The Heresy of Dr Dee
(John Dee Papers #2)
by Phil Rickman
The early history
Born in 1527, John Dee grew up in the most volcanic years of the reign of Henry VIII, at whose court his father was employed as a ‘gentleman server’. John was eight when the King split with Rome, declaring himself head of the Church of England and systematically plundering the wealth of the monasteries. Recognised by his early twenties as one of Europe’s leading mathematicians and an expert in the science of astrology, John was introduced at court during the short reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI.
When Edward died at only sixteen, John Dee was lucky to survive the brief but bloody reign of the Catholic Mary Tudor. Mary died in 1558 and was succeeded by the Protestant, Elizabeth, who would always encourage John’s lifelong interest in what he considered science but others saw as sorcery. Caught between Catholic plots and the rise of a new puritanism, he would feel no more secure than Queen Elizabeth herself, who was fending off the marriage bids of foreign kings and princes.
1560 began what biographers have seen as John Dee’s ‘missing years.’ A dangerous period, especially after the mysterious death of the wife of Dee’s friend and former student, Lord Robert Dudley, thought by many to be the Queen’s lover.
All my life I had spent in learning… with great pain, care and cost I had, from degree to degree, sought to come by the best knowledge that man might attain unto in the world. And I found, at length, that neither any man living, nor any book I could yet meet withal, was able to teach me those truths I desired and longed for…
Source of Darkness
IT WAS THE year of no summer, and all the talk in London was of the End-time.
Even my mother’s neighbours were muttering about darkness on the streets before its time, moving lights seen in the heavens and tremblings of the earth caused by Satan’s gleeful stoking of the infernal fires.
Tales came out of Europe that two suns were oft-times apparent in the skies. On occasion, three, while in England we never saw even the one most days and, when it deigned to appear, it was as pale and sour as old milk and smirched by raincloud. Now, all too soon, autumn was nigh, and the harvests were poor and I’d lost count of the times I’d been asked what the stars foretold about our future… if we had one.
Each time, I’d reply that the heavens showed no signs of impending doom. But how acceptable was my word these days? I was the astrologer who’d found a day of good promise for the joyful crowning of a woman who now, less than two years later, was being widely condemned as the source of the darkness.
By embittered Catholics, this was, and the prune-faced new Bible-men. Even the sun has fled England, they squealed. God’s verdict on a country that would have as its queen the spawn of a witch – these fears given heat by false rumours from France and Spain that Elizabeth was pregnant with a murderer’s child.
God’s bollocks, as the alleged murderer would say, but all this made me weary to the bone. How fast the bubble of new joy is pricked. How shallow people are. Give them shit to spread, and they’ll forge new shovels overnight.
All the same, you might have thought, after what happened in Glastonbury, that the Queen would seek my help in shifting this night-soil from her door.
But, no, she’d sent for me just once since the spring – all frivolous and curious about what I was working on, and had I thought of this, and had I looked into that? Sending me back to spend, in her cause, far too much money on books. Burn too many candles into pools of fat. Explore alleys of the hidden which I thought I’d never want to enter.
Only to learn, within weeks, that heavy curtains had closed around her court. Death having slipped furtively in. The worst of all possible deaths, most of us could see that.
Although not the Queen, apparently, who could scarce conceal her terrifying gaiety.
Dear God. As the silence grew, I was left wondering if the End-time might truly be looming and began backing away from some of the more foetid alleyways.
Though not fast enough, as it turned out.
September, 1560. Mortlake.
IT WAS TO be the last halfway-bright day of the season, but the scryer had demanded darkness: shutters closed against the mid-afternoon and the light from a single beeswax candle throwing shadows into battle on the walls.
‘And this…’ Dithering now, poor Goodwife Faldo looked at me over the wafer of flame and then across the board to where the scryer sat, and then back at me. ‘This is my brother…’ her hands falling to her sides and, even in the small light, he must surely have seen the flailing in her eyes ‘…John,’ she said lamely.
‘John Faldo,’ I said at once.
And then, seeing the eyes of my friend Jack Simm rolling upwards, realised why this could not be so.
‘That is, her husband’s brother.’
Thinking how fortunate it was that Will Faldo was out with his two sons, gleaning from his field all that remained of a dismal harvest. Had he been with us, the scryer might just have noted that Master Faldo was plump, with red hair, and a head shorter than the man claiming to be his brother.
Or he might yet see the truth when he uncovered what sat before him. It made a hump under the black cloth as might a saint’s sacred skull. My eyes were drawn back to it again and again. Unaware that the scryer had been watching me until his voice came curling out of the dark.
‘You have an interest in these matters, Master Faldo?’
A clipped clarity suggestive of Wales. Echoes of my late tad, in fact.
Jesu… I met his gaze for no more than a moment then looked away towards the crack of daylight betwixt shutters. The Faldos’ dwelling, firm-built of oak and riverbed daub, was but a short walk from Mortlake Church which, had the shutters been open, would have displayed itself like a warning finger.
‘The truth is,’ I mumbled, ‘that I’m less afraid of such things than my brother. Which is one reason why I’m here. And, um, he is not.’
The scryer nodded, appearing well at ease with his situation. Too much so, it seemed to me; the narrow causeway ’twixt science and sorcery will always have slippery sides and in his place I would ever have been watching the shadows. But then, that, as you know, is the way I am.
I studied him in the thin light. Not what I’d expected. A good twenty years older than my thirty-three, greying beard tight-trimmed to his cheeks and a white scar the width of his forehead. Well-clothed, in a drab and sober way, like to a clerk or a lawyer. Only the scar hinting at a more perilous profession.
He’d introduced himself to us as Elias, and I was told he’d been a monk. Were this true, it might afford him protection from whatever would come. Certainly his manner implied that we were fortunate to have his services.
‘And the other reason that Master Faldo is not with us?’
He smiled at me, with evident scepticism. I was silent too long, and it was the goodwife, alert as a chaffinch, who sprang up.
‘My husband… he knows naught of this. He’s working the day long and falls to sleep when he comes in. I…’ She lowered her voice and her eyelids, a fine and unexpected piece of theatre. ‘I was too ashamed to tell him.’
She’d already paid the scryer, with my money. I’d also been obliged to meet his night’s accommodation at the inn – more than I could readily afford, especially if I were to make a further purchase. Served me right for starting this game and involving the goodwife in the deception.
Brother Elias smiled at her with understanding.
‘So the treasure you want me to find… would be your wedding ring?’
Goodwife Faldo let out a small cry, hastily stifled with a hand. How could he possibly have known this by natural means? I stiffened only for a moment. It was no more than a good guess. He must oft-times be summoned to locate a woman’s ring or a locket. It was what they did.
‘What happened…’ Goodwife Faldo displayed her fingers, one with a circle of white below its joint ‘… I must have taken it off. To clean out the fire ready for the autumn? Laid it on the board, where you’re…’ Peering among the shadows on the board, as if the missing ring might be gleaming from somewhere to betray her. ‘And then forgot about it until the night. And it… was gone.’
‘You think someone stole it?’
‘I’d not want to think that. We trust our neighbours. Nobody here bolts a door. But… yes, I do fear it’s been taken. Been many years in my husband’s family, and has a value beyond the gold. Can you help me?’
‘Not me alone, Goodwife. Not me alone.’
Brother Elias speaking with solemnity and what seemed to me to be a first hint of stagecraft. Goodwife Faldo’s stool wobbling and the candlelight passing like a sprite across her coif as she sat up. Like many women, my mother’s neighbour was much attracted to the Hidden, yet in a half-fearful way – the joy of shivers.
‘I can only pray,’ she said unsteadily, ‘that whatever is summoned to help you comes from the right… quarter.’
This, I’ll admit, was a question I’d primed her to ask. No one should open a portal to the Hidden without spiritual protection. There are long-established procedures for securing this; I wanted to know if the scryer knew them.
‘Oh, it must needs be Godly,’ Elias assured her confidently. ‘If it’s to find this ring for us. However…’ his well-fed face became stern ‘…I must make it clear to you, Goodwife, that if the ring has been stolen and we are able to put a face to the thief, then it’s your business, not mine, to take the matter further.’
‘That’s, er…’ I coughed ‘…is another reason why I’m here.’
Me, the fighting man. Dear God.
‘And what are you, Master Faldo?’ the scryer said, but not as if he cared. ‘What’s your living?’
‘I work at the brewery.’
The biggest employer of men in Mortlake. Tell him you work at the brewery, Jack Simm had said to me earlier. And then, looking at my hands. Dealing wiv orders.
‘And you…’ the scryer turned to Jack, ‘…were once, I think, an apothecary in London?’
Jack stubbornly folding his arms over his wide chest as though to ward off further questions. Get on with it. The scryer cupped his hands over the black-draped object before him, drew a long breath, as if about to snatch away the cloth… and then stopped.
‘It’s not mete.’
Pulling his hands away from the mounded cloth, stowing them away in his robe.
A scowl split Jack Simm’s lambswool beard.
‘I regret it’s not mete for me to go on,’ Brother Elias said. ‘The crystal’s cold.’
Speaking with finality, where most of his kind would be smiling slyly at you while holding out their grubby hands for more money. Maybe it came to the same. Elias’s apparel showed he’d already prospered from his trade.
Yet I felt this wasn’t only about money. The air in here had altered. The hearth looked cold as an altar, the room felt damp. I became aware of the fingers of both my hands gripping the edge of the board as the scryer reached to the flagged floor for his satchel.
‘We should light a fire?’ Jack Simm said.
Halfway to his feet, angry, but Elias didn’t look at him.
‘If you want this to have results,’ he said quietly, ‘then I must needs go back to the inn and rest a while. I’ll return shortly before nightfall. That is, if you wish to continue with this…’
… comedy? Was that what he thought?
Did he suspect false-play?
Look, I wanted to say, if we’ve insulted your art, I beg mercy, but I feared you’d be a rooker. Back-street scryers, I thought all they sought was a regular income. That they had no aspiration to walk in the golden halls of creation and know the energies behind their art. I thought that all that mattered was that it worked. And if it didn’t, you faked it. I want to know where the fakery begins, to separate artifice from natural magic. I want to watch what you do, observe your methods. And… I want to know where to obtain the finest of shewstones.
Should I identify myself, accept a loss of face?
No. I held back, watching him shoulder his satchel and make his stately way to the Goodwife’s door, wondering if he’d return or vanish with my money.
‘Oh,’ he said mildly. ‘I have one question.’ He opened the door and the light washed over him. ‘Why am I summoned to Mortlake?’
From outside came the scurrying of birds.
‘Why Mortlake?’ the scryer said. ‘When Mortlake’s surely home to a man more qualified than I?’ He looked at each of us in turn. ‘Or is the good Dr Dee too busy conjuring for the Queen these days to waste his famous skills in service of his neighbours?’
Jack Simm glanced at me. I knew not how to respond.
‘Dr Dee,’ Jack said, ‘doesn’t scry.’
Hmm… not yet, anyway.
Call Them Angels
JACK SIMM WAS a gardener now. He’d abandoned his London apothecary’s shop during Mary’s reign, when the agents of Bishop Bonner had been scouring the streets for signs of Protestants and witches alike, and anyone else who might be deemed an enemy of the Catholic Church.
Like many a poor bastard who’d burned in Bonner’s purge, Jack had been neither, but the scent of roasting flesh singes the soul. And he had a young wife and so chose to pursue his trade in a quiet way, from his home on the edge of the village, growing herbs in other people’s gardens as part-payment for his services. Growing certain mushrooms for me, to bring about visions. Not that they’d worked, but that wasn’t Jack’s fault.
I’d tell him he had no need to be a secret apothecary any more. It was a new reign. Everything was changed for the brighter. Kept telling him all this, but he was wary yet.
Particularly wary when, about four weeks previously, I’d asked him to find me a good scryer and perhaps a shewstone for sale.
For pretty much the same reason I’d wanted the mushrooms.
* * *
‘You ain’t a complete fool, Dr John,’ Jack had said, ‘but you’re ever running too close to the bleedin’ cliff-edge.’
We’d been walking the pathway through the wood behind his dwelling. An unusually muggy day – a sneer of a day, a taunt at a drear summer’s end. My shirt had been sweated to my spine while my boots were yet soaked from the puddles.
Look, I’d been aware of the scrying profession most of my life, my tad oft-times making mock of it – all furtive foreigners and gypsies who’d gaze into a stone or a mirror and tell you where your missing property might be recovered or how many children you’d have. Or, if you underpaid them, exactly when the children could expect to inherit your worldly goods.
Rookers to a man, and they oft-times conduct their trade through an apothecary, who takes a cut of the fee.
‘I could find you one, no problem,’ Jack had said. ‘When I was in town, we must’ve had a dozen or more of these bleeders in the shop. Wanting me to put ’em in touch wiv the sick and the bereaved or anyone who needed somebody to talk to the dead on their behalf, intercede wiv angels. I’d kick their arses down the street. And been cursed for it a few times. But I’m still here, ain’t I?’
He’d been gazing out between the heavy, dripping trees towards the swollen river and his voice was damp with disdain.
‘Why?’ he said. ‘That’s all I’m asking. I ain’t getting it, Dr John. I’ve watched men and woman staring into stones and seeing fings I can’t see. And if I can’t see it…? You know what I’m saying?’
‘Everything’s open to abuse,’ I said.
‘But you’re a… a whatsit, natural-philosopher… a man of bleedin’ science.’
‘Well, exactly,’ I said. ‘Knowing the science behind crystal-gazing makes all the difference.’
I could have told him then precisely why I was, of a sudden, interested in the art of scrying. But, although I trusted him more than most, it wasn’t the time. And I’d have to admit that I’d been as sceptical as he was until, at the university of Louvain, I’d been given sight of a rare manuscript by the scholar and cabalist Johannes Trithemius of Spanheim. Which explained why certain stones, if used with knowledge and reverence, could give access to the very engines of heaven.
‘A stone’s a stone, Dr John.’
‘Never dismiss what’s beneath your feet, Jack. Crystals will absorb and reflect celestial rays. If employed at certain times – on certain days, under specific planetary configurations – they’ll open up the inner rooms of the mind …to levels of existence normally denied to us.’
Jack kicked a lesser stone into the grass.
‘Spirits, is it?’
I sighed. A very loose word, oft-times misused.
‘Three spheres, Jack: this earthly plane and, above that, the astral, where earthbound spirits linger, the place of ghosts. And above and beyond all… the supercelestial… the over-realm, the furnace room of Heaven.’
As a scholar of Hebrew I’d studied in depth the Cabala which, through mystical symbolism, offers a stairway to the sublime. It makes logical, mathematical sense and, although Jewish in origin, can be practised just as effectively through Christianity. The Christian cabala would be my shield against the earthbound spirits and the kind of demonic entities which might enter a shewstone and possess the unguarded scryer.
As distinct from the higher spirits, the good spirits.
Call them angels.
‘In Europe,’ I said, ‘the shewstone is seen as a legitimate method of penetrating the higher mysteries. In England, it’s yet a joke, at best. At worst, the devil’s own mirror.’
‘You told them this in Europe?’
Not for me to confirm their opinion of England as a land of Philistines – or to confess my own ignorance. I’d read and reread the works of Agrippa and what I could of Trithemius, but my personal experience was, at best, thin and always would be until I seized the nettle and took steps to acquire my own shewstone.
A good one. A good crystal, with which to carry out experiments. But what kind, what colour, how big? These were fundamentals I ought to have known about but did not, for opinions varied.
‘You’re an innocent soul, Dr John.’ Jack Simm standing among the roots of a venerable oak and facing me like a father, hands sunk into the pockets of his jerkin. ‘You fink fings is different, now nobody gets burned. The Queen smiling, all gracious. Oh, yea, folks can believe what they like, long as they keep it to themselves. Like we ain’t heard all that before.’
‘Times change, Jack.’
‘Kings don’t change. Nor Queens. It’s religious freedom one day then, in a blinking, it’s all about how to prove you ain’t a witch’s daughter.’
The Queen’s mother, Anne Boleyn, executed by the Queen’s father for treason and adultery, had been possessed of a sixth finger and a furry growth on her neck. How much evidence did you want?
‘Now how’s the Queen do that?’ Jack said. ‘She makes war on witchcraft, and her advisers look around for somebody well-known to execute to make it look good.’
A dead twig had snapped under his boot, making me start as he sprang away from the oak, forefinger aimed at my chest.
‘Go on… tell me it’s wivout bleedin’ precedent. And you may mention the late King Harry.’
I wanted to laugh, but it wouldn’t come. This queen was different. This queen had an acute intelligence and questing mind fascinated by alchemy and the cabala. This queen was powerfully Protestant while celebrating the Mass in deep privacy.
‘Heresy.’ I’d shrugged. ‘All science is heresy. Now… can you help me?’
He’d paced a slow circle around the oak.
‘Yea, well,’ he’d said at last, ‘I suppose you oughter have somefink to take your mind off what’s happening downriver.’
He’d meant London. Becoming known in Europe as Satan’s city. And not, at this moment, a good place to be if you were a friend of Robert Dudley.
The Smoke of Rumour
WHEN BROTHER ELIAS had made his stately departure to the inn, we ate bread and goatcheese with Goodwife Faldo.
It had been Jack’s idea that she should play the pigeon so that I might observe a scrying without giving away my identity. Goodwife Faldo, who’d once taken my mother to see a cunning woman in the hope of asking my dead father if there was money hidden anywhere, had agreed at once to accept me as her brother for the day.
After our meal, she said she’d walk out to the meadow to suggest to her husband and sons that, rather than disrupt our sitting, they might eat at the inn tonight. I gave her my last shilling to pay for their meat and small beer, and then Jack and I walked down to the riverside where casks of fresh-brewed ale were being loaded into a barge. The air was cooling fast these evenings and the ambering sky above the distant city was smutted and heavy from first fires. And the smoke of rumour.
I hadn’t ventured into London for more than a week, but the gossip had been drifting down to me like black flakes from a lamp-scorched purlin. The city all atremble in the glitter of a dangerous lightning.
‘What were they saying when you were in town?’ I asked.
One reason I’d come to trust Jack Simm: he was a man of intelligence but without ambition.
Without ambition. What a blessed state that must be. Oft-times, my mother had accused me of it – far from the truth, of course, I did have ambition, though it related not to the attainment of high office so much as the acquisition of high knowledge. Not easy, however, without the level of protection that only wealth and position could provide.
Thus far, the Queen’s patronage had given me freedom to pursue my studies but not the means, for the fingers gripping the royal purse were famously held as tight as the rectal muscles of the ducks upon the river. Having calculed, by the stars, a smiling day for her coronation, I’d hoped for secure office, but nothing had come. And if things went wrong I could soon, as Jack had warned, be dangerously out of favour. In many ways, the daggers-out world of political advancement was far simpler than mine.
We’d moved away from the beer-barge, back into the wood, but I still kept my voice down low.
‘What were they saying?’
‘About Lord Dudley? You really want to know?’
‘In truth, I suspect not, but…’
‘Here it is: nobody I spoke to, from the pieman to the pamphlet-seller, finks he didn’t murder her. Although the pieman reckoned killing your wife to make room for the next one is only part of a great Tudor tradition, so he’s just getting in some practice for his future role as—’
‘Oh God, enough of this!’
‘Yes,’ I said wearily. ‘I asked.’
I’d barely seen Robert Dudley since he’d journeyed with me to Glastonbury in search of the bones of King Arthur, through which to strengthen the Queen’s majesty as Arthur’s spiritual successor. A quest with mixed success.
I’ve been hearing all about your journey to the West, she’d said on my one visit to the court since that mission. The horrors of it! Lord Robert was so very appreciative of your assistance in this matter.
My assistance, Highness? That’s what he said?
John… She’d laid a white and fragrant hand on my arm. He’s told me everything.
The lying, self-promoting bastard.
‘He’s never been mightily popular since she made him Master of the Horse, has he?’ Jack Simm said. ‘The lavish festivities, the arrogance, the preening.’
‘Behind all that,’ I said, not without doubt, ‘is a man of… integrity. Who’s seen much death.’
The execution of his father, the Duke of Northumberland, for the support of Jane Grey, the shortest-lived queen in history. Then his own confinement in the Tower under a death sentence, later withdrawn.
And all this time coming closer to the Queen than any man. Grown up together, locked away in the Tower at the same time during her sister’s reign. Always an understanding betwixt them. And the carnal attraction. As Master of the Horse, he took her hunting. Knew how best to entertain her – make her laugh, which she loved to do. Little doubt they’d have wed. If…
‘Maybe he’s seen so much of death, it’s trivial to him now. Man who has his wife pushed down the stairs to get his paws on the Queen—’
‘Nah, and never will be after they bribe the coroner. He’ll walk away in a pomander haze, but it won’t make no difference, will it? Still be the dog turd on a platter of sausages. And the closer you are to him…’
He was right, of course. But Dudley and I went back too long. Though only a few years older, I’d been appointed by his father to teach him mathematics and the mapping of the heavens, and he it was who’d sought my astrological advice on the coronation date.
Now, in the lowest alehouses – and some higher places, too, by all accounts – they were saying John Dee had taught Lord Dudley the blackest arts of sorcery, to win the Queen for Satan.
Never underestimate the malice of the common man.
I sank my hands into the pockets of my doublet and, in one, found a hole. I could never forget that, while in Glastonbury and rendered delirious by a fever, my friend had confessed that he’d wished his wife dead.
And now she was. Found at the foot of some stairs at a house called Cumnor Place in Berkshire where she was ‘staying with friends’. Dumped there by Dudley because the Queen wouldn’t have wives at court. Least of all, his.
My hands felt cold. Bess and me, we’re twin souls, Dudley had said when he was recovered from the fever. As if convinced that a marriage to the Queen was ordained by the heavens, though he’d never dared ask me to confirm it through astrology. Dear God, never in all history had there been a better reason for a man to kill his wife.
‘And what’s your thinking, Jack?’
Jack Simm leaned against an ash tree’s bole, smiling faintly.
‘I fink… if the Angel of the Lord come down on top of the Tower and proclaimed that Lord Dudley never done it and, while he’s here, that Dr John Dee ain’t a sorcerer… they’d all be waiting for his bleedin’ wings to drop off.’
‘Thank you, Jack.’
‘Now ask me why the scryer’s had to go back to the inn to warm his crystal.’
Were a shewstone to be used to reach the angelic, extensive preparation would be needed: days of purity, fasting, abstinence from alcohol. In this instance, I could think of three more practical reasons for the departure of Elias to the inn.
‘He wants to ask what John Dee looks like. What apparel he wears. And if Will Faldo’s brother works at the brewery. But… he’s not quite a rooker, is he?’
Or, if so, certainly of a higher grade than the lowlifes who hang like ravens around the taverns of Southwark.
‘Well,’ Jack said, ‘he did come recommended by a chaplain of the Bishop of London.’
‘Did he now?’
A good apothecary is ever well-connected.
‘Oh, he’s well-patronised. That’s why he costs. You still want me to ask him if he has a fine crystal to sell?’
‘For… an un-named customer of yours?’
‘Yea, yea. Dr John, look, he won’t learn noffing at the inn. This is Mortlake and he’s a stranger. They all remember your old man, whatever he done, and they like your mother. And, as long as you’re welcome at court, they like you.’
‘The wizard in his cave?’
‘They try not to fink too hard about that. Or the owls what goes woo woo. But they ain’t forgot when the Queen come to visit you at Candlemas, and how much the inn raked in, refreshing all the pikemen and the boys what carried the banners and the rest. Don’t make light of what you done for Mortlake, Dr John.’
I shook my head, bemused.
‘Just don’t bleedin’ ruin it now,’ Jack Simm said.
A WAXING MOON’S the best time for it.
This was what I’d read, and it makes good sense to anyone who has stood on the edge of a tranquil pond and observed moonlight shivering in the water. Even more to those of us who watch and chart all the bright spheres of the heavens.
Reflected light. As above, so below. To hold a perfect crystal sphere in your hands is to enclose earth and heaven.
Dear God… to what level is this the truth?
* * *
The sun’s last stain lay upon the river when the scryer returned with his wood-framed cloth satchel.
This time, we truly had need of the candle, and I leaned into its halo to watch him unpack his bag, carefully taking out his treasures, all swathed in layers of grey and black cloth.
‘Have you eaten, Brother?’ Goodwife Faldo asked.
‘Goodwife,’ he said softly, ‘one must needs fast before a scrying.’
Which could be true; fasting prepares the body and keeps the spirit light and permeable. This man’s pomp and solemnity continued to imply a degree of learning I’d not expected. I watched him laying out his bundles on the board, his back to the empty ingle and the door to the winder-stair.
Then I stiffened when, from the most shadowed end of our bench, Jack Simm spoke.
‘And did you find Dr Dee?’
All dark in this simple, square farmhouse hall, except for the white of Jack’s beard and the goodwife’s coif. I felt her black cat rubbing his head against my left calf and reached down to stroke him, as if this discussion was no concern of mine. The scryer looked up, his eyes still.
‘If I were looking for Dr Dee, I’d be disappointed. Not often here these days, it seems. Appears to spend much of his time in the Low Countries, giving lectures. When he’s not at court teaching magic to the Queen.’
‘So now you see,’ Jack said, not looking at me, ‘why us lowly folk have no dealings wiv him.’
‘Though we do see his mother,’ Goodwife Faldo said.
I made murmurs to the cat. Brother Elias took out the shrouded stone and set it down before him and lowered the satchel to the stones behind his stool.
‘Hard to believe that bodged place is his family home.’
‘They say appearances have little value for the doctor,’ Jack said. ‘Not a man for whom a display of wealth—’
‘If wealth he has.’
‘The house is very tidy inside,’ Goodwife Faldo said. ‘Very tidy indeed.’
‘A man with neither wealth nor honour.’ Elias had unwrapped a pair of eyeglasses which he balanced on the bridge of his nose without looking up. ‘You’d think, given his position as the Queen’s primary advisor on the Mysteries, he’d be Sir John by now.’
I could almost hear Jack Simm inside my head, screaming at me to say nothing.
‘He’s good to his mother,’ Goodwife Faldo said, firm-faced.
‘And she to him, apparently, Goodwife. From what I’m told, without his mother he’d have no roof over his bed.’ Brother Elias chuckled absently and then looked up at last. ‘But then that’s no affair of mine. Let’s now proceed, shall we?’
The stone lay before him, still covered. Father Elias placed his palms together above it, closed his eyes.
‘Oh, God, author of all good things, strengthen, I beseech thee, thy poor servant, that he may stand fast, without fear, through this work. Enlighten, I beseech thee, oh Lord, the dark understanding of thy creature, that his spiritual eye may be opened to see and know thine angelic spirits descending here into this crystal.’
He laid both hands upon the shrouded stone, and my stomach tightened as if he’d touched me.
For I’d read these words, this entreaty. Written them, even.
‘Oh be sanctified and consecrated, and blessed to this purpose, that no evil phantasy may appear in thee… or, if they do gain ingress they may be constrained to speak intelligibly, and truly, and without the least ambiguity, for Christ’s sake. Amen. And forasmuch as thy servant here desires neither evil treasures, nor injury to his neighbour, nor hurt to any living creature, grant him the power of descrying those celestial spirits or intelligences that may appear in this crystal…’
My hands went cold upon my thighs below the board top. I’d translated it myself, in the past year, from unpublished writings I’d borrowed in Antwerp.
‘… and whatever good gifts, whether the power of healing infirmities, or of imbibing wisdom, or discovering any evil likely to afflict any person or family, or any other good gift thou mayest be pleased to bestow on me…’
I threw a glance at Jack Simm but could not make out his eyes.
‘… enable me, by thy wisdom and mercy, to use whatever I may receive to the honour of thy holy name. Grant this for thy son Christ’s sake. Amen.’
‘Amen,’ Goodwife Faldo said faintly.
Outside, the leaves on the trees were astir, the evening shaking with the last birdsong. When the scryer bent to his bundles I now knew exactly what he’d unveil. I saw an ebony pedestal and a golden plate and knew it would carry the engraving of the divine name, Tetragrammaton… and the names Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael, the four archangels ruling over the Sun, Moon, Venus and Mercury.
A continued tightening in my chest, a cool sweat upon my face and forehead. Trithemius had written that the names and characters must be drawn in order… the names of the seven planets and angels ruling them, with their seals or characters.
Let them be all written within a double circle, with a triangle…
Silence, now, and an odd sense of sacrament. I watched Elias place the crystal, still shrouded, upon its pedestal, becoming aware of Goodwife Faldo’s rapid breathing.
…this being done, thy table is complete and fit for the calling of the spirits…
I watched the scryer’s hands pulling away the cloth and saw, for the first time, the sphere.
* * *
What had I expected?
Scrying crystals – I’d seen some during my work abroad. But I’d been a mathematician, sometimes a teacher, sometimes a student, therefore interested only in their perfect geometry. There hadn’t been time then to approach their deeper mysteries. Nor had I been entirely convinced of what was said of them.
A stone’s just a stone.
At what point this night I became afraid, I’m not quite sure. To a scholar, fear arrives with a certain shame, akin to the shame a soldier feels, holding himself back from the heat of the fray as his comrades are cut down before him.
Not that I’d know. Unlike Dudley, I’ve never been a soldier, the kind of knowledge I hold having preserved me from bodily conflict. A bargain with the Crown which decrees I must stride out, wearing knowledge like armour, the questing mind thrust forward like to a sharpened blade.
Soon blunted tonight. I’d set out from my mother’s house believing that my own knowledge would far exceed that of the man I was to meet. Now I knew it wasn’t so and I suppose the fear came out of this. Yes, I’m a man of science and natural philosophy, skilled from years of study in mathematics, geography, celestial configuration, theology and so on. And no, I don’t believe this is the End-time, far from it. In fact, signs everywhere I look are telling me that this is the beginning of a new enlightenment, an explosion of spiritual light such as the Earth hasn’t seen since the days of old Greece and the ancient Egypt of thrice-great Hermes, who walked the night sky as if it were his kitchen garden.
As above, so below.
Elias’s hands were lifted and, for a brief moment, it was as though the candleglow shone from the hollows of his palms.
Below them, the true source of it, a small planet of light.
It was no bigger than a cider apple. Beryl, I guessed, a gemstone which comes in several colours and the shewstone possessed all of them: now a lucent brown, like the brown of an eye, now the soft ambered pink of a woman’s cheek.
It was as though the wan light had been expanded by some substance in the air, making everything more vivid, and I considered how this might be done, what theatre the scryer might employ to render us all dizzy with delusion.
I watched his plump hands as they spread apart either side of the stone, as if they were holding light like some solid object. I watched his lips forming words I could not hear and thought him to be summoning some spirit from the ether. I wanted to kill my fear by rising up and screaming at him, Tell me its name!
… and then time had passed, maybe faster than I knew, in a hollow of muttering and liturgy, and Elias was whispering, not to me but to Goodwife Faldo.
‘Hold out your hand.’
When she held it up, hesitant, he reached out quickly and seized her wrist and pulled her into the light, and I half-rose, fearing for some reason that he would feed her fingers into the candle flame.
But his own hand fell away, and hers stayed in the air, as if held there by strong light. As if detached from Goodwife Faldo at the elbow. Had she met his eyes? Did he have the ability, which I’ve marked in others, to hold her in thrall?
Or even all of us. I shook myself, blinking wildly, fearing that long minutes may have passed in a state where my senses were not my own. I saw that the scrying stone was duller now but seeming to quiver, like to a toad, on the boardtop, and I didn’t notice that the ringless hand had gone until I heard Jack Simm draw breath, sharply, as if aware of an alteration in the air.
Did I feel that, too? Maybe. I found I was gazing not at the shewstone but into the ingle, where a fire of logs and coal would soon be lit that would last all winter long. The warm core of the house where a stewpot would hang, the air pungent with cooking herbs grown by Jack Simm and the mellow crusting of bread in the side-oven.
But now, in this thin, uncertain, peripheral time between seasons, it was only a mean cavern of ill-dressed rubble-stone, and cold.
A cold reaching out of the ingle along with a stillness which could be felt, like to the rancid, waxen stillness of a stone chapel where a corpse lies before burial.
I liked it not. I tell myself I don’t fear death, but the presence of the dead conveys no sense of peace to me, and there can be no beauty without life.
Something wooden falling to the floor.
A stool. Rolling away under the board, and the cat rushed between my ankles and I heard a poor cry, of the kind made without breath, and saw that Goodwife Faldo was backed against the wall by the shuttered window. Her face shadow-lined and stretched in agony, her coif dragged back, and she was pointing at the maw of the ingle and whimpering like an infant.
As if in another world, the hands of Elias were held apart, two inches from the globe, as though his fingers were bathed within its aura.
He said, with mild curiosity, ‘Tell me what you see, Goodwife.’
I followed her wretched gaze, heard her hoarsened voice.
‘In what form?’
‘Oh my dear Lord!’
Both hands over her face, peering through her fingers, the candleglow cold as a haloed moon.
Her voice was held in my head and then faded as if it had lain down and died there. Panicked, I lurched to my feet and tried to follow her gaze into the ingle. All I saw there was packed rubblestone fading into the blackness of soot.
Nothing. Jesu, have I ever felt more worthless than when I stood there, sightless, hearing the returning voice of Goodwife Faldo, an arid panting.
‘Does this mean death for us? Oh please God, make it go away. Please God, Father, I’ve two sons!’
One moment, her body was bowed over in anguish upon a sob, and then she was twisting around, squirming upright and stumbling into the ingle where I could hear her fumbling about and then the muffled clang of the bread oven’s door.
When she emerged, her hands were clasped together as if she held a baby bird. Holding it out to Elias, hands shaking.
‘Please,’ she whispered. ‘I beg mercy, Brother. I’ve sinned.’
Her shadow skating on the wall, she opened out her hands and the ring clinked upon the board next the crystal. Goodwife Faldo, scrabbling after it, shoulders still hunched and heaving. Snatching it up and ramming it on her finger.
Losing her coif as she tumbled away across the room and dragged the shutters wide to expose the purpling dusk.
IT WAS LIKE to the air after a storm has blown itself out. The candle extinguished, the hall draped in a drabness of brown and grey. I felt weakened in a way I could not have anticipated, and saw faces everywhere, staring in from the unshuttered window and over the threshold where the door had been flung wide.
And one was my mother’s.
Jane Dee stepping through the doorway, dark-gowned, full of a fury seldom seen and so not easily dismissed.
‘What have you caused?’
A tall woman of sixty years, admirably unbowed by circumstance, but ever dismayed by what I did and pained that my meagre earnings were spent more on books than repairs to the house my late tad had half-built.
However, Jane Dee was never more formidable than when bleeding from another’s wound.
‘Goodwife Faldo’s in bitter distress.’
‘Yes,’ I said tightly. ‘I know.’
‘What have you brought into her house? You tell me, now, John, what have you done?’
We were alone. Goodwife Faldo had not returned, and I looked around for Elias, but he too was gone, along with Jack Simm and the shadowed faces at the open door and the window. Some of them melting away upon the arrival of my mother, who, like my father, had been a good Catholic but now mistrusted the miraculous.
Was it? Was the miraculous ever so mean, cold and squalid as what seemed to have happened here this night?
‘On second thought, don’t tell me,’ my mother said.
I let go a sigh.
‘It’s gone, anyway.’
As if I knew. As if I was in any position to state that what I’d never seen was now no more. But my shivers recalled the deep bone-cold which no fire can reach because it’s forever beyond this life, beyond the air that we breathe. And I did not want to look again into the ingle. And see nothing.
‘… believing her family will perish for her sins,’ my mother was saying.
‘Any sin this night,’ I said, almost angrily, ‘is mine.’
‘John,’ she said sadly. ‘As if I didn’t know that.’
The way she’d spoken to me when I was six years old.
‘Mother,’ I said wearily, ‘I beg mercy, but it wasn’t—’
‘Don’t beg mine, beg hers.’
‘Yes… yes, I’ll do that.’
Gladly, for Goodwife Faldo was a good and generous woman, and I must needs make it clear to her that there was nothing for her to fear. And would have tried to explain it to my mother if I’d thought that, for one silent minute, she’d listen.
It had been no more than we’d deserved. I knew that now and profoundly regretted involving Goodwife Faldo in this conceit. Even the protective prayers intoned by Brother Elias would have been ineffective because our sitting was built upon deception. Any summoning not grounded in full honesty attracts only that which thrives on lies, confusion and all the lower longings of humanity which remain undissolved by death.
And I knew I’d get no sleep this night if I’d failed to find out what form it had taken. What they’d all seen and I – Oh, blood of Christ – had not.
‘Here.’ My mother drew something from a fold of her gown. ‘This was delivered.’
Placing on the board a thin letter with a seal which – Oh my God – I recognised at once. I picked it up and knew the paper.
Of all the times for this to be delivered…
‘Mother, when did this arrive?’
‘Not ten minutes ago. It’s why I was coming to find you… amid all the clamour and upset.’
I carried the letter to the window and broke the seal, tension quickening my blood as, in the fading light, I read,
There is a need to speak with you on behalf of our Cousin. My barge will dock in Mortlake tomorrow at eight
Unsigned, yet I knew, my heart all aquake, that it was from Mistress Blanche Parry, my elder cousin on my father’s side. But that the cousin referred to in the letter was someone to whom neither of us was related. This term had been used before to disguise the identity of she whom Blanche served as Senior Gentlewoman. It was significant that this was far from a formal missive. It meant I was to be consulted in confidence.
‘Mother, the messenger… he’s not waiting for a reply?’
My mother, who also knew that seal, shook her head and then found a strained smile – any kind of summons to court would renew her hopes of me finding a stable income. She was of good family and had barely spoke to me for a week after I turned down the offer of a permanent lecturer’s post at Oxford.
‘I shall go now, John – left too quickly, with neither cloak nor lamp. You’d best come home. When you’ve brought your… small comfort to Goodwife Faldo.’
When she was gone, I took several long breaths and then knelt before the ingle. Alone here now and held in dread, for all my book-fed knowledge, of what I could not see, I said a fervent prayer to banish all unwanted spirits from this house. And then, espying under the window the coif shed by Goodwife Faldo, I picked it up and left.
This end of the village was quiet now, the sky pricked with first stars over the darkening river which linked us, better than any road, with London. I wondered if it would be Mistress Blanche in that barge tomorrow, or the Queen herself.
Then turned, knowing where the Goodwife would be.
* * *
St Mary’s, Mortlake, is a modern church, towered but without steeple – a misjudgement in my view, for a steeple conducts to earth divers rays from the firmament. When worshipping here, however, I tend to keep opinions like this to myself. A wisehead is seldom welcome in the house of God.
A single candle was lit upon the high altar, Goodwife Faldo bent in mute prayer on the lowest chancel step. I walked quietly along the aisle and knelt alongside her, leaving a seemly distance betwixt us.
I held out the coif. Marking the dawning of grey in the strands of her freed hair, a sheen of tears on her cheeks as she looked up at me, a pale smile flickering in the candlelight.
‘Why can we never leave well alone, Dr John?’
Tucking her hair into the white linen. I knew what she meant, but the idea of it was well beyond the imagining of a man who lives only to meddle.
‘It’s gone,’ I said, hoping to God I was right. ‘All gone now.’
A good question, but this was hardly the time or place to serve up a treatise on the nature of the middle sphere.
‘Back into the stone,’ I said. ‘And the stone is back in the scryer’s bag. Where it should have stayed.’
‘Oh fie, Dr John!’ Lifting herself to the second step, which she sat upon. ‘The first mention of it by Master Simm, and I was hooked like an eel.’
She gazed beyond me, into the darkness of the nave.
‘When I was a child, I loved to go into church and feel it all closing around me. I felt cloaked in colours… and the sweetness of the incense. And all the Latin, like to the sound of spells being uttered. More… more magic than I could hold.’
The church had been all about magic, then, if we’d but known it.
‘And then the King made God smaller,’ Goodwife Faldo said.
I looked at her with an admiration that surprised me. Her tear-streaked face shone like an apple in the warm candlelight. I turned quickly away and looked up at the long panes in the stained window above the altar. Bright coloured glass reduced by the night to the dull hues of turned earth.
‘Don’t let them stop you, Dr John.’
‘The Puritans, the Bible men. They’re taking hold. Get one of them as king and the world will be a grey place.’
‘This Queen won’t see that happen. The Queen loves magic and wonder.’
‘Yes. So we’re told. But she must have care. As must you. Small people like me – no-one cares any more what we believe, as long as we turn up at church on a Sunday and say the right words. I wouldn’t be taken away any more for letting a scryer into my house. Would I?’
‘Frances,’ I said. ‘What did you see?’
‘I lost my mind.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘There was a change in the air such as I’ve never felt since I was a child.’
‘There was. I felt it.’
‘The presence of something that wasn’t… I can’t put it into the best words, I’m only a farmer’s wife and I don’t read very well, and I …’
‘I’d hid the ring in the bread oven. And of a sudden I felt a terrible guilt about that, as if it was the worst thing I’d ever done. As if I’d lied to God. And it came into my head that I must face a terrible penance. And the worst of all penance to me would be…’
Holding back tears.
‘The loss of your family,’ I said.
‘And that was when I saw the figure of a pale man. Not clear at first – as though made of dust motes. The bones… the bones were more solid and had their own—’
She shuddered. I looked for her eyes.
‘The bones had their own awful light. As though it were not light.’
‘Where were these bones?’
‘He was holding them. One in each hand, clasped to his chest. Death… death’s heads.’
‘Skulls? More than one?’
‘How can I ever sit before that hearth again?’
‘You can. It won’t happen again, Goodwife. Not there. Not ever again. None of it’ – Putting it all together in my head as I spoke – ‘none of it was real. Only pictures conjured from the crystal, which… held us all in thrall. Changed your head around so that you took your worst fears and made them into… pictures.’
She nodded, yet uncertain.
‘Ephemeral,’ I said firmly. ‘Illusion. Nothing was there. You didn’t lie to God. Only to the scryer. And you admitted it to him. You put things right.’
It took away the magic, but I felt it was what she wanted to hear at this moment.
‘And there’s been no plague this summer,’ I said.
Watching myself forming words while I was somewhere else. Somewhere grey and foetid and full of bones.
‘I feel so much calmer now,’ Goodwife Faldo said and laughed lightly. ‘Thank you, Dr John.’
Coincidence and Fate
MORTLAKE HIGH STREET. Sticky, blurred lantern-light, echoes of the cackle and whoop of roistering from the inn and, presently, the spatter of piss against a wall.
No place to look up at the stars or the new-born moon.
After walking Goodwife Faldo to her door, I should have gone home and slept, to be refreshed and fully sentient at the riverside on the morrow. But how could I sleep now?
The inn was ahead of me. Recently extended to offer five bedchambers, two with glass in their windows for the moneyed traveller, but yet a rough place after dark. I slowed my steps, recalling a night when, for no clear reason, I’d been given a beating by men unknown to me, although it was clear they knew who I was. Smash the conjurer down. Smash him down in the name of God!
Soft footsteps behind me and I turned. A light shining out in my path, and I froze into stillness as it rose level with my face.
‘Go quietly, Dr John.’
He carried one of the candle lanterns you could borrow from the inn if you were deemed sober enough to remember where to return it.
I said, ‘Where is he?’
‘Abed, I assume.’
‘Then I’ll wake him up.’
‘No need,’ Jack said. ‘We shared half a jug of small beer in the back room.’
‘He said it happens. On occasion, when the stone’s active, spirits that manifest in the crystal can be… fetched out of it and into the air.’
‘Apparitions. Creatures of the air. The scryer must never allow himself to become distracted by them. That’s their aim, he says. To distract him. All they seek’s attention. His, anyway.’
He gestured back up the street and I followed him back towards the church. We stood in the shadow of the coffin gate, where Jack put the lamp on the ground.
‘Elias has a reputation, going back to days as a novice at Wenlock Priory. Up towards Shrewsbury?’
‘Where he… caused some concern.’ Jack paused, sniffed. ‘Visions.’
I said nothing, and he began to rhyme them off, without emphasis, as if listing ingredients for a stew.
‘Holy martyrs stepping from the stained glass. Noises in the night. Words mysteriously etched on the walls of locked chambers. Cracks in statues. Well, this was the time of the Reform. Not what anybody wanted, then. So when the abbot finks about maybe having him exorcised, he’s off. Takes to the road. Where the gift of vision, once kept under the board, becomes his living.’
‘Evidently a good one.’
‘When he fetches up in London, sure.’
‘Where he has patronage?’
If he was recommended to Jack by a chaplain to the Bishop of London, might that not mean he had the protection of the bishop himself?
‘Somebody’s looking out for him, that’s for sure,’ Jack said.
I picked up the lantern and asked, because I had to,
‘What did you see this night? What did you see in the ingle?’
No reply. Back down the street, some man was retching.
‘Ah, how can we ever know?’
‘What did Elias see in the crystal?’
‘Wasn’t a ring, that’s for sure. Look, he wouldn’t talk about it and I didn’t want to come over too pushy. He says it don’t matter what he sees, he never questions it. He’s only the middleman.’
‘And you saw…?
‘Me? I dunno… bones? Hazy grey man-shape, wiv bones. I didn’t like it.’
‘Marked?’ I said urgently, before I could stop myself. ‘Marked here?’ Snatching up the lantern, holding it to my face and raising fingers to my cheeks. ‘And here?’
