Matthew and I laughed, but as far as Sarah was concerned, this was war. From that moment my aunt and the house were in an all-out battle for supremacy.
The house was winning, thanks to its chief weapon: Fleetwood Mac. Sarah had bashed Mom’s old radio to bits two days after we found it during a never-ending concert of “The Chain.” The house retaliated by removing all the toilet-paper rolls from the bathroom cabinets and replacing them with a variety of electronic gadgets capable of playing music. It made for a rousing morning alarm.
Nothing deterred the house from playing selections from the band’s first two albums—not even Sarah’s defenestration of three record players, an eight-track tape machine, and an ancient Dictaphone.
The house simply diverted the music through the furnace, the bass notes reverberating in the ductwork while the treble wafted from the heating vents.
With all her ire directed at the house, Sarah was surprisingly patient and gentle with me. We had turned the stillroom inside out looking for Mom’s spell book, going so far as to remove all the drawers and shelves from the cabinet. We’d found some surprisingly graphic love letters from the 1820s hidden beneath one drawer’s false bottom and a macabre collection of rodent skulls tacked in orderly rows behind a sliding panel at the back of the shelving, but no spell book. The house would present it when it was ready.
When the music and memories of Emily and my parents became too overwhelming, Sarah and I escaped to the garden or the woods. Today my aunt had offered to show me where baneful plants could be found. The moon would be full dark tonight, the beginning of a new cycle of growth. It would be a propitious time for gathering up the materials for higher magic. Matthew followed us like a shadow as we wended our way through the vegetable patch and the teaching garden. When we reached her witch’s garden, Sarah kept walking. A giant moonflower vine marked the boundary between the garden and the woods. It sprawled in every direction, obscuring the fence and the gate underneath.
“Allow me, Sarah.” Matthew stepped forward to spring the latch. Until now he’d been sauntering behind us, seemingly interested in the flowers. But I knew that bringing up the rear placed him in the perfect defensive position. He stepped through the gate, made sure nothing dangerous lurked there, and pulled the vine away so Sarah and I could pass through into another world.
There were many magical places on the Bishop homestead—oak groves dedicated to the goddess, long avenues between yew trees that were once old roads and still showed the deep ruts of wagons laden with wood and produce for the markets, even the old Bishop graveyard. But this little grove between the garden and the forest was my favorite.
Dappled sunlight broke through its center, moving through the cypress that surrounded the place. In ages past, it might have been called a fairy ring, because the ground was thick with toadstools and mushrooms. As a child I’d been forbidden to pick anything that grew there. Now I understood why: Every plant here was either baneful or associated with the darker aspects of the craft. Two paths intersected in the middle of the grove.
“A crossroads.” I froze.
“The crossroads have been here longer than the house. Some say these pathways were made by the Oneida before the English settled here.” Sarah beckoned me forward. “Come and look at this plant. Is it deadly nightshade or black nightshade?”
Instead of listening, I was completely mesmerized by the X in the middle of the grove.
There was power there. Knowledge, too. I felt the familiar push and pull of desire and fear as I saw the clearing through the eyes of those who had walked these paths before.
“What is it?” Matthew asked, his instincts warning him that something was wrong.
But other voices, though faint, had captured my attention: my mother and Emily, my father and my grandmother, and others unknown to me. Wolfsbane, the voices whispered. Skullcap. Devil’s bit. Adder’s tongue. Witch’s broom. Their chant was punctuated with warnings and suggestions, and their litany of spells included plants that featured in fairy tales.
Gather cinquefoil when the moon is full to extend the reach of your power.
Hellebore makes any disguising spell more effective.
Mistletoe will bring you love and many children.
To see the future more clearly, use black henbane.
“Diana?” Sarah straightened, hands on hips.
“Coming,” I murmured, dragging my attention away from the faint voices and going obediently to my aunt’s side.
Sarah gave me all sorts of instructions about the plants in the grove. Her words went in one ear and out the other, flowing through me in a way that would have made my father proud. My aunt could recite all the common and botanical names for every wildflower, weed, root, and herb as well as their uses, both benign and baneful. But her mastery was born of reading and study. Sarah had no instinctive feel for what grew here. I had learned the limits of book-based knowledge in Mary Sidney’s alchemical laboratory, when I was confronted for the first time with the challenges of doing what I’d spent years reading and writing about as a scholar. There I had discovered that being able to cite alchemical texts was nothing when weighed against experience. But my mother and Emily were no longer here to help me. If I was going to walk the dark paths of higher magic, I was going to have to do it alone.
The prospect terrified me.
Just before moonrise Sarah invited me to go back out with her to gather the plants she would need for this month’s work.
I begged off, claiming I was too tired to go along. But it was the insistent call of the voices at the crossroads that made me refuse.
“Does your reluctance to go to the woods tonight have something to do with your trip there this afternoon?” Matthew asked.
“Perhaps,” I said, staring out the window. “Sarah and Fernando are back.”
My aunt was carrying a basket full of greenery. The kitchen screen slammed shut behind her, and then the stillroom door creaked open. A few minutes later, she and Fernando climbed the stairs. Sarah was wheezing less than she had last week. Fernando’s health regime was working.
“Come to bed,” Matthew said, turning back the covers.
The night was dark, illuminated only by the stars. Soon it would be midnight, the moment between night and day. The voices at the crossroads grew louder.
“I have to go.” I pushed past Matthew and headed downstairs.
“We have to go,” he said firmly. “I won’t stop you or interfere. But you are not going to the woods by yourself.”
“There’s power there, Matthew. Dark power. I could feel it. And it’s been calling to me since the sun set!”
He took me by the elbow and propelled me out the front door. He didn’t want anyone to hear the rest of this conversation.
