The Starry Queen, by Thais Torres

From Jessie Hodge on Flickr, https://flic.kr/p/aeuUeM
        Image from Jessie Hodge on Flickr, https://flic.kr/p/aeuUeM

Trying to count all the stars in the night sky is much like trying to count all the grey hairs in a wizard’s beard. Both are extremely dull and mostly pointless tasks. There is, however, one crucial difference between them. This is it: while the grey hairs in a wizard’s beard tend to increase in number with the passing of years, the stars in the sky have a distinct tendency to maintain their number. Stars do not usually appear or disappear overnight. Still, under exceedingly unusual circumstances, they occasionally do.

So it was for this reason that the village folk started coming up to the wizard Sable’s door and demanding he do something about the problem of the vanishing stars. The young wizard assured them that he already knew everything about this odd phenomenon. And he did. Except, of course, for the answers to the only questions that mattered: why was this happening? How could this happen? And how did one go about stopping it from happening?

Sable took these questions to the other, more experienced wizards of the council, but was vexed to discover that they did not have the answers either. Not only that, they had trusted Sable to solve the case on his own. The young wizard was rather taken aback by this, as his elders had so far seemed convinced that he was incapable even of transfiguring a pot into a kettle by himself. But the old wizards were – they had said – much too busy dealing with truly important matters, such as taming dragons, developing more potent eternal-life elixirs and playing counsellor to clueless, just-crowned princesses.

Yes, let young Sable deal with this problem. Certainly he could manage it on his own, could he not?

The old wizards were not simply old, each one of them surpassed two hundred years of age. This put a great distance between their way of thinking and Sable’s, which, in turn, meant that they had a terrible tendency to frown disapprovingly and look down their long crooked noses at the youth. It seemed like they disapproved of nearly everything about him. He was too young, too impatient, too undisciplined, and his cat was much too white! Who’d ever heard of a wizard with a white cat? It didn’t even talk, for Hermes’ sake! Everything concerning Sable was very unorthodox, they would say – and unorthodox is just a fancy word old wizards like to use when what they really mean is that they think something is different and, therefore, bad. At least, they hoped, Sable’s youthfulness was something he would grow out of in about, oh, two hundred years.

Despite what the old wizards might think or say of the White Cat – for it was not just a white cat, but rather one deserving of capitalisation – Sable was extremely fond of it. After all, the Cat was his only living companion in the small cottage he inhabited in the middle of Nowhere Meadow. Sure, Sable also had the company of a few enchanted utensils and talking books, but these weren’t exactly what one might call delightful housemates. Especially the books. They seemed keen on criticising Sable just as much as the old wizards did, and they also smelled just the same. The White Cat was a much better companion, even if it did shed its fur on volatile potions and threw tantrums whenever it wanted to go outside, as it just so happened to be doing right then.

The White Cat sat on its favourite perch on the windowsill, looking with a predatory keenness at something outside and tapping the glass with its paw. It only broke its stare every few seconds to dart swift glances back at Sable, sitting at his work desk, and meow impatiently, requesting to be let outside. With a sigh, the young wizard finally gave up on looking for answers inside his bright crystal ball – which showed him nothing but his own reflection – and got up to open the front door. A white flash shot through the half-open door and stopped a few metres away in the middle of the moonlit garden. Sable thought it strange that the Cat had not immediately pounced on, nor seemed to be stalking, some unseen prey. Instead, it sat on the grass, looking up at the night sky and chirping, its tail thrashing from side to side.

Curious, Sable stepped outside and followed the feline’s gaze upwards. The autumn night was still far from dawn and the full moon was high in the dark sky, from which several stars were already missing. As he watched, a star detached itself from its place in Libra and started to glide across the firmament. Sable had already seen this happen a few times and the other stars had behaved just the same. They did not vanish on the spot, nor did they fall straight to earth. They simply cruised like lazy fireflies, descending slowly until they disappeared beyond the horizon.

