proposals carefully before granting her answer to each of them in turn.

To the king, she said:

‘My lineage goes back to before man picked up and shaped a stone to furrow the soil, let alone bore a pen and composed his history. If the coming together of equals is your goal, dear king, then may I suggest you keep your eyes solely upon the Daughters of the Earth?’

To the rich merchant, she said:

‘How could you hope to be even remotely aware of what I have become accustomed to? My veils are of my own creation, there for me to adorn myself within or to shed at my whim: there is no one on Earth, no matter how much you are willing to pay them, capable of weaving even one inch of my coarsest lace.’

To the shepherd, she said:

‘You have spoken far more wisely than you might at first think, good shepherd…’

 

 

*

 

 

Naturally, the shepherd’s heart leapt at the princess’s kind words.

He even dared to let that heart fill with hope as her own heartfelt praise continued.

‘I commend you most fully,’ she declared with her most warming of smiles, ‘for the way you present yourself to the world as a man most thoroughly committed to the importance of honesty and modesty. And so I have decided that the royal marriage shall be yours.’

Once again, the good shepherd’s heart leapt at this truly remarkable turnaround in his fortune.

‘Few men, it seems,’ she continued with her explanation of her decision, ‘seem to appreciate that a woman quite often realises that what she requires most is care, consideration, compassion, and companionship – all of which you quite obviously have in abundance to offer.’

She spoke to him from behind a whispering veil, her brightness too much for him to view safely while so close.

‘Some women may scorn this as being nothing but a crude generalisation, yet even those of my own illustrious family adhere to this universal truth. Naturally, in these circumstances we find ourselves in, I beg you to recognise that my own brightness, were it not veiled, would blind you, would burn you out just as surely as too bright a flame rapidly devours a small candle.

The shepherd had briefly hoped that his betrothed might reveal herself fully to him on their marriage, shedding her bridal veils as any newlywed might. Now it dawned on him that this might not be possible after all.

‘Fortunately for you, good shepherd, as man has observed though the millennia, this brightness naturally wanes as it draws towards the end. Now I recognise that something else troubles you: for it stands to reason, I hope, that when you marry into the most ancient of royal bloodlines, you must be capable of keeping your bride in the manner to which she has become accustomed. Fortunately for you, good shepherd, this will be in no way as difficult as you might have imagined. You will find your royal bride surprisingly far more docile and undemanding than feared, for of course she sleeps throughout the better part of the day.’

As she came to the end of her declaration, the princess drew her many flowing veils completely about her.

‘Yes, yes,’ the Royal Daughter asserted confidently, ‘unlike either me or even her daughter, my most gracious grandmother is a good match for you.’

 

 

*

 

 

Unlike the others, the good shepherd accepted the decision of the Royal Daughter with good grace, despite his belief that he deserved better than this revoltingly ugly old woman.

How, after all, could he refuse? He wouldn’t want the Moon looking down on him unfavourably, would he?

On the day of the wedding, his bride appeared before him in an array of dark, drab, drooping veils more suited to a funeral than a marriage: yet the poor shepherd was grateful for this small mercy, for of course the effect of each one was to more effectively shroud the withered form beneath, helping him curb his revulsion.

As the betrothed couple stood before the altar, however, his bride leant towards him as if to kiss him tenderly, yet instead spoke to him from behind a whispering veil.

‘You have acted far more wisely than you might at first think, good shepherd…’

 

 

*

 

 

On their wedding night, the handsome shepherd prepared to spurn any advances the darkly veiled old crone might make towards him.

Rather than directly approaching the marriage bed, however, the old woman spoke honestly to the quite obviously distraught young man.

‘I cannot lie to you, good shepherd,’ she began earnestly, ‘for I hope it is obvious to you that I have in fact been cursed: I can only appear to the world as a beautiful maiden for only half of my life – and as for the rest, it must necessarily be as an old and withered crone.’

The shepherd’s heart leapt as he listened to this disclosure with growing interest.

He had heard many tales of magic like this: where a hideous crone admits to a husband fooled into marriage that he has in fact taken a cursed fay as wife, a nymph who would otherwise be of the most surpassing beauty.

