The Tower of London, July 1575
The gaoler rose from his stool and pointed at the dark stone archway. “The cells you want are that way, sir,” he muttered.
He put his tankard of ale down on the table and looked closely at the man who had just walked in unbidden, showing a warrant to see his most high-risk prisoner. The man seemed tall, although it was hard to gauge his actual height as his doublet, hose and cloak were such deep black that he seemed to be an integral part of the heavy shadows. Only his pale, deeply lined face could be seen clearly in the candlelight, set under the shock of grey-flecked white hair that flowed out from under his black woollen cap. The man’s close-set blue eyes made the gaoler catch his breath. They reminded him of the hard-edged captains who used to make him squirm as a conscripted fighting man; the ones whose authority could never be questioned.
“This prisoner – he lives still?” the visitor asked, making no move towards the archway. His voice matched his face; deep, gravelly and heavy with long-held authority.
“Indeed, sir, yes, sir,” the gaoler answered, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. He paused. “Although I warrant it is by the narrowest of threads.”
“He eats very little, by his own choice, and is oft seen letting the rats take the bread and small beer I allow.” The gaoler paused awkwardly, but the white-haired man nodded at him to continue, so the gaoler stood a little more easily. “He is clearly in the greatest of pain,” he said, “with heavy bruising on both arms and a leg that is broken. He needs must keep the leg still, so he has bound rags around a stick on each side of his shin, which will allow it to set straight.” The gaoler paused again, then permitted himself a small smile. “I have told him his fate is to die a traitor’s death, and that the same leg, along with his manhood, his guts and finally his head, will all be removed.” The visitor nodded again, so the gaoler finished with a little black humour. “If he wants to walk to the gallows then God speed his bones to mend, but I warrant it will be a short-lived victory!” He gave a small laugh at his own joke, then asked, “Master…?” while raising an enquiring eyebrow.
“Wychwoode,” the other man answered. “Master Wychwoode. And yes, indeed it will indeed be a short-lived victory.”
“I have heard…” the gaoler began, then stopped. Wychwoode said nothing, so the gaoler took a small breath and continued. “…I have heard him say that his wounds were inflicted by a noblewoman… the one he calls the ‘fucking bitch’, begging your pardon, sir.”
There was a silence, and the gaoler began to think he had gone too far.
“That is indeed God’s truth,” Wychwoode answered.
“By Heavens, sir…’tis indeed so? A noblewoman?” The gaoler shook his head slowly, “Who broke his leg clean in two, and hit both his arms with such force that the bruising still remains, even to this day? I would credit a lowly woman or one from the stews might do that… but a noblewoman?”
“That is correct.”
“Then I see clear why he talks of her with such venom.”
The old man narrowed his eyes. “She stopped him in the act of attempting the treason that brought him to this place.”
“Then I would surely bow before her, should we ever meet,” muttered the gaoler, “while I would have my dagger to hand, for she sounds most dangerous.”
“She is a fine and brave woman, fellow,” Wychwoode said. “Resourceful, loyal and an upholder of the law. Qualities to be valued. She did what she needed to do.”
Wychwoode fell silent, lost in his thoughts.
This cold stone place seemed to fade away, and with it the swarthy gaoler in the leather jerkin with tendrils of matted black hair sticking to his grimy forehead. Instead he was seeing scenes from a few weeks before, and in particular, the glorious exploits of the very noblewoman he had alluded to; Lady Mary de Beauvais.
Lady Mary standing over the bound and bloody body of the Alchemist, the man she had stopped as he attempted to use the powerful musket he had fashioned himself to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. She had achieved this by beating his arms with an iron poker, then using it to break his leg…
A forest clearing. Lady Mary casually holding the same musket, close by the body of a man she had killed by its power; a neat hole punched in the centre of his forehead, as if placed there with a driven nail…
Lady Mary presenting the supine form of one Lambert Moreton, his spine severed so he would never walk again… Lambert Moreton who had conceived and planned the whole plot; injured from a fall onto his back that she had caused…
He became aware that the gaoler was again talking, and with an effort dragged himself back to the present, and the cold stone jail.
“And the prisoner, sir, the one they call the Alchemist? Are you here to take him to meet the executioner?”
“Nay, fellow,” he growled, “for now I must only talk with him.”
The gaoler nodded and pointed again at the dark archway, set deep into the stone wall behind him. “Then that is the way we will go, sir.”
