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Matthew took the news about my mother’s proficiency with higher magic better than expected. He had long suspected that something existed between the homely work of the craft and the bright spectacles of elemental magic. He was not at all surprised that I, in another mark of in-betweenness, could practice such a magic. What shocked him was that this talent came through my mother’s blood.
“I’ll have to take a closer look at your mtDNA workup after all,” he said, giving one of my mother’s inks a sniff.
“Sounds good.” It was the first time Matthew had shown any desire to return to his genetic research. Days had gone by without any mention of Oxford, Baldwin, the Book of Life, or blood rage.
And while he might have forgotten that there was genetic information bound up in Ashmole 782, I had not. Once we had the manuscript back in our hands, we were going to need his scientific skills to decipher it.
“You’re right. There’s definitely blood in it, as well as resin and acacia.” Matthew swirled the ink around. Acacia, I’d learned this morning, was the source of gum arabic, which made the ink less runny.
“I thought as much. The inks used in Ashmole 782 had blood in it, too. It must be a more common practice than I thought,” I said.
“There’s some frankincense in it, too.” Matthew said, ignoring my mention of the Book of Life.
“Ah. That’s what gives it that exotic scent.” I rummaged through the remaining bottles, hoping to find something else to catch his biochemical curiosity.
“That and the blood, of course,” Matthew said drily.
“If it’s my mother’s blood, that could shed even more light on my DNA,” I remarked. “My talent for higher magic, too.”
“Hmm,” Matthew said noncommittally.
“What about this one?” I drew the stopper out of a bottle of blue-green liquid, and the scent of a summer garden filled the air.
“That’s made from iris,” Matthew said. “Remember your search for green ink in London?”
“So this is what Master Platt’s fantastically expensive ink looked like!” I laughed.
“Made from roots imported from Florence. Or so he said.” Matthew surveyed the table and its blue, red, black, green, purple, and magenta pots of liquid. “It looks like you have enough ink to keep you going for some time.”
He was right: I had enough to get me through the next few weeks. And that was as far as I was willing to project, even if my left pinkie was throbbing in anticipation of the future.
“This should be plenty, even with all the jobs Sarah has for me,” I agreed. Each of the open jars on the table had a small slip of paper underneath with a note in her sprawling handwriting. “Mosquito bites,” read one. “Better cell-phone reception,” read another. Her requests made me feel like a server at a fast-food restaurant. “Thanks for your help.”
“Anytime,” Matthew said, kissing me good-bye.
Over the next few days, the routines of daily life began to anchor us to the Bishop house and to each other—even without the steadying presence of Em, who had always been the house’s center of gravity.
Fernando was a domestic tyrant—far worse than Em ever was—and his changes to Sarah’s diet and exercise plan were radical and inflexible. He signed my aunt up for a CSA program that delivered a box of exotic vegetables like kale and chard every week, and he walked the property’s fence line with her whenever she tried to sneak a cigarette. Fernando cooked and cleaned and even plumped cushions—all of which had me wondering about his life with Hugh.
“When we didn’t have servants—and that was often the case—I kept the house,” he explained, hanging up clothes on the line. “If I’d waited for Hugh to do it, we’d have lived in squalor. He didn’t pay attention to such mundane matters as clean sheets or whether we had run out of wine. Hugh was either writing poetry or planning a three-month siege. There was no time in his day for domestic chores.”
“And Gallowglass?” I asked, handing him a clothespin.
“Gallowglass is worse. Not even the furniture—or lack of it—matters to him. We came home one night to find our house robbed and Gallowglass sleeping on the table like a Viking warrior ready to be sent out to sea.” Fernando shook his head. “Besides, I enjoy the work. Keeping house is like preparing weapons for battle. It’s repetitive and very soothing.” His confession made me feel less guilty about letting him do all the cooking.
Fernando’s other domain, aside from the kitchen, was the toolshed. He’d cleared out what was broken, cleaned and sharpened what remained, and bought items he felt were missing, like a scythe. The edges on the rose secateurs were now so keen you could slice a tomato with them. I was reminded of all the wars that had been fought using common household implements and wondered if Fernando were quietly arming us for combat.
