Any Man So Daring

Posted on: March 18th, 2014 by

 

Any Man So Daring

 

Sarah A. Hoyt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prologue

 

 

Scene: A stage made of shadow and roiling cloud. In the backdrop a massive castle stands, built of rock so dark that it absorbs all light to itself and thus appears to radiate darkness in a halo about itself.

The stage faces a space vast enough to contain the universe and hide within it all the possible worlds. In that space, darkness deepens, a rich velvet darkness, alive like the secret dark of the womb, full of movement and expectation.

An uncertain flicker of that which can scarce be called light glimmers, then disappears again, as if it had never been.

Vague rustles echo, the sound of beings — men? — turning and shifting. Myriad small noises merge into a silence louder than any sound.

It is a silence that makes one hold one’s breath, as one’s ear strains to listen to that which can’t be heard: the scurrying of thoughts, the gliding of time.

Out of the dark castle, a being strides. He looks like a man, with short, curly black hair and classical features. Taller and more beautiful than human ever was, perfect as unmarred crystal and twice as cold, he looks immortal as a stone or a cliff is immortal — immune to death and life both, and permanent in its indifference.

He wears a velvet suit, after the Elizabethan fashion — doublet with broad shoulders that narrows to cinch his waist, and hose that outline the muscular contours of his legs. Beneath the hose, stockings and well-cut slippers show. All of it is the dark red of old blood, almost black as it shimmers under diffuse stage lights.

In the middle of his chest, where his heart should be, a black, gaping nothingness throbs and roils, as if all the nights of the world were there collected and from there reached to haunt the mortal mind.

Tendrils of something rise from him. Were they visible, they might resemble vapor rising from ice exposed to the sun.

But these tendrils are invisible. They can only be felt. Their expanding reach, beyond the creature’s presence, is the searching out of fear, the spreading of dread.

For in this something — the creature’s trail — mingle both the divine cold of godlike indifference and that assured, immutable immortality which mere humans fear more than death.

In his hand he carries a hunting horn. He steps, softly, to center stage, his steps small, controlled, as though he fears someone or something. But what can a creature such as this fear?

The posture becomes him ill. It is too human for such a thing as he.

“There’s no harm done,” he says, and looks furtively towards where the audience sits, like a school child in a crowded room, striving to remember his lessons for strangers. He looks from beneath a straggle of dark hair that almost covers his eyes, a gaze all too human, all too frightened.

“No harm.” He looks over his shoulder, as his hand clenches, white-knuckled, upon his hunting horn. “Have I done harm? Can one like me do harm and make the mistakes to which human clay is prey?”

He shakes his head and looks bewildered. “It is not possible. No. I’ve done nothing but in care of her. Of her, my dear one, my … daughter.”

A smile softens his expression, but he lifts his fingers to touch his own lips as though perplexed that such a human expression should dwell there.

He lowers his head, so that his hair obscures his eyes. A furtive look veils his features, a furtive expression returns to cloud them, like a tenderness afraid of owning itself.

He frowns at his dark-red boots for a breath, then looks up and audibly inhales.

As if he cannot believe the words his own lips form, he speaks again.

“She is ignorant of who she is, naught knowing of whence I am. She thinks I am her father and nothing more. She thinks she is my daughter, nothing else.” He shakes his head again. “More to know never meddled with her thoughts.

“Her mother was a piece of virtue and her true father was the king of fairyland. She was his only heir, no worse issued. Her father, though, a wretch, scarcely deserving of the name, sold kingdom and soul to the dark forces that ever lurk at the edge of magic — and gave himself, indeed, to me, to my immortal, dark power.” He looks at the audience as he gestures with his free hand towards the space where his human heart would be, if he had one. It is a gesture of explanation and exculpation both — explaining that he is what he is and apologizing for it, in one. He clears his throat, a sound like thunder. He shuffles his feet upon the stage and from his soles issues sustained howling, like the winds upon distant mountain fastnesses.

“I myself am the Hunter, the justicer everlasting, the punisher, the avenger, the supernatural sword that cuts through the heart of malice and slices off the head of ill-intent.” He shrugs and opens both his arms this time, as though to signify ‘tis not his fault that he is what he is.

