We’re into the final ten days of the Story A Day May challenge! So far, I’m happy to be keeping pace with my goal of >1k words per story. It’s been wonderful writing practice.
Today’s prompt from storyaday.org: The banging on the cabin’s door is incessant. Your character throws the soufflé into the oven and rushes to open the door. No one is there, but on the floor, they see three antique brass keys and a Tarot card.
Continuing to experiment with different genres, this time it’s a somewhat romantic story that puts a small twist on the last part of the prompt.
The Knight of Keys
Gemma the old witch was not so very old, nor was she a witch. But that’s what all the villagers called her. To their simple way of thinking, any woman who reached a certain age without marrying was some manner of crone, and any woman who could read — let alone actually did so, on a regular basis — was an obvious practitioner of the dark arts.
This led to two contradictory behaviors: When she visited the village, they all acted frightened of her, never meeting her gaze, and making ridiculous hand signs to ward off evil. And when she wanted a nice quiet evening in her remote cabin, an endless stream of villagers came knocking on her door, begging her advice as a witch.
Of course, almost none of their troubles required the aid of actual witchcraft. Sometimes, they just needed a bit of common sense. Or an herb, which Gemma could identify from the illustrations in her books. Or, most often, an ear to listen, and a mouth that wasn’t prone to gossip — being the village pariah increased her trustworthiness in that regard, since no one would chat with her. She considered it one of the perks.
Though Gemma always told herself next time she wouldn’t answer the door, it was too much bother, she always did. It wasn’t entirely kindness that motivated her, but a wistful sort of feeling. The petitioners who knelt before her reminded her of long ago years.
Tonight, she hosted young Selene, who sat on a stool and sipped some tea while Gemma prepared a souffle — her favorite treat, an old family recipe. Butter and flour she’d bought at the market, while the raw milk and eggs came from her own chickens and dairy cow. A pinch of salt, a dash of pepper, a splash of cream…
Selene was in the middle of a long-winded tale of woe, “…and he’s a little quiet, but I don’t mind that, I think it’s sweet, and he’s ever so tall, which makes it difficult to catch his eye for a conversation, of course.” She paused only for a quick breath. “That’s why I’ve decided, the only solution is a love potion. You must brew it, at once! Before that awful Wanda gets her claws in him.”
Gemma stirred her mixture atop the wood-burning stove, then began beating the eggs. “So, you’ve never spoken to him.”
“Don’t mock me, old witch!” Selene pouted for all of five seconds, then groaned. “Oh, it’s not easy. Haven’t you ever been in love?”
Love, was it, already? Teenage infatuation was ever self-aggrandizing; it couldn’t be any other way.
Musing on the question, Gemma recalled a man with kind eyes and a dark beard. Her sword, her shield. But her heart? That was a tangled question, buried long ago beneath a castle — a kingdom — worth of rubble. If only the answer were as simple as a love potion. A conversation. She’d give anything to speak with him again. But she practiced neither witchcraft nor necromancy.
“No,” said Gemma. “I don’t think so.”
“Liar!” Selene laughed, not unkindly. “I saw the look on your face, just now. I think you’ve got it worse than me.”
“Don’t make foolish assumptions.” Gemma beat the eggs faster than necessary and hastily folded them into the mix. “Who’s the witch here?”
Just then, someone pounded on the cabin door. There was no end to her uninvited guests, but she’d thank them for the distraction.
“Um, I would answer it, but…” said Selene, not-so-subtly scooting her stool into a far corner.
But, like all the rest who visited in the night, she didn’t want anyone to know she’d associated with the “old witch”.
“Don’t trouble yourself.” Gemma poured the souffle mixture into two dishes, then threw them in the oven. Wiping her hands on her apron, she went to open the door. It creaked open into a cool breeze, a moonlit night, and an empty porch.
Almost empty. A large playing card lay face down on the stoop. She knelt and turned it over to study its face by moonlight. A knight in sapphire armor rode atop a black horse. Three brass keys hovered above his upturned palm. What absurdity was this?
