The Key of Hearts

Only a folktale tonight. Charrum was a seeker of treasures, in dungeons and in the deep, though the greatest treasure of his heart was Felea, the daughter of the wealthiest merchant in his village. Her hand in marriage was promised to the man who could deliver to her father the most unique, most priceless, most coveted object in the world. The trouble was that such an artifact could not exist because Felea’s father’s wants changed with the rising and setting of the sun. He did not know what it was he most wanted, and so it did not matter what Felea wanted most, which was to wed Charrum and leave her father’s house forever.

In his twentieth year, Charrum rose to a challenge laid by the local bandit king for a great treasure, perhaps the very greatest of treasures, and one that he felt would surely appease even Felea’s father. To enter the bandit king’s service Charrum had first to pass a test of spirit, and he made his camp that night in a circle of standing stones that were said to be haunted. Charrum laid himself down beneath the stars without a fire, shivering in the cold glare of the night as he waited for whatever was supposed to appear to appear.

As Charrum slept, three ghosts set upon him, pinning his arms and legs to the earth with their rotting limbs. The first ghost pried open his eyes, the second tugged at his ears, and the third caught hold of his tongue.

‘What is like a man but is not a man, has room enough for one but one is sometimes too many, and is desired by men and babes alike?’

The ghost with his hand in Charrum’s mouth only let go long enough for the young man to utter his reply.

‘A woman,’ Charrum said, his tongue released like a clapper in a bell. The ghosts vanished as quickly as they had come, and when Charrum looked about him now he saw not standing stones but many doors, each carved with a sigil. This frightened him no more than the ghosts had, and when he stood to examine them he recognized the symbols for water and blood, earth and flesh, screeching and song.

Drawing his knife, Charrum stalked out of the circle to a nearby wood, and trapped there a small creature foraging. He returned with it to the circle, crooning before the sigil for singing before turning his knife upon the creature. Only when it had cried did he deliver death swiftly, his whispered apology to the animal abrupt and tuneless compared with his song.

Before another sigil he spit, and another he mixed the blood of the creature with his own when he cut into his palm, dripping the mingled blood upon the door that had been a stone. For flesh he bit into his cheek, and put his hands into mud to print on the door of earth.

When Charrum had done all of this all six of the doors opened, each seeming to lead to rooms of greater treasure than the last. He knew even as he looked upon rubies and emeralds, gold and silver, upon a banquet table set with the finest foods, that the bandit king would take only the man who would take for himself what was of greatest value. And so, when faced with unimaginable riches, none of which Charrum felt could be real, Charrum settled himself down again and built a fire, roasting over it the thin carcass of the animal he had killed. He did not even take from one of the rooms a jeweled chalice for water to wash down his sparse meal, but cupped his hands together in a nearby stream.

Because it seemed only natural to do so, Charrum laid down to sleep after his meal. He dreamed and in his dream the bandit king visited him with a fourth and final challenge.

The bandit king was pleased with Charrum’s performance, and he promised him that the treasure would be his. It was, however, currently in the possession of another, and if Charrum wished to claim it, he would have to steal it. Because it was often the way of challenges such as these, Charrum was not surprised to learn that the treasure belonged to Felea’s father. That he should take it only to trade it back again for the hand of his bride was only fitting.

He waited until very late the next night to go to Felea’s father’s house. He was stealthy as the shadows themselves, slipping from garden to cold hearth to halls that were lit well in daylight but were dark as pitch on a cloudless night. Many tools he had to avoid detection: stones that would erupt in smoke if thrown, mirrors to reflect the light away should he be surprised. At every door he paused and pressed a little horn against the wood, listening.

Charrum dispatched several guards in near silence, clapping a hand over a mouth here, a sharp strike to the neck there. His skills were to incapacitate and not to kill, and when he dragged the bodies to deeper shadows, Charrum felt confident that the morning sun would wake them with throbbing heads, bruised egos, and nothing else.

There were traps and snares, too, that he could not have anticipated, set cleverly in the stones of the floor and into the walls. With keen eyes and quick feet, Charrum avoided them all. Because he knew where he would keep so great a treasure if it were his, Charrum stole quietly into Felea’s fathers chambers, grateful for the bear-loud snores of the man to ensure that he slept on while Charrum searched. The bandit king had not even told Charrum what to expect, only that he would know the treasure when he saw it. He picked the locks on several chests before finding the one that he wanted, empty but for a plain, ornate key. Taking it without thinking, for he did indeed know without knowing, Charrum left Felea’s father’s room.

