The Counterclockwise Heart


By Brian Farrey

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“Entertaining, fast-paced and thoughtful.”

—The New York Times Book Review

In this thrilling fantasy novel from an award-winning author, a prince and a mage must untangle the riddles from their shared past to save the future of the empire–or risk seeing everything they both love destroyed.

Tick . . . tick . . . tick . . .
Time is running out in the empire of Rheinvelt.
The sudden appearance of a strange and frightening statue foretells darkness. The Hierophants—magic users of the highest order—have fled the land. And the shadowy beasts of the nearby Hinterlands are gathering near the borders, preparing for an attack.
Young Prince Alphonsus is sent by his mother, the Empress Sabine, to reassure the people while she works to quell the threat of war. But Alphonsus has other problems on his mind, including a great secret: He has a clock in his chest where his heart should be—and it’s begun to run backwards, counting down to his unknown fate.
Searching for answers about the clock, Alphonsus meets Esme, a Hierophant girl who has returned to the empire in search of a sorceress known as the Nachtfrau. When riddles from their shared past threaten the future of the empire, Alphonsus and Esme must learn to trust each other and work together to save it—or see the destruction of everything they both love.


Part One


The Boy Who Talked to Stone

It was the coldest winter morning ever on record in the empire of Rheinvelt when the people of Somber End awoke to find the Onyx Maiden in their tiny village.

The night before, they'd gone to bed, fireplaces blazing to ward off the bitter chill, safe in the knowledge that a statue of Rudolf Emmerich stood watch over the village center. Emmerich, Somber End's long-deceased first burgermeister, was a beloved figure in the town's history even to that very day.

So you can imagine the distress when dawn broke and the shivering residents scurried across the roundel in the village center on their way to work, only to find chunks of Emmerich's statue everywhere. A hand here, a kneecap there. Clearly, there would be no repairing the venerated idol, as much of its considerable girth had been ground into dark-gray powder.

Where Rudolf Emmerich had once stood, gazing wistfully over the town he'd helped settle, something far less reassuring now held reign: As tall as a two-story house, a maiden made entirely of rough, dappled onyx loomed over the roundel. Adorned in armor, she appeared to be in the midst of a battle. Her right arm was thrown back, ready to strike with a cat-o'-nine-tails covered in rocky spikes. Her wild hair, blowing in an unseen gale, reached out in all directions, like a demonic compass rose. Most terrifying of all was her face—frozen in a permanent angry scream.

"Who could have done this?" some villagers murmured. The empire's most contentious neighbors, the mysterious denizens of the Hinterlands, were unlikely culprits. No one had ever seen these creatures (they were, again, mysterious). But the feral howls that rang out from the barren landscape to the west didn't come from anyone who might deliver an arguably symbolic statue.

"How could it just appear?" others asked. If the statue was the height of a house, it must have weighed twice as much. Moving it would have been tricky at best. Few ventured theories, because the most obvious answer—given the fate of the Emmerich statue—was that the Maiden had simply fallen from the sky.

Still other villagers asked a far wiser question: "Why did this happen?" These were the people who understood that sometimes whos and hows didn't amount to nearly as much importance as whys.

When the rulers of Rheinvelt, Imperatrix Dagmar and her wife, Empress Sabine, received news of the Maiden's mysterious appearance, they sent emissaries throughout the land, seeking answers. Master scholars pored over ancient tomes but found nothing. The Hierophants—keepers of the most mystical and arcane knowledge—had recently fled Rheinvelt, it was rumored, afraid to speak the terrible truths they knew. Soothsayers far and wide cast bones and consulted the ether. They all offered the same dire warning: One day, the Maiden would waken and bring a terrible reckoning. Not just to Somber End, but all throughout the empire.

This was too much. The villagers already lived under constant threat. The unseen inhabitants of the Hinterlands could attack at any moment (mysterious, many believed, meant dangerous). If (when?) an attack came, the people of Somber End would immediately be on the front line.

Perhaps worse was the fact that the Hexen Woods, home to a terrible sorceress known as the Nachtfrau, curved around the village's northern perimeter. It was said the Nachtfrau prowled the dreams of the villagers at night and would curse any who even thought of entering her forest. The statue's presence was one dormant threat too many. The people of Somber End wasted no time. Life came to a standstill as everyone in the village devoted themselves to a solitary task: getting rid of the Onyx Maiden.

