فصل 04

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فصل 04

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Chapter Four

The bells of St. Mary’s Church sounded the hour, faint echoes of their music lingering long after the peals ceased. Quince, rosemary, and lavender scented the air. I was perched on an uncomfortable wooden chair in a confining array of smocks, petticoats, sleeves, skirts, and a tightly laced bodice. My career-oriented, twenty-first-century life faded further with each restricted breath. I stared out into the murky daylight, where cold rain pinged against the panes of glass in the leaded windows.

“Elle est ici,” Pierre announced, his glance flicking in my direction. “The witch is here to see madame.”

“At last,” Matthew said. His friends had been eager to help him find the creature. Their suggestions illuminated a collective disregard for women, witches, and everyone who lacked a university education. Henry thought London might provide the most fertile ground for the search, but Walter assured him that it would be impossible to conceal me from superstitious neighbors in the crowded city. George wondered if the scholars of Oxford might be persuaded to lend their expertise, since they at least had proper intellectual credentials. Tom and Matthew gave a brutal critique of the strengths and weaknesses of the natural philosophers in residence, and that idea was cast aside, too. Kit didn’t believe it was wise to trust any woman with the task and drew up a list of local gentlemen who might be willing to establish a training regimen for me. It included the parson of St. Mary’s, who was alert to apocalyptic signs in the heavens, a nearby landowner named Smythson, who dabbled in alchemy and had been looking for a witch or daemon to assist him, and a student at Christ Church College who paid his overdue book bills by casting horoscopes.

Matthew vetoed all these suggestions and called on Widow Beaton, Woodstock’s cunning woman and midwife. She was poor and female— precisely the sort of creature the School of Night scorned—but this, Matthew argued, would better ensure her cooperation. Besides, Widow Beaton was the only creature for miles with purported magical talents. All others had long since fled, he admitted, rather than live near a wearh.

“Summoning Widow Beaton may not be a good idea,” I said later when we were getting ready for bed.

“So you’ve mentioned,” Matthew replied with barely concealed impatience. “But if Widow Beaton can’t help us, she’ll be able to recommend someone who can.”

“The late sixteenth century really isn’t a good time to openly ask around for a witch, Matthew.” I’d been able to do little more than hint at the prospect of witch-hunts when we were with the School of Night, but Matthew knew the horrors to come. Once again he dismissed my concern.

“The Chelmsford witch trials are only memories now, and it will be another twenty years before the Lancashire hunts begin. I wouldn’t have brought you here if a witch-hunt were about to break out in England.” Matthew picked through a few letters that Pierre had left for him on the table.

“With reasoning like that, it’s a good thing you’re a scientist and not a historian,” I said bluntly. “Chelmsford and Lancashire were extreme outbursts of far more widespread concerns.”

“You think a historian can understand the tenor of the present moment better than the men living through it?” Matthew’s eyebrow cocked up in open skepticism.

“Yes,” I said, bristling. “We often do.”

“That’s not what you said this morning when you couldn’t figure out why there weren’t any forks in the house,” he observed. It was true that I’d searched high and low for twenty minutes before Pierre gently broke it to me that the utensils were not yet common in England.

“Surely you aren’t one of those people who believe that historians do nothing but memorize dates and learn obscure facts,” I said. “My job is to understand why things happened in the past. When something occurs right in front of you, it’s hard to see the reasons for it, but hindsight provides a clearer perspective.”

“Then you can relax, because I have both experience and hindsight,” Matthew said. “I understand your reservations, Diana, but calling on Widow Beaton is the right decision.” Case closed, his tone made clear.

“In the 1590s there are food shortages, and people are worried about the future,” I said, ticking the items off on my fingers. “That means people are looking for scapegoats to take the blame for the bad times. Already, human cunning women and midwives fear being accused of witchcraft, though your male friends may not be aware of it.”

“I am the most powerful man in Woodstock,” Matthew said, taking me by the shoulders. “No one will accuse you of anything.” I was amazed at his hubris.

“I’m a stranger, and Widow Beaton owes me nothing. If I draw curious eyes, I pose a serious threat to her safety,” I retorted. “At the very least, I need to pass as an upper-class Elizabethan woman before we ask her for help. Give me a few more weeks.”

“This can’t wait, Diana,” he said brusquely.

