I pulled the door shut behind me, and the fear that it would squeak made my toes curl. If it did squeak, though, nobody heard.
The church was dark and cool and quiet. The noises from outside only barely made it through the thick stone walls and registered in my ears as a low hum. The fires on the hilltop and on the torches were just flickers in the stained glass. Our footsteps made little echoes, except for Isabelle and her bare feet.
She was imploring Asa to go home. “This isn’t safe for you.” She crossed the sanctuary and looked out through the windows to the east, towards where Asa lived, but I doubt she saw much through the stained glass.
I hoped that Mother was safe. I looked up at the big wooden cross and thought about praying but somehow I didn’t think that whispering to a block of wood was going to help much, especially since the people who were trying to kill us had whispered to the same block only earlier today.
Black Shuck had helped us, but he was dead now. “He protects the innocent,” the bishop had said. That he existed at all, a spirit dog who haunted the Broads, I could accept only after having seen Tantibus up close.
Mr. Percy was dead. He had been dead for hundreds of years, perhaps. Lord Edmonstone. My own father? I shuddered to think that we were alone, Isabelle and I.
“Asa,” Isabelle commanded in her firmest voice, “don’t make me scold you. I am going to open the door and I need you to run home. Stay in the shadows, and go home as fast as you can.”
“No,” he said stubbornly. “I won’t go.” And he stomped away from her.
His stomps echoed. I could hear Isabelle’s feet shuffle on the stone ground. And I could hear something else.
They argued more, but my ears became sensitive to that something else and I tried to quiet them down. I put my finger to my lips, I tried to shush them, and I finally reached out and covered Isabelle’s mouth with my hand. She didn’t appreciate that but they both quieted.
I had heard footsteps, heavier than ours, but the sound was mostly lost in the argument. Still, I knew—and both Isabelle and Asa were beginning to understood as well—that we weren’t alone.
I looked around quickly. We were in the middle of the sanctuary, exposed on all sides. Behind the columns, in the chapels, there were more shadows. I grabbed them both and we moved over as fast as we could, Asa’s little feet struggling to keep up. I kept one of Isabelle’s hands in mine, and she kept her other hand on Asa’s shoulder.
Whoever was here began to move. We all heard the footsteps, but the echoes made it hard to tell where the sound came from. It was coming from all directions at once.
We crept along the shadows, trying to make the sound get farther away. It was like being in the Labyrinth, although I had no idea what Minotaur we faced. Tantibus was outside, but I wondered if he could have slipped in behind us unnoticed.
We were not far from the front door. I could see Isabelle sizing it up. She signaled with her eyes for me to lean closer so she could whisper. Asa strained to listen but I don’t think he could have heard much; she was whispering directly into my ear, so close her breath tickled. In any other circumstance I would have pushed her away.
“We’ll run,” she explained. “You go first and push the door open. I’ll carry Asa out until we’re outside. Then we’ll just run for the staithe. I think there’s still boats there.”
Asa tried to say something but we shushed him. She grabbed hold of him around his waist and nodded. I nodded back and then took a deep breath. On three then: one, two, three…
I ran from the safety of our shadow as fast as I could, my heart beating in my chest and drowning out the sound of my footsteps. After a second Isabelle followed. She would get to the door just as I was throwing it open and she and Asa would sail through.
Except that we didn’t. Just as I prepared to throw myself against the door I came to a screeching halt.
“You dare defile this sacred house!” Bishop Mather blocked the door. Isabelle and Asa crashed into me, and the three of us sprawled onto the floor. I hit the back of my head hard on the stones.
How the Athenian youth must have felt when the Minotaur had them trapped. On the floor, the wall behind them, the snarling beast before them, their last moments passing. Would I have fought the beast, or given in and hoped that death would be quick? Bishop Mather’s face was so twisted in anger, red and snarling, that he himself was more beast than man.
But he stopped, a look on his face unlike any I’d ever seen before—angry, afraid, elated, amazed, all at once. “William Cooper,” he said. Or maybe he asked. Somewhere in between. “Billy Cooper, how can it be?”
The bishop looked at Asa, who looked as though he had been caught doing something naughty.
“I buried you,” Bishop Mather said, suddenly confused. “I buried you myself with my own hands.” He held his hands up for us to see. I stood up and reached out to Isabelle and Asa, lifting them up to their feet. Come to find out, I would fight the beast.
I stood between Bishop Mather and Asa, and Isabelle wrapped her arms around the little boy’s shoulders. We all kept our eyes on the bishop, whose face was turning quickly from incredulity to fury.
“Witchcraft!” he bellowed. “It’s in your blood, the both of you!” He reached out, his hands turned into claws, and roared. I don’t know what he expected to happen. We turned and ran, again trying to keep Asa in between us.
Through the church, around the pews and behind the altar and into the chapels and then back. He bounded around us, surprising us at turns he knew better than we, leaping over pews to get in front of us. We were nimble, at least. He jumped off a pew and landed in front of me but I ducked quickly and ran under his arm.
