The Box of Wonders
Kiirar watched the young first year students make their weary way to his shaded grove, the physical training of the early morning and midday leaving them wrung out and clumsy with exhaustion. Now that their bodies were quiet, their minds would be open to Kiirar's teachings. He had chosen today's lesson carefully; these young sons and daughters of Sylvari society's elite were giving the newest student a rough welcome, considering her House in lower estimation than each of their own. Kiirar wanted to show that bravery and wisdom counted for far more in the world than noble blood.
"Hear with your ears, listen with your mind. What you learn today you must carry a lifetime, and bring to the ears and minds of others," Kiirar intoned the ritual start of the lesson, bringing every student sharply to attention by his presence alone.
"You are all here because you show a certain talent, are of the purest Sylvari blood, and are our best hope to carrying our noble heritage into our illustrious future. There was a time when the Sylvari Kingdoms, indeed almost all of Antaron, faced a great crisis. In a western outpost of Sendria, a minion of Garghas - I will not distinguish him with the title of cleric," hissed Kiirar in a haughty aside, "sought to develop a means of defeating cavalry, through the use of a pestilent disease against horses. Unfortunately, Garghas is not a god known for restraint, and when the disease was spread to a small herd of retired war mounts, the disease surprised all with its virulence.
"The disease quickly spread out of control, and afflicted horses died within hours, bloody froth coming from nostrils and mouth. Those few that survived the high fever and wracking cough were weak and easily tired, their wind broken by the cough. Horses throughout Sendria were afflicted and it soon crossed the borders into Drannon, Coria and Sylvaria, striking Ela-Ishtel first. Soon, all the lands are affected, with pyres of dead horses burning through the night in an attempt to stem the spread of the disease.
"Through the missives from travelling bladesingers and trusted merchants, news came to the Speaker of the Stars that the proud racing horses of the Arvox Collyra were unaffected, despite the disease having reached as far as Bayris. The Speaker decided to send Eirendal as an emissary, in hopes that the elusive and isolationist Arvox Collyra could be convinced to trade for horses to try and strengthen the Sylvari horse blood stock. In recent years, a Na'touk had arisen from the numerous warlords vying for power, and he had successfully united the two major tribes through strength of sword arm. It was hoped that the scant years of peace would have had an expansive effect on the proud Plains people, and that they would be more open to trade.
"Eirendal departed within days, bringing with him a young Sylvari named Silverleaf Flamestar, who had come to Eirendal's attention during his travels through his ability with horses. For Silverleaf was a Kelvar'heru, and more importantly, a roch'heru, one that could hear the speech of horses, and one to whom the horses would listen."
Kiirar let the students murmur amongst them for a moment, watching the newest student redden to match her hair, eyes downcast, before continuing his tale. "The two Sylvari, bladesinger and horse lord, traveled long and far, across the many lands between here and the Blood Plains, having more adventures than I will tell here, though you will certainly be assigned later to learn them all by heart.
"The two at long last reached the boundary into the Blood Plains, a long cliff overlooking the endless sea of grass. They lit torches for the long slow climb down to the Plains, knowing that they needed to signal their intent to watching eyes if they were to descend successfully.
"They were met at the bottom by five warriors of the Arvox Collyra, all mounted on glossy, long legged horses of astonishing beauty and grace. The warriors were equally remarkable, with jet black hair flowing freely around olive skin, high cheekbones and dark, almond shaped eyes above hawk-like noses. Each of them were dressed in loose black robes over black trews, with high, soft leather boots decorated with red stitching worked in fanciful designs. Red sashes were used to hold the robes close at the waist, close the sleeves at the wrist and to bind spears to the high saddles.
"Eirendal has been too modest to record what was said to the warriors that greeted him, and Silverleaf, not being one of us, did not record his memories for posterity. We can only guess that his words were stirring, and somehow touched the hearts of the warriors, for most strangers to the Blood Plains died at the foot of the cliffs. The warriors encircled the two Sylvari, and led them for many miles into the heart of the lands of the Arvox Collyra.
"The group reached an encampment, and it was all the two Sylvari could do to not fall the ground, so weary were they. Eirendal saw the weariness in young Silverleaf's face, and was proud to see the young horse lord try to conceal it in the line of his shoulders and the lift of his head. No bladesinger, but a brave warrior, still.
"The two Sylvari looked around the encampment as one of the warriors dismounted and went to inform the Na'touk of their arrival. The camp consisted of many round tents, low to the ground, but wide, and decorated in every colour under the sun. Most tent entrances, and even the sides, were open to the breezes, but could be rolled down and secured at a moment's notice. Goods were arranged within and without the tents, and although the array of colour was dazzling, there was an orderliness and organization that spoke of readiness to depart quickly. Everywhere, people bustled around the camp, carrying water, bundles of cloth and platters of food, yet the Sylvari realized that every person they saw was male.