“And thus I collected Sylvanus, King of fairyland, whose several crimes cried to the heavens for vengeance.

“But with him he brought the child, a small babe, untouched by evil, innocent of envy. What was she to me? Or I to her? What could I do with such a flower that even the exhalations of ancient evil could not touch?

“And she… oh, a cherub. She did smile, infused with a fortitude from heaven. What could I have done? I took her as my own, and here I raised her.” With a gesture, he shines a light on the tall, impossibly perfect castle rising atop a black mountain. “Here on the far borders of fairyland, where neither elf nor man would seek her out nor disturb the perfect innocence of her childhood. Here, where no one would touch or hurt her, here I guided her first steps, comforted her crying and harvested her smiles, greedily, as the patient fisherman who waits besides the treasure-bearing oyster to steal the shining pearl. Thus I’ve learned the gentle heart of a human parent and been father and mother to a frail elf child

“But living creatures cannot long dwell in my sphere of justice and vengeance. Without even knowing of them, she longs for her own kind.

“And I, myself–” Again, he looks unnaturally bashful. “I feel a sadness, a desire to be again the unburdened beast I once was, who knew nothing but swift revenge and swifter cutting, and feared for no one, not even himself.” His immortal hand shakes as he lifts the horn. “Now I do fear for her, as I’ve never feared for whole countries, entire worlds, for rich civilizations or sparkling cities. I fear the blade that might sever a single one of her shining hairs, and more, I fear the evil — my own and others — that can tempt her to immortality darker and deeper than any death.

“For the sake of her frailty am I made frail, and for the sake of her fear do I tremble.

“Months on end have I put off the evil hour when I must perforce part with her, but the evil hour is now upon me. It will not pass without a pang, a pain and a rebirth.

“Like any enchanted princess, my own Miranda must awaken from her dream of innocence and relearn the ways of her kind, and in their world risk virtue and life in that struggle from which no warrior emerges unscathed.

“Yet the fairyland to which I must send her back roils in blood and tosses in strife, in the jaws of civil war, where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

“And still it is her hour and she must go, to happiness or doom as chance may fall. For she is grown and within her stirs the need for a companion to her life, the need for her own path in the changing world.

“As within me stirs the hunger to forget who I was these fourteen years and return to my simple, brutish, clean ways. My rounds of vengeance have long softened their visitation upon the troubled world. And that, as all perverting of the natural order, brings flourishing of evil in its trail.”

He turns to the audience. From the amorphous dark comes not a sound: rather an amplification of hard-held silence — a composition of held breaths, of fast-beating hearts, of pulses rushing, rushing, in mad expectation.

To them, the Hunter speaks, softly, in a confidential stage whisper. “Something I must contrive — a way to help my princess to happiness and ease.” He nods at his own words. “Yes, this much I will do. The hour’s now come; the very minute bids thee open thine ear. Obey and be attentive. For here will unfold events to amaze your eye, astound your mind and stun your reason.

“Listen. Watch. It is a story as old as the world and as new as the womb of tomorrow.”

He lifts his horn to his mouth and blows. What emerges is not sound, but sudden wind, a flash of blinding light.

The audience sighs, an expectant sigh. Its sigh trembles and transmutes, flutters and changes till it becomes the sounds of a bustling city waking up.

Hunter and castle vanish. The stage light grows brighter, and a different scene emerges from the darkness.


Scene One

 

