A baby girl was born to the king and queen. Their first child. Many visitors came to the castle to see the newborn heir. Among them was an elven traveler who went by the name of Fall. All the visitors brought gifts, most for the baby, but some for the king or queen. Some gifts were humble. Some were precious. The elven traveler brought a gift so precious that he asked to see the king in private so that he may deliver the gift.
The king, whose named was Midian, granted this audience, for the best gifts that had so far been received were from the faery folk.
So the elven traveler returned later that evening.
The queen, being tired, had already retired to sleep, and had taken her daughter with her. But the king bade one of the queen’s young attendants to bring forth the baby for the receiving of the gift.
“What is her name?” asked Fall, when he laid eyes upon the quiet but restless bundle that was laid in the royal cradle.
“According to our custom, she will not be named until the moon has turned full,” the king answered.
The elven traveler waved to a waiting attendant, who brought forth the gift. It was a vase full of flowers, daisies. But the whole thing was made of gold. It was the most finely wrought gold sculpture the king had ever seen. Petals so delicate, he could see the light shine through them. Stems so slender he could swear they would sway if there were but a gentle breeze.
It was enchantment, of course, that had done the work. The king’s face brightened at the sight of it. He could not lift the sculpture himself. For it was too weighty. But he summoned servants to help him find a spot in his study where he might put the vase of gold daisies.
While he was busy with such, the elven traveler leaned over the cradle, where his gaze was met by the curious gaze of the newborn. Her dark eyes glinted, sharpening the soft light of the chamber.
The elven traveler leaned closer and whispered to the girl.
“What kind of life can he give you? Closed off and cloistered? Stuffed into corsets? I can give you a life of mischief and adventure.”
The baby gave no apparent response.
Then the king returned and thanked the elven traveler for such a fine gift.
“Are you not curious as to how the work was wrought?” Fall asked. He reached within his coat and pulled from his breast pocket a shimmering golden glove.
King Midian’s eyes shimmered as well, from the light reflected upon the glove. It looked to be made of tiny links, far finer than the finest chainmail.
“Who wears this glove can turn anything he possesses to gold—even living flowers,” said Fall.
The king glanced at the podium upon which he had placed the gold vase full of gold daisies. “Anything?”
“I confess,” the elven traveler said. “I did not come only to give gifts and congratulations. I came in the hopes of striking a bargain.” He held up the glove.
King Midian’s eyes went wide. “What would you ask in return for such a priceless thing?”
“Only something that is equally priceless, and yet something that you can part with and not feel the loss.”
The elven traveler then explained to the king what it was that he sought.
The faery folk could not have children, not in the way that human folk could. Faeries could make children through magic, but such children had no souls. Nor could they learn magic. Without either a soul or magic, such a child would wither away and die while they were still in the bloom of youth. In the care of humans, however, a changeling might live much, much longer.
Some faery folk began the practice of making such magical babes, transforming their faces to resemble a human child, and then switching the soulless changeling for the human babe. But some, like the elven traveler, were above such theft. Instead, they made bargains with humans who were willing to surrender a child for a changeling. After all, humans could always have more children.
King Midian frowned, moving closer to the cradle. “If it’s only a child you want, why this one?”
“It’s not the child I have chosen, but her father.” Fall swept a gaze about the king’s study. “If I were to give this glove to a common man, he would no doubt misuse it. But you are a king and accustomed to riches. I judge you will be wise and prudent as the master of this glove.”
“She is my firstborn heir. My only heir.”
Fall bowed to the king. “Of course, Highness. Blood is more precious than gold.” He put the glove away in his pocket.
“And a changeling would not have my blood,” the king said, his gaze drifting to the elven traveler’s breast pocket, where the glove was now tucked away.
“If that is your wish, it can be so,” said the elven traveler. “When a changeling is newly made, she can take on any aspect of any human. She can have you daughter’s face, and she can have your blood.”
“She would…she would have no soul,” the kind said, looking down at the baby in the cradle, who looked up at him with a slow blink.
“No, but she would have a heart. And so she could love and be loved.”
The king rubbed his beard. “The queen need not know.”
“I suppose not, unless you wished to tell her.”
King Midian pointed at Fall. “You would tell no one.”
Fall bowed again. “It would be so, if you wish to make it a condition of the bargain.”
“You trust me with the glove, which is well,” said the king. “But how am I to trust you with this child?”
Fall bowed a third time. “For your judgement, I can offer only these words. I have felt no longing or envy for all that is yours—this dominion, your riches, your command of your people. For you were king, and only king. But in these last few days, you have been father. And that, I envy you. I came only to see the child. I came in hope. But I did not expect that she would bind herself to my heart. Whether we make this bargain or not, I vow to guard this child from danger and woe.”
