Jen turned to look down the steps.  She couldn’t yet see her pursuers, but the glow at the bottom of the steps was getting brighter.  They wouldn’t be too much longer.  She turned again to the stone slab and stared at it desperately.  Her searching eyes found what she hadn’t known she was looking for.  There was a small depression in the stone at the side.  She put her fingers in and found a metal ring, which she twisted, then pulled.  Nothing.  She tugged again, harder, beginning to whimper with fright.  Still nothing.

In despair, she leaned her forehead against the stone, slumping until it was supporting almost her whole weight.  At which point, the slab swung away from her with a grating noise.  She stumbled forwards and yelped in surprise.  Cursing herself for a fool, she quickly swung the slab far enough open and slipped through the gap as she heard her pursuers pounding up the stairs.

Her heart leapt with relief when she recognised where she was.

Most of the candles had gone out, but there was no mistaking the murals throwing back the sparkling, dancing light of her torch as she pushed the back wall of the room closed, next to the headless statue of the minotaur.

Once again, she raced through the room, wrenching at the panel door in her haste to get it open, diving through and slamming it behind her as she heard the stone wall begin to open once more.  She ran through the now darkened library, dodging furniture as best she could.  Then she stumbled and fell on her face, the torch flying from her hand to roll away across the floor and coming to rest next to a bookshelf on the far side of the room.  She scrambled back to her feet – noticing as she did so the irony that it was her own discarded shoes that she had tripped on – and raced for the door.

 

Once out of the library, Jen headed for the servants’ door and once more entered the behind the scenes warren.  She reasoned that if she were lost, her pursuers would be equally so, and there were probably more places to hide back here, after all.  She ran and ran until she found herself on the attic floor, pelting along a corridor.  Her head cleared for a moment, and she skidded to a stop.

Stupid, stupid!  What had she come up here, for?  A place it was easier to get trapped.  Where the hell could she go from the attics?  Except…

She started to run again, slower this time, looking for – aha!  She saw a likely looking door and wrenched it open to find that she was correct and there were stairs behind it.  She went through and closed it behind her, running up the stairs and emerging from a door at the top into a forest of chimneys, angles and all sorts of assorted arcane and mysterious humps, bumps and protrusions.  There must be a hundred places to hide up here, all she had to do was find a good one so she could regroup, recover and try to think her way out of this nightmare.

Jen ran as lightly as she could across the roof.  It was like negotiating a landslide – all crumpled topography and odd angles.  She was glad of bare feet and dry conditions as she negotiated the steeper parts.  Finally, she found a gap between a chimney and a random bit of wall that didn’t seem to be there for any other reason than for her to hide behind.  She remembered Dave’s comment about the house’s being rebuilt more than once.  It certainly looked like that on the roof – it seemed to have been added to higgledy-piggledy as the builders needed to cover whatever new part they’d just rebuilt.  However, now it gave her a bolthole.  It had taken her several days to search the house thoroughly, but there were more people now, looking for something a lot more obvious than a picture or a carving.  Nevertheless, they had twice as much house to search, as she’d not been looking in the servants’ warren.  In any case, she thought if she were lucky, she’d have an hour or two to recuperate and try to work out her next move.

She leaned back against the chimney, breathing hard, her body drenched in sweat from fear and exhaustion.  She was grateful for the rooftop breeze that was drying and cooling her skin.  She closed her eyes for a moment, in an attempt to collect her scattered mental resources and calm down enough to use them.

Unfortunately, this was the wrong thing to do as exhaustion caused by fear, and what felt like hours of running, rose in a wave and dragged her down into the depths of unconsciousness almost at once.  She’d also grossly overestimated the time that a search of the house would take, especially since some of the searchers had headed directly from the roof and the cut on her leg had been steadily oozing blood as she was running.

 

Jen was woken by a cry of “Here she is, my Lord!” and a hand grabbing her by the hair to haul her out of her hiding place.  She yelped as she was dragged out, grabbing the wrist of the hand that was now dragging her, stumbling, across the tiles and towards the other end of the roof, which was mostly flat.

