“They were known as the Queens of Time,” Gramps said. “There were three of them, one for each of the keys.”
Ryne looked forward and up to where his grandfather pointed. On the wall was a small glass case and mounted inside were three ornate keys. They looked similar, though the designs were slightly different. Each key was made of metal with a polished oval stone set in the middle. One stone was red, like coral or jasper. Another was green like jade. And the third was black, like onyx or obsidian.
His grandfather had never brought him to that part of the museum before. Ryne had hoped it was more interesting than the last section, the furnishings of ancient peoples. After he’d seen the first cooking pot and wooden chair, Ryne felt he had seen them all.
But he took a glimpse of this new chamber when they’d first entered. There were statues of idols, large leather-bound books, tapestries and maps on the wall. Ryne had felt a spark of excitement at the chamber’s potential.
He kept his gaze on the keys as his grandfather explained.
Gramps crossed his arms together as he often did when he told a story or gave a lesson. “The key with the red gem is the Key of the Past. Red, you see, for the blood of mortals and the bones of the gods. The green is the Key of the Present. Green for growing things and living things. And the black is the Key of the Future. Black for the unknown and for hope.”
He uncrossed on arm and gestured to his neck. “Each queen wore a key around her neck. The queens were not queens of a land or a physical realm. They were queens of the three realms of the kingdom of Time. It was their job to assure that a balance remained in time.”
“What kind of balance?” Ryne asked.
“They would use their keys to open any door on earth or in the heavens and arrive in the realm they ruled. So the Queen of the Past could open a door in someone’s house and arrive in the room beyond at any time in the past, whether it was seconds past, or centuries past. She could observe, but not affect. The same was true of the other two queens. The Queen of the Present could see all that happened in the present realms. She could see farther even than the gods, but she too did not directly interfere with the lives of the gods or mortals. And the Queen of the Future…her sight was most coveted by both gods and mortals as you might imagine.”
“By ancient edict, the King of the Gods could ask one of the Queens to open a door and show him the future, to help him rule and guide his judgments. Or to bring him into the past to witness events unfold as they truly did, not as they were recalled through the filter of memory. For even a god’s memory could be imperfect. The Time Queens were ever vigilant and kept watch over the keys. No mortal or god should wield such power over time. And so they sometimes refused the God-King’s requests, and he was obliged to accept their refusal. When the Queens witnessed the past and the present and future, they described what they saw in one great book, the Book of All Time, it’s called. They wrote out the lives of men, women, children, gods, animals, plants, mortal and immortal creatures alike. And some of these writings they shared with the gods and some, at the gods’ behest, with chosen mortals whom the world named as oracles and prophets. The voices of the Queens were bearable to the gods, but mortals could sometimes be driven mad by the cosmic rushing of Time’s voice. And even when they weren’t driven mad, the clear words of the Queens became riddles when translated through the fleshy mortal mind.”
“They sound like the Fates!” Ryne looked at his grandfather, grinning and proud to have made the connection.
His grandfather raised his twiggy brows, as if he didn’t know what Ryne was talking about. Typically, with any other grown-up, Ryne would have sighed or rolled his eyes. But Ryne had a great respect for his grandfather. And he was sincerely intrigued.
“Our teacher taught us about it last year. I couldn’t believe we were learning about something interesting.” Ryne caught himself. “It was more interesting than math anyway.” When his grandfather said nothing, Ryne realized he was waiting for Ryne to continue.
“They were these three…goddesses, I think. They were even more powerful than the rest of the gods, because they control peoples’ past, present, and futures. People were afraid of them. I think even the gods were afraid of them, or no, they respected them.”
“Because…” Ryne looked at the glass case mounted on the wall. “Because the Fates didn’t just record their lives. The Fates…” He frowned, trying to remember what his teacher had told them. He’d written it down because he wanted to ask his grandfather. But something or other must have come up and he’d forgotten. Now he couldn’t quite recall the myth. He looked up at his grandfather.
Gramps smiled. “In the myth you’re talking about, each person’s life is a thread. The Fates wove those threads and then snipped them when life ended. And they did so for mortals and gods alike, and no one could interfere with their work. That is how they had power over the gods and why the gods respected them, as you say. The Fates are from Greco-Roman myth.” He glanced at the keys on the wall. “You’re clever to see some similarities. There are many more. But many differences too. The Time Queens are a legend from a rare people.”
