Babette the Enchantress

by Andrew Walo


PART ONE

1

Once upon a time in the faraway Kingdom of Behm, there was a great and raucous festival.  The castle-town of Lindel was decorated with colored lamps and streamers.  The streets were full of dancers and musicians.  The scent of cupcakes and sweets twisted through the air, hooking people by their noses and luring them to edible delights.  The taverns were packed with revelers, and they drank and sang and called for cheers.  The moonlight bathed on everyone in Lindel favorably, and they were joyous.

The festival was a week-long affair, and was held to commemorate the eighteenth birthday of the heir to the Kingdom, Princess Babette.  Everyone in Lindel knew Babette.  They had all seen and spoken with her many times, as she was famously kind and generous to all who met her.  They loved their Royal Highness, and they were genuinely happy that she had turned eighteen, but all the same, they were glad that she was not there celebrating with them.  The true joy of the week’s birthday celebration was that Babette would be confined to the castle hosting her own parties, for she had a habit of making a mess of things when she was around.  They were all quite happy to have a week off from cleaning up after Babette.  The Princess knew this, and while it hurt her feelings that people would be grateful for her absence, she tried her best to respect that her people worked hard and took good care of her and the Kingdom.

“Who would mind, though, if I were to poke around and have some fun on my own?” Babette wondered aloud as she sat on the roof of the inn, “As long as no one knows I’m here, there won’t be any trouble.”  Babette was convinced that the only reason things tended to break around her was because people always knew that she was there.  She figured that if she was as quiet as a mouse she could run around and have all kinds of fun and no one would ever be the wiser.  She ran her tiny claws through her fine whiskers, and with a mischievous smile on her mousy face, she was off.

Babette loved being a mouse because of how nimble she was.  She scurried across the roof and onto a wire that spanned to the building across the street.  As she moved along the line, she looked at the banner that hung from it: “Happy Birthday, Princess Babette!”  She thought that was sweet, and she would be sure to thank whoever made it later on.  She leapt off the wire and through an open window into the most popular tavern in Lindel, the Prize Pig.  The owner, Quill, was sterner with Babette than most of the townsfolk, but only because he was the one who saw the brunt of her reckless nature.

Babette scaled one of the wooden posts on the mezzanine and got up to the rafters.  “Best seat in the house,” she said, “Everyone is so happy, and there’s nothing I could possibly do to ruin things from way up here.”  She knew as soon as she said it that she spoke too soon.  She felt a hot breath on her back, and the throaty purr shot through her ears.  Babette peeked over her shoulder, and saw Gilliam, Quill’s black cat staring at her with his fierce, yellow eyes.  He was licking his chops in anticipation.

The cat lunged at Babette, and she squeaked in terror and darted under his legs.  He turned quickly and swiped at her with his razor sharp claws, forcing her to jump to the bannister to avoid him.  Gilliam followed her down, and they both dropped to the floor.  Babette wove a dangerous path through the legs of the people walking around, and Gilliam was right behind her, causing a panic among the inebriated patrons of the Prize Pig, spilling drinks and people alike.  The sound of shattered glass came in the wake of the cat and mouse pursuit.  A chair fell over right in front of Babette, nearly hitting her.  She took the opportunity to get to higher ground, and she jumped up from the floor to the chair to the table.  Babette hoped Gilliam would not know where she went.

Babette’s hope would not be realized.  Gilliam bounded onto the table and again gave chase.  More drinks were spilled and more glasses were broken as the two of them moved from tabletop to tabletop toward the back of the house.  A woman screamed at the sight of the mouse and stood right up, planting her heel on a man’s foot, who promptly took hold of it in pain and, hoping on the uninjured foot, stumbled into a large group of people holding their steins up high and singing an old Behmish drinking song.  They were not pleased that their chorus was interrupted.  A brawl exploded in the Prize Pig.  Babette, meanwhile, found a glimmer of a chance to escape.  She bolted straight for the broom closet door, and with Gilliam chomping at her tail, Babette squeezed through the gap between the door and the floor just in the nick of time.  Gilliam’s paw searched under the door for his quarry.

Quill came out from the back room when he heard the fighting.  He jumped in to break things up, and he ushered everyone outside.  Shaking his head in disbelief, he asked of a customer, “What happened in here?”  The customer told him that a cat chased a mouse all through the tavern, and that was what started it.  Quill looked for Gilliam, and he found him scratching at the broom closet door.

“What’ve you got, kitty?  A mouse?” he said to the cat when he scooped him up into his arms.  Opening the door, he just sighed and said, “Near enough.”

Babette stood there, human again, wearing her nightgown and slippers, trying her best to look as un-mousy as possible.  “Good evening, Mr. Quill.  Just… you know, inspecting the broom closet.  Never saw what was in here before…”

2

            “How dare you disobey us, child!” King Astorio shouted at his daughter.  He was imposing when he was calm, and he seemed to grow three feet when he was angry.  “We said that you were not to leave the castle for one week.  One!  And you couldn’t manage to stay put for longer than a night.”

“One night,” Queen Calabra repeated as she paced behind her husband.

“And good Mr. Quill had to bring you back to the castle, IN YOUR NIGHTGOWN, and now he’s back at his establishment cleaning up the mess you made.  AGAIN!”

“Again,” the Queen said.  “Do you think everyone in the kingdom likes to live in constant fear of the chaos you carry with you?  Do you think there does not exist a single person who would look to do you harm?”

“And what if that cat had caught you, eh?” the King added.  “You’d be kibble, and we would have lost our daughter to an alley cat!”

“You are our only heir, Babette.  Do you not understand that?”

Babette was silent.  Tears rolled down her cheeks and her hair grew long over her eyes.  She curled into a ball on the edge of her bed and hugged her knees, sniffling.  “I hate being a princess.  I just want to go outside and be free.”

“Be wild, is more like it,” the King snapped.

“Astorio, stop,” Calabra told her husband.  The Queen sat next to her daughter and put an arm around her.  “My beautiful daughter, I’m sorry that we could not be farmers or fishermen or whatever else we might have been.  I am a Queen, and your father is a King, and that means that you have to be a Princess.  Okay?”

Babette sniffled again, and nodded her head.

“Something is going to change, though,” Astorio said to her, calmer than he was before.  Taking a breath, he said, “I am going to assign someone to watch you.  He will be your bodyguard, your tutor, and, when necessary, he will be charged with teaching you some discipline.”

“Who?” his daughter asked.

“General Domina.  He is back from his time in the Djinnlands, and he is the best man for the job.  He is loyal, intelligent, and straight as an arrow.  He will see to it that you become a fine leader.”

Calabra stood up and crossed the room to the King.  “Astorio, Domina is a soldier.  Wouldn’t one of the nobles be a better fit for our little girl?”

The King gestured dismissively, “Pah, the nobles are soft, and they are far too fond of merriment.  They have no idea how to lead other men and women.  The General will be the instrument of Babette’s sovereignty, and he has apparently made a recent acquaintance that can further her power as an enchantress.”

Babette shrunk beneath her hair as her parents talked as if she was not in the room.  She did not want a new tutor, nor a new bodyguard, and she certainly did not want a disciplinarian, new or old.  She wished she could disappear in a puff of smoke and fly out the window, or turn into a snake and slither out the front door into the tall, dewy grass.  The longer she was inside, the more anxious she became, and this man Domina did not sound like the sort who would approve of her leaving the castle walls for any reason.  Babette’s hair clung to her wet face as she thought of all the lives she should have lived.

3

            The next morning, at sunrise, there was a pounding on Babette’s door.  Wrapped up in her blankets, she wiped a line of drool from her face with her arm and threw a pillow over her head.  The pounding came again, this time succeeded by a sharp voice, “Your Highness?”

All Babette could muster in response was a distinct, “Mrphalnan…”

Pounding again.  “Your Highness, it is time to wake up.”

“Flarp… m’up.  M’up.”

“Yes, I’m sure.”  The door opened quickly, and Babette heard the tapping of boots across her stone floor.  She felt the brutality of the sun shoot under her pillow as the man threw open the drapes.  “It is sunrise.  At sunrise, you wake.  That is your first new rule.”

He opened the rest of the curtains and washed the room in hated daylight.  Babette stayed hidden under her covers.  She heard him walk to her bed and stand there, breathing.  Angry breathing.  Heavy footsteps sounded through the door, and the sharp voice spoke again, “Your nurse will clean you and dress you.  Be in the library in thirty minutes, or there will be consequences.”

His boots clicked away, and the heavy steps shuffled toward Babette.  The Princess moved her pillow from over her bleary eyes and saw her nurse collecting her clothes.

“Portia, is he gone?” Babette asked.

“He’s gone,” the nurse answered.  She took a handful of Babette’s comforter and yanked it away from her.  “And he’s none too pleased this morning.  If I were you, I wouldn’t give him a reason to be any more cross.”

