"The modern world has given way to a nightmare realm in which creatures from myths and legends roam the land. A resurgent Christian Church has resurrected both the Knights Templar and the Inquisition to battle evil, yet they lack the resources possessed by only one group—the practitioners of an older religion. From the ranks of the Templars, a cynical mercenary becomes the first of five champions to carry on the battle against the darkness despite his unbelief. Chadbourn's series opener continues where his "Age of Misrule" trilogy left off, introducing a new group of champions to continue the fight for humanity in a world left to the mercy of the gods. VERDICT This powerful, well-informed epic fantasy based on Celtic legends should appeal to a wide readership."
“Chadbourn does a fine job of showing how religion can easily become corrupted by the agendas of unstable fundamentalists, and that blind faith in leaders—or anything—will get you killed.” --SFSite
The Devil in Green
The Dark Age: Book 1
Also by Mark Chadbourn
The Dark Age:
The Devil in Green
The Queen of Sinister
The Hounds of Avalon
The Age of Misrule:
CHRONICLES OF THE FALLEN WORLD
One night, the world we knew slipped quietly away. Humanity awoke to find itself in a place mysteriously changed. Fabulous Beasts soared over the cities, their fiery breath reddening the clouds. Supernatural creatures stalked the countryside—imps and shape-shifters, blood-sucking revenants, men who became wolves, or wolves who became men, strange beasts whose roars filled the night with ice; and more, too many to comprehend. Magic was alive and in everything.
No one had any idea why it happened—by order of some Higher Power, or a random, meaningless result of the shifting seasons of Existence—but the shock was too great for society. All faith was lost in the things people had counted on to keep them safe—the politicians, the law, the old religions. None of it mattered in a world where things beyond reason could sweep out of the night to destroy lives in the blink of an eye.
Above all were the gods—miraculous beings emerging from hazy race memories and the depths of ancient mythologies, so far beyond us that we were reduced to the level of beasts, frightened and powerless. They had been here before, long, long ago, responsible for our wildest dreams and darkest nightmares, but now that they were back they were determined to stay forever. In the days after their arrival, as the world became a land of myth, these gods battled for supremacy in a terrible conflict that shattered civilisation. Death and destruction lay everywhere.
Blinking and cowed, the survivors emerged from the chaos of this Age of Misrule into a world substantially changed, the familiar patterns of life gone: communications devastated, anarchy ranging across the land, society thrown into a new Dark Age where superstition held sway. Existence itself had been transformed: magic and technology now worked side by side. There were new rules to observe, new boundaries to obey, and mankind was no longer at the top of the evolutionary tree.
A time of wonder and terror, miracles and torment, in which man’s survival was no longer guaranteed.
IN THESE TIMES
“It is not bad luck, but right and just that you have found yourselves travelling this road, far from the beaten track followed by others. It is right that you should learn all things and develop the unshakeable heart of well-rounded truth, unlike the opinions of men that contain no truth at all. You shall learn how mere appearances seem as though they actually exist.
The weight of a man’s soul is greatest in the dark hours before dawn. On a night when even the moon and stars were obscured, Mallory carried the burden of his own intangible more heavily than ever. He was in the thrall of an image, a burst of fire in the night like the purifying flame of some Fabulous
Beast. It was clear when he closed his eyes, floating ghostly across his consciousness when he opened them, both mysterious and haunting. Yet a deeply buried part of him knew exactly what it meant, and that same part would never allow it to be examined.
He had briefly been distracted by the passage of a man in his midtwenties who looked unusually frail, as if gripped by some wasting illness. He was hunched over the neck of his horse, buffeted by a harsh wind hurling the first cold stones of rain. Autumn was drawing in. Mallory was protected from the elements in his Porsche, which he had reversed behind a hedgerow so that it couldn’t be seen from the road; he’d felt the need to clear his head before continuing on to his destination.
Briefly, he caught his reflection in the rearview mirror: shoulder-length brown hair framing a good-looking face that took its note from an ironic disposition. It sent a shiver through him, and he looked quickly away.
Obliquely, Mallory wondered if Salisbury was no longer there, like the rumours he had heard of Newcastle and some of the villages in the Scottish borders. The night had been so impenetrable as he drove south that the whole world could have been wiped away.
If he’d had a choice in the matter, he would have travelled in daylight. The countryside was filled with gangs armed with shotguns and knives, raiding villages and the outskirts of towns for food; life had become infinitely more brutal since everything had turned sour. But it was the other things that cast more disturbing shadows across life. The silhouettes of little men moving slowly across the open fields under the stars. The thing he’d glimpsed up close once, emerging from an abandoned pig farm: eyes like saucers, scales that glinted in the moonlight and fingers that were too, too long. It only confirmed the stories that kept everyone confined to their homes once the sun set: the night didn’t belong to man
Mallory watched the traveller’s slow progress and wondered obliquely what was on his mind.
The rider bowed his head into the rising storm, pulling his waterproof cloak tighter around him as the gusts of wind threatened to unseat him. Seeking shelter was undoubtedly the wise thing to do, but the hard weight of his fear wouldn’t let him. To rest in a place where he could be cornered was more than he could bear to consider; at least on the road he had the chance to flee. Single-minded determination was the only thing that kept him going. He didn’t even glance behind him, because he knew his imagination would conjure faces in the trees and hedgerows, the rustling noises of pursuit, the presence of something coming up hard to drag him from his horse.
Nothing there, he told himself.
He’d planned his journey to skirt Salisbury Plain—it was a no-man’s-land and anyone who was stupid enough to venture in never came out again—yet even the surrounding countryside felt unbearably dangerous. But if he made it to Salisbury, it would all be worth it. Finally: salvation, redemption, hope.
The thunder made him start so sharply that he almost jumped from the saddle. It was the roar of a giant beast bearing down on him. The lightning came a few seconds later, turning the inky fields and clustering trees to stark white.
Nothing there, he confirmed with relief.
To his right, the stern mount of Old Sarum rose up in silhouette. Soon he might see a few flickering lights—candles, probably, to light loved ones home. Perhaps someone had even got a store of oil to keep a generator running. He was surprised at how much that simple thought gave him a thrill.
More thunder, another flash of light. His thighs were numb beneath sodden denim; he couldn’t feel his fingers. He wished it were still high summer.
The wind deadened his ears and started to play tricks on him. A gust eddying around the cochlea became a song performed by a string quartet; a breeze penetrating deeper was the whisper of an old friend. The blood banging around inside his head only added to the dislocation that made him ignore his most vital night sense. When the high-pitched whistle came, it was nothing more than the protest of the trees’ uppermost branches.
The second time the whistle rose, he clung on to the desensitised state protecting him from the night fears; but the third blast gave him little space to hide: it was closer, and had an insistence that suggested purpose. Even then he couldn’t bring himself to look around. He gave a futile spur to the horse, but its weariness made it immune. Even his illusion of having the freedom to escape had been taken from him.
A whistle is nothing to be scared of, he told himself, while at the same time picturing the bands of skinhead men with blue tattoos and dead eyes, signalling to each other that it was time for the attack. He was armed for defence, but he wasn’t ready; he never had been a violent man, but he could learn to change. The kitchen knife was in a makeshift scabbard of insulating tape against his thick hiking socks and the cricket bat with the nails hammered through it was slung over his back in a loop of washing line. Which would be the best for use on horseback?
The whistle became insistent and continual, the high-pitched screech somehow unnatural, not the product of men or musical instrument. Suddenly it was all he could hear, and it was like nothing he had ever heard before. It was growing louder, the unfortunate pitch making him feel sick and disoriented; he wanted to plug his ears or sing loudly to drown it out.
Instead, he forged on. So near to Salisbury, with its medieval cathedral rising up to proclaim the majesty of God, with its ordered streets, its gentility, its cafés and pubs, intelligence and history. Salisbury, the New Jerusalem in the West.
Whistling is nothing compared to what I’ve been through, he thought, but the notion only made him feel worse.
As the road drove down steeply, the trees drew in to create a funnel channelling the blasting wind. He felt like ice, and not just because of the weather. To add to his discomfort, the rain started, quickly becoming a downpour.
Shortly before he passed the first stretch of abandoned houses, he allowed his gaze—stupidly—to wander away to the field on his right. A flash of lightning brought it up like snow: across it dark shapes bounded; not men.
He raced through the possibilities of what he might have seen, but nothing matched the reality and the impossibilities were infinitely more terrifying. Salisbury grew distant.
The whistling pierced deep into his brain, no longer a single sound but a chorus of alien voices. Now he wanted to claw at his ears until they bled. It was a hunting call.
He urged himself not to look around, but the magnetism was irresistible. Tears blurred his eyes as he turned, and he had to blink them away before he could see what was closing in on him. Another flash of lightning. Across the countryside, the shapes fluttered eerily like paper blown in the wind, drawing in on the road; some were already amongst the nearby trees, dancing around the boles or swinging from the branches. Their whistling grew louder as they neared, scores of them, perhaps even more than a hundred. They had his scent.
He dug his heels hard into the weary horse’s flanks, but all he could get out of it was a burst of steaming breath and a shake of sweat. A cry caught in his throat. He wanted to wish himself somewhere else, he wanted his parents, but the shakes that swept through him drove everything away.
Though the blasting wind made his eyes sting, he kept his gaze fixed on the wet road ahead, but soon his peripheral vision was picking up motion. He was caught in a pincer movement. Some of them could have had him then, but they were waiting for the others to catch up. Briefly, the hellish whistling faded, but that was only because it was drowned beneath the constant low shriek that rolled out of his own mouth. Dignity no longer mattered, only his poor, pathetic life.
And then the things were at the side of the road, tracking the horse with wild bounds. With rolling eyes and flaring nostrils, his mount found some reservoir of energy.
In a brief instant of lucidity, he remembered the cricket bat. His panic made him yank at it so wildly that the clothesline caught around his neck. Frantically, he tried to rip it free, but it was plastic and wouldn’t break. His actions became even more lunatic until, miraculously, the makeshift weapon came loose. He whirled, ready to beat off the first of the wave.
One of the things was already at his side. It moved with the easy grace and awkwardness of a monkey, long arms flipping it forward as fast as the horse could gallop. It had orange-red fur like an orangutan and it reeked of rotting fish. Then it turned its head toward him and it had the face of a child.
It said, in its infant voice, “Your mother has cancer. You will never see her again.”
He almost fell from the horse in shock. A thought . . . a secret fear . . . plucked from the depths of his mind. The creature bared its teeth—a horrifying image in the innocent face—and then launched itself at him. He brought the bat down sharply, but as the creature caught on to the saddle its long arm snaked up, snatched the bat from his grip, and snapped it in two with the force of one hand.
His shrieks rose above the wind as he attempted to slap the thing away with the hand that wasn’t clutching the reins. It was an emasculated gesture, filled with hopelessness; the creature didn’t even attempt to defend itself. It brought its young-boy face up closer and the big eyes blinked. As he stared into their depths, he was sickened by the incongruous sight of something hideously old and filled with ancient fury. The beast bared its teeth again, ready to attack.
He threw back his head and cried out to God. In a burst of blind luck, his flailing arms caught the creature under the chin just as it jumped and it flipped head over tail behind him. It did him little good; the other beasts were already preparing to rush in.
Above the wind and the whistling came the throaty rumble of a car engine. At first he barely recognised it, so lost to his terror was he; and it had been an age since he had heard that sound. But as it roared closer and bright light splayed all around him, he looked back in disbelief. Twin beams cut a swathe through the creatures as they scrambled to avoid the light. Whoever was driving floored the pedal, swerving across the road to hit the beasts slowest at getting out of the way. He winced: their screams actually sounded like those of small children.
A body slammed across the hood, leaving a deep dent. Another turned part of the windshield to frost. Others were flattened, midscream, beneath the wheels.
The headlights burned toward him as the car accelerated. He wasn’t going to be torn apart by a pack of supernatural creatures, he was going to be run down in a world where you rarely saw a car anymore. The irony didn’t really have much time to register.
At the last moment, the car swerved until it was running alongside him. The black Porsche was still bright with showroom gleam. His mount jumped and shied in terror, almost throwing him under the wheels.
The passenger window slid down electronically and Mallory leaned across the seat while steering blindly; the rider squinted to make out his face. “Are you doing this for sport?” Mallory called out.
The rider gave a comical goldfish gulp, his comprehension flowing treacle-thick. Mallory shook his head dismissively, then readjusted the wheel as the car drifted dangerously close to the horse. “You’d better get off that and get in here,” he called again.
His words broke through the rider’s fug. Along the weed-clogged pavement the creatures were jumping up and down, their whistling unbearably shrill and threatening. The horse didn’t want to be reined in, but the rider slowed it enough to dismount, wincing as he landed awkwardly on his left ankle. Mallory brought the Porsche to a screeching halt and flung the passenger door open. The rider gazed worriedly after his departing mount until Mallory yelled, “It’ll be fine. It’s not horse meat they’re after. You’ve got about two seconds to get in—”
The rider dived in and slammed the door. The creatures bounded closer in fury; it seemed as if they might even risk the light. As the car jolted off with a spin of wheels, the rider threw his head forward into his hands, sobbing, “Thank God.”
“Don’t thank Him yet. I’ve been running on empty for the last mile or so. We’ll never make it to Salisbury.” The rider noted Mallory’s expensive black overcoat that looked as new as the car and couldn’t mask his discomfort that both had plainly been looted.
Mallory checked over his shoulder before reversing the Porsche at high speed, eventually swinging it around sharply through a hundred and eighty degrees. The rider clutched his stomach and groaned. “Now, let’s see if we can get some of those bastards.” Indecent pleasure crackled through Mallory’s voice.
He hit the accelerator, popped the clutch, and at the same time launched the car toward the edge of the road. Golden sparks showered all around as the undercarriage raked up the curb. The rider squealed as the expensive car tore through long grass and bushes, then squealed more as the creatures failed to get out of the way. They slammed against the already fractured windshield, their bodies bursting to coat the glass with blood so black it resembled ink.
The beasts were too intelligent to be victims for long. One of them dropped from an overhanging branch, clutching on to the windshield with its phenomenally long arms. It fumbled for the spot where the glass was most frosted and hammered sharply. Tiny cubes showered over the rider, who threw up his hands to protect himself. The creature drove its arm through the hole it had created and clawed toward his face. The rider squealed again like a teenage girl and attempted to scramble into the back of the car. His eyes fixed on a shotgun lying across the rear seat just as Mallory shouted, “Use the gun!”
The creature tore chunks out of the windshield and thrust its head partway into the car. The black eyes ranged wildly in the freckled, pink-cheeked face, the teeth snapping furiously.
“I can’t use a gun!” the rider shrieked.
“Give it here!” Mallory said with irritation. “It’s already loaded.”
