Home > The Book of Life (All Souls Trilogy #3)(16)

The Book of Life (All Souls Trilogy #3)(16)
Author: Deborah Harkness

7

I stood in Sarah’s stillroom and stared through the dust on the surface of the window’s wavy glass. The whole house needed a good airing. The stiff brass latch on the sash resisted my attempts at first, but the swollen frame finally gave up the fight and the window rocketed upward, quivering with indignation at the rough treatment.

“Deal with it,” I said crossly, turning away and surveying the room before me. It was a familiarly strange place, this room where my aunts had spent so much of their time and I so little. Sarah left her usual disorderly ways at the threshold. In here all was neat and tidy, surfaces clear, mason jars lined up on the shelves, and wooden drawers labeled with their contents.

CONEFLOWER, FEVERFEW, MILK THISTLE, SKULLCAP, BONESET, YARROW, MOONWORT.

Though the ingredients for Sarah’s craft were not arranged alphabetically, I was sure some witchy principle governed their placement, since she was always able to reach instantly for the herb or seed she needed.

Sarah had taken the Bishop grimoire with her to Sept-Tours, but now it was back where it belonged: resting on what remained of an old pulpit that Em had bought in one of Bouckville’s antique shops. She and Sarah had sawed off its supporting pillar, and now the lectern sat on the old kitchen table that had come here with the first Bishops at the end of the eighteenth century. One of the table’s legs was markedly shorter than the other—nobody knew why—but the unevenness of the floorboards meant that its surface was surprisingly level and solid. As a child I’d thought it was magic. As an adult I knew it was dumb luck.

Various old appliances and a battered electrical-outlet strip were strewn around Sarah’s work surface. There was an avocado green slow cooker, a venerable coffeemaker, two coffee grinders, and a blender. These were the tools of the modern witch, though Sarah kept a big black cauldron by the fireplace for old times’ sake. My aunts used the slow cooker for making oils and potions, the coffee grinders and blender for preparing incense and pulverizing herbs, and the coffee machine for brewing infusions. In the corner stood a shining white specimen fridge with a red cross on the door, unplugged and unused.

“Maybe Matthew can find something more high-tech for Sarah,” I mused aloud. A Bunsen burner.

A few alembics, perhaps. Suddenly I longed for Mary Sidney’s well-equipped sixteenth-century laboratory. I looked up, half hoping to see the splendid murals of alchemical processes that decorated her walls at Baynard’s Castle.

Instead dried herbs and flowers hung from twine strung up between the exposed rafters. I could identify some of them: the swollen pods of nigella, bursting with tiny seeds; prickly-topped milk thistle; long-stemmed mullein crowned with the bright yellow flowers that earned them the name of witches’

candles; stalks of fennel. Sarah knew every one of them by sight, touch, taste, and smell. With them she cast spells and manufactured charms. The dried plants were gray with dust, but I knew better than to disturb them. Sarah would never forgive me if she came into her stillroom and discovered nothing but stems.

The stillroom had once been the farmhouse’s kitchen. One wall was occupied by a huge fireplace complete with a wide hearth and a pair of ovens. Above it was a storage loft accessible by a rickety old ladder. I’d spent many a rainy afternoon there, curled up with a book listening to the rain patter against the roof. Corra was up there now, one eye open in lazy interest.

I sighed and set the dust motes dancing. It was going to take water—and lots of elbow grease—to make this room welcoming again. And if my mother had known something that might help us find the Book of Life, this is where I would find it.

A soft chime sounded. Then another.

Goody Alsop had taught me how to discern the threads that bound the world and pull on them to weave spells that were not in any grimoire. The threads were around me all the time, and when they brushed together, they made a sort of music. I reached out and snagged a few strands on my fingers.

Blue and amber—the colors that connected the past to the present and the future. I’d seen them before, but only in corners where unsuspecting creatures wouldn’t be caught in time’s warp and weft.

Not surprisingly, time was not behaving as it should in the Bishop house. I twisted the blue and amber threads into a knot and tried to push them back where they belonged, but they sprang back, weighting the air with memories and regret. A weaver’s knot wouldn’t fix what was wrong here.

