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 Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 11 "Allies" (part 1)

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nordmann
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Join date : 2011-12-25

20120717
PostXartis Psyxis - Chapter 11 "Allies" (part 1)

Titus struggled to move from where he’d fallen, his legs feeling at first as if the very bones within them had liquefied, his vain attempts to control them resulting only in uncontrolled spasms and kicks which simply slammed his body painfully against the floor beneath him. But as they slowly regained a more sturdy composition he found at last that his feet gained purchase and that he could just about propel himself, scrabbling and stumbling on all fours, across the floor. The air was filled with thick, acrid smoke, stinging his eyes so sharply that he was forced to keep them clenched tightly shut. Not that they would have been much use to him open anyway; between the black night and the dense pall of smoke the world around him had been stripped as absolutely and instantaneously of all discernible form as it had been rendered devoid of reason. During his excruciatingly slow progress through this torturous gloom with every futile breath searing his lungs to their core, his hand at one point fell on something immediately familiar and he instinctively gathered to his chest the two leather satchels containing his and Flitch’s belongings. Then, with tremendous difficulty he resumed his crawl, inching his way towards the doorway. A sense of a new void opening before him indicated in his blindness that he was there; his groping hand landing on the raised stone doorstep confirmed it. A coolness suddenly caressed his cheeks and he instinctively gasped, noticing as he did so that his lungs at last drew some sustenance from the obnoxious air around him and not just agonising pain. His body screamed at him to go on but some deep intuition told him that the effort in doing so could well be his last; he was close to suffocation and needed air. He paused where he knelt and willed his mouth open, gulping in the caustic mixture of smoke and air until he retched, each intake of breath like a thousand sharp needles tearing at his chest from within. Then, with great effort he forced himself to do so again, and so again, until at last in spite of the agony he found some sense of strength returning to his being.

He risked raising his head slightly and tried again to open his eyes and look around him. They stung horribly and he closed them again immediately, but not before they had registered two important sights in the darkness; the hallway outside his room, though debris filled and derelict, was vaguely visible – as yet unfilled completely by smoke. The second thing he had noticed flooded him with a mixture of relief and incredulity, incongruous though both emotions were in the circumstances. On its peg by the doorway right beside him hung his coat, his incredulity prompted by the fact that it could still be there, his relief by the knowledge that stitched within its lining was all the money he had withdrawn for his work. He clutched its form with his free hand and used it to laboriously haul himself up to a standing position. The effort sent agonising shards of pain through both of his legs, but after a few moments pause in which he leaned heavily against the wall for support and forced some more of the poisonous air into his lungs, they at last consented to take a blundering step out in to the hallway.

Now encumbered with satchels and coat clasped in both arms he staggered along the hall’s length, his unshod feet barely finding purchase on the mess of splintered wood and rubble beneath him, his lungs still so terrified at the prospect of agony that every breath was a conscious act of will, his balance achieved only by repeatedly falling and leaning with his shoulder against the wall beside him. At last another welcome reduction in the density of the smoke and dust was enough to indicate that he had reached the stairwell, and still using a combination of shoulder and wall to keep himself upright he managed to slowly stumble his way, step by faltering step, down through the darkness. Mercifully the air grew less viscous the more he descended. He even dared open his eyes again, and though he found that he could at least hold them open without too much pain he still could not see much more than a few inches before him. He reached the bottom, discovered when his foot having expected a step found itself shuddering into hard stone so that he almost toppled forward, and paused again in an effort to regain his balance and try to gauge his bearings. He heard a faint sound above the ringing in his ears and it was a few moments before the noise coalesced into something discernible. He realised then that it was that of men’s voices raised in alarm in the courtyard outside and instinctively moved in their direction. The slight breeze on his face grew stronger and fresher and he realised with relief that he was at last approaching the archway which opened out into the bailey courtyard between the chapel and the Long Gallery at the base of the Clock Tower.

Under the arch something tangible broke the absolute darkness for the first time. Squinting into the gloom outside he could discern an ominous glow to the right, in the direction of the gallery. At the same time a tremendous warmth engulfed him which, in the same instant, was suddenly transformed into a solid mass of unbearable heat, a fiery hydra which enveloped him in its excruciating embrace. Invisible fingers of flame stroked at his neck and shoulders, each caress more painful than the previous, their rapidly growing intensity enough to dissuade him from tarrying where he stood a moment longer. He turned and hurled himself out into the courtyard with all his might, his gait more stumble than step, his eyes open but blinded by tears, attempting to propel himself as far away from those murderous fingers as possible before he should fall.