The rider snatched up the shotgun and threw it at the driver as if it were red hot. Mallory cursed before grabbing it, and then in one simple movement he shouldered it, aimed, and pulled the trigger. The thunderous blast in the confines of the car made their ears ring. The creature’s faceless body flapped at the windshield like a piece of cloth before the air currents dragged it away behind.
The cold night air rushing through the hole cleared the rider’s senses. “Where can we go?” he whimpered.
Mallory accelerated from the trees along the road out of Salisbury. He pointed to the silhouette of Old Sarum towering over the landscape.
The car died on them on the steep slope to the parking lot between the high banks of prehistoric ramparts constructed for defence more than 2,500 years earlier. Jumping into the driving rain, Mallory and the rider headed along the road, which ran straight for around four hundred and fifty feet to a wooden bridge across a deep inner ditch. Beyond were the ruins of the Norman castle built in the heart of the Iron Age hill-fort. Although the car hadn’t taken them far, they’d earned themselves enough breathing space to cover the remaining distance on foot.
“Shouldn’t be long till dawn,” Mallory said as they ran, head down against the deluge. “They’ll leave us alone at first light.”
The rider was finding it hard to keep up with his twisted ankle. “How do you know?”
“Are you sure we’ll find somewhere to hide out up there?”
“No, but we haven’t got much choice, have we? Unless you want to stand and fight?”
The rider didn’t answer.
They came to the wooden bridge barred by a gate with signs warning of the dangers of crumbling ancient monuments. Mallory laughed, then hauled himself over, yanking the rider behind him.
The whistling assailed them as they ran through the broken remains of the gatehouse; the wild shapes were already loping along the road past the parking lot. Lightning revealed the bleak interior of the inner bailey: a flimsy wooden ticket office and shop to their right, and then a wide expanse of sodden grass and ruins that were barely more than four feet high in most places.
“Shit, fuck and bastard,” Mallory said.
The rider whimpered. “What do we do now?”
“Firstly, you stop getting on my nerves by whining. Secondly . . .” Mallory scanned the site as best he could in the storm, then with a resigned sigh broke into a run. The rider jumped and followed, looking over his shoulder so much that he slipped and fell several times.
Mallory picked out the shattered block of the keep on the far side of the inner bailey. It was useless for any kind of serious defence, but it was the best place to make a stand until the shotgun shells ran out. They found an area protected on three sides by the only remaining high walls on the site, which also served to shelter them from the worst of the storm.
“We’re going to die,” the rider moaned.
“Yep.” Mallory began to count out the remaining cartridges; there weren’t as many as he had thought.
“You don’t seem bothered!”
Through an iron grille, Mallory could just make out frantic activity near the gateway. He positioned the shotgun to pick off one or two as they advanced across the open space, then waited. After five minutes it was clear the things weren’t coming in.
“They’ve stayed at the gate.” Even as Mallory spoke, the wind picked up the insistent whistling, now moving around the ramparts as if searching for access. It became increasingly sharp, frustrated. Mallory sank back down into the lee of the wall.
“Why aren’t they coming in?” The rider looked at Mallory accusingly, as if he were lying.
“I don’t know,” Mallory snapped. “Maybe they don’t like the décor.”
It was so dark in their defensive position that they could only see the pale glow of their faces and hands. Above and around them, the wind howled mercilessly, drowning out their ragged breathing but not the whistling, which, though muted, still set their teeth on edge.
After a while, they’d calmed down enough to entertain conversation.
“I’m Jez Miller.” The rider appeared keen for some kind of connection, comfort, someone to tell him things weren’t as bad as he feared, though he realised instinctively he was talking to the wrong person.
“It’s lucky you came along when you did.”
“That’s one way of looking at it.” Mallory examined Miller surreptitiously. Though in his midtwenties, he had the face of a man twenty years older, lined through screwing up his features in despair, hollow-cheeked from lack of sustenance, made worse by scruffy shoulder-length hair already turning grey.
“Where did you get the car?” Miller asked, plucking at his sodden trousers.
“Stole it. In Marlborough.”
Miller thought for a second until the realisation hit him. “You drove across Salisbury Plain!” An uninterested silence hung in the dark. “You don’t see many cars these days. Everyone’s trying to save petrol, for emergencies.”
“It was an emergency. I had to get out of Marlborough. Dull as ditchwater, that place.”
Miller couldn’t read Mallory at all and that plainly made him uncomfortable. “So you were going to Salisbury?”
“I heard they were hiring down at the cathedral. At least, that’s the word going around. Thought I’d take a look.”
Miller started in surprise. “Me too!” Excitedly, he scrabbled around to face Mallory. “You’re going to be a knight?”
“If the pay’s right. These days food, drink, and shelter would probably swing it.”
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard! I thought the Church had gone the same way as everything else. You know, with all that’s been happening . . .” He struggled for a second. “With the gods . . . what they call gods . . . all that happening every day . . . all the time . . . people said there wasn’t any need for a Church. Why should you believe in a God who never shows up when all that’s going on around you? That’s what they said.”
“You a Christian, then?”
“I wasn’t particularly. I mean, I was christened, but I never went to church. I’m a Christian now. God’s the only one who can save us.” Miller slipped his fingers around the crucifix he’d picked up from the broken window of the jeweller’s.
“Well, it’s not as if we can save ourselves.”
Miller wrinkled his brow at the odd tone in Mallory’s voice. “You don’t believe.”
“I don’t believe in anything.”
“How can you say that?”
Mallory gave a low laugh. “Everyone else is doing a good job believing. You said it yourself—miracles all over the place. I’m the only unbeliever in a born-again world.” He laughed louder, amused at the concept.
“But how can you work for the Church . . . how can you be a knight?”
“They’re paying men to do a job—to protect their clerics. The new Knights Templar. That sounds like a good deal. A bit of strong-arm stuff here and there, nothing too taxing. These days, it’s all scratching in the fields to feed the masses, or making things, or sewing—all the rubbish people think’s necessary to get us back on our feet. If I had a list of ways to spend my remaining days, planting potatoes would not be on it.”
“They won’t have you.”
“I’m betting they will. They’ll have anybody they can get, these days.”
Mallory grunted. “We’ll see.”
Miller scratched on the floor, listening to the rise and fall of the whistling as it moved around the ramparts. “What are they?” he asked eventually.
“Where did all these things come from?”
“One of my mates saw a dragon.” When Mallory didn’t respond, Miller pressed on, “Why are we being made to suffer like this?”
“You say made as if there’s some intelligence behind it. The sooner you accept there isn’t, the easier your life will be. Things happen, you deal with them and move on to the next. That’s the way it goes. You’re not being victimised. You don’t have to lead some deviantly perfect lifestyle just to get a reward in some next life. You make the most of what you’ve got here. It’s about survival.”
“If that’s all there is, what’s the point?”
Mallory’s laugh suggested that the answer was ridiculously obvious.
Miller became depressed by Mallory’s attitude. Everything about Miller said he wanted to be uplifted, to be told there was some meaning to all the suffering everyone was going through. “Is Marlborough your home?”
“No.” Mallory considered leaving it there, but then took pity on Miller. “London. I wasn’t born there, but that’s where I spent most of my life.”
“Is it true the whole place has been destroyed? That’s what people say.”
“I got out before the shit hit the fan. Went north. Birmingham for a while.” His voice trailed away.
“No family?” Mallory’s silence told Miller this was a question too far. “I’m from Swindon,” Miller continued, to fill the gap. “My mum and dad are still there, and my sister. I suppose I could have stuck it out, too. Life isn’t so bad. People are pulling together, setting up systems. They’ve just about got the food distribution sorted out. I reckon they should get through this winter OK.” He paused as the harsh memories returned. “Not like last winter.”
The thoughts stilled him for a while, but he found it hard to deal with the pauses that magnified the dim whistling outside. “I had to get out in the end. My girlfriend, Sue . . . we were going to get married, been in love for ages . . . couldn’t imagine being with anyone else.” His voice took on a bleak tone. “Then one day she dumped me, just like that. Said she was moving in with this complete moron
. . . a thug . . . God knows what sort of things he was involved in. And she’d always hated him, that was the mad thing! But she said he made her feel safe.”
“These are dangerous times. People do what they have to, to survive.”
“But I didn’t make her feel safe, you know?” Miller made no attempt to hide his devastation; he reminded Mallory of a child, emotional, almost innocent.
“That’s what made you decide to come down here, to sign up?”
Mallory obviously wasn’t really interested; it was a friendly gesture, but after the rigours of the night it felt to Miller as if Mallory had clapped his arms around him. “Partly. I mean, I’d been thinking about it for a long time. I knew I wanted to do something. To give something back. So many people were making sacrifices for the greater good and I didn’t feel as if I was doing anything at all. I know you don’t believe, but it felt as if God had put us through all this suffering and spared some of us for a reason.”
Mallory made a faint derisive noise.
“No, really. Sometimes when you sit back and think about it, you can see patterns.”
“There aren’t any patterns, just illusions of patterns. It’s the human condition to join the dots into something cohesive when all there is . . . is a big mass of dots.”
“I can’t believe that, Mallory. When you see some of the goodness that has come out of all this . . . the goodness people have exhibited to others. They could have wallowed in self-preservation.” His voice became harder as he went on, “Just done things to survive, like you said.”
“Well, I’m not going to try to change your mind.”
Miller’s shoulders sagged so that the rainwater ran from his crown to drip into his lap. He suddenly looked burdened by some awful weight. “It’s hard to be scared all the time, do you know what I mean? Life was difficult enough before everything changed, but now there’s just . . . threat . . . everywhere, all the time. It wears you down.” He trembled with a deep, juddering sigh. “Why isn’t the
government doing something? Where’s the army, the police?”
“I don’t think they exist anymore.”
“But if it’s left to people like us, what’s going to become of us all?”
Mallory couldn’t answer that.
They sat in silence for a while until Mallory said, “Well, it’s not all bad.”
“What do you mean?” Miller mumbled.
“No more Stars in Their Eyes.”
Miller brightened. “Or Euro-disco.”
“Or public-school boys getting drunk at Henley, or . . .” He made an expansive gesture, just caught in a flash of lightning. The depressive mood evaporated with their laughter.
It was echoed by another laugh away in the dark, only this one was an old man’s, low and throaty. Miller yelped in shock, pushing himself back until he felt the stones hard against him. The shotgun clattered as Mallory scraped it up and swung it in an arc, waiting for another sound to pinpoint the target.
“I’ve got a gun,” he said.
The laugh sounded again, slow and eerie, though with a faint muffled echo as if it were coming through the wall.
“Who’s there?” Miller whined. He shivered at the haunting, otherworldly quality of the laughter.
“My names are legion,” the old man said.
Miller started to whimper the Lord’s Prayer.
“He’s playing with you,” Mallory said. “Aren’t you?”
The old man laughed again. “No fooling you, Son of Adam.”
“No!” Miller said. “He’s lying! It is the Devil! And he always lies!” “There are devils and there are devils,” the old man snorted. “You must know the Devil by the deed.”
Miller hugged his knees to his chest. “What are you?”
“Not of the Sons of Adam.” The statement was simple, but edged with an unaccountable menace.
Not wishing to antagonise whatever was nearby, Mallory’s tone became slightly less offensive. “What do you want?”
“The question, more likely, is what do you want? My home has looked out over this place since before your kind rose up.”
“We didn’t realise,” Miller protested. “We don’t want to trespass—”
“We’re sheltering,” Mallory said. “We’ll be gone at first light, if that’s all right with you.”
“Perhaps it isn’t and perhaps it is. I would have to say, in this day and age I’m not wholly sure where the boundaries lie. You may be trespassing, and then again you may not.”
“We’ll pay you,” Miller said. “Anything!”
“No.” Mallory’s voice was sharp, cutting Miller dead.
“You’re very cautious,” the old man said slyly, “but are you as wise as you seem, I wonder?”
Mallory replaced the shotgun on the floor, instinctively knowing it was useless. “You like questions—”
“I like questions and games and riddles because that’s what everything is about, is it not? One big riddle, and you trying to find out what the answer is.” He chuckled. “Trying to find out what the question is.”
“And you have all the answers, I suppose,” Mallory said.
“Many, many, many. Not all, no. But more than you, Son of Adam.”
The wind dropped a little, the crashing rain becoming a mere patter. Mallory remained tense. “Do you want something of us?”
A long silence was eventually ended by words that were heavily measured. “Curiosity was my motivation. Few venture up this hill in these times. I had a desire to witness the extent of the bravery in our latest visitors.” A smack of mockery.
Tension filled the air, driving Mallory into silence. It felt as if they were in the jungle with some wild animal padding slowly around them, content in the knowledge that it could attack at any time. Mallory decided it was better to engage the old man in conversation rather than allow any lulls where other ideas might surface.
“Perhaps you’d like to provide us with some answers, as we’re so sadly lacking,” he said.
The old man mused on this for a time, then said, “Answers I can give, and questions too. But if you seek my advice, it’s this: keep your head down doing honest work and give offence to none. Avoid drawing unwanted attention at all costs.”
“What kind of attention?”
“Ah, you should know by now,” the old man said with a cunning tone, “that when the mouse gets noticed by the cat, it won’t leave him alone . . . until he’s long gone.”
“What’s going to happen?” Miller was whimpering again.
“Many things,” the old man said, pretending it was a question for him, purely for the sake of malice. With another chuckle, he added, “The wormfood will come up for air, and the quick will go down for a way out, but find none. There’ll be a man with three hands, and one with one eye. Some will be bereft in more profound areas. Friends will be found in unlikely places, but where friends should really be, there will at times be none. And consider this: a religion isn’t as good as its god, only as good as its followers.”
“Is that supposed to help?” Mallory said.
“The joy of a riddle is twofold: in the solving, or in the enlightenment that comes from hindsight. Riddles are lights to be shone in the darkest corners, where all secrets hide.”
“Everybody has secrets,” the old man said pointedly.
“Thank you for your guidance,” Mallory said with irony. “We’ll take it with us when we leave.”
“Oh, you will be back, Son of Adam. Back here, and back there. Sylvie doesn’t love you anymore. It’s a hopeless case.” Then, “Your sins will always find you out.”
The tension in the air dropped slowly until they realised they were alone, which was an odd way of considering it because they had no idea where the presence had been. Slowly, Miller’s body folded until his face was in his hands. “What did he mean?” he said bleakly. When Mallory didn’t answer, he asked, “What was that?”
“Probably best not to talk about it right now.” Mallory illuminated his watch. The green glow painted his face a ghastly shade, the shadows defining the skull beneath.
“He can still hear us?”
“I think he . . . and what he represents . . . can always hear us.” He stood up, shaking the kinks from his limbs. “It should be dawn any minute.” The whistling no longer floated around the building; instead they could just make out birdsong dimly coming over the ramparts. “Want to risk it?”
