The Lorelei Signal

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The Hulda Girl

Written by Maureen Bowden / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow

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Nineteen-year-old Prince Domalde of the planet Midgard was an idiot: likeable and well meaning, but an idiot nevertheless. I was not pleased when his father, King Visbur, offloaded him into my care.

 

The king summoned me to his study. He pushed aside the mass of state papers, petitions and royal declarations that cluttered his desk, to make room for two glasses and a bottle of prize vintage, distilled by monks in the vineyards of the planet Brimir. “The finest wine in the solar system, Harald.” He passed a glass to me. “Let’s get drunk together, two old soldiers reliving their glory days, surviving winter skirmishes on Niflhel, and sharing a blanket by a campfire in the Sindri Mountains.”

 

Two bottles later we’d re-fought every battle in the interplanetary wars that ended twenty-five years ago when the armies grew tired of fighting each other.

 

“I wonder if our ancestors from Old Earth were as quarrelsome as we were,” Visbur said, refilling my glass.

 

I attempted to shrug, and spilled the glass’s contents over a document entitled ‘Huldu Aid Inventory’. “Probably,” I slurred. “Their home world didn’t demolish itself without their help.” Five millennia had passed since travellers from Old Earth colonised our solar system, and their history had subsided into myth.

 

The king kicked off one of his boots, removed his sock, and used it to soak up the wine spillage from the damp document. “Glad we learned sense before we followed their example.” He raised his glass. “A toast. To peace.”

 

I responded, “To peace.”

 

After the wars, Visbur, being of royal stock, had been crowned king of Midgard. I took a desk job with Interplanetary Administration, doing whatever the political elite required of me, to give them an easy life. I was yet to discover what my old friend was after. “Now you’ve got me drunk you’d better tell me what you want, before I pass out,” I said.

 

“A small favour, Harald. It’s Domalde. He’s a good-hearted lad and he wants to accompany the aid consignment to Huldu. Thinks he can compensate for the Huldians’ abject poverty by gracing them with his presence.”  He poured me another glass of Brimir happy juice. “Keep him amused and try to bring him back alive.”

 

The wine had loosened my tongue. “You’re abusing the privilege of companionship in arms, Visbur,” I said. “Can’t the sprog find enough amusement here on Midgard?”

 

He sighed. “The truth is, Domalde’s latest obsession is learning to play the pipes, and I need some respite from the racket he’s making with the damn things.”

 

The king had my sympathy. I’d heard the boy practising in the palace corridors. His efforts sounded like the screech of an angry mountain orc in the wildlife sanctuary. I drained my glass and stood, swaying, to take my leave. “Tell him to wear boots. There’s a lot of mud on Huldu.”

 

The prince was waiting for me when I arrived at the palace next morning. His pipes, protruding from a contraption of straps and bellows, were slung across his shoulders; he’d stuffed his blond curls into a cap he wore back to front; a white fur bag hung around his neck. It matched his knee high, platform-soled boots, which were more suited to strutting around the meeting and greeting places than to Huldu dirt.

 

He waved, “Greetings, Harald. I’ve heard about you. People say you’re very brave. All they say of me is that I’m harmless.”

 

“If they accuse you of nothing worse than harmlessness take it as a compliment, Your Highness. No doubt they say many more damning things about me.”

 

“No need for the ‘Highness’ nonsense.  My chums call me Dom. What do yours call you?”

 

“Harald.”

 

“Oh, right. Are there children on Huldu?”

 

“Yes, Sir. It appears no matter how harsh their living conditions people will persist in having children.”

 

“Good, and don’t call me Sir. I’ll play the pipes for them and I’ll give them these.” He delved into his bag and produced an assortment of rainbow coloured rubber balls that dropped from his grasp and bounced down the corridor.

 

“Whoops.” He chased after them, his bag swinging, the pipes wheezing and clattering, and his platform soles clanging on the tiled floor.

 

After he retrieved his playthings, we boarded a wagon and rode to the transporter station.

 

The aid consignment was awaiting us. The dwarf planet, Huldu, was the solar system’s charity case. All the inhabited planets contributed. On this occasion it was our home planet, Midgard’s turn.

 

“What’s in the containers?” Dom asked.

 

“Clean water, ready meals in airtight packages, baby food, blankets, soap, clothing, and medical supplies.”

 

“Do you think the children will like my balls? They’re the only toys that please all ages. I remembered that from an on-screen entertainment programme called, ‘Amaze Your Friends With Interesting facts’.”

 

Just what hungry children need. “Well done,” I said.

 

The station operator sealed the doors, set the destination code for Huldu, and activated the transporter beam. The molecules that made up everything behind the sealed doors, dispersed, skipped through one-hundred-and-fifty-million miles, and reassembled at Huldu’s station. Dom said, “I feel sick.”

