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THE SILVER SKULL-SWORDS OF ALBION
By Mark Chadbourn
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2009 Mark Chadbourn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEven four hours of soft skin and full lips could not take away her face. Empty wine bottles rattling on the bare boards did not drown out her voice, nor did the creak of the bed and the gasps of pleasure. She was with him always.
"They say you single-handedly defeated ten of Spain's finest swordsmen on board a sinking ship in the middle of a storm," the redheaded woman breathed in his ear as she ran her hand gently along his naked thigh.
"And you broke into the Doge's palace in disguise and romanced the most beautiful woman in all of Venice," the blonde woman whispered into his other ear, stroking his lower belly.
"Yes, all true."
"And you wrestled a bear and killed it with your bare hands," the redhead added.
He paused thoughtfully, then replied, "Actually, that one is not true, but I think I will appropriate it nonetheless."
The women both laughed. He didn't know their names, didn't really care. They would be amply rewarded, and have tales to tell of their night with the great Will Swyfte, and he would have passed a few hours in the kind of abandon that always promised more than it actually delivered.
"Your hair is so black," the blonde one said, twirling a finger in his curls. "Yes, like my heart."
They both laughed at that, though he wasn't particularly joking. Nathaniel would have laughed too, although with more of a sardonic edge.
The redhead reached out a lazy hand to examine his clothes hanging over the back of the chair. "You must cut a dashing figure at court, with these finest and most expensive fashions." Reaching a long leg from the bed, she traced her toes across the shiny surface of his boots.
"I heard you were a poet." The blonde rubbed her groin gently against his hip. "Will you compose a sonnet to us?"
"I was a poet. And a scholar. But that part of my life is far behind me."
"You have exchanged it for a life of adventure," she said, impressed. "A fair exchange, for it has brought you riches and fame."
Will did not respond.
The blonde examined his bare torso, which bore the tales of the last few years in each pink slash of a rapier scar or ragged weal of torture, stories that had filtered into the consciousness of every inhabitant of the land, from Carlisle to Kent to Cornwall.
As she swung her leg over him to begin another bout of lovemaking, they were interrupted by an insistent knocking at the door.
"Go away," Will shouted.
The knocking continued. "I know you are deep in doxie and sack, Master Swyfte," came a curt, familiar voice, "but duty calls."
"Nat. Go away."
The door swung open to reveal Nathaniel Colt, shorter than Will and slim, but with eyes that revealed a quick wit. He studiedly ignored the naked, rounded bodies and focused his attention directly on Will.
"A fine place to find a hero of the realm," he said with sarcasm. "A tawdry room atop a stew, stinking of coitus and spilled wine."
"In these harsh times, every man deserves his pleasures, Nat."
"This is England's greatest spy," the redhead challenged. "He has earned his comforts."
"Yes, England's greatest spy," Nathaniel replied acidly. "Though I remain unconvinced of the value of a spy whose name and face are recognised by all and sundry."
"England needs its heroes, Nat. Do not deny the people the chance to celebrate the successes of God's own nation." He eased the women off the bed with gentle hands. "We will continue our relaxation at another time," he said warmly, "for I fear my friend is determined to enforce chastity."
His eyes communicated more than his words. The women responded with coquettish giggles as they scooped up their dresses to cover them as they skipped out of the room.
Kicking the door shut after them, Nathaniel said, "You will catch the pox if you continue these sinful ways with the Winchester Geese."
"The pox is not God's judgment, or all the aristocracy of England would be rotting in their breeches as they dance at court."
"And 'twould be best if you did not let any but me hear your views on our betters."
"Besides," Will continued, "Liz Longshanks' is a fine establishment. Does it not bear the mark of the Cardinal's Hat? Is this land on which this stew rests not in the blessed ownership of the bishop of Winchester? Everything has two faces, Nat, neither good nor bad, just there. That is the way of the world, and if there is a Lord, it is His way."
Ignoring Nathaniel's snort, Will stretched the kinks from his limbs and lazily eased out of the bed to dress, absently kicking the empty bottles against the chamber pot. "And," he added, "I am in good company. That master of theatre, Philip Henslowe, and his son-in-law Edward Alleyn are entertaining Liz's girls in the room below."
"Alleyn the actor?"
"Whoring and acting go together by tradition, as does every profession that entails holding one face to the world and another in the privacy of your room. When you cannot be yourself, it creates certain tensions that must be released."
