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The Lorelei Signal

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Sky Wolf

Written by Paula Cappa / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow

In a land far, far away, in the Kingdom of Iceleea lived a valiant king who believed that choice more than chance created destiny. He spent many a fortnight searching for a queen to warm his heart, to reign as companion by his side, and to give him a prince or princess. Both choice and chance failed. So he remained known as the king without a queen.

 

This king ruled over villages dotting the countryside, protecting the common folk who toiled through bitter winters. Even the most daring of snow fairies declined to fly the whipping snowfalls of Iceleea. Nor did the woodland fairies enchant spring days or dance in the fall leaves. Wizards had long deserted this desolate kingdom, leaving the king without the companionable joys of the magical realm.

 

Within the royal stone castle of towering turrets among the ice-covered mountains, the king viewed the summits from his bedchamber window, honoring the sun by day and stars by night. Stars were the gems of the heavens, beaming bright as souls.

 

One evening, as usual, the king dined alone in the great hall, the walls flickering with shadows cast from one high candle. The single scratch, scratch of his fork against the plate drove him to put his fork down. With a heavy sigh, and staring again at that vacant chair opposite him, the king admitted his loneliness.

 

He likened this melancholy to a dome of dark rain slamming at him on all sides. After so many years, even his heart ached as if rain-choked. Yet, he would not shed tears, for a king who wept revealed weakness.

 

Casting his brooding aside, and resolute to find a queen, he galloped to the far northern kingdom. He did not ride with his soldiers, for he feared nothing in his woodland. His guide and companion, starry Orion above, had kept him safe since his boyhood. Yet, when the king returned to Iceleea’s dark forest, at the crossroads to his castle, he rested on a rock to ponder his failure.

 

 “What shall I do?” he called to the stars and forest. “Is there no woman of pedigree for a good king? For I am an honest and reliable ruler, loyal to my people and their needs. Where is my queen? Where shall I find her?” 

 

Lights flickered in the forest with shadows shooting hooks in all directions. An odd howl, like a wild dog, struck the air. The king drew his sword, stepping down from the rock.

 

A woman dressed in black veils emerged from the evergreens. In her hands, two lit torches spread light across the meadowland. The king recognized snake rings on her fingers. The villagers’ tales of the Queen of Witches with her serpents had spread over the years—many stories he could recall from his childhood. Had he by chance stumbled upon such a wretched mortal?

 

She halted a few paces from the king, spires of fir trees towering over her like giants. “Your Grace, hail the King of Iceleea.” She bowed her veiled head. “By my art, I am Mother of Forests and Crossroads.”

 

The king lowered his sword. “You are no mother of this forest. I know every inch of my kingdom from my youth. You are Hekate, the witch among the restless dead from Hell. Black magick is your work.”

 

“I see the wicked tattles precede me.”

 

“Your disrepute precedes you, Hekate. You are known to make rivers scream in your presence. Meadow-lands quake under your foot.”

 

“Oh dearest king, too many wretches misunderstand my travels. They distrust my skills. Mere gossip. Pray, observe your meadow-land at this moment. Is it not calm beneath your presence?”

 

“A sorcerer’s trick.” This witch of the woods would not dupe him. Sorcery had its own kingdom.

 

“I beseech you, I am no three-headed monster as the gossip flies. I do have full vision in all directions, true. I am a goddess. A Titan, daughter of Perseus and Asteria, honored by Zeus and the starry heavens. I come to Iceleea’s crossroads.”

 

“Iceleea has no need of your evil powers. I command you. Be gone, witch.”

 

“Pray, I hear your call for a queen. I bring a gift. A destiny.”

 

“A king chooses his own destiny. I have my power, heritage, and strength.” He straightened his battle-ready shoulders bracing a high chest. “You have nothing of value to offer. Be gone.”

 

“I have a queen for you.”

 

What folly was this now? “You? Have a queen for me? Ha!”

 

“Test me not, Your Grace. Spend a night under a yew tree and your queen shall arrive. A maiden of imperial qualities. A shining beauty. Her loyalty to you shall be perfection.”

 

The desire for such a queen hit him hard. Yet, to choose to deal with Hekate, a woman of witchcraft, would prove disastrous. Tales still went round of her travels in the underworld with ghosts and winged monsters. Legends of her destroying warriors by casting dark bolts filled with poisonous snakes onto battlefields shook kings, knights, and soldiers to their souls.

 

“My Lord, this queen will give you many princes and princesses for your kingdom.”

 

“Heirs,” he whispered to himself. With his renegade younger brother coveting the throne, heirs were of great importance.

 

Hecate made a reverent bow. “Just say the word and all shall be yours.”

 

The king struggled. A divided mind was a king’s disgrace. Every good king knew the power of saying nay. Still, his words rushed out, “Imperial qualities, you say? And heirs?”

 

“She will be a charming presence at your table each night. Her talents for conversation are gentle as well as clever.”

 

 He savored the idea of such a woman. “And what will you require as payment for such an arrangement?”

 

“A most reasonable request. I ask you to erect a statue of me here in the meadowland, at this crossroad. I ask that you inscribe it ‘Hekate, the Good Goddess of Earth, Sea and Sky, honorary of Zeus.’”

 

The king nearly laughed. What vaunting pride, this witch. Yet, a feasible contract—although some villagers would likely disapprove. He approached the woman. “Old crone, you tempt me.”

 

“I am no crone.” She stepped out of the shadows and lifted her face demurely.

 

To the king’s surprise, he beheld skin like warmed cream, dark eyes full of lashes, and cheekbones elegant enough to belong to royalty.

 

“Lest you misunderstand me, Your Grace, I insist you forge the statue before your queen arrives.”

 

“Do you? What guarantee do I have that you will deliver?”

