Henry felt he had seen before a city in flames, helpless innocents fleeing in terror through labyrinthine streets to destinations unknown, not giving a thought to the Christian ideal of charity ahead when they have the opportunity to enact it. He had seen it years ago, he thought, and what he had witnessed today was, to an extent, a replay, though mercifully without the catastrophic conclusion nor anywhere near the level of bloodshed. He reflected on the ease with which man could inflict misery onto another, particularly when that other man was so confined by the structures and institutions that were there to keep him alive – houses, markets, shops, churches. How much easier existence would be, in so many respects, if people were to live in villages rather than cities. Henry found the response of crowds to mass hazards to be the optimum demonstration as to why man was insufficiently disciplined to exist in large concentrations, even if he professes to be a social creature; the individual’s inherent concern for self-preservation immediately casts asunder all of the discipline and logic that is a requirement for the building and maintenance of civilisation.
In the recesses of that horrific memory even the holy men had lost all discipline, when they blindly ran through the streets amongst the wave of terrified cityfolk, instead of leading by example and assisting those incapable of assisting themselves. He imagined seeing with his own eyes men and women of all stations battering one another aside to reach the last remaining boats in the harbour. How many would have been saved had the base instincts of man been suppressed by the same discipline demonstrated by the knights around him, those who stood resolute against what they knew to be insurmountable odds? To be sure, as was the case today, there were those who did not give in to the mindless flocking like so many game birds startled in the fields, but this minority would be overwhelmed by the panicked irrationality of the multitude. As the discipline of Henry and the knights with him that day had been ineffective in the face of overwhelming enemy numbers, so too was the composure of some of those escaping behind them rendered irrelevant by the widespread fright that had taken root in so many rattled minds.
The knight marched on through the churned mud of Leadenhall Street, the weight of the heavily-concussed woman over the burgundy tunic on his shoulder barely noticeable for a man trained for years to operate in full armour. He had found the tunic discarded on the grass of the hill and immediately deemed it a less risky sartorial choice than to continue donning the dark robes of the Crutched Friars. Upon his shoulder the woman occasionally moaned incoherently, but that was the extent of her consciousness, and in any case the base noise of such a heavily populated city would drown out any words she may have had for him. In front and behind him were others limping, some burned, others being carried by one or two people. Henry prayed the priory would still have room for the sick and injured upon their arrival. For a city with so many religious houses the provision of hospitals was drastically wanting, and although St Anthony’s Hospital on Threadneedle Street was the largest in the city, St Helen’s was much closer. Traversing Threadneedle Street at this point in time would be akin to Moses parting the Red Sea, Henry reflected.
As he walked purposefully and at a pace most would struggle to match even when not carrying someone over their shoulder, Henry considered further the parallels between the disaster today and the persistent dream that played out in his mind of that terrible catastrophe, more real in his memory than the experience he had endured today. He concluded that despite appearances – the strength and grandeur of the fortress and cathedral, the expanse of the city or the dread drum of ten thousand feet on the march – civilisation was exceedingly fragile. All of the strength, grandeur, reach and imposing aesthetics of civilisation were instead invested in its inhabitants, not the fortresses, cathedrals, walls or territories that were so often vaunted as the sources of these characteristics. If the inhabitants had no stomach for upholding the stability of their civilisation then that entity would come crashing down.
Christendom, the most glorious of man’s iterations throughout his lengthy history, had endured the longest. But had Christians ever before faced such inscrutable terror as unleashed by this mysterious stone? It was one thing to stand up to the heathen, the Viking, the Saracen, for these were men and thus comprehensible; but what of the Godstone? Did even Guy truly know what it was? How does one fight an enemy when that enemy is utterly unfathomable?
Henry arrived at the priory, a site of pilgrimage for all wounded in this part of the city. Much like the surgeon’s tent in an army camp after the chaos of battle, it was a fulcrum of misery and weeping amid the surge of action in the thoroughfares around it. As he had done before, the knight hardened himself against the sights he was about to observe as he strode through the open doorway and into the nave. Men and women were everywhere, of all stations and persuasions, and looking down upon them from high up on the wall at the opposite end was the effigy of the Lord Jesus upon His cross. He watched with sorrowful eyes, distraught that the divine gift bequeathed to the care of mankind had been so terribly misused and misunderstood.
The knight shuffled on a few paces but stopped as the first waft of seared flesh met his nostrils, uninvited. It was as strong and invasive as he remembered and his nose crinkled at the odour; even without the knowledge that it emanated from the body of a still living, still whimpering individual, it was a most foul stench. The odours were as manifold as the noises produced by so many injured and pity tugged at Henry’s heart as his eyes crossed the rows of wounded searching for a space where he could lay his passenger.
