The exclusive introduction - Two Gentlemen of Physic

redging his oars through the churning water, Natty Pykes grumbled under his breath.
The pinching cold no longer pained his fingers; all feeling had long since been swept away by the deluge which hammered from the black heavens.

It was a filthy, sousing October night.
His cloak afforded little protection from the relentless rain and his hat slopped sadly about his ears. Through the driving downpour he stared at the two figures sitting in the stern of his boat and the storm stung his upturned face. Silently he cursed those gentlemen who had engaged him.
The city was lost far behind them now, its mobbing crowd of chimneys and steeples obliterated by the storm. Through the drenching dark the small craft laboured. Swinging behind, the lanthorn made sparks of the pelting waters, and the surface of the river spat and fizzed like scalding fat.
"'Tis enough to drown the fishes!" he cried, yearning to hear another voice besides that of the endless squall. "Quench the fires infernal, this would. We'll see no other on the river, not in this foulness. Must be an urgent errand to prise you good masters out of doors."



His passengers made no reply. Throughout this drenching journey neither of them had uttered a word, but Natty Pykes had been a waterman for eighteen years and was nobody's fool. As he ferried them ever further up the Thames, his shrewd and nimble mind made many quiet guesses. The large wooden apothecary box they carried was enough to tell him that they were men of physic and, judging by their attire, prosperous ones at that.
Deeper into that awful night they pressed and the hours curdled by. Natty knew only the drag of the oars and the protest of his back; all else he pushed from his thoughts until at last new sounds came to his grateful ears through the rain.
Urgent voices were calling and, turning stiffly, he glimpsed the landing stage of Hampton jutting out into the river. Lanthorns and guttering torches were held aloft to guide him, and Natty eyed the waiting figures with interest.
Drawing closer, he saw among that restless gathering a man of high rank, whose chain of office glittered in the sputtering torchlight. As his boat pulled alongside the jetty, he knew that the grim expression fixed upon that noble's face was not caused by the storm alone. Only when one of the palace guards hurried down the river steps to hold the craft steady did the waterman's passengers stir. Binding their cloaks even more tightly about their shoulders, and taking up the apothecary box, they rose. Then, with greater poise
and balance than even Natty Pikes could have managed, they alighted.
Over the stone stairs the hems of their dark, concealing mantles went sweeping as they ascended to the landing stage.



Natty wiped the rain from his face. "Goodnight to you Masters," he called, reminding them he had not yet been paid.
The figures halted. One of them turned and a gloved hand appeared from the cloak's heavy folds. Winking bright and yellow, a coin came spinning down to splash in the rain water which sloshed inside the boat around Natty's boots. The waterman snatched it up.
"A sovereign!" he declared, incredulous. "Black my eyes and call me a stinking Spaniard! A real, whole sovereign!"
Jumping to his feet so that the boat swayed violently beneath him, he gave a whoop of joy. "Thank you, Masters! Thank you and bless you!"
But the strangers were already striding away, led by the man of rank and the sour faced guards. Natty watched them march towards the great palace, its vast shape rising black and blind into the pelting night.
Lowering himself into the boat once more, he stared thoughtfully at the golden profile on the coin, now held tight within his calloused fingers. His quick mind slotted the pieces of the puzzle together and he began to fathom the strangers' purpose.
"Lord help them this night," he prayed. "May they have the skill to save Her." Then, putting the sovereign to his lips, Natty kissed it and began the long journey back to London.

