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Mortlake, House of John Dee

3rd September, Year of Our Lord 1583

Without warning, all the candles in the room’s corners flicker and feint, as if a sudden gust has entered, but the air remains still. At the same moment, the hairs on my arms prickle and stand erect and I shudder; a cold breath descends on us, though outside the day is close. I chance a sideways glance at Doctor Dee; he stands unmoving as marble, his hands clasped as if in prayer, the knuckles of both thumbs pressed anxiously to his lips — or what can be seen of them through his ash-grey beard, which he wears in a point down to his chest in imitation of Merlin, whose heir Dee secretly considers himself. The cunning-man, Ned Kelley, kneels on the floor in front of the table of practice with his back to us, eyes fixed on the pale, translucent crystal about the size of a goose-egg mounted in fixings of brass and standing upon a square of red silk. The wooden shutters of the study windows have been closed; this business must be conducted in shadow and candlelight. Kelley draws breath like a player about to deliver his prologue, and stretches his arms out wide at shoulder height, in a posture of crucifixion.

‘Yes …’ he breathes, finally, his voice little more than a whisper. ‘He is here. He beckons to me.’

‘Who?’ Dee leans forward eagerly, his eyes bright. ‘Who is he?’

Kelley waits a moment before answering, his brow creasing as he concentrates his gaze on the stone.

‘A man of more than mortal height, with skin as dark as polished mahogany. He is dressed head to foot in a white garment, which is torn, and his eyes are of red fire. In his right hand he holds aloft a sword.’

Dee snaps his head around then and clutches my arm, staring at me; the shock on his face must be mirrored in my own. He has recognised the description, as have I: the being Kelley sees in the stone matches the first figure of the sign of Aries, as described by the ancient philosopher Hermes Trismegistus. There are thirty-six of these figures, the Egyptian gods of time who rule the divisions of the zodiac and are called by some ‘star-demons’. There are few scholars in Christendom who could thus identify the figure Kelley sees, and two of them are here in this study in Mortlake. If, indeed, this is what Kelley sees. I say nothing.

‘What says he?’ Dee urges.

‘He holds out a book,’ Kelley answers.

‘What manner of book?’

‘An ancient book, with worn covers and pages all of beaten gold.’ Kelley leans closer to the stone. ‘Wait! He is writing upon it with his forefinger, and the letters are traced in blood.’

I want to ask what he has done with the sword while he writes in this book — has he tucked it under his arm, perhaps? — but Dee would not thank me for holding this business lightly. Beside me, he draws in his breath, impatient to hear what the spirit is writing.

XV,’ Kelley reports, after a moment. He turns to look up at us, then over his right shoulder, his expression perplexed, perhaps expecting Dee to interpret the numerals.

‘Fifteen, Bruno,’ Dee whispers, looking again to me for confirmation. I nod, once. The lost fifteenth book of Hermes Trismegistus, the book I had come to England to find, the book I now knew Dee had once held in his hands years earlier, only to be robbed of it violently and lose it again. Could it be? It occurs to me that Kelley must know of his master’s obsession with the fifteenth book.

The scryer raises a hand for silence. His eyes do not move from the crystal.

‘He turns the page. Now he traces … it seems … yes, he makes a sign — quickly, fetch me paper and ink!’

Dee hurries to bring him the items; Kelley reaches out and flaps his hand impatiently, as if afraid the image will fade before he has time to transcribe it. He takes the quill and, still gazing intently into the stone, sketches the astrological symbol of the planet Jupiter and holds it up for our inspection.

I tense; Dee feels it where his hand still holds my arm, and half-turns to look at me with questioning eyebrows. I keep my face empty of expression. The sign of Jupiter is my code, my signature; it replaces my name as the sign that my letters of intelligence are authentic. Only two people in the world know this: myself and Sir Francis Walsingham, Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State and chief intelligencer. It is a common enough sign in astrology, and coincidence, surely, that Kelley has drawn it; still I regard the back of Kelley’s head with increased suspicion.

‘On the facing page,’ Kelley continues, ‘he traces another mark — this time, the sign of Saturn.’ This he also draws on his paper, a cross with a curving tail, the quill scratching slowly as if time has thickened while he watches this unfold in the depths of the stone. Dee’s breathing quickens as he takes the paper and taps it with two fingers.