There, in the light of the newly risen moon, she could see the white-robed and bemasked figure of Lord Ambrose, holding the knife she’d escaped earlier, now shorter by half a blade.

She was dragged in front of him and forced to her knees by two men who then wrenched her arms painfully up behind her back so she was forced to bow forward or risk dislocating her shoulders.

A disdainful voice came from behind the mask.  “Did you really think you were going to get away, hoyden?  How were you going to escape from the roof?  Fly?”

Defiantly, Jen answered, “Actually, I was sort of wondering that myself.  I considered growing wings, but then I fell asleep.  Hide-and-seek is so boring, don’t you find, Ambrose?”

At this, her arms were wrenched a little higher up her back, eliciting a cry of pain that she couldn’t quite hold back.

She could hear the smirk in Ambrose’s voice as he said mildly, “Dear me, Miss Alexander, your smart mouth could get you into such trouble.  Fortunately for you, this is now unlikely.  However, until I have remedied the situation permanently, would someone please take care of it?”

A hand reached down and stuffed some cloth into Jen’s mouth.  Whatever it was, she hoped it was clean.

“And now,” continued Ambrose, “We will conclude the business we began in the temple, before you so foolishly ran away.  The blade may have been broken but, as you will feel, Miss Alexander, it remains sharp and true.”

He stepped around behind her as he said this, grabbed her hair and pulled her head up with one hand, reaching around and placing the blade against her throat, just under her jaw, with the other.

Jen closed her eyes, trying to steady her breathing and pretend to herself that she wasn’t about to have her throat cut as a sacrifice to who knew what.

Then, from amongst the crumpled topography of the roof, there came a hoarse cry of “NO!” and a rush of running feet.

The sound of running stopped and a split second later, Jen was nearly sent flying as something heavy impacted Ambrose and they both went sailing over her head between the men that were holding her.  Then she heard the thud as the two bodies landed on the roof, some distance beyond, and the sound of the knife skittering away.  She looked up to see two figures struggling in a heap.  One of the figures was Ambrose, the mask fallen from his head to reveal a white face twisted with fury and madness.  The other was Rick.

The two brothers flailed at each other with fists and elbows, each trying to get a grip on the other’s throat.  The two men that had been holding her were obviously undecided as to what to do.  She heard whispering above her still-bowed head, which culminated in: “Look, you just hold her – I’ll go and help the master.” And one of them set off across the roof.

The second he left his post and Jen’s arm was released, she twisted round and, ignoring the screaming pain in her shoulder, drove her free fist into the other man’s genitals, as hard as she could, using his hold on her arm to draw him into the punch.

He let go of her arm and went down with a howl, clutching himself, and Jen surged to her feet, spitting out the cloth as she went.  She spied the knife towards the edge of the roof and grabbed it, hurling it into space, hoping no one was beneath it as it fell.  She reasoned that since she didn’t really know how to, or indeed want to use a knife to defend herself or hurt someone, she didn’t want anyone else to turn it on her for the fourth time that night.

As she stood on the edge of the roof and the knife arced out into the night, she saw a sooty orange glow illuminating the kitchen garden.

The library was on fire.

 

The sounds of the struggle drew her back along the roof towards it, as Rick was now outnumbered and in need of help.  She would think about everything else later – right now, he needed her, and that was the only thing that mattered.  She ran over and, without thinking, waded in.

Sure, she was small, but she was also fast.  Also, due to her size, she’d learned no end of dirty tricks in playground battles that had always served her well and she’d never forgotten.  She bit, stabbed at eyes and throats with stiff fingers, darted under and around flailing limbs and finally managed to turn the brawl in her and Rick’s favour as the other man kicked out at her.  She dodged the kick, grabbed the foot as it came past her and wrenched it upwards.  This sent him hopelessly off balance as, with a look of almost comical surprise, he toppled backwards.  His head bounced off the roof and he lay still.  Jen turned her attention to Rick and Ambrose.  Rick seemed to be winning, so she hung back to give him help if he needed it, but unwilling to deny him the pleasure of finally beating the crap out of his overbearing, arrogant brother, now he’d had more provocation than even his gentle soul could take.

