"The portraits are beautiful," I said, covering his hands with mine.
"But . . . ?" Matthew drew back and tilted his head.
"Miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard are sought after, Matthew. These won't disappear when we do. And they're so exquisite I couldn't bear to destroy them before we go." Time was like my ruff: It started out as a smooth, flat, tightly woven fabric. Then it was twisted and cut and made to double back on itself. "We keep touching the past in ways that are bound to leave smudges on the present."
"Maybe that's what we're supposed to be doing," Matthew suggested. "Perhaps the future depends on it."
"I don't see how."
"Not now. But it is possible that we'll look back one day and discover that it was the miniatures that made all the difference." He smiled.
"Imagine what finding Ashmole 782 would do, then." I looked up at him. Seeing Mary's illuminated alchemical books had brought the mysterious volume and our frustrated search for it vividly back to mind. "George had no luck finding it in Oxford, but it must be somewhere in England. Ashmole acquired our manuscript from somebody. Rather than looking for the manuscript, we should look for the person who sold it to him."
"These days there's a steady traffic in manuscripts. Ashmole 782 could be anywhere."
"Or it could be right here," I insisted.
"You may be right," Matthew agreed. But I could tell that his mind was on more immediate concerns than our elusive tome. "I'll send George out to make inquiries among the booksellers."
All thoughts of Ashmole 782 fled the next morning, however, when a note arrived from Annie's aunt, the prosperous midwife. She was back in London.
"The witch will not come to the house of a notorious wearh and spy," Matthew reported after he had read its contents. "Her husband objects to the plan, for fear it will ruin his reputation. We are to go to her house near St. James's Church on Garlic Hill." When I didn't react, Matthew scowled and continued. "It's on the other side of town, within spitting distance of Andrew Hubbard's den."
"You are a vampire," I reminded him. "She is a witch. We aren't supposed to mix. This witch's husband is right to be cautious."
Matthew insisted on accompanying Annie and me across town anyway. The area surrounding St. James's Church was far more prosperous than the Blackfriars, with spacious, well-kept streets, large houses, busy shops, and a tidy churchyard. Annie led us into an alley across from the church. Though dark, it was as neat as a pin.
"There, Master Roydon," the girl said. She directed Matthew's attention to the sign with a windmill on it before darting ahead with Pierre to alert the household to our arrival.
"You don't have to stay," I told Matthew. This visit was nerve-racking enough without him hovering and glowering.
"I'm not going anywhere," he replied grimly.
We were met at the door by a round-faced woman with a snub nose, a gentle chin, and rich brown hair and eyes. Her face was serene, although her eyes snapped with irritation. She had stopped Pierre in his tracks. Only Annie had been admitted to the house and stood to one side in the doorway looking dismayed at the impasse.
I also stopped in my tracks, my mouth open in surprise. Annie's aunt was the spitting image of Sophie Norman, the young daemon to whom we'd waved good-bye at the Bishop house in Madison.
"Dieu," Matthew murmured, looking down at me in amazement. "My aunt, Susanna Norman," Annie whispered. Our reaction had unsettled her. "She says-"
"Susanna Norman?" I asked, unable to take my eyes from her face. Her name and strong resemblance to Sophie couldn't be a coincidence.
"As my niece said. You appear to be out of your element, Mistress Roydon," Mistress Norman said. "And you are not welcome here, wearh."
"Mistress Norman," Matthew said with a bow.
"Did you not get my letter? My husband wants nothing to do with you." Two boys shot out of the door. "Jeffrey! John!"
"Is this him?" the elder said. He studied Matthew with interest, then turned his attention on me. The child had power. Though he was still on the brink of adolescence, his abilities could already be felt in the crackle of undisciplined magic that surrounded him.
"Use the talents God gave you, Jeffrey, and don't ask idle questions." The witch looked at me appraisingly. "You certainly made Father Hubbard sit up and take notice. Very well, come inside." When we moved to do so, Susanna held up her hand. "Not you, wearh. My business is with your wife. The Golden Gosling has decent wine, if you are determined to remain nearby. But it would be better for all concerned if you were to let your man see Mistress Roydon home."
"Thank you for the advice, mistress. I'm sure I'll find something satisfactory at the inn. Pierre will wait in the courtyard. He doesn't mind the cold." Matthew gave her a wolfish smile.
Susanna looked sour and turned smartly. "Come along, Jeffrey," she called over her shoulder. Jeffrey commandeered his younger brother, cast one more interested glance at Matthew, and followed. "When you are ready, Mistress Roydon."
"I can't believe it," I whispered as soon as the Normans were out of sight. "She has to be Sophie's great-grandmother many times over."
"Sophie must be descended through either Jeffrey or John." Matthew pulled thoughtfully on his chin. "One of those boys is the missing link in our chain of circumstances that leads from Kit and the silver chess piece to the Norman family and on to North Carolina."
"The future really is taking care of itself," I said.
"I thought it would. As for the present, Pierre will be right here and I'll be close by." The fine lines around his eyes deepened. He didn't want to be more than six inches away from me at the best of times.
"I'm not sure how long this will take," I said, squeezing his arm.
"It doesn't matter," Matthew assured me, brushing my lips with his. "Stay as long as you need."
Inside, Annie hastily took my cloak and returned to the fire, where she had been stooped over something on the hearth.
"Have a care, Annie," Susanna said, sounding harassed. Annie was carefully lifting a shallow saucepan from a metal stand set over the embers of the fire. "Widow Hackett's daughter requires that draft to help her sleep, and the ingredients are costly."
"I can't figure her out, Mama," Jeffrey said, looking at me. His eyes were disconcertingly wise for one so young.
"Nor I, Jeffrey, nor I. But that's probably why she's here. Take your brother into the other room. And be quiet. Your father is sleeping, and he needs to remain so."
