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.
"The beginning is too abrupt, Kit. You'll frighten the audience so badly they'll leave the playhouse before the second scene," Walter protested. "It needs more adventure." They had been dissecting Doctor Faustus for hours. Thanks to Widow Beaton, it had a new opening.
"You are not my Faustus, Walt, for all your intellectual pretentions," Kit said sharply. "Look what your meddling did to Edmund's story. The Faerie Queene was a perfectly enjoyable tale about King Arthur. Now it's a calamitous blend of Malory and Virgil, it wends on and on, and Gloriana- please. The queen is nearly as old as Widow Beaton and just as crotchety. It will astonish me if Edmund finishes it, with you telling him what to do all the time. If you want to be immortalized on the boards, talk to Will. He's always hard up for ideas."
"Is that agreeable to you, Matthew?" George prompted. He was updating us on his search for the manuscript that would one day be known as Ashmole 782.
"I'm sorry, George. Did you say something?" There was a flash of guilt in Matthew's distracted gray eyes. I knew the signs of mental multitasking. It had gotten me through many a faculty meeting. His thoughts were probably divided among the conversations in the room, his ongoing review of what went awry with Widow Beaton, and the contents of the mailbags that continued to arrive.
"None of the booksellers have heard of a rare alchemical work circulating in the city. I asked a friend at Christ Church, and he too knows nothing. Shall I keep asking for it?"
Matthew opened his mouth to respond, but a crash sounded in the front hallway as the heavy front door flew open. He was on his feet in an instant. Walter and Henry jumped up and scrabbled for their daggers, which they'd taken to wearing morning, noon, and night.
"Matthew?" boomed an unfamiliar voice with a timbre that instinctively raised the hairs on my arms. It was too clear and musical to be human. "Are you here, man?"
"Of course he's here," someone else replied, his voice lilting in the cadence of a Welsh native. "Use your nose. Who else smells like a grocer's shop the day fresh spices arrive from the docks?"
Moments later two bulky figures swathed in rough brown cloaks appeared at the other end of the room, where Kit and George still sat with their dice and books. In my own time, professional football teams would have recruited the new arrivals. They had overdeveloped arms with prominent tendons, enlarged wrists, thickly muscled legs, and brawny shoulders. As the men drew closer, light from the candles caught their bright eyes and danced off the honed edges of their weapons. One was a blond giant an inch taller than Matthew; the other was a redhead a good six inches shorter with a decided squint in his left eye. Neither could be more than thirty. The blond was relieved, though he hid it quickly. The redhead was furious and didn't care who knew it.
"There you are. You gave us a fright, disappearing without leaving word," the blond man said mildly, drawing to a stop and sheathing his long, exceedingly sharp sword.
Walter and Henry, too, withdrew their weapons. They recognized the men. "Gallowglass. Why are you here?" Matthew asked the blond warrior with a note of wary confusion.
"We're looking for you, of course. Hancock and I were with you on Saturday." Gallowglass's chilly blue eyes narrowed when he didn't receive a reply. He looked like a Viking on the brink of a killing spree. "In Chester."
"Chester." Matthew's expression turned to dawning horror. "Chester!"
"Aye. Chester," repeated the redheaded Hancock. He glowered and peeled sodden leather gauntlets from his arms, tossing them onto the floor near the fireplace. "When you didn't meet up with us as planned on Sunday, we made inquiries. The innkeeper told us you'd left, which came as something of a surprise, and not only because you hadn't settled the bill."
"He said you were sitting by the fire drinking wine one moment and gone the next," Gallowglass reported. "The maid-the little one with the black hair who couldn't take her eyes off you-caused quite a stir. She insisted you were taken by ghosts."
I closed my eyes in sudden understanding. The Matthew Roydon who had been in sixteenth-century Chester vanished because he was displaced by the Matthew who'd traveled here from modern-day Oxfordshire. When we left, the sixteenth-century Matthew, presumably, would reappear. Time wouldn't allow both Matthews to be in the same place at the same moment. We had already altered history without intending to do so.
"It was All Hallows' Eve, so her story made a certain sort of sense," Hancock conceded, turning his attention to his cloak. He shook the water from its folds and flung it over a nearby chair, releasing the scent of spring grass into the winter air.
"Who are these men, Matthew?" I moved closer to get a better look at the pair. He turned and settled his hands on my upper arms, keeping me where I was.
"They're friends," Matthew said, but his obvious effort to regroup made me wonder if he was telling the truth.
