Story of Love Series Selection
By Angelaine Espinosa
Copyright 2017 Angelaine Espinosa
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and events are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual people, places and events is purely coincidental. Furthermore, this short story was selected from a longer anthology entitled “Story of Love Series” by the same author.
For my coming niece/nephew. Even though we’re not family by blood, you already are a relative of my heart. I pray that you grow up to show the beauty that I know will blossom inside you.
Once upon a time, there was a beautiful forest in the middle of a vast kingdom. This forest was surrounded by villages in all directions, but was untouched by neither poachers nor woodcutters, for it was guarded by magical woodland sprites. The sprites, taking on the form of little boys and girls, took care of the plants and animals within the forest. They showered many a tiny sparkles here and there, and spoke not words but notes that chimed in the wind. And they used to serve the frog king, whose wife was an older sprite that took on the form of a young woman.
But the frog king had died, leaving the management of the forest to his son named Indri. What the lad inherited was all the forest, from North to South and East to West. And he also inherited a magical spring, with water that could heal any sickness and that could preserve youth and life. Because his father was dead, Indri also had control of the sprites, which he treated fairly.
Now this seemed to be an ideal life for a prince of frogs, for Indri was always waited upon, and had all that he needed to live comfortably. But for Indri, the forest in which he lived was a prison, a shield that kept the outside world at bay. For Indri feared the way that people looked upon him.
Indri was not handsome by any means. In fact, he was quite the ugliest creature one would ever behold. He had the webbed hands and feet of a frog, thick greenish skin and slit eyes that resembled very much that of a frog’s. He also had a scratchy voice and a tongue long enough to snap at another person. But what Indri despised most about himself was his black heart that beat in his chest and would not allow him to see himself as beautiful.
“‘Tis useless!” he said one night. “I will not stand here to be the ridicule of the whole forest. Remove this blasted robe from me!”
He removed the thick robe that the sprites laid over his shoulders, and marched from the mirror he was looking into. Indri lived in a large mansion in the middle of the forest. It had white walls inlaid with ivory. It was surrounded by lush gardens and orchards that bloomed year round. At the very back of the mansion was a balcony, where every full moon Indri’s mother would stand after descending from the sky.
At that moment, Indri’s mother appeared on the balcony and beckoned her son come forward. The sprites left as she did so, carrying with them the robe that had been their latest attempt to aid their master. It was made of a beautiful purple silk, but had done nothing to improve the frog prince’s appearance.
“My son,” she asked upon beholding Indri’s sullen expression, “what ails you?”
“Everything.” Indri shot a look behind his shoulder at the sprites. The latter, peeking from behind the door frame leading onto the balcony, dispersed upon seeing his thunderous expression. Indri sighed and turned back to his mother. “I could have been born in your image, with your hair of spun gold and evergreen eyes. With beautiful teeth, gorgeous hands and flawless skin. Instead I had to look the spitting image of my father.”
The lovely sprite took her son’s face into her hands and smiled gently. “Even your father could not have controlled the hands of fate.”
“But he was a god. Surely he had something up his sleeve.”
The sprite laughed, and put her hands on her hips. “The only thing he had up his sleeve was the ability to command the sprites.”
“Why did you wed him? Out of all the many gods and creatures of the forest, why him?” Indri asked. He could not understand why such a lovely creature as his mother would want to stay by the side of an abominable-looking creature until the end of time. There must have been many suitors for his mother’s hand to choose from.
“Because he favored me among the other sprites. I’ve already told you this before. He flattered me and loved me and gave me all I desired, and when he died I mourned his loss.” Indri’s mother took his hands into hers. “Indri, you are my only memory of him. Someone to remember him by. Please do not shun yourself, for you are beautiful.”
“I have the face and limbs of a frog, and a heart of black. How can I be beautiful?” Indri lamented. “Even the people who come to buy my healing water are in fear of me.”
“They do not see you as I do.”
“But I want them to. I’ll do anything, just so I can get rid of my hideousness.” And this was true. Indri was fed up with being the laughingstock of the men from the villages. He was fed up with being used as a child’s horror story. Come home early, the mothers of the village would say, or the black-hearted Indri might catch you and eat you.
Indri did not eat children. He didn’t even like eating lots of meat.
The lovely sprite saw the forlorn expression on her son’s face. Her heart broke with sadness over his fate. “Oh my son, you know I cannot deny you anything.”
She turned to look at the garden behind her, and carefully retold what she’d heard from the other sky-dwellers. “There is an ancient ritual to change one’s form, though I am not sure if it truly works. The elder sprites say that if you live in the presence of virtue, even the most hideous of forms will disappear… to be replaced by the beauty of virtue itself.”
The cure intrigued Indri. Could it really be possible to lose his ugliness after doing such a task? The task itself didn’t even make sense. “Virtue? How can you live in the presence of virtue? ‘Tis but an abstract trait.”
“That I do not know,” the sprite replied.
Indri folded his arms and though deeply. He wanted, needed to be beautiful. He wanted to be loved by most of the creatures of the world, if not all. He wanted to have friends, to be surrounded by people that were not afraid of him. But the cure seemed truly impossible to do. “Nevertheless, I will try. And when I succeed, I will be so handsome that many people will come to see me. And not just for healing water.”
“Then I wish you luck. But remember, Indri. Sometimes beauty is not all as it seems. There are many beautiful things other than the physical.”
Indri scoffed. “I don’t believe it, Mother. I’ll believe it only if I myself prove it real. For now, I need to find virtue. And as soon as possible.”
“Very well.” The sprite bent down to kiss her son on the cheek, and afterwards raised herself from the balcony. “Goodbye, my son. I will visit again on the next full moon.”
She floated upwards to the sky, until she was but a little sparkling dot among the stars that spread across it.
And Indri was, once again, alone.
In another village, in a small but richly decorated house, there lived a man and his family. This man was a merchant who sold goods in the village market. He had a beautiful and loving wife that adored him with every fiber of her being, a pretty daughter that was fonder of him than anything else in the world, and a son whom he cherished with all of his heart. But the son was a sickly little thing, and would become ill at the slightest exposure.
At the same time that Indri was despairing over his cursed figure, the merchant man was also despairing over his son, who had grown sick in the past week he was absent from the house. The little child was but a limp vegetable on his bed, and the healers feared that he would not make it another weak if his sickness would progress.
The merchant, who went by the name of Taruk, had been wasting in his house’s parlor, accompanied only by his close friend and his daughter. His friend was also a partner in trade and had accompanied Taruk to many of his travels. Anif was also the godfather of Taruk’s son.
The daughter, a spirited child whose love for her brother surpassed her other emotions, was deeply disturbed by the tragedy that had befallen them.
“Father, he’s getting worse. We must do something. There must be another kind of medicine, something we haven’t tried yet.” she said as she paced back and forth in front of her father.
Taruk rubbed his temples worriedly. “We’ve tried almost all there is. There is nothing we can do.”
“But Father-” the daughter argued, her beautiful black eyes pleading for her father to listen.
“Silence!” Taruk ordered.
His daughter’s pale skin became even paler in the face of his pent up anger.
The daughter promptly nodded, and with sorrow on her face, proceeded to sit upon a cushion laid on the floor. She waited patiently for either her father or Anif to say anything. It was a long time before the friend spoke up. What he had to say caught her attention.
“Perhaps the healing water may help, my lord. The one sold by the reclusive Indri.” the friend said, referring to the ugly prince of the forest.
At his words, Taruk’s daughter lit up. She had heard very little of the fabled prince of frogs. As the child of a prominent man of the village, she was not allowed to venture outside of their house without the company of a servant. And the servants and other people of the village weren’t allowed to talk of trivial matters in front of her. “Indri? Who is this Indri?”
The friend smiled and turned his face toward her. “The son of a water sprite and the late frog king, my lady. His late father gave in his keeping a spring that produces healing water, and he sprinkles the water over his flowers so that they grow beautifully.”
Anif leaned closer to Taruk’s daughter, and cupped a hand by the side of his mouth to emphasize what he was saying. “I’ve heard that he occasionally sells flasks of healing water to people with enough payment.”
The girl gasped, and then rushed to her father. She took her father’s hand in hers and begged her father to seek Indri. “Oh Father, can we not go to him? Maybe he can help us.”
Taruk cursed. “Indri? That black-hearted monster? Hah! The day I go to him is the day I’ve gone mad. That man is evil, I tell you. He’s as ugly as the demon of the ancient tales. I swear, he’ll eat me the moment I step foot upon his forest.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I do! He’s been rude to all his customers. An antisocial humbug, that one. And he should be. A mere glance at him would surely give one a heart attack.”
“Do you have to be so cruel, Father?” Tilula, for that was the name of Taruk’s daughter, folded her hands in front and gnashed her teeth. She knew her father was a stubborn man, but to risk his son’s life over his pride?
“I speak the truth,” Taruk stated. No daughter of his was going to change his mind.
Before he could say so, his wife rushed into the room, tears streaming down her cheeks. She wore an elegant gown of blue silk, with a gold sash over one of her shoulders, and a gold belt that circled her slender waist. There were golden bracelets on her fingers, and a feather of deep blue behind one ear. She was one of the loveliest women of the village. But now she looked tired and devastated.
“How does he fare?” Taruk asked as he opened his arms. His wife rushed into them and wept.
“No better. Oh god…” she said, “I swear I’ll do anything, anything so he would live.”
“Come now, my dear. Our son won’t die.”
The wife shook her head and continued weeping. Tilula could only look on.
“No. if we don’t do something… anything… he’ll die. And I won’t be able to live with myself – a woman who let her son die.”
When Tilula heard these words from her mother, her temper rose. She was not going to sit upon the cushions while her brother was wasting away in the upper room. She had two feet, and was a swift runner. And if the forest was farther than she’d imagined, she could always ride her horse.
“That’s it,” she said. “If no one is going to the eastern forest, then I will. Surely you will agree, Mother?”
“The eastern forest?” her mother asked, a bewildered expression on her face.
Tilula smiled and sat up straight. She then retold all that their friend had said about Indri and his healing water to her mother. She realized that she’d caught her mother’s attention when a light of hope flickered in her eyes.
“So you see, there’s still hope.” Tilula ended her speech, and looked to her father. She again willed her father to agree with the idea of going to Indri’s domain.
Her mother looked up at her father, and she too pleaded for Taruk to go on the quest.
