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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Historical

Before the Tide

 

BEFORE THE TIDE

CHRISTINE MALEC

Copyright © 2017 by Christine Malec

Chapter 1: Song of the Solitary Sorcerer

 

The old man frowned when he saw the goatherd. For many years, he had been engaged in a vigorous campaign to discourage the folk about from frequenting the area around his castle. He’d had more than enough of people and their machinations in his long life, and he went to some lengths to deflect attention away from himself. It was true that now and then he did lose control and let his irritation get the better of him, but people rarely got hurt, and his tactics were mostly harmless. He was too apathetic today to enjoy much at the expense of the credulous goatherd however, so settled for leaning ostentatiously on his staff and looking feeble.

Hoisting a vacant expression onto his face, he assumed a stooped posture and ran gnarled looking fingers through his straggly beard. On the whole, he enjoyed the aspect of a dotty old man he projected for the benefit of unwelcome visitors, but the beard was hard. His beard was, in actuality, full, even luxuriant, and of a glossy black. He thought it his best physical feature by far, and he was vain about it. He considered that hiding its glory was a high price to pay for anonymity. But, he reasoned with himself when feeling especially aggrieved about it, if he was going to make his home here at the northern end of the world in order to escape tiresome people and their trivial little lives, he must keep his beard as a purely private enjoyment.

His attenuated campaign of inhospitality had enjoyed some success, so although his guise of a creaky old man looked harmless enough, the goatherd sidled out of view again with a fearful backward glance or two. The old man grunted with satisfaction and straightened, allowing his features to lose the mask of decrepitude and senility he showed to his unwelcome neighbours.

He went for weeks or even months sometimes without seeing anyone at all, which was exactly the way he liked it. This morning however, the look of apprehension on the goatherd’s face put an extra spring in his step. He gave his staff a jaunty swing as he walked along, glad to know his efforts towards being feared and disliked weren’t going to waste.

The snares yielded sufficiently for his needs, and he returned to what he still enjoyed thinking of as his castle. It wasn’t so much the castle part that he never really wanted to get used to, but rather the fact that it was his. Oh, he’d lived in castles, too many to remember, but always someone else’s. His status, no matter how revered or respected, had always been that of guest: honored guest to be sure, but always there for another’s purpose, a visitor in another man’s home. He could never say, “I’ve always hated that tapestry, fob it off on one of my inferiors with bad taste and weave me another,” or, “This stew isn’t fit for a hippogriff, bring me something palatable or it’s the mines for the lot of you!” No, he’d always had to just take what he was given, he, the greatest wizard in all of Britain, in all of the world.

This castle though, this was his, and he’d built it himself, using magic to levitate and shape the stone. It had taken him quite a long time it was true, but he had time. There was nothing else he wanted to do, nowhere else he wanted to go. He’d seen and done it all, and now he wanted to be left alone.

As he approached his castle, he had a fleeting wish to see it as muggles saw it. He knew the enchantments and concealments he had laid on it, but he always felt just a little put out because he could never experience the full effect.

Any muggle who strayed here would see nothing but a broken-down ruin, unpromising, depressing, even a bit eerie. (Eerie was subtle, he was still working on that part.) Their understandable disinterest would be augmented by a sudden feeling there was something they’d neglected to do elsewhere, and they’d be off, castle forgotten. In fact, the need for little demonstrations of eccentricity had declined steadily: a job well done he told himself as he climbed the steps to the door.

He passed the hares on to his house elf, who headed kitchenwards with them immediately. He looked around. His eye was caught by his chess set. Really there was no reason to have it set out he reflected, running nimble fingers through his perfectly groomed beard, but he left it nonetheless. Occasionally, on winter nights, he’d play from memory games shared in days passed, games with kings and games with friends. He shook his head. It was a beautiful set, made of ivory and gold, too beautiful not to be seen. His house elf made a tempting repast with the hares, and the old man made an early night of it.

That night, greatly to his annoyance, the old man dreamed. For you and me this might be an event of little moment, but for this particular old man, dreams were a serious business. In the days that followed he did his best to dismiss what he had seen as the result of an overly rich sauce prepared by his house elf, who had a heavy hand with the cream. Try as he might though, he failed to convince himself.

He had, he was sure, long since become immune to fetching young women with flaxen hair and sweet smiles. Still, the young lady in question, the one who began appearing with some regularity in his dreams, was in danger. He knew it. If something wasn’t done …

At this point, the old man would call for his house elf to bring one of the bottles of Burgundian wine he took such care never to be without. It was no small feat to round up enough sturdy owls to transport such treasures, and he tried to stick to his own home-brewed ale as a rule, but this was a special case. He wanted to blot the image of the young woman from his mind, and numb his thoughts so that the niggling sense of worry and obligation would shatter under the careless boot of inebriation. This worked right enough, but only till morning.

One afternoon, feeling restless and morose, he wrapped himself in his cloak and went to sit on the stone bench in the courtyard. He looked grumpily round, then caused a collection of small stones to pile themselves at his feet. It was so long since he had required a wand to do magic, that he forgot to be grateful for warm hands tucked under his arms.

He saw that the patchy black and white cat sat primly watching him from a distance. He frowned. He didn’t like cats, never had. This one, though surprisingly sleek for a stray, seemed particularly unprepossessing. Some cats at least could boast elegant colouring or obvious breeding, but this one merely showed an unremarkable pattern of markings, and a resistance to his many attempts to shoe it off his property. The cat would sidle nonchalantly out of reach of his boot, and might drift away for days at a time, but it would always return, indifferent but persistent. He would have banished it to the barn if he’d had a barn, but he settled for giving it one contemptuous glance, then ignored it entirely.

Moodily, the old man levitated a stone to rest on the edge of an empty fountain some distance away. He caused another stone to rise up, float several arm spans away, then shoot violently forward, knocking the first stone forcefully into the air, sending it tumbling, its adversary falling with it. When his mind was focused, he could fire stones off the edge of the fountain at the rate of one per heartbeat for a good long time. This afternoon however, his thoughts were distracted and his aim poor. Finally, he gathered the whole pile and flung it testily and with some force against the outside of the stone basin.

For a while he considered venturing out in search of a hapless villager to torment. He could become invisible and pelt them with dung, or send a rabid dog into the middle of a sheep herd to scatter it, or send someone’s laundry sailing off the line to land in a stagnant pond. Unfortunately for him, none of these diversions, no matter how entertaining they might have been in the past, offered any real reprieve from what troubled him. He had not chosen this spot at random. After staring grumpily at the basin a while longer, he got up with a deep sigh mingling anger and resignation, to get water.

After brewing the henbane tea, he drank the cup down, and filled the basin to the brim with icy water from the well. He stood before the basin, and, not without reluctance, let his gaze sink into the watery surface and his mind go blank.

If he had thought that soliciting clear-seeing in the water would improve his night’s sleep, he was sadly mistaken. The dreams grew less frequent, but his fretful mind no longer required them. To his disgust, he found himself engaged in the same argument he had with himself every hundred years or so. He had come here to get away from the tumultuous world full of people with their ambitions, greeds, loves, hates, and endless goings to and fro. He desired only solitude, quiet, a regular supply of ale and Burgundian wine, the excellent ministrations of his house elf, and the occasional spot of bating the locals. If he troubled himself with every guileless young woman in peril, witch or not, he would never have any peace.

At this point he would begin pacing in a distinctly unpeaceful manner. He would once again see the face of the woman before him, and, like distorted shadows cast by trolls, the dangers multiplying behind her. If she hadn’t been a witch, he might have been able to dismiss the whole thing from his mind. The thing was that he knew what it was like to live among muggles, whose admiration and gratitude could so easily turn to suspicion, fear and betrayal.

Once he made up his mind to act, he did so with vigor. The sooner he could discharge his conscience, he felt, the sooner he could return to his daily routine of reading, eating, drinking, taking constitutionals through the rugged landscape, the occasional terrorizing of local folk, and sleeping the sleep of the cozy hermit: unruffled, untroubled, unmoved, undisturbed.

His task began with a book. It was an impressive book. He felt a gratifying sense of self-satisfaction as he laid it on the table before him and studied the illustrated cover. He was less accomplished as an illustrator than as a writer of magical tomes, but he still experienced a pleasant thrill of pride as he read the illuminated title, Metamorph Magi: Enchant Your Way to Anonymity. Part of the book’s magic was that if a muggle looked at it, the title would appear to be, Delineated Details: An Old Man’s Guide to Great Grammar. In general, he thought this a sufficiently tedious title to discourage even the most thorough scholar.

Nevertheless, the book’s magic went further. If a muggle opened it, the book would appear to contain a rambling and intolerably pedantic examination of verb conjugations. If the reader was a witch or wizard however, the proper title would appear on the book’s cover, and an illuminated spell would be displayed on the first page. This spell, when spoken by the witch or wizard, would reveal the rest of the book’s contents. This book was, the old man felt, one of his masterworks. It was a step-by-step guide to that most difficult of tasks, becoming a metamorph magus.

But its element of disguise barely scratched the surface of its powers. The book had a twin, a perfect copy, produced by magic. When both books were read at the same time, regardless of where in the world the books might be, a bond was formed between the readers. A less accomplished magus than the old man, which covered pretty much every witch and wizard alive he felt, wouldn’t be aware of the connection immediately. The sorcerer of greater power would be able, for a time at least, to get inside the mind of the other reader, poke about a bit, even make a tweak here and there. In extreme need, a limited amount of communication was possible, but only at the discretion of the more powerful wizard.

The old man had parted company with the copy many years ago. He had left it in the keeping of a sorceress of whom he had been especially fond. He had no idea of the book’s fate, but he liked to think that the sorceress, who had had quite a fondness for him as well, would have seen to its care.

If his plan for relieving his vague sense of moral responsibility went as he hoped, the copy would currently be in the hands of a capable witch or wizard. He intended to establish a rapport with this individual, send them a few highly specific and compelling dreams of their own, then call it a deed well done, and return to his life of reclusivity and sloth. This wasn’t a task to be accomplished in a day, but he was a patient man.

Chapter 2: Rowena, the Raven, and the Metamorph Magi

 

Rowena woke with a start. She had dreamed of the flaxen haired woman again. She sat up on her straw pallet and rubbed her eyes. She normally didn’t remember her dreams, but these were of such clarity and vividness that it was as though she’d actually lived them. She viewed such excesses as signs of an undisciplined mind, and frowned in deep dissatisfaction with herself as she rose in search of a drink of water. Her throat was dry, and the dream had left her twitchy and restless.

The dreams had started harmlessly enough, uncommonly vivid and coherent, but not menacing. She was like a silent observer of the other woman’s daily life. Along with flaxen hair, the woman had a pleasantly rounded figure and a remarkably sweet smile. Rowena watched as the woman tended a well-organized herb garden, milked several goats, used magic to heal an owl with an injured wing, and dispensed remedies of many kinds to a succession of folk who sought her out.

Over several nights, the dreams had become less coherent but much more alarming. The pleasant-faced woman was threatened from many sides by dangers Rowena couldn’t name. Standing, cup in hand in the darkness before dawn, Rowena exhaled sourly through her nose. She didn’t need to be an interpreter of dreams to know what dangers might threaten a witch who took little care to hide her abilities. The other woman’s guileless expression told Rowena that a prudent caution was not one of the healer’s gifts.

Rowena slipped quietly between the straw pallets where other women slept the sleep of the untroubled. She made a stealthy way into the tiny scriptorium. She wouldn’t be so unthrifty as to waste a candle on such a frivolous errand, so she felt her way in the dark, following along the table until she came to the shelves where books and scrolls rested: an island of reliable wisdom and calm in a world that often felt too complicated to be born. She rested her hands flat on the surface of the book that had been preoccupying her of late.

The other sisters couldn’t imagine what Rowena found so compelling about an old dry book dedicated to the minutiae of grammar, but they were accustomed to her idiosyncrasies, and left her to it. She always accomplished her day’s work of copying, was studious, quiet, disciplined and dedicated. She was certain that none of the other sisters imagined what she found so engrossing in the grammatical tome. She didn’t judge them for this. Imagination wasn’t anything she valued.

The book had come into her hands not long before. She remembered the day with unpleasant clarity. Her mother had died two years ago. Like many, she had entrusted some items of value to the care of the local priory. Rowena hadn’t known this, so was surprised to be summoned by the prioress last harvest time.

The woman was kind, but had a very sharp eye. Such people made Rowena uncomfortable. She always feared some laps on her part, that might lead a careful observer to discover those things about herself that Rowena took such pains to hide. The book lay on the table before the prioress. She was glancing alternatively down at it, and up at Rowena, as though trying to fit puzzle pieces together.

“This was left in our care,” the old woman explained. “Your mother asked us to keep it some time ago. Now that she is gone, it belongs to you. No doubt you will wish to donate it to the priory.”

Rowena looked down in surprise at the book. Her mother hadn’t been one for literature. Rowena knew she could read, but had never heard the story of how she came by such uncommon knowledge. There were certainly no books in their house when Rowena was growing up.

She read the title up-side-down, and had to exert all her considerable self-discipline not to show her shock. The Metamorph Magi: Enchant Your Way to Anonymity. Now Rowena was young, but not so young that she didn’t know the value of silence. She stood absolutely still, waiting for the prioress to speak. The prioress, however, was a master at this tactic, so finally, Rowena said with no inflection, “I didn’t know my mother owned any books.”

The prioress glanced down at the book once more, with a puzzled frown. Rowena’s mind was spinning. She had a good mind, and it was capable of spinning very quickly. What would the prioress do? What would she conclude about Rowena’s mother, or Rowena herself? Would Rowena be compelled to admit what she was? Would she be cast out, persecuted as a …? Even her well-disciplined mind lost control of itself at this point, and she dropped her eyes, barely able to breathe through her dread.

“And of all the books for a woman like your mother to own,” the prioress began, and Rowena tried to brace herself for what was coming, “a book on the minutiae of grammar … It’s highly irregular.”

At last, a statement with which Rowena could whole-heartedly agree. The minutiae of grammar? “It seems an unlikely subject for my mother to be interested in,” Rowena said, stalling for time, “perhaps that’s why she left it in the priory. It doesn’t seem like something she would have any use for.”

“Indeed,” the prioress replied disapprovingly. “Well, every book has its own intrinsic value to the true scholar, so no doubt you will find some virtue in it, and she certainly intended you to have it: you, not the priory; she was explicit about that.” The disapproval was still strong. “You might as well take it with you, though of course you’ll wish to keep it in our library.”

Rowena left the prioress’s room in a daze. Metamorph Magi? The minutiae of grammar? Her mind was in a ferment, so that she nearly walked into sister Hilda.

“What have you there?” Hilda asked pleasantly. Not giving herself time to think about it first, Rowena held out the book without speaking. “An Old Man’s Guide to Great Grammar?” Hilda read out, “Where did you get that? It’s not from the library.”

“No,” Rowena answered faintly. “The prioress just gave it to me; it belonged to my mother she says.”

“I didn’t know your mother was a scholar!”

“Neither did I,” Rowena replied enigmatically, and walked away, leaving Hilda staring after her.

Though there were duties she should have been attending to, Rowena took the book with her into the dormitory, which would be empty at this time of day. She sank down on her pallet, staring at the book, then slowly, she opened it. It was a spell book.

She had been given some tutelage from her mother, so the spell on the first page of the book presented no obstacle to her. The magic beyond that though was a different matter. She became completely absorbed, and it was only the sound of the priory bell that shocked her out of her enchantment with the book’s contents.

In the days that followed, she became obsessed with the book. When she was alone in the scriptorium, she would complete her day’s work by magic, then spend the time till nightfall poring over the book, puzzling over the complex instructions, and wondering if she dared try any of the spells. Only last week she’d had a terrible turn when, having accidentally transformed her long dark hair into bright feathers, she’d been temporarily unable to change it back. The panic engendered by this near catastrophe had scared her badly.

Before coming to live here, she had spent many sleepless nights agonizing over the decision to renounce magic, and devote her life to scholarship. She had given up much in exchange for the safety and opportunities this place afforded. She had forced herself to accept many onerous obligations in order to be here, had spent time earning the trust of her sisters. The thought of losing her hard-won position because of a reckless mistake was intolerable. She vowed to go more slowly, to be more careful.

Her mother had been dismayed at Rowena’s choice. They had argued about it. Her mother, a less serious-minded woman, pleasure-loving and easy going, couldn’t imagine choosing the life Rowena contemplated. “You’ll be shut up with the same people day in and day out!” She exclaimed. “And no men: ever!”

They were sitting companionably by the fireside in the single room of their cottage. A spindle hovered in midair beside the older woman as a smooth length of green thread emerged from it, rolling itself into a neat ball on the table. Rowena, whose task it was to make the soup for their evening meal, caused a spoon to stir the caldron in precise circles as she sat across from her mother, leaning forward and speaking with intensity.

“How else can a woman be a scholar?” She asked passionately. “You know that’s all I care about. I don’t care about children or husbands or pretty things.” She cast a glance around the cottage, which was adorned with many pretty things.

“You’re my only surviving child. Am I never to have a granddaughter then?”

Rowena’s eye’s softened and she reached out to lay her hand briefly on her mother’s arm, almost in apology. Rowena rarely showed affection. Her mother sighed, and allowed the spindle to come to rest on the table.

“Ah well, it’s for you to choose. If that is what you wish, then I will not hinder you.”

Rowena smiled. She had been prepared to defy her mother if she must, but she was glad not to have to. Also, she was glad not to have to bring forward the most grim of her many reasons for choosing as she had. The tide of belief and custom was turning in Britain. Magic, once revered and sought after, wasn’t quite so stylish anymore. In fact, it could be downright dangerous in the wrong company.

Rowena’s mother knew this as well as anyone, but she would not be careful. Rowena had remonstrated with her many times over indiscretions, but her mother would just laugh. Only last month, Rowena had watched in horror as her mother stopped the cheese maker’s youngest son grievously injuring himself, by magically arresting his fall from the limb of a cherry tree he’d been forbidden to climb.

“Would you have had me let him break his leg or worse?” Her mother had asked in shock.

Rowena frowned. “He’s a horrid little boy and he’s been told over and over not to climb that tree,” she said.

“You haven’t answered my question,” her mother replied. For a light-minded woman, she was capable of a logical rigor in conversation that Rowena had learned from, but which she didn’t always appreciate.

Rowena hated above all else to be at a loss for words, or incapable of answering a question. This, however, was a riddle beyond her skill. Should magic be used to save others from suffering, even if the potential victim was unworthy? Even if it put the sorceress herself at risk?

Choosing to sidestep the question again, Rowena said, “If the wrong person saw you do such a thing, folk might begin to mutter against you. You yourself have told me tales of witches and wizards being driven away by folk who feared or mistrusted them. Sometimes an even worse fate awaits those accused of dark practices.”

“What dark practice is there in saving a child, no matter how wretched, from injury or death?” It was an argument they had, in one form or another, at least once a season, and it always ended with her mother saying blithely, “I’m a sorceress, no one can harm me!” Rowena hoped passionately that this was true, but she wasn’t sure.

Now, standing in the darkness, her hand resting on the cool cover of the Metamorph Magi, she felt a stab of longing for her dead mother. Kind as the other sisters were, Rowena had no true friend among them, except perhaps Hilda, and she missed the intimacy of having someone to love, who loved her.

The next few weeks offered little opportunity for scholarship, mundane or magical. It was planting season, and all hands were needed in the fields, even hands which normally touched only parchment. During this time, Rowena’s dreams receded into their former forgettable recesses. The physical fatigue of the work had its benefits. She hoped that this would be the end of the matter. Not long after her return to the scriptorium however, she was once again wakened by compelling but unfocussed sequences in which the fair-haired woman was surrounded by forces that sought to harm her.

Although the source of the threat was unclear, certain details of the woman’s surroundings began to build in Rowena’s mind, until she felt sure she would recognize the village and the people in it if she encountered them in the living world. The woman wasn’t far from the coast. The countryside she called home was hilly, and there was a Saxon castle somewhere nearby. Storms were violent, and sometimes caused destruction, or even a change in the shape of the coastline. There was a scruffy dog, and a benign procession of ill and wounded coming for treatment.

Rowena couldn’t have said when or how she began to believe that the woman was real. By the time she thought to wonder how it had happened, it was too late. Rowena was not given to fanciful notions. In fact, she found fanciful notions distasteful. She had never dreamed like this before, and she knew that her mother had sometimes learned things about the real world through dreams. The compelling vividness of the dreams convinced Rowena that they betokened something in the real world. This certainty was rivaled only by her fervent wish that they would go away.

One of the most disturbing aspects of these dreams was how oblivious the fair-haired woman seemed to the danger that menaced her. The sweet smile that was her typical expression alternately charmed and infuriated Rowena. The woman began to seem like the younger sister Rowena had never had, and she longed to shriek warnings as the other woman dispensed charms and remedies with ingenuous disregard for the risks.

It was around this time that Rowena began noticing the raven. It didn’t do anything showy, but ravens are ravens, and she noticed. The first time she saw it, it was perched on top of a barn, another raven next to it. Immediately she thought of Huginn and Muninn, the ravens of thought and memory. Thought, or perhaps memory, took to the wing, and Rowena didn’t see it again. The raven’s continued presence, combined with the dreams, were undermining the tranquility she’d come here to find, and distracting her from scholarship.

She began to get careless, a failing she loathed in others. One evening, thinking herself alone in the scriptorium, she used magic to prevent her candle from tipping over onto the manuscript she had just finished illuminating. She heard a gasp of shock behind her, and whirled to find she was not alone. She tried to say that she’d caught it with her hand, but she saw the incredulity mingled with fear on Hilda’s face. Nothing was said, but Rowena’s place there, never completely secure, became even less certain.

It was the incident with the raven that forced her hand. She’d been helping (reluctantly) with the milking, and some foolish village children were throwing stones at the raven, which had perched on the barn’s roof. Rowena hadn’t known what they were doing until she stepped out of the barn. If she’d had more time to think, she’d have done differently, but, seeing the bird about to be pegged off by little Willie, who had a vicious and accurate shot, she acted before thinking, another flaw she despised in others.

Using magic, she stopped the stone in midair and sent it back to tap Willie smartly on the forehead before falling to the ground at his feet. This time, it wasn’t just one person seeing something odd in the half light of evening. There were witnesses: lots of them. In the shock of what she’d done, she lacked the presence of mind to dawn an astounded expression to match those of the people around her. Instead, they all looked stunned, while she alone looked guilty and frightened.

Some clarity returning at last, Rowena broke the awed silence. Trying to sound as normal as possible, she upbraided the children for their idleness. Disliking children, she was fairly accomplished at upbraiding, and the children, like the adults, not knowing what to do or say, merely slunk off, muttering vaguely. Rowena picked up her pail of milk, and made a remark about the weather before scuttling away.

After that, things began to be markedly uncomfortable for Rowena. She could feel tension building. No one had said anything yet, but instinct told her that her place there might no longer be a safe one. She had heard many stories from her mother of such times: when security turned to suspicion, and it became prudent or even necessary to move on.

She blamed herself bitterly for having been tempted by her mother’s book. She had determined when she came here, that magic would have no part in her life. Like a garment too gaudy for good taste, she would discard it. She would devote herself to learning, the only learning that was safe. If only the book hadn’t come to her. And yet, the book still exerted a strong pull on her attention, and on her feelings. She supposed it was because it represented a last link to her mother. She had often found her mother frivolous, but they had been close, and Rowena never even considered destroying or abandoning the book; such an idea would be unthinkable.

She was not yet permanently committed to the house where she lived. She could leave without betraying any vows. She lay awake at night, wrestling with herself over what to do. She had found a life well-suited to her here. Its ordered, regimented days appealed to her. Life was routine, predictable, safe, governed by a rigid schedule, and by austerity, which also appealed to her. Nowhere else did a woman have such access to books and learning, except perhaps the very wealthy, which she was not.

Women came to this life from many directions. She understood religious devotion motivated some, but she knew she wasn’t alone in having other reasons for wanting to be here. The world was a dangerous place for women. Her father was long dead, and lacking mail kin to protect them, she and her mother had been vulnerable. There was safety in numbers, even among women. Leaving such safety was a frightening idea, but if folk here were beginning to suspect what she really was, that safety could turn to violence at any moment.

When she asked, a peddler’s family bound for the coast agreed she could travel with them. She had heard of an abbey with a library there, and, having no other destination in mind, abandoned what she had expected to be safety and permanence. Hilda embraced her in fair well, but wouldn’t meet her eyes. She gathered up her meager belongings into a bundle, the book wrapped safely in a shawl, and left the dormitory for the last time.

Folk were unflatteringly pleased to see her go. She held her head high as she left, but felt a twinge of sadness she was careful not to show.

Chapter 3: Salazar and the Saxon Soldier

 

Salazar stood staring moodily out to sea. He had rowed himself out to one of the tiny islets in the archipelago off the mainland because he wanted to be alone to think. He stared at the water some distance away, and several fish rose to the surface. They began jumping out of the water in a very peculiar manner. Soon they were launching themselves at one another, waging a kind of incongruous and unnatural battle. Salazar quickly grew bored however, and allowed the fish to sink back into the sea.

Since his mother’s death, his discontent had been growing. She had had the seid magic, and as her son he had enjoyed prestige in their small community. His own gifts had grown steadily, but somehow folk didn’t revere him as they had his mother. His sister, the new seid woman, hadn’t helped matters. She showed promise of being as powerful as their mother had been, but unlike their mother, distrusted Salazar, and showed him open contempt. As the Vala she was revered, and folk tended to believe what she believed. The more time went by, the less there seemed to be for him here.

The fact was, he’d always felt like a bit of an outsider. His father had come from lands far to the east, travelling with traders whose business took them past the southern coast of the land of the Fins. His father had dwelt for a season with the local seid woman, conducting a lucrative trade in dragon eggs, and eggs that grew into serpents the like of which had never been seen in those lands.

Their brief liaison had produced Salazar, a wizard of remarkable gifts, but a boy who garnered little liking. He mostly took after his mother in looks, but there was something odd about his features, a kind of mismatched inaccuracy, as though his face was the result of a sculptor with the palsy.

If it had been only his appearance, the peaceable folk round about would have overlooked his oddity, but either as a result of feeling himself unwelcome, or because of some in-born character trait, he grew into an increasingly insular and occasionally morose person whom few sought out. Those who took the trouble to know him well, respected his perceptiveness and his quick intelligence. Only those fewer whom he trusted, ever witnessed the rare smile, and even more rare belly laugh, which transformed him.

He spent long hours alone, fiercely honing his magical gifts, learning to command the will of animals, and move objects without touching them. His control over snakes had come without trying, but he found he could command any animal if he applied his will with sufficient concentration.

Standing alone on the shore, trying to look ahead into his future, he wondered where he should go. Living along a trade root was useful; it gave him choice. He was repelled by the idea of turning eastward. He had no desire to look backward to the place his absent father had come from. As there was nothing for him here, he determined to head west.

His decision made, he set speedily about implementing it. He tracked down a Gallic captain who was lately arrived and determined to depart soon. Salazar was a practiced oarsman and fisher, but he had no experience on the large sailing ships used for trade.

He Convinced the captain of his fitness as a deck hand by looking carefully into the other man’s mind, and pulling out the correct answers to the captain’s probing questions. Really he didn’t have to work that hard at it. All it really required was the exertion of a little force on the captain’s will, a nudge to make him do what Salazar wanted. Still, he would need to know a sailor’s lore, so he took enough from the captain’s thoughts to see him through the first few days of the voyage until he could learn.

Buoyed by his success, Salazar’s mood lightened. He spent the next few days looking around the small settlement with more affection than he’d ever felt for his home before. Already he felt himself a man-of-the-world, and this place seemed merely a backwater on his way to greatness.

He spent his last night drinking with the motley collection of sailors, traders and locals who frequented the only alehouse, entertaining them with magic. The Vala would never make a show of her skills in this way, so the people didn’t often get to see magic done. They were excited by his demonstrations, and vied with one another to refill his tankard.

With that jovial openness that can accompany the departure of someone whom most are glad to see the back of, they treated him with more friendliness than they had ever done before. He liked the feeling this gave him. He departed the following morning with a comfortable sense of superiority; this was not a bad place, but his destiny lay beyond it, he was sure.

The tasks of a sailor proved easy to mimic. The ship’s company bore men from many lands, and Salazar was cautious about using magic to accomplish his duties. He used it freely to conceal his snake though. He never considered leaving this favoured companion behind, and the business of magical deflection and distraction was child’s play to him, so that none saw her unless he wished it.

Despite his pretensions, he had never been more than a day’s journey from his home, and gazed about him wide-eyed all the time. He couldn’t really have been said to make friends in the months that followed, but, happy to be free of what now seemed a most limiting life, his spirits were high, and so if he had no blood brothers, he did have companions.

They’d been picking up information and rumors, so were not taken by surprise at the bustle of activity as they made their way into Norman ports. They found the coastal towns aswarm with men readying themselves to board a fleet of ships headed by the Norman Duke, who fancied himself heir to the English crown. Squeezing himself into a tavern overflowing with raucous soldiers, Salazar was exhilarated; this was life!

Funds were running low, and it was time to bulk up his purse, using his typical strategy. Largely failing in his attempt to appear diffident, he insinuated himself into a dice game. At first he let the dice fall as they might, winning and losing at random. Then, he began to shift the odds in his favour by using magic to control how the dice would fall. He was always careful not to win too much, and always quit while he was ahead. This program kept his purse supplied with coin, but it won him few friends.

Salazar left the dice game, accepting a cup of ale from a pretty, red-haired woman, daughter of the publican. The room was crowded and noisy. Men laughed, joked, told stories, played dice, and drank. An old man had been playing a harp, almost unheard in the din. When he’d set it down on the chair and gone in search of refreshment, there were cries of encouragement for one of the men to take up the harp and sing. Salazar saw the man stand, drain his cup, and move easily to the chair where the harp lay. He picked it up, and sat down, looking entirely at his ease.

He was clearly a soldier rather than a bard, but his looks were uncommon. He was a large man, powerful, but with the graceful way of moving that the best swordsmen have. His hair was fair, and he wore it long, contrary to Norman custom. He had a pleasant, open face, and a confident bearing that Salazar envied.

Usually, all of these traits would have added up to someone Salazar subtly resented, and was ready to dislike. He despised boastfulness or bluster, and as a small, wiry man, was naturally ill-at-ease with men who so blatantly outweighed him. For some reason, this man didn’t trigger the typical reflex reaction, and Salazar watched him with growing interest.

The man began to play, starting with a rowdy drinking song about a tavern owned by a lively widow. The song was clearly a favourite, and many joined in on the choruses. Between songs, there was a friendly banter between the musician and his listeners, but to Salazar’s keen perception, there was something not entirely consistent. The singer was one of them, but he wasn’t. The men respected his skill, but there was something below the surface. Their encouragement was genuine, but at the same time it was a means to make a slight distinction between him and themselves. Salazar wondered if the man knew. He was so self-possessed that it was impossible to tell.

His comrades kept the singer’s cup full. At length, he stood up, set the harp back on the chair, and left the tavern to visit the latrine. When he returned, Salazar caught his eye. There was something almost familiar about the blond man. Salazar was sure they’d never met, and yet …

“May I buy you a drink in payment for your music?” Salazar asked.

The man did the slightest of double-takes at Salazar’s odd appearance and strange accent, but said naturally enough, “That would be welcome,” and sat down beside Salazar. “My name is Godric. You don’t look like a Norman soldier.”

“Neither do you,” Salazar replied directly. There was a flicker of something that might have almost been alarm in the other man’s eyes, but he said merely, “I keep my hair long, in the custom of my home. What’s your story? Have you come to fight for William?”

Salazar made a dismissive gesture. It wasn’t the kind of self-deprecating gesture a man might make who feels himself unfit for fighting. Rather, it was a gesture to dismiss William, William’s cause, and by extension, anyone who concerned themselves with fighting for another’s purpose.

Godric was intrigued. He felt himself to be a confident man, the equal of any, but his was the confidence of size and skill. This odd looking fellow, from the heavens only knew where, could sit alone in a tavern full of soldiers, and blithely dismiss them all. Godric, who valued bravery above all, wondered who this strange man was, and what was the source of his remarkable self-assurance.

They swapped stories of places they had seen, places they’d like to see, lore about ships Salazar had picked up from sailors, lore about weapons which Godric loved to talk about, singers and musicians they’d heard. Both avoided asking or answering overt questions about each other, and Salazar began to suspect why the man seemed familiar.

“Do you play dice?” Salazar asked casually.

“Of course.” Godric produced dice, and they threw. Once more, Salazar began by letting the dice fall naturally. When he began causing the odds to favour his throws, he waited for some challenge, but none came. Finally, impatient to get at the truth of what he suspected, Salazar flicked a die right toward Godric’s eye.

At the last instant, the die was halted, stopping in midair an inch from its target. Salazar smiled. Godric raised a hand, too late, to pretend that he’d batted it away just in time. When he looked around however, no one was watching him.

Godric stared hard into Salazar’s face. “I give you one chance to explain yourself friend,” Godric said menacingly.

“It was a test,” Salazar replied simply.

Godric was on his feet in an instant, his face filled with rage. The publican had a keen eye for trouble however, and even before Godric’s hand landed on his sword, the tavern owner was shouting, “No brawling in here. Take it outside.”

The tavern owner was a burley man. Godric knew he could take him easily, but there was trouble enough, and the last thing he wanted was attention, so he glared fiercely at Salazar, then turned for the door. Normally the prospect of a fight would have been enough to empty the tavern in no time flat, but something in Godric’s thunderous expression kept the men where they were. Following calmly, Salazar took this as more evidence that Godric wasn’t as much one of them as he might like to think.

In the darkness behind the tavern, Godric turned fiercely on Salazar and snarled, “I give you ten seconds to convince me I shouldn’t run you through for that.”

Salazar was tense, but determined not to show it. He shrugged, a movement more felt than seen. “You can try if you wish, but I mean you no harm. I should think you glad to make the acquaintance of another wizard, living isolated as you do.”

“Keep your voice down!” Godric hissed. “That is not a word to be used aloud, and what mean you by saying I live isolated? I don’t know what things may be like where you come from, but here, magic will get you attention you do not want.” Godric stirred restlessly. He didn’t really want to fight Salazar, but he was longing to bash something.

In fact, he had felt an odd pull from this wiry stranger. Even as he played, he could feel Salazar’s eyes upon him, like beams of light, or heat radiating from a fire. The foreigner’s appearance was unusual, but there was something more than that: a force or energy that Godric had sensed, without being able to define. Now he knew what it was. He had known a few magic folk in his youth, but he had vowed to leave all such things behind him, and the reminder of the things about himself he had striven to hide, wasn’t welcome.

“I don’t want to fight you,” Salazar said, keeping his voice calm. “You are the first wizard I’ve met since leaving my home. I wasn’t sure at first. I thought I could always tell, but you keep your power so well hidden, that I had to see for myself. I’m sorry if my actions offended you, it just seemed like the easiest way to confirm what I suspected.”

His tone conveyed a genuine regret, combined with an equally genuine surprise at Godric’s reaction. Godric felt the edge of his anger, which was in fact mostly fear of discovery, begin to ebb. He was starting to feel curiosity, and the edges of an unacknowledged loneliness. “It’s been a long time since I’ve met another … another one like myself.”

Salazar, ever watchful, and sensitive to the nuances of those who mattered to him, heard the loneliness, and responded to it. He himself couldn’t imagine a life in which one perpetually hid one’s magic, even refrained from using it, but loneliness was something he could understand without trying.

“How can you live each day without using magic?” He asked, not disparagingly, but with a genuine concern, that slid itself beneath the last of Godric’s anger.

“It’s just something you train yourself to,” Godric answered uncomfortably. “Just as I could learn to wield sword bow and ax, so I learned not to use magic. There are some places where magic is still valued, even villages where most folk are witches and wizards, but those are becoming more rare. I’ve been a member of the household of Harold Godwinson for many years, and that’s not a place where wizardry is prised, at least not openly, and certainly not in a soldier. Some of the women maybe, but not a fighting man. Is it different where you come from?”

“My mother was the wise woman of our village, a powerful witch. My sister has taken her place, and is revered. I never thought to try to hide my abilities until I left my home, and saw that many people fear wizards, and would hurt and kill us if they could. I did not test you in order to reveal your true nature to your comrades.”

Godric smothered a sigh. “That is well.” He bit off the words as though he might have said more, but didn’t.

There was a current of something between them; both felt it. Their shared magic was part of it, but there was something more also. Neither had ever known anyone like the other. Salazar had never seen a fighting man with Godric’s physical grace, and easy manner. Godric was intrigued by Salazar’s power, which allowed him to hold his own in a room full of strangers, or when faced by a man nearly twice his size. Because Salazar liked Godric, and felt the beginning of trust for him, Godric was able to see, as most people couldn’t, the hints of what lay beneath the impassive, unusual features. Salazar’s aura of focused power, and his rare smile, drew Godric, as he had not been drawn to befriend anyone in a long time.

“Will you run me through then?” Salazar asked, in the warm tone very few ever heard from him.

Godric laughed. “I fear that was an idle boast. I think you are a powerful wizard, too powerful to be felled by my sword arm.”

“That’s true, and I don’t wish to fight you. When I left my home to seek my destiny, I hadn’t thought how it would be to live among non-magic folk, not free to use magic openly. I don’t care for it. I have spotted one or two wizards, or magical creatures trying to blend in, but never anyone I wished to reveal myself to, until now.”

“But you must be careful. The consequences of discovery are serious. Surely you’ve seen that much.”

“Yes. I do not like it, but I know that you are right.”

There was a charged silence between them. Finally Godric asked, “Why did you leave your home?”

Salazar thought of his sister’s distrust, the uneasy, sidewise glances, the women who shied away from him, then told the other half of the truth. “I have always felt that a great destiny awaits me. I know not what it is or where, but I knew it wasn’t to be found in my home village. I wanted to learn more, to see more, to do more than I could in that backwater. And you? You’re not a Norman. Why did you leave your home?”

Godric’s hands moved restlessly, as though he sought to grasp something. “That is a long story friend, not to be told behind a tavern. You’re right, I’m no Norman. I’m a Saxon, formerly of the household of Harold Godwinson. Now … leave it that I am a soldier, and that I fight where honor dictates.”

His tone was flat, and Salazar perceived there was much left unsaid, but didn’t press the matter. Though Godric was twice his size, and trained in fighting skills Salazar couldn’t even imagine, Salazar felt an odd protectiveness for him. In the tavern, Godric’s self-possession had been compelling, but here in the darkness, Salazar sensed doubt, and something lost. He felt sure that whatever doubts lay behind Godric’s outward confidence, no one ever saw them, until now.

“You trust me,” Salazar said. It was a statement rather than a question, and made in a tone with no boastfulness, only kindness.

“I do,” Godric answered simply. A startling current of understanding passed between them.

“I trust you, and I do not trust easily. My mother had the seer’s gift. I have very little of the gift without the divining tools, but I feel that our paths run side-by-side. I do not wish to return to my duties on the ship, and lose sight of one another. I know you have valued companions of the sword, but the world is wide, and it is easy to miss the opportunities that fate offers.” Salazar spoke earnestly, kindly, but not without calculation. He had seen how ambivalent Godric’s companions were toward him, and he sought to get beneath Godric’s uncertainties by pretending they had no basis.

It worked. Godric would not acknowledge aloud the subtle distance his companions kept between themselves, and the Saxon soldier, who was different in a way that went beyond nationality. He knew it was there though. In this strange looking foreigner, this man who knew things about him no one else knew, this man who was frighteningly and reassuringly like himself, he sensed a companion whose loyalty would go beyond the brotherhood of soldiers. He found that he also didn’t want their paths to diverge.

Salazar had known that there were wizards abroad in the world, not only himself and the seid women of his family, but he hadn’t anticipated how gratifying it would be to find one. He had had no real friends in his life, and he threw his lot whole-heartedly in with Godric. He cared nothing for the cause of William the Norman, but without a backward glance he parted company with his ship in order to accompany his friend.

Salazar had no interest in the life of a soldier. He would fight when he must, but fighting for its own sake didn’t draw him. Neither was he attracted by the trappings of the soldier. He had an ingrained admiration for fine weaponry, but the intricacies of the defenses muggles used to protect themselves from it bored him.

Nevertheless, they decided that it would be best if Salazar posed as Godric’s squire. It was a role that Salazar found demeaning, but in this larger world full of people speaking strange languages and following strange customs, he was satisfied to accept the position of an inferior, for the moment at least.

Salazar’s chief nominal duty was the care and maintenance of Godric’s armor. It had to be thoroughly cleaned, oiled and polished after each use. Godric drilled with his company each day, and engaged in practice sessions of swordplay to keep his skills up. Without magic, Salazar would have found his duties extremely tiresome and time-consuming. As it was, everyone complemented Godric on the shine of his chainmail and helm, and Salazar enjoyed long walks by himself outside the city, away from the throng of an army and its orbit of followers. He was unused to the proximity of so many people, and found it burdensome.

One evening, they repaired to their favourite tavern in search of ale and fish stew. It was crowded and noisy. Most of the patrons were troops in William’s army, but there were some merchants and town’s folk, and at a corner table, two hooded figures Salazar thought might be a hag and a werewolf; at any rate both were eating from platters of raw liver.

Both Godric and Salazar, for different reasons, stood out. Godric’s long hair and beard marked him out as a Saxon amid the clean-shaven Normans, who also sported shaved heads, save for the distinctive tuft of hair left to cushion their war helms. Salazar was set apart both by his smaller stature, and his unusual facial features.

Salazar saw that Godric was troubled. “It’s the Duke,” he said in response to Salazar’s query. “I dined with his grace at midday. He’s distressed by a lack of funds to equip and provision his army. He worries that if the winds do not become favourable soon, his plans may come to nothing if he can’t find aid. I wish to help, but …” he trailed off, gesturing vaguely with the small knife he was using to spear pieces of fish, then attacked his stew once more. At the corner table, the larger of the hooded figures drank from a goblet of something too deeply red to be any kind of wine Salazar or Godric had ever seen.

Salazar frowned. Godric’s armor and proud bearing bespoke wealth and position, and Salazar had never seen the like of Godric’s jewelled sword, but Godric would never give a straight answer about where the sword had come from, and never seemed to have much in the way of hard currency.

“Why does it matter to you?” Salazar asked.

“The Duke is my liege lord, you know this! I am sworn to him. I heard with my own ears the assertions of King Edward the confessor that the Duke should inherit his throne. I was with Harold Godwinson when he swore to support the Duke’s claim. The Duke has right on his side, and it is the duty of every man who owes him fealty to forward the Duke’s cause.”

Salazar shrugged. For him, kings and dukes were the stuff of stories and legends. Rule in his home had been by whoever was strongest in the village, and it was not uncommon for the folk to have some say in how they were governed. Godric’s words sounded lofty and poetic, but they had no real impact for Salazar. He could see his friend’s true distress though, and that was what mattered to him. At the corner table the smaller of the hooded figures was banging a goblet on the wood, demanding a refill.

Some days later Salazar sought Godric out. The Saxon had just finished a series of vigorous bouts on the practice field, and swung his step toward where Salazar waited. Even after so much exertion, Godric’s stride was jaunty, and he swaggered a bit, proud of his victories.

Salazar, though not a soldier, admired Godric’s skill and ebullience, and gave Godric one of his rare smiles. “I have something for you brother,” he said. Godric held out his hand and Salazar dropped a purse heavy with coins into it. The delicate clinking sound was an odd counterpoint to the heavy clang of steel on steel all around them.

Godric’s eyes widened and his face broke into a broad grin. “My brother!” He exclaimed in delight, “How came you by this?”

Salazar glanced around, but no one was in earshot. “You know I’ve been wandering round the countryside while you practice here. I came on a goblin family some days ago. When you told me of your desire to enrich your duke, I approached them. They set strict terms for its repayment, but the money’s yours.”

Godric’s grin faded. “Is that wise my brother? Goblins have their own magic which is not to be lightly dismissed, and they are not known for their charity, particularly when it comes to the repayment of debt.”

Salazar made a dismissive gesture. “You say your duke is bound to prevail in his campaign. War is a profitable affair for the victors. When this business is done you will have more than sufficient to pay them back.”

Godric frowned. “War is not about spoils,” he said rather sternly, “It’s about glory and honor.”

Salazar gave a cynical little laugh. “As you say, but glory and honor are usually washed down with a liberal draft of booty. You’ll have no difficulty with the goblins.”

“I do not fight for spoils,” Godric insisted.

Salazar shrugged. This wasn’t going quite the way he had expected. In his imagination, Godric had praised him for his resourcefulness and thanked him for his friendship. “You said you needed money, and I got it for you. If you don’t want it I’ll take the coin back to the Goblins,” he said defensively. “I don’t really care what happens to William.”

Godric dropped his eyes to the purse in his hand. “No,” he said, “I would like to offer this to the Duke. Thank you brother, you are a true friend.” He slapped Salazar on the back.

The big Saxon had a personality to match his size, powerful, impressive, compelling. To Salazar, who had known so little approval in his life, Godric’s praise was like strong wine. He would deal with the goblins when the time came, if it ever did. Soon they would be bound for England, far out of reach. Either way, Salazar knew there was always a way out of any tight spot, so long as you were sufficiently cunning to see it.

Chapter 4: Rowena on the Road

 

Rowena detested bodily discomforts. It wasn’t that she was soft, or a lover of luxury, rather the opposite. Having dedicated her life to the pursuit of scholarship, she felt matters of the body to be beneath her notice. As a child, she would look on with scorn as, each week, her pleasure-loving mother would conjure a person-sized tub in the middle of their small cottage, use magic to fill it with water, then stir it with her wand till it reached a temperature that filled their tiny home with steam. Now however, weary, saddle-sore, and aching from nights of sleeping on the cold ground, she felt her lofty ideals to be at an all-time low. She spent the last hour of daylight daydreaming about sufficient privacy in which to do a re-enactment of her mother’s weekly program, and soak her various physical complaints away. She wouldn’t act on her desire, but it helped pass the time to imagine it.

There was only one spare horse for riding, and she knew it was generous of the peddler’s family to let her ride at all. She had been prepared to walk all the way to the coast, and as she slid down off the tired beast and hobbled bow-legged to begin helping to set up camp for the night, she thought she’d best return to walking in the morning. It was a tossup between competing aches.

As she reached to pull down a load of blankets from the wagon, Draugur, the unpleasant elder brother of the peddler’s wife, materialized at her side to help her. Tired and unfit though she felt herself to be, she would gladly have dispensed with his aid. He was a reticent, scrawny young man with a complexion that varied incongruously between pallid and ruddy. He seemed to like staring at her, and he was one of the burdens she must bear in exchange for protection on the road.

The peddler’s wife Elwyna had tried to shrug off Rowena’s stated discomfort, but there was no denying that the woman looked shifty even as she attempted to reassure. “He travels with us,” she had remarked unhelpfully. “My husband needs the help of a strong man in his work sometimes.” This statement was so obviously absurd that it would have been rude to say anything, so Rowena said nothing. Feran, the peddler, was a strong and extremely capable man. The buying, selling and transportation of goods across Sussex with the aid of draft animals and a sturdy wagon seemed unlikely to require the help of someone as stringy and indolent as Draugur. If Elwyna had her secrets, Rowena did too, and so she didn’t press the matter, out of respect as much as courtesy to her hosts.

Rowena had in fact come to like Feran and Elwyna very much. Feran was cheery, practical and efficient. Elwyna was kind, humorous, and sufficiently firm with her small children. Elwyna had a baby at the breast, and a boy of eight or so named Aidan.

With the inscrutable motives of a child, Aidan fixated on Rowena almost from the moment she joined their company. He was always hanging about, asking her questions, talking guilelessly of his childish fancies, and generally disturbing her peace of mind. As a guest, she couldn’t openly snub him, and her attempts at indifference or stern looks seemed only to heighten his interest in her.

They were travelling generally eastward. Feran’s custom was to move goods from French traders on the Sussex coast toward Wessex, and produce from the rich Sussex farms and pastures, east to the sea coast. Sometimes this meant travelling on droverways that led from settlements toward outlying farms and pastures. At other times it meant traversing the great forest of Andredsweald, relying on the remnants of old Roman roads to speed them past the dangers of wolves, wild boar, and the occasional bear that dwelt in the forest.

The forest was sparsely dotted with small settlements, but folk there seemed so removed from the farmers and herders of the downs and coastal plains that Rowena was unsure whether they even spoke the same language. The people of these small settlements were as likely to fend them off with spears and pikes as to welcome them. After years of plying the same routes, Feran generally knew whom to avoid, but these isolated folk could be unpredictable, so he always approached with caution.

It was late afternoon. They had stopped to make camp for the night, ahead of sunset. Rowena had been growing increasingly uneasy around Draugur. She didn’t like the way he looked at her, and she had begun to have suspicions about the cause of his changes in complexion, and his mysterious absences. He would return, ruddy and reticent, and nothing would be said, but Rowena thought she knew what his absences might mean. Consequently, she had slipped away from the camp on her own. She was looking for wild garlic, or rosehips, as protection. She wasn’t sure if she was correct, and either way, she didn’t want Elwyna to know what she was looking for.

She knew the forest was a dangerous place. She hadn’t strayed far from the camp, but as she straightened from pulling up some wild garlic, she found herself surrounded by creatures she had never seen, but only heard about. There were four of them. They were nearly twice as tall as a man, and had light green skin, and brown straggly hair. They carried clubs, and despite their vacant expressions, looked extremely menacing.

They were staring at her in a way not dissimilar to the way Draugur looked at her, except that they were licking their lips. She tried frantically to remember everything she had ever read about trolls. These were clearly of the forest variety, but that distinction didn’t help her: stupid, clumsy, and pleased to make a meal out of human flesh. She froze.

One of Rowena’s strengths was her self-discipline. With it, she had rigorously trained herself never to use magic, not even to think about using magic. This same self-discipline kept her from betraying her fear, but it also immobilized her, leaving her with no idea what to do. Above her head, the trolls seemed to be discussing how to kill her most efficiently. Their grunting speech was barely comprehensible, but their gestures left the meaning in no doubt. One brandished his club, while another pulled out a thin, deadly looking blade. The third made a strangling gesture, while the fourth pulled vacantly on the wiry hairs growing out of its chin.

Rowena disciplined her mind to think clearly. She had no weapon save her intellect. Watching the trolls, she found herself mentally filling in the wide gaps left by their deficient language and reasoning. As part of her mind looked on in disbelief, she found herself reasoning that clubbing and stabbing would surely waste flesh. She found herself aligning with the third troll: surely strangling would be most efficient if your goal was supper. She felt a wild need to do something, to say something, anything.

“How do you plan to cook me?” She found herself calling up to them.

They stopped their discussion and looked down at her. “Roasting for the tender bits, and stewing for the tough,” the blade wielder answered.

Rowena nodded, hardly knowing what she did. Absurdly, she found herself holding out the wild garlic. “I recommend seasoning the stew with this garlic.” Her mind was racing now, darting around like a rabbit amid a pack of wolves. “Garlic is very useful, especially when the meat is poisoned.”

“Poisoned?” Demanded the first troll. “What’s this?”

Rowena kept her face impassive. “I’ve been eating a diet rich in blisterberries,” she said, inventing wildly. “I suffer from an affliction of the gall bladder you see. This requires me to eat massive amounts of blisterberries, which, as you know, are poisonous to trolls. My flesh will be full of their juice. If you wish to avoid the deleterious effects, you must first marinate the flesh in a concoction of wild garlic and rose hips, combined with water, and infused with the nectar of the jallabba fruit, which of course must be picked on the third night of the waning moon. When the flesh has been marinated, then it must be roasted on a fire of birch twigs, collected at sunrise of course. This will leach out half the poison from the blisterberries. The other half may only be extracted by aging the flesh in a cedar box, in which the leaves of the flutterby bush have been …”

The vacantly staring troll couldn’t take it anymore. He seized her around the waste, and lifted her into the air. “What means all this? You’re trying to confuse us.”

“I’m trying to save your lives!” Rowena got out, not having to pretend indignation. “I offered you the garlic myself! Would I offer you my very own garlic if I meant you harm? You can tell by my breath that I’ve been eating vast amounts of blisterberries, just smell it!” She blew as hard as she could into the troll’s face, using her hands to fan the breath toward him. “You can smell it, and everyone knows blisterberries are fatal, I mean poisonous to trolls. If you want to keel over and die, then roast me right now, I don’t care, I’d be happy to poison you!”

Rowena had never heard of blisterberries, and her breath was unlikely to smell of anything unusual, but the troll holding her looked uneasy, twitched its nose, and dropped her hastily. The impact hurt rather a lot, and by the time she’d picked herself up and was able to notice things, a furious argument was raging. The vacant troll had become convinced that Rowena’s breath reeked of poison, and was exhorting the others not to eat her. The argument began to edge toward violence. Unnoticed, Rowena began to slink away into the trees. When she felt she was out of sight, she ran.

Her flight took her back toward the camp, and she nearly ran right into Elwyna. She stumbled to a halt, and mindlessly thrust the wild garlic toward the other woman. Looking surprised, Elwyna took it.

When Rowena had stammered out her story, now shaking with reaction, Feran and Draugur set off in the direction she had come from. When they returned some time later, it was to report that the trolls had obviously blundered off in the opposite direction, having lost interest in poisonous travellers.

Rowena lay awake a long time that night, reliving the day’s events. She had made good use of her intellect to free herself from a dangerous situation, but more than the after-effects of fear was keeping her restless. She shifted her position, and found a twig poking into her side. She reached under her blankets and pulled it out. Instead of casting it aside however, she held it experimentally in her hand. Around her in the darkness, the forest was full of rustlings, tweetings, and sounds she couldn’t put a name to. This was nothing like the safety of her home with the sisters, and she found herself cautiously re-examining her stance on the use of magic.

She had traded her magical abilities for safety, and the chance for scholarship. Both those rewards had been taken from her; the bargain hadn’t worked. She twirled the twig in her fingers. One of her mother’s talents had been wand-making, and Rowena began to dredge up everything she could remember about this rare art.

Growing up with her mother, she had felt lonely for a larger family. Living with the sisters, she had felt herself separated by her difference, and their suspicion. Now, she was truly alone, and alone was no safe thing for a woman. She had her intellect yes, but how far could that take her in a dangerous and violent world? Had she been wrong to reject magic? Perhaps she should have stayed with her mother and learned all she could, in order to protect herself. With neither father, brother nor husband to protect her, she must find some way to be her own guardian. If her intellect was a gift, so was her magic. She didn’t feel ready to live openly as a witch, as her mother had done, but a woman alone in the world needed every weapon she could lay her hand on. Lying in the darkness, she resolved to remember everything she could of her mother’s teachings, and to make herself a wand.

At the end of a particularly long day of travel, Feran chose to set up camp in a small clearing made by a burn off of the previous season. Lightning would cause occasional small fires, but the damp climate ensured things never became serious.

Having made sure that Draugur was occupied in helping Feran to cover the wagon’s contents of grain against the damp of evening and early morning, Rowena set off to fill the water skins for the camp, and to have a little private wash by the stream. Despite her experiments with wand-making, she had stuck by her self-imposed injunction against doing magic. She didn’t warm the water before washing, nor lighten its weight as she trudged up hill, a heavy skin in either hand, back to where Elwyna had lit the cooking fire.

The sun had gone below the horizon, and in the forest, twilight came easily. As Rowena crested the small hill, it took her a few seconds to take in what she was seeing. Feran and Draugur were busy at the wagon on the far side of the clearing. Elwyna, having got the fire nicely alight, was flinging the saddle blankets across some low shrubs to air. Needing both hands, she had placed the baby on a blanket. Having turned her back briefly, she didn’t see the wolf that slunk silently toward the fire. Rowena’s mouth opened in a silent scream as the wolf lunged toward the oblivious infant. Then, several things seemed to happen all at once. With no thought in her head of what to do, Rowena dropped the water skins and bounded forward.

Sensing something, Elwyna turned, a saddle blanket still in her hand. Before either of them could do anything however, there was a piercing shriek, and a dark shape descended on the wolf like an arrow shot from the bow. Before either of the women knew what was happening, the wolf’s right eye had been gouged out by the fierce claw of a raven. Howling with agony, the wolf turned and fled into the darkness under the trees.

Trembling with reaction, Rowena moved like a sleepwalker toward the baby, who, frightened by the noise, began a howling of her own. Galvanized into action, Elwyna dropped the blanket and lunged forward to snatch the baby up into her arms. Above the baby’s head, the eyes of the two women met. Even through her shock, Rowena felt the knife of Elwyna’s piercing gaze, which asked a silent question.

Rowena, her strength drained by reaction, let herself sink onto a mossy bolder and dropped her head briefly into her hands. She didn’t want to look at Elwyna, who seemed to be asking, maybe even accusing. Finally however, she forced herself to look up. Elwyna was rhythmically stroking the baby into calm, while her gaze continued to rest on Rowena. Rowena saw that the older woman’s eyes were not accusatory however, only intensely curious.

“How did you do that?” She asked.

“Do what?” Rowena asked limply. “I didn’t do anything, it was the raven.” But even as she said it, the word raven caught in her throat. Had she done something? Of course not. The raven had clawed at the wolf, not she. The raven had done it … because … because ravens … she rubbed her index finger across the bridge of her nose, a habit she had when distressed. She dropped her head into her hands once more. When she looked up again, she said mechanically, “It was a miracle.”

Elwyna gave her a hard stare devoid of the awe miracles usually inspired, but said merely, “Say nothing to the men. We’ll tell them the wolf tried for the raven who it took for injured, and got more than it bargained for.”

Rowena spent an uncommonly uneasy night. Apart from the cold hard ground, she was troubled both by the events of the evening, and by the occasional strange sounds that came from the forest around them. She could identify many of the night sounds by now, but there were odd rumblings, growlings and keenings whose significance wholly escaped her, and which chilled her blood. Toward dawn she fell into a dream in which the fair-haired woman was stirring a caldron over a fire, while sounds that might have been the roar of battle could be heard in the distance. The woman seemed not to hear them, and continued placidly stirring the caldron’s contents, which were emitting turquoise steam.

It was not turquoise steam she awoke to however, but rather a driving rain and capricious wind. Feran decided that they should stay where they were till the worst of the weather passed. They were at a point where they would soon need to take one of the droverways to bypass a particularly dense growth of trees in the Andredsweald, and Feran was wary of bogging the wagon down in mud.

Rowena was unashamedly relieved to have a day of rest. Feran and Draugur had pulled the wagon well beneath a stand of leafy trees. Wrapped in all the clothing she possessed, and tucked in between sacks of grain, Rowena felt warm, cozy and safe. She had retreated there with her precious Metamorph Magi, as much for the comfort of the weight of the book in her hands as for purposes of scholarship. It travelled with her, by far the most substantial of her meager possessions, wrapped carefully in waxed cloth to protect it from the elements. When asked about it by Elwyna, she had said only that it was an inheritance from her mother.

Draugur, as he often did, had taken himself off into the forest on whatever mysterious errands occupied him. Rowena was glad to know nothing about his business. Reading and daydreaming, she had lost track of where the others were. She had, in fact, dozed off, the heavy book open on her lap, her head lolling against a grain sack, when scrabbling sounds disturbed her. She stirred faintly and opened her eyes to see Aden’s small face and mischievous bright eyes appear between the other sacks and bundles packed in the wagon. Seeing her eyes open, he abandoned his intention of scaring her awake with a blood-curdling scream, and settled for grinning at her and scrambling up onto the wagon bed, shimmying his way toward her. Sleepy and contented, she made no move to dissuade him.

On an inspiration, she whispered, “I’m hiding here. Let’s make a game of seeing how quiet we can be.” Aden was instantly interested by any use of the word game, and immediately put his finger to his lips and curled up at her feet, making himself into a tiny ball of warmth that she found oddly appealing. Her flighty mother had often allowed cats to share their small cottage as a way to keep rodents out of their modest food stores, and Rowena was reminded of them by Aden’s small weight against her. The sound of the rain was soothing, and to her delight, the boy did actually doze off as she’d hoped.

Some time later, they both woke to find that the rain had lessened in intensity. Still drowsy, Aden attempted to climb into her lap. Still sleepy herself, she allowed it, shifting the book carefully aside. She was not a maternal woman, but something in her responded to the warm, confiding weight of the small boy in her lap.

He reached out a grubby hand toward the book. Instinctively, she grabbed his hand and rubbed it on the edge of her cloak lest her precious book be soiled. With a slightly less grubby fingertip, he touched the cover. “Will you teach me to read?” He asked ingenuously. “What does this shape mean?” He traced the first letter M in Metamorph, and looked up at her inquiringly.

“That’s the letter M,” she said drowsily, “it makes the sound mmm, like in mother.”

“And this one?” His finger traced the E.

“That’s the letter E,” she replied automatically, “It can make lots of sounds, like …” Her voice trailed off, as a shot of adrenaline jolted her into full awareness. In her disciplined way, she showed nothing of her shock to Aden. “Trace the other letters you see.” Dutifully, he traced all the letters of the title, Metamorph Magi: Enchant Your Way to Anonymity. “Now open the book if you want to.” Her tone was neutral while her insides roiled with shock and vague alarm.

He opened the book, then made a sound of scorn and disappointment. “There’s nothing here!”

Rowena rubbed an index finger across the bridge of her nose. She was doing some fast thinking. She was quite accomplished at fast thinking, and said calmly, “This is a very special book. You can only see what’s written there if you know how to read.”

“That’s no fair! How can I know how to read if I can’t see the writing?”

She turned the pages carefully back to the opening page, which held the spell necessary to make the book’s true contents visible, visible that is, to a witch or wizard capable of reciting it. “Trace the first few letters on this page,” she said. When he had done so, she leaned back against the grain sack. Anyone looking at the cover of this book should have seen the title, Delineated Details: An Old Man’s Guide to Great Grammar, and anyone looking at its pages should see pedantic passages concerned with verb conjugations, anyone, that is, who was a muggle. Therefore, Rowena was forced to the reluctant conclusion that Aden wasn’t a muggle. She wasn’t immediately sure why this fact should distress her so, but it did.

“Will you teach me to read?” He demanded. “Will you? Will you?”

“Yes, I will,” she replied, “but not today. I hear your mother coming. Isn’t it time to eat?” Distracted as she’d hoped, he scampered down out of the wagon in search of Elwyna.

They resumed their journey the next day, and Aden, in the way of little boys, seemed to have forgotten all about Rowena’s book. Rowena, however, hadn’t forgotten what he had seen. When they stopped to make camp, Rowena waited until Feran and Draugur had gone off in search of dry firewood, and produced the Metamorph Magi, as if by chance, from her meager possessions. Trying to sound as if it was a statement of no import, she said to Elwyna, “Aden saw my book yesterday. He seemed quite eager for me to teach him to read.”

“Hmm,” said Elwyna distractedly, eyes closed as she nursed the baby.

“As I’ve said, this book belonged to my mother. It is beautifully illuminated. Would you like to see?”

Elwyna opened her eyes slowly, and glanced to where Rowena stood, holding the book open to a page half way through, which described, to any witch or wizard who had properly recited the opening spell, how to changed your ears into mushrooms. Elwyna’s eyes opened wider in puzzlement. “The pages are blank,” she said blankly.

Rowena closed the book and sat down on a fallen log across from Elwyna, staring at her intently. “The pages are blank only to a witch or wizard who hasn’t recited the spell at the beginning of the book. It’s an enchanted book. A muggle would see verses about grammar. Even a muggle who couldn’t read would see the writing.”

Elwyna sat up straight, disturbing the baby, who let out an outraged howl. Quickly righting things with the baby, Elwyna returned her attention to Rowena, and smiled broadly.

“I knew there was something about you! That raven, and there’s something in your face … I thought, but you didn’t …” She reached out her hand to clasp Rowena’s hand tightly. “I’m so glad to know this my sister!”

Rowena was moved by the woman’s kindness. Of all the people who had had occasion to call her sister in the past several years, none had ever done so with such warmth and sincerity. The vague alarm she had felt yesterday now dissolved into a rare feeling of inclusion. She had spent so much effort hiding her nature. Here was one at least, with whom she could be truly herself.

As they neared the sea coast, they became aware of an increasing bustle and unnatural activity. Feran told them what it was. “You’ll know Harold Godwinson had himself crowned King this winter past. The previous King’s court was thick with Normans, and some say Edward promised the throne to William, Duke of Normandy, and they call Harold a usurper, a pretender with no right to be King. William has been running all over the continent rounding up support for his claim. He even got the Pope to agree, and it’s said that William will bear the Papal banner. William’s forces are gathering across the channel, and wait only favourable winds to bring them here. King Harold Godwinson has massed all of his men here to await them.”

Rowena felt a tightening in her belly. What had she done? She, who never acted recklessly, who detested recklessness, had traveled through dangerous country, to rescue a woman she’d never met, from something Rowena couldn’t name. Why oh why had she come here, of all places, to the sight of what promised to be a terrible and bloody battle?

Chapter 5: Winds, Weather-Wisdom and War

 

Salazar slumped against the wall in the small room he and Godric had shared for the past several days. It was in one of the cleaner and more prosperous inns in the village of Saint-Valery-Sur-Somme, where Duke William of Normandy had assembled his fleet. The village was overflowing with soldiers, and Godric was unclear how they had secured quarters of such relative comfort, but he was learning that it didn’t always profit him to ask too many questions about exactly how Salazar made things happen.

Salazar was sitting on one of the straw pallets where they slept, letting his snake wind itself sinuously around his bare arm. Godric sat on the other pallet needlessly polishing his sword. It gleamed with its accustomed luster, but he needed to be doing something. They, like the rest of William’s forces, had been bottled up in this village for days. The winds seemed determined to flout the Duke’s intention to sail across the channel, and take England by force of arms.

The massed soldiers were beginning to move past restlessness into truculence. Brawls were becoming commonplace, and Godric spent most of his time preventing William’s soldiers from inflicting themselves on the local folk in the ways that soldiers too often did.

Like everyone, they were twitchy. The overcrowding meant, to Godric’s disgust, that there was no good fishing to be had, and he was getting tired of breaking up brawls. Salazar was intolerant of the crowding of the army, and even Godric, who was more used to it, had been glad to take refuge in their tiny but private quarters.

