CHAPTER 26

In Which the Question of What to Do Is Asked and Answered-Twice

Is there a problem here?” asked Wilhelmina. She put down the plates she was holding and turned to confront the russet-haired beauty standing over Kit.

“Mina,” said Kit, “meet Haven Fayth. No time to explain. Burleigh’s here.”

“Bloody great,” muttered Wilhelmina, glancing at the party just entering the shop.

“Is anyone with him?”

“Help them, I pray you,” said Lady Fayth, appealing to Mina. “They are in danger. You must help them flee this place at once.”

“Right.” Wilhelmina fixed a smile on her face as she observed the newcomers just then trooping into the coffeehouse. “I see Bazalgette. .. and now… yes, Rosenkruez is here too.”

“Who are they? Do you know them?”

“Alchemists at the emperor’s court,” explained Wilhelmina. “I know them.”

“All haste, I urge you,” said Haven.

“Is there another way out of this building?” asked Kit.

“Through the kitchen. My apartment is upstairs. Go up there and wait for me,” replied Wilhelmina, already moving to greet the newcomers. “You come with me,” she added to Lady Fayth.

“Wait!” Kit said, leaping up. He snatched Haven by the arm. “The green book.” He stretched out his hand. “Sir Henry’s book. I want it.”

Lady Fayth hesitated. “Burleigh is here! You must flee at once.”

“Not without the book,” insisted Kit. “Hand it over.”

“Oh, very well,” relented Haven. “Take it.” From a fold in her dress she brought out a small cloth-wrapped square and pressed it into Kit’s hand. “Get you hence.”

Wilhelmina returned and drew the young woman away, throwing a command over her shoulder as she went. “You two get upstairs and keep quiet. Now hurry!”

Giles and Kit slipped into the kitchen. They heard the other party clumping into the room behind them, the flow of German fast and thick. Etzel was bending over the stove, banking the oven for the night. He smiled when he saw them. Kit nodded and mimed laying his head on a pillow and then pointed towards the ceiling as he headed for the staircase leading to the upper rooms. “Jahwol, ” said Etzel. “Schlaft gut.”

They found Wilhelmina’s room across from the landing, went in, and closed the door. The room was Spartan spare: a high bed, a chair, a small round table, a large and ornately carved chest with a domed top, and in a corner, a tall standing wardrobe. “The bed or the chair,” said Kit. “Which would you prefer?”

Before Giles could reply, a knock came on the door. They turned as a young woman in green livery entered with a shallow pan of coals. “Ich habe die Glut,” she said, offering the pan.

“Vielen Dank,” replied Kit, indicating the hearth.

The maid busied herself at the grated fireplace and soon had a cosy fire going. She rose and, with a pretty curtsey, left, closing the door behind her. Kit lit a candle on the mantel from the fire and set it on the table, then settled on the bed to wait. Giles took the chair. “Some deal, eh?” mused Kit. “The one guy we hope to avoid shows up here first thing. What are the odds?”

Giles regarded him with a puzzled expression. “Sir?”

“Burleigh shows up here just as we’re getting settled in,” said Kit. “Some coincidence.”

“Sir Henry always said there was no such thing as coincidence.”

“So I hear,” said Kit, sinking back onto the bed. “I’m beginning to believe it.”

They talked quietly for a while, lamenting the cruel demise of Cosimo and Sir Henry at Burleigh’s hands and allowing themselves the luxury of imagining what they might do to settle the score. “Did you ever see Sir Henry’s book?” asked Kit.

“No, sir. I was not privy to His Lordship’s papers,” replied Giles.

Kit pulled the book from where he had stashed it in his belt and began unwrapping it. “Well, he made a careful study of all this ley business and wrote it down in this little book.” He passed the green-bound volume to Giles, who regarded it with interest, cracked open the cover, and thumbed a few pages. “What do you make of it?”

He closed the cover and returned the book to Kit. “Very interesting, sir.”

“But?”

“I cannot read, sir.”

“Oh.”

There was a rustle at the door, and Wilhelmina swept in. “They’re gone,” she said. “I told them we were just closing. Burleigh and the others have gone back to the palace. Come on, we’ve got to get you out of here-out of Prague.”

