The Lorelei Signal

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The Mouse Princess

Written by Tom Howard / Artwork by Carol Hightshoe

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Azura the sorceress and Justin the chamberlain sat on the palace balcony overlooking the town. Although well after midnight, the birth of a princess had kept them busy, and they needed a nightcap and a respite from royal demands. Occasional fireworks lit up the sky to celebrate the royal heir’s arrival.

 

“The queen is well?” Tall and slender, the chamberlain looked young enough to be her son, but he had lasted longer than most chamberlains. He’d learned early how to keep his head down.

 

She sighed, tired to her very bones. The birthing had been uneventful aside from the queen’s escalating screams and insistent demands. The child was beautiful and perfect.

 

The sorceress, unlike the chamberlain, knew she looked older than her age. Magic and serving the king and queen every day for the last few decades had taken a toll. Tonight, her ornate robes weighed heavy on her shoulders, and she looked at the inviting flagstones in the courtyard below. “She asked for a stronger sleeping potion although six nursemaids and two wetnurses care for the babe.”

 

Justin chuckled. “From the cries echoing in the halls, our new royal has a fine set of lungs.”

 

“I fear for the poor child’s future,” Azura said. “No matter what we do, she may end up as spoiled and rotten as her parents.” She looked away from the balcony’s edge before she made an unwise decision. She must be tired.

 

Justin poured himself another glass of wine. “Careful, old woman. These walls have ears. Remember what happened to your predecessor.” He made a slicing motion across his throat.

 

Azura nodded. “The king told me the magical blessings he wants for the naming ceremony tomorrow. I warned him if I placed more than four spells on the child, they would conflict with one another and turn her into an ogre.”

 

The chamberlain arched an eyebrow. “Is that true?”

 

“Possibly. I’ve never done more than three.”

 

“Let me guess what he requested.” Justin held up four fingers. “Incomparable beauty, high intelligence, dazzling charm, and the ability to destroy her enemies.”

 

“Close. Instead of intelligence, they want her to win any argument. I’ve decided on beauty, intelligence, health, and confidence.”

 

“You’re a brave woman.” The chamberlain poured himself another drink. “Perhaps with your gifts as her fairy godmother, she won’t grow up to be her parents.”

 

The sorceress stood and breathed in the night air. The fireworks had stopped, the commoners having finished with their obligatory celebrations and gone to bed. She’d be wise to do the same.

 

“I can’t serve such evil much longer, Justin,” she said. “Each day we’re closer to war with our neighbors.”

 

The chamberlain joined her at the stone railing. “That’s true. The king has decreed everyone in the land bring a baby gift for the princess.”

 

“They can’t feed their own children. How are they going to buy gifts?”

 

The chamberlain yawned. “I don’t know. I need sleep before my morning duties. Don’t do anything drastic. It’ll all work out.”

 

Azura didn’t have his high hopes but felt too tired to comment.

 

~ * ~

 

Years later, Prince Barton and his men stumbled across a secluded hamlet in the light of the full moon. They had lost their way while searching for a small village reported to brew the best ale in the three kingdoms. A half-dozen young men rode with him.

 

The grove of trees looked old, far older than the small cottage it sheltered, but a cheery light spilled from the windows and encouraged the prince to ask for directions.

 

One of his men knocked on the wooden door, and an old woman opened it.

 

“We’re sorry for bothering you so late, ma’am,” the prince said and dismounted. “We’re searching for the village called Coldstream. We’ve lost our way in the dark.”

 

She opened the door wider and peered at the prince’s men, waiting on horseback. She pointed at the prince. “You can come in. I’m expecting company soon, but I’ll draw you a map. These country lanes are tricky even in the daytime.”

 

The old woman wore a simple blue dress and a colorful shawl dyed purple and turquoise. Her white hair hung in a long braid down her back, and she walked stooped over.

 

Inside the warm and cluttered cottage, a large fire crackled in the hearth. Books lined shelves high on the wall. A large wire cage sat on a worktable, surrounded by puppets, carved animals, and sticks of wood. The prince picked up a brightly painted dragon, small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. It appeared as if it would breathe fire at any moment.

 

“These are amazing,” the prince said. “Did you carve them?”

