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FICTION


Heart of My Heart, Soul of My Soul

By Jelena Dunato in Issue Four, May 2022

When Maryeta and the baby died, I thought I’d never love again. The world was a thick grey haze through which I moved with effort. I performed my duties, but I watched myself as if from outside, a pale stranger with a golden crown receiving foreign emissaries, hunting in the woods, dancing with pretty daughters of ambitious nobles.

I wasn’t old, but I felt like it. The whole weight of the world on my shoulders and no one to share it with. My advisors nudged me to marry again: after all, a king needs heirs. But I had Steffon, my golden-haired boy, with his mother’s hazel eyes and shy smile. He was enough.

There were women, occasionally. I was not a saint, but my heart remained cold and their kisses could not melt it. I never visited the same one twice: I didn’t want to give hope where there was none. I sat by Maryeta’s tomb, holding the cold hand of her effigy, my tears staining the perfect white marble.

I knew the courtiers were whispering. They thought my sorrow was overly dramatic, they thought I was acting, raising my price on the marriage market, waiting for the right princess to bite.

I let them talk. It was better than having them believe I went mad with grief.

#

The day I met her, I was hunting with Karal. My hounds chased a magnificent deer and I galloped after them in abandon, caught up in the thrill. When I realized I’d gone too far and could hear the horns no more, it was already getting dark. I was lost.

I didn’t panic—it was no more than a minor inconvenience. If I didn’t find the way back, I just had to find shelter until morning. It was Karal who had to panic; misplacing a king was a bad move for an ambitious duke. I imagined him fuming in the courtyard, berating the poor fools who had failed to keep up with me as I searched for some familiar mark in the growing darkness. The woods looked strange, but there was a narrow path among the trees, and I followed it to a clearing with a spring running through it. A small cottage with a thatched roof stood beside it. Soft golden light poured from the windows.

It looked friendly enough, so I dismounted and knocked on the door.

“Who is it?” a woman asked.

“A hunter lost in the woods,” I replied. I was well dressed, but nothing on my hunting garb revealed my status.

I heard footsteps and then the door opened a fraction, revealing a strip of light and one suspicious green eye.

“One of the duke’s huntsmen?” she asked. “You’re far from the hunting trail.”

“I was chasing a deer and got lost. Is your... husband at home?”

“I have no husband.”

“Your father, then?”

She chuckled. “I live alone. But you don’t look like a troublemaker. Are you a troublemaker?”

“No, my lady.”

“Come in, then.” She was a slip of a girl with flaming red hair and skin as white as snow covered in freckles. “Your horse can stay with my goats, and you can stay with me.”

The cottage was tiny. One room with a hearth, a table, a chest and a narrow bed in the corner. But it was clean and bright, and it smelled of the wild herbs hanging from the rafters.

“I have some stew left,” she said, coming in after me.

I smiled. “I’m starving.”

She placed a steaming bowl, a wooden spoon, and a brick-hard piece of bread on the table. Then she sat down and watched me eat like a curious cat. She was pretty, though no courtier would ever call her beautiful.

“How come you live so deep in the forest?” I asked.

“I’ve always lived here.” She shrugged. “It’s as good a place as any.”

“But there are no people around. Aren’t you lonely?”

“No lonelier than you.” When her eyes met mine, I felt as exposed as a tree on a mountain top. Then she blinked and the moment was gone.

“You’re right, I am lonely,” I admitted, thinking I might as well be honest with a girl I’d never see again. “My wife died and my son is growing up. He doesn’t need me anymore.”

“You’re sad.” She reached across the table and touched my face. “Those are the lines of sadness, here in the corners of your eyes. Tears carved them into your skin.”

I caught her hand and removed it from my face. I’d forgotten what it felt to be touched like that.

“You can take the bed,” she said. “I’ll sleep on the floor.”

“No. I’ll sleep on the floor.”

“I insist. You’re my guest.”

“And you’re a woman.”

She laughed, a clear, brilliant sound like a hundred silver bells. “Gods, you’re stubborn.” She took my hand. “Come, we can share. You won’t hurt me, will you?”