Moving the statue proved impossible. A hundred horses with chained harnesses failed to budge the Maiden. It was like an invisible giant hand held her firmly in place. Attempts to destroy her proved equally futile. Anyone who took chisel to or in any way tried to damage the Maiden fell gravely ill for days or even weeks. And never once was a scratch made to her impervious stone visage.

Two months of solid scheming proved fruitless. The Onyx Maiden wasn't going anywhere.

Many people moved away to other towns in the vast empire, choosing to be as far from Somber End as possible to avoid the day when the Maiden finally awoke. Those who remained—most of them couldn't afford to move or had nowhere else to go—lived their lives walking on eggshells. No one knew what might rouse the Maiden from her troubled slumber.

Few, if any, mentioned what was only ever whispered. It was called the Coincidence, because no one wanted to believe it was more calculated than that. Ever since the Maiden's arrival, Somber End's fortunes had taken a marked turn for the worse.

Crops failed. Cows gave half as much milk. Storms struck far more regularly and did much more damage. Fearful of the Maiden's wrath, neighboring towns refused to do business with what they believed to be a cursed village. Soon, those who'd stayed behind found themselves living in a dying town.

Then, one day, nearly six months after the Maiden first arrived, something curious happened. A poor, unassuming boy named Guntram Steinherz—only just turned eleven—went to the roundel and stared up into the Maiden's furious, cold eyes.

His parents had all but forgotten him. They were consumed with their own worries, often leaving their son to find his own way. Guntram fed himself. He kept the family's paltry fires stoked. He had no friends, so he was very lonely. Unable to bear the neglect, Guntram went to the statue, hoping she would rise up, eat him alive, and teach his parents and the children who mocked him a lesson.

But his desire to be eaten vanished once he met the Maiden's horrific gaze. Guntram was a boy whose blessing and curse was a powerful imagination. Where others saw ferocity in the statue's eyes, Guntram saw power. And at that first glance, he conjured a hundred stories in his head about how the Maiden had come to Somber End.

She was an enchantress whose spell had backfired, turning her to stone. She was a princess from a neighboring monarchy, fleeing from usurpers, whose only protection was to become a statue. She was the greatest achievement of a downtrodden mason who'd hoped the errant wish he'd made on a star would bring her to life to be his bride.

None of these stories explained the Maiden's terrifying countenance or warlike stance. That didn't matter to Guntram. He only knew she was powerful. And when she awakened, he didn't want to be her enemy. So he began talking to the Maiden.

Each day as the sun rose, Guntram would come to the roundel, sit cross-legged at the statue's base, and talk. He would tell the Maiden the history of Somber End. He would invent stories of ferocious warriors and fantastic creatures. At night, before bed, he told her his fears and dreams and hopes. He confessed how he hated his family's meager existence and how he longed to live in a castle with more money than he'd ever need. He ended each night by touching the base of the statue and promising, "I'll be back tomorrow."

And then, after a week of this, a second curious thing happened. The crops started to grow again. The cows became bountiful. Storms turned to gentle rain. Traders who'd avoided the village returned to do business. Life became what it had once been under the watchful eye of the Emmerich statue. In fact, life became better.

No one knew how the boy had changed things. The more Guntram wove his stories, the more prosperous the town seemed to grow. The villagers soon called Guntram their guardian. Before long, people were coming from the farthest reaches of Rheinvelt to see the grotesque statue—and the boy who had tamed misfortune with his imagination.

Time passed, and that poor, unassuming boy grew into a tall, forthright man. After a decade spent talking each day to the Onyx Maiden, calming her imagined rage with stories and songs, Guntram drew the attention of the empress. The creatures in the Hinterlands had been growing more restless every day. Needing a wise and brave counselor, the empress summoned Guntram. He was given the title of Margrave and a place in her court. The new Margrave gratefully left Somber End at twenty-one years of age to get everything he'd ever wanted as advisor to the empire.

But Guntram, like a cog in a clock, is just a part of the story.