Godric’s attention was focused on the rubies of the hilt of the blade before him, but every now and then he slid a glance sideways to keep an eye on the snake. He disliked and mistrusted snakes, and it was only his deep fondness for Salazar, and the need not to give in to his fear, that kept him from objecting to its presence in their room.

“You can’t get that sword any more highly polished even with magic,” Salazar said lazily. “Here, you could hold Madella.” He reached his snake-covered arm toward Godric playfully.

“No thank you,” Godric said with dignity, not allowing himself to flinch, “I’m well occupied.” But he laid down his sword carefully, sighed, and looked around the small room. “Perhaps you would care for some local wine,” he said neutrally, “I hear it’s quite passable.”

There was half a goblet full of the objectionable stuff sitting on top of the single chest that was the room’s only furniture. Godric caused it to rise up, and move smoothly toward Salazar. It was a game they played often, and that they both liked. Salazar smiled as the goblet neared his face.

“Oh no,” he said with a great show of deference, “knowing how much you enjoy it, I couldn’t possibly deprive you of it.” Using his own magic, he exerted his force on the goblet to send it floating toward Godric.

“Oh, but you do look so thirsty. I beg you to refresh yourself.” Godric pushed back, and the goblet stopped a foot from him, then began slowly to move in Salazar’s direction. It stopped in mid-air between them as they both stared at it with expressions of intense concentration.

“No no,” Salazar said through gritted teeth, “you are a man of refinement, poorly suited to mere ale; this rare vintage becomes you better than it does me.” The cup wobbled a bit, but continued to hover between them.

“Out of courtesy to your more humble origins, I really think you need a bit of luxury more than I do.”

This jab, which had been meant entirely with good nature, sat uneasily with Salazar’s dignity, and instead of replying with words Godric could understand, he made a series of hissing and vowel sounds that meant nothing to Godric, but which caused Madella to slither off his arm and move slowly toward Godric.

Godric clenched his own teeth together and hissed through them, “That is an unworthy trick my brother. Really, I must insist, have the wine.” And with a mighty effort, he kept his concentration, exerted a final thrust of power, and sent the goblet forcefully forward and upward, overturning it onto Salazar’s head.

Salazar leapt up in shock, then burst into an uproarious laugh. He vanished the acrid stuff from his hair and clothing, then flopped back on the pallet. “Well done! You really are a powerful wizard, one of the most powerful I’ve seen.” He exclaimed. He had a rich deep laugh that seemed to come up from his belly, and it always made Godric smile to hear it.

Godric knew well by now that Salazar could be moody, sometimes even morose, but the Fin was also capable of a rich enjoyment of life. He valued jests, sport or games, and despite his unusual appearance, was also capable, when he chose, of charm. He knew how to make people like him when he wished to, and Godric was the first true friend of his life. Godric knew that most of their companions thought Salazar unapproachable, even sullen, but the swift intimacy that had grown between them upon learning that they were both wizards, had meant that Godric had come to know Salazar better than anyone. Godric knew there were depths in his friend that made him uneasy, but he also trusted Salazar’s loyalty, admired his skill, and enjoyed the face Salazar showed to those he trusted.

There was a knock on the door, and Godric opened it to reveal the inn-keeper bearing a tray with their meal. He thanked her with a graciousness that brought a surprised smile to her tired features. She laid the tray on the chest and disappeared through the door and back down the stairs.

“That’s uncommon service,” Godric said. “She must be a very busy woman these days.”

Salazar shrugged, “I have a way with women,” he replied idly, poking at the tray’s contents. “She does make a passable bread, oh, and there’s some kind of roast fowl today!”

After they’d eaten in companionable silence for a time, Salazar asked, “And how does His Grace the Duke fair? You sat in on his council at midday didn’t you?”

Godric frowned. “He’s unhappy. The winds do not favour his cause, and he is stretched when it comes to providing for his forces waiting for the winds to turn.” There was an awkward silence during which Salazar felt sure that Godric had more on his mind.

Salazar examined his friend’s face with a keen eye. “There’s more,” he said with conviction.

“Don’t try your mind tricks on me!” Godric snarled.

Salazar was taken aback. Though capable of being easily offended, he knew Godric well enough by now to know that his harsh words covered up deep distress. “I would not do that to you my brother,” he said calmly. “What troubles you?”

Godric took a deep breath, then exhaled through his nose, in a characteristic gesture of frustration. “It is too much to tell,” he replied lamely. “The Duke has many questions, uncertainties about what will happen. There have been rumors … and he asks me …” His voice trailed off with unaccustomed vagueness.

Salazar watched him closely. “What do the omens say?”

Godric looked up, surprised. “Omens?”

“Yes. If you’re uncertain, surely you’ve consulted the omens for guidance.”

“No, I thought that a woman’s art. My mother …” His voice trailed off once more, suddenly apprehensive about offending his friend, but Salazar only laughed. “The omens are for anyone with the sight. You know nothing of reading entrails, or the movements of animals?” Godric shook his head. “If it’s answers you seek I can help you find them.” Godric looked dubious. “Do you doubt me?”

“No no my friend, I know you to be a wizard of surpassing skill. If you say it is so, then it is so. It’s only that I have many questions, and they aren’t all to be answered by augury, but if you think you can help me …”

Salazar rose, urging Madella up his sleeve to wind herself about his torso, out of sight. “Come,” he said holding out a hand to Godric, moved by his friend’s obvious distress. “Come and I will teach you a thing.”

The two wizards made their way down the stairs, through the crowded common room, out into the street filled with milling, restless men, and down a track that would take them out into open woodland surrounding the village. As they walked, Salazar told Godric to keep an eye out for certain herbs he would use to brew a tea that would aid them in interpreting signs. Godric tried, but in the end it was Salazar who found what they needed. When they had climbed to the top of a small hill that was covered in the thick grass of late summer but bare of trees, Salazar stopped. He conjured a small fire, heated the water in his flask, and dropped in the herbs he had collected. While the tea steeped, he told Godric to lie on his back and watch the sky.

As they lay side by side, Salazar began to explain some of the intricacies of ornothomancy. He described how the movements and calls of birds could be used to interpret events, present and future. Godric enjoyed hearing his friend speak thus. Godric knew Salazar to be a powerful wizard, possessed of arcane lore learned from his mother. It was clear by the coherent way the Fin spoke, that he enjoyed sharing what he knew, and had a gift for it.

After a time, Salazar said, “This is not a skill to be learned in a day, but if you know the larger patterns, you may yet see. The tea will help. It will also help me if you tell me what is the source of the uncertainty.”

Relaxed by the quiet of the woods, Godric sat up. As they drank the tea together, he explained. “There are mercenaries from the north in William’s army. They say that Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, also casts his eye on England. There are rumors that he too will invade and fight Harold Godwinson for England’s crown. Without knowing where each of these armies rests, or when the winds will turn in his favour, William is distressed. He has sent out couriers, but they have not returned. He doesn’t know how long he can hold his forces here, or how long he should, or even whom he will be fighting, or where. If I had information for him to ease his mind …” Again, Godric’s voice trailed off in that disconsolate way that so ill became a man normally confident and commanding.

Salazar looked hard at him and saw that there was still more, but forbore to press his friend. “Drink the tea,” he said only, passing the flask to Godric. As he took it, Godric was reminded of their game with the wine goblet. He smiled, grateful for one person who was sure to stand by him in a world full of confusion.

After a time, they lay back once more, and turned their attention to the sky. Knowing that Salazar required concentration, Godric didn’t speak. He watched the sky keenly, trying to interpret as Salazar had taught him. He felt his consciousness expanding in a way he’d never experienced before, and thought he sensed patterns and vast sweeping movements of fortune, but couldn’t be sure what it meant.

Finally, Salazar sat up slowly and rubbed his eyes. Then he closed them, and sat utterly still as though in a trance. When he opened his eyes, his expression was serene.

“I have seen,” he said quietly, but with an undercurrent of excitement, “present, and some way into the future. The rumors are true. The King of Norway is even now readying to sail for the north of England. Harold Godwinson’s army is in the south however, waiting for William. The winds are about to turn in William’s favour.”

When Godric’s face brightened, Salazar said, showing impatience for the first time, “Don’t you see? If William sails now, he’ll encounter Harold Godwinson’s army encamped at full strength, ready for him. If he waits, The King of Norway will land in the north and draw him away. Then, William will be free to reach English soil unchallenged, entrench himself, live off the land, and wait for whoever triumphs in the north, to come south with their depleted army, to fight another battle after a long forced march. The worst thing William could do right now is to sail for England. If he wants a sure victory, he must wait.”

“When the wind changes, he will not wait. He’s impatient to be underway; he will sail as soon as he can.”

There was a tense silence. “Does your counsel carry so little weight with your Duke then?”

“How could I offer this counsel to the Duke? How could I tell him I’ve come by this information? By watching the flight of birds?” Godric’s frustration caused a note of scorn to enter his voice.

Always sensitive to perceived slights, Salazar’s voice hardened as he said, “Why does he keep you so close then, to consult on his wardrobe?” He had spoken on impulse, but the last thing he’d expected was for Godric’s expression to crumple, and for his friend to turn away.

Before Salazar knew what he was about, Godric had gathered up the smoldering remains of the fire with magic, and whirled them through the grass, causing the dry stalks to blow into quick flame. It was an act of undisciplined temper that shocked Salazar. He often didn’t bother with a wand, but in the haste of the moment, fearing a conflagration, he whipped it out and sent a jet of water around the clearing, extinguishing the flames.

Dealing with Godric wasn’t going to be nearly so simple. He sat, alert but still and silent, as Godric leapt to his feet and prowled around the desiccated clearing. When Godric finally returned to Salazar and flopped down on the ground once more, Salazar still waited, not speaking until Godric’s reluctant gaze met his.

“Now will you tell me the rest my brother?”

Godric, the edge of his anger abated, let out an immense sigh. “It would be a relief to tell it all in a way.” There was a long silence in which Godric tried to figure out where to start.

“My father died when I was very young,” he began finally. “My mother was a powerful witch, and we prospered. I am a wizard of course, but the life of a Druid or Mage didn’t appeal to me. I was drawn to soldiering, and found a place in the household of Harold Godwinson, one of the richest and most powerful men in the kingdom. He respected my fighting skill, and the occasional aid my magic could offer. We never spoke openly of my abilities, but we both knew that he valued them, and understood that it was unwise for him to openly harbour a wizard.

“I was nearly sworn a Housecarl, made one of his elite private guard, but always he found a reason to delay. Then, I accompanied him on the journey that took him eventually into the Duke William’s household. Harold and I fought at the Duke’s side, were honoured by him for our deeds in battle, fitted out with the finest his armory could provide. Harold seemed to value the Duke’s favour. When he departed for England, he bid me to remain with William, to swear fealty to him if necessary, to be Harold’s eyes and ears in Normandy.

“I did as Harold asked. Having sworn myself to William, I’m now honour-bound to uphold his cause, to fight at his side. What he wants from me in council though … there I sit, the only Saxon in a council full of Normans. What can he want from me but information to use against Harold. So what am I to do? Following the instructions of Harold has led me into the role of his betrayer. I try to tell William only those things that anyone would already know; how Harold fights, who will support him. I am sworn to forward William’s cause, but does this mean I will face my own countrymen in battle? What am I to do?”

Godric’s voice cracked on the last words, and Salazar dropped his gaze, unsure what to say or do. He desperately wanted to help his friend, but such complicated matters of honour and obligation were out of his range of experience. Instead he chose to focus on practical matters.

Leaving Godric, his forehead resting on his up-drawn knees, Salazar prowled around the edges of the clearing till he found what he was looking for. When he returned, he produced another small fire, filled the flask with hot water, added the herbs he had gathered, and let it steep. This was no tea for divination or contacting the other world, but simply a tea to soothe the nerves.

“What do you want?” Salazar asked into the silence.

“I want to be clear of all this intrigue, to know what right is, and to do it with honour.”

“But right now, right at this moment, what do you want?”

Without stopping to think, Godric answered, “I want to go home.”

“To England.”

“Yes.”

“Well, that you will surely do, it’s just a question of when, and what you will find when you get there. How will Harold greet you? Will you be welcomed back into his household if you arrive in company with William’s invasion fleet?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did you never wonder?”

“I never thought about it. Harold asked me to stay, to swear fealty to William if that was the only way to gain his trust; it seemed like the simple and obvious thing to obey him.”

Salazar spoke with some reluctance. “You don’t think Harold saw this moment coming?”

“What do you mean? He swore an oath to William, he swore to uphold William’s claim to the English throne two years ago. Since then … well … I can only think that he … changed his mind, or something happened of which I’m not aware. Maybe the late King Edward had a deathbed change of heart. People do.”

“Did you hear Harold’s oath to William with your own ears?”

“Well, no. I was there, but the cathedral is large, and few actually heard what was said, but that is how Duke William tells it.”

Salazar sighed in frustration. He never ceased to be amazed at Godric’s belief that everyone held honour as dearly as Godric himself. “Does it not seem more likely that either William invented the contents of that oath, or that Harold simply said what was politic at the moment?” Seeing the anger on Godric’s face, Salazar added quickly, “or perhaps it is as you said, and the late King on his deathbed decided to name Harold as next King. However it came about, you’ve been left in a terrible situation. Of course you don’t want to fight your own countrymen in the name of an invader.”

“But what am I to do? Either way I am a traitor.”

Salazar sighed again, but only inwardly. Talk of honour and traitors was of little consequence to him, but there was one matter that could not be lightly swept aside. “There is something else to consider,” he said. “It has now been three times that you have found funds to help William maintain his forces. There is a considerable debt owing, from William to you, and from you, or more properly I, to the goblins. If you are killed in battle, they will look to me, who have nothing with which to pay them. If you are not killed by your own countrymen, Don’t you think William would find it easier to see that you are killed, than it would be to pay you the money he owes you?”

Godric looked shocked. “He would not do such a thing!” He exclaimed, but his eyes slid away from Salazar’s. Both men knew how ruthless William could be. The Duke’s power was not handed to him; he had won it after years of fierce and unscrupulous fighting.

“If you come to him after he has triumphed in battle, and all England is his to parcel out, I have no doubt he will honour his debts, but battle may be something you should avoid.”

That brought Godric’s head up sharply. “Run out on a fight?” He said fiercely.

This time Salazar allowed his irritation to show. “All right then, which side do you wish to fight on? Who would you prefer to kill?” Godric slammed his fist onto the ground, but said nothing.

Salazar picked up the flask and held it out, saying more mildly, “Drink the tea. You can decide about the killing later, but there is one matter we should decide on now. The wind is about to change in William’s favour. If it does, he will sail, and encounter Harold’s army, fresh, well fed, rested, and at full strength. Then, the winner of that battle will have to deal with Hardrada of Norway. In the meantime, the Norwegians might land and take the north unopposed. If William was forced to wait, Harold would have time to learn of Hardrada’s invasion, hustle his army up north to fight him, and not be there to greet William’s forces. William could land unopposed, and wait for the victor in the north, exhausted and depleted, to fight him. He doesn’t know it, but waiting will serve William far better than haste.”

“William will not be dissuaded. If the wind changes, he will sail, and I won’t be the one to argue it with him.”

“You need not. We can prevent the wind from changing, keep it blowing as it has been, and ensure a victory for William, which will be a victory for us. You were right when you said the goblins will not let go of a debt, and I don’t fancy spending the rest of my life eluding their magic.”

Godric’s eyes widened. “Prevent the wind from changing? Have you then the weather-wisdom?”

“Yes. My mother was a powerful witch, the Vala for our village. She had wisdom in many things, and she taught me. You are a powerful wizard, I have good reason to know this, but there are many kinds of magic that you have no knowledge of. This is not a slight matter. This kind of magic, sustained as it must be for many days, would be beyond even my skill, had I not another powerful wizard to help me. If you will let me teach you, together we can do it.”

Later, Godric would wonder whether it was the tea, the clarity of Salazar’s arguments, or merely his own deep weariness of trying to determine the right course, but finally he nodded. Part of him worried that he might be contributing to the invasion of his home, but massive forces were already moving in the world, and it seemed as though invasion might be inevitable no matter what he did. Feeling that he had allowed himself to be manipulated by too many, he was ready to act.

The days that followed were some of the most demanding of his life. He had endured rigorous and sometimes dangerous training in combat and skills of the body, but they seemed to pale into insignificance compared with the exacting training he now received.

Despite the profound moral ambiguity he felt, he took a fierce enjoyment in, for the first time in his life, bringing all of his considerable will to bear on the use of his own magic. It had always been something he could do, something that sometimes solved problems, but it had set him apart as well, and since childhood, he’d done his best to hide it. Now however, the demanding skills Salazar taught him brought out the full strength and power of his gifts, and he found it more satisfying than anything he’d ever done before.

Chapter 6: Helga at Home

 

Helga checked to make sure the fire was sufficiently banked to be left to itself for a while, placed her mug of ale on the table beside the platter containing her supper, and sat down with a contented sigh. She looked over her meal with satisfaction. She liked to do this before beginning to eat, believing a good looking meal was almost as important as a good tasting one. The bread had risen beautifully, and the rabbit stew had a particularly savory aroma. Thick with vegetables, it had been seasoned with onions and wild garlic. With an inward complement to the chef, herself, she prepared to tuck in. She tore the loaf in half. She reflected on how extraordinary the smell of fresh bread was; it could simultaneously stimulate and satisfy. She was about to dip the edge of the bread into the rich gravy when there was a knock at her door. She sighed deeply and set down the untasted bread, beside the unsampled stew, right next to the full mug of ale.

She tried to impress upon those folk who sought her out for potions and curatives not to disturb her at meal times, but some failed to heed, and others were simply unable to schedule their ailments and injuries appropriately. Slipping her wand from inside her sleeve, she cast a charm over the table to keep hot things hot and cool things cool, and rose to answer the door.

In the doorway stood the blacksmith’s young apprentice. The reason for his visit was proclaimed immediately by the burn on his forearm. With an expression of dismay she drew him inside, and bid him sit down on the bench designated for visitors. As she gathered what she needed, she was surprised to see that he seemed little bothered by the pain. Something more exciting was preoccupying him. As she cleaned the wound with a greenish liquid, then anointed it with a purple salve, he told her what it was.

“Soldiers!”

Her hands stilled briefly, and she said, “Soldiers?” Her mind went instantly back to a day during the harvest past.

She had gathered well from the harvest, but was giving the fields and streams a last stroll to see what she might find. It was a misty day, and so she didn’t see the figure huddled on the ground until she was quite close. The man’s clothes were threadbare, and blended into the colours around him. He was seated on the ground, not moving. Cautiously, she approached, and walked around him to see his face.

“Odo!” She cried happily, but her glad expression faded quickly as she looked closer. His eyes were open, but stared into the distance, and didn’t recognize her. She sighed, and squatted down before him. She called his name patiently several times, but he didn’t seem to hear her. With a deeper sigh, she sat down on the fallen leaves before him. She dug in her basket for the late horkroot she’d found by a streamlet. Its seeds were best stewed fresh, so she spread her skirt, and began separating out seeds, and waiting. After a time, she idly began to sing.

Her mother’s harp collected dust on her shelf, but she had a sweet singing voice, and she and Odo had used to sing together sometimes. During “The Three-Headed Dog of Dorset,” his eyes flickered. At “The Way Home,” he looked at her, and knew her. She scooped the seeds into a pocket, and took his hands. He broke into a wide, childlike smile.

She got him home, fed him, and told him to stay close to the fire. Gradually he came completely to himself. He was restless, and so she gave him a bunch of laffweed to grind as a way to keep him in one place.

She spoke at random, trying to keep up a casual conversation. Odo would talk about what he had seen, or he would not. She tried not to discourage him, for she knew there were few he could talk to freely, but she was glad when she didn’t have to hear. Doing so had rarely brought her anything worth having.

Odo answered her coherently enough, and even asked her what she was working on. With no thought other than to divert him, and maybe to boast just a little, she told him. “It’s a potion for luck!” She explained enthusiastically. “If I get it right, which is doubtful, it’s quite complex, but if I get it right, the drinker will have extraordinary luck for one day.” She knew she was making conversation a bit feverishly, but there was something in her friend’s bearing that was making her uneasy. Her words, however, seemed to break through his look of frightened preoccupation. He assumed an arrested expression, and began asking her technical questions. Glad for anything to distract him, she entered into a long discussion of ingredients and their properties. By supper time, Odo looked as calm as he ever did, and her worry for him slipped into the background.

For several days he stayed with her, helping with gathering, tending the goats, and various harvest tasks. He seemed to grow increasingly calm, regaining the light-hearted, whimsical quality she liked so much. So often he was absentminded, not fully there, or preoccupied or disturbed. It gladdened her heart when he could have times of rest like this. Some days later however, she discovered that his thoughts had not been as tranquil as he would have her believe.

They were hulling nuts at her work table, as rain fell steadily outside. Over the soothing sound of the water, he began to speak in his hesitant way. Often, it was as though he was distracted. Whatever was going on in his mind seemed to absorb most of his attention, so that following a conversation was difficult. He would often pause, seem to forget what he’d meant to say, or end his sentences on an upward inflection, as though unsure whether his listener would understand.

“I want to tell you about the morning you found me,” Odo said out of a companionable silence. Helga didn’t reply. She’d learned that it was usually better and more comfortable not to know such things. He knew how she felt about it, but when she didn’t object, he told her.

He told her of the battle that was coming. He tried to tell her what it would be like, both unable and unwilling to communicate the violence that would be done. When she began to look sick and a little angry, he held up a hand. “Helga, I’m not telling you these things to upset you. I’m telling you because I’ve something to ask you. I want you to let me take some of your potion, your lucky potion, on the day of the battle.”

Helga was shocked. “You wish to be a soldier Odo, you?”

“No!” He said fiercely. “I wish to save lives, not take them. With your lucky potion, and my ability to see beyond the moment, I can save lives, prevent suffering.”

“Odo have you lost your mind? You’ve never been on a battle field, I doubt you ever been in a fight, at least not one that you started.”

“I’m not going to try and win or anything, just be in the right place at the right time to knock an arm off by an inch, or push a shield into place at the last second.”

“Odo tell me this is a joke. Please tell me that.”

“It’s not a joke. Helga, you more than anyone know what my life is. Here, now, well then, there, I can make a difference. Can you imagine what that means? In one place, at one time, I could change so much, prevent so much. I know sometimes I have done harm because of who I am. This is a chance to do so much good. I know the right place, and with your potion, I’ll know the right time.”

Before Helga could launch into vehement argument, there was a knock at the door. Angrily, Helga flounced to her feet and went to answer it. It was old Eldwin, come for his cough remedy.

“You should have sent your lazy grandson for this,” Helga said, gesturing the old man toward the bench to sit. As she turned toward her work table to compound the potion, she caught Odo staring hard at the old man in a way she knew only too well. As she passed him, she put a warning hand hard on his shoulder. “Not one word from you, remember!” She hissed into his ear.

He dropped his eyes. As Helga prepared the potion, her mind couldn’t help going back to other times like this, when Odo had failed to hold his tongue. She was still angry, but anger was being complicated by other emotions.

She didn’t like having to warn him away from her patients, and her mind dwelt on other times. Occasionally, she had seen Odo bring peace of spirit to the very ill, or the dying. His gift set Odo apart, but sometimes it gave him a perspective people sensed, without understanding. At the right place and the right time, Helga had seen it do more than any magic she could affect.

When she’d sent the old man on his way and was clearing up her equipment, he said into a tense silence, “There: do you think I enjoy knowing things I shouldn’t? You should have saved your potion. He’ll be dead before midwinter, and you’re running low on dried flembane. Do you think I want to know that? I don’t. And you’re right to warn me, because so often I speak before I think, and do harm. All I am saying is help me to do this one thing, that will make up for all those other things.”

“Odo, you’re not responsible for these things, and you’re not responsible for whatever’s coming. You don’t have to risk your life.”

“Have to? Maybe I do, or maybe I don’t, but what if I choose to? What if this strange ability I have was given me to do something great with? Helga, you are an extraordinary healer and potion-maker. I know you hate it when I say this, so I try not to say it, but you have a great destiny, I know it. You’re a powerful witch, with gifts that are meant to be shared. Let me have some of your potion, so that I can do what I choose, with who I am.”

“I’m going to milk the goats,” she said, not looking at him.

He knew better than to pressure her over the next days. She didn’t bring it up, but she didn’t stop working on the lucky potion either. In the absence of contentious conversation, she enjoyed his company as she always did.

They had met in the north. She had travelled with her father, who was a wandering healer. She had seen right away that Odo was different, but she liked his gentle ways, his endless curiosity about why things were the way they were, his fondness for all animals, and his odd sense of humor. She and her father had often passed through Odo’s village. Later, when Odo took to the life of a wanderer, he seemed to find her here and there. She had lived in this cottage for several years, and he had often visited her here.

It was good to have him with her, good for her to see his growing tranquility, so unusual in his unusual life. He was an excellent mimic, with a quirky sense of humor. He would often startle her when they were gathering, by imitating the sounds of animals. He could always make her laugh with impressions of folk they had known when they were children. She never thought of herself as lonely, living alone as she did. Having such a true friend constantly with her though, made her sad for the day when he would leave again, which he always did.

Finally, he wore her down with his patient, odd, slightly out-of-focus charm, and with her love for him. If this was what his troubled conscience demanded, then she, his friend, should be willing to help him, if she could.

This last part worried her a good deal. This potion was an invention of her own. She was proud of the complex theory and technique that went into it, but she honestly hadn’t gotten as far as thinking through who and how, when it came to testing. She was frank with Odo about the risks: “recklessness, giddiness, uncontrollable giggling, loss of judgment, short-sightedness, and those are only the ones I’ve thought of!”

“Don’t worry,” he replied blithely, “you won’t even notice a difference when I take it.”

She smiled, then sighed, running her hands distractedly through her hair. “Oh Odo, are you sure you must do this?”

Now, more then half a year later, tending to the burn on the arm of the blacksmith’s young apprentice, she asked Odo the same question in her mind. Odo’s answer was still yes, and news that soldiers had come, tightened the knot of apprehension in her belly.

“Many and many of them! And they say the King himself is with them!” The boy exclaimed

“The King is it?” She replied, interested despite herself.

“They say he’s brought all the men he can muster here to await William of Normandy!”

“William of who?”

“Not who, where! Normandy, it’s …” he gestured vaguely with his uninjured hand, “over there, across the water. William is a duke, Duke of Normandy. They say he thinks he should be King, not Harold.”

“I wonder why he thinks that,” Helga said as she set about dressing the burn. “How many soldiers did you say?”

“Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds more!”

“Hmm, now you be careful of this dressing. Don’t get it wet, and come back tomorrow so I can have a look at it: after supper mind.”

The lad nodded and thanked her. He scrabbled around on his person for something to give her. Folk who came to her always left something for her when they could. Appreciating his good manners and knowing his poverty, she merely tapped him on the backside with a sweet smile, told him to be more careful in future, and hustled him out the door. She was just mopping up the last of the gravy with the last of the bread when another knock sounded. Sighing once more, but with the contentment of a full belly rather than the irritation of an empty one, she rose to see who it was.

This time it was the wool spinner. She was an aging woman, and often came to Helga for help with the pain of swollen joints. Helga pulled up a stool to sit opposite her, opened a jar of blue salve, and began slowly massaging it into first one hand then the other. Being older, the spinster’s excitement was less overt, but Helga began to think she had come as much to share her news as for help with her hands.

“I saw King Harold with my own eyes; a huge, strapping man he is, looks like a king. They say he’s been gathering men from all over the kingdom, and it surely looks that way. The King and his Housecarls have taken over the inn, and folk about have been told to take in as many men as they can, and to feed’em too. When the Duke comes, they say there’ll be a terrible battle.”

Helga’s expression, normally of a striking sweetness and placidity, grew deeply puzzled. “But why?” She asked.

“Well … the Housecarls can’t be expected to sleep in the fields, and the men have to eat.”

“No, I mean why will they fight?” Helga’s strong fingers ceased their massage, and her eyes, suddenly serious, looked searchingly into the older woman’s face. “Why must men do these things?”

The older woman was slightly discomposed. “I don’t know Mistress Helga.”

Helga’s eyes did not leave the older woman’s face. With the simple sincerity of a child trying to understand a grownup problem, Helga said almost plaintively, “Do they not know the suffering they will cause? They will injure and kill one another, they will suffer, their wives and mothers and daughters and sisters will suffer.”

The older woman’s excitement drained away by Helga’s dismay, she lowered her gaze and said merely, “Duke William has sworn to take the throne away from Harold, and Harold will fight to keep it. We do not want to be ruled by Normandy!”

“Better to be ruled by Normandy than to be hacked to pieces by swords and spears!”

“I do not know Mistress; it is just what men do.”

Helga gave a sigh of such depth that it seemed to have been exhaled from her entire body and soul, not merely her lungs. Slowly she began massaging the other woman’s hand once more. “I suppose I must begin collecting the herbs for bleeding and fever, and to gather as much material for dressings as I can.” Her features gradually resumed their placid character, but the older woman saw how a single tear slid, seemingly unregarded, from the corner of her eye.

Though protective of her comforts, Helga was an industrious woman, and early morning found her roaming through woods and pastures in search of herbs to treat blood loss, and the fever that often accompanied wounds. She carried a deep basket over one arm, and a digging stick in the other hand.

Her eyes roved over the foliage of late summer, but all of her senses were alert to the life around her, and there was a lot of it. When Helga was alone, the animals of wood and moor did not shrink away or use immobility to fade into their surroundings. She knew their habits, and knew that stillness and concealment were their normal reactions to people, but she had always known that she was different. As long as she could remember, animals had not feared her, nor she them. She had her special favourites of course, but their ease with her was not the result of coddling or courting their favour, but simply the result of the fact that she instinctively understood them in a way no one else she knew could. Odo came close, which was one of the things she loved about him, but she recognized that her communion with animals set her apart.

Long before she saw or heard anyone approaching, she knew she wasn’t alone. Around her, the birds and rodents told her by their distinctive reactions that someone other than herself was nearby. Soon she saw Edith, her friend, the daughter of a prosperous trader who dealt with the trading vessels that frequented the coast. Edith had a basket over her arm as well, and was peering into the underbrush for late berries.

Helga offered a merry greeting, and almost immediately was regaled with the news of Harold’s army. As with her two callers of the previous evening, Edith seemed excited rather than alarmed. “King Harold is so handsome!” She exclaimed. Helga shrugged. She said nothing, but behind her sweet smile, she was thinking about pretty Edith surrounded by soldiers, men drawn from all over the kingdom, from all walks of life. As they cheerfully discussed the fruit harvest that year, Helga was wondering how she could protect Edith from the soldiers, and from the young woman’s own guilelessness. Helga was not characterized by guile herself, but neither was she a fool.

When Edith seemed disposed to return to the topic of all the new young men around, Helga waved the subject off with a graceful gesture of the hand holding the digging stick. “When these handsome fellows have stripped the countryside like a plague of locusts and left nothing for even the birds to eat, I dare say they’ll look a might less attractive to everybody.”

“Helga! They’re here to defend us! Don’t you want to see them? To help them?”

Helga’s placid expression didn’t change, but she gave a small sigh of resignation. “Oh, believe me Edith, I will see more of them than either of us could wish, and I’ll try my best to help as many of them as I can.” She and Edith parted after expressions of affection and a mutual kiss on the cheek. Helga, her basket full, turned her steps back toward her house.

As she got close, she was pleased to spot Eartha between the roots of a large tree. The badger had been off on her own business for several days, and Helga had missed her. The woman bent and held her hand out toward Eartha, who sniffed it, then rubbed her snout fondly against it. Helga stroked the black face, tracing the white marking with pleasure. “Where have you been Eartha? I’ve missed you.” The badger leaned its head into Helga’s hand, and Helga began rubbing behind Eartha’s ears in the way she especially liked.

Prodding the assortment of roughage in her basket, Helga pulled out a carrot intended for that night’s stew and held it out to Eartha, who snatched it and chewed energetically. Helga watched with patient satisfaction. When the carrot had disappeared, Eartha began digging industriously between the large roots. Knowing that Eartha meant her to wait, Helga sat down to rest on a fallen log. After a time, Eartha emerged from a small flurry of dirt, walked over to Helga, and dropped a perfect truffle at her feet. Helga exclaimed with pleasure. “Ah Eartha! Delicious!” When Eartha departed about her own affairs, Helga set off for home, savoring the thought of a breakfast of fried eggs sprinkled with freshly grated truffle.

After her highly enjoyable breakfast, and before the carpenter’s lad came to have a cut dressed and tell her about the soldiers, she sat outside in the sun to shell a bowl of peas for that night’s supper. She liked sitting, and the repetitive work relaxed her. She listened to the pleasant sound of birds busy in the trees and grass, the humming of insects who obligingly stayed out of her hair and her peas, and watched as rabbits foraged in the shrubbery. She had reached an understanding with them, and the deer who occasionally wandered by. She routinely set out produce from her garden or the surrounding woodland that was not perhaps the most luscious, but which offered easy pickings. She left these offerings at the edge of the wood, and in exchange for not having to risk the dangers of open ground, the herbivores satisfied themselves with these offerings, leaving her cultivated patch of herbs and vegetables alone.

As she watched, her favourite of the half wild dogs that made their home in the woods surrounding the village emerged from the trees and came trotting toward her. She hadn’t seen him in several weeks, and greeted him with joy. Setting her bowl of peas aside, she threw her arms right around him and nuzzled him as enthusiastically as he was nuzzling her. He was exuberant. Pulling his lips back from his teeth in the dog version of a grin that he knew she found irresistible, he convinced her to roll around on the ground to wrestle until they both lay panting and exhausted.

She often felt that all the animals she saw had names, but usually they were animal names that she sensed, but could never have spoken aloud. To her special favourites however, she gave people names. She had seen this dog hunt, sleek and efficient, and had called him Egbert: bright sword. He was of an indeterminate brown colour which blended well with the tree trunks in the forest, but had a silver tipped tail that she delighted to see wag.

Helga had an excellent stew for her supper, flavoured with the few non-medicinal herbs she had found that morning. Obligingly, the villagers left her undisturbed during her meal. She had expected the blacksmith’s apprentice to return to have his burn seen to. When he arrived, she was unsurprised to find him accompanied by a soldier who had been injured during a practice fight. She had not yet had the time to prepare the store of medicines she would need, but she could cope with what she had on hand if the demand didn’t rise sharply too soon. Her habitually sweet expression in place, she dealt efficiently with what she knew sadly was only the first in what would become a long line of such patients.

Rowena followed closely behind Elwyna, trying not to let her anxiety show. They were making their way through a large clearing that had become an encampment for soldiers, more people than Rowena had ever seen in one place in her life, and almost exclusively men. More worldly, Elwyna showed no signs of nervousness as the two women picked their way between tents, cooking fires, and groups of men. The men gambled, practiced fighting with spear or blade, or stood around cheering on pairs who were gripped together in hand-to-hand combat. Rowena had spent the past three years almost exclusively in the company of women, and so many men in any context would have made her uneasy. The frank aggression all around her was extremely unsettling.

Spotting her tense expression, Elwyna said lightly, “Don’t fret, it’s only practice fighting. They don’t really mean to kill each other.” Rowena knew Elwyna meant to reassure, but it didn’t work.

It’s only because I’m so tired, Rowena thought, defending herself to herself. She had woken before dawn from a vivid and terrifying dream in which the fair-haired woman was pinned to the ground by a wild looking dog, whose teeth were bared, and who was clearly bent on violence. The woman on the ground was struggling, but her strength was obviously failing her. Rowena woke suddenly, feeling as panicked as if it was she herself being attacked. She sat up and rubbed her eyes. Her body longed for movement to ease the terrible anxiety. She wanted to get up and walk around, but so close to the encampment of soldiers, she was cautious, and forced herself to stay where she was. The hours before dawn were long ones, and sleep eluded her.

Some days ago, rattled by the talk of soldiers and war, Rowena had abandoned pretense, and confided in Elwyna that the abbey was no longer her goal. Rowena felt more strongly than ever the need to rescue the woman from her dreams, and had told Elwyna all. She had resigned herself to skepticism and a long search, but to her amazement, Elwyna said, “You’re looking for Mistress Helga!” When Rowena merely looked blank, Elwyna added, “the leece, the burgrune.”

“Yes I think she is a healer.”

“I’m sure that’s her, especially the way you describe her sweet smile. Such a dear woman you’ll never meet: kind to all, and a healer of surpassing skill.”

“Can you take me to her?”

“Oh yes, and a good thing for you too, for you’d never find her by yourself.”

And so Rowena found herself walking right through the thick of King Harold’s army on her way to find a woman she’d never met, in order to rescue her from dangers Rowena herself couldn’t fully name. Finally they came to the edge of the clearing and found a path through tall trees. Rowena began breathing more easily as the sounds of curses and rough male laughter were swallowed up by the forest.

Just as Rowena perceived a thinning of the trees ahead suggesting a small clearing, the sound of a sharp bark was heard. Instantly alert, Rowena tensed and sped up ahead of Elwyna till she reached the edge of the trees, which gave way to level ground, where a small cottage stood. Rowena immediately spotted the woman she had been dreaming about for months. The woman, Helga Elwyna had said, was in profile to Rowena, but there could be no doubt that this was the woman Rowena had come so far to find.

On the other side of the clearing was a figure who chilled Rowena’s blood. It was the dog from her dream of the previous night. Its teeth were bared, and it was bounding straight toward Helga. Rowena didn’t stop to think. All the force of months of tension and fear was in the strength with which she used her magic to repel the beast. She sent a wall of force towards it, and it spun away with a yelp of pain, all four feet leaving the ground before landing in a heap.

Instantly, Helga spun on her heel and perceived a tall, dark-haired, stern looking woman, holding a pathetic excuse for a wand, which was still aimed at Egbert. Enraged, Helga lashed out, and Rowena fell back with a yell of pain. An angry burn appeared on her wand arm, and the force of Helga’s anger sent Rowena sprawling.

Elwyna rushed to Rowena and knelt down at her side. Helga ran to Egbert. Elwyna’s eyes followed her briefly and she shook her head in amazement. “I’ve never seen Mistress Helga do anything like that! I’ve never even heard her raise her voice or say a harsh word!”

Rowena rolled onto her side facing away from Elwyna. Tension, lack of sleep, uncertainty as to whether she had done the right thing to come here, fear of the violence that loomed before them all, anger at Helga’s treatment of her, and the pain of the burn on her arm all combined to overwhelm her, and she did something she hadn’t done since childhood; she gave way to silent but wracking sobs.

Chapter 7: the Coven in the Woods

 

Elwyna had always felt Helga’s small cottage to be one of the most tranquil and cozy places she’d ever been in. Now however, hospitality was thin on the ground, and the air vibrated with tension. Elwyna reacted by carrying on a nearly ceaseless flow of chatter. Though void of real content, it did serve to fill the shrieking silence that followed the unprecedented scene that had taken place outside.

Helga had sat for some time with Egbert, reassuring him and herself that his injuries were not serious, and trying to soothe both their nerves. When Egbert had risen lumberingly to his feet and slunk sulkily away into the woods, Helga had turned back to the two women.

Rowena had pulled herself together sufficiently to sit up, then drag herself reluctantly to her feet. She was ashamed of her display of weakness, and consequently her expression was even more forbidding than usual. Elwyna had stepped back from Rowena, and was about to attempt an introduction when she saw Helga’s face. Never had she seen or even imagined such an expression on the face of the placid healer, and Elwyna took another involuntary step backward.

If Rowena had been the sort of woman to show her feelings directly, or offer an apology, things might have gone differently, but her stony expression, and what Helga perceived as a faint air of condescension, fed the flame of Helga’s rare fury. The row that followed was spectacular.

Helga accused Rowena of being an unwelcome interloper, an animal-hater, an interfering busybody, and an incompetent witch unfit to wield the pathetic excuse for a wand, which now lay on the ground, a charred and useless twig. Rowena charged Helga with recklessness, ingratitude, snobbery, needless aggression, and coarse behaviour.

Elwyna, grasping for courage, stepped forward, her baby resting on her hip, and tried desperately to find some way to stop this terrible scene. She cared deeply for both women, and had expected them to be glad to meet. Now she feared for her safety as she strove to keep them from harming one another. She tried feebly to explain that Egbert was Helga’s friend, and that Rowena had been only trying to help.

“Mistress Helga,” she said, when these explanations seemed to be gaining no traction at all, “we have come a very long way. Rowena has come through the forest of Andredsweald to find you. Might you have a cup of tea for weary travellers? And as you see, Rowena’s arm is burned, she requires your services.”

Almost involuntarily, Helga’s eyes dropped to the forearm Rowena was cradling against herself. “Let me see,” she said peremptorily.

Rowena would have refused, but Elwyna said pleadingly, “Let Mistress Helga see, she can help.” The burn did hurt quite a lot, and not knowing what else to do, Rowena held out her forearm.

Helga inhaled a deep slow breath, then let it out in a gusty sigh of resignation. “All right then,” she said grumpily, “Come inside.”

Helga had been preparing potions and salves for fever and wounds, and had let her burn salve jar run very low. While she ground chopped and blended, Elwyna set about brewing a calming tea, and telling of their journey from Wessex.

Finally, when the salve was ready, Helga sat on her stool and gestured Rowena to the bench before her. Rowena laid her arm on the small table, and Helga began to clean and anoint the burn. Helga’s anger was rare. Like an armload of pine needles thrown on a mellow fire, it flared violently, but died quickly. She felt no warmth for the woman before her, but the instincts of the healer took her, and as she worked, she found herself studying the woman before her.

Up close, Helga could see the puffiness of weeping around Rowena’s eyes, and it startled her. She took in the guarded expression and the rigid bearing, but she sensed that they concealed depths that were unclear. Rowena’s austere manner was unappealing to Helga, but Elwyna’s words came back to her and she said, in a calm tone Rowena hadn’t yet heard, “Elwyna says you came a long way to find me. Why?”

The cleaning of the burn had hurt a lot. Helga had begun to apply the salve, and Rowena sighed involuntarily with relief. She tried to frame a reply out of the jumble of thoughts in her head, but all she could think to say was, “to save you.”

Helga laughed unkindly. “You? Save me? From what? Egbert? You’re doing a great job so far.”

The dressing had been wound skillfully around Rowena’s forearm, and she rose haughtily to her feet. “You’re a competent healer, and I suppose I must thank you for attempting to repair the damage you yourself did to me, but you are shallow and short-sighted. I see that my journey here has been a wasted one.”

Helga rose also, and replied tartly, “You speak as a well-educated woman, but no amount of learning can make a wise woman out of a fool.”

Seated at the table with her tea, Elwyna dropped her head into her hands.

Rowena, with no sense at all of where she would go, strode aggressively out of the cottage. She hadn’t gone more than a dozen steps however, when she grunted with the impact of Aidan’s small body running firmly into her. He flung his arms around her to steady himself, and inadvertently jarred her injured arm. She cried out and he stepped back.

“Oh, you’re hurt! Can I see?” His hand reached toward her injured arm.

“No, you may not. I thought you were with your father.”

“I was, but he sent me here with a message for my mother.”

The message was that the army was moving north: now. Word had come that Harald of Norway had landed, and the whole of the English army was heading off at tearing speed to meet his onslaught. As a trader possessed of a sturdy wagon and provisions, Feran would go north to support the English fighting men. Feran had sent Aidan to find sanctuary with Mistress Helga if she would have him, and to ask Elwyna what she would do.

“What you will do?” Rowena asked incredulously.

Elwyna put hands to her head in a gesture of deep distraction. “Whether I will go with him,” she explained. At Rowena’s look of shocked concern, Elwyna dropped her hands and said seriously, “Most women don’t normally travel with armies moving so urgently, but Feran knows that I can help in ways no muggle woman ever could. He wouldn’t ask it of me, but he knows that, as I’m a witch, he cannot command me. Magic is very useful in a battle and on the road. He’s leaving it to me to decide. I’d have to bring my baby; she’s too little to survive without nursing. It’s a terrible choice.”

“How can you even consider it?” Rowena exclaimed.

Elwyna’s eyes sharpened briefly as they looked at Rowena. “Men will offer themselves to fight and die to protect their home, our home, why is it so strange that I should choose the same?”

Out of courtesy for her friend’s feelings, Rowena pursued the argument only in the privacy of her own mind. Because you’re a woman, because you have a babe at your breast, because using your magic to affect things in the world around you is dangerous, because these are muggle concerns. But all these reasons she kept to herself, knowing only that she would choose the path that took her as far away from battle as she could get. Then, considering the journey she herself had just made, she shook her head and went to gather fire wood.

Helga agreed to keep Aidan with her, and so Elwyna decided to go north with Feran and the army. She looked around Helga’s cottage that night after the evening meal, taking in the guarded expressions on the faces of Rowena and Helga. Helga’s eyes asked a silent question. Elwyna sighed. Apprehension over what was before her had drained away diffidence and courtesy.

“Rowena has nowhere else to go,” she said baldly. “The two of you haven’t taken to one another as I’d hoped you would, but Helga, may she stay here also? The road is no place for a woman alone, especially now. She’s a good woman, not afraid of work, and well educated. How often I’ve heard you say how you’d like to know about magical books and scrolls, and the wisdom they hold.”

Rowena would have objected to this portrayal of herself as a helpless beggar, but exhaustion, and the brutal truth of her situation robbed her of speech.

Helga eyed Rowena warily, but said merely, “very well.”

Elwyna’s departure left a tense atmosphere in the cottage, which was alleviated somewhat by the presence of Aidan, with his small boy’s exuberance, and his devotion to Rowena. Rowena still bristled inwardly at Helga’s treatment of her, but conscious of her status as unwanted guest, she sought for ways to make herself useful.

With a fervent hope that goats would some day be only a smelly memory, she took over the milking. She tried to accompany Helga as the healer gleaned herbs and edible plants, but her ignorance of such things was an impediment to Helga and an embarrassment to herself. She was an apt pupil when it came to the preparation of medicines, and she tried to help with household tasks, but her life thus far had focused on scholarship rather than domesticity, and it wasn’t long before Helga once more took over the cooking.

Feeling herself an ineffectual burden, Rowena remembered Aidan’s interest in reading, and decided to take on his education as her special project. She would sit with him outside where the light was good, and trace for him first the patterns of letters, then of words. Increasingly, she noticed that Helga seemed to find sedentary tasks like shelling pees or spinning yarn, which allowed her to sit, as though by coincidence, near enough to see what they were doing. When, one morning Rowena saw Helga’s lips moving soundlessly as Aidan slowly spelled out words, Rowena said with unaccustomed shyness, “Would you like to try?”

Helga put down her bowl of pees, let the spindle sink gently from midair onto a flat rock, and approached them.

In the days that followed, the antagonism between the two women gradually ebbed in the satisfaction that a dedicated teacher and an enthusiastic student can achieve. Rowena had never found herself in this role before, having believed herself unsuited by temperament for it. Watching Helga each day however, energetic in field and wood, cunning with potions and salves, kind in the soothing of hurts and injuries, she felt a new humility, and it made her more patient. Aidan was sporadic in his enthusiasm for reading, but Helga’s interest was persistent, almost forceful. When Aidan got bored and ran off to find Egbert or some other pleasant distraction, Helga stayed, and the two women worked together for hours.

After the long and trying journey she had taken, and the tensions of her life before it, Rowena found life in Helga’s cottage remarkably restful. It didn’t take her long to learn that Helga was a woman who enjoyed her comforts. Though modest from the outside, the cottage had secrets. Rowena discovered this on her first night there. Expecting to bed down wrapped in a rough blanket on the floor by the fire, Rowena had been led through the small door into what she supposed was Helga’s bedroom. But here was magic even Rowena’s pleasure-loving mother had never dreamed of. Beyond the door was a sumptuous chamber, not ornate in decoration, but adorned with thick rugs and feather beds. Too tired to ask questions, Rowena had simply sunk down with inexpressible gratitude for the best sleep she had known in years.

One morning as Rowena was sweeping the hearth, she looked up to see a man’s face peering at her through the cottage’s single window, left uncovered for airing. She supposed he was someone there for a potion or salve, but his expression stopped her in her tracks. His face wore a look of mingled vagueness and perspicacity. At first, his childlike gaze made her wonder if he was perhaps simple in his mind, but then would come a sharpness in the eye she couldn’t interpret.

“You’re not Mistress Helga,” he said simply.

“No, she’s off gathering. She should be back soon. Do you need something?”

He studied her without answering, as though he hadn’t heard her. His face took on a look of pleasure and faint surprise. “Oh, you!” He said as though recognizing someone he’d heard of but never seen. He peered at her with an intensity that made her uncomfortable. “The lines of your face show great dignity and wisdom.”

She stepped back, deeply offended. She had no lines on her face … did she? Just then Helga appeared in the doorway.

“Ah Odo!” She said merrily, “Where have you been? Oh, never mind, it doesn’t matter. Come in and share some tea.”

The man entered and sat down, continuing to study Rowena. She wished he wouldn’t, his persistent regard was making her uneasy, and his remark about lines on her face rankled. He and Helga had an obscure conversation about a potion which Rowena couldn’t interpret, then after a brief meal, the man left, moving in what looked to Rowena like an aimless manner. Normally reserved and well-mannered, Rowena’s curiosity was too intense to suppress.

“That’s Odo,” Helga said with a fond smile that hid something troubled beneath it. She laughed not all together kindly when Rowena repeated Odo’s remark about her appearance. “You must just bear with him; he’s a very unusual person. He … he sees things.”

“He’s a seer?”

“Well, not exactly. You see his mother was a very powerful witch, and she liked to experiment. She meddled with time, and Odo was born with some very peculiar abilities, not all of them good. He inherited some of his mother’s gifts, but he’s somewhat adrift.” Helga ran a hand through her hair. “He sees things out of focus you might say. His senses sometimes perceive what ours do, but sometimes they perceive past or future, and unfortunately, he’s not always able to tell one from another. I see by your face that you think it a great thing, but I can tell you it’s no blessing. Either because of this peculiarity, or some other, he can never settle in one place, but wanders up and down the country looking for he knows not what. His home is far in the north, but we met many years ago, and he often visits me. I worry for him. He returned here several months ago, and …” her voice trailed off, and she looked sad and concerned.

“And what?”

“Well, he saw something, something terrible. He saw what’s coming, the battle, all the death and suffering.”

“But the army has drawn away north.”

“Yes, north to meet Harald of Norway, but the army will return. Odo has seen it. He does not know when, or how events will turn, but he has seen a great battle and much death. He has a great heart Odo, and he has sworn himself to …”

“Surely he cannot alter fate?”

Helga sighed deeply. “I don’t know. My mother had the seer’s gift, and she told me that it is folly to set yourself against the large tides of what will happen, but that sometimes the small eddies and currents may be changed. Who can say about such great matters? But Odo has vowed to spend himself in order to save as many lives as he can, and he has asked for my help.” Her eyes drifted to the corner of the room where, on a high shelf, stood a small caldron.

Rowena hadn’t noticed it before, but she saw now that a tiny magical fire burned beneath it. She rose and went to the caldron. Helga warned her not to disturb it, but by standing on a chair and craning her neck, she was able to peer in. A clear, sparkling potion bubbled merrily. “What is it?”

“It’s the kind of experiment my mother would have scolded me for and poured onto the ground. I don’t know what it’s called because I haven’t named it yet. If it works, which is by no means certain, it will give anyone who drinks it perfect luck for one day.”

Rowena looked skeptical. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“Didn’t I just say I invented it myself? Of course you haven’t heard of it. If I’ve done everything right, and my theories are correct, a draft of this potion will protect the drinker for the space of one day. Odo begged me to help him carry out his vow. On the day of the battle he will put himself in harm’s way in order to save as many as he can. If I have done what I tried to do, he will have magical luck to keep him from harm himself.”

Rowena questioned Helga closely about the contents of the potion, but though Helga answered as thoroughly as she could, Rowena’s insufficient herb lore was unequal to understanding much of what Helga said.

Despite the omens, and the threat that loomed over them, the next weeks were some of the most peaceful and pleasant Rowena had ever known. The army was gone, the land quiet. Folk still came to Helga, but these were mostly women, children and the elderly. Helga’s cottage was sequestered, and extremely comfortable despite its modest appearance. Rowena had seldom taken more notice of animals than she needed to, but sharing Helga’s cottage made such indifference impossible. Birds and small creatures were everywhere it seemed, but not in a troublesome way. Rowena could see that Helga enjoyed a special relationship with them which Rowena respected, and the occasional truffles Eartha brought them were delicious.

Living with Helga and Aidan, she had no need to hide her true nature. Never since childhood, and not always then, had she been free to exercise her powers openly. Now, she sat with Helga and Aidan on sunny afternoons while they all taught one another. Rowena continued to train the other two in their letters and in reading aloud, and in the magical lore she had gleaned from books. Helga, versed in different kinds of magic, helped Rowena to fashion a new wand, “a real wand,” she called it, and taught Rowena much about magical plants and their properties. Aidan was an acceptable student of reading, but what he liked best was when Helga taught him simple spells and enchantments. She made him a wand also, and Rowena was fascinated to see how this greatly focused and increased his magical abilities.

One day, as Helga was instructing him on simple levitation, Aidan lost his concentration, and the goblet he was causing to hover before him tipped, and would have fallen. Helga quickly raised her wand with a swish and flick, and the goblet stabilized in midair. This gave Rowena an idea.

“Have you ever heard of witches or wizards combining their powers to affect spells more powerful than one could do alone?” She asked.

Helga looked interested. “No, I don’t think I have.”

This set them off into conversations and experiments that ran on over days, and were exciting to them both. Each was impressed by the strength of the others’ magical abilities. As the forces of war and conquest from the muggle world drew nearer, the two women became closer, in a growing passion for stretching the boundaries of their power.

Chapter 8: Salazar, the Squire, and the Man Out of Time

 

Salazar picked up the heavy triangular wooden shield and approached Godric with it. He found the entire business of garbing for combat as tiresome as a tavern keeper with a long memory. Quilted gambeson, leather leggings, ring mail, helmet, shield, all unnecessary for a wizard, but Godric was a law onto himself, and Salazar was his true friend. The friendship was strong, but Salazar had felt it strained by playing the role of Godric’s squire. Subservience, or even a show of it, was against his nature, but Salazar’s only allegiance was to Godric, and this seemed the most inconspicuous way for them to travel together.

Neither, thought Salazar, did Godric look any more interested than he himself, and this was sad. Godric’s cheerful nature was one of the things Salazar loved most in his friend. This constant practice fighting had struck Salazar as utterly pointless, but Godric had always approached it with a fierce joy. Now, his expression was bitter and hard.

Their time waiting for the fleet to sail to England seemed downright playful compared to their daily life now that William’s army had landed in Sussex. Days of magical contests in their lodgings, or lying on the hill, seizing the forces of wind and weather between them to affect change, had been entertaining and engaging. Now, camped with William’s army at Hastings, privacy was rare, and entertainment scarce.

Godric was committed to keeping their identity as wizards hidden, and living as muggles. Such a choice rankled with Salazar. He chafed at the daily indignities of living without magic, and more at the pretense of being a servant. Devotion to the only friend he’d ever had, kept him where he was. But Godric, tormented by conflict, unsure of the honourable course, and feeling himself without a true place, was no longer the companion he’d once been.

Accustomed to a life of freedom, using his magical abilities in order to achieve his will, accepting the occasional reverence of muggles who were in awe of him, Salazar found the web of honor and allegiance that bound Godric confusing and pointless. A Saxon, Godric now found himself as a soldier in the army of William of Normandy, a brutal and efficient conqueror, who had vowed to subjugate Godric’s home. Every decision Godric made had seemed right at the time, but now he found himself trapped in a web, and knew neither how to escape, nor even where he wanted to escape to. For a man of action, this was an intolerable impasse. Salazar missed the light-hearted, expansive Godric, always up for a song, a jest or a round.

Then, Salazar reflected, there was the money. Always ready to use whatever means were to hand, (much like Salazar himself,) Duke William had been glad to accept the gold Godric gave him to aid in the building of the fleet. Godric had never made his peace with how they acquired the gold. A debt to goblins wasn’t something to take lightly. Godric tried not to think about it, and Salazar told himself that, whatever happened, they weren’t going back to Normandy.

Godric lifted his shield wearily and turned toward the practice field. The bulk of the army had moved from their landing at Pevensey, to Hastings, where a castle appeared so quickly even Salazar was impressed. Harold Godwinson, whom the English called King, and William called “usurper,” was in the north with his army, fighting for their lives against another invading army, that of Harald of Norway.

William was firm in his decision not to pursue. His strategy was to stay where he was, live off the land, lute, burn and pillage the surrounding country, and taunt Godwinson to return, to fight at a place of William’s choosing. A lot of Sussex land was held by Godwinson’s relatives, and William was confident that, once the fighting in the north was done, Harold Godwinson and his army would return. They would be depleted and exhausted, facing William and his well-rested troops. Fattening themselves on the spoils of Sussex, William’s forces had only to wait.

To Salazar, this strategy made sense. To Godric, it was low, base, unbefitting the honor of a knight. He beheld the terrorizing of women, children and the elderly, (all who were left after the northward race of the Saxon army) as dishonorable, actions ill-befitting his sense of himself. All joy was gone from Godric. Any path he chose now seemed to lead nowhere he wanted to be, and some might be fatal. Watching the mock combat before him, Salazar thought hard, and came to a decision.

Godric lay flat on his back and fuming. They were in the common room of an inn which had been commandeered by William’s army as an infirmary. The wound on his leg was painful, but it caused him less distress than his fury. For the hundredth time, he reviewed the practice fight, trying to figure out how he had allowed the spear tip to reach flesh. Legs were certainly among the most vulnerable spots, protected only by leather leggings, but Godric, with due modesty, knew himself to be an exceptional fighter, and this seemed to him like the wound of an amateur.

Out of deference to the crowded conditions, Salazar refrained from using his wand, and he kept the purple salve he had made as unobtrusive as possible as he anointed and dressed the wound. The faint purple steam was harder to hide, but Salazar did his best.

“Stop fretting,” he said as he wound the dressing around Godric’s upper leg. “Be grateful the spear missed the great artery, or you wouldn’t be here to berate yourself.” Godric’s face twisted into a most unaccustomed expression, then he relaxed into sullen silence.

In fact, things weren’t going exactly as Salazar had planned. He’d made his decision a bit too quickly perhaps, not having thought it through, and it hadn’t occurred to him at all that his friend might receive a wound Salazar couldn’t heal. The laceration was mending as Salazar had guided it to do, but Salazar was coming to think that there had been some poison or corruption on the spear point of Godric’s opponent. There was an inflammation that Salazar couldn’t control, and his friend was beginning to show signs of an ominous fever. Salazar gave him a draft to encourage sleep, then left to search again in field and wood, for healing herbs.

The problem was that although he was expert in herb lore in his own land, many of the plants were different here. He sought for things he couldn’t find, and found things he couldn’t identify. His foraging had become more and more frustrating, and today it took a steep downward turn.

He was straightening from an examination of a plant that looked a little like something he knew, when he was startled to see a goblin sitting still as a statue on a nearby rock watching him. Feigning indifference, Salazar shrugged one shoulder in offhand acknowledgment, and made to turn away. The goblin raised its hand and pointed its long, knobbly fingers at Salazar. A thin jet of fire flew from its fingertips right past the shoulder Salazar had shrugged. Salazar stopped dead. He believed himself to be the most powerful sorcerer alive, but goblins had a magic of their own, which Salazar was reluctant to tangle with.

“You owe us a debt young wizard,” the goblin said in its rusty voice.

Salazar assumed an expression of mild confusion. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

The goblin pointed a finger at a nearby pool. The water had been still as glass, but as Salazar looked, it shifted and swirled, then settled into an image of himself taking a bag of gold from the hand of a goblin, indistinguishable from the one that sat before him.

“Will you play deception games with me young wizard?”

Salazar swallowed. He certainly would like to have done, but he felt the unpleasant sensation of the goblin’s mind reaching out toward his: a warning that lying would be pointless.

“That was far from here,” he said with an unconcern he didn’t feel. “What is that debt to you?”

“A debt to goblins is a debt to goblins. Our ways are no business of yours. Your only business is to repay us, and soon.”

“You’ll be paid when I’m ready to pay you.”

The goblin raised its hand once more. Salazar found his entire body limbed with dancing flames. They weren’t touching him, but all the magical force he possessed was insufficient to douse or move them. Any attempt to shift his body brought the quick and dazzling pain of burning. He closed his eyes and brought all of his magical energy to bear, but to no effect. He opened his eyes and looked at the goblin.

“I haven’t the means to repay you yet.”

Very slowly the flames retreated. “We will not wait for ever. We know where your friend lies, wounded, unable to defend himself. You know a great battle is coming. Perhaps you’re unaware of the host of magical creatures who are drawn to such things, the scavengers, those who feed on fear, injury, confusion. They are all our allies. If you try to escape away with your debt unpaid, we will know, and we will stop you, you and your friend.”

Salazar was shaken, but he did his best not to show it. “All right,” he said finally, “I will find some way to repay you.”

“In ten days’ time, you will return to this place with the gold, all of it plus the agreed upon lending fee, or we will find first your friend, then you, and exact the vengeance saved for those who would cheat goblins of their right.”

Salazar stood still, watching as the goblin disappeared into thin air. He stared at the place where it had been for a long time, then turned away angrily. He crashed through the undergrowth in frustration, and not a little fear.

He hadn’t gone far however, before the air was pierced by a shrill voice, which cracked a little. “Halt and state your business. If you be an enemy, then stand and fight!”

To his amazement, Salazar found his way blocked by a boy, no older than ten or twelve he guessed. The boy was holding a crudely shaped wooden shield, and a long branch, whittled to a rather dangerous point. The boy’s skinny legs showed beneath the shield, and his arm shook with the weight of the makeshift spear, but his expression was fierce, his stance bold. Had he been in a less serious mood Salazar might have laughed aloud. The boy had spoken in Saxon, and Salazar replied.

“I’m no Norman,” he said pacifically. “Are you the defender of England’s shores then?”

Intrigued by the improvised spear, Salazar stepped forward to reach for it, but at his movement, the boy lunged toward him. Unbalanced by the shield and spear however, he fell headlong on the ground. Salazar did laugh then, but reached out to help the boy up. Ridiculous though the boy was, Salazar respected his bravery. “I’m not here to fight you,” he said, “I’d just like to have a look at your spear; it’s well carved.”

The boy let himself be helped to his feet, then they sat down together on a fallen log while Salazar gave his attention to the closely whittled spear point. “This is nicely done,” he said disarmingly. Something about the boy’s looks appealed to him. The boy was skinny and ill-kept, as well he might be, living as a Saxon in the midst of an invading army. Somehow, to Salazar, he also had the look of one who is alone in the world. Probing gently with his mind, he confirmed this to be so.

“What is your name young squire?”

“Cadogan. I’m going to be a knight one day. My father is going to come back, and when he comes home we’re going to fight together and crush the Normans.”

“You and your mother live near?”

“My mother died when I was born. My father left me with neighbours but …”

From the boy’s mind, Salazar sensed a confusion of dark images best left unexamined, and knew the boy was truly alone. He thought he determined something else as well. “Share some bread with me.” He pulled a slightly stale piece from a pocket, and divided it so that the boy got the larger hunk. The boy grabbed it and ate eagerly. Salazar wondered when the boy’s last meal had been.

“You’re not a Norman you say, and you’re definitely not a Saxon,” Cadogan peered curiously into Salazar’s face. “What are you?”

“I’m a wizard from a distant land,” he said blandly.

Cadogan’s eyes got huge in his thin face. “Are you really?”

“Look.” Salazar pointed at the ground. A long twig began to wriggle, then to writhe, then lifted from the ground with no hand to move it. Quick as lightning it rose up and would have thrust itself up Cadogan’s nose, but just in time it was thrust away, again with no hand to move it. Cadogan looked stunned.

Salazar laughed his hearty belly laugh, which came so unexpectedly from such a somber and unusual looking man. “Yes,” he said cheerfully, “and you are a wizard from a very near land, this one in fact.”

“I’m a wizard?” In his excitement Cadogan leapt to his feet and stood facing Salazar, his face alight. “How could I be a wizard and not know?”

“The gift often doesn’t show itself until you’ve reached a certain age. It seems you are at that age.”

Cadogan grabbed the twig from the ground and began waving it energetically. “What can I do?”

“Not very much yet. You must be taught, and you’ll do nothing with that flimsy twig. We’ll make you a real wand, then we shall see what you can do.”

“Will you make me a wand Right now?”

Salazar sighed. “No, not right now, there are many other things to think about.” And yet his spirits were buoyed by Cadogan’s exuberance, and by the prospect of helping a young wizard to hone his gifts. Salazar felt stumped by Godric’s wound, and by his own predicament with the goblins, but here was one thing he could do.

For the next few hours they sat together while Salazar showed Cadogan some simple spells and incantations that could be done without a wand. Cadogan was captivated, and would have gone on, but Salazar could see the boy was tiring, and he himself must get back to Godric. Salazar had taken a liking to the boy, clumsy with his body, but showing promise of magical power. Looking at the boy’s skinny frame and ragged clothes he wondered what to do with him. Such a one couldn’t be left to the vagaries of an invading army. A young wizard with no one to protect and guide him, and one so recklessly brave? No, something must be done. Salazar scratched his head.

“Where do you live?”

Cadogan’s face clouded, then he said blusteringly, “I live here in the woods! I’m not afraid of anything!”

“Hmm, I don’t doubt that,” Salazar replied judicially, “but you see, I am friends with a soldier. Until now I have been caring for his armor and gear, but I am neither soldier nor knight, nor do I wish to be. We could use a squire to help.”

Cadogan was instantly enthralled. “Really? I can do that! Who is your friend? Is he a great and noble knight?”

“Yes,” said Salazar feeling a rush of warmth, “He is a great, brave and noble knight. His name is Godric. Unfortunately, he has been wounded, and I must return to care for him. Come with me and we will ask whether he will accept your oath of service.”

Cadogan was so excited that he immediately began to run, in the wrong direction, and tripped over a root and sprawled on the ground. Laughing once more, Salazar helped him up, and pointed him right.

Salazar had carefully refrained from telling Cadogan that the soldier in question was with William’s army. Trusting to Godric’s Saxon name, and uncritical of his new friend, Cadogan followed happily along. As they neared the Norman encampment however, his steps slowed and his expression darkened.

