But if I was expecting a shout from the house, then none came. Instead I made my way to the perimeter wall, began to run quickly along it towards the door. I was still shivering, but as my excitement grew I wondered if Tom would have brought food for a midnight feast: ham, cake and biscuits. Oh, and a hot toddy would be most welcome, too . . .
A dog began barking. Thatch, Father’s Irish bloodhound, from his kennel in the stable yard. The noise stopped me in my tracks, and I crouched beneath the bare, low-hanging branches of a willow, until it ceased as suddenly as it had started. Later, of course, I’d understand why it stopped so abruptly. But I didn’t think anything of it at the time because I had no reason to suspect that Thatch had had his throat cut by an invader. We now think there were five of them altogether who crept up on us with knives and swords. Five men making their way to the mansion, and me in the grounds, oblivious to it all.
But how was I to know? I was a silly boy whose head buzzed with adventure and derring-do, not to mention the thought of ham and cake, and I continued along the perimeter wall, until I came to the gate.
Which was open.
What had I expected? I suppose, for the gate to be shut and for Tom to be on the other side of it. Perhaps one of us would have climbed the wall. Perhaps we planned to trade gossip with the door between us. All I knew was that the gate was open, and I began to get the feeling that something was wrong, and at last it occurred to me that the signalling I’d seen from my bedroom window might not have been meant for me.
“Tom?” I whispered.
There was no sound. The night was completely still: no birds, no animals, nothing. Nervous now, I was about to turn and leave, return to the house and to the safety of my warm bed, when I saw something. A foot. I edged further out of the gate where the passageway was bathed in dirty white moonlight which gave everything a soft, grubby glow—including the flesh of the boy sprawled on the ground.
He half lay, half sat, propped up against the opposite wall, dressed almost exactly as I was, with a pair of trousers and nightclothes, only he hadn’t bothered to tuck his in and it was twisted around his legs, which lay at strange, unnatural angles on the hard, rutted mud of the walkway.
It was Tom, of course. Tom, whose dead eyes stared sightlessly at me from beneath the brim of his hat, skewwhiff on his head; Tom, with the moonlight gleaming on blood that had sheeted down his front from the gash at his throat.
My teeth began to chatter. I heard a whimper and realized it was me. A hundred panicked thoughts crowded into my head.
And then things began to happen too quickly for me even to remember the exact order in which they took place, though I think it started with the sound of breaking glass and a scream that came from the house.
I’m ashamed to admit that the voices, the thoughts jostling in my head, all cried that one word together.
And I obeyed them. I ran. Only, not in the direction they wanted me to. Was I doing as my father had instructed and listening to my instincts, or ignoring them? I didn’t know. All I knew was that though every fibre of my being seemed to want me to flee from what I knew was the most terrible danger, in fact I ran towards it.
Through the stable yard I ran, and burst into the kitchen, hardly pausing to acknowledge the fact that the door hung open on its hinges. From somewhere along the hall I heard more screaming, saw blood on the kitchen floor and stepped through the door towards the stairs, only to see another body. It was one of the soldiers. He lay in the corridor clutching his stomach, eyelids fluttering madly and a line of blood trickling from his mouth as he slid dying to the floor.
As I stepped over him and ran for the stairs, my one thought was to reach my parents. The entrance hall, which was dark, but full of screams and running feet, and the first tendrils of smoke. I tried to get my bearings. From above came yet another scream, and I looked up to see dancing shadows on the balcony, and, briefly, the glitter of steel in the hands of one of our attackers. Meeting him on the landing was one of Father’s valets, but the skittering light stopped me from seeing the poor boy’s fate. Instead I heard and through my feet felt the wet thump of his body as it dropped from the balcony to the wooden floor not far away from me. His assassin gave a howl of triumph, and I could hear running feet as he made his way further along the landing—towards the bedrooms.
“Mother!” I screamed, and ran for the stairs at the same time as I saw my parents’ door flung open and my father come surging out to meet the intruder. He wore trousers, and his suspenders were pulled over his naked shoulders, his hair untied and hanging free. In one hand he held a lantern, in the other his blade.
“Haytham!” he called as I reached the top of the stairs. The intruder was between us on the landing. He stopped, turned to look at me, and in the light of Father’s lantern I could see him properly for the first time. He wore trousers, a black leather-armour waistcoat and a small half-face mask like the kind worn for a masked ball. And he was changing direction. Instead of going up against Father, he was charging back along the landing after me, grinning.
“Haytham!” shouted Father again. He pulled away from Mother and began to run down the landing after the intruder. Instantly the gap between them closed, but it wouldn’t be enough, and I turned to escape, only to see a second man at the foot of the stairs, sword in hand, blocking my way. He was dressed the same as the first, although I noticed one difference: his ears. They were pointed, and with the mask gave him the look of a hideous, deformed Mr. Punch. For a moment I froze, then swung back to see that the grinning man behind me had turned to meet Father, and their swords clashed. Father had left his lantern behind, and it was in the half dark that they fought. A short, brutal battle punctuated by grunts and the chiming of sword steel. Even in the heat and the danger of the moment I wished it had been light enough to watch him fight properly.
Then it was over and the grinning assassin was grinning no more, dropping his sword, tumbling over the banisters with a scream and hitting the floor beneath. The pointy-eared intruder had been halfway up the stairs but had second thoughts and wheeled around to escape to the entrance hall.
There was a shout from below. Over the banisters I saw a third man, also wearing a mask, who beckoned to the pointy-eared man before both disappeared out of sight beneath the landing. I glanced up and in the low light saw a look pass across my father’s face.
“The games room,” he said.
And, in the next instant, before Mother or I could stop him, he’d leapt over the banister to the entrance hall beneath. As he jumped my mother screamed, “Edward!” and the anguish in her voice echoed my own thoughts. No. My one, single thought: he’s abandoning us.