But he did not trip. It was the collision that sent him sprawling. His satchels and coat flew from his grip and their contents spilled on the cobbles, followed immediately by Titus himself, who braced himself for the impact of the stones as they rose to meet him and was amazed when his descent was suddenly halted. A strong hand had hooked itself under his arm, arresting his fall.
“Good God! Are you alright, sir?” the man with whom he had collided shouted at Titus as he helped him upright again. Titus was still so deaf that he could hardly hear him. He thought he heard the stranger ask a further question but was too stupefied to even begin to phrase a request for him to repeat it.

The stranger did not wait for a response in any case but immediately bent down and began to hurriedly pick up Titus’s dropped belongings. Noticing the pistol he examined it briefly before passing it to Titus, handle first. He shouted again. “If you’re who I think you are, you’d better not lose this. Now quick, man! Away before the next lot goes off!” He grabbed Titus and literally hauled him across the cobbles in the direction of the old Parliament Hall.

As they raced across the courtyard a confused and still half blind Titus attempted to set the gun in his coat pocket as if he had been wearing it. It was only then that he realised he had nothing on but his nightclothes, and these were shredded almost to ribbons on his person. The stranger, who was now carrying Titus’s coat, bags, and indeed the mapmaker himself as they sped on their way, noticed his amazement at this realisation and laughed, an unusual noise in the circumstances. Then he gripped Titus harder by the arm and quickened his pace. “Come on, man. You’ll be safer over here. Your house is about to go up.” He led Titus hurriedly through the arches of the old hall and then to the rear of the ancient structure where a small open doorway led to the Cork Tower. Keeping tight to the granite stones, now stained blood red in the light of the fire across from them, they skirted the tower’s base and emerged at its angle with the great curtain wall facing Castle Street where a postern gate had long ago been drilled through the masonry.

“Get over there!” roared his companion. “I’ve had the locks smashed! It’s open!”
Just as they reached the first iron lattice gate at the mouth of the tunnel and struggled to swing it open on its ancient rusted hinges, there came more loud shouting from back in the courtyard, the sound of frantic feet on cobbles, and a screamed command to take cover. No sooner had the order been shouted than there came a massive boom, a rush of wind that almost blew them from where they stood, and then a silence. It seemed an eternity, enough time indeed for Titus to don his coat and reclaim one of his bags, before the silence was broken by the sound of chunks of masonry and shrapnel hitting the ground in loud crashes all around them. They each held one of the satchels over their heads and huddled close to the mortared tunnel entrance until the loud barrage subsided, though Titus’s continuing deafness rendered the sound much like pebbles might make hitting the surface of a still lake. Eventually all was still again. The stranger tapped him on the shoulder and shouted. “Robert Cuffe is my name. You’re the mapmaker?”
Titus nodded.
“Good, it would have been a shame to have risked my neck only to find I’d rescued a member of Briar’s militia!”

With great effort he wrenched open the iron gate enough for them both to slip through and into the tunnel which led under the wall. The scattering of bricks on the floor impeded them only slightly, their significance not even noticed by the two men now intent only on reaching the last gate in their way. A cannon shot fired directly above them, or so it sounded, and then they realised with horror what the debris underfoot meant. Dumbfounded, they watched the ceiling over their heads as it clove in two along its length, its progress from crack to fissure and then to void accompanied by alternating groans and thunderclaps, its brickwork suddenly becoming a deadly hail. It was Cuffe who broke their suicidal enthrallment. “God’s pox! This is madness – come with me, for Christ’s sake!” He jerked Titus forward and they ran to the last gate. With one stout kick Cuffe managed to open it at the first attempt and they spilled out into Castle Street.