The White Cat had climbed the large chestnut tree that stood in front of the house and was sitting on one of the branches, looking intently at the moving star. Sable realised that the Cat knew something he didn’t, but, then again, it always seemed to. The star continued on its mysterious path, which happened to pass right in front of the full moon. And it was thanks to this that Sable discovered what it was that had attracted the Cat’s interest in the first place. When the star passed in front of the moon, it disappeared, swallowed by the much brighter light, but something else appeared in its place: the dark shape of a bird. Sable could hardly believe it. This feathered thief at least answered one of his questions, and he was sure that he needed only follow the bird to solve the rest of the mystery.

Sable ran inside the house and, seconds later, ran back outside, pulling on his heavy travelling cloak and carrying a staff and a pair of worn-out boots. The reason most wizards carry staffs is because they are always complaining about their knees being old and sore and needing some extra support. Sable’s knees were neither old nor sore, but he also carried a staff when he used his seven-league boots to travel. That is because, when one covers seven leagues with each stride, stopping can prove to be quite difficult. Therefore, having a staff to brace yourself on can be of great help in these situations.

Sable sat under the chestnut tree and put on his magical boots. By now the star-bearing bird was only a tiny speck near the northern horizon. The wizard carefully pointed his feet towards the moving star before muttering the incantation that activated the boots. As a last thought, he looked up at the White Cat, perched on a branch above his head, and invited it to come along. The Cat happily obliged and jumped down onto Sable’s shoulder, then moved to nestle inside its master’s warm, spacious hood.

The wizard inhaled a steadying breath, righted himself and took a tentative step forward. His right foot left the floor and the world rushed past him in a dark blur that made his stomach clench into a cold knot. A second later, his feet made contact with the ground again, seven leagues away from where they had started. Unfortunately, the rest of his body refused to give up its huge momentum and Sable had to rely on his staff to keep from falling on his face. In his cloak’s hood, the White Cat had turned into a trembling ball, cursing itself for ever agreeing to come along. The Cat did not have the highest of opinions of seven-league boots and thought that wizards ought to spend less time trying to turn metal into gold and more time developing better ways to travel.

From where he stood, Sable could see the few lights that still burned in the small village’s houses some miles away. He looked up at the night sky and for a sickening moment saw no movement. Had he miscalculated the bird’s course? Had it already landed somewhere? A second later he saw it: the stolen star being carried north by its feathery thief, and to his surprise another one followed close behind it, and another, and another. One by one the stars were unmoored from the firmament and carried away.

Sable pointed his boots again and took another step. There was a blur, a freezing wind, and he was standing in the middle of a swamp, the cold water soaking his boots. There were the bird-carried stars, still going north. Another step, another frigid gust of wind, and he stood on a hilltop. Up ahead loomed a dark towering mountain, toward which the first stars began their descent. One last step, his face felt nearly frozen now, and he stood at the base of the great mountain, looking up at a black castle.

The castle was a dark shape that protruded from the mountain’s steep face and over which rose four tall, sharp towers. Or rather, three of the towers were tall and sharp; the top of the north-western tower looked like it had collapsed a long time ago, giving it the appearance of a huge, jagged chimney. The crows dived down this tower and the stars on their beaks disappeared one after the other inside the long shaft.

Sable reckoned that it would be better to advance without any magical aid from this point forward. So he murmured the magical words that deactivated the boots, pulled his cloak closed against the freezing wind and began his slow ascent. The White Cat enjoyed the comfort of riding inside its master’s hood all through the difficult climb.

***

It was only an hour later that the two travellers – at least one of them tired and cold – arrived at their destination. The shape of the castle loomed oppressively over them, its huge arched portal not seeming to invite any visitors. The wooden door had a soft feel to it, rotten from years of humidity and Sable had to lean against it just to open it enough to enter. As it swung precariously on its rusted hinges, the door groaned like a wounded beast.

Inside the castle everything became pitch black. The shy sliver of moonlight that entered through the half-open door could barely cut through the unnatural blackness. Sable muttered an incantation that ignited the tip of his staff, creating just enough light to illuminate a radius of a few feet. As for the White Cat, it was not bothered by the darkness, and promptly jumped down from its master’s hood to explore the surroundings, happy to be on its own four paws once more.

