“Can you turn into anything?” the little girl asked.
“Not anything. A mouse. A fly. Nothing bigger than myself. There are constraints to my powers. “
The tiny man looked down at his chest and said, “You wouldn’t understand.”
“What’s your name?”
“Must I tell you?”
What Grizel did not know in her encounter with the little man standing on the high branch was that he was a fairy. And not just any fairy. She had made his acquaintance five years prior when she was still toddling about after the chickens in the coop behind her house.
Grizel was like any other child then and now. Quiet sometimes (especially when she was tired) but rambunctious other times. She wore the usual wards that children wore. Unlike some mothers who fancied their children particularly beautiful, exceptionally sweet, or irresistibly charming, and therefore needing especially powerful wards, Grizel’s mother judged that the ward that had worked for her in her own childhood was sufficient for her daughter. It was an anklet made of black cord and hung with a button carved from the bone of an ancestor, bearing the symbols of the protecting spirits of the world. Few still believed in the protections, and yet most still followed the tradition.
Little Grizel could move fast for one who could hardly walk and somehow that day, she went far afield of her house and into the forest beyond.
She went crashing through the wood until she saw a sight that made her stop and watch. A cat was up on a low branch of a tree, stalking forward. Grizel’s wide eyes followed the cat along the branch and followed the branch to its end, and there stood a sight she had never seen in her two years upon the earth. A tiny little man.
The sight of the man delighted Grizel. The sight of the cat did not. She had been scratched by a kitten in recent memory, and though the wound on her chubby little arm had healed and faded, the wound in her heart had not. For she had loved that kitten. But now, she was its enemy. And the enemy of all cats.
Grizel called out and the cat froze and looked toward her. Seeing she was no threat, it looked away. But the branch was low and there was a boulder beside it. And Grizel loved to climb boulders. She climbed the boulder and the cat ignored her. She climbed onto the branch and the cat ignored her. She grasped the cat’s tail and the cat cried. Grizel, suddenly afraid, let go of its tail. The cat could not regain its balance fast enough and went tumbling from the branch. The branch wavered and Grizel too lost her balance.
The branch was low and the cat was a cat, so it landed on the ground, shook itself, glared up at the branch, hissed, and leapt away.
Grizel teetered but did not fall. She may have survived such a fall, but she would have been gravely hurt, if not for the tiny man.
He held out his hands and by some enchantment, kept her from falling. He steadied the branch and helped guide her down the boulder and onto the solid ground of the wood.
Grizel plopped down to the ground, her lip downturned and quivering. Then she cried and cried.
The tiny man stayed and watched her. She eventually stopped and looked about. She began to walk back the way she had come. As she did, the tiny man followed. He saw that she was too young for him to speak with her yet about the debt that he owed her by his code. A cat was a terrible enemy for his particular kind. Then he saw the ward on her ankle.
He put a mark on the bone ward, so he would be able to find her when the time was right.
He returned five years later and found a sometimes rambunctious and sometimes quiet girl. She still had the ward around her ankle. It was meant to be worn until the end of a child’s twelfth year.
Larkspur told Grizel about their first meeting. He told her about the debt he owed her, made all the deeper for all the years he had waited to pay it. Grizel had heard her father speak of debts and thought the fairy would give her some coin. But he explained that he had no coin or other worldly treasure and could offer only such services as he could render with his powers.
After telling the excited Grizel about all of his powers, the fairy asked what service he could render. Grizel knew exactly what she wanted. Her heart’s desire in those days was a beautiful doll in the township’s toy shop. It had hair made of fine braids of the softest black yarn, real glass eyes, and a long flowing tail.
It was a cotton-stuffed horse, a black mare. Grizel had begged her mother for it, but it was a great expense. She knew the fairy would say, “no,” just like her mother, but she asked. She timidly described the toy.
Though he could give her no treasure, Larkspur broke no rule by granting her the gift. It was not the same one she saw in the toy store, but the fairy labored for one day and one night to make a strict match.
“Thank you!” Grizel cried the next morning as she clutched the stuffed mare to her chest. She could not believe her good fortune. But fortune was not yet done with her.
“That hardly pays the debt,” said Larkspur. “Is there nothing else you need?”