Sarah, for her part, grumbled at the new regime but went along with it. When she got cranky— which was often—she took it out on the house. It was still not fully awake, but periodic rumblings of activity reminded us that its self-imposed hibernation was drawing to a close. Most of its energy was directed at Sarah. One morning we woke to find that all the liquor in the house had been dumped down the sink and a makeshift mobile of empty bottles and silverware was attached to the kitchen light fixture.
Matthew and I laughed, but as far as Sarah was concerned, this was war. From that moment my aunt and the house were in an all-out battle for supremacy.
The house was winning, thanks to its chief weapon: Fleetwood Mac. Sarah had bashed Mom’s old radio to bits two days after we found it during a never-ending concert of “The Chain.” The house retaliated by removing all the toilet-paper rolls from the bathroom cabinets and replacing them with a variety of electronic gadgets capable of playing music. It made for a rousing morning alarm.
Nothing deterred the house from playing selections from the band’s first two albums—not even Sarah’s defenestration of three record players, an eight-track tape machine, and an ancient Dictaphone.
The house simply diverted the music through the furnace, the bass notes reverberating in the ductwork while the treble wafted from the heating vents.
With all her ire directed at the house, Sarah was surprisingly patient and gentle with me. We had turned the stillroom inside out looking for Mom’s spell book, going so far as to remove all the drawers and shelves from the cabinet. We’d found some surprisingly graphic love letters from the 1820s hidden beneath one drawer’s false bottom and a macabre collection of rodent skulls tacked in orderly rows behind a sliding panel at the back of the shelving, but no spell book. The house would present it when it was ready.
When the music and memories of Emily and my parents became too overwhelming, Sarah and I escaped to the garden or the woods. Today my aunt had offered to show me where baneful plants could be found. The moon would be full dark tonight, the beginning of a new cycle of growth. It would be a propitious time for gathering up the materials for higher magic. Matthew followed us like a shadow as we wended our way through the vegetable patch and the teaching garden. When we reached her witch’s garden, Sarah kept walking. A giant moonflower vine marked the boundary between the garden and the woods. It sprawled in every direction, obscuring the fence and the gate underneath.
“Allow me, Sarah.” Matthew stepped forward to spring the latch. Until now he’d been sauntering behind us, seemingly interested in the flowers. But I knew that bringing up the rear placed him in the perfect defensive position. He stepped through the gate, made sure nothing dangerous lurked there, and pulled the vine away so Sarah and I could pass through into another world.
There were many magical places on the Bishop homestead—oak groves dedicated to the goddess, long avenues between yew trees that were once old roads and still showed the deep ruts of wagons laden with wood and produce for the markets, even the old Bishop graveyard. But this little grove between the garden and the forest was my favorite.
Dappled sunlight broke through its center, moving through the cypress that surrounded the place. In ages past, it might have been called a fairy ring, because the ground was thick with toadstools and mushrooms. As a child I’d been forbidden to pick anything that grew there. Now I understood why:
Every plant here was either baneful or associated with the darker aspects of the craft. Two paths intersected in the middle of the grove.
“A crossroads.” I froze.
“The crossroads have been here longer than the house. Some say these pathways were made by the Oneida before the English settled here.” Sarah beckoned me forward. “Come and look at this plant. Is it deadly nightshade or black nightshade?”
Instead of listening, I was completely mesmerized by the X in the middle of the grove.
There was power there. Knowledge, too. I felt the familiar push and pull of desire and fear as I saw the clearing through the eyes of those who had walked these paths before.
“What is it?” Matthew asked, his instincts warning him that something was wrong.
But other voices, though faint, had captured my attention: my mother and Emily, my father and my grandmother, and others unknown to me. Wolfsbane, the voices whispered. Skullcap. Devil’s bit. Adder’s tongue. Witch’s broom. Their chant was punctuated with warnings and suggestions, and their litany of spells included plants that featured in fairy tales.
Gather cinquefoil when the moon is full to extend the reach of your power.
Hellebore makes any disguising spell more effective.
Mistletoe will bring you love and many children.
To see the future more clearly, use black henbane.
“Diana?” Sarah straightened, hands on hips.