“My dear, can you not go? This Indri may be the solution. With his water, our son may be healed.” She held fast to her husband’s hands, knowing that he would not be able to deny her anything. “Please buy some. We have more than enough to pay for a flask. Tell me you’ll go.”
Taruk looked from his wife, then to his daughter. He loved his wife very much, more than he could ever love anything else. And if his wife saw Indri’s healing water as the only resort left to cure their son, then he would agree. “Very well. I’ll go and seek the man’s presence.”
His wife wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him tight. “Oh thank you, my love.”
“I’ll start preparing for the trip right now,” he muttered.
“So soon?” Tilula asked. She had expected her father to rest tonight and start packing in the morning. It was what he usually did when procuring new wares from another village. He would wake long before sunrise to assemble his men, and leave just after cock crow.
As if understanding his daughter’s confusion, he clarified the route that he was to take. “It is a night’s travel to the eastern forest, and it tends to be chilly. Provisions for a comfortable journey are needed.”
He released his wife from his embrace so that she could return to keeping watch over their son. Taruk then motioned for his friend to get up. He wanted Anif to spread news of their departure throughout the village. Once the men that helped him transport wares from one village to another heard of this latest journey, they would no doubt go with him. He paid his workers handsomely, after all. His friend understood what Taruk wanted him to do. So he left the parlor, leaving Taruk and Tilula within the room.
Taruk crossed the parlor and stood in front of his daughter.
Tilula wore a cheeky expression on her face. If ever there was a being that could convince her father to do anything, it was her mother. She’d come at the right time, and Tilula was happy about that.
As if to confirm her thoughts, Taruk sighed and patted her on the head. “I hope you’re happy.”
Jeweled turban, golden robes, rings upon his finger. Merchant, Indri thought as he eyed his new customer from head to foot. From the looks of this merchant man, Indri concluded that he was rich enough to sink a galleon.
“What do you want?” Indri asked, knowing all too well what the man had come for. Indri had been sitting idly by the window of his room, when he noticed that a company of men had arrived in front of the hedge. From his vantage point, he’d seen a large pot of golden coins, carried by what Indri assumed was a travelling servant. Indri had immediately sought the most richly decorated man among the group and identified him as the customer seeking his presence.
His guess had been correct. The man was now with him in the grand hall, sitting by his side on the grand table and helping himself to some honeyed bread.
And after he had his fill, the man bowed in front of him and stated strongly, “I’ve come to acquire healing water for my son. He’s been gravely ill for a sennight, and we have no other means to cure him.”
Indri rubbed his chin. Here was a man who could afford anything in the world, but had come to his mansion to spend money upon his water. And all for a little boy that Indri did not even know. If perhaps this man brought up the subject of his son to gain his pity then it was to no avail. “You seem like a rich man, so I’ll sell some to you. However, the water doesn’t come cheaply, and with your status I’ll have to triple the price.”
“What?!” the merchant boomed, surprising the sprites that were gathered around them. They quickly hid behind the pillars of the great hall, while their master, unflinching in front of the merchant, stood his ground.
“It’s only fair that I raise the price. Others with far less money have sought my help. So… that’s nine thousand gold pieces.”
“Nine thousand? I only brought three thousand, your usual fare.” The merchant frowned.
“Then you may leave, and come back once you’ve acquired the sum.” Indri was about to turn away when the man, prostrate on the floor, reached for the edge of his robe and pulled it to gain his attention.
The merchant clutched Indri’s hem tightly in his hand. “I can’t! Do you have any idea how difficult it is to travel to my village? My son will be dead by the time I return with his medicine.”
Something deep and dark took root in Indri’s heart. Here was another man who loved one of his own, who would do anything to keep someone close to his heart happy. Indri wanted to grind his teeth and slam his fist into the nearest pillar in jealousy. Nobody had ever cared for him that way. He hardened his heart instead, and spoke coldly of his resolution to the merchant. “I’m afraid it’s the only choice I can give you. Nine thousand in gold or nothing.”
“Please, Master. Is there no pity in your heart? Can you not show some kindness to my virtuous son?” the merchant asked.
“Virtuous?” At that statement, Indri stopped his departure. He turned about so that he may hear what the merchant had to say. The words of his mother whirled in his head.
The merchant realized that he’d gained the prince’s attention. “Yes. My little virtuous son, who is too young yet to meet the face of death. He is the only treasure I can truly never live without. My own wife will grieve to her death if ever my son should not survive his malady.”
For a long moment, Indri thought his situation over. His mother did say that he needed to dwell in the presence of virtue, and this man had unwittingly given him the location of it. All he needed to do was convince the man to allow him to be near the son, and then he, the prince of frogs, would become one of the most handsome people in the world.
“There is another way,” Indri finally stated.
“I will give you a flask of water. I will also join your company when you return to the village. I will live in your household, in your son’s room to be specific, until such time that he is healed of sickness.”
“Surely you do not mean to frighten my son to his death?!” the merchant roared. He would not allow such a beast in the premises of his home.
“You need not worry, old man. By day I will sit behind the curtains of his room, and by night I will sleep under his bed. But you will have to make sure that an extra serving of his meal will be brought in, so that I may sneak some into my stomach when he is asleep.”
“You will hide from him?”
Though Indri knew that it would be an ordeal – a very uncomfortable one – he realized that it would be the only way to convince the old merchant. He didn’t want to hide. He wanted to talk to other people about anything other than the healing water he sold. He wanted company, to mingle with men and women outside the safety of the forest. But he realized that this could not be so. “I shall not be seen by anyone.”
The merchant bowed his head in thought. And finally, knowing that it was the best bargain he would get, he agreed. “If that is truly your plan, and if that is truly the only other way by which you will give me my son’s cure, then I consent. We leave at sunset, and we will travel by night out of this forest and into the country.”
“Then we must waste no time in fetching some water from the spring.” Indri motioned for the merchant to stand and follow him. The merchant caught up as they made their way to the back of the mansion, where the path to the magical spring was located. They passed beautifully constructed corridors and lush indoor gardens along the way. “My sprites will assist us in this, for the spring must not be sullied by mortal hands.”
“Yes indeed,” the merchant agreed.
The two headed to where they needed to, mere customer and proprietor. The merchant, his heart filled with relief, and Indri with his heart of black. Not another word passed between them.
Tilula carefully swept aside the curtain that separated the parlor from the main hall. In her hands she carried a tray stacked with plenty of food. There was a bowl of fragrant rice, a plate of filleted fish and a saucer of delicious honeyed biscuits. There was also a pot of sweet-smelling tea dissolved in more medicinal water.
Tilula coughed a little to gain her father’s attention.
Taruk, at that moment, was leaning over his little son, the latter fast asleep on the soft bed. Taruk momentarily raised his head and, upon noticing his older child, smiled and pointed to the bedside table. “Put that over there, my dear.”
“Yes, Father.” Tilula managed to reach the table and put the tray atop it without spilling any of the food onto her elaborate skirt. After she set the spoon and fork upon their proper places on the tray, she took a seat upon one of the chairs in the room. Tilula crossed her one leg over the other, and observed her father. She was worried when her father departed, but was relieved when he returned safely. “The villagers were mighty glad you came back unharmed. They thought something terrible had happened to you. That perhaps you’d been eaten by the monster. Tell me, Father. Is this Indri really as horrible as you said?”
Her father turned towards her and put a finger over his mouth as a signal for Tilula to quiet down. “I would appreciate it if we did not talk of him. It would do no good for your brother’s health if he had nightmares.”
“Very well,” Tilula sighed. It seemed that she was not going to get any answers from her father. Deciding it best to tidy up the room and leave quickly as possible, she got up from her seat. She made her way to the front of the window, so that she could draw the curtains aside and let the summer sun shine upon the darkened room.
“No!!!” Taruk yelled when he realized what his daughter was doing.
“Father? What is it?” Tilula asked, surprised at her father’s violent reaction.
“I – that is – your brother. He is not to be touched by the light of the sun.” Taruk stuttered.
“What for? It’s awful dark in here. I thought it might help heal my brother.”
The old merchant smiled gently. He calmed himself down, aware that any more violent outbursts would reveal the intruder that had hidden himself behind the thick window curtains. “Thank you for your thoughtfulness, love, but indri assured me that the water worked best without the sun’s intervention.”
“And here I thought we weren’t going to talk about him,” Tilula jested.
“Oh, you are a clever one. It’s a shame you weren’t born a man. You would have made for a fine merchant like I.”
“Perhaps I inherited my mind from Mother?” she asked. She enjoyed the times when she could freely converse with her father. It happened only in the moments the man was in a good mood. But these talks also unsettled her; for these were the times she was reminded that her father wanted a male heir. And no matter how fetching, how clever and how diligent she was, she would never become the ideal child her father had wished for.
“Perhaps…” Taruk broke into his daughter’s thoughts. “Now, I need to get going. There’s plenty more to sell, not enough customers waiting…”
“I do find it odd that this Indri did not take anything for payment. It was… most kind of him. Hardly monstrous at all.” Tilula continued, oblivious to the tension that was mounting inside her father’s thoughts.
“Tilula,” Taruk scolded. “Anyhow, I will see your mother that we might prepare to go to the market. Remember, you must not open the curtains.”
“Yes, Father. Goodbye, Father.”
Tilula watched obediently as her father left the room. And once he did, she turned to check her brother’s health. And she was surprised to see her brother wide awake, looking at her with those curious eyes of his.
“Tilula, who is Indri?” the little boy asked eagerly.
Tilula sighed, realizing her mistake. Once her brother heard something of interest, he was not going to let go of the issue. “No one of importance, little one.”
“Did he give me my medicine?” he asked again.
“I suppose so.” Tilula didn’t want to quarrel with her father, and the only way to do this would be to prevent expounding on the topic of Indri. Somehow, she had to make her brother understand that the story of Indri’s ruthlessness was something not for children’s ears. “Look. Father specifically told me not to worry you with tales of hideous monsters.”
“Is he a hideous monster?”
This was a question she knew she would not be able to answer.
If it were not for his constant bouts of sickness, her brother would be just as curious as her while remaining oblivious to the danger his inquiries invited. But Tilula never told lies to her brother, and had no plans to begin doing so. “I have not seen him for myself, so how should I know?”
“Then how are you sure that he is what you say he is?”
