Title: Quest for the Crystal Pip
Summary: Who will win the hand of the princess?
The townspeople gathered expectantly outside the castle. Word had spread that the princess was going to be making an announcement about her intention to get married. With the King so ill, and no sons to inherit the throne, whoever the princess married was going to be big news to the entire town. There was a constant murmur among the people as they tried to guess who the princess would choose. The majority of people assumed she would marry Sir Matthew, the King's right hand man, despite the fact that she had publicly announced at the great festival banquet 3 months ago that she would rather marry a toad.
A hush fell over the crowd as the queen appeared on top of the castle.
"Good citizens of Marena - thank you for gathering here today, in anticipation of my daughter's announcement. While her father and I feel she is being a bit unorthodox, we will stand by her decision to choose her future husband and your future king in the manner she sees fit."
The townspeople cheered as Princess Victoria stepped up next to her mother.
"Good people - choosing my life mate and your future king is a task I do not take lightly. As I have yet to find someone I feel is suited for both tasks, I have devised a challenge - the winner of which will become my betrothed and your future king."
A contest? To choose the king? The crowd began to discuss this excitedly. No one had ever heard of such a thing before. The peasants assumed that they would not be eligible to compete though, for surely the princess would only want to marry someone of her own social standing.
"This challenge is open to ALL young men between the ages of 16 and 24. Peasant and Noble alike. For whoever is able to complete this task will be truly worthy of my hand and the ruler ship of this town," the princess continued over the din.
Now the townspeople were really shocked and the chatter increased. Why would the princess be willing to marry a peasant? What could the challenge possibly be?
The princess waited for the townspeople to settle down before explaining the rest of the challenge.
"The challenge is this - the first man who brings me the Crystal Pip will be the one I marry."
With that stunning pronouncement, the princess and the queen both withdrew into the castle, leaving the stunned townspeople speechless.
The quiet broke immediately with excited chatter - everyone was amazed that the princess had issued such an impossible challenge.
I listened to Princess Victoria's announcement and tried to figure out what the Crystal Pip was. I had never heard of it, but guessed it must be some local myth. I'd only been in town for a few weeks and the townspeople, while kind, were still a bit skeptical of me. Not that I can say I blame them, traders often get that sort of reception, thanks to those bad seeds amongst us who rob the villagers blind and steal away in the dead of the night to wreak havoc on another unsuspecting village.
From the chatter I could hear around me, I garnered that many of the townspeople didn't even believe the Crystal Pip existed. I wondered why they would think that the princess had issued an unbeatable challenge.
"Hey Thomas," I called to one of the blacksmith's sons. His family had graciously agreed to put me up in their barn during my stay in town.
"What is the deal with this Crystal Pip thing?"
He put a finger over his lips and dragged me into his home.
"The Crystal Pip is an ancient legend here in Marena. It's a story that is told to every child at their grandpa’s knee.
According to the legend, there was once a princess so beautiful and fair that all the knights in the village wanted to marry her. Her father knew his daughter was destined for greatness and was being extremely particular in making his choice. Her mother was very greedy, having married up into nobility for reasons unknown. She devised a contest for the knights of the village to win the princess's hand. Whoever created the most beautiful likeness of the princess by their own hand would become her betrothed.
For weeks all the knights in the village slaved away with charcoal and parchment, wood carvings, smithings, and whatever else they could think of. Finally the day arrived when the knights were to gather and have their likenesses judged. Several of the pieces were very good and the Queen was partial to choosing one that had been smithed with some jewels, assuming the knight's family would be able to properly care for her daughter.
Suddenly, an unfamiliar knight rode up to the gathering on a horse. He wore the colors of a neighboring village. He asked for the chance to enter his likeness of the princess. The Queen was aggravated, but her husband convinced her to allow the last minute entry, hoping for a union between his kingdom and the next if a betrothal occurred. The knight pulled out a beautiful crystal statue in a perfect likeness of the princess. The crowd gasped and the King said that this young man had obviously cared the most about winning the princess's heart to create such a beautiful statue. At his proclamation that this knight would be the princess's husband, the knight pulled off his helmet and was revealed to be a powerful sorcerer in disguise. The king attempted to cancel the betrothal, but the sorcerer threatened to bring down plagues of crickets on the village if the king did not stand by his proclamation.
The morning of the wedding, the Queen found that the princess was missing. The king and queen accused the sorcerer of doing something horrible to their daughter. The sorcerer in turn, accused the king and queen of hiding their daughter so she didn't have to marry him. The sorcerer then cast a spell that would trap the princess in the crystal statue until the king was prepared to honor his proclamation and perform the wedding."
Thomas finished his story and took a long drink of ale.
"That's it?" I asked. "What happened to the statue? What happened to the princess?"
"No one knows," he replied. "After casting the spell, the sorcerer grabbed the statue and disappeared. The king and queen swore to the townspeople that they had not done anything to try to get their daughter out of her wedding and that it must be an elaborate trick of the sorcerer. According to the legends, the spell the sorcerer cast said that the statue would only be found when true love conquered societal hierarchy. Over the years, it's been nicknamed the Crystal Pip because it's made of Crystal and is holding the Princess In Prison."
I was looking very pensive after hearing the story. Being a trader, I gathered a lot of folk tales like this and actually had an idea of how and where I might find this statue. It wasn't somewhere I was looking forward to going though, because if what I was thinking was correct, it was protected by thousands of crickets, and much to my shame, I suffer a terrible fear of crickets due to a cruel trick played on me as a boy. That, however, is a tale for another time. The important thing is to see if I can be the one to find the Crystal Pip and win the princess's hand in marriage. I had never fancied myself a prince, but have been growing very weary of all the traveling traders must do.