Henry felt redundant as he stood with the unmoving woman across his shoulder, incapable of achieving the simple task of finding a resting spot for her. He looked left and then right until before him paced a nun, likely a sister of the priory, moving with the purpose and intent of a woman holding back the overwhelming advance of despair in her own home. She disappeared behind a column ahead and to the left for a moment but returned soon after, a black-clothed beacon of energy and radiance in this miserable pit of humanity.
“Excuse me, sister?” Henry spoke over the din, hoping she was not sufficiently distracted to avoid his salutation.
She was sufficiently distracted, and became lost from sight in the milling crowd.
Another sister hurried past and Henry went to hail her attention, but she had already crouched down beside a groaning woman before a sound could escape his parched mouth. He sighed and returned his eyes to the crowd, scouring for a space and, more pressingly, a sister or physician whom might take notice of this new patron’s presence. Alongside the sisters wrapped in their distinctive black habits and white wimples and the tunicked doctors of physic there also waded through the rows of tragedy brothers of various houses in their assorted habits. Indeed, many of these women and men of the Church would have witnessed first-hand the blazing terror at the Tower Liberties, and here they were, answering the cries for help from their beleaguered flock. Henry was heartened by the rallying spirit of his London brothers and sisters in faith. Panic and helplessness was no friend of theirs.
The first nun he had spotted was back again, this time bustling back down the nave in Henry’s direction. The knight tried again, eschewing his earlier, unusually meek approach. “This one needs attention,” he yelled in her direction with none of the subtlety otherwise demanded of a spy.
The little nun was understandably flustered and on her brow and cheeks a light glean of sweat reflected the daylight that streamed through the open doors. Henry watched her walk purposefully here and there, a grim determination evident in her face, cheeks a little reddened either side of a small mouth tightly pursed. The sister looked up as she walked in his direction, carrying a small pail of water with a soaked cloth hanging over the side that dripped in her wake, marking out exactly the route she had taken through the Priory. Her eyes were dark and focused, though she barely glanced in his direction; the appearance of another injured individual at the priory’s door was unfortunately unremarkable on a day such as this.
“Oh, thank you, sir. Please, bring her in and I’ll find some room,” she said in haste as her head darted around looking for a space amongst the assembled wounded.
The scene in the nave would have seemed unusual, not to mention utterly frightening, to someone without experience of the conduct of warfare in an urban environment. The pews of the nave had been removed to create a great open space with a high ceiling that allowed circulation of air, crucial for the treatment of disease and the recuperation of the sick. The expansive floor space was perfect for bedding down the injured and allowing physicians and nuns to freely walk and attend to them.
Unfortunately, London’s population was huge, and there was little experience of warfare in an urban environment or equivalent disasters that would create such demands for emergency care. The St Helen’s nave was filled to the brim with wailing and moaning, arms waving here and there, coughing and hacking punctuating the doleful dirge of misery and injury. It was a scene that Henry regretted having seen over and over.
Behind her and on the right was a gap between two richly-clothed young women, both of whom donned long skirts caked with mud in a manner after the grime that blemished their youthful faces. The woman on the right had an originally white cloth placed across her right arm and leg, though now it was saturated a deep red verging on black, sure indicators of burning. Another sister was knelt beside her and gently tilted a cup of water to the burned woman’s mouth. With the utmost of care did the nun sate the burned woman’s thirst, treating her face as gently as if it had also been exposed to the hellish fire.
Henry could not help but look at the woman and her considerable injuries. He once again forgot that he was carrying an injured woman of his own as he gazed upon the poor rich noblewoman lying before him, quietly moaning and moving nary a finger. Of course, the knight had seen before the horrific effects of fire attacks, but the severity of the burns he had seen were like the height and spread of the flames outside the Tower – implausibly extensive and powerful.
Grass does not burn like that.
“Sir?” asked the nun politely, in a manner suggesting she had repeated herself more than once whilst Henry had been watching the burned woman.
“Oh, of course,” replied Henry, squeezing his lips together in the manner that falls halfway between an acknowledgement and a smile. He brought the concussed woman’s body forward from over his shoulder so that he could roll her over and hooked one arm under her knees and the other under her shoulders, before shuffling carefully and sideways into the bay. With little effort did the knight bend his knees and softly place the woman down in the fresh straw on the ground.
“She is very concussed, I think,” Henry explained, “and she hasn’t said much since I found her. She can’t say much.”
