The young virgin lifted her arms high while the old woman adorned her naked form with a silvery robe as ɹnely spun as a spider’s web. The ɹlmy material drifted down to her ankles, which were encircled by delicate golden chains studded with amber, chosen for its mystic qualities. The maiden’s hair, pale as moonbeams, was unbound in all its glory and fell to her waist in curling tendrils. The old woman pulled back into the shadows of the high tower room, while the girl went forward gracefully, stepping inside the circle of thirteen green candles. She moved with such ɻuid grace the ɻames barely ɻickered before they rose up straight again, burning yellow, then narrowing and lengthening to blue flame. She began the ritual by crushing herbs and spices in an alabaster bowl, then setting them to smolder with a long taper. The scent of rosemary, cloves, and myrrh spiraled into an aromatic smoke that ɹlled the senses headily. As she had been taught, she lifted the jeweled chalice and sipped the blood-red wine, then in a beautiful, clear voice she chanted the magic wish: “I call upon all the Powers of the Universe to send the king and queen to England to set up their royal court. Blessed be.” She then gazed intensely into a crystal orb, which seemed to ɹll and swirl with gray smoke before slowly clearing. Her eyes were an unusual lavender color that darkened to purple as she stared into the sphere. She willed herself to “see” a royal couple upon thrones with crowns upon their heads. The gray smoke swirled up in the crystal orb, then cleared again to show the king and queen on a ship crossing the sea from the Continent to England. The old woman watched her granddaughter with pride and possessiveness through shrewd, hooded eyes that had once been as beautiful as the maiden’s. “Bastard of a bastard,” Estelle whispered as she watched the girl, then her hand reached up to pluck the ugly words from the air before they had a chance to ɻoat oʃ into time and space.
There were, at the very least, two ways of looking at everything. Jasmine was a love child, and she had drummed into the girl’s head since childhood that by blood she was a royal princess! The late, great King Henry II’s illegitimate son, William Longsword, had taken Estelle’s lovely daughter for his mistress. The planting of his seed had killed her. She had been too delicate and small to bear a child, yet even though the babe had been a puny and sickly thing, through Estelle’s determined eʃorts it had survived. Jasmine, she mused, fragile and delicate as the ɻower for which she was named, would soon be eighteen summers. Brieɻy she wished she could keep her a child forever, then she quickly made a cabalistic sign to erase the selfish wish. Suddenly Jasmine laughed and ran from the circle of candles. “Estelle, I’m freezing, get my woolen robe.” Her grandmother hurried forward and wrapped her warmly, then bent to snuff the candles. “It was perfect, Jasmine.
We will do it exactly so when we have the village women here tomorrow night.” “This time I actually saw the king and queen. Perhaps it would have been stronger magic if I’d invoked their names, Richard and Barengaria?” “Nay,” said Estelle, shaking her head ɹrmly. “Always remember to never be too speciɹc because it narrows the odds of getting your wish. All you want is a royal court set up in England so that you can become a lady to the queen—any queen.” Jasmine laughed and nodded her agreement. “Even Queen Eleanor.” “Never underestimate her jealousy! She never forgave Henry for being unfaithful with Rosamund Cliʃord, and she never forgave him for begetting your father, William. Ah yes, she accepts and honors him as the great Earl of Salisbury, but you being his love child and so exquisitely beautiful would be a constant thorn to prick jealous memories. She is an old she-wolf who would not hesitate to destroy you.
” Jasmine quickly changed the subject. “Do you really think I shall be able to convince the women of the village that I can cast magic spells?” “It will be child’s play, my love. Peasants’ lives are ruled by superstition. I’ve convinced them of my powers for years. And you are pure, a virgin, so your powers are twice as strong as mine. Besides, what spells do they ever need? Cures for the evils visited upon them by men!” She said this last word with total loathing. Her lectures on the subject of men were as endless as they were lurid. Her own husband had beaten her savagely whenever he had gotten drunk, and she knew full well she would have poisoned him if he hadn’t died from an enemy’s sword thrust. The only thing she had cherished from that ill-fated marriage had been her beautiful child. But that beauty had turned out to be a curse because it had attracted an earl who lost no time in getting her daughter fatally pregnant.
