|The Queen of the Dawn
Author: Claremonty PM
Cursed by the Queen of the Dawn with impossible desire, Prince Hal of the Green Isles will risk the most precious thing of all, his honor, on a quest to find the edge of the world and the secret of immortality.Rated: Fiction T - English - Romance/Horror - Chapters: 7 - Words: 14,427 - Reviews: 12 - Favs: 2 - Follows: 1 - Updated: 05-18-13 - Published: 01-10-13 - id: 3090986
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
5/18/13 A/N: If you have read this story prior to 5/18/13 please note that I have made extensive revisions, especially in this chapter, Part I. Before reading Part VII, please consider (re)reading Part I first. Part VII will make a lot more sense. :) This story is told more or less in the style of a fairytale. It was inspired by Arthurian legends and other medieval European folklore, "Tithonus" (1859), a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, as well as the ancient Greek myth about the goddess of the dawn, Eos or Aurora, and her mortal lover Prince Tithonus of Troy.
In all the West there was no kingdom more glorious than the Green Isles. Bountiful fields and shores, verdant hills and leafy woodlands fostered well-fed peasants, prosperous tradesmen, gallant nobles and a majestic royal court. Peace had blessed the country for many years and the people loyally supported their wise and gentle ruler, King Harold.
Throughout the realm the king was praised for ending the dark days of civil war, and the famine and plague war bred. Yet it was King Harold's heir, Crown Prince Hal, who the pubic adored most of all. They loved the young prince as they had loved the late queen. The lady died trying to bring another son into the world when Hal was just five years old. The grief-stricken Harold vowed to the spirits he would never remarry, and Hal, the couple's only living child, became the sole vessel for the kingdom's hopes for the future.
King Harold treasured his son more than anyone. But he had a country to govern. The precious boy was entrusted to the care of the queen's old nurse and royal servants. These attendants were rarely further than a holler away, yet Hal often felt isolated. This was especially true during the sowing and harvest seasons when the nobles left the court to oversee their estates. On frosty spring mornings, while peasants in the countryside tilled the soil, the little prince explored the castle by himself. Then in autumn, as the rural folk spent the last warm afternoons of the year reaping the grain, the boy lingered in the empty great hall gazing at the fine tapestries hung on either side of the hearth.
Little Hal was enchanted by the vivid depictions of lone heroes conquering evil. The story of the Green Knight and the dragon covered the northern wall, woven in emerald-colored silk and silver thread. On the southern side loomed the legendary hunting contest between the Red Prince and the Lord of the Dead. When Hal wasn't imagining himself as the Green Knight, slaying the monstrous dragon, he was dreaming he was the Red Prince, taking down a white stag with a single arrow, then a black bear, and finally, a magnificent long-necked golden bird with a scarlet crest.
The royal boy grew to be a strikingly handsome young man. Prince Hal's twinkling blue-green eyes, chestnut hair and playful smile charmed courtly ladies and village maidens alike. And he was not only fine to look at; he was strong and skilled in the arts of combat. Since he learned to walk he had trained diligently with the most accomplished masters in the Isles.
At the age of nineteen he won the grand tournament and was hailed as the champion of the land. King Harold gave the prince a sword with three emeralds set into the hilt to honor his victory. The gems, like the three green stars on the royal coat of arms, symbolized the three large islands that made up the kingdom.
To his subjects Prince Hal appeared to have everything a person could wish for. Yet for him, as his twentieth birthday approached, life at court had become unsettling and unpleasant. King Harold believed conflict would arise among the noble families were he to betroth the prince to a lady of the realm. Rather than weaken the peace he sought a foreign alliance sealed with a royal marriage.
Every week a new emissary arrived singing of the beauty of a distant princess. Whispers trailed the songs, claiming the potential bride was actually a newborn infant or an aged crone, that she had secret deformities or practiced barbaric customs. No one consulted the prince on the matter, which heightened his dread he would be tied for life to a stranger he could never love.
Hal went to his father with his concerns. He begged permission to sail east to the continent to select a suitable wife for himself. He longed to journey beyond the Green Isles and see the wonders of the world. He argued that learning the ways of different peoples would make him a better ruler. If war came with one of the kingdoms across the sea he would have to lead the invasion. How could he prevail without knowledge of the inhabitants and terrain?
The king listened, his brows tightening when Hal mentioned war and invasion; then he refused his son's request. He explained that the risk was too great. If the dynasty's sole heir failed to return the shadow of civil war would again cast the islands into darkness. He reminded Hal of the folly of the Red Prince. Having won immortality from the Lord of the Dead, the Red Prince believed no quest was impossible. He sailed off into the rising sun in search of the edge of the world and the palace of the Queen of the Dawn, and was never seen again.