Cuffe led Titus around the corner at the top of the street, shouting on the way with all his might to the crowd congregated outside, warning them to run for their lives. Few if any heeded him so he soon gave up and concentrated instead on forging a passage through the throng up to St Werburgh’s Church, holding Titus’s hand like a small child as he dragged him along in his wake. The thoroughfares through which they plied were milling with what seemed like hundreds of people who, spellbound by what they were witnessing and apparently unaware or uncaring of the danger in which they stood, accompanied the cacophony of disaster that emanated from behind the high castle walls with a chorus of wails and shrieks that merely added to the apocalyptic tenor of the proceedings. A loud communal gasp, a flurry of oaths and shouts of horrified wonder accompanied one spectacular burst of sparks, followed by another resounding explosion from within the castle confines which had everybody instinctively diving for cover with hands over head.

They burrowed on through the crowd in Bride Street until Cuffe abruptly took yet another turn, this time into an equally populous Cross Lane. No sooner had they done so than they, like everyone else, were suddenly stunned into immobility. At first the ground beneath them swayed. Then a low rumble which rapidly grew in volume to that of a thousand thunderbolts engulfed their ears to the exclusion of all other sound. The sway beneath their feet became a violent tremor which all but felled them and which grew in intensity with the thunderbolts. It shook plaster, mortar and slates from the houses around them. Glass in windows cracked and shattered, chimney pots rained down onto the street, and all with the illusion of silence against the deafening roar from behind them which swallowed up all other sound in its fury. Then with incredible suddenness it stopped, and in its wake an ominous hush descended, a silence that none amongst the stupefied hordes seemed willing to break. Crouched in the doorway into which they had fallen as the tremors began, neither Titus nor Cuffe needed to confer to agree what had just happened. Both knew immediately. The great curtain wall of the castle through which they had just made their exit had come down.

Even here on Cross Lane, with no clear view of the castle, the crowd had discerned what had happened. The long silence was eventually broken. Some, injured by falling debris, whimpered or cried out in pain. Some knelt in prayer. Others wailed in anguish. But then another noise emerged from the people around them, one that in its incongruity and unexpectedness seemed all the more sinister for that. Uncaring of who might hear them or of who might see the vicious hatred on their smiling faces, at first a few but then suddenly what seemed a majority of Cross Lane’s denizens began to cheer. Applause broke out, at first scattered but which soon became an intense, wild and raucous ovation of delighted cries, fists punched jubilantly in the air, and guttural screams of hate-filled joy as the flames, smoke and dust rose in plumes from the carnage beyond, and triumphant whoops of glee met each crash and explosion which punctuated its progress. Amazingly, given what he had just been through, it was this that frightened Titus. Cold pangs of fear gripped his guts and tightened with each raucous hate-filled roar from the sea of bodies through which they again swam. Cuffe quickened his pace even more and Titus knew that he was thinking the same thought. As a Londoner Titus knew only too well the ugly transition from crowd to mob and the full, unspeakable terror of what that meant. The exact moment of transition might be imperceptible, but something told him that tonight that moment had already passed.

Then, a welcome sight greeted them. As they pushed their way laboriously through the crazed throng Titus noticed that a small phalanx of soldiers had stationed themselves at the top of the street barring exit at that point. They had erected a barrier behind which they stood, firearms and swords in hand, surveying the melee before them. Cuffe barked an order to let them through, and hands were outstretched to help both him and Titus scramble over the makeshift barricade of barrels and overturned tables. On the other side Cuffe had a brief word with the young soldier in command of the post, then grabbed Titus by the shoulder and steered him into a small laneway. “This way, my billet is here,” he shouted. They reached a door and knocked on it loudly. It was immediately opened by an elderly lady who ushered them in, slamming the door hard behind them. Cuffe thanked her and dropped Titus on a chair by a large table. “Don’t worry, Mrs Coates. The worst is over. Arran’s guards are out in force and have everyone breaking curfew hemmed in, so there’ll be no trouble on your doorstep. Now, please get some water on the boil – we have a guest in need of repair!” He turned to Titus. “Forgive me, sir, but I must return to the castle.”

Despite the distraction of ever more explosions and cries from the street outside, Mrs Coates proved adept and single-minded in the matter of surgical repair. “I raised three lads of my own to adulthood – believe me I’ve wound more bandages than all the Huguenots could weave in a year. Now, let me look at those.” Titus offered her his hands as directed and saw as he lifted them that they were caked with blood, and that the left one looked a sorry sight indeed with its tattered skin and dark lesions. For a moment in his mind’s eye he was back in the bedroom as the window had disintegrated into a million pieces of deadly shrapnel. “Oh my God.” was all he could say.