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Hurriedly, the two strangers were escorted into the palace of Hampton Court where their anxious guide introduced himself as Sir William Cecil, trusted adviser to the Queen. Hastening through the straw-strewn corridors, he rapidly acquainted them with the distressing news.
"Eight days," he announced, herding them past more guards and up a flight of steps. "Eight days She has lain abed. There is naught Her own physicians can do."
Their faces still muffled and hidden, the visitors listened but made no reply.
"The German doctor, Burcot," Cecil continued. "He claimed smallpox, but there are no eruptions. She called him a fool and had the impudent fellow thrown out. Yet now a fever has Her and all are sorely afraid. I almost summoned that knave to return till I was minded of you."
Briskly they passed through room after room, where grave-faced courtiers waited and watched, but Sir William and his mysterious guests swept by without acknowledgement.
"Even now the crows are gathering," the lord muttered.
In a grandly furnished bedchamber they halted. There, before a guarded doorway, Lord Cecil turned his grim, grey eyes to the tall newcomers.
"Gentlemen," he said solemnly, "into your care I entrust the hopes of Her subjects. For if you falter, then England will be flung into chaos and war. Above all else, do not fail Her."
With that, he motioned the guards barring the way to stand aside; then, thrusting the door wide, he entered. Behind him the two strangers exchanged a meaningful glance and a violet gleam shone within the deep shadows of their broad-brimmed hats. Into the private bedchamber they stepped.


The room was smaller than the one they had left, but still richly adorned. Fine tapestries covered the panelled walls and sumptuous velvet drapes surrounded the carved oaken bed. But, although fresh rosemary scattered the floor, the air was thick and sickly. Crowding that place and screening the figure upon the bed, was a crowd of austere looking officials, each murmuring in despair-ridden, funereal voices.
At the sound of Lord Cecil's entry all heads turned and they stared questioningly at the two figures behind him.
"Fellow councillors," Sir William addressed them with a curt nod, "these are learned Masters of Physic, foreign scholars of whose skill I have heard much excellent report. I have asked them hither to see what may be done."
"Foreign?" repeated a stern-featured man, stepping closer to appraise them. "From whence?"
Cecil raised his hand. "Does it signify, My Lord Sussex?" he asked. "They are healers, let that be enough."



The other man glared at him. "I will not allow it," he hissed.
"That German knave was rashness enough. Our enemies have many eager servants. Are you mad, Sir William?"
"Her own physicians are confounded," Cecil answered, glowering back. "What then? Consider carefully, my Lord, She is without issue and as like to die."
Pulling away from him, Sussex returned his hostile gaze to the strangers. "Make yourselves known," he demanded. "Remove your sodden wrappings that we may see what manner of men..."
Before he could finish, a snarling voice rang out within the room. Pushing his way from the bedside strode a young man almost as tall as Cecil's physicians. "Be still!" he cried. "Leave your wrangling outside this place, for I will have none of it here."
Gripping the hilt of his sword, the Queen's favourite, Lord Robert Dudley, cowed Sussex's remaining protests and bade the visitors welcome.
"If you truly have wisdom in this matter then I beg you to spare Her," he said. "Say only what you require and none shall hinder you." Silently the physicians moved forward, passing between the troubled councillors until they stood at the foot of the oaken bed.
At last they saw her - a slender woman lying beneath an embroidered coverlet - and their violet eyes glittered brightly.



In the year of Our Lord fifteen sixty-two, only three years since her coronation, Elizabeth Tudor was dying. She had indeed contracted the smallpox and, although her skin was as yet unblemished by the customary spots, the remainder of her life could be measured in hours. Propped up on the pillows, her oval face was deathly pale and framed by dark rivers of hair, made wet and lank by the sweat which streamed from her high forehead.
At either side of the bed knelt her two most trusted attendants, Lady Mary Sidney, Lord Robert's sister, and Katherine Ashley.
The women had been praying for their mistress's immortal soul, but now they looked up at the physicians imploringly.
"The bloom of health is withered from Her face," Dudley mourned. "The fires I have known to blaze copper and golden in the strands of her hair are extinguished. So it is with her spirit. Tell me truthfully, Masters, are you come too late?"
Shifting their attention from the stricken figure in the bed, the strangers regarded him steadily.
Finally they spoke. Through the high muffling collar of his cloak, the physician at Lord Robert's side said, in a strong and forceful whisper, "Death possesses every joint of your sovereign Prince. If we are to aid her we must proceed at once."

