The Silver Skull—Swords of Albion features a devilish plot to assassinate the queen, a cold war enemy hell-bent on destroying the nation, incredible gadgets, a race against time around the world to stop the ultimate doomsday device…and Elizabethan England’s greatest spy.
Meet Will Swyfte – adventurer, swordsman, rake, swashbuckler, wit, scholar and the greatest of Walsingham’s new band of spies. His exploits against the forces of Philip of Spain have made him a national hero, lauded from Carlisle to Kent. Yet his associates can barely disguise their incredulity – what is the point of a spy whose face and name is known across Europe?
But Swyfte’s public image is a carefully-crafted façade to give the people of England something to believe in, and to allow them to sleep peacefully at night. It deflects attention from his real work – and the true reason why Walsingham’s spy network was established.
A Cold War seethes, and England remains under a state of threat. The forces of Faerie have been preying on humanity for millennia. Responsible for our myths and legends, of gods and fairies, dragons, griffins, devils, imps and every other supernatural menace that has haunted our dreams, this power in the darkness has seen humans as playthings to be tormented, hunted or eradicated.
But now England is fighting back!
Magical defences have been put in place by the Queen’s sorcerer Dr John Dee, who is also a senior member of Walsingham’s secret service and provides many of the bizarre gadgets utilised by the spies. Finally there is a balance of power. But the Cold War is threatening to turn hot at any moment…
Will now plays a constant game of deceit and death, holding back the Enemy’s repeated incursions, dealing in a shadowy world of plots and counter-plots, deceptions, secrets, murder, where no one… and no thing…is quite what it seems.
RT Book Reviews not only gave The Silver Skull 4 1/2 stars, but also called it, “Fantastic—[a] keeper,” ...the new Swords of Albion series, set in an alternate Elizabethan England, gets off to a smashing start. The historical detail sets a believable backdrop, and the main character, a spy, could pass for a fantastical James Bond. Chadbourn sets a fast pace, pitting his characters against supernatural threats with a bit of horror thrown in.”
Here is your chance to read an excerpt, below:
The Silver Skull
Swords of Albion
Far beneath the slow-moving Thames, a procession of flickering lights drew inexorably towards London from the east. The pace was funereal, the trajectory steady, purposeful. In that hour after midnight, the spectral glow under the black waters passed unseen by all but two observers.
“There! What are they, sir?” In the lantern light, the guard’s fear was apparent as he peered over the battlements of the White Tower, ninety feet above the river.
Matthew Mayhew, who had seen worse things in his thirty years than the guard could ever dream in his worst fever-sleep, replied with boredom, “I see the proud heart of the greatest nation on Earth. I see a city safe and secure within its walls, where the queen may sleep peacefully.”
“There!” The guard pointed urgently.
“A waterman has met with disaster.” Mayhew sighed. With a temper as short as his stature, the Tower guards had learned to handle him with care and always praised the fine court fashions he took delight in parading.
The guard gulped the cold air of the March night. “And his lantern still burns on the bottom? What of the other lights? And they move—”
The guard shook his head. “They are ghosts!”
Mayhew gave a dismissive snort.
“There are such things! Samuel Hale saw the queen’s mother walking with her head beneath her arm in the Chapel of Saint Peter ad Vincula.Why, the Tower is the most haunted place in England! The Two Princes, Margaret Pole, Lady Jane Grey . . . all seen here, Master Mayhew. Damned by God to walk this world after their deaths.”
Mayhew studied the slow-moving lights, imagining fish in the deep with their own candles to guide their way through the inky dark.
The guard’s fear made his lantern swing so wildly the shadows flew across the Tower.
Steadying the lantern, Mayhew said, “When this great fortress was built five hundred years gone, King William had the mortar tempered with the blood of beasts. Do you know why that was?”
“No, no. I—”
“Suffice it to say,” Mayhew interrupted wearily, “that you are safe here from all supernatural threat.”
The guard calmed a little. “Safe, you say?”
“England’s defences are built on more than the rock of its people.”
The lights veered away from the centre of the river towards the Tower of London where it nestled inside the old Roman walls, guarding the eastern approach to the capital. Mayhew couldn’t prevent a shiver running up his spine.
“Complete your rounds,” he said sharply, overcompensating in case the guard had seen his weakness. “We must ensure that theWhite Tower remains secure against England’s enemies.”
“And the prisoner you are charged to guard?”
“I will attend to him.” Mayhew pressed a scented handkerchief against his nose to block out the stink of the city’s filth caught on the wind. Sometimes it was unbearable. He hated being away from the court where the virtues of life were more apparent, hated the boredom of his task, and at that moment hated that he was caught on the cold summit of the White Tower when he should have been inside by the fire.
He cast his eye around the fortress where pools of darkness were held back by the lanterns strung along the walkways among the wards. The only movement came from the slow circuit of the night watch.
The Tower of London was an unassailable symbol of England. Solid Kentish ragstone formed the bulk of the impregnableWhite Tower, protected by its own curtain wall and moat, with a further curtain wall and thirteen towers guarding the Inner Ward beyond. Finally, there was the Outer Ward, with another solid wall, five towers, and three bastions. Everything valuable to the nation lay within the walls—the Crown jewels, the treasury, the Royal Mint, the armoury, and England’s most dangerous prisoners, including Mayhew’s personal charge.
As he made his way down the stone steps, he was greeted by the clatter of boots ascending and the light of another lantern. William Osborne appeared, his youthful face and intelligent grey eyes unsettled. Mayhew contemptuously wondered if he now regretted giving up his promising career in the law to join the Queen’s Service out of love for his country, not realising what would be asked of him.
“What is it?” Mayhew demanded.
“A disturbance. At the Traitors’ Gate.”
Where the river lights were heading, Mayhew thought. “The gate remains secure, and well guarded?” he asked.
Osborne’s face loomed white in the lamplight. “There are six men upon it, as our Lord Walsingham demanded.”
Osborne’s voice quavered with uncertainty. “The guards say the restraining beam moves of its own accord. Bolts draw without the help of human hand. Is this what we always feared?”
Pushing past him with irritation, Mayhew snapped, “You know as well as I that the Tower is protected. These guards are frighted like maidens.” For all his contempt at his colleague’s words, Mayhew’s chest tightened in apprehension.
Walsingham said it could never happen, he reminded himself. He told the queen . . . Burghley . . .
Trying to maintain his decorum, he descended to the ground floor with studied nonchalance and stepped out into the Inmost Ward. The whitewashed walls of the Tower glowed in the lantern light.
“Listen!” Osborne’s features flared in the gloom as he raised his lantern to illuminate the way ahead.
The steady silence of the Tower was shattered by a cacophony of roars and howls, barks, shrieks, and high-pitched chattering. In the Royal Menagerie, the lions, leopards, and lynxes threw themselves around their pens, while the other exotic beasts tore at the mud of their enclosures in a frenzy.
“What do they sense?” There was a querulous tremble in Osborne’s voice.
Scanning the Inmost Ward for any sign of movement, Mayhew relented.
Osborne winced at his words. “Are you not afraid?”
“This is the work we were charged to do, for queen and country. Raise the alarm. Then we must take ourselves to the prisoner.”
Within moments, guards raced to their positions under Osborne’s direction. Venturing to the gate, they peered beyond the curtain wall to where the string of lanterns kept the dark at bay.
“Nothing,” Osborne said with relief, his voice almost lost beneath the screams of the animals.
Mayhew kept his attention on Saint Thomas’s Tower in the outer curtain wall. Beyond it was the river, and beneath it lay the water entrance that had become known as Traitors’ Gate, after the enemies of the Crown who had been transported through it to imprisonment or death. The guards had disappeared inside, but there was no clamour.
After five minutes, Osborne’s relief was palpable. “A false alarm, then. Perhaps it was only Spanish spies.With the country on the brink of war, they must be operating everywhere. Yes?”
A guard emerged from Saint Thomas’s Tower, pausing for a moment on the threshold. Mayhew and Osborne watched him curiously. With an odd, lurching gait, he picked a winding path towards them.
“Is he drunk?” Mayhew growled. “His head will be on the block by noon if he has deserted his post.”
“I . . . I do not . . .” The words died in Osborne’s throat as the guard’s path became more erratic. His jerky movements were deeply upsetting, as if he had been afflicted by a palsy.
Mayhew cursed under his breath. “I gave up a life at court for this.”
As the guard neared, they saw his hands continually went to his head as if searching for a missing hat. Despite himself, Mayhew reached for the knife hidden in the folds of his cloak.
“I am afraid,” Osborne whispered.
“Do you hear music?” Mayhew cocked his head. “Like pipes playing, caught on the breeze?” As he breathed deeply of the night air, he realised the foul odour of the city had been replaced by sweet, seductive scents that took him back to his childhood. A tear stung his eye. “That aroma,” he noted, “like cornfields beneath the summer moon.” He inhaled. “Honey, from the hive my grandfather kept.”
“What is wrong with you?” Osborne demanded. “This is no time for dreams!”
