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, the Prince of Ealdormere travelled far across the Inland Sea, as is the custom of great Princes. He did this to learn of the rest of the world, to meet his Royal cousins, and to spread the fame of Ealdormere far and wide.
The Prince and his entourage were greeted by great Kings wherever they travelled, and were hosted in fine castles and long halls. Each host offered the Prince fine gifts, which were returned in lavish kind. One King, however, offered the Prince a remarkable gift. This King ruled his lands with an iron hand, and the cold gleam in his eye was complemented by the lowered heads and hushed voices of his subjects. In this King's hall there was no laughter; the dim light from few candles was reflected off the burnished blades of many guardsmen.
While the Prince feasted at the King's high table, he tried to respond to the King's cold gaiety. Finally the feasting ended, and as was the custom in that place the Prince and his host then exchanged their gifts. The King smiled at the jewels he was given and said, "Lovely as these are, I tire of trinkets. I have no doubt you have seen too many rings and jewels in your travels. No, I shall not give you those. Rather I shall offer you a singular gift."
Despite himself the Prince leaned forward in his chair. In the King's smile he could see something fearsome, and his eyes widened not in fear but in preparation for what was to come. The King gestured to his retainers, and a mighty door swung open in well-worn silence. From the shadows emerged a file of guardsmen and amidst them three men in chains.
"It's very fortunate that you arrived, actually," the King began. "These three fellows happened to wander into my hall and then told tales of being from your lands. Their stories were so contradictory that I realized I was being lied to." The King smiled a little smile. "I despise being lied to. However, I realized that there was a chance, however slight, that one of them was telling the truth. Accordingly I clapped them all in irons and held them down below, in hope of proving their tales. Terribly fortunate for them that you chose to travel this season, actually."
The King turned to the Prince. "My gift stands before you. One of these three prisoners may very well be from your Ealdormere. I invite you to hear their tales and identify your countryman. His life will be yours, as a token of my esteem."
The Prince waited for a moment, and when no further comment was forthcoming, he asked after the fate of the two other prisoners. The King smiled another little smile and said, "What matter they? I shall give you whichever proves to be an Ealdormeran. Those from other lands are of no concern to you. I shall think of something to do with them, and I really do despise being lied to." The King held out his golden goblet to a servant and with fresh wine he sat back, ready to begin his evening's entertainment. The Prince also awaited the prisoners' tales, but with much less enjoyment.
The first prisoner stepped forward and began his tales of the lands North of the Inland Sea. He told of the Prince's great hall, of the Great Maple's branches spreading over its roof, of the shining benches that were filled with heroes. He recalled great feasts, warriors' brave deeds and the wisdom and cunning of the Sage of the North. The first prisoner looked to his Prince, and in his eyes was hope.
The second prisoner stepped forward and began his tales. He told of angry rivalries, of friends forgotten and arguments remembered. He spoke of power over little things and the costs of its pursuit. He recalled motion and manoeuvre, not progress. He remembered expediency, not principle. The second prisoner looked to his Prince, and in his eyes was cynicism.
The third prisoner stepped forward and began his tales. He told of the daily round of task and toil, the seasons' relentless passage and the sameness of his days. He recalled a life marked by few milestones and little joy. He remembered few people and his telling made it clear that few would remember him. The third prisoner looked to his Prince, and in his eyes was weariness.
The King drained his goblet and turned to the Prince. "My former dilemma is clear, isn't it? Three such opposite stories about your lands. Fortunately I have in Your Highness an expert on Ealdormere, one who can solve this unfortunate quandary. Good my cousin, point out which of these three hails from Ealdormere; my men will see to the others later."
The Prince stood and spread out his arms. "All three are from Ealdormere," he said. "I claim them as my countrymen and acknowledge myself their Prince." The King became very quiet, for he perceived he was being cheated. The Prince saw his host's anger mounting and explained, "Ealdormere is my land, but a land is shaped by its people. Each of these men has told a tale of his Ealdormere. I do not like some of what they say, I would not live in some of the places they describe, but that is their choice. Each man must make what home he will. I would sooner meet the first man in my hall than the second or third in theirs, but I cannot deny them their due. They have shaped their Ealdormere; I merely rule it."
The King was displeased, but the Prince was adamant. A Royal promise was a Royal promise, and the King had promised the life of whichever proved to be from Ealdormere, so he ordered all three unchained. As the prisoners were taken into the Prince's entourage, the King muttered sourly about the wealth of a land which could encompass such contradictions. The Prince heard his complaint, smiled a sad smile and replied that his Royal cousin would have to travel North to see such a rich land, if his own domains could spare him.
The Prince and his retinue departed that very night, long before the sunrise, for some gifts travel better than others and in three cases life travelled best of all. The Prince had no dealings with the second and third of the prisoners that they did not commence, for he would not steal memories of home from any man, even such memories as those. The Prince did, however, seek out the first man and as their laughter rang across the night fires, the Prince saw the other two drawing closer, and he decided that while some gifts are greater than others, in each gift life offers may be found something of value.
I think of all the "Prince of Ealdormere" stories, this is my favourite. It's not a simplistic fairy tale of love and sweetness; it addresses the realities of what Ealdormere is to the people who, by choice and dint of hard work, inhabit it.
Copyright A. McLean 1995, 1998. All rights reserved.
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