“You’re right to thank Him. He was certainly looking after you tonight. Nothing embedded as far as I can see – you’ll be alright! But you need to be cleaned up.”
“Yes, thank you.” It sounded totally inadequate but it was all Titus could say. As Mrs Coates began her ministrations Titus tried to make conversation but all that came out was “What happened?”
“The castle’s gone up in smoke! Didn’t you notice? Hold still a moment. Damn! Here – hold this end of the cloth.”
“The castle? It fell down. I heard it fall.” Titus felt detached, as if he were on a different plane observing the scene from a distance. He held his free hand on the cloth bandage obediently while she tied the remainder about his wrist and knuckles.
“Up, down - same thing. It’s ashes now. You are Robert’s mapmaker, are you not?”
Titus nodded, though the question confused him. Fortunately Mrs Coates seemed not to be so confused herself and was efficient in her repair work. The bandaging was completed without fuss and she placed a basin of hot water on the kitchen table before Titus. “Here – wash yourself. I’ll be back in a moment.”
Titus duly did as he was bid. His left hand, now swathed to the point of absurdity, felt like it was on fire. His right hand, though very sore, still functioned as directed, and with it he swabbed the soot and blood as best he could from his arms and face. The remainder of him seemed to have survived without damage, though his nightclothes were in a shambles. In a moment Mrs Coates reappeared with a blanket.
“You will feel cold now, and your left arm will daresay go numb. Don’t worry – such is to be expected. It will pass. Come, sit by the fire.”
Titus hobbled to the large fireplace and collapsed on its dais, the blanket wrapped around his shoulders. He pushed himself into a sitting position with his right hand and leaned his back against the warm stone. “Mrs Coates, I am grateful to you. Thank you.” He drifted into a stupor.

When he came to his senses again Cuffe had reappeared and was rummaging through some drawers, from which he produced a bottle of what appeared to be discoloured milk. He handed it to Titus and ordered him to drink it, and smiled just a little when Titus’s first swig made him retch. “ Drink it all if you can. It will neutralise the poison. The fire is under control, though I fear it’s taken a good part of the castle with it. My men are damping down what’s left of it, and Arran’s own soldiers have sealed the place off.” He waited until Titus had drained the contents. “Good, now try not to vomit. It was mandrake you were dosed with, enough to make you drowsy, we think.”
“Mandrake?”
“It’s a long story. I’ll tell you later. You spoke with Briar this evening when you arrived?” Titus nodded. “Did he give you anything – liquor perhaps?”
It seemed an eon ago but Titus racked his memory. “We spoke only but yes, there was a bottle of brandy in my room when I got in. I assumed it was a gift of DeLacey’s clerk.”
“I’m afraid not, but don’t worry. You’d have to ingest a queer amount of mandrake to die of it. My antidote is one William Robinson gave me the recipe for some time ago. Not so much an antidote in fact as a soberer-upper. No, the point was to make sure you slept, that’s all. The rest of the task would be completed in the fire.”
“Task?”
“Are you fit to listen? Hear me out so.” Cuffe ignored Titus’s baffled question, pulled a kitchen chair over to the fireplace and sat astride it, facing the mapmaker across its back with his arms folded beneath his chin. “An attempt was made to despatch you to your maker tonight and you should hear the tale. I’ll tell you what I know and then maybe you can tell me why I was asked to risk life and limb to save you.”
“For which I am grateful,” Titus thought he had better iterate his sentiments in that regard, but it merely made Cuffe smile.
“So I believe you keep saying, sir. But let me tell you just what it is that you are grateful for!” He smiled, but then as quickly grew serious. “At one o’clock this morning or thereabouts I was roused by a knock on this door. A soldier had been sent by none other than Lord Arran to fetch me and get my men organised at once. The castle was on fire and I should attend it immediately. The ward’s fire crew is stationed just around the corner in Whitefriars and had already been alerted. I commandeered them and their pump and we all legged it down to Cork Hill, collecting four kegs of powder from my own supply on the way.” He scratched his chin thoughtfully. “Now that begs question number one. No general alarm had yet to be raised yet messengers were sent to both the brigade and myself alerting us to the news. Strange, is it not? And question number two cropped up close on its heels! The main castle gates were wide open, and there wasn’t a sentry to be seen. Now, when do you think was the last time that has happened at the castle? Not since Strongbow’s day when it was built I would guess!”