“Then answer its call,” he snapped. “Say yes or say no, but don’t expect me to sit here and wait quietly for you to return.”
“And if I say yes?” I demanded.
“We’ll face it. Together.”
“I don’t believe you. You told me before that you don’t want me meddling with life and death.
That’s the kind of power that’s waiting for me where the paths cross in the woods. And I want it!” I wrested my elbow from his grip and jabbed a finger in his chest. “I hate myself for wanting it, but I do!”
I turned from the revulsion that I knew would be in his eyes. Matthew turned my face back toward him.
“I’ve known that the darkness was in you since I found you in the Bodleian, hiding from the other witches on Mabon.”
My breath caught. His eyes held mine.
“I felt its allure, and the darkness in me responded to it. Should I loathe myself, then?” Matthew’s voice dropped to a barely audible whisper. “Should you?”
“But you said—”
“I said I didn’t want you to meddle with life and death, not that you couldn’t do so.” Matthew took my hands in his. “I’ve been covered in blood, held a man’s future in my hands, decided if a woman’s heart would beat again. Something in your own soul dies each time you make the choice for another. I saw what Juliette’s death did to you, and Champier’s, too.”
“I didn’t have a choice in those cases. Not really.” Champier would have taken all my memories and hurt the people who were trying to help me. Juliette had been trying to kill Matthew—and would have succeeded had I not called on the goddess.
“Yes you did.” Matthew pressed a kiss on my knuckles. “You chose death for them, just as you chose life for me, life for Louisa and Kit even though they tried to harm you, life for Jack when you brought him to our house in the Blackfriars instead of leaving him on the street to starve, life for baby Grace when you rescued her from the fire. Whether you realize it or not, you paid a price every time.”
I knew the price I’d paid for Matthew’s survival, though he did not: My life belonged to the goddess for as long as she saw fit.
“Philippe was the only other creature I’ve ever known who made life-or-death decisions as quickly and instinctively as you. The price that Philippe paid was terrible loneliness, one that grew over time.
Not even Ysabeau could banish it.” Matthew rested his forehead against mine. “I don’t want that to be your fate.”
But my fate was not my own. It was time to tell Matthew so.
“The night I saved you. Do you remember it?” I asked.
Matthew nodded. He didn’t like to talk about the night we’d both almost lost our lives.
“The maiden and the crone were there—two aspects of the goddess.” My heart was hammering.
“We called Ysabeau after you fixed me up, and I told her I’d seen them.” I searched his face for signs of understanding, but he still looked bewildered. “I didn’t save you, Matthew. The goddess did. I asked her to do it.”
His fingers dug into my arm. “Tell me you didn’t strike a bargain with her in exchange.”
“You were dying, and I didn’t have enough power to heal you.” I gripped his shirt, afraid of how he would react to my next revelation. “My blood wouldn’t have been enough. But the goddess drew the life out of that ancient oak tree so I could feed it to you through my veins.”
“And in return?” Matthew’s hands tightened, lifting me until my feet were barely touching the ground. “Your gods and goddesses don’t grant boons without getting something back. Philippe taught me that.”
“I told her to take anyone, anything, so long as she saved you.”
Matthew let go abruptly. “Emily?”
“No.” I shook my head. “The goddess wanted a life for a life—not a death for a life. She chose mine.” My eyes filled with tears at the look of betrayal I saw on his face. “I didn’t know her decision until I wove my first spell. I saw her then. The goddess said she still had work for me to do.”
“We’re going to fix this.” Matthew practically dragged me in the direction of the garden gate.
Under the dark sky, the moonflowers that covered it were the only signposts to illuminate our way. We reached the crossroads quickly. Matthew pushed me to the center.
“We can’t,” I protested.
“If you can weave the tenth knot, you can dissolve whatever promise you made to the goddess,” he said roughly.
“No!” My stomach clenched, and my chest started to burn. “This is the goddess. I can’t just wave my hand and make our agreement disappear.”
The dead branches of an ancient oak, the one the goddess had sacrificed so that Matthew would live, were barely visible. Under my feet the earth seemed to shift. I looked down and saw that I was straddling the center of the crossroads. The burning sensation in my heart extended down my arms and into my fingers.
“You will not bind your future to some capricious deity. Not for my sake,” Matthew said, his voice shaking with fury.
“Don’t speak ill of the goddess here,” I warned. “I didn’t go to your church and mock your god.”
“If you won’t break your promise to the goddess, then use your magic to summon her.” Matthew joined me where the paths converged.
“Get out of the crossroads, Matthew.” The wind was swirling around my feet in a magical storm.
Corra shrieked through the night sky, trailing fire like a comet. She circled above us, crying out in warning.
“Not until you call her.” Matthew’s feet remained where they were. “You won’t pay for my life with your own.”
“It was my choice.” My hair crackling around my face, fiery tendrils writhing against my neck. “I chose you.”
“I won’t let you.”
“It’s already done.” My heart thudded, and his heart echoed it. “If the goddess wants me to fulfill some purpose of hers, I’ll do it—gladly. Because you’re mine, and I’m not done with you yet.”
My final words were almost identical to those the goddess had once said to me. They rang with power, quieting the wind and silencing Corra’s cries. The fire in my veins subsided, the burning sensation becoming a smoldering heat as the connection between Matthew and me tightened, the links that bound us shining and strong.
“You cannot make me regret what I asked the goddess for, or any price I’ve paid because of it,” I said. “Nor will I break my promise to her. Have you thought about what would happen if I did?”
Matthew remained silent, listening.
“Without you I would never have known Philippe or received his blood vow. I wouldn’t be carrying your children. I wouldn’t have seen my father or known I was a weaver. Don’t you understand?” My hands rose to cradle his face. “In saving your life, I saved mine, too.”