Welcome to Andre Norton's Reading Corner


andre norton storyteller 1948

Andre the Librarian hosting "Story Time" at the Cleveland Public Library ~ 1948


"Come on In! . . .Take a Seat! . . . and Settle Down! . . ."

As we share with you a tale by one of the leading story tellers of the past century.

Twice a Month (on the 1st and the 16th) We are going to post an original story by Andre Norton

During the showcase period you will be able to read it here free of charge.

Many were only published once.

So it's a sure thing that there's going to be a few you have never heard of.

The order will be rather random in hopes you return often.

Happy Reading!


The Cobwebbed Princess

by Andre Norton 

last spell


1st Published ~ In Magic Tails (2005) Edited by Martin H. Greenberg and Janet Pack, Published by DAW, PB, 0-756-40288-3, No.1339, $7.50, 320pg (Pg 287) ~ cover by unknown


Last Printing in English ~ Tales from High Hallack vol. 3 (2014) Published by Premier Digital Publishing, DM & TP, 1-624-67189-6, $22.95, 450pg ~ cover by Kib Prestridge


Bibliography Page - The Cobwebbed Princess


It was going to be a good day---a couple of sniffs of such breeze as managed to find its way through the narrow windows of the princess' chamber told me that. I jumped to the floor, rattling through the drift of parchment-dry leaves that had blown in last fall, and paid my respects properly to the Lady Bast with forelegs extended to the limit and head bowed.

The large chamber was dim; three of the windows bore a double curtaining of rich brocade within and tapestry-tight overgrowth of vines without, while the fourth had been sealed with a branch that had been driven into it by a winter storm. However, I had no difficulty in making my morning inspection.

Maid Mafray still snuggled atop the pile of linens she had been carrying when the magic had struck so long ago. Under a veiling of dust and more leaves she had grown no older, of course; that was part of the spell. Diona, Lady of the Wardrobe, had not moved either. Her head still rested on the folds of the gown she had been about to present for the princess' approval at the moment the curse had cast its word-web over the castle.

I padded back to the huge curtained bed and leaped up onto it. My charge lay there as comfortably as I had been able to dispose her, the covers made as smooth as I could arrange them, with patting paws and cloth-tugging teeth, under her chin. Her silver-fair hair fanned out to form a net, living but motionless, over the satin-covered pillow. Yet, even as I watched, her eyelids flickered.

Tensing, I crept closer with the same care I took to hunt one of the skittish wildfowl that landed in the courtyard below. A line appeared between my lady's arched brows, and I began to purr; turning on the soothing rumble I hoped would banish what could only be an evil dream. Now her head turned and, with the movement, swung one of the strands of hair across the chain of the amulet she had ever worn about her neck and snagged the lock so that it was pulled painfully.

Crowding against the girl, I touched her lips with the very tip of my tongue. I knew of both the bitter spell that had reduced her to this state and the sweet kiss that would revive her from it, and I had long ago begun to wonder whether perhaps it were up to me and not some dream-born stranger to perform that act. I had tried it twice before when her night was troubled but had met with no success; never had the sleeping shape shown that it was more than an effigy of the Princess Charlita of Fallona---

---until now. Was the third time, indeed, the charm?

The princess' lids fluttered, then opened, and her eyes stared into mine, recognition at once evident in their violet-blue depths. I retreated as she sat up. Dust puffed forth from both the pillows and the heavily embroidered coverlet as she pushed them away; she sneezed vigorously and shook her head, and with the gesture caught sight of Mafray. My lady frowned and, lifting a hand, brushed it across her eyes before glancing at her maid-in-waiting again. Charlita might have just returned from the ensorcelment of decades a- dream, but her wits were perfectly clear.

"The curse---" Her voice, loud in the silence, broke off suddenly. She was shivering. I crept forward and stretched my neck so I could lick at her arm, but I did not gain her attention by that small gesture of comfort. Instead, she rolled halfway over, then sat on the edge of the bed, which was raised on a dais two steps above the floor. More dust rose, and she coughed and waved her hands before her to fan it away.

"Mafray?" The princess slid down from the bed. She nearly fell as her long-unused feet skidded on the platform, but at last she stood on the stone flags. A few more steps, each increasingly sure, brought her to the side of the sleeping girl; Charlita's death-in-life might have ended, but her serving maid's had not.