Wychwoode looked into the darkness. “You will lead,” he ordered, “with a brazier to light the way.”
Their steps echoed loudly as they passed along the stone passageway, with the glow from the gaoler’s brazier making the walls turn a fiery flickering red.
Wychwoode had to stoop to avoid hitting his head on the stone ceiling, and was relieved to make it to a heavy oak door. They passed into another long stone corridor with further archways set into the walls at regular intervals.
Each arch was the opening to a cell; each secured with a barred gate. The bars were covered in a mixture of black pitch and occasional brown streaks – rust or dried blood, Wychwoode was not sure. He permitted himself a curious glance through the bars at the unfortunate prisoners inside. None looked up or even acknowledged his passing; they were all pathetic bundles of rags, sitting slumped in the corner, or, in one case, hanging by the arms from a set of manacles attached to a high wooden post. Then, towards the end of the passageway, they came to a cell with a single prisoner, sitting back on a wooden bench with his head resting on the wall behind him.
As they passed the front of the cell, the man looked up, and for a brief moment, their eyes met. The prisoner scrambled up and staggered quickly to the gate, putting his hands through the bars.
“Master Wychwoode?” His voice was cracked and hoarse, as if this was the first time he had spoken in days. “Is that Master Robert Wychwoode?”
Wychwoode stopped and turned slowly with a look of indifferent enquiry.
“Aye,” he said. “I am he.”
“By Heavens, sir, you are well met!”
Wychwoode stood in front of the cell, just far enough back from the bars to be out of reach. There was a moment of silence as they observed each other. The prisoner was a tall, heavily built man in his mid-thirties, with a beard that looked as if it had been trimmed not too long ago, but was now somewhat unkempt. He was reasonably well-dressed in the garb of a merchant, although his clothes had clearly suffered from his stay in this filthy cell.
“Have we met before?” Wychwoode asked, with an edge of chill to his voice.
“Yes, yes…” The man nodded briefly. “I came to see you at the Inns of Court a few months ago.” He gave a small bow of his head. “Roger Rolleston.”
Wychwoode did not answer immediately; he was comparing the dirty man in front of him with the memory raised by the name – the memory coming back of a man whose manner was over-confident to the point of arrogance, and who was there to petition for… what was it? Ah yes – it was for the bond-release of goods from a merchant ship that he had invested in.
“I recall well,” he said. “So, what brings you to this unfortunate position?”
Rolleston shook his head. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“As do most prisoners observe.”
Rolleston grimaced. “No, no! This is God’s truth, I swear! I was visiting some acquaintances with a view to dealing on a consignment of spices, when the local Pursuivants came to arrest my hosts for Catholic sedition.” He shook his head again. “I was accused of being a Catholic simply by being in the company of such recusants, and all my protestations of innocence since have fallen on deaf ears.”
“Then you will be brought to trial? That is the proper forum for you to put your case.”
“I trust it will be soon, so I can show clearly that I am innocent of all charges.”
“Well Master Rolleston, if your case is strong, you will have naught to fear.” Wychwoode considered the man before him, clutching at the bars and looking at him with an expression of hope.
“Master Wychwoode, will you intercede on my part?” Rolleston asked.
The older man sighed. If every fellow who had brief acquaintance could call upon his services, he would never have the hours in a day to conduct his business in the law, let alone serve his true master, Francis Walsingham, and above him, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth. “Nay,” he answered with a shake of his head, “I have many more pressing matters. I am engaged on affairs of state as well as with the law.”
Rolleston stood back, then suddenly he punched the bar with such force that Wychwoode thought his knuckles must surely be broken. “By Heavens, Master Wychwoode,” he growled, “fate has brought you to me, and you are my only hope! I am wholly innocent – I have attended Protestant services with faith and with diligence ever since Queen Elizabeth ascended the throne! I have never missed a service, nor would wish to – go ask!” He shook his hand as if that was all that was needed to clear such pain as the hit would have caused. “Go ask in the parish of Egham, and particularly the church of St. John. The priest there will tell you that what I say is God’s truth!”
Wychwoode nodded. “You speak with passion.” He considered Rolleston again for a few moments. Maybe he had been too quick to condemn the fellow. What if he did as asked, and used his influence to gain the man’s freedom? Then this Rolleston would be in his debt – which might make him useful in future.
It is always good to have resources at one’s disposal…
“Very well then, I will ask,” Wychwoode said slowly. “If your claim is corroborated, I will see what I can do.”