"The warrior returned, and explained in halting Common that the Na'touk had agreed to see them. At the polite but firm request of the warriors, Eirendal bound his sword in the peace knot, and Silverleaf unstrung his bow, but were otherwise allowed to approach the warlord as they were.
"The Sylvari were brought to an enormous tent, the largest in the encampment. Its sides were open, but a light, screening material had been lowered, so that the shapes inside the tent could be seen but faintly. A large rug of beautiful knotted silk, red, black and gold patterned, formed an outdoor area seating area in front of the tent, and charcoal braziers ringed the rug, their smoke keeping at bay the stinging insects of the grassy plains. Countless warriors relaxed on large pillows, being served by young boys bearing platters of food and ewers of wine. They all eyed the two strangers with alert suspicion, despite the wine flowing freely about them, but at a look from the largest man among them, resumed eating, drinking and laughing, joking with the boys and each other. The language was at once guttural and musical, full of surprisingly beautiful vowels amongst harsh consonants.
"The Na'touk lounged at his ease amongst his warriors, slightly raised upon a small couch strewn with pillows. The large man easily overflowed the couch, a veritable mountain of muscle and sinew. His robe was open, falling back behind him, and his massive chest, densely muscled, was criss-crossed with old scars, some from wounds that would have killed a lesser man. His black hair flowed from a widow's peak high on the wide forehead, and only a trace of grey showed at the temples. His nose had been broken several times, giving more strength to an already domineering visage. He eyed the two Sylvari, sizing up their strength and capabilities, then smiled, his white teeth startling in the olive darkness of his skin. The smile had little warmth, a wolf willing to play host to the deer. His voice rumbled from the depths of his chest, in the intricate language of his people, and an older man, dressed in the simple robes of a non-combatant, translated into flawless, though accented, Common.
"'My lord wishes to know what two such pretty boys would be doing crossing the Blood Plains without their fathers to protect them, and speak for them. Have the rabbits lost their way?'
"Eirendal mastered his indignation, knowing the importance of their mission, though Silverleaf bristled a little, making the men around them laugh and nudge each other. 'Tell your lord that we are not men, nor boys, but Sylvari, from the Great Forest. We have no need of our fathers to protect us, nor to teach us manners,' Eirendal kept his voice light and even, smiling pleasantly to remove any sting.
"Once the old man translated Eirendal's reply, the Na'touk's eyes widened in surprise, and then he threw his head back and laughed, straightening to sit upright as he did so. He clapped the old man on the shoulder, evidently a dismissal, for the man bowed until his forehead touched the ground, then rose, moving to take a seat elsewhere amongst the warriors. The Na'touk let his laughter fade, but the smile remained as he leaned forward, one hand in his knee, to speak to Eirendal directly. 'So the rabbit has teeth, ha! Then let us discuss what brings you to trespass on our lands, stranger.'
"Eirendal speaks with the Na'touk at length, telling him of the disease decimating the world's horse population and of the hope that the Plains horses somehow hold the key to resisting the disease. The Na'touk listened; his interest caught, and signals to the serving boys to bring food to the two Sylvari, who gratefully begin eating the deliciously fragrant fare. Once they've eaten their fill, the Na'touk gestures to the old man, who rises and enters the large tent, the shadows behind the gauze moving to envelop him and hide him from view. The old man returns, bows to ground as before, then hands the Na'touk a small object. The Na'touk looks at the item in his hand, and then tosses it at Eirendal's feet.
"'You must have seen such things in your land, a child's Box of Wonders. Some call it a Cidal's heart. Open it, and reveal our two most dear treasures, and I will negotiate with you a trade of horses. Fail to open it, and you both die here, tonight.'
"Now I am certain you have all heard of such things, perhaps even received gifts encased in a Box of Wonders. The Box of Wonders is a series of boxes within boxes, each having a puzzle to be solved in order to open. They are commonly made of wood or metal, even carved stone, and can be very simple, made for children or devilishly intricate, securing items of value better than any lock. The one at Eirendal's feet was made of woven grass, cunningly shaped and covered with intricate knots and designs in different types of grass, the colours and textures increasing the complexity of design. Eirendal was silent, motionless, except for his hands, as he turned the grass box over and over. Finally setting it down, he said nothing, only gazing at the Na'touk and gathering his words. The Arvox Collyra grew restless and confused, and the shadows within the large tent whispered among themselves. The Na'touk, his earlier good humour beginning to fade, demanded to know if Eirendal was too much of a coward to even try.
"Silverleaf, who had been silent throughout the evening, approached the couch of the Na'touk and abased himself, touching the ground with his forehead as he had seen the old man do before. He then explained that the solution was so simple, that his wise master, Eirendal, was hesitant to solve the puzzle too quickly for fear of insulting the Na'touk. The Na'touk laughed expansively at this presumption and urged Silverleaf to solve the puzzle himself.