Jumping from the bed, I padded over to her. To be sure, I have certain talents, and they have been well proven; however, I could not communicate directly with my charge, and this restriction would, I feared, cause difficulties. The girl looked at me and frowned, and I strove to reach her, mind to mind. If she possessed any Gift, it was limited; yet it was not wholly absent, for she sensed the intensity of my focus and stooped swiftly to gather me up into her arms. She knew how to properly lift a cat, placing one hand under my front legs and supporting my hindquarters with the other.

"You were there when---" Charlita hesitated, then began again. "Urgal wielded the rod---the Silver Rod---"

I stiffened and must have put out my claws in my surprise, for my charge gave a little cry, and I hastened to sheathe them again. What had she just said---how could she know? The Sleep should have held her too deeply to dream of---that!

The princess shifted her hold on me so that our eyes met, and she said firmly, as though by forceful utterance she could make her telling a truth, "You are Cobweb, my birthday-fairing from Granddam Foreby---but you are more than any mere cat." She gathered me closer so that my head was again near to her chin, and once more I gave her a quick touch-of-tongue.

Still carrying me, Charlita moved across the floor, carefully avoiding Maid Mafray, and headed for the nearest window. There she lowered me to the wide sill while she herself wriggled forward to peer through an opening in the curtain of vine.

Her gasp was almost a cry. What lay below was enough to shock anyone whose last memory was of a castle filled with life and light, not a gigantic mausoleum where time itself was held in check by a spell set working by evil witchery. The girl retreated from the view, her face pale.

"It is true, then, Cobweb---the curse has indeed fallen upon me, and through me upon all these innocent folk---" She paused and turned her head to gaze first at Mafray and then to Diona. "Yet I am now awake, so why not they also? Why not they?" Her chin quivered.

I knew as well as she the conditions of the curse, its why and wherefore, and its birth from the jealous spite of the Great One who had come late to Charlita's christening. The princess appeared to be reviewing those terms, as well, for now she studied the forefinger of her right hand.

"No sign remains, Cobweb," she murmured, then lifted her eyes to me once more. "I remember, dear furred one---you tried to stop my taking up that spindle!"

I bowed my head, for I, too, remembered. Like all my kind, I was proud of my quickness of movement, deft play-of-paw; but in that far and fateful hour, that skill had either failed me---or I had failed. My mistress had taken up that tool of labor she had found lying on her bed, and it had turned in her grasp as a serpent might writhe, so that its point had struck deep into the first finger of her right hand. Then the dire enchantment had fallen on her, and on every being beneath this roof save myself. And not only had sleep overwhelmed those within the castle, but forgetfulness of the Kingdom of Fallona itself had spread like a poisoned mist throughout the adjoining lands. It was as though the most potent Older One had wiped the very memory of our realm from the world.

"Yet do all indeed still dream?" Charlita queried of the air as she stepped towards the nearest of three tall wardrobes. "Perhaps not all; let us see!"

The girl had taken the Sleep in her chemise and her belaced underskirts, for she had been about to try on the dress which Diona held ready just as she sighted the spindle protruding from beneath a pillow on the bed. Now she tugged open the door of the wardrobe before her and pulled out the nearest of the gowns within.

Thus Princess Charlita and I went searching throughout the castle for some sign of waking life, though I knew she was as certain as I that our quest would be fruitless. She hailed sleepers, sometimes going so far as to pat a face, pull gently on a shoulder, an arm. Nowhere did her touch evoke a response---a lack that grew from the merely frustrating to the nearly unbearable when we reached the palace library. There my mistress beheld her mother, resting not ungracefully against her embroidery frame, and her father seated at his desk, his head pillowed on a pile of parchments. Charlita did not intrude upon the king and queen but instead subsided into a high-backed chair placed just inside the door and sat twisting her hands together, fighting sobs. I jumped into her lap, and again she hugged me. Slowly her weeping quieted; then she spoke.

"Everyone but you, Cobweb. How did you escape?"

How I longed for the gift of speech, or at least mind-touch, so that I might tell her! The answer was that I had fought then with the full strength of that talent which was my birth-gift from Bast. Soul to soul I cried to Her, the patroness of home and hearth: Let me not fall into slumber, Lady, but remain awake to watch and ward, for this human one was mine to cherish, and I did not succeed in keeping her from harm. My recollection of that plea was interrupted as the girl tightened her embrace.

