The Lorelei Signal
The Queen's Promise
Written by Robyn Neilsen / Artwork by Marcia Borell
The blood red moon lit a path through the woods in that time of night when the world goes silent. Wolves howled in the darkness, and the whisper of slithering scales on autumn earth warned those who tread the secret trail to turn back.
The queen stepped deeper and deeper into the forest, the leaves crunching beneath her feet, her breath a white wisp that curled like a beckoning finger. The king would be livid if he knew of her plans, but she did not care to think of his emotions just then. Not when there was work to be done.
The path was familiar to her, even after so much time spent away, and when she saw the black door before her, she felt the insistent warmth of nostalgia beating alongside her heart.
“Come in,” a woman’s voice croaked from beyond the glass windows of the hideout before the queen had even knocked. Smoke crawled out of the crooked black chimney and teased at the stars as the queen pushed the door open.
Inside, candles flickered, casting shadows that danced against the wood beams. A wall of shelves held glass bottles with brightly colored liquids and dried herbs. A cauldron bubbled over a roaring fire in the hearth. The queen’s eyes alighted on the hunched back of the old witch, her stringy white hair dangling down her back. She ground herbs into a chopping block with the back of a silver spoon, crushing something bitter smelling into dust.
“You came back,” the witch said, her face reflected in the window before her that looked out into the sea of darkness. “Defied the king, have you?”
“I never meant to stay away,” the queen said.
The witch placed her silver spoon on the wood counter and turned toward the queen. “Oh, but you did. You were ashamed of your roots and the old woman who raised you.”
The queen took the witch’s hands in her own. “Please, I need your help.”
The witch walked over to her cauldron, dipping a finger in the steaming liquid and taking a taste. “The sorcerer, I suppose,” she said.
“Yes,” the queen said, eyes wide and hopeful.
The witch nodded. “He has been terrorizing kingdoms far and wide since before time. His shape forever shifting. I am not surprised he has come calling on your castle.”
“Why?” the queen asked.
“Because the kingdom has been a place of happiness for many a year. Happiness, like everything else, cannot last forever,” the witch said.
“What am I to do? I can’t let my people die,” the queen said.
The witch threw a pinch of red flakes into the cauldron. “You have the gift of cunning, my child.”
“Cunning won’t help me save the kingdom,” the queen said.
“Ah. But cunning has led you here again, has it not?” the witch said, smiling slyly.
Guilt ached in the queen’s belly. “I do not wish to abuse your kindness,” she said.
The witch touched the queen’s cheek with her gnarled hand, sensing her despair. “Then, think only that I am doing as any mother would for their daughter.”
The queen still thought fondly on the memories of her girlhood. She had stumbled upon the witch’s hideout after many nights spent sleeping in the forest, foraging for berries and other delights grown in nature to sustain her. After her parents died, there were no walls for her to call home, but the witch took her in, sharing all she had to offer, including her knowledge of magic. The king’s advisors told him of a beautiful maiden who assisted the witch in her refuge, and the king came on horseback to see the girl. Upon first sight he fell in love and called upon the girl every day until some months hence she found that she had fallen in love with him, too. The witch gave her blessing for marriage, and the girl promised she’d return often, but the king forbade her to ever step foot in the witch’s lair again. Riddled with shame at having abandoned her home, the queen rested quietly on the thoughts of her days spent at the witch’s side, stirring together potions and elixirs, wishing to see her true home once again.
The witch ladled some of the liquid from the cauldron into a glass jar and stirred its sediment with the silver spoon from the wooden block.
“Take this,” the witch said, placing the glass jar and the silver spoon into the hands of the queen. “I would never deny you that which you need. You will know what to do when the time comes.”
The indigo sky deepened beyond the windows, informing the queen of dawn’s imminence. “However shall I repay you?” she asked.
“All I ask is that you do not forget me again, or the next time you call, I will require something more precious than memories as payment,” the witch said.
The queen nodded, taking one last look at the witch, the firelight glowing upon her lined face.
“You have my word.”
The blood red moon whispered to the queen through the windows of the witch’s hideout, It’s time. She left with her potion and her promise, letting the forest guide her as she ran toward the horizon to save her kingdom. Her heart and soul filled with magic.
Robyn Neilsen is a New Jersey native who lives with her husband, Mark, and their poorly behaved cat, Nora. After 13 years as an English teacher in the public school system, she is now a staff content writer for the marketing department of an educational enrichment company, where she publishes educational resource blogs for students and parents. Her flash fiction placed in the top fifteen stories for the 2021 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition, and her non-fiction essays have been published on Thought Catalog, Vocal, and Mogul.