“I would…see the changeling,” said the king.
Before the night was through, a changeling babe lay in the royal cradle. And the newborn baby who was made by the king and queen lay in a sling, held against the elven traveler’s chest as he made his way out of the castle and onto the road leading out of the capital, out of the kingdom.
Fall gazed up at the half moon and lay a gentle kiss upon the sleeping baby’s head. He whispered to her.
“Your name, my little daughter, is Nadia.”
That very same night, in the king’s chamber, Midian slipped the shimmering golden glove onto his left hand. The glove seemed to melt. It seeped into his skin. For a heartbeat, the king feared he had been tricked. He stumbled forward and tripped, catching himself on the dark heavy curtain that was drawn against the window by his writing desk.
Where his left hand grasped the curtain, a ripple of gold seeped and then splashed out. Before the king’s eyes, the entire curtain transformed into gold. He touched the curtain, squeezed it. It was solid gold.
The king clapped his hand to his mouth, then quickly pulled it away. But he did not transform. He realized there were many questions he had not asked the elven traveler about the glove.
But he was wise. The elven traveler would not have given him the glove elsewise. He would have found another. Midian was wise enough and worthy enough to discover the secrets of the glove for himself. His first test was to touch a copper goblet on his desk with his right hand. The goblet did not transform. Nor did the wine within it, when he drank. Nor did his belt. Nor did the bothersome parchment on which was written some guidance from his royal council.
But when he touched anything with his left hand—the hand to which the glove was bound—it transformed to gold.
This meant that if he tried to place another glove upon his left hand, it would turn to gold. He rubbed at his palm and made a peeling motion as if removing a glove, but nothing happened. Surely, the golden glove could be removed. And he would discover how. But the king felt no rush to part himself with the glove quite yet. He found that if he wrapped a cloth very loosely around his hand, it would transform to gold, but he could still slip his hand out. He did thus and retired for the night in his own private bedchamber.
In the morning, Midian was greeted by the yipping barks of his favorite little dog, who had surely wandered in as the servants began their work in the outer chambers. The king had enjoyed sweet and golden dreams. Smiling sleepily at the dreams, then frowning lazily at the hardness of his bed, he swept away his sheets and sat up, finding himself in his private bedchamber. The memory of the previous night returned to him, just as the dog leapt into his arms. Just as he realized that his left hand was uncovered.
He recoiled from the dog. But it was too late.
The little dog’s last yip was cut off as his throat turned to gold. The golden statue of the once-living pup slipped off the king’s lap and fell to the ground, right next to the golden bandage that had slipped off the king’s hand.
Midian jumped off the bed and turned to look at it. The pillow beside the one where he had laid his head was turned to gold. The bedpost was turned to gold. It was a wonder that the covers had not turned to gold. The night had been warm. He had kicked them away. Else he might have been trapped in a cocoon of gold.
Midian knew then that he must share knowledge of the elven traveler’s gift with one, perhaps two, whom he could trust to help him master the glove’s powers.
He could not tell his queen. She doted on the little dog. And he noted that the golden statue of her dog was quite fetching. He would let her think that the pup had run away, and present the statue to ease her distress. Though surely, she would now be more occupied with the raising of their daughter.
The years passed. And the baby girl Nadia became the little girl Nadia.
She traveled to many places with her father, who taught her mischief and magic.
One day, he confessed to her that he was not the one who made her.
Nadia was confused by the confession. She did not understand what he meant, and when she asked, he twisted his mouth, and said that he would reveal the method to her when she was older, and less inclined to be amused, or horrified, by the description.
“Does that mean you are not my true parent?” she asked. They were strolling along a forest path in spring, and she ducked around a bee as it rushed past.
“Your true parent is not the one who makes you,” Fall said, “but the one who loves you. Sometimes, they are one and the same.”
“And sometimes not?”
Nadia was both satisfied and unsatisfied with her father’s answer. She was glad to be reminded that he loved her. She was bothered, but not truly saddened, to learn that those who made her did not love her and so did not keep her. She might have asked her father about it. But Fall made another confession.
“My heart has grown since I’ve had a daughter,” he said, kicking a stone onto her path. “I’ve begun to worry it might grow too big for my chest to contain.”
Nadia kicked the rock back to him. “Then we should see a healer.”
“If I were human perhaps. But I’m an elf. Our hearts grow with love and shrivel with hate. It’s natural.”
“What about my heart?”
