For the first few years of his life, the boy didn’t know the Still Room was there. To him, the heavy wooden door was simply the point at which the cellar stairs ended, just as the pantry was where they began. He often played on those stairs, enjoying the cool dampness and the reassuring sound of the kitchen floorboards creaking above his head as Mrs. Henderson prepared supper. He would sit in the coolness and run his toy cars over the grey stone, and think of adventures for his tin soldiers. Sometimes he would search for a toy for hours before finally finding that he had left it two or three steps above the wooden door while playing on the stairs. But as for what lay beyond that door, he gave little thought. It was like the locked drawers in his mother’s desk, or the trunk in the attic warped shut with rust and age. Something beyond his reach, and not interesting enough to consider further.
The first time he tried to open the door, he was perhaps six years old. Certainly young enough that his chubby hands could scarcely clasp the massive iron handle. Later, he would be unable to recall what had sparked his curiosity after years of disinterest; he would remember only how strong and impenetrable the door seemed. He pushed down on the latch with both thumbs, but it stayed still even when he dangled from the handle with his full weight. After that, he thought about the door more often. He tried on other occasions to open it, thinking each time that he simply hadn’t been strong enough on the last attempt. Each time, it refused to budge.
One day, as the boy tugged on the door with one hand, model airplane dangling from the other, his mother’s voice drifted down the stairs. “Darling? What are you. . .” Her voice trailed off as she saw him jump quickly away from the door. She looked surprised for a moment, and maybe a little frightened, but she laughed and pushed a dark curl of hair behind her ear. “Oh, sweetheart, you mustn’t feel guilty. What little boy wouldn’t be curious? And besides, it will be yours one day.”
“Can I go inside, Mummy?” he asked.
She scooped him up in her arms, resting his weight on her rounded hip. “Oh, no, darling, never. You must promise me that you will never, ever go in that room. Do you understand? We can look inside, but we can’t open the door.”
She smiled as she said it, and he smelled her breath, the peppermint leaves she liked to chew. “I promise,” he said, and he meant it, because he felt certain in that moment that she wasn’t just trying to keep something from him.
“Right, then, let’s take a look, shall we?”
In the upper part of the door, at the level of his mother’s face, there was a square of black metal with a keyhole just like the one near the handle. The boy’s mother reached inside the neck of her dress and fished out a chain with an iron key dangling from it. He hoped that she would open the door completely, but instead she unlocked the little window. “There, darling, can you see?” she asked, holding him up.
The first thing he saw was a stone wall speckled with green moss. It was illuminated by a large fire burning in the hearth. But the fire looked wrong, the boy realized. It didn’t move. He could clearly see the orange flames, lightening to yellow at the edges, and the deep red glow of coals at the center. But none of it moved.
Then, to the left of the hearth, he saw the men.
They stood in the center of the room, facing each other across a distance of about five feet. Except they didn’t stand, they strained towards each other; one man’s left foot was raised just slightly off the ground in mid-step, while the other had his knees bent into a crouch as though about to spring. But neither moved. Their feet stayed in the same position, their hands didn’t tremble, the draft of cold air in the cellar didn’t move the hair on their heads.
The boy tore his eyes away from the two men and craned his head so that he could see the room’s other walls. All held torches, bright and flaming yet frozen.
“Why aren’t they moving, Mummy?” the boy asked at last, petulant in his confusion.
“They are,” his mother whispered as though they could hear. “They’re just moving very, very slowly. So slowly we can’t see it. Your great-great-grandfather spent his life measuring their speed. He calculated that they move only one quarter of an inch forward every year. At the start, hundreds of years ago, they were on opposite sides of the room. Can you imagine?”
The boy looked back at the men. He studied their clothes. One, who the boy would learn to call the Knight, wore thin linen hose and a dark green woolen shirt that hung almost to his knees. His feet were wrapped in rough leather shoes. Despite the crude-looking clothing, a gold pendant hung around his neck and he wore a ring with a large blue gemstone. He held a long sword in both hands, awkwardly extending out from shoulder level. The boy could faintly see the Knight’s bared teeth, and a drop of spittle frozen in the air beneath his bearded chin.
The second, who the boy would come to think of as the Squire, wore even rougher clothes, his baggy trousers made of patched, blotchy wool. He seemed young, although the boy couldn’t make out much of his face. He had black hair tied at the nape of his neck in a leather thong. His shapeless tunic was unlaced at the top to reveal pale, hairless flesh. In his right hand, he held a kind of club with metal spikes emerging from the top. It hung in the air over his head, caught in an arc between himself and the Knight.