"There was to be a prince, Cobweb, who was to awaken me with a kiss. Goodness knows, the curse and its cure were told me over and over from the time Nurse Ardith thought I was able to understand words. So---where is my royal rescuer?" She laughed harshly, then hiccupped as though holding back further tears.

Perhaps would-be saviors had visited throughout the years. However, the hedge of thorny brush that was the outward sign of the curse had grown dark and dense around the castle until it was more forbidding than a barrier of stone. Had any high-minded youth come seeking my mistress, perhaps in an attempt to prove a legend true, he had neither found nor fought a way through that living wall.

The belief grew within me that I had failed once more in my duty---that what I had done, if I were indeed responsible for the princess' waking (as I grew ever more certain I was), had been wrong.

Once again the girl's hands tightened grip on me, lifting me up until I was eye to eye with her.

"What do I do now, friend-in-fur? We alone are awake---we . alone! Do I play 'hunt-the-spindle' again---return to sleep? Tell me, Cobweb!"

Charlita's voice held a near-hysterical edge I did not like, and I cared even less for the way she shook me as she posed her questions. I wanted to strike out with a claw-spread paw but, knowing that fear and not cruelty caused her to handle me roughly, I contented myself with hissing.

All at once I caught movement at the desk where the sleeping King Ludoff dreamed on his parchment pillow. The library windows, which were the only ones in the palace to contain glass, could admit no breeze to stir the papers that lay there, yet a small cloud of dust had just risen. Now I distinctly saw the topmost sheet of parchment quiver, then one corner roll up.

We cats depend upon sight to hunt, whereas dogs rely upon scent or hearing. Thus it did not surprise me that the great warhound, Briser, still lay behind the king's chair as deep in slumber as his master, for, whatever its nature, this intruder moved in utter silence.

The page beneath the king's fingers set to wriggling like a living thing, working its way to freedom. I heard the princess gasp, felt her move to rise. However, I could spare her no attention, for at that moment I only wanted to know what creature, hidden from my sight, was making itself free of this room. I leaped to the floor, crouched, and launched myself upward, aiming for the top of the desk. Claws came to my aid, and I scrambled over the edge safely, to see the paper floating above me, motionless. I heard a snort like a suppressed laugh. Briser moved his head, and the spikes on his thick collar rasped against the stone flooring. I expected him to awaken, but he did not.

To my amazement, Charlita was the one who acted. Two strides brought her to the desk. Her hand was already out, and now it shot forward and her fingers closed firmly about the edge of the parchment. However, the sheet did not yield to this persuasion but strove to wrench itself free; plainly whatever---or whoever---held it would not surrender its prize without a struggle.

Once more I crouched and sprang, and it came as no surprise when one of my forepaws raked on cloth I could not see, tearing it, while my claws caught in flesh and a smell of blood followed. I strove to turn my body as it hung in the air and strengthen my hold. The long years of keeping life in my body by stalking the wildfowl that invaded the courtyard stood me in good stead now.

The limb to which I had attached myself was now flailing up and down, and I would surely have been dislodged in another moment; fortunately, though, another warrior had joined the fray. Past my head flew a massive inkwell of malachite, but its flight was a brief one, for it thudded home only inches from my own struggle. The sound of its meeting with a very solid surface was followed by an exclamation as that portion of the invisible opponent to which I clung swung suddenly downward. I was raked off on the rim of the desk and landed on the stone flags, my head so awhirl that for a moment I could only lie, limp and asprawl, coughing with body-shaking expulsions of air as a gout of dust billowed up to envelop me.

When I had blinked my eyes clear, I could make out a dark blot hovering in the air. That there was substance to what I had attacked I knew, and now, though the invader remained unseen, the splatters of ink betrayed both its presence and position.

Briser---l knew the strength of the great war-dog. Never before had I wanted him to rouse, as I found myself wishing; neither had I ever done what I did in the next moment. Moving belly-down so that I could see the hound's response, I raised my voice in such a caterwaul as should have brought all the castle awake and to arms.