‘Fortunately for you, good shepherd,’ the crone continued, ‘I am allowed to choose exactly when I am beautiful and when it is charged that I must be hideous. And so now, as my husband, I make that choice yours; would you prefer me beautiful throughout the day, or throughout your nights?’

Now the shepherd’s heart truly leapt: what a remarkable reversal in his fortunes!

It was a dilemma, most assuredly.

Of course, if she were hideous on a night, he would recoil from her as they lay abed. Throughout the day, however, he would ironically be the most envied man on Earth, with a wife seen to be beyond all norms of beauty.

If she were hideous throughout the day, he would be mocked for his foolishness and ineptness at taking such an old witch as his wife: yet on a night, heaven would be his!

Thankfully, the good shepherd didn’t really require any time to think this quandary through: for hadn’t Sir Gawain, presented with the very same problem, assuredly declared that he would graciously allow the maiden to retain her gift of choice – for it would be unfair on him to turn it all purely to his own advantage.

‘You have chosen far more wisely than you might at first think, good shepherd,’ the old crone would declare, as she had indeed, in almost similar words, within the tale of Sir Gawain and his hideous bride!

‘For what does a woman desire more than sovereignty over her own affairs? And so you have broken the cursed spell, my choice being that I will remain as the fairest maiden on Earth for all time!’

‘The choice shall remain yours, my love,’ the good shepherd declared most assuredly to the old crone.

Beneath her dark veil, he was sure he caught the old crone gratefully smiling.

‘You have chosen far more wisely than you might at first think, good shepherd…’

 

 

*

 

 

The miserable shepherd would watch on a night as his angelically beautiful wife soared into the heavens, where for all on Earth to see she would shamelessly dally with the gods.

Thankfully, he would only be able to watch for so long before sleep took him, the inescapable result of the day’s hard toils, sparing him the ignominy of being a witness to his own wife’s affairs with her many lovers.

He slept, fortunately, despite the tide of anger and betrayal that endlessly surged and blazed within him, blinding him to all normal cares.

Throughout the day, when he remained incapable of sleep, the agonies of his enflaming resentment and indignation tore at him, such that his flock was dispersed, eaten by wolves, or caught up in the most fearful storms they were unable to seek shelter from.

Throughout the day, too, he had to put aside time to take care of his hideous wife.

She might be old, might be drawing ever closer to the time when she would (finally!) die, yet there was still enough of that royal blood flowing through her to cause him trouble if he foolishly allowed her to wither away all the more rapidly.

This had been her choice, of course.

No ‘cursed spell’ had been shattered!

She had declared most assuredly that she would remain as an old crone throughout the day, when he of course would always be on hand to take care of her needs.

On a night, she would regain her beauty however: regain too, her rightful place in the heavens, the playground of the gods!

Here her thoroughly brazen behaviour scandalised anyone who saw her, anyone who heard of her exploits.

Shame and envy remorselessly slashed relentlessly at his inner self, shredding – it seemed – his very soul.

How could she treat him so basely?

Did he really deserve to have been made such a fool of in this way?

He who, throughout his life, had always been so caring of others, so compassionate, so righteous in his behaviour and attitude to all others!

And he had virtually thrown away all that lifetime of blameless conduct when he had been foolish enough to accept an old tale as irrefutable wisdom!

So although some people would mistakenly claim that a darkness had obviously descended upon him, deep within his heart he recognised that his own foolishness had brought him to this level.

How much longer, he reassured himself, would he have to take care of the old crone anyway, when she was obviously so close to dying?

 

 

*

 

 

Although she always seemed ever so close to dying, such that the good shepherd was even given to frequently hoping she might pass on that very day, the old crone never actually seemed to age.

She never, indeed, seemed to change in the slightest.

She was just always…old.

Naturally, the young shepherd wasn’t blessed (or should that be cursed?) in this way.

Like any man, he aged naturally.

When he glanced in a pool, he saw that his own looks were fading.

When he ran to save a sheep from falling, it was made plain to him that his own vigour was waning.

When he had facts and figures to determine, the struggling it entailed reliably informed him that his own sharpness of mind had become dulled.