Her brother was right. She did not know who this Indri really was, and thus could not conclude anything about him. All she could do was give this unknown man the benefit of the doubt, until an opportunity to come face to face with him might arise.
“Enough, my little heart. As much as I would like to talk about this notorious man, I cannot. Father will have my hide if he so much as suspects I disobeyed him. Shall we conclude that this Indri is a fine man who selflessly offered us medicine without hidden agenda, unless proven otherwise?” Tilula smiled. She reached for the tray that she’d prepared for her brother. She noticed that there was lots of food upon it, an amount her brother would not be able to finish up. But she was in no position to mention it to her father.
“All right,” her brother agreed.
“Good. Now eat up, and let me think of something else we can talk about when I return.” Tilula patted her brother on the head before leaving the room. She had plenty more work to do around the house. She stated her chores out loud as she made her way to the door, so that she would not forget them.
And behind the curtain, Indri listened as her melodious voice waned from his hearing. And Indri felt lonelier than ever.
News of the frog prince’s rage spread rapidly over the forest. He’d returned some days ago, as ugly as he had left, but more black-hearted than ever. His visage remained the same, and he was angered because of this. In his rage he shattered countless glass facets in his mansion, and broke numerous furniture when, in a fit of temper, he flung them about the rooms.
His abominable behavior quickly reached the ears of the elder sprites in the sky, and thus they sent the prince’s mother down to earth to reason with him.
“I did not raise you to rant like a lunatic in your own home. Look at this place! What a mess!” The lovely sprite marched from her pedestal atop the balcony, and into the parlor. There was broken crystal everywhere, and lengths of wood that used to be table legs and reinforcements. And in the corner of the room, she spotted her son. “Well? What do you have to say for yourself?”
Indri raised his head and exposed the angry haze in his eyes. He’d been fooled. Deceived. He’d been stupid enough to believe the old tale of the elder sprites. His own mother had not guaranteed the success of the task. He should have listened. “It didn’t work. I lived and breathed in the presence of virtue, and it didn’t work.”
“May I know who specifically it is you are talking about?” Indri’s mother asked as she started setting the room to rights.
“The merchant’s son,” Indri replied.
“Hmm… I see.” she thought about her son’s choice. “Well, he is virtuous in his own way. However, one must be in the presence of great virtue. Sacrifice. Love. A unique character so very few possess.”
“It’s no use!” Indri buried his face in his hands. He felt an utter despair he had never felt in many, many years. He’d been given a sprinkle of hope. He’d grasped it with both hands, and prayed for its success. And this hope had been crushed cruelly. The desolation in which he lived for all these years grew larger with this new failure.
Indri’s mother felt her son’s despair. “Oh Indri. How I wish I could relieve your suffering. Perhaps if I did not marry your father after all.”
Indri sighed. His mother was not to blame. Nor was his father. It was simply fate’s cruel way of saying that someone had to be ugly, and who better than the lineage of the frogs. All things in the world did need to be balanced, and it was Indri’s job to balance the lot of beauty with his horrid visage. “No, Mother. I guess neither of you are to blame. Perhaps if I’d learned how to befriend others sooner, it might not have been too late. Now my heart is too black to know friendship, moreover love.”
“It might not be too late, my son.”
He huffed as he raised himself from his huddled position on the floor. “I know a dead end when I see one. I shall strive to be content with the pitiful existence I have here.” It is too late to make friends, too late to resolve the loneliness inside this mansion. Nobody will be able to see my real self, for I have not tried on my own to reveal it. I’ve always stuck to the image in which I was lodged. “You should return to the sky, Mother. It will be daylight soon.”
The lovely sprite realized that her son’s rage was spent, and that in its place was a coldness no normal being on the world could thaw. Indri’s heart was now not only black, it was also frozen.
Unknown to the two within the mansion, there was a company of men crouching near the hedges of the place. There were five men in all, led by a certain merchant holding a large jar. It was the dead of night, but they carried neither candle nor oil lamp for fear of getting caught. Only the faint glimmer of the fireflies and the shining crescent of the moon had guided them to Indri’s mansion. And now they were preparing to gather what they wanted.
“How are you so sure he will not see us?” one of the men asked as he eyed one of the beautiful yellow flowers growing on the hedge.
Taruk snorted as he set down the large jar he’d been holding. He was going to use it as a container for all the healing water they would gather. He knew that, at the center of every flower in Indri’s garden, there was a drop of healing water that preserved their life. If they squeezed the flowers, they would manage to collect that single drop. “Of course I’m sure. He does not go far, not on the outer side of the hedges. He will not suspect us of anything.”
“And if we do get caught?” his friend asked, nervously reaching for one of the closer blooms.
Taruk too reached for a flower, and began pressing it between his fingers. No sooner had he pressed the petals together than a drop of the water fell right into the jar. “Then blame the entire scheme on me. After all, this was my idea.”
“We do get a portion of your income, right?” another man asked. There was a glint of desperation in his eyes. From the tattered clothes and the thin sandals he wore, it was obvious that he was a pauper.
“If the venture is successful, then you may even have more of the allotted amount I’ve given you. I have estimated the value, and it will be more than enough for your family to live on in the next months. But only if we succeed tonight, and come home with what we aspire to procure.” Taruk motioned for the other members of the company to follow what he was doing.
“Steal, you mean.” Anif was with them too, and not comfortable with the idea. But Taruk had helped him many times, and he could not simply leave his dear friend to the designs of the forest monster. However, Taruk did not agree with what his friend said – too long has the water been kept from the reaches of the villagers.
“It is not stealing if we acquire something of which should have been ours in the first place. This forest is big enough for everyone, and the water plenty enough for others to sell too.” Taruk reasoned as best as he could. “He is merely it’s guardian. Why does he have the sole right to give it?”
“Perhaps because he is the son of the frog king.”
“The frog king is dead, and other than the sprites and his father’s infernal looks, he has inherited nothing else. Not even the demon’s powers. What leverage does he have with which to threaten us?”
Taruk reached for another flower and mercilessly wrung the water from out of its fragile core. And once he was finished, the flower hung limp upon its stem. He and his men continued their wrongdoings until dawn, when the darkness no longer concealed their presence. They managed to collect a whole large jar of the healing water… and destroy the precious yellow flowers that once adorned Indri’s beautiful hedge.
She knew what had been in the jar. She’d smelled the scent of the healing water before, when she’d mixed her little brother’s herbal tea. It resembled the fragrance of lavender coupled with lily of the valley. She knew she would recognize the brilliant fragrance always.
Like she did just now. She saw a large jar partially hidden under the kitchen table, and it smelled of the healing water. She immediately understood what had happened, but could not believe that her father could do something so incriminating.
“Father, what have you done?” Tilula asked when her father entered their kitchen.
Taruk saw his daughter kneeling in front of the large jar he’d used to hold the stolen healing water. For a while he was silent, steeling himself for another argument in which he wanted to prove he was right. He tightened the belt around his robe and nonchalantly proceeded to the corner table, where he prepared himself a cup of coffee. “I did what any other man would do. Provide for my family, that’s what I did.”
Tilula stood up and marched to him. She angrily pointed to the evidence she’d just discovered. “This is illegal. Mother would be angry, steaming mad once she knows where our extra money has been coming from.”
“She will not be mad about something she has no knowledge of. I trust you will keep this from her?”
At first Tilula could not speak. Her father meant to keep his misdeed a secret, and she could not stand that idea. She knew what was right from wrong, and wanted her father to realize that what he did was not right. “She deserves to know the truth. She’s your wife.”
“And you, my dear, are merely my daughter. You will obey my orders in this household, or I shall turn you into the streets.” Taruk proclaimed, but Tilula did not care.
“You are too cruel. Does Indri even know you took this from him?” Tilula prodded. And when her father couldn’t look her in the eye, she huffed. “I thought so.”
She knew her father was bluffing, like he always did.
“The villagers are grateful that they need not see the man’s ugly visage to get their water. And look here.” Taruk reached into the purse that was tied to his belt and lifted out a handful of gold coins. They were shiny and new, and it was all Tilula could do not to shut her eyes at their brightness. “This is all we’ve earned in the last month. A hundred gold pieces for a vial of healing water goes a long way, Tilula. If not for this money, you would not be wearing those gorgeous slippers you have on now.”
Ire quickly replaced Tilula’s awe over the money. Her father was not going to coerce her into keeping his secrets from anybody if she had anything to say about it. “Then I’ll take the slippers off, for I don’t need them. I can always go about barefoot.”
“You will disgrace me so?” Taruk roared angrily.
Taruk shoved the coins back into his purse and took a hasty gulp of his coffee before setting the cup down. Taruk placed his hands atop the corner table and, shoulders hunched, mentally cursed his own self for having produced such an outspoken daughter. “I ought to take my hand to your hide, like when you were still five.”
Tilula wanted to give another quick retort in response to that bluff, but before she could do so her mother came rushing into the kitchen.
“Taruk, come quickly!” she said, panting, worry once again dominant in her eyes.
“What is it, my dear?” Taruk asked, drawing his wife closer. She’d not looked so worried since the illness of their son-
“It’s your son! He fainted on the pavilion!” she despaired. “What do we do? The healers are attending him as we speak, but I fear they will not be able to do anything.”
Taruk paled, and so did Tilula. Her heart was once again seized with fear. Her brother was ill again, and this time around there may not be any more they could do to cure him.
“Is it the same sickness?” she asked, her mind working quickly, organizing what needed to be done and who needed to do it.
“I’m afraid so,” her mother concluded.
Tilula wasted no time in dashing to the large jar and peeking inside. Perhaps there was still some left, an amount that would be enough to keep her little brother while their father thought of a way to clean the mess of a situation he’d made with Indri. “Father, do you have any of the water left?”
“What?” her mother paused, and looked towards Tilula. It was clear from her expression that she was puzzled by those words. “I thought we used up the water last time.”
Taruk had been too focused on calming his wife down, and too shocked upon knowing that this must be the courtesy repaid him for stealing that healing water. “What your daughter asks, my dear, is if I have any water left from the stash I have kept hidden.”
“Stash? I don’t understand. Did you once again buy water?” she asked.
“No,” Taruk sighed. Now was the moment of truth, the time to tell his beloved of what he’d done. It was also time to face the fact that he’d committed a mistake which might in itself end the life of his son. “Sit here and I will tell you what I have done.”
