Read Heartless Online

Authors: Anne Elisabeth Stengl

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Religious, #Christian, #Love Stories, #Fantasy, #Magic, #Fantasy Fiction, #ebook, #book, #Classic & Allegory

Heartless

BOOK: Heartless
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© 2010 by Anne Elisabeth Stengl

Published by Bethany House Publishers
a division of Baker Publishing Group
P.O. Box 6287, Grand Rapids, MI 49516-6287.

E-book edition created 2010

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means – electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise – without the prior written permission of the publisher. The only exception is brief quotations in printed reviews.

ISBN 978-1-4412-1201-6

Library of Congress Cataloging-In-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

To Dean and Jill Stengl

PROLOGUE

Two children, a brother and a sister, played down by the Old Bridge nearly every day, weather permitting. None observing them would have guessed they were a prince and a princess. The boy, the younger of the two, was generally up to his elbows in mud due to his brave exploits as a frog catcher. His sister, though significantly more prim, was often barefoot and sported a few leaves and flowers stuck in her hair. She thought these romantic, but her nurse, when she brushed the princess’s hair at night, called them “common,” and said it with a distinct sniff.

This never stopped the princess, whose name was Una, from weaving daisies and wild violets and any other forest flower that fell under her hand into garlands and coronets, with which she festooned herself, thereby transforming from an ordinary princess – which was rather drab – into a Faerie Queen of great power and majesty. Felix, her brother, was never a Faerie. He, by dint of a few expert dabs of mud in the right places, made himself her gremlin guard instead and waged war against all her imaginary enemies.

The Old Bridge was the perfect place for these games for a number of reasons. Most important, none of their entourage of servants and tutors, not even Una’s intrepid nurse, dared follow them there, for the Old Bridge was located in Goldstone Wood, outside the boundaries of Oriana Palace’s seven-tiered garden. Plenty of stories were told about Goldstone Wood, and its history was strange enough to ward off most people. But Una and her brother liked the stories – the stranger and more superstitious the better. So they often made their way to the Old Bridge and did their utmost to disturb the ancient quiet of Goldstone Wood with their laughter and games.

Una was not so fond of mud as Felix; thus she would invent adventures to occupy him while she sat on the planks of the bridge and scrawled thoughts and ideas in her journal.

“Faithful gremlin,” she declared one fine afternoon as they made their way down the side of Goldstone Hill toward the bridge, “you must seek the fabled Flowing Gold of Rudiobus, lost somewhere in this raging river.” She indicated the stream that trickled down the side of Goldstone Hill. Raging river it was not, but facts never stopped the course of Una’s imagination. “You must bring it back to me before the sun has set, or all my kingdom will be lost in darkness without end.”

“Righto!” Felix hurtled headlong through the foliage and splashed into the stream. He grabbed a pebble and held it over his head. “Is this it, Una?”

“Does that look like
flowing
gold?”

He studied the pebble, shrugged, and tossed it over his shoulder before plunging on down the stream, wallowing with all the joy of a boy set loose in the mud.

Una wove a crown appropriate for her Faerie Queen status, placed it on her head, and took a seat on the middle of the Old Bridge. Removing her shoes, she dangled bare feet over the stream, turning up her toes so that they did not quite touch the cold water. Taking from the pocket of her full skirts a nub of pencil and a small journal, which she pressed open in her lap, she wrote a few scrawling lines, frowned, and scratched them out.

“Is this it, Una?” Felix bellowed from farther downstream.

She looked. Her brother held up a ragged handful of waterweeds, brown and dripping and slimy. “What do you think?” she called back.

“Well, it’s
flowing
!”

“Is it gold?”

“Bah!”

He tossed it away and continued his search, and his sister returned to her writing. She scribbled uninterrupted for some time, and the noise of her brother’s questing faded away as she pored over the little journal. At last she smiled, held up the page, and read her work.

Then she frowned and crossed it all out with vigorous strokes.

Sighing, she chewed the end of her pencil. A wood thrush sang somewhere far away in the forest, and Una allowed her gaze to wander to the trees on the other side of the Old Bridge.

The far forest began only a few steps away – two, maybe three at most. It looked much like her side of the bridge: stately trees, new spring growth, last year’s leaves damp on the ground. Perhaps the sun did not shine as brightly on that side, perhaps more shadows lurked along the ground.

Una had never crossed the Old Bridge. It was an unwritten law that had been imprinted on her mind: No one crossed the Old Bridge. Not once in all the years that she and Felix had escaped their nursemaids’ clutches and run to this very spot had either of them actually crossed the narrow wooden planks and stepped into the forest on the other side.

She frowned around the pencil nub.

Miles and miles of forest lay beyond the bridge. Goldstone Wood was the largest wood in all the kingdom of Parumvir, so large that no one had ever attempted to map its mysteries. And here Una was, a girl of imagination with a taste for adventure, and she’d never even thought to cross over! Wasn’t it strange –

An icy splash of water down her neck shocked her from her reverie. Una dropped her pencil with a scream. “Felix!” She watched the pencil swirl out of sight in the muddy water, then snapped her journal shut and whirled about.

Her brother stood on the bank, his hands cupped and dripping. He laughed. “Wake up!”

“I was not asleep!”

“You weren’t awake either.” Still laughing, he scrambled up the steep embankment and around to the bridge. He flopped down at her side, grinning, and held a glob of mud under her nose.