Babette got out of bed and did her best to help Portia prepare her for the day ahead.  Washed, scrubbed, dressed, and done up in thirty minutes was a tall order, but the nurse and her charge went as quickly as they could.  Babette was ready to find out exactly who it was her father had sent into her life – or as ready as she could have been.

4

            “You are on time,” Domina said to Babette as she hurried into the library.  He was facing away from her and observing Lindel below through the window.  “That is good.  If there is nothing else you learn from me today, learn that I am in the business of correcting problems.  I do not want you to be a problem, and you do not want me to correct you.”

He turned to face her.  Domina had seen pearlescent sunsets in the Silver Isles, and he had seen the Great Ghost Marches of the ancient battlefields in the hinterlands.  He had seen and touched an enormous, magnificent bird with feathers of every color of the rainbow at the Menagerie at Gigathos, and most recently in the Djinnlands he met an artist who worked not in oils or clays, but in the very dunes of the sand, who sculpted great monuments from pure imagination.  Domina had seen all of this, but by casting his eyes on Babette’s face, finally he had seen true beauty.  He was taken aback, but he composed himself quickly.

“I have a problem, actually.  Don’t ever come in my room like that again, or I’ll give you something to correct, got it?” Babette said to him.

“Is that so?” he said, challenging her to explain exactly what she would do.

“It is.  You want me here early, fine, but my room is off-limits.”

“Sit down, Princess.”  Babette moved behind a chair and stood there with defiance in her eyes.  Domina glared at her with a gaze that had seen a thousand battles and had cowed men and monsters alike.  The General didn’t know if it was out of ignorance or out of pure stubbornness, but Babette remained unfazed.  “Fine, stand there, but heed my words.  I have been tasked by your father, the King of Behm, to educate you in the art of leadership, politics, letters, and mathematics.  I am to safeguard your life, and I am to ensure that the magic granted to you by your royal station does not become your undoing.  You may stiffen and fight me at every turn, but I guarantee that I will emerge the victor in every skirmish regarding every issue.

“The time for play is done.  However, as a concession to your modesty, I promise that I will allow your nurse, Portia, to be the first face you see and the first voice you hear in the morning unless absolutely necessary.  On that point, I will be the sole arbiter of what is and is not necessary.  Is this a satisfactory… correction?”

Babette softened a little, and sat in the chair before her.  “No,” she said, “but it’s a start.”

Domina nodded his head and placed a book on the table in front of her.  As she read from it, he would stop her occasionally to ask her questions and see to it that she fully understands how what she reads builds from what she had read.  Between his examinations, his thoughts lingered on the apparent softness of her cheeks, the gentle slope of her bosom, and the untapped power coursing through her veins.

5

            As the sun set over the western horizon, Babette walked through the castle.  Her mind was exhausted from the ceaseless lectures and questions foisted on her by Domina.  If anyone had asked her, she could not have recalled exactly what she was supposed to learn that day, save for the odd detail about how a Marquis is a Count, but a Count is not a Marquis, and the Marquis is more important than the Count because… of something.  Her backside ached from sitting in the hard chair, and her legs were in desperate need of stretching.  Her neck was sore from craning her head downward to read Domina’s lessons – more so because he enforced strict adherence to the rules of good posture.  All Babette wanted was to get out of her clothes and wrap herself up in a blanket with a hot cup of tea.  Maybe jump out her window and see if she could turn herself into an eagle or a flying squirrel before she hit the bottom.  Perhaps a firefly.

When she climbed the steps up to her bedroom, she saw something she did not appreciate.  Two of the castle’s guards were posted by her door.  “What is this?” she asked.

“King’s orders, your Highness,” said the one on the right.

“The Queen left a missive on your Highness’s vanity,” said the one on the left.

Babette entered her chambers and discovered her sanctuary had been violated.  The windows had been bricked up while she was in the library with the General, and the guards at her door looked ashamed as they closed the doors and locked her in.  Babette rushed to the wooden portal and pounded on it with her fists.

“Open this door!” she cried.

Babette could not tell which one was speaking, but one of the guards said to her, “I’m… I’m sorry, Princess.  The Queen has explained all in her letter.”

Babette stormed to her vanity and snatched the letter from its resting place.  She broke the seal and unfolded it:

My dear Daughter,

 

I am so very sorry for this turn of events.  I begged your father to be a little more compassionate in his treatment of you, but he would not listen.  He has taken the advice of General Domina and has seen fit to make your doors and windows impassable, even with your magic.  It seems that I am the lone voice of dissent regarding what I consider to be your imprisonment.

            Something about this whole affair strikes me as off.  I do not know why, but I fear that you will need to be resourceful in the coming days.  To that end, I have hidden a book under your pillow.  It was mine when I was your age, and it helped me to brave countless trials.  Keep it secret, and study it well.

            Finally, and I suppose least importantly, I have placed a new dress in your closet.  Your father and I would very much like you to wear it to your birthday party tomorrow evening.

            Again, I am sorry I could not do more to help you, Babette.  I can only hope that, in time, things will go back to normal.  You are beautiful, and brilliant, and no one can keep a cover on the Sun for long.

 

With Boundless Love,

Her Royal Majesty Queen Calabra of Behm

a.k.a. Mom

Babette’s anger had subsided and given way to melancholy.  She put the letter down on the vanity and went to her bed.  Reaching under her pillows, her hand searched until it found what her mother had hidden there.  She sat on the edge of her bed and wiped the tears from her eyes as she read the cover of the book.

Sorcery and You: a Guide to Enchanting for Members of the Royal Family

By Archwizard F.Q. Namfoodle

6

            “I don’t think you appreciate just how beautiful this girl is, Skamos,” Domina said, pacing through his private chambers.  His doublet was unbuttoned and a goblet of wine sloshed in his hand.  He turned to the rat on his desk and continued, “…or how powerful she could become.”

The rat lifted his rear leg and scratched the mottled, black fur behind his ear.  “I don’t think you appreciate that you are playing with fire,” the rat said in reply.  “You slew Strassa, the King of Cobras, without fear of reprisal, and you were accosted by serpents the entire time you were in the Djinnlands.  You captured me, the King of Rats, and the only reason my brethren haven’t torn you apart is because I convinced them that an alliance with you would bring us prosperity.  You have a fine mind, Domina, and you are a mighty warrior, but there are instances where you would be better served by taking a longer view of things.

“If you meddle too bluntly in the affairs of the Royal Family, I promise that the King will not hesitate to make you suffer for your transgressions, and as strong as you are, Astorio wields power that is orders of magnitude more influential than your own.”

Domina took a gulp of his wine.  “But the strength of the girl!  If she were properly broken, she could level armies with a blink of her eye!  She could bolster my troops to nigh-invincibility!”

“But would she?  Could you break her so easily, you who has no magic?  No to both.  From what I have heard of her, she has a wild heart, but it is pure and devoid of malice.  Order cannot tame the wild.  Without powerful magic of your own, nature will always outgrow your leash.”

“What do you suggest, then?”

“You are already an accomplished liar, even if you prefer more straightforward methods.  I suggest you employ your gifts for subtlety,” Skamos said.  He sat up and pointed a claw at the bookshelf.  “Take that book, Alchemica Apothecaria, and find the recipe for a love potion.”

Domina did as the King of Rats instructed and retrieved the book from the shelf.  He placed it between the two of them on the desk and turned the pages until he found a page entitled Amorous Liquor.  “What is the plan for this, then?  Will she do as I command if she drinks this?”

“No,” Skamos told him, “but she will fall in love with you.  And, while she will see everything you do in the most favorable light, it will not give you the power to break her nature.”

“I hardly see the value.”

“Ah, but you do not know what I know.  The Princess celebrates her eighteenth birthday tomorrow, and her father will start to receive suitors for her.  If she is in love with you, the great General who has already proven his worth to the Kingdom of Behm a hundred times over, the task of choosing a husband for his daughter becomes considerably easier.”

“I think I am starting to see…”

“Yes, when you are married to the Princess, you will become a Prince, and as such you will be granted the ultimate blessing of the Royal Family.”

“Magic of my own.”

“Indeed, Domina, magic of your own.  From there, you can maneuver to eliminate the King and Queen, and the girl if you so desire…”

Domina stroked his chin and looked over the recipe.  “What’s this?” he asked, pointing at a section of the page that has been blotted out with ink.  “There is a part here that is illegible.”

Skamos shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know.  I don’t think it matters, the list of ingredients and the brewing instructions are unobscured.  It was probably a note about flavoring the potion to taste.”

“Is that a thing?”

“We’ll add salt.”

7

            On the evening of Babette’s eighteenth birthday, the castle was abuzz with excitement and festivity.  All of the nobles in Behm were in attendance, everyone had a glass in their hand, and the dining hall was filled with laughter and boisterous conversation.  A great feast was laid out on the long table – turkeys, roast beef, puddings, soups, rolls and countless other savory dishes filled the room with a culinary perfume that was sure to stoke anyone’s appetite.  King Astorio and Queen Calabra sat at the head of the table, holding hands and having a quiet conversation with General Domina.