“What are we doing here?” He asked a little too loudly.

Salazar put a quelling hand on the back of his neck and propelled him forward. In a tone more forbidding than the boy had yet heard from Salazar, the man said, “This is where Godric is. Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open. This is your first true lesson as a squire and a wizard. Do as I say and don’t draw attention to yourself.”

Feeling less sure of his new friend, Cadogan allowed himself to be propelled forward, arriving finally at an inn he had known when it was a meeting place for friends, rather than an infirmary for enemies. On entering, Salazar pointed to Godric to reassure the boy. No one looking at Godric could doubt he was a Saxon.

Godric lay where Salazar had left him, but at his side sat a man Salazar didn’t recognize. As they approached however, Cadogan began to squirm with excitement, though remembering Salazar’s admonition, he kept silent. Hovering unseen behind a stack of tables, Salazar said quietly, “Who is that man?” Godric and the man were talking together with an intensity that made Salazar uneasy.

“That’s Odo!” Cadogan said excitedly. “He’s …” but what Odo was Salazar didn’t hear, for just then Godric looked up and saw them. Salazar moved forward between the pallets of wounded men and approached warily.

“Salazar my brother,” Godric said, his normally blustery voice made low and rough with fever, “come meet this man. His name is Odo, and he’s an extraordinary …” Yet again Salazar failed to hear about Odo’s virtues, for Godric seemed to lose the ability to find words, and lapsed into the doze of the very ill.

Salazar knelt swiftly beside his friend, touching his forehead and throat, then pulling back the dressing to examine his wound. What he saw and felt frightened him. He sat back on his heels.

“He needs Mistress Helga,” Odo said seriously.

“Mistress who?” Salazar asked without much interest.

“Mistress Helga. She is my friend, and a healer of great renown.”

Salazar looked around the room at the motley collection of Norman soldiers. “She’s not likely to find much welcome here.”

“Neither is your friend likely to find the healing he needs here. Helga knows much of herb lore and magic. We should take your friend to her.”

Salazar raised his eyes to look at Odo. He was a wispy seeming man, with the kind of face you forget ten seconds after you stop looking at it. At the moment, Odo’s expression was serious, intent on convincing Salazar. Salazar would learn that this was not at all Odo’s habitual expression, but in that moment, he felt a force coming from Odo that he was disinclined to argue with. Odo was right. Godric was getting worse, and Salazar didn’t know how to help him.

“I think there may have been poison on the tip of the spear that wounded him,” Salazar said wearily. “You think this Ilda can help him?”

“Not Ilda, Helga!” Cadogan hissed unexpectedly. “I know her too. She can heal him, I know it!”

Odo showed no surprise at Cadogan’s presence, only nodded. “Your friend cannot walk,” Odo said to Salazar. “How will we move him?”

“We’ll wait till it’s dark,” Salazar replied, for once having committed himself to a plan, he was efficient in its execution. “I’ll make a sleeping potion to put in the cups of those guarding the encampment, and those of the wounded who are alert enough to cause trouble. Between us we can levitate him. Is this healer nearby?”

“Near enough,” Odo said. “Cadogan can help us too. We may need more of a distraction if you’re unable to give your potion to everyone.” There plans made, Odo slipped away, to return when Salazar sent Cadogan to find him.

In the hours that followed, Godric slipped in and out of sleep, but even through his illness, Salazar sensed a difference in his spirit. During his lucid periods, Godric told of his long conversation with the odd, wispy Odo.

“There’s something about him that makes you tell him everything,” Godric confided. “I don’t really know who he is or why he was here. He’s a Saxon I’d guess, or maybe a Dane: no Norman, and yet everyone seemed to either know him or ignore him. Somehow, I found myself telling him everything, all the things I told you about William and Harold. He has much wisdom. We talked about honor, and courage, and loyalty and …” Godric’s voice trailed off, but Salazar saw less trouble in his friend’s eyes than had been there for many days. He didn’t know what Odo might have said to ease Godric’s spirit, but he was grateful.

Chapter 9: Salazar Meets a Plump Priest

 

It wasn’t long, however, till Salazar realized he’d been hasty in thinking he could concoct a sleeping draft in a few hours. Under normal circumstances he could have done it with his wand arm tied behind his back, but Godric’s condition continued to worsen, and Salazar was reluctant to leave him. There weren’t that many wounded yet, but there was only one plump priest to tend them.

Salazar’s commitment to getting Godric out of there as soon as possible, solidified when Duke William’s own physician appeared in the doorway. Godric was the most prestigious of the injured, and Salazar felt no surprise when the physician’s eyes sought out the fair-haired warrior.

Conferring a great honor on Godric, the Duke William himself had come to Godric’s bedside the previous day. Salazar had been cleansing and re-dressing Godric’s wound at the time, but even thus preoccupied, he’d been struck by the personal force of the Duke. Salazar respected the ruthlessness that had got William this far, and although he didn’t really understand Godric’s feelings about the man, Salazar did acknowledge the Duke’s charisma. Now, facing the Duke’s physician across Godric’s fever-wracked body, Salazar became conscious of something quite different.

The physician, a suave cleric, was making concerned sounds as he studied Godric, but concern wasn’t what Salazar sensed from his mind. Salazar had once tried to warn Godric that William, an unscrupulous and self-serving man, might find it easier to dispose of someone he owed money to rather than repay him. The Duke owed Godric rather a lot of money, and Salazar was getting a very clear sense that this physician’s visit was not motivated by charity. The physician had a surprisingly disciplined mind that Salazar couldn’t easily penetrate, but enough seemed clear to Salazar that he determined not to leave Godric unattended.

Salazar waited for the physician to depart, then summoned Cadogan to his side. The physician had promised to return later with a draft to treat fever, and while Salazar believed he would return, he didn’t think the draft the physician bore would be one of healing.

“Go to this Mistress Helva,” he said quietly, “and bid her send me a sleeping draft. Any healer worth her weight in knotgrass should have enough on hand for that priest, and the guards on our way out of camp.”

“It’s Helga not Helva,” Cadogan hissed, “and believe me, she’s way better than a lot of knotgrass!”

As Cadogan rose from where they squatted together by Godric’s pallet, he nearly knocked over the candle. Salazar hissed back, “and don’t draw attention to yourself!” He sighed as he watched the young boy threading his way through the wounded, inadvertently treading on a limp hand and overturning a chamber pot before reaching the door. The boy was eager, and a wizard of as yet unknown potential, but stealth and subtlety were lessons he might never learn.

To Salazar’s surprise, Cadogan returned, accompanied by Odo. The wispy wizard explained. “I know I wasn’t meant to come till later, later tonight not some other day later, but Mistress Helga bid me come to get assurance from you that you won’t give a sleeping draft to the priest.”

“What?” Salazar asked, utterly bewildered.

“The guards don’t matter,” Odo explained, “but if you send the priest into sleep, there will be no one to tend the wounded.”

Odo said this as though it should be obvious to anyone, but Salazar stared in confusion. “No one to tend the wounded? This collection of clumsy soldiers and weak camp followers? There’s not a wizard among them! What cares your Mistress Alma for such?”

“Helga!” Cadogan said fiercely. The other two frowned at him, and Salazar said quietly, “Keep your voice down.”

“Mistress Helga doesn’t care who they are,” Odo said. He looked vaguely around the stuffy room. “That man over there,” he pointed to a supine figure with a head wound, “will have an apoplexy before morning, and that laundry woman is going to twist her ankle on the way to the latrine.”

“So what!” Salazar exclaimed in frustration.

“We’ll argue ethics later,” Odo said simply. When Salazar came to know Odo better, he would understand that this wasn’t a mere figure of speech; they really would argue ethics later. “There’s enough sleeping draft here for the guards. They’re more likely to accept a friendly quaff from my flask. I’ll see to that; you take care of the priest. He’s chatty as a lark at sunrise. Just start talking to him on the other side of the room once I give you the sign, and keep him distracted till Cadogan and I have your friend safely outside.”

Salazar frowned. He didn’t like talking to people, at least not people he didn’t know. He was wary of the priest, partly because of the man’s chattiness, but also for another reason. Since leaving his home village, where Salazar and his mother had been revered for their magical abilities, he had discovered that, of all muggles predisposed to view magic with suspicion and mistrust, this sort was the most difficult to ignore.

Giving him no time to argue, Odo departed, bringing Cadogan with him. Salazar was left alone to do what he could for Godric, and to watch the priest chat his way from patient to patient. Salazar had had as little to do with clerics as he could manage, and didn’t understand them. He’d had an interesting conversation with the man about renowned monastery gardens, but the man’s ways were still mysterious.

With each patient, after a conversation in which the priest did most of the talking, he would remove an object from somewhere in his sleeve, and kneel by the patient’s pallet, talking, but not to the patient. The object caught Salazar’s eye immediately. It appeared to be a series of jewels threaded together and closed into a circle. His encounter with the goblin in the wood fresh in his mind, Salazar inwardly calculated the value of the jewels, and wondered whether the priest had any more. The jewels passed through the priest’s fingers, and watching the priest’s lips move, Salazar wondered what sort of incantation the man was attempting.

When Godric had dropped into a fitful sleep, Salazar rose, and went to where the priest was mixing a concoction at a nearby table. Salazar sniffed disdainfully to himself at the amateur effort, but forced himself to make a flattering remark about the priest’s acuity as a healer. Since venturing out into the wider world, he’d discovered how vulnerable muggles were to this tactic. The priest, a trusting man, took Salazar’s praise at face value, and was soon chatting away to him about decoctions and infusions.

Taking a less direct approach, Salazar veered the conversation toward the power of words in healing. Clerics could be jumpy as fish in a basket if you started asking too many questions about their special rituals, but Salazar wanted to know about those jewels. He need not have worried. Guileless as a muggle in a dice game, the priest was happy to show Salazar what he carried.

“This was a gift from my abbot,” he explained. “It’s quite valuable. Of course, at troubled times such as this, valuable things are usually hidden away, but I make an exception for this.” He tucked it safely away and returned to stirring his concoction.

“Hidden away?” Salazar said, giving the illusion of simplicity in order to draw the priest out.

“Oh yes, of course we have nothing to fear, because William has been guided on this journey, and will of course prevail. You may be sure the local people have hidden their items of value however.”

“Surely that isn’t possible with William’s soldiers helping themselves to whatever they fancy.”

The priest frowned a little and said, “Well, many Christians find that small churches and religious houses can be safe places to entrust valuable things. Folk will leave precious objects with clerics in out of the way places at times like these, and return for them when the danger has passed. An invading army cannot search everywhere, and a humble monastery or a broken-down church will often go unregarded.”

Salazar thought about this. He spared a fleeting second to wonder at poor clerics who would keep wealth without exploiting it, then moved quickly on to the problem of how to find such places as the priest described.

“The virtue of such clerics intrigues me,” Salazar said with an attempt at humility. “I would like to seek them out, to learn the wisdom that makes them so trustworthy. Do you know this country well enough to tell me where I might find such a place?”

The priest looked more closely at Salazar, and some of the childlike trust faded from his pleasant face. Salazar tried to look innocent, but too much insincere humility in the past days had taken their toll. Warned by something in Salazar’s expression, the priest took a figurative step back, and said blandly, “I cannot. I am a stranger here just as you are.”

But, reaching out with his mind, Salazar knew the man wasn’t telling the truth. Once the question had been raised, the priest’s mind answered it, giving a surprisingly thorough survey of the countryside, particularly with reference to small, out-of-the-way religious houses. It seemed the man had actually spent a couple of years here during his novitiate, and knew the country rather well.

Salazar focused hard, committing what he could to memory, then said indifferently, “Of course, it is a barbarous place is it not?” He leaned forward and sniffed at the goblet on the table. “Is this ready think you?” He then diverted discussion back to the wounded. Disarmed by Salazar’s seeming sincerity, and nudged to forgetfulness by a little pressure on his mind, the priest entered into a spirited conversation about scrafungulous, and forgot about Salazar’s curiosity.

At this point, Salazar saw a figure in the dimness of the doorway. It was Odo, and he was gesturing to tell Salazar that the time had come. Chatty once more, the priest was amenable to Salazar’s suggestion that they visit each patient in turn, and confer on the state of injury, and the best course of treatment.

Salazar moved away from the table and headed toward the pallet farthest from where Godric lay. The next several minutes were an elaborately choreographed dance in which three people tried hard to maneuver the other two. At Godric’s pallet, Odo brandished his wand, invoking a powerful but silent levitation charm on Godric’s supine form. Darting around him eager as a puppy, Cadogan sought to remove some of the clutter of the sick room, before it could be sent skidding across the floor by an unconscious limb. In truth, he caused more chaos than he prevented, but he did catch a full chamber pot from Godric’s foot just in time to save it from discharging its contents all over Odo’s robe. Like an engineer attempting to wrestle an aqueduct, Salazar jostled, nudged, directed, and misdirected, repeatedly interposing himself between the priest, and a line of sight to Odo and Godric.

Odo had levered Godric into a vertical position, and was using his wand to float him gradually toward the open door. As the priest declaimed happily on the many ways to treat cholera morbus, Salazar leaned back a little in case the priest should choose that moment to look up from his patient. For good measure, he also shortened the wick of the lamp a little with his mind in order to add some dimness to the room.

It was then that things started to go badly. Cadogan, darting from one side of Godric’s weirdly hovering form to the other, set his foot accidentally to an empty water jar, and there was a resounding clatter as it tipped, and rolled on the floor. With no time to think, Salazar did the first thing that came to his mind in order to keep the priest from looking toward the door, and the incredible tableau visible there. Salazar quickly raised the edge of his flowing sleeve, and hissed a directive.

Much later, in trying to reconstruct how things had begun to go so horribly wrong, Salazar learned that he couldn’t have chosen a worse course of action. Salazar was so accustomed to snakes, and so bound together with his own, that he seldom truly realized how disquieting most people, even wizards, found them. As a relative new-comer to the larger world, he had no idea of the place snakes occupied in the symbolic thinking of many, and especially of priests. So, although his intention had certainly been to distract the priest, he was wholly unprepared for the priest’s reaction as he saw Madella slide out from around Salazar’s arm, and slither purposefully onto the floor. The snake was longer than a man’s arm.

With an agility shocking in so plump a fellow, the priest bounded onto his feet, and reached for the lamp. He raised it above his head, and held it high. In a moment of clarity, Salazar realized the priest, far from trying to see the snake better, was intent on hurling the lit lamp directly on her, drenching her in burning oil.

Salazar whipped out his wand and wielded it with a will. The priest stumbled back and nearly dropped the lamp, but, his conversational excesses not withstanding, he was a man of determination, and no small force. When Salazar reached out with his mind and extinguished the lamp, plunging the room into darkness, the priest began chanting words in Latin, and in a tone of command that Salazar had never imagined issuing from atop his many chins.

The several injured and ill patients didn’t seem disposed to take the chaos lying down if they had a choice about it. Many began crying out in fear and alarm, and those who could were pulling themselves together to avoid the writhing snake, the roused priest, a floating Saxon, a wispy wizard holding him aloft, the darting form of Cadogan, and the spreading pool of hot oil from the lamp the priest had dropped on the floor.

Salazar’s attention was torn between Godric and Madella, but Godric had two others to mind him, so Salazar called out in a series of hisses and clicks for the snake to return to him. This wasn’t easy, as he was now being hotly pursued by the impassioned priest.

Later, in reconstructing the scene, he decided that the priest had probably been attempting to exorcise demons from within Salazar, but in the moment, Salazar couldn’t fathom the other man’s intentions. Reluctant to send spells flying around while Madella was loose, Salazar reached out his foot, and contented himself with tripping the cleric, so that he fell heavily to the floor.

When Madella curled once more around his outstretched arm, Salazar got his bearings and made, none too cautiously, toward the door, where Odo was just levering Godric through. Indeed, it was only Salazar’s up thrust hand that kept Godric’s head from colliding brutally with the lintel.

At last they were outside. The fresh air hit Salazar like a plunge into cool water. As the four making up their odd party slipped into the darkness behind the tavern, Salazar made a quick movement with his wand. The sounds of loud chanting, and the desperate cries of the wounded, were muffled as quickly as though a heavy oaken door had shut.

They all, save Godric, breathed sighs of relief. Godric, on the other hand, was showing ominous signs of perking up. His head was moving back and forth, and his eyelids were fluttering.

“Not now,” Salazar groaned. “Have you any more of that sleeping draft? The last thing we need is for him to wake up now.”

“No,” Cadogan said too loudly, “we used it all on the guards. We may even have missed a few; we ran out.”

“Your venerable Mistress Helen not up to the task?” Salazar hissed tensely, “and keep your voice down!”

“Not Helen, Helga! And she’s up to any task. It’s not her fault, I spilled some,” Cadogan hissed back aggressively.

Salazar whispered a fierce oath of frustration in his own language, then took stock. Godric was continuing to shift and mutter, his feet dangling inches above the ground, his hands fluttering with increasing energy by his sides. Salazar was reluctant to use any quelling magic on him given his physical weakness, but he could hear movement some way away in the darkness.

Clearly, several of the guards were awake and alert, and … yes, there was some person of importance making their way toward the tavern. Salazar could see the light of a good quality lamp approaching, and hear the shuffle of many feet as someone was escorted. William’s physician he knew, come to give a draft that would free William of the necessity to repay his debt to Godric.

“We need something to draw everyone away,” Salazar whispered to his companions. It seemed that Godric had an idea; at any rate he became markedly more agitated, and raised his voice in a loud mutter no one could understand. Cadogan concentrated ferociously on the problem, jumping nervously from foot to foot like someone who needed the latrine. Finally, he burst out, “the horses!”

Salazar resisted his immediate impulse, which was to seize Cadogan and throttle him on the spot, and took a half second to consider whether the boy’s words actually had any value. Not for the last time, he was impressed by Cadogan’s ability to work with whatever resources were to hand, and get the result he needed, or at least something close.

“Of course!” Odo exclaimed. “Horses, that’s the key to it all!” Only later would Salazar understand that, as usual, Odo wasn’t speaking merely of the situation of the moment. “But I can’t do it,” he said, “and neither can the boy.”

In a moment of perfect understanding, all three knew what might allow them to slip out of William’s camp unregarded. “I can,” Salazar said confidently. “Give me a moment.”

“Which one?” Odo asked, but Salazar didn’t hear him.

Salazar closed his eyes and reached his awareness outward. He pictured all the horses that William had brought across the channel, the horses he would use against the English foot soldiers. He let his awareness sink into the placid equine minds, then raised up a hornet’s nest.

From all around them came a sudden chorus of neighs, whinnies, horsy squeals, and varied sounds of breakage as, all at once, the camp’s horses reacted as though being stung by multiple vicious insects. All around them the camp irrupted into frantic life. Without the horses, William’s army would be trapped with its back to the sea, with no choice other than to fight on foot, or skulk back onto their ships and return home. The horses were their great advantage, and their Achilles heel.

There were shouts of alarm, shouted orders, shouts of pain as men were kicked and stepped on by frantic equines, and lots of other shouting that the 3 behind the tavern didn’t try to interpret. They waited till the chaos was at its height, and all men who could walk had been drawn away in pursuit of their fleeing mounts. When Salazar judged the time was right, they moved as quickly as they could, encumbered by the still hovering Godric, toward the shelter of the dark woods.

Chapter 10: the Eye of the Storm

 

Rowena stood at Helga’s large work table grinding herbs in a large mortar. Next to the mortar, a caldron was perched atop four supports, with a magical fire beneath it. A large spoon stirred its contents. Behind it was a bowl where leaves were steeping in warm water, and on a nearby bench, fabric was tearing itself into strips, and rolling itself up into bandages. Helga hadn’t found Rowena to be her most apt pupil in the gathering and preparing of herbal medicines, but Rowena’s ability to accomplish many tasks at once was a marvel.

It was a clear and crisp autumn day; the door was propped open for the fresh air. Helga was outside in the sun shelling peas, and she had left their single patient under Rowena’s eye. He was sleeping at present, and as she worked, Rowena allowed herself frequent glances at him.

He had arrived the night before last, levitated through the dark woods by Odo, and a strange wizard, who had a young boy with him. The man and boy had gone off on some errand of their own, leaving the Saxon in the care of the two women. It was true that since floating into the cottage he’d spent most of his time in a fretful sleep, but Rowena was a little afraid of him, because, despite his injury and fever, she was sure he was the best looking man she’d ever seen. He had the height, breadth and fairness of the Saxon, but sleep gave his face an oddly boyish cast. She kept telling herself that it was only because he was asleep and ill. Once he was up and about, he would surely begin to resemble all other large, well-built men she had ever seen.

The truth was that her experience of men had been extremely limited, and she didn’t know how to relate to them. She had grown up alone with her mother, then gone to live in a religious house consisting entirely of women. She found men exotic, and often alarming. She had seen right away that this was not the case for Helga. Helga had grown up with her father and brother, and anyway, Rowena could see that Helga was just one of those women who like men and are drawn to them, and they to her.

Godric shifted restlessly, and turned over. He had improved since his arrival, but he was still feverish, weak, and not always coherent. He opened his eyes and looked at her. His eyes were very blue, and held the candor of illness. The spoon dropped into the caldron with a gentle clatter, and a bandage unwound itself across the floor.

Rowena went to kneel by him. “Are you thirsty?” She asked. He nodded, and she picked up a goblet full of cool water. He tried to raise himself to drink, but was too weak. She hesitated, then, greatly daring, reached out to put a supporting arm beneath his shoulder. When he had drunk, she helped him to lie back down. She dipped a cloth, and reached out shyly to apply the cooling water to his face and forehead. He closed his eyes, and his features relaxed. She felt an odd cramp somewhere in her chest at the combination of strength and helplessness she saw.

She didn’t hear Helga come into the cottage, and jumped like a startled rabbit when the other woman said from right behind her, “I think he’s doing better, don’t you?”

Rowena leapt to her feet and retreated to the work table. “I … I don’t really know; you’re the best one to judge.” Rowena, who would have sworn that she’d never stammered in her life, turned back to the mortar, and resumed her herb grinding with unnecessary force.

Helga smiled to herself, and began questioning Godric closely about matters of the body so intimate that they brought a blush of true embarrassment to Rowena’s cheeks. As Helga inquired calmly into bodily functions Rowena had never discussed with anyone, Rowena reflected once more on the innumerable reasons she herself would never make a healer. She had respect and a deepening fondness for Helga, but she also often thought longingly of days spent with parchment and scrolls in quiet libraries, where, if they arose, bodily functions were described in Latin.

That afternoon, a small girl arrived to ask, would Mistress Helga come to her mother, who was in childbed. Helga, gathering up herbs and other implements of the midwife, responded to Rowena’s ill-concealed panic by saying, “There’s little he needs, as much water as he’ll take, some of the broth, cool cloths, and just talk to him. He needs to sleep it’s true, but he needs to be awake as well. Something troubles his mind, and it may be that he will heal faster if he has someone to talk to.” Half intrigued half frightened, Rowena merely nodded, feeling a little breathless.

And so they talked. Rowena sat near him, a spindle producing yarn in mid air at her side, and the caldron on the table stirring itself. She had the scholar’s way of asking precise and ordered questions, but her new awareness of how distracting a man’s presence could be, made her less remote. He laid out the facts of his life before her. Though he didn’t unburden himself as he had to Odo, still, there was something comforting about setting it all out, like unfolding a pennant in a harmless wind, so that you could see the entire pattern.

Then, when he began to tire, he asked her questions, and she found herself doing the same. She found him uniquely sympathetic when she tried to explain about her life as a scribe, her fear of discovery, and the reasons she had been forced to leave the security of the scriptorium. When she described turning her own hair into bright feathers and being unable to turn it back, he wheezed with laughter. He too had lived as a muggle, afraid of the reactions of others to his magical powers.

It was his turn again, and he told what it was like to meet Salazar, a wizard who was proud, even arrogant about his abilities, and uninhibited about using them. He told her of lying on the hilltop across the channel, and the exhilaration as Salazar taught him how to read the clouds and seize the wind.

She told him about her experiments with Helga, of combining their magical abilities to do more together than they could do by themselves. “But she doesn’t recognize the danger,” Rowena said. “There’s a terrible battle coming, and she won’t hear anything about leaving. She uses magic openly. All folk around here know what she is. They do not fear or hate her, but now there are Norman soldiers, and quite apart from the obvious dangers, they might get wind of what she is, of what we are, and …”

“You don’t have to tell me about what can happen to an incautious witch or wizard,” he said darkly. “Salazar is the same. Since being with me he’s begun to practice some discretion, but he grew up honored and respected for his powers, and I don’t think he understands the danger.”

A silence fell between them, but despite the seriousness of the conversation, both felt better for talking.

The next afternoon found Helga and Rowena outside in the sun. They stood several paces from one another practicing combining their magical abilities. They had progressed to conjuring groups of living things. Aidan sat nearby, Rowena’s book in his lap. He was puzzling his way through long words, and ideas he didn’t understand.

Rowena and Helga agreed on midges. They raised their wands and concentrated, but what appeared between them was a cloud of locusts. Helga shrieked. Her extensive garden was temptingly near.

Rowena was sympathetic, but she saw no need to panic. “Transfigure them into midges,” she said calmly. Helga made herself focus, and suddenly the air was full of midges. They flew off harmlessly in all directions, and Helga dropped to the ground, limp with relief. As Rowena sank down to join her in a rest, she caught movement out of the corner of her eye.

Salazar and Cadogan had returned. They stood on the edge of the wood. Salazar had watched with interest. He privately thought he could have done as much on his own, but he was curious about their efforts, and asked intelligent questions as he joined them.

Godric and I used to pass the time waiting in France by having magical contests: throwing goblets at one another, trying to pour jars of water over each others’ heads, that sort of thing. Though Aidan and Cadogan had never met, they instantly seized on this idea, and began an absorbing game which involved trying to hurl twigs and small stones at each other.

In answer to his question, Helga told Salazar that Godric was mending, if slowly. “He managed to take a few steps today. That is a bad wound. How came he by it?”

“It was an accident on the practice field,” Salazar replied. “I think now that there was poison on the weapon of his opponent. You see the Duke owes Godric quite a bit of gold, and I think William decided it would be easier to dispose of Godric than it would be to repay him.” Salazar was generally wary of strangers, but he liked and trusted these two. It was a relief to be among his own kind once more, and he was used to the company of powerful witches. Moreover, they looked at him with interest, not with the suspicion or judgment that his magic and his odd appearance sometimes got from strangers.

“He will be safe as long as he is here, but will William seek him out?” Helga asked.

“No, William has quite a bit on his mind already. As long as Godric keeps out of William’s army he’ll be fine.”

Rowena frowned. She had not thought of Godric going back to William’s army. “I wonder how long it will be until Godric’s well enough to return to the camp.”

“Too long I hope,” Salazar said.

“You can’t mean you want him to remain ill!” Helga exclaimed.

“Just as long as it takes for the coming battle to be fought, and for Godric to see that he owes no allegiance to William.”

Helga looked troubled. “I’d not be sorry for William’s army to lose a fighter, but we can’t interfere when he’s well enough to leave here.”

“I’ll not let a wizard, especially this one, throw his life away in a muggle battle,” Salazar said a little more hotly than he’d intended. Helga frowned, but Rowena looked at him with new interest. The coming battle meant nothing to her but fear for herself and her friends, and she didn’t want Godric throwing his life away either.

“Why do you say that Godric will be safe as long as he’s here?” Salazar asked.

“There’re enchantments around my cottage and garden. No one who doesn’t know I live here can find it alone. Anyone coming to me for healing must be guided by someone who’s been here before.”

Salazar thought this through, and regarded Helga with growing respect. “That’s powerful and complex magic.”

“Thank you,” she smiled proudly.

“But that won’t protect … you for ever,” Rowena said, “not if William is successful. There are a lot of people in that camp, and eventually someone will find there way here.”

“Who among the folk round here would lead a Norman to my cottage?”

Rowena shrugged. “You’d lead one of their injured horses here yourself, much less an injured man. The wounded will end up here one way or another, you should be prepared for that.”

“Well, perhaps I cannot stop it, but there’s nothing of value here, I’m in no more danger than anyone else, much less really, secluded here as I am.”

Rowena rolled her eyes. She shared an unexpected look of complicity with Salazar. She was afraid of what was coming. Many folk had already fled, and, cozy though she had been here, Rowena felt more than ready to get out of the path of violence and destruction. Salazar’s concern was for Godric. Rowena didn’t understand the complexities at work, but she was eager to save him from whatever danger Salazar feared.

The next day it rained. Sheltering inside the cottage, the four adults found they had much to talk about, while Aidan and Cadogan waged good-natured and continuous magical warfare on one another. Helga banished them to the bed chamber, with dire warnings about the fate of any careless combatant who might damage her feather beds or sheep skin rugs. For Rowena, it was a complete novelty to be in a group of her own kind. Helga and Salazar, though never having practiced secrecy, had long missed the companionship of other magical folk.

Godric was more alert, and able to sit up. Rowena tried not to hover over him, to leave his tending to Helga or Salazar, but her awareness of him was a small thrill in her belly, and it was an effort to maintain her usual composure.

The conversation was wide-ranging. They talked about weather wisdom and herb lore, transfiguration and conjuring, potions, magical creatures, the virtues and failings of muggles, and the experiments the women had been doing with combining their powers. This last topic proved so absorbing that they spent the entire morning trying increasingly complex spells, combining their magical power to produce effects greater than any one of them could have achieved alone. It was exhilarating, in a way that Godric and Helga associated with a song, improvised well, with other musicians.

Expansive in her new-found sense of belonging, Rowena told Godric and Salazar about Helga’s special relationship with animals, the way she seemed to communicate with them, how they often seemed to do her bidding. Salazar was greatly interested in this, and told of his life-long ability to control animals.

When Godric was asleep, Salazar allowed Madella to emerge from his sleeve to show Rowena and Helga. They were alarmed, but fascinated. Helga wouldn’t let him turn her loose inside, but she listened with absorption as Salazar spoke to the snake in a hissing, guttural language. She had no doubt the snake and Salazar understood one another, and she was impressed.

When Godric woke once more, he told them that it seemed not only to be animals Salazar had influence over. “It mattered not where we were,” he said laughing, “Salazar always managed to secure us a dry place to sleep, and a good meal. I don’t know how he did it. Many a knight more noble than we slept cold and hungry, while we were warm, with full bellies.”

“That’s no great matter,” Salazar said easily, “surely we’ve all done the same.” But he could tell by their expressions that the others didn’t know what he meant. “Entering someone’s mind,” he explained lightly, “nudging them to do what you want, to forget what you don’t want them to see, finding out what they want to hear.” He looked around at their faces and said incredulously, “But all wizards can do this!”

Godric and Helga were watching him, mouths agape, but Rowena’s incisive intellect was captivated. “Can a wizard do it to another wizard?”

“Yes, particularly if the other wizard is weak, not expecting it, welcomes it, or is unaccustomed to it.”

“Show me.”

Salazar thought for a moment, then retrieved a random memory, the captain from whom he’d secured his place on the ship that had carried him from his home. “I will put an image into your mind,” he said. “It will work best if you try to think of nothing.”

There was silence in the room. Finally, Rowena began to speak. As though describing a painting, she detailed the scene at the docks where Salazar had found the captain, the boats moored there, the odd hat the captain had been wearing. Then Rowena startled Salazar by saying, “You probed his mind to find the right words to speak. You persuaded him to give you a place on his ship by using information taken from his mind. You convinced him you knew more than you did.”

Salazar frowned. He hadn’t meant to convey that to her, only the way the scene had looked. He withdrew his attention, and put up a quick barrier. She looked startled, then clutched the edge of the table, briefly disoriented.

“You never told me that,” Godric said surprised.

“Why would I think to do so? It’s something we all do.”

“Not all,” Helga said with some asperity. “I’ve never thought of such a thing.”

“It was a remarkable feeling,” Rowena said, oblivious to undercurrents in the room. “I would be greatly curious to try …” her eyes came into focus, and she took in the expressions on Helga and Godric’s faces. She strove desperately for a distraction. She was profoundly curious to explore this new marvel, but the tension in the room had become palpable, even to her.

“I must show you my book,” she said, assuming her usual air of dignity. “It is my only remaining possession from my mother, and I carried it with me through the forest of Andredsweald.” She retrieved the book from its place on a shelf.

Godric smiled, “Ah, the Metamorph Magi! Will you then turn your hair to feathers for us?” Helga, who knew the story, noted with interest the faint flush that came into Rowena’s face. Salazar, who didn’t, was looking at the book with suspicion, as though he thought it might reach a tendril toward him.

Godric leaned forward to examine it. “The illumination is well executed.”

Rowena opened the book to the first page, and explained its remarkable properties. “That’s how I first learned that Elwyna and Aidan have magic,” she explained to Helga. “Aidan traced out the letters on the cover correctly, and Elwyna saw only blank pages after the first spell. Even though they can’t read, the magic of the book was visible to them.”

“I think we can no longer say that Aidan can’t read,” Helga replied. “He’s given it considerable effort, and yesterday I saw him turn his own eyebrows into beetles and back again.”

Rowena and Godric looked impressed. “My reading has been sparse,” Godric said to Rowena. “Read the spell for me so I’m sure of the words before I read it myself.”

Salazar looked on dubiously. Reading and scribbling were for tax counters he felt, not for wizards. But as Rowena read the initial spell aloud, something stirred unexpectedly. She had a clear, disciplined voice, and excellent articulation. The words rolled impressively, filling the room with power. It struck him then that the written word is its own sort of magic, conveying meaning over time and distance merely by existing.

Godric took the book in his hand and read the spell himself. His delivery wasn’t so elegant, but when he had done, the rest of the book was revealed to him. He was captivated.

That set them off. Like children who’ve discovered a network of secret passages, they roved in all directions. For days, it was not uncommon to see noses like parsnips, ears the size of goblets, and hair of all shades of the rainbow, sometimes on one person. Salazar, from indifference to the written word, had now developed a devouring hunger for it. Once he understood that this was the power of access to magic from the past, and a way to send magic into the future, he soon surpassed Helga. Like most who’ve not learned the skill of reading in childhood, he and Helga shared a prodigious ability to remember incantations, and they were quicker to master spells than Godric and Rowena, who tended to rely on reading.

Aidan too had taken to reading with a will. Watching him go to Rowena for help with the hard words, Godric mistook Rowena’s patience for maternal feeling, so was puzzled when she seemed disinclined to teach Cadogan. When he asked her about it, she confessed that Cadogan’s slower mind was an irritant to her. “Helga has great patience with him,” Rowena said a little defensively. “He adores her, and she can go over the same thing with him over and over again until I think I will gnaw off my own arm if I have to hear it one more time, and she just smiles in her sweet way and repeats herself.”

“He’s not the sharpest sword in the armory that’s sure,” Godric allowed, “but he’s brave as a lion. When he met Salazar for the first time, he mistook Salazar for a Norman, and was ready to defend England against him.”

“Brave, but foolish.”

“They can sometimes look like the same thing.”

Rowena smiled.

As his health returned, Godric had begun once more to exude the vitality that Salazar had thought one of his best qualities, and which Rowena found even more distracting than mere good looks. Since coming to Helga’s cottage, Godric had had long talks with Helga, and more with Odo. The gentle wisdom of the healer, and the muddled objectivity of the man out of time, had settled Godric’s mind somewhat.

His wound kept him from fishing, which was an irritant to him. He passed the time remembering his skill on a tiny harp of Helga’s. It had been her mother’s, and though Helga had little skill with it, she valued it highly. She was glad to hear it come to life in Godric’s hands. She had a sweet and true singing voice, and They enjoyed finding songs they both knew.

Godric found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to redefine many of the concepts that had governed his life, and discard things he’d thought were true. Trying to act honorably had led him into chaos. Honor was at the center of his life, but he was beginning to sense that its source must be inside. During his recovery, he spent time trying to figure out just what that meant. His natural ebullience was slowly returning, and Rowena was finding that, in such close quarters, this masculine vitality was hard to ignore.

Odo was a regular visitor. He had an obsessive interest in the contents simmering merrily away in the small caldron on the high shelf, which were assuming a lovely molten gold color. He had technical conversations with Helga about ingredients, procedure, and likely effects.

“You remember this has never been tried before,” Helga said wearily, having given the same warning a few dozen times in the past months. “There are any number of ways this could go horribly wrong. The tincture of thyme wasn’t a challenge, but the murtlap tentacles, that’s just something you don’t work with every day. One error in portions, one stir too many or in the wrong direction, and essential confidence becomes suicidal recklessness. It’s not too late to change your mind. Go home. Leave this place and go back to the north. Just because you’ve seen what will happen doesn’t make it your fault, or your responsibility.”

“I will be fine,” Odo replied calmly, or as calmly as he said anything. “Goodness knows I’d love to see the hills and moors of home again, and I will, after this one day’s work is complete.”

Godric and Salazar each reacted predictably when they heard of Odo’s intentions for the potion. “That is a noble purpose,” Godric said with feeling. “This country is your home, and yet you will save friend and enemy alike, by throwing yourself into harm’s way. I honor you, and wish you all the benefits Felix can give.”

Salazar stared in open confusion. “If you have such a potion at your disposal,” he said dazedly, “why would you not …” he stopped himself on the brink of enumerating all the things he himself would do with such a potion, and his eyes slid almost reluctantly to the shelf where it stood. “Why would you put yourself in harm’s way to save your enemies?”

Odo sighed in frustration. “But they’re not my enemies, not really.”

“How can you say that!” Godric exploded. “Merlin’s beard man I admire your motives, but how can you call an invader other than your enemy?” Then a pained expression crossed Godric’s face. His hands twitched uncomfortably and he looked away.

“I don’t think I can make you understand,” Odo said. “This sight I have, it makes me neither here nor there, early or late, now or sometime else. I can’t turn the tide of battle, of what’s to come.”

“Why not?” Salazar asked with genuine interest. “You have an astonishing gift of sight, and a potion of incredible potential. You could do almost anything.”

Odo sighed. It was always like this when he tried to make others see what he could. He could see it and they couldn’t, and they would never understand. The most he had ever found was acceptance from rare folk like Helga, the wise and kind.

“You must just believe me when I say, I know what’s to come, and I know what I can do about it. All my life I’ve drifted around, seeing things, and not knowing if what I saw was happening, had happened, was yet to happen. Can you imagine how hard that makes it to succeed in the world? I know things about people I don’t want to know, and I’ve done harm because of it. This is a way to balance things. I will prevent suffering and death this way. For once, I know what to do, I know when and where to do it, and Helga is going to help me do it.”

All of them saw that Helga’s eyes were full of tears. “Yes my friend,” she said sadly. “I’m going to help you. Then, maybe after that you will be able to go home and find some peace.”

Odo smiled his childlike smile, which Helga found so endearing. “Yes,” he answered, “maybe I will.”

Chapter 11: What the Cat Dragged In

 

The old man was leaning back against the trunk of an oak tree, his feet braced comfortably on a rock, and the Metamorph Magi lying open on his knees. He’d dozed off, as he was prone to doing in the late afternoon these days, but woke presently, and returned to a leisurely perusal of its pages. The sun was shining, and he’d come outside to enjoy the light, and his new favourite pastime, rereading his masterwork. He hadn’t been so absorbed in a book since Cleodna released a limited edition of her Days and Nights of the Druidesses of the Secret Grove: With illustrations.

He’d forgotten just what a great writer he was. Truth be known, it wasn’t entirely his dazzling prose that kept him enthralled. The spells were brilliant and ingenious, as he would have been happy to tell anyone, but it wasn’t entirely the creativity of his magic that held him spellbound either. He wouldn’t have liked to admit it, and anyway there was no one to admit it to, but it was the deep magic of the book, and the vague sense of companionship it had brought, that had kept the book always by his side of late. Of course he wanted no companionship, having dispensed with that frivolity a century ago, it was just a book; a damned good one if he did say so himself.

His plan seemed to be going on swimmingly. The young lady currently in possession of the copy of the Metamorph Magi, was a scribe of some sort, living out her days in dry libraries and scriptoria. She had a surprisingly disciplined mind; it had taken more effort than he’d expected to implant the dreams.

The magical connection forged by the two books being read simultaneously, was achieving what he’d hoped. The young scholar had been prompted by dreams, to go in search of the witch in peril. His scheme for easing his own conscience was unfolding perfectly, and yet he didn’t stop reading the book. He told himself he was just making sure the lady was well on her way.

once roused, the young lady’s will was formidable. He’d certainly given her life a shaking up. He still chortled to himself when he thought of it. She wasn’t in a library any more. He’d followed her progress on the road, and through the forest of Andredsweald. He’d had to give her grudging credit there; even he himself might think twice before a journey through that swath of dark wood. Probably just ignorant and foolish, he told himself.

He’d almost experienced relief when, in her mind, he’d finally seen the fair-haired witch, not in his dream visions, but in a cottage in the woods, detail he’d never seen before, assurance that his plan had worked. The young lady had been found. Not that he cared of course, he merely wanted to discharge what felt like an onerous obligation. Therefore, when he had still failed to close the book with a resounding snap and place it back on its dusty shelf, he had told himself it was simple curiosity. He just wanted to see how the story would unfold.

Now, sitting drowsily in the shade, watching sunlight playing in the fountain on the edges of his vision, he gloated over his impeccable phrasing, and drifted on the surface of the mind of the young boy, who had spent an increasing amount of time reading the book. The connection had been tentative for a long time, but as the boy’s mastery of reading grew, the connection strengthened.

The old man had experienced a shock, a bittersweet disturbance in the emotional void he’d cultivated for himself. Poking idly in the boy’s mind, he’d seen the boy’s mental image of the book’s owner. The old man shouldn’t have been as surprised as he was, but the young woman, Rowena she was called, had a real look of her mother about her. Soberer certainly, but then her mother could have done with a little more depth, he’d always thought so. Nevertheless, he’d loved her truly. But of course that was in another life, a time when he cared for things of the world, and the people in it. But that was all in the past. Rowena, despite having such a look of her mother, seemed perfectly able to cope with her situation, and to save the fair-haired heeler, who possibly could not save herself.

The heeler’s name was Helga, he’d learned. She too had taken time to come into focus, was still in fact not entirely coherent to him. She was learning to read also, but more slowly than the boy Aidan. She’d certainly less time for it as a sought-after herb woman, than did a scruffy, indigent boy. The old man knew how that was. Let the common people see that you could so much as cure a wart, and they’d give you no peace.

His eyelids had begun to droop once more, when he got a new shock: a new mind, no child, a man, and a powerful one, a powerful wizard, and a fighter too. The old man stared at the page hard, concentrating so intently on seeing into the man’s mind that he forgot to read, and started to lose the connection. With a mixture of indignation and curiosity, though he would have denied the latter as beneath him, he resumed reading, dividing his mind between the rote task, and gently exploring the man’s surface memories. He received a startling torrent of thought and feeling. This mind was neither disciplined like Rowena’s, flighty like Aidan’s, nor placid like Helga’s. Who was this interloper, reading his book? As though the book was meant simply for anyone’s callused hands!

His indignation didn’t last long. It was subsumed in the deluge. The man, Godric he was called, was host to a flood of conflicting imperatives. The old man sensed a self pulling itself together, rebuilding its inner landscape. The old man had been doing his disciplined best to ignore what was constantly near the surface of Helga’s and Rowena’s awareness, something about an invasion, horses, an army. The old man had seen invasions, horses and armies enough to sink the island of Britain, and wished to see no more.

Following the skeins of uneasy memories, it was all there for the old man to see: William’s army, his relentless ambition, his intention to conquer Britain. Then there were the confused loyalties of Godric, William’s sworn man, a fighter, a Saxon charged with crushing his own people, a wizard forced to hide his gifts, a man who valued honor and integrity above all. And the battle was near, very near, both in time and space. Too quickly, Godric stopped reading, and the connection between his mind and the mind of the old man was severed.

“You can’t do that you young upstart!” He actually shouted aloud and jumped to his feet in frustration. He paced back and forth in agitation. What were these foolish infants playing at? Why were they holed up in the cottage of a healer, less than half a day’s walk from two armies bent on pulverizing one another. Didn’t they know what could happen to women and children at such times? Rowena now, she seemed like a sensible young woman, what was she thinking to allow Helga to remain there? He irritably picked up the book and began reading once more. His mind found that of the young boy Aidan.

Until now, once the business of Rowena’s dreams had been accomplished, the old man had been content to eavesdrop, bringing a little unnecessary flavor to his days by idly rummaging about in memories and impressions. In as far as he’d let himself think about it, he’d supposed that the danger threatening Helga involved her being married off to a muggle with no imagination, or perhaps she was going to transfigure her feet into flippers during a swim, and be unable to change them back again. He certainly hadn’t thought of anything as serious as this. He drummed his fingers incessantly on the book cover, a habit he had when distracted or fretful. Damn it, this is what you got when you left serious work to inferiors.

Maybe they felt they had nowhere to go. Upheavals could be dangerous times for wizards; he ought to know. Upheavals also afforded the ability to disappear into the chaos if necessary, another scenario he was no stranger to. Had none of them family? Kith or kin to offer them safety? He thought back to what he’d gleaned from their minds so far, and decided they didn’t. These were witches and wizards, ones of uncommon power he knew. For such to leave themselves in harm’s way, to put themselves right in the path of armies, who took death heedlessly, no, this was not to be born.

The old man was far more vigorous than he liked anyone to guess, and he spent the rest of the afternoon prowling around the lake, viciously throwing stones into it, muttering angrily to himself, and occasionally kicking things. When he finally returned to the castle at dusk, his house elf remonstrated with him over the state of his robes and the bruises on his feet.

As the creature set about cleansing and anointing his many scratches and swellings, the old man barked, “How long has it been since all the upper chambers were cleaned and aired?”

“Fifty years sir. You told me to stop sir, because you didn’t care about them, because no one would ever come here to live in them and disturb your peaceful solitude sir.”

“I remember what I said!” The old man exclaimed angrily. “I’m not stupid you know, in fact I’m probably the smartest man alive today. I know I am. So what? Who cares what I said. The castle should be cleaned and aired, all of it.”

The house elf said merely, “Yes sir.” Her lack of curiosity seemed to irritate the old man. “Well,” he grumbled, “Aren’t you going to ask me why?”

“Oh no sir, house elves exist to obey, not to ask questions sir,” but he was sure he detected one side of the elf’s mouth turned up in a knowing smile.

“Ask me why,” he ordered grumpily.

“Yes sir. Why sir?”

“Mind your own business!” He growled.

“Yes sir.”

“Is that rabbit stew I smell?”

“Yes sir, and I’ve summoned a bottle of the Burgundian for your supper sir.”

The old man sighed, and laid a light hand briefly on the elf’s shoulder. “You’re good to me,” he muttered. His eyes fell on the ornate chess set. “Maybe after supper we can play a game or two,” he suggested a little diffidently.

“Oh no sir! A house elf couldn’t play a game of chess with a wizard sir! Oh no sir.” The elf gathered up her salves and scurried away toward the kitchen.

The old man gazed at the beautiful pieces. He raised a hand to place a pawn in the first move of a well-remembered game with a king, then let his hand drop into his lap. The repetition had suddenly lost its appeal. He threw back his head and let out a stream of astonishingly colourful curses from many languages, some of which weren’t spoken in the world anymore. He knew what he must do. He must act out of common humanity, of which he grudgingly supposed he still had a remnant. He must act because four remarkably powerful wizards were in danger. And, this truth came reluctant as a boggart into sunshine, he must act because he no longer wanted to play chess alone in an empty castle.

If the old man thought he’d made his peace with allowing forces from the outside world to affect him once more, he was wildly mistaken. This became painfully clear some days later. He was sitting under his favourite oak waiting for someone in Helga’s cottage to pick up the Metamorph Magi, so that he could continue his plan for saving them all, whether they liked it or not. Out of the corner of his eye he saw movement, something was slinking up the hill from the direction of what passed as the nearest village. With disgust, he saw that it was the black and white cat. The cat had been absent for quite some time, and he had begun to hope that it had perhaps succumbed to a wolf, or something equally nasty and final.

The old man liked to ignore the cat as ostentatiously as possible, but something in its gait caught his attention. It wasn’t pursuing the random zigzag which was the result of the chaos that rained in the mind of every cat he’d ever known. It looked like a cat with a purpose. It was almost prancing, tail high and steps jaunty, toward the front of the castle.

With astonishment, instantly subsumed by rage, he saw that, following the cat, was a straggling line of some of the most woebegone people he’d ever seen. They were women and children mostly, and looked as though they’d been on the road for days. Their clothes were filthy and ragged, and he’d bet all his best Burgundian that every single one of them hosted both flees and lice.

His immediate reaction was to leap to his feet and begin jinxing them all into unrecognizability. Something stopped him however. Despite the fact that they were clearly near the end of their tether, they weren’t looking at the castle with the cross-eyed indifference of muggles bemused by his unparalleled concealment charms. Their faces registered the relief of vagrants who’ve spotted safe shelter, and none of them looked like they were about to recall errands that would suddenly take them elsewhere. His mind was forced to the reluctant conclusion that this pathetic band of indigents were witches and wizards. So many, and all in one place, and all in such a state? His shock and confusion notwithstanding, he still jumped up and approached them, hostility expressed in every line of his posture. When he got closer though, he saw that the first woman in the straggling line was thin and warn, and had a baby resting on her hip.

The problem, as he knew only too well, was that, the scrap of humanity left in him once roused, it would limber up, lift its head, sniff the air, begin to notice the world, and grow until it had insinuated itself into his daily life. This led to untold inconvenience, sometimes even to outright altruism. With an inward sigh that expressed the experience of centuries, he approached the exhausted looking woman, and actually tried to soften his expression. This effort might not have been entirely successful however, for she looked at him with foreboding, but answered his questions as simply as she could.

“We’re all refugees from the battle,” she said. “With Harald’s army coming to invade, it wasn’t safe to remain, especially for us.”

It was a mild but temporary relief to him to show impatience. “Harold’s army’s already here, and why and how did you come so far?”

“Not Harold, Harald,” she replied confusingly. At the look of frustration on his face she said, “Harald Hardrada of Norway, he’s brought his army to the north to fight Harold Godwinson. Didn’t you know?”

“By every oak ever sprouted in Britain is there no end to these muggles pushing each other around? The Romans, the Celts, the Picts, the Saxons, the Vikings, the Normans, you’d think they’d grow weary of it, I certainly have!”

The woman, who seemed to be the group’s leader, merely looked puzzled. “I don’t know about any of that, I only know that we’re weary onto death, hungry, some of us grieving, all of us lost and frightened. This cat began keeping pace with us a few days ago, and it seemed finally that it was trying to tell us something, or I should say lead us somewhere, and here you are, and a castle that could house all of us.”

The old man, despite the growing parasite of benevolence inside him, looked grumpy.

Suddenly the woman’s composure wavered. She didn’t break down, she had too much dignity for that, but she drooped where she stood, and said more quietly, “Please, I haven’t eaten since yesterday, and I will soon be unable to feed my baby.”

The old man let the centuries old sigh out at last. How many many times he had seen mothers, hungry, bedraggled, fleeing danger not of their own making, and begging for enough sustenance to feed their children. Battling the treacherous emotion that threatened to wash its unwelcome tide through his soul, he turned toward the castle steps, and yelled for his house elf. He looked longingly around for the cat so that he could give it a swift kick, but it had vanished.

In the following days, the old man found himself both more and less disturbed than he had expected. It transpired that a few of the refugees had brought their own house elves with them, and so there was no lack of physical comfort in the castle, perhaps even a bit more than there had been; women had a tendency to do that.

The transition from solitude to its opposite was much harder to reconcile himself to. He would often take his book in the afternoons and retreat to a hidden spot on the far side of the lake for some peace and quiet. On the other hand, the leader of the group, Elwyna she was called, turned out to be familiar with the rudiments of chess. To be sure the only real challenge was to his patience, but even a bad player was welcome after so many years of playing out old games from memory. The children had been firmly warned that they were his guests, and must do their best to keep away from him, and not disturb his peace. The old man frequently reminded himself to scowl menacingly at them, lest they get any ideas.

The refugees were vastly improved by food, sleep, and a good deal of soap and water. He actually found himself interested the first time he saw them all together, and recovered from the road. He hadn’t seen so many witches and wizards in one place since his days of training to be a Druid, and that was more years ago than that mangy cat had hairs.

In the past few decades, he’d taken to having his meals where ever fancy placed him, but now he shaped and levitated stone into the great hall to make a dais at one end. He began taking his meals with the castle’s new residents, and it rather pleased him to see their awe and admiration, expressed from a respectful distance of course. His renown was such that all soon realized who he was, a figure of legend they’d never expected to meet in person. He’d forgotten the savor of awe and admiration, and it made a pleasing sauce to his meals. He’d made his dining table deliberately small. It might someday amuse him to confer a great honor on one of them by inviting them to dine there with him, but there was no need to rush things.

He continued to watch, with growing interest, the experiments of the four staying in Helga’s cottage. He had seen witches and wizards combine their powers in this way before, but not for a long time. He himself of course never bothered with such things; it’s hard to work in groups when you’re omnipotent. It was clever of these four to pursue this line of magic, so full of potential power.

Seeing them all together, he allowed himself to acknowledge what he’d been able to ignore when watching them separately. Even had he not been possessed of the Sight, he could have guessed that four such powerful magicians had a great destiny. In these days, as he sought out peace and quiet with his book, his Sight showed him that this intuition was true. These four did have an important destiny. They would be figures of legend: not of course anything like the way he himself was a legend, but then who was? Legends, that is, if they got themselves out of the path of the two armies who were about to do their best to hack one another into bits. He would have to take a hand. He didn’t seek for the details of their futures, but he knew they lay in the north. He would let the idea of the north trickle into their minds, like a song so quiet you barely knew it was there.

And then there was Odo. The old man had known his mother, an extraordinary witch, but dangerously reckless. He had met Odo as a child, and seen his troubled path. There was nothing he could do about it, but it touched him with a rare pity. He gave a deep sigh when he first understood what Odo meant to do. Well, at least the boy was in good company, he thought, thinking of Helga’s sweetness, and wiping his eyes on his wide wizard’s sleeve.

Chapter 12: the Keening of the Storm Wind

 

As the inevitable day drew nearer, the inhabitants of Helga’s cottage varied widely in their reactions to the dreadful anticipation. Rowena felt nauseous most of the time, and was likely to start up from sleep sure she’d heard the clanking of armed men on the move.

Godric’s physical health was improving, which gave him increasing energy for fretting. He had finally resigned himself to avoiding the battle all together. His restless energy was unsettling in such close quarters though, as they all had enough of their own.

Salazar was more sanguine. Despite the turmoil that surrounded him, his primary feeling was relief. Godric would not fight, and Salazar’s little errand after leaving Godric with Helga, meant that they were no longer in danger from goblins. If they did have to flee, they wouldn’t be doing so empty-handed.

Helga was sick with fear when she dropped her guard, but for the most part she kept too busy rounding up fabric for bandages, making salves to prevent the corruption of wounds, and assembling the tools she knew would be necessary after a battle. Of course, she knew Rowena was right, and the wounded would find her, regardless of who they fought for.

Aidan and Cadogan were awash with the innocent excitement of the young and foolish. They discussed endlessly where was the best place from which to view the coming battle, and debated the possibility of using magic to disable some of William’s horses. Helga got quite sharp with them, insisting that men trying to kill each other was no picnic outing, and finally banishing them to play with Egbert in the yard. She was busy adding an annex, invisible from the outside, but big enough to host several dozen pallets. It took some concentration, which was difficult with so much tension in the air. Rowena shoed the boys out, and came to help, pulling her wand from her sleeve.

“I’m just afraid it won’t be enough,” Helga said worriedly. Rowena tried hard to keep her dignified expression in place. She felt strongly that battles were events to be avoided, not events to clean up after.

Later, when Helga went outside for a rest, she found Aidan rolling around on the ground with Egbert, boy and dog covered in leaves and burrs. She apologized to him for having spoken so harshly.

“It’s all right,” he said good-naturedly, “you’re always really nice. I know you’re scared, but things will be better in the north.”

“The north?” She asked blankly.

“When we go there, after the battle.”

“After the battle! Has Rowena been talking to you, telling you to say this?”

Aidan looked puzzled. “No. I just know we’re going there.”

There had been an ongoing debate about leaving for their own safety, and it had been wearing Helga down, so she said peevishly, “What do you mean by that?”

Aidan considered, then said lightly, “Well, because my parents went there with the baby, and my mother’s with the old man now, and he knows we’re coming.”

“Aidan, what in the name of the sun, moon and all the stars are you talking about?”

“I see her sometimes when I’m reading the Metamorph Magi. That’s when I hear the old man too. Want to play at sword fighting?” He picked up a branch from the ground and wielded it clumsily.

“No, I don’t want to play at sword fighting, and neither should you.” She propelled the branch out of his hand, and it flew toward the wood, Egbert in happy pursuit. Just then, Rowena called her from inside the cottage to come help with a potion. Helga had no idea what Aidan was talking about, but there were many things to occupy her mind, and she forgot to keep wondering about it.

Of all who came and went during those first weeks of October, Odo seemed the least distressed, which was odd, all things considered. Usually the most twitchy in any crowd, he displayed a growing tranquility, which Helga might have found ominous if she hadn’t been so distracted by her own fears. Odo would peer happily into the little caldron each day, nodding his approval as its contents settled into an ever more vivid gold. Unusually for him, he made himself useful in practical matters. Skilled in herb lore himself, he brought Helga many things she needed, and helped in the concoction of medicines. Helga, when she stopped to notice, merely told herself that he, like her, was taking refuge from fear in work.

On the day after the moon was full, Aidan and Cadogan pelted into the clearing where the cottage nestled, to announce that King Harold Godwinson and his army had arrived at last. The boys were full of exuberant descriptions of shields and axes. Salazar and Godric, out of deference to the feelings of the women, kept the boys out of doors to allow their childish excitement to wind down. Odo stayed inside with Helga and Rowena, distilling some last remedies. All three were silent, their attempts at light talk exhausted by tension.

The atmosphere in the cottage that evening was charged, as though they sat in the middle of an invisible and silent lightning storm. Finally, unable to endure the silence, Godric picked up the small harp he had tucked away behind a large jar of eel’s eyes. Helga felt that most of his repertoire was unsuitable to anywhere but the barracks, but he played well, and she didn’t like to discourage him. Besides, she welcomed the diversion.

He took them through spirited renditions of “My Lady’s Valley,” “Oh Bring Me a Caldron of Ale Fair Maid,” “Wand of My Lord,” “Tale of the Vanishing Garter,” “the Witch with the Wind in Her Skirt,” “Ode to My Druid’s Staff,” and “the Saucy Sorceress.” The fire was warm against the autumn chill, and they sheltered gratefully near it. As Godric’s strong true voice filled the cottage, they felt an unaccountable and elusory sense of safety. The tensions of the past days found an outlet in hilarious laughter at Godric’s bawdy and outrageous songs.

Salazar’s voice wasn’t the equal to Godric’s, but he joined in on the ones he knew, and brought an unexpected rakishness to the lyrics that amused them all. When Godric struck up the more conventional “Three-Headed Dog of Dorset,” Helga raised her own voice to join in. She and Godric finished the romping song together, to boisterous applause. After that, Godric began a rambling song about a knight and a ferryman’s daughter.

“Oh, how I loved the ferryman’s daughter, how often I met her twixt wind and water.”

Helga set her ale cup down loudly, cleared her throat ostentatiously, and broke in on the song. “Good Godric, you have entertained us well. I’m not the musician you are, but give me the harp and let us see if I can recall an old ballad or two.”

Godric looked surprised and a little disappointed, but with a glance at Aidan and Cadogan, surrendered the harp. Helga took it in her lap. Extracting her wand from her sleeve, she considered for a moment, then tapped the harp strings lightly with it. A simple but melodious, repeating pattern issued quietly from the harp, and Helga began to sing.

She was looking at Odo. Though he hadn’t moved, she could see that his calm of the past several days had been dissolving as the evening progressed. His face was a mask, and his hands were clenched on the table. She feared greatly for him. She wanted nothing more than to stop him from what he meant to do on the morrow, but she knew she couldn’t, so she gave him the only thing she could.

She sang “The Way Home,” the song she had used to call him back to himself when she’d found him sitting alone in the field last harvest. It was a song of their youth. It was a sweet, nostalgic, rather pensive song about a man who left his home to pursue truth, to seek out the wise ones of the age, and discover why the world is as it is. Odo had loved this song as a boy, and they had often sung it together. She half wished he would sing with her now, but was glad he didn’t; she didn’t think she could bear it.

By the last verse, her intuition and her magic had done what she had set out to do. Odo’s hands had relaxed. His eyelids drooped, and his head nodded toward his chest. She couldn’t interfere between Odo and his fate, but she could at least give him the gift of sleep.

“Help me lead him to one of the feather beds,” she said to Godric, laying her harp down on the bench, and together they guided the drowsy wizard to his rest. He settled down into the feather bed, his lips murmuring the refrain from Helga’s song. “The way is long if you walk it alone, but the way is wise, and will carry you home.”

Aidan and Cadogan were curled up by the fire when she returned. The tension and fear were still there, but the six of them had made the world very small in this one room, and that helped them through the long night.

At first light, Aidan and Cadogan were off to reconnoitre the best spot from which to view the fight. Helga had opposed this, but Rowena said sensibly, “It’s better than having them under foot here, and better for them to see the … see things from far away rather than … close up.” Helga saw the truth of this, and told them to look out for other folk, local people and camp followers, who would wish to watch too. “Stay with them. Don’t even think about going anywhere near the battle.” She watched them leave with sick foreboding in her belly, but she had that pretty much all the time now.

Odo was next. He had slept, and was now lively as a lark. His sense of certainty had returned. Added to it was an almost feverish excitement. Helga stood at the table, decanting the potion into a glass vial. She handed it to him wordlessly; it had all been said.

He downed it in one go, and stood still for a moment, then a gradual transformation came over him. In their long friendship, Helga had seen many expressions on his face, but uncomplicated confidence was new. It made him look like a different person, like the person he might have been without the burden of seeing what others couldn’t. Helga stared and stared, imprinting this version of Odo into her memory, so that it would stay with her.

This was how Odo was meant to look, she told herself. This is how he would have looked if his mother had been less reckless. Helga had never known Odo’s mother, but had often criticized her silently for the careless ambition that had laid an unbearable burden on Odo. Helga herself liked to build on her knowledge of herbs and healing magic, but her friendship with Odo had given her a deeply ingrained caution. Such power required restraint, she felt. Experiments for their own sake were selfish and dangerous. She had never felt the need to hide her abilities as Godric and Rowena had, but with this tragic example before her, she feared going too far. As for the hints Odo had given about her destiny? Those she simply ignored.

Salazar came forward, holding out a small, utilitarian dagger. “Here,” he said. “I have little weaponry, but you will have more need of this today than I will.” Salazar couldn’t relate to Odo’s choice, but he admired greatness when he saw it. He himself would be great too, he knew it, and he wished Odo all the luck Felix had to give.

“Thank you,” Odo replied blithely, “but keep your dagger. I will have no need of such things anymore, and you might.”

Godric was jumpy as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, but he wished Odo the best of luck too. “Tonight, we will sit across this table once more, and you will tell me all, over some of Helga’s fine ale.” Odo nodded, but was clearly distracted.

Rowena came to him, took his hand gravely and said merely, “Good luck to you Odo, you’re a noble person.” He looked surprised at that, but turned quickly, and was on his way. There was an uneasy silence when he’d gone.

They had their first patients soon. The wind brought intermittent sounds from the battle field, a hideous clashing roar that Helga drowned out with work, and there was plenty of that. Of course she had never seen anything like the horrible procession of injured that made their way to her that day, but she was an accomplished healer with a fertile imagination, and the ruthless compassion that makes it possible to do dreadful things to people for their own good.

Rowena, Godric and Salazar proved to be capable assistants. Salazar was able to do most of what Helga could. Rowena was untrained, but had the steadiness necessary to help in the most grizzly tasks, despite how she felt inside. Godric knew nothing whatever of healing, but his assistance was required all too often, as Helga was forced to cause pain in order to save a life.

The Saxon shield wall was effective, but left limbs and heads vulnerable. Magic could accomplish only so much. Helga gritted her teeth and kept going. Many a fighter lived after that day, because Helga saved him from the fatal consequences of wounds going bad.

They got an extremely disjointed picture of the battle from the line of local people leading or carrying fighting men to the cottage. It seemed as though the shield wall was holding. William’s horses kept trying to break through but couldn’t. His bowmen were doing a lot of damage, and the Norman’s horses were fairing especially poorly.

Around midday, the local ale wife appeared leading a man with a head wound, and dragging Aidan by the ear. Cadogan trailed after them. She thrust Aidan briskly aside, and brought the wounded man to Helga. She was treating the wounded outside, her magical annex reserved for those already treated, who needed rest and care. Things were a little quieter for the moment, so she had sent Rowena inside to keep watch.

When she had dealt with the man’s head wound, she went to where Aidan and Cadogan were sitting close together on a fallen log some distance away. They were facing away from the cottage yard, and looking dazed. She came up behind them, knelt on the ground, and placed an arm around each. They were both of an age that such a gesture would normally have been rebuffed with indignation, but now they sat, quivering, trying not to lean into her as much as they wanted to, and trying not to cry.

They stayed like that for a few minutes, then she said quietly, “Did you see Odo? How does he?”

Both boys shifted, and Cadogan sniffled. Aidan wiped his eyes on his sleeve, and seemed to revive a little. “We saw him,” he said, “he seemed to be everywhere.” As he spoke, Aidan’s voice grew stronger, until it was alive with feeling. “He was like a feather! He was like a cat or a squirrel the way he moved around, almost like his feet weren’t touching the ground. With so much happening all at once, it was like it was all a big dance to him. He knew where swords and arrows were going to come from. He did all sorts of things to save people. I saw him jump up and pull a man off his horse just before an arrow grazed the horse’s back. I saw him push fighters off balance so that a blade missed them by a finger’s width. I even saw him pick up the shield of a fallen knight and catch an arrow with it before the arrow could pierce the belly of a horse.”

“And he was laughing nearly all the time!” Cadogan exclaimed.

“Laughing?” Helga asked incredulously.

“Yes,” Aidan said. “It was like he was doing a jig or something.”

Helga sat back on her heels, trying to smile. There were a lot of things to have a bad feeling about, but this one worried her most.