“What people?” Ryne asked. He knew about Greco-Roman myth and even Norse myth and some other myths from other lands and peoples. But he had never heard of the Time Queens.
Gramps took a breath and gazed at the keys on the wall. “A people who lived on a small island that was hard to find. But some of the bravest explorers from other ancient peoples found it and brought back stories and legends.” He turned to Ryne. “Would you like to hear one of those stories about the three Queens?”
Ryne nodded without hesitation.
“The Queens of Time lived on the holy, cloud-ringed floating island on which the gods lived. Though they were vigilant, there came a day when one of the gods managed to steal one of the keys. Some say it was managed by making a temporary switch with a replica forged in the smithy of the heavens. Some accounts even speculate that the Queens allowed the key to be stolen to teach the gods a lesson, and you’ll see what I mean when we get to the end of the story.
“It was the War God who did it, and she stole the Key of the Future. The War God, with the approval of the God-King, had asked for a glimpse of the future of the mortal king whom she favored, the mortal king who was on the brink of war with an old enemy. The War God wanted this king to fight and to win. The Queens refused the request, as they had a right to do. But it seemed the War God was unsatisfied with their refusal. After stealing it, the War God brought the Future Key to the mortal king. She woke him from slumber and as he bowed to her, she beckoned him to follow her. And the king, who thought he was dreaming, followed his patron god through a door to his outer chambers, onto his balcony. And he witnessed the glory of a war won and a people rejoicing. The courtyard below him was full of cheering people. Bells and drums sounded and gold and silver rose petals rained from the sky. The War God knew it was no dream. It was the future. She returned to the present, and visited the king in dreams to encourage, no goad him, to wage war. And the king, remembering what he believed were vivid and tempting dreams, did just that. He waged war.
“The war was gruesome and brutal. And futile. Things did not go as the War God had foreseen. The king did indeed win the war, but at too great a cost. All seven of his children, three sons and four daughters, died in the war. Five had actually gone to war. The youngest two, still children, had been killed in their sleep by assassins to assure the king would be left with no heirs.
“The War God had no pity for her favored mortal. Indeed, when he began to consider surrender, she began to harass the poor king. The mortal king knew who truly shared the blame with him for the loss of his children, but one did not blame a god for one’s fortunes, at least not one’s misfortunes. Driven only by rage and hatred, he pushed on ahead and won the war, sacrificing tens of thousands.”
Gramps shook his head and sighed.
“What about the key?” Ryne asked.
“The War God was found out. The Queen of the Future was furious. The future was her realm and she had failed to protect it from the reckless schemes of the God of War. But the Queens could not interfere with the workings of the world, even in that case. The Queen of the Future approached the King of the Gods and asked to fulfill the War God’s original request to see the future. The King of the Gods understood that the Queens must have had some plan to teach the War God a lesson. They could not interfere by acting of their own will. But they must have found some way, some opening in the War God’s request. The King of the Gods allowed it.
“The War God was not concerned. Her success in stealing the Future Key had made her ever more arrogant, especially toward the Queen of the Future. So she consented to be taken to whenever the Future Queen took her. They traveled through a door on their floating island home to the distant future, a future so distant that even a godly mind could not comprehend it, for the gods were immortal, but they were not eternal.”
Gramps paused then. He knew Ryne well.
“What’s the difference?” Ryne asked. “Aren’t ‘immortal’ and ‘eternal’ the same thing?”
Gramps shook his head. “The gods were born. They had a beginning. Something that’s eternal has no beginning or ending. The gods were not eternal. But the Queens of Time were.” Gramps continued his story.
“The War God saw something that drove her utterly, utterly mad. It’s unknown what she saw, of course. If it drove a god mad, it would surely be incomprehensible to a mortal. But some have guessed. The ruin of the gods, some say that’s what she saw. Others say it was the center of creation, a thing only beings such as the Queens of Time and Death could bear to see.”