The blotch of ink turned, dipping toward me, but it did not attack again. My princess leaned forward, too, and, in what seemed a single movement, she both seized the floating foolscap and straight-armed the space of air that was empty of all but the airborne stain. The edge of the paper snapped taut, but she got both hands on the disputed sheet. Her body tensed as she resisted the contending force, and her wide skirts swirled as she kicked out, meeting, as I had done, solid opposition.

The page came suddenly free, as whatever was facing us backed against the king's hound and fell. A hard crash followed, suggesting that a body of sizable proportions had made close acquaintance, unexpectedly, with the floor; the sound of the impact was followed by a moan.

Charlita thrust the parchment roughly down the neckline of her gown, then turned and caught me up while I was still ridding myself of the dust. Not turning her back on the dark spot, which lay almost at our feet, she began to retreat.

I was already considering what defense we might employ if we were to be matched fairly against this menace. Though it could not be seen without aid (or additions), we had, at least, managed to make its presence known. Now to its nothingness must be added a something that would render it completely visible. Had my charge heard my thought? No---surely not; her mind must merely be especially keen after its long rest. Yet this whisper reached me as she held me tight:

"More ink---or wine, perhaps." Then we were at the door.

Abruptly Queen Symma's embroidery frame shook. The stain rose upwards once more into the air and moved away from man, dog, and desk. My mistress waited no longer but hastened from the library, brushing as she did so against one of the pair of door-guards who drowsed at their post. However, Charlita had taken only a quick brace of steps into the hall when she paused. Evidently she was not yet minded to leave the battlefield, for she turned back to the door, though she did not reenter. Loosing my claws from the now-battered lace of her bodice, she placed me upon the floor; then she moved to the nearer of the two sleeping soldiers.

“Guard you are, Sergeant Flors," she declared, "so guard you must."

With a push, she destroyed his balance, and down he went; a moment later, his comrade joined him. The two now lay against each other and across the open doorway, where their bodies formed a considerable obstruction. Stooping, the princess made sure that the armsmen lay face up and as easy as they might.

"Flors and Winster. Be sure I shall remember this service."

She returned to me and made as if to scoop me up again, but I moved away on my own four feet, having had enough for the moment of floating aloft like What-Is-Its-Face.

"Kitchen!" Charlita spoke the word aloud, no whisper this time but an order for us both. Once more, my thought was in tandem with hers.

We had visited that part of the castle before in our search for waking life, and I recalled with amusement the sleeping cook and her cat, who had both been snoring lustily at the time.

Cook and Cat remained deeply a-dream when we returned. Pastry Cook still lay over the marble slab where he had evidently been at work. Various scullery maids and pot-boys lay slumped about the cavernous room where they had been stricken down at their labors for, though Head Cook might have been taking her ease when the sorcery struck, her underlings had been busily employed. But of actual foodstuffs none were to be seen.

And food we must have ere long. I felt the pinch of hunger, and I was sure that the princess did also, now that she was conscious and calling upon the strength of her body. But while I might quiet my belly by a stalk in the courtyard, whether any viands suitable for a human still remained in this place was another matter. Charlita was of the same mind, for she stood beside the cook's chair, surveying intently the appointments of the room. In a moment her attention had centered on the array of cabinets set against the walls.

Some time later, I sat on the broad expanse of a large table, cleansing a paw that I might employ it to remove some of the dust which had turned my cream fur a grimy gray. My charge had pulled up a stool and was seated at the opposite side of the board. Before her stood three small pots; the thick stoppers of wax that had sealed the vessels for so long now lay beside them on the polished wood. Having sniffed once and then again, Charlita inserted a spoon into the first pot and brought out a dollop of thick paste. She gave this lump a cautious lick, then waited. One hand still held the heaped spoon; the other was tightened into a near-fist around the amulet that had never left her neck since the morning of the fateful birthday whose close had seen her and all her world spelled asleep.

Having sensed no taint in what she had sampled, the princess nodded and opened her mouth wide for the whole of the spoon's contents. I wondered whether she thought of the nursery-verse about the queen who had gone to her own kitchen in search of honey when I smelled the sweetness of berries from her find. I was pleased that she had found such sustenance and hoped that I might shortly slip away to my own private larder.

Between raids on the preserve pots, Charlita drew forth from her bodice the creased parchment from the library and spread it as flat as she could in a square of sunlight that reached the table from an upper window. Now curiosity, runs the proverb, is a bane to my kind, rather than a blessing. I myself hold that, without questions, answers cannot be found. But when the answers arrive before the questions . . .

