The waves lapped gently against the shore, the sunset reflecting like a million burning embers off the choppy water’s surface. A warm wind was blowing from the south, bringing with it smells of lilac and honeysuckle. Spring’s explosion was in full force, and the rolling green terrain that met the sea was polka-dotted with countless hues. The scene looked as if it had been captured by one of the masters on canvas; the only exception was the bobbing head of the little blonde girl as she ran from the flowery fields to the gentle surf.
The man watched his daughter as she investigated along the sands. He smiled at her innocent joy, and recalled the days of his youth when he had been as carefree. Now his life had grown full and busy, and he was preoccupied with the day-to-day. His outings with his daughter were one of the few entertainments he allowed himself, as much for her development as for his own peace of mind.
High overhead a gull circled, squawking at the intruders. He shielded his eyes against the setting sun and watched it wheel in flight. How remarkable it must be, he thought to himself, to fly upon the breeze. He imagined it must be a lot like swimming, only less…thick? His wandering thoughts were interrupted by his daughter, who was screaming from the shore.
“Daddy!” she screamed at the top of her little lungs.
He came immediately to his feet with fatherly reflex, the hairs on his neck standing on edge in alarm. From further back he could also hear the clanking of steel of his retinue as they reacted to her cry. He saw her and smiled, then held his hand up for his men to stand down. It had been a cry of jubilation, and not of terror.
“Daddy!” she screamed again, growing closer with every little footfall. She held a hand aloft as if to display a prize; he knew what it was before she reached him.
“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy,” she said, breathlessly after her sprint. “Look what I found!” she exclaimed, holding out her tiny hand. At first all he could see was a clump of wet sand, but as it broke apart it revealed an iridescent pearl. It was perfectly round, with a slight pink undertone that was set afire by the setting sun.
“Marvelous,” he said, grinning from ear to ear at his daughter. “A perfect pearl, just like you!”
“It’s so pretty, Daddy. Where do they come from?”
“You mean your nurse hasn’t told you about the Pearls of Doman?”
“You mean the Sea?” she asked, pointing to the Sea of Doman.
He chuckled. “In a way, yes darling, but the sea was named for an adventurer from long ago. From before I was even born.”
“That’s a long time,” she said, entranced by the tone in his voice and the promise of a story.
“Yes it is,” he said, his eyes glancing back at the gentle surf of the sea. “It all started when…”
The Harvest Day festival of Oarn was renowned throughout the world. People from all over the twelve realms gathered to celebrate the rich bounty from the fields, the vibrant colors of the ancient forests, and above all the games: jousts, sword play, archery, racing, hunting, and wrestling. To win at the games was a great honor, and every nation sent its finest warrior to win the Golden Rose. But this year was different. The Princess of Oarn had recently come of age, and it was no longer simply the Golden Rose at stake, but the promise of a betrothal and the strengthening of relations between nations. The competitors in this year’s game were playing not just for the glory of their tribe, but for their future as Prince Consort of Oarn.
Doman was the champion of Greld, which didn’t mean much to the other contenders. Greld was a nation of farmers, strong to be certain, but not practiced at arms like their more martial neighbors. Doman was no exception; in fact, he was not even a soldier. He was a young farmer from the south, barely past his nineteenth winter, but he was known among his countrymen for his strength. He had lifted six maidens above his head at last summer’s solstice festival. Some said he could have lifted more, but the beam had been too short to hold additional seats.
Doman arrived atop his favorite plough-horse. Though seventeen hands tall and solidly built, it looked meager compared to the ornamented steeds of the other competitors, with the exception of the champions from Hunskri and Wylfde. Their horses were small, almost hound-sized. They were nomadic tribes, and only participated in the games because it was tradition. They cared little for pomp and ceremony, and as Doman looked around he understood why.
The grandeur of the tall stone buildings and the large reflective panels of glass overwhelmed him. He was used to his thatched cottage, and stones that were small enough to be lifted by a man. He could only guess how many men had been required to move a single one of those blocks. His back ached at the thought, strong as he was.