Princess Babette entered the hall to the blare of trumpets.  The room fell silent and everyone turned their attention to the beautiful young woman standing in the archway.  Her gown was regal, festooned with silk ribbons, and it shone with the faint blue hue of juniper berries.  Her hair was pinned up with golden butterflies and her eyes were shadowed with silver.  But she didn’t feel beautiful.  Babette felt silly.  She felt everyone’s eyes on her, and she moved through the room wishing nothing more than to vanish into the wind.  Domina stood as she neared the head of the table and pulled a chair out for her.  Her parents smiled at her as she sat.

“Happy birthday, darling!” Calabra told her.

“Yes, happy birthday, sweet girl,” Astorio said warmly.

Babette forced a smile and thanked them.  The King stood and tapped his spoon against the glass in his hand, ringing out a call for attention.  The nobles seated before him silenced themselves once again, and the King took a breath before he spoke.

“Great and honorable noblemen and noblewomen of Behm, it is my sincere pleasure to host you here, and before I say anything else, I must say how grateful the Princess, the Queen, and myself are that you have graced us with your presence.  Thank you…”

That was all Babette really heard before she stopped listening.  Her thoughts drifted to the prison cell her bedroom had become.  She thought about the sycophants laughing at her father’s bad jokes, and how much he loved being the King of Tinytown.  Behm was the smallest kingdom in the world, and Astorio reveled in being the biggest fish in the smallest pond.

Domina saw that her attention had waned, and while the King droned on, he leaned over and whispered to her, “I’m sure you think I am quite imperious, Princess.  I’m sure you are not the only one.  Despite that, I do hope that you and I will become friends.  Happy birthday.”  Babette looked at him sideways.  She was surprised by his attempt at kindness.  Before she could whisper anything in reply, a clattering of silverware resounded from the kitchen that halted the King’s speech and caused everyone to turn.  One of the cooks shouted “Rat!”  With all eyes away from the Princess, Domina quickly and quietly drained a phial into Babette’s goblet.

“Well,” said the King, “now we know what’s for dessert! Ha ha… ah… where was I?  Yes, Babette, the future of this nation, and the love of our lives.  Raise your glasses and toast.  To Babette!”

Everyone in the dining hall lifted their goblets and glasses and toasted to Babette.  She smiled, rose from her seat with her own goblet in hand, and cleared her throat.

“Thank you, father.  I love you very much, and I hope that I can make you proud, the way we are all so proud to call you our King.  To the King and Queen,” she said, doing her best to hide the somber tone trying to overtake her voice.

“To the King and Queen,” the attendants cheered.

Babette drank from her goblet.  Her head started to throb, and her vision dimmed.  Her mouth dried and her tongue felt like sandpaper.  She felt dizzy, and she fell back into her chair with a plop.  The King, the Queen, and Domina looked at her.

Domina asked, “Princess, are you alright – is it working?

“What?” Babette responded.  “My head is spinning.”

“It must be the wine, I don’t think she’s had wine before,” Astorio suggested.

“Maybe…?  General, did you say something?” Babette asked.

“I asked if you are alright.  Are you in love with me yet?” Domina told her.

“In… love?  I’m not in love…”

“Who said anything about love, Babette?” the Queen said with concern.

“Princess, what are you talking about?  Does she know?  Do you need your nurse?  Something is wrong, the potion should have worked immediately,” Domina said.

“It didn’t work…” said Babette.

“Who are you talking to, Babette?” Astorio asked.

“Let’s get you to your room.  Damn it!  I don’t know what could be wrong.  I will have your magic, girl, one way or another.

Before any of them could help her to her feet, Babette closed her eyes and slumped over in her chair.  Her world went dark.


PART TWO

8

            “My lady…”

Babette’s eyes blinked open.  Portia sat by her bed with a cup in her hands.

“My lady, it is morning.”

Babette rubbed the sleep from her eyes and smacked her tongue against the roof of her mouth, trying to scare up some spit.  She was parched.  “Portia,” she managed to say, “…what happened?”

“You had too much wine at your birthday party, Princess.  It can be difficult to handle the first time,” the nurse reassured her.

“My mouth is so dry…”

“That does happen.  Would you like to sit up?  I brought you tea.”

Babette shifted and sat up in bed.  Portia handed her the cup, and she bought it to her lips and drank.  Her dry mouth abated, but her head suddenly felt very hot and splashy.  She tilted her head to the side, and Portia jumped as the tea spurted out of her ear and across the room.

“What devilry is this?!” Portia shouted.

Babette looked at the spray of tea on the wall and the floor, and her mouth was dry again.  “Domina…” she said.  “Domina did this to me.  Last night, at dinner.  I don’t know how, but when he spoke… I mean, he spoke, and then I could hear his voice when he wasn’t speaking.  There was a potion.  He thought I was going to fall in love with him.”

“Princess.  Babette, you mean to say that the General gave you a love potion?  Why would he do that?”

“I don’t know.  He said he would have my magic one way or another!  I’m scared, Portia, tell me what’s happening.”

Portia rubbed her face, trying to divine an answer.  Her eyes opened wide and took Babette by her shoulders.  “Child,” she said, “it is your magic he wanted, and it is your magic that protected you.  I have heard of it, but I never saw it before.”

“Saw what?”

“Enchantresses are special, dear one, and the magic imbued in you guards your body and your mind against magical charms.  When an enchantress is assaulted by a charm, her magic rejects it.  That’s why you heard his voice when he was silent.  Love magic always fails on people such as you, and it backfires so that you may hear the truth he hides behind his lies!” Portia exclaimed.

Babette shook her head.  “But that doesn’t explain the tea!  Why did it shoot out of my head?”

“Because,” the nurse said solemnly, “the magic in your blood is on the defensive.  It’s trying to keep you from being poisoned or charmed again by ensuring you won’t be able to drink anything else!  Magic can be stupid that way – it saves your life by putting it in harm’s way.”

Babette scrambled out of bed and dressed herself as quickly as she could.  “You have to get to my parents.  You have to tell them what Domina has done.  The guards at the door won’t let me leave – they take orders from the General – but you can move freely.  You’ve been so good to me, and I hate to ask, but will you risk your neck for me?”

“Of course, of course.  I will go right now.”

“My father will not want to listen, but you have to persist.  You have to make him hear the truth.  Go!”

Portia kissed Babette on the forehead and hurried off to deliver the news of Domina’s treachery.  Babette wore a frightened expression as she gathered her belongings.  She prayed that Portia would be able to convince the King of the threat against her, but she knew that if her nurse failed she would have to get away from the General.  She knew that she may well have to run.

9

            Babette was packed for flight.  She wore her riding clothes and jackboots – the most rugged attire she was allowed to wear or own.  Her knapsack was filled with the bread and apples Portia had set out for her.  The book that her mother had given her was fastened underneath, where a sleeping bag would have been rolled up and secured.  She had also filled a bottle with water and sealed it with candlewax.  She knew that she would not be able to drink it when she was thirsty, but at least it would be there for her when the spell had been broken.

If the spell is broken, she thought.  Babette pushed that notion out of her head.  She told herself that she could not afford to be negative.  There had to be a way to undo the foul curse Domina had placed on her.  Someone must know.  She heard her guards start to talk, but her heart was pounding too loudly for her to hear what was being said.  Between the thumping in her ears, however, she picked out one voice.  The stern cadence of General Domina.

“The nurse?!” he boomed loudly enough to surpass Babette’s heart.

She knew she had little time to act.  She looked around her bedroom for anything she might use as a weapon.  She lifted a pewter candlestick from her vanity.  He is a soldier, her mind realized, he won’t be taken by a girl with a lump of metal.  She put it down, and she heard more shouting.  The book.  She grabbed the book that hung from her knapsack and flew through the pages looking for anything that would save her.

“Flaming Death,” she read aloud with impatience, “no, I won’t kill anybody.  Mind Mash, no, Lightning Fingers, no, Victory March… oh, god, no!  I didn’t know a human body could even do that!  Isn’t there anything in this dumb book that doesn’t involve turning people into giblets?  How was this useful to mom?”

The lock on the door clicked, and the door opened slightly, then paused as Domina whispered something to his men.

“Gore a la Mode, no.  Tim’s Time Tumbler just looks cruel.  Lana’s Lullaby.  YES, Lana’s Lullaby!”

As Domina walked through the threshold into Babette’s room, flanked by two more of his loyal soldiers, the Princess opened her mouth and sang.  She did not know the language, but she pronounced the words perfectly, and as they left her lips she let her magic wash through the melody.  The notes sparkled in the air, and as they echoed in the General’s ears, and in the ears of his men, they began to yawn.  It was ceaseless yawning, and covering their mouths made them yawn more intensely.  The two guards with Domina and the two guards at the door dropped their spears and fell to the floor in a magical slumber.

