The duchess’s hands were covered in blood.
She hid them under her shawl, but the shawl was bleeding too, dripping blood from the beating heart it was wrapped around. The duchess ran out of the king’s bedchamber, stumbled down one of the servants’ passages to the kitchen and ran out one of the back doors where the king’s horse was waiting.
The duchess’s white hair, usually up in a tidy bun, trailed behind her. It too was stained.
The duchess climbed up on the horse, ignoring her aches and pains, not caring she must ride without a saddle. The horse galloped away, just as her son, the king, burst out of the same door she disappeared through.
“Morgana!!!” The king roared.
He stumbled, too, not from old age but from the knife buried in his gut and the deep, burning slash on the left side of his chest. He saddled his second-fastest horse and set off after the duchess groaning and swearing revenge.
The duchess wept.
She murmured his name as she rode, his nickname, the name she sang to in the cradle.
“Naniel, Naniel, Naniel, I love you.”
The duchess had never given way to the softness inside her. She’d reserved her tenderness for her very youngest children, and progressively hardened as they grew. She had to: her brother Linus had no heirs. Morgana had known she was raising future kings, statesmen, princesses. She had acted accordingly.
Now, she had the chance to fix that mistake.
Her firstborn, Nathaniel, the kingliest of her sons, had grown up paranoid from her warnings and descended into madness, madness and cruelty. He had been a good king, in the beginning. Morgana had been immensely proud of him.
The duchess rode into the woods. The woods, beautiful and vast, adorned the center of her kingdom, but they were not part of it. The faeries ruled the wood, and the swamp inside it; the faeries and the other magical creatures, and-as legend said-the Heartsmith.
The duchess clutched the beating, struggling, precious charge to her chest as the wood became too dense and she dismounted. The horse turned back; good. She did not want the king to know where she had left it.
She placed the shawl on the floor; she had no other choice. She bound up her hair as well as she could and stripped of her fine things, everything but her drawers and chemise. She knew how to do it quickly, had done it often as a girl when she wanted to get away from her family.
Still, it took the old duchess some time. Precious time.
She stepped into the swamp, barefoot, dirtying everything but the heart in her arms. The mosquitoes stung her, plants and mud stuck to her toes and pulled at her papery skin. The duchess could feel eyes on her, magical eyes. But surely the creatures of the wood could see the heart bleeding down the front of her dirty chemise; surely that would be enough to grant a safe passage to the Heartsmith’s dwelling.
She found the tree, the old, knotted willow entrenched deep into the swamp. She tripped and scraped her way to the bottom and found a small door, a door that barely reached her waist.
Morgana slammed against it. She curled over the heart to protect it from the impact and crumpled on the Heartsmith’s doorstep.
She could hear the king behind her, cursing and dying, the exertion of chasing after her sapping his strength and the blood he had left in his body.
Morgana had learned magic as a young girl. The men of noble families were destined to rule, but the women-they held the power that kept their sons and fathers on the throne. She had used every drop of magic inside her to keep the king alive after she tore out his heart.
But his time-her time-was running out.
The duchess pounded on the Heartsmith’s door. She yelled herself hollow with the last of her strength.
Morgana no longer had the heart to demand respect, to hold herself to the dignity her station demanded of her. She bruised her fists on the door, a desperate, broken old woman.
The door opened as the king’s hands wrapped tight around the duchess’s throat.
The duchess gasped for air. The spindly creature crawled out of the door and pulled the king’s hands apart, pushing him away from Morgana. The Heartsmith, with skin like tree bark and a body thin like willow branches, jumped over the old lady and wrestled the dying king to the ground; the king’s head cracked against the willow wood, and he went limp.
The Heartsmith dragged Nathaniel through the tiny door carved into the willow, leaving the duchess lying unconscious on his doorstep.
Nathaniel’s heart beat weakly in Morgana’s embrace.
The Heartsmith seemed not to care that the dying king’s wounds bled all over his bedroom/kitchen floor, nor that his head and arms banged on every surface as the Heartsmith dragged him by his feet through a trapdoor that led down into the willow’s roots: into the Heartsmith’s workroom.
The unconscious king clattered down the stairs. At the bottom, the Heartsmith let go of his feet.
The Heartsmith’s lab-like workroom, made entirely of wood, seemed to gleam; but it didn’t . It was just clean, well-shined.
