Pudding Lane, London: Sunday, 2 September 1666
The bakery lay silent and dark in the small hours of the morning, lit only by the faint glow of embers from the hearth. Faggots of wood sat under the beehive dome of the oven, awaiting the morning’s burden: loaves of bread, pots of baked meat. Sunday was a day of rest, but not of fasting, and so the baker must to work.
The embers flared and subsided. By law, a baker must extinguish his oven and hearth every night, for in a city of timber, fire was an ever-present threat. But kindling the flames anew each morning was a tedious chore, and so most let their ovens fall cold in the night, but banked the coals of the hearth for easy revival.
A cherry-red fragment collapsed with a sigh, and sparks leapt free.
In the house above, Thomas Farynor slept soundly. Business was good; he supplied ship’s biscuit to the King’s navy, and in these times of war with the Dutch he did not lack for work. He and his daughter Hanna had both a maid and a manservant to look after them and help with the running of the bakery.
Sparks had escaped the hearth before. They died soon after, reduced to black cinders that stained the rafters, the walls, and the brick-laid floor. But tonight one drifted farther than most, dancing on the invisible currents of the air, until it found a resting place on the fuel piled in the oven.
A tiny flame kindled on a splinter of wood.
Afterward, Farynor would claim he banked his fire safely when the day’s business was done. He raked his oven clean, swept the bricks of the floor—and so he had, but sloppily. His daughter Hanna, inspecting the kitchen before she retired at midnight, saw nothing to fear.
But now, an hour later, the room glowed with new light.
Smoke wreathed the sooty beams of the ceiling. The Farynors’ manservant, asleep on the ground floor, frowned and tossed beneath his blanket. His breathing grew ragged; he coughed once, then again, until at last he woke to the danger.
With a hoarse shout, he tore his way free of the bedclothes. The kitchen was well alight by now, hearth and oven blazing merrily, the debris on the floor, the piles of ready wood. The wall timbers, dried by a long summer of drought, smoked and were hot to the touch. He stumbled his way by reflex toward the stairs, barely able to see in the choking gloom.
The cloud pursued him upward. Crying out, the manservant pounded on his master’s door. “Fire! In God’s name, wake—the house is alight!”
The door swung open. Farynor, scraping sleep from his eyes, did not seem to understand. But when he went to the head of the stairs and saw for himself the scene below, all drowsiness fled. “God Almighty,” he whispered, and ran back through his room to the adjoining door.
Hanna woke but slowly, and her maid more slowly still. Once up, they hurried on their shoes, while Farynor lent his man a pair. But as fast as they moved, they tarried too long: the flames had claimed the foot of the stairs.
The maid screamed and clutched at her mistress, gagging on the thick air. “We must try,” Hanna cried, and gathered up the skirt of her shift. With one sleeve over her face to filter the air, she forced her way against the punishing heat, down into the hell below.
“Hanna!” Her father plunged after her. Already she was lost in the blinding smoke, but an instant later he heard a scream. A lurching body crashed into him, fire leaping up the side of her shift; they fell hard against the wooden steps, and his hands flew without thinking, beating out the flames. Hanna wept with pain as he dragged her bodily upward again, into the illusory safety of the chamber above.
“The window,” his manservant said, while Hanna’s legs collapsed beneath her. “We must try to climb out.”
On an ordinary night, Farynor would have called it lunacy. But when the only alternative was death—“We cannot climb down, though.”
His man was already unlatching the window. “Then we go across. Onto the roof—if you go first, I will help your daughter.”
Expansions years ago had jettied the upper floor outward so that it overhung the street. Farynor gasped in the fresher air, then forced his aging body through the narrow opening, clawing for the eaves above. His grip slipped, almost sending him to the street below, but his manservant caught his foot and gave him the push needed to lift him safely over the edge. Hanna was next, biting through her lip when the manservant gripped her blistered legs.
“Help!” she cried, as soon as she had her voice again. “Fire! Wake, rouse yourselves—fire in Pudding Lane!” Movement flickered in other windows. Theirs was not the only house whose upper storeys overreached the boundary of its plot; she could almost touch the windows across the way, where faces pressed briefly against the glass, then vanished.
Pain and smoke set her to coughing, but by then Farynor had the cry. So Hanna was the one to see their manservant haul himself up over the edge of the roof—but where was the maid?
“She will not come,” he said, eyes wild and bleak. “She fears the height too much. I tried—”
Hanna bent and shouted toward the open window, but there was no reply.
They could not stay. Moving carefully, the three eased their way along the edge of the roof to the neighbour’s shutters. Farynor kicked against these, bellowing. Figures had begun to appear in the street below, most in their nightshirts, some with breeches and boots on. They knew what would be needed.
The shutters opened abruptly, scraping Farynor’s bare leg. Reaching hands eased his daughter through into safety; then the baker, then his man. Heat radiated from the wall between the dwellings, but as yet there was no fire, and the house’s leather buckets had been brought already, to soak the beams and the plaster in between.
In Pudding Lane, the parishioners of St. Margaret’s Fish Street rose to their duty, arranging bucket lines, flinging soil and dung, pails of milk, anything that came to hand. On this, the Lord’s day of rest, they settled themselves for battle, to save themselves and their homes from fire.
Brennan has created a fascinating hidden underworld beneath London, and it’s enhanced by prose that has an elegance perfect for historical fantasy. The worldbuilding is beautifully executed and rife with atmosphere. — Romantic Times
About the Author: Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors’ hard work to The Night Parade of 100 Demons and the short novel Driftwood, and together with Alyc Helms as M.A. Carrick, she is the author of the Rook and Rose epic fantasy trilogy, beginning with The Mask of Mirrors. The first book of her Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent, A Natural History of Dragons, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Her other works include the Doppelganger duology, the urban fantasy Wilders series, the Onyx Court historical fantasies, the Varekai novellas, and over seventy short stories, as well as the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.