"The trick," Sala said, "lies in knowing what it is that thy heart truly desires."
The two women, (at seventeen years, Elustriel was barely so, though Sala was solidly so) sat cross-legged on a simple, cotton blanket next to the sea. Between them, and in the center of the blanket, a white, waxen pillar flickered in the balmy breeze. A large, gray moth made graceful circles round the candle as they watched.
Everything about this moment seemed crystal clear; the white light of a million stars and the full moon against the velvet sky, the salty, brine smell of the ocean, the easy sound of the waves drifting in to caress the coastline... Even the veins coursing through the moth's dusky wings like tiny rivers, all were perfectly clear. Still, Elustriel felt nothing if not confusion.
This was but a moment in time... one fleeting second witnessed by heavens that had existed for eons beyond eons. What majesty these stars had seen! The birth of this world and the formation of the mountains and the seas, the light of the first day when the Gods let loose the fiery sun into the sky; that same sun that bore witness to an hundred wars, and an equal number of victories and defeats, to feast and to famine, and to both great love and great enmity between the races and throughout the days.
And now the inane song of this insect. Mesmerized by the light of the candle, it seemed oblivious to the danger of the flame. Instead it fluttered about mindlessly, darting in and out like a dragon-slayer tempting some foul wyrm to cast down its killing fire. And as it flutterd, it sang this song:
Pretty, pretty, pretty
Pretty am I, pretty are thee!
Come closer, my Pretty,
We'll have a dance, one perfect dance,
Next to the pretty sea!
Elustriel waved her arms as the moth flew too close to her head, becoming tangled in her dark, red hair. It struggled wildly for a second, and then freeing itself, made toward the candle again.
Absently, she stroked the thin, silver circlet that emcompassed her head.
"But Sala, how can my heart desire anything where this creature is concerned? What has an insect to do with the running of a kingdom?"
Summers with Sala were always a curious mixture of frustration and delight as she tried desperately to learn the business of servitude towards her people. Here in Alderny, by the sea, she was allowed to shed the courtly and oppressive garments of the castle and don the simple clothing of country folk. Her feet, more often bare here than not, rejoiced in the absence of slippers, though they be made of the finest leather. And Sala, patient master and good friend, preferred to lead her gently towards enlightenment, rather than pushing and prodding and demanding such as others at court were wont to do. Still the lessons must be learned and for all that she tried, some days were the better, others a dismal waste of time.
And though King Aland's court in Chesny was not nearly as formal as those of other Kings, it was here in Alderny that the true moments of Elustriel's childhood spun out. Here, she could forget that she was a princess and run slip-shod through the hills with other children or lift her skirts and run barefoot through the surf, laughing at the tiny fish that came to nibble on her bare toes. In this place she was able to cast off the cloak of responsibility that sometimes made her shoulders sag and her heart weary, during those long days and nights at Castle Chesny. She languished here, in Alderny, by the sea.
Elustriel's father, Aland of the Kingdom of Aelhaven, while descended from a great race of kingly men, called himself merely a steward. he was a humble man who saw more value in the gathering of stores with which to feed his flocks than in gold and precious gems. Toward that end the lessons went, and as Aland's only child and successor to the throne, Elustriel was expected to master the care of all of the living things that once woven together made up the fabric of this great kingdom.
Elustriel had been but a weanling herself when her mother, the Queen Alazne, took ill and perished. It was at that time that King Aland brought Sala, the Hedge-witch, into the castle as his advisor and Elustriel's mentor, though never did he take another to his bed. Love for his queen, remained ever after in his eyes, even while clouded over by the pain of her early demise.