 

“Once the statue is completed, find a yew tree. Spend the night under its magical branches. If your queen fails to arrive, I will grant Iceleea victory in every battle. Your soldiers will never know bloody defeat. You will be hailed the greatest army in the region.” Hekate smiled brightly. “I give you my word.”

 

Much to the king’s astonishment, he believed her. He hadn’t noticed earlier, but the woman wore a high crown of tarnished silver, without a jewel present, among her veils. What kind of witch wore a crown?

 

“Where do I find this yew tree?”

 

“You know of no yew trees in all of Iceleea?”

 

“Perchance.”

 

“You will find one, or I am not the Mother of the Forests. The yew shall stand strong with my blessing. When you secure the yew, sit with your body close to the branches to smell the aromas. Once your queen appears, you must pledge to not ask her name. Nor ask what kingdom she is from. I require your oath.”

 

The king dropped his chin. A good family name was more desirable than silver or gold. A person’s kingdom—their dignity. Ancestry required his queen must be of worthy bloodline. He observed the witch for a moment. “For what reason? Some shame or guilt? Why must I not know this queen’s name and heritage?”

 

“As it is written in the stars, I am bound to keep my contract of confidence. I do not play the fool to let secrets fly like squawking hawks. Leaked secrets become the bread of gossipers.”

 

The king knew well the malicious power of gossip, especially regarding the character of women.

“Gossip bubbles into lies. Lies are swapped and enlarged among the prattlers,” Hekate snipped. “They murder a character that no sword or fire can halt.”

 

“Yea. Rumors are abhorrent.”

 

“As king, you have held crucial confidences for the good of all?”

 

“I have, in great measure,” the king said in his most honorable tone.

 

“Then we concur. You will keep this pledge of silence? You will accept her as your queen without name or kingdom.”

 

The king huffed and sighed. He felt compelled to agree, felt compelled to decline. “And if I fail to keep this pledge?”

 

Hekate winced. “Oh, My Lord, fail this pledge and you reveal your vulnerabilities. Your foes will flood the castle gates. Doom will spread across your kingdom. War will ensue. You will be dethroned.”

 

The king fisted his hands. No good king risked exposing a single weakness to his enemies. He recalled the old stories of Hekate seen on the battlefields wielding her powers of bloody slaughter, with a hundred owls flying over the field as a sign of victory. Be it true or tale, better to be wise than chance trouble.

 

“Your Grace, surely you have the strength to keep this secret?”

 

He searched for a clean breath. “I have the strength. Do not doubt me. What if I dislike this woman? I’ve met many maidens who are greedy, stupid, or full of intolerable giggles.”

 

“This woman is none of those.”

 

“I require purity.”

 

“You deserve nothing less. She is a woman of grace. A maiden with proficient hands who creates magnificent embroidery.”

 

“Embroidery?” His own mother had excelled at embroidery as queen dowager of Iceleea, his castle walls draped with her tapestries. “She must have nobility in her blood, then?”

 

Hekate shrugged, curling her upper lip like a sheep. “If you wish.”

 

Again, he paused for thought. Yea, he did wish it. “What king would trust a witch like you? You, who hold the keys to Hell on your skirt.” He observed the black iron dangling from her waist, just as the villagers had described.

 

“Trust is a choice, My Lord. You are a wise and brave king who knows the value of this opportunity. And a handsome man with your clipped whiskers and starry eyes.”

 

“What flattery you thrust at me.”

 

She puffed out a breath. “You deny you are wise and brave?”

 

The king stepped back. He found no security in this witch’s chance offer. He strode away to his faithful mare. “Be gone, witch.”

 

“Her nature is steadfast and as brilliant as Orion’s stars.”

 

The king halted.

 

“More chaste than a garden of the whitest snowdrops. Her thighs no man has yet to savor.”

The king tipped his head toward the witch.

 

“She carries the scent of lusty oak leaves in her hair. A gift from her mother.”

 

He focused his vision on the road back to the vacant castle waiting for him, rooms dark and damp, the mute air without fire. Turning slowly, narrowing his eyes, he gazed upon Hekate, her words throbbing full in his head.

 

Hekate clucked her tongue. “Be your reply a nay, I shall take my offer to another. A prince in the Kingdom of Kaffa will soon have need for a queen. He does not shrink so easily from opportunity.”

 

The king let go of a growl.

 

“Your Grace, do you choose to take this oath of silence? Or do you doubt your own resolve?”

 

He gripped his sword, pulled back his shoulders. “As King of Iceleea, I pledge my silence to this confidence. What shall I call this woman with no name?”

 

She scrunched her face like a shriveled quince. “Call her whatever you like. You are the king!” Hekate floated back into the darkened forest, her hooked shadows curling up tight while her twin torches burned high above her head.

 

~ * ~

 

Encouraged by the prospect of such a desirable queen, the king began his tasks. He contracted a sculptor to construct Hekate’s statue. Next, he commissioned woodsmen to scour the countryside for a yew tree. To their shame, of all the evergreen variations, a genuine yew was not among them. After several inquiries, he found an herbalist and hired him to plant seedlings in the meadowland. Within days, the seedlings produced a tree the height of the king’s mare.

The herbalist insisted he had never known a yew tree to grow so quickly during late winter. “Perchance Iceleea’s soil possesses rich nutrients, or the rain possesses superior quality,” he complimented the king.

 

The king scoffed. It was more likely due to Hekate’s sorcery. The sculptor completed the stone statue of Hekate, adorned in a flowing robe, peaked crown, and chiseled face. The artist had carved her with a solemn expression, the lips slightly parted as if ready to speak.

With the statue of Hekate installed at the crossroads, and the inscription completed, the king delayed no longer. He chose an evening in mid-March to sit under the yew tree, which grew a few paces from Hekate’s statue. He positioned himself against the young trunk, near a small fire, and huddled under woolen tarps.

