The Eastern Island of the Order of Protection, in the Year of Our Lady Selnol the Ragged, day the fourth in the season of Icewhile. Dawn had not yet broken, but a pale light was rising to lap at the brink of morning, and the stars were fading one by one. A single magpie could be seen in the blanching sky. Against the grey half-light, the black and white feathers seem incongruously vibrant. The bird seemed to tear a path through the paper of the sky, leaving fleeting, wing-shaped impressions of something on the other side that was by turns pure black, pure white.
This island was ceaseless and horizonless; devoid of hills or mountains. One could travel across its entire breadth and length without walking up or down any sort of incline whatsoever, which was why travellers called it the flatlands, or by its ancient name, The Levelle. The oldest stories about The Levelle spoke of a great demon who rolled the land out flat with his rolling pin and baked bread upon it, the crumbs of which became the first stars. These sorts of antique stories were not well remembered any more by the peoples of this land, and many had been forgotten entirely, along with the ancient songs, although the demons and wildfolk still knew them by heart.
In these days, the rulers of the Order of Protection placed a great deal of emphasis on peace and stability, and therefore the people of the Order of Protection did too. They worshipped the God Mooth, the great orator, and considered themselves to be accordingly blessed in the gifts of speech and diplomacy. By the year of Our Lady Antzuma, the Levelle was a nation of stability, well esteemed for its skills in peacekeeping and reconciliation, with ambassadors and advisors well established in almost all corners of the world.
When the fourth day of winter finally broke, the morning light spilled out from its bowl in the sky and eventually touched a wild corner of the island, far from the royal castle, where the young crown prince Leif Berraneka was journeying. His hair, when the light touched it, was as pale as boneflower; his eyes reflected perfectly the grey weight of the dawn sky and seemed to hold no colour of their own at all. They were bright with that peculiar, luminous quality that is often seen in the eyes of sleepwalkers or people who are not quite well – pensive and dreaming by turns, gazing at nothing and everything. Now his face was quite calm and composed, although his eyes glimmered with the unsteady quality of starlight.
Although his complexion and bearing were princely in the highest degree, his dress was somewhat peculiar. He wore the garb of a hunter, though rather badly. His plain hide armour had an enchantment on it that had either been diluted to start with or had faded with age: it glowed queasily in the gloom with its own faint, greenish light. It seemed too large for his slim frame, and as he stood to stretch and gather up his bedroll it was evident that he was clumsy beneath the weight of the chainmail, and moved awkwardly with it. His boots and gloves were dogskin, and at his side hung an unadorned silver sword with the symbol of the Order of Protection at the pommel. Then, alongside these unremarkable – some might even say unprincely - articles of equipment, he wore an ostentatious filigree crown worked delicately out of real lumin, and dripping with diamonds. The prince’s initials, LB, had been picked out in opals at the front, so there could really be no question of his identity, even though a glance at his features was sufficient to mark him out as a son of Queen Berranek. This crown sat like a beacon on the young prince’s head, glittering his family connections out into the world for all to see. Inexplicably, it held no powers or enchantments whatsoever - neither could it be of any use as an actual helmet, being as delicate and light as a sugar decoration on a wedding cake.
This was certainly a strange state of affairs, given the dangers of the wild territory that the Prince found himself in, which was home to more demons than humans, and was far from the protection of the castle. It was difficult to fathom but Prince Leif himself appeared unperturbed, and stood gazing westwards with a mild, thoughtful expression towards Wuulwemul as the sun rose.
