September 2 1666
The man coughed again, a deep racking cough that made his chest ache like it had a rock inside and made his lungs burn like the rock was sharp and volcanic. He called himself Fetch. But Fetch was dying. It was time to admit it. He had to get away from here before he was too weak. He had to get back to the Box and return what he had been given before it was lost. He’d only planned to come here briefly anyway.
He sneezed. Blood sprayed the white wall, tiny droplets of red snot. He wondered for a moment whether he really ought to take a line, one of those strange magical doorways that linked time and space. He had the plague. Should he really be carrying such a disease out of 17th Century London? But then could he risk the artefact he carried being lost? He wished he had never come here. It had seemed as good a place to hide as any, London in 1666. He had known that the plague was around but it had seemed like such a distant threat and certainly far less immediate than the threat of the Riven. He was pretty sure that he hadn't been followed and wouldn't be followed. He had hoped that the possibility of disease would be enough to keep both the Riven and Qayin away. It had really been Qayin who had been the biggest threat. The risk of being found by him was ever present, ever unsettling. Fetch had been so sure that he could keep himself safe and healthy here yet now he was coughing up blood and scratching like his skin was covered in ants. He had more than one ‘ring a roses’.
There was a sudden knock at the door and a voice called out. 'Hello, MacGuffin here. Bring out yer dead!”
It was a surprisingly cheerful voice for such a morbid statement.
Fetch moved closer to the door, past the star chart of blood that peppered the wall from his sneezes.
'No dead here,' he growled in a voice that no longer sounded like his own. Another fit of coughing overtook him and he stumbled, sweaty fingers sliding against the door frame as he tried to keep himself upright. He spat a gob of red spit onto the floor.
'You sure?' came MacGuffin's voice from outside. 'You don't sound too well, mate.'
'Go away,' Fetch managed before sneezing and coughing again.
'Come on, mate. Open up. Sounds like you're on your way out and I'll only have to come back later to pick you up. My missus will have finished cookin' pretty soon. You wouldn't want me stew getting cold would ya? She cooks a lovely stew does Mrs MacGuffin but leave it too long and it sets. You could build walls with it.'
Fetch tried to give a recommendation on where Mrs MacGuffin could stick her damn stew but another fit of coughing overtook him as he leant against the door frame. He was coughing so violently that he didn't hear the voice outside.
'To Hell with this. I'm coming in.'
MacGuffin kicked the door hard and with a sudden crash it flew open striking Fetch on the side of the head as he was doubled over coughing. For the tiniest of moments Fetch was aware of falling and then nothingness enveloped him.
MacGuffin stepped over the doorway. He wore a mask with a hideous elongated nose like a beak, packed with lavender and other flowers to try to stop the smell of the dead, and the smell of the plague from reaching him. He stooped to look at the unconscious body on the floor.
'Blimey. Sorry mate!' he said. 'Well, that's sorted it anyway. Looks like Mrs MacGuffin can expect me home for stew after all.'
With some difficulty, for despite the strength of his kick he was not a young or strong man, MacGuffin hefted the floppy body off the floor and slung him over a shoulder. He carried him out onto the muddy street where a cart was waiting, already heaped with a half dozen dead bodies. The smell was horrendous. Flies buzzed around it and maggots wriggled in sores.
Fetch briefly came to as he felt himself thrown down onto the stinking pile of cadavers. As his eyelids fluttered open he saw MacGuffin shut his front door, giving it a tug where the wood had splintered from his kick. He then took a pot and a brush and painted a large red cross on the door before moving back to the cart.
'Right. Let's have a look at you,' said MacGuffin. The barely conscious Fetch felt hands brush his neck and pockets before his hands were raised for inspection.
No, he thought. No. Not the ring. But he couldn't speak. The darkness of unconsciousness beckoned him again. The world went black. The last thing he heard was the curse that MacGuffin whispered to himself as the silver ring was slipped from his finger.