It was mid afternoon when the reports of the wounded straggling in made it clear that things were going badly. “The shield wall is breeched,” said an old man, whose arm Helga was splinting. “The King told them again and again not to break formation, but when some of William’s men retreated, some of ours couldn’t resist breaking the shield wall to follow them.”

Later came the news that the King was dead, felled with an arrow in his eye. The battle was lost. The wounded had begun saying that William would order the field cleared of the dead and wounded, so that he could set up his own tent there to honor his victory.

The ghastly procession to the cottage was in a lull, and Helga said to Salazar, “I am going to go to the field. There will be many who can’t walk, and there will be no one to carry them off to safety. If I go, I may be able to save some before William’s soldiers …” She didn’t finish, but turned to gather what equipment she could carry.

“I will go with you to guard your safety,” he said.

“Very well, carry some of this for me, and what ever you do, don’t let Godric try to come with us.”

“No need to tell me that!”

Godric hated the idea, but didn’t try to stop her. “You are very brave,” he said, looking into her eyes.

She shook her head briefly. “Not brave, I just do what needs to be done,” and she was gone.

A battle field is an unspeakable place. Most of the fighting had finished, but there were still stray skirmishes going on here and there. Gruesome sights were everywhere, and Helga forced herself to focus on life: look for life, and when you find it, preserve it, like keeping a flame lit on a windy night.

Other figures were picking their way among the terrible see of prone men and fighting gear, but their intent was less wholesome. They were the human vultures, who pilfered from the dead and the wounded alike, out of greed, opportunism, or simple desperation. Helga did her best to ignore them too.

Her task was a defeating one. Those who still lived were often so seriously injured that there was no hope. In some cases, she was able, by use of splints, wand work, and the application of medicines against pain, to send men off the field to survive, and find shelter if they could. In other cases, she knelt, if only briefly, by the dying, to hear a word, remember a name, give a comforting drink of water, or a potion to bring oblivion.

Salazar kept close, eyes darting around, watchful for anyone who would menace her. There was no fighting in the part of the field where they were, but he knew of sinister creatures drawn to such places, and kept a sharp watch for redcaps. Salazar observed the figures darting from body to body, gleaning whatever came to hand, and might serve them in the chaos that was likely to follow the defeat of Harold’s army.

The future of himself and his friends was no more certain than anyone’s. Though he always kept a hawk’s eye on Helga and her safety, he began making small stops as he followed her from prone figure to prone figure. Sometimes she might stay for several moments at someone’s side, offering healing, or the simple comfort of human companionship on a final journey. When this happened, he began to make his own surreptitious explorations. Whatever would come next, his friends would be grateful for what few resources he might find.

He was about to crouch down over the body of a Norman knight, not a very wealthy one perhaps, when he heard a hissing voice at his shoulder. “Leave him,” it rasped, “He belongs to me.” With shock, he recognized her as Norman from her speech.

Checking to make sure Helga was still occupied, he turned to see a girl, bedraggled and starved looking. She had huge eyes in a thin face, which, combined with her youth, gave her the appeal of a small animal, but her expression was fierce, and even to Salazar, quite off-putting. Her intensity made him think that perhaps there was a greater prize here than he’d first thought.

“At this moment,” he said coolly, though quietly so Helga wouldn’t hear, “I’d say he belongs to who ever found him first.” Implicit in his words were his size and strength. This was a battle field, where force was all.

Nevertheless, she didn’t give ground. “He is my lord,” she growled, “and all of his possessions belong to me by right.”

“Your lord?” He asked patronizingly. It was brutally obvious that this poor ragged girl was no kin to the knight. He deduced at once that she was one of the camp followers. She was at the indeterminate age where she might have been the daughter of a laundry woman, or she might have been earning her own keep in an older profession. If the latter was true, she might be telling the truth. He reached out a hand and touched the helmet, which had tumbled off the man’s head.

“Leave him alone!” She said fiercely, and he felt an intense burning against his fingertips. He drew his hand away and gazed at her in amazement. A girl like this, in a place like this? He reached out with his mind toward hers. She almost seemed aware of his effort. He encountered a strong defensive burier, but saw enough to know that she told the truth, and that she was a witch. He stared at her, not knowing what to do. Finally, he stood up, relinquishing the prize, whatever it was, to her.

Just then, there was a startled cry. “Helga!” Said Odo’s voice, and there he was, not far from them. He was coming from the direction where some last skirmishes were going on. Helga, the man before her now still, her duty done, stood up with surprise.

“Odo!” She said, her voice full of wonder and gratitude, “Oh Odo, how I’ve worried for you, and here you are, safe!” She had saved lives it was true, but there were so many whom she couldn’t save, and so many many more dead already. It seemed to her, making her way through this field of suffering and death, that Odo’s presence had brought with it the promise of life. So much was lost, but she and her friends at least were safe.

She felt a compelling need to touch him, to reassure herself that he was really there. She moved toward him to take his hand. His face wore the most extraordinary expression. He looked like a man who’s just been given a fortune, or married the love of his life. She’d never imagined such an expression on his face, and it made her pause, several meters away from him.

Just as she was about to take another step forward, Odo moved first, but not toward her. His ecstatic expression didn’t change. He made a kind of leap sideways, as though executing a lively dance step. He hadn’t looked behind him, so even when Helga saw the arrow point sticking out from below his left collar bone, she didn’t realize the whole truth, at least not right away. His expression shifted toward a kind of intense surprise, but even now there was no pain visible in his face.

Both Helga and Salazar ran forward to catch him before he hit the ground. Helga knew there was no hope. His eyes were still open, and he was still conscious, but the position of the arrow, and what he coughed up, told her he hadn’t long. Helga’s breath came in short gasps. She repeated his name again and again.

Salazar, kneeling beside her in the muck, said wonderingly, “You moved into the path of the arrow. You didn’t even turn to see it, but you did it, to save Helga.”

Helga let out a sound as though she’d been struck, but she wouldn’t let herself cry. “Not here,” she said, so quietly at first that Salazar didn’t hear her. “Not here!” She said more forcefully. “I will not let him lie here in the filth of this terrible place. We’ll take him back to my cottage.”

Salazar too could see that no magic was going to save Odo, but he said merely, “all right.”

Helga was shaking violently from head to toe. He didn’t think she would be any use in helping to carry Odo, and he was certain that she would have no control over her magic to help levitate Odo off into the woods. Salazar felt eyes on his back, and turned to see the girl watching them. Without thinking about it, he said to her, “Help us, and I promise you a meal, a safe place to sleep, and no one to trouble you.” When the girl hesitated, he said impatiently, “I know what you are, we’re the same.” Believing actions would be more convincing than words, he stood, removed his wand from his sleeve, and raised Odo slowly off the ground.

Who ever or whatever the girl was, she knew how to assess a situation and act quickly. “What do I do?”

Salazar considered. Helga was becoming more distraught by the moment. He couldn’t guide Helga from the field, keep an eye out for trouble, and levitate Odo safely all at the same time. He put one arm around Helga’s waste, pulling her to him.

“We’re going to go now,” he said gently. “I’m going to bring Odo, but you must just walk along with us and stay quiet. Can you do that?”

Helga’s face was rigid with shock, and her breath was shallow, but she nodded faintly. Salazar held his wand in his other hand, using it to hover Odo toward the nearest bit of wood. It was the wrong direction, but cover was what they needed most urgently.

“Put your hand over mine,” he instructed the girl. As they moved, he divided his energy between speaking soothing nonsense to Helga, catching her on the several times when she tripped and would have fallen to the ground, keeping watch for curious onlookers, and giving low-voiced instructions to the girl about how to keep Odo stable, and clear of obstacles. Somehow, it worked. The girl’s quick mind and innate abilities were enough to keep the grim procession moving, even when Salazar must let go his wand completely to help Helga over the rough ground of the forest. It was a terrible journey that seemed to exist out of time. Salazar and Helga felt as though their lives had never consisted of anything else, and that they would pass eternity in this way. Finally, they reached the cottage.

Rowena was in the yard. The line of wounded had thinned. To her surprise, she found that after a day of watching Helga work, she was herself of some use, even once Helga had gone. She took in the situation immediately.

“He’ll want to be outside,” Helga said faintly. “Get one of the feather beds.”

Rowena raised her wand. One of the mattresses floated smoothly from inside, and laid itself on the ground at their feet. Salazar lowered Odo gently on to it, and Helga sat on the ground beside him. Godric emerged, taking in the scene with horror. All who saw Helga then, had thought they knew what it meant to be a healer. From that moment on, they understood what it meant to be a great healer.

She reached out and took Odo’s cold hand in both of hers. They saw Helga’s whole body tense, as though preparing to lift an anvil, then they saw her face change from the rigid mask of pain and fear, to its typical expression of smiling placidity.

“Odo?” She said, softly but clearly. “Odo, can you here me? Do you want anything?”

“Water,” he said, his eyes trying to focus on her face. “And I’m so cold.”

Rowena was there immediately, carefully dripping water into his mouth. Godric summoned a blanket, and gently laid it over the supine figure.

“Are you in pain?” She asked.

“No,” he said faintly, “not anymore, not since this morning.”

“Did the day go as you thought it would? Aidan says you were like a dancer on the field, saving so many.”

His strength was leaving him, but he managed a beatific smile. “Yes, it was exactly the way I’d seen it, the way it had to be. I can’t tell you what it was like to …” His voice trailed away, but his words conveyed a wonder and satisfaction no one who heard it ever forgot. Then he summoned his strength to speak again. “I couldn’t have done it without your potion my dear friend,” he said, and managed to give Helga’s hand a faint squeeze. “No one else in the world could have or would have done such a thing for me. You have been a true friend. Will you sing to me?”

Dry-eyed, face composed, Odo’s cold hand held closely in her own warm ones, Helga began to sing. She sang “The Way Home,” the song of their childhood, the song of one man’s search for truth, and the road that carried him home. As the last chorus sank into silence, Odo closed his eyes, and life left him.

Helga let go of his limp hand. She stood up slowly, as she had from the side of so many that day, and absently brushed some leaves from her skirt. Godric was beside her. He put a steadying arm around her, then, feeling her begin to tremble, he put both arms around her and simply held her. At last, her composure broke, and she sobbed unrestrainedly. He was tall and strong and warm and caring, and she leaned against his chest, and gave way to all the terrible things she had seen that day, the suffering, the pain, the grief, and most devastating of all, the loss of Odo. The friend of her childhood was gone. Her warnings to him had been genuine, but She’d secretly wanted to test her skill as a potioneer, and Odo had paid the price for her failure.

Chapter 13: After the Battle

 

If they’d thought the night before the battle had been long, it was because they didn’t know about the night after it. Before, there had been fear, but also the grim knowledge that whatever was going to happen, it would finally happen and be over. But somehow tonight, there was no sense of completion. The battle was lost, their country at the mercy of strangers who probably had none, and their minds were full of images, sounds and feelings that threatened to flatten them.

Godric and Salazar insisted that they all, even Egbert, stay inside. Godric knew the kinds of things done by the kinds of people who roam the land after a battle. Salazar knew the kinds of creatures who are drawn to such places, and who thrive on such times. Before sunset, both men had traced a wide perimeter around the cottage, laying protective enchantments neither of the women even attempted to follow.

All of the wounded who could move under their own power had been sent off, back to whatever safety was to be found in the homes of folk nearby. Those too seriously injured to be moved were sleeping a potion-induced sleep, safe in Helga’s magical annex. Every so often Rowena or Salazar would walk through to see that all was well there, then return to the main room, and the laden atmosphere.

Since Odo’s death, Helga had lifted no hand in the care of the wounded. Rowena had coaxed her to take a little broth, and Godric became quite forceful in his insistence that she take several large mugs of ale. She sat quietly in her favourite rocking chair. Every now and then Aidan or Cadogan would come to her, hold her hand, or sometimes climb into her lap like boys younger than they were. She would hold them to her, and sometimes they would shed tears together.

The girl who had helped bring Odo from the field did her best to remain in the background, making herself useful by stirring a tub of much needed laundry, tending the fire, and seeing to other such needful tasks which the others were glad not to have to take care of. Her initial ferocity had been toned down to a persistent watchfulness. The others didn’t question her presence there, but Salazar was careful not to turn his back on her.

She gave her name as Emmeline. She said that she was the daughter of a laundry woman who had died of fever just after the crossing of the channel, and that her father had been killed by misadventure many years ago. Her benefactor had been the knight Gervais. She seemed grateful for safe shelter, and asked nothing for herself beyond this.

At last, moving like a very old woman, Helga rose from her rocking chair and came to the table where they’d all pulled up chairs, to partake of the bread and cheese Emmeline had found and laid out. The bread was not fresh, nor was the cheese especially tempting, but it had been the longest day any of them had ever known, and they ate.

Helga’s eyes were red and puffy as she looked at Aidan and Cadogan. “Tell me about Odo,” she said, her usually sweet voice husky with grief.

And so they did, and they weren’t the only ones. Throughout the day, Godric, Salazar and Rowena had all heard snatches of tales told by those of the wounded coherent enough to speak them. After some time, Even Emmeline spoke up. She had been watching the battle too, anxious for the fate of her lord, and she too had seen the remarkable, unarmed and unarmoured man darting almost merrily across the field, incongruously pushing people about, tugging on the reigns of horses, co-opting shields and using them to stop arrow and blade.

“I couldn’t make sense of him,” she said wonderingly. “I saw him save both Normans and Englishmen, he didn’t seem to belong to either side. He seemed like a mad man, except that somehow he never got hurt himself. He was your friend? Like you? A …? Like us?”

“yes,” Godric answered her gravely. “He was a great wizard, and a great man. He had rare gifts, and a heart bigger than both sides put together. I’ve never known a braver man.” He lifted his tankard and drank deeply. “I told him, only last night, I told him we would sit together across this table and he would tell me of his deeds on the field.” Godric had lost more than one companion to the sword, but he had felt none so keenly as this one.

Rowena said thoughtfully, “Since meeting him, I have tried to imagine how it was to live with his gift, or his curse. I sometimes think I might have lost my reason. He certainly was an odd person to know, but he took his knowledge and used it to save lives, any lives, not just those of his countrymen.”

Helga smiled for the first time. “Do you remember when he said you had lines on your face, and they gave you a look of great distinction?” Both women burst into laughter that bordered on the hysterical.

“I was so offended!” Rowena exclaimed. “He just wandered into the cottage one day and told me I looked like an old woman!”

“In that moment, I suppose you did. I remember one day, at the Grey Hill market day I think it was. He walked up to the cheese seller, she’d just weaned her youngest, and Odo looked at the infant and said in his imperturbable way, ‘he looks well in a habit, the role of abbot becomes him just as it did his father. He’s got his father’s nose, and the forehead too.’ The cheese seller’s husband was often away at sea, and those good with counting the calendar had indeed wondered. Once Odo had spoken though, all who heard him thought of their local abbot, and saw immediately that Odo was right to see a similarity of feature. Oh, the trouble he caused there! The cheese seller began pelting him with bits of moldy cheese, and bidding him lose himself in the forest.” Helga was doubled up with laughter, but when it had subsided, she said sadly, “It was always like that for him. He couldn’t help what he saw, and it seemed he couldn’t stop himself from saying what he saw, and seldom did it bring him liking or respect. He was a good man, but he had a hard road.”

Godric reached out and touched her hand. “You gave him what he wanted most, the ability to use his gift to bring good, to save lives.”

Helga’s face twisted. “I? I gave him? I gave him a false hope. Because I thought I was such a skilled potioneer, I agreed to something so risky that it cost him his life. If I had refused, or better if I’d succeeded, he would still be here, but I failed.” She laid her arms on the table, her head on her arms, and began to cry silently.

It was Salazar who rose, stood behind her and put a hand solidly on her shoulder. “You failed? No my sister, you didn’t fail. You gave him exactly what he wanted.” She shook her head. “Don’t you think he knew?” Salazar asked quietly.

The silence in the room was complete, except for the crackling of the fire. Her head rose slowly. “Knew what?”

“Knew what he was asking, what would happen, his fate. He spoke of his fate often enough. Did it never occur to you what he meant?”

Helga’s eyes were enormous beneath puffy lids. “I … I thought he meant … meant what he would do on the battle field.”

“You know what his gift was. Do you think he couldn’t see his own future, how his life would end? He saw the entire picture of things, not just the parts close to him. Did you not see how he grew calmer as the battle approached? He was a man walking toward a goal he saw clearly. You told us that the potion would give luck for one day. Surely the luck required to survive on a battle field doing what he did would run out by midday. Instead of blaming yourself for failure, why not consider that your potion gave him an extraordinary run of extraordinary luck. It gave him the tool he needed to finally make some good out of his gift. From what you say, he’d spent his life making people uncomfortable at best. You gave him a chance to do something noble and great, to show his true heroism in a way he could never have done himself. Trust me sister, he knew exactly what he was doing and what he was asking of you, and his last words were to thank you for that.”

She looked attentively from face to face around the table, and saw that they all agreed with Salazar. Yes, she supposed the pattern had been there all the time, she had simply been unwilling to see it. Such a hard and lonely life Odo had had.

As though reading her thoughts, Salazar tightened his hand on her shoulder and said, “You were his true friend, one who wouldn’t shun him or fear him, one wise enough to be able to help him, and kind enough to do as he asked.”

Helga’s head dropped once more to her arms as the seemingly endless tears began again, but now they sprang purely from grief, untinged with self-reproach.

At intervals, Godric and Salazar left to prowl round outside. They wouldn’t say exactly what they were on guard against, and no one asked. Sometimes disturbing sounds came from the darkness, but whether human or not they couldn’t tell, and no one tried.

Aidan, Cadogan and Emmeline had curled up near the warmth of the fire. Sometimes Emmeline was obviously a girl on the verge of womanhood, but at the moment she looked as childlike and vulnerable as the waif she was. The four adults still sat around the table, too exhausted and wound up to think about sleep.

“He so wanted to go home,” Helga said at one point. “I think he delayed going because he feared that he wouldn’t find the peace he hoped for even there. Or maybe he simply saw his fate, and knew he couldn’t go home.”

“He can go home!” Godric said, thumping his tankard on the table with some force. “He can go home. We can take him there.” The others looked at him blankly. “What more fitting tribute can we give him? It was his last desire. Just last night he sat here and said how he’d love to see the hills and moors of his home. Should not we, who witnessed his courage and nobility, do him the honor of bearing his body home to the place he knew as a lad? You said it is in the north did you not?” He asked Helga.

She nodded faintly. “Yes, he spoke of it often. I travelled there with my father when I was a child; that’s how we met.” She felt inexpressibly weary, and in her half-dazed state of ale-sodden fatigue, she had no will to resist him.

“Aidan keeps talking about the north,” Rowena said suddenly. “He said he’d told you about it too. It’s something about the Metamorph Magi, and an old man, and his mother. I couldn’t make any sense out of it, and with things so … well, I didn’t spend much time thinking about it. Of course, we’ve all been urging you to go away north or west, but Aidan isn’t one to pay much attention to our conversation. And I will confess it to you,” she looked uncomfortable, “I have sometimes had a strange feeling about that book, a feeling lately when I read it that … that I’m not entirely alone.” She looked deeply uncomfortable, having no liking for portraying herself as vulnerable to whimsical notions. “It’s not an especially alarming feeling, but it’s happened more than once: An old man, a castle, a black and white cat perhaps?”

“The north!” Godric said with drunken emphasis, “that’s where we must go, to carry him home.” Suddenly, the north, whatever it looked like, seemed eminently preferable to this place, the seat of his own terrible conflict. Harold Godwinson, once his liege lord, was dead. William, to whom Harold had made Godric swear loyalty, was victorious, and Godric’s own people lay with William’s foot on their necks. His own people? Godric questioned himself bitterly, who were his own people accept for these three friends, who sat with him tonight, and that other, who lay dead, dead because of a nobility and heroism that Godric felt had, thus far, eluded himself. The north, yes, anywhere but here, and definitely not to the west.

Helga looked unconvinced. “Helga,” Godric said seriously, “do you know what happens after a battle? Do you know what will happen here? No, of course you don’t. Victorious soldiers aren’t inclined to be merciful to the people they’ve defeated. Duke William will round up all the able-bodied men he can find to build the castles he will need to preserve his victory. The able-bodied women … well, like I said, mercy isn’t common among victorious soldiers. William’s army will eventually move to control the entire country, blazing a trail of devastation behind them. I know this is your home, it will be difficult to leave it, but it won’t be the home you’ve known, and many of the folk you know are doubtless already on the road. William has destroyed so much in this region, trying to draw Harold back to fight here. And if we are to go, we must do so soon. We must leave before the army does, or we’ll be submerged. If we go quickly, we can get ahead of William’s forces, go north, bring Odo home, and find somewhere to make a new home for ourselves, somewhere we can live without having to hide what we are.”

“And think of Aidan, Cadogan and Emmeline,” Rowena said, leaning forward with intensity. “What do you think Cadogan will do the first time he sees a Norman soldier? Do you want Aidan conscripted to carry stone for one of William’s castles? And Emmeline, under the rags and filth she’s a very pretty girl, almost a woman. She says she earned her livelihood as the daughter of a laundry woman, but even if that was true, it won’t remain true for long.”

“And what think you?” Helga asked of Salazar.

“I trust Godric to know about the habits of armies. This doesn’t seem like a healthy place to remain. I too would like to find a place where we can live openly as wizards. When I left my home, I didn’t think about secrecy or concealment. We are the pinnacle of humanity; we shouldn’t have to live like its dregs in hiding. If the north is a place where it is possible to live freely, then I willingly go with Godric. Also, I too wish to honor Odo. I didn’t understand him, but he was a wizard of formidable gifts and great determination.”

“I’m too tired to think anymore,” Helga sighed.

Rowena rose and came to her side. “You were as much of a hero as Odo today, and saved at least as many lives. Come, I’ll draw a feather mattress close to the fire where it’s warmer. You don’t have to sleep, just come and rest.”

Docile as a child, Helga let herself be led, and guided to lie down. Rowena covered her with a blanket. Godric picked up the harp and began to pluck a quiet, undemanding tune with no words. The sound flowed gently through the cottage like a stream on a summer afternoon, and Helga slept.

The next morning things looked both better and worse than they had the night before, as things often do in the morning. A night’s sleep had benefited the wounded, and more of them were able to totter off in search of friends, family, comrades, or whatever future they could make for themselves. Like the wizards, some would take to the road in search of home. Some were folk from nearby, but of course many from Harold’s army, and a few from William’s had made their way to the cottage, and many left having had memory charms put on them. It wasn’t going to help them find their way out of the wood, but it was clear that it wouldn’t do for the reputation of the four magical folk to precede them if their goal was to get away.

Helga, feeling rung out, and still moving like an old woman, avoided direct discussion about their departure, but set about taking care of practical matters. She and Odo had been thorough in their preparations. Powerful wand work, in combination with blood-replenishing potions, and elixirs to ward off pain and wound-rot, meant that by noon, all of her patients had been discharged. Helga sent Aidan and Cadogan off with the most befuddled, to try and point them toward places where she thought they might find safe haven.

Methodically, Helga vanished most of the pallets, then waved her wand in a complicated swirling pattern. The magical annex curled up like a spider web stirred with a stick. The annex finally simply folded in on itself, leaving only the main room of the cottage, and the cozy bed chamber which remained invisible from the outside.

When all this had been accomplished, Helga sat down at the table, looking around her home with an expression Rowena couldn’t interpret. The cottage was quiet, quieter than Helga could remember it being for many days. Salazar had taken Godric and Emmeline with him on an errand early that morning, and the boys hadn’t yet returned. Helga loved the society of people, especially of friends who had become so dear to her, but at that moment, the quiet was more precious to her than a philosopher’s stone.

Finally, Rowena opened her mouth to say something diffident about the need for haste, but Helga forestalled her. “Don’t say anything, just don’t. I’m going outside now for a little while, please don’t disturb me. There’s a small mountain of filthy linens and such. Please clean and dry them.”

She rose, and still moving as though every joint creaked, went out into the cottage yard. This had been badly trampled by so much coming and going, and the state of her garden would have been enough to make her weep, had she any tears left. She went to the edge of the wood and sat on a low bolder. She stared hard into the trees, and after some time there was a discreet rustling at her feet, and Eartha was there. It turned out that Helga did, after all, have tears left. She shed some into Eartha’s fur as she scratched behind the badger’s ears. With all the force she had, she tried to tell Eartha of the long journey to come.

Salazar sat on a tree stump, watching contentedly as Madella slithered around the tree roots. He’d had to keep her close in the past days, and she was restless. She wasn’t the only one. Some distance away, Godric paced. They were in the woods, not far from William’s camp. They were waiting. Salazar had thought it all out. He was taking a risk trusting Emmeline, but either she was with them or she wasn’t; better to find out sooner than later.

Finally, she returned bearing an armload of fabric. “I got everything you wanted,” she said. She looked pleased with herself, but a bit rattled.

Salazar poked through the pile, then nodded approvingly. “Well done,” he said. “Now we have one more task to complete, and we’ll need you for that as well.” He summoned Madella to him. Emmeline watched with fascination and no fear as the snake wound herself once more around Salazar’s arm, and he pulled his wide sleeve down to cover her.

They walked some way through the wood and stopped a good distance from its edge. They had been making their way around the perimeter of the camp, and came to a place where some buildings had been left standing, to be commandeered by William’s forces. One of these was a stable that housed around a dozen horses.

Salazar had done some private reconnaissance, and had chosen this spot because it afforded easy access to the wood, and was insignificant enough not to be heavily guarded. He explained the plan to his two companions. Godric looked dubious, Emmeline merely tense. The two men stayed where they were as Emmeline walked toward the stable, just visible through the trees. They were too far to hear what transpired, but the scene required no commentary.

The stable stood fairly close to the tree line. As Emmeline approached the verge, she kicked at stones and fallen branches, deliberately making noise. As Salazar had expected, a young lad detached himself from the stable door and approached her, his hand reaching for the knife at his belt. When he saw her, his hand dropped and his posture relaxed. A wash, a safe night’s sleep and a couple of good meals had revealed Emmeline to be more attractive than she had initially appeared, and as she approached the lad, she went from looking like a girl of indeterminate age, to looking like a self-assured young woman. The two young people spoke together. The character of Emmeline’s body language, and the way the lad was moving gradually, almost unconsciously closer to her, made Salazar relax. Godric on the other hand was twitching with unease. His hands moved restlessly at his sides, as though he would have liked to draw a weapon.

“Don’t worry,” Salazar whispered reassuringly, “she’s in no danger.” Godric frowned but didn’t say anything.

Finally, Emmeline gestured gracefully toward the trees, and turned, with a faint swirl of her skirt, beckoning the young man to follow her. He did. Once they were among the trees, Salazar crept up, pointed his wand at the young man, and the hapless youth fell to the forest floor without a sound. Obviously pleased with herself, Emmeline grinned at Salazar, and he smiled back appreciatively. “Well done,” he said again, then, “Run back and make sure he was alone.”

Confident now, Emmeline ran on light feet back to the stable. She poked her head in, then ran back to report that there were many horses, but no people.

“Excellent,” Salazar said. “Godric, come with me, Emmeline, you wait here.”

The two men went into the stable. Salazar quickly chose half a dozen horses that looked sturdy but unremarkable. He reached out to them with his mind, calming and reassuring them. “Help me saddle them,” he said to Godric, and together they rounded up saddle and tack, and got the beasts ready to move. Pacified by Salazar’s magic, the horses offered no resistance, placidly following Salazar out of the stable, and into the woods. They found Emmeline sitting idly beside the unconscious stable lad. She rose.

“One more thing,” Salazar said. He took a flask from a pocket of his robe. It was mostly empty, but held the dregs of some passible brandy. He put it on the ground beside the lad, and arranged the lad so that whoever found him would draw an obvious conclusion about why he’d stepped into the wood. The empty flask would explain his unconsciousness, and the dregs of brandy would, in the hands of such a poor lad, suggest thievery. Salazar thought this last was a nice touch. The flask had come from the battle field the day before, and its return to William’s army might serve as a distraction from a much larger theft.

Godric was looking distinctly uncomfortable, but Salazar silenced him with a chopping gesture. Not now, his face said. We’ll argue it out later if we must, but for now let’s just get out of here before someone raises an alarm.

The trio, with their equine procession, arrived back at Helga’s cottage in the late afternoon. They found Rowena in the cottage yard with Aidan and Cadogan. She was supervising them as they took turns reading aloud from the Metamorph Magi. Cadogan’s slow progress was a trial to her, but Helga had essentially banished them all from the cottage. There was a lot of banging and rattling coming from inside, but Helga’s expression when she’d come in had been so forbidding that Rowena didn’t try to interfere. She stared open-mouthed at the horses. “How on Earth did you find those?”

Emmeline was jubilant. “We didn’t find them, we took them!” She grinned at Salazar.

Rowena looked suspiciously from face to face. Godric looked distinctly unhappy, and Salazar, though less expressive than Emmeline, also looked smug. Rowena frowned a little as Salazar explained what they had done. Godric didn’t speak, but anything that made him look like that made Rowena uneasy, and Emmeline made her frankly nervous. Most of the time the girl seemed docile enough, but her obvious glee at having used trickery to steel, and get the stable lad into serious trouble, didn’t speak well of her character in Rowena’s opinion.

When Helga finally came outside to see what all the noise was about, Rowena was surprised to find her friend merely relieved at the appearance of the horses. “I’ve been wondering about how we’d be able to move fast enough with all we’ll be bringing with us.” When she heard an abbreviated version of how the horses had been acquired, she smiled at Salazar and Emmeline, and said practically, “Well, I dare say we’ll make better use of them than William’s army.” Her lip curled in a brief disdain, then she began discussing with Salazar how to keep the horses fed and safe until they were ready to depart. When she saw the bundle Emmeline carried, and heard Salazar’s plan for passing through the perimeter guards of William’s army to reach the relative safety of the road, she laughed outright for the first time in many days.

Chapter 14: Creatures of the Air

 

They slept the sleep of exhaustion: deep, but brief. They wanted an early start. They were all tense, but naturally Helga was the most emotionally affected by their imminent departure. This cottage had been her home for many years, the last link to her dead father and brother. Here she had lived quietly, but as a loved and respected healer, part of the community. There were so many things and so many people to say good-bye to, and no time to say it. All of her possessions of a lifetime were here, and the animals.

Godric and Rowena had braced themselves for a confrontation in which they would be forced, very kindly, to explain to Helga that they had to travel light, and she couldn’t take much with her. They were pleasantly surprised therefore when she emerged last, carrying merely a few blankets, and one large green satchel. Her haggard expression kept Godric from what might sound like a frivolous complement, but inwardly he was proud of her practicality at such a moment. The rest of them had little enough in the way of possessions, and they were soon mounted and ready to go.

Helga lifted her head and whistled, and very soon Egbert bounded out of the woods, tail wagging. Less a creature of the Earth than the badger, subtlety was unnecessary. He merely sniffed around the cottage, sidestepped warily to avoid the horses, and kept pace with Helga’s mount as they rode out of the cottage yard toward the road. Helga had to keep wiping her face on her wide sleeve, but she sat straight, and kept her eyes open.

When they reached the north road, Helga and Rowena pulled down their hoods as had been discussed beforehand. The road was alive with soldiers and supply masters bustling around, and although they drew a certain amount of attention, no one stopped them. The four adults and Emmeline each rode a horse, and the sixth carried their gear. Aidan shared the saddle with Emmeline, and Helga held Cadogan in front of her. What their fellow travelers saw were six horses carrying two monks, and three novices, two of whom held children before them: an uncommon grouping, but nothing to remark on.

Salazar’s first task for Emmeline on the previous morning had been for her to slip unobtrusively into the clearing where laundry was being done, and find appropriate clerical garments to disguise them all. Salazar had cooked up a story he thought would be sufficient for whatever guards they might have to pass. Soldiers had a way of recognizing one another, but clerics were uninteresting enough that they projected a certain sameness. Unless a cleric was quite prestigious, he was likely to look to everyone else, just like every other cleric. The women had been harder. This wasn’t a place where women would naturally be, and so Salazar had thought to reframe their slighter builds by representing them as novices.

All was going beautifully. Folk glanced at them, but clerics were not very interesting, and their eyes slid away in search of something more exciting. They had passed through the bulk of activity, and were reaching the edge of the camp when they were challenged.

There was a small cluster of guards at the roadside, and to Salazar’s dismay they looked bored. Salazar knew that a bored soldier is a troublesome soldier, and he tensed as the burliest of the men stepped into their path. As the most fluent Norman speaker, barring Emmeline, Godric had been charged with telling the tale.

“We are on a mission for His Grace,” he said in answer to the guard’s query. “These children,” he gestured carelessly back to Aidan and Cadogan, were found hidden in a barn. “They are nephews of Harold Godwinson’s, and the Duke wishes them brought to the local priory for ‘safe keeping.’” He emphasized the words so that the guard would understand that “safe keeping,” meant under guard until a ransom could be negotiated. The burly guards leer couldn’t disguise the fact that he wasn’t quite as simple as he’d looked on first sight. He swaggered forward, passed Salazar and Godric, and stopped at the horse bearing Helga and Cadogan. Salazar tried not to let his nervousness show. All the children had been coached in what to say if they were questioned, but of all of them, Cadogan was the last one Salazar would wish interrogated.

“What’s your name?” The soldier asked roughly.

“Cadogan,” safe enough, it was a common English name.

“And where are you bound?”

“To the priory,” Cadogan replied as though reciting a lesson.

“And who travels with you?”

Salazar’s tension was mounting; he feared that this last question would put too much strain on Cadogan’s meager powers of memory, but he said the right thing, “Brother Abelard, Brother Arnulf, Novice Brother Godebald, he’s just a novice, Brother Eustace he’s just a novice too, he’s got my brother Aidan, and then Novice Brother Herman, their just novices you know, that means they’re not very smart yet.” To everyone’s alarm, Cadogan was starting to babble from nerves. “They’re just young, not as young as us. Oh yeah, and I forgot, there’s Odo too.” All the others froze in consternation.

On the night after the battle, when their decision to leave had been taken, Rowena had thought hard about all the spells she had ever read, and had settled on a powerful stilling charm. She had read it in a book from the east called, Salad in the Desert. It was a book about how to charm food and drink so that one could travel through any kind of terrain for any length of time, and still enjoy meals of crisp vegetables, fresh meat, and chilled wine. Rowena didn’t explain to Helga where the charm had come from, merely that it was an enchantment that would stop the normal processes of transformation. Someday Helga might appreciate this set of spells for its own merit, but this wasn’t that day.

Rowena had cast the spell on Odo’s remains, confident that this would allow them to carry Odo to his home in the north. Helga had produced a large magical basket that had belonged to her mother. It was made to lighten the weight of a heavy load, and do so invisibly. It had taken the efforts of them all to bend the slightly rigid Odo into a cozy looking ball, and tuck him into the large basket, wedged in with blankets and a hideously mangled feather bed. When Helga waved her wand, the basket had lifted slightly off the ground and vanished. It rested now on the rump of the pack horse, securely fastened, invisible, and a negligible burden to the horse. Though they couldn’t see him, they were of course all intensely aware of the 8th member of their party. As Cadogan gestured expansively behind him to the pack horse, Salazar felt the bottom drop out of his stomach.

Helga, under the guise of hitching Cadogan into a more secure position on the saddle, gave him a fierce little shake, and he stopped talking.

“Odo?” The soldier said, eyeing their party beadily, and attempting what looked like a laborious count.

Godric cleared his throat and said with admirable suavity, “He means the Bishop Odo Naturally. The brother of His Grace is, of course, the one who suggested the Saxon children be moved, and the boy means that William’s brother the Bishop Odo is with us in spirit, watching over our journey.”

All of William’s army knew that the Duke’s brother Bishop Odo had accompanied the invading army, adding some fighting men of his own to the campaign. Godric had remembered this in the nick of time, and the soldier looked inclined to believe him.

To ensure his belief, Salazar reached into his robe and produced a ring bearing a remarkable emerald. “You will naturally recognize the Bishop’s ring.” So haughty was Salazar’s expression, that the guard stared for a moment, then nodded.

As he stepped aside to let them pass, the other soldiers loitering there exchanged a laughing comment as they looked at Salazar. Some of William’s army were Flemish mercenaries, and doubtless these two thought that their insult wouldn’t be understood by the cleric. “With a face like that,” one soldier chortled to his mate, “it’s no wonder he chose the celibate life.” His companion guffawed. Salazar didn’t understand Flemish, but looking into the man’s mind, the insult was clear. Salazar caused his horse to sidestep as he passed, then to send a vicious kick toward the comedian. The man fell to the ground, and the party rode on, leaving the teeming camp behind them.

The country around the camp for many miles had fared badly. Apart from plundering the countryside to provision his army, William had set about a deliberate campaign of burning and destruction. These lands were held by relatives of the now late King Harold. William was intent on landing and making Harold come to him. William didn’t want to exhaust his own army by marching far from the shore, so he had encouraged his troops to lute and destroy in order to make Harold exhaust his own army in a long march to come and defend the holdings of the King’s family.

Of course, those who suffered most from these tactics were the poor, who had little enough to start with, and nothing to fall back on when everything they owned had been burned or stolen. Many had taken to the road themselves, and in the wake of the battle, the seven travelers passed through a burned out and desolate landscape. Helga gazed about her in horror. These were places she knew, the homes of people she had cared about. Where were they all? Dead? Gone? Taken to the road like she herself? She had been busy doing what she could to help ease the suffering of the wounded, but now she was conscious of a growing anger, an impotent rage against the invaders who had wantonly caused such destruction.

They were passing a small copse of low trees when they heard sounds of life, startling in the desolation. Helga immediately recognized the bleating of a goat. Her conscience had suffered at abandoning her own goats. She feared they would end up in a Norman’s stew pot, but knew they must be left behind. Now, her practical mind turning to thoughts of goat’s milk on their journey, she turned aside to go in search of the animal. Godric, fearing lurking danger, followed her. Just then there was another bleat, more panicked this time, and a woman’s cry of fear. Godric pushed passed Helga and emerged into a small barnyard. The cottage had been burned, but though scorched, the barn was still standing. Outside it, three of William’s soldiers were terrorizing a young woman, clearly intent, at least, on steeling her goat.

Now Godric was a man badly in need of a fight. He was innately a man of action. The last months of inner uncertainty, the last weeks of forced inactivity, and the last days of self-imposed passivity in the face of the biggest battle of his life, had driven him nearly mad. Here was a problem with no moral ambiguity at all, and Godric leapt from his horse. He drew his jeweled sword from its sheath with an inarticulate shout that mingled anger and joy in equal measure.

Helga retreated hastily, meeting the others as they came forward to see what had happened. Salazar had removed his wand from his sleeve and was watching the fight keenly, clearly trying to decide how best to help. Helga put a hand on his arm. “Wait,” she said. “I think he’d be better off doing this himself.” Salazar lowered his wand, but didn’t put it away.

The fight was ferocious. These were professional soldiers and there were three of them, but Godric had been among the elite of Harold’s fighters, and his need to engage in mayhem was intense. When it was over, the three lay at his feet, and he stood, breathing hard, and laughed aloud. He thrust his blade into the ground to clean it, then returned it to its sheath. With fierce pleasure, he kicked the bodies aside toward the copse, then turned to the woman who was cowering against the wall of the barn.

Despite the fact that he’d just saved her and her goat, the woman wasn’t regarding him with especial favour. Looking at his fierce countenance, Helga found it easy to see why. A man laying about him with a jeweled sword and wearing a monk’s robe just wasn’t something you saw every day. She came forward quickly, interposing herself between them. Helga’s own novice’s robe was scarcely less incongruous, but these were turbulent times, and the woman didn’t seem incline to question either their attire or their identities.

The woman, Elswyth, had refused to leave when William’s force landed. Her husband had gone with the King’s army to the north, and she feared that when he came home, they wouldn’t be able to find one another. She had hidden, and had remarkably so far avoided assault or injury. She told them that she knew her husband must be dead, or he would have come for her. With a baby whom she had hidden in the barn when she heard the soldiers coming, she was afraid to take to the road alone. Helga and Rowena helped her gather her meager possessions, and agreed she could travel with them until they met others heading west, where Elswyth had family.

Salazar disagreed with this plan, feeling that associating themselves with muggles was asking for trouble. The others wouldn’t hear of leaving her on her own however, so she was bundled onto Emmeline’s horse, Aidan mounted behind Salazar, and they took to the road once more.

After weeks of recovery and cushy living in Helga’s cozy cottage, Godric welcomed the discomforts of the road. Helga did not. This became evident after they’d chosen their camp for the night. Helga tended solicitously to Elswyth’s needs, ensuring she had a comfortable place near the fire where she could sit to nurse her baby, a place which conveniently put Elswyth’s back to the small clearing. Then, at some distance from the woman, who was after all an unknown muggle, Helga knelt before her green satchel, which rested on the ground before her. Godric was off fishing for their supper, and Salazar was tending to the small fire. Rowena was beside Helga as she began pulling things out of the satchel. Rowena could tell right away that this was no ordinary satchel, for the first thing Helga tugged out was a furled tent.

As the daughter of a witch who practiced magic with insouciance, Rowena had seen many unlikely sights in her life, but watching a furled tent emerge from a satchel of a size to be carried on a woman’s shoulder was new. The tent changed in proportion only on that part of its length which was constricted by the opening of the satchel. As it was drawn out, it assumed the regular proportions of a tent meant to hold perhaps three people. Helga placed it carefully, then stood back and waved her wand in a complicated figure 8 type movement. With a gentle woof, the tent inflated before their eyes. Helga went to the tent flap and looked in. “Not quite as comfortable as home,” she said competently, “but it will do. Godric may sleep on the hard ground if that suits him, but it doesn’t suit me, and I dare say it doesn’t suit you if you have a choice about it.”

Rowena took her turn at the tent flap and gaped in astonishment. Inside was an entire bed chamber, complete with oil lamps, feather beds, wool blankets, and rugs on the floor. Despite her memories of magical bath tubs conjured by her own comfort-loving mother, this was magic on a scale she herself had simply never considered. Magic was something she had been born with, had wrestled with, had tried to hide, had never fully come to terms with. Magic simply as a way to make life more comfortable was an idea she’d never thought of until coming to live with Helga. She loved Helga, but found these manifestations of magic frivolous. That opinion not withstanding, after a day in the saddle, she wouldn’t say no to a feather bed.

After a meal of fish stew, the children and Elswyth were quick to curl up close together by the fire, and fall into an exhausted sleep. There had been a tense moment when Salazar was sure that Elswyth had seen Madella poke her head out from beneath his wide sleeve and taste the air, but after one wide-eyed glance, the woman had looked away. Salazar concluded that she’d decided it was a trick of the firelight, and dismissed it from her mind.

As Helga, Rowena, Salazar and Godric sat enjoying stillness and full bellies, Godric was ebullient. Taking up sword once more, particularly in something so obviously worthy as the defense of a defenseless woman, had given him back his self-assurance.

“The battle is over it’s true,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean the country is lost. There will be resistance to William’s progress north and west. Why shouldn’t we make ourselves part of that. With such skills as we have, what could we not do?” He was looking at Salazar, expecting that, as a man, he too would feel the pull of a fight.

Salazar looked back, unimpressed. “But why would we bother? These are affairs of muggles, what mean they to us?”

“What mean they to us?” Godric asked incredulously. “Have you been riding all day with your eyes closed? Have you not seen what has been done here? Surely you don’t wish to see the entire country laid waste!”

Out of deference to his friend’s feelings, Salazar tried not to look as indifferent as he felt. “This is what armies do, and, I’m sorry my friend, but this isn’t my country, so I can’t feel about it the way you do.”

Godric turned to Helga and Rowena. “And what do you say?”

Helga looked confused. “I don’t understand what you’re suggesting. I’ll never take up the sword, and I thought we’d come on this journey to carry Odo home.”

“Of course we have,” he replied emphatically, “and we can still do that, but we can choose how we do it, and what else we do. It’s not necessary for a witch to take up a sword in order to affect the outcome of a battle. You have an affinity with animals just as Salazar does, and you’ve heard about the weather wisdom we used to keep William’s army from sailing.”

“Yes, I have heard, and I myself would be ill at ease making such enormous choices that affect so many. In fact, if I were you I’d be troubled by wondering what might have happened had you not interfered. Perhaps King Harold’s army could have been victorious and the King still alive if they had been encamped and well rested for the battle instead of coming to it after a long march.”

“Perhaps, but then they would have made the march in the other direction to meet Harald Hardrada’s forces, and lost there. We can’t know what would have happened.”

“No,” Helga replied, “we can’t, and just because we can do a thing doesn’t mean therefore that we should do it. My gift is to save lives, and I won’t use my magic to take them, at least not if I can help it.”

“Not even to protect your own country?”

“I’m neither a soldier, nor the defender of my country. That is a job for others to do, for men to do. War is a man’s business.” His three companions looked at Godric with troubled eyes. The bond between the four of them had run quick and deep, but in that moment, they realized that regardless of how they felt towards one another, they had had lives before which had shaped them. Godric’s life had been the life of a fighter, a man who settled problems with violence. They didn’t feel threatened personally by this truth, but for the first time, they all understood that their powerful friendship might not be strong enough to resist the forces that pulled on them each in a different direction.

Rowena said nothing. She was thinking about her more recent experiences with the Metamorph Magi. The mind of the old man was revealed to her in tiny glimpses, along with his surroundings. Her awareness focused with an almost passionate longing, on his library: quiet, safe, and lined with books she had never even imagined. A longing for that room, that safety, that quiet retreat was growing. It was a private, inward feeling, and it made her listen to the highly-charged conversation of the others with a vague dread. She didn’t know who or where the man was, why his thoughts seemed to be leaking into her mind, or how any of this was connected with their quest to carry Odo home, and she had a sudden and overwhelming sense of her own homelessness. Her mother was dead. Though the religious house had been a home of a sort, it was really only the library that had held her, and that was lost to her. She belonged nowhere it seemed, but whoever the old man was, she got a distinct sense of place from him. It was the feeling of someone rooted where they were, belonging there, having found or made a safe retreat, and she longed for that too.

The morning found them once more on the road, Egbert and Elswyth’s goat in tow. The goat slowed them down a bit, but Egbert didn’t. Elswyth had viewed the tent with wide eyes, but asked no questions. If she’d noticed how easily Salazar had lit a fire with damp leaves, she didn’t ask questions about that either.

They were far from the only travelers. There were farmers, cotters and trade’s people fleeing William’s army, soldiers who had fought for Harold and now sought to evade William’s vengeance, and the other folk who follow even the most swiftly moving army. All were as though pushed before an ocean wave, either leaving homes no longer theirs, or seeking homes left in order to fight for their now dead King.

The party had changed out of their clerical garb; their horses made them conspicuous enough. Even as it was, their appearance of some prosperity meant that they were often appealed to for food by the most desperate of their fellow travelers. Helga had bread and cheese in her saddle bag. Although magic was insufficient to create food where there was none, her frequent replenishing charms meant that she could always offer a morsel or two.

Elswyth spoke little, and made no burden of herself or her baby on the party. So quiet was she in fact that they all began to take her presence for granted, or forget it in so far as their behavior was concerned. They had all come from different levels of openness about their magic, and together in a group of fellow witches and wizards, it had begun to feel natural to use magic freely.

These were small things. They weren’t conjuring floods or causing trees to fly, nothing spectacular, just the lighting of a fire here, the odd levitated water skin there, that sort of thing.

The recklessness of this course became clear to them on the afternoon when they met a party of true clerics. The band looked like what they were: refugees. They made a straggling group, men and women in clerical garb, lay people who were likely servants of the monastery they’d fled, and various hangers-on who, like Elswyth, sought protection on the road. Some of the clerics were riding, but most of the band was on foot. They had just passed a crossroads when this motley band fell in behind them. Elswyth, ever looking around her, was first to spot them. She called softly to Helga, then they all turned and saw the group behind them. They all stopped. Godric wheeled his horse and came to call across the distance to the leader of the other party. This was a man with a shiny bald pate, and a hawk-like face. In polite phrases, Godric explained that they had a traveller with them who wished to find company on the road west.

The man nodded. “We travel that way. She will be welcome with us,” he said, his face showing no expression, and he gestured back to the ragtag group of folk who walked behind.

Without a backward glance, Elswyth dismounted, took her baby from Emmeline’s arms, and walked toward the other party. Instead of walking off to the side to join the other women who walked as a group, she headed straight for the party’s austere leader. He looked askance at her, but she didn’t flinch. She walked right up to him and all could see that she spoke urgently to him.

Godric, displeased with her lack of gratitude but ready to leave her in the care of others, was about to turn his horse and resume their northward direction, when the man’s voice called out strongly across the distance that separated them. “This woman tells me you harbor sorcery among you. She says she has seen many unnatural acts, the exercise of strange powers, and that one of you keeps a serpent.”

Now Godric was constitutionally disinclined to call any woman a liar. At the same time, the habit of concealing his true identity from muggles went bone deep. This left him at a loss for words. Seeing this, Salazar walked his horse forward.

“I am from a foreign land as you see,” he said, exaggerating his accented speech. “This woman has merely mistaken foreign ways and customs for something else.”

There was a brief pause as the woman spoke again to the group’s leader. All in Godric’s party were on the verge of simply turning to be on their way, but the man spoke again in a louder voice, which drew the attention of the sizable number of people following him.

“She says you start fires without flint, cause demons to fetch and carry for you, and that your tent is a den of unnatural vices.” This last made Helga want to laugh, and made Aidan want to ask what an unnatural vice was, but the newly focused attention of the crowd, which was quickly starting to look like a rabble, drew any levity out of the situation.

Godric didn’t like to flatly contradict a lady, but his assessment of Elswyth was moving fast from lady, to something much less flattering. “This is foolish women’s talk,” he said dismissively. “She is crazed with grief for her dead husband, and imagines things.”

Whether this explanation would have defused the situation they would never know, for just then, Elswyth cried out. In horror, she thrust her baby up toward the cleric on the horse, who caught it by instinct, then clapped her hands to her head. The mounted cleric was staring at Elswyth with disbelief. From Elswyth’s forehead, two horns were sprouting, and growing fast. They resembled the shape of the horns that folk made as a hand gesture to ward off evil, and they continued to grow larger. Godric gave a hasty glance around him, trying to figure out who was responsible. His gaze stopped on Emmeline’s face, on which he saw a fierce look that mingled concentration and triumph.

Emmeline had for days shared her horse with Elswyth, had helped the other woman in caring for her infant. All of their party had welcomed the young mother generously, offered her companionship and protection on the road, and at the first opportunity she had betrayed them. Emmeline knew what could happen to people accused of the things Elswyth had accused them of. Far from being grateful for their generosity, Elswyth was ready to denounce them, and possibly even threaten their lives. Exhilarated by the freedom of finally being with folk of her own kind, Emmeline was quick to reach out for revenge.

The cleric’s expression went from impassive to ferocious in the blink of an eye, and Rowena instantly recognized the fire of the zealot. This had been her own personal terror: to be uncovered as a witch by a cleric who, unlike a simple villager, would react with more than wariness or fear.

The man raised his voice in a passionate outcry. “It is because we suffer such as you among us that our land has been taken and our King killed!” He was clearly talking to the crowd around him who, by virtue of simple numbers, had it in their power to detain Godric’s party, or worse.

Godric was trying to decide whether they had a hope of simply turning and outrunning the crowd, which could quickly become a mob. Before he’d had time to innumerate all the reasons why this was an impractical idea, there was a loud squawk as though in mockery of the cleric’s exhortations, and a sudden flurry of wings. A large black raven had swooped down from the sky directly toward the man’s head. He flailed his arms madly in fending motions, but the bird merely circled high, then down again, as though intent on pecking his eyes out. All looked on in horrified fascination, accept for Rowena, who covered her eyes.

If Godric had allowed himself to stop and think about it he’d never have done it, but the raven’s cries caused something in him to snap. All the years of self-denial, of masquerade, of concealment, of the secret dread of discovery fell away. In one of the most liberating and exhilarating moments of his life, he lifted his head, and called out in a loud voice of command, “All you creatures of the air I summon you! Come to us now and chase these liars and fools so that they trouble us no more!” He had no idea what he was doing, no actual intent beyond venting his spleen, and scaring the daylights out of these short-sighted and ungrateful muggles. What happened next amazed even him.

Later, Helga and Salazar freely admitted that, taking their lead from him, they each used their own magic to call as many birds as they could, and oh how they came! Soon the air was full of chirps, squawks, cheeping, harsh cries, and the flapping of wings. Indeed, the air was vibrating with the noise and disturbance. As though guided by a single mind, birds of all descriptions were flying together as a flock, straight at the medley of people facing Godric. But neither Helga nor Salazar tried to take credit for what happened then, and Only Rowena could name what they saw.

As clerics and their followers alike were swiping ineffectually at the flock, or covering their heads, there was a deafening, harsh cry from above and behind Godric. Like everyone else, he looked up, and beheld the most incredible sight he had ever seen.

Flying toward them on massive wings was an extraordinary creature which only Rowena had ever seen, and then only in illustrations. It was hard to judge its size in flight, but its out-spread wings showed all its bestial improbability to full advantage. It was a mottled gold. Its fore claws, head and wings were those of an eagle, and its torso, rear legs and tail were those of a lion. Feather blended into fur with a smooth elegance, and the overall impression was one of overwhelming grace and power. The creature was heading swiftly down toward them in a powerful glide. Those in Godric’s party were awed into immobility, their mouths agape. The same could not be said for the rest on the road. With shrieks of absolute terror, all those on foot turned and ran full out, as far and as fast as they could. Those on horseback strove mightily to control their mounts, most of which merely scattered, taking their hapless riders careering across field and wood.

When the road had been cleared of all save Godric’s party, the creature swooped back toward them. Later they all wondered why they felt no fear. They all sat still, gazing upward, amazed that anything could be so powerful and so beautiful. The creature circled lazily over them several times, its eagle’s eyes fixed on Godric, and then it simply flew away, its golden shape disappearing toward the north.

There was a moment of shocked silence, and then Helga burst out, “By all the oaks on Ynys Mone! Godric! What was that?”

Godric looked around him in a daze, as though expecting the landscape to have altered in some way. “I have no idea,” he said almost reflectively.

“How did you summon it?” Salazar asked.

“I don’t know,” Godric said again.

“That,” Rowena said almost indignantly, “was a griffin.” They all stared at her uncomprehendingly. “It’s a … a magical creature, part eagle and part lion. I’ve seen illustrations of them, but never did I think to see one in real life. Godric, how did you do that?”

“I tell you I don’t know,” Godric insisted. “I’ve never even heard of a griffin. I just … I was so angry, angry enough to … well, when I saw that raven I just lost all caution. I called out more from feeling than from thought.”

Helga considered. “Yes, that raven was odd. Why did it target that terrible bald man like that?” Rowena looked suddenly shifty and dropped her eyes.

“I’ve seen that raven before!” Aidan burst out suddenly. He looked at Rowena. “In the forest of Andredsweald, you made it chase off the wolf who would have attacked my little sister. Remember?”

Rowena remembered all right. She shifted uneasily in her saddle and didn’t make eye contact with anyone. “Before that too. It … it began watching me, following me. In a way, it was the reason I eventually took to the road to find you.” She looked at Helga. “Some verminous children were throwing rocks at it one day, and before I could stop myself, I used magic to protect it. That was the last straw for the folk around me, and I decided it was time to leave.” She worked hard to keep her expression neutral. It had been a painful decision, but it had led her to these friends, whom she valued more than anything.

Helga, Salazar and Godric looked at her with curiosity and speculation. She was the last of them to be making strange communion with animals, they all thought. Clearly, both she and Godric had powers they hadn’t suspected.

It was the practical Helga who put an end to the awed silence by suggesting that they move on, and find a camp for the night. She thought they should rest for a day, allowing the band they had chased away to come back and pass them. The road the band would take west wasn’t far ahead, and all saw the sense in enjoying a day’s rest in order to avoid being overtaken.

Chapter 15: Samhain

 

Excited by the day’s events, the younger members of their party stayed awake later than normal, and they all sat around the fire gnawing on pieces of wild boar, talking about what had happened. Helga turned to Emmeline, her expression serious. “You know you caused much trouble by what you did to Elswyth.”

“She deserved it!” Emmeline replied fiercely.

Aidan and Cadogan raised their voices in ascent. “We saved her, gave her food, let her travel with us, and the first thing she does is try and get us in trouble!” Aidan said indignantly.

Helga sighed. “I know,” she said sadly. “She treated us poorly. I was angry too, but you can’t just go around cursing everyone who offends you.”

“Why not?” Cadogan asked.

“Well firstly because it’s dangerous, just as you saw.”

“What if we’d gotten away first, then Emmeline did it? That wouldn’t be dangerous. It’s only dangerous if people know it was you.”

Rowena rubbed her index finger across the bridge of her nose. “It is dangerous, you can never be certain that you won’t be found out, but it’s also simply wrong. Magic is something that makes us … stronger and more able than muggles. It isn’t right for the strong to dominate over others.”

“People do it all the time,” Emmeline replied forcefully. “What else is strength for except to get you what you want, or to keep you safe from …” Her voice trailed off and a shadow crossed her face. “My mother was a witch too, and she wouldn’t let me use magic because of what folk would think, and she had to, I … we had to … I … being weak means that things happen to you that you don’t want. My mother wouldn’t let me…, but she’s dead now, and we here all can do magic. Why should we not? Why pretend?”

“Perhaps if your own country had just been invaded and your king killed, you would understand better why strength alone isn’t the right way to choose your actions,” Helga replied bitterly.

“I have no country and no king,” Emmeline replied boldly. “I am only a woman,” she gave the last three words a sneering emphasis. “I didn’t invade anyone’s country, I just did what my mother said so that we could have protection and enough to eat. I can’t make myself into a man to carry a sword, but if I have the power to use magic to protect myself why wouldn’t I?”

“It is true that for a woman, magic is a way to protect yourself, but how was what you did to Elswyth going to protect us,” Rowena said calmly. “It was an undisciplined act of vengefulness that could have caused even more trouble than it did.”

“What were all of you going to do?” Emmeline asked defensively, “turn and run away? Elswyth deserved what she got!”

“You’re not speaking rationally,” Rowena said, her tone still projecting a calm condescension that was making Emmeline even more defensive.

Salazar leaned forward. He had, in point of fact, had a time to hide his amusement at what Emmeline had done to Elswyth. He thought that Elswyth deserved worse than she’d got, but Rowena was right, and Emmeline was never going to admit that, not to Rowena. “Elswyth was an ungrateful fool who didn’t deserve our help,” he said flatly. “I would have enjoyed cursing her myself. But sometimes it’s necessary to put other things before revenge. I don’t say revenge is wrong, but you did put all of us in danger by what you did. Revenge should be carefully considered, something to be exercised with control, and enjoyed at leisure, not when it will put your friends at risk.”

Emmeline’s features relaxed. These people were all nice enough, but she felt that only Salazar really understood her, and she him. No one except Salazar and Emmeline were comfortable with the way he had defused Emmeline’s anger, but they tacitly agreed to leave it at that.

Aidan and Cadogan bounced around restlessly, tussling with Egbert, and sporadically participating in the conversation of the adults. “Hey!” Cadogan exclaimed into a comfortable silence, “Where did you get that emerald you showed to the guards the day we left the camp?”

Salazar would have been content if this subject hadn’t come up, but there was nothing to be done now it had been raised. “I found it,” he said nonchalantly.

“Where does one find such a thing?” Godric asked.

“On the battle field,” Salazar replied briefly.

Godric looked distressed. He knew the sort of people who “find” valuable things on a battle field, and he didn’t like them. Sometimes such folk were obviously so desperately poor that one overlooked the distasteful practice, but to find out that his sworn friend would engage in such an activity was a blow.

Helga looked shocked. “You mean while I was tending the wounded, you …” she shifted, moving unconsciously a little away from Salazar.

Salazar was affronted by their reaction. “I never took from anyone who still lived, which is more than I can say for many on the field that day. Did that emerald not convince the guards we were who we claimed? Would you rather it had been buried or burned with its owner, or that it had been found by someone else? It helped us get ahead of William’s army. Isn’t that what we were trying to do?”

No one answered, but the silence now was an uneasy one. Salazar stroked Madella, feeling relieved that at least no one was asking him what else he’d acquired that day. Emmeline reached out toward the snake. “Will she let me touch her?”

Many days of monotonous travel followed. As they continued north, the flow of travellers on the road gradually thinned out. Most of those on the move didn’t have healthy horses to carry them and their gear, so went more slowly.

Being on the road day after day, with minds so full of memories and griefs, it was hard to keep track of time. Each day had a sameness that made them seem to blend together. Winter was coming. The landscape was alternatively barren and colourful, but with the certainty of coming chill, and the uncertainty that attends a long journey.

Their successful escape from William’s army had left them with a brief elation, but this had ebbed into a plodding persistence. Some days the hunting was poor and they were hungry. Some days it rained, and they endured a damp or sodden landscape as best they could, to say nothing of damp or sodden horses, clothing and blankets. Tempers occasionally grew short, and spirits were sometimes low. Each of them carried their own individual, often painful recollections. Sometimes one of the children, and sometimes one of the adults, woke gasping from dreams which played over the horrors they had seen, and added new ones. Though there were other travellers on the road, most were wary, and in no better case than they.

It had been a cloudy day, and a businesslike rain had begun. They hadn’t yet happened on a suitable place to make camp, and the light was going fast, when Godric, who was in the lead, spotted light down a track that intersected the road on which they travelled. Though times were troubled and welcome uncertain, they were all cold, tired, and secretly longing for the company of folk other than their own party. Without much discussion, they turned aside, hopeful of hospitality for the night.

The track led them toward a prosperous looking manner house. All the windows were lighted, giving the house an uncommonly jolly look, so that they wondered if they’d happened upon a feast. As they drew nearer to the house, their horses became restive. They peered carefully to either side of the track, fearing wolves or other predators, but saw and sensed nothing. Impatient for warmth and light, they urged their horses forward, and came to the stable yard. They looked around, but saw no one. Clearly, all the guests had arrived, and were snugly inside. Salazar was approaching the largest of the stable buildings, intending to lead their horses in out of the rain, when a figure suddenly appeared from around the side of the building.

The first they knew of him was a shadow against the darkness of the stable wall, and a creaky, lugubrious voice that said, “Who be you? I don’t know you. Not invited, were you?” They all jumped. Though the house looked bright and cheerful, the yard was so dark and empty that finding someone there was a shock.

“No,” Godric said, recovering himself. “We are travellers, weary, cold and tired. We’ve come to beg hospitality from your master for the night.” When no response was forthcoming, Godric added, “We had good hunting today, we ask for no vittles, but shelter and a warm fire would be very welcome on this cold and rainy night.”

It was too dark to see the man’s face, but after a discourteously long pause, he gestured toward one of the smaller stable buildings. “Take your beasts in there, then come with me to the house. My master isn’t partial to uninvited guests, but if you stay out of sight, you may come in out of the rain for the night.”

The horses were still jumpy. To their surprise, there was no hay in the stable, but the horses had grazed well that day, and once they’d been unsaddled, they settled, if fretfully, in the small stable provided for them.

The man, who’s name was Leofric, lead them away from the ornate front door, taking them instead to a less conspicuous side entrance of the manner house. They could hear the merry sound of voices, laughter and music. Leofric led them up some stairs and on to a recessed gallery that overlooked the hall. He told them that they were welcome to make themselves as comfortable as they might, and even brought them dry blankets. He warned them, however, not to interrupt the festivities below, as his master wouldn’t take kindly to ragged vagrants and beggars, not being a charitable man. Salazar and Godric bristled at Leofric’s description of them, but Helga and Rowena, wet, dirty, bedraggled and chilled through, didn’t think Leofric’s characterization of their party fell very short of the truth.

They wondered why Leofric hadn’t simply brought them to the kitchen to bide with the serving folk, where it was undoubtedly warmer, but they concluded that maybe the kitchen was simply too busy on such a festive night. They might have wished for beds and a warm hearth, but the gallery was dry, and once they’d used magic to dry their clothes, they were comfortable enough.

Salazar had chanced to bag a deer that morning, and they’d made a long stop, during which Helga had made a tasty stew with some late root vegetables. They still had quite a lot of this, and shared it out, warming it with their wands. They looked longingly down at the laden banquet tables below, heaped with fresh loaves, and liberally dotted with flagons of ale and mead, but only the boys were inclined towards clandestine raids, and Helga kept a beady eye on them, so they gave up the idea. Lacking any other occupation, and not yet tired enough to sleep through the raucous celebrations below, they made themselves comfortable to watch the proceedings.

It didn’t take them long to figure out that they’d made themselves uninvited guests at a wedding. The newly married couple sat at the high table with an older gentleman, who looked to be the bride’s father, and various other prosperous looking wedding guests. The father of the bride, and obvious master of the house, was a large man, dressed ostentatiously, and clearly deep into his cups. He spoke volubly to his guests, banged regularly on the table to emphasize his opinions, and called frequently for his cup to be refilled.

His jollity didn’t seem to be shared by the bride. She sat, her chair somewhat pushed back from the table as though she wished to hide from the festivities. Her new husband sat shoulder to shoulder with his host, matching him in mead, and eyeing the serving girls. The further you looked from the high table, the less affluent the party-goers were, though all seemed merry, merrier than the bride anyway.

The gallery looked down from three sides. The travellers were tucked in one corner, but in prominent view on the perpendicular side of the gallery were the musicians. If nothing else, all the travellers thought, the music was cause enough to be grateful for this refuge from a cold, wet night outdoors. Songs were common enough, but a band of musicians playing together was a treat. There were drums, bone whistles, a rebec, a lyre, and a gorgeous fifteen-string harp that made Godric’s fingers twitch with longing. Rather incongruously, there was even a bell ringer. The bells usually fit well enough into the tunes being played, but sometimes the bell-ringer seemed to go off into some private reverie, so that the bells sounded with an inappropriate persistence that would stay with the travellers long after they departed this place. The music was lively, and the evening shifted from eating toward drinking. Some tables had been moved aside, and people were dancing energetically in the cleared spaces.

“Oh, I like this one!” Helga exclaimed. “There was a man who used to play this on a lyre when I was growing up!” She tapped her foot in time to the sprightly tune.

