Periwinkle (Peri for short) had been entrusted with the key. It was an honour indeed. Here she was, a mere apprentice to the Grand Wizard, looking after, no, in charge of the key to Queen Maude’s heart. It was enough to turn a young girl’s head, really it was. Queen Maude, a witch of immense power herself, had locked her heart away in the stone anteroom beside her bedchamber when King Cedric failed to return from the battle against Horace the Black. It had been ten years and the Queen’s heart was still under lock and key. In a cage. In a room the size of a coffin. She refused to reclaim it until Cedric returned. Her King. She sat in her chamber day upon day, her face turned to the hills, waiting, ever waiting for the King’s return.
The Queen had placed herself in a vulnerable position by locking away her heart. Peri got into trouble in Alchemy class for saying the Queen’s heart was the heart of her power – Madam Cerise called her a smart aleck – but it was true, the Queen had less power than the lowliest apprentice without her heart. The grand wizard worried about it all the time. He checked on Peri every half hour, asking her with urgency: Where is the key? Do you still have it?
Peri daren’t let the key go. She wore it on a black ribbon against her own heart. It linked her to the Queen in a way she didn’t like, causing her own heart to beat as if she had just run a mile when all she was doing was lying in bed. She was tired a lot of the time. Her body felt heavy. She mentioned it to Madam Cerise, worried the Queen was sapping her strength.
Madam Cerise twittered like one of the sparrows that stole crumbs from the kitchen windowsills. Oh no no no, she said. Don’t be so ridiculous. The Queen wouldn’t be doing that. She is grateful to you. You are protecting her heart, her life blood. You are the Keeper of the Key. You are tired because you are running around all day. You need to rest a bit more. Now off you go and stop your silly imaginings.
Teal hounded Peri every day about the key. Please let me look after it, she said. Just for one day. Let me look after it at night so you can sleep properly. I’ll be careful, I promise. I will guard the key with my life.
Peri was tired of looking after the key. It was a heavy, old iron key, banging against her chest as she moved through the day. It left bruises. Purple-black fists all around her heart.
Teal was doing her puppy dog face. Begging. Please, please, please, she said. Peri knew she shouldn’t, but the burden of the key was heavy, often interrupting her breathing. It would be so good to be free of it for one night. No one had to know.
Alright, she said. Guard it with your life.
The screaming began shortly after midnight. Peri jumped out of bed, knowing it was Teal. Her friend was gasping in her bed, clutching at her chest. Peri pulled back the covers. The key had worked its way into Teal’s chest, stabbing, grinding. Blood and bone stained her nightgown. Peri could see her tiny beating heart. The grand wizard swept into the room. How did she come by the key? he asked. Did she wrest it from you?
In one urgent motion he pulled the key from Teal’s chest, twisting it to escape her heart. He handed it to Peri. Take better care of it, he said. Or the Queen will have your head.
Peri watched as Teal struggled for breath. She felt her friend’s blood dripping down her arms. The key was hot as if it had been cast into fire.
Please help her. Her voice was strangled with grief.
Blood began to bubble out of Teal’s throat. She shuddered, arms flailing, then she was still.
Teal? Peri’s voice sounded strange in her head. TEAL?
Madam Cerise appeared, pulling Peri away to her room.
What about Teal? Peri didn’t recognise her own voice. It was like stone on metal. She’s not moving.
Teal is dead. Madam Cerise pulled her out of the room.
The Queen. The Queen did this. Peri was shouting. Who keeps their heart in a cage? Who does that? It’s sick. I’ve looked after the key for years and I can tell you the heart is trying to get out. And the Queen – at night- she tries to steal my heart. I’ve felt it.
Don’t talk about things you don’t understand. Madam Cerise was whispering. Just do your job and look after the key and all will be well. Now hush.
The next day Peri watched the Queen at her window, white face waiting. The King would never return. Not now. Everyone in the palace knew that.
Peri was angry. It was a ridiculous thing to keep a heart in a cage. To never feel. To never weep. To never love. Peri was sick of hearing about the long-suffering Queen and her great love for the King. She thought all that waiting by the window was a waste of a good life.
That night Peri didn’t put on her nightgown. She waited until the castle was quiet then crept out into the dark passageway leading to the Queen’s bedchamber. She had learnt a thing or two as the Grand Wizard’s apprentice, so she slipped past the snoozing guards without being discovered.
The queen was asleep. Lying straight in the bed. She was so still she could have been carved from stone. Peri realised at that moment that she hated the woman lying there. Her own Queen. By thrusting her heart into a cage she had imprisoned those who guarded it. She had allowed a wicked kind of magic to form in the palace.
And she had taken Teal’s life.
No more, Peri whispered. No more of this.
She stood in front of the stone anteroom. The lock was enormous, ponderous, black iron. Strangely enough, there were carvings of birds in flight in the wood around it.
Peri turned the key. Metal grated on metal. It was loud in the night. The door wouldn’t budge. She turned the key again and this time she felt the lock spring back.
The small room was filled with light. Shades of crimson. On a stone pedestal lay the cage. Peri had expected it to be made of metal, like a birdcage, but it was made entirely of glass. There was no blood, no pulsing veins. It was the metaphysical heart of the Queen. It was as beautiful as any jewel, the measure of the stars.
There was no lock on the glass cage. No hinge. No door. The light from the Queen’s heart danced and glided like a firefly. Peri couldn’t look away.
She heard footsteps behind her. Laborious on the stone floor. It was the Queen, teeth bared. You dare to enter my room, she said. You dare to gaze upon my heart.
Peri had never seen the Queen up close. Her face was pale as washed lace, finely lined.
Peri was afraid but she thought of Teal, of the years of carrying the key around for nothing but someone’s twisted view of love.
I am the Keeper of the Key, she said. But tonight I give up my position.
She raised the key high above the glass cage, bringing it down on the top. It split, bending the light in the room into right angles, splicing and feathering the shadows in the corners. It carnadine hues eased through the windows, landing like paint on the ground below.
The Queen wailed, falling to her knees as Peri smashed the key on the cage again and again until there was nothing left but dust and pale red motes of light on the floor.
My love will never return now, the Queen said. You have destroyed my hope.
You did that all on your own, Peri said. She handed the Queen the key. Do us all a favour, your Majesty, lock yourself away. Not just your heart.
As the Queen’s chamber began to fill with guards, handmaidens, the Grand Wizard, even Madam Cerise, Peri slipped away, walking out of the palace towards the hills the Queen had spent years looking upon.
The trees were smoothed with vermilion. The skies were fiery. The air had been soaked in dye, the clouds were scarlet.
The Queen’s heart was free, roaming, colouring the earth. It was as if sunset had fallen like rain. Peri felt its touch, delicate as tissue paper, soft as the unbinding of a dream.
* Image by Maya78 at DeviantART. Inspired by The Writer's Island prompt - THE KEY.