"Not to Baldwin. He's a sly bugger. And when Matthew behaves like a fool, we pay no attention to him either." Hancock sniffed and pointed to the gingerbread, which lay forgotten on the table. "Is someone going to eat that, or can we pitch it into the fire? Between Matthew's scent and Charles's cooking, I feel ill."
"Given our approaching visitors, our time would be better spent devising a course of action than talking about family history," Walter said impatiently.
"Jesu, there's no time to come up with a plan," Hancock said cheerfully. "Matthew and his lordship should say a prayer instead. They're men of God. Maybe He's listening."
"Perhaps the witch could fly away," Gallowglass murmured. He held up both hands in mute surrender when Matthew glared at him.
"Oh, but she can't." All eyes turned to Marlowe. "She can't even conjure Matthew a beard."
"You've taken up with a witch, against all the Congregation's strictures, and she's worthless?" It was impossible to tell if Gallowglass was more indignant or incredulous. "A wife who can summon a storm or give your enemy a horrible skin affliction has certain advantages, I grant you. But what good is a witch who can't even serve as her husband's barber?"
"Only Matthew would wed a witch from God-knows-where with no sorcery to speak of," Hancock muttered to Walter.
"Quiet, all of you!" Matthew exploded. "I can't think for all the senseless chatter. It's not Diana's fault that Widow Beaton is a meddling old fool or that she can't perform magic on command. My wife was spellbound. And there's an end to it. If one more person in this room questions me or criticizes Diana, I'll rip your heart out and feed it to you while it still beats."
"There is our lord and master," Hancock said with a mocking salute. "For a minute I was afraid you were the one who was bewitched. Hang on, though. If she's spellbound, what's wrong with her? Is she dangerous? Mad? Both?"
Unnerved by the influx of nephews, agitated parsons, and the trouble brewing in Woodstock, I reached behind me for the chair. With my reach restricted by the unfamiliar clothes, I lost my balance and began to fall. A rough hand shot out and gripped me by the elbow, lowering me to the seat with surprising gentleness.
"It's all right, Auntie." Gallowglass made a soft noise of sympathy. "I'm not sure what's amiss in your head, but Matthew will take care of you. He has a warm spot in his heart for lost souls, bless him."
"I'm dizzy, not deranged," I retorted.
Gallowglass's eyes were flinty as his mouth approached my ear. "Your speech is disordered enough to stand for madness, and I doubt the priest cares one way or the other. Given that you aren't from Chester or anywhere else I've been-and that's a fair number of places, Auntie-you might want to mind your manners unless you want to find yourself locked in the church crypt."
Long fingers clamped around Gallowglass's shoulder and pulled him away. "If you're quite finished trying to frighten my wife-a pointless exercise, I assure you-you might tell me about the men you passed," Matthew said frostily. "Were they armed?"
"No." After a long, interested look at me, Gallowglass turned toward his uncle.
"And who was with the minister?"
"How the hell should we know, Matthew? All three were warmbloods and not worth a second thought. One was fat and gray-haired, the other was medium size and complained about the weather," Gallowglass said impatiently.
"Bidwell," Matthew and Walter said at the same moment.
"It's probably Iffley with him," remarked Walter. "The two of them are always complaining-about the state of the roads, the noise at the inn, the quality of the beer."
"Who's Iffley?" I wondered aloud.
"A man who fancies himself the finest glover in all England. Somers works for him," Walter replied.
"Master Iffley does craft the queen's gloves," George acknowledged.
"He made her a single pair of hunting gauntlets two decades ago. That's hardly enough to make Iffley the most important man for thirty miles, dearly as he might covet the honor." Matthew snorted contemptuously. "Singly none of them are terribly bright. Together they're downright foolish. If that's the best the village can do, we can return to our reading."
"That's it?" Walter's voice was brittle. "We sit and let them come to us?" "Yes. But Diana doesn't leave my sight-or yours, Gallowglass," Matthew warned.
"You don't have to remind me of my family duty, Uncle. I'll be sure your feisty wife makes it to your bed tonight."
"Feisty, am I? My husband is a member of the Congregation. A posse of men is coming on horseback to accuse me of harming a friendless old woman. I'm in a strange place and keep getting lost on my way to the bedroom. I still have no shoes. And I'm living in a dormitory full of adolescent boys who never stop talking!" I fumed. "But you needn't trouble yourself on my account. I can take care of myself!"
