John Chandler's shop suited the neighborhood's Gothic atmosphere perfectly. It was dark, pungent, and unsettling. A stuffed owl hung from the ceiling, and the toothy jaws of some unfortunate creature were tacked above a diagram of a body with severed and broken limbs, pierced through with weapons. A carpenter's awl entered the poor fellow's left eye at a jaunty angle.
A stooped man emerged from behind a curtain, wiping his hands on the sleeves of his rusty black bombazine coat. It bore a resemblance to the academic gowns worn by Oxford and Cambridge undergraduates and was just as rumpled. Bright hazel eyes met mine without a trace of hesitation, and my skin tingled with recognition. Chandler was a witch. After crossing most of London, I'd finally located one of my own people.
"The streets around you grow more dangerous with every passing week, Master Chandler." George peered out the door at the gang hovering nearby.
"That pack of boys runs wild," Chandler said. "What can I do for you today, Master Chapman? Are you in need of more tonic? Have your headaches returned?"
George made a detailed accounting of his many aches and pains. Chandler murmured sympathetically every now and then and drew a ledger closer. The men pored over it, giving me a chance to examine my surroundings.
Elizabethan apothecary shops were evidently the general stores of the period, and the small space was stuffed to the rafters with merchandise. There were piles of vividly illustrated broadsides, like the one of the wounded man tacked up on the wall, and jars of candied fruit. Used books sat on one table, along with a few newer titles. A set of pottery crocks offered a splash of brightness in the otherwise dim room, all of them labeled with the names of medicinal spices and herbs. Specimens from the animal kingdom on display included not only the stuffed owl and jawbone but also some wizened rodents tied up by their tails. I spotted pots of ink, quill pens, and spools of string, too.
The shop was organized in loose thematic groupings. The ink was near the quills and the used books, under the wise old owl. The mice hung above a crock labeled "Ratbane," which sat next to a book promising not only to help you catch fish but to build "sundrie Engines and trappes to take Polcats, Buzzards, rattes, mice, and all other kindes of Vermin and beasts." I had been wondering how to get rid of the unwanted guests in Matthew's attic. The detailed plans in the pamphlet exceeded my handywoman skills, but I'd find someone who could execute them. If the brace of mice in Chandler's shop was any indication, the traps certainly worked.
"Excuse me, mistress," Chandler murmured, reaching past me. Fascinated, I watched as he took the mice to his workbench and sliced the ears off with delicate precision.
"What are they for?" I asked George.
"Powdered mouse ears are effective against warts," he explained earnestly while Chandler wielded his pestle.
Relieved that I did not suffer from this particular complaint, I drifted over to the owl guarding the stationery department. I found a pot of red ink, deep and rich.
Your wearh friend will not appreciate having to carry that bottle home, mistress. It is made from hawk's blood and is used for writing out love spells.
So Chandler had the power of silent speech. I returned the ink to its place and picked up a dog-eared pamphlet. The images on the first sheet showed a wolf attacking a small child and a man being horribly tortured and then executed. It reminded me of the tabloids at the cash registers in modern grocery stores. When I flipped the page over, I was startled to read about someone named Stubbe Peter, who appeared in the shape of a wolf and fed off the blood of men, women, and children until they were dead. It was not only Scottish witches who were in the public eye. So were vampires.
My eyes raced across the page. I noted with relief that Stubbe lived in far-off Germany. The anxiety returned when I saw that the uncle of one of his victims ran the brewery between our house and Baynard's Castle. I was aghast at the gruesome details of the killings, as well as the lengths humans would go to in order to cope with the creatures in their midst. Here Stubbe Peter was depicted as a witch, and his strange behavior was attributed to a pact with the devil that made it possible for him to change shape and satisfy his unnatural taste for blood. But it was far more likely that the man was a vampire. I slid the pamphlet underneath my other book and made my way to the counter.
"Mistress Roydon requires some supplies," George explained to the apothecary as I drew near.
Chandler's mind went carefully blank at the mention of my name.