He was doing well until he landed a mighty blow and Ambrose flew across the roof and landed on his back.  Ambrose got to his knees and shook his head groggily for a moment, Rick standing watching him and panting with hate glittering in his dark eyes.  With a roar of rage, Ambrose surged to his feet and flew across the roof, cannoning into Rick and sending them both sailing over the parapet.

“No!” Jen screamed, running to the edge, in dread of what she would see.

However, there was no distant thud of bodies hitting the ground, so far below.  Instead, there was a roar of rage and pain as she reached the edge.

Looking over, she saw Rick, who had managed to grab some masonry as he went over.  He was hanging on for dear life as Ambrose hung on to one of his ankles.  The roar had come from Rick who, despite being strong, was now holding his brother’s weight as well as his own and looking like he couldn’t do so for much longer.

“Rick, hold on!” she said desperately, wondering what on earth to do.

Rick looked up at her and groaned, “Jen, I’m sorry – I’m so sorry…” with tears in his eyes.

“Rick, don’t you dare let go!” she said fiercely.

“…I can’t hold on much longer…”

“Yes you can – you have to!”

There was a snarl from below.  “This isn’t over – I’m going to give you both to the minotaur!” and Ambrose began to climb up Rick’s leg.

Rick’s face closed down, hard.  “That’s what you think, brother!” he spat, and began to kick at Ambrose’s hands, head and shoulders.  Despite the flurry of kicks, Ambrose continued to advance, inexorably climbing upwards.  Finally, though, Rick managed to land a heel on Ambrose’s temple.  His eyes rolled up in his head, and his body went limp.

He dropped away like a stone.  Jen heard the thud as she grabbed Rick’s collar and hauled, helping him back up over the parapet and on to the roof, where they both lay flat, exhausted.  Then Jen remembered: “Oh shit – the other guys!” and scrambled wearily to her feet.

But the roof was empty.

She sagged to her knees again beside the prostrate Rick.  “Come on, Rick, time to go.  The library’s on fire and we have to get off this roof before it spreads up here and we’re trapped.  And we need to call the fire brigade and the police, if we can.”  She tugged at his arm.  “Rick – come on, get up.”  Then she remembered something else and her eyes widened in consternation.  “Oh my god – we have to get Merry and Mags out, too!  Rick, come on – we have to get moving!  What’s the matter?”

“I killed him, Jen,” came the monotonal response.  “I killed Ambrose.  He’s dead, I killed him.”

Jen sighed in exasperation.  Despite her sympathy with Rick and appreciating the horror of what he had been forced to do, she said gently, “Rick, we don’t have time for this.  You didn’t kill him – he killed himself.  He knocked you both off the roof, and he was hanging on to your legs, trying to pull you down with him.  He would have killed us both if you hadn’t stopped him.  So no – you didn’t kill him.  He just lost a fight that he started.  So can we please go and help your grandmother and Mags?”  A thought struck her.  “I don’t even know where Mags sleeps – do you?”

Rick turned his face slowly towards her and blinked, like someone surfacing from a far depth.  “Jen, keep talking.”

“What?  Rick, we don’t have time for an extended rooftop conversation.  We have to get people that your brother has endangered to safety, before it’s too late!”

Rick got to his feet and began to move, slowly at first, then gathering speed.  “You’re right, we do.  But keep talking, Jen – please keep talking.” He begged as they made their way to one of the roof access doors.

“Why?”

“It helps.”

They hurried through the door and down the steps to the attics.  There was already a faint acrid tang in the air, the smoke from the library fire beginning to insinuate itself throughout the house.  As they headed towards Merry’s apartment at the other end of the attics, Jen acceded to Rick’s request to talk, saying the first things that came into her head.  She talked about how grateful she was to Merry for lending her the dress and shoes, and how guilty she felt that they were now ruined, though it wasn’t her fault, and about how the shoes had led to the fire.

They reached the door of Merry’s apartment and began to bang on it, for they’d tried the handle and it was locked.