“I tell you this. No eternal reward will forgive us for wasting the dawn.” Mallory cracked his knuckles.
“Words from an old singer.”
“You like music?”
“That’s a funny question. Doesn’t everyone?”
“No, not really,” Miller said.
They walked out into the inner bailey, the ruins and windswept trees now grey ghosts. The rain had blown away and there was an optimistic bloom to the edge of the sky. The monkey-creatures were nowhere to be seen.
The morning had the fresh smell of wet vegetation. Mallory took a deep breath, still surprised at how sweet the air tasted now that it was pollution-free. They made their way back along the track and prepared to walk the short distance into Salisbury. As they breached the crest of the hill and headed down into the city, the mother sky turned golden, framing the majestic spire of the cathedral protruding through the treetops ahead. Miller was overcome with a rush of Glory and turned to Mallory, beaming; Mallory shook his head and looked away.
The corpses of the monkey-creatures ploughed up by the car had vanished. A little further on they came across Miller’s horse, grazing at the side of the road. Miller patted its flank affectionately.
“We can take it in turns to ride,” Miller said brightly.
“It’s all yours. I like a good walk of a morning, gets the blood flowing.”
They took the empty road slowly and within the hour the outskirts of Salisbury drew around them. It was still odd for both of them to see the empty houses and factories, the abandoned petrol stations and corner shops without any of the trappings of the modern world. No vehicles moved, no electric lights burned, no fast-food wrappers blew up and down the streets. Instead there was the smell of woodsmoke hanging in the air and some homes were illuminated by candlelight. The air of the makeshift lay across the city: handmade signs pointing to the farmers’ market or the council offices, piles of wood obviously prepared for nighttime beacons, repairs carried out to broken windows with plastic sheets. Wild dogs roamed the streets and furtive rats skulked out of front gardens.
They came upon a sentry box roughly constructed out of crates and perspex. A grey-faced man in an adapted police uniform was boiling some water on a small fire. As they approached, he rose suspiciously, holding a handmade truncheon close to his thigh.
“What’s your business?” His eyes were hard on their faces.
“We’re going to the cathedral,” Miller said with bright innocence, “to become knights.”
The guard didn’t attempt to hide his disdain. “Good luck,” he sneered, rolling his eyes.
“The police are still going?” Mallory asked.
The guard glanced down at the uniform, which had SPM sewn on to the left breast. “I used to be with the force,” he said. “Still got my warrant card. These days it’s the Salisbury People’s Militia.” He waved them through, nodding toward the spire. “I don’t think you’ll get lost.”
“Have many people come to join up?” Miller asked as he rode by.
The guard laughed indecently loudly. “I shouldn’t worry about having to queue.”
“It’s early days yet,” Miller said when they were out of the guard’s earshot.
“Look on the bright side,” Mallory replied wryly. “At least the standards will be low.”
At that same time of day, the outskirts of the city were deserted. In the bright dawn light, it could have been any time before everything changed; the fabric was, in the main, intact, although a few shops had been burned out in looting, and others had been adapted to fill more immediate needs. An electrical goods store had been converted into a cobblers and leatherworkers. A video shop now housed carpenters and builders.
They made their way down Castle Street and before they had got to the end of it they could hear loud voices, jocularity, cursing, life going on. The farmers’ market was in the process of being set up, with red-faced workers loading piles of cabbages and bags of potatoes on creaking stalls. Many places appeared to have quickly established a local economy and regular food supply, but everyone was still fearing the winter, Miller noted. Mallory pointed out that nothing would have worked if the population hadn’t been decimated.
Their attention was caught by an area of brightly coloured tents and tepees on a park on the other side of a river bridge. They clustered tightly together like a nomadic enclave within the wider city. A flag bearing red and white intertwined dragons flew over the largest tent.
They followed the High Street past the shells of Woolworth’s and Waterstone’s. The horse’s hooves echoed dully on the flagstones; the atmosphere in that area was strangely melancholic.
But as they came up to High Street Gate, the historic entrance to the Cathedral Close, they were confronted by ten-foot-high gates of welded metal sheets, the ancient stone surround topped with lethal spikes and rolls of barbed wire. Beyond it, the cathedral looked like a fortress under siege.
“A man’s character is his fate.”
The reinforced gates were rust eaten, stained, and covered with foul graffiti. Mallory tried to decide whether they had been erected out of fear, or strength; to keep the outside world at bay, or to keep those inside pure. Which ever was the right answer, first impressions were not of an open religion welcoming all souls into a place of refuge from the storm of life. He’d only been there a moment
and he already doubted the judgment of those in charge. Situation normal.
He could feel Miller’s uncertain gaze on his back, urging him to do something to dispel the disappointment his companion was starting to feel. With a shrug, Mallory strode up and hammered on the gates. When the metallic echoes had died, a young man with a shaven head and an incongruously cherubic face peered over the stone battlements.
“Who goes?” he called, with a faint lisp.
Mallory turned back to Miller. “Well, that’s scared me off.”
“We want to join you,” Miller shouted.
The guard eyed them suspiciously, focusing particular attention on Mallory.
“We want to be knights,” Miller pressed. His voice held a faint note of panic at the possibility that after all he’d been through he might still be turned away.
“Wait there.” The guard bobbed down. Several minutes later, they heard the scrape of metal bars being drawn on the other side. The gates creaked open just wide enough for Mallory and Miller to pass through in single file. On the other side were five men armed with medieval weaponry: pikes, swords, and an axe, which Mallory guessed had been taken from some local museum.
The guard stepped forward. “Enter with humility before God.” An implied threat lay in his words.
Mallory looked at him askance. “Does everyone talk like that around here?”
Miller gazed back at the fortified gate uncomfortably. “Why all that?” he asked.
“Times are hard.” It wasn’t enough of an answer, but the guard turned away before Miller could ask him any more.
*Mallory was intrigued by what he saw within the compound. He’d seen photos of the cathedral in the old days, had even caught the last of a TV Christmas carol service broadcast from there, seen through an alcoholic haze after a late night at the pub. The serenity of the expansive lawns that had once surrounded the cathedral was long gone. Now wooden shacks clustered tightly, some of which appeared to have been knocked up overnight, offering little protection from the elements. Mallory also spied vegetable and herb gardens, stables, a small mill, and more. The grass was now little more than churned mud with large cart ruts running amongst the huts. The entire scene had an odd medieval flavour that discomfited him.
The houses appeared to consist of only a single room, two at the most, with small windows that could not have allowed much light inside. They were arranged, more or less, on a grid pattern, the cathedral’s own village, although there were still a few remaining lawns around the grand building to form a barrier between the sacred and the profane.
Once they were well within the site, they could see that fortifications had been continued on all sides to create a well-defended compound. Most of the wall was original, constructed in the fourteenth century with the stone from the deserted cathedral at Old Sarum, but where gaps had appeared over the years,
makeshift barriers had now been thrown up. Abandoned cars, crushed and tattered, building rubble, corrugated sheets, had all been riveted together to become remarkably sturdy. Of the original gates, three remained, all as secure as the one through which Mallory and Miller had passed.
Enclosed within the new fortifications were several imposing piles that lined the Cathedral Close, including the museums on the western edge, which appeared to have been pressed into Church use. The weight of history was palpable, from Malmesbury House, partly built by Sir Christopher Wren and where Charles II and Handel had both stayed, to the grand Mompesson House with its Queen Anne façade, through the many stately buildings that had offered services to the Church. Beyond the houses, the enclosure ran down to the banks of the Avon past a larger cultivated area providing food for the residents.
And at the centre of it was the cathedral itself. Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the grey stone of the gothic medieval building gleamed in the morning light, its perpendicular lines leading the eye toward the four-hundred-foot spire that spoke proudly of the Glory of Almighty God. Even in that broken world, it still had the power to inspire.
They were led through a door near the west front to an area next to the cloisters that had once held a café. The surly guard guided them to a windowless room containing three dining chairs and a table. He sent in some water and bread before leaving them alone for the next hour.
“What do you think?” Miller asked in an excited whisper.
Mallory tore a chunk off the bread and inspected it cautiously before chewing. “They’re worse off than I imagined.”
“What do you mean?”
“All that graffiti on the walls—looks as if they’ve had a falling out with the locals. And the walls themselves, what message are they sending out?”
Miller wasn’t going to be deterred. “Still, it’s great to be here, finally,” he said with a blissful smile.
“You really are a glass-half-full kind of person, aren’t you.” Mallory spun one of the chairs and straddled it. “They’d better not bury us in rules and regulations. You know how it is with God people. Thou shalt not do this, thou shalt not do that. Bottom line for me: no vows of celibacy, no abstinence from the demon drink.”
“We might not get accepted.”
“Right,” Mallory said sarcastically. “We’re going to get accepted.”
“How can you be sure? They might think we’re not . . . devout enough. We’re supposed to be champions of God’s Word.”
“So what does God want? That His Word gets out there. Do you think He really cares if it’s being transmitted by some cynical money-grabbing toe rag who doesn’t believe one syllable of it?”
“Of course it matters!” Miller stared at Mallory in disbelief.
“Why? The job’s still getting done. People are still being led away from the dark side to the Path of Righteousness. Or is it more ideologically pure if the unbeliever doesn’t do it and they all stay damned?”
“It . . . matters!” Miller looked as if he was about to burst into tears again. Mallory’s weary attempt to backtrack was interrupted when the door swung open, revealing a man in his late forties, balding on top, but with long, bushy grey hair. He carried with him an air of tranquillity underpinned by a goodnatured, open attitude visible in his untroubled smile. He wore the long black
robes of a monk.
“My name is James,” he said. “I realise things may seem strange to you here. It’s strange for all of us.”
“We want to be knights,” Miller said firmly.
“It’s my job to greet the new arrivals,” James continued. “Help them adjust to the very different life we have here, facilitate an easy transition from the world without to the one we are attempting to build here in the cathedral precinct.”
“So you’re the official counsellor,” Mallory said.
James didn’t appear troubled by the less than deferential tone. “I suppose that’s one way of describing my work.” The cast of his smile suggested he knew exactly what game Mallory was playing. “Come, walk with me and I’ll show you the sights, introduce you to a few people. And I’ll explain why things are the way they are.”
“Getting your apologies in first?” Mallory said.
“I think it’s true to say things are probably not how you expected them, how we all expected them to be. But everyone is still coming to terms with the Fall.” The euphemism for the chaos that had descended on the world made Mallory smile. James continued, “It has necessitated a particular approach which may be . . . surprising at first impression.”
Mallory gestured for him to lead the way. “I love surprises.”
James took them into the cathedral nave, crossing himself briefly as he faced the altar. Inside, the building was even bigger than Mallory had imagined. The magnificent vaulted roof soared so high over their heads it made them dizzy when they looked up, dwarfing them beneath the majesty of God as the original architects had intended. Further down the quire, a few men knelt in silent prayer.
“It will be packed at vespers,” James noted with a sweep of his hand from wall to wall.
“I haven’t seen any women since I came in,” Mallory said.
“No.” James appeared uncomfortable at this observation, but he didn’t give Mallory time to follow up. “This is the last outpost of Christianity, at least in Great Britain. Within this compound you will find Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, High Church, Low Church, representatives of the fringe evangelical
movements, all worshipping side by side in a manner that could never have been anticipated at a time when the Church was thriving. Then, there were too many rivalries. Now we are all forced to work together for the common good.” He smiled benignly at Mallory. “I’m sure there is a lesson in there somewhere.”
“The last outpost?” Miller appeared to be hearing James’s words in a time-delay.
“What happened over the past year and a half shattered the Church.” James led them slowly along the nave. “Even in our darkest moment we could never have foreseen . . .” He shook his head dismally.
“It obviously wasn’t as strong as you thought,” Mallory said.
“The Church remains as indefatigable as always,” James parried.
“Then perhaps the people didn’t live up to your expectations.”
James thought about this for a moment, but did not deny it. “With miracles happening on every street corner all day every day, with gods . . . things that call themselves gods . . . answering the calls of anyone who petitioned them, it was understandable that there would be a period of confusion.”
Miller turned in a slow circle, dumbfounded. “This is all that’s left?”
“The congregations fragmented. Yes, some became more devout because of the upheaval they witnessed, but many lost their way.” He took a second or two to choose his words, but could find no easy way to say it. “Including many of our ministers.”
The sun gleamed through the stained-glass windows, but without any electric lights to illuminate the loftier regions there was still an atmosphere of gloom.
“With the lines of communication shattered, the situation rapidly became untenable,” James continued. “Belief was withering on the vine. The leaders . . . the remaining leaders . . . of the various churches held an emergency conference, a crisis meeting, at Winchester.” He had led them to the Trinity Chapel where the window glowed in blues and reds in the morning sun. Slender pillars of marble rose up on either side to support a daringly designed roof of sharply pointed arches. “It was decided that a period of retrenchment was necessary. The Church would fortress itself if necessary, reestablish its strength before taking the Word back out to the country.”
Mallory examined the images on the windows. The design was called Prisoners of Conscience. “You really think you can do it?”
“If faith is undiminished, anything can be achieved.” James watched him carefully. “And why are you here?”
Mallory didn’t look at him. “Food, shelter. Security.”
“Is that what you believe?”
“You are looking for knights?” Miller ventured hopefully.
James turned to him with a pleasant aspect. “At the same Council of Winchester, the decision was taken to reestablish the Knights Templar. Do you know of them?”
“A bit,” Miller said uncertainly.
“According to historical sources, most notably the Frankish historian Guillaume de Tyre, the Knights Templar were formed by nine knights under the leadership of Hugues de Payen in 1118,” James began. “After Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders in 1099, it became a Christian city and the nine, under the name
of the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, vowed to devote themselves to the protection of all pilgrims travelling along the dangerous roads to the Christian shrines. They took quarters next to the temple and from then on became known as the Knights Templar.”
James led them from the Trinity Chapel into the presbytery and then into the quire, the “church within a church” where the canons’ stalls faced each other beneath the shining pipes of the organ.
“Ten years after their establishment, their fame had spread,” James continued. “No lesser an authority than Saint Bernard, the abbot of Clairvaux, wrote a tract declaring the Templars to be the epitome and apotheosis of Christian values. They were soon officially recognised and incorporated as a religious- military order, Christ’s militia, if you will, soldier-mystics, warrior-monks, combining the spirituality of the Church with a fighting ability that struck terror into Christianity’s enemies.”
“Until the God-fearing royals of Europe had the Church brand them heretics,” Mallory noted wryly, “because they had the misfortune to become too successful, right? Too rich and powerful . . . a challenge to the established order. Had their leader slowly roasted alive in the square of some French city . . . nice . . . had the knights hunted down and slaughtered, launched a propaganda assault to completely destroy their reputation.”