“I’m not asking you to be patient so I can learn how to embroider samplers and make jam. There are good reasons for it.” I looked at him sourly. “Call in your cunning woman. But don’t be surprised when this goes badly.”

“Trust me.” Matthew lowered his lips toward mine. His eyes were smoky, and his instincts to pursue his prey and push it into submission were sharp. Not only did the sixteenth-century husband want to prevail over his wife, but the vampire wanted to capture the witch.

“I don’t find arguments the slightest bit arousing,” I said, turning my head. Matthew clearly did, however. I moved a few inches away from him.

“I’m not arguing,” Matthew said softly, his mouth close to my ear. “You are. And if you think I would ever touch you in anger, wife, you are very much mistaken.” After pinning me to the bedpost with frosty eyes, he turned and snatched up his breeches. “I’m going downstairs. Someone will still be awake to keep me company.” He stalked toward the door. Once he’d reached it, he paused.

“And if you really want to behave like an Elizabethan woman, stop questioning me,” he said roughly as he departed.

The next day one vampire, two daemons, and three humans examined my appearance in silence across the wide floorboards. The severe lines of Matthew’s doublet made him look even broader through the shoulders, while the acorns and oak leaves stitched in black around the edges of his white collar accentuated the paleness of his skin. He angled his dark head to gain a fresh perspective on whether I passed muster as a respectable Elizabethan wife.

“Well?” he demanded. “Will that do?”

George lowered his spectacles. “Yes. The russet of this gown suits her far better than the last one did and gives a pleasant cast to her hair.”

“Mistress Roydon looks the part, George, it is true. But we cannot explain away her unusual speech simply by saying that she comes from the c-c-country,” Henry said in his toneless bass. He stepped forward to twitch the folds of my brocade skirt into place. “And her height. There is no disguising that. She is taller even than the queen.”

“Are you sure we can’t pass her off as French, Walt, or Dutch?” Tom lifted a clove-studded orange to his nose with ink-stained fingers. “Perhaps Mistress Roydon could survive in London after all. Daemons cannot fail to notice her, of course, but ordinary men may not give her a second glance.”

Walter snorted with amusement and unspooled from a low settle. “Mistress Roydon is finely shaped as well as uncommon tall. Ordinary men between the ages of thirteen and sixty will find reason enough to study her. No, Tom, she’s better off here, with Widow Beaton.”

“Perhaps I could meet Widow Beaton later, in the village, alone?” I suggested, hoping that one of them might see sense and persuade Matthew to let me do this my way.

“No!” cried out six horrified male voices.

Françoise appeared bearing two pieces of starched linen and lace, her bosom swelling like that of an indignant hen facing down a pugnacious rooster. She was as annoyed by Matthew’s constant interference as I was.

“Diana’s not going to court. That ruff is unnecessary,” said Matthew with an impatient gesture. “Besides, it’s her hair that’s the problem.”

“You have no idea what’s necessary,” Françoise retorted. Though she was a vampire and I was a witch, we had reached unexpected common ground when it came to the idiocy of men. “Which would Madame de Clermont prefer?” She extended a pleated nest of gauzy fabric and something crescent-shaped that resembled snowflakes joined together with invisible stitches.

The snowflakes looked more comfortable. I pointed to them.

While Françoise affixed the collar to the edge of my bodice, Matthew reached up in another attempt to put my hair in a more pleasing arrangement. Françoise slapped his hand away. “Don’t touch.”

“I’ll touch my wife when I like. And stop calling Diana ‘Madame de Clermont,’” Matthew rumbled, moving his hands to my shoulders. “I keep expecting my mother to walk through the door.” He drew the edges of the collar apart, pulling loose the black velvet cord that hid Françoise’s pins.

“Madame is a married woman. Her bosom should be covered. There is enough gossip about the new mistress,” Françoise protested.

“Gossip? What kind of gossip?” I asked with a frown.

“You were not in church yesterday, so there is talk that you are with child, or afflicted by smallpox. That heretic priest believes you are Catholic. Others say you are Spanish.”

“Spanish?”

“Oui, madame. Someone heard you in the stables yesterday afternoon.”

“But I was practicing my French!” I was a fair mimic and thought that imitating Ysabeau’s imperious accent might lend credence to my elaborate cover story.

“The groom’s son did not recognize it as such.” Françoise’s tone suggested that the boy’s confusion was warranted. She studied with me with satisfaction. “Yes, you look like a respectable woman.”