"Yes," I said slowly. "Red ink, if you have it. And some scented soap, for washing."
"Aye." The wizard searched through some small pewter vessels. When he found the right one, he put it on the counter. "And do you require sealing wax to match the ink?"
"Whatever you have will be fine, Master Chandler."
"I see you have one of Master Hester's books," George said, picking up a nearby volume. "I told Mistress Roydon that your ink is as good as Hester's and half the price."
The apothecary smiled weakly at George's compliment and put several sticks of carnation-colored wax and two balls of sweet-smelling soap on the table next to my ink. I dropped the pest-control manual and the pamphlet about the German vampire onto the surface. Chandler's eyes rose to mine. They were wary.
"Yes," Chandler said, "the printer across the way left a few copies with me, as it dealt with a medical subject."
"That will be of interest to Mistress Roydon, too," George said, plunking it onto my pile. I wondered, not for the first time, how humans could be so oblivious to what happened around them.
"But I am not sure this treatise is appropriate for a lady. . . ." Chandler trailed off, looking meaningfully at my wedding ring.
George's quick response drowned out my own silent retort. "Oh, her husband will not mind. She is a student of alchemy."
"I'll take it," I said decidedly.
As Chandler wrapped our purchases, George asked him if he could recommend a spectacle maker.
"My publisher, Master Ponsonby, is worried my eyes will fail me before my translation of Homer is complete," he explained self-importantly. "I have a receipt from my mother's servant, but it has not resulted in a cure."
The apothecary shrugged. "These old wives' remedies sometimes help, but mine is more reliable. I will send around a poultice made from egg whites and rose water. Soak flax pads in it and apply them to the eyes."
While George and Chandler bargained over the price of the medicine and made arrangements for its delivery, Pierre gathered the packages and stood by the door.
"Farewell, Mistress Roydon," Chandler said with a bow.
"Thank you for your assistance, Master Chandler," I replied. I am new in town and looking for a witch to help me.
"You are welcome," he said smoothly, "though there are excellent apothecaries in the Blackfriars." London is a dangerous place. Have care from whom you request assistance.
Before I could ask the apothecary how he knew where I lived, George was shepherding me out onto the street with a cheerful good-bye. Pierre was so close behind that I could feel his occasional cool breaths.
The touch of eyes was unmistakable as we made our progress back to town. An alert had been issued while I was in Chandler's shop, and word that a strange witch was near had spread throughout the neighborhood. At last I had achieved my objective for the afternoon. Two witches came out onto their front step, arms linked at the elbows, and scrutinized me with tingling hostility. They were so similar in face and body that I wondered if they were twins.
"Wearh," one mumbled, spitting at Pierre and forking her fingers in a sign against the devil.
"Come, mistress. It is late," Pierre said, his fingers gripping my forearm.
Pierre's desire to get me away from St. Giles as quickly as possible and George's desire for a cup of wine made our return to the Blackfriars far quicker than the journey out. Once we were safely back in the Hart and Crown, there was still no sign of Matthew, and Pierre disappeared in search of him. Soon thereafter Françoise made pointed remarks about the lateness of the hour and my need for rest. Chapman took the hint and said his farewells.
Françoise sat by the fireplace, her sewing at her side, and watched the door. I tried out my new ink by ticking items off my shopping list and adding "rat trappe." I turned next to John Hester's book. The blank sheet of paper folded discreetly around it masked the salacious contents. It enumerated cures for venereal diseases, most of them involving toxic concentrations of mercury. No wonder Chandler had objected to selling a copy to a married woman. I had just started the second fascinating chapter when I heard murmurs coming from Matthew's study. Françoise's mouth tightened, and she shook her head.
"He will need more wine tonight than we have in the house," she observed, heading for the stairs with one of the empty jugs that sat by the door.
I followed the sound of my husband's voice. Matthew was still in his study, peeling his clothes off and flinging them into the fire.
"He is an evil man, milord," Pierre said grimly, unbuckling Matthew's sword.