Mayhew’s attention snapped back to the approaching guard. As he entered a circle of torchlight, Mayhew saw for the first time that something was wrong with the guard’s face. Revolted yet fascinated, he tried to see the detail behind the guard’s pawing hands. The skin was unduly white and had the texture of sackcloth. When the hands came away, Mayhew was sickened to glimpse large dark eyes that resembled nothing so much as buttons, and a row of stitches where the mouth had been. An illusion, he tried to tell himself, but he was left with an impression of the dollies the old women sold in Cheapside at Christmastime.
“God’s wounds!” Osbourne exclaimed. “What has happened to him?”
Before Mayhew could answer, a blur of ochre and brown burst from the shadows with a terrible roar, slamming the guard onto the turf. Claws revealed bones and organs, and tearing jaws sprayed viscera around the convulsing form. But the most chilling thing was that the guard did not utter a sound.
He could not, Mayhew thought.
The lion’s triumphant roar jolted Mayhew and Osborne from their shock.
“The beasts have escaped the Menagerie!” Mayhew thrust Osborne back towards the White Tower, where they ordered the guards who remained within to bar the door and defend it with their lives.
On the steps, Osborne rested one hand on the stone and bowed his head, fighting the waves of panic that threatened to consume him.
Mayhew eyed him contemptuously. “When you volunteered to become one of Walsingham’s men, you vowed to deal with the great affairs of state with courage and fortitude. Now look at you.”
“How can you be so hardened to this terror?” Osborne blinked away tears of dread. “When I stepped away from my quiet halls of study, it was to give my life in service to England and our queen, and to protect her from the great Catholic conspiracy . . . and the . . . the Spanish . . .” He swallowed. “The threats on her life from those who wish to turn us back to the terrible rule of Rome. Not this! I never foresaw that my soul would be placed at risk, until it was too late.”
“Of course not,” Mayhew sneered. “If the common herd knew the real reason why England has established a network of spies the envy of all other nations, they would never rest in their beds. Do not fail me. Or the queen.”
Osborne steadied himself. “You are right, Mayhew. I act like a child. I must be strong.”
Mayhew clapped him on the shoulder with little affection. “Come, then. We have work to do.”
They had only climbed a few steps when a tremendous crash resounded from the great oak door through which they had entered the Tower. Flashing a wide-eyed stare at Mayhew, Osborne took the steps two at a time. As they raced along the ringing corridors, Osborne asked breathlessly, “What is coming, Mayhew?”
“Best not to think of that now.”
“What did they do to the guard? I knew him. Carter, a good man, with a wife and two girls.”
“Stop asking foolish questions!”
The scream of one of the guards at the door below echoed through the Tower, cut short mercifully soon.
“Let nothing slow your step,” Mayhew urged.
In the most secure area of the White Tower, they came to a heavy oak door studded with iron. The walls were thicker than a man’s height. After Mayhew gave three sharp bursts of a coded knock, a hatch opened to reveal a pair of glowering eyes.
“Who goes?” came the voice from within.
“Mayhew and Osborne, your Lord Walsingham’s men.”
While Osborne twitched and glanced anxiously over his shoulder, the guard searched their faces, until, satisfied, he began to draw the fourteen bolts that the queen herself had personally insisted be installed.
“Hurry,” Osborne whined. Mayhew cuffed him across his arm.
Once inside, Osborne pressed his back against the resealed door and let out a juddering sigh of relief. “Finally. We are safe.”
Mayhew didn’t hide his contempt. Osborne was too weak to survive in their business; he would not be long for the world and there was little point in tormenting him further by explaining the obvious.
Six guards waited by the door, and another twenty in the chambers within. Handpicked byWalsingham himself for their brutality and their lack of human compassion, their faces were uniformly hard, their hands rarely more than an inch from their weapons. At any other time they would have been slitting the throats of rich sots in the stews of Bankside, yet here they were in the queen’s most trusted employ.
“The cell remains secure?” Mayhew asked the captain of the guard. His face boasted the scars of numerous fights.
“It is. It was examined ’pon the hour, as it is every hour.”
“Take us to it.”
“Who attempts to breach our defences?” the captain asked. “Surely the Spanish would not risk an attack.”
When Mayhew did not respond, the captain nodded and ordered two of the guards to accompany the spies. A moment later they were marching past rooms stacked high with the riches of England, gold seized from the New World or looted from ships from the Spanish Main to the Channel.
Beyond the bullion rooms, one of the guards unlocked a stout door and led them down a steep flight of steps to another locked door. Inside was a low-ceilinged chamber warmed by a brazier in one corner and lit by sputtering torches on opposite walls. Two guards played cards at a heavy, scarred table. On the far side of the room was a single door with a small barred window.
“I do not see why he could not have been kept with the other prisoners,” Osborne said.
“No, of course you do not,” Mayhew replied.
“The Tower’s main rooms have held two kings of Scotland and a king of France, our own King Henry VI, Thomas More, and our own good queen. What is so special about this one that he deserves more secure premises than those great personages?” Osborne persisted.
“You have only been assigned to this task for two days,” Mayhew replied. “When you have been here as long as I, you will understand.”
Crossing the room, Mayhew peered through the bars in the door. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom within, he made out the form of the cell’s occupant hunched on a rough wooden bench, the hood of his cloak, as always, pulled over his head so his features were hidden. He was allowed no naked flame for illumination, no drink in a bowl or goblet, only in a bottle, and he was never allowed to leave the secure area of the White Tower where he had been imprisoned for twenty years.
“Still nothing to say?” Mayhew murmured, and then laughed at his own joke. He passed the comment every day, in full knowledge that the prisoner had never been known to speak in all his time in the Tower.
Yet on this occasion the light leaking through the grille revealed a subtle shift in the dark shape, as though the prisoner was listening to what Mayhew said, perhaps even considering a response.
Mayhew’s deliberations were interrupted by muffled bangs and clatters in the Mint above their heads, the sound of raised voices, and then a low, chilling cry.
“They are in,” he said flatly, turning back to the room.
Osborne had pressed himself against one wall like a hunted animal. The four guards looked to Mayhew hesitantly.
“Help your friends,” he said. “Do whatever is in your power to protect this place. Lock the door as you leave. I will bolt it.”
Once they had gone, he slammed the bolts into place with a flick of his wrist that showed his disdain for their security.
“You know it will do no good,” Osborne said. “If they have gained access to the Mint, there is no door that will keep them out.”
“What do you suggest? That we beg for mercy, or run screaming, like girls?”
“Pray,” Osborne replied, “for that is surely the only thing that can save us. These are not men that we face, not Spaniards, or French, not the Catholic traitors from within our own realm. These are the Devil’s own agents, and they come for our immortal souls.”
Mayhew snorted. “Forget God, Osborne. If He even exists, He has scant regard for this vale of misery.”
Osborne recoiled as if he had been struck. “You do not believe in the Lord?”
“If you want atheism, talk to Marlowe. He makes clear his views with every action he takes. But I learn from the evidence of my own eyes, Osborne. We face a threat that stands to wipe us away as though we had never been, and if there is to be salvation, it will not come from above. It will be achieved by our own hand.”
“Then help me barricade the door,” Osborne pleaded.
With a sigh and a shrug, Mayhew set his weight against the great oak table, and with Osborne puffing and blowing beside him, they pushed it solidly against the door.
When they stood back, Mayhew paused as the faint strains of the haunting pipe music reached him again, plucking at his emotions, turning him in an instant from despair to such ecstasy that he wanted to dance with wild abandon. “That music,” he said, closing his eyes in awe.
“I hear no music!” Osborne shouted. “You are imagining it.”
“It sounds,” Mayhew said with a faint smile, “like the end of all things.” He turned back to the cell door where the prisoner now waited, the torchlight catching a metallic glint beneath his hood.
“Damn your eyes!” Osborne raged. “Return to your bench! They shall not free you!”
Unmoving, the prisoner watched them through the grille. Mayhew did not sense any triumphalism in his body language, no sign that he was assured of his freedom, merely a faint curiosity at the change to the pattern that had dominated his life for so many years.
“Sit down!” Osborne bellowed.
“Leave him,” Mayhew responded as calmly as he could manage. “We have a more pressing matter.”
Above their heads, the distant clamour of battle was punctuated by a muffled boom that shook the heavy door and brought a shower of dust from the cracks in the stone. Silence followed, accompanied by the cloying scent of honeysuckle growing stronger by the moment.
Drawing their swords, Mayhew and Osborne focused their attention on the door.
A random scream, becoming a sound like the wind through the trees on a lonely moor. More noises, fragments of events that painted no comprehensive picture.
Breath tight in their chests, knuckles aching from gripping their swords, Mayhew and Osborne waited.
Something bouncing down the stone steps, coming to rest against the door with a thud.
A soft tread, then gone like a whisper in the night, followed by a long silence that felt like it would never end.
Finally the unbearable quiet was broken by a rough grating as the top bolt drew back of its own accord. His eyes frozen wide, Osborne watched its inexorable progress.