“Coming,” I murmured, dragging my attention away from the faint voices and going obediently to my aunt’s side. Sarah gave me all sorts of instructions about the plants in the grove. Her words went in one ear and out the other, flowing through me in a way that would have made my father proud. My aunt could recite all the common and botanical names for every wildflower, weed, root, and herb as well as their uses, both benign and baneful. But her mastery was born of reading and study. Sarah had no instinctive feel for what grew here. I had learned the limits of book-based knowledge in Mary Sidney’s alchemical laboratory, when I was confronted for the first time with the challenges of doing what I’d spent years reading and writing about as a scholar. There I had discovered that being able to cite alchemical texts was nothing when weighed against experience. But my mother and Emily were no longer here to help me. If I was going to walk the dark paths of higher magic, I was going to have to do it alone.
The prospect terrified me.
Just before moonrise Sarah invited me to go back out with her to gather the plants she would need for this month’s work.
I begged off, claiming I was too tired to go along. But it was the insistent call of the voices at the crossroads that made me refuse.
“Does your reluctance to go to the woods tonight have something to do with your trip there this afternoon?” Matthew asked.
“Perhaps,” I said, staring out the window. “Sarah and Fernando are back.”
My aunt was carrying a basket full of greenery. The kitchen screen slammed shut behind her, and then the stillroom door creaked open. A few minutes later, she and Fernando climbed the stairs. Sarah was wheezing less than she had last week. Fernando’s health regime was working.
“Come to bed,” Matthew said, turning back the covers.
The night was dark, illuminated only by the stars. Soon it would be midnight, the moment between night and day. The voices at the crossroads grew louder.
“I have to go.” I pushed past Matthew and headed downstairs.
“We have to go,” he said firmly. “I won’t stop you or interfere. But you are not going to the woods by yourself.”
“There’s power there, Matthew. Dark power. I could feel it. And it’s been calling to me since the sun set!”
He took me by the elbow and propelled me out the front door. He didn’t want anyone to hear the rest of this conversation.
“Then answer its call,” he snapped. “Say yes or say no, but don’t expect me to sit here and wait quietly for you to return.”
“And if I say yes?” I demanded.
“We’ll face it. Together.”
“I don’t believe you. You told me before that you don’t want me meddling with life and death.
That’s the kind of power that’s waiting for me where the paths cross in the woods. And I want it!” I wrested my elbow from his grip and jabbed a finger in his chest. “I hate myself for wanting it, but I do!”
I turned from the revulsion that I knew would be in his eyes. Matthew turned my face back toward him.
“I’ve known that the darkness was in you since I found you in the Bodleian, hiding from the other witches on Mabon.”
My breath caught. His eyes held mine.
“I felt its allure, and the darkness in me responded to it. Should I loathe myself, then?” Matthew’s voice dropped to a barely audible whisper. “Should you?”
“But you said—”
“I said I didn’t want you to meddle with life and death, not that you couldn’t do so.” Matthew took my hands in his. “I’ve been covered in blood, held a man’s future in my hands, decided if a woman’s heart would beat again. Something in your own soul dies each time you make the choice for another. I saw what Juliette’s death did to you, and Champier’s, too.”
“I didn’t have a choice in those cases. Not really.” Champier would have taken all my memories and hurt the people who were trying to help me. Juliette had been trying to kill Matthew—and would have succeeded had I not called on the goddess.
“Yes you did.” Matthew pressed a kiss on my knuckles. “You chose death for them, just as you chose life for me, life for Louisa and Kit even though they tried to harm you, life for Jack when you brought him to our house in the Blackfriars instead of leaving him on the street to starve, life for baby Grace when you rescued her from the fire. Whether you realize it or not, you paid a price every time.”
I knew the price I’d paid for Matthew’s survival, though he did not: My life belonged to the goddess for as long as she saw fit.
“Philippe was the only other creature I’ve ever known who made life-or-death decisions as quickly and instinctively as you. The price that Philippe paid was terrible loneliness, one that grew over time.
Not even Ysabeau could banish it.” Matthew rested his forehead against mine. “I don’t want that to be your fate.”
But my fate was not my own. It was time to tell Matthew so.
“The night I saved you. Do you remember it?” I asked.
Matthew nodded. He didn’t like to talk about the night we’d both almost lost our lives.
“The maiden and the crone were there—two aspects of the goddess.” My heart was hammering.
“We called Ysabeau after you fixed me up, and I told her I’d seen them.” I searched his face for signs of understanding, but he still looked bewildered. “I didn’t save you, Matthew. The goddess did. I asked her to do it.”
His fingers dug into my arm. “Tell me you didn’t strike a bargain with her in exchange.”