He was, however, entranced by the sound of the trumpets and the lutes. There was an old woman in his village that played the flute, and the sound of metal notes and strummed strings was different and mystifying. It was almost as pleasing as the varied aromas wafting through the air. They made his stomach rumble, though he had never smelled anything like them before. He vaguely wondered how he could know with such certainty that it was delicious food being prepared.
Then he saw her.
She stood beside a man he presumed to be her father. Her blonde, curly hair reminded him of a golden field of wheat, and he was mesmerized as he watched it dance on the breeze. Despite the distance between them he could see her emerald eyes, half closed as she smiled one of the sincerest smiles he’d ever seen. Sounds and smells receded into the background, and time slowed to a crawl as his heart memorized every feature of her. There had been some girls from the village that he liked, but he had never felt like this about any of them.
Before he knew it he was past her. He turned on his horse, but the procession of people behind him obscured his view. “Don’t get your hopes up,” said the man beside him, the knight from Fulton. “That’s the Lady of Oarn,” he continued, “and her hand goes to the champion of the games. That’s my future wife you’re gazing at,” he said.
“Is that so?” Doman answered, rising to the challenge. He didn’t know her, but he felt a pang at the thought that she would be with someone else.
“You should have stayed on the farm, boy,” the knight remarked, “and leave the competition to people who know how to handle their lance.”
“It’s good that you can,” said Doman with a smile. “When I’m done with you and you return home alone, that lance handling will come in handy.” He gave his horse a slight kick and moved ahead of the knight.
They feasted that night on foods he couldn’t begin to describe. He tried a little of everything that came his way as people celebrated the harvest with song and dance. He tried the famed wines of Oarn, and the mead of Waraan, but he drank his native ale like water. He looked around at all the strangers from all the different tribes, and was amazed by the variance in outfit and appearance: the shortness of the Vosk and the wildness of the Wylfdaens, the holiness of the Regdanese and the vanity of the Fultic. He knew that, for the remainder of his days, he’d never see anything as grand as Harvest Day.
The room silenced as the King of Oarn stood and welcomed everyone. He gave a short speech about the festivities ahead of them, and the continued goodwill and cooperation of the the twelve tribes. Doman sat far enough away that he had trouble hearing most of it, but he could surmise the gist. It was when the king introduced his daughter that he began straining his senses.
It was her, the maiden he had seen earlier that day. She wore a cerulean dress that seemed to contain the depth of the seas, and her hair was now gathered beneath a jeweled diadem. He felt his breath catch in his chest, releasing only when hers did. Hers was the hand that would be the ultimate prize of these games. He had approached the games with indifference, knowing no man from Greld had ever won, but a new resolve began burning deep within him. He had to win.
The evening continued, and Doman grew warm and glowing with drink and meal. Feasting turned to dancing, and he soon found himself passed between partners. Regardless of his prospects in the games, the ladies seemed to be attracted to the tall farm boy from the south. He enjoyed himself, and tried, unsuccessfully, to learn the various dances of the other tribes. His efforts resulted in laughter from his partners and those surrounding them. Not malicious laughter, but a genuine merriment. The knights from Fulton and Waraan mocked his attempts, and then stiffly demonstrated the proper steps. Doman thought their partners looked less entertained than his.
He turned when a hand touched his shoulder, and immediately caught his breath. It was the princess. His jaw opened as if to speak, but he could find no words. After several moments he realized he was staring, and fought through the drink induced haze to act appropriately. He bowed low, his body language telling her he was completely subservient to her will. “Your Grace,” he said, unsure if it the title was appropriate, but confident that she exuded grace.
“I have watched you try every dance save your own,” she said. The words came from her mouth like honey to his ears. The smile on her face seemed to be only for him.
He raised, his eyes looking deeply into hers, and smiled. “No, your Grace, it seemed too rustic for a place as fine as this.”
“Nonsense,” she winked. “Please, show me.”