By the faint light of his staff, Sable saw only a scattering of furniture in the castle’s entrance hall. The furniture he did find was covered in a tapestry of cobwebs. Great, hairy spiders scuttled across the floor and the White Cat chased them around until it lost interest. The whole place was decrepit and coated with century-thick layers of dust. It seemed impossible that anyone had lived in this place for hundreds of years, but Sable had seen the crows entering through the chimney-tower and was sure that they, at least, inhabited the castle.

The wizard and the Cat went through a doorway and entered a second room frosted with cobwebs and dust. At the far end of this room they encountered another door, smaller than the first, but just as decayed. A thin slice of light escaped through the crack under this door. Curious, the White Cat strutted towards it to investigate, stopping to sniff the air that came from the other side. The Cat seemed to smell something nasty, for it raised its hackles, fluffed out its tail and hissed like a teakettle.

Sable walked up to the door and knocked – for he firmly believed that it always paid to have manners – and was promptly greeted by a velvety voice that said “Come in”. He gave the White Cat a look that clearly told it not to do anything rash, and pushed the door open. Beyond it was a long chamber with a very high ceiling. One of the room’s walls had half-collapsed ages ago and through the gaping hole blew a constant cold breeze. A stretching carpet – that once must have been beautiful – ran through the centre of the room, and on both of its sides stood a dark, silent court.

Hundreds of crows, perched on pieces of broken furniture and tall candlesticks, watched the two new guests attentively. A blanket of raven feathers and odd, protruding shapes covered the entire floor. And against the far wall, on top of a small dais, sat a great wooden throne upon which that strange court’s queen rested. She seemed to be enveloped by a bright aura, which faintly illuminated the room, but Sable could not see her clearly from such a distance.

The White Cat – which had seemed so keen on capturing the crows earlier that night – looked positively frightened now that more than a hundred pairs of beady eyes were upon it. Sable, too, felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, as the crows looked like they might descend on him like a black cloud at any given moment.

“Come forward so I can see you,” beckoned the queen. “It has been a long time since I last had guests.”

Sable approached the throne with measured steps, keeping his head bowed and his eyes cast down, so as to not upset the crows or their master. The Cat followed him closely, seeking protection under the wizard’s cloak. When Sable reached the steps that led up to the throne, he went down on one knee and bowed his head even lower.

“Introduce yourself,” said the queen in a creamy voice.

“I am the wizard Sable, from Nowhere Meadow. At your service,” the wizard’s manner did not falter for even a second.

“A mage! How delightful!” the queen giggled then, and the sound was so out of place that Sable looked up.

He could see her perfectly now. Her royal gown, like her voice, was black velvet and her hair was just as dark, streaming down her shoulders in waves that reached the floor. Her skin was white and cold like marble and her face looked like a statue carved by some divinely-inspired artist. All over the queen’s dark hair and gown glistened the most exquisite diamonds Sable had ever seen. They shone impossibly bright, seeming to reflect the light from some unidentifiable source. No, Sable corrected himself, they had a light of their own. They were stars.

Sable saw a crow come in through the hole in the wall, land on the back of the throne and carefully place one last star on its queen’s locks. If he looked carefully, he could even identify some of the stars, though they were strewn on the queen’s gown and hair seemingly without any order. There was the Northern Star, brightest of all, on the queen’s dress, and the Three Kings still stuck together, serving as a bright tiara upon her ebony head.

“I am the queen of this castle and this is my court,” with a wave of her hand she indicated the dark flock that occupied the room. Behind her throne, perched even more crows. A large raven stood on the throne’s arm and the Queen caressed its feathers slowly. “What business brings you here, my dear mage?”

As far as the old wizards were concerned, the appropriate way to deal with a situation like this would involve shouted incantations, big magical blasts and maybe a few fireballs thrown in for good measure. But Sable, being young and unorthodox, preferred a more diplomatic approach.

“I have come to humbly request,” the wizard said courteously, “that Your Majesty return the stars that have been taken from their rightful place.”