“You’re obviously an educated man. But don’t confuse the Church with the people who claim to administer God’s Word,” James cautioned. “Humans are fallible.”
“Pardon me for pointing it out, but you seem to have had your fair share of the fallible in your history,” Mallory countered, unmoved.
“We are all fallible.” James turned his attention to the high altar at the focal point of the cathedral. “The decision to reestablish the Knights Templar was taken for practical reasons, and for symbolic ones. The new Knights Templar will protect our missionaries as they move out across the country. It’s a dangerous land out there . . . worldly threats, supernatural threats, spiritual threats . . .”
“That’s a tough job,” Mallory said. “You’ll need tough men.”
“Tough, yes. Not just physically or psychologically, but spiritually. It will be demanding, with little reward in this world.” There was pity in his smile. “Many who wish to join will not be suitable. You need to understand that. But there will always be a role here for people willing to carry out God’s Word.”
“Not many perks, though,” Mallory said.
James laughed. “Sorry, no company cars! On the plus side, the Council decided not to continue with the strict rules under which the original Templars existed—shaven heads, beards, poverty, chastity, and obedience—though we have adopted a distinctive dress for our knights so that everyone will know them when they see them coming.”
Mallory pointed to James’s habit. “You’ve got your own strict dress code as well.”
“Indeed. It was felt, with the various . . . strands . . . of the Church coming ogether, that a uniformity was necessary to bind everyone here into a single community.” He was choosing his words carefully, Mallory noted.
“You had some friction, then? A little local rivalry?”
“There was a danger of that, yes. So it was decided that we adopt elements of the Rule of Saint Benedict, which was written in the sixth century as a guide to the spiritual and administrative life of a monastery. Although we are not a monastic order—we are a chapter of canons—it was agreed that a certain level of . . . discipline was necessary.” He didn’t appear wholly to agree with this, although he attempted to mask it with a smile. “But you’ll find out all about that later.”
As they turned to leave the quire, they were confronted by two men who had been making their way toward the altar. One of them was very old, possibly in his eighties, Mallory estimated. Hunched over his walking stick, he resembled a crane, both awkward and frail; he didn’t appear to have the strength to walk any distance at all. Helping him along was a man in his late twenties with shoulder-length black hair and a long, pointed nose that reminded Mallory of some forest animal.
James knelt and formally kissed the hand of the old man. “Our bishop,” he said when he rose.
The old man smiled; his eyes were uncannily bright and sharp. “Cornelius,” he amended in a rural Scottish accent. “New arrivals?”
“More recruits for the knights,” James said. “They’re growing fast. It shouldn’t be long before we have a full complement.”
“Then our community here owes you our gratitude,” Cornelius said to Mallory and Miller. “You are our future. Your bravery will not go unrewarded.”
He began his slow progress along the aisle, but his companion held back. With a surreptitious glance at the bishop, he caught James’s arm and said, “The dogs have started to gather.”
James’s expression darkened. “Surely they won’t make their move yet.” He, too, glanced after the bishop. “Surely not yet.”
“They’re driven by ideology. Common sense doesn’t come into it.” He moved off quickly to catch the bishop’s arm.
“Who was that?” Mallory asked.
“Julian. A good man. He’s the precentor, responsible for the choir, the music, and a few other recently added duties, mainly to do with the services and spiritual life of the cathedral. He’s one of the four Principal Persons who oversee the Chapter of Canons, our guiding body.”
James appeared briefly distracted, then, sensing Mallory’s interest, shepherded them quickly away before they could ask any more questions.
James took them throughout the main body of the cathedral and its ancillary buildings; it was important, he said, for every new arrival to understand both the facts and the symbolism of their new home. “This will be our Jerusalem,” he said. “In England’s green and pleasant land.” He detailed the history of the cathedral from its construction between 1220 and 1258 following the decision to move it
from its original location at Old Sarum, through to modern times, so that by the end Mallory thought he was going to go insane if he heard another date.
“The new cathedral was entrusted to Nicholas of Ely, a master mason, who encoded many mysteries in the sacred geometry of the building, utilising the vast secret knowledge of numbers, angles, and harmonics passed down through the masonic guilds of medieval times,” James commented as they stood in the south quire aisle. “They say the great secrets of our religion were locked in the stone,
but much of the knowledge has since been lost. Who knows what the length of this column, or the angle of that beam, was meant to imply? What we do know is that the building itself was seen as an act of worship. Here, God is in the detail and in the greater design.”
“Is that why you made your base here?” Mallory asked. “What was wrong with Winchester? Or Glastonbury?”
James thought deeply before replying. “Those places were certainly considered, as were several others. In the end, the decision was made to come to Salisbury for one very important reason.”
Mallory read his face. “But you’re not going to tell us what it is.”
James grew serious. “We like to keep a few secrets.” He winced as if he’d said too much, and Mallory was intrigued to see him change direction, leading them now up a winding stone stairway rising from the south transept.
“We have an excellent library here,” James said rather awkwardly, as if continuing the previous conversation. “Its most famous item is a copy of the Magna Carta, but it has long been praised by academics for its ancient manuscripts, including a page of the Old Testament in Latin from the eighth century and two Gallican psalters from the tenth century.”
“I’ll have to book those out on a quiet night,” Mallory said.
“The more important books are less well known,” James continued. “Within, there are sacred texts the outside world has never been allowed to see since the cathedral was established. Indeed, part of its reason for existing was as guardian and protector of old truths—or lies, depending on your point of view.”
“Surely the great Church wasn’t afraid of a few words on paper?” Mallory said. “Or was it that these things were too dangerous for the common man to find out?”
James laughed quietly. “I’m just a lowly member here. But I’ve heard it said that the potency arises not from any individual volume, each of which presents one particular view, but in the totality. Each is a fragment that together reveal a large secret.”
Miller appeared troubled at this. “Religious secrets?” he asked anxiously.
“Not wholly,” James replied. “The library also contains a collection of the earliest scientific, mathematical, and medical books, including William Harvey’s De Motu Cordis, which identified the circulation of the blood for the first time. They were bequeathed by Seth Ward, who became bishop in 1667. But before that he’d been Professor of Astronomy at Oxford and a founding member of the Royal Society.”
“I thought scientists and the religious were always at each other’s throats,” Mallory said.
“Apparently not in the old days.” James’s smile was enigmatic.
At the top of the stairs they were confronted by two men installing large locks in the door that led to the library; through the opening they could see the stacks of ancient books and smell the warm atmosphere of dusty paper. The workers were being overseen by a man in his late fifties, overweight beneath his black robes, with a balding pate and a goatee beard. His eyes were dark and piercing and instantly fell on the new faces.
“Good morning, Stefan,” James said brightly. “What have we here?”
“The library is now off-limits, on the orders of the bishop.” Stefan tried to return James’s smile, but it was an awkward attempt that looked out of place on his face. The shadows under his eyes suggested a saturnine nature, and he quickly returned to a gloomy countenance.
“Oh?” James said, puzzled. “I can’t understand that. The library is a vital resource for everyone here.”
“Nevertheless, the decision has been made. Requests for specific books can be presented to the librarian, who will put them to the new library committee for consideration.”
“That sounds like an unwieldy process. How often does the committee meet?”
“We haven’t yet reached agreement on all the details, but as chairman of the committee I will certainly do my best to expedite matters.”
James nodded and smiled, but as he moved Mallory and Miller on, he was plainly uncomfortable with what he had heard.
“Looks as if your back-to-basics approach is gathering speed.” Mallory couldn’t resist prodding. “What next—services in Latin?”
“I think I’ll raise this with the bishop myself,” James said. “Those books are so important in these days when knowledge is at a premium. The people here need—” He waved a hand to dismiss his thoughts, though they obviously lay heavily on him.
“Stefan’s another big shot?” Mallory said.
“He’s the chancellor. He looks after the education of everyone here. Like all the Principal Persons, he was instrumental in bringing the Church to Salisbury.”
As they exited the cathedral, it was as if some tremendous gravity was reluctantly releasing them. Outside, there was an ethereal quality to the bright morning sunlight. James took them into the sprawling mass of houses, now fully alive with men of all ages cutting wood, feeding cattle and chickens, and cleaning out pigsties. “This is where we house all those who have come to us since we established our new base,” James noted. “As you can see, we’ve just about reached the limits of occupation. Quite what we’re going to do from here is open to debate, though we are loathe to allow our own to live beyond the walls for fear of victimisation.”
“Is there much of that?” Miller asked apprehensively.
“Not a great deal, though there have been several severe incidents. There are some who see us as a threat, others who feel our time is done. In the light of all that has happened, it appears everyone has their own peculiar belief system to try to make sense of the upheaval. I think they feel let down by the Church because we did not explain the events, or care for them in their hour of need, or simply because they feel what we offer has no relevance to the difficult times we all live in. What need do we have for a hidden, mysterious God when solid, physical gods have walked amongst us? Obviously the answers to that question are easy for us to voice, but who has the time or inclination for theological argument? The only way we can win them back is by playing a long game, by letting the Word filter out organically. And that is where the knights come into the equation.”
Finally, James took them to an area at the rear of the former Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum where the knights were sequestered. Several men were learning the art of sword fighting, while others attacked scarecrows with halberds. All faces were intense and deeply introspective, the movements fluid and powerful. Distinctive uniforms marked them out: black shirts bearing the Templar cross in red against a white square on the breast and right shoulder, hardwearing black trousers, heavy-duty boots, and black belts.
There was another cadre of knights removed from the core group who duelled with each other with a frightening ferocity, at times lithe, then vicious, their speed and dazzling turns and dives revealing skills that set them apart. Their uniforms were also slightly different, with a blue stripe gleaming on the
The commander stood off to one side, watching the activity, his authority apparent in his rigid bearing. Up close, Blaine had a face that registered such little emotion that at times he resembled a wax dummy. He was in his mid-forties, his black hair badly dyed. Hard muscles filled out a uniform carrying the red Templar cross more prominently on the front. His heavy brows cast a shadow around his eyes so that he appeared on the verge of sickness, yet there was a street-hardness about him that gave a commanding presence.
He remained impassive when James introduced him as Blaine. “It won’t be a free ride here,” he said, with a Belfast accent. “We had a couple in who thought they’d get fed and watered without having to give anything back. They didn’t last the week.”
“We’ll do what’s expected of us,” Mallory said.
“You see that you do . . . if you want to stay here. You’re getting a shot at something people would give their right arm for. There’s not much of value out there anymore. But in the next few years you’ll see that being a knight will be a mark of respect. The country will come to love you. But you have to earn it.”
“What do we need to do?” Miller asked. The knights had adopted a routine akin to tai chi, with measured, graceful movements, the weapons whipping rapidly around their bodies a hairsbreadth from causing them harm. Their movements looked easy yet unbelievably difficult at the same time. “How long did it take them to learn that?” Miller continued, agog.
Blaine’s gaze flickered lazily toward James. “You’re sure you want to give them a shot?”
“I always go on first impressions. Besides, if we are here for anything, it is to offer hope, to take in those who come to us . . . for whatever reason . . . and give them a chance.”
Blaine grunted in a way that implied his complete disagreement with everything James had said, yet without seeming the slightest bit disrespectful. He turned back to Miller. “You’ll get full training. It’ll be hard, and fast. We need men out there quickly. I warn you, a lot aren’t up to it. We need to get you to the peak of physical fitness. You have to learn how to use weapons you’ve probably only seen in museums. You’ve got to learn skills—medicine, astronomy, herbalism, cookery—”
“And don’t forget the spiritual guidance,” James said, with a smile.
“And you’ll need to know the Good Book back to front,” Blaine continued without missing a beat. “The poor . . .” He fumbled for an acceptable word. “. . . people out there will be looking to you for guidance. They don’t want you telling them that Thou Shalt Not Pick Your Nose is one of the Ten
“Don’t worry,” Mallory said. “We’ll make sure they don’t covet any oxen.”
Blaine laid his gaze heavily on Mallory; it said, I’ve already got you marked as a troublemaker, and you’ll have it knocked out of you in a day.
Mallory didn’t flinch.
James was winningly courteous as he took his leave. “These are desperate times, but also momentous,” he said. “I feel that the Chinese were correct when they said there are no crises, only opportunities. This is an opportunity to reenergise Christianity and to bring it into the lives of the people once again.”
After Blaine, his gentleness was even more pronounced.
Blaine summoned his second-in-command to lead them to their quarters. Hipgrave had barely broken into his thirties, and he appeared much younger. His features carried a permanent sneer, but it looked theatrical, as if he thought it gave him gravitas. “You’ll be out of here before the week’s through,” he said in a light voice attempting to disguise its upper-middle-class origins.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.” Mallory hadn’t seen anything he couldn’t handle.
Hipgrave gripped Mallory’s upper arm and spun him round. “The knights may be temporal but they operate along strict military lines. There is a chain of command. Insubordination is punished. There’s no room in the ranks for weak links.”
Miller flinched, knowing that if Mallory remained true to his nature they could both be ejected. But despite a brief moment of tension, Mallory stayed calm and Hipgrave strutted off in front.
“Please, Mallory,” Miller whispered, “don’t ruin this for me. You don’t know how much I need it.”
“Give me credit,” Mallory replied. “I’ve got some self-control—I’m not a complete thug.”
Their footsteps echoed along empty corridors as Hipgrave led them to the second floor of the old museum and into a large room at the front overlooking the Cathedral Close. Ten camp beds were laid out at regular intervals beneath medieval wall tapestries. Two other men were already billeted there. One of them, a muscular, good-looking black man, was cleaning his boots with furious brush strokes
while the other, a rangy white man in his early fifties, knelt in prayer at a tiny altar beside his bed. They rose and faced the new arrivals for Hipgrave’s cursory introductions. Daniels was in his late thirties, intelligent, with an air of amused sophistication. Gardener, in contrast, was a Geordie with a rough working-class attitude, long greying hair tied in a ponytail, and a face that had the leathery appearance of meat left out for days in the sun.
When Hipgrave had departed, Mallory chose a bed from the remaining eight nd lay on it, staring at the ceiling.
“I wouldn’t get used to that position if I were you,” Daniels said wryly. He’d resumed polishing his boots with a verve that bordered on obsession.
“They work you hard?”
“We’re twinned with a Soviet Gulag. Their idea of downtime is a face-wash with river water and a turnip to gnaw on.”
“Don’t listen to him. He’s a soft Southern bastard. Drinks wine with his little finger stuck out,” Gardener called over.
“At least I know what wine is, you beer-swelling Philistine.”
“Aye, you whine all the time.”
Daniels walked over to Gardener, brandishing his brush. “You know, you’d think some of my innate style and breeding would have rubbed off on you after the weeks we’ve been stuck here, but I’m starting to think you’ll remain a troglodyte forever.”
“You know you’re not supposed to use big words around me. Now bugger off, I’m trying to pray.”