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The Queen's favourite stepped back to give them room, but the strangers shook their heads and in one movement raised their gloved hands as a signal for everyone to leave the bedchamber.
"Permit us to work alone," came the insistent whisper. "The room must be clear and the air purified." "Impossible!" Sussex objected. "Robert - even you cannot allow this."
Dudley hesitated, but the physicians would not be gainsaid. "Every moment brings her life closer to its ending," they assured him. "To linger is to destroy what meagre hope remains."
Placing his hand upon Robert Dudley's shoulder, Sir William gently pulled him away. "We have no business here now," he said. "Come, my Lords, let us yield to their request. The Lady Mary and Mistress Ashley will remain to ensure the proprieties are kept." Reluctantly the councillors left the chamber. Lord Robert was the last, his eyes fixed solely upon his beloved Elizabeth. Gently, Lady Mary closed the door after him and looked with apprehension at the cloaked strangers.
"Shall I take your outer garments, my Lords?" she asked.
The apothecary box had been placed upon a table and one of the physicians was busily unfastening the clasps.
"Return to your prayers," the other instructed. "Leave us to attend Her Majesty."
The woman obeyed, kneeling beside the bed once more. Yet though she bowed her head, she watched the strangers keenly. From the large black box they had removed a silver incense burner and were already putting a candle flame to a nugget of some black substance taken from one of the drawers.



There was a crackle of tiny sparks as the incense caught light and the gloved hand dropped it into the burner. At once threads of dark, plum-coloured smoke rose to gather in a thick, coiling stream which climbed to the ceiling. Lifting her young face, Lady Mary saw the dense cloud spread ever wider overhead and still the vapour poured upward, fogging the air with a purple fume.
The bedchamber was now filled with swirling smoke.
Roused from her prayers by the sweet, peppery scent, Mistress Ashley glanced around her, then turned to the physicians, now vague and indistinct through the mounting reek.
"Too much!" she cried, placing a hand before her mouth and coughing. "What mischief is this?"
The strangers said nothing. Full of ire and indignance, Katherine Ashley attempted to rise, yet a sudden fatigue cramped her legs and darkness was creeping into her mind. Before she could stand, the woman was sprawled across the floor.
"Mistress Ashley!" Lady Mary called, but she could do nothing to help her. In a moment she too had collapsed, and the last image she saw was that of the two mysterious strangers towering over her.
A moment later the incense burner was stifled and the physicians finally removed their wet garments. Hurriedly they cast the heavy cloaks from their shoulders, threw the broad brimmed hats aside and tore away their gloves. Whipped by these frantic movements, the livid vapour eddied about their large heads as two inhuman faces turned to the prostrate form upon the bed.
"The Bishop of Rome was more easily garnered," one of them said. "She has proven a most difficult cull."
Stepping over Lady Mary's body, his companion placed long, nailless fingers upon the Queen's throat. "We may yet lose Her," he answered, his protruding brow crinkling with doubt.
As he spoke, the jewels which studded a golden circlet he wore around his wide neck sparkled. "Come, Arvel!" he called in concern. "This sickness is worse than I feared."



Taking a small, delicate instrument from the apothecary box, the other hastened to his side and cast a critical glance over Elizabeth's ashen features."Time enough," he judged, directing his violet eyes to the device in his hands. Holding it up against the candlelight he examined the glass filaments at its centre and pressed his thin grey lips together with satisfaction.
"Detachment," he grunted. "That's what you need, Bosco-Uttwar. Always fretting about them, will they live, will they die? As if it matters after we've called. Oh, look at that embroidery - such intricate workmanship."
His assistant ignored the frivolous remark. He was agitated and nervous, for the life of the Queen and for their own safety. "But if there is not enough living harvest," he said, "all our endeavours will have been for nothing. What use will the scheme be without Her?"
Arvel took a deep, composing breath; Bosco-Uttwar had never really learned to enjoy himself on these expeditions. "I assure you there is more than enough healthy matter for our great purpose," he declared. With that, his slim frame stooped over the bed and he pressed the tip of the instrument against the dying woman's forehead.
Bosco-Uttwar watched in silence. He had seen the procedure a thousand times before. A faint glow began to travel along the glass filaments and, when one tiny vessel was full, the device was placed above Elizabeth of England's heart. The pale radiance increased and a second phial began to shine.
Upon her pillows, the Queen stirred in her fever. "Kat?" she mumbled. "Kat, where are you?"