‘Keep your bleedin’ voice down. Marked how?’
‘Black lumps. As seen in places where sheep are farmed, wool gathered…’
Hell, I knew this was a far cry from scientific inquiry, that the last thing I should do was prompt him. But I was tired and overwound.
‘Who you got in mind, Dr John?’
‘There was a man I met in Glastonbury. A trader in what he claimed were holy relics. But they were just old bones. He had hundreds of bones. If they were digging up a graveyard for more burials he’d be there with his bag. In the end, he was able to give me the intelligence I needed about the bones of Arthur. This was just before he died. Of… of wool-sorters’ disease. Face full of foul black spots.’
Benlow the boneman. I recalled, with a sick tremor, how this man, an obvious buck-hunter, had tried to attach himself to me. Never thought I’d meet a man as famous as you, my lord.
‘He wanted to come to London. Wanted me to bring him back with me. I… may have… implied that this would be possible.’
‘You made a bargain wiv him?’
‘I suppose I was in his debt. But if he thought we had a bargain… it was one I couldn’t keep.’
Benlow crouching amid the smashed shelves of his grisly warehouse, having attempted, in his agony, to take his own life by cutting his wrists and his throat, but too weak. Dying eventually surrounded by the detritus of death, the bones he’d offered for sale as relics of the saints. A rooker in every sense, but in the end I’d felt pity for him and some measure of guilt.
And now he haunted me? Wanting me to know he was there, even though I could not see him – worse, it seemed to me, than if I could. The injustice mocked me daily – the learned bookman, heaven’s interpreter, cursed by a poverty of the spirit. I knew more about the engines of the Hidden than any man in England, but I could not see except, on occasion, in dreams.
And maybe in a scryer’s crystal?
I looked up at the night sky, in search of familiar geometry, but it had clouded over and there were neither stars nor moon.
‘Jack… erm… did you, by chance, ask him…?’
‘Where one might be obtained? A shewstone? Course I asked him.’
‘It ain’t simple, Dr John. And it ain’t cheap.’
* * *
Brother Elias had said there was always a few around, but most of them were of little value to a scryer, full of flaws and impurity. The more perfect of them were hard to come by and cost more than a court banquet.
‘And might be dangerous,’ Jack Simm said.
‘For a novice, he meant. The more perfect ones have been used by men of power. A man what’s never scryed might find himself driven into madness. It would take a man of knowledge and instinct to… deal wiv what it might… bring into the world.’
‘A responsibility. Laden wiv obligation – his words.’
‘Like to a wife,’ Jack said. ‘You must take it to your bed.’
‘I’m telling you what he said. There must needs be a close bond ’twixt the crystal and the scryer, so you might sleep wiv it under your bolster. Bit bleedin’ lumpy, if you ask me, but monks is fond of discomfort.’
There was logic here. Crystal possesses strangely organic qualities; crystal spheres change, grow, in response to unseen influences. The stone in the Faldos’ hall this night, the way its colours changed, the way it seemed to tremble or crouch like a toad…
Ripples in my spine.
‘Oft-times you don’t choose the stone,’ Jack said. ‘The stone chooses you. He said the right one might come along when you ain’t looking for it.’
‘And does he have one he might sell?’
‘Reckons he’s offered crystal stones wherever he goes, but most of ’em’s flawed and there’s – aw, Jesu, I could see this coming a mile off – apart from his own, there’s only one other he’s coveted in years. Odd that, ain’t it?’
‘The kind you don’t find anywhere in Europe. Maybe a treasure from some ancient people of the west. A history of miracles and healing. But the man who has it, he’ll want a fair bit more gold than Brother Elias could put his hands on. And Brother Elias, if I don’t insult you here, Dr John, is a richer man than you.’
‘Jack,’ I said sadly, ‘you are a richer man than me. Where did he see it?’
‘Abbey of Wigmore. Not a long ride from Wenlock, out on the rim of Wales. That’s where he said he seen it.’
I did know of this abbey. It was close, in fact, to where my father was born. Dissolved now, of course.
‘Was it your impression that Elias might be an agent for whoever has the stone?’
‘Could be. Told him I was inquiring for a regular customer. But I reckon he knows.’
‘He was certainly asking questions about the extent of my wealth,’ I said. ‘Maybe he thinks I keep it abroad.’
‘Whatever, it don’t give me a good feeling. He ain’t a rooker in the normal sense, but it’s all too much like… coincidence and fate.’
I knew what he was saying, but I was in a profession which dismissed neither fate nor coincidence, only sought the science behind them.
‘Who owns the stone?’
‘He was being close on that, but I had the impression it was the last abbot. Gone now, obviously, and the abbey passed through the Crown and into private hands long ago.’
‘Easy enough to find out whose. But the abbott – is he even in the vicinity any more?’
‘Blind me, you don’t bleedin’ listen do you, Dr John? You could sell your house and put your mother on the streets and you still couldn’t afford it. I don’t understand none of this. I don’t see why the scrying stone – any scrying stone – is suddenly become so important for you. They’ve been around forever. Why now?’
Above the coffin gate, a single planet – the great Jupiter, inevitably – had found a hole in the nightcloud, as if to remind me of my insignificance and the pointlessness of concealment. I could sit on the truth of this matter, keep it to myself, take it to my grave…
‘Because— Oh God, because the study of its properties, notably in the matter of communion with angels, was… suggested to me.’
‘Is it not obvious?’
Jupiter seemed to pulse as if sending signals to me and was transformed into the sun in the pure glass of a tall window in a book-lined chamber at the Palace of Greenwich, where a light, merry voice was asking me had I thought of this, and had I looked into that?
‘Bugger,’ Jack said. ‘That’s all you need.’
I hear the French king consults one owned by the seer, Nostradamus, which is of immense benefit in planning campaigns. And winning the support of the angels. Do you have a shewstone of your own, John? Will it give us communion with the angels?
Well… obviously, I do, Highness, and intend to spend some time assessing its capabilities, but…
Perhaps worth more attention, John, don’t you think?
‘Jesu, Dr John,’ Jack Simm said. ‘You really know how to put yourself between heaven and hell and a pile of shite.’
‘We all walk a cliff-edge,’ I said.
‘She’ll forget, though, won’t she? She got too much to worry about.’
I blinked Jupiter away. Of course the Queen would not forget. Unless by design, she forgot nothing.
‘Yea, well…’ Jack Simm tossed the heel of a hand into my shoulder. ‘Leave it alone, eh?’
‘I fear I shall have to,’ I said.
‘Good.’ He picked up his lantern. ‘It’s a wasp’s nest. Go to your bed and fink not of ghosts.’
I nodded, resigned. This was not a night to remember with satisfaction, not in any respect.
‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘But—’
‘Just… piss off, Dr John!’
I nodded. Passed through the coffin gate to the churchyard and the path to our house.
Even made it up to the rickety, stilted terrace before turning around to make sure I was not followed by the sickly shade of Benlow the boneman.
How much easier we could all sleep, now that Lutheran theologians had assured us that, with the abolition of purgatory, ghosts were no longer permitted to exist.
THAT NIGHT IT rained hard and my sleep was scorched by dreams.
Lately, I’d been welcoming journeys through the inner spheres and would keep paper and ink at my bedside to write down their substance upon awakening. But these… these I made no notes upon, because I dreamed not, as I’d feared, of Benlow the Boneman…
…but – oh God – of Eleanor Borrow with her green eyes and her soft body so close that I could feel its eager heat and had thrown out my arms in a feral desire. One of the few dreams I’d wished never to awake from, even if it meant, God help me, embracing death.
But I had, of course, awoken at once, and Nel’s warm body was gone to cold air, as if she’d been no more than a succubus, some siren of sleep sent to taunt me. I may have cried out in my anguish. In the pallid dawn only the pain in my heart was real. For, since Nel in Glastonbury, I’d not lain with a woman. And, before her, never at all.
It would have been wrong to feel a bitterness about this, for my waking life had been given over to study. My father had not oft-times been a wealthy man. He’d been proud to see me at Cambridge at the age of fourteen and, in order to repay him sooner, I’d eschewed strong drink, carousing and even sleep.
And now my poor tad was disgraced and dead and, while my scholar’s knowledge of mathematics and the stars had brought me some small fame in the universities of Europe, in England I was regarded by many as little more than—
Jesu! I rolled from my bed in a rush of anger.
—as little more than a rooker myself. I had few friends, not much money and no wife.
And oh, how my perception of this last condition had changed. The hollow emptiness of the single man’s life was something I’d never felt before my time with Nel. A constant raw longing which, for virtually all my sentient years, had applied only to knowledge.
Dear God, what am I become?
* * *
At the breakfast board, my mother said, ‘The hole in the roof that you attempted to mend last week is a hole once more.’
Holding up the painted cloth which had hung in the hall. Soaked through, now.
I closed my eyes, with some weariness. She’d probably been up since well before dawn, preparing sweetmeats with Catherine, her only servant. Making sure the house was as fit as ever it could be to welcome the woman closest to the Queen.
Hardly for the first time, I felt a strong pity for my mother. Something in that terse letter had told me it was unlikely that Blanche would even leave her barge this day. Just as with the visits of the Queen, all my mother’s work would be wasted.
‘It’s been a summer of endless rain,’ I said, ‘And I’ve never pretended to be any kind of builder. Builders are… men we should employ. When the money’s there.’
‘When the money’s there’ – My mother’s voice was flat – ‘you buy more books.’
I tore off a lump of bread. It was true enough. But I needed books, and all the knowledge therein, and more. All the knowledge that was out there. Needed to be ahead of the others, or what hope was there for us?
‘Another winter’s coming.’ My mother pulled her robe close about her and came out with what clearly had long been in her mind. ‘By the end of the summer, I’d rather expected you to have been… favoured.’
There could be no happy reply to this. I suppose I also had expected… well, something, by now. Not necessarily a knighthood – Sir William Cecil, as the Queen’s chief minister, inevitably would advise against the ennoblement of a man still considered by many to be a common conjurer.
What I needed, far more than social status, was a secure supply of money. Oft-times, the Queen had sent for me and would receive me pleasantly, and we’d talk for two or more hours about the nature of things. If she truly valued what I provided, both as an astrologer and a cabalist, then surely something with a moderate income would not be out of order… something to replace the rectorate of Upton-upon-Severn, awarded by the short-lived King Edward only be to taken away in Mary’s time.
More than a year and a half had passed since Elizabeth’s coronation, held on a day calculed by me, according to the stars, as heralding a rewarding reign. And such, for the most part, it had been.
Until the death of Amy, wife of Dudley.
I rose, brushing a few crumbs from my fresh doublet and the ridiculous Venetian breeches my mother had had made by a woman in the village. There was nearly an hour to spare before Blanche’s barge was due, but, almost certainly, she’d be early. A severe and efficient woman, my cousin, and usually disapproving of me.
Until she wanted something.
* * *
My mother had insisted I should be at the riverside over half an hour before the royal barge was due to arrive from Richmond Palace. But, as I had no wish to draw attention to what I guessed would be a discreet visit, I used the time to go to the inn to leave a letter for the post rider.
My dream of Nel had reminded me of the journeyman mapper, John Leland, who might have been her father, and I’d gone into my library early this morning and taken down his Itinerary to confirm that Wigmore Abbey was within a few miles of my tad’s birth-home, Nant-y-groes. With this in mind, it had seemed worth writing to my cousin, Nicholas Meredith, who lived in the nearest small town.
I’d never been to the town or met Nicholas Meredith but had received a letter of congratulation from him after the Queen’s coronation on the date calculed by me – this being widely spoken of at the time. We’d exchanged a few letters since, so I felt able to ask him, in confidence, if he knew anything of the present whereabouts of the former Abbot of Wigmore, whom I wished to consult on a matter of antiquarian interest.
It had been madness to lie to the Queen about owning a shewstone and the only fortuitous aspect of the current turbulence at court was that she hadn’t asked me to bring it to her. Yet.
I hear the French king consults one owned by the seer, Nostradamus.
Hmm. It seemed unlikely that the crystal consulted by the well-favoured and undoubtedly wealthy Nostradamus would be the kind of minuscule, flawed mineral that I could afford. I’d wondered if I might see Brother Elias at the inn and if it might be worth revealing my identity in hope of learning more about the Wigmore stone. It was a relief, I suppose, to find he’d gone at first light. Which left only one other man in London who might know of the stone or at least be able to direct me to someone who did. Maybe I could see him tomorrow – for at least I knew where he was.
The river lay brown and morose under dour cloud, wherries busy, as I waited at the top of the stone steps. A black barge was moored where the beer had been loaded yesterday, several men sitting in it as if waiting for cargo. But the river traffic was nearly all London-bound. No sign of flags or the glint of helm and pike blade. Nor, I guessed, would there be.
My poor mother. I looked back towards the house, my only home now, and thought I marked her face, all blurred in the window of her parlour. River water lay in shallow pools around the stilts supporting the parlour and hall. Far from the most distinguished dwelling, this, even in Mortlake.
Saddening to think that several properties had once been owned by my father, who had first come to London as a wool merchant, progressing to the import and export of cloth. This was before his appointment as gentleman server to the King, who also made him packer of goods for export – and that paid a good income. Oh, an important man, my tad, for a while. Until the financial collapse which left him with a cluster of riverside outbuildings bought cheaply and linked together to form a most eccentric dwelling which yet looked temporary.
From the river steps I could see, to one side of the house, the orchard and the small pasture rented for crumbs to William Faldo. It was yet my aim to use part of it to extend the house for further accommodation of my library – consisting at this time of two hundred and seventy-seven books, many of them the only editions to be found anywhere in England. I’d offered them to the Queen and to Queen Mary before her, for the foundation of a national library of England. But a monarch would ever rather spend money on war than learning. Unless, of course, it was the kind of learning that might effectively be used in war.
One thing was sure. If there was no improvement in my situation, then, God help me, I might have to sell books to repair the roof and find work teaching the sons of whichever of the moneyed gentry were prepared to employ an infamed conjurer.
Two men had climbed from the black barge at the river’s edge and were approaching the steps. I was fairly sure I knew them not and made no reply.
‘Sent to fetch you, Doctor.’
Naturally, I was wary. I’d heard of men who’d been taken aboard such vessels as this, robbed and killed for their valuables and their remains thrown in the river. And no, the irony was not lost on me.
I didn’t move. When the first of them reached the top step, I saw that he was young, small-bearded and well-clad, in rusted doublet, high leather boots and good gloves. He looked impatient.
‘The circumstances of your appointment have now been changed, Doctor.’
He let a low breath through his teeth.
‘Mistress Blanche… has been called away to attend to the Queen’s majesty but expects to be free to speak to you by the time we reach Greenwich.’
He stood aside, extending an arm to where his companions and the oarsmen waited in the black barge. I had no choice but to follow him down the steps. At the bottom, he stood back while I boarded the barge, and then leapt in after me, and the oarsmen pushed us hastily from the bank.
Too hastily, it seemed to me. I yet felt all was not right and stood close to the bow of the vessel.
‘Sit down, please, Doctor,’ the young man said.
It sounded more like an instruction than an invitation, but there were good cushions to sit on. Though hardly luxurious, this clearly was not a cargo barge, and I was not alarmed until, as we moved downriver towards the steaming midden of Southwark, it was steered sharply away from another barge coming out of London towards Mortlake.
This one had no flags, but there were at least seven armed men aboard. And one woman, subduedly cloaked and gazing ahead of her.
When I thought to hail my cousin and half-rose, I heard movement behind me and, twisting round, I saw the first man reaching to his belt.
‘Either you hold your tongue at this moment, Dr Dee,’ he said pleasantly, ‘or I must needs slice it off at the root.’
I have no way to purge myself of the malicious talk that I know the wicked world will use
The Summoning of Siôn Ceddol
Autumn, 1560. The Welsh Border.
MY FATHER GREW up in a modest farmhouse below the hill called Brynglas, at Pilleth on the border of England and Wales – the Welsh side.
The house, Nant-y-groes, is now the home of Stephen Price who, until recently, was Member of Parliament for this area, thus spending much time in London. More than was necessary, if truth be known, for Master Price was much taken with the excitement of London life and, on his increasingly infrequent returns home, would tend to find the place of his birth rather dull and – for the first time – strange.
Now he’s home for good. Fighting the drabness of his life with ambitious plans for his farm, but finding that life at Pilleth soon brings out the negative aspects of his essentially choleric temperament.
He’s dismayed, for example, when the village men won’t help him build his new barn. He has – intentionally, perhaps – forgotten how, below Brynglas, even the most commonplace activity is oft-times governed by custom and ritual.
‘I can’t,’ he says, when Pedr Morgan, the shepherd, tentatively offers him advice. ‘I’m supposed to be— I am the squire.’ He twists away. ‘Anyway, the boy’s the lowest kind of idiot. I can hardly be seen to consult an idiot before initiating something as fundamental as building a barn.’
Master Price likes to use some of the longer words he picked up in Parliament. This will not last.
Pedr Morgan shrugs his scrawny shoulders, no doubt wishing he were somewhere else – this is common on Brynglas at twilight.
‘It’s just what he does,’ Morgan says, uncomfortable. ‘You knows how it is.’
‘I know how it was,’ Master Price says with resignation. ‘Well, my thanks to you, Morgan, but I’ll have men brought in from Off. Local boys don’t want my money, that’s their choice, ennit?’
Pedr Morgan nods. He won’t press the matter and won’t be telling anybody what Master Price has said about Siôn Ceddol. Has no wish to stir up resentment against his master, but, hell, it must be some Godless place, that London. Sodom and Gomorrah and London, that’s how the new rector puts it. The rector’s this bone-faced Bible-man, and he doesn’t like Siôn Ceddol either, and that’s not good at all… for the rigid attitudes of a bone-faced Bible man will never bend.
Stephen Price stamps irritably away, and Pedr Morgan, thin and tired, most of his hair gone before its time, looks down to where his wife is waiting by the bridge with their three young children. She won’t follow him up the slope of Brynglas at close of day, any more than she’ll pass the earthen grave of the old dead. Even the sheep flee this hill before sunset.
And Price knows all that, at the bottom of him. But he’s been away too many times. He’s seen the shining towers of the future, and the future looks not like Pilleth. None of the fine towns he’s seen on his travels has risen out of old fear and clinging superstition. This can lead only to a mortal decay – the decay that Pilleth wears like a rancid old coat which no one must tear from its body lest the body itself falls away into rotten strips.
Pedr Morgan raises a hand to tell his wife he’s coming down, then turns briefly towards the church of St Mary, set into the hill halfway up, and crosses himself as he always does.
Except when the rector’s there.
* * *
I suppose I too was inclined to be dismissive and superior when my father spoke of his birthplace, putting on the accents which, he would say, might vary from country English to country Welsh within a mile.
For I was younger then and deep into my studies of Mathematics and Greek and the works of Euclid and Plato. Convinced that all knowledge and wisdom came from the Classical world, long gone. Unaware of the rivers of the divine and the demonic which rush invisibly through and around places like Pilleth.
And I suppose my tad’s fond memories of the border were shaped around the knowledge that he was unlikely ever to be going back.
* * *
A month has passed. Stephen Price has new cattle in the lower field, the first frosts cannot be far off. Yet only foundations for the new barn have been dug – painfully and laboriously by himself and his sons, assisted fearfully by the servants at Nant-y-groes.
To his fury, Price has failed to recruit skilled labour in Presteigne, the prosperous assize town a few miles from here – every man he’s approached claiming an obligation to work elsewhere or some affliction that renders him incapable of heavy labour.
It’s those great shelves of rock, found less than a foot down, that finished it. After three long days of struggle and the wrenching of a muscle in his back, he finally walks out to find Pedr Morgan, the shepherd.
Grumpily requesting him to talk to Mistress Ceddol about the employment of her damned brother.
He says nothing to his wife who, during his time as an MP, preferred to live down the valley with his older brother’s family. Joan doesn’t like it here and probably hopes that all his plans will fail so they don’t have to stay.
* * *
On the morning Siôn Ceddol comes, the land appears luminous, the shaven hay-meadows all aglisten from the rain following a thunderstorm which broke over Radnor Forest in the early hours, awakening the whole wide valley before dawn.
The strangeness soon becomes apparent to Stephen Price. It’s as though the summoning of Siôn Ceddol has set into a motion some ancient engine.
People come, as if to prepare the way. First to appear is the new Rector of Pilleth, full-robed and carrying his prized copy of the New English Prayerbook. Arriving at sun-up, he stands alone in the shorn grass, the prayer book open in his twiggy hands. His lips are seen to be moving although his voice is so hushed, rapid and intense that nobody hears the substance of it. Approaching him, as he knows must be expected of him, Price is wishing to God that Father Walter had not died when he did. Father Walter was no papist but he understood the ways of Pilleth.
The rector’s look would turn fresh apples black.
‘That you, of all men,’ he says, ‘would bend a knee to Satan…’
‘And you’d have all my cattle dead by Christmas, would you, Rector?’
‘If God wills it.’
If God wills it, Price thinks, feeling his face redden, likely we’ll have a new rector by All Souls Day.
Stephen Price stands his ground. For all he dismisses superstition, he carries no candles for a God with all the pity of a Norman baron.
After a few minutes, the rector throws back his bony head and, with the book under an arm, walks stiffly away in the direction of the hillside church. At the same time, villagers begin appearing on the boundaries of Stephen Price’s ground, like the risen dead.
‘Master Stephen… he’s yere.’
The housekeeper, Clarys, at his elbow. A woman who was at Nant-y-groes long before Stephen Price and may even have been known to my tad. Clarys nods towards the lower gate that gives entrance to the Presteigne road and the river bridge. Two figures stand behind it, male and female.
Stephen Price raises a weary hand towards the gate and beckons once before thrusting the hand away, embarrassed. When the two people pass through, one is walking an irregular path, watching the ground, like a dog responding to a scent.
It’s the first time Stephen Price has seen Siôn Ceddol. He doesn’t even know how the boy and his sister came to be in Pilleth village. They seem to have arrived during one of his periods in London, the mad boy apparently receiving the blessing of Mother Marged, the wise woman, before her death.
Through the sunhaze, he marks a scrawny boy of some sixteen years, wearing an ill-fitting jerkin and a red hat. When the boy reaches the platter of land on which the barn is marked out, he stops and turns the hat around on his head and sniffs the air like some wary animal. Never once looking at Stephen Price or anyone, and when he speaks it’s only to the woman with him and is neither in English nor Welsh, but some language of his own which ranges from mumbling to screams and yelps, like to a fox. Price has been told that many people believe this to be a faerie language.
Yet are drawn to him, it’s said, like night-moths to a taper. Already the people on the southern boundary hedge number twenty or more, watching the idiot boy pacing rapid circles in the grass.
‘This is madness,’ Price mutters.
Drawing a sharp look from the one person here who appears to understand what Siôn Ceddol is saying.
Anna Ceddol, the boy’s sister. Who speaks both English and Welsh and also, it seems, faerie. She’s approaching twenty-nine years and unmarried – because of her brother, obviously. An old maid in waiting. Their parents are dead, she’s all he has. And who would have the mad boy?
And so no one has her. Which is a crime against all creation, Price thinks, marking how lovely she is, in a way not of her class. Head held high, hair brushed back and eyes wide open, unafraid to the point of insolence.
‘What’s he doing?’ Stephen Price demands of her.
Speaking roughly, no doubt to ride over a surging of desire – as Siôn Ceddol teeters on the edge of the nearest of the foundation trenches and then jumps down into it.
‘Wait,’ Anna Ceddol says. ‘If you please, Master Price.’
And so they all wait, Stephen Price and his sons behind him and his servants behind them, as Siôn Ceddol’s red hat is seen bobbing along the top of the trench, suggesting that surely he can only be crawling along the bottom.
I was not, of course, there, but I can feel the air, as I write, all aglow with trepidation and awe. And an unnatural excitement – the soul of a village briefly lit by the glow of its disease. After some minutes, the boy emerges crawling, like to a spider, from the trench. Kneeling, he takes the hat off his tousled black hair, beating it against an arm and then turning it in his hands as if to make sure it’s clean of mud before replacing it on his head.
‘Ner,’ he says.
His bottom lip thrust out, sullen.
‘Nothing there,’ Anne Ceddol tells Stephen Price.
The boy has stepped back from the trench and now walks towards the beginnings of another, his hands splayed in front of him, stiffly at first and then aquiver, as he reaches it. It’s not a warm day – few of those this summer – but the sun is well aloft and lights the shallow trench as he drops into it, then disappears from sight, and there’s the sound of scratting, and a mist of earth flies up.
‘Fetch him a scratter.’
Stephen Price tosses the instruction to his eldest son, annoyed that he can’t take his eyes away from the place where Siôn Ceddol disappeared. When a trowell is produced Anna Ceddol accepts it and takes it to her brother and returns to Price.
She stands so close that her beauty must be disturbing the hell out of him. Can’t avoid marking the form of her breasts, where her overdress is worn thin. The dress is the colour of the soil-spatter thrown up from the trench before a screech like to a barn-owl drives the people back in a panic of excitement.
And now Siôn Ceddol’s on his feet again, his face lit with a broad, pink grin.
Though not, it must be said, as broad as the grin of the earth-browned human skull now held up, clasped tightly between the boy’s eager hands to keep the jaw attached.
* * *
Weeks hence, when his barn is built and the summoning of Siôn Ceddol is raised one market day in the new Bull Inn at Presteigne, Stephen Price may be heard making dust of it. How the idiot boy was putting on a show of searching the ground, foot by foot, when he knew all along where the bones lay… having, Price is convinced, buried them there the night before. Either him or that sister of his who oft-times disturbs Price even more and in ways he’d rather not tell you about.
Well, he says in the Bull, to Bradshaw and Beddoes and Meredith, en’t as if they’d have had difficulty finding bones on Brynglas. Like to a charnel house this year.
‘An omen, they’re saying, the villagers. Like the weather. A reminder.’
Bradshaw eases his weight upon the bench and farts.
‘Don’t they know of the capture of this man Gethin? Is that not a good sign for them?’
‘Hell, no.’ Stephen Price almost laughs aloud. ‘It’s another sign that it’s all coming back, the blood and the fire, and they’re unprotected.’
‘Well, it’ll be good for us,’ Bradshaw says. ‘They’ve never recognised us in the west, as the county town. Now we’re settling their score for them.’
Stephen Price says nothing. Bradshaw’s from Off. Crossed the border to swell his fortune. He thinks wealth is the balm for all wounds.
Price buys more wine he can ill afford this year, to dull the fears that chatter in his head like the restless sprites that he’s sure no one he met in Parliament believes in. Blanking out the image of the skull the boy found. One eye-hole twice the size of the other, where the blade went in.
The night before last, Stephen Price woke in a sweat from a dream where he saw a man lying, all cut about, on his back, in his own blood, on the side of Brynglas Hill, with another man standing above him twisting the squat blade of his pike round and back and round again in that left eye while the dying man screams to heaven.
Price drinking harder to drown out the voice of the new and forbidding rector, the narrow, white-faced man arching his spine, peering into his face, asking him, Master Price, why do you let the devil have rein in Pilleth?
Begins in Joy
THE COLD RAIN was lashing us by the time I was led to the scaffold.
More rickety than the last time I’d been here, some of the frame hanging loose. It might bear the weight of a man, but not for long. Clearly had not been used for some time, and its poor condition seemed in keeping with the rumours I’d heard.
‘Why did you not say where we were going?’
Angry now, but the man in the rusted doublet ignored my question, as he had every one since we’d left Mortlake. We passed under the scaffold to the front door, opened as we reached it, by an armed servant.
And then up the stairs. I knew the way. The owner used to call it his cottage. It was three storeys high and now had several new-made windows taller than a man. When last I’d been here, builders had been intensively at work on the scaffold, seemingly engaged on turning this into the finest house on the Strand. But rumour had suggested this might not be the London home of the secretary of state for much longer.
‘Was to have been another large window in the master bedroom by now,’ the secretary said mournfully when I was shown into his work chamber. ‘Foolish of me to wait for fine weather in a summer like this.’
‘Anything else, Sir William?’
The man who’d brought me loitered in the doorway until Cecil raised a dismissive hand from the folds of his drab robe.
‘No, no, thank you, Fellows. I’ll send for you when Dr Dee’s ready to leave.’
‘No need,’ I said curtly. ‘I’ll hail a wherry.’
Cecil peered at me.
‘Sit down, John?’
I stayed on my feet, behind the proffered chair. The usual mean coal fire smouldered in the hearth behind me and the rain rattled the panes. Whenever I was here, there would be rain.
‘If I’d refused to step into that barge, Sir William, would they have brought me here in chains?’
Cecil’s guard-dog eyes widened fractionally.
‘You think chains would have been necessary to restrain you? Taking more exercise nowadays, is it?’
‘Bigger books,’ I said. ‘Higher shelves.’
He didn’t laugh. For Cecil, banter was never indulged in for its own sake, only to grant himself more time to think. I noticed he’d put on more fat since last I’d seen him, as if to make himself harder to shift. Fewer than forty years behind him, but you’d have thought at least fifty.
‘John, I regret that we haven’t spoken a great deal since your return from Somerset with the, ah… remains of King Arthur.’
‘The Queen—’ I cleared my throat. ‘The Queen believes it was Dudley’s mission. I was there to hold his bridle while he resolved matters.’
I wouldn’t normally have passed this on, but I was tired of being undervalued and thus underpaid and guessed that, for the first time, this man, who had survived service to three successive monarchs, would begin to understand.
‘Oh really,’ Cecil said mildly, ‘What else would you have expected?’
There was considerable tension this year between Cecil and Dudley, whose star had grown brighter in the royal firmament than Venus at dawn. Cecil, meanwhile, had been deemed a disappointment for his failure, in negotiations with the French, to regain Calais for England. This had ever been unlikely, but the idea that it was even possible had been put into the Queen’s head by… Dudley, of course.
I said nothing. The word was that Cecil had felt himself abused to the point where he’d tendered his resignation to the Queen. But then Amy Robsart, who had become Amy Dudley, had died and something had snapped like an overwound crossbow.
Cecil went to sit down behind his trestle. The great window’s lower frames were barricaded from outside by the builders’ scaffold, but when he leaned back, tilting his oaken chair on two legs against the sill, at least half the spires of London were, once again, at his elbows, blurred by rain.
‘John, would you happen to know why Mistress Blanche wanted to see you?’
‘However,’ I said, ‘when she – and, presumably the Queen – find out that you physically prevented the meeting taking place, as arranged—’
‘She’ll simply realise that you didn’t receive the letter. I gather it was left with your mother, you being absent at the time.’
How the hell did he know all this?
‘Having gone off on one of your… expeditions in search of the Hidden.’ Cecil leaned forward until the front legs of his chair met the floor. ‘Do you want to know what this visit may have been about, John?’
And what was I supposed to say to that? Cecil half stood to pull off his bulky black robe, revealing a doublet in what was, for him, the somewhat frivolous colour of charcoal. He tossed the robe across the wide trestle in front of him.
‘Now sit down,’ he said.
* * *
The people of the Welsh border take a long path to the point. My father loved to explain that this was because, in an area ever riven by conflict between the Welsh and the English, they would need to know precisely where a visitor’s allegiances lay before entrusting him with even the most trivial intelligence.
I’d oft-times marked this approach in the manners of Blanche Parry, who retained her accent, but was inclined to forget that the family of William Cecil – from whose tones all trace of Welshness had long ago been smoothed – had once spelled its name Seisyllt.
‘Did you know Amy Robsart, John?’
‘I wouldn’t say I knew her. She tended not to come very much to town.’
An understatement. The Queen was not exactly approving of wives brought to court, or even to London. Especially Dudley’s wife, obviously. In the absence of a Dudley country mansion, Amy had spent most of her married life as a guest of various friends of her husband. A dismal existence.
‘Met her once,’ I said. ‘On one of her rare visits to Dudley’s house at Kew.’
‘And what thought you of her?’
At last I sat down. Truth was I’d thought Amy quite beautiful. Also intelligent, lively and warm. In my view – was this treason? – as a wife, the Queen would not quite compare. God help me, I’d even caught myself, wishing that circumstances had been such that I might have met her before Dudley.
‘You’re blushing,’ Cecil said.
‘Heat of the fire.’
‘What a waste, eh, John? As I oft-times think about a carnal marriage—’
‘Starts in joy, ends in tears?’
Cecil frowned. I’d gone too far.
‘A perceptive saying of yours oft-times retold,’ I said, in placation.
He made a steeple of his fingers. His own first marriage may even have been a carnal union, but his second one, to the severe Mildred, could only have been founded on a need for reliability and circumspection. Cecil was a man long wed to his career.
‘Do you know when he last saw her alive?’
I did but said nothing, remembering something else I’d noticed at my one meeting with Amy. While she was – of necessity, no doubt – fairly compliant, there was a certain equality in her union with Dudley. She was not nobility, merely the daughter of a country squire, yet seemed in no awe of the son of the Duke of Northumberland. To his credit, he seemed to like that about her.
‘It was over a year ago,’ Cecil said. ‘Over a year before she died.’
‘A long time.’
Too bloody long.
‘Distance,’ Cecil said, ‘can bring about a cooling.’
I’d never have left Amy for even a week. When I was called to Europe, I’d have taken her with me.
‘Let’s not walk around the houses, John.’ Cecil let his hands fall flat to the trestle. ‘I was ever fond of Robert Dudley, but never deluded about the extent of his ambition. He wants the highest role possible for a man not born to it. His whole life has been a play performed for the Queen. Whose side he’s scarce ever left.’
‘And she wished him away?’
Cecil was silent. Poor Amy’s fate, in these circumstances, saddened me more than I could say. The inquest had been opened three days after her body was found at the foot of a short stairway. And then adjourned sine die. Nobody knew how long before the jury would reach its verdict but when it came it seemed likely to be one of Accidental Death.
Nobody to blame. I pointed out to Cecil that Dudley had gone to great pains not to be seen as having or attempting to have an influence on the jury, calling for men who were unknown to him to serve on it.
‘Unknown? Is that what you think?’
I said nothing. Dudley had sworn to me his wife’s death from a fall had been a bitter shock to him, and I’d very much wanted to believe that. Although he’d said, on an earlier occasion, that she’d shown signs of unhealth and once had told him she might not have long to live, I’d refused to accept the dark stories, dating back some months before her death, that attempts had been made to poison her.
‘Not that it matters.’ Cecil half turned away from me to peer out over the shiny roofs of London. ‘The Queen herself is young, impulsive and will remain’ – Cecil swung round of a sudden to turn his mastiff’s gaze on me – ‘conspicuously besotted with a man now infamed and likely to remain so for the rest of his life.’
‘But if the inquest verdict clears him of blame—’
‘It doesn’t matter what the inquest verdict is. Enough men hated him before this to make even his return to court a slight against all decency. As for the thought of a Queen of England wed to a murderer… how does that play across the capitals of Europe? And if the Queen thinks everyone here will forget, in time, then she’s not as close to the mind of her country as she likes to believe.’
‘I don’t…’ I was shaking my head, ‘I can’t believe that Dudley’s a murderer.’
‘Well, not directly, no.’ Cecil spread his hands. ‘No one’s suggesting he planted his foot in her spine and kicked her down the bloody stairs. But whether he ordered it to be done, in his absence, is another matter entirely. Never be proven, but what’s that worth in Europe? Especially if, after however length of time, the Queen does something blindly foolish. She’s had suitors of her own standing in France, Spain, Sweden… and keeps them at arm’s length. At home, she has the Earl of Arundel waiting with his tongue hanging out…’
‘No hope for him, surely?’
‘I know there’s no hope, you know there’s no hope, but the old bladder peers blearily into the looking glass, sees a face twenty years younger and tells himself it’s only a matter of time before the Queen sees the sense of it.’
I nodded in wry agreement. It was well-enough known that Cecil’s own choice as a husband for the Queen was the Earl of Arran. A resident of France from a Scottish family with no love of Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary, the Queen of Scotland, who was also, since her marriage, Queen of France. In terms of a lasting peace in the north, Arran had much in his favour and would be a satisfyingly severe blow to French hopes of putting Mary on the throne of England.
But the lure of a carnal marriage. Twin souls since childhood. The power of the heart…
‘The Earl of Arundel would have had Dudley dead years ago,’ I said. ‘Or so it’s said.’
Cecil let a silence hang and the rain ceased as if he’d commanded it.
‘Arundel’s too old and too vain, but he’s hardly alone,’ he said at last. ‘Think of Norfolk. Think of those who conspired to get John Dudley topped and now fear Robert’s vengeance if he’s in a position to wreak some. Let me be honest. If he’s betrothed to the Queen, no matter how long after his time of mourning, Dudley must needs be looking over his shoulder all the way to the altar. Indeed, if a messenger was to come knocking on my door now with news that he’d been cut down… or shot… or skewered in a crowd…’
My hands had tightened around the seat of my chair. The rain had begun again.
‘Why are you telling me this?’
‘What did Mistress Blanche want with you?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Oh, come now, John. Who does the Queen trust more than Mistress Blanche to conduct business of a highly personal nature? And what personal business might concern you, as a long-time friend and confidant of Robert Dudley?’
‘I don’t know, I can’t—’
‘Think you not that the Queen might wish you to perform, in secret, a similar task to the one you did before the coronation?’
The sound of rain against the good glass panes was like to a cackling laughter. I felt my heart lurch.
‘You mean… she might want me to choose, by the stars, a day that’s mete for…?’
‘A royal wedding,’ Cecil said. ‘Indeed.’
BY NOW I’D learned that Cecil never ventured an opinion without a degree of secret certainty. It was said that his ambitious young fixer, Walsingham, had agents at court who didn’t even know of each other. Spies who spied on spies.
I leaned back, gazing at the window. London had misted, the steeples no more than indents on a bedsheet.
A terrible logic here. The Queen, for all her will and vigour, was ever indecisive, changing her mind three times in as many hours. Would make a firm decision then sleep on it and awake uncertain again. Dudley was no longer someone to play with. She would have accepted that the urging of her heart would not be enough. Might well seek some indication of heavenly affirmation, the design of destiny.
Might seek a date, however many months hence, which the stars found fortuitous for the announcement of a betrothal which at present would be abhorrent to so many.
Behind me, the coal fire hissed as rainwater dripped down the chimney. I took in a slow breath.
‘How does Blanche feel about this?’
Cecil smiled and made no reply. Which may have been an answer in itself. Blanche was a cautious and watchful woman who only lived to keep the Queen secure. No wonder she hadn’t turned her head this morning as her barge had glid past.
‘If the Queen’s determined on this, then she’ll try again to have Blanche reach me,’ I said. ‘What then?’
‘That, John… is precisely why we’re having this discussion.’
‘I can’t refuse. You know I can’t.’
‘Of course you can’t.’
‘And if what Dudley says about the coincidence of their times of birth is correct, then their destinies may indeed appear interwoven.’
‘Oh, please.’ The trestle groaned as Cecil leaned forward. ‘I have no doubts about your ability in this regard. Which is why I don’t want you and your fucking charts within a mile of the Queen at this time.’
Cecil leaned back, folding his arms, giving me silence in which to consider my situation. I recalled how, on our return from Glastonbury, I’d been summoned here and shown a pamphlet handed out free on the streets. It was heralding a second coming – the birth of the child of Satan, the Antichrist, in the new black Jerusalem. Which was London, the fastest-growing city in Europe.
False prophecy originating from France, seedbed of the campaign to put the Queen of Scots on the English throne. I myself had been named as some kind of dark Merlin, canting spells at the lying-in of Queen Elizabeth, pregnant with the bastard child of Robert Dudley. Elizabeth, daughter of the adulterous witch, Anne Boleyn. They were now saying that the Queen – thanks, some said, to the magic and prayers of the French prophet and magus Nostradamus – had miscarried the babe. But the devil would not give in so easily.
I said at last, ‘What would you have me do?’
Cecil rose and put his robe back on, like a judge about to pass a hard sentence.
‘As I see it there are two approaches to this problem. One is for you to spend some time with your charts and return with the information that the stars at present are frowning on the prospects for a union of two people born under their particular signs.’
‘Which, as I’ve already said—’
‘Would be unlikely, yes.’
‘Sir William, I spent more than a year teaching mathematics and the elements of astrology to Dudley. One of the subjects he showed most interest in. What I’m saying is that to convince Dudley – and even the Queen, who’s far from ignorant of planetary movement – that the stars disapprove of their match—’
‘Or might better approve of them under some heavenly configuration not due to take place for… say, five years?’
A lot could have happened in five years. The Queen’s infatuation might have lost some of its fire. Or equally it might be proved beyond all reasonable doubt that Dudley had not killed his wife. Who could say?
‘If it was not the answer she sought… I’m far from the only astrologer in England. All it needs is for one of them to go to another and my competency would be called into question. Also my integrity and all of my past work, and worse than that—’
‘All right. We’ll go no further down that road. Examined and rejected. This leaves the second path… from which you disappear.’
Cecil rose, sweeping his robe behind him, and picked a single lump of coal from the scuttle with tongs and dropped it on the fire.
‘I mean on one of your ventures in search of the Hidden. We spoke of this earlier. Wouldn’t be the first time, would it? Were you to be gone even for a matter of weeks, that might be sufficient.’
I felt a momentary relief. For one instant in time, I’d thought he’d meant that it was to be permanent, and the air betwixt us had seemed, of a sudden, cold with menace.
‘Do you have a matter of, ah, science, requiring your specific and immediate attention?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe.’
‘Preferably in some place at least two days’ ride from London.’
Dear God, this man thought he could move anyone around, like a chesspiece, to suit his purposes.
Which, of course, he could. After a period when his advice had rarely been sought, Amy’s death looked to be putting him back where he was certain he belonged. And maybe he was right; I could think of no one at this time who was fit to replace him.
Replacing the tongs, Cecil went back to his chair.
‘Methinks this expedition of yours should begin at once. Would you agree?’
‘Which means you won’t be lying at your mother’s house tonight.’
‘But my mother—’ I rose to my feet. ‘My mother has need of me. The fabric of the house wants repair, the roof leaks.’
I’d used this one before, but it was no less true for that.
‘Your skills extend to roofing, John? I’d hardly think so. But we’ll see to all of that. I’ll have a number of men dispatched to Mortlake to mend whatever needs mending. Your mother will scarce know you’re missing.’
He was right. My mother would be in delight.
‘My barge will take you back briefly to collect your bag, but I’ll want you away by nightfall.’
‘Two days, then. Maximum.’
‘Sir William, if the Queen thinks I’m making distance between myself and—’
‘My problem, not yours. Two days. And stay out of London, meanwhile.’
The discussion over, Cecil rose.
* * *
Enshrouded in a damp dismay, I stumbled out onto the cobbles and knew not which way to turn. The Strand, once the home of senior churchmen, was now rosy with the new brick of London’s richest homes. Not a place which the secretary, his building work yet incomplete, would want to leave.
The rain had stopped and the brightening sky had brought out the chattering wives of the wealthy with their servants and pomanders, though this was hardly an area where nostrils might be assailed by the stink of beggars. Amongst the throng, I espied the unsmiling, unseasonably fur-wrapped Lady Cecil, out shopping with their two glum-faced daughters. Suspecting she’d be among those who considered me little more than a common conjurer, I turned back to walk the other way and thus glimpsed a man discreetly sliding through Cecil’s doorway.
Dark bearded, dark clad and instantly admitted to the house. Unmistakably Francis Walsingham, the Oxfordshire MP known to serve the Privy Council on a confidential level. A coolly ambitious man whom I was more than inclined to mistrust. The very sight of him made me wonder if I were followed and I pulled down my hat, threw myself into the crowd and then slipped into an alley, where I stood with my back to the rain-slick brickwork and found myself panting.
Fear? Very likely. I’d persistently refused the offer of Cecil’s barge, recalling the man who’d been beaten, robbed and drowned. If it could happen once this year, then it could happen again, and who’d question it?
You think me suffering from some persecution sickness? All I can say is that you weren’t with the secretary this day. A man who’d felt himself slipping into the pit and now was scrambling back up its steep and greasy sides.
And was, therefore, less balanced and more dangerous than ever he’d been.
I thought of Dudley, once his friend, fellow supporter of Elizabeth from the start. And then Dudley, drunk on his status at court, unable to do wrong in the Queen’s eyes, had seen himself as her first advisor, damaging Cecil. Now Dudley was sorely damaged and Cecil would seize his chance to…
Thrusting myself from the wall, a sweat on my brow, I followed the alleyway into another, this one ripe with the stench of rotting meat. I waited, listening for running footsteps above the distant bustling and chattering, the barking of dogs, the cries of street traders, the grinding of cartwheels and the clacking of builders’ hammers on brick and stone.
No one coming. I walked on, through the mud and stinking puddles, across an inn yard and along a mews, with its more friendly stench of horseshit, until I saw the glitter of the river.
I stood beneath an iron lamp on its bracket, Cecil’s voice in my head.
Do you have a matter of, ah, science, requiring your specific and immediate attention?
There was a man I would have visited on the morrow.
On the morrow, I was now commanded to be out of London.
I walked, with no great enthusiasm, out of the mews, to hail a wherry to take me not to Mortlake but across the river into Southwark’s seething maw. Not a place I’ve oft-times visited, having little taste for gambling, whoring, bear baiting or street-theatre. But, then, I didn’t have to go far after leaving the wherry.
