Lizzie shivered, not only from the damp. She crawled forward and inspected the door. It was a double door set into the stones and angled against the side of the house as any root cellar would be. It had a wooden cross piece to stop the wind from dashing it open, and Lizzie lifted that off with a grunt; it was heavy. She tossed it onto the grass with a thud. She reached for the handle and yanked.
She stumbled forward and just stopped herself from landing on her face. She had pulled hard, for cellar doors were always heavy, but this one hadn’t budged. She felt around the edges to see if the hinges could be rusted into place, but no, they were fine. She ran her fingers along the wood, searching. There it was: a key hole.
Lizzie slouched back onto her heels and sighed. Of course it was locked. She could picture the shoes all lined up inside, waiting for her, and she was stuck. She sat and stared at the stars. She felt tired. The sky showed just the faintest hint of blue in the east. It was well over an hour before the dawn.
Lizzie rubbed her face and then leaned forward to inspect the door once more. She drummed her fingers on the wood. How could she get in? An axe would be handy…
Maybe the door was weak in some place. She knocked on the wood, testing it for rot. It sounded very solid. She knocked again, this time a bit higher up, and as she shifted her position, something knocked back.
Lizzie froze, hand lifted, knuckles ready. The knock came again, soft but unmistakable. Something was knocking from inside the cellar.
Very slowly, and hardly daring to breathe, Lizzie lowered her face to the keyhole and peeked in. There was a faint rustle, and then, only inches away was another eye looking back at her.
Lizzie jumped back and let out a yelp. She tumbled over her skirt, taxing her swollen ankle. She hunched, shivering in the yard. Should she run? Bolt to the house? There was no one here but the ghosts, and they couldn’t leave the tower.
“It can’t be him,” she breathed, “it can’t be.” Then her heart thudded slower and she straightened up. “It can’t be. His eyes are blue.” The eye at the keyhole was a speckled green. She crept forward once more.
The eye was still there.
Lizzie blinked, and the green eye blinked back. She knocked twice, and from down below, muffled through the dense wood, two knocks answered hers. This meant two things: she was not alone in the castle, and she was going to get whoever it was out.
It took a surprisingly long time. She pulled and the other pushed, but the door didn’t budge. It wasn’t until the key and chain slid free from the neck of her dress that she even considered trying it. “It won’t work, though. It’s the key to the…” But it wasn’t the key to the tower. It was the imposter, the one she had found in a bureau drawer. She held it out before her. The eye below blinked and waited.
“Well, why not, Lizzie?” she asked herself. Then she flinched and looked at the eye. “If you were going to back out you should have done it sooner. Com on.”
She leaned down and put the key in the lock. It seemed to fit, but still she didn’t hope. If she had known where to find an axe, well, she wouldn’t have even bothered trying the key. What were the chances?
But it clicked and the door released with a small pop. Lizzie stood up and stared at it, and then at the key on the chain. Then the door began to push open.
She hurried to pull the right panel up. I fell over with a crash. She hardly noticed. She was too busy looking at the person who stood on the steps below her.
She was a girl of about twelve, thin and undeveloped. Her hair was cut short and the dress she wore was the gray-brown of mud and stone. Her skin was very pale, but freckled, and there were shadows under her eyes. But the eyes themselves— they were the most alive thing Lizzie had seen since she arrived at the castle.
“Oh! Oh— oh!” she cried and flung herself onto the girl, hugging and hugging her. The girl stood still and didn’t lift her arms. But she didn’t pull away, just waited stiffly. Lizzie sniffled and pulled back.
“I’m sorry— it’s just been… Well, you know, don’t you?” The words started pouring out. “Who are you? How did you get here? You’re not his wife, too, are you? You can’t be a ghost like the others, you feel real. Or— or am I imagining all this? Why don’t you say something?” She backed up a step.
The girl looked past her, looked up at the sky, and Lizzie followed her gaze. The girl said something, but it was so quiet that Lizzie couldn’t hear it.
“What?” She bent down close, and then closer, her ear right by the girl’s mouth.
“That’s the dragon.” She nodded upward, and Lizzie turned again to look.
“Oh, the stars?”
The girl nodded. “I didn’t forget.” She looked at Lizzie, their two faces very close together. Her voice was reedy and thin; it barely existed, but it was there, and she was alive, and she remembered the stars. “The others forgot everything. But I come to look through the key hole. I wait to see the dragon in the sky.”
“But, who are you?”
The girl shrugged. “I couldn’t remember everything. I think I was Bri-something. But I don’t mind, since I haven’t forgotten that.” She nodded skyward again.
Lizzie felt her chest tighten. “But, you poor girl, what are you doing here? I thought I was the only one.”
Bri looked at her. “You are the only one up there. We set the table for two, never more. Down here we are many.” At Lizzie’s questioning look, she gestured below.
Down in the darkness of the cellar, something, many somethings, shuffled. Pale, worn faces floated into view, into the dim light. All of them were gray and tired with thin mouths and dull eyes. They looked at her in silence. Then one old man spoke.
“It’s not right. It shouldn’t be open.” The others nodded. At the edges of the yard, the trees rustled. Wind blew wisps of hair suddenly across Lizzie’s face. She brushed them away.
Bri leaned closer and whispered her barely-warm breath into Lizzie’s ear so that Lizzie shivered. “It shouldn’t be open. But I wished on the dragon, and you came.”
“It shouldn’t be open,” said the old man again, and again the wind pushed. “We must close it. Or you must come below.”
The wind was a howl now, pushing against her back. She fought it, but still she crouched in the doorway. The girl’s eyes held her there: she was alive. They were all alive, at least a little bit. The old man mouthed words again, but now the rushing of the wind was louder than his small voice. Bri said something too.
“What?” shouted Lizzie.
The cellar door banged on the ground, bucked. The wind caught it, lifted it up and flung it over as if it was nothing but a shingle.
Bri caught her wrist, and the moment before the door could slam into her back, pulled Lizzie down into the dark.
Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress! -Rose