The Last Lock

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Standing on the tips of her toes, Rosalind peered out of the window. The tower’s stone walls were freezing cold against her exposed arms. Lifting herself inches further, the amber light of the wicked blood sun fell across her face. She blinked her glassy eyes against it, whispered a soft diversion spell, and twisted her head to the distance. Far below, her cousin’s maze of thorns and dark material stretched for miles. At the horizon line, a faint red glow traced the ground. The magic barrier was no where near falling. Occasionally a bright spark was seen, an arrow hitting its surface, but nothing came through.

“Edward…” she whispered forlornly, dropping back into the darkness and steady onto her feet once more. One hand trailed down from the windowsill, as though it had been clinging onto her last hope.

She had grown accustomed to the dank room. The walls were heavy grey, with nothing to reflect even the slightest light. The floor was completely bare flagstones. Against one wall was a bed, unmade and full of sharp straw ends. It was no wonder that she was desperate for a deep sleep. Against the other was a rough table with broken legs, on which lay a simple hairbrush. She had not touched it. The Queen knew of many tricks, and she knew better than to trust it.
Listless, she walked over to the bed and sat down heavily. On her last evening of freedom, her wedding evening, Edward had come to her room. He placed a kiss on her forehead and told her to wait, he would be only a few minutes. She had gone back to the bed and had just begun to take the new crown from her head when the wardrobe in the corner had burst open. Out of it had tumbled two knights dressed in her cousin’s signature colours. Before she had even had a chance to scream they had seized her and dragged her back to where they had come from. No amount of struggling could have stopped them. Her cousin had not yet come to see her.

She leaned back to the wall and glanced back at the window. It hadn’t taken Edward long to work out where she was. After all, who else would want to do her harm than the Queen?

The kidnapping happened so fast that she still wore her wedding dress. It was a beautiful work of art. The skirt ripped with white lace and an enchantment was placed on it, so that when she walked a shower of sparkles fell in her footsteps. The bodice was a corset of finest satin, and her shoulders were tickled with a gathering of pure swan feathers. The only flash of colour in the outfit was a choker held at her neck, a gift from her new husband. It was bright red with gold edging on the ribbon. At its centre sat a heart shaped lock, for which Rosalind did not have the key. Edward had placed it around her neck himself, turned the key and cast the spell. She thought of the key, a tiny glimmer of gold, that would be dangling from his wrist at that very moment… Miles away… On the other side of the magic dome.

Anxiously, she ran her hands down the length of her braids. They fell to just below her waist, unbraided even longer, several feet of shimming silk. The braids were entwined with silver ribbon. She took hold of one end, fanned them out between her fingers and brushed them across her palm. It felt comforting.

In the distance she heard a crash and it made her jump. She sprang to her feet and flew at once to the window, but when she managed to get a good view everything was as it last was. She gave an involuntary shudder and sank back to the floor. “Hurry, Eddie…” she whispered, “… Please.”

As if answering her pleading, there were voices on the other side of the door to the tower. The handle gave a sudden metallic groan and the key was forced into it. She stood to attention immediately, for a moment believing she would see Edward’s handsome face appear in the darkness. Instead a rude orange light fell into her prison, and with it, one of the guards who had taken her prisoner. He was ugly and scarred from duelling. His breastplate wore the hateful colours of black and purple. On his belt he wore no sword, only a single length of rope.

“You are ordered to an audience with her majesty,” he barked through gritted teeth.

‘About time,’ Rosalind thought. She clenched her fists and tried her best to give him a haughty look, “I hope she’s prepared an apology.” The guard grimaced. She struggled not to let it shake her confidence. “Is this the way you treat the wife of the King?”
“The rightful Queen Eleanor of Almanne owes you nothing,” he responded. Rosalind trembled, and broke her stare. She gave a weak nod, and went to take a step forward when the guard raised a hand. “Wait.” Eleanor faltered. “It is her majesty’s orders that the dress stays here.” Rosalind’s mouth dropped open, “What?”
“The dress,” he snapped, “Remove it. And your shoes.”

