Queen Margaret spins, and upon her spindle is a slender thread.
She has gathered spidersilk in the mornings, when the webs hang upon the grass like nets of diamonds, and she has rinsed it in the blood of a white cat; she has kept each strand that her comb rakes from her pale hair, and she has rinsed these in the blood of a black cat. The two twine together on her drop spindle, winding around and around until they cannot be separated.
Her mother had woven such charms in Margaret's girlhood, with Jeanne d'Arc's death hanging like a blade over the heads of French wizardry. She had worked at her long table as the first stars had touched the sky, with wary cats eying her from cages about the room as her daughter had trembled and sobbed. "Marguerite," she'd whispered as she guided her daughter's hand on the knife. "You mustn't cry for puss; he is giving his life to keep you safe from the English."
Margaret has never forgotten how the young Earl of Suffolk's eyes filled over with passion as he glimpsed her upon the battlefield at Angiers. Seeing her in jeopardy, her gown burnt and stained, what could he do but forget his wife and fall hopelessly for the French maiden?
She has wondered, since then, whether he would love her were he not compelled to protect her. She has decided that she does not particularly care.
Each time your life is spared, your thread will break, murmurs Margaret's mother from beyond the veil. Each time, you must spin a new one.
When she has finished her own charm, she will steal into her son's rooms when the moon is high and steal the blood-dark hair from his comb.
* * *
She had learned only later that her young handmaid's name had been Eleanor.
This is Eleanor Cobham's litany, as she slowly teaches herself to divine: You must be clear; you must be specific; you must not falter. A charm is like an earthen vessel, and magic will leak from every crack.
She has only small skill with the magical arts--enough, perhaps, to make a child's toys march in formation; not enough to make them dance an estampie. Even Humphrey could frighten the French with illusions of ghostly horses; his elder brothers, he confides, had called spirits to join the English in battle, and so had won at Agincourt and defeated Joan la Pucelle.
It does not escape her that theirs are military magics, unsuited to a time of peace. Had John or Henry survived, she thinks that the wars might have gone on for ever ... but in Henry VI's court, their watchword is peace, and Humphrey seldom touches his books of spells. There is no call for legions of illusory dancers or sumptuous, airy feasts, and there are already enough damned politicians. "Make it look as though they've all gone away," she tells Humphrey once, as they pass by the queen's faction. Queen Margaret wears a gown of blood-red, with emeralds at her throat and her eyes flashing murder at the English she so hates. The Duke of Suffolk curls his lip. "If I cannot be rid of them, then make it look as though they've gone."
"Anything for you, my jewel," he answers--and quite suddenly, the way is empty. The queen is gone; the duke is gone; the busy townsfolk squabbling over factions, the Cade partisans, the washerwomen and the ostlers are gone.
It is as though the plague has scoured England clean. Eleanor's heart hammers in her chest, and her hand closes on Humphrey's arm. "Put them back," she breathes. "God's breath, put them back!"
You must be clear; you must be specific.
You must not falter.
When Humphrey is at court, Eleanor palms his key and lets herself into the chamber where he keeps his books of spells. There she reads, and draws circles on a well-tanned lamb's hide, and measures the hours in secret.
* * *
Of course, a good witch has got to consort now and then with a spirit or two, just to keep her hand in. Never does any harm to have an ear to the ground, so to speak, and a pan of cream by the door for fairies and cats. (She's heard that the French wizards kill cats to make their potions, but Margery won't be having with that.) She is getting a bit beyond her good kneel-and-grovel years, though, ample about the waist and the bosom and aching about the knees.
Roger says a woman has got to grovel if she wants to get the spirits up, but she thinks he's speaking of his spirits and not the other kind, because she's never seen him press nose to dirt. No, he'll always be reading his conjuros in Latin or some other devil tongue, as stiff and upright as though someone's stuck a poker up his nethers.
If he'd wanted a look at her arse, he could have said as much. Isn't as though a woman of Margery's age and profession can afford to be too picky.
No, she's getting on in years, is Margery, and without a girl to look after her in her old age. The cursing brings coin in, now and then, if she can keep mum enough to play off one village faction against the next--if she's not canny, though, each family will hear the other's hired her, and she's got to get out right sharpish so as not to get burned.
It's still legal to burn witches, so long as you call witchcraft "treason." Their Welsh kings haven't changed that, not a bit.
When Eleanor Cobham comes to call, then, Margery isn't disinclined to take her by the hand a bit. Teach her to lure in the fairies and the spirits, teach her to get on her knees on the dewy ground and pluck up secrets and spiderwebs. The pay is better than Margery's used to, certainly.
Now, people like Her Grace the Duchess of Gloucester, they'll never be put to the stake.