“Fallaces sunt rerum species,” said Kit with a touch of acid that brought the scowl back to Matthew’s face. “‘Appearances can be deceiving.’ No one will be taken in by her performance.”

“It’s far too early in the day for Seneca.” Walter gave Marlowe a warning look.

“It is never too early for stoicism,” Kit replied severely. “You should thank me that it’s not Homer. All we’ve heard lately is inept paraphrases of the Iliad. Leave the Greek to someone who understands it, George—someone like Matt.”

“My translation of Homer’s work is not yet finished!” George retorted, bristling.

His response released a flood of Latin quotations from Walter. One of them made Matthew chuckle, and he said something in what I suspected was Greek. The witch waiting downstairs completely forgotten, the men enthusiastically engaged in their favorite pastime: verbal one-upmanship. I sank back into my chair.

“When they are in a fine humor like this, they are a wonder,” Henry whispered. “These are the keenest wits in the kingdom, Mistress Roydon.”

Raleigh and Marlowe were now shouting at each other about the merits—or lack thereof—of Her Majesty’s policies on colonization and exploration.

“One might as well take fistfuls of gold and dump them into the Thames as give them to an adventurer like you, Walter,” Kit chortled.

“Adventurer! You can’t step out of your own door in daylight for fear of your creditors.” Raleigh’s voice shook. “You can be such a fool, Kit.”

Matthew had been following the volleys with increasing amusement. “Who are you in trouble with now?” he asked Marlowe, reaching for his wine. “And how much is it going to cost to get you out of it?”

“My tailor.” Kit waved a hand over his expensive suit. “The printer for Tamburlaine.” He hesitated, prioritizing the outstanding sums. “Hopkins, that bastard who calls himself my landlord. But I do have this.” Kit held up the tiny figure of Diana that he’d won from Matthew when they played chess on Sunday night. Still anxious about letting the statue out of my sight, I inched forward.

“You can’t be so hard up as to pawn that bauble for pennies.” Matthew’s eyes flickered to me, and a small movement of his hand had me sinking back again. “I’ll take care of it.”

Marlowe bounded to his feet with a grin, pocketing the silver goddess. “You can always be counted on, Matt. I’ll pay you back, of course.”

“Of course,” Matthew, Walter, and George murmured doubtfully.

“Keep enough money to buy yourself a beard, though.” Kit stroked his own with satisfaction. “You look dreadful.”

“Buy a beard?” I couldn’t possibly have understood correctly. Marlowe must be using slang again, even though Matthew had asked him to stop on my account.

“There’s a barber in Oxford who is a wizard. Your husband’s hair grows slowly, as with all of his kind, and he’s clean shaven.” When I still looked blank, Kit continued with exaggerated patience. “Matt will be noticed, looking as he does. He needs a beard. Apparently you are not witch enough to provide him with one, so we will have to find someone else to do it.”

My eyes strayed to the empty jug on the elm table. Françoise had filled it with clippings from the garden—sprigs of holly oak, branches from a medlar with their brown fruit resembling rose hips, and a few white roses—to bring some color and scent into the room. A few hours ago, I had laced my fingers through the branches to tug the roses and medlars to the forefront of the vase, wondering about the garden all the while. I was pleased with the results for about fifteen seconds, until the flowers and fruit withered before my eyes. The desiccation spread from my fingertips in all directions, and my hands tingled with an influx of information from the plants: the feel of sunlight, the quenching sensation of rain, the strength in the roots that came from resisting the pull of the wind, the taste of the soil.

Matthew was right. Now that we were in 1590, my magic was changing. Gone were the eruptions of witchfire, witchwater, and witchwind that I had experienced after meeting Matthew. Instead I was seeing the bright threads of time and the colorful auras that surrounded living creatures. A white stag stared at me from the shadows under the oaks whenever I walked in the gardens. Now I was making things wither.

“Widow Beaton is waiting,” Walter reminded us, ushering Tom toward the door.

“What if she can hear my thoughts?” I worried as we descended the wide oak stairs.

“I’m more worried about what you might say aloud. Do nothing that might stir her jealousy or animosity,” Walter advised, following behind with the rest of the School of Night. “If all else fails, lie. Matthew and I do it all the time.”

“One witch can’t lie to another.”

“This will not end well,” Kit muttered darkly. “I’d wager money on it.”