"Clear thy mind, Child, and focus on the moth," Sala offered. The light from the flame cast mystical shadows over her dark skin, playing peek-a-boo with the other-worldly tattoos on her cheeks. She looked yet young, though that couldn't be so. Sala had wandered into Chezny on foot long ago and though no one really knew for certain, it was rumored that her homeland was far to the north, in the wilds of Baru Nogul. Indeed, her speech was thick with the mountain dialect. She dressed in the mountain fashion as well, wearing a mix of brightly colored, printed fabrics, which strangely suited her. She wore her black hair in dozens of tiny plaits, some allowed to wander the ridges of her neck and shoulders, and the balance pinned up beneath a tignon. She wore a great deal of jewelry; gold and silver bangles circling her thin wrists and forearms, multiple strands of beads round her neck, large hoops in her ears.
"Will it to do thy bidding and if the good Gods allow, then may it be so."
And truly, Elustriel tried. Sweeping all thought of Chesny from her mind, she concentrated as hard as she was able to form the words in her mind.
Away, she thought, away from the light!
But her mental voice seemed to her, a weak and dim thing. It was the song that distracted her so! It was frustratingly silly.
Pretty, pretty, pretty,
Lovely little light
Warm my wings,
For thee I sing,
Together we take flight!
Hearken, silly creature, she commanded. To me!
But the moth heeded her not.
She had no more than heard this when the moth passed directly into the flame. Elustriel imagined she saw shock and confusion register momentarily in its eyes as its wings ignited. Poof! One split second and a brief sizzle later, under the same reverent stars, the charred body of the creature dropped into the pool of melted wax on top of the candle. Suddenly the world was deathly quiet.
The silence fell on her like a pall, and in that moment, the Princess knew at last, her heart's desire. She wanted nothing so much as the return of the light-spirited moth and its innocent song. She longed to have it back, to make up the next verse of the song and to sing it together with the moth. And she understood now, that her kingdom was her heart, and the loss of even the tiniest piece of that magical kingdom left an empty place there, like a worm-hole in a fine bolt of silk.
"Can ye fix it?" she begged the witch, sorrow consuming her features.
"Nay, Girl," Sala answered, searching for the lesson in her charge's eyes. "It's a steep price I'd have to pay. That one belongs to the gods now. Loathe am I, to call it back"
"Tis all my fault!" Elustriel cried. "I cannot even lead one small bug. How ever will I lead my people?"
Sala laid a warm hand on top of Elustriel's clenched fist.
"Tis no one's fault, Girl," she said firmly, "Ye cannot ask the moth not to behave like a moth. He can no more do so than the dog can take wings and fly! Do ye see that now?"
"If ye want to lead...if that is truly thy heart's desire, then ye must understand what it is that the moth wants first, and make that thy urgent quest. Only then will he follow."
And that one simple moment became tied for first place with millions upon millions of other moments, as the most important one to have ever happened in the universe.
Meanwhile, a hundred leagues away and to the west, in the piney hills surrounding the prosperous valley of Glenarea, Wynius Pippery climbed a dirt path. He'd been hiking the day long and was hot, and hungry, and feeling very sorry for himself. Why Oules and Igi had chosen to live so far removed from civilization was beyond him. As if things weren't hard enough, what with the scarcity of work for wizards and all. These days he was barely eeking out a living providing fireworks and simple magic tricks for children's birthday parties. And it wasn't that his wizarding skills were poor, mind you... It was simply that three hundred years of peace and relative quiet were apt to cause a lag in the actual need for a good wizard. And Wynius was young by any wizard's reckoning. With only thirty-five years under his belt and sadly, no quests at all, who could say really, whether he was a fine wizard or not? He simply hadn't been tried yet. He had shown considerable talent with fireworks, but he fancied himself no dragon-slayer.
And Oules Skeldergate? Who could say? For all of his years, and those had been many and then some, he'd remained closed-mouthed and eccentric. Still, Wynius owed whatever knowledge he possessed to the old man. He loved him like a father. It had made his heart happy when Oules had settled here in the cabin with Igi Bittlebarrow all those years ago.
