XIV. . AD 1244

It was two years before Joan and Saladin saw Thomas again. They were years in which troubles more urgent than the vague promises of prophecies rose up and overwhelmed them – and, at last, after generations, the family of Robert the Wolf was forced to flee from Jerusalem.

Saladin thought of England as home, for this was the birthplace of his ancestor Robert; this was where his family had its deepest roots. But to a boy from the Outremer it was a strange, dark place. The sun never seemed to climb high in the sky, and was somehow dim even at noon. And Saladin felt cold, cold to his bones.

But as their ship sailed cautiously up a great estuary and into London he clung to the rail, staring out curiously at a city that sprawled across the horizon. Even the river was crowded, busy with trade, and upstream of a grim fortress called the Tower wooden cranes like long-necked birds pecked at ships laden with English wool, or with silk and wine coming into the country from the continent.

Thomas Busshe met them off the ship. Saladin was glad to see a familiar face in this strange country. Thomas had arranged lodgings for them for the night at a Franciscan priory. He had aged in the two years since their last meeting, and walked with a limp. But he seemed excited and pleased to see them – indeed, bursting with news, as he led them into the city.

As they walked, it was the filth that struck Saladin. All the narrow streets just ran with human sewage. And butchers worked out in the street, making the cobbles a mess of offal and bone fought over by rats and crows and bloody-handed urchins. Though squads of beadles, under-beadles and rakers swept gutters and drains clear of dung and hauled animal remains to the rivers for dumping, the stench of ordure and blood was overwhelming.

But, noisy, crowded, jostling, swaggering, stinking London bustled with commerce. In Jerusalem, tension simmered and arms and armour were everywhere. This sprawling city seemed to be run by merchants and shopkeepers, not by soldiers.

And there were no Saracens here, so Saladin’s dark colouring stood out. A gang of well-dressed young men spotted Saladin and thought him a Saracen himself. ‘Do you eat babies? Do you screw your mother? Get back where you came from, carpet-biter!’ Thomas Busshe restrained him before he could draw his sword, but Saladin seethed.

That night he tried to sleep in air so dense and smoky he could barely breathe. He longed for the hot light of the Outremer, the iron scent of the desert.

In the morning, in Thomas’s priory, they spoke of the fall of Jerusalem.

Joan bit into the tough bread softened by a bit of broth that passed for food here. ‘Well, in the end we had to flee. We all did. Emperor Frederick’s truce expired even before your visit two years ago, Thomas. But the Muslims were squabbling among themselves: brothers, rival princes in Damascus and Egypt, waging war on each other. That saved us for a bit. But at last, this year, one victorious princeling allied himself with the Khorezmians of Syria and took back Syria and Palestine, and – well. Reunited, the Muslims regained the Holy City too.

‘We had warning. We fled with what we could carry, which was little enough. In Acre we bought our way onto one of the last ships – hideously overcrowded, you can imagine. The cost was obscene.’

Saladin was impatient. ‘You talk of money, mother. What does money matter? This was not Saladin, not honourable. These Saracens burned the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. They massacred our people!’

Joan nodded, weary, grim, looking older than her thirty-two years. Saladin thought her experiences had hardened her, that she had come to hate the Saracens as perhaps she had not before. ‘My son would have stayed to fight. I forced him to flee with me, for I needed his protection. Any shame in our flight is mine, not his.’

‘Yes.’ Thomas looked at Saladin. ‘And this is what you must tell your confessor.’

Joan said, ‘So Robert’s blood descendants return to England half destitute. I may yet need the charity of your house, good brother.’

Thomas touched her hand. ‘It won’t come to that. Put away your despair; cling to hope. Your fortunes will rise again… I have news for you.’

Joan studied him. ‘You’re being enigmatic, brother. Spit it out, man.’

‘Not here.’ He glanced around the empty room. ‘London is a nest of spies.’

‘Even here, in this priory?’

‘Monks must make a living, lady. We must operate in the world of money and power. It’s a corrupting environment. I will bring you to my own house, which is far from London. There we can talk with confidence.’

Saladin groaned. ‘More travelling?’

‘No more ships,’ Thomas said. ‘I promise you that.’