"'Evil' doesn't do that fiend justice. The word that does hasn't been coined yet. After today I'd swear before judges he is the devil himself." Matthew's long fingers loosened the ties of his close-fitting breeches. They dropped to the floor, and he bent to catch them up. They flew through the air and into the fire, but not fast enough to hide the spots of blood. A musty smell of wet stone, age, and filth evoked in me sudden memories of being held captive at La Pierre. The gorge rose in my throat. Matthew spun around.
"Diana." He took in my distress with one deep breath and ripped the shirt above his head before stepping over his discarded boots and coming to my side in nothing but a pair of linen drawers. The firelight played off his shoulders, and one of his many scars-this one long and deep, just over his shoulder joint-winked in and out of sight.
"Are you hurt?" I struggled to get the words out of my constricted throat, and my eyes were glued to the clothes burning in the fireplace. Matthew followed my gaze and swore softly.
"That isn't my blood." That Matthew had someone else's blood on him was not much comfort. "The queen ordered me to be present when a prisoner was . . . questioned." His slight hesitation told me that "tortured" was the word he was avoiding. "Let me wash, and I'll join you for supper." Matthew's words were warm, but he looked tired and angry. And he was careful not to touch me.
"You've been underground." There was no mistaking the smell.
"I've been at the Tower."
"And your prisoner-is he dead?"
"Yes." His hand passed over his face. "I'd hoped to arrive early enough to stop it-this time-but I miscalculated the tides. All I could do, once again, was insist that his suffering end."
Matthew had been through the man's death once before. Today he could have remained at home and not concerned himself with a lost soul in the Tower. A lesser creature would have. I reached out to touch him, but he stepped away.
"The queen will have my hide when she discovers that the man died before revealing his secrets, but I no longer care. Like most humans, Elizabeth finds it easy to turn a blind eye when it suits her," he said.
"Who was he?"
"A witch," Matthew said flatly. "His neighbors reported him for having a poppet with red hair. They feared that it was an image of the queen. And the queen feared that the behavior of the Scottish witches, Agnes Sampson and John Fian, was encouraging English witches to act against her. No, Diana." Matthew gestured for me to stay where I was when I stepped forward to comfort him. "That's as close as you will ever be to the Tower and what happens there. Go to the parlor. I'll join you shortly."
It was difficult to leave him, but honoring his request was all I could do for him now. The wine, bread, and cheese waiting on the table were unappetizing, but I took a piece of one of the buns I'd purchased that morning and slowly reduced it to crumbs.
"Your appetite is off." Matthew slipped into the room, silent as a cat, and poured himself some wine. He drank it down in one long draft and replenished the cup.
"So is yours," I said. "You're not feeding regularly." Gallowglass and Hancock kept inviting him to join them on their nocturnal hunts, but Matthew always refused.
"I don't want to talk about that. Tell me about your day instead." Help me to forget. Matthew's unspoken words whispered around the room.
"We went shopping. I picked up the book you'd ordered from Richard Field and met his wife, Jacqueline."
"Ah." Matthew's smile widened, and a bit of stress lifted from his mouth. "The new Mrs. Field. She outlived her first husband and is now leading her second husband in a merry dance. The two of you will be fast friends by the end of next week. Did you see Shakespeare? He's staying with the Fields."
"No." I added more crumbs to the growing pile on the table. "I went to the cathedral." Matthew pitched slightly forward. "Pierre was with me," I said hastily, dropping the bun on the table. "And I ran into George."
"He was no doubt hanging around the Bishop's Head waiting for William Ponsonby to say something nice to him." Matthew's shoulders lowered as he chuckled.
"I never reached the Bishop's Head," I confessed. "George was at Paul's Cross, listening to a sermon."
"The crowds that gather to hear the preachers can be unpredictable," he said softly. "Pierre knows better than to let you linger there." As if by magic, his servant appeared.
"We didn't stay long. George took me to his apothecary. I bought a few more books and some supplies. Soap. Sealing wax. Red ink." I pressed my lips together.