Early morning, in Elizabethan London. Down the myriad narrow streets, bordered by five-story-tall wooden houses, foot traffic scurries and carriage traffic lumbers. Ox-carts, laden with the produce and goods needed for the daily life of the teeming city, creep at an almost imperceptible pace. The occasional messenger on horseback, impatient of obstruction in his way, shouts and lays about him with his whip. From busy workshops, the clang of metal, the knocking of wood, the untiring noise of work reverberates, an unnoticed background to daily life. Though it be early, taverns are full, and from them emerges the clacking of cups, the unruly noise of drinking songs. The gleeful shrieks of children at play, the admonitions of their vigilant mothers weave joyful notes through this tapestry of sound. All is busy, all resounds with life in London — save, it seems, a soberly dressed man who sits upon a narrow stool in a second-floor rented room. The room itself looks like a hundred other rooms let to respectable burghers throughout London: its furnishings compass bed and chair, clothes-storing trunk with ceramic basin and ewer atop. The only added thing is the narrow table at which the man sits, with paper and ink stone and newly sharpened quill. He is a middle aged man, but yet good-looking, his hair receding in front but curling over his collar in the back. His face is oval, his lips small, his nose well-shaped. He wears a dark wool suit, well cut but no more so than the suits of any middle-class man. From his sleeves and collar a correct amount of white lace peeks, and the single golden ring in his left ear is no ostentatious jewel. But it is his eyes — golden and as intent as the eyes of a falcon intent on the prey — that give him distinction and make him memorable. Those eyes, surrounded by the dark circles of a sleepless night, glare at a blank piece of paper. His name is William Shakespeare, and he is the best-loved playwright in London.

 

Will glowered at the paper and at his hands resting on either side of it, with something between impatience and dread.

Never had Will felt such fear of a blank page and the words he should pour upon it. Nightlong, he’d tried to write, yet the page remained virgin of any ink.

Taking up the pen, he subdued the treacherous tremor in his right hand. He dipped the pen into the ink well which he had earlier filled with the grindings of his ink stone and water.

Vortigern and Rowena, he wrote upon the virgin page.

He knew what he should write next. This was the grave and most piteous story of the king of the Angles in northern Britain who, for a woman’s love, sold his kingdom to the Saxons.

Will put his pen to his mouth and nibbled upon the feather end.

Words poured into his mind. He could picture noble Vortigern beholding Rowena’s beauty and being stricken with awe, speaking, “But what may I, fair virgin, call your name, whose looks set forth no mortal form to view, nor speech betrays aught human in thy birth.”

He closed his eyes and allowed his hand that held the pen to trace the letters of these words upon the willing paper. “Thou art a goddess that delud’st our eyes and shrouds’t thy beauty in this borrowed shape.”

The movement of his pen stopped.

The words were familiar, and yet…

As he’d been many times before, in the night, Will was sure that someone stood behind him. Without turning, Will could feel someone there, a suggestion of laughter, a hint of amusement.

A soundless voice played in Will’s mind the next line of what he had been writing. But whether thou the sun’s bright sister be.

Will stopped, as the hair at the back of his neck prickled up, for the words had the manner, tone and voice of the late Christopher Marlowe, once a greatly admired poet, but dead now for three years. Dead and buried.

Yet the feeling of his voice, if not its sound, ran through Will’s mind. It is Dido, Queen of Carthage, Will. My Dido, Queen of Carthage. Those lines are spoken by Aeneas to Venus.

Can’t you wait till a man turns to dust in his grave before stealing his words?

The mockery, the feeling of disdain were as much Marlowe’s as the tone of voice. When alive, Marlowe had been the playfellow of nobility, the best-dressed dandy of sparkling London.

Will could swear that if he turned, dead Marlowe would stand there, behind him, in all of his marred elegance, his brittle grace.

He would smile at Will, a mild, ironic smile made horrible by the wound in his right eye, and the blood trickling down his small, neat features to stain the white lawn collar of his well-cut velvet suit.

Cold sweat dripped down Will’s spine. He shivered.

He should turn. Turn and dispel this irrational fear.

Turn, he told himself, turn. The sleeping and the dead are but as pictures; ‘tis the eye of childhood that fears a painted devil.

But his body would not obey, and he remained sitting, his hands on his table, his quill pen beside them — black ink slowly seeping into the blond oak wood.

Between his hands, the paper sat, with Marlowe’s words shining upon it.

This was the first time that, unknowing, Will wrote Marlowe’s words in his own hand. But he’d long suspected that every word that trickled from his pen was indeed Marlowe’s.

The words came through him as though originating in some unknown fountain, not within Will’s brain. And they had the cadence, the effect of Marlowe’s own plays.

There hung the problem.

For if the words were Marlowe’s that made Will a success, it was not Will’s success, but rather Marlowe’s. If Marlowe’s words had earned the gold that, accumulating, would soon allow Will to buy the best house in Stratford-upon-Avon; if Marlowe’s were the words that had created Will’s new found wealth, what right did Will have to use them to buy a coat of arms that his only son, Hamnet, might proudly display.

