Queen of the Cloven Heart
By Hailey Piper
We gave the queen only virginal women at first. She didn’t ask for this, but we knew stories of dragons and devils, the things they liked to eat, and she was no different. But evil will eat other things, as I learned from experience.
As Captain of the White Guard, I had a sacred duty to commit regicide. Happy King, happy kingdom. Unhappy King—that’s the queen’s fault, and everyone knows it. Only an heir to the throne can become a new king, but a king can always get a new queen.
I wasn’t a pitiless monster. For every queen I cut down, the White Guard commissioned a statue built in her honor—half apology, half gratitude. Sorry we killed you. Thank you for dying. Now the king might marry a queen more faithful, more fruitful, more whatever-it-was-you-lacked that drew the White Sword to your heart.
She who came to be called the Cloven-Heart Queen seemed no different than the rest when she first arrived. The king courted her at night, true, and he demanded a moonlit wedding without church or clergy. Still, the king is his people’s father, and mine taught me as a boy to always obey what a father is owed, through bruises and broken bones, if necessary, as if to punish me for being his son.
In that way, I preferred the king.
Time passed, and we realized that his strange desires were hers laced on his lips. He seemed inattentive in court, his eyes and mind wandering. She was eating his willpower, a shrew in maiden’s clothing.
We did as our kingly father was owed. Lay one queen to rest, uplift another to royalty later.
I led the White Guard into the open throne room, greaves clanking on stone floor, white cloaks billowing behind us. Every noble and petitioner knew our purpose. At the front, I wielded the White Sword, shimmering from blade to silver pommel.
There’s no ceremony to killing a queen, only action. The White Sword’s massive point cracked sternum, split rib, and pierced the queen’s heart. I thrust deeper, and the blade burst from between her shoulders to sing against her stone seat.
That should have been the end. The White Sword had slaughtered countless queens across kingly lineage. They were decent women who’d slumped properly to the floor and bled to death.
But the Cloven-Heart Queen was no proper lady. Had we known that before, we might have dealt with her another way.
“Steel,” she whispered with a sneer, and then she cackled. Claws sprang from her fingers, and her jaw stretched into a chasm of needle-thin teeth.
No thoughts. Only panic.
I abandoned the White Sword still jutting from her chest. Much worse, I abandoned my addle-eyed king. I might have abandoned my men, too, but they took my running as an order to retreat, and the lot of them followed.
She caught the slowest of us. Was it Edward Gilbert? I believe so.
Claws peeled armor from skin, skin from muscle, like husking maize. A sickly yellow tongue slipped past her teeth and stroked his raw muscle—once to lap blood, again to tear tendons that stuck in her teeth. Back and forth, she savored his pieces.
The nobles and petitioners must’ve been too stunned to run at first, and by the time they wised up, I had already led the White Guard outside and barricaded the castle’s iron doors. Fists banged from inside, but we wouldn’t budge. We ignored their muffled cries for mercy, and one by one, their pleas turned to screams that faded down unseen castle halls.
By nightfall, I realized we’d left behind our kingly father, too. He still sat upon his throne, that kind-faced man with his bushy beard and a sword meant not for beating sons, but to knight them in trust. The day I knelt at the throne and that blade tapped my shoulders, I swore I’d do anything for him. I’d slaughtered his last dozen wives without question and had only appeared in the throne room that day to do it again.
But this time, I’d failed him. The Cloven-Heart Queen lived. Or didn’t. We couldn’t be sure what counted for life with a creature like her. Several nights after the assassination attempt, her voice sang through the iron doors across the city.
“Feed,” she whispered, the wind curling on her tongue. A chill ate through my men, sure as her teeth.
I doubted our barricade could hold her. If we fed her, she might not want to come out. A cat that dines on table scraps will let mice scamper freely.
Every three days, the White Guard and I took into custody a virginal woman from the city. We ushered her across the drawbridge, thrust her through the castle’s iron doors, and then barricaded them again. When we ran out of virgins, we sacrificed the remaining city women who hadn’t fled to the countryside.
The queen didn’t reject them, but her voracity grew. “Feed,” she whispered. “More.”
My men had suggestions for her appetite, as if an unholy fiend deserves empathy. “Perhaps she’s with child, Captain Grey?” one said.
“Made my wife plenty famished,” another added. “Eating for two.”
“To be with child, she would have to be alive,” I told them. Mention of children reminded me that we couldn’t offer every woman in the kingdom to this undead monster. We would have no future then. Instead, I led the White Guard through villages and hamlets, taking on volunteers and conscripts to form an army. Surely the northern kingdoms would offer sacrifices aplenty.
They offered wrath. Our neighbors rallied, allied, and cracked our army apart. There would be no tithe of foreign women.
“You would do the same for your king,” I said as we retreated.
The northern generals scoffed. “You don’t kill for your king,” one said. “You kill for her.”
He was right. We’d tossed aside our kingly father and kneeled to a hellish mother. I was no knight; I was still that little boy cowering beneath tables or between houses while my father-by-blood shouted and drank. My better father had taken me in, and how had I repaid him?
Locked in that castle. With her.
If I wanted the king to look down from the heavens and offer forgiveness, I would have to earn it.
I led the White Guard back to our castle. We lowered the drawbridge and marched across creaking boards, half of us wielding sharpened swords, the rest carrying roaring torches. Behead her, burn her—whatever it took.
Heavy blackness engulfed us inside, and the air stank of rotted meat. No daylight crept after us; she had stuffed up every window and skylight with corpses. Our torches became lit splinters against the dark. Bones crunched underfoot, where our queen had littered the halls with drained, skinless husks. Rats gnawed at the desiccated flesh and protruding bones.