My body was damp with perspiration, even though all I’d done was displace the dust and dirt from one location to another. I’d forgotten how hot Madison could be at this time of year. Picking up a bucket full of dingy water, I pushed against the stillroom door. It didn’t budge.

“Move, Tabitha,” I said, nudging the door another inch in hopes of dislodging the cat.

Tabitha yowled. She refused to join me in the stillroom. It was Sarah and Em’s domain, and she considered me an invader.

“I’ll set Corra on you,” I threatened.

Tabitha shifted. One paw stretched forward past the crack, then the other as she slipped away.

Sarah’s cat had no wish to battle my familiar, but her dignity forbade a hurried retreat.

I pushed open the back door. Outside, a drone of insects and an unrelenting pounding filled the air.

I flung the dirty water off the deck, and Tabitha shot outside to join Fernando. He was standing with a foot propped up on a stump we used to split wood, watching Matthew drive fence posts into the field.

“Is he still at it?” I asked, swinging the empty bucket. The pounding had been going on for days: first replacing loose shingles on the roof, then hammering the trellises into place in the garden, and now mending fences.

“Matthew’s mind is quieter when he is working with his hands,” Fernando said. “Carving stone, fighting with his sword, sailing a boat, writing a poem, doing an experiment—it doesn’t really matter.”

“He’s thinking about Benjamin.” If so, it was no wonder Matthew was seeking distractions.

Fernando’s cool attention turned to me. “The more Matthew thinks about his son, the more he is taken back to a time when he did not like himself or the choices he made.”

“Matthew doesn’t often talk about Jerusalem. He showed me his pilgrim’s badge and told me about Eleanor.” It wasn’t a lot, given how much time Matthew must have spent there. And such ancient memories weren’t likely to reveal themselves to my witch’s kiss.

“Ah. Fair Eleanor. Her death was another preventable mistake,” Fernando said bitterly. “Matthew should never have gone to the Holy Land the first time, never mind the second. The politics and bloodshed were too much for any young vampire to handle, especially one with blood rage. But Philippe needed every weapon at his disposal if he hoped to succeed in Outremer.”

Medieval history was not my area of expertise, but the Crusader colonies brought back hazy memories of bloody conflicts and the deadly siege of Jerusalem.

“Philippe dreamed of setting up a manjasang kingdom there, but it was not to be. For once in his life, he underestimated the avarice of the warmbloods, not to mention their religious fanaticism. Philippe should have left Matthew in Córdoba with Hugh and me, for Matthew was no help to him in Jerusalem or Acre or any of the other places his father sent him.” Fernando gave the stump a savage kick, dislodging a bit of moss clinging to the old wood. “Blood rage can be an asset, it seems, when what you want is a killer.”

“I don’t think you liked Philippe,” I said softly.

“In time I came to respect him. But like him?” Fernando shook his head. “No.”

Recently, I’d experienced twinges of dislike where Philippe was concerned. He had given Matthew the job of family assassin, after all. Sometimes I looked at my husband, standing alone in the lengthening summer shadows or silhouetted against the light from the window, and saw the heaviness of that responsibility weighing on his shoulders.

Matthew fitted a fence post into the ground and looked up. “Do you need something?” he shouted.

“Nope. Just getting some water,” I called back.

“Have Fernando help you.” Matthew pointed to the empty bucket. He didn’t approve of pregnant women doing heavy lifting.

“Of course,” I said noncommittally as Matthew went back to his work.

“You have no intention of letting me carry your bucket.” Fernando put a hand over his heart in mock dismay. “You wound me. How will I hold up my head in the de Clermont family if you don’t allow me to put you on a pedestal as a proper knight would do?”

“If you keep Matthew from renting that steel roller he’s been talking about to resurface the driveway, I’ll let you wear shining armor for the rest of the summer.” I gave Fernando a peck on the cheek and departed.

Feeling restless and uncomfortable in the heat, I abandoned the empty bucket in the kitchen sink and went in search of my aunt. It wasn’t hard to find her. Sarah had taken to sitting in my grandmother’s rocking chair in the keeping room and staring at the ebonized tree growing out of the fireplace. In coming back to Madison, Sarah was being forced to confront the loss of Emily in an entirely new way. It had left her subdued and remote.

