June 3, 2021

Throwback Thursday: Knight of the Sun, Moon, and Stars, by Angie Dickinson


Editor's Note: Author Angie Dickinson's tale from 2017 puts a magical, unique spin on "Cat-skin" by the Brothers Grimm. Enjoy!
The tales are never as simple as they seem. My mother’s ending was unhappy, contrary to popular belief, and I have been forced to become my own fairy godmother. Shocking, I know, but there hasn’t been a real fairy godmother in these parts since the days of my great-grandmother. I’ve been told she was the last.

These days, a fairy godmother of one’s own would be very useful, for we have a dangerously mad king. This could be considered an advantage, if you happened to be one of the greedy old lords who pulled the strings behind the throne, awkwardly lifting the limp, royal fingers to sign decrees with an ignorant and complacent scrawl. If you kept the vacant fool happy in his whims, why then, the land would be yours to rule, as a royal advisor with the heart of a tyrant.

What, after all, was the harm in executing all the millers in the kingdom? They could be replaced, and in return, your pockets were lined by the tax reforms that the king blithely signed in your favor. Or, so what if the king demanded that nothing but jelly rolls be served at breakfast, lest the entire kitchen staff face the axe? Jelly rolls became tiresome, but laws were being rewritten, and the trio of trusted advisors were fast becoming the most powerful men in the land.

And so what if the king had a mind to marry his own daughter? She was the mirror image of her mother, taken by a fever so many years past, and the king cared nothing for the new highway tax, so long as he could have his long-dead wife returned to him.

In this particular way, if you happened to be the daughter in question, raised in a convent and recently reintroduced at court, it was largely to your disadvantage to have a mad king, and father.

My mother was a miller’s daughter, you see, and the imp that made her queen flew into such a blood-red rage when he was denied me, my mother’s firstborn, that he struck my father with madness and my mother with a deadly fever on his way to hell.

I knew to expect something awful when the sisters at the convent told me I was summoned to court. In fact, they had been using their own skills and knowledge of fairy ways to reinforce my inherited magic and prepare me to protect myself. Nevertheless, I had not expected this.

The horror was undisguised on my face as the most withered and wretched of the greedy advisors, Lord Rufin, declared my fate.

“You shall never have a child by him, we will take measures,” he said, patting my hand with his paper-dry one. Of course, not. The beauty of granting the king this whim is that the royal line would end with me, leaving the advisors free to select their next puppet. They likely would sentence my father and me with incest and execute us directly following the wedding. The reassuring lord made no mention of changing our kingdom’s laws to satisfy this whim of my father’s.

There was not a moment to lose if I was to survive this.

I took steps to ensure that I would be working with the best ingredients. I demanded three ballgowns be presented me as a bridal gift. One, made of tempered silver threads and set with moonstones. Another, gold threads. Simple enough, our vaults had been overflowing with gold threads since my mother arrived. The last one was trickier and took longer to acquire, but the lords went to great lengths to please my father. It was woven with literal starlight. The peddlers from far lands carry the most exotic things, and through my amateur magic I verified the authenticity of these shining threads.

A month before the wedding, I was poring over the gowns in an attempt to awaken my brain and figure out how best to use the powerful properties, when someone pounded on my door. I opened it, and a guard pushed me roughly aside as he entered, his arms full of dead animals. He was followed by another guard, and another. Finally, Lord Rufin entered. He smirked as the guards, one by one, dumped their grisly armloads of bloody carcasses on my bed. They piled them on top the gowns.

“What is this?” I finally gasped, choking through the heavy stench.

“Another wedding gift, from your father,” Lord Rufin responded silkily. “He thought you would appreciate one of each animal in the kingdom to be hunted for your enjoyment. We thought it best to indulge him. He means well.” He could not hide his glee behind the thin façade of compassion. He gestured for the guards to precede him out of the room, then turned to me once more when we were alone.

“One more thing. You may as well make one of those gowns your trousseau, for there has been a change of plans. Your wedding will take place tomorrow.”

“Another whim of my father’s?” I spat, my chest tightening.

“Oh no.” His pale, watery eyes were unblinking. “No, we felt this was the best course.” He dropped something at my feet. It was a fox with a broken neck.

I knelt down and gently scooped up the still-warm, soft body of the small fox as Lord Rufin swept from the room. My tears froze in my eyes and I smiled. I needed to work quickly.

# # #
Our land is imbued with powerful magic. Everything serves a unique purpose, if you know how to use it.

With a speed born of desperation, I fashioned the cloak. I constructed it of fur, a bit from every animal in the kingdom. My heart broke as I sifted through the remains of the creatures, and I blessed each of them for their gift to me. I harnessed the powerful combination of magical properties and wove them together to suit my need. The cloak would conceal my identity, and give me the appearance of anyone I chose. There would be no need to disguise my face with ashes, or steal the apparel of a servant. I could be anyone.