The central table rose straight out of the hollowed willow. The Heartsmith stretched out his long arms and swept all his tools off the table with a crash.
He hoisted the dying king over his shoulder and laid him down on the table; oddly enough, this time the Heartsmith was gentle.
He hummed a low song under his breath and searched one of the cabinets until he found a fist-sized, clockwork orb with a key in its center. The Heartsmith turned the key, and orb began to hum.
The Heartsmith laughed.
He retrieved a grey thread and a long, scary-looking black needle from one of the drawers. He returned to the table and carefully, firmly sewed the humming orb into the empty hole in the king’s chest. The whole operation took about half an hour.
Once the Heartsmith was satisfied, he returned to the entrance, picked up the duchess and brought her in to his kitchen. He poured her a glass of clear, green-gold liquid, took the heart from her and returned to his workroom, humming all the while.
The duchess tried to say something, attempted to explain herself. The Heartsmith waved her words away and disappeared underneath the trapdoor.
Morgana looked at the glass he left her with distaste, but drank either way. Her thirst forbade her to be particular.
She was surprised to find it sweet, warm and good; invigorating, even.
Down below, the Heartsmith examined the king’s heart.
Cursed yellow and gray invaded the good, healthy flesh of the muscle. The sickness was winning; the Heartsmith tsked and brought the heart into a dark, closed-off room in the corner of the workroom.
The Heartsmith’s hums became stronger, echoing up the hollow tree so the duchess thought it was singing.
The Heartsmith returned to his workroom and sewed the king’s wounds closed with the grey thread and black needle, using tiny, precise stitches. Then he poured more of the golden-green liquid into the king’s mouth.
The king opened his eyes and choked on it.
“Chill it, ruler.” The Heartsmith rolled his eyes. “You are weak-can’t do much.”
“Where is she?” Nathaniel snarled. “Where is Morgana?”
“Kitchen.” The Heartsmith pointed up.
The king pushed himself upright and fell off the table, flat on his face.
“What said I to you?” The Heartsmith sighed. He picked up the tall, wide-shouldered man effortlessly and placed him back on the table. “Stay. You can have the shrill old lady in a minute.”
The Heartsmith climbs back up, without bothering to lock or even close the trapdoor.
“Ruler downstairs wants to kill you.” He tells the duchess.
Morgana looked at the Heartsmith, composed. She said, “He’s my son. He’s done terrible things-tortured people, emptied homes, beggared children, sentenced good men and friends to death...I understand if you want nothing to do with him.”
“He will live.” The Heartsmith said.
“And the heart?”
The Heartsmith grinned. “It’s mine, now.”
The duchess jumped to her feet. “What?”
The Heartsmith held up his hands like two plates of a scale.
“A life,” he lifted one hand. “For a heart.” He lifted the other.
“He won’t be a good king without his heart.” The duchess protested.
The Heartsmith took a step towards her, one eyebrow raised. “You’re confusing a man with a tool, old lady.”
She pursed her lips. “My son is both at once.”
“Not heartless, he isn’t.” The Heartsmith grinned. “So he is only a man.”
The duchess looked suddenly lost. “What am I to do?”
“You are a mother, are you not?” Asked the Heartsmith. “Mothers care for their sons.”
“What of the kingdom?” The duchess asked.
The Heartsmith laughed.
“What of the kingdom?” He repeated. “Come, old lady, and say goodbye to your son. Unlikely you will see him again.”
The duchess didn’t ask what he meant. She climbed down the stepladder into the Heartsmith’s workroom and saw Naniel on the table.
His murderous eyes had not changed. If anything, they had grown more hateful.
“Here is the old lady.” The Heartsmith told him.
Naniel stared up at the willow’s roots, as if he could not-would not- see her. The duchess’s heart ached.
“Goodbye, Nathaniel.” Tears knotted in her throat; Morgana swallowed them down.
She returned to her kingdom and ruled in her grandson’s place until he was old enough to take her place. Nathaniel the Second’s mother was a soft and loving woman; she did not make Morgana’s mistake, and Morgana stepped down without a fuss because of it. She thought her grandson too soft, too trusting. But he was intelligent; it would have to be enough.
Besides, the kingdom would not suffer her to rule once Nathaniel was grown. Though they could never prove it, they were all convinced-down to her daughter-in-law and her grandson-that Morgana had murdered her firstborn.