The Great Sage of Mortlake

This past wednesday was the birthday of one Dr. John Dee–cosmologist, cartographer, alchemist, philospher, scientist, mathematician and adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. Dee was also, in one world, the first incumbent of the offices of the Royal Occultist

Dr John Dee

Dee was an interesting character, and one I’ve long had a fascination with. A polymath, Dee at one time might have possessed one of the largest occult libraries in the western world. He claimed to speak the language of angels, and may have been a spy. Like his fellow Elizabethan, Christopher Marlowe, he’s had his share of fictional adventures. In particular, I recommend Donald Tyson’s collection, The Ravener & Othersas well as Phil Rickman’s ‘John Dee Papers’ series.

Dee was the obvious choice when I was looking for the original Royal Occultist. He fits the bill better than most historical figures from the same time period, and he adds a bit of needed weight to the concept, in the same way that Carnacki does. While I’ve only written one story directly dealing with Dee’s adventures during his tenure as the Queen’s Conjurer–“A Tiger’s Heart, A Player’s Hide”–his influence is felt throughout the series, especially in regards to the mysterious artifact known as the Monas Glyph.

Having written one, I plan on writing others. Dee had plenty of adventures. He also engaged in his fair share of shady operations as the drabble below illustrates…



The marionette jerked to life with a twitch of the weighted velvet rope that hung from the back of the cabinet. Colored strings connected to brass weights ran from every intricately articulated joint of the wooden doll’s form. The velvet rope was pulled and it set the clockwork device in the cabinet to moving the weights which in turn moved the marionette in a particular, loose-limbed swaying pirouette.

As the clockwork clicked, the marionette shuffled and swayed on flat, wooden feet. It took one step, then another, then a third. Over it’s featureless ovoid head, the slender wooden frame from which it dangled extended with a chuff of air from the bellows that propelled it.

A living toy. That was what the Moor had called it. A gift from Phillip II to his favorite spymaster. Don Carlos de Gutierrez fluffed his fan-shaped beard with a hand dripping with golden rings.

“How interesting,” he said, at last. He watched the toy clatter across the floor in a herky-jerky spin reminiscent of the dances of the tribes of the Bedouin. The Moor, standing beside his colorfully painted cabinet, bowed slightly. He was a thin man, and well-dressed in the fashion of the Spanish court.

“His Majesty hoped you would feel that way. He has taken an interest in toys of late…”

“Children’s playthings,” Don Carlos murmured. “Still,” he continued, looking at the Moor. “What else does it do?”

“It dances, it can play a variety of instruments, it can even mock-duel a bit-”

“Truly?” Don Carlos said, rubbing his lips. He nodded to one of his guards. “Give it your sword.”


“Your sword, man.” Don Carlos stood and threw his cloak aside. He was a tall man, and slender, made even thinner in his black hose and doublet. He drew the rapier from his hip and gave the air a few tentative slashes. He glanced at the Moor, who was looking distinctly ill-at-ease. “Rest easy, I will not destroy your toy.”

“Indeed milord. Only it was his Majesty’s intention that you-”

“That I should enjoy his gift, yes?” Don Carlos said. “And so I shall.”

The Moor swallowed and nodded, then he crossed to the front of the marionette and ran his fingers across its chest, where a disk of metal had been placed. Sliding his fingers into the appropriate holes, the Moor twisted the disk. It moved with a hiss. The weighted strings seemed to tighten, pulling the marionette into a straighter stance. Its wooden fingers clutched convulsively at the hilt of the sword and its arm came up. Don Carlos quirked an eyebrow.


“It is a wonder of the Orient, milord.”

“Ah…” Don Carlos smiled and tapped the Moor’s shoulder with the flat of his blade. “Well. Step aside then. Let us see what this ‘wonder’ can do, yes?”

“As you wish, milord,” the Moor said, as he stepped aside. Don Carlos gestured towards the cabinet.

“Give it a pull.”

The Moor pulled the velvet cord and the marionette snapped to life with a speed that startled Don Carlos. All of its joints seemed to lose the looseness it had displayed earlier. The wooden head cocked, as if it were waiting. Then the wooden arm straightened and drove the borrowed blade towards his heart. Don Carlos stepped back, bringing his own sword up with a splash of desperation. He deflected the blow and stepped back, feeling a tingle of what?…certainly not fear…no, it was just surprise. It had simply surprised him.

The marionette stepped back, sword point lowering. Its head turned, bobbing on its strings. It had no eyes, but it was watching him. He knew it. But that was impossible…

A wooden foot clacked. It lunged smoothly, inhumanly smoothly. Don Carlos staggered and swept out a wild cut. Strings fell limply. The marionette didn’t stop. It lunged again, seeking to spit his heart. He could hear his guards shouting. He parried and fell back. The marionette darted forward and for a moment, just a moment, Don Carlos saw not a wooden toy but something else. A flash of rotten light, a distant sound like a single flap of great, brass wings and the clop-clop of hooves as something indescribably foul rushed towards him out of black eons. And then the marionette was on him.

“No! I cut-” he began, but the rest of his denial was caught in his throat as wooden fingers closed around his throat and an alien strength forced him backwards. The sword-his guard’s sword-slid smoothly through his shoulder, the blade digging into the delicate tiles of the floor. Above him, the marionette leaned forward, pressing him down. A thin crack ran the width of its head…had he cut it? The crack widened as it leaned close to him, splintering and growing, opening, spreading. There was a smell of offal and the sound of a thousand wasps and the crack had become something else. A mouth.

Don Carlos gasped. Long, curved splinters, hundreds of them, filled the mouth as it lowered towards his face. He felt a sulfur-touched heat wash over him, then he felt nothing at all.

Doctor John Dee slumped in his chair, the shew-stone rolling from his trembling hands. He took a deep, shuddering breath and looked up at his guest. “It is done.”

“Is it?” Sir Francis Walsingham said, not looking away from the window. He stared out into the night, hands clasped behind his back. “Good. What of our agent?”

“Its daemonic essence will turn that wooden frame to the merest wisp of ash in time. Until then…” Dee shrugged wearily. “One more nightmare in a land full of them.”

“Nothing for the Inquisition to find, then?”

“There’s always something for them to find,” Dee said. “But nothing to tie it to Her Majesty.”


“The cost-” Dee began, rubbing his chest through his robes. Walsingham raised a thin hand.

“No cost is too great.”

“Our souls-”

“Are well spent, my friend.” Walsingham turned, his face haggard, eyes empty. “Take some comfort in that.”

For an overview of the Royal Occultist series, visit The Adventures of the Royal Occultist site. There’s also a dedicated Facebook fanpage and a complete listing of stories, including “A Tiger’s Heart, A Player’s Hide”. You can also read a number of stories for free, if that’s your thing.