The springs and gears and coils of this story—its very heart—concern Alphonsus and Esme, two children whom the people of Rheinvelt would call saviors, who all would claim performed miraculous feats—and whom Guntram would try to kill.


The Barefoot Prince

On the very same day the Onyx Maiden mysteriously appeared in Somber End, Empress Sabine heard a voice in the imperial palace walls.

Sabine, it was said, was a woman with fire sewn into every stitch of her being. Remarkable in every way, the stout empress possessed an unquestionable wisdom, a staunchness of heart, and an unwavering compassion for all. She also had excellent hearing.

As the story goes, she was walking through the halls of the palace one morning, quietly making plans for an upcoming ball, when she heard a sound—as faint as the peeps of a robin hatchling discovering its nest for the first time. She scoured the palace, seeking the odd chirrup. When she entered the armory, she pressed her ear to the ancient walls and listened.

It was here. Just beyond the wall. And she could tell now that it wasn't a bird but the cooing of a human infant.

Some would have stopped to question how a baby had gotten into the walls. Sabine paused only to select the largest broadsword she could find. An extraordinarily strong woman, her powerful blows quickly loosened a large square stone from the mortar that had held it there for centuries.

Scant candlelight revealed a small shadow-stained room just beyond the wall. A room no one, as far as she could tell, had ever known about. Sabine groped into the darkness until her fingers grazed something cool and metallic. Clutching tightly, she pulled the unknown object into the armory.

It was a bassinet. Or it wanted to be one. Where most bassinets were woven from horsehair or wicker, this basket was made of tarnished iron sprockets, old skeleton keys, twisted brass coils the width of a child's arm, and broken hammerheads. A half-dome bonnet, crafted from a suit of armor's breastplate, shielded one end of the cradle. All as if cobbled together by someone who had no idea what a baby's bassinet should be.

Inside the basket, she found a small boy wrapped in a threadbare gray blanket. His skin was a rich brown, the same as Sabine's—almost as if the two had always shared this connection. Stitched onto the blanket was a name: alphonsus.

The empress immediately took baby and bassinet to the dining hall, where Imperatrix Dagmar was enjoying breakfast. The imperatrix nearly fell over when Sabine explained how she'd found the baby inside the armory walls.

"How long could he have been there?" the imperatrix asked. "Who put him there?"

"And why?" A font of sagacity, Sabine was known for asking important questions.

Dagmar was prepared to have the child sent to an orphanage. But her heart ached for her caring wife who'd clearly, in just minutes, fallen in love with Alphonsus. Dagmar knew that Sabine had always wanted a child. The imperatrix had not seen her wife this happy in a long time. She quickly agreed that they would raise the boy as their own.

That night, alone with the child in her bedchambers, the empress laid Alphonsus on her bed as she prepared him for sleep. Hoping to find a clue as to who might have placed the baby in the wall, Sabine examined every inch of the strange bassinet.

She tugged at the skeleton keys, fused together and unmoving. She prodded at the hammerheads, twisted the gears, and strummed the coils with her fingertips. But nothing betrayed its origin.

She was about to give up when she ran her fingers along the underside of the bonnet. She felt small, fine grooves. Turning the basket over, she looked under the breastplate and saw these words etched into the metal:

When nights pass as hours the same

The end of time will start

A sacrifice is all that saves

The counterclockwise heart

Was it a nursery rhyme? It seemed very grim.

She puzzled over it until the baby started to cry. Sabine stroked the boy's face as she changed his clothes. Lifting his terrycloth nightshirt, she froze. There, in the center of his chest, was a clock.

It wasn't on his chest but embedded in it. The perfectly round, flat clock blended seamlessly with the boy's flesh. Ornate silver braids—the hour and minute hands—glistened against a black face and shiny white numbers. A thin strand of gold—the second hand—ticked away, keeping perfect time with a barely audible brrda-tick, brrda-tick. When she put her ear to the clock, the empress could hear the cogs and sprockets whirring inside where a heartbeat would otherwise live.

Was this what the rhyme referred to? No. This clock ran normally: clockwise. Still, she knew it was no coincidence. What had started as a curious nursery rhyme had quickly become a frightening portent.

The empress examined the boy carefully, gently squeezing his toes and rubbing his arms. She found no other signs of clockwork. With this one exception, he was a typical human child whose blood raced as fast as anyone's.

