“Ouch— ah! Let go of me, let go of me!” Lizzie tumbled, banged her elbows and knees, tried to leap to her feet and then stumbled again on her bad ankle. It was dark and the air was close. Her throat was tight, she couldn’t breathe. She turned and scrambled back up the stone steps, fumbling for the door. She ran into it, backed up, put her shoulder to it and heaved.
It didn’t move at all.
“No, no! Let me out! Let me out!” She panted and pushed, she scratched at the wood so that her fingers stung. But the door was heavy and nothing she did made any difference. She sank down, trembling, onto the step. Every part of her ached.
The gray people were watching her. They stood with arms hanging at their sides and said nothing.
“What?” Lizzie spat. “What do you want? You work for him, don’t you? You’re going to turn me in, tell him I went out of the house, tell him I tried another key.” She clapped her hand over her mouth. Shut up, shut up, shut up!
She smoothed her shaking hands over her skirt and tried to breathe calmly. Then she felt a touch on her shoulder. It was Bri. Her hand was as light as a bird, no weight to it at all, but her green eyes were steady.
“We don’t have anything to tell anyone. No one comes here— not without a debt. And the master never speaks to us; we are meant to be invisible.”
Lizzie looked up at her. “I don’t understand. A debt? Invisible?”
Bri looked away from her at the others. Her face was blank, but Lizzie felt something stirring, some consideration.
“Can you show me?”
Bri nodded. Lizzie stood, and when she followed Bri the crowd of people parted and closed behind her. The stone tunnel echoed quietly with the shuffling of many insubstantial feet. A thought jerked Lizzie’s head up and made her stop. Bri was wearing shoes.
The crowd shuffled into her, bumped against her back, gentle as leaves blown in the wind. Bri stopped and looked at her, waiting.
“Your feet— you have shoes. How do you have shoes?”
Bri shrugged. Lizzie turned and looked at the others behind her. All of them had shoes.
“But that means you can leave! We can all work together to get the door open and you can walk away! That’s what the ghosts said— you just need shoes to be free!”
“But we have our debts,” answered the girl.
Bri shrugged again. She was so pale she seemed to fade at the edges in the dark passageway. “The master owns much land. And we could not pay our debts.”
Something was tickling the back of Lizzie’s mind. An image of a coach with the county seat’s man in it collecting taxes in her village. “But you didn’t have to come here. If you can’t pay your tax to the landlord he just sends you away. You have to leave, start fresh somewhere else.” She stopped. Bri was shaking her head.
“I don’t remember the story. I only held on to one thing. But I know it isn’t like that with the master. We are bound to work here. We have never seen anyone leave.” The others shook their heads. “We are the treasure of the master’s house.”
She turned and continued walking, and Lizzie had to follow, though she puzzled over that phrase: we are the treasure of the master’s house. The girl certainly couldn’t mean that Bluebeard valued them. There was an itch of understanding, but it was interrupted by her own startled gasp.
“But it’s— it’s the house!” She stared, open-mouthed around her. She was standing at the servant’s entrance at the back of the dining room. Everything was there, down to the ornate cornices, but the colors were muted and the air was opaque and misty, though there was no chill or damp. She looked back at Bri and shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
But the gray people shuffled out from behind her and began to move about the room. Some drew rags from their pockets and dusted the woodwork. Some swept the floor. One lit the candles in the silver candlesticks. Then a plump woman with watery gray eyes carried in a small stack of dishes from the kitchen and began to lay the table. Lizzie watched it all in amazement. She could smell something good cooking.
“You do all the work. You clean and make the food?”
Lizzie wandered into the dining room. “You laid out my clothes. But where did my dress go? Where are my shoes?” Her face blazed with excitement. “Where—“ then she stopped and spun around to face the table. Her mouth went dry.
“Why are there two places set?” Her voice was nearly as quiet as Bri’s.
“There are only two of you in the castle: you and the master.”
“Yes, but why are there two places set now? The master— my husband— he isn’t here.”
“He will be soon.” The others nodded and pursed their lips into a whispering chorus, “Soon.”
Lizzie spun to Bri. “But you have to help me! I have to get out of here. I’m not supposed to be here!”
The kitchen door opened and the watery-eyed woman beckoned to Bri; Bri moved to join her. Lizzie caught her arm. “Bri,” she whispered, “This is serious. If he finds me here he’ll kill me.”
Bri leaned close. “But you are going to kill him. That is what the dragon said.”
Bri crooked a finger and Lizzie followed her into the kitchen. The fire was roaring and the same heavy kettle that she herself had used now bubbled with stew. The matron paid no attention to Lizzie, but handed Bri a bottle of wine and two cut crystal glasses. Bri waited.
“What? What do you want me to do?” The blood pounded in Lizzie’s ears. She felt she could fall over. Still, Bri only looked at her.
Lizzie’s mouth fell open. “The wine— the wine! I could— would you—?”
“The bottle must breathe. I will let it stand in the cupboard until this evening.”
Lizzie nodded. “Thank you, thank you.”
With effort Bri drew the cork out of the bottle. Lizzie looked over at the matron; she was busy tending the fire. Lizzie reached into her pocket and pulled out the glass bottle. She took out the stopper. Her eyes met Bri’s. “You won’t tell?”
“Master does not speak to us. He does not come here. We are invisible until we are released from our debts.” She was quiet, then, “When a man dies, his wife inherits the house.”
Lizzie nodded. She took a deep breath. She had never killed anyone— had never imagined doing such a thing. She thought of the tower room, the ghosts, the bodies. And she emptied the vial into the wine.
Bri set the bottle into the cupboard. She looked at Lizzie again. “The door is locked. But you have the key.”
Lizzie’s hand flew to her neck. “What? Of course!” She threw her arms around the girl and hugged her. “Thank you.”
She started out of the kitchen and then stopped. “You’re setting the table, but there’s stew. And wine. What meal is this?”
“Dinner,” said Bri. “The master returns at sunset.”
Lizzie’s heart soared. She kissed Bri on the cheek and turn and ran, light as deer down the passage. She fumbled in the dark with the lock and then with a great heave, she burst back into the light.
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 Arrowsmith DeCoux