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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Onix and her sisters

illustration by Meghan Jones

Onix snuggled deep into her downy quilts as her father’s song poured through the halls and grounds of the palace. Her younger sister, Ruby, in the bed to her left, had already fallen asleep. Her older sister, Topaz, lay in her bed on Onix’s right with her eyes closed, smiling to herself and nodding in time to the tune.

Tomorrow, she and her sisters would leave for the winter palace at Fortiscaelum to prepare for Christmas. Of all three sisters, Onix loved the winter palace the most. There she could roam freely and spend time with those who were so dear to her.

Even though Onix knew her father’s lullaby well, she fought sleep to hear all of the words tonight. She loved his rich deep voice as he sang:

My precious children
More treasured by me
Than exquisite sculpture
Or a great symphony.

My son set like a Diamond
My daughters, my gems
Topaz, Onyx, Ruby
In my best of diadems.

I wonder if I’ll ever see my brother, Onix thought as her eyelids fluttered shut and she fell peacefully asleep.

A few days later after settling in at the winter palace, despite the freshly fallen snow, Onix found her copy of the royal cartographer’s map of Fortiscaelum’s lands and sped to the stable to saddle her palomino, Ancilla.

The royal squire sauntered over to the stall. “Welcome back, Princess. Going out?”

Glancing up, Onix frowned. It was Roger, a sturdy-looking kid with straight blue-black hair that always fell into his tawny-colored eyes. Onix answered, “Yes, Topaz is having ‘ideas’ today. I needed to get away for awhile.”

Roger nodded. “Your older sister always seems to have something planned for everyone.”

Onix felt her face warm in embarrassment. Why did Topaz have to make a splash wherever she arrived? She would take charge and tell people what to do – even if they didn’t need her to. Upon their arrival, she had insisted that their music and books be unpacked and the rehearsal hall set up – even before saying hello to the staff and having tea.

“I’m headed for the woods near the castle.”

“Want some company?”

“No… thanks. I just want to be by myself.”

Onix certainly did not want Roger’s company, or anyone else’s, for that matter. Her younger sister was next to Topaz on Onix’s list of people to avoid. Ruby had commandeered Onix first thing in the morning to dance with her and play with her and listen to her endless chatter. Onix simply could not take another minute.

Roger patted Ancilla’s flank. “Be on your guard. I’ve heard reports about increased spy activity around here.”

“I have my bow, and I’m not going far.”

And with that, Onix gave a final tug on the girth. Roger opened the gate for her and she took off. As she cantered through the courtyard, the thought occurred to her that although Roger tried to be a good friend to her, he wasn’t very interesting.

The red feather in her cap fluttered in the wind and a cluster of her jet-black curls teased her face as Onix galloped Ancilla through the snowdrifts. Girl and horse sent the snow flying as they headed to a clearing within view of the main castle entrance. Since it was one of her favorite spots, the place had become known as Onix’s Meadow.

At a high point, Onix reigned in Ancilla and studied her well-worn map. Then, inhaling the smell of the evergreens, she spun slowly around in the saddle, enjoying the prospect. To the east, the mountains sparkled brilliant white in the bright winter sunshine. To the west, the castle itself shone golden warm and inviting even with its creamy white frosting. Chickadees and cardinals flitted and chirped here and there, and danced in the air around her. She felt so free! “Thank youuuuuuuuu!” she shouted, and her voice echoed back, “Thank youuuuuu! Thank youuuuu!”

Onix tucked the map into the quiver on her back and jumped down from Ancilla. Her sharp eyes scanned the area. To her left, high in a tree a squirrel swished his tail and watched her. The slight smell of skunk lingered in the air to her right. As her gaze traveled upwards, she squinted her eyes as she saw a potential danger at the top of a rocky outcropping. There appeared to be two glass orbs buried in the snow.

Instantly kneeling, she whipped the bow from her shoulder and an arrow from her back. Nocking the arrow, she felt the smoothness of its feather fletching on her cheek as she sent an arrow flying low over the orbs.

Two bushy eyebrows popped out of the snow and field glasses emerged next. A black-streaked face with an enormous mustache followed.

“Who are you?” she shouted out, nocking another arrow.

“Don’t shoot at me. I’m Brevis,” he answered back in a froggy voice. “I mean no harm. I was just leaving.” He continued looking at her right through his field glasses.

“I’m certainly not afraid of you!” she said as she took in his diminutive form and charcoal-stained tunic and beard. “You're a spy! I should pin you to a tree right now!”

“So… What are you doing out here today?” he asked. Brevis slowly backed up to the cover of the trees.

“I need more target practice,” Onix said, sending another arrow zinging over his head.

Brevis lowered his head and cowered.

“Don’t worry. I’m getting much better,” she said.

Then, glancing quickly over her shoulder, Onix jumped and ran for the cover of a tree. Spotting a downed log, she ducked out and shot. Then, she aimed and shot at clumps of grass, knotholes in trees and both ends of the log, using up all the arrows in her quiver. Not a single one missed its target.

