I will not describe my turbulent emotions as I made my way to the border which divides the counties of Warwickshire and Oxfordshire; that my soul burned with the desire for revenge must be obvious, and I do not feel the need to put down on paper what any man in my position must have experienced. It is my task to describe what I did, not what I felt on the matter—the transience of emotions makes them a sorry waste of time. In the history of man, it is glorious action which provides all matter of significance, and all lessons for posterity. Do we need to know how Augustus felt when he heard the news that Actium had extended his dominion over the entire globe? Would it magnify the glory of Cato to have a record of his sentiments as the knife plunged into his breast? Emotions are but the tricks of the devil, sent to tempt us into doubt and hesitation, and obscure the deeds committed, whether good or ill. No man of sense, I think, will ever pay them much attention, for they are a distraction, a surrender to womanish sentiment that should be concealed from the world if they cannot be suppressed in the heart. It is our task to overcome the passions, not digress on their intensity.
So I will say merely I was troubled that as fast as I made progress in one sphere, I was assaulted in the other. The more I stalked John Triurloe, the more demons stalked me, for I had not shaken off the concern generated by the succession of dreams and visitations, and my brain was so befuddled that their obvious cause was hidden. Instead, I fruitlessly pondered this disharmony as I trudged southward through the heartland of the wars, taking in, almost every mile, the continued record of destruction that had been meted out to the land. So many buildings, so many fine dwellings were still in disarray, their owners, like my own father, no longer having the money to rebuild. Manor houses burned out or dismantled for their stone, fields still abandoned and overgrown with weeds, for the tenants will not work without a firm hand to keep them in their place. I stopped in Southam in the midst of a fit of that melancholy which has always plagued me, and spent some money on a bleed in the hope that I might be rebalanced and fortified. Then, weakened by the experience, I spent more money on a bed for the night.
It was providential that I did, for I heard at the table that a great magus had passed through that same day, wise in healing and all matters of the spirit. The man who told me—who joked but was frightened within—said he was an Irishman, who had a guardian angel that extended protection over him, that he might never come to harm. He was one of the adepti, who could cure merely by passing his hands over the afflicted spot, and was in constant converse with spirits of all forms, which he could see as ordinary men see each other.
I heard, also, that this man was heading south, intending to make his way to London, for he was intent on offering his services to the king himself. This venture, I understand, came to nothing; his ability to cure by touch (and it was a real skill; I saw it myself, and many others attested to it) was considered presumptuous, for he said he could cure scrofula by this means, knowing full well that this is the prerogative of kings, and has been since time immemorial. Being Irish as well, he was naturally seen as subversive, and was constrained to leave London after only a short stay.
So, the next morning I set off, confident that my youthful legs, and early start, would soon allow me to catch up with this Valentine Greatorex and consult him about my problems. At least I knew I would not have to beg, since the money from my uncle’s chest was still in my belt, and I could afford, for once, whatever was asked of me.
I caught up with him within a few hours at a village just on the Oxfordshire side of the border; he was staying at an inn and once I learned this I hired a room myself, then sent up word of my desire for an interview. I was summoned immediately.
I went to the meeting with some trepidation for, although I might have met a wizard before, I had never encountered an Irishman. I knew, of course, that they were terrible people, wild and disobedient, with a monstrous cruelty. The stories of the massacres they perpetrated on poor Protestants in late years were still fresh in my mind, and the way they continued to battle despite the chastisement meted out to them by Cromwell at Drogheda and other places proved that they were scarcely human in their bloody viciousness. I do believe that the only time Cromwell enjoyed the full and unrestrained support of the English was when he set out to subdue these murderous creatures.
Mr. Greatorex, however, satisfied neither my notion of what a wizard nor of what an Irishman should be like. I imagined him old, stooped, flame-haired and with wild, staring eyes. He was in fact scarcely a dozen years senior to myself, with a gentlemanly bearing, neat and precise movements and a solemnity of expression that would have done credit to a bishop. Until he spoke, he could have passed for a prosperous trader in any small town in the country.