He was not far now from the Mirror Grotto - the lair of the demon Rojin and the great store of treasure that it hoarded there. Among the riches, fiercely guarded, were rumoured to be a number of Divine Relics – the name given in that land to items bestowed with rare and mysterious power. The Prince himself, it should be mentioned, was in possession of one such Divine Relic, which had been bequeathed to him by the Queen Antova on the day he came of age. It was an Amulet of Protection; a golden locket in the shape of two cupped hands hanging on a golden chain around Leif’s neck. This amulet, contrary to its name, did not afford the young Prince any form of protection at all, but was blessed with the curious trick of being able to magic into existence an endless supply of seeds of the royal tree of the Order of Protection. The existence of this Divine Relic and its possession by the royal family of the Order of Protection perhaps explained the family’s ancient pledge to shade the land and feed the people, which the holding of this relic neatly fulfilled. Prince Leif unclasped the locket now, and although the amulet would not have rattled had it been shaken, a small reddish brown nut now sat in the hollow of the golden hands. He lifted it to his lips, kissed it, and stooped to plant it in the soil at his feet.
Royal pledge fulfilled, the Prince straightened to gather his knapsack, and saw the magpie. It was perched on a low branch of a nearby lanya tree, and although it had been assiduously wiping its beak on a cluster of leaves before, it now stopped as if embarrassed, and, turning its head aside, looked narrowly at the Prince with one bright berry-black eye.
“Good morning, master magpie!” said Leif, mostly to himself. It was considered good luck on the island to greet a magpie when you saw one – this was an old folk tradition, the origins of which had been lost to time.
The magpie ignored him. It was looking at his crown now. It turned its head to the other side in order to assess the sparkling edifice more properly with its right eye, and then cocked its head again to inspect it with the left. It craned its neck to get a better view. It leaned forward on its branch and stared, its beak slightly open and its eyes bright with diamonds, until Leif broke out laughing.
This startled the bird briefly into flight – its wingbeat, stammering, tattooed the air between them with bands of black and white which resolved when the bird landed in the velvet shade of the lanya tree’s upper branches.
“Sorry,” Leif said, half laughing. “Aren’t you beautiful! What would you like?”
The magpie peered down at him.
“Would you like something to eat? Here, have this! And keep me from bad luck, won’t you?” Smiling, he took a second nut from the little golden amulet and tossed it to the ground beneath the tree.
The sun was high enough now to travel by; he would easily reach the Grotto by evening. There was treasure to be retrieved and a powerful guardian to be reckoned with - and if the demon Rojin was as fierce as the stories suggested then Leif would need all the good luck he could get. If the thought of this coming battle troubled him at all, it did not show. The young Crown Prince, as he wandered westwards, could be heard singing a hymn under his breath – his eyes were the colour of the wide sky, his expression mild and far-off, as if he were remembering a place from his childhood as he sang.
Veil thee with many veils,
It hideth not your fire
But rouseth thee to bright desire
To speak thy sacred tales.
A faint clapping of wings could be heard. Back at the lanya tree, the magpie flew to the ground in a zoetropic stutter of black and white, and somewhere between the sky and the earth it found a new shape and became something else. The pale sun continued to rise; the air was quite still and cold. In the deep shade at the foot of the tree stood now the demon Rojin, dressed in a cloak of black and white feathers. They stooped briefly, and when they rose they held between their thumb and forefinger a nut of the royal tree of the Order of Protection. They held it up to their black eyes and examined it closely. They looked at the retreating shape of the Prince in the distance, and smiled hungrily, showing all of their teeth.
Mirror Grotto was a little observed wonder in the realm of Juwnedon-Wek on the south stormshores of the Order of Protection’s principal island. Very little was known about it, partly due to the wild remoteness of the region and partly due to the density and great variety of the demon population there, who deterred most travellers and ate the rest. The earliest historical account of the place is also the most detailed – a short passage in Phasros the Elder’s Vestigo, reading:
“Of the so-called grotto of mirrors near Ninnolzhew, which may be the same wonder as the Knoll of Bones, it is said to be a demon-made construction taking the shape of a low hillock upon the landscape, the inside of which is lined with splendour and the outer with gore.”
