"Where did they come from" Laila hissed, gripping Noel's arm and pulling him closer. It was just after two in the morning, they were alone, and intruders were in roaming the mansion.
"I heard voices and there was lantern light in the front hall." Noel was trembling; his thin pajamas barely protecting him against the dampness and gloom of the barely used rooms they were traveling through.
"You did the right thing," Laila assured him, taking his hand again as they moved as quickly and quietly as they dared in the darkness. If they could just make it to the cellar, they could escape through one of the small ground-level windows.
Laila hated to allow the intruders free reign in the house, but she had promised to look after Noel while Ray and Florian were away overnight and that meant getting the boy to safety first. She'd take him to one of the neighbors and call the police from there. Perhaps she'd even call Solomon Sugar - the man irritated Ray, but he was a good detective and had proven himself reliable more than once.
"We just need to go out this door and down the hall to the left. The cellar is just around the corner."
Noel nodded his understanding and tightened his grip on
Betty Deux. The teddy bear was looking a bit bedraggled these days but, even at
seven, Noel refused to sleep without his faithful companion.
Laila leaned her ear against the door, holding her breath as she listened for any sounds of movement beyond the door. There were sounds of destruction in the distance and she winced at the thought of strangers in Ray's study. It wasn't that they'd find much in the safe there - some money and a few pieces of jewelry for show - but she didn't want to be the one who had to tell Ray that his sanctuary had been invaded.
"Okay," she tightened her grip on Noel's hand and started to open the door. At the same moment, the door on the opposite side of the room opened and a man entered, his hulking form illuminated by the lantern he held.
"Ha!" he shouted at the sight of them. "There you are. I knew..."
Before he could finish his sentence, or cross the room, Laila had thrown the door open and dragged Noel out into the hall. She didn't bother trying to take the time to lock the intruder in. His shouts would bring the others and she had to get Noel to safety.
She spared a second to be thankful for her insistence on wearing men's pajamas rather than the ridiculous gowns women usually wore. That choice had saved her more than once and it was especially important tonight. Noel was keeping pace with her, but she could tell it was a struggle for him to keep up with his shorter legs.
They rounded the corner with the sounds of their pursuer entering the hall behind them. Laila opened the door and pushed Noel in, keeping a grip on him until he was steady on the steps. She stepped in and pulled the door closed behind her, taking the time to push the bolt into place, thankful for yet another of Ray's modifications - one used to keep servants out when he wanted time alone with someone who needed a lesson, or with Florian. She pressed the switch and sent thanks for Florian's insistence on electric lights - it had caused quite a battle with Ray but, as usual, Florian won.
Eyes blurred with tears from the sudden brightness, they stumbled down the stairs into the main room of the cellar. Laila wiped her eyes one-handed, still holding on to Noel as she oriented herself.
"This way," she urged. "Wait for me there. I need to get something." Noel ran into the room that served as pantry storage while Laila ducked into Ray's private room. She quickly scanned the selection of whips, crops and other items, settling on a short whip she'd practiced with a few times when she was younger. Before Florian, her mind added, more out of habit than because of any animosity towards the man.
"Laila!" Noel ran into the room, eyes wide, clutching Betty Deux like a lifeline. "There's a man outside the window. I think he saw me!"
The sound of shattering glass stopped Laila's response. Instead, she pushed Noel towards the bed in the darkest corner of the room and motioned for him to hide under it. With a moment's hesitation, she grabbed one of the short crops and shoved it after him.
"Only use it if you need it." She looked towards the windows and swore, having forgotten that they'd been boarded up for privacy. Desperate, she cast a look around the room and then up. With a grin she cracked the whip at the light and was rewarded by a crackle and sudden darkness. She moved carefully towards the door cursing herself for not locking it sooner. She stepped towards it, then cursed under her breath as she saw lantern light approaching.
Desperate, she ran towards the storage cupboard and squished herself inside just as the intruder arrived.
"I know you're here, little lady," the man taunted. "I don't want to hurt you, just want your help in finding the good silver." He swung the lantern around, scanning the whips, chains and other items around the room.
"Come on now," he said, stepping towards the cupboard and its partially open door. "Or would you rather the brat show me?"