“Enough.” Matthew whirled and grabbed Kit by the collar. The pair of English mastiffs sniffed and growled at Kit’s ankles. They were devoted to Matthew—and none too fond of Kit.

“All I said—” Kit began, squirming in an attempt to escape. Matthew gave him no opportunity to finish and jacked him against the wall.

“What you said is of no interest, and what you meant was clear enough.” Matthew’s grip tightened.

“Put him down.” Walter had one hand on Marlowe’s shoulder and the other on Matthew. The vampire ignored Raleigh and lifted his friend several more inches. In his red-and-black plumage, Kit looked like an exotic bird that had somehow become trapped in the folds of the carved wooden paneling. Matthew held him there for a few more moments to make his point clear, then let him drop.

“Come, Diana. Everything is going to be fine.” Matthew still sounded sure, but an ominous pricking in my thumbs warned me that Kit just might be right.

“God’s teeth,” Walter muttered in disbelief as we processed into the hall. “Is that Widow Beaton?”

At the far end of the room, standing in the shadows, was the witch from central casting: diminutive, bent, and ancient. As we drew closer, the details of her rusty black dress, stringy white hair, and leathery skin became more apparent. One of her eyes was milky with a cataract, the other a mottled hazel. The eyeball with the cataract had an alarming tendency to swivel in its socket, as though its sight might be improved with a different perspective. Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, I spotted the wart on the bridge of her nose.

Widow Beaton slid a glance in my direction and dipped into a grudging curtsy. The barely perceptible tingle on my skin suggested that she was indeed a witch. Without warning, my third eye fluttered open, looking for further information. Unlike most other creatures, however, Widow Beaton gave off no light at all. She was gray through and through. It was dispiriting to see a witch try so hard to be invisible. Had I been as pallid as that before I touched Ashmole 782? My third eye drooped closed again.

“Thank you for coming to see us, Widow Beaton.” Matthew’s tone suggested that she should be glad he’d let her into his house.

“Master Roydon.” The witch’s words rasped like the fallen leaves that swirled on the gravel outside. She turned her one good eye on me.

“Help Widow Beaton to her seat, George.”

Chapman leaped forward at Matthew’s command, while the rest of us remained at a careful distance. The witch groaned as her rheumatic limbs settled into the chair. Matthew politely waited as she did so, then continued.

“Let us get straight to the heart of the matter. This woman”—he indicated me—“is under my protection and has been having difficulties of late.” Matthew made no mention of our marriage.

“You are surrounded by influential friends and loyal servants, Master Roydon. A poor woman can be of little use to a gentleman such as you.” Widow Beaton tried to hide the reproach in her words with a false note of courtesy, but my husband had excellent hearing. His eyes narrowed.

“Do not play games with me,” he said shortly. “You do not want me as an enemy, Widow Beaton. The woman shows signs of being a witch and needs your help.”

“A witch?” Widow Beaton looked politely doubtful. “Was her mother a witch? Or her father a wizard?”

“Both died when she was still a child. We are not certain what powers they possessed,” Matthew admitted, telling one of his typically vampiric half-truths. He tossed a small bag of coins into her lap. “I would be grateful if you could examine her.”

“Very well.” Widow Beaton’s gnarled fingers reached for my face. When our flesh touched, an unmistakable surge of energy passed between us. The old woman jumped.

“So?” Matthew demanded.

Widow Beaton’s hands dropped to her lap. She clutched at the pouch of money, and for a moment it seemed as though she might hurl it back at him. Then she regained her composure.

“It is as I suspected. This woman is no witch, Master Roydon.” Her voice was even, though a bit higher than it had been. A wave of contempt rose from my stomach and filled my mouth with bitterness.

“If you think that, you don’t have as much power as the people of Woodstock imagine,” I retorted.

Widow Beaton drew herself up indignantly. “I am a respected healer, with a knowledge of herbs to protect men and women from illness. Master Roydon knows my abilities.”

“That is the craft of a witch. But our people have other talents as well,” I said carefully. Matthew’s fingers were painfully tight on my hand, urging me to be silent.

“I know of no such talents,” was her quick reply. The old woman was as obstinate as my Aunt Sarah and shared her disdain for witches like me who could draw on the elements without any careful study of the witch’s craft tradition. Sarah knew the uses of every herb and plant and could remember hundreds of spells perfectly, but there was more to being a witch. Widow Beaton knew that, even if she wouldn’t admit it.