“You want me to dance with you?” he stammered.
“Of course, silly. I don’t know the dance.”
He could feel his face flush. The room had suddenly grown warmer, and his head was spinning faster from the drinks. “Of course, your Grace,” he said, his mouth now dry as he extended his hand to her.
She placed her small hand in his. He’d never felt anything so delicate, and he became suddenly very aware of his rough, calloused hands. She didn’t seem to mind, however.
The music changed to a traditional Greldan tune, and he began his lesson. Others lined up beside them, watching him and imitating his movements. “It starts like this,” he said, moving his right foot forward, then his left foot to the side. He continued. She followed his every step like an apt pupil. His eyes never left her, even as they parted and moved in a circle with the rest of the dancers. Their reunion at the end of the spin was like sweet joy to him.
The dance ended before he felt like it had begun, and the dining hall rang with thunderous applause. “Thank you for the dance,” she said sweetly, bowing slightly to him.
He bowed until his head nearly touched the floor. “The pleasure was all mine.”
She returned to the crowd and mingled, as any hostess would. His eyes never left her, and the tingling sensation in his hand never left.
He found it hard to sleep that night despite the amount of drink. Moonlight shone silver through the curtains, and the smell of autumn hung heavy on the air. He breathed deeply, his eyes transfixed on the ceiling as he relived the evening over and over. Her smile. The touch of her hand. The smell of her hair.
A sudden movement from the curtains caught his eye, and he instinctively rolled out of bed and reached for a weapon. His hands clasped around a candlestick, which he brought to bear against the unknown. What was happening?
A shadow darker than the others moved slowly, cautiously forward.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
The shadow held up its hands softly. “I mean you no harm,” it whispered. “I am merely a messenger.”
“A messenger that comes through the window in the dead of night?” he spat, not lowering his guard.
“When the message is meant to be secret,” the shadow answered. “This message is for you and no other..
These pearls of wisdom lead you east
when others venture west.
A short trip ‘cross the salted sea
brings back the prize that’s best.”
The shadow slinked back to the window, blending into the other shadows.
“What does that mean?” asked Doman. There was no answer. “Hello?” he asked. Still nothing. He walked over to the window and reached behind the curtains. All he felt was wall.
He went back to bed and tried to sleep, but his mind was too stimulated. Morning came too early.
The tournament did not go well. He was knocked from his horse in the joust. He lost his sword to the warrior from Tursth. He fared better at archery, hitting close to the target, but the archer from Hunskri outdid him. His brute of a horse did not stand a chance in the race, no matter how well he rode it, and he narrowly lost in the hunt. He was not as small and stealthy as the Wylfdaen. But to his surprise, and the surprise of many other onlookers, he was able to beat all challengers in wrestling. His brawny farm strength had bee of some use after all.
At the end of the events, there was no clear winner. The crowd cheered and shouted for their champion. The King of Oarn raised his hands to settle the crowd.
“Well done, well done! You are champions all, but the games have not decided who will be given the hand of my daughter. It seems one last trial is needed to find a worthy husband!”
The crowd grew silent, eager to hear the final challenge. It had only happened a few times before, when a champion had been unclear, and the resulting trials had been etched into the Lore. They hoped that this would not be the exception.
“A jewel as beautiful as my daughter deserves something as exceptionally rare. You each shall be given a fortnight to go out into the world and return with a groom’s gift. She shall be the judge of your efforts, and shall choose accordingly!”
The crowd gasped and cheered, amazed that the king was giving his daughter so much freedom in choosing her suitor. The champions looked at one another, their eyebrows raised in skepticism as their minds raced, thinking of what treasure they could offer that could compare. Doman felt defeated. What could he offer that she’d want?
That night he returned to his room. The evening’s festivities had done little to lift his spirits. Greld was a land whose wealth lay in its fertile soil and flowing rivers. What did he know of beautiful trinkets? When he was young his father had given his mother a stone grinding wheel, and she had been happy. He glanced at the stone walls on the way to his chamber and knew that such a gift would pale in comparison to what she was accustomed.