Along the walls hung some shields, along with several strange weapons. There were trunks and boxes in several of the corners, and barrels lining one entire end of the room. One small patch of floor seemed to serve as a simple bed, with a pallet and thin blanket. A rough wooden table lay on its side, knocked carelessly out of the way. Try as he might, the boy could not divine the room’s purpose.
“Why are they fighting, Mummy?”
She set him down on the stones and closed the window. “No one remembers. Some say the Knight. . . did, did something, to the Squire’s sweetheart. There’s another story, that the Squire stole from the Knight and was caught. There are other stories, ones I’ll tell you when you’re older.” She laughed quietly. “But, really, we don’t even know if they actually are a knight and his squire. It’s been forgotten.”
The boy stared at the dark wood of the door, silent. “Then. . . Why are they there?”
She started to say something, hesitated, bit her lip. “We can’t be sure. The important thing, though, is that we have a very, very special job. We’re guardians.”
The boy silently considered the word. Guardians. It felt noble, and important. “How? How do we guard them, Mummy?”
“We have to keep this door closed, and never, ever tell anyone that they are there.”
The boy’s excitement deflated into mild disappointment; he’d been picturing battles, epic defenses of their charges, the way it happened in the stories of knights and kings Mummy read him before bed. “So that’s all we have to do to keep the Knight and the Squire safe?” he asked, hoping vaguely that there was more to it than that.
“No, darling,” his mother replied gently, and when the boy was a man he would realize it was the first time she had spoken to him like he was an adult. “It’s not those two we’re keeping safe. It’s the rest of us.”
Then came the days of bombs, and blackouts, and ration cards. Mrs. Henderson went to work as an ambulance driver, and a lot of the ladies Mummy knew went to be nurses or secretaries, or take other jobs the boy didn’t quite understand. Many of the boy’s friends went away to the country, and before she left to drive the ambulance Mrs. Henderson tried to convince Mummy to send him away as well. “He’s only ten, Ma’am! He shouldn’t be here, not now. Your uncle still has that lovely house in Yorkshire, why don’t—”
“Thank you, Mrs. Henderson,” Mummy said icily, sounding unkind for one of the few times in the boy’s memory. “But that won’t be necessary. We’ll be safe here.”
Mrs. Henderson looked as if she wanted to say more, but just shook her head. She kissed the boy on the cheek and cast him a pitying look as she left with her suitcase. “Be safe, lad. Take care of your Mum.”
On the nights when the sirens went, the boy and his mother went down to the cellar and sat with their backs against the wooden door. Mummy assured him it would be safe, but she still flinched whenever they heard a bomb fall nearby. She often had dark circles under her eyes now, and the boy began to notice strands of grey in the deep brown of her hair. Even after nights when they had no sleep because of the bombs, she left for her job early in the morning. She’d been forced to take the boy with her once, when the road to his school was blocked, and he had spent a bewildering morning watching her and four other women bustle about and shuffle papers and tell people whose houses had been bombed where they would be staying now. He’d watched the line of grubby, silent people and thought of the bomb craters and piles of rubble where there had once been buildings, new ones every time he went with Mummy while she did the shopping. He wondered when he and Mummy would have to join that line of sad people.
In the years since she had shown him the Still Room, they had spoken of it only occasionally. There had been times when he had asked to see it again and she had gone down to the cellar with her key. The boy had tried to detect the slow movement of their bodies, but couldn’t be sure if anything had changed. Mummy had always indulged these requests, but never seemed to want to stay in the cellar or discuss it for very long.
Now they didn’t speak of it at all, even though they spent so many of their nights leaning against the door. At first it was because they were both too busy thinking of other things. Then, the boy realized that Mummy had always been a little frightened when she talked about it, although she hid it well; he understood that they didn’t speak of it anymore because there was too much fear already.
One night, when the raids were particularly bad, he asked a question in nervousness without really thinking about it. “Did Father know about the Still Room?”
Mummy’s eyes tilted toward the ceiling as the shrieking whine of a falling bomb passed overhead. “No,” she said after they heard the explosion. “Seeing that would have ruined him. I told him when he proposed that there would be only one secret I would ever keep from him, and that he could only marry me if he could bear never knowing.” She let out a little laugh. “He kept his word, and never asked me about it once, even though he lived with it right under his feet the entire time, and I know he must have wondered. Oh, he was such a patient man. I wish so that you could remember him.”