As soon as the bolt had clicked open, the one at the foot of the door followed, and when that had been drawn the great tumblers of the iron lock turned until they fell into place with a shattering clack.
“I . . . I think I can hear the music now, Mayhew, and there are voices in it,” Osborne said. He began to recite the Lord’s Prayer quietly.
The door creaked open a notch and then stopped. Light flickered through the gap, not torchlight or candlelight, but with some troubling quality that Mayhew could not identify, but which reminded him of moonlight on the Downs. The music was louder now, and he too could hear the voices.
A sound at his back disrupted his thoughts. The prisoner’s hands were on the bars of the grille and he had removed his hood for the first time that Mayhew could recall. In the ethereal light, there was an echo of the moon within the cell. The prisoner’s head was encompassed by a silver skull of the finest workmanship, gleaming so brightly Mayhew could barely look at it. Etched on it with almost invisible black filigree were ritual marks and symbols. Through the silver orbits, the prisoner’s eyes hung heavily upon Mayhew, steady and unblinking, the whites marred by a tracing of burst capillaries.
The door opened.
Even four hours of soft skin and full lips could not take away her face. Empty wine bottles rattling on the bare boards did not drown out her voice, nor did the creak of the bed and the gasps of pleasure. She was with him always.
“They say you single-handedly defeated ten of Spain’s finest swordsmen on board a sinking ship in the middle of a storm,” the redheaded woman breathed in his ear as she ran her hand gently along his naked thigh.
“And you broke into the Doge’s palace in disguise and romanced the most beautiful woman in all of Venice,” the blonde woman whispered into his other ear, stroking his lower belly.
“Yes, all true.”
“And you wrestled a bear and killed it with your bare hands,” the redhead added.
He paused thoughtfully, then replied, “Actually, that one is not true, but I think I will appropriate it nonetheless.”
The women both laughed. He didn’t know their names, didn’t really care. They would be amply rewarded, and have tales to tell of their night with the greatWill Swyfte, and he would have passed a few hours in the kind of abandon that always promised more than it actually delivered.
“Your hair is so black,” the blonde one said, twirling a finger in his curls.
“Yes, like my heart.”
They both laughed at that, though he wasn’t particularly joking. Nathaniel would have laughed too, although with more of a sardonic edge.
The redhead reached out a lazy hand to examine his clothes hanging over the back of the chair. “You must cut a dashing figure at court, with these finest and most expensive fashions.” Reaching a long leg from the bed, she traced her toes across the shiny surface of his boots.
“I heard you were a poet.” The blonde rubbed her groin gently against his hip. “Will you compose a sonnet to us?”
“I was a poet. And a scholar. But that part of my life is far behind me.”
“You have exchanged it for a life of adventure,” she said, impressed. “A fair exchange, for it has brought you riches and fame.”
Will did not respond.
The blonde examined his bare torso, which bore the tales of the last few years in each pink slash of a rapier scar or ragged weal of torture, stories that had filtered into the consciousness of every inhabitant of the land, from Carlisle to Kent to Cornwall.
As she swung her leg over him to begin another bout of lovemaking, they were interrupted by an insistent knocking at the door.
“Go away,” Will shouted.
The knocking continued. “I know you are deep in doxie and sack, Master Swyfte,” came a curt, familiar voice, “but duty calls.”
“Nat. Go away.”
The door swung open to reveal Nathaniel Colt, shorter than Will and slim, but with eyes that revealed a quick wit. He studiedly ignored the naked, rounded bodies and focused his attention directly on Will.
“A fine place to find a hero of the realm,” he said with sarcasm. “A tawdry room atop a stew, stinking of coitus and spilled wine.”
“In these harsh times, every man deserves his pleasures, Nat.”
“This is England’s greatest spy,” the redhead challenged. “He has earned his comforts.”
“Yes, England’s greatest spy,” Nathaniel replied acidly. “Though I remain unconvinced of the value of a spy whose name and face are recognised by all and sundry.”
“England needs its heroes, Nat. Do not deny the people the chance to celebrate the successes of God’s own nation.” He eased the women off the bed with gentle hands. “We will continue our relaxation at another time,” he said warmly, “for I fear my friend is determined to enforce chastity.”
His eyes communicated more than his words. The women responded with coquettish giggles as they scooped up their dresses to cover them as they skipped out of the room.
Kicking the door shut after them, Nathaniel said, “You will catch the pox if you continue these sinful ways with the Winchester Geese.”
“The pox is not God’s judgment, or all the aristocracy of England would be rotting in their breeches as they dance at court.”
“And ’twould be best if you did not let any but me hear your views on our betters.”
“Besides,”Will continued, “Liz Longshanks’ is a fine establishment. Does it not bear the mark of the Cardinal’s Hat? Is this land on which this stew rests not in the blessed ownership of the bishop of Winchester? Everything has two faces, Nat, neither good nor bad, just there. That is the way of the world, and if there is a Lord, it is His way.”
Ignoring Nathaniel’s snort, Will stretched the kinks from his limbs and lazily eased out of the bed to dress, absently kicking the empty bottles against the chamber pot. “And,” he added, “I am in good company. That master of theatre, Philip Henslowe, and his son-in-law Edward Alleyn are entertaining Liz’s girls in the room below.”
“Alleyn the actor?”
“Whoring and acting go together by tradition, as does every profession that entails holding one face to the world and another in the privacy of your room. When you cannot be yourself, it creates certain tensions that must be released.”
“You will be releasing more tensions if you do not hurry. Your Lord Walsingham is on his way to Bankside, and if he finds his favoured tool deep in whores, or in his cups, he will be less than pleased.” Nathaniel threw Will his shirt to end his frustrated searching.
“What trouble now, then? More Spanish spies plotting against our queen? You know they fall over their own swords.”
“I am pleased to hear you take the threats against us so lightly. England is on the brink of war with Spain, the nation is torn by fears of the enemy landing on our shores at every moment, we lack adequate defences, our navy is in disarray, we are short of gunpowder, and the great Catholic powers of Europe are all eager to see us crushed and returned to the old faith, but the great Will Swyfte thinks it is just a trifling. I can rest easily now.”
“One day you will cut yourself with that tongue, Nat.”
“There is some trouble at the White Tower, though I am too lowly a worm to be given any important details. No, I am only capable of dragging my master out of brothels and hostelries and keeping him one step out of the Clink,” he added tartly.
“You are of great value to me, as well you know.” Finishing his dressing, Will ran a hand through his hair thoughtfully. “The Tower, you say?”
“An attempt to steal our gold, perhaps. Or the Crown jewels. The Spanish always look for interesting ways to undermine this nation.”
“I cannot imagine Lord Walsingham venturing into Bankside for bullion or jewels.” He ensured Nathaniel didn’t see his mounting sense of unease. “Let us to the Palace of Whitehall before the principal secretary sullies his boots in Bankside’s filth.”
A commotion outside drew Nathaniel to the small window, where he saw a sleek black carriage with a dark red awning and the gold brocade and ostrich feathers that signified it had been dispatched from the palace. The chestnut horse stamped its hooves and snorted as a crowd of drunken apprentices tumbled out of the Sugar Loaf across the street to surround the carriage.
“I fear it is too late for that,” Nathaniel said.
Four accompanying guards used their mounts to drive the crowd back, amid loud curses and threats but none of the violence that troubled the constables and beadles on a Saturday night. Two of the guards barged into the brothel, raising angry cries from Liz Longshanks and the girls waiting in the downstairs parlour, and soon the clatter of their boots rose up the wooden stairs.
“Let us meet them halfway,” Will said.
“If I were you, I would wonder how our LordWalsingham knows exactly which stew is your chosen hideaway this evening.”
“Lord Walsingham commands the greatest spy network in the world. Do you think he would not use a little of that power to keep track of his own?”
“But you are in his employ.”
“As the queen’s godson likes to say, ‘treason begets spies and spies treason.’ In this business, as perhaps in life itself, it is best not to trust anyone. There is always another face behind the one we see.”
“What a sad life you lead.”
“It is the life I have. No point bemoaning.”Will’s broad smile gave away nothing of his true thoughts.
The guards escorted him out into the rutted street, where a light frost now glistened across the mud. The smell of ale and woodsmoke hung heavily between the inns and stews that dominated Bankside, and the night was filled with the usual cacophony of cries, angry shouts, the sound of numerous simultaneous fights, the clatter of cudgels, cheers and roars from the bulland bear-baiting arenas, music flooding from open doors, and drunken voices singing clashing songs. Every conversation was conducted at a shout.
As Will pushed through the crowd towards the carriage, he was recognised by some of the locals from the inns he frequented, and his name flickered from tongue to tongue in awed whispers. Apprentices tentatively touched his sleeve, and sultry-eyed women pursed their lips or thrust their breasts towards him, to Nathaniel’s weary disdain. But many revealed their fears about the impending invasion and offered their prayers that Will was off to protect them. Grinning, he shook hands, offered wry dismissals of the Spanish threat, and raised their spirits with enthusiastic proclamations of England’s strength; he played well the part he had been given.