All men were created evil according to Dame Estelle Winwood, whether they be king, peasant, or anything between, and she had dedicated her life to keeping Jasmine safely isolated from them. “The peasant women start out wanting a love potion to attract a male, progress to a talisman to keep them from conceiving, then end up begging for an abortiɹcant. Do you recall them asking for aught else?” Jasmine’s eyes twinkled. “Only ointments and electuaries to heal their wounds from a beating!” “Just so,” Estelle said with satisfaction. “Mark you well and inwardly digest it!” “Speaking of electuaries, I wanted to get one more page ɹnished in the herbal book before bed. I’ve written up hemlock. Would you check it for me before I paint in the illustration?” asked Jasmine. Estelle walked across to the large oaken desk and ran her ɹngers down the parchment of the page. “Let’s see … ‘T he common great hemlock grows up with a green stalk, four or ɹve feet high, full of red spots. At the joints are very large winged leaves, one set against the other, dented about the edges, of a sad green color.
It is full of umbels of white ɻowers, with whitish ɻat seeds in July. The whole plant has a strong, heady, and ill-favored scent. Saturn claims dominion over this herb. Hemlock is exceedingly cold, and very dangerous, especially taken inwardly. It may safely be applied to inɻammations, tumults, and swellings in any part of the body as well as to St. Anthony’s ɹre, wheals, pushes, and creeping ulcers. The leaves, bruised and laid to the forehead, are good for red and swollen eyes. The root, roasted and applied to the hands, helps the gout. Pure wine is the best antidote if too much of this herb is taken.’” Estelle smiled with satisfaction.
“That is excellent, but then you have had the beneɹt of such a magniɹcent teacher. Good night, child, don’t sit up painting all night. I’ll send Meg up with a tray. We must try to put a little meat on your bones.” Jasmine loved to paint. She had an eye for light and shadow that made the ɻowers appear so real you could smell them or reach out a ɹnger to touch the drop of dew upon a leaf. The moment she sat down at the desk a sparrow ɻew down onto the rim of her wine chalice. “Shoo, Feather, shoo,” Jasmine said, gently wafting her hand so the little pet bird ɻew oʃ to perch in the rafters. With the tip of her tongue between her teeth, Jasmine soon became absorbed in the illustration of the hemlock plant. She didn’t notice Feather ɻy back down to perch upon the edge of the goblet and dip its beak into the blood-red wine, then tilt its throat back to swallow greedily.
She was cleaning her brushes when Meg, the young maid, came in with a tray and set it down on the great desk. “Oooh, my lady, the wee birdie is dead!” she cried with alarm as she saw the little sparrow on its back with its feet sticking straight up. Jasmine looked around startled, then she laughed. “No, he’s not dead, he’s just drunk again. You naughty boy, Feather,” she scolded as she scooped him up and dropped a kiss upon his head. She ɹnished the wine, wiped out the goblet with a napkin, and popped him into the bowl of the chalice. “You’ll be safe there till morning.” Dame Winwood resided in Winwood Keep, a small manor with a high tower deeded to her by the Earl of Salisbury. It was located on the remote edge of the Salisbury Plain, close upon Stonehenge. The people who served the manor were all drawn from the nearby village.
Estelle preferred women servants, but in the stables where male strength was a necessity, she took boys only to the age of fourteen. It was a lawless time, because Richard Coeur de Lion chose to be a king in absentia and England was ruled by mighty barons who warred with each other for castles, land, and power. Yet the household of women lived without fear for it enjoyed the protection of the mighty Earl of Salisbury, half brother to the king. Though his seat of Salisbury where his main castle was located was a mere twelve miles from Winwood Keep, Jasmine saw little of her father, for he was a marcher lord, pledged to keep the marches into Wales safe for the crown. He commanded a hundred knights and nearly two hundred men-at-arms, so Estelle saw to it that Jasmine visited only brieɻy and always kept her strictly within the women’s quarters of the castle. The earl had two legitimate daughters who were the heirs to his vast lands. They had been brought up to be competent chatelaines and were expected to make good marriages. Though William had loved the baby Jasmine dearly, he had found it beyond him to keep the puny little scrap alive and willingly placed her in the hands of her natural grandmother, who had taken her and breathed life into her. Jasmine had had an unconventional upbringing, to say the least. The child, much too small and fragile to train up as future wife and mother, was taught instead the ɹner arts of music, painting, writing, botany, poetry, and magic.
Her life was a blend of fact and fantasy, ideally suited to one so delicate. Dawn brought one of the loveliest mornings of the year. April’s end seemingly brought forth a blossom on every tree bough, and the birds had been singing their throats out since ɹrst light. Estelle came into Jasmine’s bedchamber as she was dressing. “I’m glad you’re up early. We have a busy day ahead if we are to be prepared for tonight’s gathering.” Jasmine rolled the spiny ball of a hedgehog from her slipper and smiled at the tiny squeak of protest it made at being disturbed. “Hush, Quill, you kept me awake half the night rustling about, but now that you want to sleep, it is another matter entirely.” “He’s nocturnal, Jasmine. A leopard can’t change his spots, you know.