Marlowe was dead. After life’s fitful fever, he slept well.

But then, whence came his words, like pieces of himself, evading his pauper’s grave, at Trinity Church in Deptford, and filling Will’s brain and his plays and his purse?

What a horrible form of grave-robbing this was, were it true.

Will meant to steal from no man. Yet each of his words echoed the words of Christopher Marlowe, the greatest playwright the world had ever known.

Warm air drifted through Will’s open window, stale and smelling of the city’s odd mingling of spices and refuse.

Despite it, Will felt cold, with the cold of the grave.

If Kit Marlowe haunted Shakespeare, why did he do it?

Will had been but an acquaintance of Kit’s, not close at all.

Spirits walked for many reasons: for injury done to them — aye, and Marlowe had been murdered. Yet, Will was not one of the murderers. For something left behind — and who knew what Marlowe might not have left? Yet, force, Will did not know it, nor did he have the object or the riches. For the craving of grace and forgiveness — and Marlowe, who in life had blazed forth atheistic opinions, might well need that. But Will neither judged Marlowe nor condemned him, understanding the man’s brittle genius and the doomed love that had led him astray.

But maybe this was different. Maybe the reason Will felt Marlowe so close to him was that Will, and Will alone among mortal men, knew the truth of Marlowe’s death.

Most people believed — and not a few averred as though they’d been there — that Marlowe had been killed in a tavern brawl over a bawdy, disreputable love, variously given as male or female, as best suited the speaker’s indignation.

Moralists and puritans had rushed to see in Marlowe’s death a judgment on Marlowe’s mad, carousing life, on Marlowe’s too-free opinions, his too-analytical mind.

Yet, Will would wager that the divine weighed men upon different scales from those of sour-lipped envy.

If those who spoke could but guess, if they could but know that Christopher Marlowe had died in a brawl over the throne of fairyland, in a fight to preserve the world from the grasp of a dark power! Oh, if they knew that Kit’s death, his sacrifice, had earned freedom for them and their children, aye, and their great-grandchildren, too, how they would revere Kit Marlowe, how his cynicism and mocking would be forgotten.

And, remembering Kit Marlowe, how they would recognize, in each of Will’s words, the tone, the cadence, the fall of Marlowe’s words. Will had written the Merchant of Venice. Aye, and it was like Marlowe’s Jew Of Malta.

And in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus there echoed the powder and blood feel of Tamburlaine The Great, with which Marlowe had stormed and conquered the London stage.

And there, upon his Venus and Adonis, and his Rape of Lucrece, the long poems that had settled his literary fame, how come no one saw the rhyme and word, the very turn of phrase that Kit Marlowe would have used?

For here was the puzzle, here the coincidence that haunted Will’s mind like a bad dream standing in wait through a sleepless night.

Will Shakespeare had never written much worthy of note up to the night of Kit’s Marlowe’s death. And then, as though through a transference of power, a magical transfusion of the poetical vein, he’d found himself able to write: to write words like Marlowe’s.

But were these Marlowe’s words, grafted onto Will Shakespeare like an alien strain onto the homely vine? And if so, did Will deserve one coin of the money he’d earned? Or should he cease writing and let Marlowe rest in Peace in his unmarked grave in Trinity churchyard in Deptford?

The need to write, the need not to write, the words trying to emerge, the fear that these were not his words, blazed behind Will’s eyes in pounding headache. Impulses dwelt within him, locked in close fight like relentless duelers, with his writing as a prize.

He was late with his writing. It had been more than a month since he’d promised Ned Alleyn, the chief investor and share holder in Lord Chamberlain’s men, that he’d have a play for him. More than a month since that play had been set to open up on the boards of the Theater.

But no more of the play was written than that one sentence upon the page, and now, thinking about it, Will knew — knew — that he could never write it. For this play would be about a man betrayed by a woman into giving up his power.

Even the theme was Marlowe’s and not Will’s. Marlowe had written about war and masculine courage and the danger of love and feminine gentleness. Women were either near onto inanimate objects in Marlowe’s plays — bargaining chips in the games of male power — or vile seductresses.