Godric rose with his easy grace, and bowed to her. Smiling like a girl, she rose and they moved away from their gear on to bear floor. Soon Emmeline and the boys were up too, and in the dimness of the gallery corner, they danced. The musicians seemed tireless. Helga and Godric sang along to the songs they knew, and Emmeline even managed to coax Rowena and Salazar up for a dance or two. After days in the saddle, it was a joy to throw their bodies into the chaotic movement. Their spirits, oppressed by recent events, had felt little impulse to sing lately, but now, unheard in the general merriment all around them, they raised their voices in a robust defiance of grief and loss. As it does at such times, time became meaningless, and they simply were.

Helga was just thinking it would be time to rest soon, when she saw Emmeline stop moving, and stare fixedly down the gallery. Following Emmeline’s gaze, Helga saw the form of a young woman gliding toward them. It was difficult to make her out at first. The festivities below were brightly lit with dancing flame, but not so up here in the dark corner. Soon though, Helga realized with alarm that it was the bride herself. A serving girl might be talked round, but the daughter of the master of the house wasn’t someone she wanted to meet, certainly not wearing muddy clothes and with her hair in such a state.

Godric instinctively stepped back, more intimidated than he would have been by a well-armed soldier. Helga took a breath and got out a shaky, “My lady,” when the bride gestured dismissively.

“I knew you were here,” she said, “I saw you.”

“We …” Helga nearly said, “Leofric told us …” but stopped herself, not wanting to repay kindness with trouble.

The bride glanced down at the lighted room below. “I’m not going to tell anyone,” she said, not sounding especially interested. “I just wanted some air, so I thought I’d come and see who you are. Did Leofric bring you up here? You’ve obviously been on the road.” She was still looking down at the activity below.

“Well,” Helga said noncommittally, “we put our horses in one of the smaller stable buildings, and if we might just lie here tonight. You know, it’s raining rather hard and…” But the girl, who looked to be about Emmeline’s age, wasn’t paying any attention. She stared hard at her father and the groom, then let her gaze shift almost wistfully over the rest of the room. “They are enjoying themselves,” she said calmly. “The music is very nice too. I waited for that.”

Helga shuffled uneasily. She wasn’t sure what to do now. It seemed rude to just go back and join her companions as though the girl wasn’t there, but standing beside such a clearly distracted person was awkward under the circumstances. “Yes,” she said at last, “the music is truly wonderful.”

“I feel a little bad about that, but there was really no help for it; it has to be everyone.”

Helga was even more lost than before.

“Have you been married?” The girl asked unexpectedly.

“No,” Helga answered. Looking down at the high table, it was hard to regret it.

“I tried to argue with my father about getting married, but he wouldn’t listen. You can’t imagine what it’s like to grow up with someone like that as your father.” She gestured toward the high table, where her father was arm wrestling with a weedy-looking youngster. “He’s a violent man.”

Helga silently agreed with both statements. “Will you be going far from home?” She asked sympathetically.

The bride’s head came up as though in surprise. “Oh, I won’t be going anywhere.” The words were spoken calmly, but something sent chills down Helga’s spine. “The man I wanted to marry is over there.” The girl gestured toward the musicians. “The one beating the drum,” she said. Her voice almost cracked, but didn’t. “We’ll be together soon though.”

Normally Helga’s impulse was to try to soothe distress, but she found herself simply wishing the girl would just go away. “Had you better be getting back to your guests?” She asked politely. “You’ll soon be missed.”

The bride shrugged. “It doesn’t matter now. It’ll be time soon, then no one will miss me.”

The girl stepped forward abruptly, peering down. Some of the guests seemed to have been overcome by the merriment, and were sprawled on benches, or even on the floor. Helga was startled. Perhaps the feast had been going on all day?

The girl sighed with satisfaction. “Yes,” she said, “there will be no one to miss me soon.” She glanced briefly at Helga. “Leofric didn’t give you ought to eat or drink, did he?”

“No,” Helga answered, surprised by such a lack of charity.

The bride returned her gaze to the room below. At the high table, the groom was looking seedy, and one or two of the guests were clutching their middles. Helga gasped. “Do you know what’s wrong with them?” When the girl didn’t reply at once, Helga started to reach out a hand to touch the girl’s arm, but stopped herself with a faint shudder.

“Oh, I know,” She was watching her father, who was now doubled over. Cries of dismay were rising from below. People writhed in pain, some rolling around on the floor, others ominously still.

Helga moved restlessly, but Godric, who had crept up behind them, put a detaining hand on her shoulder. “What’s wrong with them?” He asked quietly.

The girl started in surprise, but then shifted her gaze quickly back to the high table. “I poisoned them,” she said tranquilly, but with a faint note of satisfaction. “It’s a woman’s weapon you know.”

Helga felt suddenly as though she herself had been poisoned. She, who used herbs to heal, knew well about the ones that did the opposite. They were a woman’s power, and yes, a woman’s weapon, one of few.

In the room below, things were going downhill fast. Helga’s instincts made her want to help, or at least give comfort, but what could she do? She was grateful for Godric’s hand on her shoulder, anchoring her. Many people had stopped moving entirely, and the seen below was a roiling chaos of suffering.

When the master of the house stopped moving, the girl shifted her gaze toward the musicians. Occupied as they had been, they’d been drinking more slowly. They had stopped playing, staring shocked at the scene below, but so far, only two of them had set down their instruments, looking ill.

She was now staring at the young man who was holding his drum, and looking around in dismay. She took a deep breath, and began moving toward him. A random burst of fire light from below lit her as she moved, reflecting off the jewels of broach and bracelet, casting light on her veil as the bride made her way toward her love. The young man rose, looking shocked, as she moved into his arms.

Just then, there was a shuffling of feet, and Leofric was tugging at Godric’s sleeve. “Come now!” He said urgently. “You must leave. You mustn’t be here now. I’ll take you to your horses and you spend the night in the stable. Come now!”

Shocked, but eager to leave the terrible scene below, and the only slightly less disturbing one unfolding on the gallery, they hastily gathered their belongings, and followed Leofric out of the house, feeling chilled with horror. They looked with concern at Leofric, but he assured them he hadn’t taken any of the mead. “Gives me gas,” he explained laconically.

The horses were still restive, and seemed glad for their return. No one slept much. The adults agreed they’d take turns watching, though they couldn’t say for what, but though they tried to at least lie down, no one got much rest. They rose at first light. They packed their gear and saddled the horses, wanting to put distance between themselves and this place before breaking their fast.

The weather had cleared, and the morning was brightening fast. Emerging into the light, they were surprised to see how dilapidated the stable buildings actually were; they hadn’t noticed in the dimness the evening before. They looked around for Leofric, both wanting and not wanting to see him. They felt they should thank him, but feared they might have to help him cope with the aftermath of the night’s events.

“All the horses,” Salazar said reluctantly, clearing his throat. The others looked at him in confusion. “All those,” his voice broke. “Those guests, they will have stabled their horses in the largest stable building. I’d be willing to bet most of the serving folk took the mead too.”

His meaning was clear, so they turned reluctantly toward the main stable building, then stopped. This building was markedly run down, the timbers rotted and collapsing. Surely, they would have noticed such dilapidation even in the poor light of the night before. The building was empty. There were no horses.

They all turned slowly toward the manner house, and caught their breath in shock. No amount of dimness or twilight gloom could account for this. The house was, if anything, in worse case than the stable. It was clearly a building in which no one lived, or had lived for many a season. Aidan and Cadogan moved close to Helga, hanging on to her skirt. She reached out and put an arm protectively around each of them, not saying anything.

Rowena and Emmeline drew closer together, but Salazar said quietly, “I’m going to go look.” Squaring his shoulders, Godric followed. Then, so did Rowena, leaving the others in an extremely uneasy huddle in the yard.

All was quiet in the house. They moved cautiously, though it seemed unlikely there was anyone to disturb. There was though. Leofric stood in the entrance way, as though guarding the door to the galleried hall.

“They’re all in there,” he said sadly. “She did for them all with her witch’s brew. There’s only me and a few serving folk left. We can’t bury them all.”

He moved aside, and reluctant but feeling they had no choice, Salazar, Godric and Rowena moved forward. They had steeled themselves for the gruesome sight to be revealed by the merciless light of morning. What the morning light revealed was so far from what they expected, that it took them quite a few moments to take in what they were seeing.

The furniture was there, tables chairs and benches standing, or tipped over, some holding cups and dishes coated in dust, some lying amid broken shards and the dust of long-decayed rushes. And, lying where they had fallen, were the unmistakable skeletons of many people. Without thinking, the three of them drew together and clasped hands, desperately seeking life and the reassurance of it. Finally, they turned back, their eyes searching for Leofric.

He hovered in the doorway. Though the light was growing, they realized suddenly that he was getting harder to see. “I couldn’t bury them. I stayed for a while, but I couldn’t do anything, and all the other serving folk who lived, left. My lady got what she wanted. She was avenged on her father for all he had made her suffer, and she lies still up there, in the arms of her sweetheart.”

None of them had the heart to get close enough to see what was left of the gallery. In fact, they were, each one, quivering with reaction. Leofric was barely visible now. “I couldn’t bury them,” he said once more, then faded into the shadows.

Chapter 16: the Druidess and the Dragon

 

The three fairly ran out of the house. They refused to stop and tell what they’d seen, instead mounting their horses, and urging the others to do the same. They rode down the track back toward the main road at a gallop. Finally, they slowed down when the horses began to tire. In halting tones, the three described what they had seen. They rode through the crisp bright air, their conversation at odds with the cheerful looking landscape, suffused with early morning sun.

“But what did we see last night?” Emmeline asked.

“Shadows,” Salazar answered gravely, “shades of life that had been, but is no longer.”

“But we danced to their music, saw them eat and drink!” Aidan exclaimed.

“We have lost track of days,” Rowena said. “I think perhaps last night was the feast of Samhain.” She looked at the children. “The end of the old year, and the start of the new: it’s a time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is thin.”

As they rode on, more than one peered covertly at their clothing, as though afraid that the darkness of the gallery would somehow be clinging to them: that they would, in some way, carry it away with them, but they did not. They stopped soon after, and shared out the rest of the stew from yesterday. Though they hadn’t properly rested the night before, they all felt relieved to have put some distance between themselves and the manner house. It seemed to them that the changing colours of the leaves were particularly bright, and the sunlight particularly golden.

“I wonder how long ago they died,” Emmeline said as they mounted and rode away once more. No one had an answer of course.

They all spent the afternoon looking around them more attentively than they usually did, not so much out of apprehension, but out of gratitude, appreciation to be alive in the bright, living world. They had all carried away painful memories from the battle, and from things that had come before. Somehow, for all of them, the sharpest edge of their various griefs blended with the events of the previous night. The revelers, the doomed young couple, all those slain wedding guests from no one knew how long ago, all began to take on the feeling of something remembered in a dream or nightmare. All those people had perished long since. Their loves, hates, fears and vengeance were gone to dust. It made their own painful memories seem comfortingly distant, and the bright, living world, very near.

In late afternoon, they made camp beside a stream where a cluster of apple trees grew. As Godric prepared his fishing gear, Helga and the young people roamed about, gathering fire wood and late apples. They were camped on a rise of ground that showed them the unmistakable signs of a village a half day’s ride away. They were tired, and in no hurry, but it was reassuring to see the commonplace signs of human habitation: a mill, wood smoke rising on the still air, and grazed fields. Tomorrow they would meet new folk, perhaps be able to buy bread, and to sleep in the comforting ordinariness of an inn. For now, they were alive, and free.

They felt a strange elation. The boys and Emmeline chased one another, pelting each other with rotten apples. Godric fished contentedly. Helga foraged for herbs and late eatables, and Rowena and Salazar sat together, studying Rowena’s copy of the Metamorph Magi. They all felt as though the night at the manner house, frightening though it had become, was a turning point. Somehow, such an intimate encounter with deaths past, set them all more firmly on the road that looked forward rather than back.

It was the middle of a misty afternoon, and they were all damp from the day’s showers, and perhaps just a bit cross. On their left, a road came into view that made a right angle to their own. It wasn’t much of a road, more of a track, and clearly had no bearing on their intended direction. However, both Helga and Salazar began to rein in their mounts and peer closely at it.

“What ever are you staring at that path for?” Godric asked a little impatiently. He would have sworn up and down that he welcomed the riggers of the road, but he disliked being damp, and was thinking ahead to where they would make their next camp.

“There’s magic here,” Salazar said, glancing at Godric in some surprise. “Don’t you see it?”

“See what?”

“It … there is a powerful witch or wizard who has … well, I don’t know what they have done, but they’ve clearly done something.” He looked to Helga for confirmation.

She nodded. “Yes, it’s very obvious. Can’t you see it either?” She asked Rowena.

Rowena shook her head, vexed at her inability. Curiosity, and a need not to be petty made her ask, “What do you see? And how?”

Helga considered. “It’s like a light, but not one you see with your eyes. I think I would see it even at night. What think you Salazar?”

“Just so,” said Salazar, smiling at Helga. “It seems like a thing of the eye, but it isn’t really.” Emmeline nudged her horse up beside his. Always ready to show interest in what interested him, she said eagerly, “Teach me how to see it.”

Aidan and Cadogan drew up close to hear also. Godric and Rowena tried not to show the same eagerness as the children, but they listened with great attention as Salazar and Helga tried to teach them how to focus with the eye and the mind together, to perceive beyond what their eyes saw, to let their perception of magic reach out beyond their own awareness into the wider world. After some time, the children were still unable to see anything unusual, but Rowena and Godric began dimly to perceive something, a kind of almost shimmer around the edges of things.

Helga was surprised at how difficult they found it. “I suppose it is because you lived as muggles most of your lives. You trained yourselves to see the world as muggles see it.”

Rowena frowned, displeased to hear herself described as limited. “Is this something you see every day?” She asked Helga.

Helga considered. “No, certainly not every day, but sometimes it’s blindingly plain. I can usually tell right away if a person has magic, or if an object or creature is magical. That … that griffin you called it? That creature exuded magic so strong it was overwhelming. Did you not see that much?”

“No I didn’t,” Rowena replied, a little sharply despite herself, “I was too busy wondering how Godric had summoned it, and from where.”

“I too,” Godric laughed. He was less distressed than Rowena to find there were magical skills he didn’t have. He’d spent his life cultivating skills of blade and spear, and had been happy so. Now however, he was heartily curious, and assented when Helga and Salazar proposed taking the path to see where it might lead. Eager for adventure, the young people followed, but Rowena, who felt she’d had enough adventure for five lifetimes already, brought up the rear of the party as they turned aside down the overgrown path.

After some time, the path opened up. Before them was a small valley, rocky and without much vegetation. On the other side of the valley was a wooded hillside, and on either side of the valley were slopes so steep and overgrown that they were essentially impassable. As they emerged into the open, the air was rent by an ear-splitting roar, and a sight met their eyes as strange and menacing as any they’d seen so far. From the barren valley, breathing fire and flapping its enormous wings, rose into the air a dragon. It was of a malodorous green, and everything about it screamed aggression.

Salazar, who alone among them had ever seen a dragon before, exercised rigid control to keep his mount from bolting. Giving a dragon something to chase wasn’t always the wisest course. He turned his eyes briefly away to ensure his companions recognized this, but found that all save Godric had scuttled back to hide behind a large boulder and a turn of the path. Godric was struggling to quiet his horse, and Salazar reached out with his thoughts to help. Looking grim but determined, Godric drew his jewelled sword from its sheath.

“I don’t think that will do much,” Salazar said, with what Godric thought was remarkable calm.

“What do you propose?” Godric asked threw his teeth.

“Well, I’m not quite sure yet. Something with my wand, but what exactly …”

The dragon rose higher in the air and moved threateningly toward them, and Salazar continued to look only mildly alarmed. “Perhaps you could think a little more quickly friend,” Godric hissed.

“Well,” Salazar said musingly, “do you see anything odd about that dragon?”

“Odd, apart from the raking claws and spitting fire? No, but then I’ve never seen one before.”

“Hmm, it’s a very misty day, lots of rain in the air.”

Godric, wondering if Salazar had been driven mad with fear to be talking about the weather in the face of a fire-breathing dragon, lifted his sword and gathered himself together as though he would charge the beast.

But Salazar continued, “Do you see how the dragon just blasted that clump of trees, yet the trees don’t burn. And that much fire should be making the mist turn to steam, but it’s not.”

“Are you saying that dragon isn’t real?” Godric asked in astonishment.

“It’s not a normal dragon anyway. What it is I’m not sure, but maybe together we can find out. Why don’t you sheath your sword and pull out your wand, which might actually do some good? Do you remember how we all practiced combining our magic? Maybe if we both concentrate on dispelling whatever spell is at work, concentrate on revealing what’s truly there, disillusioning the illusion…” His voice trailed off as he raised his wand and focused intently on the dragon.

After a second, Godric did as Salazar had suggested. It was a little like summoning the wind had been: drawing on the force of his own magic not for something simple and defined like levitating a goblet, but something that had more to do with a broad intention. The effort brought sweat beading on their foreheads, but at last, the outline of the dragon wavered. The fire retreated into its mouth, its wings folded in on themselves, and it descended to their side of the valley. As it neared the ground, its claws retracted, its tail split, its scales smoothed out, and before them stood a woman wearing a green dress, with red hair flowing down her back.

Salazar smiled broadly, and bowed to her from his saddle. “An impressive feat my lady!” He exclaimed with genuine delight.

She smiled back. When she spoke, she was out of breath from her exertions. She had a pleasant voice, accented faintly with Welsh, the kind of low, husky voice, which men sometimes appreciate more than women.

“Thank you my lord. It has been a long time since there has been any to truly appreciate my transformations. Usually I come when I see someone is trespassing toward my village, and a few swoops and fiery breaths are enough to send them scurrying back where they came from. Effective, but it’s nice to have my abilities seen for what they are occasionally. What brings two such powerful and well-favoured wizards to this place?”

Godric was regarding her, unmoved by her graceful carriage and winning smile.

It was Salazar who spoke. “Like many, we have taken to the road lately, partly to remain free of William’s army, and partly because of a need to journey north.”

“It’s been a long time since any magical folk have come this way. I’d be glad for you to take rest here, refresh yourselves for your long journey.”

Salazar, who hadn’t thus far found the road much of a burden to his comfort, suddenly thought how restful it would in fact be to stop in a settled place for a while.

“We’re not travelling alone,” Godric said impassively, and gestured to the turn in the path, around which Aidan and Cadogan were peering. Slowly, the rest of the party came into view, urging their reluctant horses out of the trees. The green clad lady’s smile faltered for a moment as she took in the women and children, but she rallied graciously, and all introduced themselves.

The lady’s name was Cleodna, and she guided them down the safest path into the valley and up the hill on the other side. When they’d passed through a stand of oaks, they came to Cleodna’s village.

It wasn’t long before they all understood that when Cleodna referred to the village as “hers,” she hadn’t been speaking in the way people normally do about their home in the collective sense. The village consisted of a sprawling, prosperous looking house on a gentle rise, overlooking a collection of small but well-maintained cottages and a village common. Cleodna gestured gracefully toward the house. “That’s mine,” she said with some satisfaction. “There’s plenty of room there for … for all of you. Come.”

The way to her house passed through the common. The place looked ordinary enough. People milled about, doing the sorts of things one might expect: washing clothes, tending livestock, gleaning a last harvest from kitchen gardens. The folk didn’t look afraid of her exactly, but they all bowed to her deferentially, and while some greeted her, it wasn’t with particular warmth. Cleodna’s house was as far from ordinary as anything the travellers had ever seen.

Cleodna said that she’d gotten the idea for its design from her travels in the east. The house was built around an inner courtyard, which gave the front of the house an imposing aspect. The inner courtyard was something none of them had ever imagined.

Cleodna, whatever else she was, was clearly a very powerful witch. The courtyard had its own climate. When they’d passed through an immaculate entranceway, they stepped out into a hot summer afternoon. Above them the sky was a clear blue, and the sun shone hot and bright. Around them grew plants of such lush strangeness that one mightn’t have been in Britain at all. Flowers the size of goblets, leaves broad as trenchers, fountains sparkling in the sunlight, marble benches, and dotted around the perimeter, cages holding beasts of such variety the eyes of all goggled in amazement. They each stood in silence, gazing around them in genuine awe.

Cleodna looked immensely pleased with herself. She actually clapped her hands in delight at their reaction. “Oh it’s such fun to surprise people with my courtyard, and I so rarely get the chance!” She pulled a wand from her sleeve and made a quick tapping movement. The air was briefly filled with a sweet chiming sound, and in a matter of seconds, a servant came scurrying out of one of the doors. “These are my guests,” she said in a business-like way. “Take their wet cloaks. Send someone to tend to their horses. Have food prepared, and bed chambers made ready. Have the bath house made ready also.” She said to Helga and Rowena, “I’m sure you would like to freshen yourself after so many days on the road. While my servants prepare your welcome, come and let me show you around my sanctuary.”

They followed her slowly around the courtyard, dazzled alike by beasts and botanicals. There were creatures both magical and non-magical, but all rare, most unknown in Britain. Salazar saw beasts he had heard of but never encountered, and Rowena saw one’s she had only ever seen in illustrated guides to places like Babylon and Arcadia. There were trees, flowering shrubs, and medicinal herbs from foreign lands that left Helga longing for a digging stick and a drying wrack. Emmeline was captivated by the tethered unicorn, which didn’t seem to favour her much, and Aidan had to be restrained by Rowena from sticking obstructive fingers merrily into the spouts of the fountains to see what would happen.

Alone among them, Cadogan seemed unimpressed. He stayed close to Helga, seeming uninclined to explore this miraculous place. Finally, nearly falling over him he was sticking to her so closely, Helga said a little tersely, “Cadogan, what troubles you? I nearly tripped over you.”

The others were gathered around a small pond bearing what Cleodna told them was a grindylow. Seeing the distressed look on Cadogan’s face, Helga squatted down to bring herself on a level with him. “What is it?” She asked quietly.

Cadogan’s face twisted up in an effort to find the right words. “It feels funny here.” His eyes roved the improbable surroundings, lingering on the caged creatures. “I don’t like it.”

Helga wanted to be kind, but her clothes were still damp, parts of her were still sore from the saddle even after so many days, her stomach was rumbling with hunger, and mention of the words “bath house” had stimulated a desire which she had nobly suppressed, but which now reared its head with all the ferocity of a caged cat.

“I know it’s very different here,” she said comfortingly, “but look at all the incredible creatures and flowers! We may never see their like again; we should be grateful for Cleodna’s offer of hospitality. Won’t it be nice to stay in such a comfortable place for a while?”

“I guess so,” he replied ungraciously. “But Cleodna’s … she’s a dragon. And if she’s so wealthy and powerful, why is she wearing a dress that’s too small for her?”

Chapter 17: Wiles and Wisdom in the Sanctuary

 

However misleading Cleodna’s first appearance to them might have been, her pleasure at having guests was genuine. She inquired regularly into their preferences, saw to it that they lacked for nothing, conjured amusements and indulgences for them, and seemed pleased that they should remain as her guests indefinitely. Her improbable house was astonishingly comfortable, and seemed to ooze servants.

On their second day, Rowena discovered Cleodna’s library. Rowena stood in the doorway gazing rapturously, but hesitating, like a child afraid of breaking something. Cleodna was off in her still room with Helga, and the others had gone to make sure their horses had been adequately stabled and tended.

Rowena tiptoed into the room and looked around. Unlike other scriptoria she had been in, this one was large, airy, bright, and furnished so lavishly that your feet got sore just looking at the chairs. There was a large table in the center of the room, and the walls were lined alternatively with luxurious armchairs, tall bookshelves, and wide windows, letting in the brilliant sunlight from Cleodna’s courtyard. Everything was meticulously dusted and polished, and the books were in pristine condition.

Rowena tentatively approached the first shelf and began a thorough perusal of the titles. There were books of natural history and magical theory, compendiums of spells and charms, guides to potion making, reference works on botanicals: a treasure trove, a dream come true for a scholar.

Disciplining herself to choose only one, Rowena finally settled on a book titled, Magicians of Mesopotamia: What They Did and Where They Went Wrong. She approached the table and chose a chair. She laid the book down reverently, and sat. Across the table from her was a book called, Days and Nights of the Druidesses of the Secret Grove: With illustrations. Feeling that perhaps Cleodna had been interrupted in her studies, and not wanting to disturb anything, Rowena left the other book to itself, and focused on the wonderful tome which was spread out before her. There were gorgeous illustrations, stories of ancient near-eastern kings, and a treatise on the theme of immortality by someone named Utnapishtim.

Rowena was engrossed, and jumped when she heard a step in the doorway. It was Godric. His complexion was ruddy with exercise, and she thought how well he looked.

“We took the horses for a cantor to keep them in form,” he said lightly. His eyes swept the room. “This is the largest collection of books and scrolls I’ve ever seen,” he said, obviously impressed. He smiled. “You must feel like a cat who’s broken into the dairy.” He came into the room and stopped across the table from her, examining the cover of the book that lay there unopened. “What is this?” He asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I thought that perhaps Cleodna had left it there to come back to, so I didn’t open it.”

Whatever his other virtues, Godric didn’t share her reverence for books, and reached out his callused hand to turn back the cover. Rowena had observed that he read sufficiently well, particularly for a man who’d earned his livelihood as a soldier, but that he had no special fondness for the written word. She was surprised therefore by the way the book seemed to captivate him. Absorbed as he was, it was easy to stare at him without self-consciousness. Her initial attraction to him hadn’t diminished, but the turmoil of recent events had caused her to suppress it. Now, watching his well-favoured person, bent with seeming dedication over a book, the sleeping creature within her raised its head, tasted the air, and found it good. Finally, more to protect her own sense of herself than to keep Godric from seeing her interest, he was anyway completely hypnotized by the book before him, she dropped her eyes to her own book, and was soon enthralled once more.

Some time later, there was the sound of voices, and Helga stood in the doorway. Cleodna had stopped to give orders to a servant. Rowena looked up and, realizing how stiff she had become from sitting, rose, and walked around the table to peer over Godric’s shoulder. His physical nearness was so distracting that it took her a moment to fully register what she was seeing, then she blinked.

“What is this book?” She asked. Godric jumped as if he’d been jabbed in the ribs with a spear.

“Well,” he said a little uncertainly, “it’s …”

Rowena peered more closely. “Is it a treatise on anatomy?” She raised her eyebrows. “All of these illustrations are of women and …”

“Anatomy?” He asked, sounding a bit dazed. “Well no, I don’t think so, that is … not exactly.”

Rowena began turning the pages curiously, and Helga came up behind her to look also. “Oh my!” Helga exclaimed. “What sort of book did you say this is?”

“Although Godric’s been poring over it for the better part of an hour,” Rowena replied a little caustically, “he doesn’t seem to know.”

“It’s true I’ve seen few books in my life,” Helga said judiciously, “but is it common for books to … to have such … such illustrations, and to concern themselves with things like …?” She was leaning forward, her incomplete knowledge of reading causing her to struggle with words she’d never seen written down before. “What in the name of Merlin is a …?”

Just then there was a light step, and Cleodna came in. She was delighted to find three of her guests so enraptured. “Ah!” She exclaimed. “You’ve found my book!” Rowena and Helga assumed that she meant “My” in the proprietary sense of an owner, but at their failure to answer and their stunned expressions, she came forward and flipped the pages back to the beginning. There was the illuminated title, with the words, “From the quill of the Druidess Cleodna.”

Helga and Rowena looked in astonishment first at Cleodna, then at Godric. If his face had been ruddy before, it was positively aflame now. He pulled himself together, muttered something indistinct about checking on the horses, and beat a hasty retreat. Helga took one more look at the front page, shifted her eyes to Godric’s rapidly retreating back, and let out a hearty belly laugh.

“Well,” Cleodna said with entire good nature, “that’s not exactly the effect I was aiming for, but so long as it amuses you.” Rowena was staring after Godric, and frowning.

The next afternoon, Salazar chanced to be passing the bath house when Cleodna approached, wearing a robe of flowing, translucent green, and obviously headed in. She stopped however, and leaned against the wall regarding him from under lowered lids.

“Godric tells me that among your many other talents, you are an authoress.”

She fluttered her lashes coquettishly. “I like to turn my hand to many things,” she said, the husky tone in her voice more evident than usual. “Did you see my book?”

“Yes, when Godric told me of it I went to the library at once.”

“And what did you think?”

Salazar considered, taking in all aspects of her appearance. “A captivating work,” he said judiciously, then smiled in a most injudicious way. “I haven’t had the opportunity to … to read it from cover to cover, but it does not seem to support what I know about the druidic life.”

“Oh, and what do you know of the druidic life?” She shifted against the wall with a suggestive restlessness.

“Oh, nothing at all it would seem. I’m from a foreign land as you know; our practice of magic is somewhat different.”

“I see. I’ve never seen anyone like you before.” She shifted again in a way that made her translucent robe flutter. “I can see by your face that you have depth. My animals all respond to you as to no one else save myself, that’s never happened before. You intrigue me.”

“Oh?” He stepped a little closer to her. “Usually it’s Godric who turns the lady’s heads.”

“You say that without rancor.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Godric is my sworn friend. What rancor would I bear him for his good looks?”

She smiled a lazy smile. “Your loyalty does you credit. Godric is well-favoured it’s true, but I’m drawn to men of a certain complexity, a certain depth, perhaps … a certain mystery or rarity.” She fluttered her lashes once more and gestured toward the doorway. “Will you join me?”

The next morning as they lazed about in the perpetually sunny courtyard, one of the ubiquitous servants came out from the door leading to the front entrance. He looked agitated. “Please Lady,” he said to Cleodna, “there’s been an accident with Fenton. He was climbing for apples and fell. He’s hurt bad. Please will you come?”

Cleodna sighed, and rose languidly from where she was half reclining in a wicker chair. “I will come,” she answered, sounding not especially concerned. “I’m sure you’d rather take your ease here,” she said to Helga, “but I know you are a healer also, and perhaps there will be something to interest you.”

“I will come,” Helga replied. Cleodna’s casual attitude suggested to Helga that perhaps the servants were prone to exaggeration, but when they’d left the house and walked around to the back where the apple orchard was, Helga saw that the man was truly in a bad way. He had hit his head, and his leg was twisted under him in an unnatural position. Salazar had followed them, curious to see Cleodna’s skill as a healer, and under Cleodna’s direction, he and another man turned the hapless Fenton on to his back. In the process of having his leg examined Fenton woke up, which was bad for everyone, and him most of all.

As his raw shouts of pain filled the air, Helga found herself backing up hastily before realizing what she was doing. She was shaking from head to foot, and memories of the day of the battle obliterated her view of the orchard. She found herself with her back to an apple tree. She clutched the rough bark in her hands, and tried to focus on the present moment.

Cleodna was crouched down by Fenton. She asked Salazar to hold Fenton still while she set the leg using magic. There was a terrible crunching sound as the bone slipped back into place, and the man cried out afresh.

As though shot from a bow, Helga darted forward to the case of potions and implements Cleodna had brought with her. Forgetting to ask Cleodna’s permission, Helga rifled through the case till she found a vial of potion for easing pain, removed the stopper, and carefully poured some into Fenton’s mouth. Almost immediately he relaxed, and his breath came more easily.

“Thank you,” Cleodna said to Helga. “I should have thought to do that first; it makes them easier to work on.” She conjured splints, and wrapped the man’s leg. She then turned her attention to his head wound. “This looks serious,” she said, considering the swelling. “I fear the bone may be fractured and pressing inward. Would you like to look?”

Rock steady now, Helga shifted her position and laid gentle hands over Fenton’s head. “Yes, you’re right.” She withdrew her hands, feeling the familiar twist of frustration in her gut when confronted with a wound she couldn’t heal.

Cleodna saw the disappointment on her face and said, “Have you never treated a case like this?”

“No, I didn’t know you could.”

“It is not simple, but it can be done. If you place your hands close to mine, can you follow me as I work?”

Helga considered, then lifted her hands once more to place them a few inches above Cleodna’s. Cleodna rested her hands with a feather touch on Fenton’s head, and both women closed their eyes.

Salazar was interested in what they were doing, but was soon distracted by an odd sound. It was a kind of roaring wine the like of which he’d never heard before. All attention was focused on Fenton, and no one observed Salazar quietly detach himself and go in search of the source. It took him some time to find it, and when he did, he stood transfixed with amazement.

In a clearing filled with grey boulders and charred tree stumps, was a tethered black dragon. The chain that held it was of some kind of treated iron. Around it lay the carcasses of many meals. Salazar supposed that some hapless villager must be charged with hunting for it and feeding it since it clearly wasn’t free to hunt for itself.

The dragon fixed Salazar with a slitted, fiery eye. Its pitiful groans subsided as it gazed at him. Salazar reached out tentatively with his mind. He’d never tried to communicate with any creature so fearsome, but he felt sympathy for it in its captivity. Doing his best to project tranquillity, he gradually oozed forward for a better look. The beast was fearsome; there was no doubt about that. He gazed at its fierce purple eyes, its rough scales, the shallow, raiser-sharp ridges on its back, the vicious looking arrow shaped, spiky tail, the massive, impotent wings folded against its sides, the flaming breath he was careful to keep up wind of. A grand creature, the noblest he’d ever laid eyes on, and held captive, for what? Salazar backed away slowly, not taking his eyes from the beast. Still attempting to calm it with his mind, he let himself melt back into the trees.

Retracing his steps, he returned to the apple orchard in time to help levitate Fenton into Cleodna’s house. Someone had conjured a pallet to keep him as still as possible during the move. They wafted him into a side chamber off the courtyard which was airy, but dim.

Helga offered to stay with him and watch, but Cleodna insisted that Fenton would sleep, and summoned one of her servants to sit by him and let her know if he seemed in distress. She laid a tender hand on Helga’s arm.

“You go and rest,” she said kindly. “That is demanding work for one not used to it. I must go see to our supper; I’ll have the cooks prepare something especially tempting for you.”

Helga watched as Cleodna glided smoothly away. “She is incredibly skilled,” she said to Salazar.

“Indeed,” he replied enigmatically.

Rowena was in the library with the three youngest members of their party. She had got permission from Cleodna to use a book of elementary spells and charms to teach them magic and reading. Helga passed the open door, feeling unequal to so much company. Salazar had followed Cleodna, and Helga found herself wandering aimlessly, feeling unaccountably restless. As she turned a corner, she was startled to see a room she’d not noticed before. It was a small armory. The walls were lined with a comprehensive array of blades, axes, spears and bows. Inside the room Godric sat, his jewelled sword on a table before him, and an oiled cloth in his hand. He looked up at the sound of her step.

“I heard what happened. I thought it would be better if I stayed out of the way. Will the man be all right?”

“I don’t know,” she said after serious consideration. “Cleodna practiced healing of a kind I’ve never seen before. She allowed me to learn from her. I…” Her voice trailed off. The sight of all the weapons was reviving the fear that had come to her in the orchard, before her instinct for healing drowned it. All those blades, the walls were covered with them, and they could … they had. She turned on her heel and left the room.

Dropping the sword on the table he leapt up to follow her. She was leaning against the wall facing away from the armory, and shaking.

“Helga my sister,” he said, shocked. “What ails you?”

“I hardly know,” she gasped. “When I saw Fenton on the ground and Cleodna crouching beside him, when I heard him … heard him scream, I was suddenly overcome by things … by things … things I saw and heard and did on the day of the battle. I shook like a leaf, and couldn’t move, and… all those blades…”

To her great surprise, he didn’t look surprised. “Yes,” he said quietly, “it can happen like that.”

“What do you mean?” She asked so pitifully that he put a consoling arm around her shoulder. “I … it was terrible enough on that day, why should it affect me in this way now?”

He sighed and pulled her closer protectively. “I don’t know why it should be so, only that it is so. I felt like that after my first battle, and I have seen others taken that way too. Maybe it is that some things are so bad, especially when you’re not used to them, that you can’t feel all the badness at once, or you’d be unable to do what you must do. I’ve only seen men taken this way, because, well, I’ve lived a soldier’s life, and battles are men’s affairs, usually. Most men, those who are soldiers anyway, seem to get used to it, but you’re not a soldier, and you saw and heard and did things that few women could or would do. You’re very brave.”

“I don’t feel brave,” she said, resting her head on his shoulder and surrendering to the trembling. “I feel frightened, as though it was all happening right now.”

“I know,” he said, filled with a vast tenderness for this funny, brave lady who worked so hard, cared so much, and felt so deeply. He had had to work through these reactions alone, and he longed to cushion her somehow.

She leaned against him, grateful for his comfort. The feeling reminded her of her father and brother who had always comforted and protected her when she was a girl. This was neither her father nor her brother however, and the comfort he gave was its own unique balm to her spirit.

That afternoon, finding her pupils restless, Rowena retrieved a scroll titled, Compendium of Uncanny Creatures. She took the book with them into the courtyard, and they set themselves to identify as many of Cleodna’s captive beasts as they could. Emmeline turned out to be the best at this. Of all of them, she had shown the most interest in the animals since their arrival.

“Oh!” She exclaimed, stopping before a caged bird with vivid plumage of orange, pink, lime green and yellow. “This is a Fwooper Bird!” She peered closely at the detailed illustration. “Yes, it’s native to Africa, and its quills are highly prized.”

“Indeed,” Rowena said, gazing covetously at the exotic, but oddly silent bird. “It looks like it’s cheeping, but makes no sound.”

Emmeline read on, haltingly but with enthusiasm, “’The song of the Fwooper bird is most pleasing, but most inefficacious to the listener, for if the bird-lover doth hark too long, then the bird lover shall assuredly part company with reason. Hence, anyone finding themselves in possession of this rare avian, can, with regular application of the silencing charm, thereby make the bird pleasing to the eye, but not fatal to the mind.’ Why can’t these writers just say what they mean?”

“But he has,” Rowena replied. “How wondrous. Perhaps Cleodna will remove the silencing charm for us later, for a moment or two.” She peered hopefully into the cage, but couldn’t see any molted feathers.

Emmeline was delighted to find an entry for what had become her favourite of all the rare animals. The creature was as big as herself, but gentle. It had large, rather sad looking black eyes, which were almost lost in its hair. This was of a silky silver-gray. There was quite a lot of it, and Cleodna had allowed Emmeline to open the cage door so that she could brush and groom it.

Emmeline read that the creature was called a demiguise, was native to the east, and that its hair is highly valued, “’being the stuff out of which one might weave a cloak of invisibility.’” Emmeline’s eyes were like stars. “So that’s why Cleodna asked me to keep the hair for her!”

“Why can’t we just open all the cage doors?” Cadogan asked.

“Firstly, because we’re guests,” Rowena answered primly, “and it’s not up to us to decide where the creatures may go. And Second, many of these creatures were brought here from foreign lands, and would not survive outside this courtyard.”

“Which ones couldn’t survive here?”

“Well, I’m not sufficiently versed in beast lore to know all, but you can usually tell by looking at something and judging whether it would look out of place. That Fwooper bird for example, you just know that’s not a creature that would thrive in our forests.”

Cadogan looked sullen. “I would let them all go anyway.”

“But Cadogan,” Rowena said a little impatiently, “many of these creatures would be harmed if you let them go. You can understand that.” Not an especially empathetic person, Rowena was confused by Cadogan’s preoccupation with freeing the animals, and gave it no more thought as they stopped in front of the cage of a giant snail. They had witnessed its dazzling properties before. Every hour, it made a spectacular display of itself by changing colour in a rapidly swirling kaleidoscope. Emmeline turned pages until she found the proper entry, informing them that the creature was called a streeler. They identified a runespoor, a three-headed African serpent; a snidget, a perfectly round golden bird with bizarre flying abilities; and a tebo, a warthog from the Congo, which kept appearing and disappearing, apparently at random. Though she wouldn’t have liked to admit it, even Rowena enjoyed herself.

The supper was in fact sumptuous. Afterward, everyone except Cleodna lounged in the warm dusk of the courtyard, lulled by the fountains, and the late chirping of captive birds. It was easy, in this exotic setting, to lose track of the outside world all together, to forget how damp or chilly or dangerous the outside world could be, or even that it was real at all.

“Where’s Cleodna?” Emmeline asked a little suspiciously.

“Bathing,” Helga answered.

“Again?” Cadogan asked scornfully. “She did that before supper too, so did you,” he said accusingly to Salazar.

“Being clean isn’t a crime,” Salazar remarked amiably. “You should try it sometime.”

“Boys and girls don’t bath together,” Aidan said accusingly.

Emmeline frowned and looked as though she was considering a caustic rejoinder, but Helga interposed smoothly, “What were you studying today in the library?”

Aidan was eager to show her. “Look!” He exclaimed. He jumped up and went to the small pond. He splashed the edge with his toe, and began to step in.

“Don’t do that!” Helga cried, “That nasty little beast will bight you!”

“Grindylow not grimyellow, watch this!” He splashed again, and there was a flash as the green creature reached fierce little arms out to wrap around Aidan’s ankle. Aidan raised his wand, pointed it at the grindylow, and said a word Helga didn’t recognize. Sparks shot from the end of his wand, and the grindylow was thrown back into the center of the pond.

“Well done Aidan,” Rowena said firmly, “but come out now. That spell was taught you to defend yourself, not so you could bate a creature who doesn’t threaten you.” Looking a little disappointed, Aidan stepped out of the pond and rejoined them, flopping down into a wicker chair.

“When are we leaving,” Cadogan said with a child’s directness.

No one spoke for a moment, then Rowena said, “Surely there’s no hurry. Cleodna’s library is a treasure trove. I myself have already learned much, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. The opportunity for teaching the children is a rare one and I think we should not waste it.”

“You said yesterday that Cleodna is a false scholar,” Cadogan said with his devastating honesty.

Rowena’s cheeks coloured slightly, but she said imperturbably, “Perhaps that is true, but an … indifferent scholar can still host a superb library.”

“I don’t think she’ll let us go,” Emmeline said unexpectedly.

“What nonsense,” Helga laughed. “Why or how would she stop us?”

“Look at those,” Cadogan said, gesturing expansively to all the caged creatures, and inadvertently knocking a porcelain figurine to the ground. “I bet she wants to keep us like them.” Rowena and Helga smiled indulgently, but Godric and Salazar didn’t.

“She’s given us nothing but open hospitality,” Helga said, “and she’s a remarkable healer. I too have learned, and would like to learn more.”

“You don’t think she’d try to hold us here?” Cadogan asked. “Let’s try telling her we’re thinking of leaving then and see what happens.”

Helga smiled and ruffled his hair. “You’ll do no such thing my lad. Remember your tender years, and leave such decisions to your elders. And now, I think it’s time for all three of you to be in bed. Off with you.” She lifted her wand and made Cleodna’s own tapping gesture, causing the sounding of the gentle bell. An attentive servant came quickly, and Helga said, “Do see that these three go directly to their beds please.”

When they had gone however, Salazar spoke up for the first time. “I think Cadogan might be right. I think we should do as he suggests and see what happens.” Godric didn’t look as surprised as either of the women had expected, and so they agreed.

Chapter 18: Revelations in the Bright Sun

 

Cleodna took it as Helga and Rowena had supposed she would. “Oh, I’ll be so sorry to see you go,” she said warmly. “I have so enjoyed your company.”

“And we your hospitality,” Helga said, thinking of Cleodna’s art as a healer, and perhaps the bath house. “It has been wonderful to rest from the road, and you are an extraordinary witch.”

“You flatter me,” Cleodna said. “There is so much else I would like to discuss with you of healing. If you could only stay; you have as much to teach me as I you, but I understand, your road lies to the north, not into this place.” She turned to Rowena. “You know,” she said reflectively, “I would be honored if you were to choose a book from my library to take with you, as my gift.”

Rowena was dazzled. Ownership of books was rare, and she felt privileged to own one. The idea of owning two was dizzying. She was at a loss for words, which she hated.

Cleodna smiled. “I admit it, I’m not a true scholar, despite my library, not like you. To be honest,” she added confidingly, “I sometimes fear the books rather go to waste here with no one to appreciate them, read them, pass on their knowledge to younger witches and wizards.” Her eyes drifted to Emmeline, Cadogan and Aidan, who were at that moment using magic to have a spectacular water fight from a fountain.

Rowena rubbed her index finger on the bridge of her nose, watching the high-spirited play with mild disapproval. With access to such a library, she thought, those children should be spending every moment taking advantage of it, as she herself had been doing.

“I understand that your mysterious errand is one of honor, and I would never try to dissuade you from completing it, but is it an urgent matter, or could you perhaps stay some time longer? Learning is precious, and in turbulent times such as these, sanctuaries for learning are scarce indeed. Oh, do forgive me, if you are truly ready to leave then of course you shall. I say these things because I myself wish you to stay.” She flicked a slightly disparaging glance at the childrens’ antics. “It would be a shame if you had to leave before Aidan mastered that exposition on Greek grammar though; I know how eager you are for the children to get a basic grounding.”

Rowena considered. “Well, Aidan is coming along.” She looked inquiringly at Godric and Salazar. “It is a vanishingly rare opportunity,” she said persuasively.

“And I would like the chance to observe the entire distilling process of the bone knitting potion Cleodna has been brewing,” Helga said, “and that will take some days. Our errand isn’t urgent.”

“I thought we were resolved to depart,” Godric said a little mulishly.

Under cover of her wide skirts, Cleodna found Salazar’s foot with her own, and pressed it encouragingly. “A few more days can hardly matter I think,” he said complacently.

He raised his sleeve and allowed Madella to slither out, and onto the sun-warmed stones. This was a treat she especially liked. Cleodna’s eyes rested on the snake, with only lightly veiled covetousness. On her first sight of the snake, she had exclaimed at its size and markings. She had inspected Madella closely, showing none of the fear the snake usually aroused. In fact, after a careful and avid examination, she had begun trying to tempt Salazar to part with her. Salazar had no intention of doing so, no matter the lure, but he pretended interest, just to se what she might have to offer. He would have given a lot for the unicorn hair, but he shook his head sadly. “She is not a pet.” He said simply, “and she is not for sale.” Cleodna never lost interest in Madella however, and would invite the snake to wind itself about her any time Salazar let Madella loose.

Aidan ran to Cleodna’s side. He’d developed quite a fondness for her, and liked to be near her. He was almost dancing with delight. “I saw another grindylow in the pond! You didn’t tell me there was more than one!”

“You didn’t ask,” she said merrily, tucking his hand fondly into her elbow. “You didn’t use your wand on it, did you?”

“No,” he replied regretfully.

“You’re to depart after all,” she said sadly. His face fell. “But not until you’ve mastered that exposition you like so much, that one on Greek grammar.”

“That’s so boring! Can’t I study the book on Hebridean hexes?”

Godric reached out and gave Aidan a solid thump on the head. “It’s Greek grammar for you my lad, and if I find you slacking off your studies I’ll hold your head in the pond till the grindyllows swim up your nose: you hear?”

Aidan squirmed. “I hear,” he said, secretly pleased by Godric’s roughhousing.

“Helga,” Cleodna said rising, “I must see to the next stage of the distillation. Will you come?” As Cleodna passed, she brushed Salazar’s hand with hers. “I’ll be in the bath house before supper,” she murmured for his ears alone.

It didn’t take Cadogan long to discover the small armory. He was awash with excitement, and every morning found he and Godric in the courtyard practice-fighting. Godric was beginning to fear that Cadogan was irretrievably clumsy. Every day Godric drilled him in exercises for balancing the body, but they didn’t seem to help. The boy’s enthusiasm was limitless however, and Godric was patient, curious to see what persistence might achieve.

Helga was careful to be elsewhere when these lessons were taking place. This wasn’t difficult. Her work in Cleodna’s still room was absorbing, and they had an inexhaustible supply of stories to share about maladies and injuries they’d cured, or failed to cure.

On one such morning, Cleodna looked at Helga with concern and said, “Your eyes are red. Are you not sleeping well?”

Helga looked away. “Well no, I’ve been troubled by nightmare. The day of the battle … I tried to help as many as I could and … it was terrible.”

Cleodna looked sympathetic. “I know,” she said quietly. “I have seen such things too in my years as a healer. Oh, the battles I’ve seen …” her eyes looked haunted. “It will get easier. Do your companions suffer likewise?”

“No,” Helga said, “at least I don’t think so. Rowena is so calm and controlled, and Godric, well, he said he once felt as I do, but that he, well, got used to it I suppose, just as you say.”

“yes, one can see that Godric is a man who’s experienced much in his life as a soldier.” Cleodna’s face clouded, and she hesitated, but then asked diffidently, “Do you think all is well between him and Salazar?”

Helga looked at her in great surprise. “Yes of course! What do you mean?”

Cleodna fiddled with her distilling equipment, looking ill at ease. “Perhaps I shouldn’t say anything. I just thought Godric seemed, well, I don’t know him of course, but I’ve heard you refer to him as a lively, merry sort, but he doesn’t seem particularly so to me. I just wondered if there was some difficulty between him and Salazar. I mean, that is a great thing for Godric to forgive.”

“Forgive?” Helga asked, completely at sea.

“You know, Godric’s wound.” Cleodna looked suddenly shocked. “You knew of course.”

“Knew what?”

Cleodna looked uncertain now. “Oh dear, maybe I shouldn’t have said anything; It didn’t occur to me you had secrets from one another.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh, no really,” Cleodna was fidgeting now. “You should ask Salazar, I mean … I shouldn’t …” She looked distressed. “I see so few people that I fear I’ve lost a sense for … when to speak and when …”

“Cleodna, just tell me what you are talking about!”

Cleodna exhaled gustily. “Well, Godric’s wound, it was Salazar’s doing. I thought he’d told you, I mean the four of you are so close.”

“Salazar’s doing? Salazar takes up blade only to cut his meat unless he is forced to it. Godric was injured on the practice field, and the blade was poisoned, so that his wound didn’t heal properly.”

“Oh,” Cleodna said vaguely.

“What is it?”

“That man’s hand didn’t slip by accident,” Cleodna said almost reluctantly. “Salazar made it happen with magic. He … Godric wanted to fight, he didn’t care who. He was deeply troubled in his mind, and Salazar wanted a way to simply remove Godric from the field, to save him from a choice that might have destroyed him.”

“Salazar told you this?”

“No. We were speaking of Godric, and I … I saw it in his mind. It is an ability that I can’t always control, and sometimes it shows me things I’d rather not see, and then sometimes I say things out of turn, as I have just done.”

Cleodna looked upset, and Helga was reminded forcibly of Odo, cursed to see too much and filter too little. She took a deep breath and let it out. “I didn’t know, and I’m sure no one else knew either. Godric will …” her face wore an arrested expression. “I know not what he will do.”

“I wish I hadn’t said anything.” Cleodna began stacking filtering cloths into a neat pile. “I’m sorry. Please try to forget it.”

“Forget it? How could I possibly do that?”

“Well at least say nothing about it. I don’t wish to be the cause of trouble.”

But Helga was deeply troubled. She detested knowing things that were secret. It had been the one dark spot on her friendship with Odo: the things he told her about others, which no one else, sometimes including the people themselves, knew. As she helped Cleodna to straighten things after their work, she puzzled over what to do. She wandered about until she found herself in the door of the library.

Salazar had taken on the responsibility of ensuring that Aidan was indeed working hard at his Greek grammar. Pretending to be merely passing the time, but secretly studying with focused determination, Salazar spent his hours as Aidan did. Rowena, observing him in sidelong glances as she tutored the young ones, approved of his dedication. Though initially skeptical of scholarship, he seemed to have developed a true appreciation for it. Well, if he spent most of his time deciphering books of curses and hexes rather than treatises on philosophy or rhetoric, at least he was studying something other than Cleodna’s masterwork. Rowena flicked a contemptuous glance over at the book, which maintained its pride of place as the only permanent fixture of the table.

Helga passed on restlessly. She prowled around, thinking about what Cleodna had said. The druidess was right about one thing; Godric still seemed troubled. Surely he didn’t know, but shouldn’t he know?

She was startled by the sound of a harp being played in the music room. It didn’t sound like Godric, the only one of them who could play. Curious, she followed the sound. Peering in through the door, she saw, of all people, Emmeline, an expression of almost painful concentration on her face as she played a pretty song on the large standing harp. Helga let her eyelids drop and listened. The song wasn’t complex or elaborate, but the girl played it with admirable feeling.

When the song was finished, Godric, who sat near by, applauded. “That was beautiful! I had no idea you could do that.”

“It’s the only song I know,” Emmeline replied almost shyly. “I sneaked into the music room of the knight Gervais sometimes, and one day the music master caught me. Instead of punishing me he offered to teach me if I promised not to let it get in the way of my work, and not to tell anyone. There haven’t been instruments around lately.”

“But there was Helga’s harp! She’d be only too glad for you to play it.”

Emmeline was startled. “Oh no, not to play for people, I just like to do it for myself.”

“Well just as you say,” Godric said in his easy way, “but it’s a shame not to play at all when you can play like that.”

Emmeline felt colour come into her cheeks. She didn’t know how to react to Godric. He was a good-looking man that was sure, but he didn’t look at her the way men usually did.

Just then Godric looked around and saw Helga. “Ah, I suppose you heard our secret harpist.”

Helga came into the room. “I won’t tell anyone if you don’t wish it,” she said to Emmeline, “but this harp is much larger and more beautiful than mine. It would be a shame not to play it if you could, when we’re all off somewhere else if you prefer. I suppose that’s what you started out by doing?”

“Yes, Godric heard me and came, and persuaded me to continue. I’ll go now.” Confused and embarrassed, Emmeline scurried away.

Helga flopped down with a sigh into one of the deep arm chairs.

“Still troubled by dreams?” Godric asked with a glance at her expression.

“Well yes, but that’s not …” She sighed again, this one coming up by the roots. She hated secrets. “I’ve just had a disturbing conversation with Cleodna,” she said in her practical way. “She told me that she can see into the minds of others, as Salazar can do. She says it happens sometimes when she doesn’t expect it. She says she saw in Salazar’s mind that he was the cause of your wound. He wanted to keep you from fighting, and so caused the blade of your opponent to slip. He didn’t know the blade was poisoned, he only meant to …” Her voice trailed off as she saw the thundercloud forming on Godric’s face.

He sat quite still. Helga was suddenly reminded of the griffin, more specifically its lion aspect. With his golden hair, the leashed strength of his agile body, and now the expression simmering on his face, he resembled nothing so much as a dangerous cat in the moment before it springs. She watched in fascination as one of his baby fingers moved unconsciously, as a cat’s tail will twitch ever so slightly as it contemplates its prey.

Then, with the swiftness of a great cat he was on his feet. He strode purposefully from the room. Helga followed as he went into the armory. He chose a long dagger and an ax, turned on his heel, and went into the library. His thunderous expression brought immediate silence. He stood before Salazar and said authoritatively, “In the courtyard this minute if you please.”

“Godric,” Helga said warningly, but it was as though he couldn’t hear her. Without watching to see the affect of his words, he left them. Shrugging, Salazar rose and followed, the others trailing behind.

In the courtyard, Godric flung the weapons down and said formally to Salazar, “Choose.”

Salazar laughed aloud. “Choose what? What is this about?”

“It has become clear to me that you have no honor, but surely you are man enough to defend yourself: choose!”

“Godric I’m not going to fight you,” Salazar said, trying to keep his tone light in the face of Godric’s fury, “tell me what this is about.”

Godric snarled, “This is about my wound, the wound that nearly killed me with fever, the wound I suffered on the practice field, the wound that I thought my fault, the wound that kept me flat on my back during the battle. Do you deny that you were its cause? Do you deny that you caused my opponents blade to slip?”

Salazar cleared his throat. “No, I don’t deny it.”

“Then choose your weapon and defend yourself, or are you too much the coward?”

Godric had deliberately chosen the most offensive words he could think of. Had someone questioned his own bravery they would have had a demonstration then and there, but Salazar wasn’t Godric, and so stood apparently unmoved, running fingers through his narrow beard.

“It would not be courage that would make me fight you, but stupidity. You are my sworn friend, and a formidable fighter besides. I’m not going to fight you. But think Godric. If you hadn’t been injured, who would you have fought for? Did you not wonder why a simple flesh wound should have taken you as it did? There was poison on the spear point of your opponent. I warned you that William would probably try to kill you rather than be forced to repay you the money he owed you, and I was right. If I hadn’t acted as I did, William would have certainly found a way to make an end of you one way or another. The night we took you to Helga’s cottage, William had sent his physician with a poisoned draft: did you know that? And if not for your wound, we would not have met Helga or Rowena. Do you wish you had fought with William’s army to invade your home? Do you wish you’d fought with Harold and been killed? Do you wish you still lived as a muggle hiding your true nature?”

Godric hissed through his teeth. “I give you three seconds to choose a weapon and defend yourself, or by all the gods I’ll choose one and …!” He lunged forward and seized the hilt of the dagger.

“Godric no!” Rowena shouted. She sprang forward and caught his arm. “You must not!” He froze in place with an effort that made his lips go white. “Whatever Salazar has done he did for a reason. I know you’re angry but you must not do this!” Her face was close to his, and she too was shouting in her distress. “He is your sworn friend, and you are mine. You cannot destroy what the four of us have made.”

“I?” He shouted back incredulously, “I’m not the one who … who lied, who manipulated …” Words failed him and he shook off her restraining hand, brandishing the blade in Salazar’s face. Even through his fury, Godric registered that Salazar didn’t flinch.

“You speak of manipulation,” Salazar said implacably, “but you yourself helped me to turn the wind so that William must wait to cross the channel. Was that not the same thing?”

“No, it was not!” Godric said explosively. “You are my friend, or so I thought. You listened while I blamed myself for that wound and you said nothing. You deceived me, treated me like a child incapable of choosing his own actions. I don’t accept such treatment from my enemies, much less from someone who called himself friend.” Godric raised the dagger menacingly.

“Are you going to kill me?” Salazar asked calmly. “I stand before you unarmed.”

Helga spoke from behind Godric. “Godric stop. Salazar is right. You were willing to shape events much more important than one man’s wound. You seized the winds and you enjoyed the power of it. Salazar may have acted unwisely, but he did so in your own best interest. None of us wanted you to bear the burden of which side to fight on in the battle, and all of us love you as our friend. How could you wish all of that undone?”

There was a terrible, tense silence. Godric spun to the side and hurled the dagger to the ground. “For the sake of the friendship that is between us four,” he hissed, “I will not kill you, but hear me now Salazar. No one who is a friend to me will practice such deception twice. You cannot use thievery and deception to get what you want, and expect all around you to turn away as though we don’t see. I don’t like lies, and I don’t like steeling from the dead either.”

Salazar felt his own anger rising, a process aided by the discarding of the dagger. “You may keep your high principles if they please you, but if not for my tactics, we might both be dead by now.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You don’t even remember do you? All that gold you offered the Duke; where did it come from? I procured it, that’s where. You curled your lip when I told you I’d acquired it from goblins, but you took it. And when the dust settled you never even thought about it. Do you know what goblins do when you don’t repay debts to them? I’ll tell you. They start by threatening you, then they threaten the people you care about, even the wounded ones. If you don’t pay them, then they start by hurting your friends. While you lay recovering from that minor wound, I was trying to save us from being killed by vengeful goblins. While you kept your hands clean, I found the means to repay them and make them leave us alone. You never even thought about that debt, did you?”

“No, you’re right, I didn’t. I was never comfortable with borrowing from goblins.”

“And yet you took the gold, for your own purposes.”

“And how did you pay them back?”

Salazar hesitated, but the truth seemed the simplest course. “I found out where some valuables had been hidden, and liberated them.”

“You stole to pay them?”

“I merely beat William’s army to it. They would have uncovered the hiding place, the church had no strong box, the valuables were simply placed in a badly concealed niche. Where would they do most good, in the hands of William’s soldiers, or saving our lives?”

“Merlin’s beard!” Godric exclaimed. “You truly have no honor.”

“That’s not so,” Salazar replied with some heat. “I did those things to save your life, because you are my sworn friend. I laboured beside Helga to save men I cared nothing for, because it mattered to her. I am on this journey to honor Odo and carry him home, and I will lay down my life for yours, for any of you, without a second thought.”

“You know he speaks the truth,” Rowena said placatingly to Godric. “His way of doing things isn’t like yours, but surely you can see he acted from the best motives.”

Godric still looked thunderous, but he took a few steps away from Salazar. “Never deceive me again,” he said in a hard and bitter tone. “Never deny me the power to choose my own course, and I will try to forget what has been said here today.” He turned on his heel and, without looking back, strode angrily from the courtyard.

Chapter 19: An Unwelcome Family Reunion

 

The next morning found Godric in the courtyard with the children. Feeling especially combative, he’d gone to the library and coopted them, to their delight, from under Rowena’s nose. He’d had an idea born of the frustration he’d experience trying to teach Cadogan fighting skills. The boy seemed incapable of the balance and coordination necessary to make a competent knight. However, lying awake on the previous evening, Godric’s mind dwelt unwillingly over the time of his friendship with Salazar. He remembered the little magical contests with which they’d sought to pass tedious hours waiting to sail with William’s army.

Godric had spent some time in the library too. He’d taught himself several spells and charms for fighting an enemy with magic, and he now set about teaching the children what he’d learned. He faced the three of them, instructing them to do their worst. It wasn’t as satisfying as thrashing around with a sword, but it did take the edge off. Rowena sat off to one side with a book in her lap. She had no wish to join in, but she took a clinical interest. Salazar watched with approval, but he was careful to stay out of Godric’s line of sight.

While simultaneously maintaining a shield around himself to guard against the hexes the three children sent erratically toward him, Godric caught Aydan with a well-aimed curse that caused an enormous rack of antlers to appear fully formed on his forehead. Aydan’s head fell forward as the weight began to pull him to the ground. Cadogan and Emmeline shrieked with laughter. Godric took advantage of their distraction by catching Emmeline with a hopping hex, but over-confidence caused him to let down his guard, and Cadogan surprised him with a jelly-legs jinx. As he and Emmeline tried to get control of themselves, Cadogan whooped with delight, and promptly tripped on an uneven flagstone.

Just then there was a commotion. On one wall, it turned out that a mural depicting nymphs and satyrs, concealed a wide door which led out to the village. Two women from the village were leading a creature on a long rope, and when the three children saw it, they rushed over, their practice duel forgotten. At the end of the rope, not struggling but not making it easy for its handlers, came a unicorn. Unlike the one already resident in the courtyard, this one was not pure white, but had a silvery sheen. They all knew from their study of the Compendium of Uncanny Creatures, that this meant it was not fully mature yet.

The women led the reluctant creature to the fenced off enclosure where the purely white unicorn was housed. The children followed closely, Emmeline and Aydan trying to pet the creature, and Cadogan looking stormy.

Cleodna soon followed, coming through the smaller door that led to the entrance of the house. Her green eyes were bright with excitement. She came to Aydan’s side, tucking his hand into her elbow, and smiling in a proprietary way as the young unicorn was led into the enclosure. “Isn’t it beautiful?” She said to Aydan. “Such a rare find! I’m so hoping that in a few years I might have a baby unicorn. Wouldn’t you love to see that? And I have another surprise for you young Aydan.”

“What?”

She laughed indulgently. “Not yet young master. You’ll have to wait for supper to find out.”

Separated by the length of the courtyard, and not looking at one another, Godric and Salazar both watched the proceedings. Both noticed something about the women leading the creature. They were not young women. They handled the unicorn competently and as kindly as possible under the circumstances. But what both men noticed particularly was that each woman bore a subtle resemblance to Cleodna: something about the shape of the eyes, and their vivid green color. They both noticed it, and neither knew what it might mean.

Cleodna’s surprise at supper was the addition of another house guest, and it didn’t have quite the affect she’d anticipated. When they joined her at the magically enlarged supper table, it was to find her seated next to a rather stringy looking man with an extremely pale complexion. When Rowena saw him she stopped in her tracks, and when Aydan saw him, the boy cried out in shock, “uncle Draugur!”

Cleodna looked on indulgently, not at first seeing Rowena’s reaction. Cleodna’s eyes were on Aydan, but his face wore a complex expression, not the joy she had expected.

She looked to Rowena, hoping for some way to smooth over the moment. “Draugur has told me that not only is he Aydan’s uncle, but that he is a great admirer of yours as well.” Taking in Rowena’s intense discomfort, she cleared her throat a little awkwardly, and turned her eyes to the others. As graciously as possible, she introduced Draugur as a friend.

“Draugur and I have known one another for many years. He occasionally visits me here, and often brings me rare creatures to add to my magical menagerie. He has a unique speed and stealth. It was he who brought me my snidget.”

“A particularly difficult catch,” Draugur said in his serious way. He had a trencher of what looked like raw meat before him, and was cutting it up into very small pieces. Helga and Godric did their best to cover up the awkward tensions running around the table, and Salazar sat, quiet and cat-watchful. It was an uneasy supper all round.

Later, when Cleodna and Draugur had retired to the bath house, the seven of their party gathered in the courtyard.

“Tell me about your uncle,” Helga said kindly to Aydan.

“Well,” Aydan said, looking at the ground, “he’s my uncle, my mother’s brother.”

Helga thought she understood the trouble, but kept her tone light. “Did he live with you?”

“Well no, not really. My father was a peddler, and sometimes uncle Draugur travelled with us … helping out.”

Aydan seldom spoke of his parents. He maintained with confidence that his mother was safe in the north, but never referred to his father, and turned conversation away from his family. Taking pity on him, understanding that Draugur’s presence was an uncomfortable reminder of those absent, Rowena spoke.

“He was with Aydan’s parents when I travelled east with them. Aydan’s mother said that he came with them sometimes to help with the heavy work but …” Her voice trailed away. She was reluctant to speak her suspicions in front of Aydan, and the other children too if it came to that.

“He looks none too healthy,” Godric observed. “Is he ill do you think?”

“He looked like that when we travelled together,” Rowena said, and shivered.

“He always looks like that,” Aydan mumbled uncomfortably, “but then sometimes he looks really red, like he’s been running or something, always after he comes back from … well he goes off on his own a lot.”

Helga looked like she was doing some fast thinking, but she said nothing.

Finally, Rowena abandoned caution. “I am afraid of him. I didn’t like the way he used to look at me. I certainly wouldn’t like to think of him as an admirer. Travelling with him, I began to suspect that he’s,” even having made up her mind, she found it impossible to speak the word, saying instead, “I began secretly carrying garlic and hawthorn, and he started leaving me alone.”