"You will be releasing more tensions if you do not hurry. Your Lord Walsingham is on his way to Bankside, and if he finds his favoured tool deep in whores, or in his cups, he will be less than pleased." Nathaniel threw Will his shirt to end his frustrated searching.
"What trouble now, then? More Spanish spies plotting against our queen? You know they fall over their own swords."
"I am pleased to hear you take the threats against us so lightly. England is on the brink of war with Spain, the nation is torn by fears of the enemy landing on our shores at every moment, we lack adequate defences, our navy is in disarray, we are short of gunpowder, and the great Catholic powers of Europe are all eager to see us crushed and returned to the old faith, but the great Will Swyfte thinks it is just a trifling. I can rest easily now."
"One day you will cut yourself with that tongue, Nat."
"There is some trouble at the White Tower, though I am too lowly a worm to be given any important details. No, I am only capable of dragging my master out of brothels and hostelries and keeping him one step out of the Clink," he added tartly.
"You are of great value to me, as well you know." Finishing his dressing, Will ran a hand through his hair thoughtfully. "The Tower, you say?"
"An attempt to steal our gold, perhaps. Or the Crown jewels. The Spanish always look for interesting ways to undermine this nation."
"I cannot imagine Lord Walsingham venturing into Bankside for bullion or jewels." He ensured Nathaniel didn't see his mounting sense of unease. "Let us to the Palace of Whitehall before the principal secretary sullies his boots in Bankside's filth."
A commotion outside drew Nathaniel to the small window, where he saw a sleek black carriage with a dark red awning and the gold brocade and ostrich feathers that signified it had been dispatched from the palace. The chestnut horse stamped its hooves and snorted as a crowd of drunken apprentices tumbled out of the Sugar Loaf across the street to surround the carriage.
"I fear it is too late for that," Nathaniel said.
Four accompanying guards used their mounts to drive the crowd back, amid loud curses and threats but none of the violence that troubled the constables and beadles on a Saturday night. Two of the guards barged into the brothel, raising angry cries from Liz Longshanks and the girls waiting in the downstairs parlour, and soon the clatter of their boots rose up the wooden stairs.
"Let us meet them halfway," Will said.
"If I were you, I would wonder how our Lord Walsingham knows exactly which stew is your chosen hideaway this evening."
"Lord Walsingham commands the greatest spy network in the world. Do you think he would not use a little of that power to keep track of his own?"
"But you are in his employ."
"As the queen's godson likes to say, 'treason begets spies and spies treason.' In this business, as perhaps in life itself, it is best not to trust anyone. There is always another face behind the one we see."
"What a sad life you lead."
"It is the life I have. No point bemoaning." Will's broad smile gave away nothing of his true thoughts.
The guards escorted him out into the rutted street, where a light frost now glistened across the mud. The smell of ale and woodsmoke hung heavily between the inns and stews that dominated Bankside, and the night was filled with the usual cacophony of cries, angry shouts, the sound of numerous simultaneous fights, the clatter of cudgels, cheers and roars from the bull-and bear-baiting arenas, music flooding from open doors, and drunken voices singing clashing songs. Every conversation was conducted at a shout.
As Will pushed through the crowd towards the carriage, he was recognised by some of the locals from the inns he frequented, and his name flickered from tongue to tongue in awed whispers. Apprentices tentatively touched his sleeve, and sultry-eyed women pursed their lips or thrust their breasts towards him, to Nathaniel's weary disdain. But many revealed their fears about the impending invasion and offered their prayers that Will was off to protect them. Grinning, he shook hands, offered wry dismissals of the Spanish threat, and raised their spirits with enthusiastic proclamations of England's strength; he played well the part he had been given.
At the carriage, the curtain was drawn back to reveal a man with an ascetic demeanour and a fixed mouth that appeared never to have smiled, his eyes dark and implacable. Francis Walsingham was approaching sixty, but his hair and beard were still black, as were his clothes, apart from a crisp white ruff.
"My lord," Will said.
"Master Swyfte. We have business." Walsingham's eyes flickered towards Nathaniel. "Come alone."
Will guessed the nature of the business immediately, for Nathaniel usually accompanied him everywhere and had been privy to some of the great secrets of state. Will turned to him and said, "Nat, I would ask a favour of you. Go to Grace and ensure she has all she needs."