“Thank you, brother. You have carried out the Lord’s work well,” the nun replied as she knelt down besides the unconscious woman and felt her forehead for indications of fever. There was no response in the little nun’s face that would suggest the concussed woman was fevered, but she applied the cool, damp cloth to the woman’s brow in any case.
Henry watched the young nun, her small face framed by the wimple around her head. The dark hazel eyes were lighter in tone than the thin eyebrows above them, which in turn were dramatically contrasted with her soft and pale skin. Even the suggestions of stress written across that fair face did not detract from how soft and milky her cheeks appeared; the knight imagined the warmth and tenderness of those full cheeks to the touch, momentarily forgetting his vows.
Having carefully placed the cooling cloth across the injured woman’s head, the nun looked up and her eyes met Henry’s. The two held the gaze for the briefest of instants before the knight broke his to look down at the patient between them, suddenly conscious and ashamed of how he had let improper thoughts pollute his mind and the priory.
The sister, though, maintained her stare and narrowed her eyes a little as a spark of recognition flared in her mind, despite the shaved hair and the grimy, soot-daubed countenance.
“Sir Henry?” she asked quietly, very hesitantly and unsure of herself.
Startled by the nun’s perception, the knight’s head shot back up. “What of it, sister?” he answered defensively. His manner was calm but struggled to conceal the surprise that his shaven-headed disguise had already been rendered obsolete so quickly, particularly by someone he had no recollection of ever having met before. The tanned knight tensed in preparation for flight, wondering if any others had seen through his masquerade.
The nun smiled sweetly to him, her eyes immediately flooded with reassuring kindness. “Don’t worry yourself, brother,” she began, “I was with your companion today. We should discuss this somewhere a little less public.” Before finishing her suggestion she had already looked around over her right shoulder towards the rest of the nave; fortunately it was lengthier than many in the city, so its capacity for patients was all the greater.
Henry’s surprise was instantly replaced by intrigue at the mention of his companion. Two revelations within two sentences had knocked his usual composure, and before he could make a sound the nun had stood and whisked past him, tapping on the shoulder the sister attending to the burned woman to ask her check on the concussed woman too.
Henry stood and spun to find the hazel-eyed nun walking to the door on the left, on the other side of the prone burned woman. He followed without looking around, a vain attempt to temper any suspicion others may have at this sudden and unusual circumstance. Having gone through the door the Templar knight closed it behind him and faced the little nun. The room was empty of anyone else but otherwise very busy; being the choir vestry room, assorted robes and liturgical clothes were piled high on three sides. It was windowless and consequently stuffy, although the torches on the nave-side wall were surprisingly bright and effective at illuminating the folded vestments – the torchlight gave them mellow, warm colours and created oddly-shaped shadows beyond.
The nun’s face appeared ghostly pale, however, and together with the purposeful look in her eyes she seemed like a dreamlike, otherworldly messenger.
“I was with her, earlier, I was with El,” the sister hurriedly explained. “We were by the Crutched Friars when the first missiles went overhead,”
Henry did not fully understand. El should not have been anywhere near the demonstration; Guy had forbidden it.
“That can’t be the case, El is at the Temple,” he insisted. The nun went to speak again but Henry continued. “How do you know who I am? Has Lord Reginald put you up to this?” The tanned Englishman’s ire was rising, though not with this woman. He was becoming angry at himself, for allowing himself to be caught so cheaply.
Yet he was unable to convey this to the hazel-eyed woman; the knight’s words had begun to frighten her and she backed off a step. With the torches on the wall behind him, she could not clearly see Henry’s face in the shadows and this only added to the air of malice about him. “No, no, it’s not like that – I was sent by Abbot Geoffrey, from the Crutched Friars,” she pleaded. Her dark eyebrows were raised in fear and her eyes wide, a picture of distress on an innocent’s face.
Recognising and regretting his overbearing tone, Henry reverted to his previously and characteristically calm demeanour. “I am sorry, sister, for my words – I did not mean to cause any fright, and certainly have no anger at you. May the Lord forgive my temper. What business has the abbot with you?”
The nun gave the barest of nods in acknowledgement, her fear not fully tamed by the knight’s assurance. “He suspected an infiltration of the Crutched brothers. He sent me to warn El, so she would keep an eye out.” The hazel-eyed woman looked to her feet. “My warning wasn’t enough,” she said, mournfully.
Henry’s mind raced with this revelation. Did this sister know that Henry himself had infiltrated the Crutched Brothers? It was possible that the aged Abbot Geoffrey was losing his faculties and had simply forgotten that Henry had been placed there. And where was El at this time? She had been in the Temple. Guy had told her to remain there. Henry decided not to reveal too much, lest the sister was trying to lure him into a trap of sorts.