“We just got here,” complained Kit. “Can’t we stay?”

“No. It isn’t safe.” She spun on her heel and darted back through the doorway.

“It’s a big city. We’ll lie low.”

“Look, Burleigh doesn’t know that I know you. Anyway, he thinks you’re dead. Let’s keep it that way. Now, come on!”

“My lady is right,” said Giles. “It is best to avoid trouble whenever possible.”

Kit tucked the green book back into his sash and climbed reluctantly off the bed and back downstairs.

They passed through the kitchen, now dark save for a faint glow from the ovens. Etzel was gone and the dining room was empty. There was a bit of strudel on a plate on the counter, and Kit helped himself. “Where are we going?”

“I’m taking you to a place I know-not far from here. You can hide out there until Burleigh leaves. He never stays long.”

The three padded through the darkened coffeehouse, threading among the tables to the front door. Wilhelmina opened it, glanced out, and then beckoned them to follow. She started off across the near-deserted square; Kit and Giles had to scurry to catch up. They crossed the square and headed down a narrow street towards the city gate.

“This place you’re taking us,” Kit said. “Where is it?”

“It’s near the river outside the city,” Mina said.

“How far?” Kit wanted to know.

As Wilhelmina turned to answer him she nearly collided with three men approaching from the opposite direction. “Entschuldigung,” she said.

The three stepped aside and she sailed on, Kit and Giles in her wake. They had gone but a few yards, however, when one of the men called out, “Oi! You there!”

Kit glanced back over his shoulder to see three Burley Men standing in the street, frozen in momentary indecision.

“Run!” shouted Kit.

“Dex! Con! Get after them,” cried the one called Tav. “I’ll fetch the boss. Go! Go!” But Kit and Giles were already streaking away.

Wilhelmina had disappeared.

Kit and Giles pounded down the cobbled street. As they passed the corner of a house, a hand snaked out and caught Kit by the sleeve. Mina pulled him into an alcove. “It’s the Burley Men,” Kit told her.

“You two go on,” she said. “I’ll keep them busy.”

Kit hesitated. “Are you sure?”

“Positive. Here, take this.” She fished the ley lamp from a pocket of her apron and shoved it at him.

Kit looked at the smoothly rounded gismo. “I don’t know how to use it.”

“It’s simple. It picks up ley activity-anything in the vicinity, and the blue lights shine. The brighter they glow, the closer you are to a line of force.” She dropped the object into his hand. “Head for the river, and follow the road east out of the city. A mile or so outside the walls there’s a little lane running perpendicular to the road. That is a ley line. I’ve used it before. The lamp will light up when you’re there.

Whatever happens, stick together.”

“What about you?”

“Don’t worry about me. Just make the jump and stay put. I’ll come find you.”

Kit nodded, drew breath, and prepared to make a run for it. “Ready, Giles?”

“One more thing,” said Mina quickly. “You’d better give me the map. It’ll be safer with me.”

Kit hesitated, but only for a moment, then yanked the slender package from under his shirt and passed it to her. “Be careful.”

“Always.” She squeezed his hand and pushed him out into the street. Giles gave her a nod and then darted after Kit.

“Good luck, you two,” Mina whispered, stepping from the alcove to watch them go.

Kit streaked off, running down a street sinking into evening shadows. The next thing he heard was someone shouting in German: “Halt! Diebe! Halten Sie die Diebe auf!” It was Wilhelmina, calling on passersby to stop the thieves escaping. Kit saw her snag one of the Burley Men and, with much waving and gesturing, begin organising the pursuit in German.

Kit ran for all he was worth, his shoes slapping hard on the cobblestones, Giles keeping pace right behind. Down the narrow street they flew, running for the city gate, naked fear making them flee. A few dozen yards or so farther on, they came in sight of the gate.

“It’s still open!” shouted Kit. “We can make it.”

“Bleiben Sie stehen! Bleiben Sie stehen!” came the shout behind them. Kit glanced back to see that a few idle townsfolk had joined the chase. Wilhelmina was nowhere to be seen.

The shouting reached the gate ahead of them. The bewildered gatekeeper, pike in hand, stepped into their path just as the two fugitives came pounding up. “Aus dem Weg! Aus dem Weg!” shouted Kit, motioning wildly for the guard to get out of the way. “Schnell!”