My dampened paw shot out but did not come down upon that crumpled sheet. The girl was viewing it upside down but had not tried to shift it, which must mean she did not know---

My movement, though quickly aborted, had drawn her attention. She stared at me and then, to my astonishment, opened her fist so that the amulet it guarded could be fully seen. The talisman was not new to me, nor was it a recent arrival in this world. Such charms had been worn by the women of a royal house that lay so far back in time its very name was lost; even the land where that house held sway had been broken by a hammering sea and blasted by fire from the earth until it, too, had been forsaken and forgotten.

I stood. Though I knew that my gesture revealed a sacred and secret feline ritual (or did it? Cats, after all, do stretch upon occasion), I made the deepest obeisance my body could render, raising a purr of homage loud enough for the princess to hear---and an even more royal Lady.

"Great Bast, I, your kit, await your will. You have given into my paws the fate of this two-footed one--- and I say that, though she may not sing in Your temple, she is yet worthy of Your care." Thus did my purr-prayer rise.

I saw the lavender of Charlita's eyes darken, her lips part as if she would answer me, but she made no sound. However, the amulet, which had been dangling from her fingers by its chain as she watched me, suddenly swung forward and touched my head between my ears.

“I . . .  dreamed," she murmured, gazing into the distance. I believed she was speaking to me; then, when her eyes met mine in full focus, I was sure of it. "A dark enchantment was laid upon me---that I accept as a truth beyond denying. Now I also acknowledge that, having escaped its hold alone, I must act to aid those still ensorcelled."

My mistress fastened the chain about her throat and tugged her talisman forward so that it lay openly upon her breast. Then she glanced down at the parchment.

"And this writing contains the truth to guide us, Cobweb---is that not so?"

Was her action the answer I sought from Lady Bast? That I believed. Our patroness was a dealer in deep mysteries; indeed, neither the Daughter-of-Dark who had invoked the curse nor the Dweller-in-Light who, at the last moment of its pronouncing, had changed death for its gentle mimic, sleep, would dare raise eyes in Her presence.

Setting a forepaw on the foolscap sheet, I dipped my head in the accepted gesture of agreement used by the princess' own kind---a nod---and together we went forth from the kitchen.

The light had grown noticeably dimmer when we emerged into the hall that had brought us here; the patches of sun that penetrated the narrow, high-set windows were nearly gone. I could almost believe that the Dark Itself was rising against us. An odd stirring troubled the air at the other end of the corridor, but I could make out no shape distinctly in this half-light. If the intruder who bore the blazon of ink had come in search of us, it was still far behind.

We paused before an ironbound door that, strangely, had not had its bar-lock set. The portal groaned dolefully as the princess pushed it open, revealing the head of a staircase. The darkness grew denser as we descended, yet it never completely obscured our sight; perhaps my Protectress aided our vision and warded off blindness.

We traversed a lower hall onto which storerooms opened, then started down yet another flight of stairs. I heard Charlita's breath catch.

"Do we go into the center of the earth?" she asked in a near-whisper. I answered with a soft chirp, and she stooped to pick me up, then rested her cheek for a moment against my head.

Twice I caught the sound of footsteps, faint but steady, from behind---perhaps the creature we had already faced was indeed in pursuit. Yet I held to my hope of protection by the Lady Who carried the symbol of Life Everlasting in Her hand. Curiously, within me, and perhaps within Charlita also, the conviction grew that we were truly guarded by sure wards. The feeling persisted until the way we followed, which had been gradually narrowing, ended in an unbroken wall. I, however, had dealt with that barrier before, though the first time I had challenged it I thought I had failed, until---

I shifted in the princess' arms, and she understood and placed me on my feet before that blank surface. Its stones were a pale gray, a hue that seemed leached of all life. If despair could take a color, that chill hue would be its choice.

I set my paw to the wall. My claws scratched against the rough surface, though whether they left any record there I could not tell. Push thus, said my memory--- and thus---and thus!

The door in the upper reaches of the castle had protested when we used it, but no sound came now. Before us, an opening expanded, its air illumined only by a dull gleam as of twilight. Silent ourselves, we passed within.

There was resistance---a power-ward of some sort had certainly been set here. My charge hesitated, but I caught the hem of her now-bedraggled gown between my teeth and used a force she could not resist to draw her on. She raised her chin determinedly and gathered her strength to advance.