At the carriage, the curtain was drawn back to reveal a man with an ascetic demeanour and a fixed mouth that appeared never to have smiled, his eyes dark and implacable. Francis Walsingham was approaching sixty, but his hair and beard were still black, as were his clothes, apart from a crisp white ruff.
“My lord,” Will said.
“Master Swyfte. We have business.”Walsingham’s eyes flickered towards Nathaniel. “Come alone.”
Will guessed the nature of the business immediately, for Nathaniel usually accompanied him everywhere and had been privy to some of the great secrets of state. Will turned to him and said, “Nat, I would ask a favour of you. Go to Grace and ensure she has all she needs.”
Reading the gravity in Will’s eyes, Nathaniel nodded curtly and pushed his way back through the crowd. It was in those silent moments of communication that Will valued Nathaniel more than ever; more than a servant, Nathaniel had become a trusted companion, perhaps even a friend. But friends did not keep secrets from each other, and Will guarded the biggest secret of all. It ensured his path was a lonely one.
Walsingham saw the familiar signs in Will’s face. “Our knowledge and our work are a privilege,” he said in his modulated, emotionless voice.
“We have all learned to love the lick of the lash,” Will replied.
Walsingham held the carriage door open forWill to climb into the heavy perfume of the court—lavender, sandalwood, and rose from iron containers hanging in each of the four corners of the interior. They kept the stink of the city at bay, but also served a more serious purpose that only the most learned would recognise.
Hands reached in through the open window for Will to touch. After he had shaken and clasped a few, he drew the curtain and let his public face fall away along with his smile.
“They love you, Master Swyfte,” Walsingham observed, “which is as it should be. Your fame reaches to all corners of England, your exploits recounted in inn and marketplace. Your heroism on behalf of queen and country is a beacon in the long dark of the night that ensures the good men and women of our land sleep well in their beds, secure in the knowledge that they are protected by the best that England has to offer.”
“Perhaps I should become one of Marlowe’s players.”
“Do you sour of the public role you must play?”
“If they knew the truth about me, there would be few flagons raised to the great Will Swyfte in Chichester and Chester.”
“There is no truth,” Walsingham replied as the carriage lurched into motion with the crack of the driver’s whip. “There are only the stories we tell ourselves. They shape our world, our minds, our hearts. And the strongest stories win the war.” His piercing eyes fell upon Will from the dark depths beneath his glowering brow. “You seem in a melancholy mood this night.”
“My revels were interrupted. Any man who had his wine and his women dragged from his grasp would be in a similar mood.”
A shadow crossed Walsingham’s face. “Be careful, William. Your love of the pleasures of this world will destroy you.”
His disapproval meant nothing to Will. He did not fear God’s damnation; mankind had been left to its own devices. There was too much hell around him to worry about the one that might lie beyond death.
“I understand why you immerse yourself in pleasure,” Walsingham continued. “We all find ways to ease the burden of our knowledge. I have my God. You have your wine and your whores. Through my eyes, that is no balance, but each must find his own way to carry out our work. Still, take care, William. The devils use seduction to achieve their work, and you provide them with a way through your defences.”
“As always, my lord, I am vigilant.” Will pretended to agree with Walsingham’s assessment of his motivations, but in truth the principal secretary didn’t have the slightest inkling of what drove Will, and never would. Will took some pleasure in knowing that a part of him would always remain his own, however painful.
As the carriage trundled over the ruts, the carnal sounds and smells of Bankside receded. Through the window, Will noticed a light burning high up in the heart of the City across the river, the warning beacon at the top of the lightning-blasted spire of Saint Paul’s.
“This is it, then,” he said quietly.
“Blood has been spilled. Lives have been ruined. The clock begins to tick.”
“I did not think it would be so soon. Why now?”
“You will receive answers shortly. We knew it was coming.” After a pause, he said gravely, “William Osborne is dead, his eyes put out, his bones crushed at the foot of the White Tower.”
“Death alone was not enough for them.”
“He did it to himself.”
Will considered Osborne’s last moments and what could have driven him to such a gruesome end.
“Master Mayhew survived, though injured,” Walsingham continued.
“You have never told me why they were posted to the Tower.”
Walsingham did not reply. The carriage trundled towards London Bridge, the entrance closed along with the City’s gates every night when the Bow Bells sounded.
Echoing from the river’s edge came the agonised cries of the prisoners chained to the posts in the mud along the banks, waiting for the tide to come in to add to their suffering. Above the gates, thirty spiked decomposing heads of traitors were a warning of a worse fate to those who threatened the established order.
As the driver hailed his arrival, the gates ground open to reveal the grand, timber-framed houses of wealthy merchants on either side of the bridge. The carriage rattled through without slowing and the guards hastily closed the gates behind them to seal out the night’s terrors.
The closing of the gates had always signalled security, but if the City’s defences had been breached there would be no security again.
“A weapon of tremendous power has fallen into the hands of the Enemy,” Walsingham said. “A weapon with the power to bring about doomsday. These are the days we feared.”
In the narrow, ancient streets clustering hard around the stone bulk of the Tower of London, the dark was impenetrable, threatening, and there was a sense of relief when the carriage broke out onto the green to the north of the outer wall where lanterns produced a reassuring pool of light.
Standing in ranks, soldiers waited to be dispatched by their commander in small search parties fanning out across the capital. Robert Dudley, the earl of Leicester, strutted in front of them, firing off orders. Though grey-bearded and with a growing belly, he still carried the charisma of the man who had entranced Elizabeth and seduced many other ladies of the court.
A crowd had gathered around the perimeter of the green, sleepy-eyed men and women straggling from their homes as word spread of the activity at the Tower. Will could see anxiety grow in their faces as they watched the grim determination of the commanders directing the search parties. Fear of the impending Spanish invasion ran high, and in the feverish atmosphere of the City tempers were close to boiling over into public disturbance. Spanish spies and Catholic agitators were everywhere, plotting assassination attempts on the queen and whipping up the unease in the inns, markets, and wherever people gathered and unfounded rumours could be quickly spread.
Ignoring the crowd’s calls for information about the disturbance, Walsingham guided Will to the edge of the green where a dazed, badly bruised, and bloody Mayhew squatted.
“England’s greatest spy,” Mayhew said, forming each word carefully, as he nodded to them.
“Master Mayhew. You have taken a few knocks.”
“But I live. And for that I am thankful.” Hesitating, he glanced at the White Tower looming against the night sky. “Which is more than can be said for that fool Osborne.”
“You were guarding the weapon,” Will surmised correctly.
“A weapon,” Mayhew exclaimed bitterly. “We thought it was only a man. A prisoner held in his cell for twenty years.”
Walsingham cast a cautionary glare and they both fell silent. “There will be time for discussion in a more private forum. For now, all you need know is that a hostile group has freed a prisoner and escaped into the streets of London. The City gates remain firmly closed . . .” He paused, choosing his words carefully. “Although we do not yet know if they have some other way to flee the City. The prisoner has information vital to the security of the nation. He must be found and returned to his cell.”
“And if he is not found?” Will enquired.
“He must be found.”
The intensity in Walsingham’s voice shocked Will. Why was one man so important—they had lost prisoners before, though none from the Tower—and how could he also be considered a weapon?
“Your particular skills may well be needed if the prisoner is located,” Walsingham said to Will before turning to Mayhew. “You must accompany me back to the Palace of Whitehall. I would know the detail of what occurred.”
Mayhew looked unsettled at the prospect of Walsingham’s questioning, but before they could leave, the principal secretary was summoned urgently by Leicester, who had been in intense conversation with a gesticulating commander.
“They call your name.” Mayhew nodded to the crowd. “Your reputation has spread from those ridiculous pamphlets they sell outside Saint Paul’s.”
“It serves a purpose,” Will replied.
“Would they be so full of admiration if those same pamphlets had called you assassin, murderer, corruptor, torturer, liar, and deceiver?” Mayhew’s mockery was edged with bitterness.
“Words mean nothing and everything, Matthew. It is actions that count. And results.”
“Ah, yes,” Mayhew said. “The end results justify the means. The proverb that saves us all from damnation.”
Will was troubled by Mayhew’s dark mood, but he put it down to the shock of the spy’s encounter with the Enemy. His attention was distracted by Walsingham, who, after listening intently to Leicester, summoned Will over. “We may have something,” he said with an uncharacteristic urgency. “Accompany Leicester, and may God go with you.”
At speed, Leicester, Will, and a small search party left the lights of the green. Rats fled their lantern by the score as they made their way into the dark, reeking streets to the north, some barely wide enough for two men abreast.
“On Lord Walsingham’s orders, I attempted to seek the path the Enemy took from the Tower,” Leicester said, as they followed the lead of the soldier Will had seen animatedly talking to Leicester. “They did not pass through the Traitors’ Gate and back along the river, the route by which they gained access to the fortress. None of the City gates were disturbed, according to the watch. And so I dispatched the search parties to the north and west.” He puffed out his chest, pleased with himself.