 

The old woman nodded. “Yes. I am Cernum, a wood carver.”

 

“Could you make a woodpecker as lifelike as these? I’m Prince Barton, and I’d like to commission a carving for my mother’s birthday next month.”

 

Cernum nodded. “For the right price, I could make you a woodpecker.”

 

The prince laid down the small dragon near the wire cage and peered within as something stirred.

 

The carver smiled. “Meet my companion. Miss Mouse keeps me company while I whittle. Please have a seat, and I’ll draw you a map. Tea?”

 

“Yes, thank you.” The prince sat on a bench at the worktable. The small white mouse inside the cage twitched her whiskers and sniffed the air.

 

“I’ve parchment here to draw a map.” Cernum poured tea from a pot hanging over the flames. The cups were wooden and intricately carved with flowers and ivy. “With the friction between our two countries, I am surprised you’re visiting our kingdom.”

 

“We wanted to visit Coldstream while we still had the opportunity. With your mad king, no one will be safe much longer. My father has sent ambassadors, but he refuses to listen to them.”

 

The old woman sipped her tea. “Why a woodpecker?”

 

“My mother collects woodpeckers. My birth was difficult, and she had a slow recovery. Each day a redheaded woodpecker came and tapped at her windowsill. The tapping, she said, was annoying but proved she still lived. Can you make one?”

 

“A redheaded woodpecker? Yes. When do you need it?”

 

“In a month, but you haven’t told me your price.”

 

He pulled a purse from his belt.

 

Cernum held up her hand. “We’ll discuss that on your return. Now, finish your tea. Your map is ready.”

 

The prince hadn’t seen her drawing on the parchment, but Cernum unrolled it on the table and showed him the most direct way to reach Coldstream.

 

“Thank you, ma’am. I’ll be on my way.” He finished his tea. As the young man passed the cage, the silver mouse squeaked at him.

 

“Good-bye, Miss Mouse.” The prince bowed. “It’s been a pleasure to meet you.”

 

If Prince Barton had remained, he’d have been surprised to see Cernum take a white satin gown from the wardrobe and place it on the ground below the cage. Miss Mouse pushed open the door, jumped down, and burrowed into the folds of fabric.

 

The dress stirred as if blown by a strong wind. When it stopped moving, a beautiful young woman wore the gown.

 

She smiled. “Hello, Godmother.”

 

~ * ~

 

King Thoton threw an empty chalice against the wall. After his daughter’s latest marriage proposal had been rejected, the queen had taken to her bedchamber. He knew better than to approach her when she was in a rage, her usual state these days.

 

The wine wasn’t cold, and the halls always were. Nothing in the palace worked since the royal sorceress had disappeared. Thoton would have cursed the old woman’s name if he could remember it.

 

The sorceress’ blessings for the child had failed. Instead of becoming a regal beauty as promised, his daughter had grown into a drab and nervous embarrassment.

 

The king shouted for another cup of wine, the only succor he had in these trying times. Prince Barton’s family had been the first of many to reject an arranged marriage with Princess Lucinda. He’d make them pay.

 

Although he’d throw anyone in the dungeon who said so, there was something wrong with his daughter. Rumors of her strangeness didn’t make an arranged marriage easier. One night each month, she disappeared from her bed and ended up naked and dirty in the kitchen. Her nannies said she walked in her sleep, but no one saw her wandering the halls. The girl’s unlikely future for marriage angered him.

 

The drab creature rarely spoke. She had lifeless brownish gray hair, small beady eyes, and a nervous twitch. No expensive gown or enormous dowry could make her marriageable.

 

Thoton clenched his fists at the latest rejection. His army would destroy Prince Barton’s kingdom if it cost him every man, woman, and child. If his generals didn’t bring him his enemies’ heads on a platter, he’d call for the generals’ heads.

 

~ * ~

 

 Prince Barton arrived late at the cottage. Passage across the border had grown difficult as strife increased between the two kingdoms. He travelled alone and wore a black tunic and an unadorned cape. The woodcarver’s lights welcomed him, and the prince knocked on the door.

 

To his surprise, a young woman greeted him. In the light of the setting sun, her light blonde hair shined, and her blue eyes sparkled like sapphires. She wore a white satin gown, unadorned but striking on her.