He turned the corner and was pulled into the darkened hallway. A soft pair of hands pressed him against the wall. “Wha…” he began to say, but a hand moved up to cover his lips. He was taken by surprise, but he wasn’t afraid. He didn’t know why, but he knew he had nothing to fear.
“I pray my message reached you,” said a sweet voice. He squinted into the darkness, trying to discern a face in the shadows. Slowly it came into focus, as soft and radiant as moonlight.
“My Lady,” he whispered. “What are you doing? What message?” His heart raced, feeling her so close to him.
She tilted her head in question. “My messenger. She found you last night, did she not?”
“Oh, yes,” he said, recalling the midnight intruder. “That kind of entrance leaves an impression on someone.”
“I’m sorry if she startled you, but I needed you to have that clue.”
“Clue?” He knew it referred to the poem, but he couldn’t read, let alone decipher the words of a poem.
“Father knew there might be a chance that no clear victor would emerge, so he had already planned the trial. From the moment I saw you…He knows me, and knows what I would want, that’s why I had to tell you that…”
“Highness?” asked a booming voice from the adjacent corridor. She and Doman turned to see a guard holding a torch. He moved closer when he saw the proximity between the two. “Is everything alright, My Lady?” His hand reached down, brushing the hilt of his sword.
The Princess backed away and placed her hands behind her back. “Yes, everything is fine Alfonso, I was just congratulating the champion from Greld on his victory in the wrestling.” She turned back to Doman and nodded. “Good night, sir, and congratulations again.”
“Thank you, Your Highness,” Doman said with a stunned bow. He listened as her footsteps receded, his eyes watching the guard, fearful the sword might emerge.
“You fought well today,” said the guard. “Perhaps it is time for your rest.” He said it politely, but Doman knew it was more an order than a suggestion.
He feigned a yawn. “You are right. A pleasant evening to you.” With that he was off, scurrying down the hall to the safety of his room.
He sat beside the fire, his gaze lost in the luminous embers as he contemplated the poem. Pearls of Wisdom. Head East. Salted Sea. The Best. The Sea was east, and he was apparently supposed to cross it. Something over there would be the best, but what? What pearls of wisdom did he need to solve the riddle? He looked around the room, hoping to find something helpful. A map perhaps. He saw nothing, so he began packing. He’d be ready to go at first light.
At dawn he rode to the seaside. He had been given a small purse of coin for his journey, and he now dug into it to hire a vessel.
“I need to travel east, but I must be back in a fortnight,” he said to the old, wrinkled captain of a boat.
“Travel? Not much to see to the east, other than the Wastes,” he replied, but eyeing the coin quickly added, “but we’ll be happy to take you where you need to. Where exactly east do you need to go?”
Doman looked back, trying to hide the uncertainty from his face. “I’ll know when I see it.”
The captain shrugged his shoulders and grabbed Doman’s pack, tossing it onboard. “Welcome aboard. Mind the sides and stay out of our way.”
Doman nodded. He hadn’t thought much of it, but he had never been on a boat before. A sudden fear of water washed over him, and he quickly found a seat. He wasn’t sure what he had signed up for, he just hoped he would find an answer at the end of the voyage.
He grew nauseous as the sea jostled them, and spent much of the first half of the day bent over the side. The sailors laughed. Doman didn’t see what was so funny. It wasn’t until evening that he found some semblance of calm, perhaps because he had found his sea legs, or perhaps because he had emptied his stomach. He declined the dinner of fish that was passed around, and listened as the sailors swapped stories of the perils they’d survived. Finally, the conversation came around to him.
“What about you? What are you looking for?” asked the first mate. “The others traveled west. They’re going to find gemstones and precious metals in the Pillars. What do you think you’ll find across the sea?”
