Heartstone

1 – Magic and Puns

Love is an adventure, so they say. You know what is also an adventure? Leaving the world you know and entering a new one. 

One moment Arwin was racing his car through cattle-filled ranches and fields of golden wheat in his native prairie homeland. The next moment, he was off road, careening through a bumpy field of tall, blue grass. It was literally blue: vivid, deep, royal blue. And instead of the sound of crushing vegetation, as he rocked and rolled though the blades, the grass made soulful music.

Too stunned by the sudden change to react in time, he didn’t see the tree in front of him until it was too late. His car thundered into it and came to an abrupt halt, fender, hood and engine wrapping around the immovable trunk like the car was giving it a big, metal hug. Blue spruce-like branches rattled the hood and roof of the car, each branch thick with blue moss in the shapes of various types of facial hair: French forks, Van Dykes, Xaén Dovéts, hulihees, goatees, ducktails and many more. 

From out of a little door, high in the tree’s trunk, stormed a tiny man. He was about the size of a squirrel and sported a full, blue beard. He wore 17th-century, French aristocratic clothes: tunic and tights under a fur-lined cape, the royal-blue fabric embroidered with gold thread. A gold chain and medallion hung around his neck. He rattled off a string of blue language in Arwin’s direction, the little man’s face blue with the effort. Then he spun on his minuscule heel and vanished back into his abode.

Arwin turned his gaze in all directions, peering out the car windows. He shook his head, bewildered. Musical blue grass? A bluebeard tree with blue beards? A miniature man resembling the fairytale character of Bluebeard? But how could a man be only a handspan tall? What the hell was going on?

He unsnapped the restraining device and climbed out of the car. Dazed, he looked around. 

“Where am I?” he wondered aloud.

All around, the scenery had completely changed. Endless prairie had been replaced by a small, blue field surrounded by towering, dense forest. Some trees he recognized while others were completely foreign, like the bluebeard tree. And what he guessed was probably called a sandalwood tree. After all, the leaves were all shaped like sandals. He took a closer look. No, they were sandals, growing out of the branches. How was that even possible? He took a few steps through the knee-high blue grass. A gust of wind came down out of the sky to tickle the rounded, blue leaves and a mournful wave of notes played through the meadow.

Arwin put his hand on his head. “I’ve lost my mind,” he groaned, checking his scalp for blood. “I must have hit my head. I’m delirious. Hallucinating.” He stepped backwards and his foot landed on something hard. A despondent cry arose from below. Jerking his foot away, he looked down.

It was a bluestone. A rock, coloured blue. And it appeared to be sad. How a rock could possibly have, let alone communicate, emotions, struck Arwin as rather impossible, yet here it was. When he had stepped on it, the rock must have made that sad sound. Then he got it. The rock was feeling blue. That was — literal.

Arwin tried to wrap his head around his current situation. 

I was driving along and everything was normal. Well, until I took that side road and nearly ran into a freaking dragon that caused me to swerve off course. A pink dragon and its baby. As if colour makes the fact that there was a real, live dragon any more exceptional! I swerved so I wouldn’t hit them, then went off road. 

Wait. The air. I remember it shimmering for a moment. Some kind of portal? 

He took a deep breath and tried to steady his whirling thoughts. 

Looking around, it seemed that maybe he wasn’t even on Earth anymore. Pink dragons, little blue men, sandals growing on trees: all were impossible. Right?

He shook his head. It was no use. The situation refused to be wrapped up so readily in his mind. He continued to look around, hoping things were just his imagination, but the odd world in front of him continued to remain in place. No matter how many times he pinched himself, he refused to wake up from whatever this was.

He turned back to the car, the one piece of familiarity that he could find. Seeing the vehicle that he’d borrowed from his parents in good faith now resting in shambles, a fat stone of guilt weighed down his gut. He had recently been hit hard by misfortune and deep depression. Despite Arwin being thirty-one years old, his parents had gladly taken him in to help him recover. They’d loved him and supported him, doing what they could to help him get back on his feet. Just that morning, his father had entrusted his car to Arwin so that Arwin could get out of the city and get some fresh air in the countryside. And how had Arwin repaid that kindness? By destroying the vehicle. 

The evil insurance company was doubtlessly going to milk his father for this by doubling insurance premiums. Crap. He sagged a little. 

Looking at the crumpled front end, if the car wasn’t a total write-off, then the evil repair companies would then charge his father half the price of a new car to fix it, money the family didn’t have to waste. Double crap. He sagged a little more. 

