The candle on the table beside Bert burned slowly downwards while he watched the minute hand creep around the clock face. He told himself his mother would definitely come home soon. She’d walk in any minute, pick up his half-darned sweater as though she’d never dropped it, and tell him what had happened when she saw the king.
Then the minute hand seemed to speed up, when Bert would have done anything to make it slow down. Four minutes. Three minutes. Two minutes left.
Bert got to his feet and moved to the window. He looked up and down the dark street. There was no sign of his mother returning.
But wait! His heart leapt: he’d seen movement on the corner! For a few shining seconds, Bert was sure he was about to see Mrs Beamish step into the patch of moonlight, smiling as she caught sight of his anxious face at the window.
And then his heart seemed to drop like a brick into his stomach. It wasn’t Mrs Beamish who was approaching, but Major Roach, accompanied by four large members of the Ickabog Defence Brigade, all carrying torches.
Bert leapt back from the window, snatched up the sweater from the table, and sprinted through to his bedroom. He grabbed his shoes and his father’s medal, forced up the bedroom window, clambered out of it, then gently slid the window closed from outside. As he dropped down into the vegetable patch, he heard Major Roach banging on the front door, then a rough voice said: ‘I’ll check the back.’
Bert threw himself flat in the earth behind a row of beetroots, smeared his fair hair with soil and lay very still in the darkness.
Through his closed eyelids he saw flickering light. A soldier held his torch high in hopes of seeing Bert running away across other people’s gardens. The soldier didn’t notice the earthy shape of Bert concealed behind the beetroot leaves, which threw long, swaying shadows.
‘Well, he hasn’t got out this way,’ shouted the soldier.
There was a crash, and Bert knew Roach had broken down the front door. He listened to the soldiers opening cupboards and wardrobes. Bert remained utterly still in the earth, because torchlight was still shining through his closed eyelids.
‘Maybe he cleared out before his mother went to the palace?’
‘Well, we’ve got to find him,’ growled the familiar voice of Major Roach. ‘He’s the son of the Ickabog’s first victim. If Bert Beamish starts telling the world the monster’s a lie, people will listen. Spread out and search, he can’t have got far. And if you catch him,’ said Roach, as his men’s heavy footsteps sounded across the Beamishes’ wooden floorboards, ‘kill him. We’ll work out our stories later.’
Bert lay completely flat and still, listening to the men running away up and down the street, and then a cool part of Bert’s brain said:
He put his father’s medal around his neck, pulled on the half-darned sweater and snatched up his shoes, then began to crawl through the earth until he reached a neighbouring fence, where he tunnelled out enough dirt to let him wriggle beneath it. He kept crawling until he reached a cobbled street, but he could still hear the soldiers’ voices echoing through the night as they banged on doors, demanding to search houses, asking people whether they’d seen Bert Beamish, the pastry chef’s son. He heard himself described as a dangerous traitor.
Bert took another handful of earth and smeared it over his face. Then he got to his feet and, crouching low, darted into a dark doorway across the street. A soldier ran past, but Bert was now so filthy that he was well camouflaged against the dark door, and the man noticed nothing. When the soldier had disappeared, Bert ran barefooted from doorway to doorway, carrying his shoes, hiding in shadowy alcoves and edging ever closer to the City-Within-The-City gates. However, when he drew near, he saw a guard keeping watch, and before Bert could think up a plan, he had to slide behind a statue of King Richard the Righteous, because Roach and another soldier were approaching.
‘Have you seen Bert Beamish?’ they shouted at the guard.
‘What, the pastry chef’s son?’ asked the man.
Roach seized the front of the man’s uniform and shook him as a terrier shakes a rabbit. ‘Of course, the pastry chef’s son! Have you let him through these gates? Tell me!’
‘No, I haven’t,’ said the guard, ‘and what’s the boy done, to have you lot chasing him?’
‘He’s a traitor!’ snarled Roach. ‘And I’ll personally shoot anyone who helps him, understood?’
‘Understood,’ said the guard. Roach released the man and he and his companion ran off again, their torches casting swinging pools of light on all the walls, until they were swallowed once more by the darkness.
Bert watched the guard straighten his uniform and shake his head. Bert hesitated, then, knowing this might cost him his life, crept out of his hiding place. So thoroughly had Bert camouflaged himself with all the earth, that the guard didn’t realise anyone was beside him until he saw the whites of Bert’s eyes in the moonlight, and he let out a yelp of terror.
‘Please,’ whispered Bert. ‘Please… don’t give me away. I need to get out of here.’
From beneath his sweater, he pulled his father’s heavy silver medal, brushed earth from the surface, and showed the guard.
‘I’ll give you this – it’s real silver! – if you just let me out through the gates, and don’t tell anyone you’ve seen me. I’m not a traitor,’ said Bert. ‘I haven’t betrayed anyone, I swear.’
The guard was an older man, with a stiff grey beard. He considered the earth-covered Bert for a moment or two before saying:
‘Keep your medal, son.’
He opened the gate just wide enough for Bert to slide through.
‘Thank you!’ gasped Bert.
‘Stick to the back roads,’ advised the guard. ‘And trust no one. Good luck.’