His voice, however, was extraordinary, and I had never heard the like before, although I now know that the softness of expression and musicality of tone is characteristic of these people, who use words of honey to disguise their natures. As he plied me with questions, his words swept gently over me and I relaxed until I was aware of nothing in the room at all except his voice, and the gentleness of expression in his eyes. I understood, I think, how a rabbit must feel when it is frozen by the look of the snake, and how Eve must have felt also, willing to do anything at all to please the serpent, and earn more words of comfort from it.
Who was I? Where had I come from? How had I heard of him? About what did I wish to consult him? All these were necessary questions, and similar to the ones Widow Blundy had put to me to assure herself I was not sent to trap her. I answered fully until we came to my encounter with Sarah Blundy. Then Greatorex leaned forward in his chair.
“Let me tell you, sir,” he said softly, “that it is a very great mistake to tell me lies. I do not take kindly to being deceived. I am not interested in how badly you behaved, although I can see you abused this girl shamefully.”
“I did nothing of the sort,” I protested. “She was willing; she must have been so, and put on the pretense afterwards in order to extract more money from me.”
“Which you did not give her.”
“I was generous enough.”
“And now you fear you are cursed. Tell me your dreams.”
I told him, and about the polecat. He listened quietly as I recounted each piece of evidence.
“It did not occur to you that the daughter of the cunning woman might be able to encompass such attacks?” I said it had not, but the moment he suggested the idea that Sarah Blundy was responsible, I realized that it was obvious and knew also that my inability to see was itself part of the enchantment she had laid on me.
“And have you spoken to her since?” Greatorex continued. “It may offend your dignity, but often the surest way of dealing with such matters is to make amends. If she accepts your apology, she must then remove any curse she has placed on you.”
“And if she does not?”
“Then other measures will be required. But it is the best first step.”
“I believe you are frightened of her. You do not think you can contend with her.”
“I know nothing of the matter. If she truly has such power, then it would indeed be difficult. I see no shame in admitting it. Darkness is strong. But I have contested such people before, and, I think, have had as many victories as defeats. Now, tell me. What does she have of yours?”
I told him I did not understand the question but when he explained, I described the way she had scratched at my face with her nails and pulled some of my hair from my head. I had hardly spoken before he walked across to me. Before I could react in any way, he drew out a knife and grabbed me by the hair, dragging the knife across the back of my hand in one swift movement. Then he simply tore a lock from my head.
I jumped up cursing him with all my strength and inventiveness, the magic of his voice gone in an instant from my mind. Greatorex, however, merely resumed his seat as though nothing of importance had passed, and sat waiting for me to control myself.
“My apologies,” he said when I had calmed. “But I needed blood and hair in the same circumstances in which she took it. The more painful the taking, the more powerful the relic. I believe that may be why such power is attributed to the relics of saints, and why the remains of martyrs who died in great agony are considered the most potent.”
I clutched my head with my bloody hand and glared at him. “Papist nonsense,” I growled. “What now?”
“Now? Now you go away for a few hours. To be certain that you are indeed bewitched, rather than merely believing so, and to discover what are the forces ranged against you, I need to cast your horoscope. It is the surest, indeed it is the only, way of penetrating the darkness. If only the courts would make more use of people like myself, then the process of the law would be that much the surer. But in this foolish age, it is frowned on. So much the worse for the age.”
“I was told no witch has ever been caught by the law. Do you believe that?”
“Some have no doubt been punished by accident. But can the law apprehend such people if they do not wish it? No. I cannot credit it.”
“So these women who have burned of late? They were falsely accused?”
“For the most part. Not deliberately, I am sure. There is too much evidence of the devil’s presence among us for their existence to be gainsaid. Any sensible man must conclude that the powers of evil have been trying to seduce Christian women, taking advantage of the troubles that have so stirred the souls of men. Once authority is broken, Satan sees his chance. Besides, the only sensible argument against witchcraft is that women do not have souls, and therefore have nothing to trade with the devil. But this is flatly contradicted by all authority.”