I worked feverishly as dawn broke, and the morning light illuminated the ravaged, bloody scene of my chamber. Three of the woodland creatures held a walnut in their cheeks, and I took each of these and spelled their interiors to expand. Holding my breath, I fed the fabric of the golden gown into the spelled walnut, gently, until it was completely concealed within. I heard footsteps in the corridor, and crammed the others into their shells hastily.

Someone tapped gently on my door. I stuffed the walnuts into my pocket and flung the cloak over myself. The handle began to turn. I ran to my dressing table and scooped up my mother’s ring: the emerald that my father gave her as a wedding gift before his madness took him.

The door swung open. A maid entered, followed closely by Lord Rufin. I closed my eyes, and envisioned another of my lady’s maids, then opened them again.

“Where is she?” Rufin asked, glancing at me.

I bobbed a curtsy.

“She said she fancied a walk in the garden before breakfast, my lord,” I answered.

“Did she, indeed,” Lord Rufin sneered. “Clean this up, you two.” He strode out of the room.

The other maid glanced at me, then looked around the room. “What was she doing in here?” she asked in disgust.

“I’ll fetch a bucket,” I said.

# # #
It took me no time at all to leave the castle grounds. The cloak allowed me to appear as a servant or guard to every person I passed. Once I reached the gates into the city, I assumed the form of an old beggar woman, and hurried, unnoticed, through the streets.

It took me the rest of the day to reach the edge of the city. Guards barreled about in a panic, which likely signified that my flight had been discovered. They jostled me a few times in their haste, but were no threat to me.

I managed to make my way out of the city and into a neighboring village. I grew weak from the journey, and I knew that I had drained much of my magic while making the cloak. I needed rest to restore it.

I found work at a few rich homes and inns, scrubbing and sweeping the hearths for meager wages. Eventually, I felt my magic returning, but at an achingly slow pace. I kept it in reserve, rather than using it to deflect the innkeepers’ backhands, or the cooks’ smacks, or to heal the sores that opened on my fingers as I scrubbed the skin clean off them. I grew heartily tired of this, but over time my strength and magic were nearly restored. I hoped to return home someday when my power had grown, to take up my great-grandmother’s work and save others from the evil that ruled my kingdom.

The shouts of a town crier, who tore through the streets shrieking the news, froze my blood and changed my plans. My king was dead.

I fell to the cold ground, heedless of the shouts around me, and grieved for my father, for he was never my enemy. I barely knew the poor man, and he thought I was my mother. I knew that I was not free. If his advisors ever found me, they would kill me quietly.

“The princess, too! Took her own life, she did!” the crier shouted. “No blood heir remaining!”

The next king would be chosen via tournament. Of course, I knew he’d already been selected – groomed, or ensorcelled, doubtless, to be the malleable toy of the lords. The tournament would be held immediately, three days of fighting, accompanied by a masquerade ball each night. There would be no time of mourning for my father, or for me.

My magic was nearly at full strength, fuller now for all that I’d endured. I knew what I needed to do.

I left the village in the night and made my way back through the anxious city to my father’s castle. To my castle. I constructed a tent alongside those of the many travelers who arrived for the event.

The first ball was held the night before the tournament. With my heart pounding and fingers trembling, I took my golden dress out of its walnut shell, and shook it out. It was as bright as the sun. I washed my face and shining hair, and fashioned a mask out of golden wheat and violets.

The ballroom was bright and loud with revelry, and I danced merrily, keeping far away from the lords, lest they recognize my gown. I found the chosen champion easily, a strapping, young beast of a man. I sensed the mark of sorcery upon him, and knew that he was bewitched to do as he was bidden – probably to win at any cost. Magic radiated from the sword at his hip, as well. Nevertheless, his good nature shone through when I danced with him, and he seemed awfully sorry to see me leave.

The tournament would begin at dawn, but I had too much work to do to sleep. Throughout the night, I worked enchantments over my glittering gown, until it was not a gown at all. I was ready when the time came.

I retrieved my own horse from the stables, and rode onto the jousting field when my name was called. I kept my visor down, and used a name I created for myself: The Knight of the Sun, Moon, and Stars. Golden armor might be a bit ostentatious, but it would have to do.

Using every speck of magical fury that I could access, to make up for my lack of experience, I managed to unseat enough knights to advance to the next day’s melee round. The spectators seemed to enjoy the golden knight, for their cries grew louder with each victory I won.

I swirled my animal skin cloak over my shoulders the moment I rode off the field, and slipped away, unrecognized, from the seething crowd and harried guards.