‘Ah, that was a lovely stew that,’ MacGuffin patted his belly appreciatively. ‘Now, I got a little something for you.’
Mrs MacGuffin looked up. ‘You know I’m not keen on taking what you pull off those bodies.’
MacGuffin snorted, ‘What do they care? They’re dead. And how else are we going to afford to live? We’re not getting any younger. I can’t lug these bodies around for ever. Here.’ He placed the ring on the rough table for her to see.
Her expression softened. ‘Oh. Oh well, now that is a pretty piece. Look at that stone.’
‘Hmm,’ said MacGuffin leaning over to inspect it. ‘It seemed brighter before. Oh well, no mind. We should take it and leave London. Go to Kent. Get some green in our lives. Get away from this place.’ He gestured at the rough walls and the dark dingy surroundings.
Mrs MacGuffin picked up the ring, peering at the dun red gemstone. ‘You know there was talk of a fire over to the west today. Sounds like a big one. Maybe we should take this and get out of town for a little bit now.’
‘First thing in the morning,’ said MacGuffin. ‘First thing we’ll go. I got some things to sort out. You head out the gate and I’ll follow. I’ll meet you just outside the city.’
The next morning, Mrs MacGuffin set out from the house without looking back. She was keen to be moving. There was nothing else for her here and she carried little, apart from a single bag with a few things. She wore the ring with the red stone. She had worn it all night so as not to lose it. She had not slept well, a feeling of dread had settled over her and she had felt worried for reasons which she could not define. Although Mr MacGuffin had disappeared early she had forced herself not to hurry but now she was out on the street she could tell that the fire which she had heard about the day before had got worse, although she could not see much from within the narrow streets bordered by tall buildings. But she could smell the smoke and people were rushing. There was not panic in the air, not yet, but the city felt tense, on edge. She could see the fear in the faces that passed her. The day was dark.
She wove quickly through the maze of dirty streets which were rapidly clearing of people. As she approached the city walls, away from the tight passageways of the inner city, she saw that the situation here was worse. Much worse. The number of people suddenly increased. Everyone was here heading out of the city. The fire must have been worse than she had thought. As she came out from the narrow alleyways she was able to turn and see the city for the first time. She gasped in disbelief, her hand fluttering to her chest. The fire was huge. She turned, looking across the horizon at the flames. She couldn’t make her head understand the scale of it. The smoke covered the whole sky. No wonder it had been darker than usual in the streets as she had come through. Suddenly, seeing the inferno which had been at her back, the vague worry which had bothered her all night crystallised into a pure icy fear. She turned back towards the gate, putting the fire behind her, and joined the flow of people streaming away from London like rats from a sinking ship. She had seen many fires eat their way through parts of the City but his was, she realised, the fire that London would talk about for hundreds of years to come. This was one for the history books. As she tried to hurry along with everyone else she thought she saw MacGuffin ahead of her as the crowd became thicker and she called out to him. But there were too many people and too much noise. Panic was starting to set in. It was as though it was catching, spreading amongst the people like the flames behind them spread amongst the buildings. She saw the man she thought was her husband squeeze through the crowd and out of the gate. She hastened towards the exit and where she thought she had seen him as the shoving and pushing got worse.
But as she neared the wall she saw guards step up and heave the gates closed, shoving people back to bring the doors together before barring the exit and drawing weapons. Immediately a cry went up from the thick crowd.
‘Let us out.’
The guards looked grim. ‘Go back and fight that fire,’ one shouted, only barely making himself heard over the din. ‘We need everyone to go back and put it out. If everyone leaves the whole city will go up.’
This only caused the shouts from the crowd to grow louder and the press to become harder. Anger flared suddenly, replacing fear. The crush of people now ebbed and flowed and Mrs MacGuffin found that she was unable to choose which direction to go in, or even which direction to face. She was simply forced to move with the crowd as it surged, her arms bent with her hands together pressed against her chest. There was a sudden push forward and she hurried to move with it but did not have the space to move her feet at anything more than a shuffle and the thrust from the crowd was too quick. Her foot caught and then her feet weren’t on the floor so tight was the press. And then she fell.