“No,” I said, “I won’t.”

I lay down and wrapped my arms around her, burying my face in her soft curls. She was warm and restless like a small animal. I had suffered from insomnia for years, but the moment I closed my eyes in that narrow, hard bed with that strange girl in my arms, I fell into a deep dreamless sleep.

#

When I woke up, she was outside, feeding the goats. There was a cup of milk waiting for me on the table, and a bowl of dried berries and hazelnuts.

As I stepped out, warm sunshine caressed my face. Leaves rustled and birds sang in the trees. Fragrant air filled my lungs and I felt younger and happier than I’d been in years. For one brief moment, I considered staying there, hidden from the world.

I reached into my pocket and took out a handful of silver coins. “Thank you.” I tried to give her the money, but she pushed my hand away.

“One needs to be kind to strangers.”

I wanted to promise her some kind of reward, tell her she had done me a great service, but as she stood there smiling in the sunshine, all my gifts seemed hollow.

“Ride south,” she said. “When you come to a great oak tree split by lightning, turn left and you’ll find the hunters’ trail.”

I rode away, feeling her green eyes following me. It was only when I reached the old oak that I realized I’d forgotten to ask her name.

#

They were beside themselves, Karal and my entourage.

“Nobody slept last night, Your Majesty.”

I laughed it off. “I’m perfectly capable of finding my own way back.”

But as I entered the castle, the grey fog that had surrounded me before returned so abruptly that I fell to my knees, gasping, clawing at my throat. My chamberlain yelped and cut my doublet away, physicians gathered like black crows around a corpse.

“Air,” I wheezed, “I need air.”

They dragged me to the window as black stars exploded before my eyes. I was sure I’d die. I thought of my son and of my dead wife, and then I thought of the little cottage in the clearing and the perfect peace surrounding it, and my lungs relaxed and filled with air.

“Leave me,” I ordered. “I want to be alone.”

They were afraid, but no one dared contradict me. I paced around my chamber like a caged lynx. Food and drink remained untouched on the rosewood table. When the sun sank towards the treetops, I ordered the servants to bring my hunting clothes.

“Tell the duke I’ll be back in the morning.”

As I rushed into the forest, a terrible thought struck me that I would never find the little cottage again. It was just a dream, a trick of my exhausted mind. By the time I reached the great oak, I was shivering.

“Please,” I muttered under my breath. “Let it be there.”

It was dark when I found the clearing, but my anxious heart calmed when I spotted the little cottage warm light seeping out through the window. I knocked on the door. “I came back.”

She opened it. “I see.”

I stepped inside, took her in my arms and kissed her. She kissed me back. We stumbled across the floor and fell on the narrow bed without breaking apart.

#

I entered the castle with apprehension, waiting for the fog to engulf me, but my contentment was marred only by exhaustion. Waving away the servants who rushed to help me, I stripped off my clothes and fell asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow.

Karal had planned my visit meticulously: two weeks of vigorous exercise and mindless fun. Hunting, archery, dancing, feasting and indulgence of every kind. He was trying to remind me of the reckless happiness of our youth.

“You’re not enjoying this,” he said in the afternoon.

There was food and wine and music. Glare and din.

“I met a girl,” I said. And as I said it, I knew it was as simple as that. I had met her and now that I knew she existed, I wanted to be with her.

Karal raised his eyebrows and smirked. “It’s high time you found a distraction. Some tavern wench or a wood cutter’s daughter?”

“Just a girl who lives in the woods.”

“Really?” He frowned. “Where?”

“Now, Karal, you don’t expect me to tell you that, do you?” I smiled. “I’m going to spend my nights outside the castle, and I don’t want anyone following me or worrying about me. That’s an order.”

#

When I knocked on her door that evening, she said, “Third time’s the charm. I’m glad you’re back.”

I blushed. “My time is taken up by duties–”

“It was too much, I know,” she interrupted, putting her hand on her chest. “It frightened me too. It was like a bolt of lightning in here, a forest fire inside me. I thought I was happy before I met you. Now I know I wasn’t.”

I thought of the grey fog and endless days.