A solid building close to the riverbank, like to a castle or my old college in Cambridge, but still a place I feared, like all gaols, as a result of having myself been held in one. At the mercy, as it happened, of the man I now thought to visit.
But… there are gaols and gaols, and it might have been Jack Simm who once had described the Marshalsea as the finest inn south of the Thames.
Now the official residence of the former Bishop of London, known in his day as Bloody Bonner.
Blood and Ash
SHUTTING THE DOOR behind us with his heel, he set down his jug of wine on the board and then rushed to clasp my right hand.
‘John, my boy…’ Letting go the hand, stepping back and inspecting me, beaming. ‘And, my God, you’re still looking like a boy. Some alchemical, eternal youth thing you’ve contrived?’
In truth, I must look as worn and weary as I felt. I removed my hat. He was just being kind.
Yes, yes, I know. Kind? Bishop Bonner? I still could barely look at him for long without recalling some poor bastard’s crispen feet, black to the bones in the ashes of the kindling… or the savage flaring of hell’s halo as the hair of another Protestant took fire. I’d oft-times wondered how many nights Bonner might lie awake in cold sweat, accounting to God for all the public burnings he’d ordered during the years of blazing terror after Mary had restored the Roman faith.
How many nights? Probably not one. Even now, in a bright new reign, when stakes were used more for the support of saplings, he seemed to believe that there’d been a moral substance to what he’d done. How could I possibly have grown to like this monster?
‘And what think you of my dungeon, John?’
His grin displaying more teeth than he deserved.
‘It’s not the Fleet, is it?’ I said.
‘You might think it looks not unpleasant, my boy, but you aren’t here when the brutal guards come at nightfall and hoist us in chains from iron rings on the walls.’
Inevitably, I looked up at the conspicuously unbloodied walls until his laughter seemed to crash from them like thunder. Haw, haw, haw. Then I heard a key turned in the lock on the door and spun around.
‘Don’t worry,’ Bonner said. ‘They lock me in for my safety. I’ll see you get out. Before the week’s end, anyway.’
I smiled cautiously. We had history, Bishop Bonner and I. When first we’d met it had been in my own cell, back when I was falsely accused of working magic against Queen Mary and also of heresy. The good man I’d shared it with was already become cinders and even though I’d overturned the primary case against me in court I’d no cause to believe I’d escape the same end.
But Edmund Bonner had been curious about my reputation as a scholar of the Hidden. Wanted to know what mystical secrets I might have uncovered at the Catholic university of Louvain.
And so, against all odds, I’d been allowed to live, even serving for a time as his chaplain – the inevitable guilt that haunted me tempered by the discovery that, just as Bloody Mary was said to have been surprisingly soft-hearted, Bloody Bonner had a learned and questing mind and was – God help me – good company.
‘Wild tales abound,’ he said, ‘of what you and Lord Dudley found in Glastonbury.’
‘Can’t tell you about it, Ned. You know that.’
‘Pah.’ He waved a hand. ‘It can be of no consequence now, anyway. As long as dear Bess was happy with you.’
She was far from happy with Bonner. Yet, even now, all he had to do to regain his freedom was to recognise her as supreme governor of the Church. While admiring his steadfast refusal, I guessed that, in his own mind, he already was free. Only the bars outside the window glass were evidence of a prison. Almost everything else was recognisable from the cramped chamber he’d occupied while under house arrest at his bishop’s palace: the chair and board, the looking glass and the books on the shelf, with Thomas Aquinas prominent.
Yes, it was fair to say the Marshalsea had not the squalor of the Fleet – none that could be seen, anyway. Established to confine maritime offenders, it now also housed debtors and those convicted of political crimes… and thrived upon a strong foundation of corruption. Prisoners with money could buy good meals and wine, and others without money were allowed out by day to earn some to hand over to their gaolers.
For Edmund Bonner, it was a life of no conspicuous discomfort. He’d expressed joy at my visit, offering to entertain me in the cellar where wine was served. But there were too many of his fellow prisoners in there, some with their wives who came and went unchallenged, especially if they brought money. Impossible for us to talk with confidence here so, taking with us a jug of wine, we’d gone upstairs to his cell.
There was a stool for me to sit on, while Bonner, clad in the robe of a humble Franciscan monk, poured wine for us.
‘I was told’ – eyes aglint with mischief as he stoppered the jug – ‘that after the demise of Dudley’s poor, wretched little wife had become known, the Queen would be seen around the court all in black attire—’
‘As was everyone at court.’
‘—with a dance in her step and a lovely, joyful smile upon her face that remained immovable for days. Is it still there?’
His own face – which, with his history, you might imagine moulded into a permanent rictus of hate – was, as ever, plump and benign as he handed me a cup and lowered his bulk to the edge of his pallet.
‘I understand that the smile,’ I said, ‘is now a little strained.’
He nodded, looking me steadily in the eyes.
‘I also heard that, some days before your friend Dudley was widowed, the Queen confided to the esteemed Spanish ambassador, Bishop La Quadra, that Lady Dudley would very soon be departing this life. Have you heard that, too?’
Yes, and wished I hadn’t.
‘When it first came to my notice,’ Bonner said, ‘I couldn’t help but wonder if it was you who’d happened to see this impending tragedy in the stars.’
I considered this unworthy of reply, but it didn’t stop him.
‘Because, as you must see, John, the only other possible explanation of the Queen’s foreknowledge of the death of Amy Dudley is that she was, herself, party to the disposal of the woman preventing marriage to her childhood sweetheart.’
‘There are many explanations,’ I said firmly, ‘and one is that the Spanish Ambassador is lying.’
‘A bishop of the Roman Church?’
‘As part of his campaign to win the English queen for the Spanish king – again.’
‘Well yes.’ Bonner nodded. ‘Indeed, it was my hope too that she’d see what God wanted of her and choose Philip of Spain for herself.’
‘Her sister’s widower? Was that ever truly on the cards?’
‘Was for him. And think of the benefits – we’d be back with Rome before the year’s end, and I’d be brought out of here in glory and made Archbishop of Canterbury.’
For a moment he looked almost serious and then a belch of laughter made his body rock.
‘In truth, I suppose I’ll die within these walls. Never mind.’ He took a slow sip of wine. ‘But methinks you didn’t come here to discuss the arrangements for my funeral.’
‘Or the marriage prospects of the Queen.’
I sipped some prison wine, which proved better than ours at home.
‘Wigmore Abbey,’ I said.
‘In the Welsh Marches. Not far from where my father was born.’
‘Ah yes. Of course it is. Or was. Is it was?’
‘So I believe.’
‘Never went there, John. Horrible journey, I hear. Best thing your father did, getting out of that wilderness, or you’d’ve been born into a life of penury and ignorance.’
He sat for some moments peering into his cup, then looked up and beamed.
‘Ah,’ he said. ‘It’s come to me, now. John Smart.’
I waited, guessing it had not come to him at all. It had ever been there, in the catacombs of his impressive mind.
‘Last Abbot of Wigmore. Got himself reported to Tom Cromwell, on a list of charges as long as my cock.’
‘As I recall… simony on a grand scale. Smart was littering the place with new-made priests. While also growing rich on the sale of abbey treasure. What a rogue the man was. Hunting and hawking with his canons. Poking maids and goodwives over quite a wide area. Ah… I see your ears are already awaggle.’
‘Abbey treasure? Gold? Plate?’
‘What else? Precious stones?’
‘Methinks, before we travel further down this road, it would be as well for you to enlighten me as to our destination.’
I was hesitant. Bonner drained his cup and placed it on the board at his bedside.
‘John, I may have blood and ashes on my hands but I’m not known for breaking confidence.’
I nodded. What was there to lose? I took my wine over to the window, with its view, between bars, of the river, and told him what I knew about the shewstone of Wigmore Abbey.
* * *
I admit to being captivated by what I’d been told about this wondrous crystal with its history of miracles and healing. But talking to a cynic like Bonner could sometimes bring you sharply to your senses.
And the more I heard about the last Abbot of Wigmore, the more I wondered if he and the scryer, Brother Elias, were not, as Jack Simm had suspected, working together. Abbot Smart, an Oxford graduate, had been appointed Abbot of Wigmore by Cardinal Wolsey. Although there were rumours, Bonner said, that he’d paid for it. His rise had been rapid. In the years before the Reform he was also become suffragen Bishop of Hereford and accumulating endless money, most of it directly into his purse, by appointing over fifty candidates to Holy Orders.
‘Ho, ho,’ Bonner said. ‘What a holy knave the man was. Many attempts were made to unseat him, of course, but he always wriggled away, with the help of a small coterie of thoroughly reprehensible followers. While the abbey, both physically and morally, was rotting around him.’
‘But he escaped the dissolution with his life,’ I said.
‘And with a pension, for heaven’s sake! But then… who knows what favours he did for Lord Cromwell? A man who’d bend the law to have you hanged for stealing a spoon and sprung from a murderer’s death-cell if you were a friend he could use.’
If the shewstone was amongst his treasures, it seemed more than likely that he knew Elias and that both were well connected.
And well informed. In the right atmosphere, and with a good foundation, the power of insinuation is near limitless and may take on a life of its own. What had happened during our time in Glastonbury was surely talked about over a wide area of the west and beyond. It was not unlikely that Elias’s path had crossed with that of some fellow priest – even the garrulous Welsh vicar of Glastonbury – who had known of my passing association with Benlow the boneman. Unlikely, but not impossible.
‘You truly believe,’ Bonner said, ‘as a philosopher and a man of science, that it’s possible to achieve communion with the angelic hosts by means of a reflective stone?’
‘By means of celestial rays and the human spirit. There’s a long tradition of it.’
‘There’s a tradition of reading the future in the entrails of a chicken, John, but it still sounds like balls to me.’
‘Comes from a stimulation of the senses,’ I said. ‘Like to prayer and meditation in a church under windows of coloured glass, while the air is laden with incense. Sometimes a cloth is pulled over the head to shut out the world, so that, for the scryer, the crystal becomes luminous.’
Like to a small cathedral of light. I tried to find words to explain how attention to the light-play within the crystal might alter the workings of the mind, rendering it receptive to messages from higher spheres, and Bonner didn’t dismiss it.
‘But would you also accept,’ he said, ‘that a true mystic has no need of a scrying stone or any such tool?’
‘Of course.’ I looked over to where his rosary hung by the window. ‘But while a mystic accepts what he receives and dwells upon it—’
‘—you, as a man of science, must needs explain the process?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘That’s how it is.’
‘With which archangel do you seek to commune?’
‘Michael,’ I said at once.
His ancient sigil appearing in my mind, where I must have drawn it more than a hundred times in the past year, to summon courage and the powers of reason.
Which told me now to say nothing to Bonner about the Queen’s interest in communion with the supercelestial and the pressure upon me which would almost certainly resume when those deceitful mourning clothes were put away.
‘Methinks,’ he said, ‘that you imagine this stone might… awaken something in you?’
This would be the lesser of two admissions but I said nothing.
‘The great sorrow of your life,’ Bonner said, ‘is that you yourself, with all your studies and experiments, your extensive book-knowledge of ancient wisdom and cabalistic progression through the spheres are… how shall I put this…?’
‘Dead,’ I said. ‘Dead to the soul.’
Exaggerating, in hope that he’d contradict me.
‘Poor boy,’ he said.
* * *
I’d hoped he’d be able to tell me more, but all he could recall were this man Smart’s alleged crimes against both Church and Crown. Crimes for which, in earlier times, he would have roasted. The fact that he seemed to have survived suggested he knew men of influence.
So where was he now? Still at Wigmore? Bonner thought he might be able to find out if I could come back, say, in a week?
I supposed I could find accommodation in some part of London well away from the court and Cecil, but I’d forever be watching my back, and anyone, from a street-seller to a beggar, might be one of Walsingham’s agents.
And why would I take the risk of discovery for something I’d never afford?
I shook my head, Bonner regarding me from his pallet, a pensive forefinger extended along a cheek.
‘What else are you not telling me, John?’
Kept on shaking my head. I’d been drawn into circumstances I’d had no role in shaping. However the matter of Amy’s death and her own marriage was resolved, the Queen would remember that I’d not been here when she had need of my services. And Dudley… Dudley would also remember. If he survived.
… if a messenger was to come knocking on my door now with news that Dudley had been cut down… or shot… or skewered in a crowd…
I saw Cecil’s narrow, long-nosed face and dark, intelligent eyes, flecked, for the first time in my experience of him, with what seemed a most urgent need.
And then he’d said,
Were you to be gone, even for a matter of weeks, that might be sufficient.
For what? Sufficient for circumstances to alter so that Dudley’s marriage to the Queen was no longer a possibility…
… due to his death?
Was I mad to think thus?
‘Dudley, eh?’ Bonner said.
As if he’d tapped into my thoughts. I stared at him, startled.
‘Poor Dudley,’ he said. ‘Exiled from court, compelled to keep his burrowing tool out of the royal garden. Do you see him these days?’
‘I had… a letter from him, in which he told me that his wife may have fallen because her bones were made brittle through a malady in her breast. He’d spoken before of her illness.’
‘Interesting. I was told that the malady related to her humour. An advanced melancholy. Bodily, she appeared in good health… apart from the sallowness and loss of weight symptomatic of such a condition.’
‘Who told you that?’
‘Ah…’ Bonner shrugged. ‘You’d be surprised at the people who come and go from the Marshalsea. However, that’s neither here nor there.’
Something pulsed within me, and I knew what I had to do.
‘Ned, how do you get letters out?’
‘From here? There’s a guard who’ll collect them, for a consideration, and take them to a stable lad who, for another consideration—’
‘Nothing more private than that?’
‘An approach to the stableman himself is usually found safer for those of us allowed out of here. He’s at an inn round the corner. Offers a first-stage post-horse service. You want to send a letter?’
‘If you can spare me paper and ink.’
‘Where to? May I ask?’
‘Not far. Kew.’
‘He’ll do that by mid-afternoon. Paper and quill are in the box under the bookshelf. Sealing wax and ink, too. If it’s gone hard, add a little wine.’
I sat down at the board with paper and quill and ink and kept the message short, asking only for a meeting. Bonner evidently didn’t feel the need to inquire who I was writing to, knowing full well who lived at Kew.
I sanded the ink and sealed the letter it with wax. He may not want to meet me at this time, but at least I would have tried.
‘I assume you know what you’re doing,’ Bonner said.
‘I’ll pray for you, then.’
‘Now I know I’m dead.’
But neither of us was laughing as I stowed the letter away in my doublet. Bonner arose and clasped my hand a final time and then brought out from his robe a single key with which he unlocked the door of his cell.
‘You have a key to your own prison?’
‘For reasons which escape me,’ Bonner said, ‘I yet seem to be less than popular in some quarters. It would not help the mood of the Marshalsea were I to be set alight in my own cell.’ He held the door open. ‘Good luck to you, John, in all your quests.’
‘Thank you, Ned.’
‘And should you ever come to possess the stone,’ Bonner said, ‘perchance you might bring it here one day. And we shall see what we shall see.’
I nodded and walked away along a short passage and down the stairs towards the darkness of the day.
ALREADY, HE WAS saying, her ghost had been seen on those stairs at Cumnor Place. The little stairs, the too-short stairs.
‘All in white,’ Dudley said, ‘but with a grey light around her, like to a… a dusty shroud. Walking off the top step, gazing ahead of her and then… then she vanishes.’
His body stiffening as if to forestall a shiver, and then he was pouring more wine, as though to prove to himself that his hand was not shaking.
‘But never coming to me,’ he said. ‘Why not to me?’
He didn’t drink.
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘I never see them either.’
The weak sun had begun to fade into the river at the bottom of my mother’s garden. A garden which, like Dudley’s beard, was less tended these days. He looked hard at me, his skin darkening – stretched parchment held too close to a candle, as though the rage in him were burning through the grief.
Was it grief, or was there a suppressed excitement? How could I be sure? But the rage was ever there, and some of it might have been directed inwards.
He must have called for a horse the minute my letter had arrived. Five men had ridden with him to Mortlake – John Forest, his lieutenant, Thomas Blount, his steward and three men armed as though for war. Blount and Forest were in the old scullery, probably reducing my mother’s larder to crumbs, but two armed men were outside and one guarded the door of my private workroom, where Dudley and I now sat.
‘You know about these matters,’ he said. ‘If I murdered her, why’s she not haunting me?’
He spoke roughly, and then sat back, as if ashamed. Both of us silent now. Early evening light cowered in the murky glass behind my finest owl. Through a system of pulleys, this owl could flap his wings and make hoot but now stood like a sentinel in the small window.
‘Your men are all laden with weaponry,’ I said. ‘One with a firearm?’
‘You noticed that.’
Dudley rolled his head wearily, black hair still sweated to his brow from the vigour of the ride. The horses had been taken around the back, to what remained of our stables, but their arrival here would hardly have gone unobserved, and I knew I was imperilled by their very presence.
I said, ‘You’ve had threats to your life?’
‘There’s ever been threats to my life. I’m a Dudley.’
I’d met him just once since our return from Glastonbury. This was before Amy’s death, and he’d displayed a feverish hunger for life. It had seemed no time at all since his father, John Dudley, Earl of Northumberland, had hired me to teach his sons mathematics and astronomy. But, he was right, death and the Dudleys were bedfellows.
Robert Dudley was twenty-eight years old.
Five years younger than me, ten years younger than Sir William Cecil.
And of an age equal to the Queen. To the day, he’d claim. Even to the hour.
Would he kill his own wife for her?
I’d stared hard at this question, night after night, and my most brutal conclusion was: yes, he might. If he scented destiny. If he saw himself as the only man who could save the country from France and Spain and a Catholic resurgence. If he thought Amy was ill and would not live long. If he—
Dear God, I must needs put this from my mind. I arose and went to the window, standing next to the owl, symbol of Athena, goddess of wisdom, and I’d rarely needed it more.
‘I was taken this morning to Cecil,’ I said.
Watching his fingers curl, the knuckles grown pale as I explained about the heralded visit to me of Blanche Parry and the act of near-piracy that had taken me to the Strand. And some of what I’d learned there.
Dudley drained his wineglass.
‘Cecil believes he’s doing what’s best for the Queen, but he’s fighting for his own future. And that, for once, makes him fallible. Vulnerable.’
‘And dangerous,’ I said.
‘You think he scares me?’
‘He should. By God he should.’
Seeing now that both these men were at their most dangerous. Each guessing that only one of them would come through.
‘Cecil’s served and survived, thus far, three monarchs,’ I said. ‘If I were a gambling man my money would not be on you.’
‘John, you don’t have any fucking money.’
I said nothing. The air was still. The first beating of horse-hooves had sent my mother, in a hurry, to the Faldos’ house. At one time she’d been impressed by my friendship with Dudley but now, although she never spoke of it, it was an evident source of trepidation.
‘Is it true,’ I asked him bluntly, ‘that Blanche had been sent to have me choose a date for your wedding to the Queen?’
A rueful smile.
‘Nothing so exact. It was hoped you might find some suggestion from the heavens that one match in particular might be… more propitious than any of the others. And… Yes, all right… that there might be a most suitable time to announce to the people of England a betrothal.’
He toyed with papers on my long board. The rough copy, made in Antwerp, from the writings of Trithemius of Spanheim, lay open next to some notes for my book of the Monas Hieroglyph which would explain in one symbol all I knew about where we lodged with regard to the sun and the moon and the influence of the planets. I’d been working on it, in periods, for nearly three years, knowing it must not be hurried.
I said, ‘Who hoped?’
‘Who hoped I might do these charts?’
Well, obviously, Mistress Blanche Parry would seek my services on behalf of only one person, but I wanted to hear him say it.
He said nothing. He lowered his head into his cupped hands on the boardtop and stayed thus, quite still, for long seconds. A man widely condemned as arrogant, brash, impulsive, never to be trusted… and I supposed I was heartened that he didn’t think to hide the less-certain side of himself from me.
At length, he raised his head, dragged in a long breath. The chamber was dimming fast around us. We might have been in a forest glade, with the owl watching us from the fork of a tree.
‘Very well, John,’ Dudley said. ‘Let’s get this over.’
* * *
What the hell had kept us friends? A fighting man and prolific lover who thrived on hunting stags and watching, with an analytical excitement, the baiting of bears by dogs… and a bear-sympathist who hunted only rare books and had lain with only one woman and could not sleep for the longing.
I spun away from the window.
‘You hadn’t seen her… for a whole year.’
‘You self-serving bastard’
Recoiling from myself. I rarely shout at anyone. Dudley bit off his response, sat breathing hard, his hands pushing down on the board.
‘Mercy.’ Holding myself together and banishing an image of Amy Robsart whom I feared I could have loved. ‘Yes, I do fully understand the Queen’s policy on wives at court.’
‘She wanted’ – he didn’t look at me – ‘to see me there every day. Every day.’
‘And every night?’
He was silent.
‘You told me you thought Amy was ill,’ I said. ‘You told me even she thought she’d die soon.’
‘That was what she said, yes.’
‘You brought a doctor to her?’
‘Robbie… you ever think that was simply to test where your thought lay? See how badly you wanted her soon to be dead and out of the way of your ambition? Do you not think it possible that the only sickness she suffered was a malady of the mind?’
‘For a man of books, you seem to know a surprising amount about the ways of women.’ Dudley turned his head at last towards me. ‘Or was she ill because she was being slowly poisoned? I stayed away because I was having her poisoned and would rather not be there to watch it happening.’ Staring at me now, his eyes ablaze. ‘That’s what you think – I’d have my wife poisoned?’
‘I didn’t say that. You did.’
‘But one way or another I’m behind her death. Jesu, John, even I’d think I was behind it. Who had more to gain?’
‘Or more to lose.’
He said nothing. Would only have talked of twin souls, astrology.
Or all the dangerous marriages, any one of which might be forced on the Queen if she got much older unbetrothed. I was aware of a dark abyss below me.
‘You loved her once. Amy.’
Thinking that if there was any time he might leap up and strike me it was now. I didn’t step away. Would even, God help me, have taken the blow. But he didn’t move, except to lean back a little on the bench.
‘A squire’s daughter. And I was… nobody in particular. Not then. With ambition, of course, but in some ways just glad to be alive. Glad to have survived. We were happy. We were a pair. I… destroyed her.’
I stiffened. He was very still. The air was fogged on the cusp of night, Dudley’s voice toneless.
‘But I didn’t kill her. I didn’t pay anyone to kill her.’
This time I let the silence hang. I wanted to say I believed him, but the words would not quite come.
I could take this matter no further. Went and sat down opposite him and heard him swallow.
‘You know why Bess trusts you, John? Do you?’
I had no answer to this. I knew the Queen believed in me and what I did – she who’d learned eight languages, maybe more, and had once told me how she saw her reign as a magical period, framing a great tapestry of human progress.
‘I’ll tell you,’ Dudley said. ‘It’s because she knows that, for all your extensive knowledge of the vastness of things, you’re a simple soul without political ambition. You want only to buy more books. That so makes her laugh.’
‘I’m so glad,’ I said, ‘to be awarded the much-coveted status of Court Clown.’
‘God’s bollocks, John!’ Dudley bringing down a fist on the board, almost splitting one of its poor pine panels. ‘She has no fears about your fidelity, that’s all I’m saying. And knows she’ll get from you only the unwaxed truth as you see it… and that your vision’s far-reaching. And right now that’s worth a lot.’
So why doesn’t she pay me a lot? Or even anything.
Dudley looked at his empty cup, but I didn’t offer to refill it. Couldn’t anyway – we had no more wine.
‘Now tell me the truth,’ he said. ‘Why precisely did you ask to see me? What am I doing here?’
‘Because I would not have been able to live with myself if I returned to find you’d been—’
‘Returned from where?’ He looked up quickly. ‘Where are you going?’
I saw no reason to avoid the truth. I told him I must needs fulfil a promise to the Queen. In relation to her professed interest in scrying through a shewstone. Spoke aloud, it sounded almost foolish, but he, if anyone, would know that it wasn’t. He was already nodding.
‘She talked of that. She was… enthused.’
‘When was this?’
‘Not long ago.’
Avoiding my eyes, which seemed to confirm a long-held suspicion of mine that there’d been a least one meeting between Dudley and the Queen since Amy’s death. A guarded meeting, no doubt, away from court. Hooded figures in a palace garden, a covered barge on the river.
‘I told the Queen I’d acquired a crystal sphere. And would be working with it. And that I’d report back to her.’
I saw Dudley looking around the darkening workplace.
‘You won’t see one here,’ I said. ‘God knows, I’ve been trying to find one.’
Dudley began to laugh.
‘You mean one you can afford?’
‘The ones I can afford would probably be useless for my purposes. You’re right, I’m a clown. However…’
Told him, in some detail, about the crystal sphere last heard of in a former abbey in the Welsh borderlands. Finding I had his full attention.
‘So you don’t know if it’s still there and you’re fairly sure you wouldn’t be able to afford it, but you’re planning a long and arduous ride to find out?’
‘Haven’t decided yet. But the fact remains that Cecil wants me out of town for a while.’
‘You mean out of the reach of Blanche Parry. Can’t help wondering if Cecil wasn’t told about the plan to consult you by Mistress Parry herself – his fellow Welshie. Who may also disapprove of Bess’s taste in men. She’s polite to me, is old Blanche, but ever somewhat distant. Uncommon that, for a woman of whatever age.’
‘Robbie, she’s distant from me, and I’m her cousin.’
‘Cousin. Half of Wales is your cousin. Look at that bastard – isn’t he a cousin? The notorious villain, Thomas…’
‘Jones. Thomas Jones.’
‘Who robbed his betters on the road. Almost openly. Is he your cousin?’
‘Betrothed to my cousin, Joanne. And I don’t ask what he did or to whom. He was young then. Reformed now, anyway. A scholar, with a doctorate. And given a royal pardon.’
‘Bess is quite ridiculously tolerant towards the Welsh.’
‘Perhaps because she is Welsh.’
‘She is not Welsh! Her grandfather was Welsh. Partly. So you think Cecil might try and have me slain, do you?’
The sky momentarily was shadowed by a flock of birds going to roost, the dimmed window glass turning Dudley’s fine doublet from its mourning indigo to black.
‘He likes you,’ I said. ‘But he might not shed tears over your corpse.’
His lips tightened, vanishing into his once-proud moustache, now straggled and uneven.
‘I… had a servant die, John. Couple of days ago. A kitchen maid. Spasms of the gut, and dead within an hour. I… ordered all the meat in the house taken out and buried.’
‘You’re thinking poison?’
‘If I died from it, people would say it was no more than divine justice.’ He stared up at me, his face twisting into wretchedness in an instant, the way a child’s does. ‘They can all say what the hell they like, now I’m exiled from court, and nobody visits me for fear they’ll come away soiled by second-hand guilt. Maybe’ – pushing himself back from the board, the bench-feet squealing on the flags – ‘you can summon Amy’s spirit into a fucking shewstone to tell us precisely how she died.’
Did I mark tears in his eyes? Finally? Tears for Amy? Tears for himself? Did he even know the difference?
‘What should I do?’ he said at last.
‘Not for me to say, Robbie. We’re acting on different stages now.’
‘You’re still my friend.’
I suppose I nodded, though I’d rarely been less sure of it.
God and All His Angels
SHE’D BEEN IN a wild mood that day, the day not so long ago when they’d talked of knowing the future and having communion with angels. Red hair all down around her shoulders, the pale sun on her pale face, a faerie light in her amber eyes… and Dudley wanting her so badly that he’d fallen to his knees in the island garden at Richmond, burying his head in the grass ’twixt her feet.
Remembering now how she’d insisted that God and all His angels must surely be on her side.
Our side, Dudley had wanted to say, but didn’t. Telling me he’d been thinking of all they’d come through, both of them losing a parent to the block. Imprisoned side by side in the Tower, not knowing if they, too, would end up there.
But how will we know, she’d said, and he recalled her voice grown thin, when what we do fails to please them, and God and all His angels begin to turn away? How will we know when evil’s at the door?
‘Do you see?’ Dudley said to me. ‘Do you see where this goes?’
‘No,’ I said.
Although of course I did and was filled with a mixture of alarm and excitement, as Dudley arose and picked up the smaller of the two globes given to me by Gerardus Mercator, with whom I’d studied at Louvain. Holding it up to the last of the light, as if it were a symbol of his destiny.
* * *
‘Spirits,’ Dudley said. ‘A shewstone can bring forth spirits. Good spirits… evil spirits?’
I watched him slowly turning Mercator’s globe. Geography is one of my less-dangerous obsessions.
‘I’m a cabalist,’ I said, ‘and also a Christian. Therefore any spirits called into the stone by me must needs be touched by the angelic.’
‘Good enough,’ Dudley said. ‘So far. Go on.’
‘The Queen knows her reign could see the meeting point of science and the spiritual. A wondrous thing. If barriers are not raised against it.’
‘Ah… that old question of religion.’
‘Not an old question at all,’ I said ruefully. ‘When I was a boy, mystery was all around us. Christ was full-manifest in the Mass. Every baptism was an exorcism of evil spirits. The world vibrated with magic. And… and if men like me sought divine inspiration in the cause of making new discoveries, it would be a long time before someone cried heresy.’
‘Except possibly the Pope.’
I nodded sadly.
‘We get rid of the Pope, and what happens? In no time at all, we’ve gone too far the other way. Christ is not manifest in the Mass. It’s all theatre. Let’s strip it away, the new Bible-men cry, not for us to ask questions. The will of God is the will of God, and you either accept it or you go to Hell. You explore nothing. Jesu, I— I’m a Protestant, Robbie, I believe in the Church of England… and yet know it could take us back centuries.’
Both of us knew where the Queen stood on this. There would be no persecution of Catholics if they worshipped privately.
Or she’d be persecuting herself.
‘Tell me how it works,’ Dudley said. ‘The shewstone.’
‘I don’t fully know how it works. I know that planetary rays are drawn into the stone through ritual and the focus of the scryer, who must needs enter an altered state to perceive the flow of messages.’
‘If this French bastard Nostradamus can do it,’ Dudley said, ‘then you can do it.’
Dear God, I’d wish for a half of his confidence. I’d met Nostradamus just the one time and didn’t believe him a rooker. Not entirely. Envied him, I’d have to admit, for his standing at the French court and the monetary favours that came his way. The way he was venerated and left to experiment unmolested by Church or Crown.
‘We’re both reaching for the same things,’ I said. ‘Though my own feeling is that his prophecies are a little too… poetic. Not the best poetry, either.’
‘And shaped to the French cause.’ Dudley was yet nursing the globe. ‘This clever stone… does Nostradamus have one?’
‘Don’t know. He claims he’s a natural scryer who needs only to look into a glass of water to connect himself to channels of prophecy. But I’m a scientist and must needs have proof. Scrying stones have been around throughout history, but only now do we have the means and the knowledge to subject them to proper scientific study.’
‘What are we seeking here, John?’
We? I sought a careful answer.
‘Knowledge of the hidden engines that power the world? The workings of the mind of God?’
Jesu, that wasn’t careful at all, was it?
‘The mind of God, John?’
Dudley took breath in a kind of shudder, and I endeavoured to back away.
‘I just don’t believe we can do anything of significance alone. All great art comes through divine inspiration. Advances in science… the same.’
Told him what I’d gleaned from Bishop Bonner about the former Abbot of Wigmore, John Smart.
‘Bonner? You consulted Bonner? And the fat bastard’s going to keep his mouth stitched?’
‘I believe he will.’
‘You’re an innocent, John.’ Dudley shaking his head in feigned wonder. ‘All right, tell me about the mysteries of divine inspiration.’
I told him that while we could hardly aspire, either side of the grave, to a direct approach to God, there were… intermediaries.
‘Angels. Archangels – Gabriel, Michael?’
‘Just names, Robbie. Just names for whatever moves the celestial forces which make us what we are. Just names for the controlling—’
‘Good enough for me, John. How much does this man want for his stone?’
‘Probably more than I have in the world.’
I looked away in sudden apprehension, heard Dudley stand up.
‘But not, presumably,’ he said, ‘more than I have.’
Oh God help me… Shutting my eyes in dismay. Had this been what I’d been hoping for all along? Was this, in truth, why I’d writ the letter to him in Bonner’s cell?
‘All right, we’ll both go,’ Dudley said. ‘You and I. We’ll make a good bargain with this man, in the noble cause of expanding the Queen’s vision.’
We? The way we brought back the bones of Arthur?
‘Her stone,’ Dudley said. ‘Dedicated to the Queen’s majesty. But as you’re the only one who knows how to make it speak, you can keep it here and study it and caress it in your bed, whatever it takes, and bring it regularly to Bess at Richmond or Windsor. Present to her whatever you see within it. Or consider it advisable to see.’
What? I drew back across the chamber, hard against the door to the library, something twisted like a knife in my chest. I began to panic.
‘Robbie, we don’t know he still has it.’
‘We don’t? I thought you were of the opinion that the scryer had deliberately conveyed to your apothecary friend just enough information to tempt the infamous Dr Dee.’
‘What if it’s a rook?’
‘Then we have the abbot brought back and thrown in the Fleet. Jesu, John, I have to do something. I’m sick to my gut of confinement at Kew, everyone regarding me with half-veiled suspicion… barred from court for the sake of appearances. What’s the matter with you? Suddenly you don’t think yourself worthy to know the mind of God? Listen to me…’
It felt as if the surging of his energy was taking away the air, and I found it hard to breathe. A half moon, ridged by cheap glass, shone behind the owl, and Dudley’s voice rose in the darkness as if from the hollows of a dream. Talking of responsibility towards his heritage… all that his father had died for… the beheading of Jane Grey and all the other cruel deaths, the ashes of martyrs from which Elizabeth had arisen like the fresh and glistening spirit of a new age. Repeating her words from the island in the garden at the Palace of Richmond.
… how will we know when what we do fails to please them? How will we know when evil’s at the door?
And over this I heard the voice of Brother Elias, the scryer, repeating the exhortation of Trithemius of Spanheim.
‘… and whatever good gifts, whether the power of healing infirmities, or of imbibing wisdom, or discovering any evil…
Did I sense in Dudley this night a manner of madness? The haste with which he’d seized on this had made me wonder if truly he did fear for his life if he remained in London. Feared public assassination or a sordid, squirming death by poison. Or even a faked suicide. If so, what I’d told him about Cecil would scarce heighten his confidence of survival… unless…
Across the board, his shape had almost gone to black and only the savagery of his smile shone through to show me he was afire.
* * *
Five days later, Sunday, as I returned, with my mother, from church, a letter was delivered to me by Dudley’s senior attendant John Forest who, along with Thomas Blount, his steward, seemed to have replaced his murdered servant Martin Lythgoe in the position of most-trusted.
The letter was to detail our itinerary, through Gloucester and Hereford, to the Welsh Border.
We shall be riding with a judge sent to preside over an assize court trial at Presteigne. In the border lands, in sombre attire, we should be inconspicuous in this company.
It seems likely the judge will be returning to London within a few days, which should give us ample time to conduct our business.
Until the company leaves, knowing of your problem, I should be glad to accommodate you here at Kew.
Please tell Forest if this is what you wish.
We were to travel with a judge on his way to preside over a trial? I guessed Dudley would be blind to the irony.
Still, it seemed a good and safe way to make the journey. Presteigne, county town of the new shire of Radnor, was within a few miles of my father’s old home, and my cousin Nicholas Meredith lived in the town. The invitation to stay at Kew also made sense, as long as I didn’t leave the house. And yet…
That evening, as the sun’s last amber strips tinted the river, I packed a bag with a change of doublet and my hand-scribed copy of the writings of Trithemius relating to the rituals of scrying.
Outside, Cecil’s builders, who had arrived this day to begin repairing my mother’s roof, were packing up their tools, loading them on to their cart. As it was pulled away, I stood in my workplace, next to the owl, feeling lost and solitary. Last night, I’d lain too long awake, trying to divert my thoughts from the coming journey by thinking of Nel Borrow who, in my mother’s eyes, would have made a most unsuitable wife – what Cecil would call, in contempt, a carnal marriage.
As distinct from the most dangerous of all marriages which beckoned Dudley. In writing to him from Bonner’s cell, I’d followed only my conscience, but was now become part of the engine which powered his determination to wed the Queen in the belief that it was right… for England and thus for the world.
Your Highness, the archangels Gabriel and Uriel both send their respects and what look to be dread warnings of what may happen if, to gratify the political ambition of others, you turn away from love…
Oh, you might think my part in it would be no more than smoke. For everyone who calls me a sorcerer there’s another who scorns me as a pretender to powers I don’t have. And they, God help me, may be closer to the truth.
Was I then supposed to remind Dudley that, for all my learning, I could not make the leap from the written page into the void? That the birthcharts I’d drawn were craft not prophecy, the dreams I’d so assiduously written down upon awakening were invariably mundane? That even the ghost which had travelled in my baggage all the way from Glastonbury to London was apparent to everyone but me?
That I was afraid to my gut that if we acquired the shewstone of Wigmore it would not speak to me?
And would that, anyway, stay his hand?
Last night, after my prayers, I’d told all this to Eleanor Borrow, wherever she lay. Nel, who would forever be a part of my past.
The full truth of this broke, as if the walls of our poor house were collapsing around me, and I stood with my back to the window and the owl and found myself to be weeping.
The shameful villainy used by the Welshwomen towards the dead carcasses was such as honest ears would be ashamed to hear and continent tongues to speak thereof
The Hill of Bones and Ghosts
October, 1560. Brynglas at Pilleth on the Welsh Border.
A SINGLE EYE looks up at Anna Ceddol through a veil of shivering ground-mist, and all the rest is blood.
She’s saying, ‘Who is he?’
As if anyone could be sure. You must imagine Anna Ceddol clutching her woollen shawl tight across her breast but refusing to look away. Down the valley, the early sun hangs amid rusted coils of mist.
At first she could not understand what all the fear was about – Pedr Morgan’s wife drumming with both fists on her door as the sky grew pink. A dead man found on Brynglas? Wouldn’t be the first this year, nor the twelfth. All those forlorn heaps of browning bones turned up by the plough, all ragged with the remnants of leather jerkins and makeshift armour. Too many.
The dead are removed upon an old cart kept in a tumbledown sheep shelter halfway up the lower slope. Taken for reburial with small ceremony in the field beside the church where, even after a century and a half, their descendants come to pray and visit the holy well.
But anyone can see what’s different about this one.
‘Likely been yere all night,’ Pedr Morgan, the shepherd says.
‘But no longer than that. That’s the point, isn’t it?’
The stink of blood and shit will be wafting up at Anna, and still, I imagine, she does not turn away.
His face has been split open with a spade or an axe. One eye hanging out, laid upon the remains of a cheek, while the other has been taken, most likely by a crow. The naked chest and stomach have also been ripped and plucked by scavenging birds or foxes. Bands of glistening entrails left entwined like to a scatter of dull jewellery.
‘We need the cart,’ Anna says. ‘He can’t be left here much longer, or there’ll be nothing left of him.’
She looks up at the church, Our Lady of Pilleth. Miraculous cures were once recorded here, under the statue of the Holy Mother above this shallow cauldron of empty hills. That was before a thousand men were shot and hacked to death. Before the sacred spring ran brown with blood and the church itself burned. There are more bones in the earth here than tree roots and no one wants to build over an unknown grave. Which is why they send for Siôn.
Maybe she’s recalling how, when she was pulling on her shawl this morning, her brother began to howl piteously, his fingers clawing at the empty air. As if the terror of Goodwife Morgan was making divers pictures around him which he must needs rip away.
Anna has left him squatting by the fire, wrapped in a sheepskin and hugging himself. He didn’t want to go with her – as though he already knew what was here, just as he’d known what lay in the foundations of Stephen Price’s new barn.
Siôn Ceddol. A miracle in himself.
* * *
‘No sign of his apparel?’
The shepherd shakes his head, closing his eyes, as though cursing the circumstance that had him born here, as he oft-times does aloud. In the valley, fresh smoke spouts from the chimney of an oak-framed house where new braces support an upper storey.
Nant-y-groes, where my father, Rowland Dee, was born, below the hill of bones.
‘There’s more, see,’ Pedr Morgan says faintly, and Anna Ceddol stares at him. He turns to where the man with the ruined face lies on his back, half under a thorn tree. Its roots and bole are covered with vicious brambles, some of which have been dragged across the lower part of the body as if to conceal its male emblems.
Pedr Morgan pulls some of the brambles away to reveal a leg twisted at the knee.
‘I’d not have my wife see this.’
Anna Ceddol almost smiles. She’s grown used to being treated not as a normal woman. This, she knows, is because of the tasks she has to perform in the care of her brother. Their parents died within a year of one another, and so Anna has never married – too old now, at twenty-nine, she’ll say, unless some widower is in need of comfort in his dotage.
But there’s no hope of comfort with Siôn in the house – sixteen years now and terrifying to most.
‘There’s evil here,’ Pedr Morgan says.
Anna Ceddol has borrowed Pedr’s knife to cut away more brambles. When she glances up from the corpse, the shepherd is turned away, looking down the valley. She says nothing and bends to the brambles, working patiently and her hands do not tremble. She disregards the smells, seemingly unaware of the grace with which she undertakes such a foul task.
Both her hands bleeding freely from wrenching carelessly at the brambles. She slides a knife under a thick stem bristling with savage thorns and lifts. Up it comes, all of a sudden, bringing with it smaller shoots, and all is peeled away from the dead man’s thighs.
‘Oh,’ Anna says.
Of course, she’s heard the tales, still told in the alehouses of Presteigne, tales spat out like bile from the gut.
About what happened after the battle between Mortimer’s cobbled-together army of untrained English peasantry and the hungry Welsh, serving their fork-bearded wizard. On windy nights, they say, the last cries of dying men still are heard, bright threads of agony woven into the fabric of the storm.
This hill of faith and death. This holy hill soiled by slaughter and an old hatred that never quite goes away because this is border country and its air is ever ajangle with bewildered, jostling ghosts.
Anna Ceddol sees the dead man’s mouth is a mash of shattered teeth, though nothing parts them but a bloody pulp.
Betwixt his thighs, however…
Anyone can tell that’s not done by the crows.
I WAS THROWN back at the sight of several dozen men with pikes and crossbows and a half-concealed firearm or two. And a dozen laden carts, all gathered under a whelk-shell sky in the field beyond London Bridge.
Seemed at first like an advance guard for the Queen, and it was only when I left the wherry that I marked the absence of flags, music or any hint of merriment. And saw that the shabby-clad man approaching me was Dudley.
‘Dr Dee.’ He shook my hand with formality. ‘Master Roberts. Remember me?’
First I’d seen of him since that night in my workroom. When I’d taken up his offer for me to lie at his house in Kew until our departure for Wales, he’d been absent the whole time. A bedchamber had been prepared for me and my meals made daily by the servants, while I spent long hours in solitary book-study. No one in the house appeared to know where Dudley had gone.
The name he’d been known by on our mission to Glastonbury at the end of the winter. An indication that discretion was to be exercised on this journey, for him if not for me, and yet…
…Jesu. I surveyed the clattering assembly with dismay. This was his idea of discretion? Before I could question it, Dudley led me across the well-trodden field, away from the throng.
We stopped close to the bridge itself, where it was quiet.
I said, ‘Have the trumpeters been delayed?’
The crow-picked head of a man had fallen from one of the poles and lay in the grass near our feet. I wondered if it had belonged to some executed traitor I might recognise, winced and looked away as Dudley kicked the head down the bank, then grinned.
‘All this… it’s not for me, you fool.’
Close up, I realised that shabby had been a wrong impression. If the mourning purple was gone and had not been replaced by his customary gilded splendour, his leathery apparel was still of good quality. Country landowner-class, at least, except for the exceptionally beautiful riding boots, possibly a small gift from the Queen at a time when there were no thousand-acre estates to spare.
‘It’s for the judge,’ Dudley said. ‘Sixty armed guards.’
He explained. It seemed the trial in Radnorshire was for some Welsh felon, of whom an example must needs be made. Dudley said a London judge had been requested by the Council of the Marches in Ludlow to make sure it was handled efficiently and robustly.
Well, I knew what that meant, but a London judge? Was that usual?
‘It is,’ Dudley said, ‘when the local judiciary fears for the health of its wives and children and safety of its property.’
The man on trial was the leader of Plant Mat, a brotherhood of violent cattle-thieves, highway-robbers and killers lodged in the heart of Wales. Well organised, controlling trade, smuggling goods from France, running several inns at which travellers were habitually robbed or held for ransom.
‘I’ve never heard of this. Plant Mat? Children of Matthew?’
‘It’s Wales. Where they seem to be regarded as heroes for the obvious reason that they’ve been preying, whenever they can, on the English. Or so they claim.’
‘Hence the guard?’
‘Procured with the full agreement of Cecil, I’d guess. Despite his being Welsh.’
‘That means Cecil knows we’re travelling with them?’
‘Of course not. We’re here through Blount’s connections.’
Thomas Blount, his steward, was a former attorney.
‘There’s a handful of others also travelling with us,’ Dudley said. ‘All of them well-investigated, no doubt, to make sure none are too… shall we say too Welsh?’