 

Every star blazed. Plotinus believed stars had souls. Plato too, wrote that every human soul had a companion star and would return to it at death. All souls return to their stars.

Orion’s constellation especially held the king’s eye in the southwestern sky. Golden Orion, the mightiest hunter. His vast arms. His raised club ready to strike. Orion had a stride beyond brilliance.

 

“Dearest Orion, keep your stars fixed upon me,” the king cheered. The Hunter’s sword hung, sparkling at Orion’s side. A sword of truth. “This night I sit under your gaze, awaiting my queen.”

 

“Your presence is noted,” came the reply. The voice cracked like lightning inside his head.

 

The king studied The Hunter holding up the lion’s head. What brio. “Orion, what of this witch, Hekate? My mind’s a divide. Have I engaged in error, accepting this oath of silence?”

 

“There are no errors,” came the reply.

 

“Your wisdom, Orion, never fails me. What chance of success is in this endeavor? For chance engages a secret kinship with the unknown.”

 

“The chance of a white crow to cross your path,” came the reply.

 

Sleep took him quickly.

 

A howl shot through the air, waking the king with a start. Oddly melodic. Fog had gathered, pouring a heavy mist over Hekate’s statue. Was that Hekate’s howl? Had that witch come to gloat at this folly? Had she come to view her triumphant statue? He would strike that stone monument down upon her head.

 

The king threw off his woolen tarp and leapt to his feet. By the fading light of the fire, he saw a white blur coming out of the fog-drenched evergreens.

 

A woman, hidden within a red cloak that dragged on the ground, rode into the meadow-land on the back of a wolf. A white wolf. Not any species the king had seen in his kingdom. As scarce as wolves were in Iceleea, all were brown or gray. Though they ran in packs, they often scattered at the first approach of man or horse.

 

This wolf, larger than normal, poised, possessed bluish eyes as if all-seeing. His white fur glistened. He knows no fear, this white wolf.

 

“Thou art King of Iceleea?” the woman asked in a tinkling voice.

 

The mists parted. The maiden slid off the white wolf—a slip of a woman, light-footed in silver slippers, bowed and walked toward him. Her breath reached the king before she did, making the air silky with an intoxicating fragrance. In her hand hung a basket of loaves wrapped in linen. No winter’s ragged hands here; her slender fingers shone like polished ivory—surely a woman of noble birth.

 

Honey-colored locks flowed to her waist. Gleaming green eyes penetrated his. No woman in his entire kingdom had green eyes. Custom prohibited a kiss, which would place propriety at naught. Yet, the king desired his lips upon hers so hotly he drove his eyes up to the stars. Orion, calm me! Does my mind misgive? Perchance the magic of the yew tree playing tricks or Hekate casting her spells.

 

“Indeed, My Lady, I am King of Iceleea,” he managed to answer with steady voice.

 

She turned to the white wolf. “Sky Wolf, rest here,” she commanded gently.

 

The animal sat back on its hind legs before the statue of Hekate.

 

“The animal belongs to you?”

 

“Yea, My Lord.”

 

“We have no white wolves in Iceleea. Permit me?” The king extended his hand to test the wolf’s reaction.

 

She waved his arm down. “Do not trifle with him. He is faster than the wind.”

 

“And yet he is tame? Who has tamed this wild beast?”

 

“Nay, it is his nature.”

 

 The king had his doubts. “I find his howl to be unlike other wolves.”

 

“White wolves do not howl, My Lord. They sing. He is my gift to Iceleea. From my kingdom.”

 

Kingdom? Forbidden words nearly escaped his lips. Might I ask which kingdom? Had she not begged the question? The words shivered on his tongue, but his oath held it still. “I stand most grateful, My Lady. He is a glorious beast. Shall we bring him to the castle?” the king asked, hoping to observe this unusual wolf.

 

“His preference is to keep in the meadowland at these crossroads. At Hekate’s monument. And what a fine statue it is.”

 

“My Lady, the wolf is unprotected here. There are many huntsmen in Iceleea. They will surely slay him.”

 

“They will not slay this wolf,” she said with an authority that shocked him.

 

Who was this woman with a secret name and kingdom of white wolves? Who was she to keep a white wolf as her transport?

 

With a bow of her head, she extended both her palms up to him. “Your contract with Hekate is secure? You will share your kingdom with me, My Lord?”

 

The king felt the ground shift beneath his boots as if all of creation were holding its breath. Words failed him.

 

“My Lord, I promise, no woman shall be a more faithful companion for you and for your people of Iceleea. You will share your kingdom with me?”

 

His heart swelled. “As my queen, whatever I have shall be yours.”

 

“Have you oak trees in Iceleea?”

 

“By far and away, My Lady, Iceleea has the grandest of oaks. One magnificent oak stands directly outside my castle windows. You are fond of the oak tree?”

 

“I am. The oak is of the highest purity. I know its growth under sun and star. The oak whispers all your wishes to the stars. Your Grace, you will permit no lightning to rend the oak’s heart? You will permit no stormy winds to break its back in your kingdom?”

 

The king searched for an answer, curious about such a devotion. He reached for her hands. How they trembled. He cradled them inside his palms—practically a child’s size, yet with the graceful fingers of a woman.

 

“My Lady, I promise to do all in my power to preserve all our mighty oaks, if that pleases you.”

 

She tipped her head, eyes full of sparkle. “Then I shall be honored to travel to your castle, as every star is my witness.”

 

The woman turned and lowered herself to the white wolf. Her red cloak flowed out; the hood slipped off her head. “Sky Wolf, I leave you now. I shall return. Remain here.” With a kiss placed between his eyes, she sang a pretty note.

 

The king helped her mount his horse, then wrapped his arms round her. “Hold fast so you do not fall.”

 

“Fall? I would sooner we fly than fall.” Her laugh waved like harp notes in the air. “I feel quite safe in your arms, My Lord.”