She almost asked whether this was some joke, then he took a further step towards her and she give a squeak of fright. Hurriedly, with shaking fingers, she loosened the corset ribbons, and let the wedding dress slide down her legs. She stepped out of it, stripped to only the petticoat layer and under blouse. She stepped back from it and shivered from the cold. She kicked her delicate heels away from her feet. For a second she panicked that this wasn’t enough, but the guard nodded towards the rings still on her fingers. “And those.”

The rings were easy to remove from her slender fingers. Quietly and without prompting she removed her earrings. He did not ask about the choker. The Queen must have warned them of its strength, and it wasn’t as though Rosalind could have taken it off herself anyway. She meekly placed the jewellery into his waiting hand, and he tucked them away in a pocket.

The guard eyed her up and down. She began to frown. “I don’t have anything else,” she muttered.

Finally, he raised a finger and pointed to her braids, “Ribbons.” Rosalind blinked in shock. She automatically pulled her braids to her chest. “Look, either you take them out or I take them from you,” the guard raised his dirty fingers. They were black with dirt and grime. “It’s your choice.”

As calmly as she could manage, she unwound the ends of the ribbon and untwisted them from her hair. Once one was finished she passed the ribbon to the guard and started on the next one. She worked out the last few centimetres of braid and stood with her hair draped over her shoulders like a glowing cape of gold. Through the flimsy petticoat she could feel it brushing her lower back gently.

The guard seemed at last satisfied. He strode to the old table, picked up the hairbrush and stashed it away in the pocket with her jewellery. “Wrists,” he ordered. She gave a whimper and held out both her arms. The tiny blue veins under the skin entwined like a delicate porcelain pattern. The guard had no consideration for such art. He forced her wrists together and bound them with the rope in his belt. He took her elbow in his horrible hands and ushered her from the room.

Outside a second guard waited, holding a flickering torch. He wore a helmet with a visor over his face. The guard slammed the door shut behind them and they led Rosalind down the tower steps, always keeping her trapped between them.

At the base of the tower they marched onto an arched hallway. It was carpeted in red velvet and the alcoves displayed proud portraits of Eleanor’s family – her father and Rosalind’s uncle, Aldred the Ruthless, her mother Adele of Witchia, and their many ancestors. There were no images of Rosalind or her family’s side.

“Where… are we going?” she chanced a conversation.

The guard who had stripped her of her royalties gave a smirk, “Somewhere very special indeed. An execution of sorts.”
This should have frightened her, but instead she glared, “That’s impossible.”

The guard raised an eyebrow, “You think?”

“Of course,” she snapped, fear switching to anger in her stomach, “You do know what this choker is, right?”
They had come to the end of the corridor, to a door gilded in black iron. He gave a shove with his muscular arm and the door swung open. Behind it they climbed a short flight of steps before entering a bright room. It was not lit with flames or candles, but instead by a huge window that reached from floor to ceiling. She was startled by the light, having been in the dark tower for so long. The blood sun was on its descent from the sky. Its glow had changed from amber to a warning red. At the base of the magic barrier, the battles were still raging. The room itself appeared to have no other function, other than to display this magnificent window. In fact, it was very shabby, as though a war had just broken out within it. Wallpaper was torn and streaked, curtain shredded. Broken furniture was scattered about the floor. A cracked mirror clung to the wall to dear life, one whisp of a breeze could have sent it crashing to its death. In the centre of the floor, in full view of the window, was a pair of metal shoes. A faint film of neon green mist floated about them.
“Lady Rosalind for you,” the guard said with a mocking tone, “highest majesty.”

Something to the side of the window shifted. What she had thought was a remaining curtain turned, growing a human head and limbs, “Bring her to me.”

They dragged Rosalind forward, towards the glowing shoes. When she refused and began to sob, they lifted her up off her feet and down into the ugly things. The shoes immediately fastened around her ankles. She tried to get a handle on her breathing, as there was nothing crying could do at this point. The spell was binding, and the shoes would not move or release their grip until the spellcaster wanted them to. There was no chance of that anytime soon.