“Where did you find El? And how did you know it was her?” he asked her.
“The abbot told me where she would be, and what she looked like. The rest was straightforward,” replied the nun.
Henry was dubious. One of El’s strengths was that she was so unremarkable in appearance. And yet, there was something about her, he thought. He was not sure what it was, though.
“She wasn’t in the Temple?” Henry questioned.
“No, she was along Crutched Friars.”
“Are you sure it was El?” he asked again, not entirely convinced the little Frenchwoman would go against Guy’s word.
The nun’s eyes were still wide in trepidation. She appeared to struggle with implicit accusations of falsehood. “I am, sir. She was with a young lad – he was tall, broad, with dark hair. Maxwell was his name.”
The name struck Henry. Maxwell was the stable boy at the Temple. What was he doing there?
The frightened sister continued. “When the missiles were fired, they went to find where they came from – that was when we heard about the fire, and the crowd – the crowd! It was awful.” She stopped herself to gather her thoughts, distress on her face and a slight glow on her brow where the torchlight illuminated the effort brought about by her work with the injured coming into the priory.
“And?” Henry asked, urgently, sympathetic to the experience the nun had endured – physical stresses that purely monastic living could not impart preparation for – but still cautious about her motives in finding El.
The hazel-eyed woman understood the insistence in Henry’s tone. “They went to Mark Lane. That’s where the missiles were coming from.”
The knight poked his tongue in his cheek and looked to the side as he tried to remember which lane was which in that veritable maze by the Tower Liberties. “Off Fenchurch Street?” he asked, a modicum of poise returning to his previously fraught manner.
“Yes,” she nodded apprehensively.
“Thank you, sister…?”
“Diane,” she answered hurriedly, as if she were not entirely comfortable with the Templar knowing her identity.
“Thank you, Sister Diane,” Henry said curtly, the warmth in his deep brown eyes reappearing and at once almost thawing away the stress that so afflicted the nun. He turned to leave, subconsciously scratching his freshly shaved head once again. “I’d appreciate my presence here remain unknown, please.”
Before he was able to reach the door Diane threw out her arm, grabbing hold of the knight’s elbow through the burgundy tunic.
“Please,” the hazed-eyed woman beseeched, “can you check on the Abbot? He was very distressed when he found me. I’m concerned for him.” Her eyes were round and wide with fear, and her small mouth hovered open in anticipation of an answer.
“Of course, I must brief him in any case,” the knight replied, considering his tasks and options as the new circumstances continued to unfold before him without heed for his concluding the existing ones. The knight sighed. “I should inform you, sister, that it’s likely the Abbot will be arrested with the other Crutched brothers, if he hasn’t been already.”
Sister Diane’s worried expression contorted her soft features further. “But he’s a good man!” she protested in a higher pitch than usual, interrupting the knight. She was sharp enough to know that such protest would not carry any weight but it was an instinctive reaction to a good friend’s peril.
Henry knew this as much. “That he is, but the King won’t care for that. I must go, thank you, sister, and God bless your work here.”
Without so much as a cursory nod did the knight ghost out of the door and back into the nave of the church, turning right towards the lobby and the street outside, opposite the church of St Mary Axe. He moved with the gait of a man marching for war, with the indomitable spirit of one who knows those dear to him might be reliant upon his actions. Too many identifiable and innocent parties had suffered through the actions of ostensibly unknown perpetrators today, and yet those in most danger were the innocent friends of Sir Henry.
He stepped out into the small street, pausing to check for any soldiers who might be patrolling. His newly acquired tunic, an indistinct shade of burgundy that appeared quite in contrast to his previous cloak, clung a little too tightly across his chest for his liking, but otherwise provided excellent additional protection for his identity from anyone who might be searching for him. Here there were no soldiers, and the canopy of roofing hanging over from the leather workers’ shops surrounding the priory and the church opposite concealed the road from the view of any of the archers still at their posts along the city wall to his left. Henry noted the leather workers had returned to their craft following the day’s events; the smoke billowed from the flues in the roofs and the heavy smell of leather and tanning was as thick as had been the smoke on Tower Hill just earlier. For the most part, the city had gone back to work – everywhere the knight had travelled it seemed that human routine always resumed as soon as any interruption had ceased.