Over confident, Charrum decided to risk looking in upon Felea as she slept. The lock on Felea’s door was no barrier to him, though he was challenged by her curtained bed, for he could make out only a little the figure that slumbered within. With hands more deft even than those that could make a man sleep without killing him, that could bind a woman to him with only a promise, he parted the curtain.

Where there had been no moonlight now moonlight fell upon her cheek, her gold-lashed eyes, lips parted in dreaming. Charrum made to brush his fingers across her cheek, but in that moment shouts were heard, and Charrum knew he had been found out. In the same instant Felea woke and began to shriek, her cries fading to puzzlement when she recognized Charrum. There was no time to explain or to touch, for in an instant there were guards upon him, and Felea’s father himself to confront.

Despite the guards that restrained him, Charrum thrust the key forward. ‘I have stolen this, and you shall not have it back again unless you promise me your daughter.’ Before the guards could act, he put the key in his mouth and swallowed it.

At this, Felea’s father fell to his knees, but it was gratitude that he expressed.

‘You have taken a great burden from me, and for this I will allow you to choose. I think you will find you no longer want my daughter, if indeed you ever did.’

When Charrum swallowed the key, he had relieved Felea’s father of wanting for anything, because the key itself was a thing of want. It drove men and women to desire what they could not have, what could not be, what had never been and would never be. Felea’s father had acquired great riches while driven by the key, but he had never been satisfied. The key was a powerful object, however, and could not be given away, only taken, and now Charrum had taken it.

As the young thief looked from the key to his would-be bride, he was consumed with desire, though not for her. He would have to be a man as wealthy as her father, wealthier, before he could deserve such a woman. In Felea’s room that night he might have joined her in her bed, but now he could only say goodbye. The key had seen into his heart, and showed him for what he was.

The Prince and the Snail

How about a fairy story? Excerpted from the novel I'm revising, whose protagonist is a storyteller. Massoud was the son of the king and a prince, but he could not have been less the sort of son his family wanted. While he was as happy fighting and riding as other boys his age, he did not go anywhere without a little snail that had been his companion since he toddled on two legs. When he took meals, the creature squatted beside his plate. During his lessons, the snail perched on his shoulder. When sparring, Massoud put the snail inside a little case he had made to protect her and keep her close, hanging around his neck.

What neither Massoud nor his parents knew was that the snail was not a snail at all but the goddess Alyona, who is known to prefer an animal shape to any other and is found more often in the company of mortals than others of her kind. Alyona delighted in mortals, and so thoroughly in Massoud that in his eighteenth year she decided that she would marry him.

Alyona knew the hearts of mortals well, however, and did not think that Massoud would take well to the ruse that had been her shape as long as she had known him. One night, while he was asleep, she slithered near his ear and whispered that he must take her as a snail for his bride. When he had done so, she would be transformed to a beautiful woman.

Massoud met with great resistance from his family, who claimed they would forsake him if he insisted upon such a marriage. His brothers would not speak to him and everyone in the court began to whisper that their prince had been driven mad. Still, Massoud would marry his companion and had two rings fashioned from fine metals, one for himself and one for his snail bride.

No one in the kingdom would perform the ceremony, so Massoud placed Alyona in the little case around his neck and traveled to the next kingdom, and when denied there, the next and the next until he came to a land so far away that no one had before heard his name or would even have known to worship the creature he carried. Married at last, Massoud slipped the ring around Alyona's shell, though once he had done so she was unable to transform to a shape that would please him, bound by the ceremony and his love.

Alyona had not known her man as well as she imagined, for he did not want her to change. Massoud settled quietly in the village where they were married, making a small and honest living and whispering his secrets to her as he had always done. For thirty years they lived this way; the whole of Massoud’s life they shared. As he lay upon his deathbed Alyona slithered to his ear and whispered the truth of what she was. Massoud replied that he had always known, but he could love her as an equal only when she occupied such a form, and so he had done and did not regret it.

When he died, Alyona was freed from her snail form and brought his body to her sister, Dsimah, whose province is sowing and harvesting and who is known to bring life to any soil, no matter how infertile. Alyona begged Dsimah to bring life to Massoud again, for if any god could do so, it would be she.

Dsimah could not, however, do what Alyona asked. From Massoud’s body she grew a great, flowering tree, and when Alyona swallowed a fruit from the tree, she bore a child that was cradled in its roots and raised dancing beneath its heavy boughs. So Alyona and her daughter, Massoud’s daughter, can be found still, sheltered beneath her husband’s arms.