‘But what is it you want to tell us?’Joan demanded. ‘Give us a hint at least.’

Thomas smiled. ‘Very well. I have come to believe more firmly than ever that your family legend of war engines and prophecies may have some truth in it. For I have stumbled upon evidence that such things have happened more than once. Warnings from the future, leaked into the past. No, not just evidence – I believe, proof. Eyewitness proof.’

Joan and Saladin stared at him. But he would say no more.

The next day they journeyed north out of London, jolting over an old Roman road, not repaired for centuries. Saladin longed for a camel’s smooth gait, but there were no camels in England.

The country was green, and even away from the city the land was crowded, Saladin thought, full of people, carpeted with farms and studded with little towns and dung-coloured villages. Waterwheels creaked by the rivers, and windmills whispered as they turned in the breeze.

They stopped for a night at a city called Colchester. Set above a river, it was surrounded by bristling walls laid out in a vast rectangle, walls founded by the Romans but built up massively by the generations since.

Thomas said the history of England was written in those battered walls. William the Conqueror’s descendants had been a sorry lot, and fifty years after William’s death the country was racked by a long civil war between Stephen and Matilda, two of William’s grandchildren. Thus, said Thomas, the ultimate legacy of William the Bastard: a once-prosperous country ruined by fratricidal warfare, famine, extortion, carnage and chaos. Saladin had heard of Matilda’s grandson Richard the Lionheart. But King Richard died not long after his final crusade. His brother John was a weak, distrustful, treacherous, deeply unpopular king who was forced to cede power to his barons in a Great Charter, and under John’s son, the third King Henry, a council of nobles, called a ‘parliament’, began to meet in Westminster. In England, then, power was shifting. But the latest King Henry favoured the church; great cathedrals sprouted like mushrooms…

Saladin was disturbed by this bloody narrative. He had thought of England as a place of Christian peace and security – like a vast church, perhaps. But England was nothing like that. Wars had been fought out here and invasions mounted, and people were forced to huddle behind the walls of towns like fortresses. And it was all so insular. Did the posturing princes of this little country have no idea of the threat posed by the Muslims, who had taken three-quarters of Christendom – and, worse, the Mongols, who by all accounts had conquered three-quarters of the whole world?

At the very heart of Colchester was a Norman castle, a little like the brooding pile in London but even more imposing. ‘The most massive keep in the whole country,’ Thomas said. The castle’s thick walls were heaped over a tremendous slab of concrete sunk into the sandy ground. Local legends had it that the slab had been the foundation of a great Roman temple. ‘Think of the size it must have been! Who would build such a monument in this dismal place? But some of the locals claim that before the Romans came this town was already the capital of the whole of Britain.’ Thomas shook his head. ‘I suppose we would all like to believe we are descended from kings.’

Yet, Saladin thought, that mighty concrete slab had been poured into the ground by somebody, for some purpose. But his brief flicker of historical curiosity quickly died.

Thomas led them to his priory, a few miles outside the walls of the city. It was a modest house of a few dozen monks, supported by the sale of wool and tithes paid by the inhabitants of a small village, through which they had to walk. The houses were long, leading back from a central trampled track. It seemed that a family lived in each house along with their animals: there were no barns or sheep-pens or pig-sties, only the houses, for people and animals to share. The smoky air stank of the dung used to fuel the fires. A litter of grimy children followed the travellers, wide-eyed.

Compared to the aridity of the Outremer, the land here in the heart of England was green, and so wet that wherever you saw a ditch you had to assume it was for drainage, not irrigation. But the villagers scraping away at their long, skinny fields looked half-starved and exhausted. And there seemed to be an awful lot of children here, a lot of mouths to feed; no wonder the villagers had to work so hard.

The next morning was a Sunday, and Saladin and his mother worshipped in the village’s small parish church. The church was dark and cramped, but its walls were brightly painted, covered with pictures based on Bible stories and the lives of the saints. Most striking was a very severe Christ, whose image stood above the chancel arch. The righteous climbed a ladder towards Him on one side of the arch, and the damned fell screaming into perdition on the other. The villagers, listening to their priest’s mysterious Latin words, smelled of their fields, of grass and earth and dung.

After the service, Thomas said he would speak to them at last of his discoveries.