Asa dropped to his knees and crawled away. It was a gambit destined to fail: Bishop Mather could run faster than the child could crawl. I found a large candlestick and threw it with all my might. It hit the bishop in the neck, giving Isabelle enough time to pull Asa to safety.
The path to the door was clear and we made a run for it. Mather lunged and grabbed me by my collar. His other hand closed around my neck and began to squeeze. I kicked and tried to bite him but my neck was still sore from when Mr. Percy had choked me and I began to see black. Asa stopped and broke free from Isabelle, who hadn’t noticed yet that I was caught. Asa ran up and threw his entire self at Mather, nails and teeth gnashing.
Bishop Mather snarled something about the boy being a devil and let me go to attack him. To my horror he caught the child by the hair and pulled his head back, causing Asa to lose his grip. The boy yelped like a puppy and I ran up as fast as I could, kicking Mather hard. He barely noticed.
Asa tried to wriggle free but couldn’t. What was happening to him hurt; he cried out but didn’t stop kicking. A few times his little feet connected with his attacker but it didn’t seem to have any effect. With one free hand the bishop reached out to me again, succeeding in grabbing my throat again and beginning to squeeze. He caught me so off-guard that I couldn’t breathe at all. Remembering how I got away from Mr. Percy I pulled out my dagger again, but it slipped out of my hands and slid across the floor.
Isabelle grabbed it. Age touched the blade with her thumb and saw it was no sharper than her old wooden blade. She gripped it tight and came running towards us, screaming out and preparing to hit him with all her might.
Asa reached out a hand and waved it quickly; I only noticed because it was such a strange thing to do at that moment. In that second, though, I saw a gleam, a starburst of light shining off something. It was all very quick, no longer than a heartbeat, but I was sure I saw it nonetheless. When Asa waved his hand the edges of the dagger’s blade became clean and sharp.
Isabelle swung the dagger and the first slash cut across Mather’s arm and he released me and Asa. If she noticed the cut or his cry of pain she still couldn’t stop. Parry and thrust, just like we’d practiced. She drove the blade into his chest and he fell to the ground, still cursing us as he died. As he fell the dagger slid out of him. Isabelle was still holding it as she backed away.
Asa came up and almost sweetly took the dagger from her. He put it in his own waistband and then he put his hand in hers. Her hands were bloodied, and now so was his. Neither of us could take our eyes off the bishop, who gasped when he tried to speak. The pool of blood grew on the stone floor and the bishop’s breathing grew more labored and weak. I could feel in my heart that Isabelle was starting to go numb. Asa reached out for my hand, too, and that and the sense of cold I was getting from Isabelle broke the spell for me. I let Asa lead me out, and Isabelle let me lead her.
We cracked the door open just enough and stepped outside, staying in the shadow of the doorway. The town was on fire, seemingly all of it. Even St. Mary’s was beginning to burn. The mob had long ago dissolved, and people were running in all directions, many of them following some instinct to go into the ruined castle, others taking the road to Norwich. The market square was a scene of utter chaos as people grabbed their belongings and ran to rescue loved ones or escape from the horror they couldn’t understand.
Our best choice remained the staithe. With any luck there’d be a boat there we could catch. It hadn’t been long since this melee broke out, after all.
We raced across the square but didn’t get far before we saw Tantibus again. He wasn’t chasing us: he didn’t have to. He swept his flaming sword and sent streaks of fire across the square, blocking our path. Asa let go of my hand. He held his hands up to his mouth and blew something like an imaginary trumpet. A gap appeared in the flames.
“Go!” he commanded, and we started to but when Isabelle reached for his hand he drew it away. “Go!” he said again. “Faster!”
He stepped away and drew the dagger, and then turned to face Tantibus. Isabelle lunged for him but another streak of flame shot across the square and separated us from him. Tantibus stepped closer, and Asa stepped towards him. He gave his laugh, “Ha ha!” and ran, raising his dagger like an ancient warrior. Isabelle screamed out for him. I grabbed her hard to keep her from going after him. Tantibus swung his sword and Asa raised his own little blade to parry. I couldn’t bear to watch but there was nothing we could do. When the two blades clashed they sent an enormous column of flame straight into the air. Tantibus was unable to bring the sword down further, and the tiny little boy and the giant monster squared off as the flames reached higher.
Asa turned his head to us and yelled again, “Go!” This time not in a child’s voice. It was a voice as old and hard as Tantibus’s, and as warm and loving as my father’s.
I pulled Isabelle through the gap in the flames just before they closed again, and we scrambled away. Isabelle tried to keep looking for Asa but I insisted and we kept going.
The staithe was crowded with people trying to get into the few boats left. One tipped over, tossing everyone into the shallow Waveney. They stood and righted the boat, which began floating away even as they climbed in.
Some gentleman I recognized from the church service made a call for women and children, and a woman—I believe it was the woman who gave us suckets but I couldn’t see her face in the mess—grabbed us by the waist and flung us aboard. She herself didn’t get on, going back for more children. There were three boats—wherries, they called them here—that set off down the river, mostly loaded with children. The parents followed along the shore, same wading up to their knees for as long as they could. The flames and smoke of Bungay blotted out the stars and the moon as the boat sailed away.