[Context - Lowrie and Shen need a vehicle so they can go and pick up something large, but none of the cars are working]
"The carriages!" I say. "We'll hitch the horses up to one of the old carriages!"
The stables are full of coaches, some of them over two hundred years old. Lacquered with silver and lined in velvet, they're so delicate that I was never allowed to play with them as a child. But this is an emergency. We haven't got any other choice.
"How do we . . ?" Shen looks overwhelmed and helpless. This is not his strong suit.
I grab my rucksack of tools from the mudroom, just in case I'll need to fix anything broken to get the carriages moving. Then I sprint down the side path to the stable mews. The door groans on its rusty hinges when I unlatch the heavy bolt and pull it open. Dust moats stir when I walk inside, floating in the light streaming through the open door. I strain my eyes in the darkness, wishing I still had the torch of my interface.
The carriage nearest the entrance is the newest one, commissioned a century ago for someone's once-upon-a-time celebration. It's the one most likely to still be in working order – the carriages in the back look like a good kick would make them collapse into dust.
I push at the carriage experimentally, making the black and white wheels roll back and forth in their tracks. They are almost as tall as I am. Nothing squeals or collapses. Cobwebs cover every centimetre of the fretwork, but I think it's going to move.
As long as the axles haven't rusted through, and William and Elizabeth don't bolt at the prospect of being hitched to a carriage, and there's no woodworm making the wood weak, and, and, and, and . . .
Baby steps. Baby steps. Don't think about that. Not yet.
I pull the leather tack off the hooks on the wall and start attaching it to the front of the carriage, where it will loop over the horse's necks. Then I leave the bridles dangling in place and sprint to the meadow to fetch William and Elizabeth.
They aren't there. I stop in my tracks, panting. If the bots are all down, the horses will still be in their stalls. Nobody will have let them out yet. They won't have been fed, either.
I run back to the stables and use a bag of bran mash to lead William and Elizabeth to the carriage.
It takes me a few minutes to work out how to hitch up the complicated carriage reins, by which time the horses have eaten all of the food I scattered on the ground.
When I climb into the coachman's seat, it creaks loudly. The horses shift anxiously, looking back at the carriage behind them. There's a shining plaque on the inside of the wooden bench, informing me that the coach was built eighty years ago from wood taken from a ship which sailed at the Battle of Trafalgar. The information is not at all reassuring.
I imagine the carriage collapsing while I'm inside, and being trapped under the wood. A shiver rushes through me. I may be a little claustrophobic.
A few years ago, we were exploring the old dungeons under the mansion. The building is over four-hundred years old, so there are all sorts of long forgotten structures and hidden passage-ways. It's possibly the best place in the world to play hide and seek.
The dungeons are what really started our treasure-hunting – they were blocked up centuries ago, but the wall has collapsed enough that a small child can slither inside. We found a vault full of old tiaras down there, which became an essential part of our fancy-dress box. After that, we were determined to find more. I had a particular interest in obtaining a set of armour, and I thought the dungeons were the best bet, after the attics and stables turned up nothing.
It's moist and damp and neck-shiveringly atmospheric down there, in the best way. There are scratches in the stones of graffiti carved by bored medieval prisoners, and chains still hang from the walls in a few of the cramped, low cells.
We were further into the dungeons than we'd ever been before, trying to find a way through a narrow tunnel into a large vault which we could just see into from a vent above ground. The metal detector kept going mad with a strong signal, so we were sure there was treasure in there. Because of that, we didn't give up when we probably should have done – when all of the signs pointed towards danger.
We kept crawling, even as the stones creaked and groaned above us. They shifted, and my knees twisted out from beneath me, and I was suddenly trapped. Stones pinned me in place, sharp and so close I almost couldn't breathe.
"Lowrie?!" Shen called out from behind me, horrified.
"I'm okay!" I said. "But – I'm stuck." I wriggled, but I couldn't move even a centimetre.
"I'll move the rocks."
At first, I wasn't scared. I thought Shen would get me out. I thought I'd be free in only a few minutes.
But Shen was young, and weak.
"I'm going to have to go for help," he said. "Will you be okay?"
"I'll be fine!" I said, trying to hide the fear in my voice. I wouldn't be fine, not at all, but I had no choice. "Hurry!"
I heard Shen scramble away from me, out of sight further down the tunnel. The light of his interface disappeared, and I was left in the darkness, with only the narrow beam of my own light to see by. I couldn't turn my head, couldn't see anything except the ground below me.