“Good morrow, sweet cousin,” Eleanor greeted slyly, as she glided into the light. Eleanor was a menacing figure. Her features were sharp and her eyes were the colour of the deepest pools in Hell. Her hair was ebony, and hung in one long, straight sheet from her head. Her gown was figure hugging and fanned out at the hem in a flash of violet purple. “I hear congratulations are in order. How does it feel to be wedded at last?”

Rosalind fixed her with a glare, “I wouldn’t know. Your monkeys snatched me before I felt anything.” She hoped the guards felt at least a little insulted.

Eleanor broke into a giggle, “Oh my, well, sorry to interrupt your feeling. How voyeuristic of them!” She took a moment to calm herself, “Although, knowing Edward’s… ah… techniques, I doubt you’d have felt that much.”
Rosalind’s cheeks flared red, “Why am I here, Eleanor?”
“To pass judgement, of course,” Eleanor answered coolly, “for the crime of treason.”
“I haven’t committed any crime,” Rosalind threw back, “I am queen!”
Eleanor growled, “You are no more queen than my lowest slave. You are a pretender.”
“Edward would disagree.”
Eleanor waved her hands in dismissal, “Edward doesn’t matter. I am his wife, and your marriage is a sham.”
Rosalind sniffed, “He left you.”

“Yes. And now he will pay the price,” Eleanor muttered ominously.
Rosalind had been there, at the divorce ceremony. She recalled how Eleanor had been bound for everyone’s safety, as she had already stabbed two guards to death that morning in her struggles to escape. How she had screamed and cursed Edward, as he had come towards her and reached for her neck…
Rosalind forced a calm smile, “You cannot hurt me.”

“Don’t worry, you don’t need to lecture me on the power of that bauble,” Eleanor snapped. “I wore it once, remember?” She hesitated, as if the thought had crossed her mind to grab the heart lock on the choker and wrench it from her neck. She straightened up, “It is enhanced with a powerful enchantment. While wearing it, nothing can harm you.” She gazed out onto the maze. “No blood can spill from your body. No bones can break inside you. No disease can sicken you. Not as long as he keeps the key…” Her attention had drifted from the room. Staring solidly out at Edward’s army she rubbed her naked neck, “Not as long as he still loves you.”

On that divorce day, Edward had unlocked the choker, and released Eleanor from the spell. He had turned, ignoring her fury and instead looped the necklace around Rosalind’s own neck. In a single breath, he declared her his new queen, and that Eleanor should be banished here, to the ruined seat of her great ancestors.
“That is your act of treason,” Eleanor concluded, “You stole him from me.”
Rosalind felt a dread sweep through her, “…What can you do?”

The wicked smile returned to Eleanor’s face, “Oh fair Rosalind, I don’t need to break bones to make you suffer.” With that she gave a wave to the other side of the room.

Rosalind had not noticed a fourth figure standing hidden in the corner. It would have been impossible anyway, as he was dressed completely in black. There was a hood over his face with two holes cut out for his eyes. An executioner. She knew no harm could come to her. He could do nothing, but still, she felt as though the blood in her was draining down to her feet. He carried a small cushion, but the object sat on it was covered with a piece of cloth. He came to Eleanor’s side, so that the cushion was in Rosalind’s full view. The deposed queen pinched the fabric and pulled it away with a flourish. Underneath rested a pair of very fine, very sharp, scissors.

The realisation was like an explosion in Rosalind’s mind. “Oh, you can’t!” she sobbed.

The executioner took the scissors in his hand as the guard behind her slid his hands around her shoulders, gathering every strand of her golden hair to the centre of her back. He took out the hairbrush from his pocket and began to brush it harshly. The brush was missing bristles, and it snagged painfully in the knots that had been created by her braids.
“You did have a choice to brush it yourself,” he growled.

Rosalind whimpered with pain. She couldn’t move or do anything to stop him. Once the guard was satisfied that her hair was as free from tangles as it could be, he handed the brush to Eleanor and moved back. The executioner left Rosalind’s line of vision. She heard his heavy steps on the floor behind her. She was too far into the room to see any reflection in the broken mirror. “Begin,” Eleanor ordered.