The king entreated his son to have patience. The lands of the Green Isles were the finest beneath the heavens. No country came closer to paradise. In the years to come Hal would realize this and his wish to explore exotic shores would fade into nothing, like smoke from a dead fire.
Harold also advised Hal to ignore rumors spread by hushed voices in dimly lit chambers. There were factions among the nobles who hated the idea of a foreigner as their next queen. These lords hoped their dishonorable lies would cause the king to reverse his decision and choose one of their daughters to wed the prince.
Hal wasn't soothed by his father's words. He worried when he became ruler he would exhaust his days rooting out hidden plots instead of performing valiant deeds or devising daring battle plans. He feared he would not be able to trust anyone.
Hunting afforded a refuge from the intrigue encircling the throne. Spring bled into summer and the prince was increasingly found afield rather than within his father's castle. Joining him were his close companions, the lords Stephen and Edmund, sons of his uncles, heirs to the dukedoms of the North Isle and the West Isle.
One afternoon, searching for game in the hills with his entourage, Hal spied a large bird with glimmering gold feathers and a scarlet crest. The creature looked so similar to the bird in the tapestry that he imagined it must have magically sprung from the weaving and escaped from the castle. He prayed to the Spirit of the Hunt while he fit the nock of an arrow to the string of his bow.
"Damn!" yelled the prince. The shot fell short.
His shout summoned his cousin Stephen. "My lord, it's not right to curse the spirits. They are not at fault. I saw the bird. Your aim was off." Stephen demonstrated the angle he would have chosen. "You didn't account for the wind."
"The wind changed, Cousin." Hal took most of Stephen's arrows. "The bird will be my trophy, if I must chase it to the edge of the world," swore the prince while securing the belt which held his quiver and scabbard.
Stephen glanced at the sky. "There isn't time to journey to the edge of the world today, my lord. The sun will soon set and his grace, your father–"
Hal cut him off, "You return to the castle, with Edmund and the men." The prince dashed in the direction the bird had flown. "Don't follow," he called back. "This is mine!"
Hal felt certain the chase was a test, a challenge sent by the spirits. If he succeeded fate would grant him a bride of unequaled beauty and a reign of honor and conquest; if he failed, his future would be gray and dismal, bound by duty, yet devoid of love and glory.
He ran until his breath thinned to a thread and he was forced to rest. He stopped at the edge of the king's wood. Regaining his strength, he peered into the forest. "If I were a bird, this would be a good place to roost..." His heart soared. His prize was perched on a branch. He had a clear sighting; he drew his bowstring.
A ragged old man hobbled into the path of his arrow before he could shoot. The man wailed and waved a gnarled staff at the bird until the animal flew off into the trees.
The young prince angrily reproached the old man, "Peasant! I should cut you down where you stand!" Hal was incensed. He had been so close to felling his target and gaining all he desired. "How dare you disturb the king's wood and quarry!"
"My lord, I humbly beg your pardon," said the aged man. He leaned on his walking stick and bent his warped frame in deference. "But your lordship must end his chase. The golden crane is sacred to Aurora, the Queen of the Dawn. He who harms it shall be cursed."
"Mind your ways, old man. A prince does not take orders from a villein. I do as I will!" Hal gripped the hilt of his sword. "Never again trespass upon the king's land. If I hear of it or discover you myself, you will suffer worse than a curse."
"Strike me dead now, my lord, if it pleases you." The old man raised one cracked, calloused hand above the other on his cane and pulled himself to a stand. "This is the shortest way to my home from the village and my old bones are crooked from working the land for many years. I shall not take the longer route. As it is, the agony of each step is more than I can bear. Your lordship's quick blade would bring sweet deliverance."
"Do you mock me? For I am in my rights." The prince glared at the peasant. Insolence from such a lowly subject was intolerable.
"One day, my young sir, you may wake to find the hours have wasted your mortal shell." A smirk rent the churl's coarse features with webs of creases. "For even princes wither. Then you too may seek release from the pain and ailments of age."
"I shall never grow old like you. I shall die in glorious battle. If not in this kingdom, conquering another!" The gleam of a golden feather pulled Hal back to the hunt. "I tarry too long with you, old fool."
Rays from the sinking sun filtered through the leaves, kindling the crane's gilded plumage as it flitted through the forest. Peasants did not understand the nature of princes, thought Hal as he pursued his prey deep into the woods. The Queen of the Dawn would rightly punish a common poacher. The golden crane was the most noble of creatures, only the most noble of men was worthy of taking it.
