“How are we ever going to search this whole place?” I wondered aloud.
“One room at a time,” Emma said.
A strange noise stopped us at the door. It sounded like a faraway car alarm, the note pitching up and down in long, slow arcs. But there were no car alarms in 1940, of course. It was an air-raid siren.
Horace cringed. “The Germans are coming!” he cried. “Death from the skies!”
“We don’t know what it means,” Emma said. “Could be a false alarm, or a test.”
But the streets and the square were emptying fast; the old men were folding up their newspapers and vacating their benches.
“They don’t seem to think it’s a test,” Horace said.
“Since when are we afraid of a few bombs?” Enoch said. “Quit talking like a Nancy Normal!”
“Need I remind you,” said Millard, “these are not the sort of bombs we’re accustomed to. Unlike the ones that fall on Cairnholm, we don’t know where they’re going to land!”
“All the more reason to get what we came for, and quickly!” Emma said, and she led us inside.
* * *
The cathedral’s interior was massive—it seemed, impossibly, even larger than the outside—and though damaged, a few hardy believers knelt here and there in silent prayer. The altar was buried under a midden of debris. Where a bomb had pierced the roof, sunlight fell down in broad beams. A lone soldier sat on a fallen pillar, gazing at the sky through the broken ceiling.
We wandered, necks craned, bits of concrete and broken tile crunching beneath our feet.
“I don’t see anything,” Horace complained. “There are enough hiding places here for ten thousand pigeons!”
“Don’t look,” Hugh said. “Listen.”
We stopped, straining to hear the telltale coo of pigeons. But there was only the ceaseless whine of air-raid sirens, and below that a series of dull cracks like rolling thunder. I told myself to stay calm, but my heart thrummed like a drum machine.
Bombs were falling.
“We need to go,” I said, panic choking me. “There has to be a shelter nearby. Somewhere safe we can hide.”
“But we’re so close!” said Bronwyn. “We can’t quit now!”
There was another crack, closer this time, and the others started to get nervous, too.
“Maybe Jacob’s right,” said Horace. “Let’s find somewhere safe to hide until the bombing’s through. We can search more when it’s over.”
“Nowhere is truly safe,” said Enoch. “Those bombs can penetrate even a deep shelter.”
“They can’t penetrate a loop,” Emma said. “And if there’s a tale about this cathedral, there’s probably a loop entrance here, too.”
“Perhaps,” said Millard, “perhaps, perhaps. Hand me the book and I shall investigate.”
Bronwyn opened her trunk and handed Millard the book.
“Let me see now,” he said, turning its pages until he reached “The Pigeons of St. Paul’s.”
Bombs are falling and we’re reading stories, I thought. I have entered the realm of the insane.
“Listen closely!” Millard said. “If there’s a loop entrance nearby, this tale may tell us how to find it. It’s a short one, luckily.”
A bomb fell outside. The floor shook and plaster rained from the ceiling. I clenched my teeth and tried to focus on my breathing.
Unfazed, Millard cleared his throat. “The Pigeons of St. Paul’s!” he began, reading in a big, booming voice.
“We know the title already!” said Enoch.
“Read faster, please!” said Bronwyn.
“If you don’t stop interrupting me, we’ll be here all night,” said Millard, and then he continued.
“Once upon a peculiar time, long before there were towers or steeples or any tall buildings at all in the city of London, there was a flock of pigeons who got it into their minds that they wanted a nice, high place to roost, above the bustle and fracas of human society. They knew just how to build it, too, because pigeons are builders by nature, and much more intelligent than we give them credit for being. But the people of ancient London weren’t interested in constructing tall things, so one night the pigeons snuck into the bedroom of the most industrious human they could find and whispered into his ear the plans for a magnificent tower.
“In the morning, the man awoke in great excitement. He had dreamed—or so he thought—of a magnificent church with a great, reaching spire that would rise from the city’s tallest hill. A few years later, at enormous cost to the humans, it was built. It was a very towering sort of tower and had all manner of nooks and crannies inside it where the pigeons could roost, and they were very satisfied with themselves.
“Then one day Vikings sacked the city and burned the tower to the ground, so the pigeons had to find another architect, whisper in his ear, and wait patiently for a new church tower to be built—this one even grander and taller than the first. And it was built, and it was very grand and very tall. And then it burned, too.
“Things went on in this fashion for hundreds of years, the towers burning and the pigeons whispering plans for still grander and taller towers to successive generations of nocturnally inspired architects. Though these architects never realized the debt they owed the birds, they still regarded them with tenderness, and allowed them to hang about wherever they liked, in the naves and belfries, like the mascots and guardians of the place they truly were.”
“This is not helpful,” Enoch said. “Get to the loop entrance part!”
“I am getting to what I am getting to!” Millard snapped.
“Eventually, after many church towers had come and gone, the pigeons’ plans became so ambitious that it took an exceedingly long time to find a human intelligent enough to carry them out. When they finally did, the man resisted, believing the hill to be cursed, so many churches having burned there in the past. Though he tried to put the idea out of his mind, the pigeons kept returning, night after night, to whisper it in his ear. Still, the man would not act. So they came to him during the day, which they had never done before, and told him in their strange laughing language that he was the only human capable of constructing their tower, and he simply had to do it. But he refused and chased them from his house, shouting, ‘Shoo, begone with ye, filthy creatures!’
“The pigeons, insulted and vengeful, hounded the man until he was nearly mad—following him wherever he went, picking at his clothes, pulling his hair, fouling his food with their hind-feathers, tapping on his windows at night so he couldn’t sleep—until one day he fell to his knees and cried, ‘O pigeons! I will build whatever you ask, so long as you watch over it and preserve it from the fire’