 

He joined her hands with his on the reins.

 

“My King,” she said sweetly, tilting her head back to nestle under his chin.

 

They rode into the first streak of sunrise as it broke at the mountaintops, Orion’s stars dropping like crystals tapping the king’s shoulders. The king knew in his bones this was a woman he could love.

 

Behind them, Hekate’s shadow rode the tail of the king’s mare.

 

~ * ~

 

Church towers rang their bells on the king’s wedding day, as all the common folk rang their cymbals and door clappers. Colored flags billowed in the village squares across Iceleea. Maidens laid fresh cut rushes throughout the castle floors. The bride wore a wreath of simple oak leaves on her head, her dress trimmed in catkin blooms. The groom chose a vest of silver stars.

After the wedding feast, the bride and groom retired, the night spent in fervent lovemaking. She was a shining beauty—as Hekate had promised—smelling of sweet moss after rainfall, her tenderness a luxury the king had never known.

 

Sunrise broke into the bedchamber, yellow as egg yolks, stretching light across their faces. The king gazed upon his sleeping bride; the curl of her naked shoulders exposed. There, upon her back, he spied a faded scar. A burn mark? A thin snake-like marking as long as his finger. Nay, he thought, this was no snake. This looked like the tail of a dragon with short spikes and flaps.

 

“My queen,” he said when she opened her eyes, “What scar lies upon your back?”

 

She let go of a shiver. Tears surfaced. “I beg you, my husband, do not ask me.”

 

The king agreed with a kiss upon the scar. Silently, he blessed her tears.

 

During the spring in the meadowland, Sky Wolf remained like a sentinel in his position at the foot of Hekate’s stone statue. Huntsmen bypassed the meadow daily. Not a single hunter attempted to disgrace the wolf’s tranquility. None sought to capture or confront such a creature.

On summer days, whenever the king galloped past the crossroads, he felt bound to pause at the meadowland and observe the beast. The wolf created a sovereign presence, a calm that rippled out like circles on a still pond.

 

As days flourished, the castle servants shared the king’s genuine merriment in having a queen of Iceleea. The king especially savored the queen’s delicate laughter and sparkling green eyes on him during their evening meals—which ended with honey cakes that the queen had baked herself.

 

Each afternoon, as she sat at the south castle window, sun rays drifting in, her hair wound with flowers, hands embroidering fine images of greenery, the king would secretly watch her from the archway. Her small fingers pushing the needle, the tugging of the silvery thread, her dreamy humming so faint it sounded like a distant lark.

 

“My Queen,” he whispered, desiring to speak her name, for he was certain it was a name equal to her radiance. In the intimacy of their bedchamber, during marriage caresses, he tried endearments of ‘my sweet,’ and ‘my Venus,’ but none fulfilled him.

 

During their first winter as husband and wife, the weather proved warmer, sending snowfalls to drift like pixie dust. The queen invited the common folk to celebrate. She taught them ice dancing on the pond with music from gittern and aulos players. She served them cakes and ale. With the little ones, she played Ring-around-a-Rosie around burning logs, treating the children to candied nuts and pansy bread.

 

Because the day proved a great success, and because his queen gained such high favor with his people, the king decided to call his queen Icelyn, but the name quickly grew cold on his tongue. He returned to addressing her as “My Queen.”

 

Spring arrived. Wild purple lupine burst across the meadowland for the first time in decades. The forests grew greener, mosses thicker, and every bird and butterfly tripled in number. Mountain goats produced richer milk for cheese. Hens laid an abundance of eggs. Wheat and barley exploded in the fields.

 

While many of the villagers rejoiced in this bounty, others cast alarm. Cobblers and blacksmiths reported seeing Hekate’s statue come to life and stalk the meadowland. They fled in fear. Millers and chandlers described Hekate the Witch riding the moon in Iceleea’s forests. A few described her trailing ghosts of the dead through the moonlight. They understood this as a warning that the evil witch could bring the moon down upon their heads. In a bold action, fearing a curse upon their houses, a faction of peasants gathered at the castle gates with a petition for the king to remove Hekate’s statue.

 

The king reassured them that Iceleea remained safe under his authority and protections. But that night he paced the castle halls, fearing the witch’s presence in Iceleea might be true.

Then one day, his disgraced brother arrived, unannounced, entering the castle with his band of mercenaries at the front pillars. The king ordered the rebels to the stables and received his brother in the throne room.

 

“You have a taken wife, dear brother?” He said with disdain as he stood before the king, mud caked on his boots, ragged beard, and narrow eyes hot with resentment.

 

“Dear brother,” the king imitated his cocky tone. “What business have you in Iceleea? Are you in need of funds again? You’ll find no endowments here.”

 

“I come to meet my sister-in-law, the great Queen of Iceleea. I hear the villagers’ report that she has no name. No known family. They speculate she was born of gypsies. Or a bastard by a scandalous traitor. What wretch have you brought into our royal line?” He made no effort to hide his grimace.

 

“You are dismissed, my brother.” The king signaled his captain to remove the subject.

 

The brother stood his ground. “This kingdom is constituted by the propagation of our royal blood!”

 

“Never will you sit on the throne of Iceleea! Take your malicious pursuits elsewhere.”

 

As the soldiers hauled him out, twisting and kicking, he shouted to the king. “It’s true then, your queen is a witch. Witches in Iceleea!”

 

The king bolted from the room, his heart throbbing in his throat, blocking a scream. Stung by the words, ‘witches in Iceleea,’ he shuddered. While he could do little to stop village gossip, he could decree the act of slander to be defamation, a crime against humanity. The next day he drew up a Royal Writ to be posted throughout Iceleea.

