She turned the cellar key in its lock and opened the door slowly. Dank air oozed up from below, thick with rot and chemicals. All she could make out was a dented flashlight on the wall, and three tapering steps dissolving into black. She picked the flashlight off its peg, turned it on, and closed the door behind her, muffling the violins. Below, she could hear the river mumbling by, gusting chilly air up the stairwell. The draft was so cold that Lin's breath made frost clouds. With a shudder she followed the dust-speckled beam down the stairs. At the landing, the light fell on an animal skull on the banister. It had cracked teeth and large, tilted eye sockets. Lin hesitated for a moment. What sort of old lady would nail skulls to her banisters? But she pressed on, and when she reached the final step and learned the truth about their landlady's "little hobby," it all made sense.
She was watched by a hundred eyes.
Among the usual clutter of boxes and crates, there were animals everywhere. Cats curled up on barrels, ferrets peeking out between mildewed coats, and falcons strung up under the crossbeams of the ceiling. They were all positioned to glower at Lin with their glass bead eyes, and they were all dead.
Mrs. Ichalar was a taxidermist.
The old woman's workbench stood right next to the stairs, cluttered with hooks and scoops and bone cutters, and several bottles of a clear liquid that might explain the chemical smell. Lin took a deep, icy breath, annoyed at how hard she was shivering. A troll hunter did not back away at a little creepiness! Taxidermied animals looked grisly, but they couldn't hurt her. "Calm down," she whispered to herself. "And bring your brain to the party!"
That's what her father always said if she got impatient with a riddle, and he was right. She would not solve the mystery if she didn't keep her head clear.
With both hands on the flashlight, she looked again, more carefully, letting the beam rove around the room. There had to be a reason why the two keys had arrived together. One to unlock the cellar door, and the other . . . The flashlight beam found the back of the cellar. It was overgrown with pale, wet, ghostly roots. They had broken through near the ceiling and crawled down the wall in a tangled mass, crumbling the mortar and splitting the bricks. In the center of the wall, the roots shied away to make an open circle, and in that naked patch, two fissures met and formed an oddly shaped crack. Lin could swear it resembled a keyhole.
She had of course expected to find the keyhole in a door, or a cupboard, or a painted chest. But gold didn't always mean gold. At least the strange crack deserved a closer look. She crossed the rough floorboards, where the river showed through between the gaps. All the boxes that had been stacked in the back lay toppled on the floor, pushed away by the roots. Lin shoved them aside so she could see the entire shrub.
The roots were not pale and wet after all, they were coated in rime. Lin frowned up at the holes, to where the roots had broken through the bricks. If her mapping skills did not deceive her, this wall lay directly beneath the front doorand the rosebush outside. For the first time that evening, it occurred to Lin to wonder why Mrs. Ichalar's flower bed was covered with frost.
The cold seemed to radiate from the bare, circular patch. Lin leaned forward to study it. Yes. Her first impression had been right: The oddly shaped crack definitely looked like a large, ragged keyhole. One point to Miss Rosenquist! She lifted the Twistrose key for measure.
The roots stirred.
Lin gave a cry and lurched backward, stumbling over a crate, pricking her finger on the thorns of the key. A single bead of blood pushed out. She sucked at it, staring hard at the wall. Roots couldn't stir, could they? It may have seemed like they had reached for her, but there had to be some other explanation. Maybe the storm? Maybe it rattled the rosebush hard enough for the tremors to reach all the way belowground? She got to her feet and raised the key again, waving it back and forth in front of the shrub from a safe distance. Nothing.
Excerpted from The Twistrose Key by Tone Almhjell. Copyright © 2013 by Tone Almhjell. Excerpted by permission of Dial Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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