Despite their fractiousness, it was obvious to Mallory that a deep affection underpinned their relationship, a clear case of opposites attracting. In his voice and body language, Daniels seemed gay, though Gardener, as far as Mallory could tell, was straight—at least, he sported a worn wedding ring—and they obviously came from different backgrounds. But the camaraderie made him think it might
not be so bad there after all.
Mallory and Miller were allowed only half an hour to settle in before another knight was sent to fetch them. He had red hair and freckles and a fastidious manner that irritated Mallory the moment the knight opened his mouth. He had been ordered to give them a wealth of instructions, none of which he was prepared to repeat, so they had no choice but to listen.
“Everything here is based around discipline,” he said, “to focus the mind. Your day will be mapped out for you, and it’s a long day, believe me. This isn’t a place for the lazy.”
He marched ahead of them with the stiff gait of a well-drilled military man, which made Mallory’s loose-limbed amble seem even more lazy. Miller hopped and skipped to keep up like a pony on a rope.
“The knights, however, have a slightly different timetable from the rest,” the red-headed man continued. “There’s a lot of studying, a lot of training. For most people out there—” He motioned toward the sprawl of wooden huts visible through the window. “—the day begins at six a.m. with prime. That’s a full service in the cathedral, plainsong, the works. The prayer and chant continues
through the day, seven days a week. Terce at nine a.m., sext at midday, none in midafternoon, vespers at the end of the afternoon, and compline at dusk. After that, everyone retires to their rooms for the great silence and the cathedral is locked. At midnight everyone rises for the night office, followed immediately by the lauds of the dead. It lasts about two hours in total, and then you’re off on the
cycle again. You will be expected to attend services when you are not involved with your other duties.”
Mallory glanced at Miller; the younger man was clearly enthralled at the strict routine that left Mallory feeling an uncomfortable mixture of depression and defiance.
“Your routine will be individually tailored, depending on where your strengths and weaknesses lie,” the knight continued. “For the first week or so, it will mainly centre on physical fitness and weapons training.” He eyed them askance. “To see if you have what it takes to meet the exacting standards required of a Knight Templar.”
Mallory knew enough about the military mind-set to understand what that meant: they could look forward to days of gruelling and unnecessary exercises to see if they had the strength of character to continue. And then Blaine—a military man at some level, Mallory guessed—would begin the long task of breaking their spirit so they would obey orders without question.
“After that period, the physical and weapons training will be confined to the early morning, after prime. Then you’ll be studying herbalism for treatment of wounds out in the field. The supply of drugs won’t last long and there’s no infrastructure to manufacture any more. Astronomy is . . . difficult.” His jaw set. “But you’ll need to navigate by the stars. And then there’s the Bible study and philosophy classes. Those are the main ones.”
He brought them into a large oak-panelled room on the first floor. On one wall was fixed a plain wooden sign carved with the legend: “Let nothing have precedence over divine office”—The Rule of St Benedict.
At the other end of the room was a heavily fortified door beside a window that opened onto a small office stacked with boxes. The knight hammered on the windowsill to attract the attention of a man with a scar that turned his left eye into a permanent squint. He was introduced as Wainwright, the knights’ quartermaster.
“Two uniforms?” he said, mentally measuring Mallory and Miller before disappearing into the bowels of the store. He returned a second later.
“Perfect for a torchlight rally,” Mallory said, holding the black shirt up for size.
“Uniforms are to be worn at all times,” the red-haired knight said. “And that means all times. Being caught without it means the disciplinary procedure.”
Mallory considered asking what this entailed, but he knew it would only depress him further.
The rest of the day was spent in a process that fell somewhere between induction and confession: names, education, abilities, criminal record, past transgressions, hopes, fears. Miller gave them a detailed account of his relationship with his parents and the breakdown of his romance, the catalyst that had propelled him toward Salisbury. Mallory changed his story several times, often during the same strand, before delivering a complex list of dates, times, names, and anecdotes that would have taken days of investigation before it was discovered that it made no sense at all.
“They were very nice,” Miller said afterward, as they picked their way amongst the huts toward the refectory, a large, newly constructed building a stone’s throw from the cathedral.
“When you say nice, do you mean prying, interfering, compulsive control freaks?”
Miller looked at him, puzzled. “No. Nice. They were nice. Didn’t you think they were nice?”
“I worry about you, Miller. You’re going to be the first person ever to die of unadulterated optimism.”
Miller sighed. “I don’t know why you came here, Mallory. We’re going to be part of something big and good. Something important. All you’ve done is criticise. You’re a cynic.”
“You say that as if it’s a bad thing.”
“Look, there’s Daniels.” Miller nodded toward the knight sauntering ahead of them; he carried himself with confidence, seemingly above the bustle he passed. Mallory noted how many looked at Daniels with respect, if not awe; was it the uniform or the person? “Come on, let’s catch him up,” Miller continued.
“So how long have you been here, Daniels?” Miller asked as he skipped up beside him.
“Two months.” He eyed Miller’s skittishness wryly. “It was this or the circus.”
“That must be when the call first went out. Where were you?”
Daniels looked bemused at Miller’s effervescent questioning. “Bristol.”
“I heard some of the cities were tough in the early days,” Mallory said.
A shadow crossed Daniels’s face. “It was, in some parts, for a while. The riots had died out by the time the call filtered through—no one had the energy left. But there were still some parts of the city you didn’t go into, if you know what I mean.” He looked across the huts at the darkening sky.
Daniels had an impressive charisma that underscored his bearing. Mallory could imagine him in his civilian days, well groomed, wearing expensive, fashionable clothes, maybe in some professional job; maybe a lawyer.
“How are you finding it?” Miller had such a bright-eyed-puppy manner that Daniels couldn’t help but lighten.
“Hard, but rewarding.” He smiled. “You’ll enjoy it here.”
“Any missions yet?”
“No, but it’s only a matter of time. They want to be sure before they send anyone out there.”
“What made you come?” Mallory asked.
“You don’t think I came out of obligation? An overarching desire to give something back to Christianity? To the world?” Daniels eyed Mallory as if he knew exactly what was going through the new arrival’s head.
“Don’t mind him,” Miller said. “He’s just an old cynic.”
“No,” Mallory replied. “I don’t.”
Daniels shrugged in an unconcerned way. “My partner was killed in the fighting. We’d been together for a while. It left . . . a big hole.” He chose his words carefully. “There was nothing for me in Bristol. I thought there might be something for me here.”
“I’m sorry,” Miller said. “Were you planning on getting married?”
“Gareth was the religious one,” Daniels said directly to Mallory. “He was the one who went to church every week. I could take it or leave it. But he died with such dignity. Faith right up to the last. That was my moment of epiphany.”
“That’s a good enough reason,” Mallory said.
With some kind of unspoken agreement made amongst them, they set off together for the refectory.
“You don’t seem much of a Christian, Mallory,” Daniels noted wryly.
“I’m not much of anything.”
“Yes, he is,” Miller said brightly. “He just doesn’t know it yet.” He proceeded to tell Daniels how Mallory had saved him.
“Self-preservation,” Mallory said. “Two were a better defence against those things.”
“Pants on fire,” Miller gibed.
They joined the queue filing into the refectory. The aroma of spiced hot food floated out into the cooling twilight, setting their stomachs rumbling. The air was filled with the hubbub of optimistic voices, the sound of people who still couldn’t believe they were getting a square meal.
“Tell me,” Mallory said to Daniels, “when we met Blaine earlier, there was another group of knights in training, away from the main lot. They had a blue flash on their left shoulders.”
“The Blues? They’re the élite. I think they used to be squaddies stationed at one of the army camps out on Salisbury Plain—it would take me years to get to their level of training. Blaine keeps them apart from the rest of us, but that’s OK by me—you can see it in their eyes.” He waved a pointing finger in front of Mallory’s face. “Army eyes. You know what I mean?” Mallory did. “Anyway, they’re involved in some ongoing mission. They go off for days at a time. Come back exhausted and filthy.”
“Don’t bother asking questions, Mallory. You’ll soon find that no one tells you anything here.”
The refectory was a long, narrow barn with a high roof and open beams permeated by the smell of new wood. They picked up trays and cutlery before passing by tables at one end where the kitchen staff loaded up plastic plates with a stew of carrots, potatoes, parsnips, and oatmeal; bread; and a small lump of cheese.
“No meat?” Mallory protested.
“Once a week,” Daniels said, “They’re keeping a tight rein on supplies. Just in case.”
“In case of what?”
They sat together at the end of a long trestle table reserved for the knights, away to one side. On the other tables, about a hundred and fifty people packed into the first sitting, their freedom from the day’s chores making their conversation animated. Gardener joined them soon after, taking a seat opposite Mallory with a gruff silence.
“What did you do in the old days, Gardener?” Miller asked chirpily.
“Binman.” Gardener stuffed an enormous mound of vegetables into his mouth. “And I tell you,” he mumbled, “this is better than having your hands covered in maggots and shit every morning.”
“I don’t want to hear about your sex life, Gardener,” Daniels said.
“I hear the Blues headed off hell for leather at noon,” Gardener continued. “Don’t know what got them all fired up, but Blaine had a face that could curdle cream. And Hipgrave was pissed off because Blaine didn’t send him out as leader. Again.”
“He is so desperate,” Daniels said.
“You know what he did this morning—” Gardener cut off his sour comment when he spotted Hipgrave heading across the room with his tray. The captain had lost his sneer and appeared uncomfortable in the crowd. He hesitated briefly when he noticed Gardener and the others watching him and then veered off his path to another table so he wouldn’t have to sit near them.
“Thanks for small bloody mercies,” Gardener muttered.
Mallory spotted a table on the far side of the room where all the diners sat in complete silence, intermittently praying and eating. He pointed it out to Daniels.
“Headbangers,” Daniels said, chewing slowly on a piece of potato. “The price we pay for bringing all of the Lord’s flock under one roof.”
“Leave them alone.” Gardener continued to tuck into his dinner with gusto.
“You would say that—you’re one of them.” Daniels turned to Mallory. “They’re Born-Agains, or evangelicals, or whatever it is they call themselves. They have a hard-line view of the Lord’s Word—”
“They stick to the text of the Gospel,” Gardener said, “unlike some of the weak-willed people in here.”
“There are so many branches of the Church in here . . . sects—cults, even . . .” Daniels shook his head. “Some of them, they’re like a different religion. I don’t know where they’re coming from at all.”
“You don’t have a monopoly on God’s Word,” Gardener noted. “It’s open to different interpretations.”
Mallory stabbed a chunk of parsnip with his knife, then thought twice about eating it. He noticed Miller looking dreamily around the refectory. “You’re going to say this is like Disneyland for you, aren’t you?” he said.
Miller grinned at how easily Mallory had read his thoughts. “Well, it is a onderful place. All these people . . . all this hope . . . and faith . . . under one roof. It’s what I wanted to find. I just never really expected I would.” A shadow crossed his face.
“It’s a bit weird, too.” He looked guilty at this observation.
“You don’t know the half of it.” Gardener had so much in his mouth that he spat a lump of mushed vegetables back onto the plate with his words.
Daniels shook his head wearily. “I’m asking Blaine to include etiquette in his tiresome list of lessons to be taught.”
“There’s been talk,” Gardener said. “Some strange stuff happening around here.”
“Oh, here we go again.” Daniels rolled his eyes. “Lights in the sky. Mysterious this and strange that. Usually reported by people who’ve had the Toronto Blessing one time too many.”
“You’re a cynical bastard, Daniels, and no mistaking.” Gardener swallowed his mouthful and stifled a belch. “See? Etiquette.”
“Heavenly,” Daniels replied. “Which finishing school did you go to again?”
“What strange stuff?” Miller said.
Gardener leaned across the table conspiratorially. “Ghosts, for one. And not just one. Some old bishop . . . Seth Ward, someone said . . . he was seen crossing the nave. One of the brothers saw a man’s face pressed up against the windows in what used to be the old cafeteria . . . all hideous, like. A cowled figure in the cloisters . . .”
“I can’t believe you fall for that nonsense!” Daniels said.
“How different is it from the manifestation of the Holy Spirit?” Gardener waved his fork in Daniels’s face.
Daniels batted it away. “Very different. It’s not real for a start.”
“And there were lights, floating over the altar,” Gardener continued. “Beeson heard voices when he was praying in the cathedral . . . calling to him, saying . . . worrying things.”
“What kind of things?” Daniels said.
“I don’t know.”
“No, because it’s a story, and a feeble one at that. They never have any detail. Just someone heard this, or someone saw that.”
“Don’t believe it, then,” Gardener said with a shrug. “See if I care.” He turned to Miller and Mallory. “But the smart folk here think it’s wise to keep your wits about you, and to stay away from the lonely places at night—”
“Has anyone been hurt yet?” Daniels asked.
“Then why are you making out like it’s the Amityville Horror? You’re such an old woman, Gardener.”
Gardener smiled tightly at Miller and Mallory. “You know what it’s like out there in the world. And it’s the same in here. Nothing’s what it seems.”
Their conversation was disrupted by a commotion near the door. Diners peeled away to allow a small entourage to move slowly into the room. At its centre was the bishop, walking with the aid of a cane and the support of two attendants. Julian and Stefan followed behind. All eyes followed Cornelius’s
Daniels’s brow furrowed. “He normally eats in the palace.”
“He looks as if he hasn’t got the strength to get across the room,” Mallory said.
“His legs are a bit shaky, but don’t go underestimating him. He’s sharp as a pin,” Gardener said.
“What are the others like?” Mallory’s attention was fixed on Stefan.
Daniels pointed with a carrot impaled on his knife. “Stefan’s a bit of a cold fish. He used to be some businessman up in Manchester before he saw the light, I think. Julian’s OK. A bit too quiet for me, thoughtful, you know, but he’s got a very liberal view of life. He wasn’t involved in the Church before the Fall, but they promoted him out of nowhere because he’s brilliant, or so they say. Very learned about philosophy, comparative religion. I don’t know if he was an academic, but he’s a sharp guy, definitely.”
Cornelius made his way to a table not too far from the door, which was hastily vacated for him. His attendants lowered him into a chair while Stefan brought over a plate of food that he proffered with a formal bow.
“This is a show,” Mallory said quietly. “A little spin-doctoring. To let the common man know the bishop is just an ordinary joe. He’s not larging it in the palace. He can eat vegetable mush with the rest of the suckers.”
“Be respectful,” Miller hissed.
Mallory began to mop up his gravy with his bread while gently fantasising about pizza.
“And that is Gibson,” Daniels said, pointing to the last imposing figure in the group. He must have been twenty-five stone, with a comically jolly face that appeared to be permanently on the point of a guffaw. His cheeks were bright red, his hair tight grey curls; large silver-framed spectacles surrounded eyes fixed in a humorous squint.