Most later texts do not mention it at all, although there is mention made in an old song of that region which mentions “yon shyning hill of bones,” which likely refers to the place, there being no real hills or mountains in that region at all. It does not feature on the majority of maps, lacking the extraordinary usefulness of The Exalted Basin, or the tragic history of The Exalted Maple.
How Prince Leif Berranek had managed to make it there unscathed was anyone’s guess. His armour was mismatched and poorly made, his sword was dull, and yet he carried with him an astonishingly rare map from the library of the royal family, printed on demonskin. This map, strange to say, had been gifted to him personally by the very same royal personages who had seen fit to send him out into the world wearing dogskin gloves. It depicted the island in wonderful detail, accurately charting a number of regions that were thought to be entirely uncharted, among them Juwnedon-Wek, the realm of the Mirror Grotto. The map had been marked for him to show the reported locations of a number of Divine Relics - those rare and curious pieces of equipment that were sought by all those who sought power, and which granted their bearers strange, wonderful gifts.
Prince Leif stood just a few paces now from the Grotto, dressed in his strange garb and bejewelled crown. He consulted the demonskin map one last time. The wonder had been depicted as a low mound, and a small golden X had been painted on to indicate the presence there of a possible Divine Relic. In black ink above the mound was another tiny symbol – a six fingered hand, the mark used to denote the presence of a great demon.
Leif put the map away and looked the grotto. Phasros the Elder’s Vestigo and the map had both depicted the grotto as a sort of hillock, but both sources were ancient. The Mirror Grotto had grown since those days. It jutted up into the sky now like a giant skeletal thumb, pale against the pale sky. It had looked uniformly white from a distance, but now that he was closer Leif saw the innumerable bones and skulls and ossicles that had been picked clean and pressed into the walls of the structure. The bones near the bottom of the towering structure had bleached white in the sun, but those nearer the top were newer, and were dark with blood. Above, a magpie circled.
No demon came to tear him limb from limb as Leif approached: no challenge answered his tentative, questioning call. Still, it was with great trepidation that he entered the grotto, almost holding his breath as he stepped through a doorway that no living creature but the demon Rojin had passed through for centuries.
It was cool inside, and quite silent. The high walls reached up to an open circle of sky far above through which the light poured in, breaking itself on the way down into a thousand points of brilliance, for the walls of the grotto were lined with glittering treasures from the floor to the ceiling.
So kaleidoscopic and dazzling was this effect that it took some time for Leif’s eyes to adjust, and then with a racing heart he stepped further in and began to gaze around in search of something resembling a Divine Relic. Here, he began to have his first misgivings. On closer inspection, the items lining the walls did not appear to be treasures at all, but rather a large collection of carefully curated pieces of rubbish.
There was a pair of broken spectacles, with a crack across one of the lenses. There were innumerable pieces of magenta and turquoise coloured glass – the hues commonly used in that region for ale and rootwine bottles. There were shards of mirrors, and not only shards but entire hand mirrors, wall mirrors, and (Leif shuddered to see) hundreds upon hundreds of traditional handheld demonglasses. These relics were commonly carried by villagers and poorfolk, and consisted of a piece of smoked mirror set in a little embroidered frame at the end of a stick – it was believed that they warded off demons. They clearly had not warded off the demon Rojin, who had plucked these mirrors from the bodies of the villagers he had killed, and had been setting them in the walls of his grotto for centuries. The demonglasses nearer the bottom of the walls were quite ancient: their mirrors were hexagonal instead of circular, and the surface of the mirrors were engraved with words in the old language, a practice which had died out more than two hundred years ago.
Leif stood on tiptoe and craned his neck to get a better look at the items higher up. Beetle wings; tin foil; silverware; what looked like a great cracked lighthouse lens. And as Leif stared in growing dismay, a dark shadow fell across the entrance to the grotto.
There in the entranceway stood the great demon Rojin themselves, in the form of a giant magpie. This shape of theirs was so large that they could not even fit their head through the doorway of the grotto: instead they stooped and pressed their enormous eye against the entrance to peer in.
