Volume 1 Number 3

MYTHOLOG

Summer 2003



A Maiden’s Heart

by Christie Maurer

Once upon a time there lived a handsome knight, Sir Roderick, who specialized in rescuing maidens, distressed damsels, and princesses from dragons and monsters; outwitting wizards and witches and unraveling evil spells. One day a breeze ruffled the corner of his scarlet cape, lifted the fair curls from his left ear, and whispered of an imprisoned maiden who desperately needed his help. He mounted on his splendid white horse and galloped off to save her.

Fair Millicent longed to be rescued. The wizard Malodoro held her captive in his ivory tower, guarded by magic spells, thorn hedges, dragons, and monsters. Malodoro, who relished power over helpless creatures, made the poor damsel scrub the tower from morning until night, and he punished her terribly if he discovered any dust. The tower was cold, Millicent had only thin rags to wear, and she was always exhausted from her work. The wizard kept his laboratory locked with iron keys and complex spells. Millicent feared the laboratory and dreaded going near the door. Fumes seeped out that made her dizzy, and when Malodoro experimented, she had to block her ears from the screams of small animals.

“Nevertheless,” the wizard pointed out, “you should be grateful that I keep you safe.” Assuming a kindly expression, he explained, “The thorns, dragons, and monsters are not to imprison you, but to protect you from the world outside. The world is dangerous, and your work barely repays me for the food and shelter I so generously provide you. If you become worthy, I can use you in my great work.”

Now, Malodoro fed Millicent only crusts and water, but if she dared to complain about hunger and weakness, he drew himself up. “You should thank me, for you would get nothing in the world. There, you would have to earn your living, and, being foolish, you would starve.”

Having spent all her life in the tower, Millicent only knew how miserable she was.

Sir Roderick arrived and hid in a nearby copse until he could determine what kind of evil possessed that white tower on the hill. When the wizard emerged, Sir Roderick noted how he passed through the high thorn hedges, warded against the monsters and dragon patrols, and reset the spells.

In the same manner, the knight made his way close to the tower. Gazing upward, he called, “Ho, damsel, I, Sir Roderick, have come to rescue you.”

Millicent arose from her knees--for she had been scrubbing the floor--and, all in a flutter, hurried to the window. Once she had found a picture book under Malodoro's bed that showed knights saving distressed maidens. How exciting that someone had come for her!

Of course Malodoro had immediately snatched the book and locked it away, warning her, “You must never gaze upon passing knights. Most especially, you must never talk to them. They are all cheats and liars and after only one thing.”

She had no idea what that “one thing” might be. As she looked down from the tower, the sun shining on Sir Roderick’s armor all but blinded her. She blinked and saw he was handsome. “Oh how wonderful! I am saved at last!” she cried.

“I can only win you free if you help me,” Roderick cautioned.

Millicent drew back. “But--” The book showed knights conquering all the evil creatures while the damsels didn’t have to do a thing.

“First, answer me one question. More than anything in the world, do you want to be rescued?” Roderick had learned better than to waste his time with damsels who did not want to be saved.

“Oh yes, of course I do! The wizard is terribly cruel. I shall die if I stay here.”

“Why does Malodoro keep you here?” he asked finally.

“He uses toads, birds and rabbits for his experiments. If they fail, he may use me.” She shuddered.

“You must get away, then,” he affirmed. “No one can endure on crusts and water, and for all the work you do, you would fare better in the world. Now, if I rescue you, you will have to do something for yourself afterward and something for me in return.”

Millicent bit her lip. Should not her knight protect her and give her everything she needed? And what price might Sir Roderick demand? “Tell me about the world. Perhaps then I can think of what to do.”

The knight’s words glowed like the sun on his armor as he described shining cities, rushing rivers, magnificent mountains, and pleasing people. Millicent sighed, enchanted with his stories, but most of all with him for telling her, for Malodoro wanted her ignorant.

“If I could learn to make food, people would not be hungry,” she said, for she had not eaten all day. “Or I could scrub floors. The world must be full of dirty floors.”

“That sounds feasible,” he replied, “but will you not seek to be restored to your family?”

“My family?” She frowned, puzzled.

“You must have a mother and a father.”

“I don’t know. I have always been here, at least I think so.”

“What does the wizard say?”

“He says I am a magic maiden. Maybe I just appeared in his laboratory like the dragons. Maybe I am not real.”

“You seem real to me,” Roderick smiled. “Actually once you are free, you can make yourself whomever you choose to become. That can be an advantage.”

For the first time in her life, Millicent smiled.