Why didn’t you leave him up in the tower room?” asked Estelle. Jasmine confessed, “Feather got dead drunk again and I was afraid Quill might forage for him.” “Mmm,” said Estelle, pursing her lips. “Typical male behavior.” Winwood Keep’s gardens were a riot of color as the two women stepped out into the warm sunshine. Jasmine saw a honeybee drowning and dipped her ɹnger into the stone birdbath to pick it up. It clung on, holding perfectly still for a couple of seconds, then immediately set about wiping its face and antennae with its front legs. Since their ɹrst stop was the beehives anyway, to gather the honey, Jasmine let the furry creature stay on her ɹnger until they reached the hives. Everything in this ɹrst garden had been planted to attract bees and butterɻies. Beneath the hawthorne, cherry, and crabapple trees bloomed borders of phlox, pinks, lemon verbena, primroses, and hyacinths.
The lawn was dotted with buttercups, clover, and daisies, all swarming with honeybees. Estelle wrapped the honeycombs in cheesecloth, put them into her basket, and the women moved through the hedge into the herb garden. There they gathered sage, mint, angelica, poppy, and alkanet, then left the garden for the nearby woods where they gathered hemlock and arrach. That night they dispensed to the women of the village most of the materials they had gathered. Arrach was given to the few who were barren and wished to be fruitful, poppy was dispensed for toothaches, alkanet for burns, angelica for black-and-blue bruises, but most of the peasant women had come for electuaries to feed their husbands. One was of hemlock to stop a man’s lust; the other was mint to provoke a man’s lust and stir up venery! The rest had come to the high tower room for magic spells. As she had the previous night, Estelle adorned Jasmine with the ɹnely spun silken robe and the girl glided into the circle of thirteen green candles. Again she began the ritual by crushing the herbs in the alabaster bowl and smoldering them to a heady, spiraling fragrance. Then she sipped the blood-red wine from the jewel-encrusted chalice and chanted each wish, calling upon the Powers of the Universe. She gazed into the crystal orb and told each woman exactly what she wished to hear.
Yes, the love of a certain youth would be revealed before the next full moon; yes, the child that was on the way would be male rather than female; yes, the husband would stray no more; yes, the hunting would be bountiful this season. The women were totally bedazzled by the maiden’s sheer physical perfection. Her cloak of silvery gold hair fell about her delicately boned body giving her an ethereal, other-world quality. The candles’ glow formed a nimbus around her, and not one soul doubted that she was a fairy princess who could foresee the future and cast magic spells. It was almost midnight before the last guest left and they were alone. Jasmine spoke worriedly to her grandmother. “Estelle, I didn’t have one single vision, I ’saw’ nothing!” “My dearest child, true visions are few and far between, but you acted like an adept and carried on as if you were a high priestess of the Universe.” “But I feel like such a fraud,” she explained. “Never, ever think you have perpetrated a hoax. As I’ve told you before many times, we are not really dealing in magic and miracles.
What we are dealing in is belief, faith. If they believe strongly enough, then it will happen for them. People of every walk of life, not just peasants, but the highborn too, are inɹnitely better oʃ and happier if they have something they believe in. Well, I’m oʃ to bed; I ɹnd there is nothing quite so exhausting as the hoi polloi.” Jasmine watched her grandmother aʃectionately as she walked to the tower room door. Though she must be near sixty years old, her back was straight as a poker and her mind as keenly convoluted as it had been at twenty; perhaps even more so. Jasmine experienced a mild disappointment because of her power, or more to the point her lack of power. She slipped oʃ the silvery robe and reached for a warm velvet bedgown, but suddenly stayed her hand. Something compelled her to try one last time. Perhaps alone she would command more concentration.
She bent and carefully relighted the green candles, then stepped naked within the magic circle. Patiently she observed the rules of the ritual and gazed intensely into the crystal orb. Suddenly from inside the globe came a ɻash of lightning. She was paralyzed; the one thing that had always struck unreasoning fear in her was thunder and lightning. As she stood momentarily transfixed, a dark figurehead appeared in the crystal. It was the face of a man, so darkly forbidding she fell back with a cry. The vision disappeared instantly yet as she hurried from the tower room to the sanctuary of her warm bedchamber, it persisted in her mind. The face had been partially obscured by a helmet with a metal noseguard, but the eyes had burned with a ɹerce, cruel brilliance, and she shivered from head to toe, convinced that she had glimpsed the Devil.