Isabelle closed the door to the other room so she could change in privacy, and Mr. Percy sat me down. He knelt in front of me; it was as if a colossus from the Temple of Rhodes was kneeling before me.
“Julian,” he said in a very grave voice. “Lord Edmonstone gave you something. I know it is true. You, or perhaps Isabelle. You must give it to me. Do you understand me?”
I did not, to be honest. I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying at all. The men outside, my mother in the house without help, and the entire ordeal of the evening. Mother had begun to panic when she heard Isabelle sing the song and I couldn’t understand why but I tried to tell Isabelle to open her eyes and see what was happening and somehow she heard me but it didn’t matter. My mind kept returning, I don’t know why, to the chest of viols on Shandos Place, and the old scorch mark on the side. Could it be cleaned? Such a strange thing to think about.
“Listen to me!” he barked suddenly and grabbed my wrists. “You have it, I know you do. It isn’t yours, it wasn’t his to give. It is mine. These are things you do not understand. There are things in this world—real things, not stories, not myths—that you cannot even begin to see. Does Isabelle have it?”
He was hurting me. I could feel the bones in my wrist turning on themselves. If he squeezed harder he could snap them.
The door opened and Isabelle came in. She looked scared even before she saw us. Mr. Percy turned to her calmly but without releasing me.
“Lady Isabelle,” he said gently. “Julian and I were just discussing a gift your father gave you before he went away. Can you kindly tell me where it is?”
She didn’t answer. In one sudden movement Mr. Percy leaped to his feet and grabbed my throat, pulling me against him so Isabelle could see my face. He squeezed and I couldn’t breathe and I know my face turned purple and Isabelle nearly screamed but then he relaxed his grip and I could breathe again. Mr. Percy shushed Isabelle calmly, and she stopped herself from screaming.
“I want to return it to its rightful owner. It is not yours. If you give it to me I will make sure that he doesn’t hurt you, or your family.”
“You were at the Tower,” she said slowly, and right away I understood. That night we went to London: Mr. Percy hadn’t followed us. He was there to meet Tantibus. “You are one of the crows.” The Thin Men. Not all of them were thin; the rower, who brought Tantibus ashore. He had been big and powerful.
Mr. Percy squeezed a little harder. I couldn’t see his face but I saw that she had startled him. He relaxed his grip again.
“Then you know of whom I speak,” he said. “He is here for his treasure. You do not want him to find you with it.”
“Father didn’t give me anything,” she said dreamily. “He took it with him, to the Continent.”
“He did not.”
“He did. So Tantibus would go away from here.”
“Your father didn’t go to the Continent. He never made it to his ship. And he did not have the treasure on him. I stripped his bones myself.”
Her face suddenly flushed as if something inside her had exploded. Mr. Percy lifted me off the ground with his hand and I heard my own throat make an awful sound until he released me. My breathing hurt now. My eyes scanned around desperately for a means of escape and in every window I saw a crow. There were crashing sounds coming from the house, too, and through the window I could see fire bursting from inside.
He set me back on the ground and held out a hand to Isabelle. “I do not wish to hurt you. On the contrary, I want to help you. Listen carefully and I will tell you a story.” I could feel Isabelle in my heart, thinking fast but coming up with no solutions. We were trapped.
“I was just a boy when the Emperor called for a Holy Crusade. I joined, and we marched to the East, carrying our crosses and our swords. We fought against the Saracens and it was my horror to learn that they were not bloodthirsty savages who ate Christian flesh. They were ordinary people, like me. Men of courage, and fear. Mortals. And we killed them and they killed us and it was all for nothing. I abandoned my post outside of Antioch and fled into the hills.
“There were others there, Christian and Muslim alike, men who had had enough. We hid from both armies and both gods until someone else found us.
“One day a young man came into our camp, completely unafraid. He sang as he came in, a song I still sing to myself.”
The song Isabelle sang.
“The man offered us work. We could join his master, he said, and raid Antioch. We could take any treasure we found except one thing. We raided the city and destroyed it all, killing everyone, until we found the treasure. The man walked through all the battles as if they were nothing. Arrows glanced off of him, he walked through flames, he batted away swords and axes with the back of his hand until he found what he wanted.
“Of the men who went in with us, most of them died. I lived, though, and the man came to me and asked me join him. I said yes, and he gave me this.”
With his free hand he pulled a slim golden rod from his pocket, like a magic wand from a storybook. “I could live forever, he said.”
“Live forever?” Isabelle said through squinted eyes.
“Yes. This was more than five hundred years ago.”
I kicked against him to get away and he held me tighter, lifting me off the ground again. I heard a cheer from the mob outside and realized that they had entered Winston House and were burning it now.