Terror hit her immediately, like the shock of a fall into a frozen lake. She did not hit the floor hard but she knew that she would not be able to get to her feet by herself. It was dark on the ground and it felt like there wasn’t enough air to breathe. She felt the impact of feet as she was stepped upon as the crowd moved over her. She felt oddly detached as though she were no more than a log under a swarm of ants. Some part of her head knew this was painful but she wasn’t prepared to admit it to herself yet. But then a boot connected sharply with her face, causing her head to snap back. Stars sparkled around the edge of her vision. Coloured stars in the darkness. In that moment she was sure she was going to die.
She managed to reach a hand out from under herself and pushed her arm up in the air, hoping someone would see it and pull her up. But she was starting to feel dizzy and sick. There was a jolt as a hand touched her own but it moved away again as the direction of the crowd changed. She lay unable to move, her head down, an arm extended upwards. Then she felt a body fall on her, then another and another. She couldn’t tell if more fell or if some moved. She could not see and all she could feel was the weight of bodies on top of her. She wasn’t even sure whether her eyes were open now or not. She struggled to breathe. As she waited the seconds seemed to stretch out for ever. She was going to die here. Pinned to the floor by a weight of human bodies which could not be moved.
An elbow or something equally pointed and bony pushed into her stomach. Someone pushed on her head for leverage. This was the end she was sure. But then, magically, marvellously, some light filtered down and she was pulled up, up, like a drowning person moving towards the surface of a stormy sea. Finally, she was able to take in a breath. A young man dragged her up and away. He had to shove and fight his way through, but eventually they came to the end of the crowd and, nearly falling as they left the press, they managed to get over to the edge of the terrible mass of people. She saw her rescuer was helped by another youth and, and a, Mrs MacGuffin rubbed at her eye which wasn’t swollen, and a bearded dwarf in a yellow dress. He was very strange-looking with rounded eyes and a bulbous nose. But too sore and too relieved to care she let the strange trio set her down on a step.
‘Thank... thank... thank you’ she managed to say to the youth who had rescued her. ‘I am … thank you.’ She gave him a weak smile. At that moment her neighbour, Old Thomas Bailess, hurried over, looking worried.
'Mrs MacGuffin, are you okay? Thank goodness this gentleman was there to help,' he said with a look of fear and concern under his mop of black hair.
'Yes, I'll be fine,’ she managed before turning to her rescuer ‘Thank you young man. You saved my life.’ She couldn’t say why but at that moment, with the smoky, hazy sun behind him she just felt drawn to this youth. It just felt right to pass him the one thing she had of any value, even though it was her ticket out, a way out of being poor. She had been so certain that she was about to die. That her time had come. That the grim reaper had decided this was the end.
Here,' she slipped the ring with the red stone from her finger and held it out to her rescuer. 'Take it as a thank you.'
The youth smiled. 'No, honestly. I don't need anything. I'm just glad you're not too badly hurt.'
His voice was strange. As accent she didn’t recognise. Who was this young man? Even his clothes were unusual.
The sudden caw of a large crow sitting on a roof nearby made them all jump and turn.
The bearded dwarf in the yellow dress patted the youth on the shoulder. ‘I think she'll be fine. We should move,’ he said and with smiles they drifted off.
Mrs MacGuffin shooed Old Thomas away and took a few moments on the step to compose herself. Now that the moment had passed it felt so strange that she should have considered simply giving away such a precious thing as the ring and to such a strange group of people. It had just, for a moment, felt so important that the young man should have it. Oh well, she needed to find another way to meet up with that fool of a husband of hers. She stood, wincing. Now that she had had a few minutes to calm down her body was starting to tense and stiffen. Her bruised eye was almost swollen shut and her head hurt like, well, like she had been kicked and stamped on. It was a miracle that she wasn’t more badly hurt. Clearly, today was not her day to die.