Taruk retold what he and his men did to Indri’s hedge, and how they sold the vials of healing water without any of the other merchants knowing. “Your daughter says that my deed was most cruel, and now I am starting to think it. What has recently happened to our son could only be my punishment.”
There was a desperate look in his wife’s eyes. “I don’t care what you have done, so long as there is plenty of water left to heal him.”
“I am afraid I’ve sold every vial I had, sparing none of it for ourselves.” Taruk said. And his heart broke when his wife crumpled in her seat and wept. Taruk knew that only Indri’s healing water would be able to cure their son. He also knew that only tragic measures would be able to convince Indri to give him water for his son’s sickness. What he’d done was most unforgivable, and Indri would surely inflict a very grave punishment upon him. “Tilula, go now with your mother and help aid our little heart. I must be alone so I can think.”
Taruk’s friend shivered in the cold night air. The weather was turning nasty, a suiting backdrop to the task they were about to do. “I have never groveled in my whole life, Taruk. Now here I am by your side, planning to beg for mercy in front of our victim. How odd the way life works.”
“This was the only way I could think of. My son’s life is on the line.” Taruk said, standing in front of the hedge that separated Indri’s house from the rest of the forest. New buds were already forming on the hedge, aided by droplets of sparkling water. But now the buds were well-protected against thieves by an outer mesh of thorny vines. And all Taruk could do was raise his voice to call the forest’s master. “Indri! Come out of that mansion of yours. I wish to speak with you.”
A frog-like head peeked out from a window on the mansion just beyond the hedge. Indri’s face looked even more monstrous now that it had a scowl on it. “Have you no shame, Taruk?! You violate my garden, sell what is supposed to be in my keeping and spread news of my ugliness throughout the land. Why should I help you when you’ve brought only nothing but trouble?”
“I merely wish to acquire more of your water,” Taruk called again. He felt Indri’s anger deeply, and tried to be braver in front of his men. But he was cowering inside. Indeed, his limbs were shaking inside his robe. He, fingers trembling, unlaced his purse from his belt and held it out for Indri’s inspection. “Here. I have all the money from the water I have taken from you. I have also added the profit I gained. You can have all of this, so long as you give me some water.”
“I am not interested in gold, of which I have plenty already,” Indri grumbled.
“But you must help me! My son means more than anything in the world to me, even my life.”
“Your life?” Indri asked interestedly. He rubbed his chin and eyed the men that were with the merchant. “Perhaps that can be arranged.”
Taruk gulped, and he had a feeling that he shouldn’t have said anything so dramatic. There was a glint of evil intent visible in Indri’s eyes, even from this far distance. “You will help me?”
“I will,” the forest prince said, “in exchange for your life.”
“What?! No, Taruk!” Anif dashed from among the rank of men and grabbed the merchant by the sleeve, even as Indri continued to give out his instructions.
“One of you will have to behead him, and toss his head over this hedge. As soon as I catch it, I will command my sprites to draw water from the spring.”
The friend raised his clenched fist in the air and disrespected the prince of frogs with his gesture. “What kind of animal are you?! A cruel beast that has no consideration for life!”
Indri laughed cruelly. “Did you consider the life of my flowers when you stole the water from their heads? I think not. It’s the merchant’s head or nothing. Hurry up. I haven’t got all night.”
“Hold your peace, my friend.” Taruk finally said. He turned towards Anif slowly.
“You cannot possibly be considering his offer.” His friend winced when he realized that Taruk was not listening to a word that he was saying.
“I brought this upon myself, thus I will face it like a man.” Taruk called for his other companions to come closer. And when the others were gathered about, he crossed his arms and prayed that they would not make an uproar against his commands. “Gather sticks and draw them among you. Whoever will draw the shortest will have to behead me.”
“Taruk! I will not permit this!” his friend rebelled, but he continued on. The other men seemed to understand that he’d decided his fate. He was going to give his life in exchange for the chance of his son living.
“There is an axe in my pack that we can use. And when you return to the village, tell my wife that we were able to purchase the water. But tell her also that we were attacked by wild animals – and that I had not survived. It will make my death more bearable.”
Anif too finally realized that he could do nothing to change Taruk’s mind. He fervently prayed that he would not pick out the shortest stick. Brave as he was, he could never behead a man he considered his brother.
“Then… you leave us no choice.” He turned to the others as well. “You all heard him. Gather those sticks.”
But before the company could disperse, a slight figure broke into the circle they’d formed.
“Father, no!” she yelled as she stumbled into the midst of the men.
Indri knew that voice. He’d heard it many weeks ago, while he was at the merchant’s residence. It was the voice of that lovely girl, the one who went into her brother’s room everyday and kept him company. It was the lovely voice that chimed like little bells in the wind. And Indri was curious to know the owner of that voice. He’d not seen the girl’s face, for he’d been hiding behind the curtains. But now was his chance to finally get a glimpse of that mysterious lady.
“Who is that with you, Merchant?” he asked curiously, leaning out of his window. But he could see only a vague figure, for the sun was setting over the horizon and taking its light with it.
Taruk ignored Indri, too surprised was he by the appearance of his daughter. “Tilula, what in the world are you doing here? Did you follow me?”
Tilula too ignored her father’s words. She could not believe that her father was just going to let one of the other men kill him so that her brother would be saved. “You cannot give up on life. Think of Mother, and all the heartache you’ll give her if this should come to pass.”
By this time, Indri was getting impatient. There was a new emotion in his black heart. This emotion felt like a thousand or so needles were pricking his chest at the same time.
“Who are you, girl?” he called, causing the merchant’s daughter to look up to where he was.
Tilula looked up and saw the prince of frogs. For a moment fear seized her when she beheld his strange eyes, and the green tinge of his skin that seemed greener with the setting of the sun. But then she found her voice when she realized that the man was waiting for her answer. “My name is Tilula. I am this merchant’s daughter.”
“You seem fond of your father,” Indri said. He too had been speechless when the girl raised her gaze to meet his. In the fading sunlight, her exquisite beauty was enhanced. What had been a shadow just moments ago now beheld perfectly beautiful eyes like black pearls, and skin as pale as the full moon. The girl’s auburn hair spilled in dark waves over her shoulders. His breath caught as the girl gazed pleadingly up at him.
“He is a good father and husband, and a fine man of the village. If he has offended you, it is only because he wishes to protect the rest of us.” Tilula said. “But I am no consequence or loss to anyone. If it pleases you, I shall take his place.”
Taruk was alarmed. He would not allow his daughter to be harmed in his stead. He would rather die than see his own blood pay for his sins. “No! Tilula, what are you saying? Am I so heartless that I should choose myself over my daughter? Nay, I will not let you die in my place.”
Indri saw the drama that was unfolding in front of his gates, and this amused him somewhat, for he had never seen a braver father or daughter than these two. Truth be told, he hadn’t really meant to go through with such a morbid execution. He would have watched until the axe was raised over the merchant’s head, and then stopped everything before it could descend.
He had meant to teach the man a lesson, before sending him away without the kindness of the healing water. The current argument before his gates was an added bonus and worth the threat. But he became serious when he realized that their bickering would go nowhere.
“Indeed your father is right. It will not please me to see a delicate flower beheaded at my doorstep.” This was his chance to get what he wanted, and he was not going to let it go to waste. “But it will please me if you consent to live under my roof until the full moon.”
“You will spare my father’s life?” Tilula asked him.
“If you stay behind until I can return you.”
“Nay! Never!” Taruk thundered. “I will not give my daughter’s purity to you.”
This annoyed Indri. Did the man really think he was a dirty old pervert? He’d never so much as held a woman’s hand. Not even the older sprites had any appeal to him. “I will not touch her in that way. She will be safe, clothed and well-fed in my keeping.”
“Father, ‘tis our only hope. You heard him. He said I would be safe.” Tilula urged. She was not going to let either her father or her little brother die, never mind her fear of the notorious Indri.
“I do not trust him, love.” Taruk whispered.
“He never thought to chase after you when he discovered you stole from his garden. Give him this one request.” she replied. “I will walk into his garden and by the next fool moon come out unscathed. You’ll see.”
Tilula turned away and stepped towards the thorny hedges.
Indri saw this, and secretly cheered. He lifted his hand towards the hedges, and they magically parted to allow Tilula passage. The girl willingly stepped into his garden, and never once looked back as the hedge closed behind her. He’d won, and now this lovely girl was his until the full moon once again claims the sky. Of course, he had to keep his end of the bargain.
“My sprites will deliver the water to your son directly, Merchant.” Indri declared. “Now off with you.”
“No…” Taruk whispered into the night.
But Indri didn’t hear it. He was far too excited by the presence of his guest to tell the old merchant off. In fact, he’d even forgotten to shut the window he’d been peeking out of. He dashed down the stairs, through his grand hall and over the wide balcony, until he reached the pathway that led to his front garden.
However, once he caught sight of the girl from behind the bushes, he stopped. Fear suddenly grabbed hold of his black heart. He’d never talked to such a beautiful creature before. What if she fainted at his feet from sheer fright? Or what if she cried and wished to leave after all?
“Well? Aren’t you going to come out?” Tilula called. She’d felt someone watching her form the shadows.
Indri gulped and, in his raspy voice, answered the maiden’s summons. “You might fear me once I reveal myself. Many women have swooned in fear upon seeing me.”
Tilula was surprised by the uncertainty in the man’s voice. Where had the stern monster in the window gone? In its place was a lad no older than her, unsure of what he needed to do to make her accept him as he was.
Well, there was nothing to it. He had to come out and help her, otherwise he’d end up with an unconscious woman anyway. “I’m afraid I have no choice. For you see, I may need help getting anywhere. I’ve been walking behind my father’s party in secret, and with no sandals.”
Indri glanced at her feet just as the waxing moon began to rise over the edges. Its gentle light bathed Tilula’s petite figure. And on her feet were cuts and bruises. “Now you feet are bleeding, and you’re tired from your journey.”
He realized that Tilula was telling the truth. So he mustered all his courage and stepped out from his hiding place. “No need to be afraid. I will not eat you.”
Tilula paused when she saw Indri. He was much bigger up close. And scarier to boot. But there was something in his changed mood. He didn’t look quite that angry. She couldn’t put her finger on it. “I – I… haven’t seen anything quite like you. You’re different.”
He would have scoffed and agreed with her, were it not for the sight of the woman up close. He saw the faint circles under the girl’s eyes, as well as the worn expression on her face. There was tiredness to the way she carried herself too. “Come. I’ll carry you in. You look light as a feather, and I shall be able to hold you with ease.”
