When at last Nicholas Stafford stood up, he stared at the young woman before him. Her manner, her dress, and her speech were so strange to him that he could hardly keep his thoughts together. She looked to be the witch he knew her to be: she was as beautiful as any woman he’d ever seen, her uncased hair flowing to her shoulders, her eyes as green as emeralds, and her skin was white, flawless. But she was wearing an indecently short skirt, as though she were daring the contempt of man and God alike.
In spite of the fact that he felt dizzy and weak, he did not allow himself to waver from his firm stance. He returned her straightforward glare with one of his own.
He still could not believe what had happened to him. At the lowest point in his life, when there seemed to be no hope in his life, his mother had written him that at last she had discovered something that would give them the hope they had nearly abandoned. He had been writing her, questioning her, and revealing some information when he’d heard a woman weeping. The sound of tears in a place of confinement was not so unusual, but something about this woman’s weeping had made him put down his pen.
When the woman’s sobs had grown until they’d filled the little room, echoing off the stone walls and ceiling, Nicholas had put his hands over his ears to shut out the sound. But he had still heard her. Her weeping had grown louder, until he could no longer hear his own thoughts. Overwhelmed, he’d put his head down on the table and given himself over to the pull of the woman.
Then, it had been as though he were dreaming. He knew he was still sitting, his head still on the table, but at the same time, he was trying to stand up. When he was at last on his feet, the floor seemed to fall away from under him. He felt light, as though he were floating. Then he held out his hand and saw, to his horror, that his hand seemed to have lost substance. He could see through his hand. Staggering toward the door, he tried to call out, but no sound came from his mouth. As he watched, the door seemed to fall away, and with it went the room. For a moment Nicholas appeared to be standing on nothing. There was a void around him, his body naught but a shadow through which he could see the darkness of nothing.
He had no idea how long he drifted in the nothingness, feeling neither hot nor cold, hearing nothing but the woman’s deep weeping.
One moment he was nowhere, was but a shadow, and the next moment he was standing in the sunlight in a church. He had on different clothes. Now he was wearing demi-armor, the armor he wore only for the most auspicious occasions, and he had on his emerald satin slops.
Before him, weeping next to a tomb was a girl or woman, he could not tell which, for her hair was hanging slovenly over her face. She was weeping so hard, so intent on her own misery, that she did not see him.
Nicholas’s eyes moved from her to look up at the tomb she was clutching—and it was the sight of the tomb that made him step backward. On top of it was a white marble sculpture of . . . himself. Carved beneath was his name and today’s date. They have buried me before I am dead? he wondered in horror.
Feeling sick from his experience and at seeing his own tomb, he looked about the church. There were burial plaques set in the walls. The dates read, 1734,1812,1902.
No, he thought, it could not be. But as he looked at the church he could see that everything was different. The church was so very plain. The beams were bare wood; the stone corbels were unpainted. The altar cloth looked as though it had been embroidered by a clumsy child.
He looked back down at the sobbing woman. A witch! he thought. She was the witch who had called him forth to another time and place. When she had at last stopped her sobbing long enough to become aware of his presence, he had immediately demanded that she return him—he had to return, he thought, for his honor and the future of his family depended upon his returning. But at his words, she had once again collapsed into helpless sobbing.
It did not take him long to discover that she was as vile-tempered and sharp-tongued as she was evil. She had even been bold enough to say she had no knowledge of how he came to be in this place, and that she knew nothing of why he was there.
At last she had left the church, and Nicholas had been relieved when she’d gone. He was feeling more steady, and he was beginning to believe that he had dreamed that flight through the void. Perhaps all that he was experiencing was merely a dream of remarkable reality.
By the time he left the church, he was feeling much stronger, and he was glad to see that the churchyard looked the same as all churchyards—but he did not pause to examine the gravestones’ dates. One of those in the church had been 1982—a date he could not fathom.
He left through the church gate and walked into the silent road. Where were the people? he wondered. And the horses? Where were the carts carrying goods?
What happened next had happened too quickly for him to remember clearly. There was a sound to his left, a loud, fast sound such as he’d never heard before; then, to his right, came the witch, running faster than a woman should. Nicholas was unprepared when the woman leaped on him. He was weaker than he realized because the frail weight of the woman knocked him to the ground.
Seconds after they fell to the earth together, close by them roared an obscenely fast horseless chariot. Afterward, Nicholas had asked the woman and the vicar—who was properly dressed in an unadorned, long robe as befitted his station—questions, but they had seemed to believe that Nicholas was without sanity. He allowed the witch to lead him back inside the churchyard. Was this his fate? he wondered. Was he destined to die alone in a strange place . . . in a strange time?
He had tried to explain to the witch that she must return him to his own time. He told her of his need, but she persisted in pretending that she knew nothing of how or why he was in this place. He’d had difficulty understanding her speech, and that, combined with the ordinariness of her dress—no jewels, no gold, no silver—told him she was of peasant stock. Because of the strangeness of her speech, it had taken him a while to understand that she was begging money from him. She was demanding of him the outrageous sum of ten pounds! But he did not dare refuse her demand for fear of what other spells she might perform.
The instant she had the money, she left, and Nicholas went back inside the church. Slowly, he walked to the tomb, his tomb, and ran his fingers over the carving of the death date. Had he died when he’d traveled through the void? When the witch had conjured him forth to this time—the churchman had said it was now 1988, four hundred and twenty-four years later—did that mean she had killed him in 1564?
How could he make her understand that he had to return? If he had died on 6 September 1564, that meant he had proven nothing. It would mean he had left too much undone. What horror had befallen the people he’d left behind?
Nicholas had dropped to his knees on the cold stone floor and begun to pray. Perhaps if his prayers were as strong as the witch’s magic, he could overrule her power and return himself.
But as he prayed, his mind raced. Phrases ran through his head: The woman is the key. You need to know. These words were what he heard over and over.
After a while he stopped reciting prayers and opened his mind to his thoughts. Witch or no, the woman had brought him forward, therefore only she had the power to return him to his own time.
Yet, for all that she had brought him forward, she did not seem to have a use for him. Perhaps, Nicholas thought, she had not meant to call him forth. Perhaps she had great power, but knew not how to use it.
But, again, perhaps he had been pulled across time for some reason neither of them knew.
So why had he come forward? he wondered. Was he to learn something? Was this witch to teach him something? Could it be possible that she was as innocent as she claimed to be? Had she been weeping over some base lovers’ quarrel, and, for some reason neither of them knew, she had conjured him forward to this dangerous time when chariots drove at unimagined speeds? If he learned what he needed to know here, would he then return to his proper time?
The witch was the key. The phrase kept running through his mind. Whether she had brought him forth through malicious intent or by unhappy accident, he was sure that she held the power to return him. And if that were true, then, through her, he was to learn what he must in this time.
He must bind her to him, he thought. No matter what the cost to his peace, no matter if he had to lie, slander, blaspheme, he knew that he must bind the woman to him. He had to see to it that she did not leave him until he discovered what he needed to know from her.
He remained on his knees, praying for God’s guidance, asking advice, and pleading with God to stay with him as he did what he must do and learned what he needed to know.
When the woman returned to the church, Nicholas was still praying, and while she was complaining about the money Nicholas had given her, he offered God his thanks for the woman’s return.