Sabine, who dearly loved her kind and benevolent wife, feared telling the imperatrix about this discovery. For while Dagmar was good-hearted, she was quick to fear things she didn't understand. And there was little to understand about a baby who had a clock in place of a heart.

The empress didn't need to understand the clock. She didn't even need to understand the ominous warning in the bassinet. All she knew was that any child callously banished behind a castle wall needed love. Standing there, hand to her chest, Sabine swore to give Alphonsus just that.

And so a proclamation went out, notifying all of the new royal heir. The palace was beset by gifts and good wishes. Fireworks laid siege to the night sky in celebration. Surely this was a good omen, meant to counter the appearance of an onyx maiden in Somber End.

The years flowed and, as any mother will testify, Alphonsus grew faster than Sabine wanted. Whereas another monarch of her stature might have handed Alphonsus over to a legion of governesses, the empress devoted herself to her son's upbringing. As he grew, she taught him about art and literature. She taught him mathematics and history. And whenever she could, Sabine taught him to indulge in his curiosity. Her own, she felt, had always served her well.

She did not teach him compassion and kindness. There was no need. From an early age, Alphonsus demonstrated a strong empathy beyond his years. If a lord's son fell and scraped his elbow while the two were playing in the castle, Alphonsus was the first at his friend's side, dressing the wound and offering assurances. When he heard the children at the orphanage in the faraway city of Glückstadt would not receive presents for the Silver Moon Festival, he used his princely allowance to buy gifts for every girl and boy.

Growing up, Alphonsus was loved by all: his parents, the servants in the palace, the people of the land. He was instantly recognizable by his thick black hair that sported a thumb-sized shock of white near his cowlick. His bright, inquisitive eyes softened even the most surly heart.

He became known as the Barefoot Prince, for his penchant to go anywhere (indoors or out) at anytime (winter or summer) with nothing on his feet. Most believed this was because of the boy's eagerness to explore. People pictured Alphonsus bounding out of bed each morning, just barely taking time to get dressed before running off to read in the library or play in the gardens with the children of the lords and ladies who kept apartments in the palace. Odds were, if you spotted the prince, he was wiggling his crooked toes, as he did whenever he was happy.

In truth, Alphonsus was often barefoot because the empress hid the prince's shoes. She feared him straying too far from the imperial grounds and thought him less likely to do so without footwear. She alone knew of the clock in the boy's chest. Keeping the prince close meant it would stay that way.

When Alphonsus turned six and was old enough to grow curious about his clock—and, indeed, he had learned that no one else had such a device—the empress took him up to the castle's tallest tower, where she kept the patchwork metal basket he'd come in.

"No one knows about this," Sabine said, lifting the boy's shirt and placing her palm on the clockface. "And no one can know about it." For the first time, she told him the story of how she found him in the walls.

As his mother spoke, the prince examined the strange bassinet. It was ugly . . . but beautiful at the same time. His fingers poked at the curious words engraved on the bonnet.

"Hours? Sacrifice?" he asked. "What is this?"

Sensing fear in his voice, the empress waved his questions away. "It's an old nursery rhyme," she lied. "It has nothing to do with you."

When the boy continued to fixate on the words, she cupped his chin in her hand and pulled his gaze to hers. "You are a very special boy, Alphonsus. But you must hide this." She tapped his clock once more. "You can't even tell the imperatrix."

Alphonsus immediately forgot the rhyme. The idea of hiding something from his other mother—a woman who had only ever shown him love and kindness—alarmed the prince. "But why?"

"Not everyone is as curious as you are. Some people are happy with what they know. And when something they can't immediately understand enters their world, they sometimes act in ways you might not imagine. To keep you safe, we must make sure that only you and I know."

The boy used his finger to trace the edge of the clock. For the first time, he hated it. "Where did it come from?"

The empress smiled and stroked her son's hair. "Where it came from will never matter as much as where you take it."

Sabine pulled the boy in tight, and together, mother and son silently swore to keep this secret.