“Surely there is some way to determine the extent of this woman’s powers beyond a simple touch. Someone with your abilities must know what they are,” Matthew said, his lightly mocking tone a clear challenge. Widow Beaton looked uncertain, weighing the pouch in her hand. In the end its heaviness convinced her to rise to the contest. She slipped the payment into a pocket concealed under her skirts.

“There are tests to determine whether someone is a witch. Some rely on the recitation of a prayer. If a creature stumbles over the words, hesitates even for a moment, then it is a sign that the devil is near,” she pronounced, adopting a mysterious tone.

“The devil is not abroad in Woodstock, Widow Beaton,” Tom said. He sounded like a parent trying to convince a child there wasn’t a monster under the bed.

“The devil is everywhere, sir. Those who believe otherwise fall prey to his wiles.”

“These are human fables meant to frighten the superstitious and the weak-minded,” said Tom dismissively.

“Not now, Tom,” Walter muttered.

“There are other signs, too,” George said, eager as ever to share his knowledge. “The devil marks a witch as his own with scars and blemishes.”

“Indeed, sir,” Widow Beaton, “and wise men know to look for them.”

My blood drained from my head in a rush, leaving me dizzy. If anyone were to do so, such marks would be found on me.

“There must be other methods,” Henry said uneasily.

“Yes there are, my lord.” Widow Beaton’s milky eye swept the room. She pointed at the table with its scientific instruments and piles of books. “Join me there.”

Widow Beaton’s hand slid through the same gap in her skirts that had provided a hiding place for her coins and drew out a battered brass bell. She set it on the table. “Bring a candle, if you please.”

Henry quickly obliged, and the men drew around, intrigued.

“Some say a witch’s true power comes from being a creature between life and death, light and darkness. At the crossroads of the world, she can undo the work of nature and unravel the ties that bind the order of things.” Widow Beaton pulled one of the books into alignment between the candle in its heavy silver holder and the brass bell. Her voice dropped. “When her neighbors discovered a witch in times past, they cast her out of the church by the ringing of a bell to indicate that she was dead.” Widow Beaton lifted the bell and set it tolling with a twist of her wrist. She released it, and the bell remained suspended over the table, still chiming. Tom and Kit edged forward, George gasped, and Henry crossed himself. Widow Beaton looked pleased with their reaction and turned her attention to the English translation of a Greek classic, Euclid’s Elements of Geometrie, which rested on the table with several mathematical instruments from Matthew’s extensive collection.

“Then the priest took up a holy book—a Bible—and closed it to show that the witch was denied access to God.” The Elements of Geometrie snapped shut. George and Tom jumped. The members of the School of Night were surprisingly susceptible for men who considered themselves immune to superstition.

“Finally the priest snuffed out a candle, to signify that the witch had no soul.” Widow Beaton’s fingers reached into the flame and pinched the wick. The light went out, and a thin plume of gray smoke rose into the air.

The men were mesmerized. Even Matthew looked unsettled. The only sound in the room was the crackle of the fire and the constant, tinny ringing of the bell.

“A true witch can relight the fire, open the pages of the book, and stop the bell from ringing. She is a wonderful creature in the eyes of God.” Widow Beaton paused for dramatic effect, and her milky eye rolled in my direction. “Can you perform these acts, girl?”

When modern witches reached the age of thirteen, they were presented to the local coven in a ceremony eerily reminiscent of Widow Beaton’s tests. Witches’ altar bells rang to welcome the young witch into the community, though they were typically fashioned from heavy silver, polished and passed down from one generation to the next. Instead of a Bible or a book of mathematics, the young witch’s family spell book was brought in to lend the weight of history to the occasion. The only time Sarah had allowed the Bishop grimoire out of the house was on my thirteenth birthday. As for the candle, its placement and purpose were the same. It was why young witches practiced igniting and extinguishing candles from an early age.

My official presentation to the Madison coven had been a disaster, one witnessed by all my relatives. Two decades later I still had the odd nightmare about the candle that would not light, the book that refused to open, the bell that rang for every other witch but not for me. “I’m not sure,” I confessed hesitantly.

“Try,” Matthew encouraged, his voice confident. “You lit some candles a few days ago.”

