He lied. He lied.
I know when I’m being lied to. When Father said he’d stay this time. When Lady Falmouth said we were safe. When Mr. Percy said he’d stripped the flesh off my father’s bones. They all lied.
Father had cut it too close but he was still a step ahead of Tantibus. Mr. Percy couldn’t have captured him and tortured him and still been at the house to greet us in the morning. Father had escaped.
Unless the crows could travel through time, but if they could then this would have all ended long ago.
The wherry floated down the Waveney. Crows circled overhead, diving down from time to time, no doubt looking for us. Julian and I kept our heads down as best as we could. At Beccles there were townspeople waiting as we drifted up. The fires from Bungay were visible, and even here there was smoke. As the wherry docked the scene became desperate. Everybody wanted off of the boats, everybody wanted to find loved ones, everybody wanted to feel safe. And everybody was desperate to prove that they weren’t crazy, that they had seen a demon, that it had fought Black Shuck, and that it was coming after them.
Had any of them seen the magical little boy who fought the monster, too? None of them talked about it if they did.
Crows still circled above us. We took advantage of the commotion to duck under the crowd and escape, rushing through Beccles to a quiet copse of trees on the edge of town.
“Where did your mother intend for us to meet?” I asked Julian.
“It doesn’t matter, she’s dead.” I don’t think he realized what he’d said after he said it, and tears welled in his eyes.
“She’s not. She had a good head start, and she’s strong. She’s somewhere.” I convinced him because I believed it myself.
“Maybe to London?” he said. I shook my head. The only place in London we could go to was known to Tantibus. Undoubtedly Lord Falmouth, if he was still alive, had left by now, maybe off to join my father.
“We must find my father,” I said to him. “He’s our only hope.”
The feeling in my chest burned with his thoughts. He believed that Mr. Percy had killed my father but out of kindness he tried to bury that.
The famous treasure of Tantibus, pursued without pity across centuries, was just a couple of wooden beads. I didn’t believe it. There had to be more to it. My father knew, and I believed Lady Falmouth knew as well. Who else? Miss Annie had seen it. She knew, too. And Asa had tucked it back into Julian’s shirt to keep it hidden. Only Julian and I were in the dark.
“How do we find him?” Julian asked.
I had been thinking about this in the wherry. He had taken the ship to Amsterdam. He was well-known there, and I knew some of his friends’ names. Van Ryswick, in particular. If we could get across the water we could ask for Van Ryswick or Lord Edmonstone and somebody would lead us to them. We just had to get across the water.
It wasn’t much of a plan but Julian and I spent the night working out enough details that we were satisfied. Cold, hungry, and barefoot, we curled up on the ground and slept, clutching each other as closely as we could, both to stay warm and because we needed to. Every flutter above, every sound in the wood, every change in the shadows sent me into full alert and I was positive I wouldn’t sleep, but in one breath I was transported from the ground below me to the mountain that stood over the two powerful rivers. The minotaurs hurled the elements at each other and the crows battled furiously on the riverbank. The wind continued to rip through my clothes. A hand reached out and took mine. The hand was big, rough with callouses and scars, and almost completely enclosed mine. I recognized it as Julian’s.
The next moment the sun was up and Julian was quietly snoring, still holding my hand. In this world, the waking world, Julian’s hand is the same size as mine, and just as smooth.
When I tried to stand he woke and we both stepped out of the woods together. I scanned the skies nervously for crows. In the west a long smudge of smoke still rose from the ruins of Bungay.
The port at Beccles was larger and older than at Bungay. There were several docks here, and a goodly number of ships, some much larger than the wherries in Bungay. The evening’s commotion had died down, and the port bustled with activity. It was still nothing compared to London or Portsmouth, but the hum of commerce was at least identifiable as such now.
We walked past, trying to stay in the crowd. There were plenty of ships loading up. Snippets of conversation told us that the ships would head from here to Lowestoft or Great Yarmouth; some indicated that they would go farther afterwards. I selected a good-sized ship whose sailors talked of leaving that evening. “We want to be in Amsterdam before that invasion comes,” one of them said. He was a thin man with a warm face, and I liked him. I decided I wanted to be on his ship.
“We can’t go on board like this,” Julian said, pointing to our clothing which was torn and stained with mud, smoke, and blood.
I felt a hand take mine and I looked down. There was nothing there but for the briefest moment I felt it pulling me away towards a shadow. The invisible hand was small and soft but insistent. It felt like Asa. I obeyed it and Julian and I crouched behind two boxes against a small brick house.
On the road a group of men passed, all dressed in rags, all with hats pulled over their heads. The whole group gave off a slightly grotesque air. Tantibus wasn’t with them, but they were his crows. Julian had closed his eyes, and I ducked down low as they passed.
