Home > Shadow of Night (All Souls Trilogy #2)(9)

Shadow of Night (All Souls Trilogy #2)(9)
Author: Deborah Harkness

"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.

Chapter Five

The School of Night might debate philosophy, but on one point they were agreed: A witch would still have to be found. Matthew dispatched George and Kit to make inquiries in Oxford, as well as to ask after our mysterious alchemical manuscript.

After supper on Thursday evening, we took our places around the hearth in the great hall. Henry and Tom read and argued about astronomy or mathematics. Walter and Kit played dice at a long table, trading ideas about their latest literary projects. I was reading aloud from Walter's copy of The Faerie Queene to practice my accent and enjoying it no more than I did most Elizabethan romances.

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