It was true. I had eventually been able to illuminate the jack-o’-lanterns that lined the driveway of the Bishop house on Halloween. There had been no audience to watch my initial bungled attempts, however. Today Kit’s and Tom’s eyes nudged me expectantly. I could barely feel the brush of Widow Beaton’s glance but was all too aware of Matthew’s familiar, cool attention. The blood in my veins turned to ice in response, as if refusing to generate the fire that would be required for this bit of witchcraft. Hoping for the best, I concentrated on the candle’s wick and muttered the spell.

Nothing happened.

“Relax,” Matthew murmured. “What about the book? Should you start there?”

Putting aside the fact that the proper order of things was important in witchcraft, I didn’t know where to begin with Euclid’s Elements. Was I supposed to focus on the air trapped in the fibers of the paper or summon a breeze to lift the cover? It was impossible to think clearly with the incessant ringing.

“Can you please stop the bell?” I implored as my anxiety rose.

Widow Beaton snapped her fingers, and the brass bell dropped to the table. It gave a final clang that set its misshapen edges vibrating, then fell silent.

“It is as I told you, Master Roydon,” Widow Beaton said with a note of triumph. “Whatever magic you think you have witnessed, it was nothing but illusions. This woman has no power. The village has nothing to fear from her.”

“Perhaps she is trying to trap you, Matthew,” Kit chimed in. “I wouldn’t put it past her. Women are duplicitous creatures.”

Other witches had made the same proclamation as Widow Beaton, and with similar satisfaction. I had a sudden, intense need to prove her wrong and wipe the knowing look from Kit’s face.

“I can’t light a candle. And no one has been able to teach me how to open a book or stop a bell from ringing. But if I am powerless, how do you explain this?” A bowl of fruit sat nearby. More quinces, freshly picked from the garden, glowed golden in the bleak light. I selected one and balanced it on my palm where everyone could see it.

The skin on my palm tingled as I focused on the fruit nestled there. Its pulpy flesh was clear to me through the quince’s tough skin as though the fruit were made of glass. My eyes drifted closed, while my witch’s eye opened and began its search for information. Awareness crept from the center of my forehead, down my arm, and through my fingertips. It extended like the roots of a tree, its fibers snaking into the quince.

One by one I took hold of the fruit’s secrets. There was a worm at its core, munching its way through the soft flesh. My attention was caught by the power trapped there, and warmth tingled across my tongue in a taste of sunshine. The skin between my brows fluttered with pleasure as I drank in the light of the invisible sun. So much power, I thought. Life. Death. My audience faded into insignificance. The only thing that mattered now was the limitless possibility for knowledge resting in my hand.

The sun responded to some silent invitation and left the quince, traveling into my fingers. Instinctively I tried to resist the approaching sunlight and keep it where it belonged—in the fruit—but the quince turned brown, shriveling and sinking into itself.

Widow Beaton gasped, breaking my concentration. Startled, I dropped the misshapen fruit to the floor. where it splattered against the polished wood. When I looked up, Henry was crossing himself again, shock evident in the force of his stare and the slow, automatic movements of his hand. Tom and Walter were focused on my fingers instead, where minuscule strands of sunlight were making a futile attempt to mend the broken connection with the quince. Matthew enfolded my sputtering hands in his, obscuring the signs of my undisciplined power. My hands were still sparking, and I tried to pull away so as not to scorch him. He shook his head, hands steady, and met my eyes as though to say he was strong enough to absorb whatever magic might come his way. After a moment of hesitation, my body relaxed into his.

“It’s over. No more,” he said emphatically.

“I can taste sunlight, Matthew.” My voice was sharp with panic. “I can see time, waiting in the corners.”

“That woman has bewitched a wearh. This is the devil’s work,” Widow Beaton hissed. She was backing carefully away, her fingers forked to ward off danger.

“There is no devil in Woodstock,” Tom repeated firmly.

“You have books full of strange sigils and magical incantations,” Widow Beaton said, gesturing at Euclid’s Elements. It was, I thought, a very good thing that she hadn’t overheard Kit reading aloud from Doctor Faustus.

“That is mathematics, not magic,” protested Tom.

“Call it what you will, but I have seen the truth. You are just like them, and called me here to draw me into your dark plans.”

“Just like whom?” Matthew asked sharply.

“The scholars from the university. They drove two witches from Duns Tew with their questions. They wanted our knowledge but condemned the women who shared it. And a coven was just beginning to form in Faringdon, but the witches scattered when they caught the attention of men like you.” A coven meant safety, protection, community. Without a coven a witch was far more vulnerable to the jealousy and fear of her neighbors.