 

“So do I. It will pass.”

 

The operator unsealed the doors. We stepped outside and breathed in Huldu’s air. A group of filthy children were playing in a shallow pool, running, laughing and flinging handfuls of mud at one another. A young girl, possibly their older sister, was taking part in the tomfoolery. She was as mud-splattered as her smaller companions.

 

Dom gazed at her, as fixated as a yellow mottled-back serpent under a snake charmer’s spell. “That looks like fun,” he said. I hoped he was referring to the mud slinging. “You can go off and do your administration business, Harald. I’ll stay here and give the children my balls.”

 

“If I may make a suggestion, Dom. Leave the pipes in the transporter station. If they become clogged with mud I doubt if they’ll ever be playable again.”

 

“Good plan. I need friends like you to do my thinking for me.”

 

Congratulating myself for the ordeal I’d spared Huldu’s inhabitants, I turned my attention to supervising the loading of the aid consignment onto the wagons that would take it to the distribution centres. Glancing back I saw Dom and his rainbow balls causing mayhem in the mud bath with his new friends. His boots were no longer white.

 

I returned an hour later. The children had wondered off, taking the balls with them. Dom and the girl were sitting on comparatively firmer ground, laughing and chatting. They were holding hands.

 

He beckoned me. “Harald. This is Sigrath. Isn’t she wonderful? I’m going to marry her.”

 

I remembered King Visbur’s words, “keep him amused and try to bring him back alive.” Best to humour him and let his father deal with this.

 

“Greetings, Sigrath,” I said.

 

“Greetings, Master Harald.” Her intelligent brown eyes seemed to penetrate my façade of forced amiability. Her face was lovely. Behind the dirt she was the most beautiful sentient being I’d ever encountered, with the possible exception of a certain physiotherapist I visit regularly on the planet Barri.

 

Dom said, “I’ll take care of her, and I’ll give her everything for which she asks.”

 

“Right now I believe she’s most in need of a bath.”

 

She turned to me. “You may have noticed, Master Harald, that on Huldu we don’t have much water to spare for bathing.”

 

Dom gasped and his wide eyes grew wider. “How do you get clean?”

 

She winked at me and turned back to Dom. “We stand under a cloud and wait for rain.”

 

He frowned in puzzlement.

 

I liked this girl. “Sigrath is teasing us,” I said.

 

He laughed. “Oh, of course. I knew that.”

 

I turned to the prospective bride. “I believe we should inform your parents Prince Domalde wishes to marry you.”

 

She stood, and pulled Dom to his feet. “Master Harald is right. Come on. I’ll race you.” They sped away, with me in pursuit. Dom called back to me, “You’d better do the talking, Harald.”

 

Her family lived in a large hut, divided into separate rooms by frayed and patched curtains, donated, judging by the fabric, from the planet Niflhel. Sigrath introduced us to her parents before disappearing behind one of the curtains. We heard the sound of running water. Evidently, the Huldians didn’t have to rely entirely on clouds.

 

I explained the situation.

 

Her father laughed, and said, “I knew that girl would find a way off this dung heap sooner or later.”

 

Her mother turned to Dom. “Make her a princess. It’s what she deserves to be, and you must try to be a prince worthy of her.” She had the same penetrating eyes as her daughter, and Dom blushed under her scrutiny.

 

Sigrath emerged from what served as a bathroom. She was clean. Her auburn hair flowed around her slender shoulders and she wore a white, belted shift I recognised as one of hundreds that were part of an aid consignment from the planet Sindri.  She could have worn beggar’s rags and the title of Princess would still have suited her well.

~ * ~

 

Visbur was enchanted by his future daughter-in-law. “Well done, Harald,” he said. “I leave him in your care for one day, and you find him a girl who’ll make a man of him.”

 

He announced a planet-wide holiday to celebrate the marriage and he gave the young couple an entire wing of the palace to furnish to their own taste and make their home. It didn’t escape my notice that the king’s own apartments would be well out of earshot of the pipes.

 

Dom showered his bride with precious gems, and garments made from the finest fabrics. He also instructed his finance administrator to legally gift her half his annual allowance.

 

She used her wealth to turn one of the rooms in their apartment into a library. He invited me to see it. She’d filled it with books from every planet in the solar system. We sat on the window seat drinking chilled fruit juice while I cast my eyes over the impressive collection.

 

“Sigrath actually reads these,” he said.

 

“Don’t you?”

 

“No. I don’t like books. I’m afraid they might damage my eyesight.”

 

“When you have children I wouldn’t advise you to pass that theory on to them.”

