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A Monastery in Essex, September 1533.
The dormitory was on fire.
Brother Ignatius and I stared open-mouthed as a flame burst out of the furthest window of the little building, roaring into the night sky like a vengeful demon. Another blew out the window beside it with a shower of glass and sparks.
I clutched at his arm. “Is Master Kytson up there?” I shouted.
“Yes,” Brother Ignatius answered. “After all the wine he had drunk, we carried him up to sleep.”
For a moment I stared at him in horror, then I let go of his arm and started to run back towards the burning building.
“Mistress Fox!” he called. “Do not go inside! It is God’s will if your companion perishes!”
Ignoring him, I ran up the steps and into the dormitory building. There was a short stairway before me, which I assumed led up to the men’s dormitory rooms. A couple of monks were on the landing, unhooking a carved wooden crucifix from the wall opposite. They staggered down the stairs with it, just as another monk swept up two silver candlesticks from the shelf below where it had been.
As the monks hurried out through the front door with their treasures, I ran up the stairs.
Several men that I took to be other travellers staying in the monastery ran past coughing. But none was the tall, broad figure of Marcus Kytson.
“Help me!” I shouted as they went past, “My companion is still up there!”
But none stopped, or even acknowledged my presence. They ran down the stairs with wide, staring eyes, almost tripping and falling in their haste to get out.
With a curse at their unchristian selfishness, I ran to the top of the stairs. On the left was an open door with black smoke pouring out and the flicker of flames visible through the darkness. I could just make out a line of wooden cots down each side of the chamber, with only a narrow space up the middle. All the cots at the far end were heavily ablaze, and I nearly retched at the sight of a dreadful twisted shape silhouetted on top of the furthest one.
By God’s good grace, the flames had not yet reached the closest end of the room. The cot nearest the door was untouched and there was a man-sized shape under a blanket.
Was it Marcus? And if so, was he still alive?
Putting my mouth into the crook of my elbow and breathing through my sleeve to avoid the worst of the smoke, I ran to the foot of the cot. The flames were mercifully still two cots away. Which meant I had but a few moments before they made the final leap and consumed this one.
I leant over the figure. He was under a thin blanket, which was pulled over his head and must have kept the worst of the smoke from his mouth. I whipped it back, to reveal Marcus. With a heartfelt prayer of thanks, I shook him hard.
“Wake up! In Heaven’s name!”
He grunted and moved slightly.
I shook him again, harder. “Wake up, Marcus!”
The flames were now at the next cot, and it was burning fast.
“WAKE UP!” I screamed.
He grunted once more, and his eyes opened briefly, then fluttered closed.
A stray spark landed on the wooden frame of his cot and it started to smoke.
With another curse, I ran round to his back and forced my arms under his shoulders, then started to pull him away.
I am a slight girl, while Marcus is a broad-shouldered man – so in truth there should have been no possible way for me to carry him even a few feet. Yet somehow I found enough breath and strength to get his upper body off the bed. I gritted my teeth and pulled once more. He grunted again as his feet slid off the bed and dropped to the floor. I felt him stand, if somewhat unsteadily, and start to cough.
“Come!” I yelled. The flames were now starting to consume the cot he had been sleeping in moments before. “Run!”
I took in some air through my sleeve, grabbed his hand and pulled him staggering out after me.
By God’s good grace we made it to the door and out into the corridor beyond. Flames were already licking around the lintel, and as I watched, some of the wood panelling beside the door burst alight.
I dragged him to the stairs. Together we stumbled down, coughing uncontrollably, until we made it out of the front door and fell together onto the lawn, still unable to breathe clearly.
“Art whole?” I asked Marcus eventually. “No burns?”
He patted his legs then shook his head. I supposed that his streaming eyes and smoke-blackened face must be the worst he had suffered. And were presumably also a mirror of my own.
But he then gave another deep cough, turned onto all fours and vomited heavily into the grass.
“Is that the wine or the smoke telling its tale, Master Marcus Kytson?” I asked. He flopped onto his side and stared at me with red eyes. “Well?” I added with a thin smile. “Pray tell.”
Before he could answer there was the sound of a footstep behind my head. I craned my neck round, to see a pair of old leather sandals and broken yellow toenails in the moonlight.
I struggled to my feet, which caused me to double over with another bout of coughing. Eventually I could breathe again, and stood straight. It was Brother Ignatius; worry written deep across his fleshy features.
“By Heavens, Mistress Fox,” he said, stepping away from Marcus and the contents of his belly. “How in the name of all that is holy did you get your companion out?”