“You were dying, and I didn’t have enough power to heal you.” I gripped his shirt, afraid of how he would react to my next revelation. “My blood wouldn’t have been enough. But the goddess drew the life out of that ancient oak tree so I could feed it to you through my veins.”
“And in return?” Matthew’s hands tightened, lifting me until my feet were barely touching the ground. “Your gods and goddesses don’t grant boons without getting something back. Philippe taught me that.”
“I told her to take anyone, anything, so long as she saved you.”
Matthew let go abruptly. “Emily?”
“No.” I shook my head. “The goddess wanted a life for a life—not a death for a life. She chose mine.” My eyes filled with tears at the look of betrayal I saw on his face. “I didn’t know her decision until I wove my first spell. I saw her then. The goddess said she still had work for me to do.”
“We’re going to fix this.” Matthew practically dragged me in the direction of the garden gate.
Under the dark sky, the moonflowers that covered it were the only signposts to illuminate our way. We reached the crossroads quickly. Matthew pushed me to the center.
“We can’t,” I protested.
“If you can weave the tenth knot, you can dissolve whatever promise you made to the goddess,” he said roughly.
“No!” My stomach clenched, and my chest started to burn. “This is the goddess. I can’t just wave my hand and make our agreement disappear.”
The dead branches of an ancient oak, the one the goddess had sacrificed so that Matthew would live, were barely visible. Under my feet the earth seemed to shift. I looked down and saw that I was straddling the center of the crossroads. The burning sensation in my heart extended down my arms and into my fingers.
“You will not bind your future to some capricious deity. Not for my sake,” Matthew said, his voice shaking with fury.
“Don’t speak ill of the goddess here,” I warned. “I didn’t go to your church and mock your god.”
“If you won’t break your promise to the goddess, then use your magic to summon her.” Matthew joined me where the paths converged.
“Get out of the crossroads, Matthew.” The wind was swirling around my feet in a magical storm.
Corra shrieked through the night sky, trailing fire like a comet. She circled above us, crying out in warning.
“Not until you call her.” Matthew’s feet remained where they were. “You won’t pay for my life with your own.”
“It was my choice.” My hair crackling around my face, fiery tendrils writhing against my neck. “I chose you.”
“I won’t let you.”
“It’s already done.” My heart thudded, and his heart echoed it. “If the goddess wants me to fulfill some purpose of hers, I’ll do it—gladly. Because you’re mine, and I’m not done with you yet.”
My final words were almost identical to those the goddess had once said to me. They rang with power, quieting the wind and silencing Corra’s cries. The fire in my veins subsided, the burning sensation becoming a smoldering heat as the connection between Matthew and me tightened, the links that bound us shining and strong.
“You cannot make me regret what I asked the goddess for, or any price I’ve paid because of it,” I said. “Nor will I break my promise to her. Have you thought about what would happen if I did?”
Matthew remained silent, listening.
“Without you I would never have known Philippe or received his blood vow. I wouldn’t be carrying your children. I wouldn’t have seen my father or known I was a weaver. Don’t you understand?” My hands rose to cradle his face. “In saving your life, I saved mine, too.”
“What does she want you to do?” Matthew’s voice was rough with emotion.
“I don’t know. But there’s one thing I’m sure of: The goddess needs me alive to do it.”
Matthew’s hand came to rest on the space between my hips where our children slept.
I felt a soft flutter. Another. I looked at him in alarm.
His hand flexed over my skin, pressing slightly, and there was a stronger flicker of movement in my belly.
“Is something wrong?” I asked. “Not at all. The babies. They’ve quickened.” Matthew’s expression was awed as well as relieved.
We waited together for the next flurry of activity within me. When it came, Matthew and I both laughed, caught up in the unexpected joy. I tilted back my head. The stars seemed brighter, keeping the darkness of the new moon in balance with the light.
The crossroads was silent, and the sharp need I had felt to be out under the dark moon had passed.
It was not death that had brought me here, but life. Hand in hand, Matthew and I went back to the house.
When I turned on the kitchen light, something unexpected was waiting for me.
“It’s a bit soon for someone to leave me a birthday present,” I said, eyeing the strangely wrapped parcel. When Matthew moved forward to examine it more closely, I put out a hand and stopped him.
“Don’t touch it.”
He looked at me in confusion.