"George's apothecary lives in Cripplegate." Matthew's voice went flat. He looked up at Pierre. "When Londoners complain about crime, the sheriff goes there and picks up everyone who looks idle or peculiar. He has an easy time of it."
"If the sheriff targets Cripplegate, why are there so many creatures by the Barbican Cross and so few here in the Blackfriars?" The question took Matthew by surprise.
"The Blackfriars was once Christian holy ground. Daemons, witches, and vampires got into the habit of living elsewhere long ago and haven't yet moved back. The Barbican Cross, however, was put up on land where the Jewish cemetery was hundreds of years ago. After the Jews were expelled from England, city officials used the unconsecrated graveyard for criminals, traitors, and excommunicates instead. Humans consider it haunted and avoid the place."
"So it was the unhappiness of the dead I felt, not just the living." The words slipped out before I could stop them. Matthew's eyes narrowed.
Our conversation was not improving his frayed temper, and my uneasiness grew by the minute. "Jacqueline recommended John Hester when I asked after an apothecary, but George said his man was just as good and less expensive. I didn't ask about the neighborhood."
"The fact that John Chandler isn't pushing opiates on his customers like Hester does is rather more important to me than his reasonable rates. Still, I don't want you in Cripplegate. Next time you need writing supplies, send Pierre or Françoise to fetch them. Better yet, visit the apothecary three doors up on the other side of Water Lane."
"Mistress Field did not tell madame that there was an apothecary in the Blackfriars. A few months ago, Monsieur de Laune and Jacqueline disagreed about the best treatment for her eldest son's putrid throat," Pierre murmured by way of explanation.
"I don't care if Jacqueline and de Laune pulled swords on each other in the nave of St. Paul's at the stroke of noon. Diana isn't to go traipsing across the city."
"It's not just Cripplegate that's dangerous," I said, pushing the pamphlet about the German vampire across the table. "I bought Hester's treatise on syphilis from Chandler, and a book about trapping animals. This was for sale, too."
"You bought what?" Matthew choked on his wine, his attention fixed on the wrong book.
"Forget about Hester. This pamphlet tells the story of a man in league with the devil who changes into a wolf and drinks blood. One of the men involved in its publication is our neighbor, the brewer by Baynard's Castle." I tapped my finger on the pamphlet for emphasis.
Matthew drew the loosely bound sheets of paper toward him. His breath hitched when he reached the significant part. He handed it to Pierre, who made a similarly quick study of it.
"Stubbe is a vampire, isn't he?"
"Yes. I didn't know that news of his death had traveled this far. Kit's supposed to tell me about the gossip in the broadsides and popular press so we can cover it up if necessary. Somehow he missed this." Matthew shot a grim look at Pierre. "Make sure someone else is assigned to the job, and don't let Kit know." Pierre tilted his head in acknowledgment.
"So these legends about werewolves are just more pitiful human attempts to deny knowledge of vampires." I shook my head.
"Don't be too hard on them, Diana. They're focused on witches at the moment. It will be the daemons' turn in another hundred years or so, thanks to the reform of the asylums. After that, humans will get around to vampires, and witches will be nothing more than a wicked fairy tale to frighten children." Mathew looked worried, in spite of his words.
"Our next-door neighbor is preoccupied with werewolves, not witches. And if you could be mistaken for one, I want you to stop worrying about me and start taking care of yourself. Besides, it shouldn't be long now before a witch knocks on our door." I clung to the certainty that it would be dangerous for Matthew to look any further for a witch. My husband's eyes flashed a warning, but his mouth remained closed until his anger was under control.
"I know you're itching for independence, but the next time you decide to take matters into your own hands, promise you'll discuss it with me first." His response was far milder than I expected.
"Only if you promise to listen. You're being watched, Matthew. I'm sure of it, and so is Mary Sidney. You take care of the queen's business and the problem in Scotland, and let me take care of this."
When he opened his mouth to negotiate further, I shook my head.
"Listen to me. A witch will come. I promise."