Through the Gates of the Silver Key
The tower rose out of the northeast Wall, a simple cylindrical shape of mossy uneven stones with narrow archery windows. In centuries past, when the city was little more than a castle, it would have defended against an armies’ easterly advance. But now, the tower was a curious relic overlooking a crowded neighborhood, a throwback to days long gone. Children never visited Emma’s home and for good reason. To them, it was a ghastly and foreboding place, something to conjure tales of ghosts and witches and dark rituals.
With her shoulder against it, Emma forced her way through the tower’s single door of aged wood and iron. The inside was no more pleasing to look upon than the out. Sunbeams crisscrossed from high windows, forming strange patterns of light and dark, illuminating objects in unnatural ways. Each room was sparsely furnished, with the occasional rug or tapestry, though the scenes upon their fibers had long faded from recognition. But despite its unwelcoming and forlorn appearance, Emma was relieved to be home, to be anywhere far from Bood and Deed.
The base floor split at the entrance into the upper and lower levels. The stair leading up to her bedchamber was narrow and steep and without a handrail, with steps less than the width of her foot, so that going to and from her room was fraught with the possibility, however slight, of tumbling to one’s death. But it was the lower, broader stair that frightened her. Even to look in that direction caused her palms to sweat, and she had, in recent years, learned to not look there, to forget even that that section of her home existed. The reason for her fear was a mystery, a memory on a distant shore, too indistinct to make clear in her mind.
Sometimes, when examining some artifact in her home, or when her thoughts turned to some oddity, hazy images would inexplicably surface and then vanish like a stagecoach passing in the night. Whenever she attempted to focus on these memories, they became even less defined, slipping down into the pit of her psyche where her childhood fears went to be forgotten. She held fast, however, to one recollection in particular, from when she first walked on shaky legs unaccustomed to bipedal movement. Joy was mixed up in that memory, despite the terror that came after. She was looking for her father; she wanted to show him how well she could manage the stairs without his hand or the wall to balance. He was, she knew, in the same place as always. With confidence, she made her way down to the open doorway. She anticipated being lifted into his arms, being showered with adulation. But there was only screaming. Intense fear. Fear that gripped her heart and never let go. Forever afterwards, the door remained shut.
Once, when the world was still new for her, in that age when children begin to voice their wonders, she dared to question him about the door beyond the stair. It was his private study, he explained, and she was never to go down there, never to ask of the happenings within. If she was ever to disobey, she would regret it. He was never explicit in his threats, but his tone was firm, and her vague memories of terror served as enough of a deterrent.
Now Emma was possessed by more urgent troubles. Her knee ached from the stoning and she still walked with a limp. Her lip, far from soothing over time, was fatter and tenderer. But it was her heart that pained her most. Bood and Deed’s words had struck like arrows and remained festering deep beneath her ribs, forcing her to scrutinize herself, to gaze into the tall mirror beside the stair. A featureless girl stared back at her, looking so unremarkable that she might as well have not existed. Her face belonged to a porcelain doll, framed by long flat strands as black as pitch, which made her all the whiter, almost translucent to look upon, ghost-like. Making matters worse, the recent swelling of her lips had turned her mouth into a snout.
“You do look like a donkey,” she said to the mirror, lifting her sleeves to dry her eyes. “You’re so ugly! So ugly . . .!”
She balled her hands into fists, raised them against herself. She wanted to smash the image, but resisted the urge. Father would be furious should she break his mirror, no doubt an heirloom. Instead, she retreated, watching her reflection diminish, her limbs recede into the folds of her robes. At a distance, she could make out a dark shape, a raven. She flapped her arms and the sleeves transformed into wings.
“Not a donkey. If you were a raven . . . You’d make a beautiful raven. Your feathers would be blacker than all the others’, and the raven king would choose you for his bride, for how black your feathers are. You’d soar above the city, and poop on everybody’s heads, and fly south, to the Sea. Oh, to look upon the Sea and the splendors of the southern kingdoms! What a sight that would be!”
Round and round the tower she spun, fluttering in her robes, her cloak flowing and rippling like a banner, and when she was quite dizzy, she collapsed into a heap of cloth.
Suddenly, Emma felt very alone. She lifted herself and tiptoed about the tower. Where was Father? Beyond the windows, the sun was retreating, stretching red-orange-yellow fingers across the pale moiré sky.
He should be home by now. He should be done with his afternoon duties.
Every morning her father would leave, and before eclipse return, if only to lock himself in his study. She never knew to where or for what purpose he went out, only that he did so, and always with urgency, and when he returned it was with no less urgency. When asked about his comings and goings, he would say that he had important work and nothing more. It was in those brief moments that Emma hoped to see her father.