Hal's pride did not help him attain his purpose; he launched arrow after arrow in vain. Each time he fired too late. The creature vanished into the foliage a moment before his arrow struck, then reappeared a dozen paces ahead. Hal was determined to track the crane forever, if he had to, but night fell and it became too dark to see. Sore and fatigued, he lay against the trunk of an ancient elm and slept.
A wavering cry awoke him. There were strange light patterns on his hands. Golden beams sifted through the boughs overhead. His eyes quickly locked onto the source of the glow. It was the crane, its feathers were shining. A second trill came from its throat. Hal snatched his bow and sprang to his feet. He released a shot but the bird again evaded his arrow.
He chased the shimmering form, weaving through trees dyed indigo by the thick blackness, until he came to the bank of a large lake. Without the forest canopy it was far easier to see. The still surface of the water reflected streams of stars poking through the violet night. The brightest among them, the Morning Star, arced above, growing bigger and more dazzling as it climbed to the zenith of the sky.
The prince did not let the celestial splendor distract him from his goal. He located his target hovering over the center of the lake and let his arrow fly.
An unearthly cry pierced the night. Light broke from the heavens, surrounding the crane. Its body stretched vertically; its wings lengthened and broadened. Hal squinted at the brightness. His eyes hurt but he could not turn away from the burning transformation. The changing form took on the contours of a woman. The peasant's warning flared in his thoughts, "Sacred to Aurora, the Queen of the Dawn..."
The prince wanted to run, but eyes like twin suns held him still as stone. His mind whirled. What would she do to him? The Queen of the Night changed men into animals. Was he about to become the hunted? Was his neck stretching? Were sprouting feathers cutting his skin?
Furious winds spun from enormous blazing wings. His old nurse had told him Aurora lured young shepherds onto mountain cliffs on warm summer nights. Their bodies were found smashed, leaving the rocks of the valleys below stained with their blood. Was the Queen going to pull him into the sky and then hurl him to the earth?
Violent gusts buffeted his head, yet he remained standing, unable to move. She swept towards him, breaking night into fiery day. The light was blinding. The air around her boiled. Sweat beaded on his face.
"How proud you are." Her words rang from every direction.
Terror jolted the prince. He shut his eyes against the searing brilliance and dropped to his knees. "Great lady..." He sounded brittle. "Queen of spirits." Clasping the scabbard he offered his weapon. "Take my sword. For my offense, I forfeit my life."
"We have no need of swords," answered a chorus of voices. "We use other means to take our prey."
The prince bent lower to the ground. "I am unworthy of your mercy. I ask only that death come swiftly, like an arrow to the heart. I do not wish to linger."
"You may not wish to live, Prince of the Green Isles, but it is not your time to die." The choir merged into a single, intimate voice. "Rise." Airy fingers lifted his chin; currents funneled around him, unbending his spine until he stood. "Your arrow hit its mark. But such a wound cannot kill us. We are immortal." Torrents cycled up his legs and crushed his ribs. "We will show you what we are, what we see."
Whistling feathers whipped the wind as the ground fell away. Hal unclenched his eyes and saw his father's kingdom shrink to a clump of turf jutting into a blue-green strip of water. Then countless ports and towns blurred below, followed by marshlands and rivers, snow-cloaked mountains and a wide ash-gray desert. Abruptly the land ended. A small village clung to cliffs that crumbled into a blue emptiness that stretched to forever.
Higher and higher, the cold air cracked the insides of his nostrils. A burning finger brushed his cheek, singeing tiny hairs. "See our kingdom," she said. Shining turrets parted rose-colored clouds. A glittering palace crowned a vast magnificent citadel that spanned the horizon. Hal's blood surged; his breath faltered.
Beyond titanic walls of translucent marble, horses with manes of fire galloped across lush meadows. An orchard of silver trees yielded crimson gem-like fruit. Alabaster terraces supported crystal flowing fountains girded by gardens bursting with prismatic blooms.
"Two towers rise." The Queen's melodic chords made Hal's sinews hum. A vertiginous turret with pointed arches rushed towards him. Inside were two gleaming thrones. "We can see eternity. The threads of time, the fate of empires, the shift of epochs." The chairs' luster outshone the sun. "There is another chamber..."
Gold and saffron colored silks billowed from a second spire. Glimpses of feathers and bronze skin flashed beyond the rippling cloth. Shifting cries wound around his ears. The winds encircling him whirred faster. Heat built within him. Was the lower voice his own? Pressure surged. He had to rip the silken curtains away; he had to see what lay inside.
Aurora's burning eyes eclipsed the chamber. "Here is your arrow to the heart!"
Hal cried out as a stabbing sensation inflamed his breast.