The General lasted a few seconds longer, managing to say, “Babette…” before succumbing to the spell.  Babette was amazed at how quickly they were dealt with, but came to her senses and realized that they would not be asleep for long.  She replaced the book on her knapsack, slung it over her shoulder, and ran out of the room taking extra care not to kick any of them by accident.  She sprinted through the halls of the castle to an open window.  After one last look around, she was confident no one was watching her.  She transformed herself into a sparrow and flew away toward the Grendel Forest.  She did not know what she would find there.  She only hoped she would be safe.

10

            Babette flew as hard, as fast, and as far as her tiny wings would take her.  She was deep in Grendel Forest when she finally felt safe enough to stop and catch her breath.  She landed in a tree and changed back into her human form.  A purple finch flew up next to her and perched on the end of the branch, curious about the girl sitting in his tree.  He chirped at her and got her attention.  She smiled between her labored breaths.

“Hello, little bird.  I hope you don’t mind me resting here for a minute or two,” she said.  She used her sleeve to wipe the sweat from her face and looked back toward the castle.  “That’s all I can spare, really.  There is a bad man after me, and he’s probably out looking for me now.”

The finch chirped and bounced closer to her.

“Are you hungry?  I have some bread.”  Babette tore off a small hunk of rye and crumbled it in her hand.  She held it out for the bird, and he hopped up onto her fingers and pecked at the morsels.  “Eat all you want.  I have lots more.”

The finch finished the bread crumbs and flew up to her shoulder.

“I don’t know what to do here.  I just knew I had to get away or something terrible would happen.  You don’t know much about that, do you though?  You’re a sweet little thing.  I wonder what the other birds call you… I wonder if birds even have names.”

“Of course we have names,” the finch stated plainly to Babette’s surprise.  She fell out of the tree, and she landed on the ground bottom first.  The finch followed after her.  “Are you alright?  I didn’t mean to scare you!”

She stood and brushed the dirt off her pants, telling the finch, “Well you did!  What are you?  Birds can’t talk!”

“I am no common bird, Princess.  I am Marivaldi, the King of Finches, and all of the animal kings can speak in your human tongue.”

“You called me Princess.”

“Quite right.  The animals of the Grendel know who you are, to the last.  Most of us have sworn allegiance to your father, King Astorio, and we are sworn and bound to help and protect you however we can.”

“Well, you can call me Babette if I can call you Marivaldi.”

“Sure, Babs, but we’ve got to move it.  You were right about being followed.  I saw a lot of soldiers marching from the castle into the forest.  I didn’t know what to make of it until now, but if you want to stay safe we have to move.”

“Where will we go?” she asked desperately.

“I’ll tell you while we fly.”

“I can’t fly, Mari,” she said, “not when I feel like someone might be watching.  That includes you, I’m afraid.”

Marivaldi shook his birdy head.  “Then we’ll walk.  Magic is really stupid sometimes.”

“Tell me about it,” she said.

11

            Babette walked through the woods with her new companion, King Marivaldi of the Finches, perched on her shoulder.  He told her directions and distances as he knew them from flying overhead, but several times he had to fly above the trees to be sure.  He had never gone through the woods so slowly or so low to the ground before.

“You haven’t told me where we’re heading,” Babette said as he came back down from his reconnaissance.

“There’s this old coot who lives out here.  He’s human, like you.  At least, I think he is.  He might be part goblin, or maybe he’s just old.  Hunched over, thick round glasses.  Might be a little crazy too… he’s always talking to this pocket watch,” said the bird.

“Crazy like talking to a finch?” she asked with a grin.

“Hey, I talk to finches all the time.  Talking to watches, though, that’s looney.  Anyway, this man, he’s a wizard, he saved me from a hungry wolf many, many years ago.”

“Why do you think he’d help me?”

“He’s a total nut-bar, but he has a good heart.  All animals – we Kings and the masses alike – know when someone is worth knowing.  You want to meet this guy, I promise.  He’ll help you break your curse and he’ll figure out a way to deal with that General you told me about.  What’s his name?”

“Domina.  What’s your wizard’s name?”

Marivaldi laughed, “I call him ‘Food.’  I joke that he’ll make a fine meal someday.  I’m pretty sure he knows I’m just teasing him.  I think.”

“That’s awful!”

“Eh, he never seems to mind.  I think he’s older than the dirt we’re walking on, and I’d bet on him to outlive us all.”

“That’s not really saying much at this particular moment.  How did he save you from the wolf?”

“He struck a deal with the both of us.  I got to live, and I help him out by bringing him ingredients from time to time – you know, mushrooms, roots, berries, that sort of thing – and the wolf and his pack got a spell cast on them that made them bigger, stronger, and faster than they were before.”

“Wouldn’t that mean you’d be easier to catch?

“Yeah, but since they got bigger, they had to hunt bigger game.  I’m a popcorn kernel – a single potato chip – I’m not worth the effort anymore.”

They continued on their journey toward the man named Food, talking and exchanging stories.  They told each other jokes and hours passed under the shade of the bountiful Grendel Forest.  Noon came and went and they ate bread and apples, and Babette opened her water bottle so at least he could quench his thirst.  She tried to hold some of the water in her mouth, just to let it soak for a moment or two, but it quickly vanished from between her cheeks and drenched Marivaldi with a well-aimed stream from her ear.  The finch chuckled and shook himself dry, but Babette felt afraid all over again.

12

            In the early afternoon, as the sun was starting to make for the west, Babette and Marivaldi had grown quiet.  Babette was getting tired.  Her legs were sore and her butt still ached from falling out of the tree hours before.  She had stopped sweating – though she wasn’t sure if that was because the temperature had cooled, or if she was just out of moisture.  Marivaldi darted up and back every few minutes, giving the Princess new directions.  He could see the fear and sadness in her eyes, and his heart was heavy for her.

Suddenly there was a commotion in the woods behind them.  It started with the barking of dogs – faint, but edging closer.  Then they heard the din of soldiers on the march.  The clamor of their armor scraped and jangled through the trees.  Marivaldi spotted the first of them.

“Run!” he whispered, “They haven’t seen us yet!”

Babette’s legs pushed through the pain as she sprinted around trees and through the brush.  She tried to stifle her wheezing and coughing as she ran.  As she looked back for a moment to catch a glimpse of her pursuers, her foot caught on an exposed root, and she crashed into the forest floor.  She tried to free it but screamed in pain – she had twisted her ankle.

“Over there!” she heard a soldier shout.

“Mari, they’re coming!” Babette yelped.

Marivaldi looked at her foot caught in the tangled root, then he looked into her eyes.  Without a word, he flew away.

“Mari, don’t leave me!” she whimpered.  Her voice was hoarse and she could shed no tears, so she sat up and pulled on the root.  She freed her leg from nature’s bear trap, stood up, and hobbled away from the soldiers as fast as she could go.  She looked back again, and saw a soldier being led by a dog on a leash.  From a hundred feet away, they locked eyes.

“There she is, this way!” the soldier yelled to his comrades.  Babette stumbled to the ground again – her foot could not support her weight – so she crawled behind a large oak tree and took out her copy of Sorcery and You and found Lana’s Lullaby.  She read the words softly as the soldier and the dog drew nearer to them.  When she heard them on the other side of the tree, she began to sing.  Her voice cracked.  She started again, but she could not sing the words.  Her lips were cracked and her throat was bone dry.  She could not sing at all.

As Babette drew breath for a third attempt, an old man rushed up in front of her and pressed his finger to her lips, urging her to be silent.  He held up his left hand, and a thin bubble of magic ballooned from his palm.  It started the size of a walnut, but quickly swelled to encase the two of them in a shimmering ward.  The soldier and his dog rounded the tree and stood at the edge of the field.  The stared right at Babette, but did nothing and said nothing.  The old man flicked his right hand in another direction, and the guard turned around shouting, “How did she get over there so fast?!” and he ran off.

The old man stood there shielding them both until all of the soldiers were out of sight and out of earshot, then his magic bubble burst.  He knelt next to Babette and waved his left hand over her ankle, and in an instant the pain left her.  Marivaldi came flying back when it was all over and landed on the old man’s head.

“Mari…?” Babette started.

“Princess, I’d like you to meet Food!” Marivaldi said with a flourish.  The old man swatted at the finch in his hair.  “Or Archwizard Namfoodle, if you want to be snooty about it.”

13

            “…best I can figure is that he slipped me the potion so I would fall in love with him, marry him, and be granted his own royal magic for his own purposes.  It took me a while to piece together, but now that I’m saying it out loud, it’s the only thing that makes sense.  But it didn’t work, because now I’m cursed and can’t drink anything.  The liquid just falls out of my ears when I try.  So, I ran away, and met Marivaldi, and he brought me to you because you help people.  That’s what you do, isn’t it?  You will help me, won’t you?”