Years passed. On a stormy day just before the boy's ninth birthday, when the rains threatened to wash away every road and every house, Imperatrix Dagmar returned from a journey to the Outer Valleys, gravely ill. Alphonsus and Sabine stayed at the imperatrix's bedside every day for a month, until Dagmar died. Wife and son were grief-stricken. They wore black for a year. The empress turned important matters over to her most trusted advisors; she knew the empire would be safe in their hands. And neither prince nor empress left their bedchambers but for meals or to console each other.

Swarms of the empress's subjects lined the streets outside the palace each day, hoping to spot the Barefoot Prince in the gardens beyond the gates. This, they knew, would be a sign that the period of mourning had ended. But the ivy on the gates grew thicker and thicker with the passing months until the garden was hidden from sight.

On the first anniversary of Dagmar's death, the empress decided that life needed to resume. She had responsibilities to her people. And she had seen the toll her wife's death had taken on the prince, who spent his days and nights in a listless torpor. It was time to move on. One morning, she woke, looked hard and long in the mirror to steel herself, then personally went through the palace and took down the black shrouds that had draped the walls since Dagmar's passing.

But Alphonsus could not be so easily stirred. Mourning had stunted the prince's curiosity. While the empress returned her full attention to the matters of ruling the empire, Alphonsus languished in the castle halls. He hugged shadows, unable to meet anyone's eyes. He lurked in belfries and cloisters and other places bred for solitude. Where the prince had always been the first to welcome new residents, he was all but invisible the day his mother's new advisor—a young man named Guntram Steinherz—moved into the palace's southeast apartments.

Concerned for her son, the empress sought a way to reach through the veil of sorrow that had gripped him. She had to get him out of the castle, even if it meant risking that someone would learn about the clock. Just days after the boy's tenth birthday, the burgermeister of Somber End stood before the empress in her throne room with a petition. As she listened carefully to the man's concerns, an idea formed in Sabine's head. She knew how to help Alphonsus.

That idea changed the course of the prince's life forever.


Quest of the Huntress

Although it wasn't clear at the time, Prince Alphonsus changed profoundly the day his mother made him promise never to tell anyone about the clock in his chest. If he couldn't trust the imperatrix to accept him for who he was, who and what could Alphonsus trust? When the empress had held him tight, Alphonsus had vowed to keep the secret. But something curious had roiled about, prickling in his stomach. It wasn't sadness. It wasn't grief.

For the first time, Alphonsus felt limited.

All his life, he'd enjoyed unfettered access to anything. There was nothing he couldn't do. There was nothing he couldn't say. Until now. Now, when dealing with those who'd always treated him with kindness and affection, he peered deeply into their eyes, searching for the secret hatred they might have buried within. This made him afraid.

From that day on, Alphonsus was much more cautious. He stopped exploring. He very rarely played with the other children in the palace. He remained polite to all he saw but kept to himself. The curiosity his mother had worked so hard to encourage ceased to flow, replaced now with crippling fear.

Everyone saw the change. Sometimes, the servants commented on how sad it was that the prince's infectious joy had vanished. Many wanted to understand why. But Alphonsus was determined never to give the people who might fear him a reason to do so. Even if that meant being afraid of himself.

Since he was six, Alphonsus had kept the promise he'd made his mother not to tell anyone about the clock in his chest. For the three years that followed, it was his only secret.

But by the time he'd turned nine, Alphonsus had another secret. One of his very own.

The death of the imperatrix had affected him in ways he couldn't quite understand. To begin, something had happened to his clock since Dagmar's passing. It didn't sound the same. For as long as he could remember, when he lay in bed, Alphonsus was lulled to sleep by the faint but persistent brrda-tick, brrda-tick. But after Dagmar's funeral, the prince noticed an extra sound.

Brrda-tick-click, brrda-tick-click.

He'd ignored it the first few nights, thinking it was his imagination. Yet when the palace fell absolutely still, and he held his breath, he could definitely hear the difference.

Brrda-tick-click, brrda-tick-click.

His mother had said the imperatrix's death had broken her heart. Is that what was wrong with him as well? Had the clock broken?

If worries about his clock's new sound weren't enough, the prince had also found himself seized by waves of panic. He'd always understood dying as a concept. But he'd never before lost anyone. He feared losing someone again.