“Merry!  Merry!  Merry, wake up!  Why do you have to lock the bloody door – what are you afraid of? Merry!” shouted Jen.

Rick said, “It’s no good, Jen – she must have all the doors shut.  And she’s a sound sleeper.  Stand back.”

Jen retreated, and Rick kicked the door next to the lock.  It gave a little.  He kicked it again, and again, until there was a splintering sound and the door flew open with a crash.  They rushed inside to find Merry.

Rick was about to head for the bedroom when Jen shouted, “Wait!”

Rick skidded to a halt on a rug and nearly fell.  “What?”

“Can you smell something?”

Rick sniffed.  “Smoke.  The library’s on fire, Jen.”

“No, no – it’s…”  She sniffed again.  “It’s that stuff that Ambrose had in the burner in the library.  Rick – he’s been in here!  What’s he done to Merry?!”

They looked at each other in horror and raced for the bedroom.  Just in case the rapidly shrinking possibility that Merry was all right still held, they tried not to burst into her bedroom as the sight of two wild-eyed and disheveled intruders in the dark might have caused a heart attack.

However, that possibility disappeared as they entered as gently as their urgency allowed, to behold the sight of Merry’s body sprawled at an awkward angle across the bed, smoke wreathing around the room from a censer beside the bed.

“Grandma!” cried Rick, rushing to her side and patting her face.

Jen was right behind him.  She grabbed the censer, opened the window and threw it out, then she rushed over to the bed, feeling Merry’s wrist for a pulse.  “Rick, is she still breathing?”

Rick put his cheek to her mouth to see if he could feel any air movement.

“Yes,” he said with relief.  “Just.”

“Good.  Her pulse is weak, too, but she’s still with us.  Can you carry her?”

In answer, Rick gently scooped up Merry’s inert form and made for the door, saying, “Come on – we’ve got to get Mags and call for an ambulance.”

 

They hurried through the bowels of the house, heading for the kitchen.

On the way, Jen asked Rick, “Is there a phone?  I don’t remember seeing one in all the time I’ve been here, and I can’t get a signal on my mobile.”

Rick nodded.  “There are two.  Mags has one in her office…”

“She has an office?” interjected Jen in surprise.

Rick nodded again, continuing “…and Dave has the only mobile that can get a signal around here.”

“Do you know where Mags’s office is, then?”

“Sure,” he said.  “Where did you think we were going?”

“Uh…”

 

They hurried on through the bowels of the house, until they reached the kitchen.

Smoke was thickening the air, stinging their eyes and choking their throats.

“Rick, take Merry outside.  If she’s not breathing much, then what she is getting into her lungs ought to be clean.”

“But what about you?”

“I’m going to get Mags.  Where does she sleep?”

“Through there,” he said, indicating a door off the kitchen with his chin.  “But what about the fire?  What if…”

“Look, Rick.  Don’t argue.  The fire hasn’t got nearly this far, yet.  At the moment, the smoke is the biggest danger.  Get your grandma to safety, and I’ll get Mags out and call the fire brigade.”

“Ok.  Be careful, Jen.”

She smiled.  “I will.  Now get going!”

Rick left through the garden door and Jen headed for Mags’s room.

 

The door off the kitchen led to a short corridor that had doors down each side.  She opened each door as she went, finding mostly storerooms.  Then she found the office.  She decided to call for help first so went to the desk that stood to one side of the room, under a small window.  On it were a computer and a telephone.  Jen picked up the receiver and, to her dismay, found that it was dead.

“Oh, nonono!” she exclaimed, pushing the disconnect button repeatedly in an attempt to get some sort of response.  Nothing.

She threw it down in disgust and ran from the room, opening more doors until she came to the one that led to the housekeeper’s apartment.

Rushing into the darkened sitting room, she noticed the same smell that she had smelled in the secret room and Merry’s apartment.

“Mags?  Mags!” she called as she made her way around the apartment.

Finding Mags’s bedroom, she ran to the still form on the bed.  Feeling for a pulse, she breathed a sigh of relief when she found a strong one.  But Mags’s breathing was laboured and she didn’t stir when Jen shook her.