"Take care of yourself?" Gallowglass laughed at me and shook his head. "No you can't. And when the fighting's done, we'll need to see to that accent of yours. I didn't understand half of what you just said."
"She must be Irish," Hancock said, glaring at me. "That would explain the spellbinding and the disordered speech. The whole lot of them are mad."
"She's not Irish," Gallowglass said. "Mad or no, I would have understood her accent if that were the case."
"Quiet!" Matthew bellowed.
"The men from the village are at the gatehouse," Pierre announced in the ensuing silence.
"Go and fetch them," Matthew ordered. He turned his attention to me. "Let me do the talking. Don't answer their questions unless and until I tell you to do so. Now," he continued briskly, "we can't afford to have anything . . . unusual happen tonight as it did when Widow Beaton was here. Are you still dizzy? Do you need to lie down?"
"Curious. I'm curious," I said, hands clenched. "Don't worry about my magic or my health. Worry about how many hours it's going to take you to answer my questions after the minister is gone. And if you try to wiggle out of them with the excuse that 'it's not my tale to tell,' I'll flatten you."
"You are perfectly fine, then." Matthew's mouth twitched. He dropped a kiss on my forehead. "I love you, ma lionne."
"You might reserve your professions of love until later and give Auntie a chance to compose herself," Gallowglass suggested.
"Why does everyone feel compelled to tell me how to manage my own wife?" Matthew shot back. The cracks in his composure were starting to show.
"I really couldn't say," Gallowglass replied serenely. "She reminds me a bit of Granny, though. We give Philippe advice morning, noon, and night about how best to control her. Not that he listens."
The men arranged themselves around the room. The apparent randomness of their positions created a human funnel-wider at the entrance to the room, narrower at the fireside where Matthew and I sat. As George and Kit would be the first to greet the man of God and his companions, Walter whisked away their dice and the manuscript of Doctor Faustus in favor of a copy of Herodotus's Histories. Though it was not a Bible, Raleigh assured us it would lend proper gravitas to the situation. Kit was still protesting the unfairness of the substitution when footsteps and voices sounded.
Pierre ushered the three men inside. One so strongly resembled the reedy young man who had measured me for shoes that I knew at once he was Joseph Bidwell. He started at the sound of the door closing behind him and looked uneasily over his shoulder. When his bleary eyes faced forward again and he saw the size of the assembly awaiting him, he jumped once more. Walter, who occupied a position of strategic importance in the middle of the room with Hancock and Henry, ignored the nervous shoemaker and cast a look of disdain at a man in a bedraggled religious habit.
"What brings you here on such a night, Mr. Danforth?" Raleigh demanded.
"Sir Walter," Danforth said with a bow, taking a cap from his head and twisting it between his fingers. He spotted the Earl of Northumberland. "My lord! I did not know you were still amongst us."
"Is there something you need, ?" Matthew asked pleasantly. He remained seated, legs stretched out in apparent relaxation.
"Ah. Master Roydon." Danforth made another bow, this one directed at us. He gave me a curious look before fear overtook him and redirected his eyes to his hat. "We have not seen you in church or in town. Bidwell thought you might be indisposed."
Bidwell shifted on his feet. The leather boots he wore squelched and complained, and the man's lungs joined in the chorus with wheezes and a barking cough. A wilted ruff constricted his windpipe and quivered every time he tried to draw breath. Its pleated linen was distinctly the worse for wear, and a greasy brown spot near his chin suggested he'd had gravy with supper.
"Yes, I was taken sick in Chester, but it has passed with God's grace and thanks to my wife's care." Matthew reached out and clasped my hand with husbandly devotion. "My physician thought it would be best if my hair were shorn to rid me of the fever, but it was Diana's insistence on cool baths that made the difference."
"Wife?" Danforth said faintly. "Widow Beaton did not tell me-"
"I do not share my private affairs with ignorant women," Matthew said sharply.
Bidwell sneezed. Matthew examined him first with concern, then with a carefully managed look of dawning understanding. I was learning a great deal about my husband this evening, including the fact that he could be a surprisingly good actor.
"Oh. But of course you are here to ask Diana to cure Bidwell." Matthew made a sound of regret. "There is so much idle gossip. Has the news of my wife's skill spread already?"
In this period medicinal knowledge was perilously close to a witch's lore. Was Matthew trying to get me in trouble?
