The Amaranthine Fields
Once there lived a shining field where amaranth and moly grew. Bright with color, the amaranth blossoms swayed, and tall grasses bowed when soft winds blew.
The field was in a valley surrounded on all sides by Iron Mountains, and no creature could come over them without wings. Birds and butterflies of all types lived in the shining field and played and sang and flew among the trees and flowers, but no cat, no fox, not even a squirrel.
Only two creatures in that valley lacked wings. One was Meadow Mouse. (But even Meadow Mouse and all his kin claimed descent from a mother mouse who’d escaped by a trick from the dreary house of Horned Owl before suppertime. She had been carried on her wedding night in Horned Owl’s claws over the Iron Mountains, and Meadow Mouse’s people have an interesting tale to tell over the episode.)
The other was the Sad Princess, who lived in a Tower in the center of the valley, atop tall Willow Hill, in the middle of a ring of Weeping Willow trees.
The Tower was made of sunset colors, stones of scarlet and pink and cerise, with many wide windows of deep purple glass. It was a Tower without doors, for every creature in the valley flew (except, of course, for Meadow Mouse; but he was so clever at getting into places that the lack of doors did not hinder him).
Some of the folk in the valley told the tale that the Tower had once been part of a castle in the clouds, but which had foundered against the peaks of the Iron Mountains one day when it flew too low and sank down to rest on the valley floor. Whether this was true or not, only the Willows knew, for their memories stretch back far indeed, but, like most trees, they were secretive and would not say.
One bright spring day Meadow Mouse walked up to Horned Owl’s house and knocked on the door with his walking stick.
“Hello, Owl?” he called out. “I’ve come on a quest for the Sad Princess. It seems she has lost her name. Can you help me find it for her? For you are known to be wise.”
“Who?” came a voice from the house.
“It is I, Meadow Mouse.”
The door swung open, but it was only Mrs. Owl. “I’m sorry, but my husband is away at Parliament.”
“It’s something owls do when they get together, dear; it’s boring at best, but it’s not as bad as what crows do. But please come in; I was sitting down to tea.”
“Thank you, no,” said Meadow Mouse, suppressing a shiver. His tribe and the Owl family had made peace long ago, when the Sad Princess first came (although she had a different name back then), but the Mouses still did not like to watch the Owls dine. It brought back unpleasant memories.
Mrs. Owl blinked behind her huge, round spectacles (her eyes were round and yellow and alarmingly large), and she said, “I’m sorry. But I was going to nibble on some cheese and biscuits with my tea, and I’d hoped to have some company.”
“Cheese?” Meadow Mouse’s whiskers stood up at the merest mention. “But I thought Owls did not eat such stuffs.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Owl, “we keep it for our guests. Now that the war is over, sometimes mice stop by; and I know how particular you vegetarians are about what you eat.” And so she bustled into the kitchen, and Meadow Mouse followed after, trying not to look timid.
But the Owl’s house was not so dark nor so dismal after all, but nice and tidy. Nor were there bones of mice coughed up in balls lying across the floor, as the nursery stories Meadow Mouse heard in his youth had said. Meadow Mouse reflected that Owl had married, after all, and Mrs. Owl perhaps had reformed his untidy bachelor habits.
And when Meadow Mouse was settled down with his tea and biscuits, and they had talked about the weather (an easy topic to discuss in Shining Valley, where it was always spring), Mrs. Owl asked, “What’s all this about the Princess, then?”
“Shall I tell you the story?” asked Meadow Mouse.
“Please do! I love stories!”
“As who in this valley does not, my dear Mrs. Owl?”
“My favorite is the one Gray Goose tells, about fields of endless ice far to the south, which her people used to visit once a year, back in the days when Winter still invaded this valley each December. You always knew his terrible white armies were on the march, she said, because they hung their battle pennants on every branch and overhang. But, dear me! Tell me your story, do. We hear so few good ones from mice. Er—I mean. Well, at least my husband is in the one story you always tell,” her voice trailed off lamely. Mrs. Owl hoped she had not hurt Meadow Mouse’s feelings. She knew his people did not have many stories at all, since they could never fly out of the valley to the outside world. But Meadow Mouse pretended not to have noticed but began his tale without further ado.
“The Weeping Willows were weeping again,” Meadow Mouse began. “And I heard Bright Starling singing to them. ‘Why do you weep?’ she sang. ‘We live here in a vale of Amaranth, flowers unfading forever, where winter never comes, and those who breathe of their perfume know ageless youth and beauty evermore. Why, therefore, do you weep?’