"Yes, Mama." Jeffrey scooped up two wooden soldiers and a ship from the table. "This time I'll let you be Walter Raleigh so you can win the battle," he promised his brother.
Susanna and Annie stared at me in the silence that followed. Annie's faint pulses of power were already familiar. But I was not prepared for the steady current of inquiry that Susanna turned my way. My third eye opened. Finally someone had roused my witch's curiosity.
"That's uncomfortable," I said, turning my head to break the intensity of Susanna's gaze.
"It should be," she said calmly. "Why do you require my help, mistress?"
"I was spellbound. It's not what you think," I said when Annie took an immediate step away from me. "Both of my parents were witches, but neither one understood the nature of my talents. They didn't want me to come to any harm, so they bound me. The bindings have loosened, however, and strange things are happening."
"Such as?" Susanna said, pointing Annie to a chair.
"I've summoned witchwater a few times, though not recently. Sometimes I see colors surrounding people, but not always. And I touched a quince and it shriveled." I was careful not to mention my more spectacular outbreaks of magic. Nor did I mention the odd threads of blue and amber in the corners or the way handwriting had started to escape from Matthew's books and animals flee from Mary Sidney's shoes.
"Was your mother or father a waterwitch?" Susanna asked, trying to make sense of my story.
"I don't know," I said honestly. "They died when I was young."
"Perhaps you are better suited to the craft, then. Though many wish to possess the rough magics of water and fire, they are not easy to come by," said Susanna with a touch of pity. My Aunt Sarah thought witches who relied on elemental magic were dilettantes. Susanna, on the other hand, was inclined to see spells as a lesser form of magical knowledge. I smothered a sigh at these bizarre prejudices. Weren't we all witches?
"My aunt was not able to teach me many spells. Sometimes I can light a candle. I have been able to call objects to me."
"But you are a grown woman!" Susanna said, her hands settling on her hips. "Even Annie has more skills than that, and she is but fourteen. Can you concoct philters from plants?"
"No." Sarah had wanted me to learn how to make potions, but I had declined.
"Are you a healer?"
"No." I was beginning to understand Annie's browbeaten expression.
Susanna sighed. "Why Andrew Hubbard requires my assistance, I do not know. I have quite enough to do with my patients, an infirm husband, and two growing sons." She took a chipped bowl from the shelf and a brown egg from a rack by the window. She placed both on the table before me and pulled out a chair. "Sit, and tuck your hands beneath your legs."
Mystified, I did as she requested.
"Annie and I are going to Widow Hackett's house. While we're gone, you are to get the contents of that egg into the bowl without using your hands. It requires two spells: a motion spell and a simple opening charm. My son John is eight, and he can already do it without thinking."
"If the egg isn't in the bowl when I return, no one can help you, Mistress Roydon. Your parents may have been right to bind you if your power is so weak that you cannot even crack an egg."
Annie gave me an apologetic look as she lifted the pan into her arms. Susanna clapped a lid on it. "Come, Annie."
Sitting alone in the Normans' gathering room, I considered the egg and the bowl.
"What a nightmare," I whispered, hoping the boys were too far away to hear.
I took a deep breath and gathered my energy. I knew the words to both spells, and I wanted the egg to move-wanted it badly. Magic was nothing more than desire made real, I reminded myself.
I focused my desires on the egg. It hopped on the table, once, then subsided. Silently I repeated the spell. And again. And again.
Minutes later the only result of my efforts was a thin skim of perspiration on my forehead. All I had to do was lift the egg and crack it. And I had failed.
"Sorry," I murmured to my flat stomach. "With any luck you'll take after your father." My stomach flopped over. Nerves and rapidly changing hormones were hell on the digestion.
Did chickens get morning sickness? I tilted my head and looked at the egg. Some poor hen had been robbed of her unhatched chick to feed the Norman family. My nausea increased. Perhaps I should consider vegetarianism, at least during the pregnancy.
But maybe there was no chick at all, I comforted myself. Not every egg was fertilized. My third eye peered under the surface of the shell, through the thickening layers of albumen to the yolk. Traces of life ran in thin streaks of red across the yolk's surface.
"Fertile," I said with a sigh. I shifted on my hands. Em and Sarah had kept hens for a while. It took a hen only three weeks to hatch an egg. Three weeks of warmth and care, and there was a baby chicken. It didn't seem fair that I had to wait months before our child saw the light of day.
Care and warmth. Such simple things, yet they ensured life. What had Matthew said? All that children need is love, a grown-up to take responsibility for them, and a soft place to land. The same was true for chicks. I imagined what it would feel like to be surrounded in a mother hen's feathery warmth, safely cocooned from bumps and bruises. Would our child feel like that, floating in the depths of my womb? If not, was there a spell for it? One woven from responsibility, that would wrap the baby in care and warmth and love yet be gentle enough to give him both safety and freedom?
"That's my real desire," I whispered.
I looked around. Many households had a few chickens pecking around the hearth.
Peep. It was coming from the egg on the table. There was a crack, then a beak. A bewildered set of black eyes blinked at me from a feathered head slicked down with moisture.
Someone behind me gasped. I turned. Annie's hand was clapped over her mouth, and she was staring at the chick on the table.
"Aunt Susanna," Annie said, dropping her hand. "Is that . . . ?" She trailed off and pointed wordlessly at me.
"Yes. That's the glaem left over from Mistress Roydon's new spell. Go. Fetch Goody Alsop." Susanna spun her niece around and sent her back the way she came.
"I didn't get the egg into the bowl, Mistress Norman," I apologized. "The spells didn't work."
The still-wet chick set up a protest, one indignant peep after another.
"Didn't work? I am beginning to think you know nothing about being a witch," said Susanna incredulously.
I was beginning to think she was right.