Gemma may not have been a real witch, but that didn’t mean she’d never dabbled in divination. Sometimes to amuse herself, she told the villagers’ fortunes, which, shockingly, always agreed with Gemma’s best judgement. Regardless, even a complete novice knew there was no such card as a Knight of Keys. There was no such suit in the deck. Someone had drawn this original, just to leave it on her porch.
Upon her return to the cabin, Selene asked, “Who was it?”
“Just a prank.” Or some new ward against evil, she wasn’t acquainted with? These villagers had an endless supply of superstitions.
A while later, Selene returned home with a warm souffle to eat, or share, as she pleased. Far more effective than any love potion, in Gemma’s book.
Gemma sat down to nibble at her own souffle and stare at the tarot card. It was drawn in the style of the Knight of Cups, probably copied from it. That card represented fresh beginnings, romance most of all. What did it mean if he’d traded his cup for keys? Something similar?
Her finger pressed down heavily on the card and reversed it. That meaning suited her better. Let Selene enjoy her knights and cups, Gemma wanted her peace and quiet. She’d rather be an old witch than… but she shook the thought from her head.
The next morning, she rose with the sun and stepped onto the porch to stretch in the bracing air. Something crinkled beneath her shoe. Another tarot card. And another. A whole trail of them, leading off through the forest.
Gemma didn’t bother collecting them, but followed the trail, intending to make this bothersome prankster clean up his own mess.
They led to a crumbling stone altar, built for some forgotten god. The final card lay atop.
She flipped it over, and her hand began to tremble. The card completed her thought of the previous evening: she’d rather be an old witch than… The Empress. This image, too, was custom-drawn, very near to the original, except that the face was unmistakably her own. Its creator had preserved the original’s twelve stars upon her crown, representing her rule over the twelve months of the year.
Fear of discovery mingled with rueful reflection. “I have no more stars upon my brow.”
“Yours is a kingdom that will never end,” said the man emerging from the forest. His dark beard was twisted with gray, his eyes surrounded by weary lines, but still kind. “Not for your loyal subjects.”
Gemma gasped, believing him a ghost. “Sir Kandel! All these years, I believed you dead.”
“And I you, Your Majesty. Until I chanced to glimpse you in the market.” He fell to a knee, with less than usual spryness. “I’ve often thought it might be better if I had perished, rather than failed in my duty.”
“Don’t speak so.” She forcibly dragged him back to his feet. “Now, what did you mean by approaching me with all this secrecy, and these tarot cards?” Though there was a hint of admonishment in her tone, Gemma was pleasantly surprised. In the past, he was always so stiff and formal, never wavering in his focus as bodyguard. But this latest endeavor was almost… whimsical.
Kandel bowed his head. “Words, as ever, fail me. I hoped images, symbols, might speak more eloquently.”
“Hold on, did you draw these yourself?” She picked up The Empress and smiled, marveling at this unexpected talent he’d nurtured. “I think you flatter me too much.”
“On the contrary, I do you no justice,” he said with sudden confidence. “The knight’s identity you may surmise. And the three keys, together, unlock the grail he has long sought.”
Gemma hesitated, hoping for one thing, and speaking of another. “I suppose you wish to organize a rebellion, and reclaim the Empire? Glory and honor upon the battlefield?”
“Please, allow me to finish, Your Majesty.” Kandel frowned, as if reciting from memory. “The keys are both good and ill. It is not for the knight to judge. The first key was the axe that splintered your throne. The second key was the hammer that laid me low, on the field of battle, while armies and titles were vanquished.” He watched her closely, appearing anxious that she did not take his words for insults — after all, he was glorifying great losses.
But Gemma’s excitement only grew. When he fell silent, she prodded, “And what of the third key?”
Kandel’s eyes reflected a lifetime of doors between them, locked and barred. “The card is… prophetic. Or wishful thinking. In truth, I do not know what form the third key takes. And I do not yet possess it.”
She lifted his hand and laid her head in his palm. “You do.”
Thanks for reading!