“You found their trail?”
“Perhaps. We shall see,” he replied, but sounded confident.
In the dark, Will lost all sense of direction, but soon they came to a broader street guarded by four other soldiers, from what Will guessed was the original search party. They continually scanned the shadowed areas of the street with deep unease. Will understood why when he saw the three dead men on the frozen ruts, their bodies torn and broken.
Kneeling to examine the corpses, Will saw that some wounds looked to have been caused by an animal, perhaps a wolf or a bear, others as if the victims had been thrown to the ground from a great height. They carried cudgels and knives, common street thugs who had surprised the wrong marks.
“Were these men killed by the Enemy?” Leicester asked, his own eyes flickering towards the dark.
Ignoring the question, Will said, “Three deaths in this manner would not have happened silently. Someone must have heard the commotion, perhaps even saw in which direction the Enemy departed. Search the buildings.”
As Leicester’s men moved along the street hammering on doors, bleary-eyed men and women emerged, cursing at being disturbed until they were roughly dragged out and questioned by the soldiers.
Will returned to the bodies, concerned by the degree of brutality. In it, he saw a level of desperation and urgency that echoed the anxiety Walsingham had expressed; here was something of worrying import that would have consequences for all of them.
His thoughts were interrupted by a cry from one of Leicester’s men who was struggling with an unshaven man in filthy clothes snarling and spitting like an animal. Three soldiers rushed over to help knock him to the frosty street.
“He knows something,” the man’s captor said, when Will came over.
“I saw nothing,” the prisoner snarled, but Will could see the lie in his furtive eyes.
“It would be in your best interests to talk,” Leicester said, but his exhortation was delivered in such a courtly manner that it was ineffectual. The man spat and tried to wrestle himself free until he was cuffed to the ground again.
Leicester turned to Will and said quietly, “We could transport him back to the Tower. I gather Walsingham has men there who could loosen his tongue.”
“If we delay, the Enemy will be far from here and their prize with them,” Will said. “The stakes are high, I am told. We cannot risk that.” He hesitated a moment as he examined the man’s face and then said, “Let me speak with him. Alone.”
“Are you sure?” Leicester hissed. “He may be dangerous.”
“He is dangerous.” Will eyed the pink scars from knife fights that lined the man’s jaw. “I am worse.”
Leicester’s men manhandled the prisoner back into his house, and Will closed the door behind him after they left. It was a stinking hovel with little furniture, and most that was there looked as if it had been stolen from wealthier premises. The prisoner hunched on the floor by the hearth, pretending to catch his breath, and then threw himself at Will ferociously. Sidestepping his attack, Will crashed a fist into his face. Blood spurted from his nose as he was thrown back against a chair, but it did not deter him. He pulled a knife from a chest beside the fireplace, only to drop it when Will hit him again. As he scrambled for the blade, Will stamped his boot on the man’s fingers, shattering the bones. The man howled in pain.
Dragging the man to his feet, Will threw him against the wall, pressing his own knife against his prisoner’s throat. “England stands on the brink of war. The queen’s life is threatened daily. A crisis looms for our country,” Will said. “This is not the time for your games.”
“This is not a game!” the man protested. “I dare not speak! I fear for my life!”
Will pressed the tip of his knife a shade deeper for emphasis. “Fear me more,” he said calmly. “I will whittle you down a piece at a time—fingers, nose, ears—until you choose to speak. And you will choose. Better to speak now and save yourself unnecessary suffering.”
Once the rogue had seen the truth in Will’s eyes, he nodded reluctantly.
“You saw what happened out there?” Will asked.
“I was woken by the sounds of a brawl. From my window, I saw a small group of cloaked travellers set upon by a gang of fifteen or more.”
The man nodded.
“Fifteen? At this time? They cannot find much regular trade in this area to justify such a number.”
“It seemed they knew the travellers would be passing this way. They lay in wait. Some of them emerged only after the battle had commenced.”
This information gave Will pause, but his prisoner was too scared to be telling anything but the truth. “Who were these cutthroats?”
The man shook his head. “I did not recognise them. But if they find I spoke of them they will be back for me!”
“I would think they now have more important things on their minds.
“They surprised the travellers.” He hesitated, not sure how much he should say. “The travellers . . .” He swallowed, looked like he was about to be sick. “They turned on the cutthroats. I had to look away. I saw no more.”
“The faces of the travellers?”
He shook his head. “They moved too fast. I . . . I saw no weapons. Only the slaughter of three victims. It was madness! The other cutthroats fled—”
“And the travellers continued on their way?”
“One of them was different . . . his head glowed like the moon.”
“What do you mean?”
The man began to stutter and Will had to wait until he calmed. “I do not know . . . it was a glimpse, no more. But his head glowed. And in the confusion, two of the cutthroats grabbed him and made good their escape into the alleys. He went with them freely, as though he had been a prisoner of the travellers.”
“And the travellers gave pursuit?”
“Once they saw he was missing . . . a minute, perhaps two later. By then, their chances of finding him would have been poor.”
The frightened man had no further answers to give. Out in the street, Will summoned Leicester away from his men’s ears.
“The prize the Enemy stole from the Tower was in turn taken from them by a band of cutthroats,” Will told him. “Put all your men onto the streets of London. This threat may now have gone from bad to worse.”
Will clung on to the leather straps as the sleek black carriage raced towards the Palace of Whitehall, a solitary ship of light sailing on the sea of darkness washing against London’s ancient walls. Lanterns hung from the great gates and along the walls. From diamond-pane windows, candles glimmered across the great halls and towers, the chapels, wings, courtyards, stores, meeting rooms, and debating chambers, and in the living quarters of the court and its army of servants. At more than half a mile square, it was one of the largest palaces in the world, shaped and reshaped over three hundred years. Hard against the Thames, it had its own wharf where barges were moored to take the queen along the great river and where vast warehouses received the produce that kept the palace fed. Surrounding the complex of buildings were a tiltyard, bowling green, tennis courts, and formal gardens, everything needed for entertainment.
The palace looked out across London with two faces: at once filled with the sprawling, colourful, noisy pageantry of royalty, of a court permanently at play, of music and masques and arts and feasting, of romances and joys and intrigues, a tease to the senses and a home to lives lost to a whirl that always threatened to spin off its axis; and a place of grave decisions on the affairs of state, where the queen guided a nation that permanently threatened to come apart at the seams from pressures both within and without. Whispers and fanfares, long, dark shadows and never-extinguished lights, conspiracies and open rivalries. The palace was a puzzle that had no solution.
The carriage came to a halt under a low arch in a cobbled courtyard so small that the buildings on every side kept it swathed in gloom even during the height of noon. Few from the court even knew it existed, or guessed what took place behind the iron-studded oak door beside which two torches permanently hissed. The jamb too was lined with iron, as was the step.
The door swung open at Will’s knock and admitted him to a long, windowless corridor lit by intermittent pools of lamplight. The silent guard closed the door and slid six bolts home. Will’s echoing footsteps followed him up one flight of a spiral staircase into the Black Gallery, a large panelled hall. Heavy drapes covered the windows, but it was lit by several lamps and a few flames danced along a charred log in the glowing ashes of the large stone fireplace.
A long oak table filled the centre of the hall, covered with maps, and at the far end sat Mayhew, one louche leg over the arm of his chair. His head was tightly bound in a bloodstained cloth and his left arm was in a sling. He was taking deep drafts of wine from a goblet, and appeared drunk.
Will always found Mayhew difficult. He was hard, in the manner of all spies forced to operate in a world of deceit, and had little patience for his fellows, more concerned with the latest courtly fashions. He liked his wine, too, when he was not working, but he was a sullen, sharp-tongued drunk.
Walsingham emerged at the sound ofWill’s voice, his features drawn. He listened intently as Will told him about the attack on the Enemy and their loss of the mysterious prisoner from the Tower, but he passed no comment.
“The queen has been informed?” Will asked once he had finished his account.
“I advised her myself,” Walsingham replied. “She is fully aware of the magnitude of what lies ahead.”
“Which is more than I am.”Will expected a terse response, but the principal secretary was distracted by the sound of slamming doors and rapidly marching feet.
Through a door at the far end of the hall, two guards escorted a man wearing a purple cloak and hood that shrouded his features. The guards retreated as the new arrival strode across the room to the fire.
“I can never get warm these days,” he said, holding out aged hands to the flames. “It is one of the prices I pay.”
The man threw off his hood to reveal a bald pate and silvery hair at the back falling over his collar. As he turned to face the room, fierce grey eyes shone with a coruscating intellect and a sexual potency that belied his sixty-odd years.
“Dee!” Mayhew visibly started in his chair, slopping wine in his lap.
Dr. John Dee cast a disinterested eye over Mayhew. “You have not aged well,” he said, before slipping off his cloak and throwing it over a chair.