“It feels like... it feels like magic.” I laughed. “Have you put a spell on me?”

“Yes, I have. Rosemary, sage and blood of a toad, unicorn’s tears and virgin’s milk. It worked, didn’t it?”

“It did.” I kissed her.

She undressed me, touching my skin with her warm hands.

“Tell me what you see,” I said.

Her fingers brushed my chest. “I see strength and impatience and a wounded heart.” She kissed my eyes. “I see a man still young enough to love and be loved.”

I laid her on the bed gently. “Could you love me? Like this? Tired and worried?”

“Yes.”

I knew then I wasn’t going to let her go.

#

I lingered at Karal’s castle as spring turned to summer, away from my court, away from my duties, away from my son. I spent the nights kissing my forest girl and the days wondering what I was going to do.

As I held her in my arms that night, I said, “Come live with me.”

She laughed, my wild girl, my red-haired goatherd. “You don’t have to do it, this is enough.”

“I must. I’m going away and I want you to come with me.”

Then I told her who I was.

#

They envied and despised her. My loyal subjects, my noblemen, my courtiers. They refused to acknowledge her, they pretended she didn’t exist. My brother told me I was haunted. I sent him to the border to fight the wild clans

She was a shadow to them, a gust of wind rushing down from the mountains.

On our wedding night, she sat in her magnificent gown of forest-green silk and emeralds on the edge of the bed, looking very small.

“You have so much of everything,” she said. “Smooth silk and shiny gold, sweet honey and fast horses. I walked around the castle all day, and I barely managed to see half of it. Everything is so big.”

“The kingdom is big, my love,” I said. “And I am its heart.”

“You are my heart, too,” she said. “Heart of my heart, soul of my soul.” A single tear slid down her smooth cheek. “We should’ve stayed in the forest. Far from them.”

“They’re just envious,” I said. “They can’t hurt you.”

“True, but they can hurt you,” she replied. “And I need... I need the forest to protect you. All this stone and glass and steel make me blind and deaf. There are no wild herbs here, no clean water, no wind whispering to me. This is a cold and barren place and I don’t know its secrets.”

“But I do.” I stroked her cheek. “This is my realm. If you are unhappy...” I weighed the words, torn between my desire and my wish to be fair. “If you want to leave, I understand. You weren’t born into this life. You are not obliged to bear this weight.”

“I will bear it with you as long as you want me.”

#

My son refused to accept her. Steffon, my golden-haired boy, looked at me with his sad eyes and said: “I thought it was just the two of us.”

“Try,” I replied. “For my sake.”

We were alone in his room. Sunbeams slanted through the window and dust whirled in the golden light like snow. Steffon’s eyes were huge and worried as no child’s eyes should ever be.

“I’m so lonely,” I said. “I need a companion.”

“You’re grieving,” he replied with the brazen confidence of youth. “It will pass.”

#

I had to go away; there was trouble brewing on the southern coast—the harvest had failed and the towns were rebelling over the price of grain. She wanted to go with me, but I refused.

“Look after Steffon,” I said.

It should have taken no more than a few weeks, but time slipped treacherously away, and a month and a half passed before I saw my castle again. Instead of a warm welcome, I was met with silence and anxious looks.

“What is it?” I demanded, terror growing in my chest like black mould. “Why did my son not welcome me? Where is my wife?”

I ran to her chambers through silent corridors. I thought something had happened, I thought she was dead or gone.

I found her sitting in the garden, tears streaming down her cheeks.

“My love!” I rushed to her, took her cold hands and fell to my knees. “What’s going on? Why all this silence and fear?”

“Steffon is missing,” she said. “Messengers tried to reach you, but you kept moving from town to town.”

“When?” I stood up.

“Three days ago.” She was sickeningly pale, her eyes puffed and underlined in purple.

Fear turned my flesh to stone. “I told you to watch over him.”

“And I did.” Her tone was brash. “But he went riding in the forest with his companions. I could neither stop nor follow him.”

“Heirs to the throne don’t just disappear!”

I ran out of the garden, shocked by the rage that rose in my chest.