“You have a human heart. It will only change size until you stop growing bigger.”
“Because you have a soul.”
“What is a ‘soul’?”
“It is the part of you that is immortal.” Fall sighed. “I do not have a soul. The part of me that is immortal is my body. Immortal does not mean indestructible. Bodies and souls can be destroyed. That is why we must protect ourselves and each other.”
Fall whispered to a passing butterfly, who then landed on Nadia’s nose, and would not fly away until the girl asked politely in the language of the butterflies.
They walked in silence until Nadia whispered the words in halting and clumsy, but correct butterfly speech.
And they came upon their destination, a merry town with music pouring through the open windows of a nearby inn.
When Nadia was older still, after she had observed her fellow humans, and after she had pondered long about the ones who made her, she asked her elven father why they had made her if they did not wish to keep her.
Fall told her of the bargain he had struck. Nadia knew by then that a human and a faery could make a faery child, devoid of a soul, but able to do magic. Faeries alone could only make changelings, who had hearts, but no souls, and who could not learn magic. And who always died in youth.
“I deceived the king,” Fall said. “I told him that in the care of humans, a changeling might live longer. It is not typical. But I have heard that it has happened, on rare occasion, though I do not know why or how.”
“Have you paid the price yet, father, for such folly?” Nadia asked, as she pressed her index finger upon the surface of a stone and changed its color from gray to deepest black. They were sitting by the side of a river.
Fall sighed and shook his head as he tossed a pebble into the river.
“What about my other maker? The queen?”
“The queen? She had no part in the bargain.”
Nadia frowned. She touched the stone and turned it red. “No part? Why not?”
“By the rules of the realm into which you were born, your mother had no claim upon you.”
“Did you not think that she would wish to keep me?”
“Truly, I did not.”
“Then truly, father, though you have a sweet heart, you have no soul. For it was a cruel thing to do.”
Fall felt a sudden ache grip his heart at his daughter’s disapproval, and his own realization. “Doubly cruel,” he said, “I robbed her of you. And you of her.”
Large round drops of tears formed and fell from the elven traveler’s eyes. Never had he wept before he had a daughter. But ever since, he had wept often, from joy, fear, sorrow, and now…regret.
“I wish to visit her,” Nadia said, “but not yet to visit the king. Can it be so?”
“For you, dear daughter, I will make it so.”
The next morning, the two set out in the direction of the kingdom in which Nadia had been born. Along the way, they encountered many adventures, sometimes together and sometimes alone. So by the time they arrived, Nadia had grown into a young woman, and a crafty mage.
The changeling daughter of Midian was beyond the age where her father would have preferred she marry. He complained of this to his queen one day. They strolled in the gardens that their daughter had requested as a gift in her tenth year of life.
“She will choose her way in due time,” the queen said, brushing her hand against the bouncing heads of lavender.
“If she does not, her father will choose for her,” Midian said. He too brushed his hand against a flower, his left hand. The bloom of bright powder purple froze and turned golden. The whole kingdom knew of his magic talents now. His people boasted of their king’s “golden touch.”
“Have patience, I beg you,” the queen said.
“I would gladly afford her patience, if I had but more heirs.” The king turned his gaze to his queen. “But I do not.”
The queen clasped her hands before her as she walked. “Because I did not give you any more heirs?”
“And now it is too late. For you are—“
“Why would I have given you more children, Midian, when you so readily gave the first away?”
The king halted his steps and turned to her. The queen too stopped and stepped back.
“Medora is not the daughter born of my body,” the queen said. “But she is my daughter. And I am not so eager to throw her away.”
The queen departed, leaving Midian standing there, aghast. He was certain his queen knew nothing, for she had doted on Medora, and seemed to love her truly.
He would have chased after the queen, demanded that she tell him everything she knew. But he was late for a most important meeting.
Medora’s latest suitor was favored by Midian. He was a young prince whom Midian wished desperately to have as his son. The king had demanded an audience with the visiting prince, but in truth Midian had heard that the prince was soon to depart. The king planned to entice the prince to stay.
Still shaken by the queen’s revelation, the king found the prince standing by a fountain filled with little orange fish.
Midian summoned a false smile and clapped for a servant to bring wine and sweet breads.
“You honor me with a private audience, sire,” the prince said.
“I am glad to hear it, but I fear I have troubling words to speak to you.”
The prince furrowed his brow, but regained his composure and bowed to Midian.
“I will be direct,” said the king. “Why have you not courted my daughter?”
The prince’s eyes widened for a moment in a look of shock. “But I have, sire. The princess has declined my offer of marriage. I am greatly disappointed. But she has spoken her will.”