When he smiled, I saw that his moustache had been trimmed close to his face, his beard cut back to little more than stubble. Hardly distinguished but it was wise enough, under these circumstances. A ransom for Lord Dudley would be not inconsiderable.
‘Sure you’re quite happy with this, Robbie?’
‘Welsh banditry? God’s bollocks, John.’ Dudley sniffed in contempt and began to walk back up the field. ‘Come on, we need to fix you up with a horse. Oh, and while I remember… if anyone should ask, Dr John Dee is journeying, as he often does, in pursuit of old books and also to inspect his family’s property in the borderlands. Assisted by his old friend, Master Roberts, the antiquary. That sound plausible to you?’
Highly plausible, and it had worked in Glastonbury. Several dozen significant rare books and manuscripts in my library at Mortlake had come from the libraries of dissolved monasteries. When religious houses are plundered for treasure, either by common thieves or the Crown, the books are oft-times flung aside as worthless.
I caught him up.
‘Who knows the truth?’
‘Nobody knows the truth, John. Though obviously Legge knows who Roberts is and can think what the hell he likes about my reasons for getting out of London for a while.’
I stopped, grasping his arm.
‘Sir Christopher Legge. If you paid proper attention to the lists you’d know these things.’ Dudley scrutinised me. ‘History here?’
‘In a way.’
Five years back, when I’d been accused of conjuring against Queen Mary, several false charges had also been levelled against me by a lawyer, name of Ferrers, now himself held in suspicion after a printing press producing pamphlets full of French lies about the Queen had been found on his premises. Ferrers had oiled his way out of the Fleet by convincing the court he’d had no knowledge of the treasonous intent of a man renting his premises.
It seemed unlikely he’d yet have links with Christopher Legge who, as a young attorney, had helped process evidence against me for presentation to the Star Chamber. Evidence which, being qualified in law and so conducting my own defence, I’d assiduously broken to dust.
Legge was now a judge? He must be a couple of years younger than me, maybe not even thirty. We’d never spoken and there was no reason to suppose he bore ill will towards me, if ever he had. But, for the duration of this journey, I’d try to avoid him, nonetheless.
‘He’ll be on the Privy Council one day, from what I hear,’ Dudley said. ‘If he survives the trial.’
‘Why would he not?’
‘Just something I heard.’
He laughed, and I took the remark as being not too serious. Taking this opportunity to ask him where the hell he’d been while I was lying low at his house in Kew.
‘Later,’ Dudley said.
He walked away.
Dudley stopped ten or so paces short of the first cart, looked over a shoulder and lowered his voice to a hiss.
‘Cumnor. I was at Cumnor.’
Rapidly, I caught him up.
‘Was that advisable?’
To my knowledge, until now he’d never been back to the house where Amy died since she was found. Would not have been seemly. Might have suggested he had traces to cover. On the surface, he’d behaved impeccably, only sending Thomas Blount to record the circumstances on his behalf.
‘Why?’ I said. ‘Why risk it, with the inquest still in process?’
‘Could be months before the inquest returns its verdict. I’m to be held in purgatory till then?’
‘And was it worth it? Did you learn anything?’
Ahead of us, I could now see Sir Christopher Legge. Would not have marked him if I hadn’t known he was here. He’d changed. Narrow features, which had been gawky when last I’d seen him, had hardened like a new-forged pike-head introduced to cold water. He was enclosed by a dozen attendants and minor attorneys but was somehow distant from them all.
‘Well?’ I said to Dudley.
Still unsure how far I trusted him.
‘I’ll tell you when there’s privacy.’
He began to walk up the riverside field towards the company of men and horses. His gypsy’s skin seemed darker under the pink-veined sky.
Of a sudden, he turned back.
‘There’s an evil here, John,’ he said.
A Sense of the Ominous
WHEN FIRST I was known as the Queen’s astrologer, my services were in big demand, mainly from ambitious people wanting my name on their child’s birthchart. In the euphoria following the coronation there were more of these requests than I could easily deal with.
But a few others – and they still come, on occasion – related to the less-easily defined aspect of my role – adviser on the Hidden. And therein lies a dilemma.
These approaches are, as you’d expect, more discreet and come from men who feel their homes or their families to be cursed by enemies or menaced by demons and ghosts. Coming to me as if I’m believed equipped to dispel a nameless evil in the name of the Queen.
Dear God. Oft-times, I’ll make an excuse and walk away, knowing there’s confusion about the nature of my profession. While I’m no sorcerer, neither am I a proper priest.
When I was made Rector of Upton-upon-Severn, during the short reign of the boy king Edward, it was a lay appointment, designed to provide a firm income so that I might pursue my studies and also eat. Later, I did take Holy Orders and during Mary’s reign could have passed as a Catholic priest – hence my time as Bonner’s chaplain. But it seemed to me no more than a formality, little better than having conveyed a quiet gift of silver to someone like the former Abbot of Wigmore.
Even my mother fails to understand this and will, on occasion, berate me for giving up an income for life. But, dear God, I dread to think how many useless blessings have been given by unholy priests invested for money. What you must needs know is that I never believed myself to have been called to it, and thus have ever refused to accept responsibility for the cure of souls. Or the redemption of unquiet spirits.
A priest’s approach to the unseen must needs be single-minded. He must deem all ghosts satanic, attacking them with a passion, assailing them with missiles of liturgy. And must never let himself become diverted from his task by tantalising and forbidden questions: What is this? Does it exist only in my mind, or has it a chemical reality? What can it tell me about the afterlife? What knowledge can it pass on about the hidden nature of things?
The questions of a natural philosopher, a man of science. Who may have a firm grounding in divinity and a full devotion to God, but should never in this world don the robes of a practising priest.
So I must have shown little enthusiasm when, as we came towards Hereford, one of the minor attorneys, a young man called Roger Vaughan, rode alongside me and asked if I were here to offer spiritual counsel.
* * *
It was the close of our third day on the road. Such a company as ours – with ten carts and sixty armed men, for heaven’s sake – would not hope to make good progress. Neither did my relations with Vaughan get off to the most promising of starts.
‘Siarad Cymreig, Dr Dee?’
I’d picked up enough of the language from my tad to know what he was asking, but best for it to stop there.
‘No,’ I said. ‘My father spoke some Welsh, but I don’t. And never having been to Wales before—’
Vaughan was a solemn young man with a half-grown gingery beard and a mild Welshness in his voice. I knew his family was long-established on the border, claiming descent from princes – as, of course, did the Dees. Now he was telling me he’d been in London to study at the inns of court.
‘Indeed I was also hoping to study with you, Dr Dee, but… I was told you were away.’
‘I do spend a deal of time away. Which is one reason I’ve never had the time to visit Wales.’
Why would he want to study with me? Although qualified in the law, I’d never practised it except in my own defence. I steadied my horse before a small pond. With all the cattle drovers passing through here, you’d surely expect these roads to be among the best in England.
‘You’re also interested in mathematics, Master Vaughan? Astrology, perhaps.’
‘I suppose… to a level. But that was not what I— That is, you’re said to be better qualified than anyone in other areas of knowledge.’
The boy was almost as hesitant as I’d been at his age.
I said, ‘You mean in matters of the Hidden?’
‘Such matters,’ Vaughan said, ‘tend to provoke sneers at the inns of court. But not to someone born and bred in the Border country.’
‘Some areas of life are not so easily manipulated as the law,’ I said.
He laughed. I knew of the Vaughans through word of the Red Book of Hergest, a manuscript in the Welsh language, now nearly two hundred years old, containing the essence of the Mabinogi, the old Welsh mythology full of ancient wisdom and symbolism.
In fact, a good reason for one day learning Welsh.
‘Your family still has the Red Book?’
‘On occasion, attempts are made to have it taken deep into Wales, but we resist. The Vaughans… we’re ever concerned with our heritage. Even have, as you may have heard, our own curse – spectral hound foretelling death in the family. However, this matter – the trial, that is – affects my family not at all. Yours, however…’
‘Please understand I’m not trying to pry or to intrude in any way.’ Vaughan’s face was now redder than his hair. ‘I’m simply approaching you as a neighbour, your family home being but an hour’s ride from mine.’
I had to shake my head.
‘Master Vaughan, my family home is at Mortlake on the Thames. I was born in London.’
‘I’m here with my colleague to seek certain antiquities. The proximity of Nant-y-groes is purely coincidental. But if you’re saying there’s a problem there…?’
‘Not as such, no.’ Vaughan was looking directly ahead to where a spire had pierced the western clouds. God, the evasiveness of these border folk. ‘Well… not so much Nant-y-groes itself as the nearby village. Pilleth. Which stands to the side of Brynglas Hill. The site of the battle?’
‘The battle in which the English were, erm, slaughtered.’ I stared at the churned mud ahead of us, itself like a battlefield. ‘By the Welsh. Led by Owain Glyndwr.’
‘And his general, Rhys Gethin,’ Vaughan said.
My tad had spoken of this, though not in any great detail. Owain Glyndwr’s campaign had begun as a dispute over the ownership of land and developed into a bitter war against England. Glyndwr had declared himself Prince of Wales and laid waste to the border and its strongholds. But this was a hundred and fifty years ago, in the time of King Henry IV.
I remembered from my Cambridge days learning how, as a young man, Owain Glyndwr had been well known at the English King’s court. He was cultured, well educated, well qualified in the law… and also, it was said, in aspects of the Hidden. No one who knew him would have expected him to become such a ruthless and merciless opponent.
‘A place where a thousand men have been slaughtered,’ Vaughan said, ‘is not exactly the easiest place to make a home.’
‘But surely Nant-y-groes would have been there, in some form or other, before the battle?’
‘However, the village was not. Only isolated farms existed before, and no one lived there for years afterwards. But then a few dwellings were built to house farm workers and their families, and—’
Of a sudden, he urged his horse forward as if to out-race an error, calling back over his shoulder, the wind whipping at his words.
‘When you meet members of your family, please don’t mention my approach to you.’
I caught him up, but the conversation was dead. Ahead of us, the spire was become the body of what I guessed to be Hereford’s cathedral. Close by were the walls and tower of the castle, reddened not by the sun, as there was none, but by the nature of the stone itself.
Roger Vaughan looked up as an arrowhead of wild geese passed overhead. As if this might be an omen.
‘Perchance there’ll be occasion to talk again, Dr Dee,’ he said.
* * *
It had been a curiously muted journey from the start. Each night, we’d lain not at inns but at the country houses of well-off landowners, Justices of the Peace and county sheriffs, the guards all fed and bedded in their outbuildings, the horses accommodated in their stables. Everywhere, we were expected and bedchambers prepared. The talk over dinner was ever friendly but ever cautious.
Each morning, as we set out, there was, for me, a sense of the ominous. Accuse me, if you like, of living in the shadow of imagined persecution, but I could not believe that only Judge Legge knew of the presence amongst us of a suspected wife-killer believed to have bedded the Queen.
I watched Dudley riding ahead, with his man John Forest and the captain of the guard. He must have been known to at least one of the owners of the houses where we’d lain. Steps would have been taken to ensure discretion.
He’d yet told me nothing of what he’d learned at Cumnor Place. What he learned that implied evil.
Did Dudley prefer to ride at the head of the company because he was disinclined to be surrounded by unknown men with no cause to wish him a long life?
Unknown armed men. I flinched as a vision of the imagination ripped through me: riders all bunched together and then separating, leaving one man dangling from his horse, dragged by a boot in the stirrup through a river of his own blood.
And the next to die… the next would be me? The infamous conjuror said to trade with demons who would, if Ferrers and Legge had succeeded, have gone to ashes five years ago. Dear God, if I’d dwelt on this for long enough, I might have turned my horse around and galloped like a madman back into the heart of England.
Too late now. As if dropped from the sky, the city of Hereford was strewn about us, a damp untidiness of fenced fields and holdings and timbered shops and dwellings around a triangle of high-spired churches. A frontier town.
And a frontier in my life. I felt now, as I had these past three days, to be on an ill-made road leading not to the roots of my family but into somewhere far more foreign than France or the Low Countries, for at least I could speak their languages.
Guiding my mare between foot-deep puddles and mounds of rubble which had once been part of the old walls, I followed the train into a wide street, where people were gathered to watch us. One spired church lay behind us, the cathedral ahead, the last one in England. On the rim of twilight, its stones glowed the colour of the shewstone Elias had unveiled before Goodwife Faldo.
I thought of the Wigmore stone and could no longer understand how the desire for it had lured me here. There were surely other stones to be found, as potent as this one.
Across the famous River Wye, a long line of hills lay on the western horizon. The Mynydd Ddu – Black Mountains. Where Wales began. The light from a now-invisible setting sun had bled into a symmetry of cloud which hung above these mountains like half-folded wings. Gilded feathers in a holy light. As we rode on, they came apart.
Transcending the Mapper’s Craft
We lodged that night with the Bishop of Hereford at his palace by the eastern bank of the Wye, deep and fast-flowing after this drear summer of persistent rain.
As ever, in a city new to me, I would have welcomed time alone to uncover its libraries and antiquities. I’d marked the once-proud Norman castle falling into ruin, as Leland had hinted in his Itinerary: greenery up the walls, parts of the tower gone to rubble, sheep grazing the one-time courtyards. Why am I ever drawn to ruins?
But no time for closer study. Salmon had been brought up from the Wye for our evening meal in two sittings in a near-monastic, white-walled refectory. As ever, it was polite but unjovial, most of us tired and aching from the ride. The talk was of little more than hunting, and, as soon as I could slip away, I did. Suppressing fatigue, I cornered one of the canons and asked if I might speak with the bishop.
His name was John Scory, once Protestant Bishop of Chichester, deprived of his status in Mary’s reign, redeemed by Elizabeth. Yet sent out here into the wilderness, which seemed not much like redemption to me.
I was received into a crooked chamber with panelled walls of dark oak but no bookshelves. Only a Bible betwixt pen and ink and a wad of cheap paper on a narrow oaken trestle. A window was fallen open to the greying river.
Scory, plain-cassocked below his station, pulled out an uncushioned chair for me and went back behind his trestle, lit not by a candle but an old-fashioned rushlight. Possibly an indication of how brief he expected our discussion to be.
‘Forgive me, Dr Dee, but do I recall you as Bonner’s chaplain, once?’
For obvious reasons, this is not something I normally include in my curriculum vitae, particularly when dealing with Protestant bishops. I sought the short answer.
‘Better than being burned for heresy, Bishop.’
‘Oh, indeed. But why would Bonner choose to employ a man so narrowly spared from the flames? Do you mind the question?’
He was a wiry man of middle years, low-voiced for a bishop. He sat back in his chair, fixing on a pair of glasses as if fully to observe the quality of my response.
‘I believe,’ I said, ‘that this was to enable Bishop Bonner to tap into what I’d learned in… what you might call the outfields of divinity.’
‘Oh… keeping a pet magician?’ In the sallow light, a wry smile was shaped in Scory’s lean face. ‘I do beg mercy, Dr Dee, but Bonner’s a man who holds fast to his beliefs. If he’d signed to the Queen he’d be back on the streets, and the fact that he didn’t and he isn’t…’
‘Suggests he feels safer living quietly behind bars,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t pretend to understand him, but behind the history of terror there’s a questing mind. I… don’t know why, given his deplorable history, but I can find things in him to like. Which makes me wonder about myself.’
He peered at me through his glasses, then snatched them off, and a full smile at last broke through.
‘You’re clearly an honest young man, Dr Dee. As I’d heard. Also, it’s said, wondrous with numbers, more than conversant with the law, expert in geography, the arts of navigation…’ Scory’s eyebrows rose a fraction, and then he came forward, both elbows on the board. ‘So what are you doing in such alarming company?’
‘Biggest bloody hanging-party I’ve ever seen in this part of the world.’
Scory fumbled in a locker under the board and produced a good candle which he held to the dying rushlight until it flared. Evidently, the discussion was not to be as brief as I’d expected.
* * *
Bishops have never been chosen for their nearness to God, but – unless, like Bonner, their working lives are over – most have kept close to prominent sinners. They’ll bully harmless parish priests without mercy but, in dealing with influential laity, ever walk on eggshells.
Not Scory. Curiously, he was proving to be a man who gave not a shit for status.
‘They’re hardly going to offer him an amnesty, Dr Dee.’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Erm… whom?’
‘Believed to be a certain Prys Gethin.’
‘Truly?’ I said.
I’d never heard of this man, though the similarity of his name to that of Owain Glyndwr’s general had not passed me by.
Scory was silent for quite a while. Through the opened window, I could hear a rising night-breeze on the river. Scory moved back from the candle to study me.
‘Why do I have the feeling that you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about?’
‘Ah…’ I shrugged uncomfortably. ‘That’s because I’m not part of the judicial company. Just a fellow traveller.’
‘More and more mysterious. So what do you want from me, Dr Dee? Why would the Queen’s advisor on all manner of extraordinary matters want to keep a tired old cleric from his bed?’
‘Well, assuming your diocese includes the town of Wigmore, in the west, I wanted to ask what you knew about the abbey there. Whatever might be left of it.’
‘Not much. Gone to ruin since the Reform, like most of them. The abbot’s house is become a private home.’
‘The abbot, yes,’ I said. The former abbot was called John Smart? What of him?’
‘I’ve only been here a year, therefore never encountered the man in person. Only by reputation.’ Scory wrinkled his nose. ‘Why do you want to know about Smart?’
‘I gather that after the Reform, he was reported to the late Lord Cromwell for a number of crimes.’
‘And that’s unusual?’
‘Simony, I heard. And lewd behaviour with local women. And misappropriation of abbey treasure?’
‘And which of these might interest you?’ Scory said slyly. ‘Perchance… oh, let me think… the treasure?’
‘Bishop,’ I said. ‘It’s clear you have your own ideas where my particular interests lie. However—’
‘Well, yes, I do, Dr Dee, but if what I’ve heard’s correct we’re not necessarily talking of gold plate. On that ground, it may well be that our definitions of treasure would, to an extent, correspond,’ Scory said. ‘Would you like to see some of mine before you retire?’
‘A very rare treasure, to my mind, and I’d certainly welcome your opinion… as an authority in geography, navigation… and other matters.’
Response from the clergy to what I do falls into two groups: those who damn me as a sorcerer and those who wonder if my work and theirs might one day converge. Men like Bonner, this is, even though he kept his interests secret while publicly damning sorcerers and Protestants to hell.
Carrying a ring of keys, he led me out through a back door of his house and across the shadowed green to the cathedral itself… and into this vast red-walled oven of a building. Simpler in form and less-adorned than some I’d been into. A few lanterns were lit, and Scory unhooked one and I followed him across the misty nave and out through another door and into a cloister, where another lamp met us.
‘Only me, Tom.’
‘My Lord Bishop,’ a shadow said.
‘Taking our visitor to see the treasure.’
‘Treasure, my Lord?’
Scory’s laugh mingled with the jingle of the keys as he unlocked a door to our right and held the lantern high. I followed him into a square cell with one shuttered window and no furniture except for a wide oak cupboard on the wall facing us.
‘I’d show you our library, too,’ Scory said. ‘If I wasn’t too ashamed.’
‘Disordered. One day we’ll raise the money to pay someone to examine and list the books.’
‘I’d do it for nothing.’
‘If you had two years to spare.’ He handed me the lantern and reached up to unlock the cupboard on the wall. ‘Meanwhile, anything you can tell me about this…’
At first the doors jammed and then yielded and sprang open together and, by God, it was treasure. Couldn’t take it in at first.
‘Hidden away for years,’ Scory said. ‘Thought to be papist magic.’
The whole world was spread before us.
‘At least three hundred years. Have you ever seen its like before, Dr Dee?’
He held the lantern close, slowly moving the lights around a thousand figures and images, etched in black upon a skin stretched over a wooden frame. I saw what seemed to be biblical figures surrounded by a monstrous bestiary of birds and fishes, serpents and dragons. Horned creatures and haloed men, robed and naked, amid a maze of towers and rivers and seas, hills and islands, all of them neatly labelled in Latin and enclosed by wedges of text.
‘A map… of everything?’
‘Of the world. As it was then known.’
‘Was it made here?’
‘Nobody knows where it was made or who made it or how it came to be in Hereford. Admittedly, a world that’s less than the one known now.’
‘Or more,’ I said, thinking I could spend weeks in study of it. ‘The knowledge we’ve gained is more than equalled by the knowledge we’ve lost.’
I stood transfixed, marking the figures of a mermaid and a lion with a man’s crowned head and symbols I did not understand. Yes, primitive compared with Mercator’s globe, yet I felt in the presence of something far transcending the mapper’s craft. Evidently, the Welsh border had more secrets than I’d imagined.
‘You should know that it does inspire a level of fear, even amongst some of the canons here. They say too much contemplation of it invites madness. I’m told there’ve been attempts over the years to burn it to a crisp. I’d guess there is an element of the occluded here. So for the present, I keep it locked away. Does it speak to you?’
Scory moved the lantern and the shapes on the map seemed to shuffle like playing cards into different patterns.
‘Well,’ I said. ‘I doubt it was made by one man. More likely some closed monastic order. Look.’
I pointed at the centre of the map, where something of evident importance was represented by a cogged wheel.
‘The centre of the world,’ Scory said.
‘Jerusalem.’ I nodded. ‘That could be of significance.’
I stepped back, half-closing my eyes, and new configurations began to form in the candlelight.
‘Bishop, were the, um, Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon… ever active in Hereford?’
‘The Knights Templar?’ Scory’s eyes widened. ‘Well… not in the city itself but, yes, there were several Templar communities within ten miles of here. My God, Dee…’
‘Jerusalem obviously was the centre of the Templar world. They guarded the city against the Saracen for many years, had their headquarters on the site of the Temple and, it’s said, had access to its most ancient secrets. Some of which might well be…’
I glanced at the map.
‘I’d put extra locks on this cupboard… and on the door. That’s assuming you do not consider the Templars to have been, um, satanic?’
‘Part of my duty here, Dr Dee, is not to condemn but to protect what exists until such time as it might be interpreted. Well…’ He let out a breath. ‘What you say makes remarkable sense. I’d never thought of the Templars. This is, ah, better than papist magic, I think.’
‘Potentially, beyond value,’ I said. ‘Which is why I’d recommend you make it even more secure.’
‘I will. And, ah… some men, if I may say so, might have chosen to keep such a deduction about the map’s origins… to themselves.’
‘Why would they? It’s in the best place.’
He put out his hand.
‘Thank you, Dr Dee,’ he said.
* * *
As we walked back to the palace, Scory’s mood was far more open. He told me he’d once been a Dominican friar. Possibly a reason he’d been given Hereford where, until the Reform, the Blackfriars had been popular residents in the heart of the city.
‘Hereford might seem a lowly post after Chichester. But more important for being on the rim of Wales. The significance of which was made clear to me from the start – the importance of keeping Wales on the Queen’s side.’
‘The Queen’s proud to be a descendent of King Arthur of the old Britons.’
‘A descent beyond dispute, Dr Dee,’ Scory said with what might have been mock gravity. ‘Her grandfather’s progress from out of Wales to the English throne is surely confirmation of the prophecy that Arthur would rise again. And all’s been quiet on the border ever since.’
‘More or less. Still recovering from the damage inflicted during the Glyndwr wars. And yet now… they’re sending a small army to convict and hang one man. One Welshman. Curious, don’t you think?’
‘I don’t know enough about it.’
He stopped, looking out over the river, moonlit now, and then walked down towards its bank.
‘The Wye flows through a strange and individual place, Dr Dee – more so over the border. They have their own beliefs which continue regardless of the Church, whether it be Catholic or Protestant.’
‘It seemed to me that one could either respond with a Bonner-like ferocity or with a tolerance bordering on the spiritually lax.’
I followed him down to the edge of the river, a strip of silvery linen unrolled from the hills.
‘I chose tolerance,’ he said. ‘Which is why I suspect that the behaviour of your Abbot Smart reflected no more than his own response to his bucolic situation. He feasted, he hunted, he chased after women. And caught some. Well… I’d be a fool to say that’s not how some of my fellow bishops have behaved.’
‘And the abbey treasures?’
‘Such an extravagant way of life will ever demand a certain wealth,’ Scory said.
‘Do you know what they were, these treasures?’
‘Never gone into it. What’s the treasure you seek?’
‘A gemstone. Said to have been at the abbey.’
‘And you think you’ll find it now?’
‘A gemstone which is now, apparently, for sale.’
‘Ah.’ Scory smiled. ‘Now that sounds like Smart. What kind of gemstone?’
‘We think a beryl.’
‘The friend who’s travelling with me.’
‘And that would be…? Come now, Dr Dee, think yourself into my situation. Here I am, leading my quiet life, learning my Welsh to talk to the neighbours… when, of a sudden, I’m invited to accommodate a company including a prominent judge, the Queen’s astrologer… and another man who, despite his dull apparel, I recognise from my time in the South as none other than the Queen’s Master of the Horse…’ Scory leaned into the candlelight ‘… at the very least.’
‘It is who you think, yes. Not the most popular man in London at the moment, for reasons you’re doubtless aware of. But, I believe, falsely accused.’
Did I believe that? The candle in the lantern had gone out and I was glad of the relative dark.
‘Nevertheless, a man not short of gemstones, I’d guess,’ Scory said.
What choice did I have? I told him the beryl was famous as a spiritual device and heard him laugh.
‘The magician arises. You’ve come all this way for a fortune-telling stone?’
‘In the cause of, um, scientific study.’ I was beginning to feel like a prating prick. ‘The way such stones have been studied in Europe.’
‘I’ll grant you that. I’m hardly in a position to dismiss miracle and magic when we have here in the cathedral the shrine of one of my distant predecessors, whose boiled bones seem to have cured thousands and still draw pilgrimages.’
He meant St Thomas Cantilupe. My library had several manuscripts on the tomb of this most famous bishop of Hereford and other healing shrines where tapers were lit and the bodies of the sick measured to the saints.
‘Indeed,’ Scory said. ‘So a small brown stone dedicated in the names of several prominent angels which not only foretells the future but gives off healing rays—’
‘So you know of it.’
‘I’ve heard of it. But it’s all gossip and myth and legend and I know not where it might be found. But I can tell you that if Smart has it, it won’t come cheap. Unless you – or more likely Lord Dudley – are in a position to, ah, apply some physical pressure?’
‘That was never my intention,’ I said honestly. ‘Do you have any idea where Smart might be found? Assuming he’s still alive.’
‘Oh, he’ll be alive, unless the border’s ridden with some vengeful plague I’ve not yet heard of.’
‘How did he escape… well, at least imprisonment, when the charges against him were presented to Cromwell?’
I was thinking of poor pious Abbot Whiting of Glastonbury, who’d been hanged, drawn and quartered for less.
‘Blood of Christ, Dr Dee,’ Scory said, ‘I didn’t know, until this night, how you yourself escaped the stake at the hands of Bonner. And no, I don’t know where Smart is, though I do hear word of him from time to time. If I were to say…’
His back hunched in deliberation, he walked along the moonlit riverbank, looking down at his entwined fingers.
‘What can I tell you…? Except… as the rest of them are going to Presteigne, why not begin your inquiries there? The Abbey of Wigmore owned most of that town at one time.’
When I told him my cousin, Nicholas Meredith, lived there, Scory’s laughter went skimming over the Wye like a hail of pebbles.
‘And Meredith, I was about to say, owned much of the rest. And now appears to own even more. Oh, yes, he might be a very good man to talk to…’
‘Bishop, I get weary of saying I don’t understand, but—’
‘No, no, no…’ Scory moved away, separating his hands and wiping the air betwixt us. ‘You’ll get no more from me on this particular bag of adders. All I’ll say is it’s worth remembering that Presteigne still has its share of dark alleys. Anyway, you might see me there.’
‘The judge has asked me to give evidence to his court. Come along, Dr Dee. Past my bedtime, and past yours, too, if you don’t want to fall off your horse tomorrow.’
‘In the matter of witchcraft,’ Scory said.
The river licked at the bank below my thin boots, like the sound of quiet, sardonic laughter, and I turned away from it and followed him back to his palace.
FOR A WHILE, the land was all red soil, as if the earth itself had been stained by the blood shed in the Glyndwr wars and the bitter battles through which the Tudors rose.
All was heavy under luminous grey cloud as we rode past the remains of castles, with towers like broken teeth, and bared mottes from which the stone had been stolen to build the farms in the valleys. And then the road was gloomed with forest to either side, dim as a church aisle at dusk, as we made our quiet and watchful way into Wales.
One day you’ll go back, boy. One day.
My tad, Rowland Dee. All for Wales, but he never went back.
Welsh towns and villages… I’d learned that they were all stark and wind-flayed, their stone houses long and low and slit-windowed, as much against the weather as attack. Hard, cold houses occupied by the race of strong, sinewy men my father had spoken of.
Bending to the wind like hawthorn trees, boy, and no less prickly.
My tad describing all this to me as a child as though he, too, had been raised as a man of the mountains. As he was neither sinewy nor hard, I recall wondering if he’d been sent into exile for being insufficiently Welsh.
It was only when the road emerged from the forest and we crested a hill and I was at last looking down upon my family’s local town… that I saw the dispiriting truth of it.
I urged my mare ahead to join Dudley, who was riding alone, having bid his man John Forest to remain in Hereford to receive any mail which might arrive from London and bring it on to Presteigne. Dudley had told me that Thomas Blount, at Kew, was on constant watch for anything new which might emerge in regard to Amy’s death.
And something had happened. Something he could not even whisper about inside this quiet company of judicial strangers.
‘John!’ Dudley calling to me with unnecessary volume, as if to ridicule the silence of the company behind us. ‘Will your letter have reached your cousin yet?’
‘Who knows – can we ever rely on the post? If not we’ll hope for an inn.’
‘Plenty good beds in an assize town… all those fastidious fucking lawyers to accommodate.’
I felt the chilled silence of the attorneys behind us. By now, the wind had died back, but no one spoke above the measured clop of hooves and the creaking of the well-laden carts on the pitted track. Below us, across a quiet river, was tended pasture-land, farms and old cottages with frames of gnarled grey oak.
And this town. This Welsh town.
If the ghost of my tad were with us, I only hoped its face was red.
Lying low at the centre of the well-tamed land, snug as a ground-nesting bird, was this bright and modern country settlement, its buildings elegantly structured with red brick and new timber-framing. I marked a proud, towered church with a flag of St George.
And sensed a glow about the place. A glow of… wealth… contentment?
What the hell?
I called across to Dudley.
‘We didn’t turn back upon ourselves somehow? This is… Wales?’
‘What did you expect?’
‘Didn’t expect it took so much like… like England. More like England than anywhere we’ve passed since Hereford. And that was England.’
I looked out, as if cheated, towards wooded hills. Maybe Wales was a country of the mind that was never reached.
‘Actually, I’m told it gets wilder the further west you go,’ Dudley said. ‘This is an English town in a way, grown rich on the wool trade. One of the canons in Hereford was telling me it’s even on the English side of King Offa’s dyke.’
Maybe a town built as a statement of future intent. The county of Radnorshire, its few sizeable settlements small and far-flung, has no history beyond the Act of Union in King Harry’s reign. There are no ancient princes of Radnorshire, no great old families, no ancestral castles yet lived in. This is a county not as old as me, established quickly, out of expediency.
But if its county town was any indication of prosperity, nobody here would go back to the old days. It was like to a holiday. I was aware of a billowing excitement – cheers and halloos, bright flags drooped from ropes strung across the streets from gable to gable, all lurid against a sky swelling with unshed rain.
Of a sudden, my mare was rearing in fear at the sudden blast of jollity and I bent to calm her as our company thinned out to be fed into the town. Widening again as we entered a broad street leading down to the church and a bridge over the river. I marked a baker’s shop, two alehouses, a tannery with a yard, a blacksmith’s and an apothecary’s, all well built with good signs.
To a gale of cheers, we came to a forced, untidy halt about halfway down amid a confusion of roadside stalls selling apples, plums, cherries and cold pies.
A juggler in a jester’s cap sent up a spray of coloured woollen balls, while children tried to catch them. A smell of strong ale was loaded into the air and on the ground a great whooping press of townsfolk roiled and roared from the consumption of it, and I was reminded of the Queen’s coronation, the happiest day of my life.
‘Get this rabble…’
From behind me, a cultured voice, high and thin with fury, piercing the euphoria like an ornamental blade.
‘My Lord, it’s—’
‘Bring out the sheriff, sirrah. At once.’
I looked over my shoulder, saw a press of armed guards around the judge and his men. Turning back to the street, I marked faces at windows, with and without glass, and then Dudley’s horse was pulled alongside mine.
‘You do know what this is about?’
‘Some kind of harvest festival?’
‘It’s for us. Well, not us… the judge.’
I saw Roger Vaughan, the lawyer, sliding from his horse, elbowing through the crowd towards a big, walled and gated house set back from the street. There was an inset door made small by a weight of ivy set into the high oaken gates, and Vaughan began to hammer upon it. A smittering of blood on his knuckles before it was opened.
‘Where’s the sheriff?’
The door was open barely a crack, and the voice from within no more than a mouse-squeak, so I heard not a word of it above the noise of the crowd. When Vaughan came back, the door was already being latched against him and the calm he’d shown on the road was gone.
‘My Lord, I’m— The sheriff’s gone with a couple of dozen men to fetch the prisoner from… from where he’s kept.’
A horse was prodded out onto the cobbles, guards forcing the crowd back, and the judge, Sir Christopher Legge, looked down.
‘They don’t have a gaol here?’
‘It’s not the strongest, and there’s fear that Gethin’s brigands will attempt to free him. He’s been kept in a dungeon in… in another place. Until the trial.’
‘Forget the trial!’ A man’s voice from the street. ‘Just hang the fucker!’
Whoops and laughter. Vaughan accepted the reins of his horse from one of the judge’s men, stood like he knew not where to put himself. Clearly hadn’t expected this. A single raindrop stung the back of my hand resting on the mare’s neck.
‘Remarkable.’ Judge Legge rose up in his saddle. He was not tall, and his tight leather riding jerkin emphasised how lean he was, almost skeletal, his bladed face shadowed by a wide-brimmed leather hat. ‘And what, pray, are we supposed to do until the sheriff returns?’
‘My Lord, I—’
‘This, I take it, is the sheriff’s house?’
‘It is, my Lord, but—’
‘I believe… I do believe that I was told by my clerks that I’d be lying here for the duration of the trial.’ Legge’s voice seemed to prick at words like a bodkin. ‘I do believe that I was told that. Now you are the…’ He flicked a wrist, with impatience. ‘…local man, I forget—’
‘Vaughan, my Lord.’
‘Vaughan, yes. Well, perhaps you could go back, Vaughan, and tell the sheriff’s servants to throw open the sheriff’s doors. And the sheriff’s gates. And’ – he leaned forward, to the side of his horse’s head, peered down at Vaughan, his voice brought down to a hiss – ‘get us the hell out of this human dungheap.’
‘I’ll do that now,’ Vaughan said.
‘Good of you.’
The sky was like to dark purple silk, all stretched. Legge leaned back in his saddle and looked up at it, with irritation, as if he might deflate it with his bodkin.
‘I do believe it’s about to rain,’ he said.
And, by God, he was not wrong.
IT WAS AS if the sky had split like a rotted water butt, releasing the kind of rain that joins clothing to skin in seconds. A rain that blinds. We watched its torrent in the milken glass in the parlour at the rear of the Bull Inn, forming rivers on the sills, dripping to the flags.
It was not yet five in the afternoon. The splattered street empty now.
According to Vaughan, the Bull was the best of the seven inns of Presteigne. Dudley and I had been told we’d have to share a bedchamber though not, I’d been glad to discover, a bed. A back parlour, plain but well-scrubbed, had been given over for our use and that of some attorneys who were not accommodated at the sheriff’s house. Including Vaughan who came to join Dudley and me and a jug of small beer, explaining that the more senior lawyers were presently taking instruction from Legge.
‘Evidently he wasn’t expecting that,’ Dudley said. ‘I mean the crowd – not the weather.’
‘Nor I, Master Roberts,’ Vaughan said. ‘For which I’ll be held responsible for sure.’
I said, ‘You’re here to smooth the judge’s path? Interpret the ways of local people?’
‘Sent to him by one of my tutors. And making a cock of it.’
‘Not the way of the Border, is it?’ I said. ‘All this fanfare.’
‘We don’t normally make a big noise about anything,’ Vaughan said, letting the border into his voice. ‘And we don’t take sides till we knows who’ll win.’
Well, I knew this – less from my father than my dealings with Cecil and, in particular, Blanche Parry, who’d walk thrice around some matter before dropping hints as to where she stood on it. And even then you wouldn’t really know.
‘This town’s changed, see,’ Vaughan said. ‘New wealth and most of it from England. Big families in the wool trade come in from Ludlow. Experts in cloth-making brought from Flanders. And all the money from the Great Sessions – bedchambers and good food and wine for the lawyers and the judges. Like I say, it en’t England… but it en’t Wales either.’ He lifted his cup, about to drink then lowered it again. ‘As for free pies, free fruit…’
‘A fresh mutton pie buys a good helping of merry cheer. In place of fear.’
He looked over to the window. A pool was spreading on the flags where rain was oozing between two badly-set panes. Dudley leaned forward on the bench.
‘You’re saying the merchants and the clothiers paid for that show of welcome for Legge? So he doesn’t think he’s come into a hostile Wales?’
‘He’s here to scratch a twenty-year-old itch, is what it is. Quick trial, nice long hanging.’
I recalled what Bishop Scory had said about the biggest hanging party he’d seen hereabouts. Vaughan blinked.
‘You do know, I take it, why the Sessions came to Presteigne?’
‘Should we?’ I said.
Preparing myself. Seemed to me that the Welsh border was like to a clinging midden, rotting history into legend so the twain could not easily be separated.
‘Twenty years ago,’ Vaughan said, ‘all the courts were held at Rhayader. Out west.’
He looked at me in query. I’d never been to Rhayader, but knew of it. A town on the edge of the bandit-riddled wilderness which Vaughan said now had been more or less ruled by the brigand gang, Plant Mat.
There had been some resentment, it seemed, over the way justice was administered by the English judiciary, with only English spoken in court.
Plant Mat fed upon it.
Vaughan talked about the year 1540, four years after the Act of Union, when Plant Mat, lodged in the neighbouring county of Cardigan, were extorting regular payments from landowners to the west of Rhayader.
‘If you didn’t pay up they’d burn your winter straw. And if that didn’t work it’d come to blood. Your stock then your family.’
I marked the suppressed rage roiling in Dudley’s eyes as Vaughan talked about a judge sent to Rhayader for the Sessions. An old man and devout. He’d ride to church before taking his seat in the court. One morning they were waiting for him in an oak grove by the river.
‘Took him down,’ Vaughan said. ‘Murdered him.’
‘The King’s justice?’ Dudley finally driven to outrage. ‘Was there no retribution for that?’
‘They knew where to hide, Master Roberts. It’s their country. There may’ve been a hanging or two, but no one knew if they’d got the judge’s killer. After that, it was deemed unsafe for judges to sit at Rhayader.’
‘Driven out? Bowing to this scum?’
‘So that was why the court was moved here. To the softer lands on the edge of England.’
‘And this man Gethin is the leader of Plant Mat. Where’s he caged?’
‘A dungeon at New Radnor Castle. Not much left of the castle since the Glyndwr wars, but still the safest prison we have.’
‘About an hour’s ride?’ I said.
‘If that. But they en’t gonner do it in this weather. They’ll want to see where they’re going, and who else is on the road. Or in the hills. If the rain en’t over well before nightfall, they’ll fetch him on the morrow. Won’t please Sir Christopher if it prolongs his stay, but what can they do?’
‘The Queen’s judiciary running in fear of petty outlaws?’ Dudley sat shaking his head in disgust. ‘Am I alone here in finding that a complete humiliation?’
‘This place might look like England, Master Roberts,’ Vaughan said. ‘But it en’t.’
‘Give us time, Vaughan.’
Dudley smiled, and I sighed and poured more beer for us all.
‘Prys Gethin, Master Vaughan… Prys the Terrible, Prys the Fierce… is that his real name?’
‘Probably some puny little turd with a withered arm,’ Dudley said.
‘Two good arms, Master Roberts,’ Vaughan said, ‘but only the one eye. His real name… well, who can say? But clearly he’s too young to be the son or even the grandson of Rhys Gethin.’
Dudley looked blank-faced for a moment as the association of names registered upon him.
‘Prys, Mr Roberts. Ap Rhys. Son of Rhys? Dr Dee your house – your family home, Nant-y-groes… under Brynglas? The hill of Pilleth?’
‘Christ’s blood, Vaughan…’ Dudley slammed down his beermug. ‘The Battle of Pilleth?
I didn’t share Dudley’s fascination with all manner of mortal conflict, human and animal, but I knew that an army hurriedly raised by Edmund Mortimer, the Marcher Lord, had been outwitted and crushed by the Welsh, with terrible carnage.
But all this was a century and a half ago.
‘They’re yet finding the remains of the Pilleth dead,’ Vaughan said. ‘Turned up by the plough. A dark place, it is. Holds terrors yet. I don’t much like where I live, but I’d not live there.’
‘And which side,’ Dudley asked me, head atilt, ‘was your father’s family supporting, John? I do believe the Dees were there at the time?’
Oh yes, they must have been there. But, God help me, I didn’t know which side they’d been on or if any of them had died in the Battle of Pilleth.
‘Hill of ghosts,’ Vaughan said. ‘I’ve heard it called that.’
I wondered which side his family had been on. He sounded Welsh, spoke Welsh and yet the house, Hergest Court, was, if only by a short distance, in England.
‘Beg mercy,’ I said, ‘but I don’t yet understand how this is linked with Prys Gethin. Glyndwr’s long gone. There’s no Welsh army any more.’
‘Not as such, no.’ Vaughan drank some beer, wiped his mouth. ‘But the ole Welsh families who ran with Glyndwr… they still dream. And some still hate the English. And don’t feel obliged to live by English laws. Plant Mat, see, the first of them were likely men who ran with Glyndwr’s army and, for them, it was never gonner be over. And as Glyndwr’s general – the man leading the Welsh in the rout of the English on Brynglas – as his name was Rhys Gethin. See?’
The cold rain rolled down the panes, and only Dudley laughed.
‘Small-time outlaw affecting the name of a famous warlord? Shrouding himself in old myth to frighten the peasants?’
No smile from Vaughan. The boy sat silent, watching the unceasing violence of water on ill-fitting glass. Me? I understood at once what local superstition this would arouse and didn’t feel it misplaced. The land remembers. Only wished now that I’d listened harder to my father’s tales, asked a few more questions. But then, I never thought I’d ever come here. I sought to quench it, all the same.
‘One hundred and fifty years ago. This man must needs be… what… a great-grandson?’
‘Or no relation at all, more like. Just a man who wants folk to think him possessed of a vengeful and still-active spirit.’ Vaughan fingered his sparse gingery beard as if there was more he might say about active spirits. ‘The thought of Gethin returned to the place where he slaughtered a thousand English – even if he’s in chains – is bound to cause unrest among the local folk. Not that it frightens the wool merchants. But they weren’t raised yere.’
‘And the judges from Ludlow and Shrewsbury fear only for their lives,’ I said. ‘After what happened twenty years ago.’
‘Legge, however,’ Dudley said, ‘comes with sixty armed guards and has no fear that can’t be overridden by his ambition. But you’re right, only a good hanging can end this.’
Vaughan slumped in a corner of the parlour settle.
* * *
A cattle raid one full-moon night in the Irfon Valley, the other side of Radnor Forest. This was how they’d caught him.
Been a few raids, and all the talk was of Plant Mat, so the local squires banded together and had all their men out – farm hands and shepherds, pigmen and rickmen. Long nights waiting in the woods, all armed with axes and pitchforks and clubs. The Plant Mat raiders, when they came, were badly outnumbered and taken by surprise, for once, and fled into the hills.
Except for their leader who caught his foot in a root and twisted his ankle, and the farmers’ boys were on him. Two of the squires were summoned from their beds and came out and beat him about before having him tied, hand and foot, to a cart.
‘They know who he was?’ Dudley asked.
‘They did when he told them. Stood there all bloody and told them his brothers would pay them well if they let him go. He’d get a message back and they’d arrange an exchange, and they’d be rich men and their stock would be safe forever.’
‘Tempting,’ I said, ‘for a border farmer.’
‘But an insult to a squire,’ Vaughan said. ‘These two, they both knew what had happened over at Rhayader, when Plant Mat were taking a slice of the farmers’ meat in return for not firing their buildings. Forever’s no more’n a year in Wales. You make a deal with these brigands, they leave you alone for a few months, then they’re back, and worse.’
‘Never bargain with scum,’ Dudley said.
All they did, Vaughan said, was to have Prys Gethin tied tighter and gagged him so they didn’t have to listen to any more of his babble. And then… a triumphal torchlight procession through the hills of Radnor Forest.
‘The new sheriff, Evan Lewis, he lives at Gladestry, which was along the route, and they sent ahead to have him roused. And Evan Lewis joined them on the road to New Radnor Castle, where Prys Gethin was dragged down from the cart. Standing there, under the full moon, they were in high spirits, mabbe a bit drunk. As you might well be if you’d brought the bane of Radnorshire to justice.’