 

“We won’t be having children yet,” he said. “She thinks we’re too young, so she ordered a five-year contraception implant from the planet Barri.”

 

“I think she’s right.” I said.

~ * ~

 

A year after their marriage Dom sent a guard to invite me to dinner at the palace. The fish and exotic fruits were delicious and Sigrath looked more beautiful than ever, but Dom seemed ill at ease.

 

After we’d eaten, he said, “There’s something Sigrath wants to discuss with you. I’ve promised to support her but it’s too complicated for me to understand, so she’ll explain.”

 

I turned to Sigrath. “How may I help you?”

 

She took a deep breath. “I want the aid consignments to Huldu to be stopped.”

 

I fought to restrain my anger. “You want to condemn your own people to death?”

 

She said, “Do you believe we wanted to be reduced to beggars? We are proud folk.”

 

“Pride won’t feed and clothe anyone, Sigrath. Huldu can’t sustain human life.”

 

“I’ve learned how that happened. Master Harald. I believe you know too.”

 

Dom said. “I don’t.”

 

I felt the urge to slap the boy for his ignorance, but Sigrath gently took his hand and squeezed it. “Many generations ago Huldu was a prosperous world,” she said, “but the other planets were expanding their empires and they coveted our wealth. We had no defence when they invaded.”

 

I suppose I should have expected this. She was an intelligent young woman. It wasn’t surprising she resented the great injustice her planet had suffered.

 

She continued. “They stripped our hills of their precious minerals, and silted up our rivers with industrial waste and sewage. After the winter rains the riverbanks burst, spewing evil smelling mud. They over-used our fertile fields, and tore down the hedgerows to provide them with more land, loosening the topsoil and raising dust storms, leaving our farms barren.”

 

There were tears in Dom’s eyes. “Is it true, Harald?”

 

I nodded. “Yes, but we live in a more enlightened age now.”

 

Sigrath said, “Then you should be prepared to put right the damage that was done.”

 

“The politicians have discussed this many times.”

 

“So, why don’t they do it?”

 

“Because sending aid is easier, I suppose, but I agree, it’s the wrong solution.”

 

Dom stood up. “I’ll go to my father and tell him Midgard must help. He’ll do anything for Sigrath. He loves her as much as I do. Will you speak to the other planetary leaders, Harald?”

 

“No,” I said. “Sigrath should speak to them. I’ll call an interplanetary conference on behalf of your father and take her to meet them.”

 

“Can I come too?”

 

“Yes, but leave the talking to Sigrath.”

 

“I always do.”

 

We held the meeting at the Interplanetary Administration Conference Facility on Midgard. The Emperor of Niflhel, the Matriarch of Sindri, the Holy Guardian of Brimir, and the People’s Representative of Barri were in attendance. I introduced Sigrath as Princess of Midgard and Ambassador for Huldu. She charmed them with her eloquence, and they welcomed the opportunity to be rid of the stain on the solar system’s conscience.

 

She told them of King Visbur’s commitment to the project. “Midgard’s wildlife sanctuary has preserved many species that were indigenous to Huldu and are now extinct there. They will be reintroduced once our joint efforts provide an environment in which they can flourish.” She then thanked each of them for the assistance they offered but she insisted certain conditions must be honoured.

 

To the Guardian she said, “Your Holiness must ensure that no attempt is made to impose any of Brimir’s belief systems onto Huldu’s inhabitants. We welcome your expertise in how to grow fruit and edible root vegetables but we will not be instructed in how to think.”

 

His Holiness said, “Fear not, Princess. We have enough problems with theological disagreements on Brimir. I will not permit them to be inflicted on Huldu.”

 

To the Representative, she said, “The art of healing will be invaluable to Huldu, but you must leave your hallucinogenic substances on Barri. In the short term they might increase enthusiasm but in the long term they would be likely to slow down the work.”

 

The Representative treated her to a lazy smile. “Your loss, Princess.”

 

To the Emperor and the Matriarch, she said, “We would welcome Niflhel and Sindri’s knowledge of how to harness the power of the sun, wind and sea, to heat and light our homes, but not of how to unlock nature’s darkest secrets in order to make weapons.”

 

The Emperor frowned at her, “But you should consider the defence benefits—”

 

The Matriarch interrupted him. “The Princess is right, Emperor. She will tell us what her people need, and we must respect their wishes. It’s the least we owe them.” These two had faced each other across the battlefield, and neither of them wished to resume hostilities. “Are we agreed?”

 

The Emperor inclined his head. “We are.”

 

The Matriarch turned to Sigrath. “I hear you seek knowledge in books.”

 

Sigrath said, “This is true, Madam.”

 

“I share your interest. I have studied the meaning of words passed down to us from our Old Earth ancestors. Do you know that our planets’ names and many of our personal names originate in the folklore of their Nordic people?”