Titus struggled to follow the man’s story but he felt an aching tiredness overtake him. Even in this addled state of mind though he could see what troubled Cuffe. A major fire at the castle is no ordinary circumstance, but these facts made it all the more extraordinary indeed.
But Cuffe had not finished his narration. “It was Arran’s own quarters that were in flames and they had taken serious hold – the heat was almost unbearable. My priority of course was to rescue the gunpowder kegs in the magazine – if they went up they’d take half the city with them. That is why I had brought my own. If a firebreak had to be made it would have to be done quickly and with little finesse! Imagine our surprise when we dashed through the flames to the inner courtyard, only to find that the powder kegs had already been moved out to the stables, or at least most of them. Are you listening?”
Titus realised his head had dropped and jerked it upright again.
“Well that’s the oddest thing yet, don’t you see? We were first to arrive and yet the kegs had already been saved.”
“And you think the castle was set on fire in order to kill me?” Titus was struggling to keep up with Cuffe’s logic.
The captain laughed. “No, not quite. You’re important enough to be murdered it seems but that would be overcooking the goose somewhat, if you’ll pardon the expression! Look, I know you’re fit to drop but please bear with me. It was obvious that Arran’s quarters were lost and that if we didn’t act soon, the Long Gallery would be next to go. I set my men to preparing an explosion which would demolish the structure connecting the two, and it was then that Captain Briar appeared. He told us to use the powder that we had brought to demolish the end of the gallery closest to the guests’ residency and so break the fire’s path. I told him that this was stupid. Any fool could see that the fire had yet to take hold in the gallery itself. If the castle was to be saved, he’d best leave the fire fighting to me while he should attend to his own duties. We set about arranging our barrels at that end, making as much noise as we could in the process to rouse anyone still asleep. The castle has a bell to signal fire but incredibly it had yet to be rung. I shouted at Briar to make himself useful and raise the alarm but found he had disappeared. Are you still with me man?”
Titus nodded. “I find it hard to believe the explosion I experienced was not on my side of the castle. It certainly felt like it!”
“If it was, we would not be having this parley my mapmaker friend, and believe me, such was nearly the case. Just as we set the fuse on our firebreak, I spied Briar rolling one of our barrels to the opposite end – the building that houses the castle guests of note, and you, I’m afraid. I raced to him and stopped him in time from lighting the fuse. I’m afraid I used a bit of force. I think I may have broken his arm - such was his intent to light it and mine to prevent him. Then he ran off. I knew the kegs we had placed were about to go up so I took cover. I’m afraid that’s the explosion that got you, so to speak, well, almost.”
“Still, I owe you my life, captain.”
“Well yes, you’re lucky to be alive, and doubly so when you hear what happened next. I regret to say our firebreak had been too little too late. When I came out from cover I saw to my regret that fire had engulfed the Gallery roof despite our controlled explosion and knew immediately that Briar’s bloody keg could go up at any moment. I fear if you hadn’t emerged from the door at that moment there was little I could have done to prevent you going up with it!”
“You are saying then it was Briar who was trying to kill me? I know the man dislikes me intensely but I would imagine should he allot the same punishment to all those who incur his disfavour the world would be an empty place.”
Cuffe laughed. “Keen wit, for a man in a stupor. And I’m afraid it’s due to more than shock at what you’ve been through. Let me explain, I’ve left the most puzzling bit of the lot to the last. Arran’s messenger had another instruction to relay when he roused me – and it was straight from his master’s mouth, as it were. ‘Get to the mapmaker before Briar does or he’ll perish indeed. He’s been drugged.’”
“Drugged?” Titus was incredulous.
“Such was the message. Briar dislikes you more than you appreciate. As I said, the brandy you enjoyed tonight had more in it than grape.”
“But how did this messenger know this?”
“About the mandrake? Well, it’s purely a guess on my part but it seems to me that there was a lot more skulduggery going on this evening as you and I lay a-bed than just Briar’s shenanigans. When I met Briar he was fairly dishevelled. His lip was cut too, even before I added to his woes with a broken arm. How did he look when you spoke to him? I’ll wager a lot prettier – the cut was new.”
Titus nodded.
“My reckoning is that Briar himself had been questioned by someone using much the same methods he prefers himself. Either that or someone had fought him to get into his quarters. Whatever the truth of it, his plan had been discovered.”
“But why wasn’t he under lock and key then?”
“A good question, and one that I intend to find the answer too. It could well have been that the fire interrupted everything when it broke out.”
“But that would mean that Briar himself didn’t start it?”
“My feelings too, though I’m bloody sure he knew of it beforehand. It’s a puzzle, I admit it.”
Titus was about to ask another question when a shudder of fatigue ran through his body and he almost slumped into the grate. He tried to speak but succeeded only in producing a raspy cough.
“Enough for now, man,” Cuffe said. “Look, there’s a cot here by the fire. Lie down and try to get some proper sleep. I’ll speak with you again when you wake.” He rose slightly from the chair but stopped suddenly and sat down again. “But before that, maybe you can enlighten me as to how mapmakers are suddenly a breed to be culled?” He examined Titus closely, obviously expecting an answer to his question.

