Note: I have only had an opportunity to read Ms. Stengl’s wonderful novel, Heartless. If any aspect of this story has already been touched upon in subsequent novels of this amazing series, then I humbly ask that you bear with me. It is not my intention to plagiarize or in any other way detract from Ms. Stengl’s phenomenal writing style. Thank you, and God bless you all.
Acrid smoke permeated the clean winter air. Gasping on the dizzying fumes, a young girl stumbled into Oriana’s vast courtyard. Everyone had scattered in a blind panic, but the girl had remained in her secluded hideaway until all was quiet. She knew that HE had managed to somehow gain entrance. Clenching her teeth in frustration, the girl gingerly shuffled her feet and clung to a jutting stone wall for support. Her eyes, or, the places where her eyes had once been, throbbed with pain.
“I know you are here, my little morsel. Your scent travels to me no matter how you try to escape. Let us not waste valuable moments.” His deep, caressing voice travelled to the girl’s ears, and she shivered with fear.
“Meeea?” The girl sucked in her breath and bent down.
“SSSH. Quiet, Monster,” she murmured. Despite her fear, she was enormously relieved. She gently lifted the cat into her trembling arms. For a moment, the cat sat rigidly, his wet nose sniffing the girl’s hand. “Remember me?” she whispered. Gradually, Monster’s taut body relaxed. He rubbed his whiskered face against her hand. Tentatively, the girl explored his face with her fingers. When she encountered his absent eyes, she allowed the cat’s gentle purring to seep into every raw nerve. Comfort washed over her, and she allowed the memories to burst forth.
“Why are you home so early, sister?” Gladiola turned from the fire. Her hands were covered in pastry dough, and her shoulder-length chestnut hair was drenched in sweat. She straightened her brown tunic over her plump frame, discretely placing a freshly baked strudel into a tunic pocket. The family knew of her sweet tooth and never commented on the treats that mysteriously had a way of disappearing.
Iris sniffed and plopped down onto a makeshift stool. “He never came,” she muttered.
Gladiola sighed. “Honestly, Iris! Why do you bother with him? He’s arrogant, and—“
“What do you know about anything?” Iris’s voice was shrill with unshed tears. “He’s the nicest boy I’ve ever met. Anyway, you’re only twelve. You don’t know anything!”
Gladiola bit her lip to stop it from trembling. She yanked a cloth from a shelf and removed a smoldering pan from the hearth. “I know lots of things,” she murmured.
After a long pause, Iris whispered, “I’m sorry. I—“
A knock reverberated on the cottage door. Both girls looked at each other. Father wouldn’t be home from the smithy for several hours yet. Iris went to the door and lifted the latch. The door creaked on its rusty hinges.
“Hello, Iris,” a deep, yet caressing voice murmured. Gladiola stared past her sister’s thin frame into the eyes of the handsomest man she’d ever seen. His eyes shone, and he wore a flowing robe of red silk. His jet black hair cascaded down his back. Despite his otherwise handsome demeanor, the man’s face made Gladiola gasp. It was whiter than marble and lifeless.
“Um, hello,” Iris said. “M-May we help you? This is the land of Lunthea Maly. We don’t have much here, but--” Her voice trailed away.
The man chuckled deep within his throat, a frightening yet hypnotic sound. Gladiola shuddered. “Yes, you may help me, child,” the man whispered. “The luscious scent of apple strudel has reached me. The scent of rejection has also stolen upon my nostrils. I wonder if I might come in for a moment?”
“R-Rejection?” Iris stammered. “I don’t know what you’re—“
“There is No need to be frightened of me. I merely seek to assist you, Iris. Let me in, and I will remedy your hurts.” Without warning, the man seized Iris’ wrist and leant forward to peer into her chocolate colored eyes. “The fire smolders within you,” he chortled. “Almost as brightly as it burns within the maiden whom I seek for my own. However, you’ll do for now. Invite me in, Iris.”
Gladiola screamed and flung herself between the stranger and her sister. Her last memory was of searing heat and a vicious laugh. “You are of no concern to me, girl!” The man’s voice had acquired a rasping quality. Gladiola felt needles of excruciating pain prick her eyes, and she knew no more.
A silvery song filled Gladiola’s ears. Groggily, she sat up. Burbling water splashed nearby, and the song gave her comfort. Darkness was everywhere, and her eyes throbbed. How had she gotten here? Where was she?
The silvery song drew closer, and suddenly, she felt a feather-soft object caress her hand. He is gone, now. I brought you here.
Gladiola discerned no physical words, yet she knew something was speaking to her. “M-My sister,” she tried to say, but her voice wouldn’t cooperate.
I can understand you. You do not have to speak. I am sorry, Gladiola.
Sorry about what? The girl trembled. She knew what the mysterious presence was going to say.
She is with him, now. After Herbert’s rejection, she could not withstand the Dragon’s seductive suggestions.
Gladiola thought briefly of the plump clerk at the smithy. He had been Iris’s third beau. Sadly, she murmured, “I-I could not help—“
I will reach out to her. For now, will you allow me to help you?
“H-Help me? But, I don’t—“ Even as she spoke, Gladiola felt the pain once again. “Yes,” she said. “I don’t know you, but I—I think you must be a friend.“
I am Aethelbald, Prince of Farthestshore. You must trust me.