Rolleston gripped the bars again and stared up at him. “I will forever be beholden to you, sir!”
Wychwoode glanced at the man’s knuckles, that now had a line of blood running across them. “Indeed you will,” he said. “But I make no promises.”
As he turned back to the gaoler, who was waiting by another heavy oak door, Wychwoode shook his head to clear thoughts of Rolleston and his troubles. He needed to focus on the man he had come to see, the man known as the Alchemist.
The gaoler silently unlocked the door, then stood back to let Wychwoode through.
On the other side there was only one cell. It was dark, lit by just a thin beam of light coming from a small, barred window high up one wall.
In the corner sat a painfully thin prisoner with spiked hair and a rough beard, wearing only a torn shirt and breeches which appeared to be soiled with his own waste. A chain secured him to the wall, ending in a tight black collar round his neck. Both arms were covered in old yellow and purple bruises, under which faded images could just be seen; images that appeared to be crossed pistols on one arm and crossed muskets on the other. His left leg, blackened and swollen below the knee, was bound by rags and wooden sticks as the gaoler had described.
The two men walked up to the barred gate. The prisoner looked up slowly, his eyes seeming to change their focus from an inner world of pain to the new arrivals.
“Wychwoode,” he said tonelessly. “Are you here to stretch me on the rack again?” He pointed down. “I have put my leg in splints and I feel the bones are starting to knit back together. Do you plan to undo all that good work?”
“Nay, Alchemist,” answered Wychwoode. “I am not here to put you to the rack again. For as you know, the law has a different – and more permanent – fate for you.”
“Ahh, yes. The gaoler here has delighted in confirming to me in great detail what that fate will be. But,” the Alchemist looked up, “it has been over three weeks now,” he pointed to a regular series of marks scratched into the wall, “and I am still alive.”
Wychwoode studied the man. That he had lost weight and was now no more than a set of bones covered by skin was to be expected, for no man would grow fat in this place, and especially not if he used his meagre rations to feed the rats. That he had splinted his leg – this too was to be expected, for why would he not want to give himself some purpose and small comfort, even with the certainty of execution to come? But these were not the topics he had come to discuss. He whispered his instruction to the gaoler, who nodded, and unlocked the gate.
As Wychwoode walked into the cell, the gaoler muttered, “He is on a short chain, sir, but I would keep my distance if I were you.”
“I thank you, good man, for your information and advice,” Wychwoode snapped, “but I am confident I can take it from here.”
The gaoler nodded. “Yes, sir, yes,” he stammered. Then he backed out, closing and locking the gate behind him.
Wychwoode waited until the heavy door could be heard closing further up the corridor, then he walked up to the Alchemist. “Aye,” he said, “you are still alive. For now.”
The Alchemist said nothing but watched the older man, as wary as an exhausted deer regards the huntsman. Wychwoode moved back to the wall opposite, then leaned against it and folded his arms.
“I came to see your state of health,” he said eventually.
“As shit as can be expected,” replied the Alchemist, “after what that bitch did to me with her poker; you with your torture on the rack, and what I get to eat in here.” He indicated a mouldy hunk of bread beside him, that seemed to move of its own accord. “Full of weevils,” he observed. “And the beer stinks of piss. Even the rats have to be persuaded to take it.” He shook his head. “No, my health is not good right now – as if that mattered.” He shrugged. “But then I’m sure you knew that. Why are you really here?”
Wychwoode went back to the gate and peered through the bars. The gaoler had definitely gone. Even so, he lowered his voice as he came back to the Alchemist. “I wanted to know if you still maintain your extraordinary claim to have travelled here through time, from the year twenty fifteen.”
The Alchemist shrugged again. “I still die an agonising death if I do admit it – you’ll burn me as a witch. But if I deny it…” He started to cough; a thin wheezy sound. Once he regained his breath he repeated, “If I deny it… then I get to see what my insides look like.” He paused, as if to let the true horror of that sink in, “and your precious Queen gets to see my head on a spike. Either way, I am dead.”
There was a silence, then a narrow, calculating look came into the Alchemist’s eyes. “Oh, but wait a minute! Wait one minute! It does matter, doesn’t it? To you! Oh yes, to you and that bitch Lady Mary de Beauvais… Because I have accused her of being a time traveller as well, and now…” the Alchemist’s voice suddenly rose, “You know it! Now you know she’s actually from twenty fifteen!”
Wychwoode remained impassive.