To the outside world, Dee was a respected scholar and founding fellow of Trinity College in Cambridge who had been an advisor and tutor to the queen, whose General and Rare Memorials Pertaining to the Perfect Arte of Navigation had established a vision of an English maritime empire and defined the nation’s claims upon the New World. Few knew that Dee had been instrumental in helping Walsingham establish the extensive spy network, providing intelligence and guidance as well as designing many of the tools the spies used to ply their dangerous trade.
But Will had heard other rumours: that Dee had turned his back upon his studies of the natural world for black magic and scrying and attempts to commune with angels. Will had presumed this had contributed to Dee’s fall from favour—for five years he had been absent from the court in Central Europe. The last any of them had heard of him was in Bohemia a year ago.
“No word must be uttered of Dr. Dee’s appearance here. He has been engaged on official business in Europe under my orders and will return there shortly,” Walsingham stressed, in full understanding of what was passing through Will and Mayhew’s minds.
“It appears there are secrets kept even from the gatekeepers to the world of secrets,” Will noted.
“That is the way of things, Master Swyfte.” Walsingham poked the fire absently, sending showers of sparks up the chimney.
“It was fortuitous that I arrived at this time to deliver the information I had secured.” Filled with pent-up energy that revealed no hint of fragility, Dee prowled the room. “Events set in motion one year past are now coming to fruition. The Enemy are about to play their hand, and we must divine their secrets quickly before it is too late. Time is short. The queen’s life and all of England are at stake.”
Will carefully studied the way Walsingham held himself as he moved around the room. To the unfamiliar eye, there was an unruffled indifference to his seemingly detached state, but Will had observed the spymaster carefully since the day he had been brought from his chambers at Cambridge University to be inducted into the ranks of the secret service network. Although he had been overcome by grief and haunted by images of his loss, Will had seen from the first that Walsingham was a man whose deep thoughts were revealed in only the subtlest signs: the relaxation of the taut muscles around his mouth, the tension of a finger, a stiffness in his back.Walsingham was a man forged in the crucible of the secret war they fought, and a symbol of the toll that battle took. Though he hid it well, his mood at that moment was grim.
“Where is the weapon now?” Dee asked.
Once Will had spoken his piece, Mayhew added, “The operation was well planned and efficiently executed.” He cast a furtive eye towards Walsingham. “When I was given my post, I was told the Tower was under special protection, even beyond the protection that keeps England safe.”
“It is,” Dee replied. “And how those defences were breached remains a mystery.”
“That need not concern us now,” Walsingham interrupted. “Master Swyfte, you are charged with finding the weapon before it can be used and bringing it back to our control, or destroying it, whichever course is necessary. But first you must be apprised of the facts of the matter.”
Sifting through the charts on the table, he came to one of the New World and traced his finger along the coastline until he came to the name San Juan de Ulúa in the Spanish territories, the main port for the shipment of silver back to Spain.
“A poor harbour by English standards,” Walsingham said. “Little more than a shingle bank to protect it from the storms. Twenty years ago, on December 3, 1568, John Hawkins put in for repairs to his storm-damaged trading fleet, including two of the queen’s galleons.”
“Into a Spanish port?” Mayhew said, surprised.
“Hawkins paid his taxes and more besides. In the past the Spanish had always left him alone once their coffers were full. But on this occasion their own spies had told them there was more to Hawkins’s visit than the repair of rigging and the patching of hulls.” Walsingham looked to Dee.
“Since I first arrived at court,” Dee began, “I have been advising the queen on the threat that has faced England since the Flood. Every moment of my life has been directed towards finding adequate defences to protect the Crown, the people, the nation.”
“And you have succeeded. England has never been safer,” Will noted.
“We can never rest, for the Enemy are wise as snakes, and all of their formidable resources are continually directed towards recapturing the upper hand they once enjoyed. And so we too search for new defences, new weapons.” In Dee’s eyes, the gleam of the candles suggested an inner fire raging out of control.
“My enquiries into the secrets of this world pointed me towards a weapon of immeasurable power that the Spanish were attempting to unlock in the hills not far from San Juan de Ulúa,” Dee continued. “So fearful were they of the weapon that the king had insisted it be tested far away from the homeland. A weapon that had brought devastation to the great rulers in the far Orient. A weapon that had surfaced during the Crusades and had been fought over by the Knights Templar and the enemies of Christendom.” Dee looked from one to the other, now incandescent with passion. “With a weapon like that, England would be a fortress. The Enemy would retreat to their lakes and their underhills and their lonely moors and we would be safe. Finally.”
“What is the nature of the weapon?” Will asked.
“Therein lies the greatest mystery of all.” Kneading his hands, Dee paced the room. A tremor ran through him. “It is a mask, a silver skull etched with the secret incantations of the long-forgotten race that first created it. A mask that must be bonded with a mortal to unleash its great power. But all we have are stories, fragments, hints. The nature of that power is not known. All that is known for sure is that nothing can stand before it and survive.”
“So Hawkins was charged with seizing the weapon from the Spanish,” Will surmised.
“That, at least, was England’s fervent hope,”Walsingham replied. “While his fleet was being repaired, Hawkins, Francis Drake, and a small group of men slipped secretly into the interior. Five men gave their lives to secure the skull from the Spanish, but before Hawkins could reach his ships, the viceroy, Don Martin Enriquez, took his fleet into the harbour and launched an attack while the English guard was down. Hawkins, Drake, and a small crew escaped in two ships, but the remainder of the English party were tortured and killed by the viceroy as he attempted to discover what we knew about the skull.” A shadow passed over Walsingham’s face that was like a bellow of rage against his usual detachment. “One of the few survivors, Job Hortop, told how the Spanish dogs hanged Hawkins’s men from high posts until the blood burst from the ends of their fingers, and flogged them until the bones showed through their flesh. But not a man spoke of the skull. Heroes all.”
Nodding in agreement, Mayhew bowed his head for a moment.
“Hawkins and Drake returned in two storm-torn ships with just fifteen men,” Walsingham said. “Eighty-five stout fellows had starved to death on the journey home. But the skull was ours.”
Several elements of the story puzzled Will. “Then why did we not use this great weapon to drive back the Enemy, and our other, temporal enemies. Spain would not be so bold if it knew we held such a thing,” he asked.
“Because the skull alone is not enough,” Dee replied sharply to the note of disbelief in Will’s voice. “The stories talk of three parts—a Mask, a Key, and a Shield. All are necessary to use the weapon effectively, though its power can be released without direction and with great consequences for the user by the Mask and Key alone.”
Mayhew refilled his goblet, his hands shaking. “And the Key and the Shield?”
“The last twenty years were spent in search of them, to no avail,” Walsingham replied. “They were for a time in the hands of the Knights Templar, this we know for sure.”
“And those warrior monks fought the Enemy long before us,” Dee stressed. “The Templars must have known of the importance of these items and hid them well.”
“Then who was the prisoner in the Tower?” Will enquired.
“Some Spaniard who had been cajoled into trying to make the Mask work.What he cannot have realised is that, once bonded, the Mask cannot be removed until death,” Dee said. “You are a slave to it, as it is to you.”
Will finally understood. “And so he was locked away in the Tower for twenty years while you attempted to find the other two parts.”
“We could not risk the weapon falling into the hands of the Enemy in case they located the Key,”Walsingham said, “and brought devastation down upon us all.”
“But after twenty years, the Enemy chose this night to free the prisoner from the Tower,” Will pressed. “Why now, unless the Key is already in their hands?”
Walsingham and Dee exchanged a brief glance.
“What do you know?” Will demanded.
“The Enemy’s plans burn slowly,” Dee replied. “They do not see time like you or I, defined by the span of a man’s life. Their minds move like the oceans, steady and powerful, over years and decades, and longer still. Yet we knew some great scheme was in motion, just not its true nature.”
“When the defences of the nation were first put in place, all was quiet for many years.” Walsingham stood erect, his hands clasped behind his back. “The hope grew that finally we would be safe. But then there came the strange and terrible events surrounding the execution of the traitor Mary, Queen of Scots, one year ago and we glimpsed the true face of the terror that was to come.”
18th February 1587
All through the bitter winter’s night, Robert, earl of Launceston, had ridden, and finally in the thin, grey morning light his destination fell into view on the rain-soaked Midlands terrain. His fingers were frozen on the reins, his breeches sodden and mud-splattered, and his bones ached from the cold and exhaustion.
Launceston was hardly used to such privation, but he could not refuse his orders to be the eyes and ears of Lord Walsingham for the momentous event about to take place. Though thirty-eight, he looked much older. His skin had an unnatural, deathly pallor that many found repulsive and had made him something of an outcast at court, his nose long and pointed, his eyes a steely grey.
When Walsingham called on him, it was usually to have a throat slit in the middle of the night, a Spanish agent agitating for Elizabeth’s overthrow or assassination, sometimes a minor aristocrat with unfortunate Catholic sympathies. He had forgotten how many he had killed.