 

“Prince Barton?” she asked. “Please come in.”

 

She stood aside, but the prince stayed a moment to collect his wits. Was she the woodcarver’s daughter? Surely word of such a beauty would be known throughout the land.

 

“Miss…”

 

“Lucy.”

 

Inside, the old woman snored in a chair by the fire. On the table sat a large wooden woodpecker, looking as if he’d just flown in.

 

“My godmother told me you’d return for it tonight,” she said. “She tries to stay awake for visitors, but she’s no longer young. I’ll wake her before I leave at moonrise.”

 

“Where will you go?”

 

She smiled, and his heart quickened. “To meditate for a few nights. I’ll return when the full moon passes. Tea?”

 

“Yes, thank you. But first, I must see to my horse. He’s hot and still wearing a saddle.”

 

“Certainly,” she said. “We have a pony in a lean-to in the grove. He won’t mind sharing.”

 

He wanted to say so many things to her about her face, her eyes, and her lips as the warm fire turned them from silver to gold. “Thank you,” was all he managed.

 

“Our garden looks beautiful at sunset. Come and I’ll show you.” She led him outside into the night air.

 

Roses, probably deep red in the daylight, looked black with long gray stems. Daisies emitted a white light as they walked by.

 

Lucy pointed out a carved gnome here, a silver-veined ivy there. She asked him about his family and the palace. He laughed at her enthusiasm and responded in kind.

 

Prince Barton hung on every word, pretending his heart didn’t threaten to leap out of his chest when she slipped her arm through his. She led him to the lean-to at the edge of the grove, and he introduced Lucy to his stallion. She helped brush the cooling horse. The pony snorted but ignored the young couple.

 

The prince’s fatigue evaporated although he had been tired when he arrived. Finished with the horse, they had tea on the stoop and discussed stars and moons, books and wishes, and the cookies Lucy had baked.

 

If someone had asked the prince what they had talked about, he couldn’t have remembered. All he recalled was the sense of being in the presence of someone magical.

 

“Oh no,” Lucy said. “The moon is rising. I must leave.”

 

“No!” Barton said, louder than he intended. “We’ve just begun talking.”

 

She stood and held out her hand to help him to his feet. “I feel the same way, my prince.”

 

When she said it, he knew it to be true. He would forever be her prince. He held her hand tightly as he stood. Letting go of it would be relinquishing a part of himself.

 

“I’ll get your woodpecker,” she said.

 

He knelt at her feet. “I will return, Miss Lucy. Don’t forget me.”

 

“I will never forget this evening, sir. Thank you.”

 

As he rode away, he held the bundled woodpecker to his chest, but all he could feel was her farewell kiss on his lips.

 

~ * ~

 

When Lucy shed her gray mouse pelt after the next full moon and returned to her human form, no warm fire greeted her in the little cottage. Her godmother slept in her chair, illuminated by the moonlight coming through the window. Lucy shivered in the thin gown.

 

She shook her godmother gently. “What’s happened while I slept?” While she recalled her life as a mouse during the full moon, her memories were small ones, more focused on food and shiny objects than on the world outside. Although her cage wasn’t locked, she rarely left it.

 

Her godmother jerked awake and pulled her shawl around her. “Daughter, welcome. Things are dire. I cannot light a fire. The soldiers are arresting people who use firewood the army needs.”

 

“It’s finally war then?”

 

“Yes.” She stood, using the arms of her chair for support. “King Thoton has gone completely mad. He’s sending every man in the kingdom to fight.”

 

Lucy looked around the room. The prince had no reason to be waiting for her, but she had hoped. “And news of Prince Barton?”

 

“Bad and worse, I’m afraid,” her godmother said. “They captured him crossing the border. He’s a prisoner in the palace dungeon. They say he’s been badly wounded.”

 

Lucy clutched her chest, feeling wounded herself. “We must do something.”

 

Her godmother took her hands. “Child, I’m pleased you feel that way. You may be the only hope to save the kingdom. And your prince.”

 

“I don’t understand,” Lucy said.

 

“Sit. I have a terrible story to tell you. Worse, because you had no choice in the matter. Please don’t hate me.” Lucy took a seat at the table. Unable to look her in the eye, her godmother told her of her true identity and her royal heritage.