He approached her slowly and just in time, for it was at the exact moment he reached for her that she lost her strength to stand. She fell into his arms, light as a feather. Her soft skin met his rough one. Her warm body became placid as sleep claimed her. And for the first time, Indri received the kindest words anyone could ever say to him.
“You don’t look like a monster at all…” she murmured, “Just strange…”
Tilula awoke to the sound of muted chatter. She opened her eyes, and gasped when she saw the richly-gilded ceiling above her bed. She sat up, and was even more shocked to see that the covers about her were made of pink and gold thread, and that the cushions were encased in pillowcases of fine pink silk. For a moment she was confused and didn’t know where in the world she was. But the site of two pretty childlike sprites at the bedroom door, waiting on her, made her remember that she was in the residence of the prince of frogs.
Tilula was bathed, combed and dressed in an elegant gown. And then she was led by her two sprite companions to a large dining hall, where among a nest of cushions was a low dining table. And at its head was the master, Indri.
“Well don’t just stand there, girl. Come here where I can see you.” Indri called to her.
“Hello,” she said. Did Indri mean for her to eat with him? And why?
“Hello,” Indri replied calmly. “Aren’t you going to eat something?”
At his words, Tilula immediately positioned herself at the other end of the table, arranging the skirt of her gown around her before reaching for the utensils. She’d jumped at Indri’s question, for she feared his anger if she did not obey his wishes. But the moment she put food in her mouth, all fear was forgotten. She’d never tasted anything as delicious as the food that was laid out before her now.
Indri observed the girl before him, and wanted so badly to hear her voice. But in order for that to happen, he had to talk to her. So he said the first thought that came to his mind.
“So… your father. He strikes me as the sort of man who tries to live for his own reasons. It’s a wonder he has a family that adores him, for I think he looks only for his own pleasure.” Indri leaned forward so that Tilula would not ignore him. “Go on, speak up. I found you most vocal when I first saw you beyond my garden. You’re supposed to contradict me. What’s changed?”
Tilula gulped. “I fear that anything I have to say may increase your ire, thus goading you to have me for breakfast.”
When Indri realized that some part of the woman was still afraid of him, he softened his voice and even attempted to smile a little. “My temper has nothing to do with my preference in morning meals. Contrary to what you people believe, I am not a cannibal. I am simply the unlucky recipient of my father’s charms.”
He pointed to the sprites that were curiously peeking into the dining room, watching them. The sprites, now knowing that they’d been spotted, scrambled to get out of sight. “My sprites prepare my meals. They gather the finest fruits of the orchard and cook my hunts to perfection. We also have a sprite that is knowledgeable in pressing wine.”
“You hunt?” Tilula asked. She’d never met anyone who could hunt before.
“Only when it suits me,” Indri replied. “And it in no way diminishes the population of wild animals in the forest when one has no one else to feed. You of course, will scarcely affect it.”
Indri continued eating, until a thought occurred to him. “How old are you, by the way?”
He choked. This girl was three-and-twenty? Why, he was only a year older than her! “Forgive me. I find it quite hard to believe. You look quite too young for your age.”
“You don’t look like anything I’ve imagined as well,” Tilula laughed. She didn’t know her age would cause such discomfort for Indri. But then she noticed said man staring at her, and she quieted. “Excuse me. I’m being informal.”
“Not at all. I find your openness refreshing.” In truth, Indri stared because he’d been mesmerized by her sweet voice. Her laughter sounded like a harmonious spring melody.
Tilula continued on. “‘Tis just that anyone I ask about you is ready to tell of your faults, yet I still have to see one.”
“Do you not consider my wish to behead your father a fault?” Indri asked uncomfortably.
“Much as I detest the idea, you are justified. My father stole from your garden, and you are allowed to grant his punishment. But as my father’s flesh and blood, I am allowed to plead for his case. I took the opportunity.”
Never had Indri been more awed before. Here in front of him was a young woman who had the wisdom of the elder sprites and the beauty of the younger ones. And she had such a kind heart as well. “Your father is a lucky man to be the recipient of such love.”
“It is not difficult to love someone you cannot live without, nor someone who means the sun and the stars to you,” Tilula said quietly. And a bit uncomfortably. There was something about Indri that told her the man had never really felt real love. Perhaps it was the house. It was far too big for just one man to live in.
“Like your brother?” Indri asked her.
“He is the light of our house, born many years after me. He is my father’s heir, my mother’s blessing and my source of joy. I have called him my little heart since infancy.” Already she missed her little brother. Silently she prayed for his health, that Indri’s healing water had gotten to their house just in time and that her mother was not mourning her disappearance too much.
Indri wiped his mouth with a crisp napkin and got up from his seat. Tilula tried to get up too, as a courtesy to the owner of the house, but Indri motioned for her to remain seated and continue her meal. “I found our conversation quite pleasant, Tilula. It is a shame I have to visit the forest today.”
But tomorrow,” he said, “it would be a great honor if you would join me for a walk in the garden.”
“Of – of course,” Tilula agreed hesitantly.
But once she saw a spark of happiness in Indri’s eye, she relaxed. It was in that moment that Tilula conceived the extent of Indri’s isolation. He didn’t want to be alone in this house as well. As she watched the master leave, she hoped that her presence could somewhat cheer him. Then and there she decided that she was going to be a good friend to the man. After all, he did save her brother out of the kindness of his heart. He could have easily denied her father that medicine as punishment, and yet he chose to make a bargain.
Indri turned around when he heard faint footsteps approaching from behind him. Sure enough, there was Tilula, resplendent in another one of the robes the sprites had provided for her. A deep red sash circled her waist, and a veil of transparent red trailed behind her hair. The robe was of pale rose, and so were the slippers upon her feet. “Good morn to you, Tilula.”
Tilula had a calm face, and seemed more relaxed after having spent the previous day walking about his mansion. No doubt she’d been entertained by the sprites with their musical concert, or perhaps by the birds of paradise that were free to go into and out of his aviary. “Good morn, Master Indri.”
“Master seems too formal, don’t you think? My form doesn’t even do justice to the title. Indri is sufficient.” Indri smiled and took her arm formally. “Go on. Say it.”
Indri had never heard a more musical pronunciation of his voice. He was pleased, and as reward offered to tour Tilula about his gardens.
They made their way to the balcony, and from there descended into the back of the mansion. Here the flowers bloomed profusely in between gazebos and beautifully sculpted fountains. Cobblestone walkways led them form one flower bed to another, and eventually to rose trellises and such.
Now the trellises were Indri’s favorite features of the back garden, for they were his first attempts at gardening. They now beheld magnificent blooms such as dog roses, orchids and the occasional violet trumpet flowers. “The flowers here were planted by water sprites many years ago. They are sprinkled with magic water daily, so that they bloom all throughout the day and even at night.”
“Oh, how beautiful,” Tilula exclaimed. Never had she seen a more beautiful garden. The tiny yard she kept and planted herbs in was absolutely paltry compared to the rich vegetation of where she stood now.
Indri continued on. “We have chrysanthemums, magnolia, flames of every hue and color, bleeding heart – even tropical blooms are able to survive with the aid of my spring water. Of course plants here vary as well. Bamboo, dates and pears in the orchard-”
Indri paused when he realized that Tilula was staring at him. All of a sudden his face felt a little hotter. So this is what it feels like to be embarrassed. “I must be boring you, am I not? You have eyes with which to see, and yet here I am babbling about the same.”
“You bore me not at all. I find you enthusiasm contaminating.” Tilula said. In her eyes, Indri was absolutely fascinating; someone a person would never tire of figuring out. He was someone who, once able to trust another person, would do his very best to please that person.
“‘Tis just that I have very little company,” Indri tried to reason. He’d been all alone most of his life, and had gotten carried away. He was very excited to finally be able to talk to someone freely.
“What about the sprites?” Tilula asked.
“The sprites?” he repeated. He looked over his shoulder and, sure enough, several of the mischievous little critters were following them. “They don’t talk. They tinkle like chimes in the wind, and it’s difficult to understand them. Only older sprites can talk our language, but they usually reside in the sky and descend only on a full moon.”
Indri waved the sprites off, and they obeyed him, disappointed looks on their faces. “My mother lives in the sky, and hers is the only company I’ve anticipated since childhood.”
“It’s a lonely existence you live. No wonder you have so many flowers.”
“Your mind is wise, little one.” Indri acknowledged. “Flowers never judge like people do. They bloom for their master regardless of his looks. They never shun your love.”
“So you do love!”
“No, I do not.”
“But you just said-”
“My interest in flora is in no way parallel to the romantic notion of most people! It is therefore not love, according to how you view it.” Indri cut her off before going forward, leaving Tilula behind.
“Very well…” Tilula had no choice but to follow in his wake.
And this made Indri feel a bit guilty. Talks of love were the kind of talks he most avoided with his mother, for he’d not felt that emotion for anyone. He was a bit angry about this, but he knew that he had no right to take out his anger on Tilula. And so, he wanted to make up for his poor manners. Perhaps… “Do you want a flower?”
“Pardon?” Tilula asked as she caught up with Indri’s wide steps.
“A flower. I was asking if you would like one, and which.”
“Would you give one to me? After what my father did?” Tilula asked doubtfully, even as she eyed a violet trumpet that grew on one of the trellises.
Indri saw where her gaze went, and realized that that one little flower would make Tilula smile again. So he made his way to the trellises and started climbing it, placing one webbed foot at each wooden intersection. “Just watch me.”
“Indri, I think it’s too high. Indri, it’s too high. Indri!” Tilula warned and warned him, but he did not listen. He made his way up, until he could reach the flower, and was finally able to pluck it off its stem. But just as he was about to descend, his webbed foot slipped from the wood. He outbalanced, falling onto the blanket of grass below, the violet blossom still carefully held in his fingers.
“Oh!” Tilula rushed to where he was and immediately inspected him from head to foot. “You poor dear! Did it hurt?”
“Not – not at – all,” Indri stuttered. Tilula was touching him everywhere, checking if he had any bruises. But it was difficult to tell from his already greenish skin, which was too thick anyway to have bruises at all. He stopped Tilula and instead presented her the flower. “Here. A flower for a flower.”
Indri placed the trumpet behind Tilula’s ear, and was pleased when he saw a rosy blush spread over the girl’s face.