“It’s too hot to clean. I’m going into town to run errands. Do you want to come?” I asked.

“No. I’m okay here,” Sarah said, rocking back and forth.

“Hannah O’Neil called again. She’s invited us to her Lughnasadh potluck.” Since our return we’d received a stream of phone calls from members of the Madison coven. Sarah had told the high priestess, Vivian Harrison, that she was perfectly fine and was being well taken care of by family. After that, she refused to talk to anyone.

Sarah ignored my mention of Hannah’s invitation and continued to study the tree. “The ghosts are bound to come back eventually, don’t you think?”

The house had been remarkably free of spectral visitors since our return. Matthew blamed Corra, but Sarah and I knew better. With Em so recently gone, the rest of the ghosts were staying away so that we didn’t pester them with questions about how she was faring.

“Sure,” I said, “but it’s probably going to be a while.”

“The house is so quiet without them. I never saw them like you did, but you could tell they were around.” Sarah rocked with more energy, as if this would somehow bring the ghosts closer.

“Have you decided what to do about the Blasted Tree?” It had been waiting for Matthew and me when we returned from 1591, the gnarled black trunk taking up most of the chimney and its roots and branches extending into the room. Though it seemed devoid of life, the tree did occasionally produce strange fruit: car keys, as well as the image of the chemical wedding that had been torn from Ashmole 782. More recently it had offered up a recipe for rhubarb compote circa 1875 and a pair of false eyelashes circa 1973. Fernando and I thought the tree should be removed, the chimney repaired, and the paneling patched and painted. Sarah and Matthew were less convinced.

“I don’t know,” Sarah said with a sigh. “I’m getting used to it. We can always decorate it for the holidays.”

“The snow is going to blow straight through those cracks come winter,” I said, picking up my purse.

“What did I teach you about magical objects?” Sarah asked, and I heard a trace of her normal sharpness.

“Don’t touch them until you understand them,” I intoned in the voice of a six-year-old.

“Cutting down a magically produced tree certainly qualifies as ‘touching,’ don’t you agree?” Sarah motioned Tabitha away from the hearth, where she was sitting staring at the bark. “We need milk. And eggs. And Fernando wants some kind of fancy rice. He promised to make paella.”

“Milk. Eggs. Rice. Got it.” I gave Sarah one last worried look. “Tell Matthew I won’t be long.”

The floorboards in the front hall creaked out a brief complaint as I crossed to the door. I paused, my foot glued in place. The Bishop house was not an ordinary home and had a history of making its feelings known on a variety of issues, from who had a right to occupy it to whether or not it approved of the new paint color on the shutters.

But there was no further response from the house. Like the ghosts, it was waiting.

Outside, Sarah’s new car was parked by the front door. Her old Honda Civic had met with a mishap during its return from Montreal, where Matthew and I had left it. A de Clermont functionary had been tasked to drive it back to Madison, but the engine had fallen out somewhere between Brockville and Watertown. To console Sarah, Matthew had presented her with a metallic purple Mini Cooper, complete with white racing stripes edged with black and silver and a personalized license plate that said NEW

BROOM. Matthew hoped this witchy message would obviate Sarah’s need to put bumper stickers all over the vehicle, but I feared it was only a matter of time before this car looked like the old one.

In case anyone thought Sarah’s new car and her lack of slogans meant her paganism was wavering, Matthew purchased a witch antenna ball. She had red hair and was wearing a pointy hat and sunglasses.

No matter where Sarah parked, someone stole it. He kept a box of replacements in the mudroom cupboard.

I waited until Matthew was hammering in his next fence post before jumping into Sarah’s Mini. I reversed it and sped away from the house. Matthew hadn’t gone so far as to forbid me from leaving the farm unaccompanied, and Sarah knew where I was going. Happy to be getting away from the tension, I opened the sunroof to catch the July breezes on my way into town.

My first stop was at the post office. Mrs. Hutchinson eyed the tight swell under the hem of my T-shirt with interest but said nothing. The only other people in the post office were two antiques dealers and Smitty, Matthew’s new best friend from the hardware store.

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