Heartless (Tales of Goldstone Wood Series #1)by Anne Elisabeth Stengl
A princess's heart is the prize in this Tolkein-esque world of dragons and knights; a blend of fantasy with a love for the ages.See more details below
A princess's heart is the prize in this Tolkein-esque world of dragons and knights; a blend of fantasy with a love for the ages.
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HeartlessTales of Goldstone Wood
By Anne Elisabeth Stengl
Bethany House PublishersCopyright © 2010 Anne Elisabeth Stengl
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFive Years Later
"Do you think they will come before the year is out?" Princess Una asked her nurse.
"Who will come?" her nurse replied.
"Suitors, of course!"
Though the sun was bright, the air blew chill through the open window that spring morning, and Una wrapped a shawl around her shoulders as she sat waiting for Nurse to finish the awful business of preparing her for the day. Nurse, who had long since ceased to function as a real nurse and these days played the part of maid and busybody to her princess, wielded a brush with the tenderness of a gardener raking last year's dead leaves, making every effort to tame Una's honey-colored hair into an acceptable braid. One would have expected that, with many years' practice, she might have acquired rather more gentleness. Not so Nurse.
She paused now, mid-tug, and scowled at Una's reflection in the glass. "What brings on this fool talk?" She raised a bushy eyebrow and gave the braid an extra tug, as though to wrest all the unruliness out of it in one go. "You keep your mind busy with your lessons and deportment, just as always, and leave that messy business of courting and arranging marriages to your father, as is right." "But I'm of age!" Una winced again and tried not to pull away from the vicious brush. She twisted her mouth into an unattractive shape as pain shot through her scalp. "Papa always said that he wouldn't accept a single inquiry from a single prince or single dignitary in a single realm of the whole Continent until I came of age."
"As is right."
"Well, now that I'm eighteen, shouldn't he start receiving them? When will they come to pay their respects?" To pay their respects, according to the definition given the phrase by the courtiers of Oriana Palace, was a tactful way to say, investigate marriage possibilities with the resident princess.
"That's not for you to be speculating, Miss Princess," said Nurse. She pronounced it "speckle-ating." Una dared not laugh. Though Nurse had not been brought up to speak an elegant dialect, her ideas on what was and was not proper behavior for a princess went far beyond anything Una had ever learned from her decorum instructors.
"Suitors indeed! Why, in my day, a girl never put two thoughts together concerning a boy—not till her father gave her the go-ahead."
"Not even when—"
Nurse whapped the top of Una's head with the back of the brush. "No more! There, you're tidy as mortal hands can make you. Get you gone to your morning tutorials, and I don't want to hear another word of this romantic drivel!"
Rubbing the top of her head, Una gathered herself up, grabbed an armload of books, and made her way to her chamber doors, muttering, "I like romantic drivel." She stepped from the room and, just as the door swung shut behind her, called over her shoulder, "Your day was a singularly unromantic one, Nurse!"
The door clunked, and Nurse's voice came muffled from behind. "You'd better believe it!"
Una glared at the closed door. A demanding "Meeeowl?" at her feet drew her gaze, and she looked down at her cat, Monster, who sat before her, his tail curled elegantly about his paws. He seemed to smile all over his furry face, despite his lack of eyes.
She wrinkled her nose at him. "Don't look so smug."
With that, she turned on her heel and marched down the corridor, the blind cat trotting behind, unlike a dog in every way because, of course, he wasn't truly following her. He merely happened to be going her way.
"Nothing in life is as romantic as it should be, Monster," Una said as they made their way along the white hall and down a graceful staircase. She nodded civil acknowledgements to members of the household who greeted her as she passed. "Here I am, a princess, of age to be courted and married, and where am I? On my way to another history lesson! Then there'll be a tutorial on the proper ways to address ambassadors from Beauclair as opposed to dignitaries from Shippening. Then dancing. And not a single respects-paying gentleman of certain birth as far as the eye can see." She sighed at the heaviness of the world. "Nothing ever changes, Monster."
"Meeaa?" the cat said.
Una looked down her nose at him. "You're not just saying that, are you? Trying to make me feel better?"
"I knew it." She sighed again. "Someday, Monster, won't you express an original idea? For me?"
Felix waited for her in the large but nonetheless stuffy classroom they shared, doodling caricatures of their tutor in the margins of an essay he was supposed to be composing. He scarcely looked up when Una entered. Monster took a moment to rub a cheek against the young prince's knee before dodging Felix's backhand and arranging himself on the windowsill to catch the sunlight.
Una took a seat and opened her book just as the tired-eyed tutor shuffled in. He fortified himself behind his desk, attached a pair of spectacles in place—which made his eyes seem still more tired—and looked upon his students with the air of a man resigned to his fate.
"At what are you so diligently working, Prince Felix?" he asked. His voice never varied from a mournful drone.
Felix held up his essay full of doodles.
The tutor winced. "Most amusing, Your Highness."
"See how big I made the nose on this one?"