“No one is trying to force you from Woodstock.” I only meant to soothe her, but a single step in her direction sent her retreating further.

“There is evil in this house. Everyone in the village knows it. Yesterday Mr. Danforth preached to the congregation about the danger of letting it take root.”

“I am alone, a witch like you, without family to help me,” I said, trying to appeal to her sympathy. “Take pity on me before anyone else discovers what I am.”

“You are not like me, and I want no trouble. None will give me pity when the village is baying for blood. I have no wearh to protect me, and no lords and court gentlemen will step forward to defend my honor.”

“Matthew—Master Roydon—will not let any harm come to you.” My hand rose in a pledge.

Widow Beaton was incredulous. “Wearhs cannot be trusted. What would the village do if they found out what Matthew Roydon really is?”

“This matter is between us, Widow Beaton,” I warned.

“Where are you from, girl, that you believe one witch will shelter another? It is a dangerous world. None of us are safe any longer.” The old woman looked at Matthew with hatred. “Witches are dying in the thousands, and the cowards of the Congregation do nothing. Why is that, wearh?”

“That’s enough,” Matthew said coldly. “Françoise, please show Widow Beaton out.”

“I’ll leave, and gladly.” The old woman drew herself as straight as her gnarled bones would allow. “But mark my words, Matthew Roydon. Every creature within a day’s journey suspects that you are a foul beast who feeds on blood. When they discover you are harboring a witch with these dark powers, God will be merciless on those who have turned against Him.”

“Farewell, Widow Beaton.” Matthew turned his back on the witch, but Widow Beaton was determined to have the last word.

“Take care, sister,” Widow Beaton called as she departed. “You shine too brightly for these times.”

Every eye in the room was on me. I shifted, uncomfortable from the attention.

“Explain yourself,” Walter said curtly.

“Diana owes you no explanation,” Matthew shot back.

Walter raised his hand in silent truce.

“What happened?” Matthew asked in a more measured tone. Apparently I owed him one.

“Exactly what I predicted: We’ve frightened off Widow Beaton. She’ll do everything she can to distance herself from me now.”

“She should have been biddable. I’ve done the woman plenty of favors,” Matthew muttered.

“Why didn’t you tell her who I was to you?” I asked quietly.

“Probably for the same reason you didn’t tell me what you could do to ordinary fruit from the garden,” he retorted, taking me by the elbow. Matthew turned to his friends. “I need to speak to my wife. Alone.” He steered me outside.

“So now I’m your wife again!” I exclaimed, wrenching my elbow from his grip.

“You never stopped being my wife. But not everybody needs to know the details of our private life. Now, what happened in there?” he demanded, standing by one of the neatly clipped knots of boxwood in the garden.

“You were right before: My magic is changing.” I looked away. “Something like it happened earlier to the flowers in our bedroom. When I rearranged them, I tasted the soil and air that made them grow. The flowers died at my touch. I tried to make the sunlight return to the fruit. But it wouldn’t obey me.”

“Widow Beaton’s behavior should have unleashed witchwind because you felt trapped, or witchfire because you were in danger. Perhaps timewalking damaged your magic,” Matthew suggested with a frown.

I bit my lip. “I should never have lost my temper and shown her what I could do.”

“She knew you were powerful. The smell of her fear filled the room.” His eyes were grave. “Perhaps it was too soon to put you in front of a stranger.”

But it was too late now.

The School of Night appeared at the windows, their pale faces pressing against the glass like stars in a nameless constellation.

“The damp will ruin her gown, Matthew, and it’s the only one that looks decent on her,” George scolded, sticking his head out of the casement. Tom’s elfin face peeked around George’s shoulder.

“I enjoyed myself immensely!” Kit shouted, flinging open another window with so much force the panes rattled. “That hag is the perfect witch. I shall put Widow Beaton in one of my plays. Did you ever imagine she could do that with an old bell?”

“Your past history with witches has not been forgotten, Matthew,” Walter said, his feet crunching across the gravel as he and Henry joined us outside. “She will talk. Women like Widow Beaton always do.”

“If she speaks out against you, Matt, is there a reason for concern?” Henry inquired gently.

“We’re creatures, Hal, in a human world. There’s always reason for concern,” Matthew said grimly.

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