the apothecary instrument

"Lift her arm from under that beautiful coverlet," Arvel instructed.
Pulling back the embroidered cloth, his assistant saw that the bed linen was drenched with sweat, and the wrist he grasped was clammy and cold.
"Sweet Robert?" the frail woman asked. "Is that you? Where are my own dear Eyes?"
"Delirium," Arvel said, pushing the instrument into her shivering palm.
Holding that fragile hand, Bosco-Uttwar stroked the elegant, tapering fingers of which the Queen had always been so proud. At that moment her eyes blinked open and the dark, wild pupils stared up at the flat-faced creatures bending over her. With her last strength she wrenched her hand away and cried out.
"Lords of Hell!"
But her voice was a cracked gasp and no one outside the room heard her. The exertion had spent her final force and she slumped back on to the pillows, her shallow breaths gradually failing.
"And so she dies," Arvel observed, moving to where Mistress Ashley lay upon the floor. "The attendants as well, I think. We must be thorough. I hope the box is recording everything in sufficient detail - have you seen those miniatures over there? Exquisite. They're so inventive aren't they? Give the box a tap, would you, just to make certain."
Diligently he commenced the same procedure but, while those glass phials pulsed and shone, Bosco-Uttwar remained at the Queen's side, struggling with his conscience.
"Arvel," he said at last. "I'm going to save her."
"Ridiculous," came the pert reply. "As soon as I have garnered what we need from the other female we must be gone. We are not charged to deny them death. Garner and record, that's all."
"But it is the simplest of remedies."
Returning Mistress Ashley's hand to her side, Arvel rose and jabbed a long grey finger at his assistant.
"You showed no such compassion for the Spanish Ambassador." He snapped. "Nor for any of the others. Why now?"
Bosco-Uttwar strode to the apothecary box and avoided the accusing stare of his superior. "Perhaps I have seen too many of them die." He muttered, removing a small paper packet and returning to the bedside. "This one at least I shall cure."
"I forbid it!" Arvel commanded, the jewels shining at his throat. "Such healing will be viewed as a miracle here." Bosco-Uttwar was not listening. From the packet he took a tiny soft disc and pressed it against the skin behind the Queen's ear. "It is done," he said quietly. "Her Majesty will recover."
"You overreach yourself!" Arvel spat in outrage. "Her true life is yet to begin, far from here. That is where Her real destiny lies, that is what matters - not this ephemeral sphere."



The assistant crouched next to Mistress Ashley and fingered another disc.
"No more!" Arvel protested. "You interfere too much."
"She has been exposed to the infection," Bosco-Uttwar said simply. "You had best garner the Lady Sidney before I put the remedy upon her."
Infuriated by his assistant's irresponsible behaviour, Arvel pressed the glass instrument to Lady Mary's brow. But the woman groaned and turned her head away. Again he tried, but she squirmed and pushed the device from her.
"I cannot continue." Arvel declared. "She will awaken if I persist."
With a third small disc ready in his hand, Bosco-Uttwar came forward.
"No time for that," Arvel warned, irritably knocking the cure from his assistant's fingers and snatching the packet away. "She is reviving too soon. We must be gone. Don your outer garments - quickly."
Returning everything to the apothecary box, he swept up his rain sodden cloak and hat. Unhappily his assistant did the same and presently their outlandish features were concealed once more.
Pulling on his gloves, Arvel glanced back at the bedchamber and moved toward the door. In the grand room beyond, the councillors were bickering in hushed voices. The babble ceased however as soon the physicians emerged, wisps of purple smoke still clinging to the folds of their cloaks. Immediately Robert Dudley dashed across to push by them, but they would not let him enter.




"An hour must pass before the chamber may be disturbed," came Arvel's insistent whisper. "The purgative we have set to smoulder must do its work without interruption. Mistress Ashley and Lady Mary are now versed in what should be done."
Dudley relented. "There is hope then?" he asked.
"As much as we may give," came the cryptic response.
"Now we must depart."
"You cannot leave," another voice objected, as Lord Sussex came swaggering forward. "Not whilst there can be any doubt."
From the deep shade his hat afforded, Arvel eyed the man warily. Sussex trusted no one and he searched for ways of placating him. All that mattered now was for Bosco-Uttwar and himself to escape this place with their great harvest.
"There are medicines we must bring before daybreak," he said quickly.
"Does it require the pair of you to fetch them?" asked the suspicious Sussex.
"Indeed it does," Arvel insisted. "There is a great deal of preparation involved. Four hands may barely have sufficient time."
Sussex fingered his neat little beard. His instincts told him that something was amiss but, before he could speak again, Sir William Cecil came to the physicians' defence.