Helga’s mouth was an O of astonishment. “One of those, in the same house as …” her gaze swept their party with concern. “This isn’t good.”

“Why would Draugur bring Cleodna creatures that are so valuable, and so difficult to catch? What’s in it for him?” Salazar asked.

The calculating expression returned to Helga’s face. “You don’t think she gives him … gives him … lets him …”

“I’m afraid so,” Salazar replied reluctantly. “There’s definitely complicity between them. I couldn’t get it all, they both have very guarded minds, but he brought her the unicorn with expectation of something in return, something he wants very badly.”

“I think it’s time we were on our way,” Helga said in a business-like tone.

“That would be a good idea,” Godric replied, “but I went to check on the horses this afternoon, and each and every one is suffering mysteriously from some kind of hoof-rot.”

“What?” Helga exclaimed in distress. “I thought you checked on them regularly.”

“I do. The problem came on with uncommon suddenness.”

“I’m beginning to fear you and Salazar may have been right,” Rowena said to Godric. “I think she doesn’t want to let us go.”

“I said that first,” Cadogan said a little petulantly. He knew Rowena thought him slow, and was always eager to impress her when he could.

But it was Helga who reached out a hand and ruffled his hair. “You did,” she said consolingly, “and we should have listened to you. But if the horses aren’t fit to travel, what will we do?”

Salazar stood up. “We will leave tonight,” he said implacably. “All of you act normally with Cleodna this evening. Go to bed as though you suspect nothing, but gather your belongings and be ready when I come for you.”

All save Godric tried to ask Salazar what he planned to do, but he refused to answer, saying he had much to prepare, and hurrying from the courtyard. Godric frowned after him. “Salazar always seems to have a plan,” Godric said darkly, “and his plans are rarely simple or straightforward.”

Helga looked troubled, but Rowena said placidly, “His plans have never yet led us astray. His ways are devious it’s true. He is very different from you Godric, but do not seek to change him, for that is a course which can bring only trouble to both of you.”

The first of them to be bundled from his chamber by Salazar was Cadogan. It was no small feat to extract the boy without waking Aydan, but Salazar managed it, drawing the small boy into the courtyard before imparting the first phase of his plan. When Cadogan heard it, he beamed with pleasure, and actually bounced on the balls of his feet in eagerness to be about his task.

Next, Salazar woke Godric, Helga and Rowena. In a hoarse whisper, he bid them gather their belongings, round up Aydan and Emmeline, and follow him to the courtyard. There, they discovered an incredible sight. The wide door that had admitted the young unicorn, stood open. Through it ran, shambled, skulked, slithered, crept, darted and flew a veritable arc of magical creatures. Cadogan, like a demented leprechaun, was flitting from cage to cage, unbarring doors and opening enclosures.

Helga opened her mouth to speak, but Salazar raised an imperious hand. “Not one word,” he hissed. “We’re going to do this my way, and talk it out later.”

Salazar and Cadogan were making a careful visual survey of the courtyard in the moonlight. Salazar fixed his eye on the unicorns, and began moving in a herding pattern which urged them toward the open door. Giving the older one an encouraging pat on the rump, he sent them out into the night, and closed the door quietly behind them. He gave a signal to Cadogan, who sped around the courtyard releasing all the other creatures who had not yet been freed. Helga saw that these were the rarest and most exotic, creatures who stood little hope of surviving in the forests of Britain.

When all the cages had been opened, Salazar swept their party silently toward the much smaller door leading into the entrance of the house. Stealthily, they made their way out into the notably chilly night. The air in the courtyard had been warm, and the sky had been bright with moonlight, but outside, clouds intermittently obscured the moon, and a light mist made visibility a real problem. Nonetheless, Salazar led them patiently and quietly.

They slid around the house, avoiding the village, and heading toward the woods. It was clear that Salazar was leading somewhere specific, but none of them had any idea where. Salazar stopped suddenly, causing Rowena to walk into him. She suppressed a grunt of discomfort, and stood still, listening. There was a rustling of dead leaves off to their right. They all stood as still as they could. Salazar and Godric, experienced hunters, drew together to confer, but there was no further sound, so, concluding that it had been merely a small forest animal, they continued on their way.

Their way seemed long. All began to be cold, and to doubt that Salazar still knew where he was going, but then they all began to see a dim, unsteady glow in the distance. It was like the glow of firelight, but irregular, and too high in the air. Godric was beginning to think that perhaps they were about to stumble into range of some strange watch tower, when the light ahead grew suddenly clearer, and the trees before them came to an end.

All had been diligently silent as Salazar had demanded, but several of them gave involuntary gasps, ranging from terrified to jubilant. Salazar had led them unerringly to the clearing, where languished, in all its raiser-backed, purple-eyed, fire-breathing splendor, Cleodna’s captive dragon.

Salazar stopped them at a good distance. He spoke quietly, but with an intensity that kept them from interrupting, they were anyway too shocked to speak. “I have been visiting this dragon daily for some time. I believe I can control it sufficiently to allow us to ride it out of here. I’ve levitated Odo from the corner of the stable, and he’s resting over there. I need to concentrate on keeping yon beast still, while the rest of you levitate him onto the dragon’s back, and secure him there. After that, you must all try to aid me in subduing the dragon sufficiently so that we’re not flung off, or devoured. Once we’ve mounted, we will cast a shattering spell on those iron links, and we’ll be far from here before you can say ‘freed dragon’.”

There was a stunned silence, then Rowena burst out, “Salazar you are out of your mind! I’ve defended you before, but this is absolutely …!”

“Keep your voice down,” Godric hissed. “Whatever we’re going to do, the last thing we need is Cleodna or her minions finding us here.”

“You can’t possibly be considering doing as he says!” Rowena exclaimed.

“Yes!” Cadogan and Aydan exploded joyfully.

“Quiet you,” Helga snarled at them, then turned to Rowena. “What do you propose we do?”

“Go back to the house, talk this all out, wait for the horses to recover, then …”

“You wish to spend another night in a house with a vampire?” Helga burst out. “You know what he is, and it looks very much like Cleodna has an arrangement with him, the Goddess only knows what it is.”

Rowena didn’t speak, and in a flash of light from the dragon’s breath, all saw the expression of fear on her face as she gazed at the captive beast.

“Do you think I am not afraid?” Helga demanded. “We would be mad not to be. But Rowena, you’ve … you’ve walked through armies, you’ve tricked your way through enemy soldiers, you’ve summoned the raven, you’ve crossed through the forest of Andredsweald! Will you spend your life here with your wings clipped, Draugur’s teeth at your throat and Cleodna’s knife at your back, captive like that dragon, for the sake of safety and a few books, or will you honor your word, and ride a dragon?”

“We can’t go back,” Salazar added pragmatically. “She’ll know who freed all those creatures. Look at that beast,” he gestured toward the dragon. “Does a creature so noble deserve to be imprisoned merely for the amusement of one like Cleodna? It’s the right thing to do.”

Rowena inhaled perhaps the deepest breath of her life so far, and said matter-of-factly, “the sticking spell from Sophid’s, Charms of the Carpenter. Godric and Helga, if you will levitate Odo and find a suitable spot, I will stand back a bit to work the charm. You,” she indicated the boys and Emmeline, “stay right here, don’t move, and don’t do anything.” Bossing the children seemed to give her fresh heart, and she stepped forward firmly, leading the others.

Salazar stood, his eyes half closed, focused on his rapport with the dragon. He was able to keep it half asleep as the others approached. Helga made Odo’s basket visible, and together she and Godric used their wands to guide it up on to the dragon’s back.

Unable to see clearly however, Godric was eventually forced to climb up the scaled body to find a flat surface. This was no casual feat. The dragon had raiser-sharp spines protruding from its back, and this left little that you’d call safe footing. Between them, Godric from the dragon’s back, and Helga from the ground, maneuvered the basket into a flattish spot between the ends of two vicious spines. They called in the darkness for Rowena, but there was no answer.

Hanging back at a safe distance, Rowena watched in the patchy light, as Godric and Helga worked. She heard no sound beside her, but before she knew it, her wand arm had been pinioned against her side, and a hard hand clamped over her mouth. Her wand fell to the ground, and a man’s forearm was pushed against her throat, making her feel dizzy, and as though she was about to fall. The man began dragging her back toward the deeper darkness of the wood.

Stealthy enough on his own, Draugur was less adept at silence while dragging off pray. From where they stood watching the dragon, Aydan, Emmeline and Cadogan heard them. “Lumos,” Emmeline hissed, and light was cast over the shocking spectacle.

“Accio Rowena!” Cadogan roared. Though bravely meant, the charm wasn’t very effective. Rowena’s body did jerk a bit though, which distracted Draugur just long enough for Aydan’s cry of “Stupefy!” Draugur lurched backward, losing his grip on Rowena. The spots before her eyes disappeared, but she slid to the ground. The three young people gazed around frantically, but just as Aydan opened his mouth to call out for help, Emmeline grabbed his arm fiercely. “Don’t call out,” she said between her teeth. “If Salazar loses his concentration, that dragon will wake up!”

Draugur was beginning to stir. The three looked wildly around for inspiration, and Cadogan’s eye fell on the iron links tethering the dragon. They were attached to a heavy stake that had been driven into the ground. Buoyed by his earlier success, Cadogan raised his wand, pointed it, and said, “accio stake!” Just as Emmeline and Aydan hissed “No!”

The stake rose from the ground, dirt clinging to it in clumps, and hurtled toward them. Realizing one of the plan’s drawbacks immediately, Cadogan saw that, while the stake had pulled free of the iron links, it was now heading straight for him, rather than Draugur.

“The shield charm!” Emmeline gasped, and together they raised their wands. Focusing ferociously on Salazar’s admonitions about bringing the will of your intent to bear on your magic, Emmeline concentrated as hard as she could. The sharp point of the heavy stake was flying toward them with deadly force. At the last second, it deflected off their shield, passed them, went through the chest of the vampire, and embedded itself once more in the ground.

At this point, another drawback of his plan became evident. The removal of the stake had sent a vibration through the iron links, which communicated itself to where the chain was bound around the dragon’s rear leg. At the same time, the deadly missile flying through the air passed him, distracted Salazar from his rapport with the beast. The dragon twitched alarmingly, and Godric waved his arms about like a windmill, trying desperately to keep his footing.

Until this point, all had been moving quietly, stealthily. Now, all caution was abandoned, and pandemonium reigned. “Rowena! Now!” Godric bellowed. Picking herself up hastily from the ground, Rowena ran toward the dragon. She focused on Godric and the basket in the flickering light, and brandished her wand, fixing the basket to one strong, black scale. The basket secure, Godric reached down for Helga. The dragon was becoming more alert. In desperation, Helga leapt upward, even levitating herself a few feet, and caught Godric’s hand. He pulled her beside him, leaving her to find a purchase as he turned back for the others. “Come now!” He roared. His voice was an irritant to the dragon, who lifted its head, and breathed a cloud of grumpy fire.

“Your robe!” Cadogan yelled to Emmeline. Turning her head, she saw that the back of her robe had been touched by the flames they had barely dodged. She panicked, and began jumping up and down in distress, but Cadogan hadn’t been raised in poor and highly flammable huts for nothing. He ran at her and toppled her to the ground, wrestling her into a frenzied roll until her robe was extinguished.

“Oh, come on!” Aydan screamed, pulling at them, and the three of them ran to where Godric was beckoning urgently. One by one he pulled, tugged and grappled them on to the dragon’s back. This was getting harder by the second, because the beast was growing increasingly restless.

Salazar stood rigid, his face a mask of concentration as he tried to keep the dragon passive enough for them all to clamber to what could hardly be called safety. Finally, only he remained. So strong was his rapport by now however, that he merely stood like a statue, feeling dragonish feelings, thinking dragonish thoughts, and anticipating how glorious it would feel when he finally spread his wings and left this smothering captivity behind. The others bellowed his name repeatedly, but he heard nothing.

With a luxurious feeling of freedom, he wriggled, stretched, shifted experimentally, let out a fiery plume of triumph that lit the night sky, spread his wings, and leapt into the air.

As his powerful back legs pushed off from the ground, he was unaware of the stick figure man standing rigid and still on the ground. Hoarse with shouting, Godric raised his wand in one hand, clinging desperately to the edge of a black scale with the other, and cried out, “accio Salazar!” Seeing what he was about, all the others did as he had done, and to their mutual amazement, it worked. Salazar was lifted from the ground, and shot toward them, impacting Godric’s stomach with his shoulder, and knocking the wind out of him. Hands reached desperately to steady them, and in a chaos of limbs, bodies, scales, robes and wind-blown hair, they were off!

Later, every male present would assert fiercely that they had met the wild moment of their ascent with stoic composure, but as the huge black dragon rose at last from its long captivity into the crisp and biting wind of freedom, human and dragon voices were mingled in one ecstatic shout of victory, underlain with a good measure of terror.

Chapter 20: Flight

 

The first few moments were truly harrowing. None of them had properly secured themselves, and the dragon, unused to freedom, was not as graceful in flight as they’d expected. The beast was so huge that it eventually proved possible to find hand and foot holds among the scales, being scrupulously careful to avoid the raiser sharp spines.

Helga kept peering around, counting their party convulsively, sure in her panic that someone had been left behind. She kept repeating mechanically, “stay low, stay down. Stay low, stay down.” She meant this as sage advice to guard their safety, but it was far too loud for anything below a shout to be heard by anyone. The wind roared passed their ears, and the dragon, out of sheer exultation, let out random growls and bellows that were quite as alarming as anything else. When the initial desperate fear had been dulled to a manageable level by the finding of somewhat secure hand and foot holds, each of the party, one by one, began cautiously to lift their head, to stare about themselves in wonder, to really begin to feel the incredible sensation of flight.

Rowena felt every hair on her body standing on end. She opened her eyes at first only in tiny movements. She allowed herself the briefest of glimpses of the dark Earth beneath, and the sky, illuminated by dragon’s breath ahead, and moon and stars above. She didn’t at all care for the powerful, rhythmic beating of wings to either side. Eventually however, she became able to keep her eyes open, and to truly take in all that she saw. She was unaware of the high, breathy cries of fear she had been making, and was equally unaware when they shifted from a kind of pitiful moan, into an incredulous laughter. Her voice rose in fierce exultation, a defiant scream of laughter that straddled the line between fear and joy. There was a fresh burst of panic as the dragon turned in flight. Though frightening, this course change took them in the same direction as the wind, and the noise was greatly diminished.

“Does anyone know where this beast is going?” Godric called.

“North,” Salazar and Rowena called back at the same time. They were both adept at astronomy, and could read their direction from the stars. Helga was on the point of asking if anyone had given thought to how they were going to reach the ground, when there was a terrifying roar, not from before them, but from behind. Craning his neck dangerously, Salazar saw, not entirely to his surprise, the form of a green dragon in hot pursuit.

In a burst of speed, the green dragon flew up beside them on their right. The black had seen it. The green flew a little ahead, and began a lazy kind of sinuous roll that undulated along its body, not impairing its flight, but lending it a graceful kind of rhythm. Later, Aidan would call it “showing off.” Salazar and Godric called it something else. The movements seemed to enrage the black. Nearly unseating its passengers, it darted forward, and reached out to swipe a deadly front claw toward the lambent green eye of the other dragon. The green shied, and the black pursued, clearly intent on inflicting damage.

The next few moments were terrifying, as the two beasts engaged in a mid-air combat that took no heed at all of the humans clinging desperately for dear life. They swooped and dived, lashed out, retreated and attacked, rapidly losing height all the while. The black was out of condition from having been in captivity so long, but the green seemed reluctant to inflict any serious injury. This stalemate took them closer and closer to the ground. Finally, in a quick rotation, the black bested the green by the simple expedient of causing the chain still attached to its rear leg to swing around, and smack solidly into one glowing green eye. With a shriek of pain, the green plummeted toward the ground, the black close behind.

Luckily for them all, the battle had occurred over a meadow. The black touched down with bone-jarring force, but the green was nowhere in sight. Salazar peered around, finally spotting what he’d been looking for, the crumpled figure of a woman, curled up on the ground.

“Everybody down!” He called urgently. Doing their best not to be sliced by spines, abraded by scales, or incinerated by fiery breath, they all managed to slide, slither and tumble their way to the ground. “Helga,” Salazar said, “come quickly, I need your help.”

Things were moving too fast for Helga, but she had learned to obey Salazar in a crisis, and followed him at a shaky run, to the crumpled figure on the ground. She shouldn’t have been surprised to find that it was Cleodna, and yet she was surprised. The poised and exquisite druidess lay in an undignified heap, emitting piteous moans of pain. Salazar used his wand to cast light on her, and Helga saw the bright red of blood gushing from Cleodna’s eye. To Helga’s relief, instinct took over, and she raised her own wand, performing rapid healing spells. Before she was ready, Salazar was pulling Cleodna to her feet.

“Quickly,” he said to both women, “we must combine our minds and make that dragon believe you are still in the air Cleodna. He’s confused because you’ve changed form. He doesn’t know where the green has gone. We don’t stand a chance of escaping him if he keeps blundering around down here looking for you. We must put the elusion into his mind that you’ve flown away.” None of them liked this idea, but all saw that it was their only chance not to be stomped to death by an enraged dragon in search of vengeance.

Helga had never attempted anything quite like this before. Eartha and Egbert were one thing, but a dragon? Nevertheless, she closed her eyes and concentrated all of her will on communicating the elusion into the dragonish thoughts. The black was stamping around the meadow, emitting fiery blasts of frustrated anger. It looked up into the sky and roared in fury. Yes, the three thought at it, yes, up there, follow!

And finally, it worked. With a bellow of rage, the black gave one heave of its powerful hind-quarters, raised its huge wings in a mighty flap, and rose into the air, making the tall grass wave in the wind of its departure.

Rowena, who had fallen limply to sit on the ground, now leapt to her feet and cried, “Odo!” She raised her wand, and yelled, “finite Incantatem!” Using her wand, Rowena slowed the basket’s progress until it was sinking gently, and drifted to the ground, alighting like a handkerchief dropped on a summer day.

The next few moments were chaotic. Helga made a rapid check of all, and found only a few minor burns and abrasions to deal with. Cleodna had collapsed on to the ground once more, exhausted. The young ones were all talking at once. Salazar went to where Rowena stood next to the large basket. He had to say her name three times before her eyes focused on him. “Are you all right?” He asked solicitously. She took a long time to respond, as though the question had been posed in a language she didn’t know. Slowly, her eyes got bigger and bigger in the dim light. She tipped her head back and looked into the sky.

“I rode on a dragon’s back,” she said wonderingly. “I rode on a dragon’s back!” Then, she was laughing hysterically. “I rode on the back of a dragon!” He reached out to hold her shoulders, afraid that she would sink once more to the ground. Her streaming eyes focused once more on his face. “You …” she said in wonder, still gasping. “You … you did that! You made that dragon do your will, you saved us! You saved me from …” Words abandoned her, and her laughter turned into a violent shudder that shook her from head to toe. “I belong in a library,” she said shakily. “I’m not brave or cunning like the rest of you.” She hid her face against the nearest thing, which happened to be Salazar’s shoulder.

“You, not brave?” He said, and she both heard and felt his rich, infectious belly laugh. “You who stands against vampires, and bids a dragon be your packhorse? You may prefer the library, but you can no longer say that you are not brave.”

She looked up into his face. She had defended him against the accusations of the others about his devious methods, but, with the clarity that sometimes attends great fear and its aftermath, she saw the larger pattern of how his choices, his cunning, his resourcefulness and daring, had carried them all, so improbably, to this moment.

Having assured herself that all were as well as they might be, Helga returned to Cleodna. The bleeding had stopped and the eye seemed essentially undamaged, but Helga could see that CLEODNA was still in pain. Godric had followed Helga, and as she raised her wand, he muttered, “That … woman, that serpent barely deserves your kindness, all the trouble she caused.”

“I will not allow someone to suffer if I can do ought to prevent it,” she replied stoically. She knelt at Cleodna’s side, and began a kind of soft, crooning chant she had learned from Salazar, moving her wand slowly along the side of Cleodna’s face.

Finally, Cleodna sat up, pushing her hair back. Her first words were, “Will there be scarring?”

“I don’t think so,” Helga replied levelly.

“That’s perhaps more than can be said for your victims,” Godric said darkly.

Cleodna’s head turned slowly toward him, as she tried visibly to pull herself together. “Victims? What victims?”

Godric studied her, frowning. She attempted a beguiling expression, but gave it up. “Most people,” he began conversationally, “start fires to warm themselves or cook their meat, but some, like you, start fires merely for the pleasure of watching things burn.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Cleodna replied loftily.

“Have you not? You attempted to set us against one another. You imprison creatures and people for pride and your own amusement. You welcomed a vampire into your home to peddle his wares in exchange for … I cannot even speak it.”

Cleodna was physically exhausted, angry at the mayhem that now reigned in her courtyard, disappointed that her plans had crumbled into dust, and distraught especially at the loss of her dragon. All of these she might have born graciously, but the sight of a good-looking man frowning judgmentally at her was too much. Her face tautened, and her eyes grew bright, reminding Godric and Helga forcibly of the green dragon’s eyes.

“How dare you judge me! You … you mere boy. What know you of me or my life? You think yourself invulnerable, unstoppable, a ‘brave warrior’. I have seen hundreds, thousands like you go down into dust. You, you child, would dare to say a word about how I conduct my affairs! I, who ruled on Ynys Mon when your ancestors were making stone tools and living in caves! I would have offered you and your friends wonders and riches you can’t even imagine, and you would dismiss me as a mere chit with no wisdom.”

Her angry tone had drawn the attention of the others, and all saw her turn to Helga. “And you,” her expression softened. “I could have taught you arts of healing that no one alive today remembers save myself, and you would throw that away.”

Helga’s eyes were huge, and her voice reverent. “Were you truly the ruler of Ynys Mon before, before it was overcome by Rome?”

“She’s lying,” Godric said flatly.

“Those women,” Salazar said, “Those women who brought in the unicorn, who are they?”

“They?” Cleodna said bitterly. “Those are my grand daughters, my great grand daughters, my descendants.” Her voice lost some of its anger, trailing into a kind of bitterness utterly at odds with her usual gracious demeanor. “Some of my female descendants I allow to stay, but the men I send away. None of them, men or women, can match my power, and I grew so weary of …” The sentence trailed off, as though she’d forgotten they were there.

“By what art have you lived so long?” Salazar asked.

Her lashes lifted and she focused on him. “I have made a philosopher’s stone. You doubt me? I permit you to look into my mind and see that what I say is true.”

Salazar gaped. “It is true!”

“But how …?” Rowena was starry-eyed.

“It is not the telling of a moment,” Cleodna said scornfully, “it is the accumulated wisdom of centuries. There are many ways to prolong life. You could have learned so many things in my house, from me, from my library, but you ran like a frightened rabbit. You don’t really think I was going to let Draugur have you do you? Draugur is a mere amusement, a useful connection who serves me. But you,” she looked intently at Rowena, “you could be my equal in study and skill. It’s not too late, you can come back with me even now.”

Helga experienced an unexpected wave of sympathy, at the same time as a chill went down her spine. Cleodna, exhausted and oddly vulnerable outside her lair, suddenly appeared to Helga as what she was: a desperately lonely person, trying any tactic she could think of to keep the loneliness at bay. What must it be like to outlive everyone, and to keep doing it, one’s children, one’s grand children? To see the world around you change, then change again. Cleodna’s bizarre household and odd ways now made sense. She had built herself a refuge from a world that no longer honored her, and from which all those she’d once loved had gone. Helga caught her breath, and unconsciously moved a little closer to Godric.

Aidan spoke up, his child’s voice serious for once. “But we read about Ynys Mon and the Romans. How could witches and wizards, druids, be defeated by muggles?”

Cleodna let out a deep sigh, the most genuine sound they thought they’d heard from her. “There were druids, and then there were druids. Those who perished on Ynys Mon were … well, some of them were truly witches and wizards, druids and druidesses, but not many. Those of us who were truly magic, we didn’t stay to see the end.” Her tone was somber, and the silence of the night around them seemed at once peopled with the ghosts of Cleodna’s youth, and horribly empty. “We debated it for years: was it right for those of us with powerful magic, to fight those without it? Was defending our homes and our folk, reason enough to bring our power to bear on those who couldn’t hope to stand against us? The councils were endless it seemed, but finally, the most powerful among us decided to leave, to live apart. For, to go down that road, to use the full force of our magic against muggles, where would it end? Some did believe that this was how it should be: that witches and wizards were clearly meant to rule, but most chose to leave the muggles to fight and kill one another as they saw fit, and to take ourselves off, away, to live hidden, separate.”

“And where have they gone?” Salazar asked keenly.

“Who can say? Many have gone to foreign lands, as I myself did for a time. Some still live on in hiding, but few have lived as long as I.”

Moved by compassion, Helga reached out a hand and placed it over Cleodna’s. “You must often be very lonely sister … mother.” Helga smiled a little at her own confusion.

“Sister,” Cleodna said wistfully, “it has been long and long since anyone called me that.” She looked directly into Helga’s eyes in the wand light. “I was so glad when you came. Many of my descendants have magic, but you, you are the most powerful witches and wizards I have encountered in many a long year. Will you not stay with me? What is there in the muggle world to hold you? I know enough of the world to see that magic is not revered in this land as it once was. If you stayed with me …” Her voice trailed off. Pleading did not come naturally to her, and Helga was the only one she could have brought herself to speak to in this way.

Helga’s ready sympathy brought bright tears to her eyes, but her practical nature reminded her of the captive creatures, Cleodna’s devious tactics, and Draugur hunting Rowena in the dark. Whatever her past, Cleodna was not someone you could trust for long. Helga knew the others felt the same.

“We owe a debt to an honored friend. Our road is to the north, and that is where we must go. We are grateful for your hospitality, and for such of your wisdom as you have shared with us. I’m honored to have met such a venerable druidess.” She heard Godric muttering something mutinous, but kicked him hard, and he kept his peace.

As Cleodna rested to regain her strength, she also began to regain her spirits, and when she left them, it was in the best of her flamboyant style. She stood among them, said enigmatically, “You haven’t necessarily seen the last of me,” winked coquettishly at Godric, then spun on the spot, and vanished into thin air. None of them had ever seen such a thing before, and they spent a lot of time over the next few days discussing what she had done, and how.

They camped that night where they were. Exhausted themselves by the night’s events, they greeted the chill and damp of an autumn night with mixed feelings. Godric professed heartily that he was glad to be sleeping once more on the solid ground with the stars overhead. Helga said he was welcome to it, and produced her trusty green satchel from beneath her cloak. Rowena offered no opinion on the matter, but followed Helga into her tent with alacrity.

The next few days were a mixture of relief, exertion and preoccupation. Despite their varied reactions to life in Cleodna’s house, they all felt glad to be on the road once more. The autumn air was crisp and invigorating, and a spell of dry weather helped their morale enormously. A few weeks in Cleodna’s cushy courtyard hadn’t improved their stamina, and they were on foot now. The end of each day found them tired and foot-sore, but rather pleasantly so. Several of them remained reflective. Helga in particular, was haunted by Cleodna’s tale.

“Imagine!” She burst out one night as they sat around the fire. “Imagine living for so long: all of your friends dying, your family, everyone you’ve known, and the world changing over and over again.”

“I wonder if it deformed her character,” Godric said caustically, “or whether she started out that way.”

Cadogan laughed, but Helga said reprovingly, “Godric, what a thing to say. She is a great witch.”

“Powerful yes, learned, skilled, but she has little honor.”

“Who needs honor when you’ve got a philosopher’s stone?” Salazar remarked. Godric looked shocked, and Salazar added quickly, “Only jesting. I do wish I’d known about that sooner though.”

“What good does it do her?” Aidan asked in his uncompromising way. “I thought she was happy before, but the way she was talking before she vanished, she didn’t sound very happy then.”

“No,” Helga agreed, “she didn’t.” At this point, Rowena and Salazar began a highly technical discussion about the intricacies involved in successful alchemy, and the others, bored, drifted off toward bed. As they continued to make their way north on unfamiliar roads, the druidess lingered in their thoughts, and they would soon come to understand that the long shadow she cast wasn’t only in their imaginations.

It was twilight on a clear evening. They’d all been feeling renewed energy that day, and had covered a lot of ground. They normally stopped earlier, in order to have light for setting up camp, but they’d felt energetic, and anyway, the terrain had been boggy and damp. They were approaching a small river spanned by a sturdy looking bridge. In the half light, they saw the flicker of flames on the bank. Clearly someone else, or several someone elses had camped there.

As they drew closer, it began to be clear that something wasn’t right. There were intermittent hoarse shouts carried on the shifting breeze, and as they got closer, they could see dim shapes moving in a way that made Godric put an arrow on the string, and loosen his sword in its scabbard. Salazar pulled his wand from his sleeve, and by tacit consent, the others dropped back, allowing Godric and Salazar to approach alone.

When they got closer, they saw what Salazar identified immediately as a group of trolls. Godric had never seen the creatures before, but knew what they were once Salazar told him. They were clustered around one, much shorter shape, a man, who seemed to be fighting them all at once. Indeed, several of the brutes lay unmoving on the ground. Clearly the man was handy with a blade, but he was starting to get the worst of it, fighting the four remaining trolls alone.

Before Salazar could formulate a plan, Godric had loosed an arrow, knocking one of the tall, hairy beasts in the shoulder. Godric was an indifferent archer, and cursed at his inaccuracy even as he strung another arrow. The troll, with predictable stupidity, thought the piercing pain in the back of his shoulder was somehow related to the little man thing before him, and pursued its attack with renewed ferocity. Salazar sent a successful stunning spell at one of the purplish creatures, but things were really getting serious for the man, and a bigger distraction was needed.

“Ho, brutes!” Salazar bellowed across the distance that separated them. “Look,” he gestured expansively behind him. “Fresh meat! Humans, human children! Tender and delicious, and ready for the cook pot!” This had exactly the effect Salazar had anticipated. All of the trolls turned as one to look toward Salazar’s voice coming out of the twilight. The man, quick to seize the advantage, ran one through the guts, as Godric’s second arrow found its target this time, laying out another beast on the ground. Salazar took care of one more with a stunner, and the unknown man’s blade dispatched the last.

As their party approached, the man stood, swaying a little, and brushed his sleeve across his forehead, which gleamed with sweat in the fire light. He stabbed his blade into the ground to clean it, and sheathed it with a practiced movement.

He was breathing heavily, and stared at them with open curiosity. “Thank you friends,” he said genially, “you may have just saved my bacon, though considering my assailants, I wouldn’t have lasted long enough to be bacon.” His eyes took in Godric’s height and strong build, and the jewelled sword in his hand, then paused briefly on Salazar’s wand. He didn’t look shocked, but said mildly, “There’ll be no need for that friend, nor that either,” indicating Godric’s sword. He stood, obviously waiting for them to disarm, which they finally did.

Curious, the others came forward, the children craning their necks for a view of the trolls, which they’d never seen before. “Can we go look?” Aidan asked eagerly.

Helga and Rowena looked disgusted, but Salazar led the children forward, warning them that their work wasn’t entirely finished. As Salazar led the boys and Emmeline forward to finish the job of dispatching the trolls and committing their bodies to the fast-flowing river, the four left moved aside, and sized each other up.

Helga thought the man quite good-looking. He was tall and broad, with black hair, a dark complexion, a physique that bespoke an active life, and an open, kind face, which engaged her sympathies. His eyes seemed oddly changeable in colour, but that may have been because the light was poor.

Salazar and the young people returned, Aidan, Cadogan and Emmeline looking simultaneously excited and nauseous.

The man, who introduced himself as Colby, produced a flask from his belt, drank deeply, and offered it to the others. Godric and Salazar sipped, finding it to be a strong whisky. Colby expressed himself in need of a rest, and invited them to sit with him around the trolls’ fire, assuring them they could find hospitality for the night with him, and needn’t worry about making camp. With open geniality, he drew them out about where they came from, who they were, and where they were bound. They gave him sufficient information for courtesy, then asked how he came to be fighting alone against so many.

“I live across the bridge and up-river some way,” he said easily. “Those,” he gestured dismissively down-river, ‘have been troubling the area for some while. I was only waiting for the right time to come and take care of them.”

“Is there no one else in your village to fight with you?” Helga asked.

“Well, I wouldn’t say no, some might have, but I’m well equipped to handle them, and, well, my village has an extremely low opinion of magic or anything suggesting it, so I thought it most prudent to take care of it myself. Turns out timing was on my side. I’d been sure I could handle them alone, but it’s well you came along when you did.”

“You were doing quite well on your own,” Godric said respectfully, “I think you would have been successful without our help.” He wasn’t being strictly truthful in saying so, but the man’s open manner, and open hand with his whisky, predisposed Godric to be complementary.

“That’s kind,” Colby said with a casual wave of dismissal, “but I suspect I owe you my life, and I’ll be glad to offer such hospitality as I may.”

“Do you share the opinion of your village when it comes to magic?” Rowena asked. “No,” Colby replied judicially, then his face relaxed into its habitual good-natured expression. “Oh no, I’m a magician myself you see.”

“Then why were you allowing yourself to be outnumbered by those beasts?” Salazar asked. “Magic could have taken care of all of them easily.”

“You like to keep your sword arm strong,” Godric said with a comradely smile.

“Well yes that, but also, I have chosen to renounce magic. I live without it.”

Everyone except Godric and Rowena looked shocked. “Why?” Aidan asked directly.

“I have made this place my home, and the folk here have reason to distrust magic and its practitioners. Magic can bring great harm, and I wish to … to repay these folk for some of what they have suffered at its hands.”

The fire flared up briefly, and Helga got a better look at the stranger’s eyes. She sat up straighter, and stared hard.

“Where did you dwell before coming here?” She asked quietly.

“To the south,” he answered neutrally.

“We have come from the south,” Helga said. “We met a great sorceress on our travels, a druidess.”

The fire flared again, and this time they all saw it. The stranger’s eyes, in this light at least, were a vivid and striking green. “Cleodna,” he said resignedly, “is my mother.”

Chapter 21: Life in Hiding

 

There was a ringing silence, in which the crackling flames took on an ominous character. All eyes were fixed on Colby, searching for the truth in his words. His eyes certainly recalled Cleodna’s, but where her demeanor was smooth and calculated, his was of a candid friendliness that made it hard to feel nervous around him. And yet, each of them felt the impulse to stir, to move ever so subtly away from him. He sighed, as though he perceived their instinctive aversion.

“Yes, it’s true. Folk usually react this way.”

Helga shifted uncomfortably. After all, his parentage wasn’t his fault. “Your mother,” her voice cracked on the word, “is a very powerful witch.”

“Indeed,” his tone was rye. “She makes no secret of it.”

“Does that have something to do with the aversion to magic around here?” Godric asked.

“I’m afraid so. She’s been living yonder for quite a long time. She’s been living for quite a long time, as perhaps you know?” Helga nodded soberly. “It has … it has misshapen her in some ways, especially when it comes to muggles. She sees them as … well let’s say as servants. She doesn’t hesitate to take what she wishes from them, including themselves. The village next to her house, it wasn’t there first. She chose the spot, built the house by magic, then bewitched folk to come live there to grow food, and otherwise do her will. When times are lean, she thinks nothing of liberating stock, produce or labour to suit herself. I think she sees it as her right. Not so different from many a ruler, but of course her methods are quite different, and her … her tastes, her ways are very different. Those in closer proximity to her have grown used to it, but here, well she’s neither liked nor trusted. When she is in her dragon form, she’s careful close to her own home, but not otherwise. This village has felt the fires of her predation, and views her and all magic folk as evil.”

“Do they not know who you are?” Salazar asked.

“They know I am an able blacksmith who came here some years ago looking for a new life, after his family perished. Though they hate her, they’ve rarely actually seen her in her human form, and so they don’t think to question me or my presence here.”

“And if they knew?” Helga enquired.

“Oh, it’s better not to wonder about that. There have been incidents,” his eyes clouded. “They’re welcoming enough, but when it comes to magic, there have been several forced to leave, or worse, because they were suspected.”

“And yet you stay?” Salazar was puzzled.

Colby shrugged. “Everybody’s got to live somewhere. It grows late.” He rose easily to his feet. Helga reflected that perhaps it was because he was a blacksmith, used to heavy work, but he moved with a grace and power that even Godric, a master swordsman, might envy.

“Come,” Colby said easily, “and I will offer what hospitality I may, in payment for my life. I will ask you though, in courtesy, do no magic, and speak not of it. Your welcome will vanish like pine needles in that fire there, if any hint gets out of who and what you really are.”

They followed him across the bridge, and up-river. His dwelling was modest, in keeping with the simple surroundings. It transpired however, that he lived next to a young widow, with whom he appeared to be on excellent terms, and she agreed to take Helga, Rowena and Emmeline into her cottage. The weather turned in the middle of the night, and as rain drummed on the roofs, and no few drops fell through the roofs and on to their blankets, all the travellers were glad at the circumstance which had led them to have shelter.

Waking up to drizzle, and the prospect of muddy roads, Helga convinced the others to delay their departure. All of the walking had left many shoes the worse for ware, and some of their clothing needed mending. Somehow, none of them had thought about such things in the luxury of Cleodna’s house, thanks possibly to some magic of Cleodna herself. These tasks could have been attended to with some focused wand work, but Helga was naturally gregarious. She was curious about this place, so decided to visit the cobbler, and engage some local women in mending, in exchange for diagnosing and treating some minor ailments with herbs and simple, non-magical remedies.

She admitted to herself that she was even more curious about Colby. His physique continued to draw her; he was muscular, but capable of fine work also. She liked his open, friendly manner. There was something more though, something she couldn’t put her finger on. Most people were simple enough, motivated by things that were easy to understand. When they weren’t, Helga was usually able to see below the surface to what drove them. With Colby, however, there was some kind of darkness or unease beneath his pleasant manner. Hiding one’s true nature must lead the soul down some strange paths, and she supposed that growing up with Cleodna as a mother couldn’t have meant an uncomplicated childhood.

Salazar, Godric, Aidan and Cadogan lurked around the forge, all frankly interested in Colby’s craft. The women gathered in the widow’s cottage, sorting through their gear, and separating out things to be washed and mended.

The widow’s name was Hollis. She was friendly enough, if a little reserved. All of the villagers were like that: pleasant, but prone to look suspiciously on the strangers. They accepted Colby’s assertion that he owed the guests a debt for helping him with the trolls. Nevertheless, the travellers all got the feeling that the villagers would be glad to see the back of them.

Hollis had two children, twins, a boy and a girl of perhaps four years old, sturdily built, and dark of hair and complexion. They were named Eadlin and Edgar, and were constantly under foot in the cottage’s crowded single room. Emmeline had taken up Hollis’s spindle. As the daughter of a laundry woman, she was a competent seamstress, but mending clothes brought back uncomfortable memories. Seeing that the other women had things well in hand, she set herself to spinning. This had been an occupation of her early childhood, a time when life had been much less chaotic, and she found it soothing. Thinking to ease the congested feeling of a room in which two small children prowled, she drew Eadlin to her, attempting to teach her how to spin. Hollis found some crude wooden blocks that Colby had fashioned for Edgar, and the boy subsided busily but quietly, to the floor by the hearth.

Helga smiled at the boy, then, turning to Hollis, who was small and fair, remarked, “The children certainly didn’t get their colouring from you. Do they favour their father then?”

Hollis blinked. “Yes, yes, they favour their father.”

“Is your husband dead long?” Helga asked, with her characteristic blend of practicality and compassion.

Hollis took a deep breath. “Yes, about four years or so, maybe three.”

“That is a long time for a mother of small children to be without a man. Will you not marry again?”

“I would like to,” Hollis’s eyes drifted wistfully in the direction of the forge. “Colby sees to it that we … he hunts for us, helps to repair my roof, sees that we are safe and … safe.”

Helga raised her eyebrows and smiled kindly. “Safety is important.” Her eyes asked a silent question, and Hollis shrugged. Helga had a gift for inspiring confidences. People naturally trusted her, with good reason, and despite Hollis’s caution toward them, she answered candidly.

“Yes, he cares for us, but he will not wed me: not for lack of feeling, but because … well, he has his reasons. He is a complicated man. There are things in his past that make him …” She stopped speaking, and her eyes slid away. She shifted uncomfortably, as though fearing she’d said too much, and Helga tactfully changed the subject.

By the hearth, Edgar was slowly building a tower with his blocks. It had reached a height he’d never achieved before, and turning to call out to his mother to show her, he knocked it, and it toppled toward the fire. Crying out in dismay, he pointed angrily at the fire. The blocks promptly popped out of the fire, extinguished themselves, and climbed on to one another until the tower stood once more.

“Edgar!” Hollis shouted. She dropped the stocking she’d been mending, grabbed the small boy, and shook him fiercely. “You’re not to do that.”

Edgar immediately began to cry. “Do what?”

“What you just did,” Hollis returned rather lamely. “Things can’t just jump out of a fire like that!”

“Yes, they can! I make them.”

“No! You’re not to do that!”

There was an extremely tense feeling in the room. Edgar was crying volubly, and Hollis was looking distressed. She sought desperately for a distraction. “That’s enough playing. Go outside and bring in some more wood, we’re nearly out.” Sniffling hard and looking persecuted, he went.

None of the spectators could blame him for feeling sorry for himself. Hollis was trying to teach him not to do something, but refusing to name the forbidden thing. Clearly Edgar at least had magical abilities. Living in an environment like this, they could see why she might want to discourage him from using them, but refusing to give words to the problem was unlikely to solve it. Rowena and Emmeline felt identical stabs of confusion and grief. Emmeline had been similarly discouraged by her mother, and Rowena had, for her own reasons, tried for years to hide what she was. Helga felt only grief. What kind of twisted result could come of such a state of affairs?

There was a lull in the rain at twilight, and Helga accompanied Godric down to the river while he tried his hand at fishing for their supper. Both were glad to be out of doors, and breathed deeply of the clean, damp air.

“A blacksmith’s workshop is a smoky place,” he remarked. “I don’t know how Colby bears it, and yet it seems not to trouble him at all.”

Helga peered at him closely. “Can’t say the same for you, but I don’t think it’s the smoke.” His natural expression was one of openness. He wasn’t one to hide his feelings unless he meant to, and it was clear he had something on his mind.

He let out a long breath through his nose. “I don’t think we should stay here any longer than necessary,” he said at last. “Colby is right about folk here, and I don’t think he’ll be sorry to see us go. Today, a man came to have his horse shoed: Hollis’s brother it was. He didn’t seem pleased to have guests around. He questioned me closely about who we were, where we came from, our plans, more than just casual politeness. I told him only that we were fleeing Sussex, and heading north. I even invented a kinsman or too up that way. This fellow didn’t seem much reassured. He kept looking at Salazar, who doesn’t exactly look like he’s from Sussex, or from the north either. This man started telling a story about travellers who’d been through here a few years ago. He said they were demon folk, folk with unnatural powers. He said they’d hanged such folk before, and that they were ready to do it again to protect their village. He was giving us some very hard looks, but he eventually left.

“Some time later, Cadogan ran in from outside. You know how clumsy he is, and how likely to injure himself. He ran in, took one look at the blade Colby’d just removed from the anvil, and made a grab for it. Salazar flung up a magical shield and pushed the foolish lad away.”

“Is Cadogan all right?”

Godric waved his hand in dismissal. “He’s fine, knocked to the ground by the shield spell, but I doubt it will teach him caution. Colby turned on Salazar, and he was … he was furious.”

“Furious?”

“Just so. He blamed us bitterly for doing magic, asked us had we not just heard the fate of magic folk in this place, he really looked quite … quite unlike himself, quite angry. Salazar got angry too. He asked if Colby himself would have let the lad be seriously injured if magic could prevent it. Colby only got angrier. He said that a forge is no place for a stupid and careless child, and that one of us should have snatched Cadogan bodily from harm’s way rather than using magic. It was a pretty feeble defense though; none of us could have reached the lad in time to prevent him being terribly burned.” Godric looked deeply troubled. “Colby is so frightened by these people that he would allow a child to be harmed before he’d lift a wand to help him.”

“He doesn’t seem like a frightened man,” Helga said unargumentatively.

“No,” Godric replied thoughtfully, “he doesn’t. Maybe frightened is the wrong word, but I don’t know the right word.”

Godric made a good catch, and they brought back a substantial contribution to the evening meal, which Hollis accepted with ill-disguised relief. It seemed that Colby regularly took meals with her. Her brother also tended to stop by at meal times, and did so this evening. It made for a full cottage.

That night after supper, Helga noticed that Aidan was quiet, and looked flushed. When she touched his cheek, she felt heat radiating from him, and he admitted unwillingly that he felt poorly. When the men left to sleep in Colby’s cottage, she insisted that Aidan stay with her. His failure to argue with her about it worried her far more than his fever. The fever grew quickly worse over night, and Aidan had developed some kind of rash, and was coughing by morning. Helga dosed him with what she had on hand, but nothing seemed to bring the fever down.

As the sun rose, she was becoming seriously concerned. She had only the most basic herbs and ingredients with her, and she berated herself for not having paid more attention to gathering as they travelled. When the men came scrounging for some breakfast, Godric and Salazar looked on with mild concern at Aidan’s flushed and blotchy countenance, but Colby squatted down beside the boy, looking very grave. He touched Aiden’s neck, peered closely at the rash, even bent to smell Aidan’s breath. He sat back on his heels, looking at Helga.

“What have you tried?” He asked briskly. When she told him, he nodded, then looked down at Aidan once more. “Those were all worth trying, but I know this sickness, and it is difficult to cure.”

“But it can be cured?” The question came from Rowena. Despite herself, she’d grown fond of Aidan. Though his mischievousness was a trial to her, he had a quick mind, and a roving curiosity.

“Yes.” Colby glanced down at the wooden cup in Helga’s hand, half full of a greenish liquid. “Give him half of that, and if he’s not better by mid-day … well we’ll see what can be done.”

“Are you a healer too then?” Helga asked.

Colby shrugged and looked away. “I grew up with one,” he replied enigmatically, and went to his work.

Aidan wasn’t better by mid-day. His cough was worse, and he was beginning to toss and turn in a fevered sleep. Colby returned, knelt briefly by the boy’s side studying his face, then reached for the wooden cup, which still held some of Helga’s concoction.

“I will add what I can to this, and I think our young friend here will be better by sunset.” Colby took the cup away to Hollis’s work table. He turned his back to them, and Helga saw him reaching up his sleeve. She thought it odd that a blacksmith should carry remedies secreted in his clothing, but all her concern was for Aidan, and she went back to bathing his face with a cloth dipped in cool water.

When Colby returned, he knelt by Aidan’s side, put a gentle arm beneath the boy’s shoulders to raise him, and held the cup to his lips. Helga saw that the contents had gone from green, to something a bit rosier in colour. She wondered, but asked no questions, peering anxiously at Aidan as Colby laid him down once more.

Helga could see that the effect was almost immediate. Aidan grew calmer, and both his fever and the odd rash seemed to abate somewhat even as they watched. Colby rose, leaving no time for Helga to inquire what he had done, and told her to send for him if Aidan’s condition worsened.

By sunset however, just as Colby had predicted, Aidan was exhausted, but no longer feverish. He slept peacefully as supper was prepared, and the men, including Hollis’s brother, trailed in.

Hollis’s brother was named Acwellen. He had a stoic expression, and sat shifting his gaze continually from one guest to another, as though waiting for one of them to burst into flower, or to do something otherwise unnatural.

The younger ones ate first, then went to kneel by the fire to toast small pieces of bread on sticks. This left the table free for the adults. Godric tried to keep the conversation light, asking Colby intelligent questions about metal working as applied to armor and weapons.

“Not that weapons do us much good round here,” Acwellen put in morosely.

Several people around the table hoped hard that no one would reply to this truculent statement, but Salazar asked imperturbably, “Why’s that?”

“Not that easy to put a sword through a witch, nor an arrow neither. Not that we get much chance to try. She takes what she wants, but she’s too cowardly to do it herself. Oh, we must give what she demands, for you can’t stick a sword nor arrow into a dragon neither.”

Hollis and Colby were beginning to look distinctly uncomfortable, but before either could interpose some sort of distraction, Salazar asked blandly, “Oh, have you a troublesome dragon in the area?”

“Only when she doesn’t get what she wants,” Acwellen replied. “That’s what happened to Hollis’s man. Didn’t she tell you?”

“No,” Salazar answered placidly, “she didn’t. What happened?” Hollis and Colby were now staring determinedly at their trenchers.

“’Bout four years ago it was. She, the Witch, her who lives yonder,” his arm made a sweeping gesture toward the south, “She came here scavenging. She likes to do that every now and then. When it’s just livestock or grain she wants, she sends her servants, but sometimes, when she wants something special, she’ll come herself. She’ll decide she needs one or two more healthy, young men to work in her house or fields, tending her horses, she’s always got a reason, but it’s always the good-looking ones she takes first. Hollis’s husband there, he had a way with horses, and she said she’d need of him, and he must go. She gave him a day and a night to settle his affairs, then, the next morning, flies a fire-breathing green dragon over the village, set the river steaming, even caught a storage shed afire. The meaning was clear enough, do as she says, or we’ll all pay.”

Tears were glimmering on Hollis’s lashes, and Colby was looking distinctly uncomfortable, as well he might, Rowena thought sympathetically. She herself felt a twist of distaste in her guts. Cleodna’s courtyard and library suddenly seemed very remote indeed.

“Is he then still alive?” Rowena asked reluctantly.

“Ah no mistress,” Acwellen replied, almost it seemed with relish. “We heard it from one of her servants next time he came for stock. You know the witch keeps a lot of captives, not only human. She got herself a big black dragon she did. Lured it to follow her, then used her witchy powers to prison it. Someone got to feed it though, hunt for it and feed it too. That’s one of the things she needs men for. Hollis’s man was feeding the beast and, well guess he weren’t quick enough, and he got cooked, and ate too.”

“Acwellen that’s enough,” Hollis said sharply. Acwellen shrugged, sitting back and saying no more.

Impelled by the desperate need to say something, anything, Rowena said, “Well that’s one less danger, one less captive creature.” At the blank looks of Acwellen, Hollis and Colby, she explained, “The black dragon has been freed.” Just in time, she caught Helga’s warning look, and said rather lamely, “We saw it as we travelled, a large scaly black dragon flying north. Surely that must have been her captive. I mean, how many black dragons could there be wandering, I mean flying, I mean in this area of the …”

She knew she was babbling, but couldn’t seem to stop, until Colby leapt to his feet crying out, “The black is free?” He looked quite distraught, but the others merely nodded mutely. Inexplicably, Colby brought one large fist down hard on the table, then turned and left the cottage.

Either Acwellen was accustomed to displays of temper, or impervious to social dynamics. Which ever it was, he rose at his ease, bid them good night, and left as though nothing had happened. At the table, Hollis said nothing, but dropped her head into her hands, her entire posture radiating despair. With eye and gesture, Helga communicated to Godric and Salazar that it was time for them to round up the boys and head off to the forge where they were to sleep. Eager to leave whatever was going on to someone else, the men rose. When they’d gone, Helga turned to Hollis.

“I don’t know what is going on here,” she said quietly, “but I can tell you that dragon seemed quite determined to fly north. I don’t think you need fear for your village.”

Hollis shook her head slowly. “I hope that is so but …”

Thinking about Colby setting out to clean up an entire nest of trolls alone, Helga said hesitantly, “Is it Colby you fear for?”

Hollis nodded sadly. “Has he told you of his parentage?” She asked.

“He has told us who his mother is, but that no one here knows.”

“Only I. He confided in me years ago. You see we loved one another even before my husband was … was taken. We did not … I am an honorable woman, but there was no great love in my marriage, and after, well, Colby and I became close, and he told me things no one else here can ever know.”

Rowena looked over to where Eadlin, Hollis’s daughter, lay curled up, black hair glossy in the fire light. She thought of Colby’s colouring, and wondered what Hollis’s husband had looked like.

“Why does that make you fear for his safety?” Helga asked kindly.

“He feels that all of the things she has done are his fault, or at least that he must bear responsibility for them. He was raised in her house of course, and he hasn’t told even me all that he saw and did as her son. He disliked the black dragon’s captivity, but he feared its release. He’s afraid it might take vengeance for its imprisonment on anyone nearby. Maybe he even thinks it will try to avenge itself on him personally. Either way he won’t allow harm to come to anyone, no matter what he must do to prevent it.”

“That’s why he stays here,” Rowena said. “Even though he … he is different from the people in this village, even though they would turn on him if they knew, he feels, guilty, for all the things she has done.”

“And so he stays,” Hollis agreed, “but he won’t marry me, nor be a true father to Eadlin and Edgar, nor find peace in himself. I know not what he will do now.” She rested her arms on the table, and dropped her head on to them, her entire posture eloquent with despair.

Chapter 22: Parents and Children

 

Helga wasn’t the only one trying to figure Colby out. Salazar’s curiosity was of a different character though. Colby seemed like a mass of contradictions: strong but mild-mannered, magical, but content to hide his gifts, the son of an extremely powerful druidess, but feeling no honor for it. Whatever else Cleodna might be, there was no denying her greatness. Salazar himself was the son of a powerful witch, and it troubled him to see Colby turn away from all he had been given.

Colby had been fascinated by Madella. He expressed no desire to touch or interact with her, but his eyes focused on her whenever she was in view. Salazar had seen many reactions to the snake: fear, wariness, delight, but never anything quite like the way Colby watched her.

More than anything though, it was the power radiating from Colby that drew Salazar. Salazar was irresistibly attracted by power. He had sensed it in each of his companions, in Cleodna, in her son, and in himself. He knew he had a great destiny, and he was drawn by others who possessed a similar force. The thing was that he couldn’t put his finger on the source of Colby’s power. Salazar hadn’t seen Colby do magic, and somehow didn’t think that the force Colby emanated was related to spell-casting. It was something else, something in the man himself.

When he and Godric returned to Colby’s cottage, it was to find it empty. Where ever Colby had stormed off to, it wasn’t to his home. On the pretext of getting some fresh air after so much time indoors breathing smoke, Salazar left the cottage, and looked carefully around him. The night was dark, but, looking up the side of a hill, he saw occasional flickers of light, such as might come from a torch born in a hand. Not knowing exactly what he intended, Salazar went toward the irregular glimmers through the trees.

Colby couldn’t have been very far ahead of him, but Salazar thought the man must be running, for Salazar didn’t catch up with him as he climbed the hill. Salazar was quickly winded by the ascent, but the unsteady light retreated rapidly before him. It didn’t quite look like torch light either; it was more like sudden sparks and tiny tongues of flame. Finally, he reached the top, to see Colby standing, head thrown back, scanning the sky in all directions. Salazar hung back, watching him. If Colby was waiting for a visit from an angry dragon, Salazar was happy to keep well in the shadows.

But time passed and nothing at all happened. Finally, Colby sank down onto a fallen log, resting his elbows on his knees. Despite his powerful frame, he looked like a dejected man. Salazar realized that Colby did not, after all, carry a torch.

Colby lifted his head wearily, and called out, “Come and wait with me. There’s no point lurking around in the trees like that.” His voice bore no hostility, so Salazar left the tree he’d been sheltering under, and walked out onto the bare hill top. He paced idly about a bit, before coming to sit beside Colby.

“You are waiting for the dragon?”

“I’m waiting for the dragon.”

“How will you fight it?”

“Fight it? I will not fight it. Is that what you think? Well, it’s what Hollis thinks. Maybe it’s even what she hopes.”

Salazar didn’t understand this at all, but waited, not even knowing what questions to ask.

“Where are your parents?” Colby asked finally, as though craving a distraction from his own thoughts. “Do they yet live?”

“My mother is dead, and my father, well I know not where he is, nor care either. My mother, like yours, was a powerful witch. She was the Vala for our village, the wise woman, the magic woman. My father was a dealer in dragon eggs who travelled, and didn’t stay long with my mother. He came from the east I think.”

“We have a lot in common then,” Colby remarked.

“Perhaps, but my mother was neither so famous nor so long-lived as yours.” Colby made a sound in his throat that Salazar couldn’t interpret. Curiosity finally getting the better of him, Salazar asked, “If you’re not here to defend the village against the black dragon, what is your intention?”

“The village doesn’t need protection from the dragon. Oh he’s coming, but not to harm the village. He’s coming for me. He will have taken some time to hunt for himself and stretch his wings, but he’ll be here. He’ll know I’m waiting for him, and he will come soon.”

“But you won’t fight him? Why does he seek you?”

“He’s not coming to kill me; he’s coming to rescue me.”

Salazar was completely at sea. “Rescue you from what?”

“What indeed?” Colby sounded bitter. Then he sighed a deep and tormented sigh. “He thinks he’ll save me from an ignominious life among muggles, from my inane existence in the muggle world.” That sounded like a fine idea to Salazar, but Colby clearly didn’t think so. “The dragon would take me away with him, away from here, out of Cleodna’s reach.”

“Did you somehow manage to befriend it when you lived in your mother’s house?”

“You might say so. I wanted so much to let him go, but I couldn’t. You can’t imagine what it’s like to be Cleodna’s son. Well, maybe you can. You’ve met her, and your own mother sounds like a formidable woman too.”

Salazar could imagine. He had felt the force of Cleodna’s personality, and remembered how it had been to grow up as the son of the most powerful person in his world. He wasn’t one to question someone about the morality of their choices, and if Colby said he hadn’t felt free to liberate the dragon, Salazar believed him. “Does the dragon think you a prisoner here?”

“No, not the way you mean it, but he can’t understand why I would stay. He thinks that it’s some bewitchment of my mother’s that keeps me here. He can’t understand that …” Colby’s voice trailed off.

“Is it Hollis and the children that keep you here then?” Pragmatic to the core, Salazar had calculated the calendar and noted the twins’ colouring, just as Rowena had.

“Partly. I want to keep them safe, to keep them all safe. This dragon means them no harm, but he’s not the only creature with reason to hold a grudge against my mother, and who might be tempted to take their grudge out on anyone who seems to give her obedience. I can’t stop her preying on these people, but I can do my best to help them.”

Salazar gazed at him with profound confusion. Such a sense of obligation was completely baffling to him, and he didn’t even try to understand it, moving on instead to what really interested him. “The black dragon, you know we flew it away from her house. I released it, and we flew it, him, north. She followed in her dragon form. They fought, and he bested her. She went back to her home, and he flew off.” Warming to Colby, Salazar described for him the havoc they had reeked in Cleodna’s courtyard on their departure.

By the time he had finished, Colby had thrown his head back and emitted a hearty, booming laugh that seemed to shake the last remaining leaves from the surrounding trees. “Merlin’s beard but I’d have loved to see that!” He exclaimed. “She must have been furious! You’re a brave man young Salazar!”

“I don’t like to see such noble beasts captive for anyone’s amusement.”

“Nor I. The black was the prize of her collection. She will not soon forgive you for its release.”

Salazar shrugged. “Our errand is to the north; we’re unlikely to meet again.”

Colby sighed. “Oh to be indifferent to her. What is your errand?”

Salazar liked Colby, so as they waited, Salazar told of Odo, and the battle, and their oath to carry him home. It transpired that Colby knew of Odo. Odo’s mother had spent time as an apprentice to Cleodna. Colby had met Odo, and knew of his strange gifts. “I’m not surprised to hear the manner of his death. He was a lost man. I’m glad he found his purpose.”

Salazar thought that Odo had taken remarkable power and thrown it away, but he didn’t argue.

“A potion for luck is it? That healer friend of yours is an uncommon witch. It’s no wonder my mother sought to keep all of you with her.”

“Yes, Helga looks soft and mild, but she’s as stubborn as anyone I’ve ever met, and she has remarkable gifts with animals and plants. She helped me most in keeping the dragon calm enough to let us ride him. When he comes, will he simply take you?”

“I will have to try and make him understand that I can’t go.”

“Make him understand? How?”

“I hear him in my mind, and he can hear me.”

Salazar was impressed. “I was stretched to the end of my limit merely to keep him from stomping all over us. You must have powerful magic indeed!”

It was Colby’s turn to shrug. “Magic? Well I suppose you could call it that. You know who my mother is, but have you not guessed my father?”

Of a sudden, Salazar was aware of the warmth radiating from Colby, as though the man was fevered, or had a tiny forge inside him. Salazar thought to wonder what had lighted Colby’s way up the hill, since he’d had no torch. Salazar’s eyebrows rose, and he shifted slowly away from the other man. “You’re not …?”

Colby turned his head to one side, and with no warning, puffed out a breath of flame which lit the hilltop in a brief, eerie glow.

“You’re a …! You’re not a …?”

“No, and no. I’m not, but not quite a man either. The black dragon is coming because he wants to save me from my own captivity, because he cares for me, feels responsible for me, as I feel responsible for them.” He gestured down the hill toward the village. “He will expect me to go, but I can’t go.”

Salazar was still puzzled, but he wasn’t one to try and save people from themselves. Instead, he indulged his curiosity by asking questions about Colby’s powers. He’d barely scratched the surface however, before there was a flickering light in the sky to the east, then, thrilling in the silence, the slow, steady flap of enormous wings.

“Go back into the trees for a time,” Colby said. “I don’t think he’ll be hungry, but you never know. There’s no point having a stranger around; you might wind up as supper before I could stop it.”

More than willing to protect his own skin, Salazar melted into the trees, and watched as the scaly black form glided overhead, and landed with remarkable grace. Salazar felt a chill of awe run down his back. He had subdued this noble beast and ridden it, and still, he felt that, till now, he hadn’t truly appreciated its agility and raw power.

Colby approached it slowly, but with no trace of fear. He went to stand on one side of the beast’s head, upwind from its flaming breath. He reached out both hands, placing them on the dragon’s neck. The dragon’s long body curled ever so subtly toward the man who stood silent, with his eyes closed. Salazar closed his own eyes in an attempt to follow the silent conversation. He got a sense of some of the emotions; urgency, anger, protectiveness, guilt, frustration, but he couldn’t read any direct meaning from the exchange. Anxious not to offend two such formidable beings by any intrusion, he withdrew his awareness from the exchange, and simply stood watching.

Some minutes later, he became aware of sounds behind him. Someone, someone none too subtle or fleet of foot, was making a loud and ungraceful progress up the hill. It was Helga. She arrived at his side puffing with the exertion. She came up beside him, and stood peering through the trees at the astonishing sight of Colby, his eyes closed, caressing the terrifying black dragon, as the beast curled its body protectively. Helga gasped, and raised a hand to her mouth. She was awed, but not as shocked as Salazar had been. He explained things to her, as she stood, her eyes fixed on Colby.

“I wondered,” she breathed. “I couldn’t see what he put in Aidan’s potion, but it was something red, and it cured him almost immediately. Dragon’s blood is powerfully magical. I thought Colby was reaching up his sleeve for an herb, but he must have cut himself on purpose. And you say he won’t go? Oh the poor man; the poor, poor man. What a destiny: giving his whole life trying to make up for all his mother has done. It’s a task that will never be completed. He won’t marry Hollis; you know that? He’ll protect her and the twins, but he won’t marry her.”

After some time, Colby opened his eyes, and drew away from the dragon. The black lay, apparently resting at its ease. Colby walked slowly toward where Helga and Salazar stood. In the flickering light from the flaming breath, he looked sad.

“I have persuaded him,” he gestured to the recumbent dragon, “to take your party from here, to a place where they will be safe. Go collect them and bring them here. It will be better if you depart unseen.”

Helga reached out a hand and placed it on Colby’s arm. As an unmarried woman, this was a bold thing to do to a relative stranger, but she was moved by his expression, and by the fate he had chosen for himself. “Colby,” she said warmly, “won’t you come with us? You can’t spend your life …” He stepped back from her and looked away. His skin had sent a powerful warmth through her hand, and she felt chilled when he moved from her side.

“Go,” he said simply, and Salazar took her arm to help her down the hill.

Colby remained with the dragon as Helga and Salazar waked the others and explained things to them. They gathered together their belongings, and climbed the hill, wafting Odo’s invisible basket before them. Considering that they were about to ride a dragon once more, the mood was remarkably somber.

Drawn irresistibly to him, Helga made one last plea to Colby. “Let us take the twins. They could so easily be discovered for what they really are. It isn’t right for you to choose for them in this way, making them hide what they are.”

Beside her, Rowena twitched uncomfortably. She could make out Godric’s face in the flickering light, and saw his grumpy expression. She gave a bitter inward laugh. It was all right for Godric to be irritated at the prospect of two small children, but Rowena knew perfectly well who would bear the brunt of caring for them, and it wasn’t Godric or Salazar. She hadn’t liked seeing little Edgar chastised for using magic either, but it didn’t make her eager for more children to herd.

Colby shook his head. “I will watch over them. I wouldn’t try to take them from Hollis, and she won’t leave. They will be fine: now go.”

Helga’s eyes rested on him. She felt a desperate need to save him from this life he had chosen. She still felt a strong attraction to him, and didn’t want to leave him here. Hollis, she thought, Hollis will care for him, love him, as much as he’ll let her. Unable to stop herself, she reached out and took his hand. It was astonishingly warm and strong. She felt the strength, and thought of his gentleness. She stared wordlessly into his eyes, trying to communicate, she didn’t know what. She wanted to save him, to heal him, and felt the bitter frustration she associated with an ailment she couldn’t cure. Regretfully, she let go his warm hand, and turned away.

Their ride this time was both more and less thrilling than the first. The first time they’d been so shocked that it had been a bit difficult to truly enjoy the experience, though the utter improbability had been its own unique thrill. This time, they were less frightened, and better able to fully take it in.

The night was cloudy, and none of them had a very clear sense of their direction. Still, the soaring, swooping sensation was absolutely absorbing. The enormous wings beat powerfully on either side, seizing the air as the fins of a great fish seize the water. The dragon’s breath offered brief glimpses of the ground below, the impenetrable darkness of woods, and the occasional gleam of flame on water. They had been able to position themselves more carefully this time, and each of them felt their hearts lift in wordless exhilaration as they left the ground behind. They spoke hardly at all. They each felt better able to really take in what they were doing, and wanted to fix the memory of it in their minds.

Some indeterminate time later, when exhilaration had begun to give way to bone-deep chill, they felt the dragon begin to descend. Unable to let it alone, Salazar had been trying to make contact with the dragon’s mind, but with little success. All he could sense was regret, and purpose. Their flight wasn’t random. The black knew where it was going, even if they did not.