At least this time he would only be watching a death instead of instigating it. Just beyond Oundle, Fotheringhay Castle rose up out of the flat, bleak Northamptonshire landscape on the north side of the meandering River Nene. On top of the motte was the grand stone keep, surrounded by a moat, with ramparts and a ditch protecting the inner bailey where the great hall lay alongside some domestic buildings. The gatehouse stood on the other side of a lake crossed by a bridge. Lonely. Well defended. Perfect for what lay ahead.
As he drew towards the castle, Launceston feared he had missed the event. Mary’s execution had been scheduled for the cold dark of seven a.m. and the hour was already approaching ten, but he could hear music from the courtyard and the distant hubbub of an excited crowd.
Encouraging his horse to find its last reserves, he pressed on through the deserted Fotheringhay village, across the bridge, and the drawbridge, and into the courtyard.
When they saw his ghastly features peering from the depths of his hood, a shiver ran through the crowd of more than a hundred who had come to see history made. He hated them all, common, witless sheep, but to be fair, he disliked his own kind at the court just as much.
As they slowly realised he was only a man, they returned their attention to the grey bulk of the great hall. Some waved placards with Mary drawn as a mermaid, a crude insult suggesting she was a prostitute. She had no friends there on the outside, but the long wait had reduced the baying to a harsh murmur. The air of celebration was emphasised by a band of musicians, playing an air that usually accompanied the execution of witches. It could have been considered another insult, except Launceston knew that Walsingham had personally requested the playing of the dirge.
Dismounting, he strode towards the hall where his way was barred by the captain of the sheriff’s guard in breastplate and helmet, halberd raised. “Launceston,” he said, “here at the behest of your Lord Walsingham, and our queen, God save her. I am not too late?”
“The traitor has been at her prayers for three hours,” the captain replied. “She has read her will aloud to her servants, and prepared for them her final instructions. My men have been instructed to break down the door to her quarters if she delays much longer.”
Launceston pushed his way into the great hall where two hundred of the most respected men in the land waited as witnesses. They had been carefully selected for their trustworthiness, their numbers limited so that whatever happened in that hall, only the official version would reach the wider population.
Though logs blazed in the stone hearth, it provided little cheer. Black was the abiding colour in the room, on the drapes surrounding the three-foot-high platform that would provide a clear view of the proceedings to the audience, on the high-backed chair at the rear of the dais, on the kneeling cushion and the executioner’s block. It was there too in the clothes and masks of the executioner and his assistant. Bulle, the London hangman, was ox-like, tall and erect, his hands calmly resting on the haft of his double-headed axe.
Launceston could feel the stew of conflicting emotions, the sense of relief that the traitorous whore’s lethal machinations would finally be ended, the anxiety that they were embarking on a dangerous course into uncharted waters. Spain, France, and Rome watched and waited. The killing of one of royal blood was not to be taken lightly, especially one so many Catholics believed to be the rightful ruler of England. Her execution was the right course of action; Mary would always be a threat to England as long as she lived.
A murmur ran through the assembled group, and a moment later the sheriff, carrying his white wand of office, led Mary into the hall accompanied by the earls of Shrewsbury and Kent. Six of her retinue trailed behind.
Launceston had never seen her before, but in that instant he understood why she loomed so large over the affairs of several states. She exuded a rapacious sexuality that was most evident in the flash of her unflinching eyes. A glimpse of her red hair beneath her kerchief was made even more potent by the shimmering black velvet of her dress. She would not be hurried, her pace steady as she clutched on to an ivory crucifix. A gold cross hung at her neck, and a rosary at her waist.
Launceston was surprised to find himself captivated like every other man in the room. The blood of two men lay upon her, yet that only served to increase her magnetism; she appeared to be a woman who could do anything, who could control any man. She climbed onto the platform and sat in the chair, levelling her gaze slowly and dispassionately across all present.
Walsingham’s brother-in-law, Robert Beale, the clerk to the Privy Council, caught Launceston’s eye and nodded before reading the warrant detailing Mary’s crime of high treason for her constant conspiracies against Elizabeth, and calling for the death sentence. The earl of Shrewsbury asked her if she understood.
Mary gave a slight smile that Launceston found unaccountably chilling. “I thank my God that He has permitted that in this hour I die for my religion,” she intoned slyly.
No one in the room was prepared to listen to a Catholic diatribe, and the dean of Peterborough stood up to silence her. Mary suddenly began to sob and wail and shout in Latin, raising her crucifix over her head.
Launceston had the strangest impression that he was seeing two women occupying the same space; this Mary was devout, believing herself to be a martyr to her religion, not sexually manipulative, not threatening, or cunning. The change troubled him for it did not seem natural, and he was reminded of the coded warning Walsingham had given him before his departure: “Do not trust your eyes or your heart.”
After she had pleaded passionately for England to return to the true faith, she changed again, her eyes glinting in the firelight, her lips growing cruel and hard.
As Bulle the executioner knelt before her and made the traditional request that she forgive him her death, she replied loudly, “I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles.” It was a stately comment, but Mary twisted it when she added in a whisper that only a few could hear, “But not your own.” As she looked around the room, she made it plain that she was speaking about England.
Bulle went to remove Mary’s gown, but she stopped him with a flirtatious smile and summoned her ladies-in-waiting to help. “I have never put off my clothes before such a company,” she said archly.
A gasp ran through the room as her black gown fell away. A bodice and petticoat of crimson satin flared among the dark shapes. It was a bold, almost brash statement, and in it Launceston once again saw two opposing faces: crimson was the colour of the martyr, but it was also the colour of sex, and Launceston could see the effect it had upon some of the elderly men around. Though forty-four, Mary was still a beautiful, alluring woman. She flaunted the swell of her bosoms and displayed her cleavage, as though she was available for more than death.
“Death is not the end,” she said. “For me. And there are worse things than death by far, as you will all come to know.”
With a flourish of her petticoat, she knelt, pausing briefly at the level of Bulle’s groin before placing her head upon the block. Launceston had the briefest sensation that she was looking directly at him. With another disturbing smile, she stretched out her arms in a crucified position and said, “In manus tuas, Domine.”
Bulle’s mask hid whatever he thought of this display, if anything. He swung the heavy woodcutter’s axe above his head and brought it down. It thudded into the block so hard Launceston was sure he could feel the vibrations. Mary made no sound, did not move, continued to stare at the assemblage, still smiling. Bracing himself, Bulle wrenched the axe free and brought it down again. The head lolled forwards, hanging by one piece of gristle that Bulle quickly cut.
Stooping to pluck the head by the hair as he had been ordered, Bulle called out, “God save the queen.” All apart from Launceston responded, “Amen.”
But Mary had played one last trick on her executioner. Her auburn hair was a wig that now flapped impotently in Bulle’s hand, the grey-stubbled head still rolling around the platform.
His breath tight in his chest, Launceston kept his gaze upon it, aware a second before the others that the eyes still swivelled in their sockets.
The head came to rest at an angle and Mary surveyed her persecutors. “Two queens now you have plucked in your arrogance,” she said, a slight smile still lying on her lips, “and the third that will fall shall be your own.”
The knights and gentlemen cried out in terror, making the sign of the cross as they pressed away from the platform. Even the sheriff’s guards lowered their halberds and shied away.
“Against you in the shadows, the powers align,” Mary continued. “Death, disease, destruction on a scale undreamed of—all these lie in your days ahead, now that long-buried secrets have come to light. Soon now, the thunderous tread of our marching feet. Soon now, the scythe cutting you down like wheat. The shadows lengthen. Night draws in, on you and all your kind.”
Two hundred men were rooted as their worst fears were confirmed and a mood of absolute dread descended on the great hall. As Mary’s eyes continued to swivel, and her teeth clacked, Bulle fell to his knees, his axe clattering noisily on the platform. Launceston thrust his way through the crowd to Beale and shook him roughly from his daze.
“Yes, of course,” Beale stuttered, before hailing two men who waited at the back of the crowd. Launceston recognised them as two of Dr. Dee’s assistants. Rushing to the platform, they pulled from a leather bag a pair of cold-iron tongs which one of them used to grip the head tightly. Mary snarled and spat like a wildcat until the other assistant used a poker to ram bundles of pungent herbs into her mouth.When the cavity was filled, the snarling diminished, and the eyes rolled slower and finally stopped as the light within them died.
A furore erupted as the terrified crowd shouted for protection from God, or demanded answers, on the brink of fleeing the room in blind panic.
Leaping to the platform, Launceston asked the captain of the guard to lock the doors so none of the assembled knights and gentlemen could escape. Grabbing Bulle’s dripping axe, he hammered the haft down hard on the dais, once, twice, three times, until silence fell and all eyes turned towards him.
“What you have seen today will never be repeated, on peril of your life.” His dispassionate voice filled every corner of the great hall. “To speak of this abomination will be considered an act of high treason, for diminishing the defences of the realm and putting the queen’s life at risk from a frightened populace. One word and Bulle here will be your final friend. Do you heed my words?”
Silence held for a moment, and then a few angry mutterings arose.