The brick house behind us had an open window through which we could see a warm loaf of bread. I hadn’t thought about it before but at the moment I realized I was hungrier than I’d ever been in my life. I pointed the bread out to Julian, and he looked around. The door to the house was nearby; he went and tried it and it opened. We snuck in.
It was more of a cottage, really, small and cozy. The front door was open, and we could see out onto the street where the men had gone. They were crows now, not men, and though they pretended otherwise they were looking for us.
Julian had taken the bread already. He tore it in half and after a moment of thought gave me the larger piece. We ate it quickly. I nearly choked on it.
His eyes lit up suddenly and I followed his gaze. In the next room there was a pile of fresh laundry, some of it children’s-sized. Whoever lived here had a son perhaps a year or two older than we were. Julian found a pair of trousers to replace his, and we both found shirts. There were no shoes, though, which I badly needed.
I heard a sound at the open door and we both looked out in a panic, but it was nothing. Still, whoever lived here would be back soon, and that ship was due to leave any moment now. The crows stayed outside, their heads mechanically jerking back and forth. We stepped out through the door and then I stopped, remembering something I’d heard earlier. Julian nearly panicked when I turned around and went back in. There was a knife in the kitchen, small and slim. I hoped it would be sharp enough. I slipped back out and we ducked down behind the boxes again.
“What are you doing?” he said, his voice rising as high as a whisper would let him. His eyes were wide, and he must have thought I was mad.
I still had the scarf wrapped in my hair like a bow. I pulled it off and stuffed it into my pocket. “Help me,” I said to Julian, pulling a lock of my hair away from my face. My hand shook and I forced myself to do what I knew what necessary. Julian gasped as I brought the knife up and sliced through my hair. It wasn’t as easy as I thought: I had to pull and saw and it hurt, but in a few seconds a fistful of my hair tore free from me. I dropped it onto the ground and grabbed another clump and did it again, my poor hair.
“Why are you doing this?” he said, jittery with nerves.
“They won’t let girls on the boat,” I reminded him. I cut as much as I could.
I suppose it is odd that after all that had happened, it was seeing my hair in my fist that pulled the shroud away from me again in a very painful way. Hot tears ran down my cheeks. My mother’s hair, people had always told me.
“Let me,” Julian said, and he took the knife from me, sawing more gently.
“I’m not crying,” I said to him, but he didn’t say anything. I felt him. He cut quickly.
“I think it’s done.” I turned to look at him.
“Do I look like a boy?” He didn’t have to answer. I wasn’t fooling him, but to anybody who didn’t know me I looked boyish enough. I bet with long hair Julian would have looked convincingly like a girl, under the circumstances.
We scurried across to the boats as fast as we could. The man I saw was still there, but nearly finished with whatever he was doing.
“You’re going to the continent,” I said as matter-of-factly as I could. In Portsmouth the sailors always spoke that way. It took all my strength not to look over my shoulder for Tantibus.
“Who says I am?” he said. Already I could tell he was amenable to hearing me out. In Portsmouth, sailors only talk when they’re interested. Those who don’t just swear and walk away. This man was interested. He looked at me and Julian quickly but thoroughly.
“This ship’s going to Amsterdam,” I said. “Take us with you.”
He laughed. “This ship’s going as far as Lowestoft, and for this ship that’s far.”
My heart sank but I didn’t let it show. After a few moments he relented. “This your brother?” He pointed at Julian, who was scanning the scene behind us. The sound of some nearby tumult made us both cringe, but it was just two people arguing, nothing more.
“Yeah,” I answered. I’d hesitated too long. The man laughed again.
“Brother enough, eh?” He looked us over more carefully, and then reached out with a burly arm and touched the bruise on Julian’s neck. “Running away? I did, too.” He rolled up his sleeve and showed a faded scar that ran the length of his arm. “My dad did that to me when I was nine. A week later I was at sea. Five years later I came back and killed him.”
I had no idea how to respond, so I just stared at him coolly. He rolled his sleeve back down and spoke.
“At Lowestoft I’m getting on a barque bound for Amsterdam.”
“We can work,” Julian said quickly. The man again looked us over.
“I bloody doubt that,” he said. “But I’ll let Boney decide. You can ride with me that far.”
A crow passed overhead, cawing angrily. The invisible hand appeared again and tugged my head down so I was looking at the ground. I don’t know if it was Asa or not but I believed it was somehow and so I let it. I pretended to be keeping my eyes out of the sun. I could feel through the necklace that Julian’s heart was racing. I turned towards the crowd and saw them—men again, not crows.
“You know them?” the man asked.
“Who?” I asked back. He answered by pointing at them.
“They’re looking for something,” he said knowingly. I worried that Julian would take my hand again. I had never seen brothers do that—I don’t think I’d ever seen brothers before at all. I worried the gesture would appear childish.