  "Let the gentlemen be," the Queen's adviser demanded. "You seek for conspiracy and treason in every corner."
Scowling, Lord Sussex backed away and Cecil escorted the cloaked strangers towards the long gallery which led to the main staircase.
"Till before the dawn then," he said. "Let us hope the new day will bring us glad and hopeful news."
The physicians bowed, but in that instant there came a terrified scream from the Queen's bedchamber.
"Mary!" Lord Robert cried. Forgetting Arvel's false warning, he flung the door open. "God's blood! What is this?"
Rousing from the effects of the incense, Lady Mary Sidney was staggering around the room, shaken and afraid.
Leaping into the chamber, Dudley rushed to the bedside where the Queen appeared as pale and as near to death as ever. With a glance at Mistress Ashley who was still lying upon the floor, Lord Robert flew out of the room, tearing his sword from its sheath.
"Hold those men!" he yelled.
Arvel and Bosco-Uttwar were already running down the long gallery, fleeing for their lives. Their cloaks flapping about them and their large, booted feet scattering the rushes, they charged past astonished courtiers, desperate to reach the stairs.



"Assassins!" Lord Robert roared, haring after them, while Sussex and the other nobles fell in behind. "Stop them! Guards! Seize them!" Battling through the gallery, Arvel thrust blustering officials and shrieking ladies-in-waiting aside, and his assistant did the same. The stairs were not far now, but even if they managed to elude capture long enough to get outside, their lives were surely forfeit.
"Its no use Arvel!" Bosco-Uttwar cried. "We'll never escape this place. There are too many - they will hunt us down."
His superior said nothing. A stout, florid-faced man suddenly stepped into their path and threw his arms wide to catch them. Not checking his pace, Arvel lashed out and grabbed the front of the man's doublet.
Exhibiting incredible strength, the physician lifted the wailing obstacle off the ground and hurled him high over his head. Up into the ceiling the flailing man went rocketing, cracking the moulded plaster when he struck it with a crash. Then down he fell. Accompanied by a shower of white dust, he went spinning to the floor, just in time for Lord Robert to hurdle over him.
The way to the stairs was clear now and the cloaked strangers went bounding down them, jumping three at a time. Soon they would be out into the grounds, where the dark, drenching night might hide them. With only ten more steps to freedom, their hope was shattered when a company of guards came bursting into the hall. Swords and spears raised, they swarmed up to meet them.
Clutching hold of the bannister, Arvel and Bosco-Uttwar slithered to a halt.
"Back!" Arvel shouted, retracing their galloping strides. "Back, up - up!"
Hard on his heels, his assistant was panicking. He had never known such fear before. He understood too well what kind of barbaric punishments these creatures meted out to those they considered their enemies. He had witnessed countless executions and afterwards seen the spikes of London Bridge adorned with the victims' heads and limbs.
Lunging on to the topmost step he whirled wildly around. They were trapped. Dudley and the others were already streaming from the gallery to the right, and the stairs seethed with armed guards.
"Where now?" he gasped.
But Arvel was already hastening down a narrow corridor away to the left. "After me!" he called back. "There may yet be a chance, if we can only reach it!"

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Bosco-Uttwar did not wait to be told a second time. Up from the stairs the palace guards came surging to join forces with Lord Robert and, as one fearsome column, they rushed after the terrified physicians.
The corridor was dimly lit by solitary candles, their thin flames wavering in the chill draughts. By this poor illumination Bosco-Uttwar saw several doors lining the passage, but Arvel ignored each of them and hurried on.
Ferocious shouts were trumpeting behind him and, to his horror, the assistant saw that the corridor led nowhere. They were running headlong into a blank wall. It was a dead end and they were cornered by a savage mob. There would be no time to explain, these creatures were too ignorant to believe or comprehend them anyway. He knew that they would both see only the gleam of metal and feel thirsty steel plunging into their flesh. In a frenzy of primitive hate, they would be torn to pieces.