Leif, trembling from head to toe, drew his sword and promptly dropped it.
“Whoops,” he said.
“Well, well, well. What do we have here?” said the magpie. The demon’s enormous eye almost filled the entirety of the doorway. Leif backed himself up hastily against the furthest wall, and tried to think of something to say.
“I am Prince Leif,” he said at last, for it seemed as if the magpie really was awaiting an answer. “Prince Leif Berranek, of the royal house of the Order of Protection.”
“A prince!” The great eye scrutinised him in silence for a bit.
“I like your grotto,” said Leif, weakly.
“Oh yes! Yes… there’s ever such a lot here, isn’t there? Gosh. And er, the decoration. Is it all… er… This sort of thing?”
“What sort of thing?”
“Bottles? Bits of glass and such?”
The eye at the entrance narrowed.
“Well!” said Leif, nervously. “It’s all marvellous, I must say. Jolly good stuff. Lovely bottles.”
“I collected it all myself,” said the demon Rojin.
“Goodness! Well! My word!” Leif cleared his throat awkwardly. “Is - is there anything more powerful here, perhaps? My map said there might be-“
“I have spec-a-tacles,” said Rojin modestly. “Many pairs. Human made.”
There was a pause.
“Do they – are they – do they have any sort of, er, powers?”
“Light catching,” said the magpie. “They catch the light. Look!”
Leif looked, dutifully. They did indeed catch the light rather nicely, but it was becoming evident that there were no divine relics to be found in this place. Rather, Leif had entered the lair of a demon that had been killing humans for centuries for their sparkly things, and he had entered it wearing an incredibly sparkly crown. He straightened it now, nervously, and watched the enormous demon eye track his movement, and remain fixed on the crown after he had put his hands down.
“Are there any more of those seeds left?” said the giant magpie, conversationally.
The demon turned, and poked their enormous, sharp beak into the entrance of the grotto. The beak was long, but not quite so long that it could reach Leif, pressed as he was at the furthest end of the grotto, with a collection of cracked pince-nez digging into his back.
“DO YOU HAVE ANY MORE OF THOSE SEEDS LEFT?” the beak said, very loudly.
“Oh! Are – are you – the magpie from earlier?”
“Yes,” said the magpie from earlier.
“And,” Leif hesitated, thrown into sudden doubt. “You are the demon Rojin, are you?”
“Yes,” said the demon Rojin.
The beak was very alarming to look at, this close. It was as black and wicked as a flint’s edge. When it opened to speak (which was also alarming) it revealed a sharp looking tongue, as black as onyx.
“Those seeds,” the beak prompted.
“Oh! Yes! I have more,” said Leif. “Many more. An infinite supply. My amulet can make them.”
Rojin removed their beak and pressed their eye to the entrance again to have a good look at the amulet. Leif could see himself reflected in the great oil-dark eye. He looked very anxious. He tried to make himself look less anxious by putting one hand on his hip in a nonchalant manner, but the results were mixed.
“Did you say infinite?” asked Rojin.
“Yes,” said Leif. “Infinite.” And then, remembering the razer sharp beak, he added hastily – “but only I can operate it. Th-there’s a knack, you know. So, you wouldn’t want to kill me for it.”
“No,” said Rojin, rather vaguely. The eye was so large that it was hard to know whether it was staring at the crown, the amulet, or Leif himself.
“No,” said Leif, firmly.
“Give me one”, said Rojin. He thrust his beak back through the doorway.
Leif looked doubtfully at the beak. “Well… alright. I was just thinking, perhaps, if you did have an item of power around here, perhaps you might consider trading it for some seeds?”
The beak opened as much as it could in the low entranceway, which was not very far.
“Ahhh!” the beak said, expectantly.
Leif unclasped his amulet and rather gingerly placed one of the acorn-sized seeds into the open beak. The beak clacked shut and withdrew. There was a pause.