“Now,” Roderick said briskly, “I'll take care of the thorn hedges, dragons, and spells. I will help you deal with the wizard so you will never have to fear his likes again.”

“How can I overcome Malodoro?” She bit her lip again. “He is so powerful. He watches me all the time, and if I think to go near the door--”

“It will be difficult and dangerous, and you may be frightened, but I will give you the skills to evade his traps. If we work together, we will come through safely.”

“Well, all right.” But her brow still wrinkled.

“First, you need strength. If you throw me a rope, I will give you some nourishing food.”

Millicent left the window and found an old piece of frayed rope. Once she had thought of climbing down it, but it could not support her weight. Back at the window, she flung it as hard as she could toward the knight. It was too light and it fell short of his grasp.

“Tie something on the end and try again,” he called.

She searched, but the only thing she found was Malodoro's bed, which was too heavy to lift and too big to fit through the window. Discouraged, she felt the heavy weight of her weary heart. Eager to be rid of its ache, she attached her heart to the rope and cast it down. It swung directly into Roderick's hands.

Surprised and embarrassed, he touched her heart, feeling it grow warm and palpitate with life. “You have thrown me something very valuable,” he called. “Surely you did not intend to give me your heart. I will return it and you can toss me something else.”

“You know well how to touch a maiden’s heart and I feel much better now. It has been nothing but a burden, and I am glad you have it. You will keep it safe.”

Roderick shook his head. “I cannot return it unless you accept it. I will guard it for now, but you will need it once you are free.” He attached his package to the rope.

Millicent hauled it up through the window and opened it, delighted to find thick slices of roast beef, a whole loaf of bread, wine, a honey cake, and an apple.

“There is a surprise in the apple,” called Roderick. “Eat it when you are alone and watch closely. Until then--” He slipped back into hiding just ahead of a troop of dragons.

Millicent put the apple in her pocket and hungrily devoured the rest. She was so happy about her knight and she felt so strong from his good food that, humming and singing, she got the tower scrubbed in half the usual time. When Malodoro returned, he never guessed what had happened in his absence.

Meanwhile Roderick examined Millicent's heart. It was strong and full of life, despite some scars from its captivity. If he touched it in the right way he could sense the movements of the wizard, the dragons, and the monsters, for this heart had long been familiar with them. To keep the heart undamaged, he put it under his tunic. Then he settled back and made his plans.

At midnight, signs from Millicent’s heart revealed that Roderick could proceed. He stepped boldly in front of the tower, brought out the heart, caressed it gently, and held it against his own. Both hearts started to glow and pulse.

Suddenly a white-hot flame shot out from them and ignited the dry thorn hedges. Fires exploded all around the tower. Monsters, creatures of cold and slime, swelled and burst into putrefying pieces. Dragons writhed and withered into cinders. The tower grew hot, all but igniting.

Panicked for the first time in his very long life, Malodoro jumped from his bed and ran to the window, probing the countryside with all his senses for the cause of the blaze. Fortunately, Millicent's heart shielded Sir Roderick. Perceiving nothing, the wizard decided that a dragon must have practiced flame-throwing too close to the thorn hedges. As the fires burned out, he returned to his bed. He would conjure up a better thorn forest in the morning, one that was proof against fire. The dragons would get orders not to breathe flames so near the tower.

Meanwhile, Millicent huddled in her corner, shivering with terror. When Malodoro slept again, she arose, crossed to the window, and took the apple from her pocket and ate it slowly. As her body assimilated the fruit, her mind cleared of the vague imaginings and fears that had possessed it. Malodoro's fright had revealed that he was not invincible.

She bit deep into the apple’s heart and found Roderick's gift, a pair of tiny crystal lenses. She put them into her eyes and gasped aloud at the stab of pain. Through her tears, for the first time she saw how rickety and dilapidated the tower was. It could collapse at any moment. Outside, the monsters and hedges were gone. The countryside was burned out and empty. This was the time to escape.

But Malodoro, awakened by her gasp, leaped toward her. “What are you doing at that window? Get back in your corner! You'll get nothing to eat tomorrow, and you'll work day and night to make up for this.”

Millicent started to cower. Then, through her crystal eyes, she saw the wizard clearly. He was nothing but a withered, pathetic old man who told her silly lies.

“No, I will not go back,” she announced, her head high. “I am going out.” She turned and walked through the first door.

The tower stairs were dark, narrow and steep. They crumbled beneath her feet as she stumbled down.

Malodoro's voice pursued her. “All right, go! Just try and get back inside when you're hungry. You'll die if you step outside this tower.”