The executioner seized her hair in his fist, first midway down her back, and then further up until he had reached her shoulders. He held it there for a long pause, letting Rosalind’s panic race away with her. The grip he had was not painful but it was powerful, the pressure of which kept her face slightly tilted back and she felt it all over her head. To her, it was as though he held every moment of her life in his unworthy hand. Her throat closed, her mouth was dry.
She heard the sudden hiss and snap of the scissors being opened, and she waited.

Just above his hand, he placed the luscious tresses between the waiting blades. With a steady pressure, he brought the blades together. They sank into the thickness with a delicious crunch. Almost instantly she felt the first severed lock bouncing back, its newly cut ends ticking her shoulder for the first time. The executioner urged the scissors on in their merciless quest. Her hair had always been thick, and the only comfort it provided to her now was that it was putting up more of a fight than she could. She felt its struggle, the loud snipping was its last breath, the tugging she felt slowly crossing one side of her head to the other was its death throes. She prayed that it would stop. Those moments seemed to last hours. No one said anything, but let the sound of the scissors reverberate around the room. That must have been why Eleanor had picked this room, she realised – for its acoustics.

Finally, the battle was won, and she was not the victor. With a few emphasized crunches, the scissors reached her other side. The executioner paused, the last remaining long lock was left to extend the humiliation. Very slowly, almost too slow for her to bear, the scissors snipped through and put her out of her misery. The executioner took his hands away. Rosalind gasped, tears starting to roll down her cheeks. For the first time she felt the sharp tingle of cold air on her bare shoulders. She couldn’t put together the thoughts in her head. She felt as though she had lost a limb. She bowed her head, just about the only movement she could make, and her hair slid over her shoulders, the ends coming to play just below her chin. The sight of them was brutal.

The executioner crossed her again, momentarily casting her into shadow. She glanced up. In his hand hung her long hair. She had never appreciated its wonderous beauty until that moment.

Eleanor ran her fingers through it. “You know, I always wished my hair was more like yours,” she reached around the executioners’ hand and took it from him. She held it glistening in the sinking sunlight. “Do you remember when we were kids, and nanny would play dress-up with us?” Rosalind let her head rise and fall. “You always got to be Rapunzel because of your golden tresses and pink lips. I never got to wear that costume. I was always Old Mother Hubbard, or some washer woman.” She held Rosalind’s hair to the side of her head. “Can I be Rapunzel, hm?” Rosalind glared at her. She gave a giggle, “Why, if only that old bat could see you now!”

Rosalind cast her eyes beyond Eleanor, out of the window. Would Edward even recognise her like this, if he managed to break through?

“She was so shocked when Edward and I were engaged. The witch never gets the prince in her stories, it’s like she somehow saw what was coming,” Eleanor continued, stuck in her memory, “Finally I had everything I could ever want… But now…” The memory was fading back into the inky troubles of her past. She gave a sneer. “Now what should we do with this? I’m sure it would make a very hansom wig for some lady of the night, don’t you think?” She waved it in Rosalind’s face. Rosalind blinked. “Or maybe, because it is so tangled and course, we could put it to good use here!” She held out the hair to the guard. “Take this to the rope-maker. Our gallows need a new noose. We should have it ready for when Edward gets here.”

“You wouldn’t dare!” Rosalind cried as her hair was handed over. The guard snatched it away and was already running down the stairs. The executioner bowed, and taking the cushion, followed behind. Now only Rosalind, the maddening Eleanor and a single guard remained. “You can’t seriously mean to kill him!”
“Why not?”
“He was your husband!”
“How astute of you.”
“Don’t you care?”
Eleanor shook a finger, “Ah-ah, you forget – it’s you who can’t be touched by weapons, not him. But then that’s the sacrifice of love, isn’t it? You leave yourself exposed.”
“But if you kill him, then what was all this for?” Rosalind exclaimed, “You want him back again? Is that it?”
Eleanor glared out of the window, “I want his head on a spike.”
“The people would never let you…”
“The people love me,” Eleanor spun around. “I am their queen, the one they gave their hearts to! Tell me, cousin, did they cheer for you on your wedding day? Hm?”
“Please, Eleanor, stop this war,” she pleaded, “Let it be over.”