Gazing into the stuffed mare’s eyes, Grizel could think of nothing. So Larkspur told her that she could call him whenever she wished, and he would come and grant her what was within his power to grant her until his debt was paid.
As the year bore on, Grizel found herself wanting now and then, and she called upon the fairy, whom she came to call Lark, for he was sometimes so melancholy that she doubted he was from the renowned race of tricksters and mischief-makers, and she hoped to spur some silliness in him, for she rather liked the little man.
She once fell from a tree and broke her foot. She called upon Larkspur to help heal her. He tried but only managed to heal her halfway through and sighed from the effort and the failure. But Grizel, who had broken a bone or two before reuniting with her old friend, was impressed.
She called upon him once when a friend dared her to fetch a flower that only grew on a nearby mountain that was too high to climb and descend in one day. Larkspur turned himself into a sparrow, flew up the mountain, and fetched the flower for Grizel.
Before a year had passed, Grizel had called upon the fairy often and he never refused any of her requests, even when she thought she had gone too far. And he never told her that her debt was paid. Grizle began to grow irritated with him. She could not say why, but it was bothersome to have a friend who only ever did all that you asked of him.
One day, having fought with her sister about the blame she bore for some mischief they had both done, Grizel called upon Larkspur.
She had a wicked thought, but she was still (for the most part) a good girl. So she did not ask for a favor or gift. She only asked if he would grant her what she asked if she asked it. And Larkspur asked her what she wanted.
“If I asked you to manage it that my sister loses all her hair until the next moon, could you manage it?”
“Of course. You need only ask it.”
Grizel stood agape. Though he had never refused her, she thought that surely he would stop shy of doing such a horrid thing. She suddenly wondered if she had ever asked for him to do anything so wicked. She had often called upon him when she was angry or sad. He should have stopped her from wishing for anything wicked. Now she feared that he wouldn’t. Grizel became angry. She yelled at the startled fairy for agreeing to grant her wicked demand, and she chased him off. Even as he transformed into a jay and flew off, she realized how horrid she had been to him.
She called him back at once. Larkspur approached cautiously and when he found her, he found her weeping. He watched for a while. She sat upon a boulder, leaning over with her elbows in her lap, and her hands on her face.
When the fierce crying gave way to quiet crying, she pulled her hands away, and wiped her eyes and face with the backs of her hand. She pulled a kerchief from her pocket to wipe her nose and saw her fairy Larkspur sitting beside her.
She begged his forgiveness, and of course, he gave it. She knew he would, and even as she’d wept, she’d thought and thought.
She’d thought about the day she had first met the fairy. She could not remember. But so too could she not believe that she had done something heroic, if recklessly so. That toddler had been deserving of the fairy’s gifts. But five years hence, collecting on a debt that she did not truly deserve, having her every wish granted, she had become spoiled by the fairy’s attentions. She had become a horrid and selfish person. She understood that Larkspur’s debt was deep. So she asked him for a final gift.
What she did for him by accident on the fateful day they met, she wanted to do by purpose. She wanted to be good and strong.
“Alas,” Larkspur said, timidly watching the girl in case of another outburst. “I am not powerful enough.”
But Grizel did not rage. Instead she asked him who could help her grant her wish to have the three things that she believed would make her a good and heroic person: strength, wisdom, and kindness.
Now, the fairy knew that it took time and effort for a person to attain great strength, wisdom, and even kindness. But Grizel and Larkspur, though bound by debt, had grown fond of each other. And he longed to help her as soon as he could. So he told her all about the different ways she might get what she wanted, even when those ways were fraught with danger. Worse still, he led her away from home without regard for her mother, father, brother, and sisters.
Grizel wanted for nothing, for Larkspur brought her food and brought her to shelter. He kept her safe by showing her where she could hide from danger, be it the animals of the wood, or thieves and brigands on the roads, or even constables who would thwart her quest by returning her to her family.
The first part of her journey was a visit to the western oracle.
Grizel believed that knowing the future would make her wise. When the oracle told her that she would one day lose her heart to a dashing young worthy and be the queen of a formidable people, she grew proud and comforted in attaining her first aim.
She strode proudly down the road, with Larkspur riding on her shoulder.