“Stars? You could not possibly mean the jewels my subjects have presented me with, could you?” asked the Starry Queen with perfect innocence. “You see, I’ve long been dissatisfied with the treasures I possessed. None of them were quite radiant enough to adorn my beauty. So I asked that my subjects go and find me the brightest and most beautiful jewels in all the kingdoms.”

At this, something seemed to click in Sable’s mind and he finally recognized the strange objects cluttering the room’s floor. Strewn under the crows’ perches and half-buried under their feathers, were jewels of all sorts and sizes. Golden crowns, silver bracelets, diamond earrings and stone-studded rings, all stolen by the crows and discarded by the Starry Queen because they simply weren’t beautiful enough. The Queen hadn’t ordered her subjects to steal the stars out of some malevolent desire to deprive the rest of the world of their beauty. It was the crows’ unfaltering fidelity to their regent that had prompted them to steal them from the night sky.

“But Your Majesty must know that the stars belong in the sky, where all the people can observe their beauty,” pleaded Sable.

The Queen carefully considered this statement before speaking.

“I know nothing of this sky, nor have I ever met these people of whom you speak,” she said, “but I am quite sure that, whomever they might be, they are not as worthy of this treasure as I am. Would you think otherwise?” The Queen’s beautiful face hardened ever so slightly and her voice became almost imperceptibly colder. Both Sable and the Cat noticed all the birds in the room tilting their heads to look more intently at the two, and their black bodies tensing as if poised for attack.

Maybe the whole magical blast approach wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Sable could not see a diplomatic way out of this situation. It seemed clear that the Starry Queen was truly ignorant about the world outside her castle’s walls. Sable didn’t know how, but he was certain that he had to stop the crows from stealing the few stars that still remained in place. And what if the Queen grew tired of the stars, Sable worried, would her subjects then steal the Moon from the sky? That would be an even worse disaster than losing the stars!

A shiver ran through the flock of crows and Sable realised that he must have been quiet for too long. As he attempted to compose himself to answer the Queen’s question, the very thoughts he was trying to push away provided him with a solution.

“My Queen,” he began, “there is a jewel in the night sky that is even brighter and more magnificent than the ones Your Majesty wears.”

The Queen’s eyes widened with interest, and Sable went on.

“However, this jewel is extremely well secured to the firmament. Even if all your subjects worked together, they would not be able to bring it here.” The White Cat stared at its master as if it thought the wizard must be utterly mad to be giving the Queen ideas.

“And do you believe,” questioned the Queen, “you could achieve such a feat?”

“I do believe so. I am a very powerful wizard. However, even with my great power I would need a fortnight to do this. The jewel – Moon, we call it – would have to be slowly removed from the sky until I finally had it in my hands and could present it to Your Majesty.”

“Very well then”, said the Queen, stroking the feathers on the great raven’s neck, “bring me this Moon jewel and, if I deem it worthy of my beauty, I shall trade the stars for it,” her tone was perfectly pleasant and polite, but Sable did not miss the threat underlying her words.

“You may leave now,” said the Queen, abruptly, dismissing them with the wave of a hand.

Sable bowed low once more, promising to return in a fortnight’s time. He and the Cat wasted no time getting out of the bleak castle and returning home. The White Cat hoped vainly that they would not have to return to the castle at all.

***

Over the course of the next fortnight, Sable made himself busy shuffling papers, flicking through spell books and tending to potions every time he heard the characteristic click-clacking of claws on his cottage’s roof. The spying crows weren’t the only visitors he received during this time. Villagers and wizards alike appeared on his doorstep enquiring as to the whereabouts of the stars and the reason for such delay. Occasionally, a distraught astronomer or astrologist – Sable could never really tell – would come and beg for an immediate solution. These last visitors were the most insistent and their host had a very hard time persuading them to leave. However, the young wizard’s answer was the same to all who knocked on his door: they would have to be patient.

Once the agreed-upon period had elapsed, the wizard and the White Cat returned to the castle on the mountain to rejoin the Starry Queen’s court. There they entered a throne room that seemed much darker than the one they had first visited.