After coming up with the excuse of going out to forage for more supplies to make my wares, I headed out for the Eastern forest, land of the Elves, to confirm the information I thought I knew. I had done some favors for the elves in years past and they always treated me well and were willing to assist me.
I was immediately granted an audience with the king and explained to him what I was looking for and why. He confirmed my thoughts and offered to have two of his best trackers accompany me on my journey.
I knew that none of the other citizens of Marena would think to look in the Cave of the Unknown. It's an extremely powerful, magical place of legend that most people do not think actually exists. Because the Crystal Pip was such a powerful, magical object that many did not think existed, I had the feeling it may have found its way to the Cave.
The Cave is not an easy place to find. Due to its powerful magic, one must know certain spells to break the cloak of invisibility that covers it. Thanks to some favors I did for a coven once, I had a little magic at my disposal. With the assistance of the elf trackers, I made my way to the Cave in only a few days.
Upon reaching the general area of the cave, I cast the spells and there was the Cave! The elf trackers looked a little shocked that I had actually managed to find the place. With some trepidation I entered the Cave alone. I searched for a few minutes, astounded by some of the magical wonders in the Cave. After what felt like mere moments though, I was almost blinded by the shining beauty of a crystal statue which I assumed to be the Crystal Pip. With a small yelp of joy, I grabbed the statue and left the Cave.
To my surprise, the moment I exited the cave, I was attacked! I did not expect the attack and was not in a position to fight back. I yelled for my Elvin assistants and after not hearing them reply, realized they were the ones who were attacking me!
"The Elvin King commanded us to take the Crystal Pip from you and bring it to him," one said to me. "He said a common trader such as yourself does not deserve to be in the presence of such great magic, nor do you deserve the hand of the beautiful Princess Victoria. He intends to take the Crystal Pip to the king of Marena and by marriage to the princess begin his takeover of the entire forest."
Over my dead body, I thought. Then I realized that my injuries were pretty bad. What can I do to save myself and get the Crystal Pip back? Suddenly a healing spell popped into my head and I was able to get on the track of the elves quickly.
The elves, thinking they had bested me - stopped to rest early. I was able to sneak up on them in their sleep and with the help of another spell (I really must remember to do something nice for that coven again when this adventure is over) I was able to get the Crystal Pip back in my hands.
I made several false trails and then high tailed it back to Marena to claim my prize - the princess.
By the time I made it back to Marena, several weeks had passed since the princess issued her challenge. I hid the Crystal Pip in the barn where I was staying and caught up on the local gossip. The town looked to be in a shambles because of the number of knights and peasants who were out looking for the Crystal Pip. According to the stories I heard, at least two men had died already in their quest.
I wanted to make a big splash when I presented the Crystal Pip to the royal family, so I anonymously hired a village boy to take a note to the castle stating that the Crystal Pip had been found and if they would call a gathering of the townspeople, the finder would present it to the princess and the betrothal could be publicly declared.
Within an hour of the note being delivered, the entire town was abuzz with the news. Who could it be? Which brave knight would the princess be marrying? The next day and the gathering could not come soon enough.
Somehow, most of the men still out searching received word that their efforts were futile and returned to see who had bested them.
At high noon, the royal family appeared on the balcony of the castle.
"As you know, we have received word that one of our brave and loyal citizens has found the Crystal Pip, winning the challenge set forth by Princess Victoria and obtaining her hand in marriage," stated the queen. "Would that man please step forward and show us the proof?"
"It was I," I declared with great pride, striding to the front of the crowd and holding the Crystal Pip aloft.
Oh, how the crowd exploded then! The brave and noble knights were bested by a trader? How could he have possibly bested everyone else?
With a look of surprise, the queen invited me up to the balcony. As she and the king examined the Crystal Pip, I went over to the princess.
"Princess Victoria, I am proud to have won your challenge and look forward to taking your hand in marriage," I said, as I bowed to her.
"Dear sir," she replied, "I know you are a trader who has passed several weeks in our village, but I do not know your name."
This was a deliberate overlooking on my part - I had not given my name to anyone in the town for fear they would recognize it.
"My name, my darling Vicki, is unimportant," I said. "What matters is that I have won your challenge and therefore shall be your husband."
"Vicki," she said slowly.
Oops, I thought - I just made a huge error and tipped my hand a little too early.
"No one has called me Vicki before," she was starting to remember, "except for Phillip, the older brother of Sir Matthew, who disappeared from here many years ago, when I was just a young girl. No one ever explained what happened to him." All of a sudden she really looked at me. "Good God above, it is you!"
This was a secret I had not wanted out in the open before the king had publicly announced my betrothal to the princess. I had left town many moons ago due to a family feud. I did not want my family to know I was back in town. Unfortunately the king and queen overheard the princess.
"Phillip!" the queen exclaimed. "We thought you were lost to us forever."
"How ironic," the king said. "You two must be meant for each other."
Both Victoria and I were confused.
"You didn't know?" the king asked. "Your father and I were discussing marriage between the two of you just before you disappeared. After you were gone for so long, your mother tried to convince us to allow Victoria to marry Matthew, but we knew she did not like him so we told her we were going to allow her to chose her own husband."
Victoria and I looked at each other in surprise.
"Well you know I always liked you," I said to her shyly.
"Really?" she asked, just as shyly. "I always liked you to."
With that, we kissed.
Suddenly there was a tremendous noise. Everyone was startled; looking around to see what was causing the commotion.
"Look!" shouted the queen. "It's the Crystal Pip!"
Suddenly, the statue shattered and standing before us was a beautiful young woman.
"Where am I?" she asked, very confused.