The guard remained planted in the road, throwing his pike sideways to bar their exit. Kit, breaking to the right, hit the shaft of the weapon, tilting it down and leaping over the pole in one smooth motion, even as Giles ducked under the rising end. The flummoxed gatekeeper gave out a startled cry, but they were already past.

Three running steps carried them under the arch, three more and they were through the gate and out of the city. The gate man was shouting at them to halt, adding his voice to the shouts of the pursuers who had now reached the gatehouse. Twilight was settling quickly on the land, but the sky was still light; Kit caught a glimmer of water.

“The river is this way!” shouted Kit. “We’ll try to lose them as we go.”

Even before the words were out of his mouth, he heard another sound: the rhythmic clatter of steel horseshoes on stone paving. He looked back to see a dark figure in the saddle of a pale grey horse. One glimpse of the rider and he knew that Burleigh was in the chase, hurtling down through the streets, scattering the crowd that was now pouring through the gate.

The road before them was a broad curve around a long bend in the river, city walls on one side and riverbank on the other; there was no one on the road, and no place they might hide from the pursuit gathering pace behind them. According to Mina, the ley was a mile distant. “He’s got a horse,” called Kit. “We’ll never make it.”

“Keep running!” shouted Giles. “If we can reach the bend, we might elude them yet.”

Gritting his teeth, Kit raced on. The bend was farther than they estimated, and though they succeeded in gaining some distance on the mob, by the time they rounded the curve Burleigh was closer still and coming fast. Kit pulled up, lungs heaving, heart pounding. “It’s no good,” he gasped between breaths. “We’ll have to try to take him.”

Giles looked back, gauging the distance between themselves and the oncoming rider. “We must remove him from that horse.”

“Right,” agreed Kit. “How do we do that?”

“I know horses.” The sound of the hooves pounding towards them grew louder. “There are ways to throw a rider.”

The shouts of the chase echoed over the water, coursing along the riverbanks. Kit suddenly understood what it was like to be the fox desperate to avoid the jaws of the baying hounds. “What about the mob?”

“Once we have taken the horse, we can use it to escape.”

“Sounds like a plan,” decided Kit. “What do we do?”

“There.” Giles pointed to a clump of elder bushes. “Hide yourself there, but make yourself ready to jump out as soon as I have the rider on the ground.”

“You sure you can handle it alone?”

Giles nodded.

With a last backwards glance, Kit darted into the brush as Giles snatched off a long leafy branch from the elder bush and took up a stance at the side of the road. Holding the branch down and slightly behind him, he stood easily, waiting as the horse thundered nearer.

Burleigh saw him and shouted something. Kit, watching from his hiding place, imagined he could feel the earth tremble as the pounding hooves swiftly narrowed the distance.

Giles, steady as a stone, remained firmly planted.

Heavy hooves churning, the horse thundered closer and closer still.

Kit’s breath caught in his throat as Burleigh swerved to ride down the unresisting Giles. But just as the hurtling beast closed on him, Giles stepped lightly sideways, swinging up the branch and throwing the leafy end into the animal’s face. Its vision obscured by a tree that seemed to appear from nowhere, the horse shied and tossed its head high to avoid the obstruction. Giles drove forward, keeping the branch in the frightened animal’s eyes.

The horse reared, and reared again.

Burleigh, unprepared for the attack, was thrown over the rear of his mount. He landed hard on his back in the middle of the road. Giles was on him in an instant.

Kit leapt from his hiding place and ran to help Giles subdue the struggling Burleigh. He saw Giles’ fist rise and fall-once… twice

… and the writhing man lay still.

“Get the horse!” shouted Giles.

Kit hurried after the riderless animal that was now cantering away. It took a moment, but he finally managed to snag the dangling reins and pull the horse’s head around. “Gotcha!” Holding tight to the reins, he turned to see Giles running to join him.

Then, even as he watched, Giles seemed to levitate in the air, his feet lifting off the ground. In the same instant, the report of a distant explosion reached Kit like a slap in the face. Giles was carried headlong and thrown to the dirt by the force of the blow. The horse reared at the sound, jerking the reins free from his grasp.