“Don’t tell me,” Mallory said, “he’s the Canon of the Pies.”
“The treasurer, actually. Looks after all the ornaments, vestments, and gold plate tucked away in the vaults.” Daniels smiled as he ate. “But he does oversee the kitchens as well.”
“So we’re in their hands.” Mallory didn’t attempt to hide his dismissiveness.
“Them and their advisors,” Gardener said gruffly. “There’s a whole bunch of arse-kissers following them around, whispering in their ears. Keeping them informed, supposedly, because the top dogs don’t have time to spend finding out what the rest of us are thinking. But the arse-kissers are guiding them, really. They’re the power behind the throne.”
Daniels snorted. “Oh, not that routine again! You’re only upset because they’re not whispering about you.”
“It’s true. You’ve got to watch out who you’re talking to round here. Everybody’s got some sort of thing going on.”
“Thing?” Daniels shook his head and sighed.
“Come on, you know it’s true,” Gardener said. “This whole place is split down the middle. The modernisers think we should build on the state the Church had reached just before the change, make it acceptable to modern thinking. The traditionalists want a hard-line approach. Everybody’s plotting.”
“Well, as much as I’m enjoying your comedy double-act,” Mallory said, “I don’t think I can stare at these vegetables anymore without gnawing on my own arm.”
“You should eat it up,” Gardener said, cleaning up the last of the gravy on his plate. “You’ll be desperate for it tomorrow when Blaine’s got you scrambling over that assault course.”
“It’s not as if you’ve got anywhere to go,” Daniels said. “It’s compline next, or had you forgotten? You’ll soon get used to realising you have no time of your own.”
Mallory rocked back in his chair. “You know, this place is just too much fun.”
Despite Mallory’s disgruntlement, the atmosphere in the cathedral was deeply affecting. Outside, dusk had fallen, the darkness licking over a chilly landscape freed from electric lights. Inside, the stone walls basked in an ethereal golden glow from hundreds of candles. Incense and tallow smoke cocooned the worshippers who stood shoulder to shoulder along the nave and the quire. The plainsong rose up, filling the vast vault with a mesmerising, heady sound that reached deep into Mallory, tugging at emotions he barely thought he still had. It was a single voice made by hundreds of people, simple and pure yet powerful on so many levels. Mallory glanced over at Miller to see tears streaming down his cheeks.
Briefly, Mallory felt a sense of belonging that put all the unpleasantness of his past life into the shade. Perhaps there still was a chance for him: a fresh start, although he’d long ago given up that childlike whimsy of believing that some Higher Power took enough of an interest in the ants that swarmed the earth to give them a second chance. The fleeting hope, that weak thing he thought he’d scoured from his system, was a simple by-product of the perfect confluence of music and moment, he told himself. But still, it tugged at him.
He was examining the odd thoughts pulled from him by the intensity of faith when his concentration was broken by a figure he could just glimpse on the edge of the congregation, slightly ahead of him and away to the left. His face was obscured by his black cowl pulled far forward, unusual in itself as everyone else there went bareheaded. But there was no other reason why Mallory’s attention should be drawn to him so powerfully that he couldn’t look away. The figure was still, his shoulders slightly hunched. He didn’t appear to be singing, merely watching or perhaps listening, deep in thought.
Mallory couldn’t understand why the figure made him feel uneasy, or why the tingling that had started in the small of his back was slowly spreading up his spine. Some deeply buried part of him was trying to break out of his subconscious to issue a warning.
As he watched for some sign that would give him an explanation for his reaction, the figure began to turn toward him, as if he sensed Mallory’s eyes upon him. Inexplicably, this filled Mallory with dread. He didn’t want to see the face inside that cowl.
He looked down at his hands, then up toward the altar, and when he did finally glance back, the figure was gone.
Outside in the night, Mallory tugged Miller away from the uplifted worshippers treaming back to their huts for a few hours’ grace before the whole round started again. He found a shadowed spot next to the cathedral walls and said, “Let’s hit the town. We can dump our uniforms and explore. There’s got to be some life out there. Maybe we’ll find someone who’ll take pity on us and buy us a beer.” He
knew his bravado was a response to the sobering but stupid fear he had felt in the service.
“Are you crazy? You heard what they said—being caught without the uniform—”
“We’re not going to get caught.”
“—is a punishable offence. And we’re not supposed to go out of the compound after curfew. I don’t even know if we’re supposed to go out there at all.”
“I told you, we’re not going to get caught. Who’s to know? Don’t you want to find out what your new neighbours are like?”
Miller protested fulsomely, clearly afraid of jeopardising everything he felt he’d gained, but Mallory chipped away at him on the way back to their quarters so that by the time they arrived, Miller reluctantly agreed to the secret foray.
Daniels and Gardener still hadn’t returned, so they quickly changed into their street clothes and slipped out. “How are we going to get away?” Miller hissed as they flitted from hut to hut.
“I had a look around earlier. There’s a spot not far from the gate where we can slip over the wall. When we come back we can give the guard some bullshit about being on a secret mission or something. He’s bound to let us in.” Miller didn’t look convinced, but he allowed himself to be swayed by Mallory’s confidence.
The camp was still as they made their way past the gate. But before they could climb the ladder to the runway around the top of the wall, the sound of running feet and frantic raised voices rapidly approached from the other side. Mallory pushed Miller back into the shadows.
An insistent cry hailed the guard. Mallory couldn’t make out what was said, but the guard responded by hand-winding an old-fashioned klaxon before opening the gates.
Nine knights rushed in through the widening gap, the blue flash on their shoulders clear in the flickering flame of the torch mounted above the gate. Their swords were drawn as they constantly scanned all around with their army eyes. They were in a terrible state, their uniforms torn and charred, their bare skin covered with cuts and bruises; some had bound deeper wounds with makeshift bandages torn from their shirts, the material now stained black. Their faces were grim with determination.
In the middle of the group, two knights hauled what Mallory at first thought was burned log. It was only when he saw its rolling white eyes that he realised it was a man, his skin seared black; Miller turned away from the smell of cooked flesh. The knight was still alive, but he wouldn’t be for long.
The ones at the rear gathered around one of their number who had a wooden box clutched tightly to his chest. They drove hard into the compound then yelled at the guard to close the gates.
A group of five men hurried from the direction of the cathedral to meet them. The only one Mallory recognised was Stefan, his balding head gleaming like a skull. Ignoring the suffering of the wounded knight, he went directly to the captain and said something in hushed, insistent tones that Mallory couldn’t make out. The captain nodded and motioned to the one with the box; Stefan barked an order to his four assistants and then the whole group moved speedily in the direction of the cathedral.
When they’d gone, Miller whispered dismally, “That poor man!”
“Looks as if he stood a little too close to the barbecue.” Mallory stared at the silhouette of the cathedral blocking out the stars, trying to make sense of what he’d seen. “What was in the box?” he mused to himself. “What was so important?” After a moment, he set off for the ladder. “Ah, who cares? Come on, let’s hit the town.”
They climbed quickly, keeping one eye out for the guard. When they reached the top, Mallory led Miller to a part of the wall that was lower than the rest where they could easily drop down to the street. They paused for a moment at the foot of the wall, and when they were sure no one had seen them, they ran toward the town, keeping well to the shadows.
Once the walls had been swallowed by the dark at their backs, Miller heard Mallory’s voice floating back to him as they ran. “You know how you get that little tingling sensation when something’s going to end in tears? Or is that just me?”
THE EVIDENCE OF THINGS NOT SEEN
“Just as children seem foolish to adults, so humans seem foolish to the gods.”
Salisbury’s streets were oddly otherworldly in a flood of light from flaming torches that had been attached to the now-useless lampposts; their sizzling pitch added a spicy quality to the cooling air. More people milled around than Mallory would have expected with the encroaching night. Many shops remained open, their trade carried out by candlelight. Friends chatted beneath the crackling torches, freed from the rigour of days that had become unduly hard. Children played in the gutter without fear of cars or buses, although the occasional horse-drawn cart moved by them at an alarming clip. Outside the Maltings shopping centre, a teenager strummed on a guitar while his friends danced or drank homemade cider. Others flirted or kissed each other in the shadows.
The population had adapted remarkably well to the inversion of their lives. Indeed, from the good humour evident all around, they appeared to be relishing it. Mallory and Miller moved through them, watching silently, enjoying the normality.
Near Poultry Cross, where tradesmen had hawked their goods for centuries, a man with lank grey hair to his shoulders stood on an old kitchen chair and preached passionately to a small detached crowd. He seemed to be proclaiming the glory of a god that lived at the bottom of his garden. Further on, three
women prayed silently around a picture of George Clooney framed with wild flowers. At the marketplace, there were more individuals preaching to no one at all, or large groups singing of the wonder of some deity or other.
“They’re crazy,” Miller muttered.
“Your God’s more real, is that it?” Mallory noted.
“Yes.” Miller knew Mallory was baiting him but couldn’t resist responding. “He’s been worshipped for millennia, not ten months.”
“So in a couple of thousand years, old Clooney—”
“Oh, shut up.” Miller tried to stop there, but he couldn’t. “There’s a whole coherent philosophy behind Christianity—” His ears burned at Mallory’s laughter. “There is!”
“You don’t have to sell it to me, Miller. Just don’t try pretending you’re better than these poor sods.”
They continued to wander, exploring the sights. As a new city, Salisbury had the benefit of being planned on a rectangular checkerboard pattern like some Roman metropolis. Most people gathered in a small square that ran from the market to the Maltings and up to Crane Street and New Street, a continuous thoroughfare that was the closest to the cathedral.
As Mallory and Miller wandered along the path at the side of the culverted river, watching the trout, grayling, and dace swim in the light of an occasional torch, they were disturbed by the sounds of a scuffle coming from further along the lonely path where no light burned. Mallory was ready to ignore it, but when Miller jumped to investigate he felt a weary obligation to follow.
Barely visible in the gloom, three men were hunched over a still shape on the floor. Before Mallory could utter a caution, Miller was already yelling, “Leave him alone!”
Against his better judgment, Mallory ran in behind Miller, who was rapidly closing on the three. The gang half-heartedly squared up to him, then saw Mallory behind and decided it was too much trouble. They turned and ran off into the dark, but not before Mallory saw that they were all wearing black T-shirts marked with a bright red V from shoulders to navel.
“Have you lost your mind?” Mallory said.
Miller was kneeling next to the shape on the floor: a young man crumpled in a growing pool of blood. “We’re knights. We’re supposed to help people in trouble.”
“I’m going to have to have a word with you about the difference between fantasy and reality.” Mallory checked the victim’s pulse. “Dead.”
“Poor man. Who shall we tell?”
“We can’t leave him here,” Miller said. “He’ll have a family—”
“Someone will find him soon enough. Listen, we’re strangers here. They’re likely to think we did it. Not everyone has a naïve belief that all people speak the truth.” He knelt down and started to go through the victim’s pockets.
“What are you doing?” Miller said, aghast.
Mallory fished out a wallet and went through the contents. “Look at this.
They’ve got their own currency going on here. A local economy.” He took the amateurishly printed notes and stuffed them in his pockets.
“You can’t do that!”
“He can’t take it with him.”
“You’re as bad as the people who killed him!”
“No, I’m not, because I didn’t kill him. Come on, we’ll have a drink on him.”
“I will not,” Miller said peevishly.
“Then you can sit beside me while I have a drink. You’ve got to get your head around how the world works these days, Miller.”
“What, without ethics or morals?”
“Something like that.” Mallory sighed. “No, I don’t mean that. But you’ve got to be hard, Miller. There’s no safety net in this world anymore. No Welfare State to help you out. Everybody’s watching their own backs—that’s the only way to survive.”
“I don’t believe you, and you’ll never convince me otherwise. Basic human nature is decent.”
“And then you woke up. Are you coming or not?” Mallory walked back toward the lights. Miller hovered for a moment, sad and angry at the same time, then followed.
They found a pub overlooking the market square. The bright green doors of the Cornmarket Inn were thrown open to the night, tempting passersby into the smoky interior lit by just enough candles and torches to provide shadows for those who preferred to drink out of plain view. The customers were a mixed bunch: some rural workers, grime on their clothes and grass seeds in their laceholes, some weary-eyed traders and shopkeepers who had finished up for the night, and a large group who all appeared to know each other. They ranged from teenagers to pensioner age, but the smattering of dreadlocks and shaved heads, hippie jewellery and colourful clothes made Mallory think of New Age travellers.
True to his word, Miller eschewed a drink, but he appeared happy enough surrounded by the high-spirited pub-goers. Mallory ordered a pint of ale brewed in the pub’s back room and they retreated to the only free table.
“What do you think those Blues were up to?” Mallory mused as he sipped on his beer. “The élite group,” he added with mockery.
Miller didn’t appear to have given it a second thought. “Nothing for us to worry about.”
Mallory looked at him in disbelief. “Of course it’s something for us to worry about. Everything is something for us to worry about.”
“The bishop, the canons, all of them . . . You don’t put your trust in people who set themselves up as leaders, Miller. In religion, in politics, in the military, in business . . . the simple act of seeking high office is a signifier of a peculiar, unreliable, controlling, unpleasant pathology that means they shouldn’t be allowed any kind of power. And I’ll keep saying that over and over again until everyone on this planet listens.”
“That’s ridiculous. If we followed that line of thought we wouldn’t have any leaders at all.”
“And your point is?”
“You can’t have a religion without leaders—”
Miller squirmed with irritation. “I hate it when you do this. Why are you picking on me?”
“Because your life’s just too perfect, Miller. You need to be brought down to everyone else’s level. Just see me as your own personal tormentor, a living horsehair shirt for the soul.”
Miller took a deep breath. “You can’t have a religion without leaders because you need discipline—”
“No, you don’t.”
“—to help the followers find the true path to God through all the confusion.”
“You can do it yourself.” Mallory jabbed a finger sharply into Miller’s sternum.
“No, I can’t.”
“You just don’t think you can. You can do anything you want, Miller.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, but you don’t know me. Besides, that sounds faintly blasphemous.”
Miller started to brood over what Mallory had said, chewing on the nail of one of his little fingers. Mallory returned to his beer, hiding his smile, but after a moment he was drawn back to the neo-hippies whose humour was both infectious and comforting. Mallory realised how rarely he had heard anyone laugh in recent times.
His attention fell on a woman who was doing nothing out of the ordinary but who had a presence like a beacon. He realised he’d been aware of her from the moment he walked in the pub, even though he couldn’t recall looking at her; all around people were glancing at her as if they couldn’t tear their eyes away. She was in her mid- to late twenties, wearing a faded hippie dress beneath a bright pink mohair sweater; a clutter of beads and necklaces hung around her neck. The others in her group, even the older ones, deferred to her, nodding intently when she was serious, laughing at her jokes. Mallory liked the sharp, questioning intelligence he saw in her face, but it was coupled with a knowing quality around the eyes that was deeply sexy. To him that was a winning combination.