“Eeeew, Felix!” She pushed his hands away. “Stop it!”

“It’s all that was left,” he said.

“All that was left of what?”

“The Flowing Gold,” he said. “I think it got melted by a dragon.”

“Melted gold doesn’t turn into muck.”

He let the mud dribble between his fingers and plop into the stream beneath them, then sneaked a peek at her journal. “What are you writing?”

“Nothing.” Una glared at him.

“Are you composing verses?”

“Maybe.”

“Can I see?”


May
I see.”

Felix rolled his eyes and made a grab for her book, but she pulled it away, leaning back across the bridge. “Let me see!” he demanded. Feigning reluctance, she opened her journal. She turned her shoulder to keep him from reading and flipped through to find the most recent page, full of her scratched-out work. She could still discern the words, and she read them aloud, half singing:

“I ask the silent sky
Tell me why
As I look so high
Into the leaf-laced sky
You do not reply
So I – ”

“So I flop down and cry in a muddy pigsty!” Felix flung his arms wide and burst forth in a squeaky falsetto. “Then I go bake a pie out of apples and rye! O hey, nonny-ni and a fiddledee – ”

Una closed her book and smacked him in the stomach, then knocked him again on the back of the head as he doubled up, laughing wickedly.

Resisting the urge to push him into the stream after her lost pencil, Una instead grabbed her stockings and buckle shoes from behind her, pulled them on, and got to her feet. Tucking her journal into her pocket, she stepped away from Felix to the middle of the bridge. “I’m going to cross over,” she said.

Felix, still rubbing the back of his head, looked up. “What?”

“Yes,” she said, nodding. A determined line settled between her brows, and she took a few more steps across the bridge, the heels of her shoes clunking on the planks. “I’m going to cross over.”

“No, you aren’t.” Felix swung his feet up onto the bridge and leaned back to support himself on his hands. He watched her, his head tilted to one side as she stood looking into the far forest extending down Goldstone Hill. “You aren’t,” he said again.

“I will.”

“When?”

She did not answer for several long moments. Felix pushed himself to his feet and went to stand beside her. They gazed into the leaf-shrouded shadows.

Goldstone Wood waited.

A breeze darted between them, dragged at Una’s skirt, and skittered off into the forest beyond, rustling leaves as it went. The trees laughed quietly together, and their branches seemed to point at the brother and sister standing solemnly on the Old Bridge. Somewhere far away down the hillside, a wood thrush sang again. The breeze darted back, carrying the silvery song to their ears – a song of mystery, of secrets.

“Now,” Una whispered at last. “I’ll go right now.” She took a step, then another.

A horrible caterwaul filled the air, startling her out of her skin. She leapt back, stumbling into Felix, and the both of them nearly went into the stream. Clutching each other in surprise, they stared into the trees beyond.

A cat stepped into view.

“Ha!” Felix burst out laughing and pinched Una. “You were scared of a kitty cat!”

“Was not!” Una glared at him and pursed her lips, then looked back at the cat.

It was a large golden animal with a plumy tail, but its fur was a mass of burs and snarls. It appeared from among thick-growing ferns on the far side of the bridge, picking its way carefully, as though hurt.

“What’s wrong with it?” Una said as it made its way down the steep embankment of the stream. At last it reached the water’s edge, where it put its nose down and lapped. Then it raised its face to them.

It had no eyes.

“Oh, the poor thing!” Una cried. “The poor little cat! Do you see that, Felix?”

“Poor little cat, my foot.” Felix snorted. “He’s ugly as a goblin. A regular monster.”

“She’s blind!” Her venture into the Wood forgotten, Una scrambled back to the familiar side of the bridge and down to the stream. She stood across from the cat, which seemed to watch her without eyes, the tip of its tail twitching slightly. “Kitty-kitty-kitty!” she called, holding out an inviting hand.

It began to groom its paw.

“Felix!” she called to her brother, who still stood watching on the bridge. “Felix, get her for me.”

“Why?”

“She needs help!”

“No, he doesn’t.”

“She’s blind!”

“Not my problem.”

“Felix.” She huffed. Then a sudden inspiration struck. “She’s the Flowing Gold, Felix. Don’t you see? The gold fur . . . the flowing, um, tail?”

Felix rolled his eyes, but this persuasion worked its magic. He swung down from the bridge into the stream and waded across to the cat. It raised its nose, gave a polite “Meeaa,” and made no protest when the boy scooped it up. “He’s heavy,” Felix grunted, splashing back across to his sister. “And his claws are in my shoulder. Right to the bone!”

“She needs help,” Una declared staunchly, holding out her arms.

“The Flowing Gold to save your fair kingdom, my lady.” Felix deposited the cat into her keeping. It began purring as soon as she held it – a loud purr that Felix declared obnoxious but Una thought sweet.

“We’ll take her home,” the princess said, turning and beginning the long walk back up Goldstone Hill. “I’ll brush her fur and give her a good meal – ”

“He doesn’t need a good meal. He’s heavy!”

“She’s blind and lost,” Una snapped. “She needs a good meal. Isn’t she lovely?”

“He’s ugly.”

So with the cat draped over the princess’s shoulder, the children returned home, leaving the Old Bridge uncrossed and the far forest unexplored.

Goldstone Wood watched them go.

BOOK: Heartless
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