“Over?” Eleanor repeated in a dangerous tone. “You think this is over, do you?!” Rosalind realised that she had gradually lifted her head and was now standing straight again, showing a queenly glow even from under the plain garments and the ruined hairstyle. She at once saw her mistake. Eleanor seized the scissors from the smashed chair where the executioner had left them. “I’m not through with you yet!” The Queen took the place of the executioner, only this time, she grabbed a handful of hair from the very centre and front of Rosalind’s head. She pulled, hauling Rosalind’s head back as far and painfully as she could. She held the length up, extending it into the air, but instead placed the scissors right at the bottom, so that Rosalind’s scalp shivered with the sudden cold of the instrument. Eleanor had none of the patience that the executioner had had. She hacked at the hair roughly, demented and laughing as she did it. That was over in a few seconds, as was Rosalind’s hope of making anything salvageable from the first cut. Eleanor grinned, and let the severed tresses fall past Rosalind’s face. It stroked her nose and cheeks in fond farewell before coming to rest in a swirl on the floor.
Rosalind was speechless.
“That was fun.” Eleanor giggled, “Let’s do that again.”

There was no method in what she did next. She simply chose a second piece, this time from the left side, combed it out with her fingers, and admired it for a second before slicing it in half at a strange angle. Again, she dropped it over Rosalind’s face. She took delight in cutting away a large handful from the right side, so that it stood out in a triangular point half way down Rosalind’s cheek and threw it into the air like confetti. Rosalind was glad she did not have a mirror now.

“You see, cous,” she continued, stroking the longer parts like a child dressing a doll, “The people are on my side.” She took a lock and stroked it until it was soft and shining, twirling it absently around her finger. For a moment she paused, placed her hands on Rosalind’s shoulders and rested her head next to her face, “They were never going to like you, and it’s not all your fault, I’ll admit it. But without them, I wouldn’t have had an army, or been able to challenge Edward, or take you. I have given them such power!”

“You’ve put a spell on them,” Rosalind answered.

Eleanor went back to the same piece of hair she had just had in her hands and snipped it off at an inch to the root. “A little persuasion, that’s all.”

Suddenly, something caught Rosalind’s eye. There was a narrow crack in the barrier. She gasped, causing Eleanor to pull her head harshly to the side.

“What?” Eleanor hissed.

“The barrier,” Rosalind whispered, her voice rising, “it’s breaking!”

Eleanor paused, looked, and laughed, “That’s nothing. Don’t be stupid. Edward’s not coming for you. At my word, my army will rush the maze and murder the lot of them. So get that daft smile off your face. You’re going to be an entirely different person the next time he sees you.”

She angled the scissors upwards, and cut so close to Rosalind’s ear that it became almost impossible to shut the gut-wrenching noise out. Keeping with the rhythm of her hammering heart, Eleanor cut her hair away from the left side. This time she made no attempt to grab it, but let Rosalind feel it snaking past her neck to fall freely to the floor. Eleanor gathered the remaining long tresses into her hand and cut them in one bunch from her head. She dropped it carelessly, although some gathered in a loose pile on Rosalind’s shoulder.

“Will you stop smiling?” Eleanor yelled in frustration.

“I can’t.” Rosalind had seen the break in the wall and couldn’t get the smile to fade from her face. She looked her in the eye, strength returning, “What more can you do to me? There’s nothing.”

Eleanor furiously continued slicing away at what little length was left, and Rosalind’s both ears were exposed. She stopped. Resting across her hand was the only remaining piece that was intact from the first cut. She opened the scissors, placed the last lock between them, and tightened her fingers to slice…

Eleanor swung around to the window. The fracture had grown, and through the gaps a new army was entering her maze. Even from this distance, the white glint of Edward’s armour could be seen, racing through the maze’s walk ways.
“It’s over!” Rosalind laughed, “Edward’s coming!”