"A remarkable likeness, Your Highness."
"Doesn't look a thing like him," Una said.
Felix made a face. "Not supposed to. This one's you."
The tutor closed his eyes during the ensuing argument and let the storm pass. When at last calm returned, he slowly creaked his eyelids back up and dared face the world again. "Prince Felix, do you recall at what passage we left off our reading yesterday?"
"I do," Una said.
"He was talking to me!"
She continued, "We were studying the rise of Corrilond in the year of the Sleeper's Awakening during the reign of King Abundiantus IV—"
The tutor shoved his glasses up onto his forehead and rubbed his eyes. It was a day like all others, a mirror of yesterday and a foretelling of tomorrow: The prosperous sameness and drudging boredom of lives placidly spent proceeding as endlessly as the mind could conceive. Nothing ever really changed, and as far as anyone in Oriana Palace could surmise, nothing ever would.
But then, something did.
* * *
For two hundred years they had not been seen.
They first appeared as deeper shadows among the shadows of the Wood, all staring eyes and sniffing noses, as wary as children dipping a toe in deep water, fearful to take a dive.
Then one stepped forth, and he, with a smile, beckoned to the others. A huge creature with eyes as wide and white as the moon and skin like craggy rocks followed with a strange grace of movement; behind him walked another who was black as a shadow but whose eyes shone like the sky. After these came the others. Out of the Wood they streamed in parade—carrying with them the scent of dusk, the sound of dawn—and they arranged themselves upon the lawn outside the walls of the city of Sondhold, in the shadow of Goldstone Hill.
A shepherd boy saw them first. His heart leapt with fear at the sight, though not because of their strangeness, for such strangeness he had witnessed a thousand times in dreams. Rather, he feared that he dreamed them now and that, as soon as his old dad caught him snoozing at his watch, he'd fetch a hiding and perhaps be sent to bed without supper. So he pinched himself, and when that did not work, he pinched himself again.
His lazy flock all lifted their heads, regarded the oncoming throng a moment, and then returned to their grazing. But the quick-eyed herding dog let out a joyous bark and left the shepherd, left the flock, and ran to greet the strangers as though welcoming long-lost friends.
Then the boy jumped up and ran as well, shouting as he went. But he ran the opposite direction, down the dusty path toward Sondhold. Though he had only ever seen them in dreams, he recognized those who came.
"The market! The market!" he cried. The guards at the gates let him through, calling derisively after him, but he paid them no mind. "The market!" he shouted, gathering too much speed so that he lost his balance and scraped the skin from his palms and knees. But he was up again in a flash, shouting all the louder. "The Twelve-Year Market is come from the Wood!"
The very oldest grandmama in all Sondhold could only just recall her old grandmama talking about her grandmama's visit to the Twelve-Year Market. Many families in the city boasted prized heirlooms, strange oddities handed down from father to son, mother to daughter, for generations. A silver spoon that never tarnished; a kettle that sang familiar old tunes when the water boiled; a mug that never let the tea grow cold; a pair of boots that, if polished with the right stuff, would carry a man seven leagues in a step—too bad the polish ran out ages ago. The items once purchased at the Twelve-Year Market were rare and wonderful indeed, items of Faerie make and ever so expensive. But the Twelve-Year Market was the stuff of stories.
Until it showed up on the lawn below Goldstone Hill that day in early spring, soon after Princess Una came of age.
A washerwoman hanging up her second load of the day to dry paused in her work, her wrinkled white fingers momentarily still as the shepherd boy ran by. "The Twelve-Year Market!" he bellowed as he went, and she dropped the clean shirt—dropped it right in the dust—brushed off her apron, and hitched up her skirts to hasten from the city, out to the green lawn.
The boy ran on, shouting, "The market! The market is come!"
Merchants by the docks closed up booths and locked away their wares.
"The market!" the shepherd boy cried.
The cobbler's wife and the baker's sister ceased their gossip, blinked startled eyes, and joined the merchants.
The boy went on, shouting until he was too hoarse to make himself heard, but by then his work was complete. The folks of Sondhold streamed through the gates: the washerwoman, the merchants, the cobbler's wife and her brood of children, even the guards who were supposed to stand at the gates. They all made their way down the dusty track from the city to the lawn below the hill. There they beheld the Faerie bazaar.
They stopped on the fringes, afraid to go forward.
The first to hail them was a man so incredibly ancient that his upper lip nearly reached his chin. His skin was like a walnut, and his eyes like acorn caps. A big black sow pulled his rickety cart, on which two enormous pots of alabaster hummed, as though some musical instrument played the same three notes again and again inside. Water sloshed as he lifted them down, and the city folk could hear the creak of every joint in his body, a crackling percussion accompanying the humming.
When he saw the gathering crowds his acorn-cap eyes winked twice, first with fear, then with a smile. "Come!" he cried, raising a gnarled hand, beckoning. "Come, folk of the Near World! Come inspect my wares! Unicorn fry, fresh from the sea, caught just this morning—or last century, depending on your view. Learning to sing; hear them for yourself! Come hear the sea unicorn young as they sing!"