Namfoodle took off his glasses and cleaned them on his robe.  He stood from his chair in his hidden cabin and walked to the fireplace, checking his stew.  Babette’s entreaties intrigued him, but he spoke first to the King of the Finches.  “Marivaldi, is this so?  Did you bring this girl to me because I ‘help people’?”

Marivaldi shrunk behind Babette and said, “Yes, I said that to her.”

The wizard nodded once and returned his spectacles to his face.  He looked Babette in the eye, “Ah ha.  Well, young lady, you should know that I have sworn no oath of fealty to your father or to Behm.  You understand that I am under no obligation to help you?”

She looked down at her feet.  “I understand, but you’ve already helped me.  You saved me from those men and you healed my foot.  Why did you do that?”

“Pro bono work – it’s good for the soul now and again.  But, this… what you would need would definitely cost something.  Saving lives can be expensive business.  Or, did the Finch King fail to mention that?”

“He told me you struck a deal with him and with the wolf that tried to eat him.  He helps you collect things from the forest, and the wolves are bigger than they were before.”

“That’s right.  A deal.  Everybody got something they wanted.  Marivaldi got to live.  The wolf and his pack got stronger.  And I got a little assistant.  So, if I’m going to help you, and if I’m going to tell you what I know about your curse, I am going to need something in exchange.”

“What do you want?” she asked.

Namfoodle cupped his hands behind his back and paced around the room for a minute.  “I know.  Your spellbook.  I want your spellbook.”

Babette clutched the book on her lap and eyed the ancient wizard.  “Why would you want this old book?” she said.  She read over the cover again, the first time since she discovered her mother had given it to her:

Sorcery and You: a Guide to Enchanting for Members of the Royal Family

By Archwizard F.Q. Namfoodle

“F.Q. Namfoodle, you wrote this book!  You must have a copy of your own somewhere.  Why do you want mine?” she pried.

“Princess, you want my help and knowledge.  I will give them to you after you give me that book, and not before.  That is the deal on the table – you are free to take it or leave it,” Namfoodle told her.

Babette ran her fingers over the embossed cover.  This book saved my life, she thought, but there’s only one spell in here that doesn’t turn people into chunky salsa, and I can’t even use it right now.  Babette nodded slowly.  She stood, and crossed the room to Namfoodle, and after a second’s hesitation she handed the book to him.  The spellbook had left his hand no sooner than it had been placed there – it was cast into the fire.

Marivaldi spoke: “That… seemed arbitrary.”

“Why did you do that?” Babette inquired.

Namfoodle went back to his chair and sat with his legs crossed.  “Because,” he said, “I wrote that useless book back when I thought that the purpose of magic was purely destructive – that Lullaby you were trying to sing appeared at the time to be the only exception.  I couldn’t explain that one, but the wonderful sorceress who created it…”

“Lana,” Babette interrupted.

“Yes, Lana.  She showed this old fool that there was a whole ‘nother dimension to magic that I had never seen before.  It was organic, and chaotic, and it was fashioned after the wild heart that beat in her chest.  Anyway, have you read what Victory March does to people?  Gives me the willies, and for the time being that’s all you need to know.

“Now, regarding this curse of yours.  You’ve already discovered why the love potion backfired and what it did to you.  You can’t be further poisoned because you can’t drink anything, and you can hear the things Domina isn’t saying out loud.  But!  I know how to reverse the effects and rid you of this burden once and for all.”

“That’s great!  What do we do?” Babette said excitedly.

“It’s very simple.  You have to expose Domina’s lies to a lot of people all at once.”

Babette stared at him with a blank expression on her face.

“At least fifty.”

“Is that all?” Babette replied.

“Oh, yes.  Do that, and you’ll be right as rain,” Namfoodle said.  He reached into his pocket and produced a watch on a chain.  “Take this, Babette.  You will need it.”

Babette took the pocket watch and studied its face.  The hands whirled around and read 6 O’Clock, and it said aloud, “Two days, two hours, thirteen minutes, and fifty-one seconds.”

“What was that?” Marivaldi asked the wizard.

“I’m afraid that’s how much time young Babette has until she dies from dehydration,” he lamented.

“WHAT?!” Babette yelled at him.

“Surely you know that no creature can live without water, Princess,” said Namfoodle.

“I… I know… but two days?  To expose the lies of the most respected General in Behm?” Babette asked.

“To at least fifty people,” he added.  “Now, you should get a move on.  I will send word to my friend Peren to catch up with you on your way – he’s a capable warrior, and he will escort you to the castle.”

“Magic is so, so stupid sometimes,” Marivaldi chirped.


PART THREE

14

            The sun was going down as Babette and Marivaldi said their goodbyes to Namfoodle.  They left his cottage, and as they looked back, they watched it disappear before their eyes.  Babette was quiet, her thumbs hooked into the straps of her knapsack – recently filled with more food by their friend the wizard.  Marivaldi watched the Princess’s face.  She had not blinked for several minutes.

“Are you okay, Babs?” he asked her.  His voice wavered with concern.

“I’m fine, Mari,” she whispered.

They walked for another mile or so, and Babette still had not blinked.  Marivaldi cleared his throat and asked again, “Babette, seriously, are you okay?”  She didn’t answer.  “Do your eyes hurt?”

Babette stopped in her tracks and let out a sigh.  “Everything hurts right now, Finch.  My voice barely works because my throat is cracking.  My stomach feels sick and my joints are killing me.  My eyes are so dry that my eyelids won’t close.  No, Mari, I’m not okay.  I’m scared, and I’m angry, and I’m in pain, and I apparently have need of a watch that only reminds me of how long I have until I die.  I have to go back to the castle, toward the man who has tried to hurt me and control me, and I have to do the impossible without the spellbook that my mother gave me specifically to protect me.

“But, you know what?  I’m going to do it anyway.  I ran to Grendel to find help, and I found it.  I learned what I needed to know, and now I have to use that information or I’m going to die a horrible death.  I don’t have any choice but to do what I can to live, so I’m going to take the fight to Domina, and I am going to win, and if you don’t shut up and stop making me waste my breath, I will leave you here and I will do it by myself.”

Marivaldi flew up and flapped his wings in her face, “Hey!  I’m on your side here.  I’m the help that you found, remember?  There’s no need to get nasty.”  A loud snap echoed through the woods, and there was a rustling in the brush in the distance.

“What was that?” she asked.  “It’s getting too dark for me to see.”

“I’ll go check it out.  You keep walking, and I’ll catch up to you in a minute.”

The bird flew off to investigate and left Babette alone in the twilit forest.  She kept moving through the woods, keeping an eye on the ground so as not to trip on another errant root.  Why did I say those things to him, she wondered.  He was only trying to take care of me.  She reached into the pocket of her jacket and pulled out the watch.  The hands said it was just after 8 O’Clock, and the voice of the watch announced: “One day, twenty-three hours, fifty-seven minutes, four seconds.  I’m sorry, Babette.”

She wasn’t even surprised by this.  “Marivaldi says Namfoodle talks to you.  Do you talk back to him?”

“Every day.  He is my best friend, and I owe him my life.  What’s left of it, in any case,” the watch told her.

“What’s your name?”

“I am Oda.  I used to be a diviner of cosmic significance.  Good Namfoodle preserved my spirit in this watch when I was killed by a treacherous man whose lies confounded me.”

“He doesn’t like to admit to it, but it seems that’s his stock and trade.”

“What is, dear?”

“Saving people.  Why does he hide out here when he could be helping so many more people?”

“I really couldn’t say, Princess.  I cannot see the past of the one who wears me, only the future.  To that end, Babette, I strongly suggest that you turn around right now.”

15

            “Babette, Domina’s coming!  Run!” Marivaldi screamed as he shot through the air toward his charge.  Babette started to turn to run away.

“Stop, Babette.  You need to stay right where you are.  You need to stand your ground,” Oda said sternly.  “Trust me, Babette, and hide me.”

Babette looked back and forth from Mari and Oda when she heard the hooves of the approaching General.  Babette inhaled sharply and planted her feet, facing the sound of thunder that stormed toward her.  “I trust you, Oda.”  General Domina rode up on his massive steed and stopped in front of Babette.  She dropped Oda back into her pocket and looked Domina in the eye.  A dozen soldiers with dogs came running up behind him.

“Princess Babette, I’m so relieved that we found you – You’re mine now, girl,” Domina said, a yellow smile plastered on his face.

“You’re mine now, girl,” she said.

“What? Not this again.”

“Yes, Domina, this again.  I can see through your words.  Every lie you tell fills my ears with the truth you hide so well.  Do your soldiers know what you plan to do with me?” she challenged him.  They laughed.