#

Steffon’s guards, trembling with fear, told me it had started as their usual morning ride, but when entered the forest, the prince had ordered them to draw back.

“Why would he send his guards away?”

“He accused us of spying on him,” their captain muttered, his eyes fixed on the carpet.

“Of course you were!” I exploded. “It was your duty to report to me.”

I went to see the place where my son had vanished. The trees around me were perfectly straight, the ground beneath them level, covered in last year’s leaves. Nothing bigger than a squirrel could have hidden there.

“He’s a twelve-year-old prince—his clothes are embroidered in silver, and his horse is a noble beast. He’s not some stable boy who can slip away unnoticed,” I said. “Someone must have noticed him. Check all the inns, search the villages.”

But they already had and there was nothing. My son had been spirited away.

#

I lay in my bed at night, an ocean of crumpled linen dividing me from her.

“Tell me what happened,” I whispered. “Did you quarrel? Did he run away? Was there an accident? Even if–” I paused and swallowed hard. “Even if something happened to him, I’ll forgive you if you just tell me.”

She was silent for so long I thought she wished to evade my questions, but then she said, “I’ve never lied to you.”

I pushed away the clammy sheets and walked out of the room in my nightclothes. I signalled to the servants not to follow me and went down to the crypt. Its cool, dry air soothed my sweaty skin. I took my dead wife’s marble hand.

“Our boy is lost, Maryeta, and I don’t know where to find him.” I clambered up beside the effigy, pressing my feverish cheek to her perfect white face. “I don’t know who to trust.”

I must have fallen asleep, for the next thing I knew, I was surrounded by people, by light and noise. My chamberlain, my physician, servants, guards.

“Your Majesty,” they called, “are you all right? Did you faint?”

I let them drag me back to bed. It was empty and cold.

#

I offered a reward, but the information we received proved irrelevant or false. We found a dozen golden-haired boys, none of them my son. We found a horse stolen from the royal stables. We even found a blond boy on a horse, but he was just a local merchant’s son, bemused by the fuss his appearance caused.

For two harrowing weeks, I rummaged through his things, trying to find a clue: a letter, a map, a reason why my son would abandon me. I buried my face in his shirt, looking for his scent like a desperate hound.

Grey fog descended once again, and I found it impossible to rise in the morning, to dress, to shave, to act like a human being. She knelt by my bed, squeezing my hand, her nails digging little half-moons into my skin.

“You must get up, my love,” she pleaded. “There’s trouble brewing in the kingdom.”

“I don’t care.” I turned my head away, hiding behind a wall of pillows.

“Take care of your subjects. There’s a hard winter coming. Feed your people and Steffon’ll come back.”

“How do you know that?” Anger rose in my chest. “What are you hiding from me?”

Her eyes flashed. “Nothing you cannot see for yourself. Your brother is writing desperate letters from the border. Villages are burning; wolves are on the prowl.”

“Stop speaking in riddles.” I wanted to shake her until all her secrets fell out. “Why can’t you just say something straight and true? You keep weaving your lies around me. Have you bewitched me?”

She shook her head in mute horror, while my fingers dug into her flesh.

“You never told me how you survived alone in that forest, winter after winter. You never told me how you defended yourself from men and beasts. Was that even your house? Or was it just a trap you set to catch me?” I pushed her away and rubbed my eyes. “Have I been blind? Are you here to destroy me, to destroy my kingdom?”

“Grief is playing tricks on you,” she cried. “Look at me. You know me.”

I did look at her. She was beautiful, her red curls bound by a golden ribbon, her lovely figure wrapped in soft layers of velvet. But her face... was there fear in it? Deceit? Calculation?

“Get out and stay away from me,” I said. “If I see you again, I will hurt you.”

#

Karal came to help me. There was still no trace of my son, and the kingdom was in turmoil. Bad harvest, early snow, enemies on our northern border.

“This year has been very hard for you,” he said.

“The crown seems so heavy, and I have no one to share my troubles with.” I sighed. “I’ve always hoped I’d have a happy family.”

“It’s an unlikely outcome for people like us.” A sad smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.