One of the squires, Thomas Harris by name, had stepped up and spat in the prisoner’s eye. Well, not in his eye, exactly, as Gethin only had the one. What Harris spat into was the shrivelled skin around the empty socket of the eye that was gone.
Prys Gethin had not wiped it away. Although he could have done. They saw his hands were freed from their bonds. How was that possible?
Vaughan drank some beer and was silent for a moment, as if unsure how the rest would be received.
‘Stood there, blood and spit on his cheeks. Pointed at the two squires who’d beaten him, tied him down, spat into his eye socket. Stood there in the light of the full moon and cursed them by turn, low in his voice, pointing with a curled finger.’
‘Cursed in Welsh?’ Dudley looked unimpressed. ‘Terrifying.’
But I noticed Vaughan’s eyes and the bleak way he was staring into his beer.
‘Within a month,’ he said, ‘Thomas Harris was dead of a fever that came overnight. And the other, Hywel Griffiths, he drowned in the river, when a new footbridge collapsed in high wind.’
I hoped Dudley would not laugh, and he didn’t. I’d be the last to deny the power of a curse, especially if the victim knows he’s cursed.
‘This wind,’ Vaughan said, ‘was sudden, fierce and unnaturally short-lived. Came and went in a matter of minutes. Taking with it the little bridge and a man’s life.’
‘And another myth was born,’ Dudley said sourly.
‘Myth?’ Roger Vaughan, for all his schooling in London and Oxford, was a man of the border yet, his accent strengthening with his anger. ‘That’s how you sees it, is it, Master Roberts?’
‘So’ – I broke in – ‘the charges will be cattle-thieving…’
‘And witchcraft,’ Vaughan said. ‘Murder by witchcraft.’
Ha. So this was where Scory came in. What evidence, I wondered, would he give to strengthen the case against this felon?
‘Not easy to prove,’ I said. ‘Not these days.’
The last Witchcraft Act, introduced by King Henry, having been repealed after his death. Everyone had expected it to be replaced by something less random, but it hadn’t happened yet, whatever Jack Simm might say about the Queen’s need to prove that she was not like her mother. Goodwife Faldo had been on firm ground when she’d said, in Mortlake Church, that she no longer feared imprisonment for inviting a scryer into her house.
But where a death was involved… well, I’d heard of cases where evidence of circumstance had been enough to hang a woman – it was usually a woman – where proof of dark threats had been given. And fear of witchcraft would never go away. Even in London, there would have been unrest under these circumstances. Out here, with all the terror of the Glyndwr war yet within local memory, it would have a considerable power to disturb.
‘Glyndwr studied magic,’ I said.
Vaughan was nodding.
‘And is said to have used it with clear intent, Dr Dee. As you likely know, it was said he could arouse spirits to change the weather – arouse storms and the like – to gain advantage on the battlefield.’
‘So a sudden wind blowing down a footbridge,’ Dudley said. ‘would suggest this man was simply calling on the same dark powers?’
‘Not too difficult to make out a case for it, Master Roberts.’
‘Especially before a man of Legge’s abilities,’ I said. ‘Was Rhys Gethin said to have dark powers?’
‘I don’t know. He was killed in battle three years after Pilleth.’ Vaughan drained his cup. ‘But what a victory that was. Against all odds. And he was Glyndwr’s best general. And they did burn down the church of the Holy Virgin before the battle. Oh God, it’s all a nest of wasps.’
‘So you’re saying the local judges… might be in fear for more than their lives?’
‘Like I said, Dr Dee, this en’t England. And it definitely en’t London. Although Plant Mat’s never been known to work so far east, the guard’s yere to make sure Sir Christopher Legge stays safe before and during the trial. And the hanging, if he stays for it.
‘As for any kind of danger that don’t involve physical attack…’
‘Legge has fairly advanced Lutheran leanings, as I understand it,’ Dudley said. ‘The Lutheran scholars are in the process of effecting a severe reduction of what we’re allowed to be afraid of.’
‘Aye, and the handful of men who own this town now are all firm reformers, too.’ Vaughan stood up, peered at the window. ‘It en’t stopping, is it? Better face the wrath of Sir Christopher. Tell him his trial en’t gonner start tomorrow.’
He flinched, as did I, at a sudden cracking of glass. The loose pane had fallen from its leading, or been blasted out by the force of the rain, and now smashed on the flooded stone flag. Shards of glass were skittering through the spill, as a second pane fell out.
‘I’ll send the innkeeper,’ Vaughan said. ‘If I can find him.’
None of us had commented on the uncommon ferocity of the rain which looked like preventing the sheriff bringing Prys Gethin from New Radnor this night.
It had, after all, been a wet summer.
COLD IN THE parlour now, with that jagged hole in the window and water beginning to pool around Dudley’s fine riding boots. When we were alone, he stood up, regarding me sideways, dark eyes aslant.
‘I don’t think… that should we get involved in this, John.’
‘Did I suggest we might?’
He snorted like a stallion.
‘You eel! I was watching your face. All that talk of Glyndwr’s magic and altering the weather and the curse of Prys Gethin? John Dee in the land of Merlin? A pig in shit. As for this boy Vaughan…’
‘Mmm.’ I nodded. ‘He’s sitting on eggs. He’s a lawyer, but also border-raised, and he doesn’t think free pies can cure fear. Mortimer’s army would have been drawn from places like Presteigne. The presence in the town of another Gethin…’
‘So called. And in chains.’
‘Freed himself from his bonds on the road to New Radnor,’ I said. ‘So that he was able to point the finger in malevolence…’
‘Jesu, don’t you start.’ Dudley rubbed his hands together to make heat. ‘Gives me shivers, this place, somehow, even more than Glastonbury. How far to Wigmore from here?’
‘Seven miles. Eight? You weren’t thinking of riding there in this?’
‘First light, I was thinking,’ Dudley said. ‘Assuming we aren’t all drowned by then.’
I shook my head.
‘No real use in riding out to Wigmore until we have a better idea of exactly what we’re looking for. I gather there are people we might talk to in this town first.’
It was the first chance I’d had to tell him what I’d learned from John Scory in Hereford. Dudley listened without interruption, only the occasional raised eyebrow.
‘You saying the Bishop of Hereford knew of the stone?’
‘But not where it is – or the former abbot. But he did say Presteigne would be a good place to start looking. Not least because much of the property here once belonged to the abbey.’
‘And then gathered in by the Crown, and the Crown would sell it off. I don’t see how there’d be a connection any more.’
‘Just telling you what he said. He also thought it worth talking to my cousin Nicholas Meredith. Who also seems to be a substantial property owner.’
I was recalling how Scory had laughed on learning that Meredith was my cousin, when a man appeared in the doorway, bearing a broom and glowering at the remains of the window.
‘God’s blood! Profuse apologies, my masters. The glazier’s art is yet in its infancy round yere.’
He began sweeping the shards of glass into a corner with his broom, then gave up and tossed the broom across the parlour.
‘I’ll have it shuttered. He’ll not get paid for this.’ Wiping his wet hands on his apron, straightening up and jabbing a thumb at his chest. ‘Jeremy Martin. Keeper of this inn.’
A powerfully built man of late middle-years. Dense grey hair winged back behind his ears.
‘Least there’ll be no broken glass in your bedchamber this night, my masters.’
‘Although wouldn’t that be because it’s yet without any kind of glass?’ Dudley said.
Jeremy Martin grinned.
‘On the list, that is. Glass in all the windows next year, sure to be. Proper glass. I en’t been yere long enough to do all as needs doing, but this’ll be the finest inn in the west ’fore long. Can I replenish your jug, my masters? On the house?’ Picking up the beer jug, he sniffed it with suspicion. ‘Holy blood, you’re drinking ale! You have a flagon of my ole cider, masters, and I’ll tell you, you en’t gonner go back to this bat’s piss in a hurry.’
Dudley looked pained. One virtue of high social status, he’d been known to remark, was that it spared you the crude predations of the serving classes.
‘Master Martin,’ I said, ‘would you happen to know where we might find Nicholas Meredith?’
‘Won’t be far away. He’s in town. Friend of yours?’
‘You’re his cousin? From London? You en’t a lawyer, then?’
‘I… No. Not as such.’
Martin took a step back into the pooled water, inspecting me from head to feet and back again.
‘Holy blood! You en’t…?’ His eyes widened, and then his arms were thrown wide as if he’d embrace me. ‘Rowly Dee’s boy? The man who… Holy blood…’
‘You knew my father?’
‘Rowland Dee? All the talk was about him at one time. How close he was to the ole King. How well-favoured. And now it’s his son and the ole King’s daughter. Holy blood! I tell you… Master Meredith, when the pamphlets come from London after the crowning, he’s in yere reading it all out. His uncle’s boy calculing the stars for the new queen. Well, well… Do he know you’re yere?’
‘I wrote to him but… no, he doesn’t. Not yet.’
‘Aye, I thought… He’d known you was coming, we’d never’ve yeard the last of it. So you en’t nothing to do with the judge?’
I assured him we were merely travelling with the judge’s company, while inspecting manuscripts from disassembled libraries. Taking the opportunity to make a visit to my family’s old home.
‘Nant-y-groes? Master Stephen Price, he’s there now, see. You know Master Price? He was down London. MP for Radnorshire.’
‘Why’s he living at Nant-y-groes?’
‘Building a new home down the valley, by the ole monastery grange. Gotter keep his family somewhere, meanwhile.’
‘So he’s only renting it.’
‘Master Nick likely owns it yet.’
‘And much of this town?’
‘Not as much as Master Bradshaw – big wool merchant.’ Jeremy Martin beamed. ‘Wool, cloth and the law, my masters. As good a foundation as you’ll find anywhere. Used to be religion, now it’s wool, cloth and the law.’
* * *
The rain stopped not long before twilight. Within half an hour, a piercing red sun lit the street, and Dudley and I walked out into a town that you could feel to be growing around you.
Signs of building on a scale I hadn’t encountered since leaving Cecil’s house in the Strand. Piles of bricks everywhere and frames of green oak for new houses. Poke into any alleyway, and you’d find old barns and outhouses being converted into business premises.
We edged around a puddle the size of a duckpond, the sun floating there like an orange.
‘I don’t see,’ I said, ‘why this town makes you shiver.’
Dudley looked across the street where the ground rose towards a castle, fallen into ruin on its green mound, much of its stone already plundered.
‘I do mistrust sudden wealth.’
‘As distinct from inherited wealth?’
He didn’t rise to that. The sun spread a glowing hearthlight over a wall of new brick, and a stout man in clerk’s apparel crossed the street in front of us, bearing a pile of leather-bound documents.
‘It’s in a hurry, this town, to leave something behind,’ Dudley said. ‘Don’t you feel that?’
He eyed me.
‘Why so frivolous tonight?’
Dudley frowned. The ostler, who’d stabled our horses, led two more past us towards the entrance to the mews at the side of the Bull. It was not hard to imagine my tad here, carousing with his friends on the hot summer nights of old. I felt sad.
‘Tell me about Cumnor Place,’ I said.
No reply. Doors were opening, people threatening to throng the streets. I waited until we could no longer hear the clitter of hooves.
‘Better here than back at the inn,’ I said. ‘You never know who’s listening at the door of a bedchamber.’
We’d come to the corner of the wide street leading down to the church and the sheriff’s house. All was yet quiet here. If they’d brought Prys Gethin from New Radnor, another crowd would have formed in no time, but the street was empty. At the bottom, just past the church, a stone bridge over the river carried a narrow road into the hills, where a castle occupied a gap in the forest. Probably back in England.
‘I don’t know what to do about it,’ Dudley said.
‘About what… exactly?’
He stopped, glanced behind him to where the lurid sun was down on the horizon, poking through the layered clouds like the tip of a tongue betwixt reddened lips.
‘The murder of my wife. Beyond all doubt, now.’
So She Wouldn’t Die
CUMNOR PLACE. BARELY three miles from Oxford. Hardly a demanding ride from Kew. And now his wife was dead and buried Dudley had finally made the journey.
I wondered how he’d felt, but didn’t ask.
The house was a century old, but recently made modern by Dudley’s friend and his wife’s last host, Anthony Forster. It had been divided into a number of fine apartments, one of which had become the home of Amy Dudley.
Ten years of marriage, no country house of her own and unwelcome in London town – so that the Queen could pretend she didn’t exist.
Not that she was alone at Cumnor. There were retainers, perhaps half a dozen of them. A small, itinerant household.
So where was this retinue on the day of Amy’s death?
Why… at the local fair.
Amy, it seemed, had ordered everyone – everyone, women and men – to go to the fair. Would hear no word of dissent.
I’d heard about this before and had not liked what it implied.
It had been a Sunday and the day after the Queen’s twenty-seventh birthday which Dudley, who arranged the festivities, might have claimed was also his. For his wife’s birthday, he would have sent a present.
My mother had heard gossip in Mortlake village about Amy being so stricken with darkness of mind over her husband’s neglect that she’d oft-times determined to make away with herself. And yet, not so very long before that, she seemed in good heart. Dudley had been told of a letter, dated August 24, which she’d sent to her London tailor, William Edney, with instructions for the styling of a velvet gown. She was not frugal with her clothing, having spent nearly fifty shillings on a Spanish gown of russet damask, and she urged Edney to make haste to get the latest gown to her.
Had she really wanted a new gown in which to throw herself down eight steps to a far from certain death?
Yes… a mere eight stone steps, and not even a straight flight – a bend in it, apparently.
The only sequence of events I could imagine begins in an instant of blinding despair, as Amy stands at the top of the stairs, maybe with an image all aflame in her mind of Dudley and Elizabeth dancing together on their birthday… and in her anguish she hurls herself, with some violence, from the top step to the stone flags below.
Which sat well with her ordering of everyone to the fair, so that she might be alone. No one to stop her.
‘Broken her neck.’ Dudley gazing down the sloping street and doubtless seeing stairs stretching away into a black mist. ‘That’s what I was told. What everyone was told. Including Tom Blount.’
His steward, whom he’d sent to Cumnor in his place, so that he might not be seen as attempting to interfere with the inquiry.
‘You thought she’d killed herself?’ I said.
‘My first thought, yes.’
‘Because she didn’t want to stand in your way.’
His eyes closed.
‘Yet you told me earlier this year that she believed herself mortally ill.’
‘From what she told me. But what if she was lying?’
I thought that if a wife of mine had suggested she was dying of some malady, I’d not leave her side. Must needs stop thinking like this. I was not Robert Dudley. Had never been blinded by an all-consuming sense of destiny.
There was yet more to this. Some private matter which, even as one of Dudley’s oldest friends, I’d never be told. Nor should be, I supposed.
‘Did you tell the Queen what Amy said?’
In my head the voice of Bishop Bonner.
… heard that, some days before your friend Dudley was widowed, the Queen confided to the esteemed Spanish ambassador, Bishop la Quadra, that Lady Dudley would very soon be departing this life.
Dudley having told her was the only reason I could think of for the Queen’s terrifying foresight. The only reason I dare allow myself to think of.
No reply. He’d gone to sit on the remains of a stone wall, where part of an old house was being taken down.
‘Blount told me a report had been written about the state of the… of Amy’s body. He couldn’t get a sight of the document.’
‘When it’s put before the coroner, its content should be made public.’
‘When… No date’s set for the resumption of the inquest. Knew I could demand to see it, though. If I pulled rank.’
‘And you thought that wise?’
‘God no. Didn’t even try. But did have a quiet meeting with Anthony Forster. Well, if it was your house, you’d want to know everything, wouldn’t you?’
Forster, of course, had not been there either when Amy died but, yes, he’d want to know.
‘We arrived the day after two servants had seen her ghost at the top of the stairs. Forster said the rest of them were afraid to go into that part of the house, day or night.’
‘But you went there.’
‘Oh yes. I saw the place. The chances of falling to your death from those stairs are… slight.’
‘But her neck was—’
‘Broken, yes. And she was found at the bottom of the stairs. But there were…’ He thought for a moment. ‘What’s never been talked about is that there were other injuries. Dints. In her head. Which may have been caused by hitting the stone, but one was a good two inches deep. What does that suggest to you?’
‘Something sharp. Maybe the sharp edge of a stair?’
Had the feeling I was clutching at reeds here.
‘Oh, John, come on…’
‘It might also suggest she was struck. A two-inch dint… speaks to me of a blow from a… a sword blade.’
‘If you saw that stair, then you’d know nothing else explains it. And yet… Tom Blount says he understands, from his inquiries, that the jury is not disposed to see evidence of evil.’
Dudley stood up and faced what remained of the sun. I only hoped he wasn’t seeing it as I was. The clouds like reddened lips had become the slit of an open wound, so that the sun – a sun which this day had scarce lived – looked to be dying in an ooze of sticky blood.
I said, ‘Anyone seeing the entire household, apart from Amy, at the fair… would have a good idea that she was alone. Might this be a robbery? Was anything taken?’
‘No. I’m telling you, somebody killed her, John. Somebody went into Cumnor to kill her. No doubt left.’
His face looked very dark against the low light. The gipsy, they called him, those who sought to dishonour him, and the change wrought by the butchery to his beard and moustache made this seem not unjust. Without those trademark facial twirls, even a friend might take some time to recognise Lord Dudley.
‘Let’s bring this into the air,’ I said. ‘You think someone killed her to damage you.’
‘I know it.’
‘Make a list.’
‘But if it was someone who wanted to make sure you would not wed the Queen, surely it were better than Amy lived.’
‘Ah, well, you would think that, wouldn’t you? But then… perhaps you wouldn’t.’
He turned sharply and began to walk quickly away, back along the route we’d come, across the street towards the castle mound, me striding after him.
And then he called back, over a shoulder,
‘Suppose someone killed her… so she wouldn’t die?’
He stopped, panting, at the foot of the castle mound.
‘Yes, all right… I may have told Bess what Amy had said. About having a mortal illness. Maybe a sickness of the breast, I don’t know exactly what I said. But why the hell she had to tell that scheming bastard la Quadra, who yet wants her for the King of Spain… or some muffin appointed by Spain to snatch England back for Rome…’
‘She’d have told the Spanish ambassador simply to give Spain the message that marriage to you might no longer be out of the question. She probably regretted it as soon as it was out.’
Both of us knowing the Queen was sometimes inclined to speak with insufficient forethought, even on matters of world significance.
‘And meanwhile la Quadra blabs,’ Dudley said. ‘The man has a mouth like a slop pail. How many people have told you what the Queen said?’
He’d started to climb the castle mound between shadowy stacks of broken masonry and bushes of broom and gorse, snatching at handfuls of grass, calling back at me.
‘Jesu, John, are you not seeing this yet? If my wife had died of natural cause…’
Close to dark now, bats flittering overhead, and…
… and dear God, yes, I was seeing it now. I followed him up the mound, tripping over a slab of masonry, picking myself up, my hands slimed with mud and dew, Dudley shouting back at me, too loud.
‘If it was a natural cause, then I’d be not only free but blameless.’
Yes. For his enemies, the worst of all situations. So if Amy was to die in an unnatural way before her time – however short that time might be…
I reached the flattened top of the mound just as the last of the sun, dull as an old coin, slid down into the western hills. Soot-dark hills which gave a sense of the real Wales, its isolation, its secrecy.
… killed… so she wouldn’t die.
Dudley was facing me with hands on hips.
‘If her death is unnatural, then I’m yet free but, in most people’s eyes, far from blameless. Even if nothing can be proved against me.’
‘What are you going to do, Robbie?’
‘Try not to get killed as well, I suppose. A good many men would feel justified in doing it, if I’m seen to have escaped justice for the wilful murder of my wife.’
If someone had killed Amy expecting Dudley to be held responsible and then to walk away in shame, retire to the country to live out his years in the comparative seclusion of the English squirearchy… then they knew him not as I did.
He ran fingers across the wreckage of his beard.
‘Life seems as dark to me now as when I was in the Tower awaiting the block.’
‘But if you were to find out who killed Amy…?’
‘How? Through a fucking shewstone?’ He raised both hands. ‘Ah… mercy. Look… even if it were possible to discover the killer, it would rather depend, methinks, on who it was.’
There were names I wouldn’t say out loud beyond the walls of my own home. What a wasp’s nest this country was become.
It was cold on that mound. I knew not who’d built the castle or who had destroyed it – maybe Glyndwr. But there was a feeling of hostility here; we were not wanted. I looked down at Presteigne. How tidily it sat. Glimmerings, as tapers were lit behind the windows of the wealthy.
‘Let’s go back,’ Dudley said.
I followed him, feeling sad to the soul. What if Amy had been lying about her illness to see what response she’d get from Dudley? What if she was suffering from no more than a malady of the mind, grown out of a profound loneliness?
A plea for love answered by death.
WE WALKED BACK into the town, me in a grey fog, to find that a crowd was gathered around the sheriff’s house. Pitch torches blazed either side of the gates, their reflected flames riffling like lilies on the puddles where a group of men had dismounted, ostlers hurrying to take the horses.
The sheriff’s company was back and without Prys Gethin. I saw Vaughan addressed by a red-faced man in a muddied jerkin and moved closer to listen.
‘… his humour, Roger?’
Vaughan muttered something, and the red-faced man groaned, threw up his hands, then turned and addressed the crowd.
‘Too foul, it is, see. Not safe to make the journey before nightfall. Not with a prisoner the Welsh want back.’
Evidently this year’s sheriff, Evan Lewis. His promise to ride out again to New Radnor on the morrow brought a sour response, a man asking, with sarcasm, what would happen if it was pissing down again.
‘Let him go, is it, Evan, so he’ll catch a cold?’
A rope of damp pennants fell from the darkening sky, evidently cut down. Made a mocking garland around the sheriff’s hat, Lewis wrenching it away, shouting over a river of laughter.
‘We’ll hold the trial at New Radnor, then. That what you want? Is it?’
I turned to Dudley.
‘That even possible?’
‘He’s jesting. You think he’d deprive the goodfolk of Presteigne of an entertainment they’d waited twenty years for?’
‘This talk of curses…’
‘Talk of curses? God’s bollocks, John, looks to me that Plant Mat’s brought nothing but good fortune to this town. Given it the Great Sessions, and now a good hanging? They should throw a feast for the bastard before he dangles.’
I’d found it interesting, though, the way the sheriff had said the Welsh wanted Gethin back. As if it was accepted that Presteigne was not truly Wales. Admittedly, we hadn’t been long in the town, but I’d yet to hear someone speak the language.
Evan Lewis, scowling, passed through his own gates to face the judge. Dudley turned away, in the direction of the Bull, and I was about to follow him, when someone stepped purposefully between us.
By a torch’s fizzing light, I marked a man of about my own height, perhaps a few years older and fairer of hair and skin. Clad as a country gentleman in fine leather jerkin and boots that stood well in foot-deep puddles.
‘Nicholas Meredith,’ he said.
‘My God, we were trying to find you…’
I held out my hand; he didn’t take it, and it was knocked aside by a fellow pushing past. Nicholas Meredith braced himself against the sheriff’s wall. I smiled.
‘Good to meet you at last, cousin.’
‘I received a letter from you this morning, Dr Dee.’ The border accent was in his voice, but so also was an education. ‘Replying to it at once, with proper civility.’
‘Evidently a waste of my time. Why would you write to me, knowing you were coming here? And saying nothing of that.’
‘Cousin Nicholas, I wrote before I knew I’d be coming.’
Telling him about the providence of the judicial company. Thinking he’d understood when the dazzle of the pitch torch made it seem as if he was smiling.
In fact he was not.
‘You’ve made me look a fool, Dr Dee. Fetching up without a word, taking a chamber at my inn.’
‘Your inn? I didn’t even know that. We were simply told it was the best inn in Presteigne. My…’ I made a gesture towards Dudley. ‘This is my colleague, Master Roberts, an antiquary. We were both—’
‘Your letter’ – my cousin didn’t even look at Dudley – ‘suggests you’re here in search of treasure.’
‘Of a kind.’
‘Well, well…’ Nicholas Meredith jutted his chin. His short beard was combed to an elegant point. ‘How like your father.’
No mistaking his expression this time; I’d seen too many sneers. A low growl from Dudley.
‘That knave,’ my cousin Meredith said.
I had no response, was held in shock. Not two hours ago, the innkeeper had talked of my cousin’s pride in my father’s position at King Henry’s court. All the talk was about him. And me too. All this man’s letters to me had been invariably cordial.
‘I don’t understand,’ I said at last. ‘The innkeeper said you spoke well of my father. How close he was to the old king.’
‘I’m sure he was,’ Nicholas Meredith said. ‘Close enough to pocket the spoons.’
A long hissing breath came out of Dudley, but he was yet ignored. A few men had made a half circle around us, in the way that men do, scenting the approach of violence. Meredith raised his tone.
‘You think we’re so removed from London, Dr Dee, that we hear nothing of what goes on there? You think we know nothing of your father’s crimes? You think we weren’t dishonoured by him?’
‘I know not what you’re—’
‘In your ill-writ letter,’ my cousin said, ‘you ask if I know of the whereabouts of a gemstone, formerly the property of the Abbey of Wigmore. Possibly misappropriated. Hah, methinks, how can this man talk so loftily about the misappropriation of church treasures when his own father—’
‘My father was a kind man,’ I said softly. ‘A generous man.’
‘Particularly with the property of others.’
I’m not good at conflict, have no ready store of oiled ripostes. I stood in silence, aware of a greater gathering of onlookers and Dudley at my shoulder.
‘Forgive me for intruding, John, but why don’t we just beat the piss out of this muffin?’
I could feel how badly Dudley wanted this to become a fight, if only to relieve himself of weeks of stored-up rage. And still, Nicholas Meredith behaved as if he wasn’t there.
‘Were you about to deny that Rowland Dee, when churchwarden at St Dunstan’s in London, stole church plates left in his charge?’
Dudley’s right hand was at his belt, where he’d keep a dagger.
‘No,’ I said quietly.
Dudley stiffened. Nicholas Meredith smiled.
‘You asked about Abbot Smart? My letter, when you receive it on your return, will tell you he’s long gone. Probably into France. You’ll learn that nobody here has seen him for years. So if you’ve somewhere else on your treasure-hunting itinerary, I suggest you depart for it at first light.’
As he turned away, my hose was soaked at the groin by a splash of fire-bright water thrown up by his boot.
* * *
In my haste to avoid a further exchange, I’d walked the wrong way, and we found ourselves down by the church and the river. A mean river compared with the Wye, and the bridge was wooden and creaked when I stood upon it, but at least we seemed to be alone.
‘… doesn’t matter if it’s true,’ Dudley was hissing. ‘You don’t let any man who spoke thus walk away undamaged.’
‘It does matter,’ I said. ‘Matters to me. My father sullied his status as churchwarden at St Dunstan’s. He sold plate that certainly wasn’t his to sell. He’d lost his place at court and his business was ruined – through no fault of his own, I’d guess. I’m sure he… would have made good, when his fortunes improved.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake, John, every family has some knavery to hide.’
I looked down at the moonlit river, swollen by the downpour and not far below the bridge timbers.
‘He was not a thief. He was a proud man. And he paid for the best education I could’ve had. I wish I’d been able to earn enough money to ease his old age. But he died. And now I don’t earn enough to support my mother in the way she once was used to.’
‘You’ve not done badly under the circumstances. Given that he doesn’t seem to have left you any money… or even a house.’
‘He left me an education.’
‘Which you spend all your life expanding. Is that life? Come on, let’s get back. See how this looks in daylight.’
Dudley began to walk back up the street, quieter now, fewer lights.
‘I no longer feel happy to pass the night in my cousin’s inn,’ I said.
‘We’ll we’re not spending it in a fucking field. Besides, another word with the smarmy innkeeper might not go amiss, methinks.’
‘Why would he lie?’
‘It’s what innkeepers do when you’re paying for meals and a bedchamber. But it would be worth finding out if Meredith’s been blackening your name all over town.’
Only two of the judge’s guards stood, with their pikes, outside the sheriff’s house. No one troubling them. The pitch-torches were burned low, the ropes of pennants gathering into loops and thrown over the wall.
Near the top of the street a man walked past us and sniggered. Dudley lurched towards him, and I seized his arm.
‘You want a reputation as a fucking Betsy by morning, John?’
‘Must needs think.’
‘Or will we even still be here by morning? Think? Well, of course. Why don’t you consult one of your books on how best to respond to an insult to your family?’
Never going to let this go, was he? But I was thinking of something else.
‘He said Abbot Smart had not been seen here in years. That he was probably in France.’
‘Would indeed have been useful to know that before we came.’
‘It’s not the impression I had from the Bishop of Hereford.’
I recalled John Scory’s words exactly: I don’t know where Smart is, though I do hear word of him from time to time.
‘You think Meredith was lying?’
‘Scory was spare with actual facts, but more generous with hints. He implied that my cousin might have things to hide. He said Presteigne, despite its appearance, was… a place of dark alleys.’
‘I told you there was something wrong here. You lose religion and let a town become ruled by commerce and greed…’
A man drew level with us at the corner of the street. Dudley’s elbows bent, one hand forming a fist.
‘This one,’ he said, ‘I’ll deal with now.’
‘If I may have a word, Dr Dee?’
The moon showed me a man who, though shortish, was yet built like a brick privy.
‘Make it very quick, fellow,’ Dudley said.
The man didn’t move, as though the word quick had little meaning for him.
‘Only I overheard your cousin’s tirade, see.’
Dudley starting forward, but the man was standing his ground, like a bull in a meadow.
‘And was surprised,’ he said, ‘at how he spoke. Seein’ as when I was in London, I heard naught but good words of you. And knew of your father when he was at Nant-y-groes and I was a child down the valley. He was ever merry and, as you said, generous – especially with apples, as I recall.’
‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘Thank you, Master…’
‘Lease Nant-y-groes from Nicholas Meredith, and I wondered… Well, it would seem a pity if you’d come all this way without seeing your father’s birthplace.’
Found myself nodding, grasping at a friendly hand.
‘And as I’ll be riding back there at dawn… no wish to watch all the paid-for glee at the arrival of the Welshie in chains. So if you wanted to ride back with me, I’d deem it an honour to show you around the place. And your companion, of course.’
* * *
‘He wants something,’ Dudley said in darkness.
The shutters were up at the window but left open. Dudley had the four-poster. I’d taken – by choice – the truckle pulled from under it, though he’d tossed me an extra pillow in a bere.
‘I doubt Price means us ill,’ I said. ‘And I would like to see the house and its situation. Maybe the only chance I’ll ever have if it’s owned by my cousin. Don’t mind riding out with him alone. It’s but a few miles. Could be back soon after noon.’
‘I was about to suggest it. Let Meredith think he’s driven you away. Would give me chance to ask a few questions while the town’s in holiday mood over the trial. Be a pity to leave empty-handed.’
‘You’re yet determined to have the stone?’
‘I’ve faith in your learning, John. And if France’s poisonous prophet’s making use of scrying, it’s our duty. I’ll let it be known I’m an antiquary collecting gemstones and prepared to pay good money for intelligence about Smart.’
‘Well, keep away from my cousin.’
‘I could deal with the likes of your cousin in my sleep. It’s interesting, though, John. What’s behind it? Why’s he want you out of here? What’s he not want you to find out? Is there money here you’re entitled to? Property?’
‘Don’t raise my hopes. Money and the Dees—’
‘His approach to you seemed a little too conspicuously aggressive. As if he sought to draw you into public conflict.’
‘I should call him out?’
‘Big books at dawn?’ Dudley said. ‘Goodnight, John.’
* * *
I lay in the truckle bed next to the door. A haloed moon was visible where the shutters had been left open so I’d awaken at first light, and I looked for known stars. Wondering why we were here, what the future might hold for Dudley. If he’d ever find out how Amy died and at whose hands and if that would free him or expose him to more threat. On the rim of sleep, I found myself considering if it might even be true that the Queen carried Dudley’s child. So many months had passed since she’d summoned me. How many others had seen her in that time?
Among the stars, I saw images of Elizabeth walking alone in the private gardens of Richmond, all big of belly, gazing out to the fabricated island where Robert Dudley had lain his head betwixt her feet.
If he’d stopped at her feet. I saw him as he was an hour ago, when first he’d seen the ripe-bosomed young woman who had shown us to our chamber and turned out to be the innkeeper’s wife. A movement in his jaw, a tightening of wires.
I shut my eyes on the stars, wrapping the sheets twice round me because of the cold. Knowing not that I’d slept until I awoke to Dudley’s scream.
All Heavy with Old Death
THERE WERE TWO families of ducks on the good-sized pond in front of Nant-y-groes. Sheep grazed the land down to the river and more sheep were on the opposite bank until the valley floor was lost into woodland.
Beyond which was the hill, a pale and almost luminous green under the heavy sky.
The hill of ghosts.
‘Be glad when I don’t have to see it every morning,’ Stephen Price said. ‘Or watch it under the last lights.’
‘And when will that be?’
‘One year, mabbe two. Fair bit of work to be done on the new place yet.’
He stood firm on this land. Short, thick-built, weathered of face, and showing more confidence than he had in Presteigne last night, as he spoke of the house his family was rebuilding in the next valley, a former abbey grange, Monaughty, from the Welsh for monastery.
An easy walk from here, but its aspect was different.
‘Keeping an air of the holy,’ Stephen Price said. ‘We’d like it to be…’ He glanced back at Nant-y-groes. ‘…three, four times this size. Bigger families in the years to come. As you doctors learn to stop disease leaving empty cribs.’
‘Not that kind of doctor, Master Price. Or… well, not beyond a small knowledge of anatomy.’
‘Ah.’ He nodded his big, squarish head and led me along a path towards the river and a new barn of green oak. Though obviously of the gentry, he spoke simply, in a farmer’s way, as if with an inborn sense of the rudiments of life which the time he’d spent in London could not take away.
‘If the new house was a monastery grange,’ I said, ‘would that mean for Wigmore?’
‘No, no. Abbey Cwmhir in the west. Wigmore land stopped at Presteigne. That’s English, see – wherever they draws the boundary. This… is where Wales begins.’
* * *
I’d tried to feel it. Tried to feel the weight of my ancestry, back from my grandfather Bedo Ddu – an ebullient man whom, my father said, had ordered the font filled with wine at the baptism of his first son. Back through Llewelyn Crugeryr, who had a castle, and Prince Rhys ap Tewdwr, which would give me common ancestry with the Queen… all the way back, my tad would insist, to Arthur himself.
Out of Presteigne, the country had changed: a darkening of the soil but a lightening of the hills, close shaven by sheep. Although there were no jagged peaks, you could sense the rock under the green, the bones of the land. The ruins of a small castle stood like a skeletal fist across the river, and a small grey church was tucked into the hill of Pilleth with a cluster of mean houses below.
I saw all this, but felt no pull of the heart.
Found no sense of my tad in the house which lay behind us, a solid dwelling of timber and rubblestone, with a good hall and inglenook and a new chimney. An old housekeeper had been making flat cakes on a bakestone, with dried currants and shavings of apple. Welsh cakes, I guessed – my tad used to say proudly that he’d taught the King’s cooks how to make them for the royal table. I’d told the housekeeper this, and she’d given me one to eat and said she remembered Master Rowly when he was a boy, him and all his jests. But the taste of the Welsh cake brought back only memories of Mortlake.
At the riverside, I turned to Stephen Price.
‘You said you recalled my father?’
‘I well recall him. Too young, mind, to know him as a man. I was sent away to an uncle up at Llanbister, to be tutored, as you might say, in the arts of marketing and butchery. When I came back, Master Dee was gone to London. Sought to look him up when I was down there for the parliaments, but he was dead by then.’
‘Must have been strange,’ I said, ‘coming back from London to this…’
‘Wilderness?’ It was the first time I’d seen him smile. It found shape as slowly as his way of speech. ‘Never thought of it that way, Dr Dee. Not till I came back that first time after three weeks in London. Couldn’t settle back to it, not for a while. So quiet after London that you were listening to your own breaths.’
‘Did Nicholas Meredith ever live out here?’
‘Not that I’d know. Presteigne boy, see. Presteigne… it en’t London, but it aims to be.’ He sighed. ‘I don’t enquire into the doings of Master Meredith or how he got his money. En’t my business, and I’m living in a house that belongs to him and plan to carry on leasing the farm after we moves out to Monaughty. But the way he was to you last night… spoke of more than I could understand.’
I looked him in the eyes.
‘Left me mystified, also,’ I said.
‘Injured, too, I’d reckon. Come all this way, and your own family don’t wanner know you.’
A pensive tightening of Price’s lips.
‘You must needs have care,’ he said at last. ‘Big man in Presteigne now. Him and Bradshaw. Ole John Bradshaw, down from Ludlow with all his wool money and the lease on most of the abbey property from the Crown. So Presteigne’s yet owned by England, and the Council of the Marches gets its bidding done by the wool men. Who are also the magistrates, and so on. You getting the picture?’
‘Do you know anything at all of the last Abbot of Wigmore? John Smart?’
‘You keeps coming back to that, Dr Dee.’
‘He’s the reason I’m here. He’s said to have in his charge a gemstone – a crystal stone, a beryl, I believe, which I and my colleague hope to acquire from him. For my research.’
‘On the Queen’s behalf?’
‘Everything I do,’ I said honestly and more than a little sadly, ‘is for the Queen’s Majesty.’
‘What you do… relating to the Hidden?’
‘One day it will no longer be hidden. Open to everyone. That’s my hope.’
Thinking of my library, which anyone who could read was free to consult, not that many did.
‘You think that’s wise, Dr Dee? That all should be known?’
Stephen Price was watching me. It seemed that Dudley had been right, this man wanted something from me – perhaps what Vaughan had hinted at on the road to Hereford – and, in his border way, was taking the long route. I, however, continued to be direct and honest.
‘What I’m seeking, Master Price, is a stone through which I believe knowledge can be obtained. The kind of knowledge that can’t be learned from books or tutors, only by the lifting of the mind. It’s said to have healing qualities. And is in the possession of John Smart. Do you know him?’
‘Knows of him, that’s all. A holy knave, by all accounts. Babbies everywhere.’
‘You know if he’s yet about?’
‘Never had cause to. He don’t enter my life. I got enough troubles. Some of the ole monks, they never went away. Abbots, you don’t see much of them, but he could be around.’
If Price knew more, it was clear he felt not safe in the discussion of it. He folded his arms, rocking to and fro at the river’s edge. Looking up for a hint of sun, to work out the time.
I said, ‘You think they’ll have brought their prisoner from New Radnor?’
‘You said last night that you had no wish to watch all the glee. I think you said paid-for glee.’
‘Time off work, free pies. A holiday. A fair.’
‘To cover up fear?’
He eyed me.
‘Feel it, did you, in Presteigne?’
‘Not to any great extent.’
‘Pies are working then, ennit?’ He looked up at the hill, a pale green wall before us: steep sides, a flat top. ‘Nothing works yere.’
‘And Pilleth. The village. What’s left of it.’
He took in a long breath, as if he was absorbing something of the humour of the place.
‘There was no village left even before the battle, see. Just Nant-y-groes and a couple more farms, a way off. When they thought the battle was forgot, my ancestors set aside some ground east of the hill to build houses for a blacksmith, and woodsmen, cottagers to work the land. Then they rebuilt the church that was burned down, and Pilleth was become a proper village, mabbe for the first time. Seventy folks there at one time, they reckon. Mabbe twenty-five now.’
I waited in silence, recalling Vaughan’s words.
A place where a thousand men have been slaughtered is not exactly the easiest place to make a home.
Price looked up the hill towards the church, which Brynglas held, as it were, to its breast.
‘When I was told, as a boy,’ he said, ‘that you wouldn’t find no sheep up there after sundown, I never questioned it.’
‘The sheep won’t sleep on the hill?’
‘Nor anywhere ’twixt the hill and the river. As a man, riding to London, I never thought about it. It was just ole country lore. In London, I’d be with men who’d laugh. Or mabbe men such as yourself, who’d say, but why’s it true?’
‘In Pilleth, it just is.’ Price stood solid as a boar, his back to the river. ‘This is a hard place to live. I been told nobody should be living yere at all. But the folks at Pilleth, they’ve learned how to withstand what has to be withstood. And I thought they were stronger for it, but now I en’t sure. I never quite seen the truth of it till I went away and come back. And even then it took a while. Well, London – you know what that’s like.’
‘The biggest, noisiest city in the world.’
‘Aye, and back from London, you think you’re a big man – MP for Radnorshire. But what’s it mean? Less than it sounds. You’re rarely called to Parliament, and your vote don’t count for more’n a fart – Privy Council opens a window and it’s gone. And then you come back home, with all your big ideas, to find they’ll pay more heed to an idiot boy as talks to the dead. ’Cause that’s real, for them. That’s there.’
I said carefully, ‘Some matters… some matters are as hard – if not harder – for men of intellect to discuss as they are for the uneducated.’
Looking out over the pale brown river and thinking of Dudley, as he’d been this dawn as I dressed and prepared to leave for Nant-y-groes. Dudley mumbling about bad dreams, but sleepily.
Not in the way he had some hours earlier. No screams, no sweat, no panting. No…
* * *
Jesu… he’s gone.
Sitting up on his high bolster, clutching the bed curtains.
You didn’t see him? Standing beside your bed?
Holding death, John. In his hands.
And me – I was no better. Keeping my voice steady, the words coming out as if spoken by someone else.
It was… a dream. A bad dream, that’s all.
Knowing then, rolling over, staring out at the cold stars, that he’d be back to sleep long before I would.
* * *
‘Who’s the idiot boy, Master Price?’
The sky hung low, like a soiled pillow that might suffocate all below it. Twenty people left in that grey community under the hill. And one of them talking to the dead?
Price stood beside the brown and roiling river, breathing heavily.
‘This boy… latest in a long line of strange folk as fetches up in Pilleth, like it was ordained. But I chose not to believe. Big man, back from London, full of new ideas, man with his eyes open full wide. We… got ourselves a new rector and his eyes is full open, too. Least to some things. To others, his eyes is shut tight. One of the new breed.’
‘A Bible man?’
‘Lutheran to the core, and he don’t like what he sees. Most of all, he don’t like the boy. The idiot. I call him an idiot because there’s no harm in an idiot. But, to the rector, he’s gone to Satan.’
‘Because he talks to the dead?’
‘Because he finds them, Dr Dee. He finds the dead. On the hill. He puts out his hands, and the ole dead… it’s like they reach out to him.’
‘You mean the dead… from the battle?’
Stephen Price stared down into the muddy river. A mewling hawk glid over us.
‘The battle… when it was fought, 1402, they reckon it was a summer just like this. Not much of a summer at all. The ground all waterlogged. Not much of a harvest. Omens. Folk seeing omens everywhere. Like they’re seeing now, with the return of Rhys Gethin.’
‘Prys. And he’s—’
‘A common bandit, aye. But is he? I don’t see omens, but I don’t feel good about Pilleth. And I’m the squire of yere, and my family goes back likely longer than yours, and it’s my responsibility. And it en’t Presteigne, it’s a lonely place, all heavy with ole death. You can’t buy off fear in Pilleth with free pies.’
Oh God. Here it was, coming out backwards and sideways and from under the feet, in the old Border way.
I made a stand.
‘Master Price, some people think… In truth, I’m not a priest. I’m a scholar, a natural philosopher, a man of science. I study. I can’t—’
‘I know what you do, Dr Dee. I once talked to… another MP who knows you. Francis Walsingham?’
‘You talked to Walsingham?’
‘He came to me one time. Asking about your family.’
Well, the bastard would, wouldn’t he? Francis Walsingham traded in intelligence, most of it passed to Cecil in the event of it being required to measure me for the gallows drop.
‘Most complimentary about you, Dr Dee. Told me how much the Queen relies on your advice.’
Reassuring only to a point; if it had suited his or Cecil’s purposes, Walsingham would just as easily have painted me black.
‘I’d thought to write to you, as a local man, kind o’ thing,’ Price said. ‘And then… yere you are, like you been sent by—’
‘No!’ Flinging up my hands. ‘I came in search of a stone, for my experiments. For knowledge… for healing.’
‘Healing. Aye. That’s what’s needed.’
Dear God, I was digging my own pit.
‘Master Price, I have to say this oft-times, but… I don’t… undertake the cure of souls.’
The Squire of Pilleth stood with his back to the flat-topped hill, a stubble of thorn bushes around its summit, half concealing the tower of the church. A church my tad had said was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, whose role was now reduced by the new theology as represented by this new vicar. But not, I guessed, for Stephen Price, clearly much heartened by the thought of a new family home grown from a monastery grange.
Keeping an air of the holy.
‘All I’m asking, Dr Dee, is for advice. Like you give to the Queen.’
‘You’re a clever man, Master Price.’
‘No. I’m a worried man. There’s things I don’t understand. And the dead are rising as never before. A place with more dead than living. Is that good?’
I stared at the ground.
‘Come with me,’ Price said. ‘Come with me up the hill at least.’
Thrown From the Body
MY TAD HAD entertained me, as a boy, with tales of the Glyndwr wars. I can see his face now, reddened by the fire, his eyes bulging like a clown’s as he relates how the rebel leader calling himself Prince of Wales rose against the English King, Henry I V, destroying all the border castles in his path. Oh, the romance of it.
A romance conspicuously missing from Stephen Price’s account of the Battle of Brynglas as we set off up the hill, Price making a hand-gesture at the steepening slope before us.