Millicent halted. If he were right...? If his magic sustained her...? Fear paralyzed her limbs. Terror sealed her throat. Her heart would have stopped had not Roderick held it in his strong hands. Eyes blazing, she turned to the wizard, “Your lies cannot stop me any more!”

As she reached the door, Malodoro put forth his strongest spell--the power of habit, the ties of memory, the comfort of security.

She stopped again. She owed her life to Malodoro. Her days passed surely, and he kept her safe. She would be good. She would stay and take care of a poor, feeble old man. Head bowed, she put one foot on the stair.

“Millicent, where are you?” Roderick's strong voice called freedom. “You can come out now. The way is clear.”

“Yes...yes, I am coming!” She lifted her head and stamped her foot. “Stay in your moldy, rotten old tower, Wizard. You are not going to trap me. Once I am beyond your door, you can never touch me again.”

She ran outside, slamming the door behind her. The tower, with the wizard inside, crumbled into a pile of dust that blew away in the fresh dawn wind.

As Millicent stumbled across the burnt-out ground, stones and cinders hurt her bare feet. Sir Roderick strode toward her. They met joyfully and touched hands, strangers despite what they had shared. His eyes warmed as he perceived her endurance and inner strength. Buds of happiness and wisdom could sprout in this damsel’s soul.

She, in turn, saw her knight's kindness and courage, his inventive skill, which challenged both life and death.

“Where do you want to go now that you are free?” Roderick asked.

“I want to go with you. I threw you my heart before I knew you, and now I am glad. I want to stay with you forever.”

He hesitated. “Your heart is an invaluable treasure. Only with its aid could I conquer here so swiftly. Because I care for you, I would treat it well and guard it with my life, but it would be best for both of us if you let me give it back.”

Roderick’s lips tightened. “You see, I cannot give you mine in return. Long ago I left it in my lady’s care. She keeps it in my home for the times when I can come to her. I have vowed by all that is sacred to carry her heart with me, and I gladly honor that pledge. Only with her aid can I remain strong and perform my duties honorably.”

“Oh!” Millicent turned her face away. The last picture in the book had showed a knight and his maiden by a hearth, holding a baby. “I cannot take my heart back just yet. I love you too much.” She started to weep, and Roderick held her in his arms until she finished.

When she grew calm, he said, “We can travel together until you find your place. Then you will need your heart.”

Millicent sniffed dolefully. “But how will I discover such a place? How will I know it is mine?”

He smiled. “When you see it, you will want to stay forever.”

“All right, then,” she agreed doubtfully.

Roderick mounted his white horse. Holding out his hand, he helped Millicent up behind him and they rode away.

***

In the days that followed, Roderick gave Millicent colorful clothes to wear and sturdy shoes to protect her feet. She learned to prepare food, to keep his armor bright, to care for his hurts, and to make friends. The pain from her crystal eyes lessened as she used them to see the world as it is.

Millicent hid her tears when Roderick spoke of the fortunate lady who kept his home and his heart in her care. She respected his faithfulness yet she dreaded the day they must part forever. Even now, Roderick would leave her in a safe place for a few days while he rescued a lady, or had an adventure, or whatever knights must do alone. If other knights paused to regard her, they soon rode on, seeing she had given her heart.

One day when she was alone, Millicent took a walk and, over the top of a hill, she discovered a beautiful valley. It embraced rivers and lakes, tall trees, fertile fields of vines, grains and fruits, and small wooden homes. The villagers beside the well greeted her kindly.

“May I live here with you?” she asked and told her tale.

“If you are to stay, you must be able to help our village,” a man replied.

“I scrub floors very well,” she said.

“I'm sorry,” a woman answered, “but we clean our own.”

Millicent thought. “I know how to care for knights.”

“This small village offers nothing to knights,” said the man. “Few pass by and none stay.”

“If I am here, the knight who rescued me will come, for he has my heart. Your lovely village would refresh his spirits after the dangers he must endure. He could bring you gold and fame.”

“We villagers like peace, and knights often quarrel,” a farmer said. “I doubt that you would give your heart to an unworthy knight, so he will come, but since you are his lady, you will leave with him.”

Millicent felt tears prickle. “His heart belongs to another. I have no knight of my own, so I must find a home.”

“We would not turn you away coldly,” said the farmer. “Is there nothing else you can offer us?”

“Well,” she replied, “I know something of magic and I have overcome great evil.”

An old woman scrutinized her deeply. “Tell me what you know.”

After Millicent shared her memories of the wizard, the woman nodded. “You may stay. I guard the magic of this village, and I help people overcome evil. When I die, someone must take my place. You know a little, and I can teach you more.”