“Wisdom is not so difficult to attain,” she said. “I wonder why the elders are always saying so. They just don’t want to share it with us, like so many other things. They must think it will harm us if we have too much wisdom when we’re young. Perhaps they fear it will make us sick, as when we eat too many sweets at once. Perhaps they deem we should only have a bit of it at a time.”
Larkspur, who had been worried about Grizel’s pride, perked up. For in saying what she said at last, she had for the first time since visiting the oracle, expressed true wisdom.
She wasted no time. She next aimed for kindness and so visited a surgeon.
Grizel hoped that the surgeon could make her heart bigger, for if her heart was bigger, it would be able to fill more kindness and compassion within. But she was a child and did not willingly enter places of healing. When she peeked through a window and saw the surgeon put out his instruments upon, she became terrified and decided that she must take care of kindness and compassion in some other way.
As she and the fairy continued on their journey, she told him that as they were friends, he must tell her when she was being cruel or close to it, so she would know when to stop herself.
“This too, I cannot grant you,” Larkspur said.
The fairy sighed and explained. “I cannot judge cruelty from kindness, because I have no heart. It was stolen long ago, long before I first met you.”
“Who stole your heart?” Grizel wondered, frowning. For though she was a child, she had heard the phrase before and knew the words did not mean what they seemed to mean.
“An ogre did. Out of jealousy. For revenge. You see, this ogre loved one who did not love him back. She did not love him back for many reasons, but prime among them was that she loved me.”
Grizel listened, her eyes wide. “I didn’t know that ogres could love.” In the stories, they were just brutish, and cruelty seemed their one pleasure.
Larkspur laughed a bit. “They can, but they are not good at it. Their hearts are fairly small and there is little warmth in them. An ogre’s heart is a dying fire.”
Suddenly, an idea sparked in Grizel’s mind and she stopped. “I know how I can attain kindness!” she said. “We’ll go into the ogre kingdom and I will get your heart back for you.”
Larkspur stood aghast. It was a noble notion, and a terrifying one. He had never been to the ogre kingdom. His encounter with the ogres and the loss of his heart had happened at a goblin market, when Grizel’s mother was no older than Grizel was now.
Grizel gasped in delight, for she had another notion. “I can learn strength there too! From the strongest creatures in the realm.”
Larkspur frowned. “Ogres don’t earn their strength, they are given it, as some are given great wit or great beauty. You will learn nothing of strength from them.”
Grizel had another insight. “Were your powers stronger when you had your heart?”
Larkspur hesitated, then nodded.
“And were you not as sad?”
“I am not sad. One has to have a heart to be sad. I am just…nothing.”
“And yet, you were kind to me. Even without a heart.” Her eyes began to glisten. “Because you’re my friend.”
Grizel saw a rare occurrence then, for Larkspur smiled.
The kingdom of the ogres was not so bad a place to traverse, if one was either an ogre, or somehow rendered unseen.
Without his heart, Larkspur did not have the power to transform Grizel into anything larger or smaller than her natural size. So he could not make her a mouse or a mockingbird. But he could transform her into an ogre.
Because she was so small, she was taken to be a very young child. When Larkspur told her to stumble about, Grizel feared that someone would pick her up and try to find her mother. But Larkspur laughed at the notion. Ogre babies were left to fend for themselves after being born, and were able to do so. They were ignored until they reached a certain size, which happened at different ages for different ogres. Then they were taught the ogre ways and some trade. Grizel noted that the ogres were indeed brutish, but they were not as dim as the tales made them seem. They were, however, as strong as she had expected them to be. They lifted huge boulders as she would lift a bucket of feathers. And where men would saw the branches from a tree, an ogre could simply tear it off, and somehow do so cleanly. Every people had their own kind of cleverness.
They went deeper into the kingdom, expecting a long and tedious search to learn where Larkspur’s heart was. So they were surprised to learn that the fairy’s heart was quite easy to find. The ogre who had stolen it had given it as a gift to his king.
It was in the castle, guarded, but likely not warded, not with spells. The ogres were not adept at tricks, traps, and illusions. And their castles needed little guarding for the kingdom itself, full of ogres as it was, was a formidable enough barrier. Grizel and Larkspur though, harmless and invisible, found their way onto the castle grounds and into the chamber where the fairy’s heart, small but glowing with enchantment was kept on a pedestal under a glass case.