Reading the gravity in Will's eyes, Nathaniel nodded curtly and pushed his way back through the crowd. It was in those silent moments of communication that Will valued Nathaniel more than ever; more than a servant, Nathaniel had become a trusted companion, perhaps even a friend. But friends did not keep secrets from each other, and Will guarded the biggest secret of all. It ensured his path was a lonely one.
Walsingham saw the familiar signs in Will's face. "Our knowledge and our work are a privilege," he said in his modulated, emotionless voice.
"We have all learned to love the lick of the lash," Will replied.
Walsingham held the carriage door open for Will to climb into the heavy perfume of the court-lavender, sandalwood, and rose from iron containers hanging in each of the four corners of the interior. They kept the stink of the city at bay, but also served a more serious purpose that only the most learned would recognise.
Hands reached in through the open window for Will to touch. After he had shaken and clasped a few, he drew the curtain and let his public face fall away along with his smile.
"They love you, Master Swyfte," Walsingham observed, "which is as it should be. Your fame reaches to all corners of England, your exploits recounted in inn and marketplace. Your heroism on behalf of queen and country is a beacon in the long dark of the night that ensures the good men and women of our land sleep well in their beds, secure in the knowledge that they are protected by the best that England has to offer."
"Perhaps I should become one of Marlowe's players."
"Do you sour of the public role you must play?"
"If they knew the truth about me, there would be few flagons raised to the great Will Swyfte in Chichester and Chester."
"There is no truth," Walsingham replied as the carriage lurched into motion with the crack of the driver's whip. "There are only the stories we tell ourselves. They shape our world, our minds, our hearts. And the strongest stories win the war." His piercing eyes fell upon Will from the dark depths beneath his glowering brow. "You seem in a melancholy mood this night."
"My revels were interrupted. Any man who had his wine and his women dragged from his grasp would be in a similar mood."
A shadow crossed Walsingham's face. "Be careful, William. Your love of the pleasures of this world will destroy you."
His disapproval meant nothing to Will. He did not fear God's damnation; mankind had been left to its own devices. There was too much hell around him to worry about the one that might lie beyond death.
"I understand why you immerse yourself in pleasure," Walsingham continued. "We all find ways to ease the burden of our knowledge. I have my God. You have your wine and your whores. Through my eyes, that is no balance, but each must find his own way to carry out our work. Still, take care, William. The devils use seduction to achieve their work, and you provide them with a way through your defences."
"As always, my lord, I am vigilant." Will pretended to agree with Walsingham's assessment of his motivations, but in truth the principal secretary didn't have the slightest inkling of what drove Will, and never would. Will took some pleasure in knowing that a part of him would always remain his own, however painful.
As the carriage trundled over the ruts, the carnal sounds and smells of Bankside receded. Through the window, Will noticed a light burning high up in the heart of the City across the river, the warning beacon at the top of the lightning-blasted spire of Saint Paul's. "This is it, then," he said quietly.
"Blood has been spilled. Lives have been ruined. The clock begins to tick."
"I did not think it would be so soon. Why now?"
"You will receive answers shortly. We knew it was coming." After a pause, he said gravely, "William Osborne is dead, his eyes put out, his bones crushed at the foot of the White Tower."
"Death alone was not enough for them." "He did it to himself."
Will considered Osborne's last moments and what could have driven him to such a gruesome end.
"Master Mayhew survived, though injured," Walsingham continued.
"You have never told me why they were posted to the Tower."
Walsingham did not reply. The carriage trundled towards London Bridge, the entrance closed along with the City's gates every night when the Bow Bells sounded.
Echoing from the river's edge came the agonised cries of the prisoners chained to the posts in the mud along the banks, waiting for the tide to come in to add to their suffering. Above the gates, thirty spiked decomposing heads of traitors were a warning of a worse fate to those who threatened the established order.
As the driver hailed his arrival, the gates ground open to reveal the grand, timber-framed houses of wealthy merchants on either side of the bridge. The carriage rattled through without slowing and the guards hastily closed the gates behind them to seal out the night's terrors.
The closing of the gates had always signalled security, but if the City's defences had been breached there would be no security again.
"A weapon of tremendous power has fallen into the hands of the Enemy," Walsingham said. "A weapon with the power to bring about doomsday. These are the days we feared."
Excerpted from THE SILVER SKULL-SWORDS OF ALBION by Mark Chadbourn Copyright © 2009 by Mark Chadbourn. Excerpted by permission.
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