“Nothing can be done, you think? Such people cannot be stopped?”
“Not by you lawyers.”
“How do you know I am a lawyer?”
He smiled, but ignored the question. “The whole of existence is a contest between light and dark. All the battles that are important for mankind have been waged without most people even knowing they were taking place. God has given special powers to his servants on earth, the magi, white witches, adepti, call them what you will. They are men of secret knowledge charged with contending with Satan from generation to generation.”
“You mean alchemists, people like that?”
He looked scornful. “Once, maybe, I meant such people. But their skill and power is waning. They seek now to explain what is, not to explore its power. Alchemy is now a mechanical trade, full of brews and potions which will be able to explain how things are made, but loses sight of the greater questions, of what they are for.”
“You are an alchemist?”
He shook his head. “No. I am an astrologer and, if you will, a necromancer. I have studied the enemy, and I know his powers. My skills are limited, but I know what I can do. If I can help you, I will. If not, I will tell you so.”
He stood up. “Now, you must give me the information I require, then leave me in peace for a few hours. I need the exact time of your birth, and the place of it. I need the time and place of your conjunction with this girl, and the times of your dreams and encounters with the animals.”
I gave him all that he required, and he dismissed me to walk around the village, which I was quite happy to do, for I knew it had been the scene of one of the battles of the war, in which my father had played a distinguished and noble role by advising the king so well that the day ended with the capture of all the enemy’s cannon and the death of much of his force. Had the king kept my father close to him, rather than relying on the advice of better-born but less experienced men, the result might have been different. But the king came increasingly to rely on cowardly pen-pushers like Clarendon, who wanted merely to surrender, not to fight.
It is low-lying, lush land around the northern part of Oxfordshire, fine countryside for crop and cavalry, and its richness could be seen even when all was dead, the fields brown and still and the trees stripped of their leaves for winter. The hills give some concealment to troops, but do not greatly impede their movement, and the woods are small in scale and easily skirted. I walked out of the village and up the river, imagining in my mind how the two armies had slowly edged their way upstream, the king on one side, General Waller and the rebels on the other, watching each other like cocks in a ring for a slip which would give the slightest advantage. It was my father who gave the advice which turned the day, encouraging the king to move the van forward, and advance the rear at a slower pace, opening up a gap in the middle which he knew a man like Waller would not be able to resist. Sure enough, Waller sent a good portion of his horse and all his cannon over the little bridge at Cro-predy, and they were still in disarray from breaking ranks to cross when the good Earl of Cleveland, warned of the tactic, fell upon them and cut them to ribbons.
It must have been a wonderful sight to have beheld; to have seen the cavalry, so far from their current perfumed dissolution, charging in perfect order, their sabers glistening in the sun, for I remember my father saying that it had been a warm, cloudless day of midsummer.
“Tell me,” I asked of a laborer who passed me by, giving me the downcast look of sullen suspicion which all villagers adopt with foreigners. “Where is the tree the king dined under the day of the battle?”
He scowled at me, and made to sidle past me, but I grabbed him by the arm and insisted. He nodded in the direction of a small lane. “There is an oak tree in the field at the end of that track,” he said. “That is where the tyrant ate.”
I struck him, full in the face, for his impudence. “Mind your tongue,” I warned him. “You will not talk like that in my presence.”
He shrugged, as if my reproof was of no importance to him at all. “I speak the truth,” he said, “as is my duty and right.”
“You have no rights and your sole duty is to obey,” I replied incredulously. “The king was fighting to save us all.”
“And on that day all my crops were trampled, my son killed and my house ransacked by his troops. What cause do I have to love him?”
I moved to hit him again, but he guessed my intention and shrank back like a dog that has been beaten too often, and so I waved the miserable creature to be out of my sight. But he had spoiled my mood; my plan of standing where the king had stood, so I could breathe in the atmosphere of the time, seemed less appealing now, and after a moment’s hesitation, I turned back to the inn in the hope that Greatorex had finished his task.