And here Will was–Will, who’d been married since he was nineteen and who loved his absent Nan as tenderly as man could love woman. Why should he echo Marlowe’s themes and Marlowe’s philosophy, save that Marlowe’s ghost was in his brain and infected his thought?

Will put his hands over his eyes and groaned. It seemed to him, for just a second, that his groan was echoed in Marlowe’s tones from just behind him and to his left.

If he opened his eyes and turned, would he see Marlowe standing there? Russet hair pulled back into a pony tail, one large, almond-shaped gray eye watching Will with weary amusement, while his other eye trickled the blood and brains extracted from it at dagger point?

Instead of turning, Will closed his eyes and called to the still room behind him, to the mundane sounds of the wakening streets outside, “Stay, illusion,” he said. “If you have any sound or use of voice, speak to me. If there be any good thing to be done, that might do you ease and grace to me, speak to me. If you are privy to fate which, happily, foreknowing may avoid, oh, speak! Or if you have uphoarded in your life, extorted treasure in the womb of earth, for which, they say, you spirits oft walk in death, speak of it. Stay and speak.” And hearing a slithering and a sound like the door opening, he called out. “Stay, Marlowe.”

“Will?” a voice asked.

Will jumped, overturning both the stool upon which he’d perched and the inkwell.

The inkwell bled upon his sleeve and poured its rich black liquid on paper and table, dripping its excess onto the floorboards.

Will, his heart at his throat, the lace of his sleeve dripping with ink, realized all too late that the voice he’d heard was the uncertain, shy voice of Ned Alleyn, theater entrepreneur, insecure financier of plays and poets.

“Will, to whom talk you?” he asked again. “And why did you call Marlowe? I knocked upon your door, but you answered not, and so I came.”

Feeling like a fool, Will turned and lifted his hand to pull back his hair.

He felt the moisture on his hand too late, and realized that he’d painted a black streak onto his forehead.

“Er…” Will said and, once more, nervously, he ran his hand back upon his forehead and hair. “Er.”

“All you playwrights are mad,” Ned said.

Ned Alleyn was a medium-sized man, with medium-colored hair and medium-colored skin. He wore his suit shabby and much rubbed, the green velvet faded in spots and, in other spots, showing the weave beneath.

Ned could have walked unremarked into any assembly in this town. In fact, the only thing at all remarkable about him was his brown eyes. Not for their color which, like the rest of Ned’s person, showed that eagerness not to be noticed, that urge to blend in that made Ned Alleyn so commonplace. But in those normal, unremarkable eyes something burned, something urgent and immediate, so urgent and immediate that it seemed to hold in itself the flickering flame of madness.

When he had first met Alleyn, when Will had first started writing plays for Lord Chamberlain’s men, Will had flattered himself that the keen expression in Alleyn’s face was genius and passion for theater.

But over the next couple of years, Will had identified the true cause of Alleyn’s expression: it was fear.

The financier had convinced Ned’s father-in-law, Phillip Henslowe, to allow Ned to finance the start of this new theater company. Perhaps Ned truly loved theater and what went with it. But Ned hadn’t realized, perhaps still didn’t realize, what it took to make money in theater. Phillip Henslowe’s own forays into the theater had been well financed, by brothels and gambling businesses.

But Ned was an honest man, and he was going at it with clean hands. Often the funds felt short, and, on occasion, the actors had to storm his office and demand payment before their shares were disbursed.

The look in Ned’s eyes was sheer, manic fear that his acting company would fail and that he’d be ruined. And today it seemed to Will it burned with heightened strength.

He stepped farther into Will’s room, on tiptoe, as though he were afraid of waking someone. His face looked pale enough to be that of a ghostly apparition.

Will cleared his throat. “Morrow, Ned,” he said. “What brings you to my abode so early?”

Because it was not normal for Ned to be here, it was not normal for Ned to come into his employee’s rented rooms thus, without a knock, without a by-your-leave.

The entrepreneur’s eyes widened, as though he were an intruder caught in an unlawful incursion, and his hand went to his throat, as though feeling the noose with which thieves were hanged. His voice issued from his lips small and frighted.