The repair company, of course, would probably sic their untrustworthy mechanics on the car, who would then do a half-ass job, and his father would then be forced to return three or four times to fix all the little mistakes they’d carelessly left behind in order to charge him even more money. Triple crap! He slumped to his knees in the grass. 

All this because Arwin hadn’t reacted better and had blundered carelessly into whatever was going on now. Life sucked. It was too overwhelming and disheartening to think about how miserable it all was, yet it was all he could think about. Arwin’s shoulders drooped. How could he have let this happen? He was such a terrible son! Tears welled up in his eyes.

He rose and walked over to a nearby pine tree and leaned heavily on it. That poor car. It would no doubt end up being junked. He was going to miss it so much. Thinking about never seeing the car again was agony. A tear trickled down his cheek.

Giving up on everything, he closed his eyes and let himself slide down the rough trunk of the pine tree until he lay on the ground, needles poking into his back. His whole situation right now felt so glum. Everything had already seemed hopeless and now here he was, screwed even more, stuck in some stupid, alien world. After all he’d already been through these past weeks, now this freak, unfair episode had made things even worse. He sighed, defeated. He felt so…blue. 

At that thought, his eyes flickered towards the blue grass.

Ok, it was totally normal to feel down given the circumstances, but, to feel this much sorrow and so suddenly? This wasn’t like him. The field itself couldn’t be having an affect on him, could it? He looked around more closely. What did he see? Blue grass, sad bluestone, a blue bird whistling a melancholy song while perched in a nearby limb of a blue spruce with drooping branches. He’d leaned against a pine tree, and then begun to pine for his car. Coincidence? Maybe not.

He spotted a nearby bush covered in deep blue berries. Perhaps a test was in order? He walked over and popped one into his mouth. It burst with sweet, ripe juice. He swallowed and immediately felt his sadness deepen. Blueberries that made you feel depressed. 

Arwin smacked his forehead with sudden insight. They were puns! Things really were literal here. 

Maybe just being here in this blue meadow was causing his feelings to worsen. The idea couldn’t be any odder than everything else he’d already seen so far. Turning on his heel, he headed  away from the blue grass and didn’t stop until he was inside the edge of the forest. 

Sure enough, the change of scenery brightened his mood considerably. Negativity melted away. He was able to stand straighter again and even, as hope returned, smile a bit. All he’d needed to do to feel better was get out of the bad place he’d been in. Now, looking back, he had a very different perspective of the crash. The car looked so silly and incongruous out there under a bearded tree. Arwin actually managed to chuckle. Looking at things from this new angle, he could see that everything he’d experienced so far had been pretty crazy and worth a laugh. After all, he was pretty relieved to be alive after hitting that tree so hard. 

Feeling better, he turned his thoughts to how to proceed. “We are definitely not in Kansas anymore,” he muttered to himself. 

This was probably where that big, pink dragon had come from. So, um, yeah, likely more of those around, right? His head swivelled in all directions, eyes scanning field, forest and skies. No dragons. At least not in sight. Still…

Arwin pulled out his cell phone. Not really surprised, he saw that he got no cell service here. Wherever here was, there was no coverage. He was on his own. A brief survey of the land told him that there were no nearby roads, no signs of civilization at all. The gravel side road that he’d been on had completely disappeared. There was only the car and a line of tire tracks leading back across the blue field until they vanished into the forest on the opposite side. 

Staying with the car didn’t seem to be very helpful because no-one was going to come looking for him here. He could follow his tracks back the way he’d come. Perhaps he could find whatever dimensional door had allowed him to come here? He might be able to find his way back home to the familiar, comfortable world that he was used to. He reflexively took a step in that direction, but stopped after a pace and two thirds of another. 

Hmmm. Actually, on second thought, returning didn’t seem as appealing as it should. For weeks, he’d been in a pit of melancholy and despair, soul shattered into a million, painful shards. He’d felt like he’d lost everything. He’d struggled just to keep going, to keep waking up from one morning to the next. Events aside, there were also reasons why he wasn’t excited about a future there, why he felt like he didn’t entirely fit in. So why go home? 

Here he was, in a completely foreign place, with all kinds of mind-boggling things to see. New experiences, and perhaps new people, might be waiting for him. 

Looking out over the field and listening to its mournful sounds in the breeze, he realized that he very much didn’t want to go home. In a whole new world, a dazzling place he’d never before known, where he didn’t dare close his eyes, he felt free of all that had been dragging him down these past weeks and excited about what might be discovered here. Why, there might be a magical, flying carpet and a playful, ever-hungry monkey in his near future. Maybe even a genie. Who wouldn’t enjoy that?

His made his decision and his mood raised. He took a deep breath and smiled. “Come on, strange new world, show me what you’ve got.” 