“W̵̠͉̽̈́̽H̷̢̘̳̪̯͌̎͋͘͝A̶̼͇̙̙̅͂͋̅͘͝͝T̵͚̪̮̱̠̬̝̑̌̑̒͗?̷̨̧̧͈̹̰̀͝?” roared the demon Rojin, in a voice like ragged thunder.
Leif eyed the open doorway in alarm, through which he could just see a pair of enormous black scaley bird legs, and the white feathered underbelly of Rojin. If he ran now – if he ran quickly and darted out of the way, perhaps he could escape – but before he could put this thought into action, Rojin had put their eye to the doorway once more. The eye looked annoyed.
“That was TINY. What a tiny little seed. Where are the big ones you gave me earlier?”
“Th-these are the same ones,” said Leif, faintly. “There’s only one kind. They’re from the royal tree.”
“WHAT?” cried Rojin. “Where are you hiding them? Where? Why? Give me one!”
“You were much smaller earlier,” offered Leif, timidly.
There was another, much longer pause.
“I know that,” said Rojin, haughtily. “I was much smaller earlier. Yes. I was in my smaller magpie form, wasn’t I? Yes.”
The monstrous form at the entranceway seemed to fold itself inwards somehow as if a drawstring were being pulled, and Rojin, in the form of a little magpie, hopped pertly into the grotto. Leif, who had come forward a little bit, shrank sharply back against the wall again.
“Give me another,” croaked Rojin. “It wasn’t as good when my beak was big. It tasted very small. I’ll have one in my small beak instead.” They opened their small beak, demonstratively.
Leif wondered whether he should put a seed into the beak, or whether that might be presumptuous.
“Wait,” said Rojin, and rose, and grew, and in a sudden was in human form, in their cloak of black and white feathers. Their eyes were very bright and very black, just as the magpie’s had been, but were far more expressive, and regarded Leif with much curiosity and interest. Leif, for his part, was quite speechless, having never seen a demon change forms before, and having not expected such a very human looking Rojin to approach him with hand outstretched.
Rojin’s face - their human-seeming face - was a remarkable one. They wore stripes of black and white facepaint, white beneath the eyes; black beneath the mouth. In their face there was a suggestion of immense pride and cruelty, but at the same time something confiding and very full of simplicity. The contrast was what struck Leif at that moment, as opposite as the black and the white feathers. The overall effect was unusually lovely, a very strange beauty – Leif opened his mouth to speak and could not think of a single word to say.
“I’ll try one in this form,” said Rojin. They were standing far too close. “Please.”
Wordlessly, Leif unclasped the golden locket, took out another seed and dropped it into Rojin’s open palm.
The demon tossed it into their mouth at once, and crunched it rapturously. “Wow,” they said. “Wow. Wow.”
“Good. Very good. Yes. The raiment, the gifting. So far, very much.”
Not knowing quite what to say to this, but observing that he did not appear to be under any immediate threat from the demon, Leif said – “about that trade…”
“There are more seeds?” said Rojin.
“Yes, of course.”
“More seeds for me?”
“Well,” faltered Leif, “If… if…”
“You are good,” said Rojin, nicely. “You are very nice.”
“Th -thank you,” said Prince Leif.
“Do you suppose,” said Rojin, “that I could have another seed?”
“Could I have a divine relic in exchange?” said Leif, bravely.
Rojin parsed this for a moment, then leaned in without any hesitation whatsoever and kissed him. It was a keen, thoughtless, fleeting kiss - all wildflowers - and it was the first time that anyone had ever kissed the crown prince Leif Berranek, although he was almost twenty eight years old.
“Oh,” said Leif.
Rojiin looked pleased. They looked at his dogskin gloves, and his patched boots, his glowing armour, his golden locket and his sparkling crown. They looked at his wide, pale eyes and his parted lips and his wheat-coloured hair. “Would you like another?” they asked.