 

The king focused on his usual business. Daily he ruled over land disputes, tax conflicts, accorded many favors to families suffering hardships. Gossip of witches in Iceleea spread among the villagers and into the outer regions. He denied them repeatedly. Yet, with his own brother, reportedly camped in the south, feeding such rumors, he could only hope his enemies would not believe the wicked tales and see his brother as the liar he had always been.

 

To prove his queen’s purity and affection to the common folk, he arranged for the queen to ride through the villages offering baskets of bread, herbs, and honey cakes. And so they achieved in high fashion with her carriage drawn by white stallions decorated with flowers. She galloped with a troop of shining knights to deliver her blessings.

 

Later that same night, the king awoke to find his bed empty. A quick search of the castle chambers left him puzzled. A search of the grounds sent him into a panic—until he raised his eyes to the stars for Orion’s wisdom and saw her inside the crux of the oak tree, curled like a bird flown back to its nest.

 

“Why are you here, My Queen? What is wrong?”

 

She did not speak, either from fear or confusion—the king could not decide. He carried her into the castle and held her in his arms. “Tell me what has happened to disturb you?”

 

“Today, in the village of Berg, near the south mountains, a man shouted out at me.”

 

“Who would dare? What did he shout? I’ll have him hanged.”

 

She lowered her eyes. “‘Be gone, Witch. Death will come.’”

 

The words thrust into his chest. “Did you…see his face?”

 

“Nay, the carriage rolled too swiftly. My King, what danger is this? Who would call for my death?”

 

“The source is likely my brother. He fears my heirs will subvert his succession to the throne upon my death.” The king covered his heart with his palms. “No one will harm you. No one will take you from me.”

 

The king reinforced his most skilled soldiers to surround the castle. The next day, he decreed by Writ that his brother had threatened the King’s Peace. He issued an arrest, charging him with treason against a sovereign. A massive search dispatched. Weeks passed with no news of his brother’s capture.

 

Iceleea’s trading continued to thrive. The kingdom’s abundant products overflowed the marketplaces north to south. This prosperity drew great attention. The king’s battalion grew to over three hundred soldiers, knights, and archers, their shields-of-arm sporting the queen’s white wolf emblem, “Sky Wolf.”

 

Soldiers traditionally served at the king’s pleasure, but now the knights, archers, and swordsmen desired to do battle on the queen’s behalf. They deemed her the pearl of Iceleea. And once more the king chose to name her, “My Pearl,” but that too slipped off his tongue, tasting false.

A name was the jewel of the soul. He knew well that in the oldest of traditions there dwelled the secret magical power of names. Or there dwelled a secret curse. He would find a proper name one day.

 

In late winter, the troops returned to the castle from a skirmish with the neighboring Kingdom of Maribaal over an ongoing land dispute. The soldiers entered the throne room full of anxiety.

“Your Grace.” The master of the crossbowmen stood at attention to his king. “We assembled in a crescent formation at the Maribaal border, arms ready for attack when the enemy suddenly fell back. Without a single arrow shot.”

 

“An unprovoked retreat?” the king asked in shock. Maribaal had performed repeated aggressions over border disputes for decades; skirmishes were common between the two kingdoms.

 

The master shook his head. “I can report the Maribaal soldiers departed with unexpected speed. We may only assume their fear of a present danger caused the withdrawal.”

 

The captain stepped forward. “Your Grace, every soldier is witness. Upon our leave, we discovered what might be evidence.”

 

The king waited for the explanation while the master and captain exchanged anxious glances. “I bid you, what did you ascertain?”

 

“Your Grace,” the captain said. “Verily, we observed hundreds of footprints several paces behind our crescent formation.”

 

“Boot prints?” the king asked.

 

“Paw prints, Your Grace.”

 

The master shook his head. “We concluded dog prints, but these were unfamiliar dog prints in the snow cover. The paw prints were three times the size of dog. And pressed deeply into the snow, suggesting generous weight.”

 

“Bear prints?” the king suggested.

 

“Nay, My Lord. Prints shaped like a dog’s, yet wider and longer. Wolf prints, aye, yet larger than any forest wolves known in Iceleea.”

 

The king’s thoughts raced with his own presumptions. “Your conclusions?”

 

 “We surmise a pack of wild wolves extraordinaire came upon us at the rear formation. A pack count of one hundred or more, made their presence known, poised themselves for attack, and when the enemy retreated, the pack escaped to the woods from where they came.”

 

The king rose slowly from his chair. “Who among the battalion saw these creatures?”

 

“Nay, My Lord,” the captain spoke. “Not a single one.”

 

“What of reports of howling or stampede?”

 

“Nay, we heard nothing, my lord.”

 

With this mystery bearing down on him, later that evening at supper, the king brought up the wolf paw prints at Maribaal to his wife, recounting all the details. “My Queen,” he addressed her in that title that had grown weary on him. “What are your thoughts of this Maribaal event?”

 

Her face lifted with cheer. “A pack of wolves? Perchance the work of one of Iceleea’s grand wizards? How fine!”

 

The king shook his head. “I think not. We have no wizards in Iceleea.”

 

~ * ~

 

Time passed. In early spring, the queen delivered to her king, twin princes, fat and sturdy babes yowling in their cradles. Two healthy heirs to the throne. The king’s brother would have heard the joyous news—wherever he was hiding.

 

The following year, the queen gave her husband twin princesses on a hot summer day. During that month of August, the first fairies descended into Iceleea. Tiny green-leafed creatures, yellow-haired, with scalloped wings. The village folk, although shocked, cheered the enchanters as they flew over their cabbage gardens, sweetening the breezes.

 

The king asked the queen how fairies suddenly found their way to Iceleea.

 

“Oh, My King,” she said with a proud grin. “The gentle heartbeat of a baby attracts fairies. We shall have fairies now in abundance.”