‘Jupiter and Saturn. The Great Conjunction. You understand, I think, Bruno?’ Without waiting for a reply, he turns impatiently to Kelley. ‘Ned — what does he now, the spirit?’

‘He opens his mouth and motions for me to listen.’

Kelley falls silent and does not move. Moments pass, Dee leaning forward eagerly, poised as if held taut on a rope, balanced between wanting to pounce on his scryer and not wishing to crowd him. When Kelley speaks again, his voice is altered; darker, somehow, and he proclaims as if in a trance:

‘“All things have grown almost to their fullness. Time itself shall be altered, and strange shall be the wonders perceived. Water shall perish in fire, and a new order shall spring from these.”’

Here he pauses, gives a great shuddering sigh. Dee’s grip around my arm tightens. I know what he is thinking. Kelley continues in the same portentous voice:

‘“Hell itself grows weary of Earth. At this time shall rise up one who will be called the Son of Perdition, the Master of Error, the Prince of Darkness, and he will delude many by his magic arts, so that fire will seem to come down from heaven and the sky shall be turned the colour of blood. Empires, kingdoms, principalities and states shall be overturned, fathers will turn against sons and brothers against brothers, there shall be turbulence among the peoples of the Earth, and the streets of the cities will run with blood. By this you shall know the last days of the old order.”’

He stops, sinks back gasping on to his heels, his chest heaving as if he has run a mile in the heat. Beside me, I can feel Dee trembling, his hand still holding my wrist; I feel him hungry for more of the spirit’s words, silently urging the scryer not to stop there, unwilling to speak aloud for fear of breaking the spell. For myself, I reserve judgement.

‘“Yet God has provided medicine for man’s suffering,”’ Kelley cries in the same voice, sitting up suddenly and making us both jump. ‘“There shall also rise a prince who will rule by the light of reason and understanding, who shall strike down the darkness of the old times, and in him the alteration of the world shall begin, and so shall he establish one faith, one ancient religion of unity that will put an end to strife.”’

Dee claps his hands gleefully, turning to me with shining eyes and the excitement of a child. It is hard to believe that this is his fifty-sixth autumn.

‘The prophecy, Bruno! What can this be, if not the prophecy of the Great Conjunction, of the ending of the old world? You read this as plain as I do, my friend — through the good offices of Master Kelley here, the gods of time have chosen to speak to us of the coming of the Fiery Trigon, when the old order shall be overturned and the world made anew in the image of ancient truth!’

‘He has certainly spoken of weighty matters,’ I say, evenly. Kelley turns then, his brow damp with sweat, and regards me with those close-set eyes.

‘Doctor Dee — what is this Fiery Trigon?’ he asks, in his own, somewhat nasal voice.

‘You could not know the significance, Ned, of what your gifts have revealed to us this day,’ Dee replies, his manner now fatherly, ‘but you have translated a prophecy most wondrous. Most wondrous.’ He shakes his head slowly in admiration, then stirs himself and begins to pace about the study as he explains, resuming his authority, the teacher once more. While the seance occurs, he becomes dependent upon Kelley, but it is not his habit to be subservient; he is, after all, the queen’s personal astrologer.

‘Once every twenty years,’ he says, holding up a forefinger like a schoolmaster, ‘the two most powerful planets in our cosmology, Jupiter and Saturn, align with one another, each time moving through the twelve signs of the zodiac. Every two hundred years, give or take, this conjunction moves into a new Trigon — that is to say, the group of three signs that correspond to each of the four elements. And once every nine hundred and sixty years, the alignment completes its cycle through the four Trigons, returning again to its beginning in fire. For the past two hundred years, the planets have aligned within the signs of the Watery Trigon. But now, my dear Ned, this very year, the year of Our Lord fifteen hundred and eighty-three, Jupiter and Saturn will conjoin once more in the sign of Aries, the first sign of the Fiery Trigon, the most potent conjunction of all and one that has not been seen for almost a thousand years.’

He pauses for effect; Kelley’s mouth hangs open like a codfish.

‘Then it is a momentous time in the heavens?’

‘More than momentous,’ I say, taking up the story. ‘The coming of the Fiery Trigon signifies the dawn of a new epoch. This is only the seventh such conjunction since the creation of the world and each has been marked by events that have shaken history. The flood of Noah, the birth of Christ, the coming of Charlemagne — all coincide with the return to the Fiery Trigon.’


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