The first step was to survive here. He needed to learn more about his new environment. Hopefully he’d be able to find some friendly people. Failing that, at least he needed some food and shelter. He didn’t relish the thought of filling up on blue berries and sleeping in his car in the blue grass field all night. He might wake up at two in the morning feeling suicidal. He shuddered.

Arwin picked a direction at random, which turned out to be north-west, and set off. Having always enjoyed forests, he entered a thicket of tall, blue spruce. The trees had blue-tinged bark and the needles were a dark pastel blue, similar to blue spruce trees back on Earth. Soft ground strewn with dead, brown needles sank gently underfoot with each step. The clean smell of evergreens, er, everblues, permeated the air. Luckily, the sorrowful mood brought on by the blue grass field quickly faded behind him. 

Gazing around, the forest floor seemed oddly tidy, as if — ah. He got it. Blue spruce — spruced up. To spruce up meant to make neat or trim, to take particular care in external appearance. The magic of the trees evidently included keeping their immediate environs clean. It seemed to apply to them too as each tree was a model of its kind with no sap dripping from wounds nor bug infestations to be seen. Even the branches seemed to have taken special care in where they’d sprouted so as to grow in an orderly fashion. 

The blue spruce eventually mingled with other, non-blue trees too and the forest appeared more normal in most respects. Arwin heard voices ahead and soon came across two lovely young ladies. They wore elaborately embroidered dresses evocative of renaissance France, but more slender in shape, without the wire frame inside that women on Earth had used to flare out the bottom of the dress. He was elated to have come across other people! The girls sat together on a log bench in a small clearing in the woods. He paused at the edge of the clearing, surprised. The skin of both girls was shades of light blue!

One of the girls looked up and gave him a sad smile. “Oh, hello.” 

The other made a melancholy wave. “Hi.”

Arwin approached, the excitement of encountering literally blue ladies putting a slight Captain Kirk-ish spring in his step. Both girls had the most stunning blue eyes. Lips that might have been tinted with lipstick back home to get this blue hue, here appeared to be natural. In all other respects, the girls seemed perfectly human, and very pretty examples of their gender. In fact, being blue was a refreshing change. 

“Hello,” Arwin replied, unable to stop himself from grinning at the sight of them. Yep, he definitely felt like Kirk on a foreign planet at the moment.

“You must be a traveler,” stated the first girl.

“I suppose I am,” Arwin affirmed. “How did you know?”

“You’re not blue,” replied the second. “This is the Blue Region. All of the human folk here are blue by nature.”

“You mean they’re sad?” Arwin asked.

“Perhaps a little more prone to being down than some,” nodded the first, “though not terribly so. I meant our skin colour.”

“I see.” He nodded politely. “Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you ladies. My name is Arwin.”

The first girl rose and met his gaze with bright, round eyes that sparkled like sapphires, as clear as a winter’s sky. Watery-blue curls fell in swirls and waves about her delectable, bare shoulders. Her fancy, sky-blue and white dress was festooned with ribbons. “I am Bleu, a belle of the Blue Region.” She offered her hand and, when he took it, she daintily curtsied.

The second girl rose and looked at him with fine, mysterious eyes shaped like almonds. They were the shade of lapis lazuli with flecks of gold, and one look made you feel like you could drown in her mysterious gaze. Her hair fell long and straight to her waist, such a dark blue that it was nearly black. Her silk dress was two-toned, black and cobalt, and hugged a lithe figure. “I am Aoi, also a belle of the Blue Region.” She, too, curtsied, though in a more sultry manner.

“Blue belles,” Arwin noted. “A pun.”

“We are,” Aoi confirmed.

“Two of the most beautiful girls in Blue.” Bleu twirled, the hem of her dress riding up high enough to show two perfect feet in white high heels. 

Arwin wasn’t sure how practical high heels were in the forest, especially white ones, but they sure made her feet look cute. He opened his mouth to ask one of the one hundred and two point six three million questions on his mind, but a faint tinkling of bells interrupted him.

At once, both girls drooped.

“What’s wrong?” Arwin asked. 

“It’s the sound of bluebells,” Aoi answered.

“They are the most beautiful of musical flowers,” Bleu continued.

“But, why would that make you cry?” Arwin asked, confused.

“Because the sound so touches our hearts,” answered Bleu, despondent.

“And because they are forever beyond our reach,” Aoi added with sad frustration.

“Beyond your reach? Can’t you just go over there and see them?” Arwin looked towards the source of the sound but thick forest and a rising hill prevented seeing the flowers themselves.