It was a strange place we had entered. What we had reached was a bowl of stone held deep in the earth, but at first glance it seemed that we stood in a night-drowned forest. Trunks of trees arose on either side of a path leading forward, their branches interlaced to form a roof well above the princess's head. Strange rock formations with the look of plants ordered the trail; yet even they showed no color but the unbroken dusk gray---

---until my mistress moved forward. As she stepped through the futile defense of the ward, an awakening began around us. A spotting of rainbow-hued dots came alive on tree trunks, and on bone-pale branches and dead-looking leaves on ground-growth. Faintly at first, but swiftly becoming stronger, sound followed---a flowing chant, both solemn and inspiring. We were surely approaching a shrine of power. As we set feet (and paws) on the path, the disks of rainbow radiance on the trees began to run together, melding into each other until they became so dazzlingly bright that we dared no longer raise our eyes to watch.

Time ceased to have meaning, and distance did the same; we seemed to cross a wide plain and to patiently keep to the track for a very long time. The end came suddenly as we halted at the foot of a second barrier that framed another stair---one so narrow that any castle dwellers who sought to use it must needs go in single file. Our eyes had adjusted to the light by then, for we could clearly make out the head of that staircase. But at the sight of what was displayed there, Charlita stood still, her hands braced rigidly right and left against the stone that walled the climb.

"The Scepter of Margalee," she said.

So---some portion of what was now legend but had once been history did remain. The House of Lud had given kings to Fallona, ten of them in direct descent. However, before those had come (it was rumored) rulers of a different bloodline, each of whom had, in turn, been greater than the humans over whom he or she had reigned.

But with the passing of years both the power and knowledge of the First Lineage had declined, and at length the House of Lud had triumphed after a red slaughter. The talents of the Firstborn had dwindled, then began to be viewed with suspicion. Archives were looted, and any information that might have restored tales to the status of truths was sought out and destroyed.

The handful of seers who had stood against the last Ludish ruler had withdrawn---

---until the casting of the Sleep-Spell! I had guessed that more than one of the old Great Ones had come forth again when I had been made the tool of good Lady Ulava, whose quick action had softened the malison against Charlita; now I knew my suspicion to be true. When is a curse not a curse . . .

A small bead of blood appeared on the princess' lower lip as she spoke, and her words, too, were bitten and spat out in anger:

"So---are we still to be pieces in a game played against our wills? We shall see!" Her body taut with rage, she began to climb the stairs, keeping her arms braced against the walls to move her upward the more swiftly. I followed as closely as I could.

And I in turn was pursued. The ink my charge had hurled at the library interloper had dried upon it but not faded. Whoever---or whatever---wore the sinlike stain was coming after us slowly, it did not begin its own ascent until we were near the head of the steps.

The princess used the momentum from her push against the walls to propel herself onto a platform that spread across a landing much wider than the stairs. At mid-point of that level space rested a block of unworked stone over whose surface curled thick lines of some pure metal. Thrust deep into the rock by its point was the ancient symbol of the rulers of Fallona: the Scepter of Margalee.

Charlita stood gazing up at the length of chased and bejeweled silver; and, as she contemplated the rod that bespoke authority over her kind, I was aware of the presence of my own queen. With a leap, I sprang past the princess, voicing the claim-cry of the cat, and landed atop the stone that held the Scepter. Lowering my head, I set my mouth around a section of the rod where the wood was exposed, bit down hard, and held on.

Charlita reached forward to grasp the huge rock, intending to climb it, but a moment later she backed away with a gasp to stare upward. Immediately overhead, the Golden Key of Bast, by men called the Ankh, had sprung into being and now hung in midair above the scepter-bearing stone. In that moment, we were all frozen into place as surely as if chains had been cast about our limbs.


In the space of a single breath, the same word was shouted by three different voices; at the same moment, two different Powers struck at me. No, the attacking wills belonged neither to the princess nor to the one who appeared to be shaping himself from the very air as he stepped up next to her, his tattered left sleeve fluttering in crude pennons from the standard of his arm.