The cupboard door slammed open and the whip lashed out catching the man's wrist and causing him to drop the lantern. He swore as the whip slipped away and ran headlong towards the cupboard with a yell. He cried out as something lashed across his cheek at the same time as something caught his left ankle. He went down hard, yelling furiously.
"Such language," Laila scolded as she brought the handle of the whip down on his head. The man dropped like a stone but she kicked him in the ribs to be sure he wasn't faking.
"Help me," she whispered to Noel. The boy had already set the crop aside and was pulling a length and shackles from the wall. Together they got the man secured just as they heard another voice calling down the stairway in search of "Erik".
Laila quickly wrapped the whip around her waist and pushed Noel towards the distant end of the cellar. It was an old storage room, rarely used, but there was a window there and she managed to get herself and Noel up and out leaving the shouts of the intruders behind.
They raced as fast as they could across the vast lawn towards the front gate. Laila reached out for Noel and the boy took her hand, breathing hard, but still running. They were nearly at the gate when a cloaked shape separated itself from the shadows. Laila tried to dodge it but the shape moved, catching her full against its chest.
"Stop, stop. Laila, it's me." Ray winced as Laila fought him and Noel kicked his ankle.
"Noel?" Florian stepped out from behind a tree and reached for the boy, kneeling down to gather him into an embrace. "Shh. Shh. You're okay."
"Intruders," Laila gasped. "Don't know how many. Caught one in the basement but the others... Had to get Noel to safety." Laila allowed herself one moment of resting in the safety of Ray's arms before pulling back and drawing on her reserves of strength. Now that Noel was safe, it was time to punish the men who had dared to intrude on Ray's home. She'd wonder why Ray and Florian were home early later.
"Laila, relax," Florian had picked Noel up and was holding the boy on his hip, but he used his free hand to lay a comforting hand on her arm. "We'll handle this. You should rest. Take Noel to Lady Avrille's house and warn her to check the grounds for thieves."
"No!" Laila and Noel protested at the same time. "We took care of one of the bad guys, we can help take care of the others." Noel shook Betty Deux for emphasis.
"But what if they want to steal from Lady Avrille too?" Florian asked Noel. He looked at Ray and they seemed to have an unspoken conversation. Florian didn't look happy but he tried to cover it as he turned back to Noel. "Why don't we go warn her while Ray and Laila take care of those bad men?"
Noel considered for a moment before nodding; Lady Avrille always gave him cake. He wriggled for a moment until Florian set him down but did take Florian's hand. They started away quickly, Florian refusing to take the car in case Ray would need it. Noel hesitated once and looked back waving to Laila before following Florian out of the gate and along the sidewalk until they were out of view.
"You really up to this? They didn't hurt you?" Ray searched Laila's eyes, demanding the truth. He smiled at the determination and glint of pride he saw there. "Let's go then. Florian will insist on calling the police and I want this finished before they arrive."
He reached out and tugged the end of the whip loose from Laila's waist. He smiled as she uncoiled it and then gripped it in her hand, ready for use; she had been a good student.
There were three in total; rough, brutish men who had already burglarized two other homes in the neighborhood in the past week. They found one outside loading their possessions onto a wagon, a confused mix of silver, art and trinkets all jumbled into burlap sacks. Ray caught him with the whip and Laila took him down with a single, furious punch. They stuffed him into an empty sack and left him there while they crept into the house following seldom used passages that even Florian didn't know about.
The second thief was ineffectually trying to free the now-conscious assailant Laila had chained up in the cellar. Ray stepped back and gave Laila the first strike. She delivered it gleefully then stepped aside while Ray moved in to finish him.
"Too bad we can't keep them here a few days; teach them the error of their ways." Laila said in her best schoolmistress voice - the one she often used on Noel and Florian.
"The police will be here soon. I'd rather not give them a tour of my cellar." Ray glanced towards the open cupboard where some of his more interesting toys were kept. Laila made a face at him, then started smiling in a way that even Ray feared.
"I have an idea." She went to the cupboard and selected a few items. She turned back to Ray, her hands full. "Help me with this pair?"
"Don't forget their friend upstairs." Ray returned the smile then went to the sink in the adjacent room and brought back a pail of cold water. He let Laila have the honor of pouring it on the unconscious man to wake him up.
When the police finally arrived, they were greeted by the site of three subdued thieves, shackled and collared, replacing the stolen items under the watchful eyes - and whips - of the master of the house and his housekeeper.
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