“Er…” he said. “Your play. You said you’d have a play for us in a week. That was three weeks ago. Where is your play, Will? Can I look at it, can we have it, in foul papers if it needs be? For the rehearsal.” His brown eyes rolled madly about the room as though trying to find, in the spare, carefully made bed, in the neat trunk, in the desk with its piles of clean paper, a hidden play, a stowed-away manuscript.

Finding none, his gaze returned to Will and bore with mad panic into Will’s own eyes. “Will, the receipts are down. Everyone has seen your Merchant of Venice.” Ned wrung his hands together, as though one of them were a wet rag and the other one the washerwoman’s hand. “An excellent play, Will,” he assured, confidentially. “But all the other companies are presenting it now, and we have nothing new for to bring in the people, and our coffers are empty. Winter will come soon, Will, and I don’t know how we’ll survive through winter.” His gaze dwelt, amazed, on Will’s lace, peeking at sleeve and collar. “I know your long poems, Venus and Adonis, and the other, the one about the rape, give you some protection from the miserable conditions of the theater. And, at any rate, your plays are worth all we pay for them. Only we need another one, Will. Is it ready?”

The panicked cascade of his words having finished tumbling from his lips, Ned stared at Will, the intelligence of his gaze sharpened by galloping fears. Behind his ordinary brown eyes marched armies of despair, brandishing flags of hunger and privation.

Will felt color climb to his cheeks, for the play should have been ready, could have been ready, more than a week ago, but for that he’d delayed, because he felt Marlowe’s words trickle through his incapable fingers onto the waiting paper.

Will felt himself nothing but a vessel for the doomed genius of the late Kit Marlowe and he wanted to be more. He wanted to write his own plays. He wanted to be applauded for his own work.

Yet, how to explain this to Ned, whose very blood ran with ciphers and figures, whose fear was fueled by a tide of red ink upon the company books, whose very life depended on the take of the theater on any given afternoon.

“The play will be done… er… very soon,” he said. He would have to write it. He would have to write it no matter whose it turned out to be, he thought, staring at Alleyn’s eyes and feeling Ned’s fear like a palpable thing, like a living creature, sniffing about the room and looking for an escape route. “The play will be done.”

“Do you have part of it?” Ned asked. He stood on one leg, an anxious stork. “Do you have part of it, some papers I can give the men to rehearse? They are as dispirited as… well, they are dispirited. They see no end in sight to empty theaters. You may well imagine. If you can give me a little, a few words…”

Will swallowed and shook his head. “Not yet, but I will. I promise you I’ll have it ready soon. It’s called Vortigern and Rowena and I have all the scenes laid here.” He tapped his head. “I have all the scenes, and I know what to do. I just have to write it. A simple matter.”

Ned’s eyes widened again, surprise and confusion in them. “But you’ve had two extra weeks,” he said. “And you wrote nary a word? What is wrong?” Ned’s small, sensitive nose sniffled at the stale air of the room, as though looking for something — alcohol? Or vestiges of madness? He advanced into the room, approached Will, with every step drawing closer and yet giving the impression of cringing away, as if afraid of giving offense or causing harm. “What is wrong?”

Will shook his head and shrugged.

“Oh, it scares me. Much does it scare me,” Ned said, and his hand, again, went to his throat, as though feeling the constriction of a noose. “Your face just now, your expression. Oh, it misgave me and made my heart turn on itself, for it was Marlowe’s expression that last month before he was killed — it was the look of a man with a devil at his heels and burning fire before him. Are you in trouble, Will? Trouble like Marlowe’s?”

Now the frighted rabbit that Ned normally personated became something other, something different — an eagle, impassive of eye, undeniable of voice — his gaze narrowing upon Will like the gaze of an angel seeking out sin, his voice the voice of an avenging preacher demanding confession.

Will drew back. Did Ned have to mention Marlowe? Did he have to pronounce Marlowe’s name? Did he have to compare Will’s expression to Marlowe’s?

“If you mean I’ve gone all fond of boys and tobacco, as Marlowe claimed to be, then no. I suffer from no such ill.” But as he said it, it seemed to Will he heard Marlowe’s light laughter, Marlowe’s careless voice declaiming, All that don’t like boys and tobacco are fools.