“What’s your name?” the man asked again. Julian answered him quickly. The man then looked at me. “And you, boy? Got a name?”
I hadn’t thought of this. “Robert,” I said finally.
“Call me Samuel,” he said. I looked back and the men were gone. Crows again, on the rooftops. Eyes looking in our direction. “I’m leaving now,” Samuel said. “Did you have shoes to bring with you?”
“No,” I said, then added, “We have all we need.” Julian stayed quiet.
Samuel considered this, looking down at my scraped and raw feet. “If you say so,” he half-laughed. “Welcome aboard.”
The crows flew in circles, steadily expanding their search for us. Julian and I did our best to stay out of sight. There was nothing for us to do anyway, as the little ship was fully manned. Traffic on the Waveney grew as we drew closer to the coast, and I was sure that if the crows were following they had long ago confused us with another.
At Lowestoft we disembarked and headed straight for a much larger ship, one that loomed over the large ocean-size pier. Weatherbeaten letters on the side said Allegiance. Samuel led us along. “Let me do the talking,” he said. Julian and I agreed. We barely boarded in time; the crew was pulling away the ropes and preparing to sail. No wonder Samuel had been in a hurry.
The captain was in his cabin. Samuel opened the door but didn’t go in. We stood behind him.
“Boney,” he said, “we needed a cabin boy. I got us two.” A mumbled answer came from inside. “Right. In case we lose one.”
“Let me see them,” the voice inside said. Samuel stepped aside, revealing me and Julian. A shadow grew across the room as he came closer.
“You two brothers?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered, then remembered that it had already been revealed as a lie. “No. Not really.”
“I don’t really care, don’t know why I asked. You ever been on a ship before?”
We didn’t answer.
“Can you clean? Can you stay quiet? Can you do as I say?”
“Yes, sir.” And then I corrected myself. “Yes, captain.”
“I’m not the captain,” the man said. His face rang a bell in my mind, and I could tell it did in Julian’s, too. The long scar on his face made an impression. “He’s the captain.” He pointed into the room, where a dead man lay on the table, a knife in his back. “Though I guess I’m the captain now. Call me Bones.”
London, late at night. The Lord of Nothing, he called himself then. When Mr. Percy had saved us. The night Mr. Percy had welcomed his master to England.
“What are you afraid of?” he asked. “This?” He traced the scar on his face. “There’s a story there. Someday I’ll tell you.”
The ship was moving. Samuel put his hand on our shoulders and gave us a friendly shake. “Almost an entire crew now, right?”
“Right,” Bones answered. They both laughed. Julian nervously laughed, too, and I made it a point to join in. “Sam, you found them, you take care of them. They’re your responsibility. Show them their bunks.”
“How long is it to Amsterdam?” Julian asked, his manner of asking inappropriate questions still intact.
“Amsterdam?” Bones chuckled. “There’s been a—” He motioned to the dead captain. “A change of plans, boys. We are taking this ship, and this crew, to Jamaica.” He and Samuel laughed again.
The crows circled over the port as we sailed away, cawing in anger and frustration. I reached out and took Julian’s hand, holding it tighter than I ever had before.
CHAPTER 18: ASA
As I watched them sail away I remembered the Persian poet who spoke of the edgeless safety of the sea, and hoped that whatever dangers faced them now would pale in comparison to the dangers that would have faced us all had they been caught and the treasure taken.
I was defeated again, but that was neither a surprise nor a concern. I could never defeat the beast, now or ever. We could not when we were many, and I cannot now when I am but one.
Not one. There was the dog, and if he had been there all this time then there may well be others somewhere. Regardless, for as long as there is one, the beast shall be stopped.
The child’s body was a miscalculation. I must be more careful. I did not anticipate how his immaturity would affect me, that to take his body meant that I would limit my powers. Even my thoughts were clouded by the child’s innocent mind. John Percy said that the children would lead the beast to the treasure, and I resolved to reach the children first. I misjudged and chose a child too young, a mistake I could ill afford.
I applauded Robert’s desperate gamble, simply giving the treasure to the children. Neither I nor the beast anticipated that, and six years in their company had not helped John Percy expect such a bold gambit, either. Robert Edmonstone proved a worthy caretaker of the treasure after all.
I take comfort in knowing that the beast’s designs are once again frustrated. We have chased and battled across the entire known world, and now the treasure has set off for the unknown world. He may well follow, but he must regroup first. That is his weakness. He clings to his body and must regenerate. My body is gone, and has been gone so long I cannot remember what attachment I had to it to begin with.
I must go, first to find Robert and the others, and thence back to the East, to the Center, to watch and prepare as I and we have done across time. The sea now stands between the beast and his treasure. The edgeless safety of the sea. May it serve us all well.
END OF BOOK ONE