My legs started to hurt from the weight of the collapsed tunnel. I became absolutely focussed on every small sound, waiting to hear Shen returning with Mum and Dad. I listened to the drip of water, and the scuttling of some small rodent. There was a fizzing, rustling noise that I thought might be a spider, sucking blood from an insect.
I tried to breathe, pretending it was all interesting instead of terrifying. It took hours for Shen to make it back out of the dungeons, and hours more before the adults cleared the way through the child-sized passages we'd made in the dungeons.
I was cold and shivering and cramped all over before I heard them yelling for me. When Jia reached me and finally pulled me out, I was wracked with pins and needles so painful that I couldn't move.
For years, I had nightmares about those hours spent trapped, unable to move more than an elbow or knee without knocking it against the stone. Sometimes when I'm in a confined space, I get an inescapable fear that I'll get stuck.
I take a deep breath and push the memory away. The carriage isn't going to collapse. That isn't going to happen again.
I wrap the reins around my hands more tightly, and say to the horses, "Good girl! Good boy!"
I click my tongue. I'm not even sure if they're going to be able to move the carriage. I think this is a carriage designed for two horses, but it might be too big for them. I cross my fingers and hope.
The horses walk forward, and the enormous wheels start to grind into motion. William immediately rears up, trying to get free of his bridle and away from the moving object.
"Woaaah," I say, trying to infuse my voice with calm, even as my heart leaps out of my chest. "It's okay! Woah, boy."
He settles down, snorting.
"You can do it!" I click my tongue again, in the chirpiest, most confident way I can. I can't let them feel how scared I am. It'll only make them jumpier.
This time, Elizabeth starts moving and William doesn't. The carriage tilts to one side, and William is pulled forward by the movement of the harness.
He skitters into a walk and suddenly we're off, rolling over the cobbles towards the doorway of the carriage house. The wheels pick up speed, rolling with a series of laborious creaking groans. We're almost at the entrance when I realise that the doors aren't quite open all the way. We're not going to get through.
Before I can slow the horses, the carriage pushes through the half-open doors. The sides of the carriage scrape against them. The seat jerks below me, and I'm thrown forward, only just catching myself on Elizabeth's back before I fall below the wheels.
I drag myself back onto the seat, gathering up the reins and catching my breath. I have a feeling we just scraped all the varnished lacquer off the sides of the carriage, but there's no time to worry about destroying an ancient antique now.
Shen is waiting on a stone bench on the terrace.
"All okay?" he asks, as he climbs in.
"No comment," I say tightly. I don't think carriage driving is a hobby I'm going to be taking up any time soon.
By now, William and Elizabeth seem to have resigned themselves to the carriage. They plod down the driveway at a slow but calm pace, which is more than I had hoped for.
Shen lifts his hand to his mouth, chewing on his knuckle in worry. He's done it so much over the last few days that the skin is red and cracked. I push his hand away from his mouth, stopping him from hurting himself. His skin feels clammy.
When we pull out onto the main road, I have to tug quickly on the right rein to guide the horses around the corner. Usually they're good at turning on their own, but they haven't worked out that they need to compensate for the length of the carriage yet.
I direct the horses along the road by Embankment, choosing a route that I know well from all our mudlarking visits, so that I can avoid as many potholes as possible. I'm not sure how long the carriage's axles are going to stand up to so much movement.
I'm squinting against the sun, tugging on William's reins to guide him away from a cherry tree sapling sprouting from the tarmac, when Shen lets out a shout.
"We're going to have to cross the river!" he calls. "And Westminster Bridge was destroyed in the Big Ben crash!"
I wince. "I'm pretty sure that all of the other bridges collapsed years ago. The Underground?" I suggest, and then shake my head, discarding my own suggestion. The tunnels under the river have been flooded as long as I've ever known about them, and we don't have our scuba diving gear with us right now.
I run through the other bridges in my head, trying to decide which is the most intact.
"We're going to have to find some way across Waterloo Bridge, even if it adds time to the journey," I say eventually. "I don't think we have any choice."
Until now, it didn't really matter that all of the bridges were collapsing. Everyone used helicopters to travel long distances anyway. But we can't do that while the technology is down. We're going to have to find a way across the vast river on foot. It's too wide and fast-flowing to swim across, even on the horses.