Alphonsus started to worry about what would happen to him if Empress Sabine died as well. Who would be his new parents? Would they be as accepting of the clock? These questions ate at his sleep, drew dark rings under his eyes, and pulled down on him like a heavy wool cloak. This, on top of the sorrow he felt, left room for little else in his once wildly excitable mind.

A month after Dagmar's funeral, the prince made a decision: he had to find out where he came from. He'd never been even the slightest bit curious before. He was quite happy with his parents. They had always been good to him.

But now, worrying about the prospects of his mother's death and the change to the rhythm of his clock, Alphonsus couldn't help but worry about his own life. What if the clock in his chest should stop? What if it needed repair? Because there was no one else like him, surely only the person who'd done this to him could possibly be of any assistance. He had to find that person. And he had only one idea how he might do that.

One night, Alphonsus went to the south wing of the palace to the apartments of Birgit Freund, the royal huntress whose unerring skills had kept the royal family well fed since the prince was a baby. For years, the huntress had proven herself as the imperial family's closest confidant. Unsure as he was about trusting anyone, Alphonsus placed all his hope in being able to rely on Birgit's discretion.

Birgit, who'd secluded herself to her chambers so she could mourn the imperatrix's passing in private, was surprised to see the prince.

"I need your help," Alphonsus whispered. Birgit stepped aside, allowing the prince to enter her rooms. He pressed the door shut, meeting the huntress's eyes as he did so.

Birgit immediately stood at attention. From the time Alphonsus had been a toddler, the huntress had been the boy's only teacher aside from Sabine. Twice a week for the last five years, she had taken the boy hunting up the mountainside. She had steadied his arms the first time he drew a bow. She had crawled side by side with him across all manner of terrain, teaching the art of tracking. Like everyone else, she loved the eager-eyed prince dearly and would do whatever he asked.

"I'm ready to serve, my liege," Birgit said, hand to heart.

"Somewhere in this land," the prince began, "there is a clockmaker of remarkable skill. If needed, this person could replace a human's beating heart with a clock, and that human would live."

Alphonsus kept his promise to his mother. He didn't say how he knew this for sure, and Birgit, a loyal servant to the family, knew better than to ask.

"I want you to find that clockmaker and bring them to me," the prince continued. "Take whatever you need to complete this task. Money from the royal coffers, the fastest horse in the stable. Anything. Search far and wide, and do not return until you are sure you have the one person who could do this. Tell no one." He took a deep breath. "Not even my mother."

For the first time ever, Alphonsus read doubt in her eyes. It was an unusual request, to be sure. At first, he thought the huntress might refuse. She might even go straight to the empress to alert her of his plan. Instead, Birgit dropped to one knee so she was eye to eye with the prince.


  • *Winner of the Minnesota Book Award*

    "Farrey conjures a world bristling with spells and secrets. Readers will revel in this gripping, fable-like adventure." 
    --Stefan Bachmann, author of Cinders Sparrows
    "Filled with friendship and magic, mysteries and betrayal, and a race against a ticking clock, this is top-notch fantasy with a heart. I loved it!"  
    --Adam Perry, author of The Thieving Collectors of Fine Children's Books

    The Counterclockwise Heart encourages readers to be true to themselves, and to consider the source when confronted with opinions that contradict their own experience. … [an] entertaining, fast-paced and thoughtful novel … wise.”
    —The New York Times Book Review

    “A fascinating fairy tale.”
    The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “Books to look forward to in 2022”

    “Full of drama, twists and turns, and poignant points of view, the novel's storylines converge into an unforgettable ending that will leave readers thinking about the pesky element of time and the role it plays in their lives.”

    “A pleasing mix of fantasy and mystery with compassion at its (ticking) heart.”
    —The Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books

    “Epic…This is a thought-provoking coming-of-age story.”
    --Kirkus Reviews

    “Unique…a tale of magic, lies, and sacrifice make a standout read for the middle-grade genre.”
    —YA Books Central

On Sale
Mar 28, 2023
Page Count
352 pages

Brian Farrey

About the Author

Brian Farrey is the author of The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse, winner of the 2017 Minnesota Book Award, and the Stonewall honor book With or Without You.  He lives in  Minnesota with his husband and their sweet but occasionally evil cats. You can find him online at and on Twitter: @BrianFarrey .

Learn more about this author