The boy stared into their lantern light and pulled his blanket tighter around his shoulders. “Why would it have ruined him?”
“He was very logical, very scientific. He couldn’t bear superstition, it was the only thing that could make him truly angry. If he’d seen that room, his whole world would have fallen apart.”
The boy felt her turn to look at him in the half-darkness. “Because, what else could have created that room, except for God?”
Something fretful moved in the boy’s stomach. He’d never heard her talk about God. He went to Church with Aunt Maureen, not Mummy. Once or twice, he’d heard whispers about the fact that his mother was never there. He had never thought to ask, but he realized now that before this moment he would have said if pressed that she didn’t believe.
“Why would God do that?”
“I believe that he granted us a reprieve. He didn’t stop what’s happening in that room, that battle, but he slowed it.” The convulsive shudder of anti-aircraft guns sounded from the east. “He gave us more time. It’s not just the room either, it’s the house; this house has survived everything. The Great Fire, Cromwell, every other horrible thing that’s happened in the last six hundred years, all of it.”
The boy understood now why they stayed at home instead of going to the shelters like other people. More planes groaned overhead. “What do you think will happen when they reach each other? The Knight and the Squire?” he whispered.
“Oh, I think the world will end.” Her voice came out flat amidst the clatter of the fight raging above them.
The boy felt a sensation like falling, and he bit down on his tongue in an effort not to panic. Mummy must have realized how much her words frightened him, because she took his hand in her own. “But they won’t reach each other yet, not for generations. And do you know what that means?” She waited, but he didn’t respond. “That means, the world isn’t ending now.”
The fear didn’t leave him, but it settled, and he leaned against her shoulder. He fell asleep, and in his dreams airplanes dropped death from the sky and everything burned except him and Mummy and the Still Room.
On a different night, one in which the sirens sounded and he and Mummy slept in the cellar, the boy awoke with his heart pounding and his stomach twisted in fear. At first he thought it was just one of the bombs, which often kept him in a state of fitful half-sleep, but something about this was different. Mummy sat too still, and her hand squeezed his arm so hard it hurt. “Mum—”
“Shh,” she hissed, and then the boy heard the creaking of footsteps on the kitchen floorboards. He remembered, now, that the sound of breaking glass had been what jerked him out of sleep.
The boy held his breath, listening to the sounds of someone rummaging through the house, objects dropped, doors opening. Over all these sounds his pulse hammered in his ears, and Mummy’s breath came in quick gasps like she’d been running.
The footsteps returned to the kitchen and the door to the cellar swung open. Things clattered as they were knocked off the pantry shelves, and then a beam of torchlight swept down the stairs and settled on the two of them. The boy closed his eyes against the harsh light while Mummy let out a little cry.
“Don’t scream. Not a word, hear?” The man’s voice came out in a rough, low whisper.
“Please,” Mummy said, “there’s jewelry upstairs—”
“I said, shut it!” A pause, then. “What’s in there?”
“Nothing,” Mummy answered. “Just an old wine cellar, please. . .”
“Bollocks.” The boy still couldn’t make out a face behind the torchlight, but he could see the man’s bulky form as he shuffled awkwardly down the stone steps. Mummy clambered to her feet as he neared the bottom, her hands half raised in a pleading gesture. The boy stayed seated, legs weak and rubbery.
The man pointed the torch right into Mummy’s eyes, so that she had to wince and turn her face away. He had a short, stocky build, with lank hair falling into his eyes. A bulging canvas bag hung from his left hand. The boy’s nostrils filled with the man’s rank, unwashed odor.
“I can’t, I don’t have—”
The man dropped the bag and hit her, an open hand across the side of her face. She staggered to the side, blood already trickling from the corner of her mouth. “Bitch, I told you to open it!”
“Please, you don’t understand, I can’t—”
He hit her again, this time in the stomach with a closed fist. She crumpled against the wall, gasping for breath. The boy found himself on his feet. He threw himself at the man, fists swinging; they connected, but the blows hurt his knuckles and seemed to glance harmlessly off the man’s body. Then a callused hand encircled his throat, and the back of his head hit stone, and his feet kicked in search of the ground.