“It’s got enough magical wards on it to repel an army,” I explained.
The package was thin and rectangular. An odd assortment of wrapping paper had been patched together to cover it: pink paper with storks, paper covered with primary-colored inchworms forming the shape of the number four, garish Christmas-tree wrapping paper, and silver foil with embossed wedding bells. A bouquet of bright bows covered its surface.
“Where did it come from?” Matthew asked.
“The house, I think.” I poked it with my finger. “I recognize some of the wrapping paper from birthdays past.”
“Are you sure it’s for you?” He looked dubious.
I nodded. The package was definitely for me. Gingerly I picked it up. The bows, all of which had been used before and therefore lacked adhesive, slipped off and rained down on the kitchen island.
“Shall I get Sarah?” Matthew asked.
“No. I’ve got it covered.” My hands were tingling, and every rainbow stripe was in evidence as I removed the wrapping paper. Inside was a composition book—the kind with a black-and-white cover and pages sewn together with thick string. Someone had glued a magenta daisy over the white box for your name, and WIDE RULE had been edited to read WITCHES RULE.
“‘Rebecca Bishop’s Book of Shadows,’” I said, reading aloud from the words written in thick black ink on the daisy. “This is my mother’s missing spell book—the one she used for the higher magics.”
I cracked open the cover. After all our problems with Ashmole 782, I was braced for anything from mysterious illustrations to encoded script. Instead I found my mother’s round, childish handwriting.
“To summon a spirit recently dead and question it” was the first spell in the book.
“Mom certainly believed in starting with a bang,” I said, showing Matthew the words on the page.
The notes beneath the spell recorded the dates when she and Emily had tried to work the magic, as well as the results. Their first three attempts had failed. On the fourth try, they succeeded.
Both of them were thirteen at the time.
“Christ,” Matthew said. “They were babes. What business did they have with the dead?”
“Apparently they wanted to know if Bobby Woodruff liked Mary Bassett,” I said, peering at the cramped script.
“Why didn’t they just ask Bobby Woodruff?” Matthew wondered.
I flipped through the pages. Binding spells, banishing spells, protection spells, charms to summon the elemental powers—they were all in there, along with love magic and other coercive enchantments.
My fingers stopped. Matthew sniffed.
Something thin and almost transparent was pressed onto one of the pages in the back of the book.
Scrawled above it in a more mature version of the same round hand were the words:
Happy Birthday! I kept this for you.
It was our first indication that you were going to be a great witch.
Maybe you’ll need it one day.
Lots of love, Mom
“It’s my caul.” I looked up at Matthew. “Do you think it’s meaningful that I got it back on the same day the babies quickened?”
“No,” Matthew said. “It’s far more likely that the house gave it back to you tonight because you finally stopped running from what your mother and father knew since the very beginning.”
“What’s that?” I frowned.
“That you were going to possess an extraordinary combination of your parents’ very different magical abilities,” he replied.
The tenth knot burned on my wrist. I turned over my hand and looked at its writhing shape.
“That’s why I can tie the tenth knot,” I said, understanding for the first time where the power came from. “I can create because my father was a weaver, and I can destroy because my mother had the talent for higher, darker magics.”
“A union of opposites,” Matthew said. “Your parents were an alchemical wedding, too. One that produced a marvelous child.”
I closed the spell book carefully. It would take me months—years, perhaps—to learn from my mother’s mistakes and create spells of my own that would achieve the same ends. With one hand pressing my mother’s spell book to my sternum and the other pressed against my abdomen, I leaned back and listened to the slow beating of Matthew’s heart.
“‘Do not refuse me because I am dark and shadowed,’” I whispered, remembering a line from an alchemical text I’d studied in Matthew’s library. “That line from the Aurora Consurgens used to remind me of you, but now it makes me think of my parents, as well as my own magic and how hard I resisted it.” Matthew’s thumb stroked my wrist, bringing the tenth knot to brilliant, colorful life.
“This reminds me of another part of the Aurora Consurgens,” he murmured. “‘As I am the end, so my lover is the beginning. I encompass the whole work of creation, and all knowledge is hidden in me.’”
“What do you think it means?” I turned my head so I could see his expression.
He smiled, and his arms circled my waist, one hand now resting on the babies. They moved as if recognizing their father’s touch. “That I am a very lucky man,” Matthew replied.
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