“They are my soldiers, Princess.  They are my soldiers.  They are loyal to me, and not to your King.  They are loyal to me.

“My father is your King too.”

“He is not my King, girl.  I have given up on him.  I have given up on him…  He will be lucky if I allow him to rot in the dungeon… and on your Queen… with his wretched wife.

“You’ve already had them thrown in the dungeon then?  How could you have accomplished that?”

“You are a tricky little girl, Babette.  Can you hear me?  You are far too clever for your own good.  You can, can’t you?  I wonder how easy it is to throw you off your game.  All I have to do is think of what I want you to hear now.  To beat you at it.  I can lie to you in my thoughts, Babette.” Domina whistled and gestured for his men to advance.  “Take her alive, and unharmed.”

The soldiers moved toward her, their dogs barking and pulling at their leashes.  As they inched closer, Babette heard Oda whisper to her from her pocket: “Stay put, Princess.”  The watch was giving her cause to doubt, but just as she decided to run, a dog pulled free of its handler and lunged at the Princess.  Babette flinched and covered her face, and she heard a ferocious growling.  A massive wolf with silver fur had intercepted the dog and put it down before it could harm Babette.  Howling erupted from the brush, and in an instant of chaos, a pack of enormous wolves emerged from the darkness and attacked Domina’s soldiers.  Domina drew his sword and started swinging at the nearest wolf.  Babette locked eyes with his steed, reached into the horse’s mind, and conjured an image of a fiery monster only it could see.  The horse reared back in fear and galloped away from the mirage with the General on his back, trying and failing to get the stallion under control.

The largest of the wolves ran to Babette and stood beside her.  His grizzled voice was fearsome, “Get on, we have no time.  We must ride for the castle.”

“Are you Peren?” she asked, trembling.

“Now!” he barked.

Babette did as he commanded and mounted the old, scarred wolf.  Marivaldi clung to her shoulder just in time for the creature to take off away from the battle at full speed.  Babette looked back, but she could see no clear winner in the fray they were leaving behind.

16

            Peren reached the edge of Grendel Forest and collapsed.  Babette dismounted and rummaged through her knapsack for water.  She found the bottle and poured some of it onto Peren’s panting tongue.  He slurped it up and stood.

“Thank you,” Peren said to Babette.

“Thank you.  You saved our lives,” she said in return.

“Our?  Yes, I thought I smelled the King of the Finches.  Where are you, Marivaldi?”

The bird poked his head through Babette’s hair.  “I’m here,” he said.

“The one who got away.  How are you, Finch?”

“Scrawny, gamey, feeling a little sour… how are you, Wolf?”

“Disinterested.  Babette, are you unharmed?” Peren asked the Princess.  “Namfoodle bade me protect you on your quest.  I would hate to think I have failed so quickly.”

“I’m not hurt.  Not from the battle, anyway.  The curse is literally killing me,” she said, stroking the fur behind his ears.

“I am sworn and bound to your service, Your Highness.  What would you have me do to aid you?” the wolf entreated.

Babette looked at the castle.  The stars were out and the half-moon was rising over the eastern horizon.  The lights of Lindel flickered brightly.  The air was cool and crisp, and spring would soon be summer.  She took Oda from her pocket and begged for help.

“What do I do, Oda?” she said.  “It’s not just my life anymore.  It’s daddy’s life.  Mom’s life.  It’s the lives and futures of all of the people in Behm.  If Domina gets his way, then every man and woman in the Kingdom will be pressed into service.  I am going to die soon, but more important than me are these people.  If I die before Domina is exposed, he will kill my parents.  He will take the crown for himself one way or another, and because of the totally arbitrary way magic works in this STUPID world, he’ll have enough sorcerous power of his own to wage endless war on all of our peaceful neighbors.  Oda, I know that I have to see this through to the end.  There’s no way around that, and I’m prepared to die.  That’s the only way I can stop Domina.  But I need help.  What am I supposed to do, Oda?  Please help me.”

“First thing you do, Princess…” Oda told her, “…is give a rousing third-act speech about how this is bigger than you, and how you are ready to sacrifice all for the good of others.  Think you can pull that off?”

Babette stood, baffled.  “What… the hell, you’re messing with me.”

“I am absolutely messing with you.  We have a little more than a day-and-a-half to figure this out.  We need to get through the town and into the castle without anybody noticing us.  Think you can scare up some of your shape-changing magic?” Oda asked.

“She can’t,” Marivaldi said, “not when she thinks other people might see.”

“I wouldn’t be so certain, Finch,” said Peren as he watched Babette transform herself into a tough-looking soldier with Domina’s standard on her helmet.

“How?” Marivaldi stuttered, “I thought…”

“I’m afraid, Mari.  But I’m not afraid of you.  Or you, Peren.  Or you, Oda.  You are my friends, my only allies.  I trust you all,” Babette said to them.  “Now, let’s go save my life.”


PART FOUR

17

            Their walk through Lindel town was exciting for the people there.  Most of them had never seen a wolf before, and those who had were amazed at the sheer size and mass of Peren.  That he was large enough and smart enough to be able to take a rider was incredible to them.  Mr. Quill’s cat, Gilliam, was unfortunate enough to cross the path of the quartet – he hissed at Babette, recognizing her scent, but the Wolf King barked and snapped at him.  The cat skittered away with his tail between his legs and his ears pressed low.

They took the road up to the castle and met the sentries at the gate.

“Halt!  Who, what goes there?” one of them called out.

Babette’s dry throat lent a veteran quality to her voice as she said, “Sergeant Dunlow!  I return from Grendel Forest with a trophy – this tame and gentle beast!”

“Tame and gentle?” Peren whispered to her incredulously.  Babette shushed him.

“Open the gate.  General Domina ordered me to bring the creature here and have him cleaned and fed before he returns with the Princess,” Babette commended the sentries.  “If I don’t have time to do both, I’ll make sure he knows it was you who held me up.”

The sentries straightened up and did as they were told, giving the signal for the portcullis to be raised and the “Sergeant and his trophy” be allowed inside the castle at once.  As soon as they passed the threshold, the gate began to close again.  Babette knew that this was the point of no return.

Once they were in Castle Behm, the Princess told her companions, “We have to get to Domina’s private chambers and try to find anything that will incriminate him,” and they made their way upstairs, avoiding being seen by anyone with a spear or crossbow – easier said than done with a five-foot tall lupine animal in tow, but most of the soldiers were afield with the General.

“Here it is,” Babette said when they came to his door.  She tried the handle, but the door was locked.  “Peren, can you knock it down?”

“Not without making a lot of noise and drawing a lot of attention,” he replied.

Marivaldi hopped down Babette’s arm toward the lock.  “Allow me,” he said.  Babette kept her hand level for him to balance on while he slipped one of his talons into the keyhole.  Peren was standing lookout when his ears perked up.

“Someone’s coming,” he said quietly.

“Almost got it,” Marivaldi said back.

Peren could see the shadows of three soldiers with spears cast on the wall, and growing larger.  “Now, Finch, now…”

The lock clicked, the door swung open, and Peren, Marivaldi, Oda, and Babette hurried inside silently and closed the door behind them.  The soldiers rounded the corner and walked straight past Domina’s chambers.  Everyone who had lungs breathed a sigh of relief.  Oda vocalized a light “Phew…”

Babette looked at the room, and found that the General was much stricter about her tidiness and organization than he was about his own.  Books were left out, papers – official and unofficial alike – covered his desk, trays of half-eaten meals sat with dirty wine glasses, and she never knew that Domina had a pet.  She studied the brass cage on the table next to his desk, and the large, molting rat within.

“Domina does not believe in frivolity,” Babette said to the rat.  “Which means that you must be useful to him, which means that you can talk, can’t you?”

The rat combed his whiskers with his tiny claws and sat up for her.  “You are very astute, Princess.  Yes, I can talk.  My name is Skamos,” he told her.

“The King of Rats, I take it?”

“How did you know?” he asked.

“I haven’t met a talking animal yet that didn’t introduce himself as King of the Something or Other.  What are you doing here?” she asked Skamos.  Peren and Marivaldi sneered at her comment.

“Well, that devious man Domina found me in the Djinnlands and captured me.  Then he murdered my best friend in the whole world – Strassa, the King of Cobras – right before my eyes!  I’ve been trying to find a way to get free for some time now, but I’m not as young and my teeth aren’t as sharp as they used to be.  But, that is beside the point.  What are you doing here?  You know what General Domina will do to you if he finds you here?”

“He wants to marry me,” she said, nodding, “so he can become a Prince and have his own magic.  I can’t let that happen.  I have to find something that will expose his lies to a bunch of people at the same time, or this curse he put me under will kill me in… Oda?”

“Forty-two hours, at sunset on the day after tomorrow,” Oda responded.