“Th-thank you,” she whispered.
And just like that, the awkward argument that had transpired between them vanished in the face of another kind of awkwardness, one that they both prayed would vanish quickly too.
“So… what should we do next?” Tilula asked as she glanced into the pond that they were standing close to. She admired the beautiful flower in her hair, and unknown to her Indri was admiring her. “Indri?”
Indri stopped inspecting the young lady with him. He pretended instead to have been looking at the flower in her hair. Unlike the violet of yesterday, this one was a bright yellow dahlia, one that matched her lime green robe with the black embroidering.
It took him quite a bit before he was able to fully comprehend Tilula’s request. “Oh, well… I don’t know. What would you like to do?”
“If perhaps my request would not be too intrusive,” Tilula continued, “I would dearly love to see the spring.”
This peaked Indri’s curiosity. Never had any of his customers asked to see the spring itself before. They usually just asked for the water to be given to them, and then left quickly. Of course, if they ever would have asked Indri for a glimpse of the spring, he would have denied them. Surely they would have done something stupid and contaminated the healing water there. But Tilula was a whole different person. Her purity and good intentions would never taint the healing waters. “The spring? What for?”
“I would like to offer a prayer to it, for it saved my brother’s life,” Tilula said. “But of course if you do not approve-“
“No, no. I mean, I approve of your actions. Follow me.”
Tilula released a sigh of relief. She thought that Indri would deny her the privilege of paying homage to the water that was even now restoring her brother’s health.
They made their way through the numerous gardens until they reached a vast orchard, where a winding cobblestone trail snaked between the trees. They followed this path until they reached a labyrinth, which they entered. Here the path changed from cobblestone into well-assembled patterns of red and white brick. Colorful vines and flowering weeds grew in between the crevices on the wall.
Tilula took her time to admire the untamed foliage, until Indri paused in front of her. She too paused, and was surprised to find that they were at the exact center of the labyrinth, where a small garden had been hidden from the rest of the world. There was a circle of benches, surrounded by even wilder blooms and several flowering trees. And in the middle of all this arrangement was a small spring.
There was a pile of rocks at the center of the spring, from which healing water flowed. And at the foot of the rocks grew various water plants, including lilies and hyacinths of different colors. The sheer beauty of it, and even the musical bubbling of the spring, was enough to draw Tilula forward.
“Be careful. It’s slippery right here.” Indri warned as he followed Tilula to the edge of the spring. “And don’t touch the water. It mustn’t be sullied.”
“All right,” she agreed. She crouched down carefully, making sure that the hem of her gown was not dipping into the water. “It looks so fresh. And the bubbling sounds wonderful. And what are those?”
“Fish, of course,” Indri said knowingly.
“Magical fish. They filter the water, keeping it pure.”
“I wish I could touch them… oh!” Tilula was trying to get up when her foot accidentally pinned her hem to the ground. She would have slipped and slid directly into the water if Indri had not caught her in time. In response to the sudden slide, Tilula had grabbed hold of Indri’s arms, and now they were locked in an accidental embrace.
Tilula gazed up at him, and realized that Indri was just as surprised by what he’d done. Something inside her breast jumped, and her lungs felt like they desperately needed copious amounts of air. Her legs also felt like giving out completely.
She realized something else –Indri had the most arresting eyes despite his hideous façade. Despite the oddity of his pupils, his irises had a bluish sheen, with shots of cornflower blue radiating from the center. For all his claims of having inherited his father’s monstrosity, Tilula found this part of his person not at all monstrous. So strange was the effect of Indri’s stare, that she immediately pushed away from him to regain her composure. And it was only then that she noticed the flower behind her ear was gone.
“What a pity,” she said when she saw where her flower was – floating among the lily pads in the water. “My flower. You worked so hard to get it.”
Indri sighed and, for a moment regretted letting go of Tilula so easily. For he’d felt it the moment he was once again able to hold her. I felt it… it must be… I think… “It’s no loss. I would have been more concerned if you should have fallen in.”
“Is you concern for my safety?” Tilula teased once she was finally able to breathe normally.
At that, Indri smiled. He simply had to restrain himself. Any feelings for Tilula would go unnoticed, and was best kept hidden. The world would not accept it. She would not accept it.
“No,” he said seriously. “My concern is for the water.”
Tilula knew he was bluffing, and for the first time the both of them laughed.
“There’s no sense in sitting there all night. Come and eat by the fire where it’s warm.”
Taruk sighed heavily and looked at his friend’s face, illuminated by the campfire they’d made a while earlier. It had been a week since his daughter stepped into Indri’s gardens. And now he was still just as worried and nervous.
“If you were in my place, with your daughter in the clutches of the prince of frogs, you would not feel disposed to hunger also,” he said. “I swear, if that beast has done anything to my daughter, or so much as harmed a hair on her head, I will drag him from the premises of the forest and behead him myself.”
His friend chuckled, which annoyed Taruk to no end.
“Big words form a man whose actions caused all this.” Anif raised the bowl of soup he’d prepared for him to see. “Come, Taruk. There’s naught we can do in the meantime.”
The merchant took a while to decide what to do, and then finally consented to his friend’s offer. He took a clean bowl from among the ones they had, and started spooning soup into it with a ladle. Then he sat beside the fire and wearily sipped his dinner. “I don’t know how I’d overlooked her. She is wise, pure and all things a man would want in a wife. Diligent too. She is past the age of matrimony, you know.”
His friend chuckled again, and even slapped him on the back. “I should say not. My own daughter wed at five-and-twenty, and even then was not inclined to the idea. She detested the man I chose for her. Luckily, she came to her senses and learned to care for her husband.”
“I would give my daughter anything her heart desires, even her choice of husband, so long as I see her walk out of those hedges alive,” Taruk declared casually.
“That seems like a dangerous, hasty decision, my friend.”
“Nevertheless, it will ease the guilt within my heart. We’ve set her aside for so long, my wife and I, that I fear it may be too late to make amends.”
Taruk gazed towards the forest path that led to Indri’s residence. Indri’s hedge was just a walk away. His daughter was close by. But he could nothing except wait at the man’s gates ‘til the time her daughter walked out of them.
One week, Tilula had been in Indri’s mansion. And she was having the time of her life. If Indri and she were not walking around the gardens or listening to the musical notes that the sprites’ instruments were making, they were either reading in his vast library or playing in the orchard.
Much like they were doing now.
“Hah! I won again!” Tilula said as she caught the pear that one of the sprites had thrown at them. Whoever caught the most pears and stocked it in their basket won. And Indri was several pears short compared to her. “You really are bad at this game.”
“I would have done better were it not for these abominable hands,” Indri complained half-heartedly. He was panting heavily, but there was also a wide grin on his face. He’d been amazed by the speed at which Tilula was able to run. No wonder she was able to catch up with her father’s party.
“At least you have hands. Some people aren’t so lucky.” she said.
Indri walked towards her and took hold of her elbow, gaining her attention. He was also surprised with how much wisdom her pretty head contained. She was truly someone any person would be proud of to have as a friend. “Your sympathy knows no bounds, little flower.”
But Tilula was not listening, so excited was she by this new game they’d devised to pick fruits faster. Already she was waving for her teammate, a cute little boy-sprite, to prepare throwing another set of fruits from the tree boughs. “Hurry up! I’m determined to beat you thrice. In fact I’m aching to win this.”
The game continued and, once again, Tilula was caught up in it. Her attention was so focused on catching the next pear that her foot, quick though it was, tripped over a root that arched from the ground. Pain zinged from the top of her foot and through her leg as she fell on hands and knees close to her basket.
“Tilula! Tilula, are you all right?” Indri rushed to her aid. He knelt beside her and turned her towards him. And when he saw tears of pain upon her lashes, quickly declared their afternoon chores over. “I think we’re done playing games for today. You there, get a vial of my water.”
The sprite he quickly commanded to fetch medicine obeyed quickly, even as the other sprites crowded around them. Deep inside, Indri was proud of Tilula. She’d made the sprites trust her in a very short amount of time. Now she was as dear to them as the master himself.
But an audience this many was something Indri would not tolerate. One icy glare from him, displayed in all directions, quickly caused the rest of the sprites to disperse.
Tilula must have mistaken his gaze as some hidden anger. Their game was at an end, all because she’d been too careless. And Indri was regretting it. “I’m s-sorry. I s-spoiled all the fun.”
“Nonsense. I enjoyed the game while it lasted. Let me see your leg. Where does it hurt?”
“My ankle – ouch!” Tilula gasped as Indri raised her foot a bit, and inspected the ankle that she’d twisted. It made her uncomfortable, both the tingling pain from her foot and the way that Indri carefully handled it. The way he touched her foot and the way he tenderly put it back down made her heart beat just a bit faster.
But before she could push away from him or get on her own two feet, Indri was already lifting her into his arms. He effortlessly carried her through the orchard, leaving their baskets behind. Indri made his way past the back gardens, through the hallways of his mansion, until he reached the bedroom that was designated to her.
And on her bed Tilula was placed.
“Sit still, flower. I have enough medicine to heal this in no time.” Indri arranged the pillows behind her, making her as comfortable as possible. Then, just as he tied the bed curtains aside, the sprite he’d ordered to collect healing water knocked on the door.
“Ah! Here it is.” Indri collected the vial from the sprite and wasted no time in using a few drops on Tilula’s outstretched foot. With his webbed hands he applied the water to her ankle, until the bruising that had begun to form disappeared from sight.
“That feels nice,” Tilula said, yawning all the while. “Why do I feel drowsy all of a sudden?”
“The water is being absorbed by your skin, casting its effect on your body.” Indri capped the vial once he was finished, and began tucking Tilula into her bed. She looked even prettier when she was sleepy, for the expression on her face became soft and trusting. And the film of tears that had built up from her yawning made her eyes look even lovelier. “You must rest now. I will have the sprites wake you when supper is ready.”
“Thank you.” Tilula stretched on her bed, heedless of her companion. She’d grown used to Indri being around her all the time. “Indri, why did you ask for me?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“When I offered my own life in my father’s place, why did you really spare it?”
Indri sat down at the corner of the bed and looked at her. To be honest, even he did not fully remember the reason behind his request anymore. All he knew was that ever since Tilula lived in his house, he’d been happier. He now fully enjoyed his walks in the gardens, and for once he did not regret going out to hunt, for there was somebody at the house he needed to feed. The flowers in his residence looked more beautiful than they ever did, now that there were new eyes to admire them. And he too felt just a little bit more handsome, all because Tilula had chosen to become his friend.