I walked to the window and gazed at the winter landscape, silent and frozen. Karal followed me and put his hand on my shoulder.

“Matters of the kingdom come before matters of the heart. You know that.”

I could not tell where my heart was. Was it buried with Maryeta in her cold tomb? Was it hiding somewhere with my son? Was it in the hands of my forest girl?

#

I woke up in the middle of the night, certain that a familiar voice, silvery and gentle, had called my name. I rose, ran across the icy corridor and burst into her room.

Moonlight poured through the open window, my sleeping kingdom stretching into the distance under its silver light. The wind howled around the tower like a lonely animal. The room was empty. She was gone and so was every trace of her. No clothes, no jewellery, no comb or hairbrush, nothing. Like she had never been there.

I stood barefoot on the cold stone. She had told me she’d leave if I stopped loving her. But I didn’t stop loving her.

The silvery voice still whispered to me. She wasn’t there, but I knew where she had gone. I ran back to my room, rousing the servants.

“Bring me my clothes,” I called. “Saddle my horse.”

“Your Majesty, it would be wise to wait until dawn.”

I ignored them. Every moment I tarried, she slipped further away from me.

I gathered a motley escort, sleepy and silently furious, rubbing their eyes and cursing their horses, reluctant to ride out into the freezing night. We set out in darkness lit only by moonlight. No one dared ask where we were going, but I saw them exchanging looks, saw the derision on their faces.

For two days we rode across the kingdom chasing the voice that called me, the faint glimmer that threatened to disappear.

We ate in the saddle and rested when we were too tired to move on. We were dirty and exhausted, but fast. On the morning of the third day, the towers of Karal’s castle appeared in the distance. When we entered the forest and found the hunters’ trail, the voice in my head grew so strong it drowned all other noises. Beside the big oak, I told my entourage to wait and guard the path.

I proceeded alone, desperate to see her again. I didn’t care if she had done something wrong, I didn’t care if she had bewitched me or conspired to ruin me. I just wanted her back.

When I saw the dark line of trees opening in the distance, I urged my tired horse forward, towards the clearing. We stepped out into the brilliant sunlight, a shimmering whiteness. The brook was still there. And the cottage...

The voice abruptly disappeared. I was standing in the winter forest, the wind was singing in the branches, the water gurgling softly. There were no birds, no trace of any living thing but me and my horse.

The cottage was a sorry sight. The door was broken, the shutters torn off, the thatched roof caved in. More than one winter had ransacked its little interior, for every piece of furniture – the sturdy bed, the table, the bench – was broken. There was no trace of fire in the fireplace, just cobwebs and dead insects. The whole place reeked of mildew and death.

It was deserted. It had been deserted for years.

#

“Father?” Steffon’s voice broke the trance. My golden-haired boy stood in the clearing, the sun gleaming in his hair. I thought he was an apparition at first, but then the whole retinue materialized among the trees and advanced towards me: knights, soldiers, huntsmen. Karal. My brother.

“Steffon?” I blinked and opened my arms. My son ran to me. “Steffon, what is going on?”

“We found you,” he said. “It will be all right.”

Karal approached with a woollen cloak in his hands. “Wrap yourself up, Your Majesty. It’s cold.”

I looked down. A dirty nightshirt was tucked into my riding trousers. The boots on my feet were not mine. I slapped Karal’s intrusive hands away and turned to Steffon.

“Where have you been? I was looking for you.”

“I went to fetch uncle Garan from the border.”

Boiling fury washed over me. “On whose authority?”

“Your Council thought you needed help.” I saw Karal nodding behind him. “You’ve been unwell since the summer, Father. You’ve been imagining things.”

“What? How dare you?” I took a step back. I stumbled over a root and barely managed to remain on my feet. “Where is my wife? What have you done with her?”

“Mother is dead,” Steffon said, trying to approach me carefully, as if I were a skittish fawn. “She died two years ago, remember? Her tomb is in the crypt.”

“No.” I shook my head, dragged my hand over my eyes. “I don’t mean Maryeta. I know she’s dead. I mean the other one. Where is... Steffon, help me. I’m so confused I cannot remember her name.”