Bidwell wanted to respond, but all he could manage was a gurgle and a shake of his head.
"If you are not here for physic, then you must be here to deliver Diana's shoes." Matthew looked at me fondly, then to the minister. "As you have no doubt heard, my wife's possessions were lost during our journey, Mr. Danforth." Matthew's attention returned to the shoemaker, and a shade of reproach crept into his tone. "I know you are a busy man, Bidwell, but I hope you've finished the pattens at least. Diana is determined to go to church this week, and the path to the vestry is often flooded. Someone really should see to it."
Iffley's chest had been swelling with indignation since Matthew had started speaking. Finally the man could stand it no more.
"Bidwell brought the shoes you paid for, but we are not here to secure your wife's services or trifle with pattens and puddles!" Iffley drew his cloak around his hips in a gesture that was intended to convey dignity, but the soaked wool only emphasized his resemblance to a drowned rat, with his pointy nose and beady eyes. "Tell her, Mr. Danforth."
The Reverend Danforth looked as though he would rather be roasting in hell than standing in Matthew Roydon's house, confronting his wife.
"Go on. Tell her," urged Iffley.
"Allegations have been made-" That was far as Danforth got before Walter, Henry, and Hancock closed ranks.
"If you are here to make allegations, sir, you can direct them to me or to his lordship," Walter said sharply.
"Or to me," George piped up. "I am well read in the law." "Ah . . . Er . . . Yes . . . Well . . ." The cleric subsided into silence. "Widow Beaton has fallen ill. So has young Bidwell," said Iffley, determined to forge on in spite of Danforth's failing nerve.
"No doubt it is the same ague that afflicted me and now the boy's father," my husband said softly. His fingers tightened on mine. Behind me Gallowglass swore under his breath. "Of what, exactly, are you accusing my wife, Iffley?"
"Widow Beaton refused to join her in some evil business. Mistress Roydon vowed to afflict her joints and head with pains."
"My son has lost his hearing," Bidwell complained, his voice thick with misery and phlegm. "There is a fierce ringing in his ears, like unto the sound of a bell. Widow Beaton says he has been bewitched."
"No," I whispered. The blood left my head in a sudden, startling drop. Gallowglass's hands were on my shoulders in an instant, keeping me upright.
The word "bewitched" had me staring into a familiar abyss. My greatest fear had always been that humans would discover I was descended from Bridget Bishop. Then the curious glances would start, and the suspicions. The only possible response was flight. I tried to worm my fingers from Matthew's grasp, but he might have been made of stone for all the good it did me, and Gallowglass still had charge of my shoulders.
"Widow Beaton has long suffered from rheumatism, and Bidwell's son has recurrent putrid throats. They often cause pain and deafness. These illnesses occurred before my wife came to Woodstock." Matthew made a lazy, dismissive gesture with his free hand. "The old woman is jealous of Diana's skill, and young Joseph was taken with her beauty and envious of my married state. These are not allegations, but idle imaginings."
"As a man of God, Master Roydon, it is my responsibility to take them seriously. I have been reading." Mr. Danforth reached into his black robes and pulled out a tattered sheaf of papers. It was no more than a few dozen sheets crudely stitched together with coarse string. Time and heavy use had softened the papers' fibers, fraying the edges and turning the pages gray. I was too far away to make out the title page. All three vampires saw it, though. So did George, who blanched.
"That's part of the Malleus Maleficarum. I did not know that your Latin was good enough to comprehend such a difficult work, Mr. Danforth," Matthew said. It was the most influential witch-hunting manual ever produced, and a title that struck terror into a witch's heart.
The minister looked affronted. "I attended university, Master Roydon."
"I'm relieved to hear it. That book shouldn't be in the possession of the weak-minded or superstitious."
"You know it?" Danforth asked.
"I, too, attended university," Matthew replied mildly.
"Then you understand why I must question this woman." Danforth attempted to advance into the room. Hancock's low growl brought him to a standstill.
"My wife has no difficulties with her hearing. You needn't come closer."
"I told you Mistress Roydon has unnatural powers!" Iffley said triumphantly.
Danforth gripped his book. "Who taught you these things, Mistress Roydon?" he called down the echoing expanse of the hall. "From whom did you learn your witchcraft?"
This was how the madness began: with questions designed to trap the accused into condemning other creatures. One life at a time, witches were caught up in the web of lies and destroyed. Thousands of my people had been tortured and killed thanks to such tactics. Denials burbled up into my throat.