There's a worrying dip in the centre of the Waterloo bridge that makes me think that's not going to be an option, but the railway line still looks solid.
When we get closer, my chest tightens. The bridge has collapsed on this end, crumbling away from the embankment into a pile of rubble in the water far below us.
"Should we walk to the next one?" There must be an intact bridge a few miles away.
Shen shakes his head. "It would take us hours. We should try and get across here."
I rub Elizabeth's neck, brushing her hair rough and smooth as I think. "Okay, let's walk down to the shore, and see if we can swim across to the bridge on the horses. We might be able to climb up the rubble to the train tracks."
He nods. We take the horses back the way we came until we reach a footpath leading down onto the beach. Their hooves leave deep prints in the sand, which immediately fill with water.
When we reach the collapsed bridge, I realise how enormous the rubble is. It had seemed almost manageable from above, but from here, the slabs of concrete and steel girders are as steep as a cliff face.
"We're going to have to leave the horses here! There's no way we'll be able to get the carriage across," I shout above the wind, which is whipping hair around my face and stinging my eyes.
Unhitching the horses from the carriage, we leave them to explore the foreshore. We wade into the river, heading towards the first section of the bridge. Sand and sludge has filled in the crevices in the wreckage and formed a shallow shelf around it. It makes a soft and shifting floor beneath our feet. I reach out to Shen, and we hold hands for support, slowly sliding our feet along the riverbed.
The wind has picked up, and I can feel the water pushing at my legs. If I lose my balance, I'll be halfway downriver before I know it.
When we reach the first slab of concrete I grab onto the side in relief, holding on tightly against the current. I lift my foot, pushing it into a bump in the stone, and pull myself up, swinging one leg over the top. When I'm up, Shen does the same.
It's only when we're standing on top of the first slab, water pushing at our ankles, that I realise that it seems a very, very long way up to the remains of the bridge. I look back at the horses, who are nosing their way down the sand. I gulp.
"Just pretend it's the wall of the east wing," Shen says, looking white. "We do this all the time."
"It's totally the same," I agree, not believing it at all.
When I step across to the next piece of rubble, it slides beneath my feet, loose and crumbly. Quickly, I jump onto the next one.
"The east wing never did that!" I yell across to Shen, but the wind snatches away my words before they reach him.
We work as a team, using each other for support as we slowly ease our way across the rubble. Some of the slabs are so far apart that Shen has to hold onto my arm while I lean out and grab onto it. Then I stand, one foot stretched to either piece, while he uses my shoulders as a support to hop across.
The whole time I have to resist the urge to rush, to get this over with as fast as possible so that we can move onto the more important task of helping our parents.
When we finally pull ourselves up onto the remains of the bridge, the sun has visibly dropped in the sky.
Shen winces as he looks down at the river below. Our route up looks even scarier from here, somehow.
I start picking my way across the railway bridge's rusting train tracks, stepping carefully over gaps in the bridge. With each footstep, loose gravel shifts and tumbles into the water far below. I can see the brown swish of waves below the bridge, and it makes my stomach twist.
I let myself relax, but my foot immediately catches on a stone and I trip. I fall forwards, tipping straight into a large hole. My chest hits the edge of the concrete, knocking the breath from me, and my knees scrape against the side as my torso drops.
I scramble and grab onto a wooden train track.
"Shen!" I kick with my legs to try and find something to push up against.
He sprints towards me.
The wooden track is rotten and soft under my fingers. It creaks and collapses inward, and I drop a few millimetres. My stomach gives out on me.
"Quickly!" I shriek.
He drops down and tucks his hands under my shoulders, fingers digging into my armpits as he pulls. We fall backwards, and I land on top of him, gasping.
I bury my head in his shoulder and let out a muffled scream. His hands come up, wrapping around my back.
"I've got you," he says. He presses a breathless kiss to the side of my brow. I lift my head, turning to look at him.
"Thank you," I say, and carefully brush a line of dirt from his cheek, bracketing his face between my palms. "I couldn't ask for a more handsome knight in shining armour."
I mean it teasingly, the way we've been throwing silly chat up lines at each other recently. But as soon as I say it, I regret it. It feels wrong, now. It's not a joke anymore. Making fun of something so real and important just feels flippant.
He nods, bites his lip. "We should go."
We hold hands the rest of the way, in mutual silence. When we hit the pavement on the other side of the river, we start running.
[end of extract]