The king felt his hands tremble. He felt a flush of heat through his face. He stepped away from the prince and ordered a servant to summon Medora to the garden at once.
Medora came quickly and approached quietly. She bowed her head to her father, who asked her to confirm the truth of what the prince had claimed.
“It is true,” Medora said.
Midian huffed a sigh. He did not yet dismiss his daughter. But he turned to the prince.
“You may take her if you want her. As her father and her king, I give you my blessing.”
The prince blinked, and a deep furrow formed upon his brow. His gaze turned to Medora. “She is not yours to give,” said the prince. “Nor mine to take.”
Medora bowed her head to the prince.
The king huffed again. “Am I such a weak king?”
“No, sire!” said the prince.
“Then how can this be? The sun has risen and not yet set. But three times this day, I am met with defiance.” He raised his hand. “No more!”
Midian lunged for the prince with his golden hand. But he did not see that Medora had moved closer. Medora was quiet, and she was quick. She slipped between king and prince. Midian’s hand struck her shoulder.
And Medora was turned to gold.
The prince fled.
The queen lamented.
And the kingdom lost its only heir.
The king stood in the garden once more, consoling his queen with promises to find their true daughter. As the queen knelt upon her knees, her arms wrapped around the golden form of the only daughter she had known, the king proclaimed that it was all as it was meant to be. It was well that the queen had known all along that Medora was a soulless changeling.
“When our true child is found,” he said, “I will reclaim her. And offer her our kingdom, and we will find another prince, a braver one, who will not flee.”
The queen spoke, her voice thick with sorrow. “Why did you not look down upon her, and love her at once, the way good fathers do?”
Midian was not certain, but he guessed that the queen spoke of their true child. “My queen, love is a fancy. Gold is real.”
“Gold may shine when it is rare,” she said. “But it grows ugly, when it’s everywhere.”
The king knelt before her. “You will smile again, when I find our child.”
“Our child,” the queen whispered. “I beg your leave, sire, to hire mages and healers to find some way to restore her. Our child.”
The king rose, and with a sweep of his robes, he fled the garden.
The queen lamented.
And two travelers, father and daughter, elf and mage, arrived in the kingdom.
The rumor was fresh when the elf and mage first crossed into the kingdom’s border. But by the time they arrived at the castle, rumor had become news. The tragedy of the golden princess.
It was said the king’s advisors had begged him to speak to his people, to explain that it was by dire accident that he had turned his only child to gold.
But the people whispered. They wondered how, after all these many years without a single such accident, such a thing would happen now. And they spoke of how Medora had defied her father’s wishes for her to marry a prince who was seen fleeing in fright from the castle.
Nadia posed as a healer, making good demonstration of her skill.
She went to the castle alone, for she feared that Fall might be remembered. The elven traveler feared for his daughter. He begged her to flee should she catch even a glimpse of the king. He was in hiding, it was said, lurking about somewhere in the castle.
Nadia was brought to the very part of the garden where Medora had been transformed. The princess had been moved since then, by the queen’s order, to a stand among the flowers she loved in life.
The queen sat upon the edge of a fountain filled with little orange fish. She was richly garbed in purple velvet and silk. Jewels lay upon her throat and dangled from her ears. But all color and sparkle were dimmed and darkened by the sorrow upon the queen’s face.
Nadia fell to one knee and bowed upon the other, in the manner of one who had been summoned in desperate need. “Queen Lenore,” she said. “I am a mage, with some skill in healing. I came to give all aid that I may to the princess. But when I first set out to reach you, Highness, I did not imagine I would find a princess here.”
Fall and Nadia had been surprised to hear that the princess still lived—or had lived until the king turned her to gold. Medora was a changeling. With no soul to sustain her from within, and no magic from without, she should have withered away and died long ago.
“What do you mean?” the queen asked. “Why did you set out to reach me?” She rose from her seat.
Nadia heard the guards step closer.
“I did not set out alone,” she said. “I started the journey with my father, an elven traveler named Fall.”
The queen’s mind was quick. It was a quality she had passed down to her daughter. She remembered the elven traveler, and how he had requested a private audience with the king. And shortly after, the queen began to note a strangeness in her newborn child.
“You are the child I bore.”
Nadia gave a single nod. “Please, take me to my sister, Highness. I must examine her.”
“Midian seeks you.”
Nadia frowned. “The king? I have no business with the king.”
“What business do you have with me?”
Nadia hesitated. She felt a burst of panic in her chest. “My father has raised me well. But I have had no mother. I was curious to meet you. Though I assure you, I make no claim to your throne, your possessions, or your people.”