Leif appeared to be struggling with how best to answer this question.
“That’s alright,” he said at last, with some effort. He gazed at Rojin, quite lost for words. At first, when the demon had come up so close to him, he had become as pale as death; but now the blood had rushed back to his cheeks. “The thing is… I was actually – I was looking for items of power, you see… there may have been a misunderstanding.”
“Items of power?” Rojin cocked his head to one side. “Afbrigði?”
“You’re talking about the calamities, aren’t you? Abrigði. Calamities. The singing swords and the burning cloaks? The little bits of talking jewellery?”
“Yes!” said Leif, excitedly. “That’s them! Only, we call them Divine Relics!”
“What!” Rojin rather unexpectedly burst out laughing. “You call them the same word as a kiss! How funny you humans are! Ha! Ha! Ha! A kiss, I like that!”
“Oh,” said Leif, blushing again. “Well. We don’t exactly –“
“I understand,” said Rojin, serenely. “You like the calamities. You’d like some for the nest?”
Rojin gestured around them at the grotto. Seeing Leif’s dumbfounded expression, they added hastily - “It’s not finished. It could go much higher than this. This is just for starters. Lots of room for Abrigði.”
Leif gazed around, distractedly. He looked rather flustered – his blush had not disappeared yet, and he spoke quickly and self consciously. “So there are none here? Well, that’s alright. I’m on a mission, is all. It isn’t going very well so far. I’m supposed to collect them up, as many as I can -they’re dangerous, you see. I’m not surprised you call them calamities in your tongue. Ha! Yes. I’m to send them back to the castle to be destroyed. It doesn’t matter that there aren’t any here though, after all. Hey ho! It was only a rumour. I thought that Dread Grasp might be here.”
“Never heard of it,” said Rojin.
“You’ve never heard of Dread Grasp? The gloves of protection?”
“What, you must have! Dread Grasp! From the song!”
“Not at all! What song?”
“Grasping the heart of forgetting,
Holding firm the threads of dream,
Gath’ring the stems of oblivion
Stitching closed the broken seam”
Leif paused, embarrassed. His voice, as clear as birdsong, rang out against the eyeglasses and the mirrors and the broken bottles.
“It’s about a pair of gloves,” he said shyly, rather aware that Rojin was staring.
“That is a human song, I think. Could I have another seed?”
Leif gave them one. The demon ate it very slowly and consideringly, looking at Leif all the while with their bright dark eyes. When they had finished it, they said,
“You do?” said Leif. Then, “accept what?”
“The gift was good. Very good. I like the gifts very much. I like very much that there is an infinite supply of gifts,” said Rojin. “I liked the song very much also. Yes. The crown is precisely to my liking. I like you very much, prince.”
Leif looked at the demon gravely for a moment, as if he were unsure whether he were being teased or not. But seeing that Rojin’s expression was quite as serious as his own, he suddenly broke out smiling.
“Oh! I think I like you too, Rojin – you are not at all what I thought you would be. I am a great believer in destiny – I don’t know if demons believe in a thing like that, but – that is - it seems as if we were supposed to meet. I had a strange feeling when I first saw you. I almost felt as though I knew you; as if I had seen you before, in a dream perhaps.” He stopped, confused. Rojin looked at him inquisitively, but did not laugh.
“And you could help me collect Divine Relics? That’s the very thing I’ve set out to do!”
“There are no Abrigði here,” the demon said. “But if those are what you like, I shall help you get some. Yes! In return for your song and your gifts and your raiment. And then you’ll see how powerful Rojin is! A strong bird! A builder of tall nests!”
“Is that so?” murmured the Prince, a little nonsensically.
“You don’t have to decide now, of course,” Rojin said hastily. “Three moons is traditional. You can wait. You can see.”
“I see,” said the Prince. “And - after three moons?”
Rojin placed Leif’s hand into their own and laced their fingers together, six against five.
“We can marry!”