"Well, well. She's no ghost." Hancock peered over Matthew's shoulder, and my flesh turned to ice.
Of course Hancock and Gallowglass were vampires. What other creatures could be that big and bloody-looking?
"Nor is she from Chester," Gallowglass said thoughtfully. "Does she always have such a bright glaem about her?"
The word might be unfamiliar, but its meaning was clear enough. I was shimmering again. It sometimes happened when I was angry, or concentrating on a problem. It was another familiar manifestation of a witch's power, and vampires could detect the pale glow with their preternaturally sharp eyes. Feeling conspicuous, I stepped back into Matthew's shadow.
"That's not going to help, lady. Our ears are as sharp as our eyes. Your witch's blood is trilling like a bird." Hancock's bushy red brows rose as he looked sourly at his companion. "Trouble always travels in the company of women."
"Trouble is no fool. Given the choice, I'd rather travel with a woman than with you." The blond warrior addressed Matthew. "It's been a long day, Hancock's arse is sore, and he's hungry. If you don't tell him why there's a witch in your house, and quickly, I don't have high hopes for her continued safety."
"It must have to do with Berwick," Hancock declared. "Bloody witches. Always causing trouble."
"Berwick?" My pulse kicked up a notch. I recognized the name. One of the most notorious witch trials in the British Isles was connected to it. I searched my memory for the dates. Surely it had happened well before or after 1590, or Matthew wouldn't have selected this moment for our timewalk. But Hancock's next words drove all thoughts of chronology and history from my mind.
"That, or some new Congregation business that Matthew will want us to sort out for him."
"The Congregation?" Marlowe's eyes narrowed, and he looked at Matthew appraisingly. "Is this true? Are you one of the mysterious members?"
"Of course it's true! How do you imagine he's kept you from the noose, young Marlowe?" Hancock searched the room. "Is there something to drink other than wine? I hate these French pretensions of yours, de Clermont. What's wrong with ale?"
"Not now, Davy," Gallowglass murmured to his friend, though his eyes were fixed on Matthew.
My eyes were fixed on him, too, as an awful sense of clarity settled over me.
"Tell me you're not," I whispered. "Tell me you didn't keep this from me."
"I can't tell you that," Matthew said flatly. "I promised you secrets but no lies, remember?"
I felt sick. In 1590, Matthew was a member of the Congregation, and the Congregation was our enemy.
"And Berwick? You told me there was no danger of being caught up in a witch-hunt."
"Nothing in Berwick will affect us here," Matthew assured me.
"What has happened in Berwick?" Walter asked, uneasy.
"Before we left Chester, there was news out of Scotland. A great gathering of witches met in a village east of Edinburgh on All Hallows' Eve," Hancock said. "There was talk again of the storm the Danish witches raised this past summer, and the spouts of seawater that foretold the coming of a creature with fearsome powers."
"The authorities have rounded up dozens of the poor wretches," Gallowglass continued, his arctic-blue eyes still on Matthew. "The cunning woman in the town of Keith, Widow Sampson, is awaiting the king's questioning in the dungeons of Holyrood Palace. Who knows how many will join her there before this business is done?"
"The king's torture, you mean," Hancock muttered. "They say the woman has been locked into a witch's bridle so she cannot utter more charms against His Majesty, and chained to the wall without food or drink."
I sat down abruptly.
"Is this one of the accused, then?" Gallowglass asked Matthew. "And I'd like the witch's bargain, too, if I may: secrets, but no lies."
There was a long silence before Matthew answered. "Diana is my wife, Gallowglass."
"You abandoned us in Chester for a woman?" Hancock was horrified. "But we had work to do!"
"You have an unerring ability to grab the wrong end of the staff, Davy." Gallowglass's glance shifted to me. "Your wife?" he said carefully. "So this is just a legal arrangement to satisfy curious humans and justify her presence here while the Congregation decides her future?"
"Not just my wife," Matthew admitted. "She's my mate, too." A vampire mated for life when compelled to do so by an instinctive combination of affection, affinity, lust, and chemistry. The resulting bond was breakable only by death. Vampires might marry multiple times, but most mated just once.
Gallowglass swore, though the sound of it was almost drowned out by his friend's amusement.
"And His Holiness proclaimed the age of miracles had passed," Hancock crowed. "Matthew de Clermont is mated at last. But no ordinary, placid human or properly schooled female wearh who knows her place would do. Not for our Matthew. Now that he's decided at last to settle down with one woman, it had to be a witch. We have more to worry about than the good people of Woodstock, then."