“Honestly I don’t know,” answered Doman. “Gentlemen, I’ve been out of my depth since I was selected for this contest. My place is the field, and I have always been content with that. Until I saw her. The Princess of Oarn. I’ve never beheld such beauty. The very sight of her has stirred my soul, and the contentment I once felt has shattered. My life can never be complete without her. That is the only truth I know now.”
“If that’s the case, it seems you’d have tried harder,” remarked one of the sailors. “There’s nothing this way that will win her.”
“I’m convinced there is,” answered Doman.
“What makes you so certain?”
“She sent me a message, the night before the games. It said ‘These pearls of wisdom lead you east/ when others venture west/ A short trip ‘cross the salted sea/brings back the prize that’s best.’ There is something she wants me to find, if I only I had the ‘pearls of wisdom’ to see it. Whatever that is.”
“What what is?”
“Pearls,” he answered. “I don’t know the word, and I’m not ashamed to admit I’m far from wise.”
The sailors all laughed. Doman felt his cheeks flush, and he grew defensive.
“You needn’t laugh,” he said, “I’ve never had a teacher. Until a few days ago I’d never even been to a city. ”
“It’s not that,” the captain said, holding up his hand. “Pearls. Every fisherman knows the pearl. It’s a small stone in the mouth of oysters. They’ve got a nice color and shape, but they’re just in the way of the meat. We toss them with the shells and grind them up for our gardens. They’re worthless.”
“Perhaps not,” said Doman. “There’s got to be a reason she chose those words. It must be what she desires. Where do we find them?”
“There’s a rocky outcrop, a half day’s journey from here. We dive under the water and pry them loose from the rocks. It’s a lot of work, but unlike some of the creatures we catch, they don’t fight back.”
“Take me there,” he commanded.
The captain nodded. “You heard him, lads. Adjust course, north, northeast.” He raised his eyes to the sky, finding the star. “Aim for Boreon and keep straight as it comes astern. We should be there by morning.”
It was closer to midday when they arrived. The winds had shifted during the night, and the crew had had to tack to make headway. Doman was confused, for he saw nothing except water. “I thought we were going to an outcrop,” he said.
“And we have arrived,” answered the captain. “See how the waves move?”
Doman watched the water, and slowly realized that the waves were breaking a hundred yards off the starboard. “That?”
“Excatly. We can’t see them here, but just beneath the surface there’s a range of rocks that stretches for leagues. It’s the first thing our fathers teach us when we take to the sea. Many sailors have lost their ships, and their lives, unaware of the hazards beneath the water.”
“And this is where we find the pearls?”
Doman had trouble swimming at first, but it came to him quickly. The water was cold and refreshing, and he felt like he was flying. He’d never experienced anything like the weightlessness of the water, and he knew that it must be how the birds felt. He followed the lead of the sailors as they dove beneath the water, swimming down to the rocks and searching for the mollusks. The salt of the water burned his eyes, but he soon became accustomed to it. It didn’t take them long to gather several bushels of oysters.
His fingers were pruned by the time he crawled out of the water and onto the boat. The autumn breeze was brisk but the sun still had the warmth of summer, and he dried quickly. He smiled.
“So we’ve done it?” he asked. “We have baskets of pearls, such a prize should surely prove my devotion to her.”
Again the sailors laughed at him. “We are almost there,” they said. “The pearls lie inside. We’ll be lucky to have a chest of them by the time we’ve finished.”
“We must pry the oysters open. If you thought gathering them from the rocks was tough, wait until you shuck them.” They laughed again, and Doman soon learned why.
He sliced his hand twice as the boat rocked. He was clumsy as he tried to line his knife up with the thread-thin opening of the oyster. The sailors had said the pearls were worthless, but the oyster guarded its secret with the strength of stone. He finally broke the shell off and saw the lustrous object contained within. In an instant he understood. It was like opaque, shimmering moonlight contained within a stone. It was perfectly round and smooth. How could such a thing be considered worthless? It was the closest thing he had seen to her pristine beauty.