 

“I’ve told you that turning into a mouse two days a month is due to some horrible curse placed upon you by a wicked witch when she killed your parents. However, I’m the one who transformed a mouse baby to take your place using reciprocal magic. I fled with you, the true princess. While the mouse took your place, you become a mouse during a full moon.”

 

She caught her breath and wiped away tears. “I’m so sorry. I am a selfish old woman.”

 

“My parents are alive?” Lucy’s mind raced. For years, she’d lived and studied with the old woman, believing herself to be a simple godchild. Her accelerated childhood seemed normal to her. “Who are they?”

 

“King Thoton and his queen.”

 

How different her life might have been if she’d remained in the palace. Everyone knew how horrible the monarchs were. But now was not the time to debate what might have been. The kingdom was in danger. Her kingdom. “Don’t be silly, Godmother. Perhaps I can convince them to stop this war.”

 

“And rescue Prince Barton?”

 

“That was on my mind, yes.”

 

Her godmother nodded. “Are you ready for this?”

 

“All my life, I felt I had a higher purpose. At first, I thought it was meeting Prince Barton, but now I know it’s something more.”

 

She paced to the window. “If you can sneak me into the castle while I’m a mouse, can you permanently break the spell?”

 

“I don’t know. It’s been years since I’ve done any magic at all. You and the mouse would have to be close to each other.”

 

“We must try, Godmother, or everyone will die.”

 

The old woman smiled. “I’ll get my robes. You saddle the pony.”

 

~ * ~

 

Azura wore a brown traveling cloak over her robes and resisted the urge to check the mouse in her pocket.

 

At the back gate, the palace guards waved her and the pony’s load of kindling through. People moved in and out of the palace and paid no attention to the old woman. She kept her head down and entered the kitchens. From there, she’d take hallways to the audience chamber where the monarchs held afternoon court. Even an upcoming war wouldn’t stop them from putting on a daily exhibition of their greatness.

 

Azura skirted the kitchen staff as they prepared the midday meal. Someone might recognize her and summon the guard.

 

“Azura?” A passing man stopped.

 

The sorceress smiled at the chamberlain. “Hello, Justin. Still have your head, I see.”

 

“Are you mad? The man looked up and down the corridor. “What are you doing here?”

 

“Trying to save us,” she said. “We won’t survive this war. We’re barely surviving its preparation.”

 

“What can you do?” he asked.

 

Azura opened her plain traveling cloak and revealed her ornate sorceress robes. “Tell me, how has the princess been since I left?”

 

“The princess? What…” Justin looked confused. “She’s fine. A little unprincess-like, but she always has been.”

 

“I’m here to fix that.”

 

Justin sighed. “What can I do to help?”

 

~ * ~

 

The audience hall hadn’t changed. Elevated benches lined the long room, occupied by lords and ladies, looking less flamboyant than Azura recalled. The war had taken its toll on everyone.

 

A stage overlooked the hall and held three occupied thrones. The king and queen, more rotund than Azura remembered, seemed bored. They ignored the dull girl sitting on the smaller throne.

 

Azura, her head covered by the hood of her traveling robe, and the chamberlain stood with other people awaiting an audience.

 

The sorceress stuck her hand into her pocket, and Lucy crawled into her palm. Azura wasn’t sure she had enough magic remaining within her to change Lucy back into a human permanently, but she must try. She had to repay Lucy for taking her away. She only hoped the girl could talk some sense into the king and stop the war.

 

Justin tapped his staff on the marble floor to signal the audience had begun. But instead of introducing the prepared list of attendees, he called out, “Her royal sorceress, Magess Azura of Eastonia.”

 

Everyone in the room gasped. Tales of the sorceress’ disappearance were still told throughout the land. How could she show her face in the palace? King Thoton would have her killed on sight.

 

The monarch stared down the grand hall at Azura. “What is the meaning of this?” He gestured for the captain of the guard to approach.

 

Azura strode the length of the great hall. Like Lucy, she’d been waiting for this day.

 

She stopped, placed her traveling cloak on the ground, and laid the little mouse on top of it.