There was sudden a crash. He flinched and looked past me. The whole of the dormitory building was now ablaze; flames bursting from every window, and even from the front door we had just come through. One half of the wooden roof had collapsed, and as we watched, the rest of it fell in with another crash and shower of flaming sparks, right onto the place where Marcus had been sleeping only minutes before.
I shuddered at how close we had been to disaster. “With God’s help, Brother,” I replied. “God gave me the strength to lift Master Kytson from his bed and get him out.” Then I recalled the awful twisted shape I had seen. “But I fear the one who slept at the far end is lost.”
He crossed himself. “Oh no, the poor man. That must be old Godfrey Fletcher, who we have allowed to stay for many years. He has… had… a book of prayers he liked to read before sleep, but his failing eyesight meant he would oft hold a candle too close. Belike he fell into a slumber and set his book alight.” He stepped back as several monks ran past with buckets of water. “It seems his lack of care has cost him dear.” The monks threw the water at the fire in high arcs that hissed and steamed, but seemed to have little effect on the blaze. “A worthy effort,” observed Brother Ignatius, shaking his head, “but I fear unlikely to help.” He looked across at the rest of the buildings, that were mercifully untouched by the fire. “At least God has seen fit to send a wind that bears the flames away from the main Monastery.”
Marcus struggled to his feet and came over.
“It seems you owe Mistress Fox your life, sir,” said Brother Ignatius.
Marcus nodded. “That is so,” he said in a hoarse whisper, giving me a weak smile, the cockiness and bluster that I had observed on our travels so far seemingly knocked out of him. “I am most grateful to Mistress Fox.” He looked over at the burning building in silence a while. “Why were you not abed yourself, Mary?” he asked. “You must also be most weary after our long ride.”
“Brother Ignatius was walking me to the other dormitory, the one attached to the Nunnery,” I replied. “We had just set off across this lawn when we saw the inferno.”
There was a hissing as the monks threw more water at the fire, which seemed to have mostly consumed itself anyway, and was beginning to reduce down to glowing embers and smaller flickers of flame. Other monks and some of the travellers were standing round in small groups. A couple of monks were picking through a pile of ornaments laid out on the grass, including the cross and candlesticks I had seen them rescue earlier.
“Yes, I am most sorry for the destruction of your building.” Marcus turned back to Ignatius. “What will you do? How will you restore it?”
Brother Ignatius shook his head. “I very much doubt that we will do any such thing,” he said. “King Henry and his servant Master Cromwell have given word that we are to be turned out soon, and our monastery given over to the enrichment of some godless landowner. Maybe Our Lord has seen fit to devalue our property with this fire before such a transaction takes place.” He gave a small, slightly hopeful smile. “It would be a sign from God that he favours us over this King.”
“Indeed,” Marcus said.
“We must be away soon,” I observed.
“Nay,” said Brother Ignatius. “Not until you are both fully recovered and can breathe clear. There are some beds in the infirmary, or if those are full with others affected by the smoke, we will find you beds elsewhere. You can both rest up there a few days until you are fit to travel. I will not allow otherwise.”
His fleshy features were set in an expression that brooked no argument. I wondered what he would do if we ignored him and continued on our journey anyway, but then I heard Marcus coughing again. It was clear we needed time to recover.
“Thank you,” I said. “We do not deserve such care.”
Brother Ignatius observed me silently a moment. “All God’s children deserve it,” he said. “Even a strange young man and a headstrong young woman dressed in men’s attire, who arrive this afternoon seeking shelter on their journey, so tired that they almost fall from the saddle.” He gave Marcus a significant glare. “Such that they are not able to hold more than a few glasses of the Monastery wine.” He paused a moment. “I would know the purpose of your journey?”
“I am sorry, Brother,” Marcus said with a ghost of a smile, “but we are not at liberty to tell.”
I caught Marcus’s eye and gave him a small nod of support. Our journey was in part on the King’s business – so it would hardly be appropriate to share it with a monk who had just expressed his opposition to the King’s policies.
Marcus had recruited me to stand in for a missing prince, after the boy had been kidnapped. This much I knew; little more. I had accepted on a whim, so would need to know more, and soon.
“I see,” Ignatius nodded. “A clandestine mission. So be it.” He looked at each of us with his eyes narrowed in the moonlight. “Then I would enjoin you both to proceed with the utmost caution. Whatever is your purpose, I suspect it will place you in the gravest danger.” He looked hard at me. “You have demonstrated great bravery already, Mary Fox, by running into a burning building to rescue your companion. But I feel sure you will face even greater dangers in the days to come. Are you ready for these?”
I took a deep breath and met his eye.
“Yes, Brother,” I said. “I am.”
Look for the launch of The Tudor Prince to read more…