Jen bit her lip and wondered what to do.

“C’mon, Mags, wake up!”  she shouted, shaking the older woman harder.

Then she tried slapping Mags’s face, feeling awful as she did so.  This, however, at least brought a response in the form of a small groan.  “Attagirl!” cried Jen, encouraged.  “Come on, Mags!  Time to wake up!”  She slapped her again, harder this time.  Mags groaned again.

Then she spied a glass of water on the bedside table.  She threw it into Mags’s face.

Mags’s eyelids flickered, and then opened slightly.

“Mags!” Jen exclaimed in relief.  “Mags, you’ve got to wake up, now.  Please wake up!”

“Jen?” mumbled the befuddled Mags.  “What is it, dear?”

Jen decided that Mags was awake enough and promptly began to haul her upright in an attempt to get her out of bed and onto her feet.

“Jen, what are you doing?” mumbled Mags, confusedly.

“Mags – the library’s on fire, we’ve got to get out of here!”

“Fire…?”

“Yes, Mags.  The library’s on fire,” repeated Jen, hoping that the idea was finally getting through the fog of smoke that was still drifting lazily from the censer on the other bedside table.  Jen’s head was starting to spin a bit by now, as well.

Jen managed to haul the groggy Mags upright, and they staggered and stumbled out of her rooms, and back up the corridor towards the kitchen.

 

They managed to negotiate their way through the garden door and into the kitchen garden, which was now brightly lit by the fiercely burning library.

Jen didn’t think she could get much further as Mags was heavier than she looked, and Jen was nearing exhaustion as the fear, pain and exertion of the night began to take their toll on her.  Fortunately, just as she was about to collapse, Rick came tearing into the garden from the other end.

“Jen, Mags – thank god you’re ok!” he exclaimed as he ran to them, taking Mags from a rapidly failing Jen.

Relieved of her burden, Jen felt a bit better, and was almost able to keep up with Rick as he jogged from the garden carrying Mags.

“What’s wrong with her, Jen?”

“Ambrose again!” spat Jen.  Now she had time to be angry.  “He drugged her, too, the bastard, but Mags is stronger.  How’s Merry?”

“I left her with Dave – that’s where we’re going now.”

“Oh, Rick, the phone was dead – the whole place is going to go up!” she said, glancing back at the now rapidly spreading fire.

“Don’t worry.  Thankfully, Dave woke up and saw the fire, and he called it in on his mobile.  The fire engines and ambulance will be here shortly.  As will the police,” he added grimly.

They had, by now, reached Dave’s sheds.  Fortunately, one of them had a bed in it, on which Merry was already lying.  Dave was watching over her intently.  They laid the still groggy and confused Mags down next to her.

“What happened to them?” asked Dave.

“Ambrose,” answered Rick, shortly.  “I’m going to watch for the emergency vehicles,” he said, and stalked out.

Dave looked at Jen.  “What’s going on, girl?” he asked, with a puzzled frown.

“I don’t know where to start,” said Jen, wearily.  She sank to the floor with her back to the wall, knees drawn up with her head resting on them, her arms trailing.

Slightly uncomfortably, Dave said, “Er, Jen…  I can see your knickers, you know.”

“Don’t care,” she mumbled, without moving.  Then she burst into tears.

She sobbed and sobbed, unable to stop the tide once it had begun to flow.

Dave left Merry’s side, threw a slightly musty-smelling blanket around Jen’s shoulders, and gathered her into his arms.  He didn’t know about all the fear, pain, confusion and running Jen had been through, but he had seen the state of her when she’d staggered into the shed.  He knew something pretty dreadful must have happened, so he resolved to hold her and try to comfort her until the storm had subsided and she told him about it, if she needed to.

Gradually, gradually, the sobbing subsided, and she fell into an exhausted sleep.

When the emergency services arrived, she was still all but unconscious, so they took her, along with Mags and Merry, leaving Rick to attempt to explain what had happened that night, and why his brother’s broken body was lying on the flagstones in the courtyard.

 

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