The small street dividing the priory and the church was still populated with drifting pairs, groups or lone people, many of whom carrying the seemingly injured and the patently dead. Slipping through the ambling traffic, navigating between and around the lumbering wounded like a rowboat steering through the flotsam and jetsam after a storm in the harbour, Henry resisted the urge to run to Mark Lane to rescue El at the soonest. That was, if she needed rescuing. He prayed she did not, for he did not want to risk making himself conspicuous to any alert eyes on the lookout for a fugitive shaven-headed man in flight. Leaving behind the groans and the whimpers of the injured in the priory he was now greeted by the sounds of the healthier, or at least the less wounded: coughing, grunts, low murmurs of conversation. Now and then a high-pitched wail could be heard from an unknown street as a woman shouted for someone; perhaps a husband, most likely a son.
The knight moved onto Leadenhall Street, one of the main thoroughfares of the city. This was altogether busier and before turning left he checked for any soldiers. Again, there were none. He knew his fears of being spotted were more or less irrational – how many people in the city had seen his face at the demonstration, either en route to or whilst he was being led away? Those nobles jeering him would not be out here looking for him. Nor would any of the commonfolk who had surrounded him and the other Crutched Friars on the way to the demonstration. They would have far more pressing issues, such as dealing with the damage caused by the fire that had burned half of the city, than to be searching the streets for someone whose face they would not remember anyway. People would not recall details they had paid little attention to in the first place, let alone details dressed in different clothing as Henry was now. Realistically, there was not even a chance that someone would accidentally recognise him, he thought, because no one knew who he was to begin with.
Come on, Henry. Sort yourself out. He was the needle in London’s burning haystack.
Pressing on along Leadenhall Street he was more able to regard the hangover of the by now extinguished blaze; dark and heavy smoke loitered just above the roofline of the tanners on the left and the market buildings and workshops that housed the metal merchants on the right, all the way down towards the end of the street; smoke hung suspended over the city from what he estimated to be the Aldgate as far as the Tower. It made for grim viewing. In Henry’s mind there was nothing so lamentable as watching the greatest of man’s accomplishments – those great cities built up from the dirt – burned to ash through man’s malevolent agency.
The street’s surface had been churned into nothing short of a swamp by the fleeing masses, and detritus was scattered along its breadth and length; hats, cloaks, coats. Twice the Templar stepped over a shoe as he meandered past those carrying goods to or from undamaged and damaged shops respectively, or repair materials for the collapsed houses further east, and those simply calling for help. Even though the route along Leadenhall Street to Mark Lane was by no means lengthy, Henry was relieved to have still not encountered any soldiers, despite his confidence in not being identified. The fewer interactions with representatives of the government, the better, for the time being, at least.
He was further relieved, and indeed more so, not to have seen any bodies lying in the streets, poor souls crushed in the escape with no hope of rescue once their second foot had lost its traction. The scenes of four years previous once more seeped into the forefront of his mind, in spite of that impregnable mental fortress’ resistance to all destructive and undesirable memories. Over those protective ramparts poured those scarring recollections of tens of bodies, hundreds maybe throughout the city, and images of crushed corpses obscured with irregular bruising and discolouration, almost always face down. He could not remember when he had last thought about this! Henry rebuked himself, knowing he had greater mental discipline than that which he was currently demonstrating.
It was then he recalled the poor man undoubtedly crushed in the surge as the Crutched Friars walked towards Tower Hill. Within moments he had disappeared from view under the wave of people pressing against the line of soldiers damming them in. Henry asked himself if he could have done more. Probably not, was his gut reaction. What could one man do to stop tens?
To his shame, in the drama that ensued the knight had almost forgotten about that man. A swift stab of guilt lodged in his gut; he had been helpless to prevent death previously, so why, he wondered, was he suddenly so ridden with remorse and uncertainty? Walking with an ease that belied the significance and value of his identity to the authorities in the city, Henry considered the relative balance of saving many people, as he had done through initiative and courage throughout his life, and the loss of one person through inaction and fear. A grimness descended upon his dark brow and his vigour slumped as he remembered the parable of the shepherd and his flock; the shepherd left the flock of ninety-nine sheep to rescue the lost one-hundredth one. He jumped aside to allow an urgently cantering horse and rider through from ahead. Those he had previously saved were the ninety-nine – yet he kept thinking about that man in the crowd, the one-hundredth sheep, how he should have tried to save him. Protection was his reason for living – a Templar knight was to protect Christians everywhere, and yet Henry had left the man through his own dedication to the mission at hand. Yes! The mission; accompany the group through the demonstration, leading to the eventual Templar acquisition of the stone.
Was acquisition of the object, ostensibly for the purposes of protecting the citizens from its awesome power, worth the loss of a man’s life? Guy had been unequivocal in stressing the significance of securing possession of the stone. The experience with the first relic had been horrifying. Yet, did this not mean that Henry had placed the Master in a regard higher than the Lord, Whom had stated that the one-hundredth sheep were to be saved?