 

Then, upon a warm March evening, the king chose to visit the princesses’ nursery to gaze upon them, a father’s pleasure to know his daughters safe in heaven’s sleep. The babes were images of their mother. His little star beauties, he liked to call them.

 

As he gazed at their tiny faces, a shadow at the window caught his eye. Fear rang like a gong in his head. The shape bloomed into pointed hooks, spun out of a twisted figure wearing a tarnished crown. Hekate. Spying on his babes? Shaken, he dashed across the room. How dare she enter his castle?

 

From the window ledge, he saw only a slash of moonlight in the courtyard below—the trees and stone paths void of sound or footfall.

 

“What is it, My King?” His wife stood poised in the archway, a frown creasing her face.

 

“A shadow. Upon the window. Did you see it?”

 

“Yea. It be the wings of a nightingale.” The queen’s chin quivered, revealing the untruth of her words. Her green eyes flashed, searching the room. She dug her thumb into her palm.

 

“Nay, My Queen, you are mistaken,” he tried to say kindly. “This wicked shadow loomed far larger than any night bird.”

 

“The darkness assailed you. You are tired. Our evening meal is ready. Come.”

 

Without pause, he installed soldiers at every arch and nursemaids in his children’s bedchambers. If that witch returned, he’ll have her hanged.

 

In the great hall, servants stood ready in the archways. The supper table flowed with roasted meat, cheese, apple-bread, and a plentiful pitcher of wine. Still rattled by the shadow of Hekate at his castle window, the king poured generous goblets of drink, his mind racing with every suspicion. That witch inside his daughters’ chamber made a fist of his hands so tight he could barely hold his fork. What harm might she bring to his heirs? What did she want?

 

“My Queen.” He dropped his fork with a clatter on the plate. “That was no nightingale at the window. That shadow was Hekate. You saw it. What business does that old witch have here now?”

 

“Hekate is neither witch nor old. She is a goddess divine. You have written it so in stone at the crossroads.” She ripped bread, putting a chunk into her mouth.

 

“Written at her demand, not mine. Hekate is a known necromancer. A visitor from Hell. Is she not known to drag the dead from their graves? Where does this Queen of Witches transport these dead spirits?”

 

“I know of no such truths. I expect the village gossip is unfavorable for poor Hekate. We must dismiss such prattle.”

 

“You are not frightened that she has entered our castle? A spy on our daughters?”

 

“It was the nightingale.”

 

He held his tongue a moment, observing her slice a piece of cheese.

 

“Shall we retire soon, My King?” She gave him that coy glance she often did in the bedchamber. “You are not too tired?” Her green eyes flickered with enthusiasm.

 

“What an enchantress you are, My Queen.”

 

“Ohhh, My King, you shall always be my champion. Like Orion is your champion.”

 

Resisting her keen flatteries, he poured another goblet of wine. With his left hand fisted beneath the table, he said the words on his mind.

 

“What is your agreement with Hekate? Have you made that witch some vile promise?”

 

She ripped a chunk of bread and slathered it with honey, eyes lowered to her plate.

 

“Did you make a pledge to Hekate about our daughters? Tell me.”

 

She chewed the bread slowly. “Do not ask me, My King.”

 

His heartbeat surged into his head like a drum. He thought he would go mad with her silence, her chewing, her slathering the bread. His own pledge to Hekate suddenly felt irrelevant. What good did their contract serve now? With his little star beauties in the shadow of Hekate, Queen of Witches, could there be some curse on his kingdom? To hell with Hekate. To hell with it all.

“My Queen, what is your true name?” burst from him.

 

More bread and honey entered her mouth.

 

“Tell me the name of your kingdom.”

 

“My King,” she said smoothly. “There is no value or safety in names.”

 

“I deem it a great safety, in full measure. Who is your mother?”

 

The queen sighed. “It would displease you to know.”

 

“I demand to know. For the sake of our children and my kingdom. I command you, as King of Iceleea. Answer!”

 

“My King,” she said, her dark green eyes rising up to his. “Is it not unwise to use your powers against your own kingdom? What folly to risk our peace and prosperity.”

 

“My Queen.” He puffed out his chest. “I shall use my powers as I choose. I choose to protect my daughters from that evil witch.”

 

“I beseech you, hold your anger.”

 

He rose, knocking a plate off the table, crossed to her side, and grabbed her face in both hands, carefully holding her as if he could summon her very soul. “Who are you to refuse me your name? Refuse to acknowledge your kingdom?”

 

She held firm against his strength, eyes down to her plate.

 

“Are you born of gypsies? A bastard from a scandalous traitor?”

 

“My King!” She pulled his hands off her. “We are bound to Hekate’s terms of silence. It is your contract, is it not? I put this to your conscience. Do not ask me!” Bolting from her chair, she broke into tears, her footsteps echoing out of the great dining hall. That night the queen slept in her own chamber—the door bolted.

 

The king knew what duty was before him. He rode out to the crossroads under a full moon, the hoofs of his mare bellowing like thunder. There he found the white wolf sleeping calmly beneath the yew tree, guarding Hekate’s statue.

 

Standing before the monument, he drew out his bow and arrow. “Hekate! Come forward.”

The witch emerged from the forest, black-veiled, wearing her tarnished crown, the twin torches flooding the meadow with yellow light.

 

“Your Grace, may I be of service?” she asked, her creamy face brimming in a smile.

 

“You trespass. What purpose do you have in my daughters’ bedchamber?”

 

“I guard the littlest ones. I guard all my daughters and sisters.”

 

“You guard nothing but yourself. My queen is under your wicked spell. I am commanding you to reveal my wife’s name and kingdom. What is her heritage?”

 

Hekate raised her torches up high, flooding her heat across the meadow.

 

The king felt his eyebrows singe.

 

“Your Grace, such knowledge will bring a stain upon your reign. Your people will rally to expel her from your kingdom…or worse.”

