by Hector of the Black Height
Not so long ago, when the land was as old as old, and the wisdom of the North whispered in the wind, Ealdormere was in turmoil. A year before, at the behest of the King of the Middle, the Prince of Ealdormere had called out his armies and followed his liege lord on campaign. For months, no word had returned to the Northlands. Then, in ones and in twos, in dribs and in drabs, the warriors of Ealdormere returned to their homes. Anxious ears heard of terrible battles, long sieges, and travels through distant lands filled with thieves and cut-throats.
Of the Prince there was no word. Some thought he was captured, others heard him fallen, others repeated rumours thieves had slain him in his sleep. None could report his fate with certainty; what was certain was the lands of the North needed a firm hand at the helm. Finally, when the last remnants of the army had passed through the great hall by the Inland Sea, a tearful Princess announced there would be an assembly of all those with claims on the Trillium throne, to select a new Prince.
Throughout the Principality the heralds cried the news, from the icy Northlands to the shores of the Inland Sea, and the people began their travels to the great hall, to see their new Prince take his place.
When the appointed day arrived, the elders of the North sat at the high table of the great hall by the Inland Sea, and called all claimants forward. The first to appear was a wealthy merchant from Eoforwic, dressed in finest garb, surrounded by one hundred retainers in matching livery. His guards bore weapons of fine craftsmanship, and were the pick of the hardened veterans that had survived the campaigns in the South. "I am the rightful Prince," the merchant said, "for I command a valiant host."
The second to present himself was chieftain of a Northern village. He strode forward followed by a shuffling band of villagers. His guards carried well-worn weapons, and they surrounded the company that proclaimed their erstwhile Prince. "I am the rightful Prince," the chieftain said, "for I am the choice of my people."
The elders searched the throng, but none other stepped forward, and none other seemed willing to put aside the duties of baron or mayor and take on the heavier mantle. The elders rose to make their declaration, when a voice slipped from the shadows near the door. "I am the rightful Prince" it said, and a gaunt, rough-hewn man in tattered garments stepped forward.
The merchant and the chieftain protested the ragamuffin's boast, but the old sage of the North, first among the elders, hushed them. "All heard the cry," the sage said, "and all may answer it." So the three stood before the high table and awaited the wisdom of the North.
The sage ordered the fires in the hall banked to bonfires. Smoke billowed forth, and soon eyes were streaming and throats gasping. At a word, the servants of the hall damped the blazes, and the smoke cleared. As each eye stopped its tears, it fell on the sage, whose smile was as bright as the fires had been.
"People of the North," he cried, "before you is your rightful Prince!" The hall gasped, for they did not understand the test, or the answer. And so the sage began.
"Before you stood three men who would be Prince. One is a man of wealth, who has bought everything he brought with him today, from the shirt on his back to the loyalty of the men around him. When his eyes stopped streaming from the smoke, they fell on the great green door at the West of the hall. Open it, sirrah!" With chagrin, the merchant opened the green door. "There is the treasury of the North, your sole desire. Have you not enough money, that you would be Prince to get more?"
The sage pointed to the second man. "Here is a man of power, who has cowed his village with the sword. When his eyes stopped streaming from the smoke, they fell on the great blue door at the East of the hall. Open it, sirrah." The chieftain walked over to the blue door, and swung it open. "There is the armoury of the North, your sole desire. You have used your sword too well already. Have you not enough power, that you would be Prince to get more?"
The sage pointed to the third man. "Here is a man who brings nothing but himself to the test. His cheeks are dry, for the fires of the great hall of Ealdormere would not sully him with smoke. Throughout the bonfire, his eye never strayed from the great scarlet door at the North of the hall. Open it."
The man walked forward and opened the door, and all in the hall fell to their knees, for behind that door was the Princess of Ealdormere, who rushed to her Prince's arms. And for the first time that day the noble face of the true Prince of Ealdormere was streaked with tears, but they, like the tears of his lady and his people, were tears of joy.
This story first was published in The Book of the Reign of David And Tangwystl. For those interested in such things, it offers one of the most detailed descriptions of the Great Hall by the Inland Sea.
Copyright A. McLean 1991, 1998. All rights reserved.
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