The farmer smiled kindly. “Perhaps among us, you may find others to love who also love you.”

“Perhaps,” she echoed doubtfully. Then she brightened. She could be useful here. “Thank you, good people. When he comes, I shall tell my knight that I have found a place where I want to stay forever.”

***

Millicent soon settled into her new home. The wise woman taught her how to use magic for good, and the farmer showed her how to nurture living things. Busy and happy, at first she waited cheerfully for Sir Roderick. When he did not come, she finally wondered if Malodoro had been right about knights, after all, and he had forgotten her. But remembering Sir Roderick’s honor, she began to fear for him, and she shared her concerns with her friends.

“He may be lost on another path,” said the farmer. “You should search for him. He may need you.”

“There is much danger in a knight's life,” affirmed the old woman. “He would have come by now if he could. You should discover whether he has come to harm.”

So Millicent bundled together supplies for a journey and anxiously hastened back along the road by which she had come. The way, deserted now, wound upward through hot dry mountains and downward through cold, dark valleys. Occasionally she glimpsed a river in the distance.

Toward sunset one day, she descended a steep, rocky path. High cliffs towered on either side. As she moved deeper into the valley, thick trees and brush cut off the light from the setting sun. She shivered in the chilly mists and dense shadows that hovered over the narrow channel of the churning river.

A horse whinnied. Millicent jumped and cried out. The bushes parted and Sir Roderick's white horse stepped toward her. Nervous and agitated, he nuzzled her, then turned into the brush, looking back at her with a silent plea. She followed him and found her badly wounded knight lying unconscious at the base of a tree. She ran to him, took him tenderly in her arms, and kissed him, but he was unable to respond.

She ran to the river, removed her shoes, and scooped up water in them to bathe his wounds. As she hurried back, she scarcely felt the stones under her bare feet. Gently, she cleansed Roderick’s wounds and applied healing herbs. Then she soothed the horse who had guarded his master so well.

Throughout the night Millicent lay beside her knight, warming him with her body. At dawn he opened his eyes. “Who are you?” he asked. “You are kind, and I have been close to death.”

Grieving, Millicent gave him clotted milk, wholesome bread, and cheese to eat. “Can you tell me what happened?” she asked.

“I was taking a treasure to a friend who needs it sorely. A day or so ago, demons attacked me to steal it. The last thing I remember after they felled me is my horse driving them off. They may have taken the treasure.” His eyes closed.

Millicent searched and found what he had guarded--her heart, bruised and bleeding from the battle, but still alive. Gravely, she took it in her hands, soothing the injuries. Now she realized what Sir Roderick had tried to tell her before. Despite his care, her heart had grown weak and vulnerable apart from her. It needed her to be strong, and she needed it to be whole.

“I put too great a burden on him,” she thought, much ashamed. “I exposed him to danger by not possessing my own heart. What if he had lost this battle? What would become of us if demons had captured it?” Contritely, she put her heart back in place.

Roderick opened his eyes. “You are Millicent, my friend.”

“Yes, I am Millicent,” she said, glad he recognized her. “Now we have to leave before dangerous foes return.”

He sighed. “I must go home to my lady. Only there can I be truly safe.”

“I will take you there.” If only he could be well again... “Can you ride?”

“I think so,” he answered, “for a little while.”

She helped him onto the horse, and they left that dark valley.

On the road to Sir Roderick's home, they passed from a realm of magic into an ordinary world. Millicent felt herself change from a magic maiden into a woman, and Roderick transformed from a knight into a man. Though she cared for him as best she could, he did need his home. Meanwhile, she told him about the village, her new work, and her happiness with her friends.

“I am glad you have found your place. It is what I had hoped when I rescued you,” he said. “Will you look for your family one day?”

“I have never known them, and it doesn’t seem important when I have a home.”

They approached Sir Roderick’s domain where they must part forever. Tears burned Millicent’s eyes. She blinked and the crystal lenses fell out. With her own vision, she saw clearly how high walls and narrow doors guarded it from the turbulent world. The sheltered garden seemed small after her village’s lush fields, and the lady who stood in the door with his children looked lonely.

“Why, it's almost another tower,” she thought. “There is magic in my village and this could never be my home. It is a fit refuge for a knight, but safety too easily becomes a prison, and I would not want to be captive again. I have my own place and my own task. A knight's part is to keep us safe. For this, he merits our love, our honor, and our respect.”

Roderick and Millicent smiled at one another--tenderly for what had been, sadly for what was now, and happily for what might be. They touched one another's hearts once more and parted.


Illustration by Mike "Warble" Finucane


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