In all the West there was no kingdom more glorious than the Green Isles. Bountiful fields and shores, verdant hills and 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 public 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 away than the child's small voice could carry, yet Hal often felt alone. 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. 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 images of lone heroes conquering evil. The story of the Green Knight and the dragon covered one wall, woven in emerald-colored silk and silver thread. On the other 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 to save his lady fair, 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 handsome young man. Prince Hal's bright 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 standard that flew atop the castle, 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, he found life at court increasingly unpleasant and unsettling. 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.
Emissaries began arriving, each 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's chambers to discuss his concerns. The wolfhounds started barking before he rapped on the door. The king commanded the dogs to cease and called in his son. As Hal crossed the room the giant hounds padded by his side, licking the palms of his hands.
Harold sat in his great chair by the small soot stained hearth. "Good evening, Son." The king's eyes were rimmed with red from the smoky fire.
"Father," Hal began. "I have a request."
"Let's hear it."
"Grant me permission to sail east to the continent."
Harold turned from the fire. "My boy, now is not the time for foolish ventures. You are soon to be married."
"I am willing to wed." Hal stood by his father's arm. "But why can't I find a suitable wife myself? I have always longed to see the world beyond these islands, the wonders of faraway places..."
"Son, these islands are the only wonders worth seeing. Our kingdom is the finest beneath the heavens. No country comes closer to paradise."
"But father, I will be king someday–"
"Praise the spirits." Harold tossed venison scraps to the hounds.
"Learning the ways others rule will make me a better ruler."
"Very true." The king's bushy gray brows bore down on his blue-green eyes. "Study the histories. You will gain far more wisdom exploring the tales of old, learning from the rulers of the past, than gadding about, squandering your youth in foreign lands."
"Father, what if war comes with one of the kingdoms across the sea? I will have to lead the invasion." Hal saw the gray brows draw tight as he spoke the words 'war' and 'invasion', yet he continued, "How can our forces prevail if we know nothing about the inhabitants and terrain?"
King Harold sucked in his lips and rose from his chair. "War does not come without provocation. A good ruler does not provoke other states, through aggression or weakness, and he pays more heed to troubles at home than unknown threats from afar." Harold picked up a poker and jabbed at one of the logs. "Your marriage will forge an alliance with the continent. Alliances prevent wars."
"If you won't let me choose my wife, at least allow me to cross the sea to find out what she looks like!" Hal shouted at his father's back.
Harold swung around and faced his son. "The risk is too great! You are the sole heir. If you fail to return– that will bring war! My boy, it was not so long ago that war raged through these islands. Brothers killed brothers, fathers and sons slew each other, the peasants who didn't die from disease starved."
"But I will return!"
"We cannot be sure of that. Think of the folly of the Red Prince."
"The Red Prince? What folly? No man has ever been as wise and clever as he." Hal moved between his father and the fire. "He outwitted the Lord of the Dead and won immortality."
"Do you know the rest of the story?" asked Harold.
"The Red Prince grew proud. He believed no quest was impossible. So 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."
"But he still lives. He may yet return."
"He disappeared and left no son, no heir. Our kingdom suffered civil war for a hundred years!"
Hal turned away and watched sparks burst from the log as the fire consumed it.
The king sank back into the large oak chair. "Before you were born, the only harvest was corpses rotting in the fields." Sadness weighed his words. "It is war within the kingdom you need to worry about. The continent will never attack while we are strong." One of the dogs licked Harold's wrist. "I know you've heard things about your bride to be. That is what brought you here tonight." The king cupped the hound's snout, then brushed its flank. "My boy, you must ignore rumors spread by whisperers in dark corners. There are factions who hate the idea of a foreigner as queen. They want me to advance their houses and marry you to one of their daughters."
Hal had heard enough. "I will do as you command, Father." He walked slowly to the door.
"Have patience, Son," came the king's voice, blending with the crackle from the fire. "You will grow older and then you will see. You will appreciate the beauty and the bounty…It is the greatest privilege to reign over the Green Isles. This wish to explore exotic shores, it will fade, like smoke from a dead fire."