“And I heard the wind walk among the willows and carry this message back to Bright Starling: ‘We weep because the Sad Princess has forgotten how to fly.’
“‘And how has she forgotten this?’ I heard Bright Starling ask. ‘The secret is so clear. Every fledgling learns it when they leave the nest; joy is the answer. Joy and freedom carry us aloft.’
“The willows let the wind carry this message back: ‘Her joy is gone because she has forgotten her name.’”
Mrs. Owl clucked her tongue. “My, doesn’t that Starling have a way with words!”
“The point is,” said Meadow Mouse (perhaps a touch impatiently), “What are we to do about it?”
“Do?” Mrs. Owl blinked. “One doesn’t ‘do’ anything about melancholy; it’s like the weather. It comes and goes.”
“But my dear Mrs. Owl,” and now a touch of sharpness entered Meadow Mouse’s voice, “this goes deeper than melancholy, deeper than sorrow. This goes right to the root! She has forgotten her name, and we must find it for her.”
“Exactly so!” came a new voice, deep and low, and Meadow Mouse jumped, spilling his tea all over his brown coat.
It was Horned Owl himself. Despite his portly girth, he always moved quite silently. (And perhaps he had come into the kitchen from behind just to make poor Meadow Mouse jump. Not that Owl was particularly malicious, but Meadow Mouse had been speaking sharply to his wife, after all.)
“How was Parliament, dear?” asked Mrs. Owl.
“Stuff and nonsense,” rumbled Horned Owl in his deep voice, waddling over to the teapot. He turned his head entirely around and spoke back over his shoulder. “We were debating (ah! Hello, Mouse) the same issue Mouse here spoke of, but with all the motions and points of order, writs and resolutions, it will take us all month and well into the next to decide what our good Mouse here has already pointed out so clearly. We must find the Sad Princess her name again.”
“Oh, she’ll get over it, dear,” said Mrs. Owl.
Horned Owl threw out his chest and puffed out his cheeks in a sign of great displeasure. “This is not something one gets over, like the sniffles! The Princess might be in danger!” (He did not mind speaking sharply to his wife; he only minded when other people did it.)
“Don’t get your feathers all mussed, dear,” said Mrs. Owl. “No one in Shining Valley can be in danger.”
Meadow Mouse was more than a little intimidated by Horned Owl, but his love for the Princess made him speak up: “Mr. Owl, sir, please excuse me! Tell me what this danger is, sir! Please do!”
Owl cocked his head and stared down at Meadow Mouse with one eye. “I heard it from Cardinal. You haven’t heard the tale?”
Meadow Mouse swallowed and looked up at the huge, imposing figure of Horned Owl. “I love stories.”
And to his great surprise, Horned Owl became jovial and sat down with his tea. “And who in this valley doesn’t!”
“I had gone to consult with Cardinal on certain consequential church matters, which, while of some importance, don’t come into this tale. His secretary, Secretary Bird, had just left, and we were discussing certain small matters as I was preparing to depart, when, all of a sudden, who should come in (without being announced, mind you) but Mrs. Crow. She was all a-flutter.
“‘It’s all my fault! It’s all my fault!’ she kept squawking. Now Mrs. Crow is a delightful woman, you know I think the world of her, but that voice of hers! Well, she sounds like a crow. It took Cardinal more than a moment to calm her down and get the story out of her.
“It seems her husband had taken their egg to the Princess to ask for her blessing before the baptism. Now then, you know Crow used to be our undertaker, back in the days when winter still came here, and he’s been quite put out ever since the war ended. And so he didn’t want to burden (that was Mrs. Crow’s word for it, mind you) didn’t want to burden their young son with the family name of Crow.”
Mrs. Owl exclaimed, “Whyever not? I think Crow, son of Crow, would be a fine name.”
“Don’t interrupt, dear. Well, I thought Crow, son of Crow, would be a fine name …”
“Didn’t I just say that?”
“Ahem! A fine name, but no, Mr. Crow would have none of that. He wanted to name his son after his cousin the raven. Well, according to Mrs. Crow, the Princess positively drooped when she heard this name. Drooped over like a flower. Almost fell out her window, if Mrs. Crow is to be believed (and, while I think the world of her, I do know the woman has a tendency to exaggerate). Ah … Where was I?”
“Raven,” chirped Meadow Mouse.
“Ah, yes. Crow said that when the Princess heard that name, she wept. Water came out of her eyes! Frightened poor Mrs. Crow half out of her wits when she saw that. Crying! It’s something owls never do, I can assure you, and I’ve never seen crows do it either. What about you, Mouse?”
“Mice don’t weep.” Meadow Mouse shook his head. “When I’m sad, I eat.”