 

He aimed his arrow at Sky Wolf. If the wolf be her agent or her lure, he would discover it now. “You shall tell me. Or the wolf dies.”

 

“Beware,” Hekate announced, “You do not want to know my vengeance.”

 

“Nor you mine!”

 

“You kill a white wolf, you die. Every rib in your chest shall split. Your throat shall collapse into a tangle of thorns. You will not have the pleasure to even scream.” Hekate pointed to the ground.

The king’s eyes followed her direction. A monstrous black scorpion lay upon the toe of his boot, ready to strike its stinger of poison.

 

“Do not test me, Your Grace.”

 

The king drew back on his bow, aiming at the wolf’s head. “Witch, you will reveal the truth to me.”

 

Sky Wolf opened his eyes with the most subtle of grace. His gaze fixed on the king with a steady flow of blue light, a pearly star pulsing between his eyes. And this star whispered into the king’s heart—a plea for his life.

 

The king froze.

 

Hekate made her move. “Withdraw, you fool. You would choose to bring your own death? Choose to abandon your family? Abandon your kingdom?”

 

His arms shook. His stomach tightened into a coil.

 

“Put down your arrow, or the scorpion will strike your thigh at my command. All will be lost.”

The king summoned his fiercest courage. Nay, he would not abandon all he loved in Iceleea. Nay, he would not take the life of such a peaceful creature. He called on Orion’s fearlessness, strength, and clarity.

 

With a bold kick, he sent the scorpion spinning into the air. At the same time, making a swift, sharp pivot, he aimed and discharged the arrow.

 

Hekate cried out. She stumbled, her body thudding to the earth.

 

Within seconds, the witch’s flesh lay clothed in her own blood with a face drawn hard on the cheekbones. She appeared as any ordinary human woman, a savage beauty struck down. Except her blood wasn’t the hot red he knew of the battlefield. The blood held a brownish tint, running in streaks of silver.

 

Hekate’s twin torches lay on the ground, igniting the meadow grass. The scorpion burned up quickly. The king stomped the grass flames. Yet, Hekate’s torches would not extinguish. He had no choice but to stand the twin torches into the soil.

 

When he lifted his head, an enormous pack of white wolves had surrounded him. Possibly over a hundred wolves, heads lifted, pointed at him like an army. Such giant creatures with eyes full of light. Two sat on the ground, still as stones. Other wolves paced back and forth like guardians. The entire meadow shone with gleaming white fur beneath blue light. The remarkable sight filled him with awe.

 

“What have you done, My King?”

 

He spun around. The queen stood, tears streaming her face, with a hand on Sky Wolf’s head. She collapsed into a heap on the ground. He rushed to her. She trembled in his arms as he lifted her, and with tender sways he kissed her eyes, her chin, her lips.

 

“Hekate is dead,” he said. “Our contract severed. The choice mine.”

 

Their eyes met. With mounting fear, he asked, “Are you the daughter of Hekate the Witch?”

 

“Hekate has many daughters. She is our dark mother rising.”

 

Sky Wolf rubbed his face against the queen. “Sky Wolf, Sky Wolf, Sky Wolf.” She cradled his face, then raised her head. “My King, you may say my name.”

 

Say my name. It struck him like a whip of wind from the stars. He nearly lost his footing. In this moment, she gazed at him with a face full of blue light. Say my name.

 

“You are named Sky Wolf?” he whispered.

 

She tightened her arms around him. “I am.”

 

“And your kingdom?”

 

She gathered in her courage, resting her hands on his chest. “I was birthed in the Realm of the Fae.”

 

“Fae? You speak of the Kingdoms of the splendors? Of fairy creatures?”

 

“Yea. Abundant green gardens. Every tree a monument. My matriarch and I were oak tree dwellers. We grew taller than most fairies. One day we argued. My matriarch flew away. I waited, but she did not return to our hollow.” Here she flushed with shame. “In my search for her in the woodland, I lost my way and wandered into the Valley of Mirr.”

 

“I have no knowledge of Mirr.”

 

“Mirr is a land of ancient molten caves breeding treacherous beasts.” Another burst of tears. “My King,” she choked. “There are dragons there.”

 

~ * ~

 

Dragons? Olden dragons had been killed in the War of the Wrath—St. George beheading the last of them as the storytellers boasted. Nay, this could not be accurate. Thinking she had cause to mistake, the king walked her over to the yew tree, and they sat beneath it. He rested her hands inside his. “What sort of beast?”

 

“Red. Winged. Head of horns.”

 

The king knew of the ancient red dragons. A gigantic, covetous breed, cruel and fearless, spewing poisonous clouds and fire. No man or beast could prevail against a red dragon and live to speak of it. He placed his forehead against hers as if he might share her woe.

 

“My beloved. How in this world did you survive in a land of dragons?”

 

She hid her face in his shoulder. “My Lord,” she murmured. “I did not survive.”

 

The earth might have stopped spinning for his whole body went stiff. “You did not survive? Yet, you sit here with me, alive at this moment.” Then he recalled the dragon tail scar on her back. “What is the meaning of the mark upon your back?”

 

“These words…do not come easy.” She shook her head in deep sobs. “With my matriarch gone, my fairy magic grew tangled. My spirit would not fade. I hid. All to no avail.” She covered her face with her hands. “I succumbed to the beast.”

 

He pulled her hands away. “Succumbed?”

 

“The dragon snatched me.” With her words, she brought her king into the belly of the dragon.

 

The hot darkness snatched her up. Forced her inside burning clouds, into the mouth, into the slick tunnel, landing in a stinking pouch. Then nothing. All awareness burned up into dust.

Then a swinging of bright light. And a voice soft as air.

 

I am your mother. My name is Hekate. You are safe with me, child. Come.