‘Imagine a thousand dead and dying men. Hear their hoarse whimpers. Many more dead men than there are sheep yere now. Arms and legs and guts. And hogsheads of blood. Imagine the sorely wounded crawling through the plashy pools of blood.’
Tad had claimed once that the Dees were descended from the same family as Glyndwr – well, who of note were we not descended from? But why don’t I remember him ever speaking of the Battle of Brynglas?
‘In a way,’ Stephen Price said, ‘it was almost separate from Glyndwr’s campaign. It was about the Welsh and the Mortimers – the arrogant Norman Marcher lords with their impregnable castles and their contempt for the Welsh – the last true Britons. The lowly Welsh hated the Mortimers. Hate beyond our understanding in these modern days.’
‘If the castles had been impregnable,’ I said, ‘would there be so many bald mounds the length of the border?’
‘Or so many well-built stone farm buildings.’
Stephen Price chuckled bleakly. Looking back, we could see my father’s birthplace, seeming the size of a candle box, and a smaller farmhouse the other side of the bridge, both part of the original Nant-y-groes estate. The English army on that June day must surely have assembled somewhere close to whatever kind of wooden bridge had crossed the river there.
And the Dees… had they just sat and watched from their farms? Or had they taken part? The previously unconsidered question of whose side my family had been on was writ now, in illuminated script across the deep grey sky.
‘They say Edmund Mortimer’s army was a ragbag of peasants, hastily recruited,’ Price said. ‘But that wasn’t it. He knew the Welshman was on his way down from the north and reckoned to crush him for good and all. Grind him into the ground. Mortimer had two thousand in his army, including a core of well-trained fighting men – his own and the men brought along by the knights supporting him. And then there were the archers. Welsh archers, many of ’em – Mortimer pulled his bowmen from both sides of the border. No, it was at least a halfway-proper army.’
‘Yet slaughtered by half as many Welsh?’
‘Don’t sound likely, do it, till you know what happened. Rhys Gethin, he had his own archers. And rage on his side, see. And cunning.’
Price pointing to the rounded top of the hill, almost violently green now against the charcoal sky. Evidently, no hay crop had been taken from Brynglas this year.
‘No armour to slow them up,’ Price said. ‘Fast on their feet. Mountain men, like goats. Over the hill, by there, I can show you a dip you can’t see from this side, all full of trees and bushes. And that’s where they hid out the night before. With their women, too. Day of the battle, they all come to the top of Brynglas. But they didn’t come down, see. Didn’t charge. If they’d charged into Mortimer’s army they’d’ve been carved up into pieces and it would have ended here.’
‘They simply waited?’
‘Forcing Mortimer’s boys to charge up the hill to attack, and it don’t matter how strong your legs are, a charge up yere…’
‘Steeper than it looks.’
Feeling the pain in my bookman’s calves already. What in God’s name was I doing here?
Price looked back the way we’d come.
‘A full charge up yere in full armour, on a day in June – even a bad June? Full into a hailstorm of arrows with the slope behind them. Havoc, boy. Bloody havoc.’
I began to see it. I could see dead and wounded men falling back on those behind, who could only go on, their faces soaked with the spurted blood of their falling comrades.
‘And then what happens?’ Price stopped. A sheep track had become a muddied footpath. ‘This is the worst of it. As the dead Englishmen start to fall back in greater numbers, Mortimer’s Welsh archers, marching with the English, of a sudden they all turns round, these Welshies, bowstrings pulled hard back…’
He did the motion, one arm outstretched, the other withdrawn to the shoulder.
‘And they all put their arrows… into their own side. And at that range, boy, they don’t miss. They does not miss.’
I must have winced, as if an arrow had rushed with crippling force into my own chest.
‘A planned treachery?’
‘Some say that, some say they just seen the way the battle was going and changed sides. Yet… all at once? As if they was all moved by the same muscles.’
I was glad he didn’t ask me what, other than an act of prearranged military precision, might have caused several dozen Welsh archers to act as one.
‘Several of the knights died and Edmund Mortimer himself was taken prisoner when the Welshies finally come charging down. Hacking through what was left. Oh, the bitterness and shame of the all-powerful Mortimers. The only time the name of Pilleth has ever been yeard in London. All of Europe, come to that.’
‘And the Dees… Which side were they on?’
‘Never that simple. Even the Norman, Mortimer… after he was took prisoner, the King of England wouldn’t pay the ransom, so all Mortimer done, he just changed sides. Married one of Owain’s daughters, in the end. No border easier to cross than this one.’
On which side might Elizabeth’s own family have fought? With which side would it look best now for my kin to have allied itself?
‘The big, old families, they just goes on,’ Stephen Price said. ‘The small men, the farmers and peasants forced into fighting – they’re the ghosts as walks the battlefields and the sad dreams of the widows, for as long as they lived.’
We were nearing the church now, a squat grey tower and nave, hard against the hill.
‘The bones are everywhere in the soil,’ he said. ‘Down the valley, far as Nant-y-groes, as I discovered quite recently. Far as the mortally wounded could crawl. Like farming a churchyard, it is.’
‘What do you do when you find the bones?’
This was like pulling rotting teeth. How he’d ever debated in Parliament was a mystery to me.
‘They gets buried again,’ he said. ‘With suitable prayer and litany. We have a place, just by yere.’ Pointing to the side of the church, where the land was level. ‘Men of either side, they goes in together. With prayer upon prayer.’
‘And do the dead then rest?’ I asked.
He looked away. I wondered about the betrayed dead, impaled on the arrows of their comrades. Imagined myself, blood welling in my mouth, helplessly gazing over the reddening shaft of the arrow through my throat… into the merciless face, already misting over, of a man I’d marched with up this hill.
‘Nobody likes to dig out a ditch up yere for fear of what they’ll find,’ Price said. ‘If a man’s bones are unearthed, all work stops till the whole body’s been dug up and reburied.’
‘Or the ghost will haunt the man who fetched up the bones. If so much as a sheep-shelter is to be built, efforts are made to be sure it en’t built on some man’s bones, else there’d be no luck there, neither. And that’s when they send for the boy.’
‘To find the bones before they rise? How often does this happen?’
‘The dead rising? Of late… too often. This summer, in all the rain… thirty or more.’
‘It’s the wet bringing them up now? The swelling of the… ground?’
My voice tailing off. There would have been many a wet summer since 1402.
The track had steepened under the church, and I stopped on a small promontory, offering a vast far-reaching aspect to the emptiness of the west. I marked two horsemen down near Nant-y-groes. Not moving, as if they were watching us. They might have been outriders from some long-gone army. How would you know when a man was a ghost?
‘Is it easy,’ I said, ‘to separate one body from another?’
‘Not really. Not much else left apart from ole brown bones. All the valuables would’ve been stripped off the corpses where they lay within days of the battle. And that wasn’t all.’
Price sucked in his breath, stared up at me almost angrily.
‘The matter of it is, Dr Dee, some of the dead… they weren’t whole, that’s what’s said. Weren’t whole for very long after they died.’
STANDING BY THE sheriff’s gate, Dudley finds himself meeting the sardonic gaze of the outlaw, Prys Gethin, as the prisoner is conveyed to one of the holding dungeons behind the court.
Other men, knowing the story of the curse and the subsequent deaths, might look away at once, but Dudley is Dudley. The role of Master Roberts dropping from his shoulders like a cheap cloak, he’s giving the man a hard stare, a falcon watching a pigeon.
Except this man is not a pigeon. Anyone can see that.
* * *
It’s market day in Presteigne. Soon after I left with Stephen Price, Dudley heard the sounds of stalls being erected in the streets and went out to find the sheriff’s men assembling at the junction for the ride to New Radnor Castle.
The sheriff’s men and more. The judge was obviously taking no chances. This time, he’d sent most of his guard with them.
Roger Vaughan was watching them set off, and Dudley went across the street to join him.
‘If anyone’s planning an ambush, Master Roberts, they’ll need a small army. Aim is to start the trial this afternoon. Swear the jury in, at least.’
‘Not wasting any time.’
‘Would you? Where’s Dr Dee?’
‘Gone to find his family.’
‘Master Meredith?’ Vaughan looked surprised. ‘Only what I yeard…’
‘Not a big town this, is it?’
‘Wasn’t gossip, Master Roberts. I was there, near enough. Not as you had to be that close – Master Meredith sounded like he wanted it to be yeard far and wide.’
‘So I noticed.’
‘Also mabbe letting it be known that this is no time to have a… natural philosopher in town.’
‘That was the phrase he used – natural philosopher?’
‘Conjuror,’ Vaughan said.
Makes me sick to recount it but, because it’s of some importance, I’m putting this conversation together from what Dudley has told me. Trusting that he was as strong in his defence of my profession as he insists. Not that this was necessary with Roger Vaughan.
‘It’s used in contempt, that word, but it—’
‘Bad word in London. Meant badly by Meredith. But it en’t always bad in these parts. Hides a deep need in… mabbe not all of us, but enough, yet. We got a few working conjurers round yere, Master Roberts, and even more the further you gets into Wales. What en’t always easy is to find the ones as knows what they’re doing. Seems to me a man like Dr Dee who approaches it with learning and also has… the ole skills… Mabbe that’s exactly what we need right now.’
‘Way I sees it,’ Vaughan said, ‘a man wouldn’t study the hidden as assiduously as Dr Dee does unless he was trying to make sense of his own strange… qualities.’
Dudley, who knows better than anyone the sad truth of this, tells me he held his silence.
‘The conjurors and the cunning men, they yet make a good living in these parts, no question,’ Vaughan said. ‘Better now than before the Reform, I reckon. This was always a Catholic town, see, and the Catholic Church carried some of the old traditions along with it. Least, in these parts it did. The Protestants, the Bible men, in particular, they makes fewer allowances for us to know what’s happening to us. Just accept it, it’s the will of God. The cunning men and the wise women, they provides what we used to get from the Church.’
‘You employ one yourself, Master Vaughan?’
‘No. But I’m hoping that Dr Dee will be able to give me some advice when this is over.’
‘And what… what think you he can do here?’
Dudley marked the way Vaughan was looking around before he spoke, for this was not safe talk, not even on the edge of Wales. But there were only the market traders assembling their stalls for the sale of fresh meat and fruit and fruit pies and honey, fish from the rivers, wool, fleeces and woollen garments from the local workshops. He saw men rehanging the ropes of pennants pulled down last night by those angry at the delay in bringing Prys Gethin to justice.
Mainly men on the streets, few women, fewer children. Despite the flags, there was no conspicuous gaiety.
‘It’s on a blade’s edge, ennit?’ Vaughan said.
Dudley, a man who ever relishes a blade’s edge, tried not to show his heightened interest.
‘En’t sure, Master Roberts. I was born and raised yere, and it en’t… stable. It en’t balanced. You goes away and you comes back, and somewhere ’twixt Hereford and yere, the air changes. Things happen as don’t happen anywhere else. Or they happens faster, so you don’t see it coming. The way sometimes you don’t see a storm till it breaks. Things yere can change in a lightning flash. So if you got a circumstance…’
Dudley says Vaughan had begun to look flushed with embarrassment. Having, perhaps, started something he no longer wanted to finish. Dudley prompted him.
‘The trial of a man linked – or felt to be linked – to local history?’
‘Aye. Recent history and not so recent. It all stirs something inside… not just people’s feelings, but the feeling of the whole place.’
‘Does a place have feelings?’
‘Some places you can sense it more than others,’ Vaughan said. ‘Dunno why. Mabbe Dr Dee can tell you. But when you try and cover it up with new ways – industry, trade, too much wealth too quick, you’re risking something going off like fireworks. The Ludlow men, the Bradshaws, the Beddoes, they come in, pulling men like Meredith behind them – the ambitious local families… and the greedy. Keeping the Church out of it, far back as they can. That en’t good.’
Maybe Vaughan was raising matters with Dudley with the intention that they should get back to me.
‘John’s gone to his old family home,’ Dudley told him, ‘with the man who lives there now.’
‘Price. He’s got a good head on him. The people of Pilleth need that. En’t easy living on a battleground. Not that one, anyway.’
‘Battle like any other,’ Dudley said. ‘I’ve seen—’ Stopping himself, thinking that no antiquary would have seen nearly as much fighting or as much death as Lord Robert Dudley. ‘That is, collecting documents takes me to places that’ve seen conflict. I know what happened at Pilleth.’
Vaughan looked at him.
‘Do you? No offence, Master Roberts, but I doubt you do. This was a border battle, in every sense. The Welsh, they knew what they were fighting for. The Mortimer army didn’t. Put that together with… the power of the place, and anything can happen. And it did. Why did the Welsh bowmen on Mortimer’s side start killing their own comrades?’
Because they were fucking Welsh, Dudley thought.
But said nothing.
‘If you ask them even now,’ Vaughan said, ‘they wouldn’t be able to tell you.’
‘Easy to say that, Vaughan. No one likes to admit to plain treachery.’
Dudley marked a quick and angry movement in Vaughan’s eyes.
‘Master Roberts, I once talked to a man whose great grandfather was a soldier at Pilleth – an archer. A legend in the family. After the battle, he went back to his farm and never picked up his bow again. Didn’t trust himself, that was what was told to me. Didn’t trust himself to fit an arrow, draw back his arm and know where that arrow was going.’
Dudley would have smiled, making no comment. But don’t think he’d dismiss this as folklore and nonsense. I know this man, and his mind is far from closed to matters of the hidden.
‘I think,’ he said to Vaughan, doubtless with a deceptive diffidence, ‘that you spoke of… the power of the place?’
If you ask me, I’m also sure that Roger Vaughan had a good idea, by now, of the true identity of Master Roberts. I don’t believe that Judge Legge would have gone out of his way to conceal it.
‘A holy hill,’ Vaughan said. ‘Brynglas.’
‘What’s it mean?’
‘The blue hill. Behind the church there’s a holy well, dedicated to the mother of Our Saviour. Many people have been healed there.’
‘And even more killed,’ Dudley said brutally.
‘Well, there you are, Master Roberts. Healing power can be turned around. Dr Dee would know that.’
‘You… seem to know a good deal about it. For such a young man.’
Vaughan laughed, and Dudley tells me there was a high, wild edge to it.
‘I’m a Vaughan,’ the boy said. ‘My whole family’s haunted.’
* * *
Three hours have passed. It would not have been the plan to bring Prys Gethin into Presteigne on market day, Dudley thinks. But after losing a day to unforeseen rain they could hardly afford to lose another.
The cart, high-sided, is close to the front of the procession. Hands and feet in rusting manacles, he’s sprawled lazily in the straw at the back, as though it’s a royal coach.
With his grey-black hair back over his ears. His one eye cold and steady; only taut skin and a ridged scar where the other one used to be.
Dudley, for a moment, admires his nerve. The way, he tells me, he once admired a one-eyed stag, cornered by the hunt, returning his gaze with an old warrior’s arrogance that Dudley recognised at once, and let him escape. With a kind of joy that surprised him.
Prys Gethin’s one eye has a rare brilliance and intensity, as if it no longer ever blinks. He looks at Dudley as though they’re old friends.
Dudley is aware of the smell of hot pies and gravy. He can hear whoops and cheers and halloos from the people assembled for the arrival of the prisoner. The crowd is swelled by those here for the market, many from out of town. But the whoops and cheers and halloos seemed muted compared with yesterday, when there was no prisoner to hear them.
Two men colourfully dressed as jesters, wearing masks, arrive out of the throng, carrying ropes woven into hangman’s nooses which, hopping like frogs, they dangle in front of the occupant of the cart.
One of them is so encouraged by the mild, uncertain laughter that he leans into the cart, tightening and loosening his noose and then tightening it again and cackling.
Until Prys Gethin inclines his head and smiles gently.
‘You’ll die within the week, friend,’ he says drily, in the perfectly rounded English of a priest making a pronouncement from his pulpit.
But he hasn’t even looked at the sneering clowns.
His gaze has not shifted from Dudley.
Likely a Sin
‘THERE’S A STORY mabbe you’ll’ve heard? How the Welshie women who followed Rhys Gethin’s army, they come down from the hill when it was all over? With knives. Come with knives. All gleeful and laughing. Set about the remains of the English.’
Stephen Price gazed over the humps in the field bordering the church where the risen dead had been laid to rest. Below us was the cluster of houses I’d seen from Nant-y-groes, with pens for chickens and pigs, and a handful of people about their tasks and all the distant sheep, like maggots on decaying meat.
‘Normal enough to cut the apparel from the slain,’ Price said. ‘Take the weaponry and the leather.’
Maybe I knew what was coming. Maybe I had heard it somewhere.
‘The privy parts.’ He looked away, down the hill. ‘Stuffed them into their mouths, so they’re hanging down, kind o’ thing. A mockery. If there’s any worse humiliation for a man, then I en’t yeard of it.’
‘Hatred of the Norman Marcher lords, see. Taught, from birth, to hate. And the hatred hangs in the air, yet. Close your eyes by yere and stare into the full sun and all you see is black. That’s what they say. Never tried it myself.’
I kept my eyes full open. Not that there was sun this day.
‘When did the church catch fire?’
‘Before the battle. Glyndwr would burn any church as paid tithes to England. And the English seen the smoke and flames from the house of God, like a sign before the battle. Rebuilt now, but it’s a sad place.’
I’d marked how, the more he spoke, the more his accent deepened, as if he was retreating not so much into his own past, but Pilleth’s. He looked into his hands, as if the geometry of the land was etched there.
‘Used to be a place of pilgrimage. Shrine of the Virgin behind the tower, next to the well – the holy well. A healing place. For the eyes, mainly. For clear sight.’
‘No one comes now?’
‘No one gets near the well. The rector don’t hold with it. Papism.’
I sighed. Thinking there should be a middle way. Hearing Bishop Scory in Hereford talking of how old beliefs yet held sway on the border. It seemed to me that one could either respond with a Bonner-like ferocity or with a tolerance bordering on the spiritually lax… I chose tolerance.
‘Isn’t this yet Bishop Scory’s diocese?’ I said to Price. ‘Scory’s a man of moderation. Why would he appoint a Puritan?’
Stephen Price’s laugh was arid.
‘Mabbe he didn’t. Belief can change in a blinking. Mabbe the rector had a moment of revelation. Educated man, used to be a canon in Hereford. The ole boy who was yere before him, Father Walter, he used to have to hop over the big words in the Bible but, by God, he was the man for this parish. He’d do a Sunday worship with hands still wet from pulling a new lamb in your barn.’
‘A practical man.’
‘Aye. New rector talks of a calling. First sign of the way things were going was when an ole boy – widower, living alone – goes to him real scared by… what he seen. Asks for the ghosts to be sent away from his door. Rector shows him a face like stone and tells him the devil makes them see things as don’t exist and to fall down on his knees and pray for the forgiveness of his sins.’
‘He must be an inspiration to you all,’ I said.
Price sat down on the little promontory, the hills around him like rough blankets, the horizon broken by the distant castle mound, with its forked fingers of stone.
‘See, this… this en’t a bad place, that’s the thing. Good light, good shelter and you can see the weather coming. And all the families yere owns their own land. Village as should be five times the size it is, but folks don’t come and the folks that’s yere… there’s no good fortune.’
Price looked up the slope of Brynglas towards the little church tower.
‘Take the Thomas boy. Fine boy, good farmer, and then he’s telling his mother he can’t see no future yere. Hangs himself in the oak wood. Rector denies him burial in the churchyard for his sin. Now he lies with the ole warriors and no cross. Well, that en’t right. That makes nobody happy.’
‘Except the rector.’
‘He don’t know what happiness is. Likely a sin.’ Price raised his eyes to mine. ‘I’m the squire. What should I do?’
I’d seldom felt more useless. A student of the Hidden who observed and took notes for all the books he’d one day write. A collector of manuscripts, an aspirant to alchemical transformation and a maker of owls that flapped their wings and went woo-woo.
‘Look,’ I said. ‘It’s a battle site. When men die in fear and torment, embittered by treachery, and then their bodies are abused and left to rot where they fell… then spirits may linger and there’s an air of unhappiness which might last many years.’
‘It’s come back,’ he said.
‘We… buried another. Few days ago.’ He’d dropped his gaze to the ground and his voice to a murmur. ‘Buried him at night. Me and Morgan, the shepherd. Well… I had to do most of it. Pedr Morgan, he wouldn’t touch it, but he done the digging. Never told the vicar. I said a few prayers, for what that was worth.’
I came down from the mound. Stephen Price kept on talking softly to the grass.
‘I was thinking at first as we’d do what we sometimes does when it’s more’n a few bones. When it’s a man. Put him on an ole bier and take him into the church. We leave ’em there overnight covered in sacking and then take ’em out for burial. Well… clear soon enough we couldn’t do that with this ’un.’
‘Normal thing’s to alert the coroner. And the sheriff.’
‘About old bones?’
‘And mabbe the sheriff’d raise the hue and cry, kind o’ thing, and it’d be all over the county and beyond. And nobody’d get caught, and that’d only make it worse.’
Price looked up.
‘All torn as if killed in battle, this man. But dead no more’n a day. Naked. We never found his apparel. Or his cock.’
‘You hid a murder?’
‘All gone,’ he said, as if he hadn’t heard me. ‘A bloody, black hole. Nothing in his mouth. Not much mouth left. Face was carved up. Beyond recognising.’
‘Master Price, let me get this right. You are saying this was done by human means.’
‘Not crows, nor foxes. Well, God’s blood, what was I supposed to do, Dr Dee? Nobody knowed about him except Pedr Morgan and Mistress Ceddol. And no local man was missing, far as I could ascertain, not yere, not in Presteigne, not in—’
‘Who’s Mistress Ceddol?’
‘Sister of the mad boy who finds the dead. She en’t mad, not by any means. Her and Morgan comes to me. Me. Stephen Price of Pilleth, the squire. Bad summer, nights full of ghosts, best tell Stephen Price, of Pilleth. Ask Stephen Price of Pilleth what he’s gonner do about the man carrying the spirit of Rhys Gethin back to Brynglas. Ask him what he’s gonner do about a dead man with no cock…’
‘What would you do, Dr Dee?’
I didn’t know. I yet couldn’t think why he was telling me, a stranger. A student of natural philosophy.
‘There’s nothing of the Hidden about a man fresh-killed,’ I said. ‘Though, given what was done to him, and given when it was done, you might be talking about supporters of Plant Mat out to revive old fears.’
Price nodded soberly.
‘A good reason, it seemed to me, not to go to the sheriff. Hue and cry, the spreading of terror…’
‘Is it your feeling that this might be Plant Mat? Putting out a warning of what might happen if Gethin hangs?’
‘If nobody knows, there won’t be no terror.’
‘So you buried him.’
‘Drags him into the ole sheep shelter, covers him with straw. And then we… we come at night and takes him out and Pedr Morgan digs a grave by candlelight and we buries him, and yere he lies.’
‘Here? Where we stand?’
‘Not yere. Be too obvious. We couldn’t leave no sign of a burial.’ Price considered for a moment, before jerking a thumb behind him, down the valley towards the river. ‘There’s an ole tump down there beyond the trees. Nobody goes there.’
‘Grave of the ole Britons, down by the river.’ He pointed. ‘Other side of the wood down the western slope.’
‘An ancient burial mound?’
‘Nobody goes near them. You know that.’
Always been superstition about ancient mounds, warning tales of what had happened to treasure hunters who had plundered them – usually finding nothing.
‘We dug a deep hole in the side, put him in.’ Price’s voice, of a sudden, was raw as bone. ‘Pedr Morgan, he was frit to hell, but we didn’t have no choice.’
He was still turned away from the river as if he could not bear to remember what he’d done. It was yet unclear to me why I’d been told. Why share the secret of a misdemeanour with a stranger?
But Stephen Price wasn’t letting go. He insisted we should walk to the village, or what remained of it. Leading me on the path towards the church until it divided and the cluster of grey cottages was revealed gradually, through thinning trees already shedding their rusty leaves.
And at last, with a strange heart-lurch, I saw it.
Rowland Dee’s Wales, where men were bent to the wind like thorn trees, their skin scoured raw, while the light – ever-changing but ever cold – was chopping their world into jagged shards of anguish.
A CRAB, WHEN threatened, may move sideways.
Dudley, disgusted to find himself alarmed, slips into an alleyway, pulling out a kerchief, scrubbing at the unexpected sweat. Hands flat on a stone wall, forehead pressed into a patch of damp moss, he draws long breaths until his foul fear is reborn as fury.
But the single eye of Prys Gethin is yet boring through him, a dark diamond turning in bone.
It’s not the you’ll die within a year that’s affected him. There have been times when he’s been told he’ll be dead within the hour. It’s the words that followed, none of which he understood. He’s been cursed in French and cursed in Spanish, and the spittle-slicked tirades barely reached him before they went to vapour. Gethin’s language, he knows, is far older in these islands than his own and comes out like clotted honey, every opaque sentence an incantation.
It annoys him, the way a common brigand hides his villainy under a cloak of false patriotism, assuming a resonant name and the glow of dark magic around a long-dead national hero.
Dudley reminds himself why he’s here. Prays silently, feeling around himself – as oft-times I’ve advised him – a white-gold protective light. I hold this to be angelic light but Dudley, I suspect, sees the glitter of the English crown. He and the Queen, twin souls, born – he yet insists – in the same hour of the same day, under the sign of Cancer, the crab. Dancing together with effortless elegance, iridescent like dragonflies on the water, peering with delight into the pools of one another’s minds.
But Dudley never wants to hear Bess using words like those which issued from that prison cart. Regardless of the trail of horseshit left behind by her grandfather, he doesn’t want to believe that the woman he desires more than long life is, in any respect, Welsh.
Prising himself from the stone wall, he stands warily at the top of the alleyway, watching a goodwife of Presteigne bartering for bruised apples. A foretelling of his death will ever send him in angry pursuit of something life-affirming.
Within moments, he’s marked the woman wearing a green velvet gown, easily the most expensive in the market, and the kind of French hood once favoured by the Queen’s mother. Carrying an empty basket over an arm, buying nothing.
Dudley watches this woman for no more than a minute before wandering over to stand quietly next to her at a stall selling pomegranates from the Holy Land.
At once, she’s aware of his presence and, with a twist of the hips, is looking up into his eyes.
‘A true feel of autumn today, master.’
‘Yes,’ Dudley says. ‘It may rain again.’
‘A good day to be indoors.’
‘Preferably upstairs,’ Dudley says, ‘in case of flood.’
‘Ever a sensible precaution.’
Dudley nods soberly at the wisdom of this.
‘Are you with an attorney, mistress?’
‘Not at the moment. They haven’t caught me yet.’
She looks him up and down, her gaze lingering on those exceptional riding boots. Now he can smell her perfume. And her interest.
‘You live near here, mistress?’
‘Within a short walk.’
She smiles. The condition of her teeth suggests she’s no older than he is. He moves his purse around to the front of his belt.
‘It’s a good day for a walk,’ Dudley says.
And off they go together, Dudley priding himself on his ability to mark a whore from thirty paces.
* * *
‘You know what’s different about you, master?’
‘Modesty forbids me to ask.’
‘You can make a woman laugh. That’s rare.’
She’s not the first to have said that.
‘Yet I feel’ – she lays a finger on the tip of his nose – ‘that something unfortunate has happened to you today. Did you quarrel with your wife before you left London?’
‘I don’t have a wife.’
‘Oh. Well…’ She strokes his cheek. ‘You’ll find another.’
Dudley is lying on his back. He can’t place her accent. It isn’t local to the area, but he thinks it’s Welsh and, in view of what they’ve just been doing, that pleases him.
‘What’s your name?’ he says.
When his muscles lock into rigidity, she leans over him in the bed.
‘What did I say?’
He doesn’t answer. He looks up into her face. She’s nothing like his dead wife. Her eyes are far apart, her mouth is wide and her hair, hanging now over his cheeks, is more the colour of the Queen’s. He lets out his breath. He smiles.
‘A good living, is it, mistress – with all the attorneys and the judges at the Great Sessions?’
‘Some sessions are greater than others,’ she says.
‘And who pays for your time, apart from attorneys?’
‘You ask a lot of questions.’
What about the wool merchants from Ludlow? You ever had Old Bradshaw up here?’
‘Him?’ She gives a yelp of amusement. ‘He won’t even be seen walking past my door.’
‘What about Nicholas Meredith?’
‘Master Roberts,’ she says, ‘if it’s intelligence you’re seeking, which may be used for some nefarious purpose… you must needs know I’m a woman who keeps her secrets. An element of mystery, in my trade, is’ – she touches the tip of her nose with a forefinger – ‘of the essence.’
Her house is ’twixt two workshops down an alley close to the centre of town. The ceiling of her bedchamber is very low and, of a sudden, in the scored and fissured black beams, he sees the dark, leathery face of Prys Gethin. A knot in the wood has become that one eye. Dudley feels a pressure in the centre of his forehead. He turns away, towards Amy the whore, pulling the sheet from her left breast and lowering his face.
‘You only paid for once,’ she reminds him. ‘Not that it lasted particularly long.’
‘I’ll pay for thrice if you talk to me.’
She pushes him gently away and sits up, her smile fading.
‘Who are you? I don’t think you’re an attorney.’
Dudley says. ‘I’m an antiquary.’
‘A man who likes old things.’
‘Well, thank you!’
‘And you, mistress… are too clever to be a nun.’
‘No,’ she says, pushing back her ginger hair. ‘I’m simply too clever to be a nun in Bristol or London. Here, I’m like the ironmonger, the apothecary, the blacksmith, the fruiterer.’
‘Yes, I did mark your ability to squeeze a pair of plums.’
‘That’s a common farmer’s jest.’ She rolled away from him. ‘In a few years I’ll be forced to marry a farmer or somebody and the past will be the past. But if that doesn’t happen… I’ll always have money. And the means to make more. I might start a school. My father was a schoolmaster in Brecon.’
That would explain much. Dudley persists.
‘What about priests?’
‘Find absolution by marrying a priest?’
‘Or a former monk? Have you known monks – in the biblical sense or otherwise? What about the former Abbot of Wigmore?’
He’s approached it too quickly. Her eyes narrow. The chamber is lit by a single glazed pane under the eaves, and she blocks it with her body, rising up.
‘I’m an antiquary,’ Dudley says. ‘I’m told he may have some… relics. For sale.’
‘You would expect…’ She laughs, incredulous. ‘You’d expect the abbot of a monastery taken by the Crown to be selling holy relics twenty years afterwards?’
Dudley’s at once excited. The man’s about.
‘Not a holy relic, mistress… as such. I and my friend have an interest in a certain gemstone which we believe the former abbot has. Its value is purely… historical.’
‘You have the money?’
‘You know I have the money.’
‘How long,’ she asks, ‘will you be here?’
* * *
An hour and a half later, with a sense of returning strength and well-being following a lunch of beef and gravy at the Bull, Dudley walks back into the marketplace and marks Roger Vaughan entering through the sheriff’s gates, with documents under an arm. Hurries to catch him up.
‘It’s beginning, Master Vaughan?’
‘Jury’s being sworn in. You want to see?’
The guards are preventing people from using the main entrance, lest the entire town should come to watch. Vaughan leads Dudley down an alleyway, and soon they’re in a cloisterlike passage, where the slit windows are barred down the middle. At the end of it, an oak door hangs ajar and there’s much commotion.
The courtroom is bigger than he’d expected in a place like Presteigne. Like to a barn, with low-hung rafters, as though a loft has been removed. Perhaps a barn was what it used to be.
A one end, steps lead to a structure like to a long pulpit where, presumably, the judge will sit, although there’s yet no sign of Sir Christopher Legge. Or, indeed, the prisoner. Vaughan guides Dudley to a corner near a platform with bars around it which extend well beyond head-height. It’s empty. A procession of men is winding from a doorway halfway up the courtroom.
Vaughan says, ‘He’ll leave it to one of the local JPs to swear in the jurymen.’
And so it turns out. The JP is snowy-haired and vague and barely looks at the members of the jury as, in turn, they swear upon the Bible that they will consider all the evidence laid before them and return a fair and honest verdict.
The JP looks uncertainly around the court, and an attorney in robes leans over and whispers something.
Dudley is marking each of the jurymen with a slow and faintly incredulous smile as the old JP announces that the trial of Prys Gethin for murder by witchcraft and cattle theft will commence on the morrow at ten of the clock.
‘Hmmm,’ Vaughan says, as the courtroom clears. ‘They’re taking no chances, are they?’
‘I counted seven,’ Dudley says.
‘That would be about right. A safe majority. The fear is that a jury of all local men… that their families would be threatened. That retribution might be made against them, even years later. Never feel safe again.’
‘Also, I expect that seven extra members of Legge’s guard will come in quite useful if Gethin tries to escape.’
However important it may be that all possibilities of an acquittal for Prys Gethin should be sealed like cracks in the masonry, Robert Dudley, as an English gentleman, yet finds it distasteful that Sir Christopher Legge should feel the need to bring his own jurymen.
And however much he now wants the swift disposal of the man who slipped him a smiling curse from the back of a cart, Dudley begins to wonder, for the first time, what might be hiding behind the façade of this small, provincial trial.
Betwixt the Living and the Dead
DEAR GOD, MY father had me trapped. Walking towards the village, he was with us all the way. I saw him sitting before our Christmas fire, mellowed by good wine, telling me about my forebears, all the way back to Arthur. All for Wales, my tad.
All for this?
Poor Pilleth, all grey and cowering. Huddled under the hill, waterlogged paths separating the mean, sunken homes with their mud and rubblestone walls, their rotting roofs, smoke-holes in the ridges and maybe a dozen small, shuttered windows.
There was a glow of life here, but only as from a rush-light which burns feebly and lives not long. And the shade of Rowland Dee.
‘Said he’d be in London for five years at the outside,’ Goodwife Thomas laughing shrilly. ‘Just enough time for him to scrape some of the gold off the streets, he used to say. Scrape the gold off the streets!’
Oh, I could hear that, the way he’d say to my mother, A proper tapestry, one day, Janey. Telling you now, I am, as God’s my living witness, you’ll be ripping down the ole wall hangings by New Year, you mark my words, girl.
My tad, a good-looking, lively boy for whom, everyone knew, Pilleth and even Presteigne were too small.
‘And then he’d be coming back, see, to put glass in all our windows,’ Goodwife Thomas said. ‘Glass, master! Glass for the likes of we! Well… we knew we’d never see him again, but he was never thrifty with his dreams.’
How true that was. I brushed aside a small, bitter tear as if it were a fly. Goodwife Thomas, sparse-haired and thin as a rib, was laughing again, saying she could see some of him in me, so mabbe he’d come back after all, Master Rowly.
‘My, but you’re a good-looking boy, too, Dr Dee. Have you no wife?’
Trying to press upon me a slice of her bara brith but, seeing how little of it remained and knowing how few berries the summer would have yielded, I refused, with many thanks, saying I’d eaten too well at Nant-y-groes.
A mean wood fire burned beneath a stewpot. Children’s faces peered out of the smoky gloom. Stephen Price had said the Thomas family lived in Pilleth’s best house – a long house with barn attached for the animals, not that there were many now. When a dwelling was abandoned its fabric was plundered to strengthen the others.
‘Dr Dee advises the Queen,’ Price said. ‘He can help us.’
I felt near-sick. What the hell had Walsingham told him about me?
‘Tell him about your grandson.’
Wariness washed over me with the realisation of who her grandson must be. The old woman bowed her head.
‘He don’t want to know our troubles.’
‘I want him to know,’ Price said. ‘He’s one of us. Rowly’s boy. He’s studied these matters, he can see what we can’t because we’re too close to it.’ He turned to me. ‘In the weeks before his death, the boy’s dreams were troubled. He saw the church afire again and the graves—’
‘Stephen,’ Goodwife Thomas said. ‘No more.’
‘Didn’t he say he saw the old graves opened and awoke and wouldn’t go back to sleep for fear of what he seen coming from the graves?’
‘Please, Stephen…’ The old woman leaning forward on her bench. ‘The rector, he said the devil had got in him and we must not speak of it. The boy took his own life and that’s one of the worst of sins.’ Wiping her eyes with a cloth. ‘And I want to pray for his soul. But I don’t… I don’t know where it is.’
Behind her, a child had begun to sniffle. From outside in the misty distance, there came a yelping cry. Like to a vixen, but I knew it was human.
* * *
‘You see?’ Price said, as we walked to the wooded end of the village. ‘You see how things are? They’re afraid even to call out to God.’
We passed two ruined hovels, whose roofs had long ago been burned, only the blackened walls remaining. I was thinking that nobody I’d met in Pilleth, not the Thomases nor the Lewises nor the Puws – none of the small farmers who had known him – had made reference to my tad as a dishonest man. Nobody gave indication that they had any knowledge of what I’d been doing in London, only – well, well, Duw, Duw – this slow-smiling surprise at meeting Rowly Dee’s boy after all these years. Gareth Puw, who was also the village blacksmith, said he’d heard the new Queen was oft-times to be seen around London and was very friendly to the people, and had I ever seen her myself? I admitted that I had, said she was fair of face and full of good humour… and left it at that.
There was a quiet civility amongst these people, a hospitality I knew they could not afford. But no merriment. Even the children looked wan-faced and listless, and the air was chill, and the clouds hung like smoke from a damp fire. The sense of a community closing in upon itself. I guessed doors would be barred at sunset, tapers lit in windows, for those who could afford them.
But they would not talk about what Stephen Price wanted them to talk about.
‘The whole village will die around them,’ he said, ‘and they won’t question it.’
On the edge of the village, a door opened as we approached it, and we heard a thin wailing from within, and then a man emerged, a narrow man in a long coat.
‘Child’s gone, Master Price,’ he said without preamble.
He was built like a broken archway, face white as plaster.
Stephen Price sighed.
‘One left.’ The narrow man’s voice was from his nose. ‘The one they thought would go last year, but yet hangs on. The Lord God decides, as ever.’
I saw Price’s body quake.
‘And that’s all you got to say, is it?’
‘What would you have me say?’
‘Mabbe the Lord God got more time for some places than he got for others,’ Price said with bitterness.
A distant smile.
‘I’ll pray for you, too, Master Price.’
The man looked briefly at me and pulled his black coat around him and moved away with high, pecking steps, like a raven, as the door was barred from within.
I said, ‘That’s your rector?’
‘Matthew Daunce. Gone back to his lair, in the trees above the village.’
‘God,’ I said.
* * *
It was set tight into the hillside itself, framed by thorn trees whose twisting branches were grown over its walls. Its roof was well mossed and its open doorway like to a crack in the rockface.
This squat and crooked dwelling had not been visible during our ascent of the hill. We’d had to pass through the village and stand within a small wood of stunted oak to see it unobserved.
‘Was this here when the battle was fought?’ I asked Price.
‘Here, but not lived in. It’s said once to have been the cell of an anchoress, living alone here for many years. But that was long before the battle, when there was just a shrine. The anchoress looked after the shrine, and when she was gone, the brambles took over.’
‘That’s what it’s called? The Bryn. As if it’s part of the hill itself?’
His face twisted.
‘For years, it was Ty Marw.’
I looked at him.
‘The house of death. Charnel house. When someone went in, after the battle, they found it filled to the rafters with dried-out bodies. In the end, they got taken out and buried with the rest, but nobody wanted to live there… until Mistress Ceddol came yere with her brother. I was in London at the time, learning about Parliament and how it all worked.’
‘Was this woman told of its history when they came to live here?’
‘You’ve met the local people, Dr Dee.’
I nodded. They’d tell her, of course they would.
‘She must be a remarkable woman. Or very desperate for somewhere to live.’
‘Made it habitable mostly by herself, last summer. A better summer than this. She and the boy lay nights under bent-over saplings covered with sheepskins, while she worked. Had I been here, I’d’ve found them shelter in the outhouses at Nant-y-groes. I think it was the Puw brothers who came to help in the end – first Pilleth people to go inside the Bryn for generations. And then gradually more of them came to help. She’d insist on paying them with what she was earning through the sale of potions and ointments she’d made from herbs and sheep fat, to sell at the apothecary’s in Presteigne.’
‘Where did they come from, the woman and the boy?’
‘Somewhere north of here, Shropshire mabbe. Driven away from home, she’ll readily admit, because of her brother. Her father couldn’t live with his wailing, his sudden rages, ramblings in the night. Especially when their mother died not long after he was born.’
As if to prove the nuisance of it, there came that vixen shriek from within the little house – within the hill, it sounded like – followed by a woman’s laughter. A smittering of slow rain began to rattle the crispen oak leaves, and Price led us into deeper shelter.
‘Her patience with him appears endless.’
‘The sister brought him up?’
‘No choice. People are afraid of him. Stricken from birth with some malady of the mind. And yet… possessed of this… talent.’
He told me how the boy had found a skull in the foundation for his new barn, Price dismissing it as rookery until, just over a week later, he’d given instruction for a new field drain to be dug, and nobody would sink a spade until Siôn Ceddol had been sent to walk the pegged-out route. The boy had stopped three quarters of the way to the last peg where, subsequently, a whole skeleton had been unearthed.
In the oak wood, I carefully prised away a bramble which had coiled like a monk’s manacle around my wrist. The path through the wood ended at the Bryn. It was all too clear that this was our final destination and the reason I’d been brought to Pilleth. The Bryn was either the cause of the sickness or, in some strange way, its possible solution. Whatever Siôn Ceddol was possessed of, Price didn’t understand it and was afraid of where it would end, especially under the eyes of the new rector, Daunce.
‘Whenever the boy’s called out to search for bones, he’ll know, and he’ll go there first and mumble his prayers into the ground and then walk away and have no part in what follows. Preaches on a Sunday about the devil in our midst, but he don’t name names. Not yet. But he sows unrest where once there was acceptance.’
‘There’s always been a wise woman yere, or a cunning man.
The last one died about five years ago. Mother Marged. Blind in both eyes. Blind to the world, but there was a calm around her. After she died, her ghost was said to walk through the village every night just beyond sunset. Me, I think they just wanted to see her, with her hands out in benediction. A comfort. But when the boy came, she was seen no more.’
‘Most of the cunning people, they got something wrong with ’em. Blind or deformed. They need your help, and they give it back in kind. Siôn Ceddol, he can’t talk, in English or Welsh. The sounds that come out of him, all with dribbling and swivelly eyes, people say it’s the faerie tongue. Most of the time he can’t even walk a straight line. But he walks ’twixt the living and the dead, and there’s no fear in him.’
‘Finds the bones.’
‘En’t only the bones, he’ll show you where to dig for a well. You tell his sister what you need, she gets through to… to where he is. And when he understands, he’s straight to it, like a digging dog. And they’re paid in meat and clothing and a few yards of land and the help to manage it. And if he won’t go in the church after he shit hisself in there once… well, they’ll stand outside and she’ll join in with the hymns and prayers, and the boy’s scampering around the churchyard like a rabbit, making his noises. A harmless idiot.’
‘The rector won’t see it that way,’ I said.
‘No,’ Price said. ‘He don’t.’
I looked out between the wet trees at the low crooked rock-house once called Ty Marw. Built into Brynglas Hill. Grown into the hill. A slow spiral of smoke curled from the hole in the roof, meeting the steady rain.
Now I wanted badly to know about this boy. If he did what they said he did, and how.
‘I can make an introduction, if you like,’ Price said.
I sensed he didn’t want to. Didn’t even want to be here, now that he’d shown me the place.
‘Have you ever been in there?’ I said.
He shook his head.
‘I’ll go alone,’ I said. ‘See what I can see. And come back to you.’
I felt I was misleading him because this was little more than scientific curiosity on my part, a scrabbling amongst the thickets of the hidden. I marked the relief in his eyes with a certain horror.
The door of the Bryn was black with damp. It was opened as if I’d already knocked upon it, and a woman stood there. As if she knew I was here, though I was sure she couldn’t see us for the trees.
And, oh my God, why had no one warned me about her?
More Than Water
WE ARE MOVED – I know this – according to the configurations of the stars and the interplay of planetary rays. We are moved like chesspieces on a board, and oft-times I think of myself as the knight, placed with an oblique mathematical precision, but unpredictably. The knight, who never knows which direction he’ll be made to face next.
‘My name’s John Dee,’ I said.
Standing betwixt the oak wood and the doorway. Anna Ceddol looked at me with small curiosity. Siôn Ceddol scowled and picked up a stick. The rain fell upon the chessboard.
‘My father was born down at Nant-y-groes.’
‘I know,’ she said. ‘They’ve talked about you in the village.’
‘My… my tad left many years ago, to live in London. It’s the first time I’ve been here.’
‘The royal conjuror, is it?’ Anna Ceddol said.
No apparent malice or even an awareness of saying anything that might cause offence. Of a sudden, I was weary of denying it. I may even have nodded.
The rain was seeping uncomfortably through my jerkin. Anna Ceddol held the door wider.
‘You’d best come in. You’ll be soaked.’
‘Thank you. I… left my wizard’s hat in my saddlebag in the stable at Nant-y-groes.’
She didn’t smile. The boy, Siôn Ceddol, kicked sulkily at a thorn-tree root. About half an acre of ground beside the cottage had been cleared of brambles, bushes and undergrowth. Some of it had been cultivated for vegetables, with rotted horseshit spread on top before the winter. Some appeared good pasture. But there was no stock on it. No chickens pecked the ground.