He had not, and he made me wait a good hour before he came down the stairs bearing the sheets of paper which, supposedly, bore all my past and future on them in his little squiggles. His attitude and mood had changed, no doubt to frighten me and thus put up his fee; whereas before he had been relaxed and, I think, treated my tale with less than complete seriousness, now he had a heavy frown, and an air of the greatest concern.
I had never troubled before, and have troubled little since, with astrology. I care not to know what the future brings for, by and large, I already know. I have my place and in the fullness of time, tomorrow or thirty years hence, I shall die, as God wills. Astrology is of use only to those who do not know their position, or what it will be; its popularity is a mark of a people in distress and a society in torment. No doubt that is why such people as Greatorex were so much in demand during the troubles, for then a man could be a grandee one moment and less than nothing the next. I have no doubt that if the leveling principle prevails amongst us, and more men claim advancement merely for merit, then the fortunetellers will profit the more. Certainly, that was why I needed him then, and why I dismissed such people when I needed them no longer. No man who truly accepts the will of God can attend to astrology, 1 now think, for whatever happens is the goodness of Providence; if we accept that, we should not want to know more.
“Well?” I asked when he had composed his papers before me. “What is the answer?”
“It is disconcerting and worrying,” he said, with a theatrical sigh. “And I hardly know what to make of it. We live in the strangest of times, and the heavens themselves bear witness to great prodigies. I myself know this; there is a great teacher, far greater than I can ever be, who might explain it to me if I can find him; I have traveled from Ireland for that express purpose, but so far with little success.”
“Times are hard indeed,” I said dryly. “But what about my chart?”
“It disturbs me greatly,” he said, peering at me as though I was newly introduced to him, “and I scarcely know how to advise you. It seems you were born for a great purpose.”
Perhaps this is the currency of all soothsayers, I do not know, but I felt that he was saying the truth, and I felt that it was so; what greater purpose was there, after all, than the one I had taken on myself? Greatorex’s confirmation of it bolstered my strength greatly.
“You were born on the day the battle of Edgehill was fought,” he continued, “a strange and frightening day; the skies were in disarray, and portents abounded.”
I did not point out that you hardly needed to be an adept to see that.
“And you were born not greatly distant from the battle,” he continued. “Which means your chart was affected by the events which went on around you. You know, of course, that the chart of the querent intersects with that of the country in which he is born?”
“So, you were born a Scorpio, with your ascendant in Libra. Now, as far as the question you pose is concerned, you asked it at exactly two o’clock, and it was for that time that I prepared the horoscope. The best sign of witchcraft is if the lord of the twelfth house be in the sixth, or if one planet be lord of the ascendant and the twelfth, which may happen when the proper ascendant may be intercepted, then it may be witchcraft. If the converse applies, however, and the lord of the ascendant be in the twelfth or sixth, then it shows that the querent occasioned his problems by his own willfulness.”
I sighed heavily, beginning to regret having placed myself in the hands of a canting magician. Evidently Greatorex perceived my disdain.
“Do not dismiss this, sir,” he said. “You think this is magic, yet it is not. It is the purest of science, the only way man has to penetrate the secrets of the soul and of time itself. Everything is performed through the finest of calculations, and if it is the case that the lowest is joined to the highest, as all Christians must believe, then it is obvious that the study of the one must reveal the truth of the other. Did not the Lord say, ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs’? Genesis 1:14. That is all astrology is; reading the signs that God in his providence has given us to guide our way if we will only take notice of them. Simple in theory, though hard in practice.”
“I do not for a moment doubt the truth of it,” I said. “But the details weary me. It is the answers that give me greatest concern. Am I bewitched or not?”
“You must let me answer in full, for a partial answer is no response at all. It is the conjunction of your birth chart with the transitional chart which is of the greatest concern to me; for they are strangely at odds. Indeed, I have never seen the like before.”
“The transitional chart indicates clearly that some form of enchantment is present, for Venus, which rules your twelfth house, is most firmly in the sixth.”
“So the answer is yes.”