“Because… I am selfish. I saw how much you love your father, and wanted just a bit of it for myself. I wanted to have a friend, even for just a short time.”
Tilula smiled at him, struggling to stay awake even though sleep was beckoning to her. “I am your friend. I will still be your friend beyond the full moon.”
“May I ask something of you?” Indri asked as his heart began pounding in his chest.
“What is it?” she whispered.
“A kiss. Just one. Just to know how it would feel like?” Indri could not help it. Just one. Just once.
And before he could stop himself, or try to restrain himself from doing so, he leaned down and brushed Tilula’s lips with his. Tilula gasped beneath him, and all of a sudden his senses came back to him.
What was he doing? What in the world had come over him?
He wanted to pull away, but couldn’t. The temptation of Tilula was too much. His hands moved from the covers of the bed to frame Tilula’s face, and then further to wrap around the girl’s body and pull her to him. She was so warm, and so pliant, and so fragrant. Holding Tilula was like holding heaven in his arms.
“You taste wonderful, like drugging wine for my soul,” he whispered.
He felt her place her fingers brush over his cheeks, then over his shoulders. He felt her lips respond, moving of their own accord across the widened seam of his mouth. She was kissing back softly, sleepily, brushing the petals of her lips against rough skin.
“Indri…” she murmured, trailing one hand down to cover his heart.
Tilula’s faint, trusting voice made him pause. He raised his head and looked down, and realized that Tilula was already half-asleep in his arms. And he cursed himself for using her vulnerability to fulfill his own wishes. He carefully returned Tilula’s head on her pillow, and tucked the covers under her chin.
“I shan’t harm you. But I wish to stay here. Just a while longer?” he asked carefully. He wanted to run away and hide his feelings, and hope Tilula would think all that had happened was a dream. At the same time he wanted to stay and look upon her peaceful face. He wanted more time to gaze at her, at the unbelievable beauty of her body and soul.
Tilula furrowed her brow and, with increment yawns, gave Indri her warning. “This is dangerous ground we are treading, Indri. Very dangerous. What would my father say?”
“Your father holds no part in this-“
“No… Much as we wish it, we must never put a name to this… this web we are spinning around us,” Tilula said softly. She would have put more force into her voice, if not for the sleepiness that had taken over. “It may cocoon us inside ‘til we can’t get out, and then where would we be?”
Indri sighed. The woman was right. There was no place for him in Tilula’s world. Tilula may be able to live in his mansion for years to come, but he had no wish to part her from the world outside the forest. The world that had honed her to become the woman she was now. It was not fair to steal her away from the village that raised her and the family that loved her. “You are right. What we’ve made in this dwelling will die outside the forest realm. ‘Tis better we steer clear of dangerous waters, eh?”
Her eyes closed then, and Indri finally got up form where he was sitting. He let the bed curtains fall, hiding Tilula from his sight with its translucent material. He walked to the door and, just before closing it behind him, declared the secret he kept hidden in his heart.
“Were I only one of your kind, dear heart, I would not hesitate to make us more than friends.”
He left the room, and all the sprites that had been secretly watching from the window sighed with sadness. Their master’s heart was troubled, and so were theirs.
Several more days passed, but Indri did not care. He hid in his room, took his breakfast earlier than usual, and went off into the woods to hunt on most afternoons. All because he would not dare see Tilula again.
It was so hard to love someone you were not allowed to. It was so hard to be something no other person could accept. Perhaps if he’d been born a handsome man, with a heart of beautiful red blood beating in his chest, he would be able to go wherever and whenever he pleased. He could venture outside of the forest and see Tilula, and never have to care if anybody questioned the feelings between them.
But he was born with a heart of black and the face of nightmares, and he absolutely refused to drag Tilula into the scrutiny of the public eye. On the other hand, if it weren’t for his ugliness and his desire to escape the outside world, he wouldn’t have met Tilula in the first place.
However, it would be hard to go on living like he had before, without Tilula. He would once again, after the full moon, be alone. He would dine in the hall with no one, read his books without anybody else there, and walk about the gardens unaccompanied.
Like he was doing now.
Indri wearily made his way past the shrubs and rosebushes along the path, turning here, turning there. He was bored, yet too afraid of what would happen if he went to Tilula again. But he found out that he had no choice, for the path he had taken ultimately led to where Tilula was anyway.
She was sitting on an old stump, head bent low. And though her face was hidden from his view, the sniffles Indri heard from where she was indicated that she was crying.
“Dear girl, why are you crying?” Indri asked. His resolve to stay out of Tilula’s way until that night quickly vanished in the face of her sorrow.
Tilula looked at him then. And when he saw how miserable she looked, he opened his arms for her.
Relief came over Tilula when Indri did that. She quickly came into his embrace and stayed there. The shaking of her body eased when she was finally able to feel Indri’s arms wrap around her. She closed her eyes and burrowed into him, and for the first time admitted to herself that she felt more for Indri than she did any other man.
“Indri?” she said. “I feel so alone. I can’t bear it. Day in and day out, I have only the flowers and the sprites to keep me company. But the sprites can’t talk, and the flowers merely nod their heads in the breeze. I hate it! I hate it so much!”
“Forgive me, little flower. I sought only to control myself so I might not alarm you. And in doing so, I’ve brought such unhappiness to your beautiful face. Forgive me.” Indri cupped her cheeks and raised her face to his. There he found what he’d been waiting for all his life. Love shone from Tilula’s eyes, the kind that did not judge. It warmed his heart, black as it was.
Tilula laughed, for she too saw a most yearned for expression in Indri’s eyes. She always wanted to be wanted, if that made any sense. Indri wanted her. Indri needed her. And she needed him too. “There is nothing to forgive. We have been foolish, the two of us. Now here we are, wanting to deny each other’s embrace and yet clinging to it desperately. What do you make of it?”
“I don’t know. I’m certain of one thing.” Indri bent his head and took her lips with his own. It was a soft, quick kiss, but one he would treasure always. “I’ve never felt this way before, and I loathe letting it go.”
“Me neither,” Tilula replied. “What do we do?”
She dreaded parting from him. And she dreaded even more the scrutiny they would be under if ever they chose to stay together. She did not want to leave him here. But at the same time she did not want to forsake her family just so she could choose her own happiness.
“We’ve only a few hours before the moon rises,” Indri observed. His words caused Tilula to move closer towards him, and he tightened his arms about her.
“Don’t even remind me about it. Indri, about what you said the other day?”
Tilula blushed. She’d never asked anyone such a personal favor before. “You wished to – hold me. I – wish to do the same – today.”
“Are you certain?” Indri looked into her eyes, and Tilula had never been more certain. They were to part soon. This was her last chance to be with Indri, before she buried her feelings for him deep down inside.
“Might we find a place to sit on, and watch the leaves as they fall from the trees?” she asked. And she prayed that Indri would agree. For right now, she wanted to be with him.
Someday, her father would allow men to court her. Someday, her husband would be selected from one of those suitors. And someday, she would be the wife of some young merchant with vast holdings and a prominent name. He would go off on caravans and journeys and she would be left to think back on the moment she’d found true love. With Indri.
”I know of just the place,” Indri said serenely. Just as she guessed, Indri led her past the gardens, through the orchards and into the maze. They sat on one of the benches in front of the spring. Indri drew her to his side, and Tilula cuddled there until she fell asleep.
She only awoke when Indri’s gentle strokes on her hair penetrated her peaceful sleep.
“It’s time, Tilula.” Indri whispered into the night.
“No! It can’t be!” But it was, for she saw the full moon high above her when she lifted her eyes to the dark evening. “Indri, I don’t want to leave you here.”
“I must stay.” Indri stood up, and drew her up with him. “And you have to go. I promised to keep you only until the full moon. Your father will be worried.”
A searing pain shot through Tilula’s heart. She was to part from Indri forever, and the love she’d found was to be kept a secret for all time. “All right.”
“The path there leads toward the gardens, and further along to the front gate. I will have my sprites light the way for you.”
“You’re not seeing me out?” she asked.
“I do not have the strength to see you leave me. Even now, I will look away as you approach the hedge.”
“I guess this is farewell…”
“I guess so.” Indri gave her one last kiss on the cheek, and stepped back. He blended with the shadows of the night.
Tears ran down Tilula’s face as she turned away from him. Indri wanted to reach for her, to wipe those tears from her face with his webbed fingers. But he could not. He must not. With grief in his heart, he watched as Tilula was approached by one of his sprites and escorted out of his sight. Out of his life.
Indri moaned and, when grief fully gripped his heart, made his way back to the mansion. There he lit no lamp or illumined no room, for he wanted to be enshrouded with darkness. He wanted to hide from the world, that it may not see the tears he was shedding for his lost love.
“Mother, I am alone more than ever. I have lost the only precious jewel that has ever adorned my house, the only flower I wish to nourish the rest of my life. I will not live long, I think. My grief in losing Tilula will be more than any magical water can cure.” He lamented as he came into the parlor close to the balcony, where he knew her mother was waiting for him.
True enough, the older sprite was there, worry on her face. But that worry was quickly replaced with shock.
“My son!” the elder sprite gasped as she pulled her son into the light of the moon. She cupped Indri’s face in her hands and turned his head this way and that. She gasped some more and laughed, and wept with what seemed to be joy. “I did not think it possible. I thought for certain it was just a myth. But look at you. You’ve proved it wrong!”
A puzzled Indri grasped her by the arms and shook her. “Mother, what are you saying?”
The older sprite, happiness on her face, pulled her son from the balcony, towards the little fishpond that was close by. The water there was still, and reflected the light coming from the full moon. It was shiny as a mirror, and would serve the purpose of one.
“Look into the water, my son, and see what you’ve become,” said the sprite.
Tilula gasped when she saw her father just outside the gates, a torch in one hand and a shawl in the other. She rushed to him quickly, and hugged him around the neck. “Father!”
“Tilula!” Taruk carefully wrapped an arm about his daughter and held her close. Her sobs made his throat ache. Oh how he missed this little girl of his. And how miserable she must have been to have no one else but that horrid creature with her. “Dear child, I thought I was never going to see you again.”
“I missed you too, Father. How about the others? Mother and Brother?” Tilula asked.