And Will knew, knew with a deep certainty as never before that Marlowe’s outrageous statement was foolishness, designed to get attention and little else. Designed to put a soothing balm in Marlowe’s aching soul, Marlowe’s aching heart by shocking other people.

Because Marlowe had loved neither boys nor tobacco. Marlowe had loved the king of fairyland. Or at least the king of fairyland in his female aspect as Lady Silver. Will had never wished to know how Marlowe felt about Silver’s male aspect, the king proper, King Quicksilver of the Realms Above the Air and Beneath The Hills Of Avalon.

Just thinking on Silver it seemed to Will that he saw her white skin, her jet-black hair, felt her silk-soft skin upon his weathered cheek, the petal-tender touch of her lips on his lips.

He jumped, startled.

Oh, he hated fairyland and all that went with it.

Marlowe had died because of his love for the cursed elf. But Will had other loves — his wife, his daughters, his only son — he would not be caught unawares. He would not die for such a foolish thing as a bit of magic, a twist of glamour, the illusory love of elves, those creatures colder than moonlight, eternal as time, and more insensitive to human suffering than impenetrable granite.

Did Marlowe follow him, did Marlowe’s words echo through him because Will alone knew that Marlowe had died as a hero, not as debauch?

Will touched the tips of his fingers to his lips, where he’d felt as if the shadow of the elf’s touch, and looked guiltily at Ned Alleyn.

“And there you go,” Ned Alleyn said. “There you go, jumping at shadows and blushing at nothing. Thus did Marlowe act too, and then, the next thing we heard, he had died of the plague, and then this was not true, and he’d died in a duel in a bawdy house. And then again, there are rumors, rumors that go afoot in the night and hide themselves in daytime — rumors that Marlowe worked for the privy council and it was by them that he was killed.” Ned, this new Ned that was more father than cowering entrepreneur, fixed Will with a cold eye, and put his hands on his hips and asked. “Are you involved in secret work, Will? Do you plot?”

At this Will laughed. He laughed before he could contain himself. Did he plot?

Oh, what were plots? He’d been involved in plots and counterplots, in the warp and weft of fairyland politics and murderous intrigues.

Fourteen years ago — was it that long? — when his Susannah was a new born babe and Nan but a new bride, they’d both been stolen by the then king of fairyland.

To reclaim them, Will had waded into fairyland politics and drunk deep the fountain of intrigue.

Did he plot?

Three years ago, with Marlowe, he’d rescued the king and queen of fairyland — and the whole mortal world with them — from a power darker than any dreamed by cloistered monks in their worst nightmares, or the darkest visions of mystics who saw apocalypse and destruction in the shadowed years ahead.

Oh, Will plotted, had plotted and now he wanted to plot no more. He wanted to remain a mortal among mortals and to know no more of fairyland and its dark corners.

His laugh halted, abruptly, on something like a hiccup, and Will read alarm in Ned Alleyn’s scared features.

Ned’s eyes looked like they’d drop out of his face, and their panicked look had become something else, a stare of great cunning, an examining glare, like that of a physician with a very ill patient. “If it’s not plots,” he said. “If it’s not plots, then perhaps it’s witchcraft, friend Will.” Ned’s hands grabbed Will’s sleeves and held tight — white, thin fingers grasping the black velvet, like spiders clinging to the sides of a gallows. “Perhaps it’s witchcraft. Perhaps you’ve been charmed.”

Will felt blood respond to his cheeks, though his lips remained mute. Had he been charmed? Who knew? Once you’d been touched by the fairyworld, would you ever be clean again? Had not the fairyworld sought Marlowe out, thirteen years after Marlowe’s last involvement with them?

Will shook his head to Ned Alleyn’s question deferring answer.

Ned sighed impatiently. “You actors and playwrights are all the same — those of you who keep your wives far away. Looking for young ladies to still your pain and idle away your solitude, you scant notice if the lady is good or means you evil. And most such bawds, perforce, mean you evil. I, myself, always thought that was what brought Marlowe down — an evil word pronounced by some hag in some black midnight.” Now Ned pushed his face close to Will’s and asked in a confidential whisper, “Did you, perhaps, Will, disappoint some woman, lie to some bawd, and bring on yourself the cooking of bats and dead man’s fingers in a spell that makes your blood boil and your mind race?”