“Do you like her?” He had been so lost in his appraisal that he hadn’t noticed Miller studying him.
“She’s put together OK.”
Miller chuckled. “Is it the hair?”
“I wouldn’t be so shallow as to be attracted by the merely physical.”
“You make me laugh, Mallory!” Miller put his hands behind his head. “What I see is long brown hair that you just want to touch, full lips that curl up at the corners, and big, big eyes—”
“Steady on, Miller. They’ll have to hose you down when we get back.”
The woman stared at Miller, her brow furrowing; she’d obviously caught him watching and talking about her. Miller blushed furiously and looked away. Mallory jabbed a thumb at him, then raised one eyebrow at the woman. She shook her head wearily.
“Mallory!” Miller protested. “She thinks I’m after her now!”
“That’ll teach you to stare.” Mallory chortled to himself before downing the remainder of his pint in one go.
“You’re such a lad.” Miller sighed, becoming gloomy as memories surfaced. “Did I tell you I was going to get married?”
“Sue and me had been going out since we were at school. I thought we’d always be together. No great beauty . . . not too smart, either . . . but that didn’t matter. She really made me laugh. She didn’t mind that I was a brickie’s mate, didn’t nag me to get a better job.” He was staring at the floor, lost to his
thoughts. “You know how it is when you’re with someone so close it’s like you’re with yourself?”
“You don’t have to put on any act,” Miller continued dismally, “you can be the same sad loser you know you are without pretending to be anybody else and they still love you.”
“I said, no.” Mallory pretended to concentrate on his glass while surreptitiously watching the woman, wishing he were in a position where he could talk to her.
“At least, I thought it was like that,” Miller continued to himself. “But I was just fooling myself, wasn’t I? Maybe if I’d acted like somebody else she’d still be with me . . . and everything would be all right again.”
He mumbled something else that sounded as if he thought it was important, but Mallory’s attention was deflected by sudden activity outside the window: a flash of a figure running by in the dark, then another, then several people sprinting. It was a perfectly mundane image, but a tingle of apprehension ran up his spine nonetheless.
Others had noticed it. An old man in a window seat pressed his face against the glass. Someone else ran out into the street and grabbed hold of a passing teenager who at first struggled to get free before pointing behind him, gabbling animatedly.
Miller’s chattering in his ear was a distant drone; Mallory was drawn by the scenario unravelling outside.
As the teenager ran off, the man who had emerged from the pub looked back down the street. A subtle change crept across his face, amused detachment giving way to incomprehension, then a dull, implacable fear.
“I think we need to see this,” Mallory said quietly.
As he replaced his glass on the table, other drinkers were already making their way out onto the street. Mallory pushed his way into the centre of the road with Miller trailing behind him. They were instantly transfixed.
Though it was a dark, moonless night with heavy cloud cover, the sky was filled with light. Flashes of angry fire illuminated the clouds, every now and then bursting through to form pillars of flame that rammed down to the earth. Occasionally, it limned a shape moving with serpentine grace on large batlike wings that beat the air lazily. Mallory thought he glimpsed the shimmer of jewels on its skin, rich sapphires, emeralds, and rubies; echoes of another image surfaced from the depths of his subconscious, of fire in the dark. Whatever it was, it was filled with power, but there was something in the way it moved that suggested a terrifying fury: it was hunting.
But that wasn’t the worst thing. Behind it, along the horizon but sweeping forward, Mallory could make out something he could only describe as a presence: a thick white mist was unfurling like cloth, billowing at its central point and folding around at the edges so that it had an unnatural substance and life. It moved quickly across the landscape toward the city. Occasionally, the mist would take on aspects of a face—hollow eyes, a roaring mouth—before some other disturbing shape appeared; Mallory saw something that resembled an animal, another that looked like a bird. Gradually, it coalesced into a smoky horned figure towering over the city, insubstantial but filled with primal fears.
“The Devil,” Miller whispered, terrified, “and the Serpent.”
The air was infused with a palpable sense of dread. Everyone standing on that chill, dark street could only look up at it and remember years of religious imagery, laid on them since childhood, of damnation and torment. Whatever it was, it had come from the outer dark to the city, and its intent appeared apparent. Those of a Christian bent crossed themselves, and some who had not called themselves Christian for a long time did so, too.
Miller was whimpering quietly, whispering, “The Devil . . . the Devil . . .” until it became a mantra of Evil rippling through the crowd.
Even Mallory, who thought he was numb to most things, felt a crackle of fear as he looked up at the ancient image. He didn’t know what it was, or tried to tell himself he didn’t, but he knew he could feel the presence of a cold, alien intellect, and the threat it brought with it.
“The Devil’s come to town.” Someone laughed, though without humour.
It drifted for a moment in the thermals above the cooling city before breaking up as something dark at its core drove forward with a monstrous purpose. Screams rang throughout Salisbury, one voice lifting up in terror.
Mallory glanced back in the direction of the cathedral. Miller’s sagging expression showed they both shared the same thought: even if they got back to the gates, there was little chance they’d be able to get inside in time.
“Come with us.” The voice at Mallory’s shoulder was low, warm, and accentless, though insistent. He looked into the face of the woman he’d been admiring, and for the briefest instant he was so dazzled by her large, dark eyes that the threat faded into the background.
“You’ve got a concrete bunker with ten-foot-thick walls?” he said.
“Something like that.” Her gaze felt as if it was cutting through all his carefully prepared defences and he quickly looked away.
A teenager with dreadlocks bleached a brilliant white appeared beside her.
“Come on, let’s move.” His eyes flickered furtively toward the Devil in the sky.
The group Mallory had decided were New Age travellers headed quickly down the street, the woman at the heart of them, pausing only briefly to see if Mallory was following.
“What are we going to do?” Miller asked anxiously.
“Stand here or run.” Mallory didn’t wait to see Miller’s choice.
They veered away from the cathedral along Crane Street, over the river bridge to Queen Elizabeth Gardens where the tent city sprawled. The cries had become a nerve-jangling chorus, rising up all around as though everyone in the city was aware of what was bearing down on them. The horned shape had dissipated, to be replaced by a rushing wind that had substance and its own inner darkness
screaming in at roof height. Chimney pots crashed down, sending slates showering into the street. The glass of streetlights exploded as if crushed by a malicious hand.
As they ran toward the tents, they were all knocked from their feet by the shock wave of a powerful blast. Rubble rained down all around, most of it reduced to less than the size of a fist. With ringing ears, Mallory looked back to see part of the shopping quarter on fire, a column of thick black smoke rising up to the serpentine winged creature, now clearly visible.
“A Fabulous Beast.” The woman sat nearby, rubbing at her temple, which was now streaked with brick dust. “And it’s angry?” She threw off her daze and hauled Miller to his feet, urging him to move. Mallory was surprised to feel a twinge of jealousy for the touch of her hand. “We need to get within the camp,” she said, which Mallory found faintly ridiculous when the only shelter there was a thin covering of canvas or plastic.
The travellers surged into the camp before scuttling beneath trees to avoid the still-raining debris that took out more than one tent. The bursts of fire screaming from the sky were like some hellish vision of a wartime air raid, but the dark presence that fell across everything was far worse; it was as if shadowy fingers were plucking at their souls.
“We can’t stay here!” Miller squealed impotently. “We need to find a hiding place!”
“Chill.” The dreadlocked teen slapped a hand on Miller’s shoulder, pressing him down. “We’re safe, if we don’t get brained by a flying brick. See—protected.” He pointed to a post hung with strings of crystals, feathers, and small animal bones. Similar posts were staked out around the perimeter as far as
Mallory could see.
“Kill me now,” he said. “We’re doomed.” He tried to discern the location of what the woman had called the Fabulous Beast, but the glare from numerous torches lighting the camp made it difficult to see. The devil-wind rushed around the boundaries of the camp before delving back into the city.
“Can’t you feel it?” Miller rubbed at his skin as if he had scabies. Mallory could: the touch of some intelligence so far beyond him he couldn’t begin to categorise it, creeping through the labyrinth of his mind, swinging open locked doors, bringing wild panic into the civilised centres, dark and hateful and very, very old. Despite himself, he shuffled back until he felt the security of a tree trunk.
Gradually, the panic passed. The Fabulous Beast and the dark wind accompanying it had focused on another part of the city.
“It won’t come this way. We can’t be seen,” the woman said, to reassure him.
“Right. We pretend we’re trees. Or do we just cover our eyes really, really tight?” Mallory watched the sky, having decided he’d run for cover under the river bridge when the things came back. “What’s your name?” he asked.
“Mallory. And that person trying to burrow under the soil is Miller. You’re the boss?”
“Here? No, of course not.”
“You really believe this . . .” He nodded to the posts. “. . . is going to keep you safe?”
“Do you see the Fabulous Beast and that other thing attacking us?”
“And if you wish hard enough the sun might come up tomorrow.” He grabbed Miller roughly by the collar of his jacket and lifted him off the ground. “Come on—we might still be able to make the compound.”
As they moved toward the perimeter, they were surprised by the insistence in Sophie’s voice as she called, “Don’t cross the boundary!” She was right behind them, one imploring arm stretched out. “You’ll be seen. Really. You need to believe—”
Her voice was drowned out by the rushing wind sweeping through the streets at hurricane force. Hidden in the noise was the sound of screaming voices that brought a chill to Mallory’s spine. A building collapsed nearby. The force rushed toward the cathedral, dragging what seemed like all hell in its wake. When it reached its destination, there was a sound of thunder and a metallic crashing before it soared high into the air. Screeching, it continued to circle the cathedral compound.
Pale and shaking, Miller made the sign of the cross.
“Let’s sit. You can’t go out there till things have quietened down,” Sophie said.
Every rational argument told Mallory to ignore her, but he was already under her spell; the attraction had been instantaneous—he had never met anyone he wanted to know so keenly, though he couldn’t put his finger on exactly what it was that entranced him. With a shove, he encouraged Miller to follow her toward the fire, though they both continually glanced over their shoulders at the oppressive presence over the city.
By the time they found a quiet spot away from the other pockets of travellers and sat down, Mallory had almost started to believe that the thing wouldn’t attack. They were joined by the dreadlocked teenager who appeared to be less of a friend and more of an assistant to Sophie. He introduced himself as Rick.
Miller crossed himself again, craning his neck upward fearfully. “That’s the Devil,” he said, hoping someone would dissuade him of the notion.
“It was certainly scary,” Sophie said, “though I’m not much of a believer in the Devil myself.” She leaned over and gave Miller’s hand a reassuring squeeze. “You’re safe here.” He visibly calmed at her touch.
Miller looked to Mallory for support. “It’s like in Revelations. The Last Days. The Church has collapsed . . . I mean, it’s not gone,” he added guiltily, “but it’s barely hanging on. We’ve had war, and starvation, and . . . and . . .” Panic crossed his face once more. “It was the Devil . . . you saw it . . . you felt it . . . the fear. Everything’s ending.” He hugged his arms around himself tightly, staring blankly into the middle distance.
In a glance, something passed briefly between Sophie and Rick, then she leaned over and rested a small crystal from a pouch at her waist against Miller’s forehead. There was an instant reaction: Miller’s posture shifted, his shoulders loosening, his features becoming brighter, almost as if a shadow had been drawn from his face. Mallory looked at her curiously, but she studiously avoided his eyes.
“This is like a little town,” Miller said with incongruous brightness. “How long are you staying here?”
“For good.” A breeze caught Sophie’s hair. Despite the now-faint screeching high above them, a surprising tranquillity lay over the camp. Sophie noticed Mallory’s recognition of the calm. “There’s a deep spirituality in the land here,” she said. “That’s why we’ve come. That’s why we’ll continue to come, from all parts of the country.”
“A ley line—” Rick began.
Mallory snorted derisively.
“I might have expected that response before the Fall,” Sophie said, “but things are different now, surely you know that? We’ve got our technology back, but these days spirituality is just as potent a force—”
Miller nodded. “The power of prayer.”
“There’s an energy in the land, an energy that runs through us, too. You can call it spirit, or soul, but everything is tied together by it—” Sophie’s face hardened slightly at Mallory’s dismissive laughter. “I believe in it because I feel it,” she said, “and because it works.”
“It’s Sophie’s power source.” Rick smiled at them. “Her battery. You should see what she can do.” The awe in the teenager’s voice was affecting.
The discussion touched something in Miller. “It’s true, Mallory. Back in Swindon, I saw an old woman lay her hands on a baby that was about to die . . . and it lived. It’s like, if you believe in something strongly enough, you can tap into something, make it real. All the atheists used to say there was no evidence of God, but now He’s here, answering prayers.” A notion dawned on him. “Perhaps it’s because these really are the Last Days. Good and Evil preparing for the last battle . . .”
“They’ve been saying the Last Days are here ever since the Book of Revelation was written, Miller. I’m not going to start running my life around something composed at a time before underwear had been invented.” He waved away Miller’s hurt expression. “These days, everybody’s desperate to find something to believe in,” he continued. “They can’t face what a nightmare the world’s turned into . . . how many people have died . . . how hard it’s become. It’s made children of everyone. They’re wishing for a way out because the alternative is decades . . . at the very least . . . of hardship and suffering as we try to crawl back to some measure of the society we had before. Look around . . . we’re back in the Dark Ages.”
Sophie listened carefully, but gave no sign of what she was thinking. “And what do you believe in, Mallory?” she asked.
“Nothing. That’s what I believe in.”
“Everyone believes in something. But sometimes they don’t recognise what they put their faith in. Money, drugs, sex—”
“That works for me.”
Her eyes narrowed as she examined his face. “No, it’s none of those things. There’s something there, but I can’t tell exactly . . .”
He had the sudden, uncomfortable feeling that she was trying to read his mind. He broke eye contact. “You’re just being dazzled by my charisma and earthy sex appeal.”
She smiled ironically. “That must be what it is.”
Miller hugged his knees. The firelight actually gave some colour to his normally pallid face. “Who are you people?”
“Pagans, philosophers,” Rick began. “Environmentalists, travellers, freethinkers—”
“There’s a movement going on all over the country, Mallory. We’re just one sign of it,” Sophie said passionately. “We’re rebuilding a new Celtic Nation from the ground up. You don’t have to have Celtic blood to be a part of it, but we’re using that ancient culture as a template—”
“If you’re trying to get some kind of historical credence, you’re off to a bad start,” Mallory interrupted. “There was no Celtic Nation, just a bunch of tribes—”
“With a similar culture, music, belief system—”
“Fragmentary. The Romantics built them up into something bigger . . . a fantasy . . .”