That was it, then. Henry would not put earthly commands above the Heavenly example that he knew well. He had not before considered the two to be in conflict, given the work that he had carried out for the Order. The knight was unsure why a division would appear between Heavenly mandate and the Temple’s objectives at this particular juncture in time, but to him it had.
“Please forgive me, Lord,” Henry asked softly as he turned onto Billiter Street, skirting around yet more dazed pedestrians. It was the narrow conduit between Leadenhall and Fenchurch Streets, the thread of industry where the ironmongers and bellmakers cast down their hammers upon the hot metal, hidden away from the rest of the population by the cavernous roofing that converted the street into a tunnel. This route oft gave the English knight thought that the smiths and mongers were honouring the ancient traditions of those cyclopeans who forged in the hearts of the volcano, their craft concealed from prying attention. Today, however, there was no rumbling of thunder or crashing of lighting, no dynamism in the bellmakers’ lane as Henry slipped along the west side of that road. Who would desire to work the unforgiving iron so soon after such an infernal display of destruction by the city’s most infamous metalwork? He steered between passersby who would never normally have walked this path, men and women patently unsuited to the working of metal, on this most exceptional of days, his eyes scanning each face and body for the purposeful resolve to be carried by the King’s soldiery.
Each person came and went, and none were soldiers. Henry reached the end of the eerily silent thoroughfare, at its junction with the heaving Fenchurch Street, a route of significance almost equal that of the Thames. Opposite, Mark Lane beckoned him across that human river and he plunged into the torrent of bodies, attempting to minimise the distress his markedly stronger body would cause to unsuspecting travellers as he bisected their passage. Tired though he was, the solidity of an ascetic knight’s constituency and musculature far exceeded the average labourer’s, particularly if that labourer did not expect to be cut off from the side.
The Templar’s ambition was met with success, for there were no collisions and nary a clipped ankle, save for the trailing leg of a large fellow bouldering westward with no concern for the smaller traffic around him. The large fellow did not fall, though Henry hoped the stumble would impart the importance of ambulatory consideration in crowded streets, for the knight would ever be haunted by memories of selfish, panicked stampeding through city streets incapable of supporting such volumes of traffic.
Mark Lane was a veritable desert by comparison, an oasis of placidity relative to the deluge of its parent channel. The knight moved into the side street with a calm befitting someone going about their innocent business, refusing the temptation to again check both ways on Fenchurch Street for any men-at-arms. Glancing up he saw a few denizens milling about, with less toing and froing here since the static population was greater than on Billiter Street. Ten paces down, a man and a woman stood by a doorway, exchanging quiet words and watching the world go by, a rare luxury at the best of times, but particularly so in the present circumstances. Henry saw opportunities for leads, and would not pass up on them.
“Blessings to you,” he greeted them cheerily, deliberately giving off the impression he was a man simply happy to be alive, which was not too far from the truth.
“Aye, hello,” “Good day,” came the simultaneous replies.
“You look like you’ve been through the mill,” observed the man, turning his head further to better face Henry, observing the light coat of blackened ash that stuck to the knight’s stubble, cheeks and forehead.
“Yes, that’s about right,” Henry replied with a sigh, less forced than he would have liked. “I was caught up in the rush over on Crutched Friars. Terrible. Smoke everywhere.”
Both of his audience nodded and made an agreeing and harmonious “Mmm” sound, returning their gaze back to the soldiers standing around the workshop. The soldiers seemed as uninformed about the situation as did Henry at this point.
“The flames, you could practically see them from here,” the woman stated. “Didn’t know those shops could burn like that.”
“I heard the field was on fire!” the man added incredulously.
Henry nodded. “So did I. Doesn’t make sense. What do you think it is?” he enquired, his reference to the stone implicit to both members of his audience.
“No idea. I haven’t got close enough to see it. Some people say it’s magic, but I don’t think it is. It’s a miracle of some sort, though you always hear about the punishment of people who don’t know how to deal with these miracles, don’t you? You know, when they don’t appreciate what they have and that. God is not happy with them, that’s what I think,” explained the woman, supported in her assertion by further affirmatory “Mmm” sounds from the man beside her.
“I can’t think of any other way of describing it,” Henry agreed. He did think the woman was on to something with her idea. “So how did they manage to fire those things from there?” the Templar asked, having already an explanation in his mind.
“I don’t know,” the woman answered immediately, arms still folded as she watched the inactivity on her street with the fascination of a gossip and the concern of a terrified citizen. “I haven’t seen the soldiers bring anything out. Plus, I’m always in here anyway,” she said as she nodded her head back towards her own house, “so I don’t see too much of who comes and goes out here.”