“Plenty of time, then,” Skamos clapped his paws together.  “There is far too much for you to sort through before he gets back, but I know all of the nooks and crannies around here.  You have to find the King and Queen and set them free.  I heard Domina say he had them thrown in the dungeon, along with all of the soldiers that stayed loyal to them.  You set me free, and I’ll see to it that dreadful man gets precisely what he deserves.  Do we have a deal?”

“How do I know I can trust you,” Babette asked, eyebrow raised.  “You have no oath to keep to Behm, you’re not a wild-thing of Grendel.”

“I do not have an oath to keep, and I am not from Grendel, but he killed my friend, and I want my revenge.”

Marivaldi spoke softly: “I think we can trust him, Babs, and I’ve been caged.  It’s not a fun time for anyone.  Set him free.”

Babette looked at the Rat King with compassion in her eyes.  “I know.  I’ve been caged too.”  She opened the brass cell and Skamos stepped out a free rat.

“Go, Princess, find the King and Queen in the dungeon.  I’ll meet you there when I have what we need.”

18

            Peren, followed closely behind by Babette, Oda, and Marivaldi, ran through the castle.  Babette, in disguise, offered excuses and apologies to the soldiers they passed for the wolf that “does not want to take a bath.”  They descended into the underground level of the castle, and Peren bowled over one of the guards there.

“Sorry about that, just trying to get a collar on him,” Babette said to him, “Why don’t you wait outside while I get this thing under control.”

The guard agreed and waited on the other side of the door.  Peren said, “This is the dungeon, someone open the door.”

Babette grasped the handle and wrenched the heavy oaken door inward.  The room beyond was lined with cells on both walls, and two dozen men sat within, chained together, blindfolded, and gagged with cloth.  The Princess did not see her parents.

“Where are they?” she asked, but none of the loyal soldiers responded.  Peren rushed to the far wall and sniffed at the floor.  “What do you smell, Wolf King?”

“Perfume.  There must be another cell hidden in this wall,” he said.

“How do we open it?” Marivaldi asked.

“Twist the sconce on the wall clockwise, and it will open,” Oda replied.

As Babette ran forward to free her parents, Marivaldi asked Oda, “Aren’t oracles supposed to be a tad more cryptic with their advice?”

“I’m a diviner, Finch,” Oda retorted.  “I read the future like a book.  Those daft oracles just, ‘like, feel the aether, man’.”

When the sconce was turned sideways, the stone wall shifted and slid open.  King Astorio, Queen Calabra, and the nurse Portia were within, bound, gagged, and blindfolded like all the others.

“Mom!  Dad!” Babette called out and knelt next to them and removed their gags and blindfolds.

“Who are you?” Astorio demanded.

“What do you want from us now?” Calabra added.

“Oh, right,” Babette said as she dismissed the magic that made her appear as one of Domina’s men and reverted to her true shape.  “It’s me, Babette.  I’m getting you out of here.  Mari, can you pick the locks on these manacles?”

“Don’t bother – it’s useless to resist, Babette,” Domina called out from the other end of the dungeon.  He stood behind a squad of his biggest, meanest troops, and Skamos sat upon his shoulder.  “This is the end of your little adventure, Princess – you will suffer before the end.  Men, capture them all.  Spare the girl, but if the wolf or the bird tries to run or fight, kill them where they stand – I mean it, and their blood will be on your hands.  Order them to stand down.

Peren took a defensive posture and growled loudly, but Babette put a hand on his back and said, “Do what he says, Peren.  I won’t let you die here.  Domina, we surrender.”

The soldiers opened the outer cell doors and prodded Peren with their spears until he went inside.  Domina held up Skamos’s cage and eyed Marivaldi.  The Finch King flew in after a sad look to Babette, and Domina shut the door on him.  He handed the cage to one of his soldiers who wore thick glasses, who took it out of the dungeon to some awful fate.  Domina walked through his men toward Babette with his sword drawn.  He put the blade under her chin and started to walk forward, forcing Babette backward into the hidden cell.  When her back was to the wall, he put a hand on her shoulder and pushed her straight down to make her sit on the cold cellar floor, and secured her wrists with a set of chains that dangled from above.  He stepped out of the cell and took hold of the sconce and turned it counter-clockwise.  Before it closed completely, he looked at Babette and said with a hiss, “You will be lucky if I let you die in here, Babette – very lucky indeed.”  The wall sealed shut and the Royal Family was engulfed in darkness.

19

            A full day had passed since Babette and her company was captured by General Domina, and if it weren’t for Oda escaping his notice, the King, Queen, and Princess would have no idea how long they sat in the black cell.  “There are only fourteen hours left until your time is up, Princess.  How are you feeling?” Oda asked.

“Darling, we are so sorry that we put that monster in your life,” Calabra told her daughter.  “He caught poor Portia telling us what he did to you, and he had his men lock us away down here.”

“This is our fault, Babette,” Astorio said.  “And when we get out of here, we will spend the rest of our lives making it up to you.  I promise you that.”

“Dad… dy?” Babette forced through her dusty cheeks.

“Yes, baby?”

“What’s… wrong… with… Por… tia…?”

“She has been silent this whole time, Your Majesty.  Is she still gagged?” Oda inquired.

The King felt ashamed and hung his head in the darkness.  “Portia… died.  They beat her badly before they threw her in here.  Nobody came to get her,” he said with a catch in his throat.

“Por… tia… Why… did… n’t… you… use… your… ma… gic…?”

“It’s one of the rules of magic, sweet-pea,” Calabra explained.  “When a member of the Royal Family is cursed, all of the magic in the family flows into her to help keep her alive.  The magic stays in you until the curse is broken… or until you die.  Will you try again to get out of your chains?  I know you can’t see, and you can barely speak, but you have to try, honey.”

The cell door slid open and light entered the prison for the first time in a day.  Domina stood before them and asked, “And go where – you’d only get yourself killed trying to escape?”  Babette’s every breath whistled through the air and she didn’t even have the energy to lift her head to look at the General.  “There is an alternative, Princess – there’s always an alternative to pain, girl.  Let me propose a deal – it’s fair, I promise.  I propose that you agree to marry me before the love potion I gave you finally kills you, and I will agree to spare your parents.  I will exile them to the Djinnlands, where friends of mine will keep an eye on them for the remainder of their lives.  I will also agree to release your companions – Marivaldi and Peren, was it? – back into Grendel Forest and to never pursue them again.

“If you refuse me, however – and I really don’t suggest you refuse me – I will murder your mommy, and I will murder your daddy.  I will have the wolf made into a cape and I will keep the bird so I can write a letter to the Council of Elders, ripping a new quill from him for every word I pen, and that letter will convince the Council that, with the disappearance and presumed death of Astorio, Calabra, and Babette, I should be elected the new King of Behm.

“That way is bloodier, and costlier, and will be more time-intensive, but I can do it.  I will do it.  But, I don’t want to do it.  I want to make this as painless as I can for all parties – I really do.  So, what do you say, Princess?  Will you use your last act in this world to make me your Prince and save the lives of four of the most important people in your life?  Or, do I tell my man to bring me parchment, ink, and the cage?”

The very last tear in Babette’s whole body ran down her cheek.  She looked at her parents, and they shook their heads and told her not to give in to his demands, not to hand him the keys to the kingdom.  Babette couldn’t hear them.  She only heard the pleas of people who would take her place without hesitation.  She knew that if the situation was reversed, there would be nothing the Queen or she could say to convince her father not to take his deal.

“One… more… con… di… tion…” she said.

“What condition is that – don’t test my patience?” Domina asked.

Babette tilted her head toward Portia’s lifeless body.  “Bu… ry… nurse… Por… tia…” she whispered.  “She… de… serves… that… much…”

“Done.  I’ll send someone down for her immediately, and someone else will come to get you ready for your big day.  You are going to make a beautiful bride – my love…

20

            The King’s Court was in full attendance, hundreds of nobles were packed in the throne room of the castle, and everyone was in good spirits.  Trumpeters delighted the wedding guests with flourishes and fanfare, and Domina stood in his dress-white uniform on the steps.  A hooded man with a staff and a book stood above him between the thrones.  One of his soldiers gave him a thumbs up from the other end of the hall, and the musicians were silent.  Then, the doors of the massive throne room were opened wide, and the wedding march began.

Babette stood in the doorway wearing a dress that looked as though it were stitched from pure gold.  She shimmered in the light, and the shine drew all attention off of her drawn skin and deathly pallor.  Oda hung as a pendant from her neck.  The Princess looked at the guards behind her, and they shut the doors, trapping her inside.  She was breathing hard as she made her procession to the altar, and looking through the great stained-glass windows she could see the sun dipping low in the sky.

When she reached the back of the hall, she climbed the steps and stood across from Domina.  The hooded man opened his book and asked, “Who gives this woman away to be wed?”