A flood of thoughts washed through Titus’s mind at the captain’s inquiry, a jumble of memories, suspicions, fears and theories, any or all of which might have bearing on the answer and all of which had their origin in the last few eventful days. But try as he might he could not make sense of them, at least not now, and most definitely could not put them into words. He shook his head. “I wish I knew,” was all he could offer in reply.

Cuffe seemed irritated at this remark, but quickly checked his features and smiled sympathetically. “It can wait, don’t worry. You’ve been through enough this evening without an inquisition on top of everything else. By the way, I must confess that in all this I was never told your name, just your profession. Are your maps that bad that it must be kept a secret, or your renown so great that I should have deduced it from your work?”
Titus smiled weakly. “Perry, sir. Titus Perry”. Though he had meant the comment audible, it came out as a hoarse whisper, which then dissolved into a racking cough. Cuffe, concern written on his features, hushed Titus and beckoned him to lie down on the fireside cot. He gladly accepted the offer. His head was reeling from the implications of what Cuffe had just related, or maybe it was the mandrake, he couldn’t be sure. All he knew for certain now was that his body craved rest, he could not function a moment longer. With the captain’s help he collapsed onto the straw-filled mattress, and despite the clamour still emanating from the streets outside he immediately drifted into a mercifully benign unconsciousness.

This time when he awoke he found Cuffe and Mrs Coates seated at the kitchen table. A weak daylight illuminated them. He went to rise but the effort caused every joint in his body to ache so much that he fell instantly back again with a groan. His head felt as if it was re-enacting the explosions of last night all over again, only this time internally. “Sorry,” he said.
“The poor divil,” Mrs Coates exclaimed. “Are you sure he’s alright?”
Cuffe came over to Titus and helped him into a sitting position on the cot. “He’s fine, Mrs Coates. Some of your porridge would help though.” He looked into Titus’s eyes, and appeared satisfied that his diagnosis was true. “Ah! The dangerous mapmaker is on the mend I see. Good morning, Mr Perry. Good to see you back in the land of the living. You have made strange and deadly enemies I think, but equally strange and powerful friends. Still, anyone who Captain Briar would hate enough to demolish a whole castle in their murder must be a sound man in my book so I hope I’m among the latter. How do you feel?”
Titus found on the second attempt that he had regained something approaching mobility and control of his limbs. He began to thank Cuffe again but the young man held his hand up in protest. “Enough gratitude, Mr Perry. Here, have some of this.” Mrs Coates had arrived with the porridge. Titus indicated with a trembling finger that he’d dine at their table if he may, but accepted the bowl with profound thanks. It took another great effort, and Cuffe’s assistance, to reach the table and stool.
“I know you’re in no fit state to journey Mr Perry but I have my instructions. Get that down you and we’ll depart to the Park. Two of your friends, Lord Arran and Sir John DeLacey have summoned us there at once. The carriage is waiting outside.”