 

Standing, she spoke the incantation. Lightning crackled across the ceiling, and the crowd drew back.

 

“Guards!” the king shouted. “Seize her.”

 

Too late. Like an empty cup topped to the brim, years of magic flowed from Azura, making her feel powerful. Abstinence and having the two parts of the reciprocation spell in close proximity heightened her magical powers.

 

On the dais, the plain princess stood and screamed. The air shimmered around her, and she disappeared in a flash.

 

Azura waved her hands at the approaching guards. They froze, either from the effect of her spell or the sight of the traveling cloak growing from the floor. Wind whipped through the chamber, and the cloak rose, revealing a young woman.

 

Lucy strode forward. With each step, the cloak turned into a silver gown. Her braided hair unfurled and flowed down her back. Atop her head, a tiara of sapphires appeared.

 

“Who are you?” the king demanded.

 

Azura answered him with a bow. “Lords and ladies, I present Her Royal Highness, the Princess Lucinda, Ruler of Eastonia.”

 

“That’s preposterous.” The king stood, his face purple with rage. “I am the ruler of Eastonia. Kill this woman and the girl.”

 

The guards didn’t move as Lucinda drew closer. She glowed with an inner light, and the lords and ladies in the gallery bowed as she passed.

 

Azura’s heart filled with pride. The princess had become more than Azura had ever dreamed. No blessing spell had created this magnificent creature. She’d created herself.

 

“King Thoton.” Lucinda’s voice rang through the great hall. “Either choose exile from my kingdom or permanent imprisonment in the dungeons where you hold my future husband.”

 

Future husband? Azura smiled. Prince Barton wouldn’t disagree.

 

“I am the king!” Thoton cried.

 

“You were the king,” Lucinda responded. “Now, you will abdicate and be imprisoned while I stop a war and save the kingdom.”

 

The queen stood and pointed at Azura. “It’s the sorceress! She stole our little girl. This one’s our daughter.” Tears dripped down her cheeks as she sobbed with happiness. “She’s come back to us. I knew that scullery maid couldn’t be ours.”

 

Azura hoped the little mouse had fled to the kitchen to live out the rest of her life nibbling cheese. The magess would order no palace mice could be trapped or killed.

 

Lucinda wasn’t finished. “Guards, take the former monarchs to the dungeon. We’ll await their decision as to exile or imprisonment.”

 

She climbed the stairs to the thrones as guards pulled the protesting king and queen from them. Shouting curses, the king ordered the chamberlain and the captain of the guard to kill the princess, but they, like the rest of the kingdom, looked relieved the kingdom might be saved. No one moved as Lucinda took the larger throne.

 

The chamberlain stood beside Azura. “What do we do now?”

 

“We bow and await her orders.”

 

They were not long in coming. “Chamberlain, send messages to our generals that the war is over,” Lucinda said. “Bring our soldiers home. We will be conducting peaceful negotiations with Prince Barton’s father.” She turned her bright blue eyes to Azura. “Speaking of that, Royal Magess, would you see to the prince’s injuries?”

 

“It would be my pleasure, Your Majesty.”

 

“The rest of you,” she addressed the lords and ladies, still standing in shock, “go home. Take care of your people. Restore the kingdom.”

 

The chamberlain leaned close to the sorceress. “Drinks on the balcony later? You have to tell me everything.”

 

“I may be late. I need to patch up a prince and arrange a coronation and wedding.”

 

“While I give our generals some happy news,” Justin said. “I’ll send messengers right away.”

 

“Send one to Prince Barton’s father saying his son is safe. We’ll let the prince explain the betrothal to his parents.”

 

Princess, soon to be Queen, Lucinda visited with several of the younger lords and ladies around the throne. She laughed and smiled as if she’d been born to it, which of course she had.

 

“Told you it would be all right in the end,” Justin said.

 

Azura leaned against the chamberlain. The magic to break the mouse princess’ spell had weakened her. “Let’s not cut it quite so close next time.” She headed to the dungeons to tend her future godson-in-law’s injuries before she collapsed.

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Tom Howard is a fantasy and science fiction short story writer living in Little Rock, Arkansas. He thanks his family and friends for their inspiration and the Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers' Group for their perspiration.