The folk of Sondhold looked from him to each other, afraid to move closer, unwilling to leave.
Then the cobbler's wife took hold of her youngest son and strode boldly to the lawn, her chin set in defiance though the baker's sister called a warning to her. "I'd like a look," she told the old man with the acorn-cap eyes.
He grinned and lifted the lid of one jar. The strange humming filled the air, only three notes dancing in the ears of all those near, but the sweetest three notes ever played together.
The cobbler's wife stood on tiptoe to peer inside. "Coo!" she breathed. Then, "May I show the boy?"
The old man nodded, and she lifted her littlest one to peer into the alabaster jar. The child made a solemn inspection and finally declared, "Pretty."
"Unicorn fry!" the old man cried. "Caught fresh this morning! I'll sell them at a bargain, good dame, and you can raise one at home, hear sweet music every day!"
With that, the market truly opened. The crowd standing on the edges of the lawn could not bear to miss whatever wonders lay just before them, and they flooded in to inspect the hundred colorful stalls. The lawn below Goldstone Hill was suddenly as merry as a festival, as noisy as a circus, as frantic as a holiday. Music sang from all corners, outlandish music on outlandish instruments played by even more outlandish people. But although the songs were different, somehow they blended into each other in cheerful harmonies, often underscored by a low, melancholy tune that heightened the curiosity and the fun of those who browsed the many stalls.
Word spread fast. Soon all of Sondhold was bestirred. Working girls feigned sickness to be excused, and schoolboys made no pretense of attending classes. The washerwoman let the dirtied white shirt lie untouched, and the smithy allowed his fires to die. How could anyone attend to mundane things on the day of the Twelve-Year Market?
The hubbub bubbled all the way to the crest of Goldstone Hill and flowed on into the palace, where Princess Una sat with her nose in her history text, wallowing in academic misery. Dates and battles and dead kings' names swam before her eyes while spring fever, cruel and demanding, picked at the back of her brain. She and her brother had ceased their squabbling for the time being, and their tutor's voice filled the room in one long, endless drone that commanded no one's attention, least of all the tutor's.
Monster stood up on the windowsill. He stretched, forming an arch with his body, and flicked the plume of his tail. Then, after a quick wash to make certain his whiskers were well arranged, he interrupted the lecture.
The tutor droned on without a glance at the cat. "Abundiantus V was never intended to sit upon his father's throne, being the second son—"
"Meaaa!" Monster said, with more emphasis this time. He unsheathed his claws and scratched the window, a long grating noise.
"Dragon-eaten beast." Felix threw a pencil at the cat's nose, missing by inches.
"Princess Una," the tutor said, "we have had this discussion. Would you kindly remove that creature from the room so that our studies may continue uninhibited?"
Una huffed and went to the window. But when she reached for him, Monster made himself heavy and awkward, slipping through her grasp. He landed back on the windowsill with another "Meeeaa!" and pressed his nose to the glass.
Una looked out.
She saw the colors. She saw the movement. She saw the dancing far below, as though she was suddenly gifted with an eagle's eyes and able to discern every detail even at that great distance. Wonderingly, she opened the window, and music carried up Goldstone Hill and filled the room.
"Oh," she said.
"Meeeea." Monster looked smug.
Felix was on his feet and at her side in a moment. He too looked down. "Oh," he said.
The tutor, frowning, came around from behind his desk and joined them at the window. He looked as well and saw what they saw. His mouth formed an unspoken "Oh."
A clatter of hooves in the courtyard drew their gazes, however unwillingly, from the sight down the hill. Una and her brother saw their father, King Fidel, mounting up with a company of his guard around him. Brother and sister exchanged a glance and bolted for the door, falling over themselves in a headlong dash from the chamber, down the stairs, and out to the courtyard, heedless of the tutor's feeble attempts to restrain them. Monster trailed at their heels.
"Father!" Una burst into the courtyard, shouting like a little girl and hardly caring that she drew the eyes of the stable boys and footmen standing by. King Fidel, upon his gray mount, looked back at his daughter. "Father!" she cried. "Are you going to see?" She did not have to say what.
"Yes, Una," Fidel replied. "I must make certain all is well below."
"May we come?" Una said, and before the words were all out of her mouth, Felix was shouting to the stable boys, "My horse! Bring my horse!"
King Fidel considered a moment, his eyebrows drawn. But the day was fine, the air was full of holiday spirit, and his children's faces were far too eager to refuse. "Very well."
Una and Felix rode on either side of him as he descended the King's Way, the long road that wound down Goldstone Hill to the teeming lawn. The breath of the ocean whipped in their faces, carrying the spice of other worlds up from below.
Excerpted from Heartless by Anne Elisabeth Stengl Copyright © 2010 by Anne Elisabeth Stengl. Excerpted by permission of Bethany House Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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