In the illumination of its breath, they caught a brief glimpse of the land rising to meet them. They had crossed over the surface of a lake, and were descending toward what looked, in the dodgy light, like the face of a sheer cliff. The dragon continued to descend, and several voices cried out in alarm. It looked as though the dragon was flying head-first into a solid wall of rock. At the last second however, it alighted in a tiny spot of clear ground between the base of the cliff and the water’s edge.

It was a nervous business climbing down with so little clear space, and Godric wished they could have landed on top of the cliff. The top was covered in trees and underbrush however, and so, with no little trepidation, they pressed themselves flat against the cliff face as the dragon drank deeply from the lake, then shot into the air in an impressive leap.

Exhausted, they made camp where they were. In the morning, they saw that only one path lay open to them. The ground to their right was mostly cliffs. Where the land lay lower, it was dense with trees. To their left was the lake, and their only course was to make their way along its edge, which would fortunately take them north, and so, they began walking. Rowena and Salazar could assure them of their general direction of travel, but their knowledge of astronomy wasn’t equal to telling exactly where the dragon had taken them, or how far. Though they didn’t speak of it, none of them liked the lost feeling this caused.

The ground was rocky and uneven. It was hard going, and Helga often thought longingly of their lost horses, and eventually, even of dragon-flight. The country through which they travelled was beautiful, but lonely. They encountered no one, and a feeling of isolation began to grow stealthily in Helga’s mind. Her legs were tired, her feet sore, and she began to think longingly of her cozy life in Sussex. She tried to tell herself firmly that those days were over, but she grieved for lost friends and lost comforts as she massaged salve into her aching arches.

She felt most sharply the loss of Egbert. He had never been welcomed in Cleodna’s courtyard, but had ranged contentedly outside her village. Helga often went in search of him, and they romped together as they had done at home. Her hasty departure on the dragon’s back had left no time or opportunity for farewells, and anyway, how could she explain. No: Egbert, like all the rest of her previous life, was lost in time and distance.

They continued northward along the lakeside for many days. The slow pace and unchanging terrain began to prey on all their nerves. In mid-morning of a misty day, they came to a fast-flowing river that emptied into the lake. They spent several hours making their arduous way up-stream, to where it looked as though there might be a ford. Just after midday they came in sight of a place that looked safe to cross. Dispirited and exhausted, Helga argued in favour of stopping for the day. Willing for a rest, they all agreed.

It was the wrong time of day for fishing, so Godric wandered off to hunt. Rowena corralled the boys around the Metamorph Magi for study, and Helga sat with Salazar, trying to learn to speak to Madella. Salazar maintained that this was a pointless pass-time. He said the ability was innate not learned, but she persisted anyway. The snake had initially alarmed her, but Salazar’s flawless rapport with it had eased her discomfort.

Emmeline had offered to wash their clothes. Things had got quite muddy and well-used on the trail, and it was work she was used to. She felt restless, unwilling to sit with the younger boys as they studied. Sometimes she liked being with them, playing, or chasing one another. At other times she was impatient with them, feeling herself too old for childrens’ games. Now, the thought of sitting with them and puzzling over obscure words in complicated spells didn’t appeal to her. Helga offered to help her with the laundry, but Emmeline told her to rest, she would take care of it.

Using Helga’s magical green satchel, she gathered up all the laundry and headed for the river. The truth was, she had come to value solitude now and then. Her previous life had offered none. Solitude was a luxury of the wealthy and well-born, and she’d rarely thought to desire it, but her life now was wildly different, and many things had become possible.

She made her way down to the water’s edge, looking around with a practiced eye for a flat, dry place to kneel, and for smaller flat stones to use for scrubbing. She had a brief longing for the company of the other laundry women she used to share this work with. There would be cheerful chatter, and the familiarity of it, but things had become overshadowed by the uncertainty of life without a father.

A woman alone with a small daughter was vulnerable, and life without a man to protect them had been uncertain and unsafe. Emmeline had taught herself not to think about some of it. Her mother had found limited protection with the knight Gervais, and that had helped. Eventually, his eye had begun to stray toward Emmeline. When Emmeline’s mother died of fever during the crossing to England, Emmeline had done what was necessary to maintain her livelihood. Finding Gervais dead on the field had thrown her life once more into confusion, and then Salazar had found her.

She had never imagined living with others who could do the things she and her mother could do. Deathly afraid of discovery and persecution, Emmeline’s mother had flatly refused to use magic, or to let Emmeline do so. Emmeline had often thought that magic must offer some way out of their uncertain, vulnerable existence, but, young and inexperienced, she’d been unable to see exactly what that way might be. Now, picking her way down the bank toward the river, she felt once more the sense of freedom that had come to her since she’d joined other witches and wizards. They didn’t know her past, the things she had done to survive, they only knew she was a witch, and that was enough.

Helga’s satchel held many things, and it was hard to find all the laundry. She had to tug Helga’s magical tent out and lay it aside before she could fish out what she was looking for.

As she laid out clothes, her ears were full of the sound of rushing water. Her memory supplied a pleasant undertone of the laughter of girls and women who used to share the work, but she didn’t really miss them. That life was a million miles away. She was a witch, living with other magic folk. She was safe, as she’d never been safe since her father had been alive, and maybe not even then. This was a new country, where no one knew her, accept these folk she travelled with, and they didn’t judge her either for her magic, or her past. She began to sing as she worked. She didn’t think much of her singing voice, and rarely sang around people, but the rush of the water gave her privacy.

The last item to be washed was one of her own skirts. She was swirling it for a last rinse in the flowing water. She thought at first that it had gotten caught on a rock below the surface, and tugged lightly to free it. When it didn’t come free, she pulled harder, but still it didn’t come. Wondering whether a fish had got hold of it, she braced herself and pulled harder. There was a definite answering tug. Smiling and thinking of Godric and his love for fishing, she jerked harder, but to no avail. She sighed. If she pulled too hard, she risked ripping the fabric. She edged a little closer to the water, trying to secure herself to pull harder, or wait for the fish to get bored.

She peered out into the river, trying to catch a glimpse of the determined fish. At first she saw nothing, then, she saw something she couldn’t believe. It vanished so quickly that she doubted her senses, but it emerged into sight once more. Out where the bottom of the river dropped off, was something that looked partly like a woman, and partly like a snake. It was green, with an old woman’s face, creased, lined, and grinning with malice. It was surrounded by a wild tangle of green hair. The body was long, sinuous and writhing like a huge worm. It had skeletal arms, and its long, bony fingers clutched Emmeline’s skirt, flaunting it mockingly at her.

Perhaps the sensible thing would have been to simply let go of the skirt and give it up to the river, but Emmeline was so shocked that instead, her hands tightened on the fabric. For some reason she had no time to analyze, it had become vital to keep the skirt, to rest it from this hideous water creature. She gathered as much of the material as she could into her fists, and knelt up to pull. This made her perch on the river bank less secure, and with a wicked laugh of triumph, the snake/woman gave a mighty heave, and Emmeline was pulled into the rushing water.

Her mouth was open in a scream of rage and fear, and instantly filled with water. The cold of the water was overwhelming. She couldn’t breathe. Then began a struggle the like of which she had never imagined. Reality became compressed. Nothing existed outside this icy water, and her fight with this malicious adversary. Despite the murk, she was able to see the creature’s face clearly. The face was wrinkled like an old woman’s, but the eyes were ageless. Emmeline had sometimes seen her own reflection in still water, and it seemed to her that the eyes in the aged face were her own eyes. They mocked her struggles, laughing at her.

Impossibly, the creature’s voice filled her ears. There was a cruel, disparaging laugh. “Would you fight me little girl?” It rasped. “Fight me then, or are you too weak?” Emmeline pulled frantically on the fabric. It was suddenly the most important thing she would ever do, to retrieve the garment from this terrifying enemy. “Cold, aren’t you?” The old voice asked mockingly. “Hard to breathe too. Just let go little girl. Give in, that’s what you always do isn’t it? Be safe and do as I say. Let go, and you can return to the land, crawl away and try to forget me and what I took from you.”

Emmeline was filled with fury and desperation. She pulled and pulled, but the creature only continued to mock her, pulling back, and filling Emmeline’s mind with her cackling laughter. The bottom was beginning to slip from under her feet, and soon she would be pulled out into the river. Once that happened, she knew she’d be lost, carried away like driftwood in the rushing water, as though she’d never existed, gone, like something with no meaning, something of no value.

She resisted with her mind and body. She remembered Aidan fighting the little water demon in Cleodna’s pond. Emmeline had no wand, and she couldn’t remember the word Aidan had spoken. Nevertheless, she suddenly knew there was a way to fight. Physical strength had never been a weapon worth wielding against those who’d threatened her safety, but she was a witch, and had power none of those who had threatened her in the past could ever have. She imagined what Aidan had done, and as forcefully as she could, imagined sparks flying from her fingertips. Although she couldn’t remember the words of the spell, she expelled the last remnant of air from her lungs in trying to say, “Leave me alone!” She couldn’t let go, and she wouldn’t let go. The last of her air was no good to her unless it could free her.

The creature let go of the fabric, and Emmeline felt the tension vanish. She had a last glimpse of the lined old face. She had expected to see anger or disappointment, but instead, the face was still creased with laughter, less mocking now.

Emmeline struggled to the surface. The water was murky once more, heavy and cold. It tugged at her as she scrabbled onto shore, dragging the sodden skirt behind her. She lay in a crumpled heap on the bank, coughing up water and trying to catch her breath. When she had, she expelled it again in long, gasping, dry sobs.

When she was able to pull herself together enough to sit up, she began gathering up the clothes to put back into Helga’s green satchel. She must take them back to their camp for hanging. She had taken items out of the satchel haphazardly, and was dismayed to discover that Helga’s magical tent was gone. It had been pulled into the water during her struggle. She cursed herself for her carelessness. Why hadn’t she left it at the camp where it belonged? Soaking, bedraggled, exhausted, traumatized, and dreading having to tell Helga about the loss of her cozy magical tent, Emmeline began to slink back to the camp.

To her relief, it was Salazar she came upon first. He was roaming around for firewood, and saw her before she reached the others. He was about to laugh at her appearance, but then he saw her face. “What has happened?” He asked kindly.

Had it been anyone else, she would have been tongue-tied. Godric and Rowena rather intimidated her, and she simply couldn’t face Helga. Salazar however was someone she understood, and who understood her. He had a mixture of practicality and insight that made her able to talk to him. She told him stumblingly what had happened in the water. He was proud of her for having triumphed. He knew that, like Godric and Rowena, using magic didn’t come naturally to her, and it pleased him to see a young person coming into their own right of magical power.

“I lost Helga’s tent,” she added, choosing to focus first on the most practical distress. “I must have kicked it off the bank in the struggle. What can I do?”

“That tent was a complex piece of magic. I don’t think there’s anything you can do. She won’t be pleased; that’s a woman who likes her comfort.”

“I know. Will you tell her for me?”

Salazar broke into his rich, infectious belly laugh. “Oh no my girl, That’s for you to do! Then I’d duck if I were you, she’s not in a very good humor these days.”

“What was it?” She asked, shivering, “that thing that I fought?”

“A water demon,” He replied simply.

“But why … why did its eyes look like me? Why did it seem to know things … things about me?”

“Many people dismiss demons as simple things, pure evil, and of no value or meaning. They’re not though. Those who like to look only at the light, often fail to recognize the importance of things that dwell outside the light. They exist, and we can’t always ignore them. Sometimes they have things to teach us. Do you understand?”

If it had been Helga or Rowena, Emmeline might have lied or avoided answering, but because it was Salazar, she said simply, “No.”

“Battling with a demon can sometimes be like … like the things we see in dreams. You said the demon looked like you in the eyes, knew things about you. You should think on that. Only you can discover what that really means.”

Before she could express her continued confusion, Helga came into sight with Godric, who was headed down to fish. Helga exclaimed in dismay when she saw Emmeline, and before asking any questions, used her wand to dry Emmeline with a blast of warmth. The relief was profound, and made Emmeline feel even worse about having lost Helga’s magical tent.

Helga accompanied her back to their camp, while Godric and Salazar went down to the river. Haltingly, Emmeline described what had happened. They all listened eagerly, Helga quashing Aidan and Cadogan, who kept interrupting with excited questions. Helga was solicitous. She brewed a calming potion, which made Emmeline feel even more guilty.

In desperation, she burst out with the news that Helga’s tent was by now at the bottom of the lake. Helga was at the fire, her back to Emmeline, ladling potion into a cup. She froze, and said nothing for a whole minute. Then, summoning all she had of the healer’s detachment, she brought the cup to Emmeline and handed it to her saying merely, “Drink.” It took all of her self-control not to fling the contents over Emmeline’s head. She turned quickly, and strode away.

Helga blundered down toward the river, needing to put some distance between herself and every other person in the world. In the half darkness, she nearly ran into Godric. He didn’t have any fish with him however. He took her arm firmly. “Come with me,” he said commandingly. Not knowing what else to do, she went.

They walked through the trees, circling part way around the camp. At the edge, Godric had made a heap of needles and leaves, containing them within some large branches laid on the ground. “It won’t be as soft as your feather bed,” he told her kindly, “but softer than the hard ground. You know it was an accident, Emmeline didn’t mean to deprive you of your night’s rest.”

Helga let out a sigh of mingled exasperation and exhaustion. “I’m just so very tired, and sick of being on foot, and my feet hurt, and I miss Egbert and …” She could hear the plaintive tone of her voice, but couldn’t do anything about it, so she simply stopped talking.

“I know,” he said gently. “You just want things to be as they were, your friends, your home, Odo. You’re stronger than you know.” He put his arms consolingly around her, and she leaned gratefully against him.

“Why are you always doing this?” She asked, sounding like a forlorn child.

“Because you’re so funny,” he replied simply. It wasn’t an answer, but it was enough.

Chapter 23: At the Panting Wolf

 

In the days that followed, Helga had to work hard not to let her resentment against Emmeline show. She knew she was being petty; it was only a tent, but it seemed as though she was going to keep losing things until she had nothing left. Her cozy retreat at the end of each day had meant more to her than she’d realized. Its loss made her feel childishly angry.

They were all longing for some change in the scenery, a night’s sleep in a good bed, and some company besides each others’. All day they’d been picking their way over rocky ground between themselves and another of the tall cliffs. There had been nothing remotely resembling a clearing in which to camp, and the light was beginning to fail. Just as Godric was wondering just how uncomfortable it was going to be to sleep on bare, uneven rock, the cliff face on their right began to lower, and the land opened up.

To their immense relief, they saw what looked like some kind of path ahead, though in the growing darkness it took some concentration not to lose their way. At last, when fatigue was starting to overwhelm them, the path levelled out, and they felt sure they were getting close to something that might be a village or at least a farmstead. Before they had proceeded another 20 paces however, Godric, who was leading, stopped: pointing.

“What’s that?” He gestured. There was a silvery light, but the moon hadn’t risen. The light was emanating from something before them. It didn’t draw any closer, neither did it retreat. Godric and Salazar moved forward once more, but cautiously. The others followed at a short distance. At last they were close enough to see it clearly, and they all gasped. Their stay in Cleodna’s house had left them each with a very mixed set of impressions, but they had all benefitted from studying in her library, and so all were prepared to be dazzled by the rarity of what they saw.

Before them, standing so motionless that it might have been a statue, was a tall figure. Its body was that of a lion at rest, its head, that of a beautiful woman with almond-shaped eyes, an uncommonly rich complexion of a sort they’d never seen, and waves of dark hair. She seemed to emit a gentle glow that made her easy to see in the darkness. They had met some rare creatures in their travels thus far, but they all thought they’d never seen one who combined grace, beauty, power and danger in such a blatantly improbable form. They all knew what she was, and Rowena felt a thrill of anticipation, knowing what was to come.

Without hesitation, Rowena stepped forward and spoke bravely. “Oh noble sphinx, we wish to pass this way. I am ready to speak for us, and answer whatever riddle you will set.”

The sphinx studied Rowena for a moment which seemed to stretch out. She smiled a mysterious smile. The look blended the wisdom of a gracious matron with the carnivorous candor of a great cat. “Indeed you may possibly pass this way my daughter,” she said in a low voice of remarkable musicality, “but it is not you who shall be tested.” She turned her eyes to Salazar. “It is you sir who shall answer my riddle, or all of you must turn back from whence you came, and shall not be allowed to pass this way.”

“But please!” Rowena said almost plaintively, “I have always wished to meet one of your kind, and to prove myself equal to the test.”

“I know that my daughter, but it is not to be this time. This young wizard will answer my riddle, or none of you shall pass, and that is how it shall be. Now step back all of you save this one; he alone will hear my riddle, and he alone will solve it, or none of you will proceed.”

Rowena looked as though she’d had a great gift snatched from her hand, and made no move to retreat as ordered. Godric had to put an authoritative hand on her arm and draw her away to where the others had stepped back, leaving Salazar standing alone before the sphinx.

Salazar felt himself to be cunning in the ways of people, and getting them to do as he wished, but when it came to riddles and learning, he was with Rowena. He felt firmly that it should be she standing here, but he sensed that a sphinx wasn’t someone you argued with. He felt a rising excitement. Could he fathom the ways of such a magical creature? Was his mind equal to its test? He stood before her, watching her steadily, determined to show neither apprehension nor impatience.

Finally, she smiled at him once more, with a glimmer of approval for his composure. “I see that you are ready young wizard. Hear then my riddle, and answer if you may, and if you may not, then you must go back.” She widened her eyes at him, suggesting that she knew where he’d come from, how he’d gotten there, and how impossible it was for them to retreat. She rose at leisure, and paced back and forth across the path, as though considering. Then she stopped, looking down at him, and spoke.

“I am straight and round.

I’m bound up or wound.

Born by birds,

yet never leaving the ground.

I can’t be picked up,

but only set down.

I’m voices without people.

I’m words without sound.”

Salazar stood still. His mind had gone disturbingly blank. For a moment he couldn’t even wrestle with the riddle, for all reason seemed to have left him. Then, mentally shaking himself, he asked her to repeat the riddle, which she did patiently.

Salazar’s mind began to grind slowly through possibilities, but nothing coherent emerged: shapes, prisoners, bales of hay, sticks carried by birds, heavy pottery, ghosts; all of these ideas floated across his consciousness but he knew he was missing the vital connection. He had her repeat the riddle several times more, focusing on the sounds of the words, their pattern, the expressionless face of the sphinx, and increasingly, on his own rising panic. If he failed, they would be forced to turn back. Sphinxes were powerfully magical creatures, and not to be resisted.

He was suddenly uncomfortably conscious of how he appeared to the others, standing alone, facing the beautiful sphinx, whose claws, now that he stopped to notice them, were remarkably vicious looking. He had a deep-rooted fear of looking ridiculous or inept. His attempts to decipher the riddle were becoming overpowered by his fear that he would be unable to do it. He let his mind drift, his eyes sweeping what he could make out of the woods around them, which was very little. He let himself glance back at the others, who stood in a tense knot, watching him.

Sound, ground, wound, bound, voices without people? His eyes rested longingly on Rowena, who stood shifting restlessly from foot to foot as though she needed the chamber pot. If only the sphinx had asked Rowena, surely Rowena, with all her learning, would be able to answer. He felt an unexpected swell of fondness for her. He found her self-possession and cool-headedness attractive. He had, in fact, removed something from Cleodna’s house to give to Rowena as a gift, and regretted that he probably would be eaten by the sphinx before he could do it.

Rising panic making it harder and harder to focus on the riddle, his mind retreated to the peaceful, warm afternoons in Cleodna’s library, struggling through books and scrolls of magical learning, sneaking glimpses of Rowena absorbed by some enormous tome, or guiding the children through recitations of complex spells. How pleasingly austere she had looked. He had disdained books and the written word at first, but she had helped him to see the magic in them, the way they connected past and future, the way they made the transient permanent. Writing was power, it was … it was … it was words without sound! It was voices without people! It was set down in books and scrolls, carried through the quills of bird feathers!

“One more time please?” He asked the sphinx, trying to suppress his eagerness. Once more she posed the riddle. He nodded with each phrase, then brought his hands together in triumph. “Writing!” He shouted in his exultation, “The answer is writing!” The sphinx smiled, then nodded, then stepped aside to vanish into the trees.

The others ran to Salazar, all speaking at once, demanding that he tell them the riddle. He did so, reveling in their admiring expressions, and so relieved to have solved the riddle, that he felt his feet barely touched the ground. Of all of them, only Rowena failed to look joyful, but this didn’t trouble Salazar. He understood perfectly that she was only disappointed not to have been the one tested. He knew that she was impressed, and that was all that mattered.

At last, their excitement ebbed enough for them to continue, and they followed the path further on to where they found an inn. There was no light; they only hoped it was an inn because of its size, and the tall sign above the door, that they couldn’t quite make out in the darkness.

They entered cautiously. There was faint light from a banked fire, and to their surprise, the common room was entirely empty. Godric lit his wand, and they saw evidence that the room had been occupied recently; tankards and platters left carelessly on tables, the smoldering embers on the hearth, but no one was there now. Deciding not to wake anyone, Salazar built up the fire enough for warmth, and they simply rolled up in their blankets and found what comfort they could on the mismatched furniture, or on the floor.

Godric and Helga were usually the first to wake each morning, and both tended to wake up alert. Seeing that the others still slept, Godric murmured to her that he was going to go off in search of good fishing. Who ever the inn keeper was, her welcome of seven guests was likely to be warmer for the contribution of some food.

Godric liked fishing. Though a sociable man, he wasn’t one who needed the company of others. He enjoyed both the solitude and simplicity of fishing. It required skill, but also stillness and patience. Salazar preferred the chase and challenge of hunting, and for the most part they’d eaten well on their journey so far.

Godric walked out into the crisp dawn air, inhaling with pleasure. Curious, he turned to look up at the inn’s sign. The words, The Panting Wolf, were carved below the image of a lean wolf in profile, seated, head up, looking alert, its tongue lolling with thirst. Something in the image appealed to him, and he smiled as he went in search of a stream, or failing that, the lake.

Helga lounged, not ill pleased for the opportunity to do nothing while the others slept on, and the slovenly inn keeper remained conspicuous only by her absence. Finally, when the sun was well over the treetops, the inn keeper appeared, making a languid way down from an upper floor. She looked surprised, but not displeased to see the room full of guests.

Helga studied her with interest. She didn’t know what to expect of someone who slept the morning away, but the woman who stood stretching and rubbing her eyes in the common room was young, very healthy looking, and, despite a somewhat rumpled appearance, attractive. She had a lean, strong body, vigorous looking red hair, and a pleasant, rather sharp-featured face. If her nose was a tad long for symmetry, it lent her an appealingly feral quality.

“Welcome,” she said, running her eyes over them. “You must have come in the middle of the night. I’m sorry I wasn’t awake to see to your comfort. How did you arrive?” A frown touched her features. “We haven’t had many visitors for a while.”

“We,” Helga hesitated. “We came from that direction.” She indicated the way leading to the path they’d traversed. Feeling she must out of courtesy say something else, she added, “from Sussex.”

The woman looked grave. “Are their tidings? We have heard things …”

In brief sentences, Helga told her of what had happened, though not their part in it. The woman looked away, then seemed to gather herself together. “Well,” she said, finding something less overwhelming to focus on, “you’ve neither wings nor fins, so if you came that way you must have had help. Have you thestrals? I know someone who will be eager to meet you!”

“No,” Helga said, encouraged by the woman’s nonchalance in discussing magical creatures. “We flew here part of the way on a black dragon.”

“A black dragon? I haven’t heard of any Hebridean blacks around here for a long time, accept of course the one held captive by the druidess.”

Helga nodded, and the woman’s eyes grew round with astonishment. “You rode the Hebridean black from captivity? By the staff of Merlin, you are an accomplished witch indeed!”

“It wasn’t me,” Helga demurred, making a humble fending motion with her hands. “Really it was Salazar.” She gestured toward him, and introduced him. This led to a general round of introductions. The woman gave her name as Celina, which caused Rowena to raise her eyebrows.

Celina was slowly becoming more animated. She reached out to a platter on one of the tables, picked up a large bone, and gnawed almost savagely on it. Helga was startled, but Celina’s manner and bearing had a kind of natural raw grace that made the behavior less shocking than it might have been from a more ordinary looking person.

The meat seemed to restore her, and she rose energetically. “I will prepare food for you to break your fast.” Her eyes surveyed them. “Six of you?”

“There is one more in our party,” Rowena explained. “He has gone fishing, thinking to add to your larder if he may.”

“Oh that will be welcome,” Celina said easily. “You rest here and I will return shortly.”

She swept out toward the kitchen at the back. She had looked sleepy and lazy at first, but now she seemed to exude vitality in a way that made them all watch her as she left.

“I have heard that there are all-magic villages,” Helga said speculatively. “Maybe We have come to one such.”

Emmeline’s face was alive with interest. “You mean everyone who lives here has magic?” She was clearly excited by the idea.

“It certainly seems so,” Rowena replied.

The children were all for rushing out immediately to see what an all wizarding village was like, but Helga said firmly that they must wait until they’d eaten. She didn’t want them wandering off on their own until she knew how things really were here. The world was so much larger than she’d ever imagined, when she had been tucked away in her own small, safe corner of it.

Celina emerged a short time later with platters heaping with eggs, ham, mushrooms, and some of yesterday’s bread. The breakfast was lavish, and even the pleasure-loving Helga was impressed by its preparation. She sat across the table from Celina, questioning her carefully about the village.

The village was, in fact, an entirely wizarding settlement: so much so that muggles and squibs were unwelcome, and forced to leave. It turned out that the black dragon had carried them some distance north-west of their original course. They were now on the lands of a thane named Æthelrand. This thane owed allegiance to an ealdorman, who owed allegiance to King Harold Godwinson. At any rate, that was how things had been thus far. Helga and their party had sped north faster than the conquering army of William of Normandy. What would happen when William’s front men penetrated this far into England was anyone’s guess. Celina seemed quite unconcerned by the prospect.

“Æthelrand has made himself something of an outcaste,” Celina explained. “He was born into a noble family, but unlike some magic folk, he was unwilling or unable to hide what he is, or to be unnoticeable. Folk like you and I, if we’re a bit unusual, we can either blend in by choice, or find refuge in obscurity. If we have strange powers or gifts, our village may simply look the other way: come to us for cures or aid, but shield us from notice by people who would fear or hurt us. When you’re born into a noble family though, things get harder to hide. It may seem safer to be of high birth, but in some ways it really isn’t.

“Anyway, Æthelrand is a law unto himself, and he couldn’t make a place for himself with the other thanes. There were some nasty incidents, a lot of trouble one way and another, and the ealdorman sent him here, agreeing not to call him to military service so long as Æthelrand would stop making a spectacle of himself. It was kind really. He could have set the bishop on Æthelrand, nobleman or no. Now Æthelrand has created this village as a refuge for witches and wizards, and we’re glad to have a place where we don’t have to be afraid to be open about who we are.”

All listened to this explanation with fascination. “And have you yourself always lived here?” Emmeline asked, round-eyed.

“No,” Celina replied. “I came here when I was a bit older than you little sister.”

Aidan and Cadogan, though interested, had been becoming increasingly restless with forced inactivity. Seeing this, Celina asked whether they’d be willing to milk her goats, and collect eggs for her. They made a show of reluctance to be offered such mundane tasks, but bounded up when Celina rose to show them where things were. Helga rose too, preceding them out the door.

“And where has your fisherman got to I wonder,” Celina said, rising to follow Helga and the boys outside.

Helga smiled over her shoulder. She had taken a liking to Celina, appreciating her vitality, her plain speech, and the warmth of her manner. “Oh he’ll be along soon I expect. The best of the fishing will be done till dusk. Oh!” She exclaimed, looking around in the bright morning sun, “here he comes now.”

Godric was striding confidently along a track toward them, a string of fish swinging merrily from his hand. He’d made a good catch, and it was a fine day. He was looking forward to a hearty breakfast, and to showing off his catch to Helga and the children. Helga thought how fine he looked, and turned to Celina, who was coming out behind her.

She was just in time to see the most extraordinary series of expressions chase one another across Celina’s face. Polite curiosity changed to instinctive admiration for Godric’s good looks, then, to a remarkable, arrested expression, as though she was trying to hear something a long way off. Her face registered shock, disbelief, wonder, and then settled into a look of pure joy. “Godric!” She screamed in excitement, and ran forward, throwing herself into his arms.

Godric dropped his string of fish. None of them could see his face, but all saw how his arms went around her at first reluctantly, then fiercely, then familiarly.

All stood agog, watching this unexpected scene. Finally, Helga said to the children, a little more snappishly than she’d intended, “Well, come on, there’s milking to be done.”

Godric and Celina drew apart, seemed to speak briefly, then turned together and, without a glance at the others, began striding back the way Godric had come, clearly in search of privacy. Looking after them, Helga noticed how well their energetic strides matched one another.

The others found themselves at loose ends, unable to make plans without Godric. Helga sought something with which to distract herself from wondering who Celina was. The others set out to roam the village, but Helga stayed behind, helping defer the cost of their stay by doing the indoor work Celina should have been doing, instead of being off frittering away the day as though … she punched the bread dough with unnecessary vigor.

Æthelrand’s Hollow was a village like any other in most ways. The differences were sometimes in the small things: a bucket lowering itself down into a well and rising full again, fires starting all at once, washing sailing down off lines to fold itself into baskets, ale tubs being stirred with no hand touching them, an ax competently chopping wood.

Sometimes however, the differences were dramatic, as when they came upon a blacksmith shoeing a winged horse. They had seen and recognized other magical creatures here, but had seen nothing so exciting. They stood back in awe, their minds full of questions. A middle-aged woman sat nearby platting harness leather, while an oiled cloth cleaned saddlery on a bench beside her. She was keeping one eye on the horse, not nervously exactly, but attentively. When the smith had finished, the woman rose, went to the beast, and put a firm, affectionate hand on the horse’s withers. The horse nuzzled her, just as an ordinary horse would. It was a large chestnut.

The woman noticed the group of onlookers. “I heard there were folk at the Panting Wolf,” she said, studying them with a forthright eye. She glanced down at Aidan and Cadogan, who were being physically prevented by Rowena, from darting forward to see the horse up close.

“You can come closer if you want, but slowly. This one’s still skittish around children.”

The boys tried to jerk out of Rowena’s grasp. “Slowly!” Rowena snapped, letting them go. Emmeline looked as though she would have liked to get closer too, and Rowena thought the girl was having one of those moments where she couldn’t decide whether to act like a child or a woman.

The boys approached cautiously. “Wow!” Cadogan exclaimed, “you’ve got a flying horse!”

“I’ve got more than one,” the woman said cheerfully. “I’ve been breeding them, domesticating them. This is one of the more docile ones. He’s very friendly, most of the time, aren’t you?” She rubbed his neck fondly.

“You’ve got an entire herd?” Salazar asked with amazement.

“A small one. They’re not stable horses you know, but they know me well, and will do my will, usually.”

Salazar looked impressed. “May we see them?”

The woman looked unimpressed. Children were one thing, but she wasn’t operating a country fair. “Have you experience with magical creatures?”

Salazar was battling with his own smugness in choosing his reply, when Aidan saved him the trouble. “We flew the Hebridean black. Salazar freed him, and then controlled him so we rode him.” Aidan spoke with a fierce pride, which allowed Salazar to merely nod in a dignified sort of way. The woman looked impressed.

They spent the afternoon with the woman, whose name was Edwina. Despite what she had said, there was a large stable that the horses did condescend to use in bad weather, and where they came to eat the hay that Edwina provided when grazing was poor. In exchange for cleaning and stocking the place, she let the three children ride the most tranquil of the winged beasts. They returned to the ground brimming with excitement, and overflowing with praise for the horses.

As the children ran and flew, Edwina and Salazar talked. She heard with rapt interest about their departure from Cleodna’s house. In turn, she told him of her efforts to train the winged horses.

“The truth is,” she said candidly, “I’m actually considering that I might have to thin out the herd somehow. There are too many stallions, and that causes trouble.” Salazar, who was growing conscious of an exciting idea, drew her out with intelligent questions. Rowena, less interested, but engaged by watching Salazar’s absorption, was attentive but quiet.

When the sun was low in the sky, they prepared to return to the inn. Salazar and Edwina agreed that they would talk more. As they were parting, Edwina smiled at Salazar and Rowena and said, “It’s full moon tonight. As you’re new here, you won’t know this, but there’s a field outside the village that’s renowned for its herbs and flowers.” When they didn’t react at once, she said with a mischievous smile “mooncaps.” Her listeners were suitably dazzled.

“I’ve read about them!” Rowena said enthusiastically. “Their dances are said to be wondrous to behold.”

“Many’s the young couple, and not a few old ones too, who steal out on the full moon hoping to catch a glimpse of them.”

Rowena’s cheeks grew pink, but Salazar merely thanked her for the information, and the five of them headed back to the inn. They found Godric not yet returned, and Helga sitting in an armchair by the fire, a spindle producing thread in mid air beside her, and an uncommonly distant expression on her face. She looked up sharply when she heard them, and if she felt any disappointment that the sounds were not those of Godric returning, she strove hard not to show it. She heard all about their afternoon with the winged horses, then bustled off toward the kitchen, dragging Emmeline with her, to see about supper.

After the meal, Salazar and Rowena tried to convince Helga to come with them to look for mooncaps. She said she’d rather stay by the fire where it was warm. With characteristic practicality however, she gathered as many seeds as she could from her remaining herbs. “Take these,” she said, “and before moon-rise, spread them in the field. Do you remember what the Compendium of Uncanny Creatures said about fields where mooncaps dance?”

Cadogan jumped in eagerly at this point, ready to show that he was capable of scholarship too. “It said that their poop makes flowers and herbs grow really really fast!”

“That’s right,” Helga said tolerantly. “Now off to bed with you.”

Salazar and Rowena strolled in a leisurely way out of the village in the direction Edwina had pointed out. As they went, they did indeed see other couples making their way toward the remote field also, but the other couples kept to themselves. Rowena felt a rising anticipation. It was the prospect of seeing another type of magical creature she hadn’t seen before, she told herself.

They came to the edge of the field, and after casting Helga’s seeds about at random, found a dense and private patch of shrubbery to hide in. Mooncaps were notoriously shy, and quiet concealment was essential if you hoped to see them.

They huddled in their cloaks against the evening chill. They stood close together for warmth, and were uncommonly aware of one anothers’ nearness. They waited patiently as the full moon rose, and a long, long time later, there was movement on the far side of the field. A collection of some of the oddest looking creatures they’d ever seen, was making its stealthy way into the clearing.

They had bodies of a smooth, pale gray. They walked on four spindly legs, which ended in absurdly large feet. Their eyes were round, bulging, and placed almost on top of their heads. They looked clumsy, ungainly, improbable and not in any way prepossessing, until they started to dance.

They formed themselves into two concentric rings, the inside ring facing outward, and the outside ring facing in. They all rose onto their back legs, and began moving. Given their odd appearance and ungainly bodies, the dance should have been comical, but it wasn’t. The two rings of dancers turned, sometimes one way, and sometimes the other. Individuals wove between the rings in complex and mysterious patterns so that the rings were always maintained, but dancers shifted from one to another. Each dancer moved as though guided by an inner impulse, but watching the entire group, it was clear that there was a structure or meaning to the movement. Washed of normal colour by the moonlight, the whole scene had a remarkably hypnotic quality. The dancers moved with surprising grace and delicacy. The odd placement of their eyes made it seem as though their heads were thrown back in a kind of ecstasy. Their upper bodies swayed in time with one another, bowing, rotating and turning in slow patterns. Lifted off the ground, their large front feet became bizarrely eloquent, moving delicately, as though communicating some subtle meaning. The dancers wove in and out, and back and forth, so that one almost expected to see an elaborate tapestry being created on the ground. In so far as she was able to think at all in the face of this spell-binding spectacle, Rowena thought that if only their steps did weave a tapestry, it would surely show a pattern to make clear all the mysteries of the world.

After a timeless time, during which time ceased to exist, the dancers slowly drifted to a halt, put all four huge feet back on the ground, turned, and made a lumbering progress back the way they had come. The field was just a field once more, unremarkable, and autumn-bear.

Rowena and Salazar remained still, overwhelmed by what they had witnessed. Gradually, they became aware of small rustlings, as other couples retreated quietly back toward the village, but neither of them felt any urge to do so. They remained close together, linked by the magic of what they’d seen.

Finally, Rowena exhaled slowly. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”

Salazar said nothing, but he reached out and they joined hands. After a long time, he spoke. “I have a gift for you. I’ve been carrying it with me for some days, but I couldn’t find the right time to give it to you.” He let go her hand, and reached into the bundle he’d carried with him from the inn. He drew out something large and flat, holding it out to her. As she reached for it, he lit his wand so that she could see.

She gasped out loud in a rare display of wonder. “Oh Salazar!” In her hands, broad, heavy, and smelling of parchment, was a book. She gazed in awe at its title, Sumerian Spells and Hellenic Hexes: Ancient Arcana for the Modern Magician. Rowena’s eyes were huge. She wanted to open the book, but it was so wide that she didn’t think she could hold it. She longed for a large table in a quiet library, where she could open the cover and lose herself. She raised her shining eyes to Salazar’s face. When he saw her expression, he smiled.

She knew that many thought him ill-favoured. He had an unusual appearance it was true, but she found it foreign and intriguing rather than off-putting, and the smile he saved for his friends, was an expression that transformed him. She sometimes thought that if he showed that part of himself more often, he would have had more friends in his life, but he was a complicated person, and she liked that too.

“It’s got both languages and spells,” he was saying. “It’s a primer for Babylonian and Greek, as well as a comprehensive spell book for incantations in those languages.”

Rowena gasped. This was a treasure indeed. “Salazar! Where did you get this? You mean it for me, truly?”

“Of course I mean it for you. Why else would I have carried it all the way out here if I didn’t mean it for you?”

“Where did you get it?”

“From Cleodna’s library. I found it tucked way back on a shelf one day, and I knew you would like it. Cleodna herself said she intended to give you one of her books when we left, do you remember?”

“Yes, I do remember.” She also remembered the intense longing Cleodna’s casual words had ignited in her. Owning one book was almost unheard-of for a poor woman, for any woman; owning two was a kind of miracle.

“Oh Salazar!” Though more conventionally attractive than Salazar, Rowena habitually maintained an austere expression. Now, her face looked as alive as his. He stared. He was very fond of the way she looked, but, like her, he was enchanted by an expression he’d never seen on her face before. Slowly, he reached out and took the book from her unresisting hands. With due reverence he laid it safely on top of his bundle, turned to her, and held out his arms.

Chapter 24: The Binding Spell

 

When Aidan and Cadogan had finally settled, Helga sat with Emmeline by the fire. Helga had lost the edge of her vexation over the fate of her magical tent, helped considerably by the comforts of an inn, and a friendly place to rest.

She found Emmeline tractable most of the time, but a little aloof. The girl maintained a reserve, so that Helga was never really sure what Emmeline was thinking. Emmeline liked her too, but if she was honest with herself, Emmeline felt more at ease around Salazar. There was something ruthless and calculating in him that she understood, that she was used to. Helga was warm, kind, comforting: qualities Emmeline drew on, but with which she wasn’t entirely at ease.

Celina had left her work bag, and Helga found in it a scarlet wool that wasn’t familiar to her. Deferring to Emmeline’s expert skill at spinning, Helga watched closely as the younger woman wielded the spindle, making a thick but even thread out of the stuff. They compared techniques for different types of wool they’d worked with, until they heard a step outside the door. It had grown dim in the corners of the room away from the fire, but when the door opened, they saw that the promised full moon was well up.

Godric strode in looking weary, but oddly elated. Helga thought there were leaves in his hair. He dropped into a chair at the table, gazing at them as if not sure what to say.

“Are you hungry?” Helga asked practically. He nodded vigorously, and she rose to find him some supper.

She returned, placing a loaf of bread, some cold chicken and cheese down before him beside a mug of ale. He gave a moan of longing, and pulled his chair up to the table to tuck in. He ate voraciously, pushed back his chair, patted his belly contentedly, and thanked Helga from the bottom of his heart. She smiled, but said nothing.

Sensing tension, Emmeline wound up her work, tucked it into Celina’s work bag, and bid them good night. When she’d withdrawn to a far corner of the large room and rolled herself up in a blanket on the settle, Godric looked a little sheepishly at Helga.

“Well,” she said with some asperity, “you’ve obviously had quite a day.”

He smiled a little dreamily, then seemed to notice her expression. “Are all well? Have I left something undone?”

“All are fine, but you did rather leave us here at loose ends. We couldn’t make any kind of plans without you, and with no idea where you’d gone.”

He exhaled, running a hand through his fair hair. He dislodged a russet leaf, which began to drift toward the floor. Helga caught it and flicked it dismissively into the fire. “I’m sorry,” he said, “it’s Celina. We’re … we’re old friends, and I was surprised to see her again.” Something flickered in his face but he said no more.

“Where is she? It’s an odd inn she keeps here. I had to feed everyone today, and do her work for her, and the outside work too.”

“She’s … she’s got to be away for a day or so.” He looked around the shabby room. “She’s not a bad inn-keeper, a little haphazard maybe, but she’s always been like that.” His expression grew dreamy and far away.

Helga set down her ale cup firmly on the table beside her. “Godric what it going on here?” She asked resolutely. Whatever else they were, they were friends, and if he would leave them like that without a backward glance, she would know why.

He sighed. He hardly knew where to begin, but they were friends, good friends, and she had always had the gift for drawing the truth from him, no matter how strange or unexpected it might be.

“Celina told you where we are?”

“Æthelrand’s Hollow she told us.”

“Yes, but our direction, did she tell you we’ve come to the west country?”

“Yes, she did. Didn’t you once say something about …”

“I grew up not far from here, well some of the time. Celina did too. We … spent a lot of time together. After my father died, my mother remarried. It was a good match for her, and an opportunity for me. Her new husband was close to Harold Godwinson, a rich and powerful man. It meant that I got to learn soldiery, but it meant I had to leave. We were sad about it, and I guess you could say that’s where it started.”

“Will you learn how to throw an ax?” Celina asked. They were fishing at their favourite spot, and he was leaving tomorrow.

“I already know how to throw an ax,” he replied indignantly.

She snickered, then looked sad. She twitched irritably. “It’s not going to be any fun when you’re gone. It’ll just be me and Aunt Roomie.” Celina’s Aunt Brumhilda was an accomplished but scattered witch who kept a lot of cats. She was kind enough, but not always enthusiastic about having a young child in the house. Celina’s voice had slipped into that whine she made when she wasn’t getting her way. She never stayed like that for long though. That was why he liked her.

“Maybe I’ll learn clerking and write to you,” he said, trying to lighten the mood. He felt bad about it too, but he didn’t want to spend his last day here feeling sad.

Neither, it seemed, did Celina. She sighed gustily, then looked up into the large bird’s nest in the tree across the water. It was one of the things they liked best about this spot, aside from the good fishing. The nesting site was something of a permanent home. Each spring, the white-tailed eagles who’d inherited it, returned to breed.

“I think the little ones are going to be able to fly soon,” Celina remarked. “Too bad you won’t be here to see it.” She turned slowly but deliberately to face him. “Aunt Rumie showed me a spell,” she said. This wasn’t uncommon. Aunt Brumhilda wasn’t much of a parent, but she loved teaching what she knew. Celina was much less interested than Aunt Rumie in magic for its own sake, but Selina preferred a home with conversation in it, so she often pretended more interest than she felt. The upshot was that she got a semblance of parental attention, and learned things not a lot of other people knew.

Godric looked up from the hook he was bating. Something in Celina’s voice told him that this wasn’t just another incantation to make bread rise, or summon a swarm of bees.

Celina smiled. “It’s a binding spell. Aunt Rumie told me that if two people cast it together in the right way, they’ll be connected. The spell will make sure they come back together again if they have to be apart. We could cast it, then we’d be sure you’ll come back.”

“But of course I’ll come back, I live here!”

“You live here now, but people sometimes leave where they grew up, and they never come back.”

“That won’t happen. I’ll be back. My mother is bound to be with child sometime soon, and she’s said she’ll come back here to give birth, and her new husband has agreed.”

“That’s nice, but not very certain. Come on, do the spell with me!”

Godric shrugged, then peered closely into her face. “Will it help keep you from being sad?”

She smiled broadly. “Yes!”

“All right then,” he said genially, and put down his fishing rod. “What do we do?”

Celina clapped her hands together. “Good!” She reached into the pocket of her skirt and pulled out two white feathers. “Aunt Rumie said you start with feathers, one each from the tail of birds who are mates. Then you tie them together with the kind of grass the birds use in their nest.”

Celina showed him what to do, demonstrated the gestures required, and rehearsed him through the incantation, growing more and more excited. Godric followed along patiently. Celina got strange ideas into her head some times, but she was fun and adventuresome, and she was his best friend.

When they were ready, she took a deep breath, and hugged him hard. “Thank you for doing this with me, I’ll feel a lot better afterward.” She kissed him exuberantly on the cheek, and let him go. He touched the place a little wonderingly, then gave his attention to the spell.

In the common room at the Panting Wolf, Godric said to Helga, “We were still practically children. We didn’t really know what we were doing. I mean we really didn’t know what we were doing! Celina’s aunt is an accomplished witch, but she’s not the most thorough person in the world. When she told Celina about the binding spell, she didn’t think to mention that it’s meant to be done with the feathers of normal birds, birds who mate for a season, then part. When you perform the spell using feathers from birds who mate for life, strange things happen. And not only do white-tailed eagles mate for life, they sometimes return year after year to the same nest. At first we didn’t think anything of it. It happened that these two birds were shot with arrows soon after I left, by a herder whose lambs were being preyed upon by the eagles. Celina thought that would make an end of the spell. She was wrong, but it took us some time to figure it out.”

Learning to wield sword and bow suited Godric well. Though he missed his home, and especially Celina, entering the life of a soldier was a bit like coming home. His new father was a conventional man, and Godric’s mother insisted that their magical abilities must be kept secret. Godric found this hard to get used to at first, but it didn’t take him long to become aware of what sometimes happened to those accused of witchcraft. Before long, he rarely thought about magic at all, and grew accustomed to hiding what he was. His mother didn’t in fact become pregnant, and it was a year and a half before Godric and Celina saw each other again. If not for the spell, they might not have.

Godric and his parents were on their way to visit his father’s family. They were about two days’ ride from Godric’s home village, just passing the road one would take if one was going there, when a horse in their party threw a shoe. They had to turn aside to find the nearest blacksmith, and there in the village was Celina. They were filled with joy to see one another again.

“You know how it can be with some old friends,” Godric said to Helga in the common room. “You can be apart for a month or a year, and when you’re together again, it’s like you were never apart. We thought nothing of it that time. The next time was just as unexpected.

“I hadn’t intended on going home. I was on an expedition with a band of soldiers loyal to Harold Godwinson. As we passed within a few days’ ride of my home, we came on a messenger who’d been dispatched to find help. There were rumors of raids along the coast and inland, and my village had sent a messenger to seek aid. Of course, we turned aside to help. It was a false alarm, but there was Celina again. We weren’t so young this time, and we … well, we spent a lot of time together.”

Even then, they hadn’t been sure. It wasn’t until the last time that they’d really begun to wonder in earnest. It was 1064, and Godric was soon to depart with Harold for France. Godric wasn’t one to pay attention to omens or premonitions, but he had a bad feeling about this voyage. Some time before they would leave, he asked Harold if he might make a last visit to his home, and Harold agreed.

Godric returned home, not expecting to see Celina. She had married two years before, and was living with her husband’s kinfolk in the next shire. Aimless and a little sad, he wandered to the cottage where Aunt Rumie lived, with her many cats and wild magical experiments, and there was Celina, drinking mint tea at Rumie’s kitchen table.

Celina rose when she saw him, and though they were undeniably happy to see one another, they didn’t rush into each others’ arms this time. Celina had known grief and loss, Godric felt a pall of apprehension about his future, and now both of them felt that their irregular reunions were something more than coincidence.

They all sat down around Brumhilda’s table, and thrashed it out. Eventually, Aunt Rumie leaned back and said, “It’s the white-tailed eagles. That spell is meant to be a simple love charm, but you’ve made it into something else. White-tailed eagles mate for life, and quite often return to the same spot to nest. They may wander away for years at a time, but when they get within a certain distance of a previous nest, they’ll home in on it and settle there. I think that the two of you have bound yourselves to each other and to that place. Once you’re within a certain range, magic will draw you back.” Her expression drew together into the look of impersonal curiosity they knew so well. “I wonder what would happen if you two had chicks, I mean children!”

Feeling unequal to Brumhilda’s callousness, Celina and Godric left, under the pretext of catching some fish for supper. Without even discussing it, their steps turned toward the water’s edge, and they stood together, staring at the nest. There was a long silence, within which Godric nursed a growing conviction. Finally, he spoke with decision.

“I will ask Harold to release me, and I will come back here to be your husband.”

“My what?”

“We will marry. It’s what we’re meant to do. I’m sure Harold will let me go. Sometimes I think he’s looking for a reason to send me off. He knows I have magic, and he doesn’t like it. He won’t … well, I think he’ll let me go.”

“Oh Godric!”

“What is it. Do you still grieve for your husband?”

“No, not … I mean it was a year ago, and the worst has passed. It’s not that.”

“Don’t you want to marry me?” He lifted a hand to touch her cheek.

She smiled. The life of a soldier suited him well. He looked fit and strong, though with something shadowing his usual ebullience. Oh she could marry him, and be happy to do so, but she wasn’t the girl he had known, and maybe he had changed too, or maybe he hadn’t. “Oh Godric, I’m different now.”

“I know, we’re both older, things have happened. You’ve been a married woman, I know that, but we could be happy together, I know it.” His finger traced lightly, familiarly down to her collar bone. He watched as several expressions crossed her face. He’d always liked watching her face. It was a mobile face which didn’t hide things. In fact, looking at her closely, he thought that her features seemed a little sharper, and was her nose perhaps a little longer? Her hair, yes, her hair was redder too. His smile was knowing and sweet, and hard to resist, but she tried.

“Godric, it’s not just that I’ve been married, I’m different now.”

“We’ve never been afraid to tell the truth to each other, why don’t you just tell me what’s on your mind? I know you’re not a normal kind of girl or woman, I’m used to it. I’ll still expect you to come fishing with me; it won’t be all spinning and weaving for you as my wife.”

“Oh Godric, I could be happy with you I know it but, I don’t fish quite the way I used to.”

He knew her well, and knew she didn’t mean that she’d given it up. She meant something else, and he stared intently, waiting for her to say what she really meant.

“Godric, every … each … when there’s a full moon …” He waited for a bawdy jest about moonlight, but it didn’t come. “Every full moon, I fish by sticking my head in the water and grabbing fish with my teeth. Then I eat the fish raw.”

He started to laugh, but when she didn’t, he withdrew his hand and actually took a step back. “By the sacred oaks Celina! What are you saying?”

“I’m a werewolf.”

Godric felt dizzy. He wished he could have dismissed her words as a childish joke, but while Celina might wrestle you into the stream, or drop a trout down your tunic, she wasn’t one for tall tails or pointless deception. If she said she was a werewolf, she meant it.

Helga leaned forward in her chair. “Are you telling me Celina is a werewolf?”

“Yes.” Godric smiled at her reaction. “That’s how I felt at first too. I guess I’m used to it by now. It wasn’t tragic or frightening. She told me all about it. It was her husband. They had become fond of one another, and he confessed to her that he was a werewolf, and so couldn’t marry her. Celina’s never been one to be frightened off by the unusual. Instead of being horrified, she was fascinated. Finally, don’t ask me how, she convinced him that she wanted him to bight her, to make her one too.”

Helga drew back in shock. “She willed it so?”

“yes. She said so, and having known her my whole life, I believe her. She’s a good, kind person, but she’s always been reckless, and drawn to the strange and different. All those years living with Aunt Rumie weren’t lost on her. I see now that they’re more alike than different. Celina isn’t unhappy with her fate. She tried to explain it to me, but I can’t really understand. I’m a pretty simple man, who wants pretty simple things. Celina is someone who will ever be pushing herself, wanting something more or something different. It’s not that she’s an unhappy or unsatisfied person, she’s just adventurous in a way that I, despite my love of a fight, am not.

“And it’s not just the full moon either. She’s different in other ways too, even when the moon isn’t full. Somehow becoming a werewolf freed her from a lot of the ways most people think it’s right to live. She loves me, but she didn’t want to marry me, because she wanted to be free to, well, to … to do as she wished, associate with whom ever she wished. You’ve seen how she’ll sleep till the sun is high, and generally do to suit herself. It’s like that in all things for her. She has associations with other werewolves, other men, and she doesn’t want a husband who will expect her to be … well, she says marriage just isn’t for her. Knowing her and myself, I had to admit she’s probably right.

“We talked it all out that last time, before I went to France and Normandy with Harold. I can only have from her what she will give, and I love her truly, so that’s enough. We agreed that we’re probably bound for the rest of our lives by the spell, and that fate and seeming coincidence will most likely cause us to cross paths, whether we wish it or no, and we do wish. I didn’t know where we’d come when the black dragon flew us here. I had just assumed we’d continued north. All during our journey from Sussex, I’ve been determined not to turn west, but here I am, again.”

“And today?” Helga asked.

Godric smiled. “We were shocked to see one another, as we always are. I forgot all about everything else, which is what usually happens, for a time at least. I’m sorry I just wandered off like that without a word. Once we were together, that place pulled us like salmon upstream. We went there and talked. We caught one another up on our lives for the past two years. I told her of Odo and our quest, and I told of our friendship, and how important it’s become to me. I told her about what I left behind, about the battle, about what it’s been like knowing you and Salazar and Rowena.”

“You’re still with us then? You’re not planning to stay here with her?”

“No. She and I are not meant to be together permanently. I’ve accepted that we’re bound by love and by the spell we cast, but we’re not meant for a shared life. Were you concerned that I would abandon our oath to carry Odo home?”

Helga shrugged, ill-at-ease. “How could I know? I didn’t know who she was or what she meant to you, and I never could have guessed all that. I don’t know for certain what binds you to us. I like her a great deal. I can see why she’s important to you.” Helga spoke truthfully, but her eyes were on her hands, clasped in her lap.

“Helga,” Godric said softly, “look up.”

Slowly, she did. He was leaning toward her, his eyes on her face. He reached out and placed his large, warm, callused hand over hers. “I swore an oath, as did we all, to carry Odo home, but that’s not all that binds me.”

She held his hand between both of hers, feeling remarkably happy and unself-conscious. She traced the lines and calluses with her finger, hearing again his voice, low, only for her, “That’s not all that binds me.”

After a time, there was a sleepy rustling from a corner of the room, and they remembered where they were. “It’s so late!” Helga exclaimed. “Where ever have Rowena and Salazar got to? They went out looking for Mooncaps, but that was hours ago. And Celina, why didn’t she return with you?”

But Helga saw the answer to the second question in the first, and in the quizzical expression on his face. She brought one hand to her mouth. Her eyes became the size of trenchers. “It’s the full moon!”

“Indeed. Celina is off, doubtless in search of her own kind, and I suppose the Mooncaps must have come after all.”

Chapter 25: Cats, Toads, and Flying Horses

 

In the morning, Rowena and Salazar slept even later than usual. Godric wandered off to fish, while Helga and the boys milked the goats and looked for fresh eggs, and Emmeline got things going in the kitchen. Celina hadn’t returned.

Over breakfast, Godric gave a highly edited version of his tale of the night before to the others. He glossed over the nature of his connection to Celina and the west country, and anyway, everyone was completely distracted by the revelation that Celina was a werewolf. The boys would have leapt up and run outside to look for her return, but Helga quashed them with a scorching look, and firm words.

“You’re not to stare at her, and you’re not to drown her in questions; it’s rude. Do you understand?” She had to repeat the question twice to get their attention, but they agreed sullenly that they wouldn’t stare, and they wouldn’t ask too many questions.

After breakfast, Salazar, Rowena and the young people went off to have another look at the winged horses. Salazar had confided his idea to Rowena the day before, and she thought it a good one. He didn’t say anything to the others however, not wanting to get anyone’s hopes up.

Godric and Helga remained behind. She swept the hearth and got the bread started, while he chopped wood, and set about several small tasks of repair that had been neglected. They didn’t talk much, but when their paths crossed, they smiled at one another, both conscious of a pleasant sense of nesting. At her cottage, there had been too much going on and too many people about for any such feelings, and the road was no place for settling in. They had no plan to stay or not, but being alone together, and doing such comfortingly mundane tasks, made them think inevitably of housekeeping.

In mid-morning, Celina returned. She looked exhausted and disheveled. There was dirt under her fingernails, and her skirt was covered in burrs. She flopped down, boneless and heavy-eyed, at a table in the common room. Helga couldn’t help staring, despite her warnings to the boys.

Finally, made self-conscious by her own ravening curiosity, Helga asked, for something to say, “Are you hungry?”

Celina’s head came up, and she gave a short, bark-like laugh. “Ha, no, absolutely not. I’m dead weary though.” Her gaze drifted slowly around the tidy room. “You’ve certainly earned your keep, you’ve done a wonderful job here, and is that bread I smell?”

Helga nodded. “We’ve milked the goats and gathered eggs, and Godric has chopped more firewood for you.”

Celina smiled gratefully at Godric in a way that unsettled Helga a bit, but Helga told herself firmly that she must get used to it, and that it didn’t mean what she had feared. Indeed, seeing Celina and Godric together, you could feel the bond between them, like a brother and sister almost? Or no, not that. Godric saw her troubled look, and in plain sight of Celina, reached out his hand to cover hers in a brief reminder of the night before. Celina saw, and smiled contentedly, and Helga’s heart was eased.

Celina drew herself together and sat a little straighter. “It’s well that you’ve taken some care around here. On my way back this morning, I heard that Æthelrand is coming, will be here before sunset.”

The other two looked a question, and Celina explained. “He lives outside the village. He built himself a fine manner house, and dwells there all the time now that he’s been more-or-less exiled. He’s not a bad lord. He’s heard about the trouble, and is coming to see to it, if he can.”

“Trouble?” Helga asked.

Celina rubbed her eyes. “Did I not tell you? It’s the reason the inn has been so empty of late.” She looked seriously at them. “The village is being preyed upon by a chimera.” The other two stared back in horror. Celina nodded. “No one knows quite where it came from. They’re certainly not native creatures. Some say it was the long-lived druidess who brought it back with her from the east, but folk say that about any dangerous creature. The truth is no one knows where it came from. It’s been harrying the flocks and herds around here for some time, and it’s done for a few hapless herders as well. Word’s gotten out. As an all magic settlement, we normally have a steady trickle of magic folk on their way from somewhere to somewhere, or simply wandering through the country and looking for a home. Lately though: nothing. You’re the first visitors we’ve had in months. A few have tried to do battle with it, but that hasn’t gone very well. Aunt Rumie has been kept busy treating burns and bruises.”

“Aunt Rumie!” Godric exclaimed, distracted momentarily from the prospect of dangerous, blood-thirsty beasts. “Is she here?”

“Oh yes. Of course, our home village isn’t far from here as you know, and when Æthelrand established this safe place for witches and wizards, all the magic folk within a week’s ride came to live here. She shares a cottage with Edwina, the winged horse herder. We had high hopes of the winged horses. We thought they might be trained to battle the chimera, but nothing doing; they won’t go anywhere near it, and no wonder. Anyway, Æthelrand has said he will come to give it battle. He’s a competent wizard, though I know nothing of his fighting skills. I don’t know what we’ll do if he fails; we’ll just get picked off one by one I suppose, until the beast grows bored and moves on.”

She stretched luxuriously, and shook herself. “I’m exhausted,” she said unselfconsciously. “I’m going to go sleep in one of the small bedrooms upstairs.” She turned to Helga. “You’ve been so kind to do the work here. Would you mind getting the large bedroom upstairs ready for Æthelrand, and preparing a good meal? I’d be so grateful. I believe he means to make rather a festival tonight, you know, hearten us all, and himself too for the fight.” She looked down at herself as though in surprise, and murmured, “I really must tidy myself up too when I wake.”

Helga tried to hide her shock at the scandalous idea of sleeping during the day, and agreed. She liked Celina, despite the woman’s odd ways. And anyway, the routine chores of keeping a house would be comforting after so many strange experiences, and so many miles from home. She had a sudden stab of longing for her own place, her own things, for Eartha and Egbert, for the friends she’d left behind, and the cozy settled life she’d known. Would she ever have a hearth of her own again?

On the edge of the village, Salazar watched critically as Emmeline alighted on the ground, mounted on one of Edwina’s winged chestnut horses. The landing was smoother this time; girl and horse were getting used to each other. Salazar nodded to Emmeline. She dismounted, her face bright. She was normally a serious, watchful girl, but delight in the horse made her glow with happiness.

Edwina was keeping a gimlet eye on Aidan and Cadogan, who were circling above the field on two of her more tractable horses. Hopelessly clumsy on the ground, Cadogan showed a surprising affinity for the winged creatures. Always in sympathy with animals, he was the best of the three young ones at soothing and controlling the beasts. Cadogan executed a lazy spiral downward, and his horse’s hooves touched lightly as it landed.

Afterward, Edwina showed them how to groom and curry their mounts. This was tricky, as the herd was only partially tamed, and wouldn’t always submit to such attentions, and of course it took a delicate and careful hand to tend the feathered wings. It was common for a horse to simply become bored with the proceedings, give a shocking bunch and heave, and leave the groomer on their backside in the mud, with a face full of feathers.

Edwina was patient with Cadogan. He was a slow learner, but had a true sympathy for the beasts, and once he’d learned a task, he was plodding but thorough. Aidan was less tractable, but his shortcomings were self-correcting when it came to the horses. They were quick to sense weakness or inattention, and by the end of it, Aidan looked far more disheveled than any of the animals.

At midday, Edwina took them to her cottage for a meal. There, they met Celina’s Aunt Brumhilda, although not having heard the whole story by the fire the night before, they weren’t really prepared for it. She had been Celina’s mother’s younger sister, and while the two women were similar in colouring, Aunt Rumie’s features had a much more predatory look. She had a prominent nose, and wide-open, restless eyes that made her look like a large bird.

They entered to find her seated at the table extracting toad hearts, the centre of a delicately shifting circle of inquisitive cats. The boys were instantly captivated by the toads, and surged forward to look, while Emmeline hung back, and Edwina sighed, averting her eyes.

“Don’t get up,” Edwina said unnecessarily. “I’ve brought our guests for a meal. Have you started the stew?”

“No,” Aunt Rumie said unrepentantly, to the guests’ relief. “I got busy working on this potion to treat scrafungulus. It calls for heart of toad. Do you know what fiddly work it is to get the heart out of a toad? And the potion calls for 47 of them!” A scruffy looking tomcat was sniffing cautiously at the bowl of toads, and Rumie nudged it away with an elbow.

Edwina sighed with resignation, but no surprise. She shoed the boys outside to get them out from under foot, and divided the work of chopping between herself, Rowena and Emmeline, while Salazar sat helping with the toads. While they waited for the stew to simmer, they talked.

“I have a proposition to put before you,” Salazar said to Edwina. “I and my companions have sworn an oath that requires us to travel north. We have been on the road for many weeks, and will be for many more. How many more may depend on you. We lost our horses when we freed the Hebridean black from its long captivity. Happening upon enough horses to carry us and our gear is highly unlikely, and here you are with a herd of flying horses that you yourself have said is troublesomely large. I grow weary of travelling on foot, and anyway it’s beneath the dignity of such a group of witches and wizards to share the road with common folk and footpads. I propose that you thin out your herd by letting us take some away with us. In return, we will commit to train not only the mounts that are to be ours, but the rest of the herd as well. You’ve come a long way with them, but the work will go far faster with us to help you.”

“But what can you know of training winged horses?” Edwina asked indignantly.

“What did I know about flying a dragon?”

“That’s different. That dragon wanted nothing more than to leave that place. Why one of these cats could have flown it.”

Salazar looked affronted. Rowena stepped in quickly, knowing how easily Salazar took offense. “How can Edwina know your power? We know, but she just met you, and you’re asking her to trust you with creatures she has raised and trained with her own hand. Surely in her situation you would be cautious too.”

There were a few seconds of silence. “I suppose I can see that,” he replied neutrally, “Perhaps a small demonstration will help convince you.”

They all became aware that the cats had, silently but definitely, stopped circling the toad dismemberment. In an utterly unnatural manner, they lined up before the hearth, sat down as one, and each raised a front paw into the air, just as a person might do when they were trying to interrupt a torrent of speech.

Brumhilda opened her mouth to protest, but Edwina, who secretly disliked the cats, laughed out loud. “You’ve got to admit Rumie, that’s an impressive display.”

Salazar quickly let go his control of the cats, and they each slunk away through the door, clearly ashamed. Rumie took a deep breath, glanced at Edwina, then made up her mind to ignore the situation, returning to her toads.

Edwina looked thoughtful. “It won’t be quick,” she said, “either for you to bond with the horses you’ll take, or for you to train the ones I’ll keep. I won’t let any of the herd go for less, and I’ll be the judge.”

Salazar smiled confidently. “I’m very good. I don’t think it will take all that long, certainly no longer than we’d spend trudging through mud and rain, maybe with an army at our backs. Do we have a deal then?” To his amazement, he felt her mind probing his, seeking his intentions. Since he had nothing to hide, he raised no barrier to stop her, but he made a mental note not to underestimate these people.

“We have a deal,” she said finally. “Good thing Celina’s got lots of space at that inn of hers; you’ll be here for a while.”

Celina came down stairs in mid afternoon looking refreshed. She found Helga in the kitchen rolling out pastry for a fish pie. Platters and bowls were dotted about, filled with ingredients for stews, and meat for the roasting spit. Celina smiled widely. “Oh sister!” She exclaimed. “This looks wonderful!” She reached out, snagged a piece of raw venison, and popped it unselfconsciously into her mouth. When she caught Helga gaping, she looked a little abashed, and rubbed the back of her hand across her mouth. “Oh sorry,” she mumbled, “I forget myself sometimes.”

Helga stood motionless for a moment, not knowing what to say, then broke out laughing. Celina was startled, then she began to laugh too, and then she couldn’t seem to stop. Between gasps, she said, “I know, I know! You know, I couldn’t find my silver goblet last month, then I realized … I’d buried it in the garden!”