"What's wrong in Woodstock?" I asked Matthew with a frown.
"Nothing," Matthew said breezily. But it was the hulking blond who held my attention.
"Some old besom went into fits on market day. She's blaming it on you." Gallowglass studied me from head to toe as if trying to imagine how someone so unprepossessing had caused so much trouble.
"Widow Beaton," I said breathlessly.
The appearance of Françoise and Charles forestalled further conversation. Françoise had fragrant gingerbread and spiced wine for the warmbloods. Kit (who was never reluctant to sample the contents of Matthew's cellar) and George (who was looking a bit green after the evening's revelations) helped themselves. Both had the air of audience members waiting for the next act to start.
Charles, whose task it was to sustain the vampires, had a delicate pitcher with silver handles and three tall glass beakers. The red liquid within was darker and more opaque than any wine. Hancock stopped Charles on his way to the head of the household.
"I need something to drink more than Matthew does," he said, grabbing a beaker while Charles gasped at the affront. Hancock sniffed the pitcher's contents and took that, too. "I haven't had fresh blood for three days. You have odd taste in women, de Clermont, but no one can criticize your hospitality."
Matthew motioned Charles in the direction of Gallowglass, who also drank thirstily. When Gallowglass took his final draft, he wiped his hand across his mouth.
"Well?" he demanded. "You're tight-lipped, I know, but some explanation as to how you let yourself get into this seems in order."
"This would be better discussed in private," said Walter, eyeing George and the two daemons.
"Why is that, Raleigh?" Hancock's voice took on a pugnacious edge. "De Clermont has a lot to answer for. So does his witch. And those answers had best trip off her tongue. We passed a priest on the way. He was with two gentlemen who had prosperous waistlines. Based on what I heard, de Clermont's mate will have three days-"
"At least five," Gallowglass corrected.
"Maybe five," Hancock said, inclining his head in his companion's direction, "before she's held over for trial, two days to figure out what to say to the magistrates, and less than half an hour to come up with a convincing lie for the good father. You had best start telling us the truth."
All attention settled on Matthew, who stood mute.
"The clock will strike the quarter hour soon," Hancock reminded him after some time had passed.
I took matters into my own hands. "Matthew protected me from my own people."
"Diana," Matthew growled.
"Matthew meddled in the affairs of witches?" Gallowglass's eyes widened slightly.
I nodded. "Once the danger passed, we were mated."
"And all this happened between noon and nightfall on Saturday?" Gallowglass shook his head. "You're going to have to do better than that, Auntie."
"'Auntie'?" I turned to Matthew in shock. First Berwick, then the Congregation, and now this. "This . . . berserker is your nephew? Let me guess. He's Baldwin's son!" Gallowglass was almost as muscle-bound as Matthew's copper-headed brother-and as persistent. There were other de Clermonts I knew: Godfrey, Louisa, and Hugh (who received only brief, cryptic mentions). Gallowglass could belong to any of them-or to someone else on Matthew's convoluted family tree.
"Baldwin?" Gallowglass gave a delicate shiver. "Even before I became a wearh, I knew better than to let that monster near my neck. Besides, my people were ulfheonar, not berserkers. And I'm only part Norse-the gentle part, if you must know. The rest is Scots, by way of Ireland."
"Foul-tempered, the Scots," Hancock added.
Gallowglass acknowledged his companion's remark with a gentle tug on his ear. A golden ring glinted in the light, incised with the outlines of a coffin. A man was stepping free of it, and there was a motto around the edges.
"You're knights." I looked for a matching ring on Hancock's finger. There it was, oddly placed on his thumb. Here at last was evidence that Matthew was involved in the business of the Order of Lazarus, too.
"We-elll," Gallowglass drawled, sounding suddenly like the Scot he professed to be, "there's always been a dispute about that. We're not really the shining-armor type, are we Davy?"
"No. But the de Clermonts have deep pockets. Money like that is hard to refuse," Hancock observed, "especially when they promise you a long life for the enjoying of it."
"They're fierce fighters, too." Gallowglass rubbed the bridge of his nose again. It was flattened, as though it had been broken and never healed properly.
"Oh, aye. The bastards killed me before they saved me. Fixed my bad eye, while they were at it," Hancock said cheerfully, pointing to his gammy lid.
"Then you're loyal to the de Clermonts." Sudden relief washed through me. I would prefer to have Gallowglass and Hancock as allies rather than enemies, given the disaster unfolding.
"Not always," replied Gallowglass darkly.