Eleanor turned to glare back at her. There was no part of Rosalind’s hair that was not an inch or shorter to her head, apart from the last lock which was seductively swinging past her face. The hair on the floor made Rosalind look like she was stood in a puddle of light.

“What do you think he’ll do to you when he sees what you have done to his queen?”
Eleanor picked up the long lock, and held it dangling in front of Rosalind’s eyes. As if in answer to the question, she sliced through it slowly and pressed it into Rosalind’s hand. “You give that to him,” she whispered, “If you’re still alive, that is.” Eleanor threw the scissors down to the floor with a clatter. They lay spread open amongst the chunks of Rosalind’s beautiful hair. “Take her back to the tower. Now.”

The spell on the shoes opened at her ankles, and shaking from exhaustion, Rosalind staggered from them, leaning on the guard for stability. She had to shuffle her feet through the snipped ends. Her hand was still tightly closed around the last lock. She thought the guard was going to drag her back down the stairs, but he refused to move. The visor was still over his eyes, and supporting her under his arm, he turned to face Eleanor.
Eleanor raised her voice, “I said take her away!”

“You have bigger things to worry about now, Elle,” said a gruff voice from behind the helmet.
Rosalind blinked up at him. Eleanor hissed, “How dare you be so familiar with your queen!”
“You’re not my queen,” The guard reached up and took his helmet off, “She is.” Rosalind’s face lit up. Edward tossed the helmet down and rattled down the stairs. Eleanor staggered as though she’d been stabbed in the chest.
“You!! How are you here?!” Eleanor screeched.
“If I could make something this strong,” he pointed to the choker, “do you think a barrier like that could stop me?”
Eleanor gave a shriek, “Guards! Guards!”
Edward shook his head, “They’re not coming, Eleanor.”
“Then my army will…”
“Your barrier has fallen. Your spell on my people is broken. Your loyal guards have been rounded up. Your reign of terror is over.”

“It’s her fault!” She pointed a wicked finger at Rosalind.

“She hasn’t done anything. But you, on the other hand… This isn’t your first assault on my life, is it? Poison in the tea… Daggers from behind curtains… Arrows of flame from the battlements… Remember those, Elle?” The King took a step forward. Eleanor shrank. “Our marriage was arranged, and once we were married, I saw who you really were. You wore my lock but the spell of protection never worked for you. You were as without it then as you are now.”

There were feet coming up behind them. Rosalind turned her head and saw guards and friends she recognised from home. Edward’s best friend David was wearing his white armour.

“As your King, I pass this judgement on you, in front of these witnesses. Eleanor the Wicked, you are charged with treason on account of the attempted murder of your king, enchanting my people, kidnapping my queen, and inflicting such terror on her. How do you plead?” Eleanor cackled and spat at him.

“You will be taken from here and bricked up alive in your tower, so that no one will fall prey to your powers ever again.” Edward sentenced. He glanced at Rosalind, “That is, unless Rosalind has anything to add.”

Rosalind blinked at her cousin, now backed far against the wall. Eleanor locked eyes with her. Even now in defeat she was defiant. ‘You won’t hurt me,’ she seemed to say, ‘You don’t have it in you.’

“Perhaps a trim,” she whispered.

Eleanor screamed and clutched at her hair. David proceeded up the stairs and bent to pick up the scissors from the floor. Many went to help him hold her down. Rosalind turned away from the crowd. “I’ve had enough of this place. Can we please leave?” Edward nodded. Together they turned and strode down the stairs as the echoing sound of the hasty snipping scissors, Eleanor’s cries and triumphant laughter rang out behind them.

Once in the quiet corridor, Rosalind whispered, “Edward, how bad do I look?”

Edward frowned, “What do you mean?”

She pushed him back and he stopped to look at her in the clearer light. “I haven’t seen myself… Is it bad?”
Edward gave her an assuring smile. “No,” he answered simply. She didn’t look convinced. “It’ll grow back.” Gently he took hold of her hand, one that was gripped tight to her last lock of hair. As he held it up, the tiny key swung from under his sleeve. He hugged her close, “you’re still gorgeous to me.”

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