The Locked Door
© Sheila McClune, 2010
The locked door puzzled and fascinated her. Why on earth, she wondered, would Gran have locked the door to her attic, when spells had always been sufficient to seal it before? And with a lock of cold iron, no less. Surely she’d have known that would make it impossible for Kintheriny to unlock it, key or no key? After all, Gran had been a spellcaster, too. She made a mental note to ask the solicitor about it tomorrow when they met to finalize arrangements. Perhaps Gran had left her some special instructions in a codicil to her will, or a sealed letter, or something. She’d read about such things happening in books, anyway.
She ran her fingers over the elaborately carved and painted surface of the door. Gran had been extraordinarily skilled in so many ways. The wood had been carved by hand, not through the use of magic, but its surface was still as smooth and as polished as glass. The colors were still as bright as Kintheriny remembered them from the earliest of her childhood visits, when she would sit on the landing and stare in awe at the intricate design. She especially loved the little red dragon down in the corner, the one with eyes as green as Kintheriny’s own. Sometimes she could have sworn that she saw it move. When she asked Gran about it, though, she’d just laugh and tell Kintheriny that she had a most active imagination.
“But what’s behind the door, Gran?” she would always ask, and Gran would always answer in the exact same way.
“All in good time, dear one. When the time comes that you need it, what’s in there will be yours.” Back then, there had been no metal hasp to seal the door closed, no cold iron padlock barring her way. Gran’s gentle admonitions – and a few subtle protective spells – were all that were ever needed to keep the girl from doing more than placing her fingertips longingly on the sparkling crystal doorknob.
“Can’t you at least give me a hint?” Kintheriny would ask.
“All right. I’ll tell you this much: It’s my laborium, the place where I go when I want to experiment with new spells, or to brew a potion, or meditate.”
“Then why can’t I see it?”
“Because I’ve got things working in there that would be dangerous for you to be around. When you’re older and have learned to control your spellcasting better, you can go in. But for now, I’m afraid you’ll have to stay out here.”
And out here she still was. Kintheriny shook her head and stroked the glass doorknob with the back of her forefinger, then turned and went back down the stairs.
Mr. Randillion handed her a thick packet of papers. “There you are, my dear. Those are your copies of everything – the deed to the house, the bank account, and the various investments. Your grandmother left you well provided for.”
“She did.” Kintheriny’s voice was quiet. “It was more than I expected. After all, I’m not her only grandchild, or even her oldest.”
“But you were the one she worried about the most, you being an orphan and all.” He reached for the teapot with a hand that shook ever so slightly. “More tea, my dear?”
“No, thank you. I’m fine.” She would keep telling herself that until it was true. “Mr. Randillion, I had a question for you.”
He sat back in his chair, adjusting his pince-nez with an age-gnarled hand. “I rather suspect I know what your question might be.”
“Mistress Shaffleford mentioned a certain door that she would arrange to have locked upon her death. She said that you would almost certainly ask about it.”
“Then you know where the key might be?”
He smiled. “Oh, no. But I can tell you what she said to tell you when you asked about it. She said that in order to prove yourself worthy to be heir to her laborium, it was up to you to find the way past the lock and into the room. She meant it as a test for you, you see.”
“A test?” Kintheriny’s mind raced. Surely it was meant to be a test of her skills as a spellcaster! Gran had been testing her with little puzzles for as long as she could remember. “But didn’t she leave me any clues, even just one?”
“I’m afraid not, Miss Wattingdon. She did say that you might find the task difficult, but that you must persevere.”
The young woman squared her shoulders. “Very well.” Perseverance was something at which she excelled, after all.
Kintheriny jumped down from the tram car and paused a moment to catch her breath. Riding the electrick tram always made her feel a bit dizzy. Even though her cousins teased her and told her there was no way that waves from the electrickal lines could hurt or injure her, she knew that at some level they interfered with her spellcasting abilities just as effectively as cold iron. Shaking herself, she skittered the rest of the way across the street and around the corner.
As her steps led her to Gran’s front gate – no, her front gate, now, she reminded herself – she was glad her trunk had been delivered earlier. The late fall afternoon was already drawing to a close, and she wanted nothing more than to fix herself a bite of supper and curl up with a good book in her favorite chair by the library fire for a couple of hours before bed. Tomorrow would be plenty soon enough to start working on the riddle Gran had left her…
She spotted the crumpled form lying across the doorstep in a dark and spreading pool of fluid at the same instant she heard him moan. For a moment, she was too stunned to move.
Then, with a sound that was halfway between a sob and a groan, the man on the doorstep rolled to his side and looked up at her. “Help me! Please?”
She was at his side before she knew it, dropping her reticule and the sheaf of papers from Mr. Randillion’s office onto the sidewalk as she ran. “Oh my goodness! What happened?” She didn’t wait for an answer before she fell to her knees and began probing the wound in his leg. “I will confess to you that healing is not my specialty, but there ought to be something…” Then she touched the wound directly.
“Ahh-AHHH!” The man’s face turned a greenish-gray color, and his eyes rolled back into his head. He slumped to the doorstep.
“Oh, dear!” Kintheriny knew she was in trouble. Not only had her patient fainted, but the wound in his leg had been caused by an iron bullet, rendering her small healing skills useless. But if she didn’t do something, and quickly, he was going to bleed to death.
She was still tearing a strip from the bottom of her petticoat – one of those things that was far more easily said than done – when the man’s eyes fluttered open again. “Please,” he whispered. “Please.”
She laid a hand on his forehead. “I’m going to bind your wound, and then I’m going to have to leave you for a few minutes while I fetch a physician. This is beyond my ability to mend.”
“No! No, don’t. Don’t leave me. Please! They’ll find me and finish me. You must help me, you must!”
Kintheriny looked from the man’s wound, to the puddle of blood, and back to his face. If someone – more than one someone, by the sound of it – was after this man, surely it was more a matter for the constabulary than for a young woman, spellcaster or no. And anyway, what proof did she have that he was the victim of a crime rather than a criminal on the run? She tried not to let her nose wrinkle as she looked from his soiled, tattered clothing to his greasy hair and filthy, unshaven face.
Then he spoke again, meeting her eyes for the first time. “Please, Miss Wattingdon? You are Miss Wattingdon, aren’t you? Granddaughter of Mistress Athene Shaffleford?”
Kintheriny’s blood ran cold. “How do you know who I am?”
It took him three tries to extract the slip of paper from the breast pocket of his coat. “She gave me this.”
With hands shaking almost as badly as his, she took the paper from him and unfolded it. There was no mistaking Gran’s handwriting: “Please help this young man in any way that you can. He is a friend.” The note was signed, “A. S.”
Kintheriny gasped. “Where did …” Then she shook her head. “No. That can wait. I still need to bind your wound before we even …”
“What’s that?” he whispered, grabbing her wrist in a surprisingly strong grip.
“What’s what?” she started to ask, but then she heard the running footsteps. The man whimpered in fear, like a child, and in that instant her mind was made up. Touching the brass doorknob with one hand as she murmured the words to the unlocking spell, she reached down with her other hand to pull the man to a sitting position. As the door swung open on its own, she half-lifted, half dragged him across the threshold. A moment’s concentration was all it took to speak the words of the spell that cleaned the blood from the doorstep, and then she closed the door behind them and relocked it with three quick words.
“There,” she said, turning back to her companion. “Now, let’s get that wound bound up, and then you can tell me…” She stopped.
Her patient was unconscious once again.