“Welcome back, my dear mage,” said the Queen. She wore no stars on her hair and dress now, but she still looked just as beautiful. A small velvet pouch sat on her throne’s arm with only a faint light emanating from it. “My subjects inform me that you have kept your promise and that the great jewel is no longer in the firmament.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” answered the wizard. “It was not an easy feat, but I was able to obtain the jewel as I promised.”

Sable removed a spherical object covered in dark cloth from one of his enchanted pockets. Then, pulling away the cloth, he revealed a gleaming silver sphere. Though identical in size and brightness to the full moon that had been in the sky during his last visit, this jewel lacked much of the mysterious appeal of its celestial counterpart. Sable could only hope that the Queen would not know the difference. The young wizard held his breath waiting for the monarch’s answer, but her expression showed no sign of approval.

“I am disappointed,” she said, regarding the false moon coldly. “That jewel is nowhere near precious enough to adorn my beauty.”

“But, Your Majesty…” the wizard tried to protest, but was quickly silenced by a raised hand.

“Enough,” proclaimed the Queen sharply, “I do not wish to hear your excuses. Our deal is off.”

As if that settled everything, she covered the star-filled pouch with a white hand and stared at Sable, waiting for him to make his leave. When the wizard did not move, the crows tensed in their perches, gazes locked on the two visitors. The air inside the room seemed to become cold and heavy.

“I advise that you go at once,” said the woman slowly. “Or else…”

The large chamber suddenly filled with the shrill caws of the crows. They shrieked at Sable and the Cat and beat their wings threateningly. The noise echoed inside the high chamber and became almost deafening. The White Cat crouched on the floor, spitting at the birds, the hairs on its back and tail like a brush. The wizard gripped his staff more tightly, but stilled himself against his nervousness. He nearly had to scream over the crows’ ruckus to be heard.

“Please, Your Majesty,” he insisted. “If you just had a closer look, I’m sure you would find that this jewel is quite special.”

The Queen raised her hand once more and the crows went silent at once. Still, their beady eyes continued to watch the two visitors intently. The Starry Queen seemed to consider Sable’s request for a few seconds before replying.

“Let it never be said that I am unreasonable,” she said after heaving a long-suffering sigh. “I shall humour you, mage. Bring the jewel over to me.”

Sable ascended the steps that led up to the throne with his heart in his throat. The White Cat, which did not like the idea of stepping closer to the monarch, but hated the idea of being left behind even more, followed close at his feet. When Sable reached the throne, the Queen immediately took the bright moon from him. She examined the jewel curiously, trying to figure out exactly what was so special about it. Then, she held it up to her face and her eyes caught her own reflection on the sphere’s polished surface. The Queen’s eyes went wide and her lips opened in a silent exclamation. She was instantly bewitched by the beauty of what she saw.

“You did not lie, my dear mage,” she whispered, voice far away and dreamy, “This is indeed the most beautiful jewel I have ever seen.”

Sable allowed himself a small smile at the thought of the old wizards’ faces when he returned home.

“I have kept my promise, Your Majesty,” he said. “So now will you keep yours?”

“Certainly, certainly”, said the moonstruck Queen.

She did not move an inch, but the great raven that stood by her side took flight with the velvet bag in its grasp and dropped it into Sable’s spread hands. The wizard felt a great relief seeing that his plan had worked, and an even greater relief at the thought of leaving the horrible castle. As Sable descended the steps, the White Cat close at his heels, the stars clinked like diamonds inside their pouch.

“Farewell,” said Sable, only to be answered with silence.

He looked over his shoulder and saw that the woman sat like a marble statue upon her throne. The crows’ ruler no longer took notice of anything around her. All that existed in the Queen’s world was her own enchanting reflection, which she would never grow tired of admiring.

As the young wizard and the White Cat exited the room, the court of crows stared after them with some strange emotion in their eyes. But the Queen’s lips produced no sound and the birds did not stir. Their black, unblinking eyes reflected the light from the crystal ball and, if Sable were to glance back over his shoulder once more, he might mistake what he saw for the night sky itself. Inside the decaying castle, an uncountable multitude of stars hung in darkness, silently framing a bright full moon.

 


 

Thais Torres lives with her own white cat – not capitalized – in Brasilia, Brazil, where she teaches English as a foreign language.

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