"We have them!" Lord Robert's furious voice bellowed.
Even as the words echoed through the corridor, Arvel threw himself into a doorway which his assistant had not seen. Before Bosco-Uttwar knew what was happening, a gloved hand came reaching out and he was dragged in after.
"Secure the entrance!" Arvel barked, slamming the door and staring frantically around.
The room beyond was small and lit by a single rush light. In that paltry glow he could see a long, low table standing against one wall and he ran to it at once. In a moment the table had been flipped on its end and rammed up against the door.
"There's no way out of here," his assistant blurted. "No window and no other exit. We're trapped!"
The table juddered violently as their pursuers began to kick and heave. "Come out of there! Craven filth!" Lord Sussex demanded.
Holding the table in place, Bosco-Uttwar shook his head in misery. Arvel was still pulling every stick of furniture he could find to fortify the barricade, but it was all in vain.
"Just like one of their rat creatures caught in a hole," the assistant snivelled as the pounding blows increased.
"A musical hole," Arvel noted, for he had discovered a number of instruments in the far corner.



But there was no time for him to admire their quality.
Discordant jangling interrupted Bosco-Uttwar's despair as Arvel began dragging a clavichord across the room to prop against the upturned table. From then on, every hammering blow inflicted upon the door was accompanied by a clangorous riot of notes.
The din was unbearable but Arvel merely laughed and ran to pick up the rush light. Bearing the petty flame aloft, he dashed to the fireplace.
"Did I not tell you that it pays to be thorough?" he cried. "For twenty nine years this has been here, waiting for such an emergency. Behold, Bosco-Uttwar, here is our escape route."
The relief which flooded over his assistant was overwhelming. Beneath the high collar of his cloak a wide smile spread across his long face when he gazed gladly upon the mirror which hung above the mantel.
In the passageway, Sussex and Dudley had stepped aside to allow the burliest of the guards to throw their weight against the door.
"Break it down!" Lord Robert bawled.
There was a tremendous crash as the table went toppling to the floor in the room beyond, and the clavichord exploded beneath its crushing weight with a jarring finale of twanging scales.



A powerful kick sent the door ripping from its hinges, but no one went charging inside. Every vengeful voice was quelled and many crossed themselves in the manner of the old religion.
From that windowless room, brilliant colours were pouring and, for one instant, that dark corner of the palace was ablaze with light.
A kaleidoscope of burning images radiated from the splintered entrance like dazzling sunshine streaming through a cathedral window - casting vibrant, fragmented shapes on to the corridor wall.
The vivid glare flashed across Lord Robert's face. Squinting, he saw within that room innumerable visions of the villainous physicians. Over every surface their fractured likenesses flared, but even as he marvelled, the wonder vanished and all was dark once more.
Bewildered, Dudley and Sussex stepped through the doorway. But the chamber was empty. The strangers were nowhere to be found.
"Where are they?" snapped Sir William, pushing his way through the abashed guards.
Staring into the shadows, Lord Robert could only shake his head. "I know not," he said softly. "It seemed to me I viewed them as if through the heart of a great faceted jewel, and then they were gone."
"Witches and devils!" Lord Sussex growled.
Sir William threw them a disbelieving glance then turned to elbow past the guards once again. "Well," he declared., "if they have flown up the chimney, then there is naught we can do. I'll waste no more time on them this foul night."
"Where are you going?" Lord Sussex asked, hastening after him. "To summon back that German doctor!" came the stern reply. "If he doesn't save the Queen, then I'll stick a knife in him myself."
Alone in the room, Robert Dudley sheathed his sword and dismissed the gaping guards. In all the years that were left to him he never spoke of that night again, not even to his precious Elizabeth.

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Continued in Deathscent, Chapter 1; Adam o' the Cogs.

© 2016. Robin Jarvis. All rights reserved