 

“I am aware of that.”

 

“Then, no doubt, you have discovered that ‘Sigrath’ means ‘She Who Knows.’ You were well named, Princess.”

 

~ * ~

 

The planets undertook the transformation of Huldu with enthusiasm. It would take two generations, possibly more, but the blighted little world would be restored.

 

Dom and Sigrath continued to regard me as a friend and mentor. He called on me one day at my apartment in the Interplanetary Administration building.

 

“Sigrath and I are planning a trip to the wildlife sanctuary,” he said. “She wishes to see the animals that were indigenous to Huldu. Would you like to come with us?”

 

I’d love to, Dom, but I’m about to take a vacation on Barri. I’m in need of physiotherapy.”

 

“Oh, right. Come and see us when you return.”

 

He turned to leave. I called after him, “Dom, take care. Follow the sanctuary keepers’ guidance and stay clear of the mountain orcs. They’re not friendly.”

 

He laughed. “Don’t worry, I will.”

 

I left for Barri that evening.

 

I returned to Midgard a month later, content and invigorated. A palace guard met me at the transporter station. He was wearing the purple cloak of planetary mourning. My stomach clenched in apprehension that it might be for my old companion in arms.

 

I returned his greeting salute, and asked, “Who’s dead?”

 

“Prince Domalde.”

 

My head reeled, and I felt tears spring to my eyes: a sensation I’d not experienced since the wars ended “What happened to him?”

 

“Some sort of accident at the wildlife sanctuary. The King wishes to see you. I have a wagon at your disposal.”

 

We travelled in silence and I was glad of it. When I alighted at the palace he called after me, “Master Harald, condolences on the loss of your friend.”

 

Dom had, indeed been a friend, and I would miss him. “Thank you,” I said. “He was a good man.”

 

He nodded. “Yes. He was harmless.”

 

Visbur was sitting on a lakeside bench in the garden. An open bottle of Brimir wine and two glasses stood on a tray alongside him.

 

I joined him on the bench, poured myself a glass and swallowed the contents in one gulp. “How did the boy die?”

 

“He watched a yellow mottled-back swaying to the sound of a snake charmer’s pipes, and he asked if he could try it with his own pipes. The snake bit him.”

 

“There was no antidote?”

 

He shook his head. “The yellows are so docile nobody ever bothered to develop one. They only attack if they’re seriously annoyed.”

 

“I’m sorry, Visbur. I should have gone with him.”

 

“Not your fault. He was my responsibility, not yours.” He drained his glass and poured us both another. “I suppose I should tell his mother. Where is she, Harald? I’ve forgotten.”

 

“She ran off with an aromatherapist from Barri.”

 

“Ah, yes. Of course she did.  I should never have married her but she was good company and I was lonely after my first wife, Snotra, died. Do you remember her?”

 

“I remember her well.”  I made a mental search for something complimentary to say about the late queen. “She was a righteous woman.”

 

He sighed. “She was indeed. And she had no interest in aromatherapy. What is that, anyway?”

 

I shrugged. “Something to do with smell, I suppose.”

 

We sat in silence for a while, until I broached the subject that hung in the air between us. “What will Sigrath do?”

 

“She’s a rich woman now so she can do whatever she likes. If the idea of being queen appeals to her I might marry her myself.”

 

“Forget it. You’re too old.”

 

“But I’m a king. I hear disapproval in your voice, my friend. Are you interested yourself?”

 

“No. My inclinations veer in a different direction.”

 

“So they do. I remember now. I seem to forget a lot of things these days.”

 

“I must go and see her.”

 

“Of course. Tell her to let me know if she needs anything.”

 

I found her in her library. Her back was towards me. She was packing books into transportation crates, and humming to herself, a melody Dom used to play for her on his pipes. She didn’t hear me come in.

 

I was angry she gave no indication of being distressed. “Planning a vacation, Sigrath?” I asked.

 

She turned, smiling, to face me. “Greetings, Master Harald.”

 

“I expected to find you in mourning. Dom believed you loved him. He gave you everything you wanted.”

 

“He gave me everything for which I asked, and I did love him. That’s why I never asked for what I wanted most. It would have broken his heart.”

 

She reached for the gem-encrusted purse that lay on her window seat, opened it, and showed me what it contained. It was a transportation permit to Huldu. She couldn’t bring herself to tell him she wanted to go home.

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Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian living with her musician husband in Wales. She has had 142 stories and poems accepted by paying markets, she was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize, and in 2019 Alban Lake published an anthology of her stories, 'Whispers of Magic', available from Hiraeth Books.

 

She loves her family and friends, rock ' roll, Shakespeare and cats.'