“Only to my daughter.”
The queen lifted a hand to her. “You called her ‘sister.’”
The queen showed Nadia to the spot where the frozen golden Medora stood, one hand held out to stop her father from attacking the prince.
Nadia peered at the princess’s golden eyes. “She has saved my life without knowing it.”
The queen summoned a servant and had him bring the elven traveler to the garden.
Nadia walked around the frozen Medora. “If the king had turned me to gold, I would have died at once. But your daughter still lives, Highness, for she is a changeling. She will not live much longer though. I must be quick. But I do not yet know what I must do.”
“Whatever you need, I will provide,” said the queen. “We have endless gold in our coffers.”
“So I have heard.”
Nadia studied her golden sister for hours, scribing notes, and fluttering her fingers to practice spells she might try. The queen had to pull her away to eat a meal and take some rest. The elven traveler arrived. He tried to speak to the queen, but she would not yet acknowledge him. She had only summoned him for the help he might give to the daughter he had left to her, and the one he had stolen from her.
When sunset approached, another came into the garden.
“I have found you!”
Midian approached, gazing at Nadia. The queen had given orders not to speak of the guests in the garden. But none were surprised that word had at last reached the king.
His eyes glistened with unshed tears. “All is well! The heir has returned. We will spread the word…that the heir had returned.”
He beamed and reached out to Nadia with his right hand.
“Yes,” Nadia said, gliding toward the king. “I have returned, and I have come to steal your treasures.”
Nadia meant the queen and the princess, for she meant to take them both away from the castle.
But the king seemed to misunderstand. He glanced around the garden, spotting the scattered gold flowers.
“No! You…” The king shook. With a cry, he lunged after Nadia, as he had lunged toward the prince.
The elven traveler tried to intervene, as Medora had intervened.
But Nadia stepped between her father and the king. Midian grasped her arm with both hands.
His lips were drawn back in a sneer. He watched Nadia.
And his lips went slack.
For Nadia did not transform.
“My father told me of your bargain,” she said. “The glove would turn all that you possess to gold.”
She moved her opposite hand over the king’s hands. Flicking her fingers, she sent a spark of pain through the king’s hands. He released her and staggered back.
“You can only turn to gold what is yours, Midian. Do you not recall that you forfeited me long ago, when I was but a babe?”
The queen strode forward. “Then forfeit Medora too. Free her from your curse.”
“I fear that will not work, Highness,” Fall said. “What is done cannot be undone.”
The queen turned on the elven traveler. “Then how do you mean to help her?”
“Thieves!” the king cried. He fled the garden, calling for his guards.
“I should not have taunted him,” Nadia said.
“You must go and hide,” said the queen. “I will stay and try to calm the king.”
“No,” said Fall. “It was not the queen who brought about the misfortune of the golden glove. It was I.”
Nadia clasped hands with the queen. “Taunting the king was foolish, but I did not lie. I have come to steal you and the princess away.”
The queen held her hand to her forehead. “It took three strong men to lift her onto a wagon.”
“And it will only take one slippery mage to carry her off,” Nadia said. “Forgive me, Highness. But the hours I have spent this day were not meant to lift the curse upon my sister, but to discover how I might take her from the castle.”
“I will not leave her side,” said the queen.
Nadia smiled. “Then go stand by her side.”
This the queen did. The sun was setting. And Nadia readied her spell.
“You need not stay, father.”
“He will chase you, if I don’t.” Fall placed a gentle hand upon his daughter’s shoulder. “I tricked Midian once. Perhaps I can do it again.”
“I will come to aid you in time,” Nadia said with a nod. “But first I must save my sister.”
The queen stood by Medora’s right. Nadia stood by her left. As the last rays of sunlight faded, a doorway opened at the hazy threshold between day and night.
The queen and her two daughters faded from the view of the elven traveler.
“And so we are parted, dear daughter,” said Fall to the night air. “Worry not. I will see you at length. The king will not give chase.” He reached in the breast pocket of his coat, and pulled out a shimmering golden glove. Grinning, he slipped it over his right hand and flexed his fingers. His grin faded. “And your father will not be cruel this time.”
The elven traveler knew what would distract the king from pursuing his queen and heirs. For he knew what Midian treasured most of all.
He had known all along.
Fall brushed his gloved fingers against the soft petals of the flowers in the garden. They hardened to gold as he passed by them strolling toward a trellis with climbing vines, and beyond that, a marble colonnade that would all be gold by morning.
Copyright © 2022 Nila L. Patel