While Grizel distracted the guards by trying to crawl past them into the very chamber they needed to enter, Larkspur flew in and landed on the lip of the pedestal. He circled the glass case cautiously. Then reached out to touch it.
A sudden flash filled the room. Grizel blinked her eyes many times, but she could not see. She made her way to the pedestal and crouched under it, hearing the ogre guards yell to each other and sound the alert.
When her eyes adjusted, she looked about, afraid the ogres would capture her. And while she was now surrounded, it was not her that caught their attention, but a tiny figure that lay on the ground.
It was Larkspur and he wasn’t moving. The ogre guards pointed their spears at him nonetheless.
“Destroyed,” a voice said. “The king’s greatest treasure.”
An ogre wearing a golden gauntlet made his way past the guards. Grizel thought he must be their captain, for the other ogres looked to him. He was staring above Grizel at the pedestal. Grizel looked up and saw what he meant. The brightly beating fairy heart was no more. In its place was a blackened husk. She looked at the ogre captain again, fearing his wrath.
“It was a trap,” she said, bending over the body of her friend. She reached out a finger to gently touch his chest and gently nudge him.
Grizel glanced up at the ogre captain. He was looking at her with some curiosity. Ogre children her size probably did not speak much. She looked down at Larkspur again. She had promised she would get his heart back for him. She had failed. She began to weep, but it was not a fierce weeping. It was a measured weeping.
And then she remembered the words of the oracle. And it gave her an idea. She knew no magic or enchantment, but she touched her chest with one hand, and Larkspur’s chest with her other hand. His debt was not yet paid. She did not know if death absolved him of it. But she focused with all her heart and will. She asked the spirits to give all her heart to the little fairy, so that he might live.
To her relief, something happened. She felt a hollow in her chest. And she saw that Larkspur was reviving.
When he came to his senses, he was horrified at what Grizel had done. But it was a gift that could not be returned. All he could do was enchant her so that she could live even without a heart. He transformed himself so he grew bigger, as big as her, and she saw that he looked like a little boy, not much older than herself.
The ogres surrounding them were pointing their weapons at both fairy and girl now. And she saw that when Larkspur had died, if only for a moment, the spell of illusion he had placed on her had fallen away. She looked as she was, a human child.
But the ogre captain had a different response. He was astounded at Grizel’s sacrifice. And at the sight of her heart. He only glimpsed it as it passed from her to Larkspur, but he had never see a heart so bright and shining. And it was big, bigger than any he had ever seen, for he had only seen the hearts of ogres and fairies, never the heart of a (mostly) good little girl.
Suddenly, the ogre began to weep.
“Why did she do that?” he moaned. “Kindness?”
“Yes, and more,” Larkspur said. He placed a protective arm around Grizel’s shoulders. He looked upon the befuddled face of the girl. “Love.”
The ogre, still weeping, knelt before the girl. “I have never seen such strength before.”
“That’s what happens when you have a big enough heart and keep it open.” The fairy frowned and turned upon the ogre. “But betrayal also happens when you have a big enough heart and keep it open. And now, thanks to you, she has no heart. She will soon be no better than you witless ogres.”
It was possible to live without a heart, even for a human. But the loss took its dark toll, especially for a human.
“You must let me,” the ogre captain said, turning to the fairy. He placed his hand on his chest and Larkspur’s eyes grew wide. He placed his other hand above Grizel’s heart, or where it should have been if she had one.
Larkspur understood. Any heart was better than no heart, even a tiny and dim ogre’s heart. He cast the enchantment. A dim light passed from the ogre to the girl.
“The king has given you his heart!” one of the guards said.
Larkspur frowned. “You’re the king of the ogres?”
The ogre with the gold gauntlet nodded, tried to smile and managed a grimace, and then he lay down and died. Panicked, Larkspur tried to revive him, but even with all his powers restored, he could not. He glanced at all the ogre guards still surrounding him and Grizel. There were a dozen at least. He tried to think how they might escape, then someone spoke.
“Hail, the departed king,” one of the ogre guards said. Then he turned to Grizel. “And hail the incoming queen.”
Grizel gaped as the ogre guards facing her laid their weapons down and bowed.
Copyright © 2015 Nila L. Patel