Chapter I: in which the story begins
When the winter first melted into spring, Basil and I crept to the edge of the woods behind our houses to pick wildflowers in the meadow. It was still too early for raspberries; in the summer, we’d fill our baskets and our stomachs with them until our mouths were stained red with juices. Our mothers would bake pies in the afternoon and we’d eat them in the evening, cleaning every last scrap from our supper plates with the promise of a sweet dessert. Now, the earth was still cool beneath our bare feet, our toes wiggling in the soft dirt. Once we’d filled our fists with flowers, we settled in the tall grass and began weaving together goldenrod, daisies, and violets into flower crowns and daisy chains.
Basil presented his work and beamed at me, shielding his eyes from the afternoon sun with the back of his hand. “Take it, I want you to wear it,” he urged, thrusting the flower crown into my lap.
“But you worked so hard on it,” I replied.
He shrugged and brushed the dirt from his tanned knees. “I want you to have it,” he insisted, reaching forward and taking the crown from my lap to place it gently on my head.
I stared down at my own work in my hands; it was not nearly as beautiful as the one Basil had made. Some of the stems had split, and many of the flowers had lost some of their leaves and petals. I didn’t have the same steady hands that he did.
“In that case, I want you to have mine, too,” I decided, pressing the crown onto Basil’s head as a couple more leaves fluttered to the ground.
Basil grinned a mile wide, practically radiating sunshine with every inch of his being. “Now we match,” he beamed.
A peaceful silence fell over the meadow. Behind us, the trees rustled in the woods. Insects hovered in the grass, hopping from flower to flower; Basil jumped when a bee buzzed past his face to land in the flowering raspberry bushes that bordered the tree line.
“We’ll be friends forever, right, Basil?” I asked after a while, sheepishly adjusting my flower crown.
“Of course we will,” he responded. “Even when we’re old!”
“How old? Like, eighteen? That’s super old!”
Basil laughed. “Yeah! Eighteen and then even older!”
I smiled hopefully. “And we can still make flower crowns like this?”
“Ace, when we’re eighteen, I’ll still make you all the flower crowns you want,” Basil decreed with a grin. “That’s a promise.”
The warmth of the sun and Basil’s innocent smile faded as I woke up to last night’s rain dripping down on me from the cracks in the ceiling above. Bertrand stood over me, jostling me awake with one hand while the other held a vial of another one of his concoctions. I assumed I had fallen asleep after supper, because the dishes remained untouched by the washbasin and twilight was just pouring in through the window.
“Drink up,” Bertrand commanded in that voice of his that just begged to be disobeyed, holding the potion in front of me expectantly as if to remind me of the curse that filled the vacant space within me. He stared at me with piercing eyes over the top of his dull gray beard, swishing the vial back and forth for emphasis.
I grabbed it from his wrinkly hand and sloshed the red liquid around in disgust before shutting my eyes and downing it in one gulp, just to appease him. Even so, I could not resist the urge to lay a hand against my chest, but still I felt nothing. Shaking my head, I rose from my cot and pushed past Bertrand, grabbing my bow and arrow off the hook by the door and slinging it over my shoulder.
“Where are you going?” Bertrand called after me.
“Out,” I answered, already halfway out the rickety wooden door.
“It’s past nightfall, Ace, it’s dangerous out there!”
But I was already gone, walking away from the old house as the door slammed shut behind me with a satisfying thud.
Over the seven years I’d spent under Bertrand’s leaky roof, I had slowly become disillusioned with the idea of ever finding a potion strong enough to light a fire in my ribcage. Bertrand had tested a lot of his spells on me throughout my life, but the love potion had always proven to be the least effective.
But I suppose that is to be expected when you do not have a heart.
The Village of the Heartless was smaller than the town where I grew up. A single dirt road ran from the village gates to the top of the hill, through the neighborhood before coming to a stop at the edge of the woods that surrounded the kingdom of Amistadia. We were a close-knit community, learning to provide and look out for each other through thick and thin, through every harsh winter and plentiful spring.
Bertrand’s house stood at the edge of the village, where the hill dropped off toward the gates below. At the base of the hill stood a large, sturdy oak tree where I perched some nights with my bow and arrow on the lookout for trouble.
Nights in the Village of the Heartless were always dark, as we could never afford enough oil to keep all of the town’s lamps lit, but they weren’t always quiet. Kids from neighboring towns sometimes wandered the area at night, brandishing knives in their grimy hands, looking to stir up trouble. Tonight was no exception; as I neared the village limits, I caught a glimpse of a pair of boys making their way down the road, and a thrill shot up my spine. I climbed swiftly up the oak tree and perched in the shadow of its lush, leafy branches, fingers itching for my bow.
The pair dragged a child behind them by the arm, yanking her across the dirt with them as they cackled and cheered triumphantly at their prized catch. The girl held tightly to a canvas sack, trying fruitlessly to pull away from her captors.
“Get away, get away!” she shrieked, dodging a blow as she fell to the ground, clutching the bag to her torso desperately.
“What’s the matter, little runt?” one of the assailants sneered. “You’re not afraid of a couple of kids, are you?”
“I just wanted something to eat!” the girl cried out as a likely filthy knife narrowly missed her cheek.
If I had been in my right mind, I would have simply shot the pair of boys in the shoulder, snatched up the child, and run away, but Basil’s face kept flashing in my mind; an anger was boiling in my gut that demanded confrontation.
“Hey, ugly!” I shouted, pulling back an arrow and pointing it in their direction.