“Exactly.” She leaned forward, emphasising the word with a blow of her palm to the ground. “You’ve obviously read the right books, Mallory, but you’re missing the point. We want an ideal. The system we had before was woefully bereft. It worked for a few, the élite, the Establishment, and disenfranchised the many. We’ve got a chance here to start with a clean slate and we want something better.”
“So you’re going to cover yourself with blue paint and go into war naked?”
Her smile was a challenge. “If we have to. I love to see cynics proved wrong, Mallory. As an aside, don’t go basing your views of the Celts on the writings of some tired old Romans. The victors write history and they disempower the vanquished. What we want is a society of equality, a strong community that looks after the weakest members, that’s close to nature, that emphasises the arts and spirituality over making money and personal greed—”
“Well, when you put it like that . . .”
She watched him cautiously with those big, unnaturally dark eyes, slowly getting the measure of him. He relished her attention, enjoyed the fact that, liked or disliked, he had somehow been raised above the herd in her eyes. “If we don’t do it, there’ll be plenty ready to take us back to the old, failed ways,” she said.
“OK, that seems a reasonable motivation,” Mallory conceded, “but all this other stuff . . .” He waved a dismissive hand toward the perimeter posts.
“It’s part of the human condition to be arrogant.” Her smile was as confrontational as Mallory’s words. “Everyone thinks they know exactly how the world works. Everyone.” Irony laced her comments. “What do you think that suggests? We’re all fumbling in the dark toward an answer.”
The calming atmosphere in the camp had almost made them forget the devastation going on in the city beyond. Occasionally, they would be distracted by a sudden pillar of fire, or when the wind with its chilling voices rushed close by, but generally they felt cosseted in an atmosphere of security that made Mallory face up to the possibility there might be something in the travellers’ magical thinking.
They continued their conversation well into the night. Mallory enjoyed the challenge of sparring with Sophie’s sharp intellect, and it soon became apparent that Sophie found something intriguing in Mallory, too, though whether she liked him was a different matter. She maintained eye contact, spoke to him much more than she did to Miller, and underneath it all there was definite sexual tension.
Sophie spoke warmly of her background, growing up in Cambridge, father a doctor, mother a lawyer, studying English at university before feeling there was more to life. She committed herself to campaigning: for the environment, for Amnesty International, was briefly arrested during a protest against the World Trade Organisation that got out of hand. Mallory was taken by the rich depth of
her beliefs and the passion she exhibited. She was so full of life he felt revitalised being next to her.
He, in return, told her nothing, but he did it in a humorous enough way to win her over.
Other members of the community came and went during the night hours, occasionally bringing them food—roasted vegetables, branded snacks that had a desirable rarity post-Fall—and cider. They were uncommonly cheerful; most of the people Mallory encountered in life were surly, suspicious, broken, or downright violent. Probably all on drugs, he thought, yet he felt oddly disturbed that they were genuinely pleased to see him, and never once questioned who he was or from where he came.
At one point, an impromptu music session broke out, with guitars, harmonicas, saxophones, and makeshift percussion, intermingling old pop songs and traditional folk tunes. It was the first time he had heard them since the Fall and he was surprised at how powerfully they tugged at his emotions.
But there was also something about the idyll that irritated Mallory: they had no right to be so content when the rest of the world had a cast of misery. “So who’s in charge here?” he said. “Or is it one of those idealistic communes where everything starts to fall apart the moment the washing-up rota comes into play?”
Sophie thought briefly, then said to Rick, “How is she?”
“She’ll probably be asleep.”
“Let’s check. She likes the night.” She stood up and motioned for Mallory and Miller to follow. They picked their way amongst the tents, past many smaller fires, to a larger tent outside which two torches blazed.
Sophie disappeared inside, emerging a moment later to say, “She’ll see you.”
The interior of the tent was shadowy, warm, and perfumed with lavender. The front section contained a few chairs, rugs, pot plants—one of them cannabis, Mallory noted—and ornaments with a faintly occult bent, including the skull of a cow.
The second section lay behind a purple velvet drape. Here, it was even gloomier and it took a second or two for their eyes to adjust. There was a large wooden bed that appeared medieval in origin and must have been brought from somewhere in the city, and on it lay a woman in her late forties, her long black hair streaked with silver. Despite the heat emanating from a brazier in one corner, she sprawled beneath several thick blankets. Her face was nearly white and drawn, as though she had some debilitating illness. Her gaze, though, was incisive, and she fixed instantly on Mallory.
“This is Melanie,” Sophie said quietly.
Mallory introduced himself and Miller. The woman gave off a peaceful air, as if whatever lay in the ground at that site had been absorbed by her.
“I hope my friends have been looking after you.” Her voice was hoarse, almost a whisper.
“You’ve got a good crowd here,” Mallory said.
That appeared to please her. “Sophie seems to think the two of you are very likeable, too.”
Mallory glanced at Sophie, who blushed and looked away.
“We’re trying to fit in with the locals,” Melanie continued. “We want people to see that what we’re doing here is right.” She ended her sentence with a deep, tremulous breath.
“Mallory here is very sceptical.” Sophie eyed him slyly. “He doesn’t believe in ley lines or the power in the land. And he especially doesn’t believe we can create a boundary that will make us invisible to Fabulous Beasts.”
“Sophie, dear, not everyone is a forward thinker, even in this newly enlightened age.” She smiled weakly. “I’m sorry, Mr. Mallory, I’m teasing you. If you’re hard and fast in your views, I wouldn’t dream of trying to change them. But this is the way it was told to me. Millennia ago, the power in the land flowed freely through everything and everyone. We call it the Blue Fire, but it has many other
names: chi to the Chinese . . .” She waved a hand to suggest this wasn’t important. “It healed, but it could also be destructive when used against the enemies of life. It could be shaped and directed by will alone and it could cause effects at a distance.”
“Magic, in a word,” Mallory said.
“Very perceptive,” Sophie said, with mild sarcasm.
“The Blue Fire formed a global network that kept the world . . . nature . . . healthy. It was fuelled by spirituality, by the faith of ancient people in tune with the land. They erected the standing stones and established the old sacred places at points where the Blue Fire was the strongest. But as civilisation advanced we lost touch with the energy. It became increasingly dormant, and the land suffered
accordingly. There were still people who could use it to achieve things, but it was hard work and the effects were both hit or miss and not particularly great. The Craft, we call it. The great Wiccan tradition.”
Miller gasped audibly and took a step back. Mallory saw a glimmer of panic in his face. Please don’t shout “Burn the witch!” Mallory thought.
Melanie smiled at his reaction. “Forget the old clichés. We’re not all double, double, toil and trouble. This is a religion, if you will. We have our rituals, the same as the Christian Church. We have our ministers and silly little trappings that make us feel happy. And we do good works. But I digress—”
“The Blue Fire is back in force.” Sophie’s eyes gleamed, her voice quiet but intense. “And we can do great things again.”
“Just like that,” Mallory said.
“Yes. Just like that.” She looked to Melanie. “When everything changed with the Fall, it regained its old vitality. The Fall was a signifier that we’d moved into a new age—”
“The dawning of the Age of Aquarius,” Mallory joked.
“Not everyone has the ability to work subtle magics, in the same way that not everyone can be an artist. But those who are able are very, very able. Supercharged,” Melanie said.
“I remain to be convinced,” Mallory said.
“Of course you do,” Melanie replied. “This is a hard topic for many people to swallow. They get taught things when they’re young . . . things about the way the world works . . . and they don’t like to give them up easily. It makes them feel uneasy. Destabilised.” Melanie nodded to Sophie. “Darling, be a dear and tell Mr. Mallory about Ruth Gallagher.” Her eyelids drooped shut.
“I’ve heard that name,” Miller said.
“You should have. Everyone should have, but the word is still getting round.” Sophie tried to read Mallory’s face to see if he had become any more receptive. “After the Fall, there was a group of people who fought for humanity. They were heroes. And one of them was Ruth Gallagher. The gods gifted her with a tremendous power. She became an ultimate adept at the Craft—”
“An Über-witch.” Mallory couldn’t restrain himself, but Sophie was unfazed.
“She could do amazing things. She could shake the world if she wanted. After the final battle, she set out across the land, spreading the word, teaching those who came to her. And Melanie was one of the first. They met in the Midlands, near Warwick, and Melanie took to it phenomenally. Her potential was off the scale. And she taught me.”
“And Sophie’s potential is great, too.” Melanie’s eyes were open once more, but she looked even more weary.
“I still think you’re fooling yourself,” Mallory said. “But I’ll bite. Go on, show me.”
“No,” Sophie said indignantly.
“We don’t perform, Mr. Mallory.” Melanie threw a scrawny arm over her eyes. “We use the Craft sparingly and for the right reasons. We use it as Christians would prayer. It’s not something to be taken lightly.”
“Oh, well, then, that’s all right. You can show me, you just don’t feel like it,” Mallory said. “You’ve convinced me. I’m a believer.”
“Are you always like this?” Sophie’s eyes blazed.
“Actually, he is,” Miller said.
Mallory flashed him a look that suggested he was a traitor. “As you said earlier, everyone out there thinks they know the way the world works. And they’re all wrong. So why should you be right?”
Miller moved to the foot of Melanie’s bed. His curiosity had been caught by the way the blankets were lying; it didn’t look right. “If you don’t mind me asking,” he said gently, “what’s wrong with you?”
Sophie’s face grew hard. “What’s wrong with her?” Rick suddenly appeared near to tears. “She was trying to do some good and she was attacked and beaten for it!”
“I’m sorry,” Miller said. “We have access to medical care . . . well, herbs and the like. If we can help—”
“There’s not much that can be done, I’m afraid.” Melanie gently pulled back the blankets. Both her legs were missing from the knee.
Miller recoiled. “My God, what happened?”
“She was attacked by a group of bastards from the cathedral!” Rick said, his eyes brimming over.
Miller blanched and glanced at Mallory in disbelief.
“We were at Stonehenge,” Sophie continued, her face like stone. “It used to be a dead site . . . all the energy leeched from it because of exploitation . . . but after the Fall it came back with force. We were investigating some reports that a Fabulous Beast had settled in the area when—”
“They came out of nowhere!” Rick raged. “Black-shirted bastards with a red cross on the front—we’ve seen them around the cathedral! Think they’re some kind of knights—”
“No!” Miller exclaimed, waving his hands as if he were trying to waft away the notion.
“They did that?” Mallory said.
“They tried to drive us off,” Sophie replied. “Came at us on horseback with swords and pikes and all sorts of medieval weaponry.”
“I couldn’t get out of the way in time,” Melanie said. “I fell beneath the hooves. They weren’t able to save my legs.”
“No,” Miller repeated, backing toward the purple drapes. “I don’t believe it.” Sophie, Rick, and Melanie looked at him in puzzlement.
“It’s true,” Sophie said. “We wouldn’t make something like that up. They knew who we were—unbelievers—and they rode her down. They didn’t try to help or anything, just drove us away. They didn’t care if we lived or died.”
“No,” Miller said again. “We’re knights—we’re from the cathedral. And no one there would do anything like that.”
Mallory’s heart sank. Miller’s denial was too strong, bolstered by his own need to believe that there was no truth in the story. Mallory had been focusing on Rick’s face; the puzzlement hung there for an instant while he processed what Miller had said and then his features hardened.
“Is this true?” Sophie said directly to Mallory. A hint of betrayal chilled her eyes.
“We only signed up today,” Mallory replied.
Rick looked as if he would leap across the room and attack them. “They’re all the same!” he raged. “They hate anyone who’s not a Christian—”
“That’s not true!” Miller protested, close to tears himself.
“Please,” Melanie said weakly, “no arguments.”
Mallory could see that the warm atmosphere had already evaporated. The extent of Melanie’s tragedy meant any attempt to argue their innocence would be offensive. “Come on, Miller, this isn’t the time,” he said, grabbing the young knight’s arm. Miller threw it off, preparing to defend his Faith further, and Mallory grabbed him tighter this time, dragging him back. “Get a grip,” Mallory hissed in his ear. “Look at what’s happened to her—have some heart.”
“Yeah, get out of here,” Rick said, “and tell your lot we’ll never forget what they did.”
Melanie closed her eyes; the strain was telling on her. Mallory tried to imagine the pain and horror of having two legs amputated without recourse to anaesthetic or an operating theatre. “Come on, Miller,” he said, softening. Slowly, his companion unclenched and turned to go.
Miller paused at the drapes and said, “I’m sorry. I truly am.” But the look on the faces of Sophie and Rick showed they both realised Melanie was probably dying and there were no words that could make amends for the crime that had been committed.
Sophie exited with them while Rick tended to Melanie. The frostiness of her mood made Mallory feel as if he’d lost something truly valuable; she didn’t meet his eyes any more.
“I know it’s not your fault,” she said, “but I have a very real problem with anyone who subscribes to a belief system that condones something like that.”
Mallory wanted to tell her he’d only signed up for a job of work, but at that point it would have sounded so pathetic it wouldn’t have achieved anything. Instead he said, “I’m sorry things ended like this.”
She didn’t wait to hear any more.
As they trudged across the camp, the first light of dawn coloured the eastern sky. The screeching wind ended as if someone had flicked a switch, nor was there any sign of the Fabulous Beast.
Miller had been lost to his thoughts until he said, “It can’t be true, Mallory. No one at the cathedral would stand by that kind of behaviour.”
“I don’t know, Miller—it only takes one bad apple . . . or one psycho . . . and everybody gets tarnished. Any club that has me as a member can’t have a very strict vetting procedure.”
“We should tell James . . . or Blaine—”
“Right, and say we dumped our uniforms and slipped out under cover of darkness to spend time with a bunch of witches. That should merit a crucifixion at least.”
“Don’t joke about that, Mallory!” Miller’s emotions were all raging near the surface, but he managed to calm himself. “I’m sorry. But I’m not like you, Mallory. I believe in things, and it hurts me when you take the piss out of them.”
“OK. I won’t do it again.”
Miller eyed him askance to see if he was joking, but couldn’t begin to tell. Mallory’s thoughts, however, had already turned to seeing Sophie again and ways that he might bridge the gulf that lay between them. It wasn’t insurmountable, he was sure, but he would need time away from the strict regime of the cathedral.
When they walked along High Street up to the main entrance, what they saw brought them to an immediate halt. The enormous iron gates were bowed, almost torn asunder, hanging from their hinges by a sliver. The Devil had come calling.
Cover Illustration © John Picacio
Design by Nicole Sommer-Lecht
Mark Chadbourn—a two-time winner of the British Fantasy Award—is the critically-acclaimed author of sixteen novels and one non-fiction book. A former journalist, he is now a screenwriter for BBC television drama. His other jobs have included running an independent record company, managing rock bands, working on a production line, and as an engineer’s ‘mate’. He lives in a forest in the English Midlands. Visit him online at http://www.markchadbourn.net/.