I went in. The boy followed me, picking up a bundle of small sticks from beside the door. He wore a bright red hat pulled down over his eyes.
‘I… went into the wood to shelter,’ I said. ‘Seeing the rain about to come on.’
She shook her head, as if disappointed that I’d lied so glibly. I felt a weight of shame. I’d not lie again.
‘Stephen Price brought me,’ I said.
The Bryn was even lower than it had seemed from outside. My height, which comes from the men of Kent on my mother’s side, made it impossible for me to stand even with bent neck.
Anna Ceddol pointed to a three-legged stool by the fire, which was on a raised hearth, against one wall, with the smokehole above. Two large upright stones backing on to the wall might have been supports for an ingle beam, had there been one. Rainwater fizzed on the red embers, although I guessed the hill rising so close behind the cottage would be shielding us from the worst of it.
‘Master Price thought I might talk to you,’ I said. ‘And your brother.’
For a moment, Anna Ceddol appeared to smile, and then it was gone, fleet as a clouded moonbeam.
‘Well perhaps not your brother,’ I said. ‘That is—’
‘Master Price doesn’t come here. His wife would not like it.’
‘I’ve not met his wife.’
‘Me neither. A quiet woman. Or so they say. Sits before the kitchen fire, goes out to listen to the priest on a Sunday and then goes home and worries. Quietly.’
No particular expression in her voice, except maybe a resignation. Her overdress was the colour of sacking, its hem frayed and flaked with mud. God’s tears, why had no one warned me about her? I’d seen women this lovely at court, but their faces were paled, their lips reddened like cherries. They were ladies; this was a woman, with all the timeless beauty of an unadorned statue. Long face, full lips, heavy hair. A sense of grace about her… and, although she was slim and lithe, a certain weight.
She said, ‘Can I fetch a drink for you, Dr Dee? We have good water, from a spring. I… regret if I insult you, but they say that the water in London…’
‘No, no, it’s true. The water in London kills.’
She inclined her head. Her eyes were vividly blue, although her hair, all bound into a thick braid, was dark as rich earth. I was somehow glad when she turned away and went to a pitcher which stood amid the rushes on the floor, leaving me sitting in the feebly sparking firelight listening to my own fraught breathing.
The Bryn: from the outside, it had looked like the worst of hovels, but as my eyes grew accustomed to the dimness I saw that the inner walls were all scrubbed and the rushes on the floor clean and dry. The boy sat in a corner beyond the fire, quiet now, but watching me, the way a cat does.
The chessboard expanded and shrank in my fogged head.
‘Mistress,’ I said at last, ‘I confess I know not what I’m doing here.’
‘Surely,’ she said, ‘you were sent to see if we’re drenched in evil?’
‘Sooner or later, wherever we go, this is what happens. All’s well till something goes amiss and we’re blamed. And then we’ll move on. They’re good people here, but it can’t be long now before we’re made to go. Not without regret, mind, after all the work we’ve done to make this a home.’
She gave me water in a wooden cup. I drank, tentatively at first, and then… Jesu, liquid alchemy from the rocks, water from Eden.
‘Your brother found this?’
‘One of his less disturbing skills. And our most gainful, I suppose.’
‘He has an instinct for where best to sink wells?’
‘Farmers ever think they can do it, but not many can. Anyway,’ she shrugged, ‘the rector won’t have it in his font.’
‘Ah,’ I said. ‘The rector.’
‘Anything that can’t be explained, it’s either the will of God and must not be questioned, or the work of Satan… and must be destroyed. And he’s our closest neighbour.’
I watched her solemn face. There was a silken calm behind it that I found almost eerie. What also surprised me was the eloquence of her speech. I’d expected a woman living in such humble circumstance, with an idiot brother, to be uneducated, barely coherent. It was clear now why Stephen Price found her alarming and the rector, held in the ligature of Lutherism, feared the demonic.
‘Listen,’ I said. ‘I know not what they say about me in the village. What you’re told to your face is seldom what’s in people’s minds. But my tad came from here, and I doubt they’d mean me harm. And Stephen Price, against all his inclinations, he believes this place cursed by its history. And thinks, with all my fabled learning, that I might at least be able to direct him to a cure. I doubt I can do that, but now I… I do feel driven to try.’
Found I was leaning from the stool, my voice rising in urgency. Anna Ceddol stared at me, with an evident consternation that reassured me of her humanity. I fell back under the weight of my own inadequacy.
‘I consider myself a natural philosopher. A man of science. Half of London – maybe more than half – yet thinks me a sorcerer, and not so many years ago I was close to being burned for it. And you know the bitter truth of this, Mistress Ceddol? I can rhyme off the theory for hours… but I can’t do what your brother’s said to do. Nothing approaching it.’
‘Then perhaps,’ she said, ‘you should thank God for that.’
‘Mistress, I don’t thank God for that. My whole life is focused towards a need to enter the Hidden. And I know now that it can’t be done by books alone. Not by all the books in the libraries of the world. All that the books can hope to do is make sense of it.’
I drained my cup of the sublime water that Siôn Ceddol, the idiot, had found in the rocks of Brynglas.
‘I yet need something of which to make sense,’ I said.
Some of my long-held despair doubtless showing itself – to a stranger in a house like a cave.
‘My brother?’ She smiled at last, though it was smirched with rue. ‘Does it not occur to you that when the circumstances of birth leave a child damaged or crippled in his body or his mind then sometimes God will make amends by giving him other gifts?’
‘I think,’ I said carefully, ‘that this is not always true.’
‘No.’ She looked into the fire. ‘I suppose not. Sometimes I wish God had left him alone with his ills. We’ve been driven from too many towns. At first they value him and then, when there’s water enough for everyone…’
‘It’s more than water, isn’t it?’
Mistress Ceddol drew a bench across the rushes, so that she sat opposite me, the fire betwixt us. The boy crawled across the floor and nestled close to her skirts, looking at me, wide-eyed but silent.
‘The dead?’ She tossed back her dense, braided hair like a ship’s mooring rope. ‘What do you want me to say? That the dead have been kinder to him than the living? Look… what happens with the bones… that’s not happened before. Only here.’
‘The obvious explanation being the large number of bones here,’ I said. ‘So close to the surface.’
Now looking away, though, because I knew it was more than the physical fact of broken bodies absorbed into the hill. This countryside reeked of the numinous. Why else had it been chosen for a shrine to the holy virgin, its spring sanctified, probably to more than one god?
‘What I’m saying…’ Anna Ceddol squeezed her eyes shut, her calmness lost for a moment to exasperation. ‘…and what I’ve said to others… is that the bones are not the dead. Only what’s left.’
‘But what of the man who was found more recently dead? And… cut about.’
With no warning, the boy let out his vixen shriek, and I sprang back in alarm, almost toppling the stool.
Siôn Ceddol grinned. Anna Ceddol pressed down upon his red hat, and he squirmed and giggled, and she laughed for his benefit but addressed me in a darker humour, her eyes steady and intense.
‘He didn’t find that man. He wouldn’t even come out that day. He was afraid and clung to the fire.’
‘No, look at him. He’s ever in his own place, and a big part of him is missing. He feels no responsibility, no obligation to any of us. When he shits, I wipe his arse and change his napkin. He expects it and always will. He doesn’t understand. He feels no need to understand anything beyond his own needs. Other people don’t matter to him – never have, never will. Not the living, nor the dead.’
Her face as calm as ever, but behind it pulsed an old and constant sorrow, always on the edge of despair. Sweet woodsmoke caught in my throat and made me cough, and I felt sorely shamed by my concern with – in comparison – such small frustrations.
‘Listen, he’s tired now,’ she said. ‘Maybe, if you can come back tomorrow…’
‘If you come back in the morning, I can show you what he does and you can judge for yourself whether it’s the devil in him.’
Siôn Ceddol was sitting up now, still giggling. Reaching out his arms – I thought at first to me, but his eyes were on something to the side of me, where smoke hung over a stack of cut logs.
The boy reached out to the space above the logs, making kittenish noises. If there had been heat from the fire there was none now.
Anna Ceddol said sharply, ‘No.’
Her brother began to pant, his hands held out before him as though he held a holy chalice. The fire’s cold red embers shone in his eyes.
‘He’s tired,’ Mistress Ceddol said. ‘You should go.’
* * *
Another oak wood bearded the lower western slope of Brynglas. An old wood, where some trees had boles with the girth of the late King Harry.
I hesitated on its threshold. If there had been a path through it, it was long obscured.
The sky would go dark soon. I should collect my horse from Nant-y-groes and ride back to Presteigne. But the rain had stopped and something beckoned, something beyond the wood.
I went in, as to a country church, the branches above me like twisted rafters, the crunching of acorns under my boots. There ought to be pigs here, but nothing moved except a man who felt himself drawn deep into something he did not understand, surrounded by people who thought he should.
Anna Ceddol: I felt a profound sadness for her situation. And more than a little desire of her body, which I could only regret for she was in need of better than that.
And I had a sense of what this boy was about and, if only for Mistress Ceddol’s sake, must needs prove it.
Who was I fooling? It was as much for my own sake, or – as I might claim – for the furtherance of learning. The boy had found a link to the land, something of another sphere that was channelled through him.
The oaks shone dully from the rain, and the old churchiness of the wood was as strong as if it were perfumed with incense. I thought of priests, ancient priests in robes of deathly black, with hair in disarray, as Tacitus would have it.
The Druids, the priestly class of ancient Britain. Made demonic by the invading Romans who would slaughter them on the Isle of Mona in the north-west of Wales – surely demolishing a shining spiritual engine, for was not Merlin himself a Druid?
Ever the fate of the magician, to be demonised and put to the sword.
Sooner than I’d expected, I emerged from the wood’s cloister onto a plateau of land overlooking low ground suggestive of marshland, to which I at once slid down.
For, against the darkening sky, I’d seen it.
Normally, I’d need no alerting to a man-made bump in the land. Oft-times they hold a promise of treasure which, as I’ve said, almost always comes to naught.
This tump was low and regular, too small and shallow to be a castle motte. It was nothing in itself and yet, as I crossed the low ground towards it, it seemed to sing to me. That is, I was sure I could hear a low humming in the air. Maybe the sound of my own excitement, for ancient earthworks tantalised me, made my hands tingle, and I knew not why.
Found myself murmuring a prayer in Latin as I stood at the foot of the tump. The grass on its sides was clearly of a different colour to the turf of the land on which it sat.
I stood looking up to the summit, where another oak tree grew, like an emissary from the wood.
What was it about these lonely old graves? The graves of men who were here, I believe, before the Romans, before Arthur. Of a race who lived according to an old magic linked to an arcane knowledge of the sun and the moon and the planets… but who lacked the means or the ability to write any of this down. These were men whom I’m sure would have known some of what Pythagoras knew, but by instinct. Men whose remains – oft-times no more than cremation dust in a pot vessel – were too meagre for such an upheaval of earth.
This was the treasure: the old knowledge, the ancient wisdom. The tumps were like books made of soil and turf, if only we could read them. Whatever guardian rose up to frighten those who would dig into the tumps in vain search of gold – and I’ll confess that I was once inclined to be amongst them – was perhaps in defence of old secrets.
It was easy to climb to the summit, where the oak tree stood like a bent old blackfriar. I stood with a hand on the tree and looked all around, and my breath caught in my chest.
Even from such a modest height, the view was immoderately enhanced. The shape of the nearby river could now be seen, a gleaming eel, brighter than the sky, gathering light from a source I could not see.
The River Lugg.
How might this be spelt? Could it not be a local pronunciation of Lugh, an old British god of light and the harvest? Was this the holy river of Lugh?
Was the sloping oak-wood the remains of a sacred grove of the Druids?
The presence of a holy well near the church on the hill that rose before me was a further indication that this had been a place of worship older than the Christian church. And I could see now that the tump on which I stood was set into a curve of the river – the sacred river? – which, it seemed to me, was like to its own shape.
Indeed, it seemed, at that moment, as if the whole valley had been formed around this tump. When I came down, it was on the other side, nearest the river, and I was marking the dints where it had been invaded by Stephen Price and Morgan the shepherd.
A body introduced where a body was not meant to lie. A violated body.
A kind of sacrilege, I thought, as the air of the place was pulled around me like a damp old cloak.
A Popular Knave
IN PRESTEIGNE, THE night was alive with lights and the wailing of a fiddle and flute band which was led, I saw, by the chief ostler from the Bull, in a yellow hat with a feather, plucking at a battered lute.
And so many more people this night. The constant clatter of shod hooves. Messengers, likely from the Council of Wales at Ludlow, coming to feed and water their horses and take meat before going back on the road. New pitch-torches were set to burn all night outside the sheriff’s house, and extra guards had been posted outside.
The roistering was not a paid-for merriment; something had taken fire. If all this was over the trial of one man, it still made not full sense to me, despite what Roger Vaughan had said about the scratching of an old itch. I wondered, as I led my horse into the mews at the Bull, to what extent the wound had been inflamed by the manner of the deaths of the men who’d brought Prys Gethin out of Radnor Forest.
Lights against the perceived darkness of witchcraft?
At the entrance to the mews, something stinking slapped into my left cheek. A child’s screech was followed by an ooze of grown man’s laughter, as I winced, plucking at the mess of rotting fruit on my face. Clearly my cousin Nicholas had not been inactive this day.
Quick footsteps behind me in the mews, and I froze, my horse’s hot breath on my neck. No way of knowing how many of them were in the shadows, or if they were all children.
‘No use in hiding…’ A voice more Welsh than any I’d heard in Presteigne or Pilleth. ‘Seen your faces now, boys.’
A voice familiar to me.
‘And here’s the thing,’ it said. ‘If I see your faces again this night and there’s no one about, I shall have no choice but to drown the both of you in the river. Leave you floating faces-down all the way to Hereford. A pity, but there it is. Cannot abide impoliteness in the young.’
Silence, then the voice came back quieter, with perhaps an edge of amusement.
‘I think there’s a horse trough just behind you, John.’
God’s blood. I found the tank and bent to it, splashing the cold water on my face and rising, dripping.
‘The small surprises life throws at us, eh? Keep me going, they do. How are you, boy?’
This was a man high on the list of people I’d not expected to meet in this town. But then again…
‘You’re here as a friend of the accused?’ I said.
‘To plead for his life, perhaps?’
Thomas Jones, who was betrothed to my cousin Joanne, peered at the approaching ostler.
‘Lying with the horse tonight, is it, John, or have you come into money?’
‘Living off my rich friends,’ I said. ‘As usual.’
‘I thought maybe it was that. You can buy me dinner, then.’
* * *
I’m yet unsure how my cousin Joanne, whom I’d encountered but rarely, had come to be enamoured of the man known in his own country as Twm Siôn Cati.
Thomas, son of John and Catherine, is all it means, but it’s said to ring like mocking bells in west Wales, where he was known as a scholar. And also a thief.
Thief? Listen, I know not – and take care never to ask – what he stole. According to the legend, his victims tended to be knavish landowners. Some of the proceeds of his crimes were, it is said, fed to the victims’ hard-pressed tenants… while leaving some behind for the purchase of his books, I’d guess, though never asked.
Especially since Thomas Jones – Dr Jones now – had, with little explanation, been granted a pardon by the Queen. Maybe through petition of his family to Cecil or even Blanche Parry. Who really knew how or why such pardons were granted? But Robert Dudley, when introduced, was predictably sceptical of the provenance of this one.
‘You expect me to dine with this sack of shit?’
Glaring at Thomas Jones from a corner of the parlour at the Bull, where candles flared from the walls and men I recognised as Legge’s attorneys were pressed amongst well-dressed men with a merchant air, and serving girls bore jugs of ale and cider.
Twm Siôn Cati looked hurt. He’d gained some weight since last I’d seen him, and his hair was longer, his beard shaven close. His doublet, of a warm, russet colour with threads looking suspiciously gilded, was the kind of garment that Dudley himself might have worn were he not in mourning or the guise of Master Roberts.
I did not know – and yet don’t – if there was history common to these men or whether Dudley’s disdain might even hide a well-buried respect. I might even have derived some amusement from it, had circumstances been different, for it was clear that Thomas Jones had a good idea of my companion’s identity. And Dudley’s attitude would confirm it.
‘This man’s a renowned knave. You do know that, John?’
‘Former knave,’ Thomas Jones said stiffly.
‘And you’re telling me this piece of gangrenous Welsh pus is your cousin?’
‘Soon to be, Master Roberts, by marriage.’ Thomas Jones tossed a handful of groats on to a tray and snatched up a mug of cider. ‘And may I say, John, your antiquary’s manner of speech—’
‘Tutored him myself,’ I said.
‘—is sadly typical of the vulgar way the grasping lower orders, when exposed to a little learning, choose to express themselves these days. Thank God, I say, that such a man will never be seen within a mile of the Queen’s Majesty.’
‘If I were in a position to order it,’ Dudley murmured, ‘I’d be obliged, for the good of the country and all of us, to see you hang.’
‘You’ll stay for that, masters? The hanging?’ The big, shiny face of the innkeeper was before us. ‘Likely no more than a day after the trial. And then we’ll sell some ale, sure to.’
Thomas Jones looked dubious.
‘Won’t they torture him first? Find out where the others are? Won’t they want to crush what’s left of Plant Mat once and for all?’
‘You could be right, master, could be right. Likely be dusting off the rack at New Radnor as we speaks. Might have to build the gallows a few inches higher.’
The innkeeper was near doubled up with merriment.
* * *
Dudley said, ‘You actually trust this man Jones?’
‘In a way, I probably do. But I wish I knew why he was here.’
It had not been possible, in the suffocatingly crowded inn, to discuss anything of significance. Dudley had said hardly a word. Soon after our supper, Thomas Jones had disappeared to wherever he was to lie this night and Dudley and I had taken a jug of cider to our chamber, lit a candle, closed the shutters against what remained of the revelry.
‘He’s here,’ Dudley said, ‘because he knows Prys Gethin. Why else?’
‘Robbie, he was pardoned by the Queen.’
‘Only because she likes to appear magnanimous towards the Welsh. And because he’s a popular knave. That, of course, is assuming it was her own decision, which I tend to doubt. And who can be sure that Jones isn’t one of them? Plant Mat.’
Dudley had told me about coming face to face with Prys Gethin, chained in his gaol cart. Of his conviction that he’d been cursed by the man. I knew not what to think. For any number of reasons, Dudley was in a peculiar state of mind.
‘I just… I don’t like the feel of this, John. I’m yet failing to understand why a judge of the eminence of Legge is sent here, complete with jury, to make sure that one man is seen to be tried and goes to the gallows with all ends tied. It’s too much. There’s something happening behind it.’
He’d also told me about the whore he’d lain with – why was I unsurprised to hear of this? – and his belief that she might lead him to Abbot Smart and the Wigmore shewstone.
‘And you trust her?’ I said.
‘I know women. She’ll want more of me. What are you doing?’
I’d found paper and ink in my bag and spread them out upon the board under the candle.
‘Drawing a map, from memory, of Brynglas Hill and the valley leading down to the River Lugg.’
Wishing I was in my library, with Leland’s maps, where all might be measured against what was known and recorded. So many possibilities here. Did the ancients believe that dedication of the river to the god of the harvest might ensure fertility in the valley? I drew the ancient burial mound in the river’s curve and the church with its pre-Christian well and shrine. And betwixt them the oak grove. Dudley was peering over my shoulder, a mug of cider in hand.
‘What’s it mean?’
‘All these heathen sacred places all clustered together. The river and the hill. It’s clear that in the time before Christ some places were seen as more suited to worship and communion with the beyond. Places where there might be passage through the spheres, one to another.’
Dudley took a step back, cider spilling over his wrist.
‘Beg mercy, John, I may have asked the wrong question. What I meant was, what the fuck does any of this matter?’
I looked up at him, perhaps vaguely.
‘I don’t know. I need to think on it. But it’s clear, is it not, that the battlefield was chosen by Glyndwr and Rhys Gethin? And Glyndwr studied magic and would see the power in this place.’
‘Jesu,’ Dudley said wearily. ‘You never change, do you? This is all because some failed MP from the rear benches asks you to explain why his village is dying on its feet.’
‘My father’s village.’
‘Your father’s dead! And it was so much his village that he took the first opportunity to put it a three-day ride behind him and never go back to the dismal hole.’
I shook my head. I’d fought against it and lost, for reasons I’d refused even to explain to myself.
‘I felt no particular kinship with it at first. Felt nothing of my tad there. And then mysteries appeared. As important, in their way, as… as the shewstone, I suppose.’
‘As important to the Queen?’
‘Your mysticism leads you by the nose,’ Dudley said. ‘So Pilleth’s dying. Villages die all the time, from the plague, or the river dries up, or—’
‘One more day.’
‘You’re going back?’
‘Maybe not more than half a day.’
Dudley thrust his face up to mine.
‘Can it be that you’ve forgotten why we came here? You’re leaving me to find the shewstone, while you waste another day trying to restore the reputation of the fucking Dees?’
‘Give me one day, Robbie,’ I said. ‘Just one day.’
* * *
Maybe I should’ve told him about the Ceddols. Maybe if he’d known there was a startlingly beautiful and mysterious woman in Pilleth he would even have come with me.
Maybe some people would not have died so cruelly.
But I said nothing. When I crept from my truckle at first light, my head was all full of writings about a man called Agricola who I thought might answer the mystery of Siôn Ceddol. And Dudley was yet sleeping in the high bed.
The early ostler was saddling my faithful mare when, of a sudden, he climbed the ladder to his loft and returned with a fold of stiff paper.
‘Left for you last night, master.’
John, the message said. We must needs talk, boy. Alone. And with some urgency.
Had there been any sign of Thomas Jones on the streets of Presteigne as I rode out, I would of course have stopped.
Maybe I should have asked him where he was lodging.
Maybe, maybe, maybe…
… that he the said abbot hath lived viciously, and kept to concubines divers and many women that is openly known.
… that the said abbot doth yet continue his vicious living, as it is known, openly.
… that the said abbot hath spent and wasted much of the goods of the said monastery upon the foresaid women.
NOW THAT WE were well into autumn, the mist was dense and speckled with white and gold, showing that the sun was yet alive somewhere. The boy was running ahead of us into the mist, arms flung wide, flapping like the wings of a ground-hopping bird.
Not entirely of this world, I’d have sworn that.
‘Sometimes,’ Anna Ceddol said as we pursued him up the hill, ‘I think I can see lights around him. Little winking lights at his shoulders.’
People talk of foreshadows of the End-time. Lights in the sky. Prophecy in dreams. Voices in the night. Footsteps in empty rooms. The dead among the living. I hear of these things all the time. I draw glyphs and sigils and mark wondrous geometry in the night sky to calcule how celestial configurations might alter our humour. Yet how can I know what is real and what is imagined?
He spun, red-crested, amongst the curling leaves, swirling in the energy of autumn. He was of nature, she said. The woods would feed him. He would wind himself around the twisted trees, occasionally snapping off twigs which would come alive like extra fingers, twitching and dipping.
Although not so much now. He seemed to find that unnecessary now, she said, as though he could conjure invisible twigs and follow where they led.
‘You took it up there?’
Anna Ceddol had stopped halfway up the slope, drawing her woollen shawl around her. The church tower had appeared above the trees. I looked at her, worried.
‘I thought to take it somewhere he might not normally go. Was that wrong?’
The secret, she’d said earlier, is in making him want to do it. He has no care for how you regard him. Will show no real love for any of us. Only need, which is not the same. He feels only for himself, and oft-times, it’s hard not to think the worst of him.
‘Not,’ she said, ‘if it proves something to you.’
But I saw she was anxious.
Once you understand, you can feel only pity… the pity that you know he’ll never feel for you. You can’t teach him to obey commands, like a dog, because a dog wants to please and he doesn’t care. You have to know when to catch his attention and point it at what you seek.
What he was seeking now, on Brynglas Hill, was an earth-browned thigh bone.
Anna Ceddol had presented it to me while he was outside.
His favourite bone. The first he found here, a few feet from our door. I could never take it to be reburied because he won’t be parted from it. Sometimes he holds it next to him as he sleeps.
I’d asked her what she wanted me to do with it, and she’d bid me take it and hide it. Anywhere. Then come back. Which was what I’d done. It had felt unreal walking through the mist carrying a thigh bone before me like a talisman, to leave in a place where I’d felt it would be in the care of a higher presence.
Returning to the Bryn, I’d heard his vixen scream and the angry toppling of wood from the fireside pile and wondered how Anna Ceddol could go on living with this, year upon year. He was already near as tall as her, would soon be bigger, a grown man with a grown man’s urges and living alone with his sister. Dear God in heaven.
When he’d registered that the bone was gone, I’d watched him running from the hovel, hands clawed, face contorted in rage, staring at me with a clear and focused hatred, Anna Ceddol watching him, impassive. Used to this – his humours changing faster than clouds in a windy dawn.
We stood and watched his red hat bobbing in the grass.
‘Do you never go to town, mistress?’
‘When I’ve something to sell.’
‘You have no cart… no horse.’
‘Nor stabling for one. No need. Horses won’t rest at the Bryn. Ewes won’t graze. Chickens escape. When I go to town, we walk. It’s not far. On a fine day.’
‘Why won’t animals live here?’
‘At the Bryn? I’d have thought you’d know, master.’
‘I’ll put it another way, then – how can you live here? You’re clearly an educated woman. How came you here?’
She bit her lip. Her hair was not braided this morning, and the breeze blew it back. I drew breath; her beauty unnerved me.
‘You don’t have to tell me,’ I said.
‘Beg mercy,’ she said. ‘I called you master. It’s doctor, isn’t it? You treat the sick also?’
‘I… treat nobody and nothing,’ I said. ‘And cure even less. The doctorate’s something I picked up in the course of a long education. Which will never finish.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t have to tell you anything.’
* * *
Tomos Ceddol, her father, had laboured on her grandparents’ farm. Good looking, and her mother had fallen for him and determined to marry him against her own father’s wishes. Anna’s mother had been the youngest of six.
Had Tomos Ceddol expected some kind of dowry? Had he expected to be rich, wed to a big farmer’s daughter? Whatever, he was soon embittered.
‘Not a good marriage,’ Anna Ceddol said, ‘and my mother, as soon as I could understand, was telling me I must never make the same mistake, to marry below me. My father had to go farther away to find work. My grandfather wanted nothing to do with him. While he was away, my mother taught me to read. Secretly. If he’d known, he’d have beaten her. And then my mother died of the summer plague, and we were left alone with him.’
‘How old was your brother?’
‘Very young. We didn’t know then that he wasn’t… as he should be.’
Some time had passed before it became clear that Siôn was not as other children. Crying in the night… that didn’t stop. Nor pissing his bed. His sister washed his sheets daily and made more in secret, or her father would have had him sleeping on straw. Soon Tomos Ceddol was become ashamed of his son. Could not bear to look at him.
‘Spent as much time away from the house as he could. He’d come home drunk – so as to get to sleep, he said. But oft-times, the noise was too much. He’d awake in a tearing rage and… hurt Siôn. One night he took him out to the barn. I found him kicking my brother where he lay, and I pulled him away, and he hit me until I knew not where I was. The next day, I loaded a handcart and took my brother away.’
‘Where could you go?’
‘Kept on walking until we were too far away for my father to find us. I’d robbed him, see.’ She looked at me, eyes wide open and unmoving. ‘Took all the money he had in the house. Well… he’d no cause for complaint. It would have cost him more if we’d stayed.’
‘Where was this? Where did you live?’
‘A good distance away. You’ll excuse me, Dr Dee, for not saying where. If he hasn’t drunk himself to death in a ditch by now, I don’t want him finding us.’
‘Did you know by then of Siôn’s… qualities?’
She shook her head.
‘We came down the border, village to village, for some years. For some time I had work caring for the small daughters of a widowed gentleman who paid a village woman to look after Siôn by day. It seemed a good situation until I learned that I was expected to marry him. He was older than my father, and I… Anyway, it was back on the road until the money was all gone.’
‘Then another rich man took us in.’
Looking at her, was it any surprise? All the rich men would be waiting in line.
‘He gave me money and offered me a house to live in. In Presteigne.’
‘Generous,’ I said.
‘It was a good dwelling, behind one of the clothing workshops. Too good to be given without demands on my… time.’
They were walking out of town when a man and his family stopped and gave them a ride on their stock cart. Pedr Morgan, shepherd of Pilleth, returning from taking fat lambs to market. They’d spent the night in his stable. She’d asked if there was anywhere she might find work and somewhere to live for a while.
‘The rest… is of small import. Save that it took time. The people here are slow to befriend a stranger. But at least there are no rich men, save Master Price. Rich men have not been good for me.’
‘Nor poor men, it sounds like.’
‘Except for Pedr Morgan.’
Who had lost his finest fleecing shears – must have fallen off the cart in one of the fields, he had no idea which. Been searching for a fortnight and more. Taking Anna’s advice, he’d shown his old pair to Siôn Ceddol, who had found the missing shears within an hour. Within a week, he’d found two new springs in the hillside. Wells were sunk, the Ceddols given food and offered dry barns to sleep in. And then Anna Ceddol had happened upon the Bryn, where nobody wanted to live and could be hers, for nothing.
And then Siôn Ceddol had found the thigh bone. The first of hundreds of body parts.
* * *
‘Where’s he gone?’ I said.
All the time she’d been talking, the red hat had been bobbing above the yellowing grass. No sign of it now.
‘He won’t be far away,’ she said. ‘Where did you put the bone? You might as well tell me.’
I told her I’d gone up to the little church, finding it empty. And then, walking around the side, had come upon…
‘Oh Jesu,’ Anna Ceddol said.
Already she was running up the hill, lifting her skirts, her breath coming hard.
I caught her up.
‘Mistress, it was the best test of him I could think of. A place he’s not used to going – a place he might avoid – though quite close. I needed to know how—’
‘I thought you understood!’
It was almost a scream. The most emotion I’d seen her show, and made me sick to my heart.
‘Listen,’ I said, running alongside of her, panting. ‘Please… I think I do understand. I think your brother possesses rare natural skills of a kind which are yet… fully explicable by emerging science. I’d like to… to help him develop them.’
‘That’s not possible.’
She stumbled on, the mist gathering more densely around us. Her head was lifted to the obscured sky, and her lips were moving in what looked to be rapid prayer, as we came up to the church’s grey walls. The tower was darkly garlanded in mist which seemed to hide no sun, trees bending away into the sloping churchyard. A cawking of crows and ravens, intimate in the fog, and, mingled with them, a kind of liquid wailing which sent Anna Ceddol, sobbing in relief, forward in a rush, to follow the church wall to the holy shrine of Our Lady of Pilleth.
I’d been in a hurry when I’d brought the bone and now saw the shrine and holy well as if for the first time: the green-slimed rocks, the steps down to the spring-fed pool, the stone wall built around it making it look like an open tomb.
On her ledge against the church walls, the mother of our saviour was smirched by the grime of neglect. Abandoned. Behind the body of the church, almost certainly older in its origins, the shrine of the holy virgin had been given back to nature.
And the bone given back to Siôn Ceddol.
He sat with his legs overhanging the pool, rocking from side to side, the dripping thigh bone in his arms, a gurgling in his throat.
He could, I suppose, have found it by accident, but why would he even come this way? And I’d hidden it close to the edge of the well, where bushes concealed the shallow water, and covered it over with silt and sodden leaves.
It was conclusive enough for me. I turned to his sister.
‘I do understand him. I know what he does.’
As if this were all that mattered.
Oh, the blindness of science.
I went down to the holy well, where rough steps sank towards the water, the mist gathered above it like a soiled veil. Siôn Ceddol clutched his bone to his chest and looked up at me as though he’d never seen me before and snarled, his face twisting like to a gargoyle’s.
‘He makes mockery of God!’
Turning slowly to see the rector, in his long black coat. Everything happening as though darkly ordained for my undoing.
‘He is a walking blasphemy,’ Matthew Daunce said.
Anna Ceddol’s eyes closed, her shoulders falling, the shawl dropping to her elbows. Oh, dear God, oh, Christ, what had I done? What had I set in train here?
‘No,’ I said. ‘You know not what you’re saying.’ I stood up. ‘Mistress Ceddol. It’s best if you go. And the boy.’
Her eyes moved from the rector to me, and she took the boy’s arm and pulled him to his feet. He writhed, and she held him and the bone and dragged him away and looked at me.
‘Please,’ I said. ‘Go.’
‘You also.’ The rector’s face was a ball of white light in the mist. ‘Now I know who you are. You are not wanted here. You’re filled with dark sprites. The filth oozes from you.’
I said nothing. Watched the Ceddols backing away, Anna dragging the boy with his thigh bone bumping off the trees, leaving me staring into the rector’s pointing, rigid finger.
‘Go with your whore and her demonic sibling.’ His forefinger twisting as if to bore a hole between my eyes. ‘Go on! Before I call upon the Lord God to hurl you out.’
‘No,’ I said.
The word emerging fainter than I’d wanted, for I found I had no breath. Could almost see it leaving me, fading into the mist as, from the woods below the church, the horrific, faerie, vixen shriek of Siôn Ceddol tore the morn into dark strips.
The Single Eye
DUDLEY HAS TRIED several times to meet the single eye of Prys Gethin, determined to send back the curse to its source by force of will.
Like most of those around the Queen, he’s seen the advantages in a mild study of practical magic and is prepared for an exchange of black chemistry across the already tense courtroom.
But never once does he entrap the Welshman’s gaze.
Gethin stands limply in a corner of the prisoner’s dock, which is close to the centre of the courtroom, hands manacled behind him, two armed guards his companions in the wooden pen, the jury seated along the wall to his right.
Access to the court, not surprisingly, is limited. Dudley has gained his place by following Roger Vaughan into the attorneys’ enclosure. Five of them in there, with their books of notes. Hard to see what function they each perform, but the judge will have his reasons. Sir Christopher Legge is nothing if not coldly efficient, and such men as him, Dudley freely admits, are necessary.
The law is not about humanity.
Already, the rough-beamed former barn has taken on an air of London. Banners are hung on the wall behind the judge’s bench of green oak, reflecting the Queen’s Majesty, a royal authority. Something to be feared.
Yet it’s all too big for this petty affair, and Dudley is tormented with suspicion.
The judge’s bench rises several feet higher than the attorneys’ to its right and the seats to its left which soon begin to be occupied by a handful of men who Vaughan says are the JPs from Radnorshire and neighbouring counties.
‘Come to see how it’s done?’ Dudley whispers. ‘How real justice is administered?’
‘Certainly, no one will have seen it done like this before,’ Vaughan tells him. ‘A trial here rarely takes longer than half an hour. Twenty cases might be heard in a morning. I’m thinking this will go on most of the day.’
God’s bollocks, Dudley thinks. Only a royal trial matches this.
He draws in a steadying breath and tries again to catch the eye of Prys Gethin, but Gethin is looking down, his face without expression. Has he been tortured, Dudley wonders, for the names of his fellow brigands in Plant Mat? Is he cowed from a night of beatings?
Outside, the sound of a massing of people, a dull roar, but in here the public gallery along the back wall is big enough only for about two dozen – Dudley marking one of them at once: Thomas Jones of Tregaron. Why is this bastard here? What’s his interest? Who let him in?
‘What have they told you, Vaughan?’
‘I’m a child in this. They tell me nothing. Only ask me questions about local matters and how people feel about them.’
They are at one end of the attorneys’ bench and Vaughan glances warily towards the other, where one of the older lawyers might only appear to be consulting his notes.
Dudley gets the message and keeps quiet, observing a man in a bishop’s mitre, attended by two clerics, entering through the main doors and approaching the bench, where two men in dark robes are arranging large books before the judge’s throne.
The bishop inclines his head and… hell, it’s John Scory of Hereford. They’ve brought the Bishop of Hereford here to represent God. Whose judgement is yet final, of course, in an English court. As if to confirm this, the morning sun at last breaks through, filling one of the high windows, and the air shimmers with dust motes.
The bishop goes out again. A robed usher enters, calls for silence and for every man to stand, and there’s a communal shuffling, and then Sir Christopher Legge slips in through a small Gothic-pointed door behind the judge’s bench.
* * *
Only after the prayers to a just God are delivered and the charges read out, is Prys Gethin’s red-stubbled chin seen to rise from his chest.
And through witchcraft did bring about the deaths of Thomas Harris and Hywel Griffiths in the county of Radnorshire on the night of September 20th, in the year of Our Lord 1560.
There were other charges relating to the stealing of cattle. Enough, on their own, to stow Gethin in the deepest cell for many a long year. Perhaps even hang him.
‘How do you plead, Master Gethin?’
Legge barely glancing at the accused. The sunbeams from the high windows create dusty cloisters in the air above the dock and the jury box.
A silence. Legge looking mildly irritated.
‘What have you to say, Master Gethin? If you wish to make plea in your own tongue, we have an interpreter.’
Glancing at Roger Vaughan.
Prys Gethin looks the judge full in the face.
‘I’ll not require an interpreter, my Lord, having spent considerable time in England. I plead not guilty to all charges.’
Legge nods. What else would he expect? The prisoner clears his throat.
‘And if I may be permitted to say, at this early stage, my Lord, my name is not Gethin but Gwilym Davies, gentleman farmer of Carmarthen. Something I’ve been trying to tell your minions, who seem strangely predisposed not to listen.’
Dudley sits up hard and, for just a moment, his eyes meet the prisoner’s one eye, where he sees laughter flaring like raging flames.
SUCH WAS THE density of the fog now, it was as though the rector and I were set in wax. His body was like to a scarecrow’s, but his face shone as marble. I looked at him and saw an effigy from a tomb dressed in cast-out apparel, and his eyes were lit, I’d swear, with madness.
The air was grown thick as a damp, grey blanket around the forlorn shrine. The walls of the church were now as far as I could see. Shivering in my cheap jerkin, I felt that this was no longer a normal autumnal mist but a fogging of the senses. I breathed in its bitterness and spoke with insistence.
‘Let me tell you… about Siôn Ceddol…’
‘There is nothing’ – his voice coming back at me like a horsewhip – ‘that you can tell me about Siôn Ceddol. Nothing that will change my opinion of him as an inhuman carrier of demons, who should never have been born into this world.’
‘Who are you to tell me—?’
‘What Siôn Ceddol does,’ I said, ‘religion has no bearing upon it.’
‘Religion has a bearing on everything. Are you a fool as well?’
‘As well as what?’
Standing at the top of the steps, where Siôn Ceddol had sat, my breath was coming harder. If a place of healing is a place of inherent power, there was no sense of healing here now. Only the power, and that was a cold power with none of the promise of transcendence implied by an old sacred site. Within the quaking mist, I was aware of an ancient conflict, shafts of darkness and light twisting like blades.
‘As well as what?’ I said quietly. ‘Say it.’
‘I shall not. You know what you are and appear to live with it. But I don’t have to. I do not have to tolerate your presence here. Get yourself away from my church, conjuror.’
‘There,’ I said. ‘That wasn’t so hard, was it?’
‘Get out of here!’
His narrow body jerking in fury, elongating like a shadow.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Not before I tell you the truth about Siôn Ceddol.’
He’d turned away from me, so that I was speaking to his back.
‘How much do you know about water divining?’
‘Of the devil,’ he told the fog.
I shook my head with confidence.
‘A human faculty, known since early times, which may soon be explained by science. But only now are scholars finding it can be applied to more than the finding of water. Though the fact that Siôn Ceddol can find water as well as bones is surely proof—’
‘That he’s riddled with demons. Don’t waste my time.’
I would not give up. Spoke to the rector’s back about the great natural philosophers – Paracelsus, whom he’d have heard of as a healer, even if he disapproved. And the German, Georgius Agricola, of whom he probably would be ignorant.
‘This is the man who’s become the best known diviner in Europe. Who began with water, but then extended his art to finding metals and ore for mining. Using the same fork of hazel, which twisted and turned in his hands when he stood over an underground spring.’
I’d learned about Agricola at Louvain and, of course, had tried it myself, to no avail, before sending a report on it to Cecil, suggesting he might strike a bargain with one of the German experts to establish a mining enterprise in England. Cecil had seemed interested, but I’d heard nothing since and assumed he’d dispatched spies to Europe in the hope of acquiring the knowledge for no cost.
‘You don’t see it, do you?’ Daunce said. ‘You do not see the obvious. A demon enters a man and gives him knowledge he could not otherwise possess. Causing his limbs to move on their own. Snatching his body from the reins of his mind. I’ve watched that creature, seen its eyes go white as its hands burrow in the earth to bring up the dead.’
‘It’s becoming known that the mind can be attuned to whatever it needs to unearth.’
‘And what if there is no mind?’ His rage throwing him back to face me. ‘The brain of that monstrous boy will ever be in ruins, and ruins are where demons walk unchecked.’
Turning away his head again, in contempt. It was like talking to the rocks. But at least I’d told him what I believed to be the truth; maybe he’d think about it.
Though probably, he wouldn’t.
I said wearily, ‘What are you doing here, Daunce? You hate this place. You distress its people. They’re not theologians eager to embrace the rigid tenets of Lutherism. They’re not going to change their ways with a snap of the fingers.’
‘The word of God will change their ways.’
It had long seemed to me that the word of God as filtered through a Puritan’s rigid liturgy would change nothing for the better.
I thought of the boy who hanged himself because he could see no future here. Who might normally have gone to his priest for advice. And the old man who did go to Daunce, with his fears of night walkers and was told it was the devil making him see what was not there.
I said, ‘Does Bishop Scory know of your… way of thinking?’
But if I thought to put him in fear…
‘Scory? That heretic? A man who worships the lewd and the sacrilegious in a secret chamber in the Cathedral itself?’
I realised he must mean Scory’s treasured map of the world, Scory himself having said some canons had been in fear of it and wanted it burned. Daunce, unsurprisingly, must have been one of them. I didn’t pursue this, but I’d not give up.
‘What progress can we ever make if we put everything we don’t understand at the door of the devil? If a man sees the ghost of his dead wife and we tell him, that was not your wife, that was an image wrought by the devil to torment you…’
‘The truth is not always easy to face,’ he said calmly. ‘But faced it must be.’
‘And there can be no ghosts of the dead because the Lutheran faith has decided there’s no purgatory?’
‘All papist myth and must be revealed as such. Stripping away these fondly held archaic beliefs is bound to cause a small period of pain, before the clear light is seen.’
Well, of course, he’d see it as a challenge, a mission. Slicing through all the layers of the place with the clean, cold butcher’s blade of the new Puritanism.
I glanced at the statue of the Virgin in her grotto in the rocks above the water, marking the green slime on her brow and her robes all smirched with slug-trails and dead insects. Whatever power was here now, the Virgin was no longer the source of it.
‘You can’t be said to have taken care of her, Rector.’
He didn’t look at the shrine. Or I don’t think he did; his eyes were no more than smudges in the fog.
‘A papist conceit, perpetuating an old evil. I’d have it smashed. Maybe I will. I’ll certainly be erecting a barrier to keep people away. Let the brambles and thorns do the rest.’
‘Isn’t she the reason for this church? Our Lady of Pilleth?’
A silence, and then he eyed me, a slight smile on his dry, pale lips.
‘And who is she? Who is the lady?’
‘Who do you think she is?’
‘Can you not feel her?’
I said nothing.
‘I’ve never felt her so strongly. Our Lady of Slime.’
‘I found here a long tradition of dark worship which had never been challenged. This well was made by the old Britons, doubtless in veneration of some predatory water goddess. They would have performed sacrifice here, thrown the heads of their enemies into the pool.’
I could only nod. This married with my own findings from old English manuscripts.
‘The papists take a pagan well,’ Daunce said, ‘and claim it for the Virgin and nothing changes… because the practices of the Catholic Church, like those of the heathens, like those of the Druids, are founded upon magic and sorcery. You, of all people, should know that.’
Well, of course I knew that. Bishop Scory knew that. The Queen herself would acknowledge that high magic was a ceremonial gateway to knowledge.
And was a simpler magic so wrong for a place like this, the valley of the river of the god of light, dotted with ancient mounds, scattered with the remains of the violently killed? A place where a careful balance must needs be maintained?
‘I presume you know that Owain Glyndwr worshipped here before the battle,’ Daunce said. ‘In his desperate need for a great victory. But did he worship at the church? No, he burned it down. He worshipped here, at the pagan shrine. Glyndwr invoked the heathen goddess – the devil, in other words.’
I said nothing. Given Owain Glyndwr’s knowledge of magic and that he or Rhys Gethin appeared to have chosen this site for the conflict, I’d come to a not entirely dissimilar conclusion myself. But was disinclined to voice agreement with anything this man came out with.
‘Invoking the power of Satan,’ Daunce said, ‘and it was given to him. His name was exalted all over Europe. For a while – the devil’s favours last only so long. As you’re probably already finding out.’
I was feeling very cold now in my thin jerkin, with no hat, but felt that Daunce was not. That he was, in some twisted way, beginning finally to relish this encounter. He came closer to me, his coat hanging limp around him like damp and blackened leaves.
‘And they worship here yet. This so-called holy well dedicated to the Virgin Mary, who’s but a screen around the heathen goddess… is yet a shrine to evil. For I’ve seen— I have seen them anointing themselves here at night, in the heathen way.’
‘If I’d gone close enough to see they would have set on me and killed me. God told me this. I’ve heard God’s voice in the night.’