“I’ve not seen anything either,” added the man, “I mean, I’m just up the road and all but we know them in the shop and it’s not like them – unbelievable, really. If you can’t trust who you thought you could, who can you trust, you know?”
“Mmm,” Henry mused as all three stood watching the nothingness unfolding further down the street, a welcome calm after the violence of the storm that had threatened to engulf the city. “And that sound! I heard it was at the fortress.”
Both glanced at the disguised knight with wide eyes conveying astonishment and horror, the woman shaking her head slowly in disbelief.
“They say it was one of the towers falling down, but I haven’t seen it yet myself,” the woman reported, continuing to shake her head and then taking in a deep breath through her mouth. “I didn’t know catapults made sounds like that,” referring to what Henry knew to be the wall of sound that preceded the gatehouse’s collapse; the latter suspected it had to do with the Godstone.
Henry widened his eyes to imitate shock of his own at the rumour relayed by the woman, and was about to respond when the man piped up.
“We could only get as far as here,” the man began, casting an arm in front of him to indicate the street, “we couldn’t get any closer. By the time the fire began, all we could do was hide indoors, you know. We haven’t seen anything.”
“They hit the fortress from here?” Henry asked rhetorically, not expecting a precise and reasonable answer from these two well-meaning but non-eyewitnesses. “Can’t believe it.”
The man nodded. “Like I said, we couldn’t see anything, but if they’ve come down here, and managed to cause this much trouble… can you imagine? This wouldn’t happen in London, surely.”
Henry acknowledged that the man’s incredulity was well placed; that the Dragons’ reach extended this far into England was testimony to the endless cycle of fighting the king had committed to. Had this island ever known peace? The knight had observed longer periods of calm in the Holy Land than in his homeland.
Regardless, he knew he had to move. El, Maxwell and Abbot Geoffrey were still nowhere to be seen. “Well, I pray they’ve found the troublemakers,” the knight said earnestly yet regretting that El and Maxwell were likely to have been caught in the same net cast for those troublemakers. “God bless.”
“God bless,” “And you, mate,” the woman and man said respectively as they bid him farewell.
The knight pursed his lips together and raised his dark eyebrows in acknowledgement as he set off on a march towards the workshop – Hart Street and Crutched Friars were just off to the left further down Mark Lane. He considered but then immediately dismissed the idea of a ‘safer’ route back up onto Fenchurch Street and round, partially because he was unconcerned about being spotted, and partially because he was so curious about the scene of the crime here on Mark Lane. He needed to know more about what had happened to El and Maxwell.
Keep your enemies closer, the knight thought.
His confidence in his anonymity was justified as none of the seven men-at-arms in the street paid him the blindest notice as the tanned knight sauntered past, allowing Henry freedom to regard the smashed remnants of the front door to the shop. Looking up, he saw a cavernous maw across a large part of the tiled roof, similar to that which he had seen on other buildings en route from the Crutched Friars to the demonstration a few hours before. It all looked so obvious now, and the knight was furious with himself for not having given more consideration to the observation he had made earlier. At the time, he had thought it was simply the number of people up on the roofs that had caused collapses here and there – how often had he succeeded in gathering information when he had suspected the worst! Always prepare for and expect the worst. The knight knew that was the only way in which one could and would not be caught out.
Slowing his walking pace to that of both an interested Templar spy and also, more importantly, an unsuspecting bystander, Henry again considered the doorway to the shop. He deliberated exactly how El would have gained entry to the building given the likelihood of a secure blockade across the front door. He imagined she likely climbed up and through the hole in the roof, such was her adventurous style – but how this was achieved given the overhang of the upper storey and then the lack of obviously extruding scaling points was beyond him. Plus, jumping directly into a hole used as an artillery position would pose innumerable problems.
Henry’s mind was racing, trying to fit all of the pieces together to create a vaguely recognisable mosaic, but so many tiles were missing. How many Dragons had been in that workshop in the first place? And had they been arrested, or had they escaped?
Emboldened by the soldiers’ ignorance of his identity, Henry approached one who looked to be older than the rest, and who carried a more authoritative air about his bearing.
“Excuse me, mate, what’s happened down here? I’ve been down on Crutched Friars, was a nightmare.”
The man-at-arms had grey flecks in his dark hair and pockmarked cheeks coated with harsh stubble. His weary eyes met Henry’s and his stare seemed heavy as if the very act of eye contact with him would burden anyone who attempted it. “There’s a catapult up in there,” he began in a tone that suggested severe and tired distaste for the whole episode. “There’s another place over near Vine Street, I think, too.” The man-at-arms seemed utterly disinterested in Henry, to the latter’s preference and relief.