The kid with the knife froze, eyes darting up to my place on the tree branch. I was yards away, but I could see the glint of light from the last of the setting sun on the knife as his fist tightened around it. His partner, as well as the child still laying on the ground with the sack clutched to her chest, stared wide-eyed as he rose to his feet and stalked toward the tree.
“Who’re you talking to?” he grumbled.
“Doesn’t matter,” I quipped, hopping down from my perch and tightening my grip on the arrow. “Just let the kid go.”
“Why should I?” he retorted, nonetheless taking a step back when he saw the arrow aimed directly at his head. “Y-You’re not really going to shoot that.”
“How do you know?”
The other kid called out, “Hey, let’s just get out of here.” He was ignored.
Pointing to the little girl, Knife Boy puffed out his chest and continued, “There’s no way you’re really worried about her. You Heartless are all the same; you don’t feel a damned thing. No way you’d go out of your way to save her.”
I allowed myself a bitter, self-indulgent smirk, too brief to be seen in the thick darkness. “If that’s what you believe, that I am entirely emotionless, then wouldn’t it also stand to reason that I would feel no remorse about ending your sorry life right here and now?” I drew my bowstring further; the wood audibly creaked. “If that’s the case, then it would seem you had better start running.”
Knife Boy froze, taking a few steps back before he and his friend took off running in the direction they came. “Cursed bastards!” he yelled over his shoulder as he hopped the gate and disappeared. Once they were out of sight, I let my arms drop to my side and slung my bow back over my shoulder. I felt my brow furrow in frustration; life in the village had become so mundane that I was almost hoping for a fight. I quickly stifled that selfish thought, pushing it to the far recesses of my mind; the girl, who had stayed completely still on the ground throughout the whole ordeal, now scrambled to her feet, still clutching the bag in her white-knuckled hands. Now, no longer squinting through the dark, I recognized her immediately.
“That was awesome! How did you know what to say?” she beamed, slinging the canvas sack over her shoulder and wiping the dirt from a pair of ratty pants that fell three inches from her ankles.
“Petra, you’re the one who I keep hearing has been stealing food from the neighboring villages?” I asked her, and her expression soured immediately at having been caught.
“Yeah, that was me,” Petra admitted under her breath. Then, scrambling to justify herself, she added, “But I only do it because there’s not enough food in the village and I gotta eat something!”
I nodded, mulling it over. “Sure, now I suppose I can’t blame you for that, but stealing is wrong. You’re plenty old enough to know that.”
“Of course, I know that, but I needed food!”
“Fine, I get it, I get it,” I sighed. “Just don’t make this a habit, got it? I promised Annie I would keep you out of trouble.”
Petra pouted. “Fine,” she mumbled. I started back up the hill, with Petra trotting silently alongside me.
At thirteen years old, Petra had been living in the Village of the Heartless since she was a baby—which was still longer than I’d been in town—left outside the home of one of the village women, Annie, in the middle of the night. I’d met her several years ago, and she quickly became enthralled with my stories of life outside the village. Annie was dead several months now, leaving Petra to fend mostly for herself, though the community kept a watchful eye over her (Not watchful enough, I thought ruefully).
“You didn’t tell me how you knew what to say to that kid,” she urged, struggling to keep up with my strides.
“I used to spend time around those kinds of people a lot when I was a kid,” I explained, deciding to humor her. “I’ve learned how to turn their own words against them by now.”
I did not tell her that had I learned how to do so sooner, things may have turned out a lot differently.
I eventually sent Petra home with a warning that I’d be watching to make sure she didn’t get into any more trouble. When I crossed the threshold back into Bertrand’s musty old house, the palm of his hand came down hard across my face, leaving a sharp stinging sensation behind on my skin.
“What on earth was that for?” I yelped. Bertrand grabbed me by the wrist and dropped me into one of the rickety dining chairs in the center of the room, bearded face practically sparking with rage.
“You must not keep doing that!” he scolded.
“Doing what?” I asked innocently.
“Getting into confrontations with… hooligans! What else?”
“I did what I had to—”
“Don’t think I wasn’t watching, Ace! I could see the entire ordeal from the window!”
“Well maybe if you’d actually done something to help instead of just watching—”
“Unlike you, Ace, I value my life and am not going to get myself killed just to feel like the hero!”
I couldn’t help but bristle at his comment. Something in my soul shattered, and I sprung to my feet, the wooden chair tipping backward onto the stone floor behind me with a loud clatter that would have rang through the eaves had I not immediately erupted into theatrics.
“What do you mean you value your life? All you do is sit around making futile potion after potion and you still think it’ll work next time!” I clenched my fists at my sides, willing the confrontational energy in my veins to burn out before it swallowed me whole. “So maybe I need to tell off some asshole every once in a while to finally feel like I’m doing something meaningful. So you can keep pouring bile down my throat all you want, but I can assure you it’ll never make me happy!”
Bertrand’s face fell, and I knew deep down that I had hurt him, but I could not bring myself to feel guilty. He had it coming, I thought, stalking across the room to my cot by the window. I sat down on the thin mattress, kicked off my boots, and pulled my knees up to my chest.
“Ace—” Bertrand, having followed me, reached out a hand as if to lay it on my shoulder, but I flinched away from the touch and he retracted the appendage as if he had been burned.
“Don’t touch me,” I muttered, directing my gaze out the window at the dark, lonely night creeping across the landscape. “Just leave me alone.”
With a sigh, Bertrand retreated from my bedside, retiring to his back potion room to conjure his demons away, and I sat back against the wall, longing for home and the warm voices of my parents.
That night, I dreamt of Knife Boy, and his words reminded me of Carita, the girl who kissed me under an oak tree when we were younger and told me I was weird for flinching.