Hekate lifted her up. They floated out of the belly. Out of Mirr. Feathers on the wind. Riding the moon, they soared the skies. Hekate’s flaming torches led the way past the planets, through the constellations, to the star Kingdom of Lupus.

 

Great peace flowed there among the white wolf souls of Lupus. The wolf named Sky Wolf delivered love and healing to her soul—a patriarch and guardian. Her namesake. Both of them star souls among the galaxies.

 

Star souls. The king let that word sink into his mind. Orion carried his own soul within the brilliant star formation. Of that he had been certain since boyhood. The king shook his head, his thoughts reeling.

 

“Where is Lupus?”

 

“The wolf constellation is in the far southern skies. Between Scorpius and Centaurus constellations. You know it from the star maps?”

 

He nodded. The king stood up, raising her with him. He shifted his feet so he might feel the solid ground beneath him. And from the earth he drew a calmer breath. By the aroma of the yew tree, he cleared his thoughts.

 

“I must know. For what cause did you leave Lupus? Why come to Iceleea to be my wife?”

The blush on her face grew crimson. “I desired a human heart. In the realm of Fae, our hearts are made of bark and roots. I desired to know a man’s deep heart…with my own. To know the pleasures of the flesh. To know babies.”

 

“You chose to become an earthly woman?”

 

“My matriarch disapproved of such desires. Hekate offered me a mortal life…to love you in this earthly kingdom, to be loved, to grow a family.”

 

“You stand here this day, a product of Hekate’s magick?”

 

To believe that his wife, mother of his little ones, was not born naturally from a female womb, but the result of sorcery made his blood race. His queen could not be one of Hekate’s wretched ghosts conjured from her thunder cauldron of stars as the old stories claimed.

 

“By what authority is Hekate’s magick that made you into an earthly woman?”

 

“By Zeus’s authority. He awarded her dominion over the skies, earth, and sea. Hekate’s magick has the power to transform star souls.”

 

Stunned, he did not understand what manner of magick could perform such a transformation. Nor did he ask. He knew such rituals and incantations were highly guarded. Belief, doubt, hope clotted his mind. A cry swelled in his throat, but he did not release it.

 

“My King, do not forsake me for making this choice. You are a benevolent, wise king, a loving husband, a generous father to my babies. Hekate told me this truth. Her wisdom has no boundaries. Her magick, not dark, but a brilliant white.”

 

“Yet, what of our children, with you as their mother, daughter of Hekate?”

 

She curled her shoulders and hugged him. “They are fully human as I am. They grew inside my earthly body. Know that I will die one day just as you will die. I will return to my star kingdom in Lupus. As you will return to Orion.”

 

Sky Wolf nestled his nose against the king’s thigh.

 

“Because I have pledged myself to Iceleea, one hundred white wolves have followed me here. They hold peace in their paws wherever they run. Now they are Iceleea’s peaceful warriors.”

 

He fondled the wolf’s head. “You are a beauty, Sky Wolf.”

 

The king gazed upon Hekate’s body, blood-soaked at the foot of the inscription in stone, Hekate, the Good Goddess of Earth, Sea and Sky, honorary of Zeus.

 

Now he did cry out. “By God, forsake me not. Mercy!” He struck his chest. “I have not destroyed an evil witch. I have murdered a goddess.” He fought off tears. How would he live with this? How could he reconcile such a deed against a goddess? Were it not for Hekate, he would have no happiness, no wife, no sons or daughters. “I have misjudged her.”

 

He raised his eyes to the sky. A triple moon appeared above the yew tree. Two bleached crescents on either side of the full moon. “Is that Hekate’s sign?”

 

“Yea, her soul travels eternity. She will rise again. Will you welcome Hekate as a true goddess into Iceleea when she returns?”

 

“With great affection. Let it be so. I shall decree a proclamation citing Hekate, Goddess of Wisdom in Iceleea. We will cleanse her reputation with the villagers. All will learn of Hekate’s goodness. Iceleea will be her earthly home in this Kingdom of the White Wolf.”

 

The king drew a new breath, placing a kiss on his wife’s head. “You are my Lady Sky, Queen of Iceleea.” He raised his arms out to the heavens. “Lady Sky!”

 

The king gazed up. Orion no longer visible in the southwest and Lupus out of range in the far south. “What were the chances of you becoming my destiny, My Lady Sky? Was it chanced in our stars?”

 

The waves of light from Hekate’s twin torches spread across the crossroads to drench the meadowland in a fresh golden hue. The circle of white wolves gathered around king and queen, warming Iceleea with their fragrant breaths, ever after.

 

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Paula Cappa is a multi-award winning author of supernatural, metaphysical, and mysterious fiction. She is the recipient of the Gold Medal from Global Book Awards, the Chanticleer Book Award, and the American Book Fest Best Books Award Finalist for her novel Greylock. She also earned the prestigious Eric Hoffer Book Award, the Silver Medal at Global Book Awards, the Bronze Medal from Readers' Favorite International Awards in Supernatural Suspense, and is a Gothic Readers Book Club Award Winner in Outstanding Fiction.

She is the author of Greylock, The Dazzling Darkness, and Night Sea Journey—print editions published by Crispin Books, Milwaukee WI. Cappa’s short fiction has appeared in ParABnormal Magazine, Coffin Bell Literary Journal, Unfading Daydream, Dark Gothic Resurrected Magazine, Whistling Shade Literary Journal, SmokeLong Quarterly, Sirens Call Ezine, Every Day Fiction, Fiction365, Twilight Times Ezine, and in anthologies Journals of Horror: Found Fiction, Mystery Time, and Human Writes Literary Journal.

 

Paula Cappa is a freelance copy editor and writes a short story blog, Reading Fiction Blog, at her website at paulacappa.wordpress.com. She is Co-Chair of the Pound Ridge Authors Society in Pound Ridge, NY.

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