"The strike will not kill you," she said. The rending music of her voice and the vicious beauty of her stare sharpened his suffering. His chest was splitting apart. "You will fill with longing for what you cannot have," the Queen intoned. "You shall have no rest, no succor, until you enter our realm that drifts off the edge of the world."
The whirling currents released him. Golden wings shot into the heavens. Hal hurtled downwards. A dark abyss gaped below. Would he fall endlessly? Would he sink through the bowels of the earth to forever plumb the limitless depths of the Realm of the Dead?
Hard ground broke his fall. His head hit dirt. He pushed himself up off the forest floor and squinted at the morning sun cutting through the branches of the old elm tree. Familiar smells and sounds assured him he'd returned to his father's dominion. The elm was as solid as the previous night. There was no evidence proving his harrowing adventure was anything other than a dream, until one of his arrows crunched beneath his boot. He found beside it a golden feather.
Shouts of joy resounded when the prince emerged from the forest. A search party of a thousand men had been scouring the land since first light. The king and all the court were so happy and relieved Hal was safe not one soul rebuked him when he returned to the castle.
The day happened to be his birthday. That evening, from the kitchen girls to the high lords, everyone celebrated the turn of the prince's twentieth year; everyone except Prince Hal. The great hall no longer seemed great in his eyes. His father's castle was small and crude compared to the palace in the clouds. Noble maidens gazed at him with wet lashes as they danced the carols, yet not a one set off the faintest spark in his heart.
Later that night, alone in his chambers, he pulled out the feather he'd kept secretly in his tunic throughout the festivities. It glittered in the candlelight. An hour before sunrise he stole quietly from his rooms disguised as a commoner with a rough woolen cloak concealing his sword and finely wrought mail. Crossing the great hall he passed a retinue of sleeping knights clumped around the hearth.
Smells of spilled wine, stale ale and mutton bones flavored the air. Even the dogs must have gotten into the drink for not a hound barked or whimpered. A log split in the hearth, cracking the silence and halting Hal's steps. But no one stirred. The fire leapt, briefly illuminating the tapestries. He glimpsed the outlines of the Green Knight on his his white steed driving his silver lance into the heart of the dragon; the Red Prince taking aim at the golden bird flickered on the opposite wall. Hal tied up a leather sack containing arrows, sundry supplies and gold coin, slung his bow over his shoulder and left his father's castle. He was unsure he would ever return.
By midday he was sailing east on a merchant ship. Patting the golden feather, tucked within his underclothes next to his heart, he gazed out at the sea. The song of the crane chimed in his thoughts as he yearned to glimpse the citadel of the Queen of the Dawn glinting through the clouds.
But he was far from the edge of the world. When the boat laid anchor in a port city on the eastern side of the sea he rushed ashore. He hired horses and a veteran guide and tore up dusty roads in his hurry.
At night, unable to sleep, he marveled at the feather. Often after less than an hour's rest, he would hold it up to catch the sun's first rays. The barbs blazed brighter day by day as the prince and his guide traveled further east.
They trudged over marshlands and braved steep passes through the mountains. The hired scout complained rarely, despite the relentless pace Prince Hal demanded. But the older man did wonder what compelled his young master to venture such a long way from his homeland.
One night they saw a fiery streak in the sky. The two watched the strange brilliance burn a path across the horizon. Hal wondered aloud if the red star could be seen from the battlements of his father's castle. The guide then asked, "My lord, why do you journey so far from the Green Islands? Why seek the end of the earth?"
"I must find the realm of the Queen of the Dawn," answered Prince Hal.
"But no man can reach her kingdom. It is said her palace is in the clouds."
"It is. I have seen it. She showed me."
"You have looked upon the Queen of the Dawn? Yet you live?" The seasoned scout was incredulous.
"I saw her eyes. Everything I've ever wanted…in her eyes." The prince produced the golden feather. It sparkled in the moonlight. "I can see them burning, even now as I speak. Her curse tears my heart. She waits for me within those shining towers. I must get there somehow. I shall have no rest until I do."
Once the grassy plains became dry desert the guide told the prince he could go no further. The desolate ash-gray sands were uncharted. The scout claimed no one who set off to cross them ever came back. Hal was undeterred. He moved on with just one horse and less than a week's worth of food and water.
The heat during the day was blistering. The prince, melting in his mail, stripped down to his doublet and braies. With nightfall came little comfort. The moonrise brought a chill that froze icicles on his horse's nose. His supplies quickly dwindled and his steed succumbed to frothing spasms. He lost track of time and could not tell dawn from dusk. Then he collapsed, clutching the golden feather.