The sight that met Titus’s eyes as they emerged into the Good Friday morning was one that he would remember for the rest of his life. He had never been in a battle, but he felt that the scene in a battle’s immediate aftermath could not be much different. A shroud of black hung where the sky ought to be. It appeared to be composed of myriad small particles, each with a mission of its own but yet linked in one giant dance, the effect being a macabre imitation of a cloud. The air itself had been replaced by something more solid, something that one could taste, and feel in one’s gullet when one swallowed. And there was an ominous heat in the air – not the balmy warmth that the sun might bring in patches when it broke through the clouds on a spring day – but a heat that emanated it seemed from the very walls themselves. The castle hadn’t been the only casualty of the night. Sparks from its demise had landed on thatches in the lanes around and had set off a number of other smaller fires, some of which had taken root and swallowed whole premises in a few short hours. People wandered the streets and lanes in a dumbstruck awe at this fundamental change in their landscape, wrought in such a short time. They spoke, but in whispered tones, pointing at smouldering rubble and the charred remains of buildings that had served as home, hostelry and business only the day before. Some, mindful of the day that was in it and the eerie way in which their own landscape was imitating that of their saviour as he had died on the cross, gathered in groups and recited prayers with much fervour. Many just looked and said nothing.

Cuffe had the carriage proceed through the cordon down to the castle itself. Smoke still billowed from the pile of rubble and charred wooden beams that were all that was left of Arran’s apartments and the Long Gallery. A huge section of the giant wall immediately to the left of the main gate had just disappeared it seemed, replaced by a smouldering mountain of detritus that had fallen right out into Castle Street. Through the smoke from this mountain Titus could just make out the southern wall across the way, still largely intact though blackened, but missing the buildings that had stood against it, including the one in which he had laid himself to rest last night. He shuddered at the term even as it occurred to him. He had come close indeed to being interred in the huge mass of bricks and timbers that now obscured the lower ramparts. The eastern wall and the stables were completely gone. The fire had burnt at its fiercest on that side of the compound and even though the gunpowder kegs had been thankfully removed from the area, enough residue from years of their storage here, and the ample supplies of straw and hay had supplied ammunition enough to violently dismantle the structure here. The great towers still stood, blackened and cracked and totally incongruous in their newly exposed condition, a mockery of the defensive purpose for which they had been constructed. Teams of men with pales of water were dousing flames that still erupted here and there. Titus could see that many concentrated on the old Parliament Hall through which he and Cuffe had raced. The straw bedding for the animals there had been perfect fodder for the sparks and tongues of fire that had licked at it through the night. At one point the heat from the blaze there must have been very intense – a grotesquely skewed crack as wide as a man’s hand ran through its ancient masonry from the cobbled courtyard right up to its smouldering rafters.

Cuffe walked here and there, conversing earnestly with men who all looked to Titus like badly drawn caricatures of African Barbars as depicted by the London pamphleteers. Many seemed to have lost their hair and eyebrows – none of their clothes had escaped singeing. Presently he returned and seemed satisfied with what he had learnt. “No casualties it appears save for a few poor beasts tethered by the kitchens and those who were foolish enough to stand in Castle Street despite my warnings. They have found two corpses and hopefully not many more. It seems God has looked kindly on us after all on His day of passion. Praise be to His mercy.”
Titus privately reckoned that this miracle had less to do with God’s grace than with Cuffe’s own effective administrative skills. His men were obviously well drilled and thorough in the execution of their duties. He remarked as much but Cuffe dismissed his compliment.
“We were really fortunate in that there were so extraordinarily few souls within the castle last night. Amazingly few, actually. We reckon only about thirty or so, and they all seem accounted for. If the castle’s staff had been at their normal strength I am loath to think what the story might have been.”
Titus suddenly remembered Collier’s inn and its proximity to the castle. “I have a friend in Sheep Street captain. Do you know how that street fared last night?”
“Surprisingly well. It is so close to the western wall that the sparks sailed over it. Besides they were well marshalled by a local innkeeper there. He ensured a watch was kept all night and any small fires were extinguished in good time.” He ordered the driver to proceed and the carriage twisted back into Castle Street and up towards the High Cross at Christchurch.
“Any word of Briar?” Titus asked as they left the gloom behind and trundled through the ‘shambles’ district, down to Dublin Bridge, where they intended to cross. Compared to the actual shambles that were now the castle environs, the area might have been in another city entirely, another world even, its commercial life seemingly unaffected by the disaster that had occurred just a few streets away. The place was thronged with traders and customers seemingly oblivious to the hell just a few hundred yards away. While the butchers had indeed been moved to the new Ormonde Market across the river, its venerable and ancient fishmongering trade had yet to be relocated and its practitioners, mindful that their product did not keep for long regardless of whatever vicissitudes the city was undergoing, were out in force, as were their customers.