‘How do you know it was God’s voice?’
‘You’d try and make me doubt it?’ His whole body shaking. ‘You’d make me out a madman?’
‘Father Daunce, you’re alone in a place you don’t understand and maybe never will. You’re prey to divers fears and fancies. You believe everyone’s your enemy—’
‘I’ve only one enemy, though he wears many faces, and I’m looking into one at this moment, asking myself is it a coincidence that England’s most famous sorcerer should arrive here… now? The adversary?’
I reeled back.
‘Oh, I was warned in my prayers that one would come. I’d thought it was the demon inhabiting the boy. But it’s a subtler devil. A manifestation of one that’s been here for generations. Dee… ddu… black! All black as sin.’
His face was blanched and his lips were parched. I began to see where this was going.
‘Your grandfather… was he not Bedo Ddu, who filled the font with wine? No sacrilege worse than that at the baptism of a child, when all evil’s expelled.’
‘It was done in merriment, it—’
‘And the tainted wine flowed in the blood of your father, who went on to steal from the Church.’
Jesu, who’d told him that? What had I walked into?
‘But it found its full flowering…’ The rector folded his arms, as if sitting in judgement. ‘…in his heretical son…’
So close now I seemed to see a white light in his eyes.
‘… who stood trial for sorcery… and was saved by Satan in the guise of a papist monster who made him his chaplain.’
‘Are you yet a priest of the papist church, Dr Dee?’
He’d done his studies and found the most vulnerable part of my skin. There was nothing I could say that would not make this worse. How easy it must be to see everything in black and white. But there was no black here and no white. The mist would tell you this.
His finger came up.
‘Let not this place be tainted by your presence. Take yourself away from here while you can. Crawl back to your London lair. And when the Welshman’s sentenced, I’ll visit the sheriff and have charges of witchcraft brought against the monster and his sister, the Great Papist’s whore.’
‘There’s no workable witchcraft law in this country,’ I said. ‘The Plant Mat case was only set in train because it was an accusation of murder by sorcery and two men were dead. There’s been no murder here. Only a mass slaughter a century and a half ago.’
A silence, then Daunce walked away, turning back to face me only when he reached the church wall.
‘I think,’ he said, ‘we both know better than that. And what lies in an ancient grave.’
I rose up, would have raced after him, grabbed him, maybe thrown him in the pool.
But what use would that do?
The balance was tipped against me. He knew about the mutilated man secretly buried by Stephen Price and Morgan the shepherd.
And he was mad enough to loose a witch-hunt upon Pilleth.
A weight of weariness came over me, and I sank to my knees in the mud.
The Etiquette of Cursing
THE PRISONER SAYS, ‘They told me my name was Prys Gethin.’
He sounds bewildered, as if the name has no significance for him. The judge leans back in his oaken chair.
‘The gaolers at New Radnor Castle, my Lord. When they overpowered me and took me to New Radnor, kept telling me my name was Prys Gethin, they did. All the time Prys Gethin. Would not have it any other way.’
The court billows with whispers, which are only hushed when the pikes are lifted and Sir Christopher Legge turns his anvil head, under its triangular black hat, towards the prisoner.
‘So… you accept that you were the man taken to New Radnor Castle by the sheriff and constables.’
‘I do, my Lord, but—’
‘Enough! You have pleaded not guilty to the offences with which you are charged, and that’s all the court wishes to hear from you until the case against you has been heard. You will, therefore, be silent until then. Is that understood?’
The prisoner nods his head with, Dudley notes, conspicuous courtesy and a certain grace. The clever bastard. It could be that his real name is indeed Gwilym Davies, that he’s known only within Plant Mat as Prys Gethin. It ought to change nothing. He glances at Vaughan, who looks a touch apprehensive, as though wondering if there’s any way he might be blamed for this oversight.
* * *
Evan Lewis, the sheriff, is called to give evidence. He is a bulky, brown-haired man who, unsurprisingly, appears slightly in awe of the London court visited upon Presteigne.
Legge has before him the sheriff’s written account of what occurred when the farm workers, who had lain in wait for many a long night, finally surprised the band of cattle raiders.
‘And how did they know, Sheriff, that these cattle thieves were the brigands calling themselves Plant Mat?’
The eyes of Evan Lewis flicker from side to side with transparent uncertainty. Dudley casts his own gaze to the ceiling, despairing of the quality of men responsible for upholding the law in these distant counties. They just wait in line, these farmers, for their turn at being sheriff.
‘Perhaps,’ the judge says helpfully, ‘these brigands were known to boast about their activities in local taverns. Determined to perpetuate their… legend?’
‘Exac’ly, my Lord.’ The sheriff’s body sags in his gratitude. ‘That’s as I believe—’
‘Yet, in the end, only this one was apprehended. How many others escaped?’
‘Hard to say, my Lord. Could have been a dozen or more. But they were fortunate that the one made lame by a fall readily identified himself to them as the leader, Prys Gethin.’
‘How very generous of him.’
‘My Lord, this was to open the way for a bargain. He said his fellows would pay handsomely for his release and if he was freed they could count on their land being safe from raids in the future. While if anything was to happen to him…’ The sheriff pauses and looks around the court. ‘…then every man who’d laid hands on him would be cursed to hell.’
A communal indrawing of breath in the courtroom. The judge holds up papers.
‘I have here statements taken down from four of the farm men which confirm what the sheriff has just told the court. I see no point in having each of them read out, but they are available for inspection, signed with the marks of the named individuals… whom I understand, Sheriff, were reluctant to appear before this court in person.’
‘My Lord. These are men who fear for their lives and their families.’
‘That they might be made targets of Plant Mat?’
Dudley smiles at Legge’s affected, faintly Gallic, pronunciation of the words – Plaunt Met.
‘And also they fear… his eye,’ the sheriff says, his cheeks turned a little pink.
Legge peers, in an exaggerated fashion, towards the prisoner’s dock. Laughter from the jury’s box. The prisoner looks down.
‘So,’ Legge says. ‘What was the response to this offer of a bargain?’
The sheriff straightens his back.
‘The landowners were summoned from their beds and would hear none of it, my Lord. No one should make deals with notorious thieves. They had him tied to a cart and taken to New Radnor. Calling in at my farm, where I was roused and, realising the importance of this arrest, sent at once for constables.’
‘And while you were waiting for the castle dungeons to be unlocked and prepared, I gather there was intercourse between the prisoner and the landowners, Thomas Harris and Hywel Griffiths?’
‘My Lord…’ Roger Vaughan comes hesitantly to his feet. ‘It’s, um… it’s pronounced Howell.’
‘Hywel Griffiths, my Lord. Pronounced Howell. I just thought—’
‘Very useful, I’m sure, Master Vaughan,’ Legge says with venom. ‘Let us proceed.’
Vaughan sits down, eyes closing in embarrassment. Dudley smiles. Legge pretends to have lost the thread of his questioning and consults his papers, turning back a page.
‘How would you describe the nature of this intercourse between the prisoner and the owners of the cattle he’s accused of attempting to steal?’
‘Well… heated, my Lord. The prisoner, having failed to make a deal for his release, tried to escape and was restrained. It was then that he… uttered curses.’
‘Hmm.’ Legge pinching his sharp chin. ‘Consider, for a moment, your use of the word “curses”. In the heat of the moment, a man might shout abuse…?’
‘No, my Lord. This was delivered in what I can only describe as cold blood.’
‘You were witness to it.’
‘Indeed I was, my Lord. I saw and heard all of it, although – my Welsh having fallen away in recent years – I was not able to understand every word.’
‘You’re saying that the alleged curses were phrased in the language of the Welsh?’
‘They were. With finger pointed, under a full moon, which is said to give more power to—’
‘Yes, yes. I believe we shall shortly be hearing more expert testimony as to the, ah, etiquette of cursing. Was any of it delivered in the Queen’s English?’
‘Enough to convince me of the nature of it.’
‘That my neighbours, Thomas Harris and Hywel Griffiths would be dead before the new moon.’
‘And indeed there seems little doubt that both men… were.’
‘No doubt at all, my Lord.’
‘In ways… unexpected?’
‘One of a sudden fever.’
‘Hardly uncommon in itself, Sheriff.’
‘The other drowning when a sudden, ferocious wind smashed an old and narrow footbridge over the River Irfon as he was crossing it.’
‘You were not there at the time, I take it.’
‘I was not. However, I was summoned within hours, after the dead body was recovered from the river. My home is but a few miles away, see, and I can testify that this particular day was one of an unusual stillness. Not a breath of wind in the Radnor Forest.’
The judge nods, extracting a paper from the pile before him.
‘I also have a statement here, signed by the son of Master Hie-well Griffiths’ – flinging a cold glance at poor Vaughan – ‘giving testimony that he was at that time burning twiggery from a tree-felling not two fields distant from the point in the river where his father met his death and felt no hint of a breeze. Saying the smoke from his fire rose steadily throughout the morning.’
Strong evidence, Dudley thinks. In the absence of a specific Witchcraft Act, cases of causing injury or death by force of magic are become difficult to prove. Given her own interest in magic and alchemy, Bess might dither for years over this issue. Meanwhile, the power of malevolence conjured through focused thought and satanic ritual will go unchecked.
Dudley, who more than once has felt himself to be the target of a distant hatred made toxic by dark arts, is himself convinced that Prys Gethin, or whoever else he claims to be, does indeed have a stare of practised malignancy through that one eye.
And Dudley also knows that, where the use of magic is concerned, a sense of self-belief takes the practitioner more than halfway along the shadowed road. He stares hard at Prys Gethin.
Look up, you bastard, look up.
‘These two deaths,’ Sir Christopher Legge says. ‘How far apart were they, in time?’
The prisoner makes no move. His head is bowed, as if for the rope, as the sheriff replies.
‘My Lord, the fever struck the night before the collapse of the bridge.’
A hiss rushes round the old barn as if a cold river has been directed through it.
‘I think,’ the judge says over it, ‘that it is incumbent upon this court to learn more about the practice of witchcraft along this border. After our midday meal, I shall call the Lord Bishop of Hereford to give evidence. In the meantime, Sheriff, perhaps you might enlighten me as to the significance for this county, of the name Prys Gethin.’
In Dark Arts
JOHN SCORY has removed his mitre and wears a small hat of an academic kind. He takes the oath with a knowing half-smile. Legge consults his papers, then sits back in his big chair and looks up.
‘My Lord Bishop, you are, I believe, my last witness.’
Scory looks perturbed.
‘Not the last ever, I trust, Sir Christopher. One would hate to think the fear of a Welsh curse might drive you from the Bench.’
Legge scowls. Dudley grins. He rather likes Scory, a bishop in perhaps his last see who gives not a whit for anyone, least of all an ambitious judge from London.
The light in here has gloomed since midday, the banners fading into shadow, the old barn’s beams and pillars giving the court the illumination of a forest clearing.
The judge starts again.
‘You’ve been Bishop of Hereford since…?’
Legge frowns. He evidently thought it was longer.
‘But in that time,’ Scory tells him, ‘I’ve studied in some detail the religious beliefs and practices on the fringes of the diocese.’
‘By which you mean the area in which we now sit?’
‘And some regions further west.’
‘You’re saying that beliefs in this area may differ in some ways from the accepted faith of the land?’
‘Only in the way that faith might be interpreted,’ Scory says. ‘Wales and the Border country are not noted as areas of religious rebellion, but old beliefs die hard.’
Legge waits. Now Dudley begins to see where the judge is going with this. He’ll have the court presented with clear proof that Wales is yet riddled with witchcraft and that it’s entirely reasonable to suppose that a man like Prys Gethin was schooled in dark arts.
It should make for an entertaining hour or so. Dudley has eaten passably well in the Bull, drained a flagon of the innkeeper’s finest cider and then emerged to find the whore, Amy, waiting for him in the marketplace. Telling him that if he comes to her after court’s out, she may well be able to point him towards the man he seeks.
Perfect. With any luck they could be out of here on the morrow, with the Wigmore shewstone all packed away. He has the money… and the menace, if required, as it usually is.
‘Coming out here,’ Scory says, ‘was a rather bewildering experience for someone used to softer climes. I found things remarkably different from Chichester in the south-east, where I was bishop in… in earlier times. There, for most people, worship was seen primarily as essential preparation for the life which is to follow.’
‘And is it not, my Lord Bishop?’
A suitably pious consternation creasing Legge’s brow.
‘Oh, most certainly it is, my Lord,’ Scory says. ‘However, in the wilder country, worship and ritual are seen also as serving a practical purpose in the surviving of this life. Isolated country people depend far more than do we upon a relationship with the land and its elements… perceiving themselves closer to the, ah, spirits which – under God – maintain the fertility of crops and stock, and hold the seasons in place.’
Legge’s eyes close in upon the blade of his nose.
‘Country people, inevitably, are closer to what you may prefer to think of as the elements of nature. Not as close as our ancestors might have been but closer than most city people can imagine. Few have not had some experience of natural powers which have raised them up or – more often – reduced them to fear for their livelihoods. And life itself.’
Scory pauses, casts his gaze around the rustic courtroom as though it were become his cathedral. The air is clouded in here now, but not dark enough for candles.
‘My point is that they are constantly aware of the fragility of their lives and why a balance must be found and held. And, in finding this balance, are oft-times inclined – by instinct – to mingle the rituals and liturgy of the modern Christian church with the time-honoured customs of the area. Which some may see as witchcraft, but these simple folk—’
‘What are you saying, Bishop?’ the judge demands irritably. ‘That witchcraft is so deeply embedded in the religious practices of these counties that it goes unrecognised as heresy and blasphemy?’
‘Precisely, my Lord. Were every man or woman who practises what we might consider a form of witchcraft to be brought before a court, most villages would be left derelict and the land untilled.’
Legge sits up, his chair creaking. This testimony has not taken the path which he – or Dudley – would have wished.
‘And what of curses?’
‘As old as time.’
‘And in your experience of this area, can curses yet kill?’
‘In my experience…’ Scory wrinkles his nose. ‘…a countryman believing himself cursed will oft-times curl up and die.’
‘You are saying the curse works.’
‘I believe that, in the right circumstances, some curses do indeed work. Especially, as I say, if a man knows himself cursed. If he falls ill, he’ll be inclined to believe the curse is come upon him.’
‘And the inflictor of the curse may issue it with this intent?’
‘Indeed,’ Scory says, gazing into the air. ‘However, I confess I’d find it rather harder to explain how such a man may seek to persuade let us say a bridge that its timbers are fatigued to the extent that the said bridge gives up its struggle against collapse just as the recipient of a curse is passing over it. Probably a gap in my occult knowledge, my Lord, which I must needs address.’
Silence, and then the sound of laughter.
Which, Dudley is dismayed to discover, comes from his own throat.
Scory retains his solemnity as the laughter spreads in slow ripples through the court.
‘Thank you,’ Legge says coldly. ‘I have no more questions for this witness and will shortly adjourn this hearing for a period to consider all the evidence before addressing the jury.’
He glances disdainfully at the prisoner, who yet stands as though a noose is already in place. Dudley eyes the doors. No better time, as the judge prepares to rise, for a rescue attempt.
Legge delves among his papers.
‘But before I adjourn… I had considered giving the prisoner an opportunity to speak for himself – on the understanding that it would be in English – but now see no need for this. However, a written statement has been presented to the court by the prisoner, writing in the name of Gwilym Davies, the substance of which I shall now disclose.’
The judge tells the court that the man calling himself Gwilym Davies and professing to be a farmer of Carmarthen, claims that, on the night in question, he and his fellows had driven a herd of black cattle to the London markets and were returning through Radnor Forest when they were set upon in darkness.
‘Believing their assailants to be murderous robbers, they fled,’ Legge said. ‘But Davies, being lame, was captured and thrown into a cart. Being much beaten about by men who, he says, gave no evidence of being officers of the law, he admits to subjecting them to a tirade of abuse after one of them spat into his empty eye-socket. He denies issuing a formal death curse. Claims he…’ The judge sniffs. ‘… would not know how to.’
In the dock, the prisoner is nodding very slowly.
What unmitigated shit. If there was anyone more practised in the art of cursing than this one-eyed man, Dudley has yet to encounter him. Deserves to dangle for these lies alone.
‘He also repeats his assertion,’ Legge continues, ‘that the name Prys Gethin was pressed upon him by his captors. This being a name which, as the sheriff has told us, is calculed to spread a particular fear in this area of the borderlands.’
The judge smiles thinly and sceptically before adjourning the hearing for two hours – an extraordinary amount of time for such a petty case, Dudley thinks.
He leaves the court and walks down to piss in the river.
Only wishing he could have taken the stand himself and declared how the man had cursed him. Here in the marketplace without a second thought, the malevolence springing full-formed to his lips as if directed from some outside force.
But then, what nest of wasps might Dudley have kicked if he were to have given evidence as Master Roberts, the antiquary?
Walking back up the street in the dimming afternoon, he marks a tall woman in a dark green cape, gliding towards him from the centre of town.
By the finery of her apparel alone, it can only be the whore calling herself Amy.
They draw level in the marketplace, now filling with people awaiting the conclusion of the trial that will scratch a twenty-year-old itch. The piemen gathering.
Amy smiles, reaches up quite openly and touches Dudley’s cheek.
‘Now, my Lord?’
The title delivered in a coquettish, mocking way, but Dudley still can’t help wondering if she knows who he is. All the men of influence she must bed. And introducing herself as Amy. Could that…?
Enough. She’s a woman. Dudley can handle women.
‘You can take me to him now?’ he asks.
‘Then I’m in your hands.’
‘Time for that as well, if we’re quick,’ Amy says.
I MUST HAVE gone stumbling down the path like a hunchback, and the hunch was Brynglas Hill itself and all the weight of worship piled upon it – one religion grinding against another, the fog before me lit with frictive sparks. Why is it that all faiths founder upon the jagged rocks at their extremities?
Towards the foot of the hill, the fog thinned to a mist again before revealing a sky of amber-grey and the smoke from the Pilleth fires which I hurried towards… and then cried out as the path crumbled before me.
Losing my footing, and the land was all atilt. Then came the shock of cold water – treacherous mud had flung me headlong into a brown, stagnant puddle.
God damn. I lay soaked, twisted and dazed, close to weeping in frustration like an infant. Jesu, what was I become? The adversary? Truly, I’ve never in my life wanted to challenge God, only to understand some small part of his mind. Is that the worst kind of heresy?
Blinking away the dirt in my eyes, I thought for a moment that I saw my tad with that expression of both sympathy and scorn which all good fathers wear when a child falls and explodes into self-pitying tears.
And then found I was looking up into the calm, weather-browned face of Anna Ceddol.
‘Mistress…’ Coming at once, red-faced and dripping to my feet, brushing wet earth and slimed leaves from my sopping jerkin, feeling more foolish than I could ever remember. ‘Oh God, Mistress Ceddol… what have I done without thinking.’
Or, more likely, while thinking too much.
Anna Ceddol nodded towards the boy, who was scrabbling among the damp ashes on the midden.
‘He does everything without thinking. Or, at least, not as we know thinking.’
Yet still achieved more than me, for all my years of study. A bookman who thinks only of how his learning might grow. Making him more of scholar, but less of a man.
Anna Ceddol took my arm.
‘You’re shivering. Come by the fire.’
Leading me inside the Bryn, where she propped three logs in conical shape upon the smouldering hearth, drawing me towards the new flames.
‘It was coming, anyway,’ she said.
‘The rector. Sooner or later he was going to move against us. He was only gathering kindling for his blaze.’
‘We can stop him.’
‘Don’t waste your time, Dr John.’
‘I’ll find the sheriff tonight,’ I said. ‘Before Daunce gets to him. And bring Stephen Price down from the wall, on your side. He’s halfway there. Can’t deny the malady affecting the valley. Can’t be the political man turning from the old ways. If he’s to have the rest of his life here, he must needs face…’
I knew not how to put it and fell back on Price’s own words.
‘He must needs face what is,’ I said. ‘And that the Pilleth ills will never be cured by a Puritan whose answer to anything he doesn’t understand is to condemn it as satanic and shut it out.’
In that enclosure of firelight and shadows, it was all very clear to me now. I saw the shrine left to crumble and rot, the holy well overgrown, sucked back into the earth which gave out old corpses in profusion.
‘I’ll tell the bishop he has the wrong cleric,’ I said.
Yet I knew how hard it could be to remove a priest. Especially one who knew where a murdered man’s body lay and who put it there. I closed my eyes.
Then opened them quickly.
‘What are you doing?’
Perhaps I’d gone rigid, still lacking confidence in the close company of a woman, especially when she was…
… undoing my jerkin.
‘They’ll dry more quickly if you take them off.’
‘Mistress, is this…?’
‘Seemly?’ Peeling my shirt from my skin. ‘Who can ever say? Does it matter?’
Drying my chest now with a cloth of sacking, both her hands moving under it. She’d closed the door so the boy was shut out, and also much of the light. The smoke from the fire was sweet-smelling. Apple wood, clouding the air with fragrance, filling the head.
‘I’ll need your hose.’
Her long hands gently fumbling at my waist.
‘Now I’m all wet, too,’ she said.
Oh, dear God.
‘These things happen,’ Anna Ceddol said.
Her voice small now. I could barely draw breath. In the dimness, I saw her overdress falling away. Gave in to the smoke and the soft weight of a breast falling forward into my palm.
* * *
I slept. It was a mistake. When I awoke, on the pallet amongst the rushes, there was a smell of stew and herbs from the pot over the fire, and the door was open to the dusk.
Sitting up, I marked my apparel hanging from a beam and Anna Ceddol full-dressed watching the boy playing with his favourite thigh bone on the edge of the hearth, rolling it along the stones, humming to himself like a drone of bees.
‘Is it your wish to pass the night here, Dr John?’
‘I… can’t. I’m expected back at the Bull in Presteigne. And I must needs find the sheriff.’
Thinking I could reach him through Roger Vaughan. That Vaughan would surely vouch for my sanity.
I stretched out my legs, feeling warm and fulfilled in the simplest, most physical sense. She was only the second woman in this world I’d lain with, and my life was turned over again. I couldn’t look at her without wanting her again, wanting her forever.
How easy it is to fall into love.
‘Yet I don’t want to leave you,’ I said. ‘I’m afraid of what the rector will do. The rector’s mad.’
‘I’ve faced worse.’
‘I’m not sure you have.’
She looked at Siôn Ceddol, rolling his bone from one side of the hearth to the other, the eerie drone never ceasing.
‘People like to say he’s of the faerie. When he wants to find something, the faerie tell him where it lies – or the dead. Some say it’s the same thing. That the faerie are the spirits of the dead.’
‘I doubt that.’ The mingling of spheres – this I felt, but what did I know? ‘I think the faerie are the essences of things. The spirits of life in the land – in the trees and the rivers and the rocks.’
‘The rocks live?’
‘Some rocks, you can see the life in them. Crystals. It’s my aim to study this for myself. Make experiments.’
I thought of the scryer, Brother Elias, in Goodwife Faldo’s hall, how my attempts to observe and understand had led me only further into darkness and confusion. The perceived shade grown from the shewstone that night… the mention of bones drawing me at once to my guilt over Benlow, the Glastonbury boneman, when it might have been some strange foretelling of my encounter with Siôn Ceddol. The trickery our minds perform.
And then I thought of something else that Matthew Daunce had said.
She was carefully detaching my jerkin and hose from the nail in the beams, shaking them out as if they were apparel of quality rather than the rubbish I wore.
‘You needn’t worry you might’ve given me a child,’ she said. ‘I’m barren.’
‘And glad of it. I’ve been raped twice. Would have been three times, but the third time I agreed, and then he couldn’t do it.’ She took down the items of apparel and laid them by me on the pallet. ‘A young woman alone with an idiot boy, it’s the least a man expects.’
‘You can’t go on,’ I said. ‘You can’t go on with this life.’
I looked at Siôn Ceddol who seemed to have fallen to sleep with his arms around the bone. With closed eyes he looked like any other boy and harmless.
‘Come back with me,’ I said.
‘To London. With him?’ She laughed. ‘They’d have him in Bedlam before the week was out. Don’t you see? We can only ever live in places like this.’
‘He has a skill. An important skill.’
I had a momentary crazed vision of presenting Siôn Ceddol to Cecil as the only dowser I’d known who might be able to replicate the wonders of Georgius Agricola.
‘Don’t even think of it,’ Anna Ceddol said. ‘The city would terrify him. Me as well. We’re country people. If he wanders out in the night here, as oft-times he does, I know he’ll come to no harm. What were you about to ask me?’
I ached in my breast for her and the gloomed years ahead. Changing his rag every day, washing the shit from him in the stream. Worst of all, never letting him be alone with those his age, particularly the maidens. None of this would be so bad if she wasn’t educated. If she hadn’t the wit to imagine what her life might have been.
I let go a sigh.
‘When Daunce… when he was in full, abusive spate, he spoke of you as… the… the Great Papist’s…’
Her eyes were like rock.
I nodded, turning away from her, beginning quickly to drag on my apparel.
‘It’s not true,’ she said. ‘But it might have been.’
I stopped dressing.
‘I think I told you of a rich man who offered me a home in Presteigne. I’d spent one night with him. Or half a night. He gave me money. He’d been… a monk. At the head of a monastery.’
I stumbled, half into my hose. Could hardly say the name.
‘He had a reputation,’ she said. ‘Even when in Holy Orders. Could not keep it in his robe.’
I sat down on the stool by the fire to put on my boots, shaking my head. How could this woman consider herself so worthless that she’d give herself to a man such as this even for one night?
Siôn Ceddol, awake again, came and sat on the rushes a few feet from me. He was looking to the side of me where the tall stones rose like the remains of an ingle.
As if watching something.
‘He likes you,’ Anna said.
‘How can you tell?’
Thinking he hadn’t liked me up at the holy well, when he thought I’d stolen his thigh bone.
‘He’s within a few feet of you,’ she said, ‘and he isn’t screaming the walls down.’
‘Where…’ I didn’t really want to ask her. ‘Where was he when you… were with Smart?’
‘There was a housekeeper. A young woman. She survived the night by plying Siôn with sweetmeats. My feeling was that she was one of several woman who… worked for him.’
‘And this was all in Presteigne?’
‘He’s still there?’
‘They say he pulls a good income from Presteigne. That’s what’s said. Only gossip, but the same gossip from different ends of town. Yes, he’s there.’
While she told me what she knew and what she’d heard of John Smart and his dealings, Siôn Ceddol gazed placidly into the smoke. Holding out his hands in it, as though to accept a gift. But, conspicuously, not from me. His white hands swam up in the blue-grey smoke like flatfish and seemed to grasp something.
Holding it up to look at it.
Holding up nothing.
Of a sudden there was no heat from the fire.
Anna Ceddol said quietly, ‘There’s someone with you.’
I stiffened. The fire burned white.
The boy turned and picked up his beloved earth-brown thigh bone and laid it on the hearth and then pushed it forward as if he were offering it for inspection to whoever sat next to me.
And then sat back and waited as I shivered.
* * *
I should have gone then to Stephen Price, told him what had happened this day – some of it, anyway – but I couldn’t face it. Needed some time to separate the truth from the madness. Besides, I knew I had to reach the sheriff before Daunce could get to him, although I couldn’t, at this moment, even remember his name.
I stole around to the stables at the rear of Nant-y-groes and found my mare. She knew me at once and was silent as I nuzzled her and saddled her and led her quietly out of the stable and down to the road. I’d come back tomorrow. By tomorrow I would have thought of something. Some way of persuading Anna Ceddol to return with me to London. What did it matter to me that she was incapable of childbearing? There was neither time nor money in my life for children.
I mounted up and followed the silvered ribbon of road with ease, giving brief thought to what I’d do when we arrived at my mother’s house. How my mother would react to my appearance in Mortlake with a beautiful woman and an idiot. The truth of it – I didn’t care. The moon rose, close to full in the clearing sky, and I felt hollow and sad and yet exalted.
We’d covered the few miles to Presteigne before I knew it, the mare and I, pounding the moonlit track.
As if she knew I was trying to shake something off.
* * *
Even the mare knew something was wrong in Presteigne, starting and throwing back her head as the town houses sprang up to either side.
Most of them with light inside, even the poorer homes on the edge of town, where you’d have expected the families to settle down for their first sleep.
I dismounted and led the mare slowly toward the marketplace, now abuzz with groups of people, who spoke in low voices. No piemen. No merriment. The town was aslant, its balance altered, the sheriff’s building in darkness, all the pitch-torches snuffed, while only the inns were ablaze with hard light and the jagged air of a pervading rage.
THEN I SAW men with lanterns, horses saddled. Men with swords strapped on and hard faces, some gathered in small groups, as if waiting for a leader.
I espied Roger Vaughan walking alone, seeming to be going nowhere. The white, fattened moon illumined the sweat which spiked his hair and smeared his face like melted tallow. He looked like a man newly claimed by the plague, trying to absorb the awful knowledge of it.
‘I’ve just ridden from Nant-y-groes,’ I said. ‘What’s—?’
Vaughan shook his head, blinking, kept on walking until I could position myself and the horse in front of him. He stopped by an abandoned stall, the smell of fruit about it, slippery skins underfoot.
I waved a hand at the crowd.
‘A hue and cry?’
‘You could very well say that, Dr Dee.’
A young man came shouldering betwixt us, sliding his sword in and out of its sheath, shouting back at someone.
‘Be dead before midnight, if I finds him, tell you that much, boy.’
‘Who’s he talking about?’
‘You don’t know?’
‘If I knew—’
‘The one-eyed man,’ Vaughan said.
‘Gethin? Hell.’ I took a step back. ‘He’s escaped?’
‘You could say that, too.’
‘What about all the guards?’
His smile was crooked.
‘Dr Dee, the damn jury freed him. Under the explicit guidance of Sir Christopher Legge. The jury was as good as ordered to acquit him of all charges, and that’s what they did.’
A moment of waxen silence, like when an ear pops. The night took on a strange, spherical quality, as if I’d stepped out of it like a bubble.
‘Forgive me. The judge was sent from London with the specific purpose of convicting Gethin.’
‘That did seem to be the plan.’
‘Where is he? Where’s Legge?’
‘Gone. Ridden out within minutes of the verdict, with a small guard and no carts to delay them. Before the local people could storm the court.’
‘Don’t try to make sense of it, Dr Dee. There en’t none.’
‘Where’s Dud— Where’s Roberts?’
‘Wouldn’t know. He was with me in earlier in court.’
‘There was an adjournment while Legge considered the evidence. Mabbe he couldn’t get back in through the crush to hear the death sentence.’
Vaughan laughed dully, bent and picked up a stray plum and hurled it at the nearest wall, making a sucking phat.
‘Death sentence.’ He made gesture at the horsemen, beginning to move off in groups. ‘They think to catch Gethin on the road. Bring him back and have their own trial. Or mabbe just hang him theirselves.’
‘They won’t find him, I’m guessing.’
It was just young men with a need to turn anger into action – the twenty-year-old itch violently inflamed. They’d rampage across the hills for an hour or two, until the drink ran out, and stagger back into town, while the lights were gradually doused and the muttering about betrayal died until morning.
I pointed Vaughan down towards the river and the church, where it looked to be quieter.
‘Tell me about this, would you? In detail.’
He shrugged and followed me and the mare.
‘Some of the ole boys are even saying the judge was bewitched,’ he said.
* * *
The man known as Prys Gethin… he’d be well away, back into the heartland. Even if the angry men of Presteigne had caught up with him, who among them would have risked his own life administering rustic justice to a man so firmly acquitted by the Queen’s court?
Vaughan leaned over the bridge barrier, staring down at shards of the moon in the swirling waters of the River Lugg.
‘The judge told the jury that a hundred years ago – even fifty or less – they wouldn’t have had to think twice about their verdict. But the world was in the throes of mighty change and such matters as witchcraft were become subject to new thought.’
‘Legge said that?’
He must himself have undergone mighty change since the days when he’d conspired with my enemies to get me burned for using dark magic against Queen Mary.
‘He said that the two principal witness were also the victims, so called, and therefore dead. Told the jury that, as none of the men present had a proper knowledge of the Welsh speech, there was no evidence that a death curse had been delivered. But that it was reasonable to suppose – as implied by the Bishop of Hereford – that being abused in Welsh might have led Thomas Harris to believe that he was cursed.’
‘The Bishop of Hereford? Scory?’
‘Scory as good as said that witchcraft was the religion of Radnorshire. As for the collapse of the bridge in a sudden high wind… while there was much evidence of places nearby where there was no wind, what testimony was there to show there had been a violent storm in such a confined area? Only one man could say for certain, and he was drowned.’
‘Where did the story of the wind come from?’
‘Legge asked that. To which there was no firm answer. It was all round the villages at the time but they clearly couldn’t find anyone to describe it to the court. The truth is, it was an old bridge. The judge said the jury would have to decide whether it believed that bitter words spoken by one man could cause timbers in that bridge to weaken it to the point of collapse. Drawing here on the evidence of Bishop Scory.’
‘Why was Scory even called?’
‘Ah…’ Vaughan pushed himself back from the bridge. ‘Now that… is of interest in itself, ennit? Sounded like Legge’d been expecting Scory to paint a dark and damning picture of Wales as a stinking midden of sorcery. Instead we heard of an almost benign heathenism which, enmingled with the Christian faith, gave country folk their own practical religion.’
‘Which is true, to an extent, is it not?’
‘Aye, course it’s true. But it en’t what you say to a court when you’re bent on getting a bad man hanged.’
‘A judge like Legge,’ I said, ‘never calls upon a witness without knowing in advance the nature of his testimony.’
‘Oh, he was heard to try and prod Scory back on to the path. And then ending his testimony at a stroke when it was clear he wasn’t gonner play ball… but too late. Clever, eh?’
‘You think Legge knew that Scory would be showing witchcraft in a different light… but pretended he didn’t?’
‘We had it all wrong. From the start. Assuming he was sent here to make sure of a conviction which a local judge might be affeared to preside over… when in fact he was sent to… make sure of an acquittal?’
Well, that’s the big question, ennit? A few are saying it was done because the Queen seeks to hold favour with the Welsh.’
‘The victims were Welsh.’
‘Not as Welsh as the accused.’
‘It’s still against reason,’ I said. ‘Saving one man, only to make an enemy of a complete county? That makes not a whit of sense.’
‘Gotter be something we don’t know, ennit? See, even if Legge hadn’t brought half a jury with him, he could’ve turned it either way. He could have asked why there were no statements from Gwilym Davies’s fellow cattle-drovers to support his story of returning from London.’
‘And why were there not, do you suppose?’
‘Because all of them knew that if the case went against Gwilym they would have identified themselves as members of Plant Mat.’
‘Legge commented on the fact that neither the sheriff nor any of his constables were there when the ambush was laid. Wouldn’t it be normal, if a trap were laid, to include constables? The truth is that it’s a big patch and there en’t enough constables to send out night after night, week after week, when there’s no proof a raid’s to take place. Gethin could’ve been convicted. Easily. All the evidence was there, and all the focus of Legge’s questioning was upon conviction. Nobody was even called to say cattle had been stolen – well, none had, they’d been discovered in the act. Ah… cleverest piece of double-twist I ever saw… and the horses all saddled up in the street at the back.’
I stood at the edge of the bridge.
‘What about you? Where does this leave you?’
‘I came down with Legge. I was his interpreter. His guide to the thinking of Radnorshire folk. And he used what I told him. Oh hell, aye. Used it to aim his final bolt at us. Right at the start, the prisoner – before he was shut up – told the court they gave him the name Prys Gethin, see?’
‘His captors? The sheriff?’
‘Who knows? But Legge, in his address to the jury, came back to that. Saying the name carried what he called an unholy glamour. Particularly in this county. As if it had been introduced deliberately to give the capture of a common thief a significance it wasn’t worth. As if it was all a piece of elaborate theatre to heighten the status of Presteigne as county town. In the west, see, they’ve ever resented it. Despising this place as an offcut from England.’
I could see the logic here. But why had Legge become such an enemy of this town?
‘You had no opportunity to question, if not Legge himself, then, one of the other attorneys?’
‘They’d cleared off within minutes of the verdict. The guards and jurymen split up into pairs and took off separately. Me…’ Vaughan drew a rough breath. ‘Two of the local boys had me up against a wall, would’ve beaten the shit out of me if a couple of Evan’s constables hadn’t come over, dragged them away.’
‘He’ll look a fool, too.’
‘The sheriff? Aye, nobody’ll come out of this unsullied. They think we’re all in it. And half of Wales here to see the humiliation. A man was even pointed out to me as Twm Siôn Cati, the famous robber of the west – and he got away with it, too. They’re laughing at us, Dr Dee. Mabbe I’ll take the coward’s way out on the morrow. See the kin at Hergest then ride back to London.’
‘Twm Siôn Cati is to marry my cousin. He’s a scholar now. I, um, try not to think about his past.’
He was silent a moment, then he smiled.
‘No offence meant.’
‘Nor taken. You believe Gethin was wholly guilty?’
‘I believe he was, Dr Dee, I’ve looked into the bastard’s eye. I believe there’s evil in him. But then… I’m a local boy.’
Property of the Abbey
GREEN OAK AND clean new brick were aged by crowding shadows, alleyways become caverns. Behind the gloss of commerce, this was an old town with old ways.
We walked back towards a quietened market place, where you could smell the pitch from the dead torches. No lights in the sheriff’s house. He’d be back in his farm, the other side of Radnor Forest, nursing his wounded reputation. Lights could yet be seen in the hills where the young men of Presteigne pursued a quarry they must have known they’d never find. I guessed it was become a game now, Prys Gethin already become a phantom.
I said, ‘How did he get out of the court unmolested?’
‘Mabbe the same way they got the judge out.’ Vaughan stared ahead to where the castle mound loomed grey in the moonlight. ‘There’s a yard at the back, with a gate to an alley… and back to the road out of town. You’d expect him to take one of the two roads west, but who knows? He’d be safer in England tonight.’
‘It deceives you, this town,’ I said. ‘So many alleyways, so many hidden houses.’
‘England. Welsh towns are simpler.’
‘Many of the houses and workshops were once owned, I’m told, by Wigmore Abbey.’
‘Much of the town was owned by the abbey,’ Vaughan said. ‘It was how a wool merchant like Bradshaw could buy into Presteigne so quickly. Grabbing the old abbey property from the Crown as soon after the dissolution as deals could be done.’
‘And is it possible,’ I said, ‘that deals may have been done before—?’
‘Dr Dee!’ A shout. A man approaching us briskly out of the shadows. ‘Forest, Dr Dee. John Forest.’
Dudley’s man, who we’d left behind in Hereford to intercept any significant messages from London. When the devil had he returned?
‘My master, Dr Dee… he’s not with you?’
‘No, I… haven’t seen him since this morning. I had business at my family’s home, I—’
I saw the serious, gaunt-faced Forest glancing warily at Vaughan, who at once held out a hand for the reins of my mare.
‘Take your horse to Albarn, Dr Dee?’
‘The ostler at the Bull?’
‘Oh… yes… thank you.’
He’d yet go far, this boy. Knew when to fade into shadow. When we were alone, Forest placed a hand on his leather jerkin, at the breast.
‘I’ve a letter here – for my Lord Dudley. From Thomas Blount. His steward?’
‘I’m given to understand that it…’ He hesitated. ‘That is, I think it’s of considerable import. In relation to the continuing inquiries into the death of Lady Dudley.’
‘You’ve been to the Bull?’
‘He’s not at the inn, although his horse is. No one there I spoke to can recall seeing Lord… Master Roberts. Not tonight, not this afternoon. I’ve since been all over the town.’
‘He was in the courtroom earlier.’
‘Then where in God’s name is he? God’s bones, Dr Dee, this is Lord Dudley— Master of the Horse.’ Forest smashed a fist into a palm. ‘I warned him – tried to – against this folly. Felt better when I saw all the armed men with the judge, but now…’
‘You know what’s happened here?’
‘Be hard not to. The place is collapsed into insanity! Do you have any idea where he might have gone?’
‘He’d be furious at the verdict,’ I said. ‘He’d want answers.’
‘You think he went after the judge? With one of the hunting parties?’
I hadn’t thought of that. In normal circumstance, Dudley would have been leading them.
‘I don’t know.’ I spun around wildly. ‘He’s less driven by impulse these days, but… you said his horse was still stabled at the Bull?’
Of a sudden, none of this looked good.
‘Let’s go back to there,’ I said. ‘Make sure he hasn’t returned.’
Yet knowing he wouldn’t be there. Thinking now of Dudley telling me how the whore had implied she could put him in touch with Abbot Smart. When he’d told me, I hadn’t been too convinced. But that was before I’d spoken with Anna Ceddol and drawn certain conclusions about the abbey property.
* * *
It took not long to find the narrow house in the alley, dark workshops either side of it. Glass in its windows, the moon in the glass.
John Forest beat upon the door with a gloved fist, then again, louder and harder, until an upstairs window set into a small gable was pushed open with some difficulty.
‘Come back tomorrow!’
Her face was furrowed with shadows in the moonlight; she pulled hair out of her eyes.
‘We’re looking for Master Roberts,’ I said.
‘Never heard of him. You have the wrong door.’
‘Tall,’ Forest said. ‘Not yet thirty years. A fine, handsome man such as you won’t see around here too often.’
‘Then I’d remember. Go away.’
You could hear the woman battling to close the window, its iron frame grinding.
‘Wait,’ I shouted. ‘Amy…’
No reply, but she left the window ajar.
‘Your name is Amy?’ I said.
‘My name,’ she said, ‘is Mistress Branwen Laetitia Swift. Ask anyone in this town.’
‘You told Master Roberts your name was Amy,’ I said, thoughtful now. ‘How came you by that name?’
‘I never came by it, for, as I’ve just told to you, it’s not my name. Now leave me alone. You’re both in your cups. Get off to your homes and sleep it off.’
‘He came tonight, didn’t he? You told him you might help him in his search for a man who was called John Smart.’
‘You’re at the wrong house.’
‘Is Master Roberts in there still?’
‘Must needs we break down the door?’ Forest said.
‘Holy Mother, do you want me to shout for a constable?’ She turned her back to the window, speaking to someone in the room, not bothering to lower her voice. ‘You… show them your face… another half hour if you show them your face.’
The face that came eventually to the window was plumpen, white-haired and stayed there not long. I looked at Forest. I thought we could take it that Dudley would not be in there with another man in her bed.
‘Was he here earlier?’ I asked. ‘The man we’re seeking.’
‘I swear I know not what you’re—’
‘This house, mistress. Was it once the property of the Abbey of Wigmore?’
‘To whom do you pay a portion of your earnings for its use?’
‘I bid you goodnight, masters,’ the woman who was not called Amy said.
And the window slammed and rattled.
‘Amy?’ Forest said.
‘Dudley told me that was what she called herself, when he… when he spoke with her. She was lying, of course. She knew who we meant.’
It all seemed less innocent now. For the first time this night, I began to fear for Dudley’s welfare. We came out into the alley, Forest resting a hand on the hilt of his sword.
I was not confident about this, but saw no other way.
‘I think… the abbot himself.’
WITH THE YOUNGER men out on the hills, the main parlour of the Bull was only half full, but the power behind the new Presteigne was here, its red-veined faces flushed in the creamy light of stubby candles on a round board.
Many a sideways glance for Forest and me, as we drank small beer served by the innkeeper, Jeremy Martin, whose agreeable manner was, for once, muted. For I, too, had journeyed here with the judge’s company and my name would, by now, have been well blackened by my cousin, Nicholas Meredith, who sat amongst his elders and did not acknowledge me.
Half a dozen of them, all well dressed and drinking French wine.
Forest and I took stools at the serving board and drank silently, listening, but our entry had dampened their discussion. Then the urgency of the situation broke upon me and I gave Forest a nod.
He stood up.
‘I come from Hereford with a letter for Master Roberts, the antiquary. I’m unable to find him. Does anyone here know where he might have gone?’
Nobody replied. None of them said a word. As if we might simply disappear if they made no response to us.
I looked at the innkeeper.
‘En’t seen Master Roberts since he broke his fast. Off to the court, he reckoned.’
‘Looks to me like the court’s over,’ John Forest said.
‘With a unfortunate verdict for this town,’ I said to the company at the candlelit board.
A heavy-set man with crinkled grey hair set down his goblet, his voice a reluctant, weighted drawl.
‘An unfortunate verdict, one might say, for the superstitious.’
‘By which you mean the local people?’
‘We,’ he said, ‘are the local people.’
‘My name is John Dee,’ I said. ‘And you are?’
I nodded. The wealthiest wool merchant in Presteigne, the owner of many of the one-time abbey properties.
‘Half the townsmen are out on the hills,’ I said, ‘thinking to recapture Prys Gethin. What think you of that… as a magistrate?’
‘What I’m thinking, Master Dee, is that while we may not agree with the verdict, no one can deny that the trial was good for the town. Never done better trade. More lawyers than we’ve ever seen. Guards, attendants. Every room taken at every inn.’
‘Better than a visit by the Queen.’
‘The lawyers,’ he said sourly, ‘pay for their accommodation.’
‘Tell me,’ I said. ‘As a man of stature here, did you know how it might end? Did you have a meeting with Sir Christopher Legge before the trial?’
‘Your knowledge of the processes of the law seems somewhat lacking, Master Dee.’