Prince Hal wasn't soothed by his father's words. He feared when he became ruler he would exhaust his days rooting out hidden plots, instead of performing valiant deeds. "Will I be able to trust anyone?" he wondered.
Hunting afforded a refuge from the intrigue encircling the throne. Spring bled into summer and the prince was more often found afield than within his father's castle. Joining him were his close companions, Edmund and Stephen, first sons of his uncles. They would one day serve him as lords of the West Isle and the North 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 Hal. 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.
Prince Hal 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. "How dare you disturb the King's hunting grounds 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 yew tree 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. Hal noticed the brightest among them, the Morning Star, looked different. Blazing fiery red, it grew bigger and more dazzling as it climbed to the zenith of the sky.
The prince did not let the celestial splendor distract him for long. He located his target hovering over the center of the lake and let his arrow fly.
An unearthly cry pierced the night. Brilliance surrounded the crane. Its body stretched vertically; its wings lengthened and broadened. Hal squinted at the light. His eyes hurt but he could not turn away from the burning transformation. The blazing winged shape was 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 through 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 brightness 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.
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 Hal's legs, crushing his ribs as they lifted him into the air.
"We will show you what we are, what we see."
Feathers whistled in the wind as the ground fell away. Hal unclenched his eyes and saw the South Isle of his father's kingdom shrink to a clump of turf jutting into a blue-green strip of water. Then countless ports along the coast of the continent blurred below. He glimpsed sprawling towns at the feet of great castles followed by marshlands and rivers, snow-cloaked mountains, broad grasslands 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 he rose into the bright sky. 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 golden 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 fountains girded by gardens bursting with prismatic blooms.
"Two towers rise." The Queen's melodious chords made Hal's sinews hum. A crystal 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..."
Golden 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? 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 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 yew tree. Familiar smells and sounds assured him he'd returned to his father's dominion. The yew 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 got 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 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 and silver coin. Then he slung his bow over his shoulder and left his father's castle. He was unsure he would ever return.
A silver coin bought him passage on a small, crusty ship carrying wool to an Iberian port on the continent. Fair winds filled the sails and by sunset he could see the coast. Patting the golden feather, tucked within his clothes next to his heart, he gazed into the distance. 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 the strange port city the following morning, Prince Hal rushed ashore. The ship's captain directed him to a seaside tavern where he hired horses and a veteran guide. Hal did not waste a moment admiring the colorful tiles that adorned even the humblest dwelling; nor did he stretch his ear to understand what the dark men around him were saying in their guttural accents. He ordered the man he'd hired to mount his horse and the two riders tore up dusty roads hurrying from the town.
At night, unable to sleep, Hal 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 through marshes and braved steep passes slick with ice to get over the mountains. The scout complained rarely, despite the relentless pace Prince Hal demanded. The older man guessed his young master was from the Green Isles from his speech and grew curious what compelled him to venture such a long way from his homeland.
Late one night, after they had come down from the mountains and moved into open grasslands, the two men were awoken by a fiery radiant which lit up the sky. It was the Morning Star, burning with the same red brilliance it had the night Hal met the Queen.
The sound of beating wings buffeted Hal's ears. "Is she here? Will I see her?" He sucked in air and slowly let it out. The fiery Morning Star faded away as day dawned. The wings stirring around them belonged only to a flock of swan. Aurora did not appear.
"I wonder if the watchmen could see that star from the battlements of my father's castle." The prince's throat was dry and his speech was thin and wavered like a reed in a strong wind.
The guide asked, "My lord, are you from the Green Isles?"
"Yes. My father is King."
"Why do you journey so far from your kingdom? Why seek the end of the earth?"
"I must find the realm of the Queen of the Dawn," Hal answered.
"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 brought out 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."
Many days passed and the grassy plains became dry desert. The guide told the prince he could go no further. The desolate ash-colored sands of the Gray Desert 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 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.
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