Cuffe instinctively held his nose until they had boarded the old bridge and left the fishmongers behind before replying. “A warrant signed by Lord Arran has been issued for his apprehension. As the city engineer I have it in my authority to set up an inquiry into last night’s affairs and I would dearly like to hear his contribution.”
Titus realised that he had not asked in what role Cuffe had been summoned to attend the fire and rectified the omission immediately. His companion explained that although he was a military man, his work was largely of a civil nature. As the army’s chief engineer, he had a responsibility to maintain the city’s thoroughfares and public amenities – ostensibly to facilitate the army but in practise to oversee the many civic improvements that Ormonde had initiated. As such he found himself working closely with William Robinson, whom he jokingly referred to as his “boss”, he claimed, much to the architect’s irritation.

Having crossed the river, the driver sped his horses on up the long lane that led to the Phoenix Park and through to the hamlet of Chapelizod. Ormonde’s grand house stood here, and it was to here that Arran and the rest of the castle dignitaries had retired during the eventful night that had passed. Soldiers had been placed on duty all around the small estate and a large contingent of them patrolled the broad avenue leading to the canopied door of the main house itself. Cuffe and Titus dismounted at its steps and passed through yet another guard into the great hall within. Arran and DeLacey were there, as was Sir William Robinson, Titus noted with some surprise. When Arran caught sight of the two visitors, he immediately ushered the entire company into an adjoining chamber. Then, once inside, he closed the door and indicated all to be seated around a long dining room table.
“Gentlemen, thank you for coming, I am sure you must both be exhausted.” Arran looked twice at Titus. “In your case it would appear that exhaustion is the least of your worries. There are surgeons here who can attend to you later.”

Titus was conscious of how abject a sight he must appear. “No need, it looks worse than it is. I was lucky only to receive a few scrapes and they have been washed and dressed already.”
If Titus had thought to assure a touchingly concerned Arran about the extent of his injuries, then he had obviously overestimated the man’s compassion. The earl merely nodded curtly in acknowledgement of Titus’s remark and immediately switched his attention to the man seated beside the mapmaker. “Very well. Captain Cuffe, we owe you a great debt. You did more than save the castle from total destruction tonight, much more than you know. You will not find us ungrateful. Now, to business – we have little time.”

The man’s demeanour changed subtly, Titus noticed, and he was reminded of the clandestine meeting in Balgriffin a few days earlier when Richard Butler had addressed the assembly in the manner of an orator at a lecture. Now, although seated on an identical chair to the rest, and not even at the head of the table, he appeared to grow slightly in stature above the others and the words he spoke, though delivered in conversational tones, had all the rehearsed exactitude of a prepared speech. If such a manner was an indication of leadership then Arran had the quality in abundance.
“What I say here is never to be repeated outside of this room, on pain of death I assure you. A report to London must be made of the events of last night and it is fundamental that two things in it are stressed above all else - there was no significant loss of life and the fire started accidentally. The former point will assure the crown that no base motive was at play and the latter point will serve to reinforce that view. In some ways this is not far from the truth, though it is anything but the whole truth. What one man sees as base behaviour might simply be another man’s sole recourse to his own survival.” Robinson coughed at this remark, and for a moment Arran studied him. The Surveyor General pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and stifled a second cough, though Titus noticed a reddening to his cheeks which suggested more than simply mild apoplexy. Arran resumed his speech. “However that is the extent of the truth to which this report will adhere. Do you all understand? Very well. Cuffe, you and DeLacey will draw up the letter today and submit it to me for my approval. You can be sure that there will be a messenger of the crown here in no time to receive it.” He paused for a moment, obviously choosing in his own mind how best to say what he needed to impart next. Eventually a sigh indicated that he had no option but to come straight out with it. “But the whole truth extends further than that, and each man here, for his own reasons, deserves to know it. The fire was set on my instruction.” He looked at each man in turn. Only Cuffe seemed surprised, though he held his counsel. Robinson’s eyes remained fixed on a spot on the table top without even a sign that he had heard the remark. DeLacey adjusted some sheets of paper he had placed before him. Titus merely returned Arran’s gaze and waited for him to continue. He was long past being surprised by this man, or indeed this land any more.
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Xartis Psyxis - Chapter 11 "Allies" (part 1)

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