From the darkened throne room, her voice of salt and venom rattled the bodies and chilled my bones. “Feed?” she called.
I squeezed my fists tight so they wouldn’t tremble in their gauntlets. We filtered inside, cloaks flowing same as that first time we came to kill the Cloven-Heart Queen. Torchlight vaguely lit her shape, now seated on the king’s throne.
How dare she.
The queenly thing now stretched twice my height, grown from many feedings. The White Sword still jutted from her chest, a cradle of bone and sinew. She showed no pain. The sword was not even a nuisance. Her clawed fingers curled around a narrow rope, and at the end, something pale and naked crawled on all fours, muttering and hissing to itself. A delirious skeletal demon, almost familiar.
I lurched back and crashed into my men. They had stiffened into a wall of steel and fire. I tried ordering them to charge the throne, one last queen’s death on the White Guard’s hands, but her pet wouldn’t stop whispering, and every nonsensical word skewered my thoughts.
My men weren’t looking at the queen or her pet. They aimed their torches in all directions, painting the throne room in flickering, terrible shapes.
A gaunt face stared down at us from high on the wall. She used to be a woman, maybe one who had smirked prettily when she passed in the town square, but now her eyes glared red, and needle teeth jutted from behind her lips.
Dozens of sister-faces surrounded hers, a sheet of jittering bodies that coated the throne room walls. Blood wept from their eyes, mouths, and necks.
Our offerings. The queen had eaten some, but she had turned others to her kind.
My men had been right, in their way. The Cloven-Heart Queen was eating for two. Or eating for two dozen and more.
She towered over us, restless claws tapping her hips. Her pet tugged at his leash. His matted beard wiped the filthy floor as he brought his eyes to me, and I recognized him then. He was the most important person in the world.
My kingly father, turned into a mindless, drooling creature of undeath. Not so unlike my own father, in the end, drunk in a stupor by the side of the highway. My father was allowed the grace to die by bandit hands and be buried in a shallow grave. The king would have no such dignity.
We shouldn’t have come back. We should have scoured every village in the kingdom, in the world, feeding her and her brood for all time, and no one would ever again step inside this sunless hell.
Her claw pointed at us, and her smile lit the darkness. “Feed,” she said.
The fleshy walls collapsed on us, closing curtains of teeth. Her brood tore through armor and fed at necks, arms, legs, anywhere they could drain and eat.
The White Guard turned red.
And I turned yellow yet again. Nothing was sacred anymore. I shoved through my men, the halls, up to the castle’s iron doors, and pushed them open.
Tried to. They jostled, but I couldn’t press them open and let even a line of sunlight protect me. I banged and hollered, but voices on the far side hollered louder. A mass of angry commoners held the doors shut against me, barricading me inside the way I’d done to the king and his court.
They shouted that I’d fed their women to the queen, and their men to our war at the northern border. They poured accusations that the White Guard had damned the country, that the restless spirits of many murdered queens had called up a matriarch of undeath to bring down king and kingdom, a queenly wrath incarnate.
That couldn’t be true. We built statues to their honor. This rabble acted like the king hadn’t loved his wives, his people. Nonsense.
The brood grabbed me from behind and hauled me deep into the castle, where they stripped armor and clothing, but not skin. They had some worse fate planned for my body, and they stuffed me into a cage thatched with cloth and bone.
I’ve been here for a day, I think—there’s no sun in the queen’s castle to tell the time—but it feels like months. The cage is too narrow for me to lie down, and too stunted for me to sit up, let alone stand. My men lie dead around me. The women of the brood take their time with corpses.
I don’t beg that they let me out. They wouldn’t care for my pleas, and I won’t crawl for her, not even in words.
A torch flares. The walls writhe again, the fleshy brood painted red and black with my men’s blood. The Cloven-Heart Queen smiles from her throne. Leash going taut at her side, my miserable undead king tugs toward the cage. I think he recognizes me. He’ll change my station one last time, from man to fiend. It’s only fitting. My own father couldn’t kill me as a boy, but my kingly father will end me as a man.
I’ll become one of these things.
Two brood creatures open the cage just enough for the king to crawl inside. He’s still muttering to himself. Every nonsensical word creeps up my nerves. I want to talk with him about the good times, but she’s broken him in too many ways.
“I abandoned you,” I say, my voice cracking. “I’m sorry.” I brace myself for fangs to sink into my neck.
His jaws stretch open, but no needle teeth appear. He snaps at my leg, flat teeth piercing skin. I fight at his face, and he bites at my fingers. This is all wrong. Where are his fangs? Why the hunger? The other undead creatures killed my men first and then ate them, not the other way around. I should get the same treatment.
Except he isn’t like the others. He chews at me with flat teeth. Ribs protrude from his chest in pitiful angles, and his belly sags over his pelvis. Skin clings to narrow bones.
The king is not dead or undead. He’s been kept barely alive, starved by his queen.
I can’t die like this. I want it clean and quick like my men. Not once did I torture the queens; the sword pierced their chests and they died in that instant. He’s taking another bite. I try to fight him again, but the cage is narrow, and he’s better at making himself small. Teeth sink into my arm.
I turn desperate eyes to the Cloven-Heart Queen. Let me out and I’ll crawl for her, promise. I’ll crawl better than the king.
Her claw points at my cage, as she pointed at my brothers before, and that same wicked smile lights the darkness.
© 2020, Hailey Piper