In the golden dawn of youth, Emma loved him as any daughter, when he fed and clothed and bathed her. No matter the substance of her meals or the quality of her garments, they were treasures fit for a princess. He even shared, with particular enthusiasm, knowledge of symbols, giving her books of faerie-tales and of adventures, which she devoured more readily than the food she was given. But as the sun and moons went about their cycles, she saw less and less of him, and by the time her skirt covered little of her thighs, her father took to half-measures, leaving her cold dishes at breakfast and garments at her bedside without a thought given to her shape or size. Her heart pined in his absence until it could pine no more, and like a flower that shrivels as it goes untended, so did her love for him. Her golden dawn of youth became dreams difficult to distinguish from waking memories. And yet, she never lost the seed of affection planted in her since infanthood, and still cherished the rare moments spent with him.
Now more than ever, she needed him. This was not her first tussle with bullies, nor her first encounter with Bood and Deed, but in the past Father had dismissed her tears, accusing her of being too soft hearted, or of exaggeration, or—what angered her most—of seeking undue attention. But now she could show him. Her broken face did not pain her nearly as much as their jeers, but it was something he could at least see. She could only pray he not return, as he so often did, in a foul mood.
But where is he?
She looked in each and every room, including her own sparse bedchamber, but he was not there. Could he have returned earlier? Or was he just late? She rounded the stairs again, between the upper and lower floors, when something glittering snagged her eye like a fish hook. She tiptoed toward the semi table, its back cut to the shape of the concave wall, fearing the small object catching the light of the descending sun. To anyone else, it would appear unremarkable; a key of the simple skeleton variety, with an oval loop and three simple tines, but Emma could not keep from shuddering at the sight of it. Her father was never without his silver key. Before leaving the tower, he would touch his breast pocket again and again, to assure himself, sometimes removing it to make certain that the thing he was touching was, in fact, the key. Now it was lying, unceremoniously, on the semi table. Had he actually forgotten it? Should she take it, to keep safe, or would that anger him? After much contemplation, she found the key balanced on the tips of her quivering fingers, gyrating slowly from side to side. There was nothing special about it. But she knew what it did. She knew where the key could take her.
For what seemed like eternity, Emma stood at the topmost step of the lower stairwell, trembling with doubt, the key in her palm cold and slick with perspiration. The door was set into an arched frame at the base of the stair and was split down the middle like a gate. The oak grain was bare and rough, with minimal patterning. No Delian would pause at such a door.
The power of her uncertainty was equally matched by curiosity. From the time she was an infant, she possessed a voracious appetite for knowledge. It was what drove her to becoming lost in the forgotten niches of Northendell, why she wondered at the ravens that followed her and the rainbows coloring the sky. But what was greater than simple curiosity was her desire to know her father’s business, to learn what consumed him and forced him into a prison of his own making. Something beyond the door had made her father a stranger to her, when she had no one else to love, and the more she thought on it, the more her heart turned from fear to anger. Anger, more than anything else, gave her the strength to confront the door, with purpose, with silver key in hand. She would know her father’s secrets, consequences be damned!
Emma fumbled with the silver key. It was slippery and unwieldy, like a captive mouse, but she managed, with both hands, to direct it toward the door. The base of the stair led beneath street level. It was lit by a single brassiere set into an alcove. Her shadow blacked out the lock, but after a bit of blind prodding she found the keyhole. The locking mechanism was long rusted, resisting her efforts to open it, and a dreadful thought occurred to her then, that it might not work, that perhaps she had the wrong key. More fidgeting and the key began to turn in the lock, erasing such fears just as her mind conjured new ones.
What if Father returns now? What if he finds you here at his door?
“No,” she whispered, though she could feel her heart rummaging under her robes. “Don’t think like that, Emma. You’re his only child, after all, and he should not keep anything from you . . .”
But what if it’s something you’re not meant to see? That no mortal should ever see? Some evil to scar your sanity . . . ?
Her imagination summoned all possible horrors, from everyday experiences to whatever her mind could invent. And hers was a great and rich imagination indeed. But again, her anger overcame her paralysis, driving her hand, and the tumblers of the lock thundered, one by one, into place.
“It’s open,” she informed herself, and with her hem in her fist, Emma entered through the gates of the silver key.
Go Back to Book 3: Chapter 1
Go through the Gates of the Silver Key to Book 3: Chapter 3
Your writing is amazing. I love your work.
Thanks! That means a lot coming from you. I hope you like the chapters with the naturist characters just as much … Emma is the one major textile of the story.
I haven't read this chapter yet. I intended to, but have spent the past 10 minutes or so studying that beautiful Emma illustration. It just blows me away, even after having seen it numerous times. I'm just in complete awe. The artist has captured Emma so perfectly. I think this might be my favorite piece of AoA artwork.