Mr. Percy put me back down, satisfied that he had calmed me. Like Isabelle I looked everywhere for escape, and as I could feel her heart in mine I tried to speak back to her. I had no way of knowing if it worked but I told her to look away from him and to run away.
“He wants his treasure. It was taken from him. You can help him. You are clever, both of you. I can make you live forever. I did it to the Shively girl, you saw her yourself. I can give you that power.”
Tucked into my pants, under my shirt, was my dagger. I had put it there when the bishop left. I don’t know what I planned to do with it, it wasn’t sharp at all, I may as well have used my wooden sword, but I kept it nonetheless because I felt I needed some weapon and it was all I had. Now I felt its weight against my leg.
“It won’t hurt,” he said, holding the tip of the wand out to Isabelle. “Touch it yourself, it is very sharp. It will go in smoothly, you’ll feel nothing, and when I pull it out you will be one of us. You will serve him as I have. Or you can wait until he comes, and he will take the treasure from you. He will not be as generous as I.”
He held the wand out, an offer he must have thought was tempting. I saw in Isabelle’s eyes that she saw her sword on the table, and I could feel in my heart that she was growing desperate. With my thoughts I screamed out to her to stop and run but she didn’t. She wouldn’t. She was Isabelle.
She grabbed her sword as quick as lightning and drove it his direction, and instantly the futility of the gesture broke her heart. In our minds we were great swordsmen, but in life we were small children with wooden swords. Mr. Percy released me in order to reach out and grab the blade of her sword and crush it in his hand. The wood shattered and little pieces flew everywhere. Isabelle shrank away from it, shielding her face with her hands.
Just as quickly I reached into my pants and pulled out my dagger. I swung around fast and drove it into Mr. Percy’s enormous belly, pushing with all my force. It was like hitting a brick wall with my fist. He may live forever, but a sharp jab in the stomach will hurt anyone.
More surprised than hurt, he stumbled backwards and tripped on an uneven floorboard. He stumbled and fell, and then looked up at me with nearly pure rage. He shot out his arm and grabbed my shirt.
“Give it to me!” he half-croaked. Then crows began to batter against the windows, and a shadow fell over the entire house. I could see a huge shape coming from outside, and then I heard my shirt tear. I looked down at Mr. Percy, who was somehow shrinking in size. He let go of me and looked at his hands as they withered. His anger turned to confusion. His face was growing pale and old, wrinkles appearing everywhere. The skin near his eyes and the corner of his mouth turned green and began to rot away. I could see his teeth, now black and broken.
And then his eyes opened wide, fixated on a spot either on me or behind me. “The treasure! It is beautiful.” He slid down more, tearing my shirt more but his grip was weaker and I could step away. I backed into Isabelle just as the wall of the cottage blew off and there, not four paces from us, stood the creature we saw on the shore in London, Tantibus himself.
Mr. Percy, or what was left of him, rose to his knees to face him. “Master, I did not fail you.” He could barely speak now. “Why do you forsake me?”
Up close I could see why Tantibus was so grotesque. He didn’t really have skin. His raw flesh was exposed in many places, the skin barely stuck on. Skin that may not have even been his. He reached out with a long-clawed hand and put it on Mr. Percy’s head. Without looking down he squeezed and Mr. Percy’s head collapsed, and blackish blood poured down onto the floor.
Tantibus raised that hand and pointed at us. Isabelle slipped her hand around mine and gave it a pull, and we wheeled around as fast as we could and ran through the front door.
Winston House was entirely ablaze. I heard the frantic whinnying of the horses, but couldn’t tell if they were coming or going. The crows circled above us as we ran across the grass towards the river. There was then an explosion as Tantibus blew the cottage apart, sending flame and rubble in all directions. The crows flew high to avoid the debris. Isabelle lost her footing and tumbled to the ground, taking me with her.
“Get up!” I said, pulling her. She had cuts on her face, and I was sure I had cuts, too. Behind us Tantibus walked through the fire towards us.
Isabelle was holding her ankle. I put my dagger back in my pants so I could take her hands. I pulled her up to her feet and she limped, then stopped and kicked off her shoes. “Let’s go!” I said, and even with her limp we ran as fast as we could. I gripped her hand as hard as I could. The shadow growing around us told me we weren’t going fast enough.
Up ahead there was a shimmer of light coming off the ground, and I knew it was the river. Maybe we could swim faster than we could run. I put the dagger back in my waistband.
The grass closest to the river was tall, and around here, far from the town, it grew well over our heads. I ducked my head and burst through the grass, dragging Isabelle behind me. The grass was harder and sharper than I expected but we kept running through until we came out onto a path. It was narrow, and on the other side was more grass, beyond which was the river. Isabelle and I looked up and down and we silently agreed to follow the path. It led in the direction of town, and that was somehow our best hope.