“No. The tracks in the snow would show where we’d gone. The kitchen gardens are already trampled. Our passage won’t show as much. Come on. Please!” The last I flung out in despair as I saw the stubborn look on his face.
“I’ll help you get them there, but then I’m going to the stables to warn my da and the fellows.”
There was no arguing with him, I saw, so I jerked my head in a nod. “Come on!” I said to the others.
“And be quiet!” Perseverance ordered to them.
He broke trail for us. The kitchen gardens had been idle for a month, and snow banked the mounded straw-covered beds of rhubarb and dill and fennel. Never had the garden seemed so large to me. Elm and Lea were clutching hands and making small complaints about the snow in their house shoes. As we approached the kitchen door, Perseverance waved us back fiercely. He crept to the snow-laden sill, put an ear to the door, listened, and then dragged it open against the fresh mounded snow.
A moment only I stared in at the chaos of the kitchens. Something terrible had happened here. Loaves of freshly baked bread were scattered across the floor, a joint of meat was burning over the fire, and no one was there. No one. The kitchens were never empty, not during the day. Elm gasped in horror at her mother’s absence and Lea startled me by having the presence of mind to slap her hand over her friend’s mouth before the scream could escape. “Follow me!” I whispered.
As I led them toward the pantry, Perseverance said softly, “That’s no good! There won’t be room for all of us. We should have hidden in the conservatory.”
“Wait,” I told him, and dropped to my knees to crawl behind the stacked boxes of salt fish. To my great relief, the hatch stood very slightly ajar as I had left it for the cat. I pushed my fingertips into the crack and pulled it open. I crawled back out. “There are secret corridors behind the walls. Go in there. Quickly.”
Larkspur dropped to all fours and crawled back. I heard his muffled whisper of, “It’s pitch black in there!”
“Go in! Trust me. I’ll get a candle for you. We need to get inside there and hide.”
“What are these places?” Elm demanded suddenly.
“Old spy-ways,” I told her, and “Oh,” she replied knowingly. Not even danger could curb that one’s spiteful tongue.
Then, somewhere in the far chambers of Withywoods, a woman screamed. We all froze, staring round at one another. “That was my ma,” Elm whispered. I thought it had sounded like Shun. We waited but no more sounds reached us. “I’ll get some candles,” I said. The children crouched down, and some ventured behind the stacked crates.
It took all my courage to go back to the kitchen. I knew where the extra tapers were kept. I lit one at the hearth and turned. I nearly shrieked when I found Perseverance and Spruce standing behind me. Ivy clung to a handful of her brother’s sleeve. I looked at Perseverance. His face was white with determination.
“I have to go find my da. I have to warn him. Or help him. I’m sorry.” He stooped and hugged me awkwardly. “Go hide, Lady Bee. I’ll come back here and shout for you when it’s safe to come out.”
“Not yet!” I begged him. Once he left, I would have only myself to depend on. I couldn’t face that. He had to help me stay and hide the others.
He wasn’t listening to me. He was staring at the snow and wet we had tracked across the kitchen floor. “Oh, sweet Eda! We’ve left tracks everywhere. They’ll find you all.”
“No. They won’t!” I shoved the candles at Spruce, and he took them dumbly. I stooped and snatched up loaves of bread. I pushed them into Ivy’s hands. “Take these. Go behind the crates and into the wall with the others. Don’t shut the door. I’ll be there in a minute. Tell everyone to crawl along the passage and to be quiet. Quiet as mice. Don’t light more than one candle!”
Even in the kitchen I could hear the others muttering and mewling behind the wall. Then I heard men’s voices, distant but even so I recognized they were shouting to one another in a language I didn’t know.
“Who are they?” Spruce demanded in an agonized voice. “Why are they here? What are they doing? Who was that screaming?”
“That doesn’t matter. Living does. Go now!” I physically pushed them toward the door. As Spruce and Ivy vanished into the pantry, I seized a stack of napkins from the table and dropped to begin smearing the watery footprints. Perseverance saw my intent and did the same. In a trice we had changed the tracks to a wandering wet swath.