She could think of no better plan than heading for one of the other ways out of the city. She couldn’t stay here that was sure so, as quickly as her bruises allowed, she hurried away from the crowd of people that had nearly killed her. She looked up towards where London burned in the great fire. A rock and a hard place and no mistake, she thought to herself. Still, she was alive thanks to that nice young man. She wouldn't be going back that way again.
Even though she wasn't close to the fire she could feel the terrible heat of it now. Flames seemed to have engulfed much of the city. They would be reading about this in the history books and no mistake. She hurried up a narrow cobbled street, dodging the piles of rubbish strewn in the gutters. There was no-one around. Everyone seemed to have abandoned this part of London. She looked up at the incredible column of smoke in the narrow patch of sky framed by the houses that leant over towards each other. It was, she thought, the biggest thing she had ever seen.
So intent was she on the black pillar above her that she did not notice the man in the black cloak step into the street in front of her. She collided with him and fell back, landing on her backside in the filth of the street. The man in the black cloak did not flinch.
She looked up at him crossly, feeling her bruises and scrapes complaining anew. She was about to complain about how bad this day was when she saw something that caused her to shut her mouth firmly and look down at the ground. She couldn’t believe what she had just seen. Fire had flickered across this man’s fingertips. Actual fire on his hands yet he showed no sign of pain. She noticed from a corner of her eye that there was a fresh outbreak of fire in one of the buildings nearby. She hazarded another look at the black-cloaked man and a new wave of fear washed over her. She didn’t dare move and she looked back at the floor hoping she was beneath the notice of this man, whoever he was. It seemed that the gates of hell must have been opened. She couldn't imagine any reason why a man should be able to hold fire like that and not be burned. Had the reaper decided it was her time after all, that she shouldn’t have made it out of that baying crowd?
A shadow fell across her and she risked another glance up at him. Framed as he was by the smoke and devastation of the fire behind him he did indeed look like some demon escaped from the bowels of the earth. However, he held out a hand as if to pull her to her feet. Fire no longer licked along his fingers as it had before. Perhaps she had been mistaken.
Anxious not to offend she reached up and the man easily pulled her up. She could feel the strength of him. He was a brute and no mistake. One of his meaty hands easily encircled both of hers. As she gained her balance the man did not relinquish her hand but turned her hand painfully, hurting her fingers and wrist.
'What do we have here?'
He stared intently at her hand where she wore the ring that MacGuffin had given her.
'Where did you get this?' he said puzzled, almost as if to himself.
'Please, sir. My husband gave it to me. It is all I have.'
'Well, well. What are the chances?' said the man.
He wrenched it from her finger and held it up before him. And then he laughed. That laugh was, she thought, the most horrible thing she had ever heard. The man lifted the ring to the light. Its silver glint and dull red gemstone catching what little light filtered into the dim street. Then he put it on his finger.
Immediately the red stone, dun before, blazed into life, its light a mini Sun in the shadows. The man laughed again. She shrank back in fear. A wizard. He must be a terrible wizard. As she cowered another strange thing happened. Two enormous mangy black crows flew down and settled on the man's shoulders. They were the largest crows she had ever seen. The man looked at them in delight.
One of the birds stared at her whilst the other bent its head and croaked softly in the man's ear. A look of surprise crossed his face.
She found her voice then. In her terror she found that it suddenly seemed important to know who this man was.
'Who are you?' she whimpered. 'What are you?'
The man turned back to look down at her as she crouched against the wall. He pointed a hand at her and she began to feel a terrible pressure in her arms and legs as if suddenly cart horses were trying to pull her apart. She could not believe that she had escaped the fire and then the crowd only to run into this demon. The agony was everything but she had enough presence of mind to frame the impression that the man spoke to the birds, not her, when he said the last words she would ever hear.
'Ferus. My name is Ferus.'