What the two of them saw in one another was a mystery, as they were as different as the desert and the icy, blue sea. Oules was tall and impossibly thin,, the years having whittled away sinew and flesh. The thickest part of him these days was his wiry, silver beard. He refused to get a haircut, and thus was consistantly disheveled, his robes tattered and worn. On a good day, he was impatient and taciturn.
Conversely, Igi was as big around as a house and a full head and shoulders shorter than Oules. Being a mere mortal, she was years and years younger than he, though her hair tended also toward gray. her round face was deeply etched with laugh lines, and peppered hither and thither with freckles. One of the best cooks in the region, she could make a king's souffle out of nothing save grass and twigs. But when it came to magic, she was utterly and completely inept.
The two never married, and cared not a whit about the gossip that caused, as wizards lived somewhat outside of the conventions of other people. And though they waged constant battle with one another, Wynius suspected that parting them now would be the death of them both.
In the distance, a night-bird cried out and Wynius picked up the pace. It was late, but the cabin lay just around the bend now. As he drew near enough to see candlelight streaming from the open front window, he wasn't surprised to hear excited voices coming from within.
"Oules, ye old fool! Ye'd lose your head if it wasn't attached!"
"Quiet, Hag! I know it's around here somplace..."
Wynius watched from outside the window, long enough to witness Oules pulling objects one by one out of the bureau in the front room. He examined each momentarily, scoffed, and then tossed the offending object over his shoulder where it landed helter-skelter on the floor behind him. Apparently this had been an ongoing porcess as the room was littered with such piles. There were books and scrolls and magic tricks, clothing and trinkets, and even plates and silver scattered everywhere. The normally tidy place looked like it had been sacked!
Wynius gave a sharp whistle of greeting. Oules, who would not be distracted, neither looked up, nor stopped rummaging. Igi, however, ran to the front door, both great distress and immense relief alternating on her face.
"Wynius! There ye are at last, and the Good gods go easy on us!"
"Igi, my friend," Wynius said as they embraced and she hustled him inside. "What nonsense is he up to this time?"
Gah! He's lost his mind! He woke this morning with the mad idea that he's lost something important and he's been looking for it ever since. Doesn't even know what it is! Honestly, Wynius, can't ye do something with him? Ere long I'll lose my own mind, and no mistaking that."
Oules halted for a moment and looked up, his great, green eyes imploring.
"Will ye, in the name of all that is holy, and for once in thy seemingly endless life, please just be quiet, Woman!" he shouted. "How ever could I concentrate long enough to even remember what it is that I'm searching for with ye going on and on, and insufferably on?"
"It's yer mind, ye crazy, old Bugger! It's only yer mind that ye've lost!" Igi was huffing and puffing now, cheeks red with anger.
"Harumphhh--" Oules scoffed. And then rubbing his head thoughtfully, "Mayhap I left it in the...yes, that's probably it." With that, he turned on a heel and shuffled off towards the back of the cabin.
Igi sighed and shook her head.
"Come in, Wynius, and forgive me my rude manner. Ye must be hungry? I've some dinner left. Plenty to warm over if ye like."
"I'm famished actually," he said. "And a drink of something cold if ye please. And do tell me all about it while I'm eating. I cannot wait to hear this tale!"
"Aye. And as ye already know Oules, and so know what to expect, ye know the tale is to be a tall one!"
Sometime later, and after dinner and a dessert of nut pastries served with strong, black coffee, it was agreed that the only proper way of finding something lost was merely to retrace one's own footsteps. It would be morning before Wynius was to discover just exactly what that meant.
Half a world away, in the dungeons of Castle Lochwynne, in the boggy kingdom of Mornesse, a dark figure slunk from cell to cell, unlocking each door in turn until the entire band of gipsies had been liberated. Men, women, and children, all, hastened through the silent, underground corridors, quickly making their way out into the feedom of the night. They'd need to reach the border ere morning, else face recapture and certain death at the hands of King Aldric.
And as all roads eventually converge, verily then, in the whole of this great, big world, there is no such thing as a coincidence.