I wore my silver gown to the ball that night. The crowd was abuzz with gossip of the day’s champion, and I knew I must be careful not to be noticed. The young man I met the night before was swift to find me. I adjusted my grass and snowbell-woven mask nervously, but could not suppress a smile at his enthusiasm. He said his name was Corin, and he made no mention of the many knights he himself unseated. I sensed a heavier magic upon him than before, and knew that I would have to fight even harder tomorrow.

I worked through the night yet again. I was delighted with the liquid magic that emanated from the silver in my gown, and the armor I created was truly striking to behold.

The next day was bright and heaving with energy, and the melee was terrifying. It was every knight for himself as we attempted to unseat one another in a frenzied battle of clubs. The crowd began to chant my title. I saw Corin, the lord’s champion, beating knights down with fervor. There was a glazed sort of confusion in his eyes, and he fought like a man possessed. In the end, he and I were among the final five to make it through the round. I glanced through my visor at the lords, high in their canopied box, and saw that they were infuriated that I, the crowd’s favorite, had advanced. I feared for their champion.

 I slept through the day, but was still exhausted by nightfall. I put on my gown of starlight and stood on the hillside outside the castle. As the heavens shone down over me, I felt the very light of the star-threads in my gown soaking into me, feeding my magic and renewing my strength. With renewed purpose, I ran down the hill and strode into the ballroom.

Corin found me immediately, and begged for a dance. I clasped his hand, and felt the hot fever of heavy enchantment over him. The lords, so desperate for their champion to succeed, might just kill him in the process. I would have to be his fairy godmother, as well as my own.

“Sit with me?” he asked hopefully as the banquet was laid out. I noted the eagle eye of Lord Rufin upon me, but I sat. I felt the lord’s gaze, and a buzzing filled my ears, and my head began to pound as he directed a silent enchantment at me. I was certain, then, that he was the one holding Corin captive to his sorcery. I whispered fiercely over my mother’s emerald ring, and left my seat, approaching Lord Rufin. His mouth dropped open as I leaned in close.

Your sins will find you, murderer,” I hissed into his face. His concentration faltered, and the buzzing in my ears stopped. While his pale eyes were on mine, I dropped my ring into his soup.

That night, I stole a sword from one of the defeated knights’ tents, and infused it with a measure of magic. I wondered if it would be enough when I faced Corin. His spelled sword and bewitched state could mean the death of me, and him, if the enchantment did not break soon. Again, I worked feverishly through the night. The starlight proved to be a more rebellious material, but finally, as dawn lifted the night away, my shimmering armor was complete. I steadied myself, and approached the combat grounds.

A larger crowd than ever before teemed around the field, from neighboring kingdoms as well as my own. There were two knights I needed to defeat before I faced Corin. I battled fiercely in the blazing sun, and emerged the victor, to the raucous joy of my people. I fought back tears as their love washed over me.

No knights remained except for Corin. I glanced up at Rufin, white and still as a statue in his box. I took a deep breath as Corin faced me. He charged suddenly, ferociously, his eyes gleaming beneath his visor. I raised my sword, and met his in a ground-shuddering clash that vibrated painfully through my bones. As violently as he’d attacked, he wheeled back, and flung his helmet to the ground, shaking his head. He threw his sword at my feet.

“I don’t want to be king,” he ground out. I sensed the sorcery draining out of him.

He looked up at the lords in fury, and I followed his gaze. Lord Rufin, his body and magic now clearly weakened from the poisonous spell on my ring, stood and tottered forward, hands outstretched. He swayed, and toppled from the balcony of the scaffolding.

His weak-chinned comrades stared at the broken body in fear as the crowd began to rustle. I took a deep breath, and pulled off my helmet. My hair spilled out over my starlight armor. The silence throughout the grounds felt full and ominous.

Corin’s face split into a grin, and he clasped my hand, then raised my sword arm up over my head. We faced the crowd. They were silent as the wind howled around me. Then a courtier stood up and shouted, “It’s the princess! She’s alive!”

The silence broke like the rushing of a waterfall crashing over a boulder. “Long live the queen! Long live the queen!” my people bellowed, rushing into the ring to embrace me. I looked up into the box and saw that the remaining lords were restrained by the firm grasp of the guards, who saluted me.

My heart felt full to bursting as my people knelt and cheered. They welcomed me home, and I would look after them, always.

Angie Dickinson received a B.A. in English Literature from Spring Arbor University, and has been writing for her own enjoyment for many years. She has been passionate about fairy tales in their various forms for as long as she can remember.

Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff
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Lynden Wade said...

This was such a fascinating read! It took the traditional story to new and surprising places, but always enchanted. Throwback Thursday is such a good idea, because it highlights tales I wouldn't have known about otherwise. Thanks, Angie and thanks, Kate!

Angie said...

Thank you for your kind words!

Angie said...

Thank you for your kind words! It means a lot when people read and enjoy.

HulderMN said...

So many stories artfully woven to make this ripping yarn. Wonderful!