“Whose name?”

“My wife. The girl from the forest.” Hot tears of frustration welled in my eyes. “The girl who lived in this cottage.”

They all stared pointedly at the rotting heap of logs.

“Karal! You’ve seen her when I brought her to your castle. You know who I’m talking about.”

Karal just shook his head, anguish furrowing his brow.

“Steffon, you told me you didn’t need a new mother. I remember it.”

“I did. And you never married again.”

I stared at their faces. Confusion, fear, pity, derision. But not one spark of understanding or recognition. I turned to my banished brother, desperate to get an answer.

“Garan. You told me I was bewitched. That’s why I sent you to the border.”

Garan’s smile was cold and hard as always. But the sorrow in his eyes cut me like a knife.

“No. You sent me to the border because I said you were going mad. Your grief overtook you and you started imagining things. I advised you to abdicate, to leave the crown to Steffon.”

Tears spilled down my cheeks, burning my skin like molten lead. “Steffon? Steffon is twelve. You wanted me to leave it to you. You want to be regent.” I turned to my friend. “Karal? You knew about this treason?”

“Please,” he said. “You spent the summer raving about some girl you met in the woods. But no one has seen her. She’s not real.”

“No.” I drew my sword. “Stay away from me, traitors.”

As they advanced, I turned and ran into the forest. They chased me, but I was too fast, driven by fury and fear. I ran until I thought my heart would burst, until there was no trace of their voices in the air. Then I fell into a heap of dead leaves, exhausted, fighting for breath. The sorrow in my chest broke the dam and gushed out in long, desperate sobs. I wailed like a wounded animal, burrowed under the leaves until exhaustion overpowered me and I fell asleep.

#

I woke up chilled to the bone, my muscles sore and stiff. The dawn sky was slowly turning from purple to blue. I got up and stretched, trying to work some warmth back into my body. There was little I could do about the hunger roaring in my stomach, but I could find the little stream that ran through the clearing and quench my thirst.

I retraced my steps. I had run wildly the previous day, but I hadn’t run far. Any serious chase would have found me. Karal should have brought his hounds.

And then it dawned on me. They let me go. A mad king, lost in the forest, killed by the cold, or wild animals, or hunger. A tiny spark of anger flared in my heart, a vindictive urge to rush back and wreak havoc. But why would I do that? I had no desire to rule anymore. The crown was a heavy burden I was glad to put down. My son thought I was mad, my brother hated me and my best friend betrayed me. They all conspired behind my back to drive me into the wilderness and abandon me there. Even if I returned and beat them, it would be a hollow victory, devoid of anything I cared for.

My sorrow left me light-headed: an empty shell waiting to be filled with new purpose. I stumbled into the clearing, knelt by the stream and drank the icy water.

“You came back,” a voice said.

I turned my head. She stood in the sunlight, her red hair as bright as fire. I rose slowly, reluctant to believe my eyes. But she came closer and kissed me with her soft, warm lips while the cold tips of her fingers caressed my cheek.

“I thought I’d lost you forever.”

She laughed. “I just went home. You knew where to find me.”

“But...” I motioned towards the dilapidated cottage. “What happened?”

“The duke sent his men to tear it down.” She frowned. “He doesn’t like me very much. But you know that already.”

I wrapped my arms around her, buried my nose into her hair. “What are we going to do now?”

“Repair it before the snow,” she said. “And then we’ll stay here.” Her icy fingers slipped to the back of my neck, sending a shiver down my spine. “We’ll stay here forever.”

© 2022 Jelena Dunato


Jelena Dunato

Jelena Dunato is an art historian, curator, speculative fiction writer and lover of all things ancient. She grew up in Croatia on a steady diet of adventure stories and then wandered the world for a decade, building a career in the arts. Jelena’s stories have appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, The Dark, Future SF and Cossmass Infinities, among others. Jelena lives on an island in the Adriatic with her husband, daughter, and cat. You can find her at jelenadunato.com and on Twitter @jelenawrites.

Fiction by Jelena Dunato
  • Heart of My Heart, Soul of My Soul