“Lest you misunderstand, I speak with the full authority of the queen, and her principal secretary Lord Walsingham,” Launceston continued. “Nothing must leave this room that gives succour to our enemies, or which turns determined Englishmen to trembling cowards. I ask again: do you heed my words?”
In his face they saw the truth of what he said, and gradually acceded. When he was satisfied, Launceston handed the axe back to Bulle and said, “Complete your business.”
Still trembling, the earl of Kent stood over Mary’s headless corpse and stuttered in a voice so frail few could hear, “May it please God that all the queen’s enemies be brought into this condition. This be the end of all who hate the Gospel and Her Majesty’s government.”
With tentative fingers, Bulle plopped the head onto a platter and held it up to the window three times so the baying crowd without could be sure the traitorous pretender to the throne was truly dead.
Immediately, the doors were briefly unlocked so Henry Talbot, the earl of Shrewsbury’s son, could take the official news of Mary’s death to the court in London. As he galloped through the towns and villages, shouting the news, a network of beacons blazed into life across the country and church bells were rung with gusto.
At Fotheringhay, Launceston spoke to each of the knights and gentlemen in turn, studying their eyes and letting them see his. Then he oversaw the removal of Mary’s body and head to the chapel, where prayers were said over them as Dee’s assistants stuffed the remains with more purifying herbs and painted defensive sigils on the cold flesh. Everything she had worn, and everything her blood had touched, was burned.
Few beyond that great hall knew the truth: that terrible events had been set in motion, like the ocean, like the falling night, and soon disaster would strike, and blood and terror would rain down on every head.
After Walsingham had finished speaking, silence fell across the Black Gallery, interrupted only by the crackle and spit of the fire in the hearth.
“The Enemy has been planning the assault on the Tower for more than a year,” Mayhew said eventually.
Will now understood the depths of the worry he had seen etched into Walsingham’s face earlier that night. “Long-buried secrets have come to light,” he repeated. “Then we must assume they have the Key, or the Shield, or both, and are now able to use the weapon.”
“We have spent the last twelve months attempting to prepare for the inevitable,” Walsingham said, “listening in the long dark for the first approaching footstep, watching for the shadow on the horizon, every hour, every minute, vigilant.”
“And now all our souls are at risk,” Mayhew said. Upending the bottle he’d been steadily draining, he was disgusted to find it empty. “So that traitorous witch Mary was in the grip of the Enemy. Is no one safe from their sly control?” he added. “How much of the misery she caused was down to her, and how much to whatever rode her?”
“We will never know,”Walsingham replied. “The past matters little. We must now concern ourselves with the desperate situation that unfolds.”
“It is the nature of these things that the waiting seems to go on forever and then, suddenly, there is no time at all when the wave engulfs us,” Dee added. “Yet fortune has given us a gift. The Enemy has lost the weapon almost as soon as it fell into their hands.”
“For now. But they will be scouring London, even as we do. If time has been bought for us, it will not be long.” With one hand on the mantelpiece as he peered into the embers,Will turned overWalsingham’s account of Mary’s execution. “You said the thing inMary’s head spoke of two queens plucked in arrogance.”
“Elizabeth’s father provided ample candidates,” Mayhew said. “That is of little import. Of more concern are the actions of the Catholic sympathisers and our enemies across the water. Will Spain seize upon our distraction with this crisis to launch an attack upon England?”
“Philip of Spain is determined to destroy us at all costs and will use any opportunity that arises,” Walsingham replied. “He makes a great play of English heresy for turning away from his Catholic faith, but his hatred is as much about gold. He is heartily sick of our attacks on his ships, and our constant orays into the New World, the source of all his riches.”
“But war can still be averted?” Mayhew said hopefully.
Walsingham gave a derisive snort. “The spineless fools at court who nag Elizabeth believe so. They encourage her in peace negotiations that drag on and on. In the face of all reason, our lord treasurer, Burghley, is convinced that peace will continue. He will still be advocating gentle negotiation when the
Spanish are hammering on his door. Leicester opposes him as much as possible, but if Burghley wins the queen’s ear, all is lost.”
“War was inevitable when Elizabeth signed the treaty to defend the Dutch against any further Spanish demands upon their territories. Philip saw it as a declaration of war on Spain,” Will noted.
“Now the duke of Parma sits across the channel with seventeen thousand men, waiting for the moment to invade England. And in Spain, Philip amasses a great fleet, and plots and plans,” Walsingham continued. “The invasion will come. It is only a matter of when. And the Enemy has chosen this moment to assail us from within. Destabilised, distracted, we are ripe for an attack.”
“Spain and the Catholic sympathisers are in league with the Enemy,” Mayhew spat. “We will be torn apart by these threats coming from all directions.”
“No, this business is both greater andmore cunning than that.”Will turned back to the cluttered table. “In this room, we know there is a worse threat than Catholics and Spain. Our differences with them may seem great, but they are meagre compared to the gulf between us and the true Enemy, whose manipulations set brother against brother when we should be shoulder to shoulder. Religious arguments mean nothing in the face of the threat that stands before us.”
Will could see Dee agreed, but Mayhew cared little, and Walsingham was steadfast in the hatred of Catholics that had been embedded in him since his early days at the defiantly Protestant King’s College at Cambridge.
“There are threats and there are threats. Some greater and some lesser, but threats nonetheless, and we shall use whatever is at our disposal to defeat them.” Walsingham’s voice was stripped of all emotion and all the more chilling for it. “Barely a day passes without some Catholic plot on Elizabeth’s life coming to light. We resist them resolutely. We listen. We watch. We extract information from those who know. And when we are ready we act, quickly, and brutally, where necessary.”
An entire world lay behind Walsingham’s words, and Will fully understood its gravity. Elizabeth had chosen her spymaster well. Walsingham was not hampered by morals in pursuit of his aims; he believed he could not afford to be so restricted. The tools of his trade were not only ciphers, secret writing, double and triple agents, and dead-letter boxes, but also bribery, forgery, blackmail, extortion, and torture. Sometimes, in unguarded moments, the cost was visible in his eyes.
“This war with our long-standing Enemy has blown cold for many years, but if it has now turned hot, we shall do what we always do: trap and eradicate them at every level,” Walsingham continued.
Will watched the evidence of Walsingham’s cold, monstrous drive and wondered what had made him that way. The war shaped them all, and never for the better.
“We must move quickly, and find this Silver Skull before the Enemy does,” Walsingham stressed. He turned to Will and said, “All of England’s resources are at your disposal. Do what you will, but keep me informed at every step. Take Mayhew here, and Launceston.” He considered his options and added, “Also Tom Miller, a stout fellow, if simple, who has just joined our ranks. He has yet to be inducted in the ways of the Enemy, so take care in bringing him to understanding.”
Will attempted to hide his frustration. Putting an agent into the field without time to educate them in the true nature of the Enemy was cruel and dangerous. More than one spy had been driven out of their wits and into Bedlam after the heat of an encounter.
“And John Carpenter,” Walsingham concluded.
“I know there has been business between the two of you, but you must put it behind you for the sake of England, and our queen.”
“I would prefer Kit.”
“Marlowe is your good friend and true, but he wrestles with his own demons and they will be the end of him. We need a steady course in this matter.”
Will could see Walsingham’s mind would not be changed. He turned to Dee and asked, “Have you developed any new tricks that might aid me?”
“Tricks, you say!” Dee’s eyes flared, but he maintained his temper. “I have a parcel of powder which explodes in a flash of light and heat and smoke when exposed to the air. A new cipher that even the Enemy could not break. And a few other things that will make your life more interesting. I will present them to you once I have apprised Lord Walsingham of my findings in Bohemia.”
Briefly, Will wondered what matter Dee could be involved in that was as pressing as the search for the Silver Skull. But the thought passed quickly; the burden he had been given was large enough and it would take all his abilities to shoulder it.
“There are many questions here,” Will said. “Who took the prisoner from the Enemy and why? Were they truly rogues, or were they Spanish spies, and the Silver Skull is now in the hands of a different enemy?”
“And can we possibly find one man in a teeming city before the Enemy reaches him first?” Mayhew added sourly.
“Let us hear no more talk like that, Master Mayhew,” Will said. “Time is short and we all have a part to play.” As Mayhew grunted and lurched to his feet, Will turned to Walsingham. “Fearful that their hard-won prize might slip through their fingers, the Enemy will be at their most dangerous at this time.”
The log in the hearth cracked and flared into life, casting a ruddy glow across Walsingham’s face. “The next few hours will decide if we march towards hell or remain triumphant,” he replied. “Let nothing stand in your way, Master Swyfte. God speed.”
Cover Illustration © Chris McGrath
Design by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke
A two-time winner of the British Fantasy Award, Mark Chadbourn is the critically-acclaimed author of eleven novels and one non-fiction book. A former journalist, he is now a screenwriter for BBC television drama. His other jobs have included running an independent record company, managing rock bands, working on a production line, and as an engineer’s ‘mate’. He lives in a forest in the English Midlands. Visit him online at http://www.markchadbourn.net/.