“Please; be patient. Your birth chart also places the ascendant in the twelfth, which indicates that you are inclined to be the author of your own misfortunes. The opposition of Jupiter and Venus makes you prone to magnify your problems without justification, and the conjunction of the moon in the ninth house and in Pisces means you are liable to fantastical notions that lead you into rash acts.
“Which indicates the need for caution in this matter, and the most cautious move you can make is to acknowledge your fault. For you are at fault, and her anger has the force of justice behind it, whatever she might be. The easiest solution is not to fight it, but to ask forgiveness.”
“And if she refuses?”
“She will not if your contrition is genuine. I will make it the more plain. The indicator of the enchantment is in exact opposition to the conjunction of your troubles caused by Mars in the second house.”
“And what does that mean?”
“That means the two aspects of your life are one and the same. Your fear of bewitchment and what you tell me of your other troubles are intimately connected, so much so that the one is the other.”
I stared at him in astonishment, for he had said the same of my chart as Thomas had said of my dream. “But how can that possibly be? She never knew my father, nor could she possibly have known him. Surely her power is not such that she can intervene in affairs of that importance.”
He shook his head. “I state the situation, I cannot offer an explanation. But I do urge you to take my advice. This girl—this witch as you call her—is more powerful than any I have ever encountered.”
“More than you.”
“Far more than me,” he said solemnly. “And I am not ashamed to admit it. I would no more go against her than I would jump off the tallest cliff. And nor should you, for any victories will be illusory, and defeat will be total. Any counter-magic I can offer is unlikely to be of use, even if it has a temporary effect.”
“Give it to me anyway, so I know what to do.”
He thought for a moment, as if doubting my sudden enthusiasm. “Do you give me your solemn word that you will take my advice and approach the girl first?”
“Of course, whatever you say,” I said hastily. “What is the spell? Give it to me.”
“You have to do it yourself.” He handed me a phial containing the hair and the blood he had so violently taken from me. “This is silver, which is the moon’s metal. It contains a simulacrum of what she has of you. You must either get your own back from her and destroy it, to remove the object of her spells, or failing that, you must take this phial and fill it with her urine or her blood. Bury it when the moon is waning; as long as it is undiscovered, she will have no power over you.”
I took the phial and put it carefully in my bag. “Thank you, sir. I am grateful. Now, what do I owe?”
“I am not finished. There is a matter far more grave.”
“I think I have heard enough, thank you. I have my potion, and want no more of you.”
“Listen, my friend, you are rash and foolish, and you do not listen well to those wiser than yourself. Please do so now, as a great deal is at stake.”
“Oh, very well. Tell me.”
“I repeat again, that the girl who is the focus of your attention is no ordinary witch, if she is one at all. You asked earlier whether I was afraid to contest witches, and the answer is no; generally speaking I am not. But in this case I am indeed very frightened. Do not engage with this creature, I beg you. And there is one other thing as well.”
“And what is that?”
“Others might take your fortune and livelihood, even your life. But your greatest enemy is yourself, for only you have the power to destroy your own soul. Tread carefully. Some people are fated from the moment of their birth, but I hold that nothing is absolutely preordained, and we can choose a different path if we will. I tell you what may be, not what must be.”
“Now you are talking nonsense, to frighten me and get more money.”
“Listen to me,” he said, leaning forward and staring at me intently, using all his powers to bend me to his will. “The conjunction of your birth is strange and frightening, and you should beware. I have seen it only once before. I do not wish to see it again.”
“And that was?”
“In a book I was allowed to see only once. It belonged to Placidus de Tito, and he had it by descent from Julius Maternus himself, the greatest magus of them all, perhaps. In it, there were many horoscopes, drawn from many periods.
It had the birth charts of Augustus and Constantine, of Augustine and many, many popes. There were soldiers and churchmen and politicians and doctors and saints. But only one did I see which was like yours and you must take warning from it, if you can and if you will. I tell you again that if you do not heed my warnings, then far more than your life is at risk.”
“And whose horoscope was it?”
He looked at me gravely, as though afraid to speak. “It belonged to Iscariot,” he said softly.