I could feel the air to both sides of me curdling into other shapes, but the blaze of the Sacred Key so clamed my eyes that I could see only the princess and the young man beside her. He stood arrow-straight, and his dark hair was cropped as though he were prepared to don a helm of war, yet his belt did not even hold the sheath for a sword. A prince, it would seem, had come at last--- and doubtless when he was needed least.

The youth had been studying my mistress closely, and the frown that had earlier bent his brows was fading. When he saw that he had caught Charlita's attention, he swept her the bow of the finished courtier, his left hand held before his heart but not quite touching the betraying blot. He smiled, and as he did so I judged that, though he was young, he already knew the worth of the policy "wait and see."

My princess, however, was not so ready to agree to what was certainly an offer of truce. She returned his smile, but with a meaningful glance at the stain.

"Your Highness . . ." The ingathering of mist to the prince's left had become solid, and the voice that spoke belonged to the serene and stately figure now revealed. This was Ulava of Fallona, so mighty a servant of Light with the ancient Gifts once common in her land that her very name was a title. Now she looked beyond the youth to me, holding her hand forth in respect and welcome---

---as another also hailed me, but with clawed fingers that raked the air in a gesture of contempt and dismissal. "Cat!" cried Urgal of Morh, the Great One of Dark power who had been born from the mist to the prince's right. "Think not to hold that---" she indicated the scepter, "---which is for your betters."

I did not relinquish the rod of rule to the Shadow-wielder, nor did I, in any way, deign to acknowledge her presence. Her skin, which sagged with age, flushed. Whatever power she had gathered down the years, she had never gained the ability to stop the ravages of time on her person. Neither had the Lady on her other side---Ulava, who had once been both sorceress and queen; but time had enhanced and not diminished her.

The Dark One set palms together, and her fingers began to move as though she would weave something from the air. With that action she also moved her lips, though nothing she uttered could be heard.

Ulava spared Urgal not a glance as she stepped forward to join the princess and prince. Join them she did, in more than one way, for, placing a hand on the shoulder of each, she turned them so the youth faced the maid.

"Once done, ill done," she intoned, "twice done, well done. Finished!"

The pair might no longer have had any wills of their own. Prince No-Name-Nor-Nation and Princess Charlita of Fallona made not a move toward one another, but their lips met as if they were dreaming.

All about, the massive stone walls seemed to draw a deep breath; the castle itself was waking, as well as the people and creatures it held.

The palace might indeed have shaken off its sorcerous sleep, but Urgal, she who had called down the curse, was not yet defeated. I rocked back and forth, holding onto the scepter with all the strength in me and striving to work it loose from its free-standing position. I obeyed no actual order from the Lady of the Key, but Her will was at work. The gemmed rod shifted in my mouth-grip, tilted, and pointed at the enemy.

Suddenly I became a channel, as power that was neither mine nor native to my kind coursed through me. Shooting through my body up the scepter, it poured out the head of the rod and down, rained in a molten-gold flood over the last Priestess of Night, puddled, and rose about her twitching body. Urgal's wrinkle-wrung mouth opened in a soundless scream. Still further turn-mouthed the scepter until its heavy ornate head swung floorward; and then a Force I did know made Herself felt. Down from My Lady's Life-Promise above shot a beam of white light to touch the rod. I could not choke back a cry of pain as Her lightning blazed through me up the scepter's length. The blast struck Urgal full on, and the Dark One staggered, fell, and vanished in a pillar of fire.

Thus ended what has doubtless become an oft-told tale: the story of a princess placed under an evil enchantment of sleep until a kiss awakened her and her ensorcelled folk, of a reckoning between Darkness and Light such as will occur many times again.

It was not given to me to know what happened--- to learn whether my princess wedded her prince, then reigned with him wisely and well until Fallona rose to greatness once more in a "happily ever after."

No, my destiny lay in another direction and a different realm; for so great had been the demand of both the Powers of Light on my body that it could no longer remain in the mortal plane. But as I still held, exhausted, to the Scepter of the Great Ones, my eyes, which were closing to this world, opened to another. Above me, the glowing ankh became the figure of a Lady robed in light, a human woman with the countenance of a cat. Bending down, She gathered me into Her arms, murmuring to me of a new land and new life to come in Her service. And together, in joyous anticipation, we passed through that door to which Her symbol was, indeed, the Key.


 Andre Norton's Reading Corner

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Formatted by Jay P. Watts ~ aka: Lotsawatts ~ 2022

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