“They’re both worried sick about you.” Taruk took his daughter’s hand and gave it a comforting squeeze. “But now you’re safe, and I think ‘tis time we leave for home. And never come back to this place again.”
Never come back?
The words chilled Tilula. She thought she was prepared to hear them. She thought she would be all right. But hearing her father say those words was like being stabbed with a cold knife. Her heart hurt, and her tears started flowing again.
“Father, I don’t think it’s possible. I want to visit again.”
Taruk paid no attention to the tremble in her voice. He wanted to get home as quickly as possible and assure everyone they knew that Tilula was safe and sound. “You kid too much, Tilula. Come along. The sooner we go away from here, the better.”
“Father, I can’t!” Tilula screamed.
“What has gotten into you?” Taruk’s eyes widened when he beheld the grief that was on his daughter’s face. Had that monster – did he- “Tell me, Tilula, did that monster do anything to you?”
“Did he touch you?! I swear upon all the forces of nature that I will see the life bleed from his black heart IF IT’S THE LAST THING I-”
“Father, I love him!!!” Tilula yanked her hand from her father’s grasp and retracted. Her tears ran unbidden down her cheeks now.
Taruk’s eyes widened in disbelief. “What did you say?”
“Indri has only been kind to me. He makes me laugh, he makes me smile. He makes me feel special, like there’s nobody else in the world but me. He loves me… and I love him.” Tilula could not hide the emotions inside her. It was in her voice, in the way that her eyes pleaded for understanding. She clutched her hands above her heart, trying to soothe it as she confessed all that she felt for Indri.
“What sorcery has claimed you, child?”
“It’s no sorcery, Father. It’s love. It’s the way you look into Mother’s eyes and see forever.” Tilula bowed in front of her father. She hoped and prayed that he would understand. “Please, let me stay with him. Let me be his.”
“This is outrageous…”
“All my life I’ve asked for nothing. Give me what I desire, just this once. Give me over to his love.”
Taruk could not speak. He could not believe it, and yet he knew that Tilula would tell no lies. She had a mind of her own, and knew what things made her happy. And if she could not be happy, she was miserable.
He put the torch on the ground and grasped Tilula’s shoulders. He stood her upright and caressed her cheek with a loving palm. “You know your happiness means the world to me.”
Tilula’s face lit up. “Thank you, Father!”
“Very well then,” Taruk picked up the torch again, and linked his arm with his daughter’s. For his daughter’s happiness he would face Indri once again. “I will escort you inside. And hopefully we can come to an agreement that won’t shock me half to death.”
Tilula, with her father at her side, entered the mansion. One by one the sprites peeked out of their hiding places. But Tilula did not mind them, for she was by now used to their curiosity. She was more concerned with finding Indri in the vast maze of his house.
“Indri? Indri, I’m back! You won’t believe who I’ve brought along. Indri? Indri, where are you?”
Tilula went through one door after another, until she finally reached the very back of the house. There she spotted a figure standing at the window, one she was not familiar with.
“Tilula?” the stranger asked.
And a handsome stranger at that.
He was very tall, with skin as flawless as polished ivory and eyes as rich and blue as the night. And his hair, a black so deep that it rivaled the darkness of her eyes, cascaded from his head to rest on his broad shoulders. And the rich voice with which he said her name hypnotized like no other.
“Who – who are you?” Tilula asked. She removed her arm from her father’s and came forward, so drawn was she by his beauty. So alien and yet so familiar.
The man came to her then. He reached for her hands and, with his long slender fingers, lifted them to his lips. “Tilula, don’t you recognize me?”
Tilula gasped, and she swayed because of what she’d just discovered. She knew this man before her. She would always know who he was. It could not be… and yet you are-
“You are… Indri?” she whispered. “I can’t believe it! Oh Indri, it really is you! And yet you look – you look-”
“Handsome?” Indri laughed and, from sheer joy, picked her up by the waist and spun her around. He was happy now that his figure had been transformed, but he was even happier to discover that Tilula had returned for him.
“Only the handsomest man I’ve ever seen,” Tilula told him once she was back on the ground. “I tried leaving, I really did. But I couldn’t go. I couldn’t bear to leave you here all alone. Even if you hadn’t changed, I would have stayed. Belive me. Believe this… I love you.”
Indri smiled at her before turning to her father. “Taruk?”
“I must be catching up to my years. Either that, or I have gone mad.” Taruk stepped forward so that he could look at the prince of frogs more closely.
“You have no madness, Taruk. It is I, Indri. The man who has forgiven all your misdeeds.” Indri pulled Tilula to his side and put an arm around her shoulders. “The man who loves your daughter.”
“This day is truly blessed with surprises,” Taruk murmured in awe.
“It was a cure to my monstrosity that transformed me. Your daughter, whose virtue knows no bounds, cured me with her kind heart. In her presence, I was purified. In her love, I learned to love in return. My love is so much that I wish never to part from her. I wish to wed her.”
Tilula gasped, and more tears sprang into her eyes. “Indri…”
“Would you want that, my love?”
“More than anything.”
“With your father’s consent, of course.”
They both looked at Taruk.
The merchant saw the love and happiness on his daughters face. And he also saw, for the first time, a helplessness and vulnerability in Indri’s expression.
How could he not have seen it? It had been there all this time, a desperate need to be loved and understood. He felt shame as he recalled what he’d done to the lad. He’d discriminated Indri, categorized him as a misfit of nature. But right now Indri was in front him, a man whose true character had finally been revealed. And his character was not one of spite or malice. It was one of good intentions and sincerity.
So with sincerity too, Taruk nodded his head in approval.
The sprites kept flitting about, carrying towels, bowls and hot water. Their tinkling was getting on Indri’s nerves so much so that he once again stood up from his seat and paced the length of his grand hall.
Behind him, Taruk and his friend roared in laughter. Both were holding mugs of wine and having a grand time while awaiting the child’s birth.
“Chin up! Nothing bad is going to happen.” Anif raised his mug and took a huge gulp. He was half-drunk already. Any more wine would make him keel over.
Taruk, on the other hand, had a serious light in his eyes even though he was grinning from ear to ear. “Our women are strong, capable creatures. No woman from our village has ever died of childbirth. My daughter will be no exception.”
Indri sighed and sat on his cushion. He was on edge, ready to go to his wife’s side any minute. “It’s not just Tilula I’m worried about. It’s also the fact that our child might be born-”
The hall’s door banged against its hinges, and Tilula’s younger brother dashed into the room. His face was flushed in a healthy pink, and there was an energy about him that displayed his well-being. “Is it here yet?!”
“No, lad. Keep playing outside the house.” Taruk ruffled his son’s head and quickly turned him about.
“Oh… all right.”
They watched as the boy was met by his playmates – the younger sprites – at the door. The lad was now as dear to them as the mistress of the mansion, the forest princess.
“As I was saying,” Indri continued, “our child might be born with the features of its grandfather.”
“Would you love your child less if it was born with those features?” Taruk asked.
“Of course not. I’ll love my child all the same.”
“Then it does not matter! Although… I guess the old rule applies. Hope for the best, I say.”
They waited for many more agonizing minutes, which turned into agonizing hours. Eventually, Taruk’s friend fell asleep on the couch, and even Taruk’s eyes were drooping. But he immediately sat up when the door that led to the private corridors opened.
From there came Tilula’s mother, a little bundle in her hands.
“Darling,” she exclaimed as she stood before Taruk, “it’s a boy!”
“A boy?” Indri asked as he stood up from his seat. His legs shook, his heart beat faster, and his hands turned clammy when he caught sight of the tiny bundle his mother-in-law was holding. There was his son, hidden from his view by the swaddling clothes that engulfed him.
“Come here, Son, and hold your little one in your arms,” his mother-in-law carefully placed the bundle in his arms, and moved the cloth aside.
“Well?” Taruk asked.
His friend, groggy from his nap, stood up and approached them. “Who does he look like?”
Indri looked down and almost cried with delight. His newborn son was in his arms. He had soft baby skin and dazzling eyes. He had the most beautiful little fingers, pudgy and perfectly formed. Indri silently rejoiced. Now he had one more person to love and cherish all his life.
He laughed, and gave his little son a kiss on the crown before handing him over to Taruk. “You can see for yourselves. I must go and see Tilula.”
He rushed out of the room, leaving the new grandparents to dote over their grandchild. The sprites quickly moved out of his way as he ran through the hall, until he reached the master quarters. He knocked at the door, unsure if Tilula was awake or resting, and carefully opened it so as not to make too much noise.
“Hmm. I was sure you would barge in any minute now. Did you see our son?” Tilula was lying on the bed, her brow being wiped by one of the three little girl sprites that helped during her labor. The other two were perched at the far end of the bed, sighing in relief.
“Aye, I did.” Indri raised one brow to the three little sprites, which had them giggling and flying out the window as quickly as they could. Only after their departure did Indri lean down and kiss Tilula. “I love you.”
“The grandfather’s outside, isn’t he? And Mother?”
“Yes,” Indri took Tilula’s hand in his and held it close to his heart.
Tilula raised her free hand to his face and brushed his cheeks with the pads of her fingers. The action erased the tears on Indri’s face, ones he did not know were even there. “They must be so proud. You must be too.”
“I’m happy mostly. I never imagined anything like this would come to me.” Indri laughed and brushed them off as well. He looked at the woman that saw beyond his physical appearance and made his life complete. And he couldn’t help thinking that only one person was missing from this happiest of occasions. “If Mother were here, she would be happy.”
Little did they know, from the heavens above, a beautiful sprite was looking down upon the world. Her eyes twinkled with delight and her sparkles glowed with excitement upon beholding her first grandchild, and the family that would love him forevermore.
Angelaine Espinosa is an incoming medical student and part-time writer. She presently lives on a little island region in the Philippines, with her parents and a younger brother. She enjoys reading, singing, drawing and, of course, writing. Follow her on Twitter via @AngieNovelist, or Visit espinosaangelaine.wix.com/officialsite.
Angelaine Espinosa would like to thank xusenru for providing the original photograph/picture/art for this book.
It was not beauty that saved this beast... Once upon a time, there was a prince such as no prince had ever been before. He lived away from all other mortal men and women, never loved and never loving. Then his story unfolds. This is a beloved fairy tale, told and retold throughout the centuries in so many ways and forms. Read once again the story of how love conquers all, even a black heart.