“You have spoken to that couple in York, haven’t you?” the Alchemist said. Then a thin smile played around his mouth. “The ones I tied up when I used their room to take a pot at the Queen. They must have heard me and the bitch talking about the future together! So, you know it’s the truth!” He started to shuffle forward, until stopped by the short chain to his collar. “If I deny it,” he said, his voice dropping to a whisper as his eyes burned into Wychwoode’s, “then there’s no sorcery. I still get ripped apart for treason, but she gets off free as a bird.” He shuffled back to release the tension on his chain. “That’s why you’re really here, isn’t it? You want me to deny what I told you on that infernal rack, to help make sure your precious Lady Mary is in the clear.”
Wychwoode gave a small nod. “I have spoken to Beth and Amos Carter, and they have – reluctantly, I may say, for they hold you in the lowest esteem – agreed with your story. They confirm that you and Lady Mary talked of the future in a way that showed you both had knowledge of it, and in such a manner that could not be explained by aught except by sorcery.”
The Alchemist pointed at his scratches on the stone wall. “So that’s why it has been over three weeks! You’ve been up in York checking out my story.” He gave a triumphant grin. “Well, then, let’s make this official!”
He struggled to his feet and stood stiffly on his good leg. Wychwoode could now make out the red chafing sores on his neck around the collar. “I am not going to do what you want!” the Alchemist snarled. “I will confirm to everyone that I am a time traveller from twenty fifteen, and therefore, in your eyes, a sorcerer!”
He hopped forward and glared up at Wychwoode from under his brows. “I will shout it from the gallows if necessary, in front of whatever crowd of ghouls turn up to see me die! So, it will be public knowledge! You will have to bring her in!”
He slid back down the wall and once again was consumed by a fit of coughing. “You and your Queen can do what you want with me,” he muttered eventually, “but you will have to do the same to that bitch! I said it on that blasted rack, and I’ll say it again now. If I burn, then she does too.”
Wychwoode shook his head slowly. “I thought as much,” he said. “Given the choice of two equally painful deaths, you have chosen the one that means I am bound by my duty to the law, and to my mistress the Queen, to level an accusation of witchcraft against the very woman who twice saved her life. A woman who is even now, to be honoured with a summons to Court.”
“Yes, well, all I know is that she stopped me assassinating your beloved Elizabeth and getting money and a title from a grateful Queen of Scots instead. So forgive me if my heart does not exactly bleed for Lady fucking Mary too much.”
“She was accused once before of witchcraft, and nearly drowned in a trial by ducking in a well,” observed Wychwoode thoughtfully. “Which means this will be the second time she has faced such an accusation.”
The Alchemist groaned. “You mean she very nearly died?” He gave a snort of derision that turned into another bout of coughing. Once he had his breath back he said, “That would have saved me so much trouble, believe me,” Then he added, “But if she didn’t die, didn’t that prove the witchcraft?”
“Not at all,” said Wychwoode. “For the truth is, God himself took her part.” He paused, choosing his words for maximum effect. “As she went down the well, the voice of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ was heard, saying she was his loyal handmaid, and that the witchfinder who accused her was a servant of Satan.”
There was a long silence as the Alchemist considered this. Then he gave a slow, knowing smile. “The voice of Jesus?” he said. “Seriously?” He made a short, hollow-sounding laugh. “The voice of Jesus?” He shook his head as he stared at the older man, his breath wheezing at the back of his throat. “And you actually fucking believed it? You have got to be kidding me! She probably had her phone set to play a voice track or something. Easy trick! And she had all you superstitious yokels fooled!” He slumped further down the wall. “The voice of Jesus?” he muttered again. “Give me strength.”
“Her ‘phone’? What is that?”
The Alchemist gave a long sigh, his eyes burning into Wychwoode’s. “It’s a twenty fifteen thing. She must have brought it with her. All she had to do was prepare the phone, hide it somewhere and make sure it played the ‘voice of Jesus’ at the right moment.” A smile cracked his thin face. “You check out that phone, Master Wychwoode, and you’ve got her for blasphemy as well as sorcery!” He laughed. “Oh, it just gets better and better!” This seemed too much for him. Running his fingers under the collar, he once again broke into an uncontrolled fit of coughing.
Once he was able to speak, he said, “You make damn sure you put us side by side when we are staked on that pyre, Master Wychwoode. I want to watch her burn and I really, really, really want to hear her scream for mercy as she dies.”
© Jonathan Posner 2022
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This extract may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author.