“Wise policy,” commented Owl.
Mrs. Owl said, “And is that how Sad Princess forgot her name? Because of Mrs. Crow’s little boy? Maybe we should speak to the Crows about the trouble they’re causing.”
Horned Owl said, “You may not recall what her name used to be.”
Meadow Mouse said eagerly, “What? What?”
Meadow Mouse was overjoyed. “You mean you knew her name all along? I can go back and tell her straightaway!”
“It’s not so easy, Mouse!” Horned Owl said ostentatiously. “I haven’t told you yet what Cardinal told me.”
Meadow Mouse cocked an ear forward. “You have my full attention, sir, I assure you.”
“Cardinal told me, and he is very learned in matters of doctrine, mind you! Cardinal told me the following story.”
“In the beginning, the Happy Princess was brought into the shining fields surrounded by mountains to keep her enemy the Wizard and his nightmares away. And the Princess walked along the tiptops of the tall grasses and plucked flowers from her scepter, dropping them where she walked. It is from these flowers moly springs up, which is why no one in the valley here can use stories for wicked purposes.”
“How can a story be used for a wicked purpose?” asked Mrs. Owl.
“My dear, I really wish you would not interrupt. I lose sight of my target. Yes, wicked purposes. Cardinal said it was something called ‘fibbing,’ sort of a complex, metaphysical idea. I can’t say I quite followed him, but you know how these church doctrines are. Anyway …
“The Princess was brought by her mother to the secret place where Oberon and the Fairy-Court had been celebrating a May Day feast and saw where certain gods, while drunk, had spilled the ambrosia and nectar from their goblets onto the grass. There was a little puddle left. The Princess planted seeds there, and the flowers drank the nectar, and from them all the flowers of amaranth spring forth. And it was those flowers that drove back Old Man Winter when he came next with his armies over the northern mountains, for he cannot abide their sweet perfume. And it was this, more than any other cause, which put an end to our old wars, your people and mine, Mouse; for we may eat when we choose, not when we need to, and can go without food forever and live happily upon the scent alone while the amaranth blooms, for it is the scent of Life.
“Because of this great service, of ending Winter’s reign and ending the War, and because of the other happiness she brought, she was crowned Happy Princess; but her true name is older than this, older, so Cardinal assures me, than this valley itself.”
Meadow Mouse said, “I see why the Cardinal told you the tale! Now we can find the Princess’s lost name.”
“I don’t quite follow,” said Mrs. Owl, blinking.
Meadow Mouse hopped up. “We need only find the mother! The Princess’s mother must have been present at her christening!” But then he sat down again. “But where in the world can we find her? Can we send a messenger to Oberon, the Emperor?”
Horned Owl shook his great head gravely. “Not even mighty Eagle, the king of all winged things, can fly so high as the Autumn Stars, where legend tells the castle of the hibernating warriors awaits. Do you know the story? They lay curled up in a tree or something, dreaming of the end of Universal Winter, when they shall wake and bring in Universal Spring, and the world shall be fully alive again.”
“You are wise, Owl,” said Meadow Mouse. “Who else might know the Princess’s name, or know the pathway to the stars?”
Owl shook his head again. “They say Phoenix has gone so high as the Sun and learned from him the secret of descending in fire to rise again; but Phoenix lives far to the south, outside the Iron Mountains. And even the Sun is not so high as the stars.”
Then Owl drew himself up, blinking. “But, wait! Pigeonhawk might know. They say he once flew to the Moon, for he is a secret and mysterious old bird.”
Mrs. Owl blanched. “I heard he is a sorcerer! That he built his nest in the World Tree once and slept for a thousand years beneath the roots of an oak! Even if he does know where to find the Princess’s name, who would go ask him?”
Meadow Mouse shivered in terror at the mere mention of Pigeonhawk’s name. Even Horned Owl hunched up his shoulders, shrugging. “I certainly wouldn’t go. Not that I’m afraid, mind you. But sorcerers and crackpots just aren’t received in polite society.”
But Meadow Mouse was thinking about the Princess. He dearly wanted to help her, and for a special reason he had never told anyone else. It was simply that, in a valley where everyone had wings, the Princess was the only other creature who walked afoot; and he always felt particularly close to her for that.
And she had once told him not to worry that he could not fly, and whispered to him that she also had once not been able to do it, but that later she had learned the secret. And this gave him hope.
It was that hope, more than any courage, that caused Meadow Mouse to straighten up in his chair and put down his tea. “I’ll go,” he said, in a firm, quiet voice, “if you will tell me the way.”