Gramps nodded. “The War God was useless after that. And for a time, there was peace in the mortal realms. But now it was the King of the Gods who was furious. He had expected the Queens to chastise the War God, not destroy her altogether. He could not outwardly punish the Queens, but he could command them. And they understood that he must do something for they had lost a key and ruined a god. So the King of the Gods commanded them to live among the mortals in the mortal realm and govern Time from there. In effect, he banished them. The Queens accepted this command, but they told the King of the Gods that they were only able to show the War God what they did because she had become greedy and stretched the cosmic workings so far that they would have snapped and destroyed all of creation if she hadn’t been stopped. Other gods, including the God-King, had likewise strained the cosmic workings. And that is why some believe that the Queens allowed that Key to be stolen. That is why some believe that the lesson was not for the War God, but for all the other gods.
“So the Queens came to the mortal realm. And while they had lived as sisters in the heavens, on the earth, they lived as daughter, mother, and grandmother. For the Queen of the Past was a child in red ribbons. The Queen of the Present was a woman in the peak of her age, a beauty with black hair and vivid green eyes, who served as the child’s mother. And the Queen of the Future, she was the gray-haired grandmother. Past, present, and future. Youth, middle age, and old age. So the gods had found a way to further punish the one Queen whom they blamed for all that happened to the War God. The Future Queen wrapped herself in a cloak of black and brooded on the future. The Queens transformed their keys, both so they could be hidden in the mortal realm, and so that it would be all the more difficult for either mortal or god to use them. And for one other reason, now that they were anchored to the mortal realm by command of the gods, the Queens of Time could not move freely through time and space as they once had. So the Queen of the Past transformed her key into a child’s picture book. It never had any words, only pictures of the past painted in such childish manner that any who might look into the book would see only fairy tales or fables. Only the Queen would see the truth.
“The Queen of the Present transformed her key into a looking glass through which she could see all that happened in all realms, even the heavens. For that, the gods could not forbid. But any god or mortal who looked in the glass would see only his or her reflection.
“And the Queen of the Future…she transformed her key into a loom. And as she wove, she wove the futures of mortals and gods. But only she could decipher the meaning on the tapestries and embroideries she wove.
“They were not rid of all keys, however. The gods gave them care of one very special key. The book in which they wrote could not leave the heavens, so the King of the Gods had had forged a key of pure gold and enchanted it himself. That key would lead the Queens into a chamber in which the Book of All Time was kept, and one at a time, they could enter to write their words in the book.
“So it was with the Queens. And as for the War God, she became the God of Madness and Chaos. And her brother took her place as God of War. He was stern, but not as cruel as his sister. And so war returned to the realms of gods and mortals.”
Ryne frowned. “Why did the Queens let the gods tell them what to do? If they were so powerful, why didn’t they rule the world?”
“Because they were already rulers, rulers of time.”
“So, how many things can you be in charge of? Every being has limits, even eternal ones. And no being is all-powerful.”
Ryne pursed his lips in thought. “How did they get turned back into keys? And why is the museum keeping the keys together? Isn’t that dangerous? There aren’t even any guards here, not real ones. Where are the Queens? If they rule all time, they’ve got to still be around, right?”
Gramps laughed. “If the myths are real, they probably are. Either way, these are all fakes for certain, my boy.” He waved a hand to the case of keys. “They wouldn’t keep the real ones here. And who knows about the details of the story? There may be a picture book, and a looking glass, and a loom around somewhere in the world. Or the Queens may have transformed them into something else. One of those tablets like you have, or a drone, or something.”
Ryne frowned. He didn’t like the idea of mixing modern technological things with ancient mythological things. He thought he saw a glint of light from the case and looked up at the keys again. Reflections moved across the glass. He turned back and saw a docent behind them. She smiled and nodded to them. The crowd was thinning. The museum would close in the next ten minutes or so. Gramps always showed him something good at the end to get him eager to return. Ryne gave the Time Keys one final glance as they walked away. On their way out, Gramps pointed to some of the things he’d show Ryne when they returned the following week. And then they both realized they were hungry and should call home to see what was for dinner.
Under the dim light that illuminated the glass case, the three keys, last seen by a child’s eyes, gave off a slight but steady glow. A glow of red. A glow of green. And a glow of black.
Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.