Rather than seeking out adventure, he now sought out and appreciated only the calmer moments in life.

Rather than mulling relentlessly over past insults, he controlled his once burning, blinding rage, it dawning on him at last that this caused him far deeper harm than the original slight ever could.

Rather than blaming others for his problems, he saw that he was at least master over his own attitude to them, and thereby he could transform them in an instant into difficulties he could either attempt to deal with or could forget and ignore.

In this way, he began to appreciate the calmness and steadfastness the Old Queen had brought to his life.

The way she hushed him, brought ease to him when he was troubled, made him sit back and rest and relax as opposed to trying to do far too much all at once.

On an evening now, they would sit and watch the play of the planets together.

Laughing at the supposed antics of warring Mars, the overly flirtatious Evening Star, the taciturn, leaden Saturn.

‘Remember,’ the Queen said one evening with a knowing chuckle, ‘when you were always so enraged, failing to realise you were only at war with yourself?’

And at moments like this, he would catch the bright and vivacious young girl that still lay beneath the husks, the veils: there was the warm smile, there the joyful sparkle in the eyes.

She was beautiful, after all.

She was the most serene woman he had ever known.

How could he ever have failed to notice this?

And one evening, as they sat watching the stars, the old shepherd reached for her hand and declared most assuredly;

‘I love you.’

 

 

*

 

 

‘How did you know I chose wisely?’ the old shepherd tenderly asked his wife, this unusually dark Queen of Heaven.

‘The choice was always yours to make; and so you would choose what was right for you. The misery you suffered was, in the end, something you could always walk away from – as soon as you recognised it was of your own making. ’

She had brought to him recognition that the darkness hadn’t descended upon him, as he had supposed, but had lain hidden deep within him, clouding his judgement, his observation of everything he saw, heard, touched, smelled or tasted.

With a knowing chuckle, the wise shepherd glanced up at the glorious brightness of the new moon.

‘Whereas she would have left me burnt out to a husk, more peeved and vexed than I could ever hope to handle.’

He felt the grip of his wife tighten tenderly about his hand: and when he looked towards her once more, he wondered just how wise he really was.

Freed at last of the blinding burn of self-righteous anger, looking at her anew, he saw that within her darkness, the darkness he’d finally recognised as been his, there was, after all, the faintest sliver of light.

A thin crescent, a sickle moon.

And looking at it this way, it wasn’t the last, final glow of a waning moon.

For although he wasn’t aware of when it had happened, it had been turned around.

It was a new glow, a shard of youth, a bright and glorious light.

And the Royal Daughter kissed him lovingly as he slipped into an ageless slumber.

And, of course, the princess lived happily ever after.

 

 

End

 

 

 

 

If you enjoyed reading this book, you might also enjoy (or you may know someone else who might enjoy) these other books by Jon Jacks.

 

The Caught – The Rules – Chapter One – The Changes – Sleeping Ugly

The Barking Detective Agency – The Healing – The Lost Fairy Tale

A Horse for a Kingdom – Charity – The Most Beautiful Things (Now includes The Last Train)

The Dream Swallowers – Nyx; Granddaughter of the Night – Jonah and the Alligator

Glastonbury Sirens – Dr Jekyll’s Maid – The 500-Year Circus – The Desire: Class of 666

P – The Endless Game – DoriaN A – Wyrd Girl – The Wicker Slippers

Heartache High (Vol I) – Heartache High: The Primer (Vol II) – Heartache High: The Wakening (Vol III)

Miss Terry Charm, Merry Kris Mouse & The Silver Egg – The Last Angel – Eve of the Serpent

Seecrets – The Cull Dragonsapien – The Boy in White Linen – Porcelain Princess – Freaking Freak

Died Blondes – Queen of all the Knowing World The Truth About Fairies – Lowlife

Elm of False Dreams God of the 4^th^ Sun A Guide for Young Wytches

The Wendygo House – Americarnie Trash

 

 

 


An Incomparable Pearl

  • ISBN: 9781311974891
  • Author: Jon Jacks
  • Published: 2015-11-12 14:50:20
  • Words: 64543
An Incomparable Pearl An Incomparable Pearl