"Don't." Matthew's single word of warning was uttered in an icy murmur.
"Strange things are happening in Woodstock. A white stag crossed Widow Beaton's path," Danforth continued. "It stopped in the road and stared until her flesh turned cold. Last night a gray wolf was seen outside her house. Its eyes glowed in the darkness, brighter than the lamps that were hung out to help travelers find shelter in the storm. Which of these creatures is your familiar? Who gifted you with it?" Matthew didn't need to tell me to keep silent this time. The priest's questions were following a well-known pattern, one I had studied in graduate school.
"The witch must answer your questions, Mr. Danforth," Iffley insisted, pulling at his companion's sleeve. "Such insolence from a creature of darkness cannot be allowed in a godly community."
"My wife speaks to no one without my consent," said Matthew. "And mind whom you call witch, Iffley." The more the villagers challenged him, the harder it was for Matthew to restrain himself.
The minister's eyes traveled from me to Matthew and back again. I stifled a whimper.
"Her agreement with the devil makes it impossible for her to speak the truth," Bidwell said.
"Hush, Master Bidwell," Danforth chided. "What do you wish to say, my child? Who introduced you to the devil? Was it another woman?"
"Or man," Iffley said under his breath. "Mistress Roydon is not the only child of darkness to be found here. There are strange books and instruments, and midnight gatherings are held to conjure spirits."
Harriot sighed and thrust his book at Danforth. "Mathematics, sir, not magic. Widow Beaton spotted a geometry text."
"It is not your place to determine the extent of the evil here," Iffley sputtered.
"If it's evil you're seeking, look for it at Widow Beaton's." Though he'd done his best to remain calm, Matthew was rapidly losing his temper.
"Do you accuse her of witchcraft, then?" Danforth asked sharply.
"No, Matthew. Not that way," I whispered, tugging on his hand to gain his attention.
Matthew turned to me. His face looked inhuman, his pupils glassy and enormous. I shook my head, and he took a deep breath, trying to calm both his fury at the invasion of his home and his fierce instinct to protect me.
"Stop your ears against his words, Mr. Danforth. Roydon might be an instrument of the devil, too," Iffley warned.
Matthew faced the delegation. "If you have reason to charge my wife with some offense, find a magistrate and do so. Otherwise get out. And before you return, Danforth, consider whether aligning with Iffley and Bidwell is a wise course of action."
The parson gulped.
"You heard him," Hancock barked. "Out!"
"Justice will be served, Master Roydon-God's justice," Danforth proclaimed as he backed out of the room.
"Only if my version doesn't resolve the matter first, Danforth," Walter promised.
Pierre and Charles materialized from the shadows, throwing open the doors to shepherd the wide-eyed warmbloods from the room. Outside, it was blowing a gale. The fierceness of the waiting storm would only confirm their suspicions about my supernatural powers.
Out, out, out! called an insistent voice in my head. Panic flooded my system with adrenaline. I had been reduced to prey once more. Gallowglass and Hancock turned toward me, intrigued by the scent of fear seeping from my pores.
"Stay where you are," Matthew warned the vampires. He crouched before me. "Diana's instincts are telling her to flee. She'll be fine in a moment."
"This is never going to end. We came for help, but even here I'm hunted." I bit my lip.
"There's nothing to fear. Danforth and Iffley will think twice before causing any more trouble," Matthew said firmly, taking my clasped hands in his. "No one wants me for an enemy-not other creatures, not the humans."
"I understand why the creatures might fear you. You're a member of the Congregation and have the power destroy them or, even worse, expose them to the humans. No wonder Widow Beaton came here when you commanded. But that doesn't explain this human reaction to you. Danforth and Iffley must suspect that you're a . . . wearh." I caught myself just before the word vampire spilled out.
"Oh, he's in no danger from them," said Hancock dismissively. "These men are nobodies. Unfortunately, they're likely to bring this business to the attention of humans who do matter."
"Ignore him," Matthew told me.
"Which humans?" I whispered.
Gallowglass gasped. "By all that is holy, Matthew. I've seen you do terrible things, but how could you keep this from your wife, too?"
Matthew looked into the fire. When his eyes finally met mine, they were filled with regret.
"Matthew?" I prompted. The knot that had been forming in my stomach since the arrival of the first bag of mail tightened further.
"They don't think I'm a vampire. They know I'm a spy."