“We can’t.” Aoi looked hopeless. “They grow only in the garden of one of the local blue bloods. He killed off all other such flowers in the region, keeping only a few for himself, so only he may enjoy them. And he guards them zealously.”

Arwin raised an eyebrow. “Blue blood? You mean, aristocracy?”

Bleu nodded. “Yes. One of the vile nobles of the Blue Region. They are wealthy people who abuse their power and seek to keep treasures like this to themselves. They’re the worst villains in the land. Except for the Dark Enchantress maybe, but she lives outside the Blue Region in pun-free lands.”

“Dark Enchantress?” Arwin asked.

“Wickedest witch in western Heartstone,” Bleu darkly informed him. “Maybe in all of Heartstone. They say her heart is as black as the evil creatures whose company she keeps.”

Aoi scowled prettily. “She’s bad, but a recluse, rarely venturing to our lands, whereas the nobles here oppress us every day. They’re active tyrants. They keep everyone in the Blue Village as peasants. They force us to build them fancy mansions and to slave away for them in the fields and mines. We are kept busy from dawn until dusk cooking feasts and sewing fancy clothes for them, while we submit on meagre fare and most wear little more than rags. The commoners barely scrape by while the blue bloods live like kings.”

“But, and sorry if this is rude, but both of you appear to be dressed very well.”

“The belles and the beaus, our male peers, have it slightly different,” Bleu said. “From a young age, the most attractive of the villagers are kept like birds in gilded cages, spared any and all work as children. We spend most hours of the day learning all the ways we will need to please our future patrons once they take us on as playthings.”

“Playthings?”

“We’re raised for the sole purpose of becoming pretty toys meant to entertain them. That is, until we become too old or boring to keep around anymore, after which we, too, shall become peasants no different than the rest.”

Aoi sighed. “Breeding more belles and beaus for the future.”

Apparently humans could be just as unfair and selfish in this world as in his own. A surge of rebellion and anger rose within Arwin. He instinctively wanted to strike out at these blue bloods and make them pay. This was, no doubt, an emotional reaction due in large part to some of the events that he’d been through recently, but it also stemmed from who he was. 

“As children,’ Bleu stated with a sour face, “life isn’t so bad. Although, we belles and beaus are a bit outcast from others in the village because we aren’t allowed to help with the workload lest it give us unwanted scars or rough hands. But once we become of legal age, our lives will no longer be our own.”

The girls glanced at each other, communicating sorrowful frustration.

Arwin’s brows rose. “Ah, so you two…”

Aoi nodded, shoulders tense, her anger rising. “Yes. We’ve both become of age. We are both to be plucked soon, to become the temporary playthings of blue bloods. We’ll spend the next decade closeted in their mansions, deprived of all freedom.” 

Arwin frowned and his heart went out to them. “That really sucks.”

Bleu gave him a sad smile. “Sorry. We’re not usually this negative. But the way things are about to change in the next few days…”

“I understand.” Arwin felt frustrated too. He wished there was something he could do to help.

Aoi frowned for a moment, then shook herself and took a breath as if to wash her negative feelings away. 

 Bleu threw a longing glance towards the tinkling bells in the distance. “I do wish we could experience the bluebells up close. I know it seems silly and small to want something so inconsequential when there are bigger things in life. But it would cheer us up. That’s why we’ve been sitting here, listening. The flowers are in the garden of Lord Azamont, just there.” She pointed towards the thick part of the forest. 

A breeze picked up and a wave of tinkling bells carried to them. It really was a very pretty sound.

Arwin disliked seeing any lovely maiden, er, young woman in distress. The sight of their sorrow immediately compelled him to act. Sure, he probably couldn’t do anything about the bigger picture of their lives, but perhaps he could bring them some small measure of happiness right now, however temporary. Wasn’t that a worthy goal? He opened his mouth and began to offer his services when heart-rending images of the recent past popped into his head. Suddenly he felt very blue again himself. 

Betrayal. 

Lies. 

Pain.  

His thoughts turned ugly. These two were probably just using their beauty and charm to manipulate him. They would probably lie and use him, encourage him take risks on their behalf, then throw him away as soon as they got what they wanted. 

But a voice in the back of his mind told him that he knew better. He forced his depressing thoughts away. Deep down, it wasn’t fair to treat these ladies as his enemies just because of what others had done to him. He wouldn’t be one of those people that painted everyone with the same brush just because a few bad apples had spoiled the bunch. Hmm. Was he mixing metaphors? 

He took a deep breath and smiled, determinedly returning to good cheer. “Belles, it truly makes me blue to see such lovely ladies lament,” he told them, feeling bold. “I shall fetch these flowers for you.”

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