Kit saw a flash behind the struggling Giles as the slap of another report reached him. The glint of steel in Burleigh’s hand warned Kit that another blast was coming. “Stay down!” he cried. “He’s got a gun!”

A third shot ripped the dirt at his feet, and Kit skidded to a halt.

“Run!” cried Giles, waving Kit away.

Burleigh was on his feet now and moving forward, arm raised, hand extended.

Kit, caught between helping Giles and fleeing, hesitated.

“Mina will see to me,” shouted Giles. “Go!”

A fourth shot decided the issue. As the bullet whizzed past Kit’s head and the report split the air, Kit spun and ducked, instinctively heading back into the brush at the side of the road. He ran blindly, his only thought to lose himself in the lightly wooded roadside margin. Behind him he heard Burleigh calling, but ran on, heedless of all but the need to escape.

When the first fury of desperation had passed, he paused to catch his breath and collect his wits. The river was to his back; before him lay a field of grain. He considered diving into it, but the prospect of escaping on hands and knees through the barley held little appeal. He held his breath to listen. Above the sound of his own rapid heartbeat he could hear voices on the road and assumed that the townsfolk had met up with Burleigh and the pursuit would now resume.

A hasty estimate determined that he was still a little less than halfway to the lane that marked the ley line described by Wilhelmina, which he reckoned was now his best chance of escape. Keeping the road and river to his right, he proceeded through the wood in the direction of the lane. Behind him, he could hear voices and sounds of men thrashing through the undergrowth, searching for his trail. Others remained on the road; he could hear them, too, soon overtaking him and moving on ahead.

Kit, grim and determined as death, worked steadily along, dodging the boles and branches of trees and shrubs, trying to remain silent and invisible in the dying light. All at once, a clear, loud voice sang out-urgent, confident, assured-it rang loud in the silence and was quickly joined by others. Kit knew his trail had been found.

Fighting down the urge to bolt blindly into the darkening wood, he doubled his pace. But despite his best efforts, the voices behind him grew louder by degrees. When next he paused to catch his breath, he glanced back to see pale globes of glimmering light wavering through the trees: someone had brought torches.

Realising he only had scant minutes before he was seen and captured, he snaked a hand into his pocket and brought out the brass homing device that Wilhelmina had given him. The little curved row of holes on the top were dark. Still running towards the line, he held the thing before him, urging it mentally. Work, you blasted thing! Work!

To his amazement, the small oval object began to glow-a faint fitful flicker through the tiny holes. But as he waved the curious instrument before him, the gently wavering lights strengthened and took hold with an increasingly bright blue glow. Clutching the ley lamp, Kit drove on, flying through the brush, dodging branches as he went.

The chase was getting closer. His movement through the brush alerted the pursuit, and soon the surrounding wood was echoing with cries of the townsfolk. Amongst the shouts and sounds of crashing feet he thought he heard Burleigh’s voice raised above the tumult, urging his search party to greater speed.

Every now and then, Kit glanced down at the homing device, and saw the little row of lights still lit and shining ever more brightly. It’s got to be here somewhere, Kit told himself. It’s close.

There came a loud crash behind him, and he looked back to see Burleigh, back in the saddle, burst through an opening in the trees a hundred paces or so away. The earl saw him in the same instant and with a swift, assured motion drew the pistol from his belt. Holding the reins in one hand, he extended his arm to fire. Kit did not wait for him to pull the trigger, but ducked low and dived into the brake. A second later a shot shivered the branches and ripped through the leaves above Kit’s head.

He scrambled fast on hands and knees. Wilhelmina’s ley lamp grew warm in his palm-enough to let him know that he was not imagining it. He looked around and saw that he had plunged into a narrow game trail: a single rutted line that stretched away on either hand, straight as an arrow’s flight.

Another small explosion sent a bullet tearing through the screening brush, shattering a nearby branch, and Kit, clutching the device, started running down the track. As a third gunshot sliced the air a mere step ahead of him, he stopped, turned, and started back the opposite way. But the surrounding wood had already faded into the shadowy deeps of an all-pervading darkness.

Kit managed another step and yet one more before he tumbled headlong out of one world and into another.

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