“You little shit,” the man growled. Through the haze of sparks invading his vision, the boy dimly heard his mother scream. It wasn’t a sound of pain or panic, though, but rage.
“Stop! I’ll open it! I’ll give you everything you want!” she shrieked.
The fingers loosened but didn’t leave his throat. “Do it now, or I’ll snap his fucking neck.”
She fished the key out from under the neck of her nightgown. She didn’t look frightened anymore but hard, determined. She unlocked the door and flung it open, stepping back quickly.
The man let the boy slip to the ground, forgotten. He stared, took a hesitant step forward, stopped. “What the hell is this?” He sounded nervous for the first time.
“A fortune,” his mother murmured. “That sword. The ring on the Knight’s finger. Everything else, the shield hanging on the wall, the contents of the trunk, it’s all centuries old. The things in this room are worth more than the Crown Jewels.”
“But what. . . What is it?” he snapped, looking wildly between her and the scene in the room.
“You don’t need to understand that. All that’s important is that they can’t move, they can’t stop you. You can take it all.” She lowered her eyes, and the boy could see something false in the way she spoke. “This is my family fortune, but if saves my son, take it.”
The man hesitated, throat working as he swallowed. Then, “You try anything to stop me, and that boy dies first.”
The man nodded and moved into the room, pausing to scoop up the bag full of their things from upstairs. He walked with timid steps toward the Knight and the Squire, as though afraid they would suddenly spring into motion.
It didn’t happen right away. He passed through the threshold at normal speed. The boy saw his steps slow, and thought it was just caution. But then the man’s sixth step into the room seemed to take minutes, his foot rising and returning to the floor with excruciating slowness. His arms, instead of moving normally at his sides, drifted as if floating underwater. On his next step, the man began to turn his head, to look back at the boy and his mother. The boy saw his blunt, filthy face in profile, halfway through the turn. After that, he could see no movement at all.
Finally, the boy turned away from the sight of the intruder and looked up at Mummy. She stood illuminated by the room’s unmoving firelight, one white-knuckled hand gripping the edge of the door. She stared at the thief, jaw set and eyes narrowed. Blood stained the white skin of her face, and a violet bruise had begun to form on one cheekbone. Then, without a word, she shut the door and locked it. Scooping the boy up in her arms, she held him tight and let him weep.
The boy grew up, while his mother grew older. The war ended, and the city’s lights returned, and the cellar once again became a place they rarely went. One day, after he came home from university, his mother said she was getting too old to climb the cellar stairs and wished to move to a smaller house; he didn’t believe her, but he saw the pleading look in her eyes and smiled and let her put the chain with the key around his neck. He quickly became accustomed to the weight of it under his shirt. When he saw her happiness during visits to her little cottage he realized how much staying in the house had cost her.
The day came when he brought his new wife to live with him in the house, and he told her of the responsibility he had and that one of their children would one day inherit. She understood, and said she loved him, but never returned to the cellar after the day he showed her the Still Room. One day he found his daughter at the foot of the stone steps, fumbling with the latch, and he lifted her up and showed her the Still Room, and told her stories of the Knight, and the Squire, and the Thief. Later, he did the same for his grandson, even though he was now old and his back ached when he lifted the boy in his arms. First his daughter and then her son, when they were old enough, heard what his mother had believed about what would happen when the Knight and the Squire finally met in combat.
Now the old man watches his second grandchild, a girl, toddling about the kitchen and wonders if he will still be alive to show her the room as he did her mother and her older brother. He hopes so. He would like a chance to tell the stories once again.
But there is one thing he will not speak of. Over the decades, he has been able to perceive small changes in the men. He has seen how the hate-filled eyes of the Knight and the rage of the Squire have shifted away from one another. He has seen how their gaze has now turned in the direction of the Thief, this interloper in their incomprehensible reckoning. The feet of the Squire, once pointed ever so resolutely toward the Knight, have turned toward the Thief. The Knight’s sword is no longer angled at the Squire’s throat, but at this more distant figure. And the Thief has managed to turn just slightly toward the door, enough so that his stance can be recognized as one of retreat. Perhaps he is imagining it, but the old man thinks the Knight and the Squire already seem to be catching up.
And as for what will happen to the world when they reach him, the old man cannot say.
Jamie Killen’s stories have appeared in numerous short fiction anthologies and magazines, including Read by Dawn Volumes II and III, Drabblecast, and Heiresses of Russ 2013 (forthcoming). She lives in Arizona.