"Silverleaf picked up the Box of Wonders, and praised the unknown maker for the skill and artistry apparent in such a beautiful piece of work. The young Sylvari walked to the nearest brazier, and dropped the box into it, sending flame and ash rising into the sky. The night air was pierced by the sounds of sword being unsheathed, yet the Na'touk held his warriors back with a single raised hand. 'My lord,' Silverleaf's voice rose into the night air, 'I must protest that you were not treating with us fairly. The Box was empty and could not be opened; that which you hold most dear cannot, nor will not, be boxed.
"'You were willing to meet with us while we still bore weapons; that attests to your strength. Your encampment is large, and well-organized, but the tents are comfortably arranged and the washing, including women's clothing, is hung between out to dry in the air. That tent holds all the women and girls of the camp, and all your warriors stand between them and your visitors. Surely the ladies of the Arvox Collyra are fair and wondrous. . .and your greatest treasure.
"'The horses of the Plains are legendary for their speed and grace, and I was able to see that with my own eyes. My eyes also saw that your warriors wear no spurs nor carry whips, and the horses carried no bit in their teeth. I saw no horses hobbled or penned within camp, yet I hear their hooves all around us, meaning you let them run free. For the people of the wide open Plains, where speed and mobility are everything, horses of such grace and loyalty must be your second most dear treasure.'
"Silverleaf finished and looked to the Na'touk, holding what may have been his last breath. The Na'touk rose from his couch, moved to face the young horse lord, and laughed heartily, cuffing Silverleaf on the chin, bruising it for weeks, and praising him as one of his own sons ('yet more clever..throwing it into the fire, no less!'). He clapped his hands, and women and girls streamed out of the tent, taking their places amongst the men with the happy sounds of laughter. The women were indeed lovely, sloe-eyed beauties with voices of honey, and the warriors clearly adored them, making them comfortable and encircling them in their arms.
"The Na'touk and Eirendal settled down to serious negotiations, as Silverleaf was taken to see the horses. The young Sylvari and two warriors left the edge of the encampment to stand among the grasses, and one of the warriors raised a silver horn to his lips. A single blast rang out and the ground began to shake with the sound of many hooves.
"Silverleaf held his breath in awe as a herd of over a hundred horses thundered into view, led by a stallion of silver grey, his tail raised as a pennant in the wind of his passage. The magnificent beast screamed a challenge as soon as he scented the stranger, and veered away from the herd to charge directly at Silverleaf. Silverleaf moved away from the two warriors, no fear or hesitation in his movement, and stood firmly, arms raised outward, eyes staring into those of the head stallion. He shook his hair out, as a horse would with its mane, and spoke softly in a language that was not Sylvari, not Common, not the language of anything that moved on two feet.
"The stallion planted his forefeet and slid to halt, trembling, in front of Silverleaf, who continued to speak softly, insistently. The silver hooves pawed the ground as the stallion's eyes showed their whites, his nostrils gleaming red with anger. Another scream and the hooves flashed dangerously close to Silverleaf's face, but still the roch'heru did not move, nor did his entreaty to the great leader of the horses abate.
"The stallion reared once more, dancing around the young Sylvari, then lowered his hooves to the ground, and nudged Silverleaf, almost sending the roch'heru to his knees. Silverleaf smiled, still speaking softly, and reached out to stroke the velvet nose of the stallion. The stallion submitted graciously to the caress, and then wheeled away once more, tail raised proudly, to gallop back to the herd. Fifteen mares, and two younger stallions, unwove themselves from the fabric of the herd and trotted to surround the young Sylvari, snuffling at him and lipping his hair.
"'I see that the decision has been made for me,' announced the Na'touk, who had arrived with Eirendal to witness the confrontation with the silver stallion. 'I am glad that I had left the numbers unspecified; evidently, it was Moon Ghost's decision as to how many, and which horses would go with you.'
"And so it was," continued Kiirar, "that Eirendal and Silverleaf returned with Blood Plains horses to Sylvaria, and trade with the Arvox Collyra continued for another ten years, until the Na'touk was felled in battle, and none rose to successfully take his place. Silverleaf and the members of his family were able to breed horses resistant to the disease, and young Silverleaf himself, noting that orphaned foals nursed by Plains mares resisted infection, was able to make a healing potion from mare's milk. Couriers with the potion were dispatched to the corners of the land, and eventually, the disease was wiped out.
"For his bravery and wisdom, Silverleaf was made a lord, and so began the House of Flamestar, or Runyaelan. The Sylvari Court gained its first new House in millennia, and the great bloodlines of Sylvari horses were strengthened and renewed. Go now, my children, and think on this lesson."
The young trainees leapt up as one and flowed away, chatting excitedly. The one for whom Kiirar had chosen the lesson, the daughter of the House Runyaelan, waited until all the others had left, then walked away, still alone.
Thanks to Vanadia for this contribution!