After a long moment, Gladiola nodded. She heard the mighty whoosh of wings and felt cool water bathe her face. The water carried a multitude of scents: innumerable flowers and spices she had never smelt before. The pain gradually lessened to a dull ache, yet the world remained dark.
Follow my song, and I will lead you to a place where you are greatly needed.
Trembling, Gladiola followed the multiple harmonic notes of birdsong as the Prince led her away from the stream and toward the outskirts of a busy city. Several times, she stumbled and nearly fell, but each time, something she could barely feel would lift her up. It seemed as if a carpet made of down kept her from stumbling, yet she knew the substance must be the wings of her guide.
Now, Gladiola continued to stroke Monster’s head. “I tried to warn her,” she whispered. She remembered how she had been led to an unlocked window. Aethelbald had wrapped his wings around her and lifted her inside. You are in Oriana Palace. This is the kitchen. Trust me, and you will be safe. I need you to keep watch over my love.
“Over who? Keep watch? But, I—“
You will know what to do.
As Aethelbald prepared to fly away, a final thought seeped into her mind. Gladiola’s are delicate flowers, yet they are tenacious. They always come back. You are strong. Look to the cat.
Gladiola gently released Monster, and she stepped forward. “I’ve got to talk to him,” she whispered. “Thanks for everything.”
“I’ll be all right.”
She remembered how the cat had been the first creature she’d encountered. Smiling, she thought of how he skulked around the kitchen searching for a choice tidbit. Judging by the low murmur of voices, she’d judged it was dinnertime in the palace. A whiskered face had brushed against her hand as she’d groped around the kitchen. Her fingers had immediately discovered the cat’s absence of eyes. “Someone stole your sight, too,” she’d murmured. Reaching into her tunic pocket, she’d withdrawn a half-eaten apple strudel. “Sorry it’s stale,” she’d whispered.
She and the cat had bonded right away. Monster had led her to a cupboard where she could sleep, deep in the recesses of Oriana Palace where no one ever came. He had been the one to lead her to the royal chamber where Princess Una lay in fitful dreams. Even without touching the girl’s hands, Gladiola knew they had been severely burned. The acrid stench of the Dragon’s smoke was a smell she would never forget. She knew she could not talk directly to Una, (the girl would simply laugh at her), but she also knew that she had to send some sort of message. So, in the quiet night, she’d emptied Una’s water pitcher. Maybe in this way, Una would finally notice the debilitating burns. She knew that her work was small, but she hoped that it had helped.
Trembling, Gladiola stepped forward. She approached the sweltering heat. “Dragon?” Her voice trembled, but she did not care.
Harsh laughter reverberated around the courtyard. “You! Paltry girl! I remember you. Get out! You’re wasting my time!”
“I-I want to know of my sister.”
“She wanders in my Village. She brought me quite a satisfactory offering the other day, a young girl who had been abandoned on the road to Southlands. For now, your sister is safe. However, her constant cries try my patience. Are you satisfied now?”
For a moment, Gladiola thought of how she herself had been abandoned long ago at the age of five. She had awoken in the cottage of a blacksmith and his nine-year-old daughter. She shivered as she thought of what the Dragon’s mysterious words might mean, but she managed to speak boldly. “I won’t leave Una alone.”
The Dragon laughed. “Oh, but you will, my sweet. I despise interfering weaklings. Go, or taste my fire once again. This time, I’ll take more than your eyes.”
Trembling, Gladiola turned and hurried toward the jutting stone wall. A volley of putrid flames assaulted her, and she fell in a crumpled heap. Menacing footfalls invaded her addled brain, and she heard the Dragon’s measured breaths as he bent over her. “No fire smolders within you,” he murmured. “You are worth nothing. Just a pathetic weakling. Leave me be, and I will spare your life.”
Suddenly, a silvery song pierced her mind. Strength surged within her, and she felt a gentle breeze lift her to a sitting position. The Dragon sent forth another stream of fire. “Be stubborn, fool! My poison will vanquish you!” he hissed.
The flames no longer hurt. Gladiola felt the breeze lift her up and whisk her away into a vibrant place of serenity. She heard the Dragon emit a resounding roar of anger, pain and frustration. Then, all was still.
Gladiola felt as if she walked on air. A gentle hand touched her arm. “You are with me, now, child,” a female voice murmured. “Prince Aethelbald wonders if you would be willing to serve him forever?”
“Who are you?”
“I am Dame Imraldera,” the gentle voice murmured. “I serve those whom the Prince brings to the Safehaven after the Dragon’s poison has infected them. Would you wish to help me?”
After a moment, Gladiola asked, “But, my father. My sister. I—“
“A dragon’s burning has invaded your village. I think you’ll find that your father will be brought here along with many others. The Dragon King has violated you with his poison, and if you choose to leave, you will not survive. The Prince offers you a place of rest and a job of service. Will you accept?”
Gladiola nodded. A pitcher of cold water was placed in her hands, and Dame Imraldera led her to a bed made of a soft, flower-like material. “A young boy of royalty lies asleep here,” the fairy whispered. “Just sit this pitcher beside him. You will be one of his attendants, and thus you will learn of our Prince’s battle with his ultimate enemy.”
Thus it was that Gladiola, a mere blind weakling in the Dragon King’s eyes, served many people in many different ways. She served them with a pitcher of water and a song she had learned from the mysterious guiding presence of a wood thrush.