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Brevis sit down. Unaware that the princess could still see him, he eased a tattered piece of parchment out of his rucksack and scribbled on it with a gnawed-on piece of charcoal. After he finished his message, he folded the parchment around a stone and rolled it down to the base of the rock. A skunk scuttled out of hiding, picked up the note in its mouth and scurried into a thicket.

Just then, the King’s patrol swept through Onix’s meadow. Brevis shook with fear and disappeared.

Miles, the tall captain of the guard, swept up beside her on his glossy dapple gray horse. Miles seemed surprised to see her out alone so late in the day. He questioned her with his ocean-colored eyes as he asked, “And, how are you today, Princess Onix?”

Onix heart skipped a beat at hearing him address her by name, but she certainly didn’t want him to notice.

“It’s a great day for target practice, Captain!” she answered, glancing up at the rock. The spy had disappeared from it; and the sun had sunk down and was poised to dive behind it.

“Good for you,” he said, his eyes following her gaze, “but don’t stay out too much later. The sunlight disappears fast in the winter.”

“I’m ready to come in,” she said and gathered up all her arrows except for the two shot over Brevis. They seemed to have disappeared, along with the strange little man himself. The patrol rode a circuit around the meadow as she whistled to Ancilla, who trotted over shaking her mane and flicking her tail as if she wanted to tell the captain herself about Onix’s escapade.

“He is so handsome. Isn’t he, Ancilla?” She stroked her horse’s neck dreamily.

Onix headed back to the castle, and a little song formed itself in her head and flew out of her lips. The exquisite sound floated purely over the high notes and rang out even on the low notes.

The sky so blue, the trees so green,
Colors so brilliant by sunlight seen.
Or watch the sky unfold at night!
The moon so close, the stars so bright,
Even the night-time possesses light.
If only my sisters would share with me
Just one single interest or common delight.
What joy that, a song worthy to write!

As she reached the castle courtyard, the sound of her song drifted up through the bare trees and hovered outside the windows of the King’s study. Hearing that resonance, the King’s most trusted servant and the princesses’ tutor, Amadeo, flung open his windows to let the music come wafting in. His tall frame and silver-hair made him distinctive and the princesses called him “the silver tower” behind his back. When Onix’s song ended, Amadeo called out to her, “Onix, if only you weren’t afraid to sing out for others to hear! Your songs could melt the hardest of hearts.”

Her face flushing red, Onix hung her head and mumbled, “Nobody else thinks so.”

“In that, you are mistaken, Onix,” he said and retreated back into the King’s study.

As Onix led Ancilla to the stables, the sound of a trumpet blared through the courtyard. From up in the watchtower, the castle watchman roused the King’s household and every creature for miles around. Onix nearly jumped out of her skin.

“A messenger approaches!” the watchman announced. Captain Miles and his men turned around and headed back out to meet him.

A few minutes later, her heart pounding, Onix watched from Ancilla’s stall as the captain’s guard escorted the racing messenger over the drawbridge. His horse and clothing were spattered with mud and his face dripping with sweat. The great horse reared up at the stables, his nostrils flaring. Still frothing at his bit, the horse dwarfed Roger, who ran out to help. Ignoring the squire, the messenger leapt from his mount and immediately walked his steed in a circle speaking softly to him all the while. When the horse had quieted, the messenger handed the reins over to the young man and sprinted inside to meet with Amadeo in the King’s reception hall.

Onix raced inside and up three flights of stairs to the grand rehearsal hall. Since her sisters hadn’t appeared after the horn blast, she knew she’d find them there. They spent most of their free time in that room at the top of the castle: Topaz endlessly practicing intricate melodies on her flute, and Ruby dancing with her slender legs and willowy arms, bringing the music to life as if she were dancing before hundreds of nobles and princes.

As Onix burst into the room, Topaz looked at her in surprise with her large purple eyes. Topaz gently drew the flute from her lips and set it down. A strong pang of envy passed through Onix. Topaz looked so lovely with her slim fingers and her long honey-colored hair that fell in plump curls to frame her face. She had an elegant composed manner and boys always noticed her first.

Completely opposite, Ruby’s vibrant red hair flowed and swept around her head as she used a Pas de Basque to reach Onix, grabbed her hands and demanded, “"What would the king have me dance next? A love song of the meadowlark or a tempest driving forth the mighty ships at sea?” Then, she laughed and spun around in a perfect pirouette.

Ignoring her sister's fantasy, Onix cried out, “A messenger is with–”

But before she finished, her sisters flew from the room. Onix chased them down the stairs to the hallway outside the reception hall. Amadeo, heading out of that magnificent room, intercepted the three princesses. Joyously, he announced to them, “Your brother returns! He has won the war and plans to be home for Christmastide!”

The three sisters hugged each other and jumped up and down ecstatically. This would certainly be a Christmastide like no other! But, for the first time in her life, Onix felt a twinge of disappointment over the Winterberry tradition. She had never desired to be crowned the queen, but now... Well, she just wasn’t pretty or talented enough to be chosen as the Winterberry Queen, even if the unpredictable berries appeared this year.