“Oh, right,” Henry spoke, as innocently as his acting would allow, “did you find who did it?”
“Found a couple. Bloke and a woman. Bloke was already dead, so maybe she lost her nerve,” the man-at-arms answered.
“Well, at least you got two of them,” Henry replied as he attempted to understand how El could have ended up potentially killing someone, perhaps even Maxwell; it was a scenario so unlikely and not to mention unthinkable he wanted to fully disregard it, yet could not, because had now heard this implication from two eyewitness sources.
“We think there are more,” the man-at-arms continued, barely registering Henry’s presence any further. He shifted on his feet and glanced intensely up and down the road, suggesting to his eager questioner that he would rather not be talking to him, or anyone for that matter. There were plenty of passersby who seemed just as curious but the majority lacked the courage to approach the fully armoured soldiers. “Just look out for trouble, alright? These bastards could be anywhere.” The soldier sniffed and spat on the ground before allowing his eyes to resume scanning everyone and everything around him, except for Henry.
“Yes, thanks,” Henry mumbled, effecting a reserved manner in awe of martial authority. He knew there would be no joy and likely only suspicion were he to enquire after the present locations of the female prisoner the soldiers had taken. “Good day and God bless.”
“And you,” concluded the weary man-at-arms, still not making eye contact with one of the most wanted men in the city.
Henry slowly walked back a few paces, checking over the workshop one more time before he turned and recommenced his trek down towards the Crutched Friars to check on the poor Abbot. The traffic around the knight was steadily increasing as the gears of the city’s normal existence slowly ground into life once again after the dramatic interruption, like the spokes on the wheels of the small cart being pulled out of another shop to his right; the hunched man heaved the cart with hands on either handle at a painfully slow rate, so overloaded was it with pottery and so mulched was the mud surface of the street; the mud seemingly trying to suck the wheels down beneath the surface. Henry went over to the man and placed a strong right hand on the right handle.
“Here, you want a hand, mate?”
The hunched man looked up and smiled gently, genuinely delighted to be receiving a hand. “Oh, that’d be great, ta.”
In unison the men pulled at the handles, one for each man, and after not too long pulled it free of its initial rut.
“Thank you,” smiled the hunched man, nodding vigorously in appreciation. His wizened features looked so aged but the joy in his face was infectious, and Henry almost forgot the local London citizen charade he was performing.
“No problem,” the knight cheerfully responded before stepping past and onwards in the direction of St Olave’s church on Hart Street, its spire rising up into the morbid grey ghost of the smoke produced by the recently conquered fire. Every now and then he would hear a cough and a splutter from those hurrying up and down the street, afflicted by the conspicuous scent of smoke that increased the further south one progressed. He was beginning to feel the tickle in his throat that always accompanied inhalation of smoke and he mentally prepared himself to return once again into the heart of the city’s burnt area, though, he hoped, without the same physical stress he experienced on the grass as the demonstration had been cut short.
It was at the junction of Mark Lane and Hart Street where that fog-like ghost of the inexplicably heavy smoke, pumped out by the equally inexplicably potent fire, hung in the air on this most calm of days, for no wind swept forth through London’s narrow streets to cleanse the city’s hive-like layout. Henry coughed and rubbed his eyes again. Here and there floated unidentifiable blackened debris, carried by no wind yet somehow lighter than the air in which it existed. Henry lamented that he had seen the effects of urban conflagration more than once, and every time he imagined the aftermath to be even worse than the actual event itself. Those who survived it were left with the scars of both the experience itself and the comprehension of it, all amidst a grey, dusty environment where nothing seems solid or tangible; all references and pointers to previous lives and existences have been burned away, leaving piles of ash that either collapse upon touch or are simply blown away in the wind.
So did the English knight make his way along Hart Street, passing the church of St Olave on his right, frequently lifting his head to peer through the hazy grey of the air that was penned in by the tall clothiers’ buildings that flanked the street. All about him were moving slowly with no cheer, the polar opposite of what had transpired on this very street and the Crutched Friars just further along only hours before. The traffic on the streets just to the north and west was a great deal more energetic and, as exemplified by the hunched man, upbeat. Such were the effects of proximity to disaster.
It was this proximity to the disaster that reintroduced Henry to the very road where his journey had begun that morning, a complete circuit of misery around the eastern end of the city. Thus turned the wheel of fortune in just a matter of hours, elevating some whilst plunging others into despair. He himself had somehow transpired to end up even lower than he already was to begin with.