He spent the day shucking the oysters. The sailors had helped him harvest them, but he hadn’t paid them enough to help with that. They had no problem enjoying the fruits of his labor, though. He was disgusted as he watched them eat the mucus-like oysters, but they seemed to relish the slime. They encouraged him to try, but he turned them down. As the sun kissed the edge of the sea, he placed the last pearl into a small, unassuming chest. They caught the light and seemed to burn with an inner fire.
He could scarcely feel his hands as he drifted off to sleep; they were bruised and battered and sliced from a hard day’s work. His dreams were tortured as he struggled to open a never ending line of oysters. He tossed and turned fitfully, until a sudden spray of water woke him.
The stars overhead had disappeared, surrounding the ship in complete and utter darkness. The lanterns had been snuffed out by waves and the pouring rain. A flash of lightning illuminated the deck, and he could see the crew rushing about in the darkness, trying to secure the masts and the loose items. The storm had come up unexpectedly. Nobody had been prepared.
He stood to help but another crashing wave knocked him to the deck. A sudden panic shot through his mind, not the panic of danger, but the panic of losing the chest of pearls. He reached for it, but another crashing wave swept it out of his reach.
He stood, listening over the howling winds at the orders shouted by the captain. He was no sailor, he did not know what to do, but he staggered to the side of a sailor to help. The rope holding the mast was stretched tight, and the sail was fully engorged with the violent winds.
“It’s going to snap it we can’t lower it!” shouted the sailor over the gale. Doman braced his feet and pulled with all the strength he had earned on the farm. His muscles bulged and veins pulsed as he slowly, incrimintally pulled the rope. Rain splashed around him and water crashed against his shins, but the sail refused to yield. Another sudden gust and thunderous crack, and the mast toppled in splinters, swept into the water by the wind. The rope pulled him to the deck before racing out of his hands. The friction sliced his hands open and blood oozed onto the deck.
Water continued crashing over the sides, filling every inch of the cargo area. The ship began listing to the port side. Doman stood, bracing himself against the railing. Another flash of lightning revealed a massive shadow. Dread filled his heart as he saw the stygian juggernaut rushing down upon them. He glanced around at the panicked faces, and looked once more for the chest of pearls.
It took three days before the flotsam reached the shores of Oarn. Ships were dispatched to find traces of the wreck, and only one survivor was found clinging to a splintered board. A young lad of thirteen, he had been small enough to stay afloat on the waterlogged piece of wood. His fingers and toes had been lost to frostbite in the chilly waters, and his exposed skin had blistered from exposure to the sun. It was several days before he was coherent enough to talk and relay the tale.
He wept and shook when he spoke of the terror of the storm. He told of their adventure east, of Doman’s love for the Princess and his determination to win her favor. He talked about the pearl diving, and the chest of pearls he had gathered as a groom’s gift. He told of the heroism of the men aboard ship as they fought the fury of nature, before succumbing to its designs.
On hearing this the princess fell to her knees in sorrow. Her father tried to console her, for he knew his daughter well enough to know the love she had borne for the Greldan. But even a father’s love can do little to quiet the grieving of love’s first loss…
“Doman’s pearls have washed up on the shores of Oarn ever since that day. The princess never married, and soon a pearl was added to the rose of Oarn’s sigil, a symbol of pure love to accompany the sign of hospitality.”
As he finished his tale a single tear fell down his face. He looked out over the water, which stood as calm and reflective as glass. It seemed inconceivable that such a violent storm could shatter such a smooth surface.
“Will someone ever bring me a chest of pearls?” his daughter asked.
“I suppose they might,” he answered, reaching out and hugging her close to him. “When you’re old enough. You’ve still got several winters before you’ll be betrothed. And I’d like you to have more say in who you marry. It should be your decision, not mine.”
She thought about it for a moment before squirreling up her nose. “And then I’d have to live with a boy?”
He laughed and tousled her hair. “Yes, and then you’ll have to live with a boy. But not for a very long time. Come, let’s go home. I’m sure we’ve missed dinner by now.”
She reached out her hand and they walked home, the King and Princess of Oarn.