The General was quick to respond, “Her father, His Royal Majesty, King Astorio of Behm, gives his daughter in absentia.”  He reached into his pocket and produced a letter with the seal of the Royal Family.  The hooded man took it, broke the seal, and read.

“Very well,” he said.  “Lord General Theon Domina, have you prepared any special vows of your own?”

“No,” Domina replied, “I do not wish to delay my happy marriage to this woman any longer than is absolutely necessary.”  This was met with adoration from the wedding guests.

The hooded man turned toward Babette.  “Your Royal Highness, Princess Babette of Behm, have you prepared any special vows of your own?”

Babette shook her head and indicated that she did not.

“Are you sure… Babs?” the hooded man pressed.  She looked up, and saw a long, hooked nose holding up a thick pair of glasses under the hood, and a purple finch did his best to stay hidden.

“Ac… tually… I… have… a wedding… gift…”  Babette took Oda from around her neck and held it out for Domina to take.

“A gift?  For me? – what’s this about?” Domina said as he took the watch from the Princesses hand.  “A pocket watch?  It’s lovely.  I will cherish it always – worthless junk.”

Oda’s voice boomed and echoed through the throne room, “Hello, murderer!  I am pleased to tell you that there are only thirty-two seconds left until your evil plan succeeds!”

“What?!  Ha, ha, what do you mean?  There is no plan!  There’s no plan, everyone!”

“Of course there is!  And you’re doing great at it!” Oda shouted again for all to hear, “Only twenty more seconds until your sham marriage to the Princess is complete!  After that, it’ll be only twelve minutes until she dies from the curse you put on her, and you’ll be free to seize the crown!”

“No, no, no, no… that’s not what’s happening here!  I love her!”

“Oh, Domina, you’re so close!  Five more seconds until you are made a Prince.  You’ll get to watch Babette die, then go down to the dungeon where the King and Queen are being held in the secret dungeon that opens by turning the sconce CLOCKWISE, and slit their throats!  Bully for you!”

“Get off of me, wretched thing!”  Domina tried to throw Oda down, but she wrapped her chain around his wrist.

“Wait a minute, your time started running up – really fast!  Hours, days, years, centuries…  Oh, no!  Everybody here knows what you’re doing, so now you’ll never be King!  Some people just have all the bad luck, I guess…”

The nobles in the throne room all looked dumbfounded.  They were confused and they didn’t know quite what was going on or what to do.  Namfoodle pulled the hood off his head, and Marivaldi hopped onto his shoulder.  Domina drew his sword.  Babette just stood there, watching the scene unfold in front of her, and everyone fell silent when she fell to the floor, rolling down the steps as the sun set under the western world.

21

            Namfoodle and Marivaldi moved to check on the Princess.  She was unconscious and had taken a bad tumble down the hard steps in the throne room.  The hundreds of nobles in attendance stared at Domina, who had his sword drawn and had his plan to usurp the throne exposed to the masses.  He tried to reassert control by ordering his soldiers to form a defensive ring around him.  They circled him and pointed their spears outward, shouting at the nobles to stay back.

Then, to everyone’s amazement, they dropped their weapons.  Domina was screaming for them to pick their spears back up, but they did not do as he commanded.  One by one, they walked away, down the middle of the aisle, and left the throne room.  None of them said a word, or threatened anyone on the way out.  Just simply left.

“Pick up those spears, you lily-livered dandies,” Namfoodle shouted at the nobles, “and follow the bird to the dungeon!  Rescue the King and Queen!  Mari, go, show them the way!”

The noble men and women of Behm did as the old wizard instructed – they took up arms and charged through the castle to save their beloved sovereigns.  Marivaldi led them down to the lower levels.

Domina cursed Namfoodle, “Damn you, old man!  You’ve only delayed the inevitable!  I will be king, I will have all of the magic I want, and I will lead Behm from a tiny kingdom no one has ever heard of to become the greatest empire the world has ever seen!  Now, you will marry us, old man, and you will do it now, or I swear I will rend you limb from limb!”

“You will do no such thing, Domina.”  The two men left in the throne room looked in amazement as Babette stood easily and spoke clearly.  Domina thought she sounded as though she had aged ten years in the few days he had known her.  “I commanded all of the men in this castle who are loyal to you to leave, now and forever.  I would issue the same order to you, but I do not want you to run.  I want you to pay for all that you have done, and I have the power to see that through.”

“I will not be bested by a little girl, Babette.”

“I am not a little girl anymore.  I am a Princess.  I am heir to this kingdom – and I am an Enchantress.”

Domina rushed at her as fast as he could, sword drawn back and ready to strike.  His physical might, however, was no match for Babette’s force of will.  She opened her mouth and sang a discordant song, his weapon inches from her heart, and he stopped dead in his tracks.  He leaned forward, struggling against the hurricane wind that Babette’s Aria was leveling against him, but the marble floor was slick, and he lost his footing.  Domina tumbled backward into one of the columns with force enough to crack the stone, and the Enchantress ended her song.

“Your paltry tricks won’t stop me…” he said, coming to his feet.

A host of nobles returned to the hall, led by Astorio and Calabra, along with Peren and Marivaldi.  Mari returned to Namfoodle, while Peren stood in front of his Princess and growled, “I will protect you.”

“No, Peren, I will protect you this time,” she said calmly.  She strode forward and turned herself into a gargantuan brown bear, at least three times taller and broader than Domina’s size on his most generous day.  The nobles gasped, and Peren grinned, but the King and Queen were proud.  Domina swung his sword at her thick, furry stomach, but her gigantic paw swatted the blade from his hand.  She roared with fury, and the terrible noise was so loud the glass in the hall shattered, washing them all in glass and starlight.  She swiped her paw at him again and he flew across the throne room and hit his head on the wall.  Domina was still.

From out of nowhere, the Rat King Skamos shouted, “Master!” and ran to help his bloody General.  Namfoodle, quicker than a man his age might seem, kicked him when Skamos ran in front of him.  The rat sailed through the air, and found himself landing in the waiting maw of the King of the Wolves.  Skamos was silenced in an instant.  Babette ran to her mother and father, weak from their imprisonment, and did not notice that Domina had awoken.

He drew a dagger from his boot, and stumbled forward holding his ribs.  Without a word, he threw the dagger.  It glinted and gleamed as it twirled in a perfectly straight line toward Babette’s back, and just as it was about to strike true and end the young woman’s life, Marivaldi, King of the Finches, dove through the air with such grace and alacrity.  He rammed his beak into the flat of the blade at the last moment, and he altered the knife’s course enough to send it toward a rope that was securely fastened to a hook on the wall.  The dagger severed the cord, and Domina fell to his knees as the chandelier above him came down on his head, destroying him once and for all.

22

            Everyone in the throne room had something to do.  Namfoodle tended to King Astorio and Queen Calabra, as well as to the rest of the soldiers who were locked in the dungeon with them.  Marivaldi asked Peren if he likes rat meat, to which he replied “Yes, but it’s like eating one fry.  It’s just a disappointment.”  Babette, meanwhile, disappeared to her bedroom.

As she sat on her bed, the Princess looked at herself in the mirror.  She did not recognize herself.  She felt older, and stronger, but she felt much sadder than she ever was before.  Namfoodle knocked on the door and let himself in.  Oda was in his hand.  “Princess,” he said, “are you alright?”

“This was all my fault,” she replied.  “If I wasn’t so wild to begin with, if I had just been the daughter my parents wanted me to be, none of this would have happened.  They wouldn’t have invited Domina to be my tutor, and no one would have gotten hurt.”

“Listen to us, Babette,” Oda said, “do you remember when I told you about the man whose lies were so powerful not even I could see through them?”

Babette nodded.

“Domina was that man,” Namfoodle told her, “and he would have found another way to take over this kingdom.  He would have done it, and he would have gotten away with it, because there would not have been anyone as reckless or as wild as you to stop him.  Babette, you asked me before why I took the spellbook from you in exchange for my help.  I took it because if you had stuck to what you could have learned in a library, you never would have developed into the brave Enchantress I just watched you become.

“Books are valuable, Babette.  Knowledge is a beautiful and wonderful thing to pursue, but experience and growth can only be discovered out in the world.  You aren’t nearly done growing.  But!  I promise you that I will be there to help you however I can – if you would like another tutor, that is?”

Babette smiled warmly and rose to hug her new teacher.  She kissed him on the cheek and said, “Thank you, Archwizard F.Q. Namfoodle, for everything.  I would love to learn from the greatest magician in Behm.”  Namfoodle smiled, and blushed, and left Oda on the table by the door as he left.

Babette takes Oda into her hands and thanks her as well.  Oda promptly replies, “You are welcome, Princess Babette.”

Just as she is about to put Oda in her pocket, the watch blurts out, “By the way… I don’t know if you’re interested or not, but you have two years, three months, fourteen days, nine hours, fifty-one minutes, and three seconds until your next adventure begins.  How would you like to spend the time?”

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