Will tried to shake his head, but what if his problem were truly enchantment? For Marlowe had died in a horrible manner, killed by a supernatural being. Perhaps Marlowe walked the Earth, full of hatred or need for revenge. Perhaps Marlowe…

Again, Will felt as though Marlowe stood just behind him, Marlowe’s grave-cold breath brushing his neck and making the hair there stand on end.

Should Will turn he would see Marlowe standing there, staring at Will with amused pity in his one remaining eye.

The feeling was so intense that Will did not dare turn and instead stared at Ned’s face and remained still feeling like a hunted animal brought to ground and unable to move.

“That is the problem, is it not?” Ned said, softly. And, without waiting for an answer, added, “Get yourself to Shoreditch. There, beside the sign of the snake, you shall find a small brown door, which, when knocked upon, will reveal a mistress Delilah. Mistress Delilah will remove the ill that’s been done to you quickly enough and then can you write my play.” Ned smiled, the sweet smile of the completely deranged who, having obsessed on something, care for nothing else. “And have it ready a week hence.”

Will swallowed and made a sound that might be interpreted as assent. Was Marlowe’s ghost truly standing behind him? And if he were, would Ned Alleyn see Marlowe?

Ned looked only at Will, and spared no look at the shadows behind Will. “Good. Get you to Mistress Delilah. She will not disappoint.” Thus, with a tap on Will’s shoulder, he turned on his heel and left the room, never turning back.

Will wanted to scream for him to turn back, wanted to yell that Ned should turn back and look — look behind Will and see if Marlowe’s ghost stood there.

Mistress Delilah, Will thought. Beside the sign of the snake in Hog’s lane.

Well did Will know Hog’s lane, having lived there, hard by Hollywell, in Shoreditch, where the Rose theater had been located in which Marlowe’s plays had found abode and applause.

It was a hard-scrabble district, full of raw, shoddy construction and the people who could afford nothing better: recent migrants to the city, lost souls, vagabonds and those living just outside the law. A fit place for a witch.

Going to see a witch was against the law, a minor act of sacrilege and heresy that, depending upon the law’s mood, could warrant either penance and a fine or jail, or even death.

Will was a good protestant, forever just within the pall of the church of England, its blessings and its munificence.

He had willed it so, despite his contact with fairyland. He had willed himself to be a churchman. He wanted the respectability that came with it for his children and their children.

Not for them to run from the law that outlawed their beliefs. No. They would believe what most believed and be accepted by all.

If Will went to see Mistress Delilah, she could tell him whether Marlowe’s ghost truly followed him or whether it all were but the spinning delusion of an overheated brain.

Will bit at the moustache that, following the contours of his upper lip, outlined his mouth in a thin, dark line, merging with his beard on the sides. He chewed the corner of his mouth and his moustache.

Turn and look, he thought to himself. Turn and look, you fool! You don’t need a witch to confirm the lie of what you know is an illusion. Turn and look.

Slowly, with infinite caution, he turned his head, to look behind himself.

But before his head was turned and while only the corner of his eye looked onto that dark space behind himself where he felt sure that Marlowe’s ghost stood, he caught a glimpse of blue, like the blue velvet in which Marlowe had gone to his moldy grave.

Just that, a glimpse of blue, by the corner of the eye, a hint of movement, a shape that might have been a man and a sound — so light that it would be drowned by the lightest whisper — no louder than the fall of a feather, the rustle of paper in a far off room.

But that sound, Will would swear, was Marlowe’s laughter.

Marlowe’s cursed laughter, that should long ago have been stilled by the dirt that filled Marlowe’s long-dead mouth.

Will jumped, stifled a scream.

He grabbed his cloak from the peg on the wall next to his bedroom door and, without turning, without looking, rushed out, out of this respectable rooming house, and towards Hog’s Lane and Mistress Delilah.

As he walked the narrow streets, elbowing apprentices and squeezing his way between slow, fat matrons burdened with shopping, Will could hear behind him the immaterial but ever present steps of Kit Marlowe following him.

 

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