Helga clutched the side of the table, doubled over.

“Last week,” Celina got out, “one of Aunt Rumie’s cats was pestering me, and before I knew what I was doing, I’d chased it up a tree. She was Furious!”

“Do folk here know what you are?”

“Oh yes; it’s hard to hide something like that. Some of them were nervous at first, but it’s not like it comes on unexpectedly. Everyone knows when the full moon is, and I’m careful to take myself well away in time. There are others, not from this village, but not terribly far either. We usually meet, spend our time together. It helps keep us from feeling predatory toward humans.”

Godric appeared in the doorway. Celina spotted him. “I’ve just been telling Helga about some of my … my newer habits, chasing cats and the like.”

Godric approached, and touched the tip of her nose with his finger. “Hmm, it’s cold and wet,” he said approvingly. “And If I scratched you behind the ear, would your leg twitch?” He made as if to do so, and she stepped quickly back from him.

“Don’t you dare to try it. What have you there?”

Godric went to the table and laid out an array of assorted greenery. “I went to the clearing where Salazar and Rowena passed the evening. It seems the legends of mooncaps are true.”

Helga leaned forward eagerly, peering at the treasures and exclaiming with delight. “Oh, and even some fresh rosemary! This will be wonderful in the fish pie! Just look at all this!”

“That’s only a sample,” Godric said complacently. “I didn’t know what was what of course, so I just picked a few things to show you. You’ll have to go back and take what you wish.”

Helga gasped in amazement. “Imagine that, fresh herbs in early winter!” Her natural expression was a gentle smile, but now she positively beamed with pleasure. “I must go!” But then she looked around the kitchen. “There is so much to do here, but if there is frost tonight, some of the herbs may spoil.”

Celina waved a dismissive hand. “Go, go. I can manage here. I know it doesn’t look it, but I’m a fair housekeeper, and a rather good cook. You’ve made a wonderful start. Go, take my gathering basket there. Maybe you’ll even find some fresh greens for supper.”

When she’d gone, Celina followed her with her eyes. “She’s a sweet, good woman,” she said to Godric. “Don’t let the past hold you, and don’t let the grass grow under your feet either.”

Salazar and Rowena returned to the Panting Wolf in late afternoon eager to share their news, but there was no time. Godric was moving furniture, and Helga and Celina were upstairs tidying themselves. They had, in fact, arrived just ahead of the gale force wind that was the arrival of Æthelrand and his entourage.

Rowena and Emmeline found Helga and Celina making a tiny whirlwind as they readied themselves. The inn would be full of guests that night, and the women had gathered all their belongings into one small room that they would share. The three travelers had little in the way of finery, but Celina was pawing through a chest, emerging with clothing and ornaments that Rowena recognized vaguely as decorative. Celina’s own gown was surprisingly elaborate for a woman who seemed to take her appearance as casually as Rowena herself,

Emmeline smiled as she looked through Celina’s treasures. “Where did you get such fine things?”

“Oh, gifts mostly,” Celina answered distractedly, pinning a broach on one shoulder, and considering a selection of bracelets.

Emmeline wound a finely embroidered shawl around herself. “Oh how I’d like to have such pretty things,” she said longingly. “When the mistress was away, we used to go through her clothing and jewels, deciding what we’d have for ourselves if we could.”

Emmeline rarely spoke of her life before meeting Salazar on the battle field in Sussex, and Helga was curious. “Were you a lady in waiting to her?”

Emmeline laughed derisively. “I? No. I was but daughter of the laundry woman, I knew her maids and ladies though, and when the mistress was away from home, we sometimes made free with her things.” She pointed to a red sash set with semi-precious stones that Celina had taken up, then discarded. “She had one much like that.” Emmeline smiled mischievously. “The ladies used to use it as a way to tell each other that they had a … visitor. If a lady wanted to entertain a man for the night in privacy when the mistress wasn’t there, she would tie that sash on the outside of the antechamber door as a sign to the other ladies that they’d need to find somewhere else to sleep for the night.”

Celina laughed, Helga looked both shocked and interested, but Rowena frowned disapprovingly. “I hardly think anything like that will be necessary here.”

“It’s late in the year,” Celina remarked evenly. “There will be cold comfort for couples seeking privacy in the hedgerows, not like Beltane.” She considered a hair ornament, then cast it aside. “Oh well, there’s always the barn for those who can’t wait till spring.” She grinned wolfishly, and winked at Helga.

The Panting Wolf was the largest public space in the village, so it was natural for Æthelrand to come there when he wished to meet his villagers. All Celina had said was that he was coming to fight the chimera. What she hadn’t explained was the manner of his coming. Godric happened to be outside at the time, mending the door of Celina’s barn. His first intimation of the tidal wave was the sound of trumpets in the distance. Being no stranger to pomp and those who craved it, he stood idly swinging his hammer, and watching Æthelrand’s approach with a slightly jaundiced eye. His first sighting of the party was of Æthelrand’s banner. It had a green background, and bore a silver owl holding a wand in its talons. Godric smiled despite himself. He’d seen many devices, but never one like this.

When the procession finally came into view, Godric gaped, wondering who all the people might possibly be. The identity of some was obvious: a young clerk with his implements, a middle-aged man with a harp slung across his back, and several people supervising the transport of many large casks. Godric’s spirits lifted at sight of these. Any man, no matter how self-aggrandizing, makes friends more easily when he bears ale and mead.

Eventually, the center of all this pageantry came into view. It was hard to judge the height of a mounted horseman, but Æthelrand was certainly broad and sturdy looking. To Godric’s surprise, he was dressed not as a knight, but as a wizard. He wore a wizard’s robe, and conical wizard’s hat, both in a flamboyant purple. He bore a wand conspicuously in his hand, but also wore a sword belted at his side. He had a broad, florid face, and waved energetically at the crowd which had gathered to cheer his approach.

He gestured repeatedly with his wand, sending bunches of flowers sailing out over the onlookers to alight in the outstretched hands of the women. The musicians at the front of his entourage had begun playing a merry tune that engendered a festive mood. The musicians and heralds disbursed in the yard, so that Æthelrand could dismount at the inn door.

Watching from the barn, Godric was engulfed by the crowd. He saw Celina emerge to welcome the wizard who was, after all, the local lord, and the founder and ruler of the village. She had clearly taken some pains with her appearance. Her hair was dressed elaborately, and she wore a gown of a richness that startled him. He was used to seeing her in scruffy, oft-mended dresses, or even sometimes in boy’s clothes. She looked remarkably attractive, and as she stepped forward graciously to welcome her lord, Godric felt a quick stab of possessiveness, which he firmly set from him. His resolve was good. Nevertheless, he didn’t like the way Æthelrand stooped over her hand, or the warmth with which he greeted her; there was an unmistakable familiarity between them. “Not my concern,” he said firmly aloud.

Chapter 26: Æthelrand’s Feast

 

The inn yard was a boiling mass of merry-makers. The more prestigious among them funneled into the common room. Not eager to press his way in-doors, Godric drifted around, gladly taking a tankard of ale from a serving maid who’d come as part of Æthelrand’s retinue, and watching the crowd.

Many were watching him in return. Any guest was interesting, and a young, good-looking man even more-so. Several women were beginning to sidle toward him, when a lively, excited voice called out his name. It was Aunt Rumie, accompanied by Edwina, whom he’d not yet met.

Godric greeted Aunt Rumie warmly. She had been an indifferent guardian to Celina, but her hearth had often been a refuge from a grim home after his father had died, and he had fond memories of her. What had happened with the binding spell wasn’t really her fault; Celina had always been reckless, which was possibly Rumie’s fault. Godric hugged her, a tender moment shattered when a live toad, disturbed by the embrace, leapt from the pocket of Rumie’s apron.

“Merlin’s beard I thought I got them all!” She exclaimed, reaching for it, and missing. She let it go, holding on to Godric’s shoulders and scanning his face. “It’s so good to see you again, such a surprise, but then, not so much of a surprise I suppose. Such a fine man you’ve grown into! Here is my friend Edwina, the winged horse herder. You must be here with Salazar and Rowena! They told me there were others travelling with them, but I didn’t know they meant you!”

Her words poured over him like summer rain on a parched landscape, bringing back so many memories from his childhood. He’d been so sure that the west country was somewhere he must leave behind him, but Celina and Aunt Rumie made it feel dangerously like home.

He had lingered in the yard deliberately, intending to keep to the shadows, unwilling to be recognized by any refugees from his home village. Aunt Rumie wasn’t someone to chat with if your goal was remaining inconspicuous however, and soon word had spread among those who’d known him in childhood. Under the influence of the general spirit of celebration, and Æthelrand’s excellent ale, Godric let go of his reservations. He was here now, and it was clearly too late to conceal the fact.

As darkness fell, a fire was lit in the inn yard for those who couldn’t fit into the crowded common room. The door remained open however, and the sounds of music and merry-making drifted out onto the cold, still air. Ale and mead were circulating freely, and circles of dancers continuously formed and broke apart both inside and out.

Godric was in the common room sitting across the table from Alfred, someone whom he’d known in his youth, but whom he barely recognized. They were locked together in a furious but nearly immobile arm wrestle. Alfred was the local blacksmith, and his strength was a good match for Godric’s. They strained and strained, but finally Godric prevailed, and they sat back gasping with fatigue and laughter. Godric lifted his ale cup in his other hand, saluting Alfred. “I’m here for a rematch any time!”

Alfred picked up his own cup and drained it. “All that sword wielding has paid off my friend; I’m the acknowledged champion around here!”

Godric banged his cup down on the table in satisfaction. It felt shockingly good to be here, drinking with Alfred, watching Celina out of the corner of his eye, sweating with the honest sweat of friendly competition. He saw familiar faces dotted everywhere. Salazar and Rowena were perched on a bench near the kitchen door, both looking predictably uncomfortable. As Rowena got up to go help in the kitchen, Godric gestured to Salazar to join them.

“This is my good friend Salazar,” Godric said, laying a comradely arm on Salazar’s shoulder. “We met in a tavern on the continent.” Speaking loudly to be heard in the noisy room, they told the story of their meeting, and their discovery that each was a wizard. “Salazar here is very powerful, and can often see someone has magic just by looking at them, but you know me, I need to be banged over the head with a leaky caldron.” Godric looked around the crowded room. “I’m surprised how many are familiar to me here. I knew some of the folk in our village had magic, but there are some here I had no idea at all about.”

“Aye,” Alfred replied. “It’s been good for all of us to be here, where we don’t have to be careful. Æthelrand is a bit of a braggart perhaps, but he’s a fair hand with both wand and sword, and not a bad ruler.”

Godric looked over to where Æthelrand was sitting with Celina. As Godric watched, Æthelrand leaned toward her, taking her hand in his. Godric frowned. Celina was smiling, and the firelight caught the jewels of broach and bracelets. “The inn business seems to have done well by her,” he said waspishly.

Alfred smiled. “Depends who your guests are. I remember you two were great friends, or maybe something more?”

Godric shifted his eyes away from Celina and back to Alfred. “A long time ago that was. Now we’re good friends.”

“Ah, good friends is it. Well, she’s even more of a handful these days than she used to be. You wouldn’t want to find yourself in a situation that might cause her to bight you now.” Alfred’s tone was mischievous, deliberately provocative. Salazar laughed, and Godric aimed a mock blow at Alfred’s head. “I pity the man who tries to rule her,” Alfred said more seriously.

“I never tried to do that,” Godric said mildly, “and I’m not about to start. Besides,” his eyes moved to where Helga and Emmeline were dancing in a circle with other women.

“Oh?” Alfred said with interest, “which one?”

“The fair-haired one holding hands with the girl in the embroidered shawl.”

Alfred leaned forward with frank curiosity to get a better look. “Ah. Are you promised?”

“Well, not exactly. We’ve a journey north to complete, but after that …” Godric trailed off. After that, what? He’d not thought past returning Odo to his home. There had been so much to occupy his attention, and the future for everyone had become so uncertain. He realized with surprise that he had no idea what.

Alfred saw the troubled expression on Godric’s face, and slapped him hard on the back. “Don’t worry my friend,” he said easily. “There’s always a place for a fine-looking lad like yourself with few brains and a strong arm. Give me your cup and I’ll fill it along with my own. Can I bring you some ale friend?” He held out his hand for Salazar’s cup.

Helga and Celina sat together on a bench against the wall. Both had been dancing energetically, and fanned themselves. Rowena approached them carrying a tray with cups of mead. They both took one eagerly, and Helga said, “Why don’t you let one of Æthelrand’s maids do that, and come sit with us, or better yet find Salazar and dance?” Rowena shook her head though. “No, I don’t mind.” They watched as she drifted into the crowd.

Celina looked after her. “Is she always so serious?”

Helga considered. “Yes, I suppose she is. She’s not as … as cold as she looks. I love her as a sister, but she is rather serious, more serious than me at any rate; she often makes me feel quite light-minded!”

“Well, aren’t you?” Both women dissolved into laughter.

“Oh look!” Helga exclaimed, “Godric will take a turn at the harp!”

Celina looked wistful. “It is one of the things he learned when he left us. I knew he played, but have never heard him. Is he good?”

“Oh yes! I had a harp that was passed down to me. He played it the night before … before the battle. He is very good.”

Godric took the harp on to his lap, and quiet descended slowly on the common room. He began with something light, then played something more intricate.

Celina’s face was wrapped. When the piece was finished, she turned to Helga with a look of amazement. “I had no idea!” She said in the applause that followed. Her eyes rested on Godric, as she thought how very well he looked. She’d been hypnotized by watching his hands, deft and strong on the strings.

Helga was watching her closely. “I hope you don’t mind,” she said in her gentle but forthright way, somewhat emboldened by the mead, “he told me about what is between you. Do you love him?”

Celina’s eyes snapped away from Godric to Helga in surprise. “Love him? Well yes, but I … we … not in a way to keep you from … do you love him?”

Helga blushed. “I don’t want to … to tread on the hem of your gown.”

Celina laughed. “What a funny expression. You won’t. If he’s told you everything, you’ll know that we will never truly be free of one another unless one of us leaves the country, which is perhaps what he tried to do, but it didn’t work. We’re both free.”

At the end of a song, Godric’s eyes roved around the room, and found Helga and Celina on their bench. He smiled. He held out a hand to Helga saying, “There sits one with whom I’ve sung a song or two. Will you not join me and offer better entertainment?” He bowed toward her from where he sat, and, flushed but not unwilling, Helga rose and made her way toward him.

Together, they brought down the house with spirited duets of “Oh Bring Me a Caldron of Ale Fair Maid,” “Tale of the Vanishing Garter,” “The Witch with The Wind in Her Skirt,” and “The Saucy Sorceress.” When they’d finished, Godric handed the harp back to Æthelrand’s bard, who settled to perform a long ballad about Æthelrand’s defeat of the dragon Firefang.

The common room was quite warm with so many people packed inside it, so Godric and Helga slipped out into the inn yard. Some benches had been moved outside, and logs for sitting were drawn up by the roaring fire. Godric found Alfred gambling over a game of knuckle bones. Alfred stood up, and was introduced to Helga. They found a bench, happily took cups of mead from a passing serving maid, and sat down together.

“I could hear you singing from out here mistress,” Alfred said to Helga, “and such a sweet voice I never heard! And was that you scraping on the harp young master?” He thumped Godric genially on the shoulder. “So they did teach you more than hacking and slashing away there in the big city! Is that “the Ballad of Æthelrand and Firefang?” It’s a good story, but I’ve heard it often, and if you stay here long enough you will too. Æthelrand has his bard compose a ballad about his deeds for every festival.”

“Is Æthelrand so heroic as all that?” Helga asked.

“He certainly likes to think he is. Did you see the clerk riding in with him? He keeps a clerk with him at all times, not to record tribute or debts, but to write down everything he says, for posterity you know.”

Godric snorted. Remarking one’s deeds in song was common enough among those who could manage it, and did deeds worth immortalizing, but Godric knew self-aggrandizement when he saw it, and it didn’t predispose him to like the magical lord any better.

When the ballad was ended, serving maids began to circulate with platters of food: fish pie, cups of venison stew, fresh bread, pasties filled with wild boar, bowls of nuts, and apples roasted with honey. The platters eventually made their way outside, and the young boys, who’d been rolling around in imitation of adult wrestling matches, stopped to gorge themselves.

Helga looked on with approval as Aidan stuffed an entire pasty into his mouth. “It’s so good to see them laughing with other children,” she said. “Aidan misses his parents, and Cadogan, well I don’t think he’s ever had a proper home. Being on the road has been hard, on all of us I suppose. Children should have a home though, a safe home.” Her eyes clouded, she, who now had no home.

Godric put a hand over hers. “Alfred here got me thinking about what we’ll do once we’ve taken Odo back to the place that he knew as a lad.”

“And what did you think?” Helga asked, comforted somewhat by his use of the word “we.”

“Well, I didn’t have a chance to get very far before a harp was thrust into my hands.”

“But why would you not come back here?” Alfred asked, as though this should have been obvious. “This is a place where you don’t have to live in hiding, and Godric it’s practically your home. I gather mistress that your home is no longer yours.”

Helga felt a twist in her guts. “I don’t know what’s become of my home. I had powerful enchantments on it when I lived there, but now that I’m gone, and Sussex has been overrun, I don’t know. I suppose I have no home.”

Her cup was empty, and Alfred held his out toward her. “Drink,” he said authoritatively. “This is a night to be merry. The lord has arranged this to raise all our spirits, and his own most of all. He will face grave danger tomorrow, but tonight he’ll drink, dance and … and so should we all.”

She took his cup and drained it, grateful for his cheery warmth.

The music indoors was once more lively, and the floor was thick with dancers. Emmeline was dancing with Edwina and Aunt Rumie. Rumie was an enthusiastic dancer, but moved in a jerky, ecstatic way, flinging herself around to the peril of all near her. Edwina was clearly used to this, and kept a safe distance, and Emmeline laughed as she watched. She had rarely seen women so free of constraint. Men were one thing, they drank, and diced, and generally seemed to take what suited them when they could, but in her experience, women moved within strict boundaries: not here though, it seemed.

After a time, the three of them moved away to a bench along the wall. Emmeline noticed that even as they sat side by side, Edwina and Rumie held hands. It was common enough for women to clasp hands in a dance, or for girls to hold hands with affection. There was something subtly different between Rumie and Edwina, but she didn’t know what it was. Rumie was gazing as though entranced by the dancers, and Edwina and Emmeline leaned across her to talk about the winged horses.

Rowena and Salazar were once more seated on a bench near the kitchen. It was a little less chaotic there, despite the constant flow of servers carrying trays of food and drink. Rowena was watching Helga and Godric as they danced together. “Helga dances so easily,” Rowena said a little enviously.

Salazar shrugged. “I suppose so. She’s a very merry sort. She and Godric suit one another well don’t you think?”

“yes. They’re both so … so alive.”

“If somewhat frivolous?”

“Perhaps sometimes, but I love them both none-the-less.” Salazar raised an eyebrow at her. “You know what I mean,” she said, and reached shyly for his hand on the bench under the cover of her spreading skirt.

“I do,” he said close to her ear, and smiled the smile so few ever saw. “Emmeline seems to like it here.”

Rowena followed his gaze, to where Emmeline and Celina danced. “It’s well I suppose, though I’m not sure Celina is a good role model for a young woman.”

Salazar laughed. “I think you just don’t like Celina, or Emmeline either.”

“I don’t dislike Emmeline, I just can’t understand her, and I don’t trust her.”

“Oh? She makes perfect sense to me. We understand one another well. She’s alone in the world, and has learned to take care of herself.”

“Do you think she’s virtuous?”

Salazar threw back his head and laughed his rich belly laugh. “Oh Rowena! Virtuous? What is virtue, especially to such as us?”

“That’s doubtless the sort of wisdom she’ll learn from the werewolf.”

“She’s very good with the horses, almost as good as Cadogan. I saw the boys out in the inn yard playing magic throwing games with some of the village lads. Cadogan can scarcely keep his feet under him, but he has reasonable skill with magic, and a real touch with animals.”

“Did you see Æthelrand’s banner?”

“I did. I thought it quite striking. I didn’t care much for the owl, but I liked the silver and the green.”

“Your device would be the snake,” They smiled into one anothers’ eyes.

Helga and Godric took a break from dancing. She wanted to go outside to cool off, and to see what the boys were up to. Celina was dancing with Alfred and Aunt Rumie, and to his surprise, Godric saw Æthelrand sitting alone on a bench watching the crowd. Æthelrand had been an unavoidable presence all evening, talking loudly, laughing uproariously, dancing with Celina, eating heartily, and drinking deep. Godric wanted to dislike him. Naturally charismatic himself, he generally disapproved of men who made a show of themselves, and Æthelrand’s air of familiarity toward Celina was an irritant, no matter what he told himself. Nevertheless, Æthelrand possessed an undeniable force of personality, and Godric couldn’t help feeling curious. Casually, he made his way over, and sat down beside the nobleman.

Æthelrand perceived him from beneath half closed lids. “And are you enjoying yourself young Godric?”

“If I am, I’m in good company,” Godric replied noncommittally. “You’ve certainly given your people quite a feast.”

“They deserve it. They’re good people, and I’ve let this chimera business go on too long.” From across the room, Alfred looked over at them. Æthelrand smiled broadly, raised his cup to his lips and tipped it back. When Alfred looked back to Celina, Æthelrand held out his cup to Godric. “Here,” he said evenly. “Drink this. I’ve been using an emptying spell all night, but I’m afraid it will be noticed.”

Bemused but willing, Godric took the cup and drained it. Then he stared hard at Æthelrand. Now that he stopped to notice, Æthelrand looked remarkably sober for a man who’d been conspicuously drinking all night. “You’re not drunk,” he said accusingly.

“No, I’m not,” Æthelrand replied pleasantly. “I here you’re a fighting man. Do you get stumbling drunk the night before battle?”

Godric considered this. “Sometimes, but I suppose not the night before a single combat. I wouldn’t say no to a deep draft in the morning though.”

Æthelrand smiled. “Ever fought a chimera before?”

“Merlin’s beard no! I doubt many have, at least few that still live.” He recognized the tactlessness of this answer after he’d spoken it, but Æthelrand merely nodded.

“Just so,” Æthelrand said without resentment. “I choose to keep my senses acute and my wits about me this night.” His eyes lingered on Celina. Godric felt a familiar heat rising in his belly, but then he had another look at Æthelrand’s expression. Seen out of the center of things, his bluster was gone, replaced by a look of resignation. Unwillingly, Godric felt a stab of sympathy. Fighting a chimera was no joke, and Æthelrand was facing it with admirable courage.

“Is she your woman?” Æthelrand asked, startling him.

Before he’d sat down here, Godric would have been offended by the question, but he valued courage above all, and seeing it in Æthelrand, he couldn’t muster anything but laughter. “My woman? You don’t know her as well as it looks if you can ask me that. She’s no body’s woman!”

Æthelrand laughed too, the most genuine sounding laugh Godric had yet heard from him. “Well, I just wanted to make sure you hadn’t a claim. I dare say she’ll have the chance to refuse me this night.”

Watching Celina dancing energetically, Godric felt fairly sure he knew what the result of that bid would be, and to his surprise, the expected stab of jealousy didn’t come. If this was to be Æthelrand’s last night in this world, Godric couldn’t think of a better way for him to spend it. “Do you fear you will not prevail tomorrow?”

“Of course, But every man has to go sometime, and I can think of few ways more glorious. Oh, I wish I could hear the odes the bards will make of it. Tell me, what will happen when William’s army begins to move north and west, as they must certainly be doing already?”

Godric heard the serious note in Æthelrand’s voice, and began to understand that there was more here than he’d realized. He thought carefully, then said, “England has no more army. Those not killed fighting at Stanford Bridge were killed in Sussex. There will surely be some resistance, but William is ruthless and determined. The Normans know how to effectively occupy conquered territory. They tend to leave the common folk more-or-less alone when it comes to daily life and social order, except of course for looting of supplies, and the sorts of things all soldiers do. Normans rule by cutting the head off. They will depose the nobles, take the strong places, install their own in positions of power.”

Æthelrand nodded, as though Godric’s words had only confirmed what he already knew. “I want my folk here to be safe, but there’s nothing I can do to protect them. If what you say is true, they might be better off without me. There are protective enchantments around this village and my manner house, but that’s a lot of ground and a lot of people to hide. When these lands are confiscated, I don’t know what will happen here. From what you say, not much, so long as I’m not here to try to defend them.”

Godric was following this slowly, and coming to his own conclusions about Æthelrand’s fatalism regarding the battle with the chimera. “I will fight at your side if you wish it,” he said, knowing no other complement to pay.

“That is well meant, but I must face the chimera alone. If I fail though … these are good people; they deserve a good leader.”

Alfred was making his way across the room toward them. As he got closer, Godric saw the subtle shift of bearing and expression, as Æthelrand once more assumed his bombastic guise. “Did I not see the two of you arm wrestling earlier? I think Godric bested you Alfred. I’ll wager this gold coin that it’s your turn to triumph.” He had spoken loudly, and many around heard, and began cheering, making wagers of their own.

Helga had come back in, and was sitting companionably with Rowena and Emmeline. She was teasing Rowena, trying to get her to come dance. “If Godric loses,” she said playfully, “I’ll let it alone, but if he wins, then you’ll come dance with us.” Rowena lifted her cup of mead, drank, then nodded gravely.

The musicians played on, and the dancers spun and stomped, as Godric and Alfred positioned themselves across a table. The combat was fierce and prolonged. There was much cheering and whooping, until finally Godric forced Alfred’s hand down to the table, and sat back, his brow shiny with sweat. Those watchers who had bet on him exploded with cheers and applause, and Helga jumped to her feet.

“Come!” She cried joyfully, “Come and dance!” Half reluctantly, half eagerly, Rowena rose, letting Helga lead her by the hand into the cleared space. Her head buzzed and spun pleasantly with mead, and she felt a swell of affection for Helga, as her body began to respond to the music.

Alfred and Godric retrieved fresh cups from a tray, and drained them. “Sorry about the gold coin,” Godric said with insincere regret.

“That’s all right,” Alfred replied genially, “Eldwin there, he’s the carpenter, he owes me. He’s been putting me off, but Æthelrand will dispense justice here day after tomorrow, and he’ll rule in my favour. I’ll be in fine state in a few days.”

“Dispense justice,” Godric said in some surprise. Æthelrand was so flamboyant, and so pragmatic about his upcoming battle, that Godric hadn’t thought about his other duties as lord.

“Oh aye, he comes once or twice a season to hear cases and decide. He’s fair and reasonably wise; folk abide by his rulings willingly enough. Your Helga is a sweet dancer, and I see she’s even got your friend with the broomstick up her backside off the bench.”

Godric looked over and saw Helga and Rowena dancing. Rowena did look rather stiff, and Godric laughed. “It’s true Rowena is not light of heart, but I love her as a sister.”

“And mistress Helga, is she your sister too?”

Godric thumped him on the shoulder, and said heartily, “not on your life man!”

Rowena felt completely absorbed by the music and the dance, but suddenly and unexpectedly, she was reminded of the last time they’d amused themselves so. Unable to stop herself, she leaned close to Helga and said, with drunken intensity, “I can’t forget Samhain. We danced, and the musicians played …”

Helga caught her breath, then shook her head. “Think not of that,” she said firmly. She herself, with the emotional force that accompanies drink, had successfully fought off memories of the night before the battle in Sussex, spent singing and keeping close in her cottage. “Where is Salazar? He and Emmeline must join us, and Godric, and Celina, and Alfred.”

The wings of the specters of the night of Samhain touched Helga too, and she strove to fend them off with movement, and the presence of friends, old and new. She looked around, catching the eyes of each of the people she sought, and beckoning them urgently. Something in her intense expression spoke to them, and they all came, even Æthelrand.

In a circle they danced, old friends and new. Hands clapped, feet stomped, eyes smiled, lips parted, mead poured, ale flowed. In that powerful but elusive comradeship, they had no past and no future, only the vibrant, harmonious present, and the closeness of those they loved.

Chapter 27: The Chimera

 

Nobody was up at dawn. The lucky ones had space upstairs; everyone else either stumbled home, or found space in the common room. Emmeline was awake and building up the fire in the kitchen when Helga stumbled in through the back door. “Good morning,” Emmeline said in some confusion, “I thought you were upstairs.” Helga looked puzzled. “The red sash,” Emmeline explained, “it was tied on the outside of the door.”

Helga made a silent “Oh” of astonishment, and shook her head. “I too saw the sash. I thought it was you who’d … it wasn’t?”

“No. I spent the night on the settle. It looks like you spent the night in the barn.”

Helga reached up and pulled bits of straw from her hair. Her colour deepened. “Well, I did. If it wasn’t you, and it wasn’t me …” Their eyes met.

In a fair imitation of Rowena’s austere tone, Emmeline said, “I don’t think that will be necessary here.” They burst out laughing.

Helga’s first act was to begin brewing a restorative potion to treat headache. She used the largest caldron. Slowly, they got things going for breakfast, helped by some of the serving maids who drifted drowsily in from the common room. One of the maids put a goblet of potion and a few boiled eggs on a tray to carry up to the chamber where Æthelrand slept. Helga took Aidan and Cadogan in hand, pushing them by force outside to go milk the goats, and bidding them to do it quietly.

Some of those in the common room drifted back to their own homes to await the signal that Æthelrand was ready to do battle. Others remained, and shared the breakfast. Salazar and Rowena slunk quietly and separately down the stairs, obviously hoping to avoid detection. It was quite a bit later before Celina came down. The potion had done its work. She was clear-eyed, and though her dress was the sensible clothing of everyday, she wore a jeweled necklace none had seen before.

It was some time later when Æthelrand himself appeared. He too looked none-the-worse for a late night. He was dressed in a wizard’s robe of blood red, and wore his sword conspicuously at his side. There was a stir of excitement when he appeared. Godric, entering from the inn yard, saw, and no longer grudged Æthelrand his showmanship. Æthelrand stood surveying the room, and smiling confidently.

“Today’s the day!” He exclaimed, as though announcing the arrival of a carnival. “It’s never too late to stay abed a while, no need for noble deeds to be carried out at sunrise eh? Nobility can be found in every hour of the day if we but know where to look.” He turned to his clerk. “Did you get that?” The clerk nodded, scribbling eagerly with his quill. Æthelrand sighed with satisfaction. “Is that ham I smell?”

The broadest outline of Æthelrand’s plan was known to all. At his signal, everyone who wished to watch the battle, which meant everyone in the village, was to depart, walking around the lake to a rise of ground. Æthelrand, travelling alone, would start off in the other direction, to a place where the lake was overhung by a tall cliff. The two vantage points were across the lake from one another, hopefully ensuring the safety of the spectators, while at the same time offering them a clear view of the combat. No one knew exactly what Æthelrand was planning, but before they all departed, Godric got a preview.

He had once more offered to accompany Æthelrand, impressed anew by the lord’s courage in the face of such danger. Æthelrand had once more refused, but had asked him to help prepare. Given what Æthelrand was about to face, there was no room in Godric’s heart for petty judgments about personal style, and he took the offer for the honor it was. As he helped Æthelrand with his leathers and ringmail, Æthelrand sketched his plan of attack.

“The key is the scarlet sheep,” Æthelrand explained.

“The what?”

“The scarlet sheep. The chimera can’t resist them; it goes for them every time.”

“Scarlet sheep?”

“Some years ago, Brumhilda acquired a vial of insect eggs from the east, renowned both for their magical uses, as well as their uses in dying, to produce a remarkable scarlet colour. I don’t know what Rumie meant to do with the eggs, and she won’t tell anyone what actually happened, but the following season, several lambs were born with the most extraordinary scarlet wool. Edwina saw the potential right away, and began breeding carefully, until there were quite a few scarlet sheep wandering around. It pleased the women no end to have such vivid colour without having to work for it, and it became quite valuable as a trade item.

“No one knew the trouble it would bring down on us. We didn’t put the pieces together right away, but eventually, after the chimera had injured or killed beast and human alike, it was noticed that, while it would grab any game available, if there was a scarlet sheep in the herd, that was always the first to go. We tried to separate out all the scarlet sheep and drive them into cover, but the chimera won’t leave us alone.

“My plan is really quite simple. I’m going to lure the chimera with a scarlet sheep, which I’m sure would be pleased to give its life in the cause of saving our village, if it was given the choice. There’s a narrow strip of land at the bottom of the cliff. If my plan works, the chimera will go for the sheep, ignoring me at the top. There’s good cover up there, and anyway, chimeras are so vicious and bloodthirsty, that a fresh kill will be enough distraction. The chimera will be both below me, and near water. If my aim is true, this spear will injure it mortally. It’s impossible to kill a chimera with one blow, but if I can immobilize it long enough, and keep it near water to give some protection from its breath if things go badly, I think that a combination of arrows, and my sword if I can get down that cliff fast enough, might finish the job. It’s all about timing”

Godric stood, Æthelrand’s mail shirt in his hands, and gaped. Accomplished fighter though he considered himself to be, he couldn’t come up with any plan of attack against a fire-breathing monster that sounded any more credible than the one he’d just heard.

When Æthelrand was at last ready, he looked fearsome even to Godric. High quality, well-tended mail worn by a brave fighter couldn’t help but look well, Godric thought, and Æthelrand fairly bristled with weapons. Besides his sword and wand, he carried three spears, a throwing ax, and a bow with a quiver full of arrows.

The air rang with cheers and shouts as Æthelrand appeared before the assembled crowd. Helga and Celina stood side-by-side. When Æthelrand looked at her, Celina smiled confidently back, but Helga felt her trembling. Æthelrand jumped onto the mounting block beside his horse, and turned to address the crowd, checking first to make sure that his clerk was ready, quill poised.

It was a good speech. Æthelrand was a man who knew how to speak to a crowd. If his manner was somewhat overbearing in the common room of an inn, it was perfectly suited to addressing his people, on his way to single combat with a fearsome magical creature.

“And if I come not back, as unlikely as that sounds, I urge you to maintain our isolation from the muggle world. Their world is changing in many ways, and it grows less and less a place where folk such as we, can live freely. I have no heir, so I bid you choose a leader from among yourselves, one who balances strength with wisdom. But I say these things only because I must. The truth, as we all know, is that we will all enjoy a feast this night even more wild than the one of last night. Now off all of you, to the greatest spectacle you’ll ever witness!”

The crowd loved it. They cheered and stomped, egging Æthelrand on as he mounted his horse. His banner bearer rode beside him, Æthelrand’s device of the silver owl on a green background spreading in the brisk wind. The bearer was ordered to turn back once the crowd was out of sight, but Æthelrand wouldn’t consider setting off to combat without him.

The mood of the crowd was celebratory. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that Æthelrand might fail. Godric, who had considerably more fighting experience than any of them, held his peace. The crowd made its way around the curving shore of the lake, and up the rise of ground Æthelrand had indicated. From here, they looked across to the cliff on the other side of the lake. The cliff wasn’t quite sheer, though even at this distance, it seemed barely possible that a lucky and sure-footed person might make it down at need. The top was dotted with shrubbery and trees, and the bottom sported a small bit of beach. There was no sign of Æthelrand or the chimera thus far, and the villagers huddled in their cloaks, passing around flasks to keep the chill out.

After they’d begun to get really cold, Æthelrand finally appeared on the narrow strip of beach, a newly killed scarlet sheep hovering before him. With his wand, he lowered it to the ground. Wild cheering greeted his appearance, and continued as he began to make his painstaking way up the cliff. All looked on in admiration as he climbed, slowly, but methodically. Godric couldn’t bring himself to cheer, for he knew that this might be the most dangerous moment. If the chimera was close and spotted the sheep too soon, Æthelrand would be a sitting, or climbing, duck: unable to defend himself.

Luck, if one could call it that, was with Æthelrand. He made it to the top of the cliff, and reached concealment behind a dense mass of shrubbery. He had been careful to trail the maximum amount of fresh blood around once he’d reached the beach, and the wind proved to be from the right direction. Before much longer, a hideous creature came into sight. The first indication of its approach was its fiery breath. It was coming from the left of the cliff, from the perspective of the watchers. It emerged from some trees onto the narrow strip of beach, and was fully visible, in all its grotesque improbability.

Seen from the front, the first impression might have been of a lion, for it had a lion’s face and mane. The spectators saw it in profile however, and many gasped and cried out in shock and horror, for the beast across the lake looked like something out of a nightmare, or something constructed by a powerful magician with demons in his head. It looked as though the creature had been cobbled together by a madman with extraordinary powers and a fearful imagination, or else that it was a creature who had more than once tried and failed to transform itself from one thing into another.

The lion’s head wasn’t complete. Seen from the back, the head would have looked like that of a goat. In profile, the transition was disturbing to both eye and mind. The body was that of a goat also, but toward the hind quarters it transformed again, this time into the scaly body and powerful tail of a dragon. The chimera stopped, sniffing the air, so all were able to truly take it in. Griffins or winged horses were noble and magical looking creatures; the chimera looked like a ghastly mistake, or a malevolent apparition. It was large. Its body rippled with muscle, its forelimbs ended in brutal lion’s claws, and its breath sent flames fanning in the capricious wind.

The mood of celebration died instantly at sight of the beast. As it stood sniffing the air and looking around, the crowd collectively held its breath, then the creature sprang forward, and everything began happening quickly.

Its reputation for viciousness was well-earned. Even though the sheep was dead, the chimera fell on it and began tearing it to shreds for sheer savagery. This was Æthelrand’s chance. He leapt forward from his concealment, spear at the ready. There was no sound from the crowd as he took careful aim, and lobbed his spear downward. At first it looked as though the spear might have accomplished something, but at the last instant, the chimera moved its head, shaking it back and forth like a rabid dog with its prey. Æthelrand had been aiming for the junction of neck and shoulder, but the spear fell harmlessly to the creature’s side, unnoticed by the beast.

Undaunted, Æthelrand took aim with his second spear, but the chimera was moving too much, and the second did no more good than the first. The third grazed its shoulder, but did more harm than good, as it caused the beast to look up. It spotted Æthelrand standing on the edge of the cliff, and it bellowed with fury, actually lifting its front feet off the ground in rage. It opened its mouth in a fearsome roar, and looked as though it would have liked nothing better than to launch itself into the air and pluck Æthelrand off the cliff, like an unwary sparrow snapped up by a cat.

Æthelrand moved like lightning. Instantly, he had an arrow on the string. He loosed it. He’d been aiming for the eye, but the arrow got caught in the chimera’s fiery breath, disintegrated into ash, and fell unnoticed into its mouth. Æthelrand restrung his bow so fast his movements were a blur. He let fly. The watchers saw the arrow in flight, and then it was gone, following the first, to be swallowed like a bug. In a flash, Æthelrand had his throwing ax in his hand. Bracing his feet, he swung it back two-handed, and launched it down toward the beasts head, but once more, he was thwarted. The chimera was a constantly moving target.

Godric felt his body tense in sympathy as he saw Æthelrand draw his sword: his only remaining weapon. “He should have kept one of his spears!” Godric snarled between his teeth, knowing well how easy it is to strategize when you were only watching combat, not participating in it. His own sword arm tensed with the need for action, the absurd certainty that, in Æthelrand’s place, he could triumph. There was nothing for him to do though but watch.

The chimera was in a frenzy because of the wound on its shoulder, and because its mind, like its body, was a chaotic abomination. It could see Æthelrand, and wanted nothing more than to reach him, and tare him limb from limb. It actually began trying to climb the cliff toward him, and given its various physical attributes, it was doing a fair job. Æthelrand was looking for the safest way to begin a descent, when his eye was caught by rocks and boulders strewn about the landscape. Desperate for any tactic to slow the beast down, he began kicking large and small stones off the cliff’s edge. The fiery breath was getting slowly nearer, and he didn’t know what he was going to do when it got too close.

The stones and small boulders began having an effect. Some of the larger and more well aimed ones occasionally kicked a foreleg out from under it, or struck its torso with an impact that made it stumble. Æthelrand was choosing his path downward with extreme care. He needed to ensure safe footing, but he also had to keep upwind of the chimera’s breath if he could. Just before the worst part of his descent, he came on a likely looking boulder: small enough to be lobbed by a strong man, but large enough to do some real harm. He laid down his sword, picked up the boulder with both hands, took careful aim, and launched it into the air, straight down toward the chimera’s head.

This time his aim was true. The boulder struck the side of the lion head, and the beast bellowed as it stumbled and fell, sliding back down the Cliff side. Æthelrand was after it in a flash, his sword back in his hand, heartened by his first real success. He was sure-footed as a mountain goat. He stepped quickly and lightly, maintaining perfect balance. He held his sword aloft as he slid down the last slope, letting out a yell that sounded, from across the water, like exultation. The chimera lay on its side, stunned by the blow to its head. Æthelrand circled it like a panther, getting upwind, and close to the creature’s neck, ready for the killing blow.

Then, as sometimes happens in combat, luck turned. The fretful wind changed, and a large tongue of flame was blown across Æthelrand’s unprotected lower legs. Æthelrand leapt back, distracted by the appalling pain. In that instant, the chimera stirred, shook its head, then bounded to its feet with astonishing speed. Almost too quickly to be seen, it lifted its front claw towards Æthelrand’s helmet. What followed was savage, but mercifully brief. What was left got kicked dismissively into the lake by the chimera, before it galloped back into the trees, the way it had come.

The crowd at the top of the low hill stood in shocked silence for a moment, and then a chorus of wailing, sobbing, moaning and shouts broke out. Godric couldn’t bear it. Feeling sick, he slunk away. In the centre of the crowd, Celina shook from head to foot, as tears rolled down her cheeks. Helga put her arms around the other woman. She herself felt little grief, not having known the man, but the horror shook her too, and she could only be grateful that such a fate hadn’t befallen someone she loved. Aidan and Cadogan were in a huddle of boys from the village, all of them looking simultaneously frightened and excited. They jabbered almost incoherently to one another about what they’d just seen. Emmeline, Rowena and Salazar stood close together, grim-faced, and silent.

That night, the common room was once again full, but this time there was no music, and almost no conversation. There was no cheerful fire in the inn yard. All huddled inside, needing the reassurance and warmth of human contact. More ale and mead flowed, but with no joy. Celina sat in a corner, taking no part in sharing out food or drink, and talking to no one. Helga stayed beside her mostly, but sometimes went off to check on the younger ones. Aidan and Cadogan didn’t come to her as they had done after the battle in Sussex. They were growing up she supposed, but she still fretted for them. She found them sticking close to Godric and Salazar, who were drinking with Alfred. She sighed inwardly. She supposed that it was the company of men the boys needed now, not the comforting of women. Emmeline was sitting with Rumie and Edwina, all looking stunned by the day’s events.

“It was bad luck,” Alfred was saying in a low, despairing tone. “Victory was in his grasp, but the wind changed just at the wrong time.”

Godric gave a sigh that came up by the roots. “He was a brave man. To face a chimera in single combat, I’ve never heard of such a thing, and he showed no fear. I can still see him coming down to the bottom of the cliff, his sword raised.” He stopped talking suddenly, and buried his face in his goblet. “Luck,” he concluded firmly, “sometimes all the bravery and skill in the world just aren’t enough.”

In the days that followed, life continued in its comforting familiarity of necessary work, and the rhythms of ordinary tasks. Animals must be tended, wool spun, cloth made, firewood chopped, buildings maintained, children looked after, and food prepared. The first shock of Æthelrand’s defeat faded. However, the village was overhung by the twin facts that the chimera was still at large, and that they now had no lord to dispense justice, or oversee the village and its relationship to the outside world.

Emmeline, Salazar and Edwina were absorbed with training the winged horses. This continued to go well. At intervals, they would bring Helga, Godric, Rowena, Aidan and Cadogan to train as well, so that the mounts they would eventually take away north, had a chance to grow accustomed to them. Cadogan continued to do so well at this that Edwina kept him on to work with other horses too.

When she wasn’t training, Emmeline began to spend more and more of her time at Rumie and Edwina’s cottage. She felt comfortable there, and was intrigued by them and their work. She had showed little interest in Helga’s work of healing and potion making, but Aunt Rumie’s experiments fascinated her. Being around the two women gave Emmeline an intoxicating sense of limitless possibilities opening up before her. Before the battle in Sussex, her life had been hemmed around with rules, constraints, and subtle dangers. Since meeting Salazar and the others, the sense of subtle dangers had retreated, but there had been little resembling safety or freedom.

She sometimes dreamed of her encounter with the water demon in the river. These dreams were alarming, but they always ended with her triumph. She had lived. She had emerged from the water to walk away. She would lie, wakeful and thoughtful, but no longer frightened. It seemed to her that absorption in the life of Edwina and Rumie, and the exultation of working with the flying horses, was turning her life in a new direction. She didn’t know what it was, but she knew it was better than where she’d come from.

Helga fit herself easily into the life of the village. She shared the work of the inn with Celina, and joined naturally into the communal work of the women. She couldn’t help admiring the scarlet wool from Rumie’s sheep, and was making gowns and cloaks for herself and Rowena.

Rowena, who admitted freely that she had no hand for such work, tried to make herself useful by rounding up what books were to be found in the village, and combining them with her own two, in order to devise a curriculum of study for the village’s children. This almost universally depressed the children at first, but many parents saw the value in it, and eventually, some of the children did too. They gathered in the common room each morning, and Rowena began teaching them first reading, then other elements of magical lore. She had little liking for healing, or for the women’s pursuits that Helga entered into cheerfully. In teaching, she recaptured the sense of meaningful and fulfilling work she had first discovered in teaching Aidan, and then Helga and Salazar.

Salazar would sometimes join her in this when the weather was too bad for flying. Many of the boys, and some of the girls, seemed to relate better to him, and take his authority more seriously. She felt an immense, quiet pride watching him tutor a student in reading or pronunciation, remembering that it had been she who first showed him the value of the written word.

Godric, it seemed, was everywhere. As a former soldier, he was much in demand among the men when it came to deconstructing Æthelrand’s battle with the chimera. As a healthy man with a strong back and powerful magic, he was asked to help with the heavy work. The men also wanted to talk with him about what they should do next. Godric had some ideas, but he wasn’t ready to share them yet, so evaded answering. As a man who’d lived in the wider world, but who was a wizard, and known to some of them from childhood, he began to be someone to whom folk brought other problems.

In their third week in the village, Alfred said to him, “There is no one now to hear disputes or dispense justice. Many matters were left unsettled when Æthelrand died. He has no heir. You should sit in his place.”

Godric was aghast, then laughed. “I? What nonsense is this? I’m no lord!”

“I’m not saying you are, but although you can’t count past 20 with your britches on, you have had more experience than many, and folk here trust you to be fair. Because you’ve been away so long, you’re not partial.”

“I don’t know what flask you’ve been drinking from, but pass it over.” Thus, Godric dismissed Alfred’s suggestion out of hand, but the idea continued to linger in his mind despite himself.

Helga was sitting by the fire in the common room, a spindle in midair beside her, creating an even scarlet yarn, which wound itself into a basket on the floor. She watched as the children, freed from the morning’s lesson, leapt up and made a dash for the door. Aidan and Cadogan were lost in the trampling hoard of village boys as they burst out into the inn yard.

As Rowena gathered up books and quills, Helga said, “I see Emmeline no longer attends your lessons.”

“No, when she’s not flying, she’s busy peering into Brumhilda’s caldron.”

Helga frowned, and made a low grumble of disapproval.

Rowena looked up in surprise. “I’d have thought you glad. That woman is a healer is she not? Wouldn’t you be happy for Emmeline to study such matters? It’s better for her than picking up the strange ways of the werewolf.” Rowena looked around a little guiltily, but, as so often since Æthelrand’s death, Celina had gone off on her own, and not for the full moon.

“I don’t think you should call her that.”

“Well, why not?” Rowena asked a little defiantly. “That’s what she is.”

Helga’s mouth turned down at the corners. “I know, but she’s Celina first, a kind woman, who happens to be a werewolf, an unconventional woman, a woman with some odd habits and strange ways.”

“You mistrust her too.”

“No I don’t,” Helga replied sharply, but her cheeks flushed a little. “Well, I trust her to be a better role model than Aunt Rumie.”

“I don’t understand you. I think perhaps you fear Celina will seek Godric as a cure for her grief, but how could you think the company of a healer worse for Emmeline than that of a werewolf?”

Helga’s shoulders sagged. “You’re right of course my sister; you see me more clearly than I see myself. I suppose I am worried that Celina will seek … comfort from Godric, but I don’t blame Celina for that. She is an unusual person, but I don’t think she’ll try to turn Emmeline into a werewolf. I do worry that spending too much time with Rumie might turn Emmeline into something almost as dangerous.”

“What ever do you mean by that?”

Helga sighed. “I know Rumie is a healer, but I sometimes think she’s only a healer by accident. If she was more ambitious, I might think her an alchemist. She has the ruthless curiosity, the careless need to know. Such people can be dangerous, because they will stretch what is known and what can be done, with no thought to the consequences.” Helga thought privately that Rowena should understand this, having something of the same inclination herself.

Rowena seemed to sense her thought however, and said without resentment, “You think of me in the same way.”

“No!” Helga exclaimed. “You have the curiosity, but not the mischief.”

Rowena smiled. “And you see me just as clearly sister.”

Chapter 28: Godric’s Hollow

 

Helga spent the rest of the morning immersed in the Metamorph Magi. It was a large book, and seemed inexhaustible in its wisdom. All the travellers maintained a fondness for it, and in bad weather, they studied it together or singly, and perfected some of the more simple incantations.

The conversation with Rowena had stirred Helga’s concern about Emmeline however, so that, after the mid-day meal, she made her way through the chilly rain to Rumie and Edwina’s cottage. It was pleasantly warm inside, and she entered to friendly greetings, and an offer of mint tea. She accepted gratefully, delicately nudging a tabby cat off a chair so she could sit down. Rumie was busy with something at her work table, and Emmeline, who seemed quite at home, got Helga’s tea.

A vigorous orange steam was rising from a caldron on the work table. Rumie was intensely focused on what she was doing, so rather than distract her, Helga looked around. There were shelves everywhere, holding an impressive array of bottles, jars, vials, equipment, and bundles of dried herbs. She could recognize some of what she saw, but not all. Rumie took up a small vial, pouring a few grains of its contents into the caldron. Immediately a spray of orange sparks shot upward, then the potion settled contentedly into a demure simmer.

Rumie set down the vial and turned to Helga. “Thank you for not disturbing me; that’s very fiddly work. I’m trying this potion for the first time, but it needs to simmer for a day. Surely you haven’t come to me for a cure; Emmeline has told me that you’re a renowned healer, and that you studied with the druidess Cleodna.”

Helga smiled self-deprecatingly. “Well, the second part is true. You have things here I’ve never seen before. Is that fireflem?”

“Yes, you can tell by the four-lobed red flowers. I haven’t gotten around to dealing with it yet. There was so much to do after the mooncap bloom.”

“Oh yes! That was wonderful!”

They talked on, comparing herbs and remedies they’d tried, or heard of. “I have noticed how healthy folk seem here,” Helga remarked. “Of course magic is very useful in tweaking the weather, or halting the spread of blight, but it seems that folk, especially the children, are hearty.”

“That’s true,” Rumie said with some pride. “You may have noticed we have fewer children than muggle villages, but they’re healthier, just as you say.”

Helga looked thoughtful. “Yes, now that you say so, there do seem to be fewer children than one might expect. That means more to eat, and healthier mothers too.”

“Quite so. In muggle villages I had to be very careful what I told women about such things, and who found out. Here, no one is going to search me out and, well you know what the consequences can be for giving women such knowledge. And it’s just simple breeding. In an all magic village, after some generations, think of the witches and wizards we will have. Emmeline tells me you brewed a potion for luck! That’s extraordinary! You must tell me how!”

Helga started, then frowned. She looked at Emmeline, who looked back imperviously. Helga cleared her throat. “Well, I am sorry to have to tell you that it didn’t work.”

“Oh yes it did,” Emmeline said, “you all said it did. Your friend made it through the entire battle without …” Finally realizing what she was saying, she put a hand over her mouth, and then said more softly, “Well, he did, he did make it through the battle, it’s just that the potion wore off right?”

Helga looked back to Rumie, who was looking her most predatory. “If luck means that the end of the day brings your death, then I want no part in teaching how to brew it.”

“But he chose,” Emmeline said more diffidently. “He was on the battle field. When the potion wore off, he must have known he was in danger.”

“He wouldn’t have been on the battle field if I hadn’t allowed him to believe what he wanted was possible.”

“But it was,” Rumie said. “It was possible. You succeeded; Emmeline has told me all about it. That is a remarkable achievement! Think of the benefits! Are you jealous of your potions then?”

“No,” Helga said with some heat. “I’m not, but this potion isn’t one that should ever be used; it’s not safe. It causes recklessness, false beliefs …” To her own horror, Helga’s eyes filled with tears. The last thing she wanted was to cry in front of Emmeline and this strange witch. “If you pass me that bundle of bloodboil weed I’ll strip the leaves and crush them for you.” In uncharacteristic silence, Rumie did so.

“May I ask what you were working on when I came in?” Helga made her tone deliberately polite and friendly.

“Oh it’s a variation on a strengthening solution.” Rumie went on to describe her innovative approach to this potion standard. “It will certainly be useful when Godric faces the chimera,” Rumie finished.

“When what?” Helga dropped her pestle in distress.

Rumie looked surprised. “Emmeline told me she overheard the men talking strategy.”

On the whole, the visit did more to upset Helga’s nerves than it did to soothe them. She had meant to stay calm, but when she saw Godric and Salazar entering the inn’s common room together, laughing with that infuriating male air of vigorous smugness, she couldn’t restrain herself. Fronting them sturdily, she said, “There’s a rumor going around that you’re planning to fight the chimera.”

Godric shrugged. “Well of course. It can’t just be allowed to go on preying on man and beast.”

He made as though to pass her on his way to the fire, but she blocked him. “Godric, you are not to attempt single combat with it.”

Salazar laughed, but Godric’s eyes slid away, and he looked shifty.

“Godric!” She exclaimed loudly, “look at me!”

He did so, and Salazar put a light hand on her arm. “Don’t worry sister, Godric has no such intention, have you.” It was more statement than question, but Godric continued to look shifty. Salazar laughed again. “Whatever ridiculous idea this oaf has in his head, he’s not going to face the chimera in single combat. We’ve been discussing it with the other men, and we’re working out a plan of attack. Godric has been part of the discussions and,” Salazar raised his voice for emphasis, “he’s not going to go off on his own and do anything noble and foolish, are you?”

Godric backed away from Helga, shrugging out of his damp cloak. “Apparently, I’m not,” he said sullenly.

Helga was still upset by the earlier conversation about her role in Odo’s death, and it lent an uncommon edge to her voice as she said, “Godric, what are you thinking? You’re absolutely not to go throwing your life away because of some foolish idea about honor or bravery.”

Godric turned on her angrily. “Honor and bravery are not foolish, and it’s up to me to decide what I will do and not do.”

Before more angry words could be exchanged, Salazar said peaceably, “Come and sit down. I will draw us ale.” It was uncommon enough for Salazar to offer to serve another, that Godric and Helga submitted, dropping resentfully into chairs around one of the tables. Rowena, who’d been reading the Metamorph Magi by the fire, rose quietly to join them.

There was an awkward silence, then Salazar said calmly, “What would you have us do Helga? Live here, train our horses, then simply leave the folk here to be picked off one by one?”

“It’s not our problem,” Helga replied, but she looked uncomfortable. “We have been welcomed here, but we’ve earned our keep. Surely we don’t owe them our lives! Why can’t they take care of themselves?”

“They’ve lost their lord,” Godric said sadly. “They have no one to lead them or fight for them, and I haven’t seen a lot of evidence that they’re well set up to lead or fight for themselves. Æthelrand died nobly, and he deserves to be avenged.”

Seeing Helga about to object, Salazar leaned forward toward her. “Helga,” he said intensely, “I know you fear for Godric, but I assure you, none of us is going to let him face the chimera in single combat. Instead, we’re going to work together. You are a good and humble woman, but surely you must have concluded by now, surely we all must have concluded by now, that the four of us are … are special.” He looked quickly around the room to make sure they were alone, then fixed his eyes once more on Helga’s face. “Here we sit in an all magic village, but I know you feel it as I do; we four have more power than any other witches or wizards we’ve met, saving perhaps Cleodna. Do you believe in wyrd, in fate?”

“Of course,” Helga replied, “who does not?”

Salazar nodded. “I believe, I know, that my fate is bound up with yours, with Godric’s, with Rowena’s. We four are fated to do great deeds, and to have a great destiny. I feel it, I know it. Look away if you will, but you feel it too, I know you do, and you Godric, and you Rowena, you know this in your hearts.” He spoke with intensity, and no one looked away. “I don’t know what our destiny is, but I know it will be great. What could be a more noble beginning than this.”

Unexpectedly, Rowena leaned forward too. “I also feel this. It has been growing stronger of late. I care for you all of course and want us all to be safe, but Salazar is right; we have powers most other witches and wizards don’t have. Helga, I know how much you want to find a home, a safe, comfortable place. I long for the quiet of library and scriptorium, but Salazar is right, I know it.” She looked at Godric and Salazar. “And the fighting is not only for the men to do. This is not a battle to be won only by the strength of a sword arm. We all must use the power we have, to help, or why do we have it?”

Helga dropped her eyes to her ale cup. She took a deep breath, then let it out. “I cannot honestly say I disagree with any of you. I still grieve for Odo, and my part in his death. I know it was his choice, but such power as we have is … it sometimes seems a fearsome thing to me. I don’t want harm to come to any of you. I’ve … I’ve lost too much already.” She swallowed resolutely, and raised her eyes. “Very well, I will help.” She fixed Godric with a beady eye. “But no single combat: swear it!”

“I so swear,” Godric answered. He reached out and touched her hand. “You are always teaching me types of courage I’ve never seen before.”

The weather was mostly vile, and Helga stayed in doors, spending the mornings with Rowena and her students. Helga felt she needed the practice in reading. When the children began to be restless, she would pull out potion ingredients, and teach them rudimentary herb lore and potion making.

While Rowena had the children read aloud or practice wand movements, Helga would take up the Metamorph Magi. Occasionally, Salazar would join her on the settle, the book open between them. When Rowena had set her pupils to an exercise of copying, she would sometimes join them, reading over the shoulder of one or the other. By tacit agreement, they refrained from practicing transformations when the village children were about. They had become possessive about the book. Reading it, whether together or alone, had become a strangely reassuring pastime, but they saved experiments with slitted cat eyes and feathered crests, for when they were alone. Godric sometimes participated in these private games, but more often, he was in demand for some task or other around the village.

While Godric had reluctantly abandoned the idea of single combat, he remained, by unspoken consent, in charge of the battle plan. Since he wasn’t to be allowed the glory of facing the beast alone, he intended on a many-pronged attack, considering carefully the resources and powers available to him. He consulted with Rowena. She confided in him that she was working on what might prove to be a very useful spell of her own creation, but begged him not to say anything about it, in case she was unable to pull it off in the moment. Understanding the desire to preserve one’s pride, he agreed.

At his urging, she pored over every text she had, looking for anything that might help in a fight to the death with perhaps the most vicious and bloodthirsty of all magical creatures. “There is only one recorded instance of anyone succeeding in battle with a chimera,” she told him finally, “and that was achieved from the back of a winged horse, and with the help of a blacksmith.” She explained. Godric listened carefully, then nodded.

Æthelrand’s tactic of fighting from above had been a good one, but the geography was suited to single combat, not to pitched battle. Godric urged Salazar and Edwina to double their training efforts, and took a more active role himself, testing the limits of both fliers and their mounts. Then, he went to consult with Alfred.

He urged Helga to set aside her reservations about Aunt Rumie, so that the women could work together on Rumie’s strengthening potion. He also spoke to Salazar about weather wisdom. Although fighting the chimera in the persistent rain had some appeal, Godric doubted the beast could be lured into the open in such weather, and besides, visibility would be poor. An unpredictable wind was also a potentially fatal risk. Livestock continued to be picked off at random, and two weeks after Æthelrand’s death, the village lost another herder. Godric didn’t want to wait for the weather to clear.

Rowena expressed great interest in this, and so she and Salazar spent many chilly and sodden afternoons on hilltops, while he taught her how to seize the winds and direct the clouds. She was as exhilarated by this as Godric had been. They lay together in the wet grass, eyes and minds focused on the skies.

When the clouds dispersed and rays of sun began shining down on them, she turned toward him with exultation. He looked at her, damp, dirty, untidy, and exultant. He raised his wand lazily, and performed an impressive drying spell on their clothing, and the grass beneath them. Suddenly, the hilltop where they lay alone together was warm, and full of sunlight.

The next morning, all was ready. Godric had chosen a peninsula sticking out into the lake as the best place to fight. It was the largest space of open ground, having been used for years as a landing place for dragons. It would be no mean feat to corral the chimera on to this spit of land, but Godric didn’t want to risk the creature’s escape. It would take some doing, but he wanted to get the beast with its back to the water, with nowhere to run. It would be at its most dangerous when cornered, but he was determined that the matter must be ended here and now.

They breakfasted together in the common room. Celina served them, but wouldn’t sit down to eat. Withdrawn as she had been since the last combat, now she was almost completely silent. Helga understood well that Celina feared Godric’s death above all else.

Spectators were once again urged to climb the rise of ground around the lake, overlooking the peninsula, and out of reach of the chimera. The mood of the crowd was tense and quiet, nothing like the last time.

There would be no rousing speeches or cheering, but the feeling among the four of them at breakfast was business-like. Godric and Salazar joked more boisterously than folk usually do so early in the morning, though that may have been owing to the large cups of mead Salazar poured, and brought to set down before the two men. They each also had a goblet of the strengthening potion, which Helga had finally deemed to be safe. When all goblets had been drained, the four went outside, Godric and Helga congratulating Salazar and Rowena on a perfectly clear day. Rowena and Salazar thanked them, and smiled at one another.

When all spectators were safely in place, Edwina and Salazar mounted, and took to the air. Their job was to fly over the area looking for the chimera. The first one to see it was to unfurl a scarlet banner, both to lure the beast toward the peninsula, and to let everyone else know the chimera was coming. Godric, Helga, Rowena, and the strongest of the village were concealed at the place where the spit of land jutted out into the lake. They must wait, still and silent, until the chimera had passed them, then follow, to give it battle.

Salazar was the first to unfurl his banner, as he’d known he would be. Edwina was excellent with the horses, but she hadn’t his empathy for animals. As he flew, he extended his consciousness, seeking out the chimera with his thoughts. He remembered what had almost happened with the dragon, how his own consciousness had begun to be submerged. He was more careful this time. Still, he was overwhelmed by the brutal and chaotic mind. He clung to his horse’s mane, leaning forward over its neck, fighting the wave of dizziness. He opened his eyes wide, trying to focus on what was before him, not to allow his awareness to be dangerously divided. He felt the thin pole of the scarlet banner slipping from his fingers. He leaned alarmingly to one side, and grabbed it just before it fell. Recovering himself with a sickening lurch in his belly, he raised it aloft, both taunt to his foe, and message to his comrades.

Edwina unfurled her banner, and took up her position ahead of him. They had agreed that who ever was closest to the chimera should stay there, while the other flier went ahead, acting as an additional lure, and as backup in case something happened. Salazar’s task now was to coax his horse to fly low enough to be a tempting irritant to the chimera, but high enough to be out of range of its breath. This required an unpleasant amount of twisting around to look behind him, without disturbing the horse’s flight. If the horse grew skittish, it might simply fly off.

Higher, lower, higher, lower: Salazar tried to calm his horse’s increasing irritation. Each time the chimera seemed to get distracted by movement on the ground, he would lean forward, indicating an intention to land. When the chimera became once more inflamed by sight of the scarlet banner, and its desire to make mints out of Salazar and the horse, Salazar would pull back, urging the horse upward once more. This was a sickening course, and it ended abruptly.

The horse was getting quite grumpy. It swished its large tail fretfully as Salazar once more urged it upward. The sudden movement above and ahead proved irresistible. The chimera leapt forward with a burst of speed, and tried to launch itself off the ground. It couldn’t of course, but its powerful dragon’s tail gave it more force than Salazar had expected. The fiery breath caught the horse’s tail, and it burst into a sickening fan of flame.

Salazar reacted immediately. Before the flame could touch flesh, he used as much mental force as he could summon, to urge the horse upward, off to one side, then down into the cold water of the lake. This was a horrible experience for everyone involved, but far superior to the alternative.

It took some time for Salazar and his mount to make their way onto land. He dried them both off with his wand, and looked up. Edwina had taken her place as goad to the chimera. He had to admit that she was doing an impressive job of controlling her horse. She’d found the knack of it, and was making steady progress toward the chosen battle ground, the chimera mindlessly following the lure of the scarlet banner.

Salazar’s horse wasn’t as badly shaken as he’d feared. The fire hadn’t reached its flesh, and although the lake had been unwelcome, the horse was dry now. He mounted, and urged it toward the peninsula. He realized too late that the absence of its tail affected the horse’s balance in flight. They bobbed and weaved their way drunkenly across the water, and made an ungainly landing at the end of the spit. Salazar debated What to do with the horse. He thought he could probably send it on its way. It could likely fly back to its fellows safely enough, but an erratically flying horse might soon be vastly preferable to no horse at all, so he let it alone to choose its own fate.

It was unnerving to watch Edwina leading a deadly enemy toward him, where he stood, his back to the water. He paced anxiously, trying to decide where best to position himself. Finally, he chose a place along the side of the peninsula, near a cairn of loose stones they’d set up there the previous day.

Helga, Rowena, Godric, and the villagers who’d elected to fight with them, crouched in the undergrowth at the lakes edge, where the spit began to jut out from the shore. They didn’t have a clear view of the sky, but they were able to spot Edwina as she flew lazily back and forth in front of the chimera, taunting it with her scarlet banner, and coaxing it forward along the path they had chosen for it. Finally, they heard an immense rustling of dead leaves as the chimera drew closer. This was an extremely tense moment. They must stay absolutely still and silent. The worst thing that could happen now was for the beast to sense them, and attack in close quarters, close quarters moreover, that were highly flammable.

Godric felt he couldn’t bear to stay put a moment longer. His fingers caressed the grip of his ax lovingly. If he could get off one good throw just as the creature passed, he might wound it mortally, and save them all a lot of trouble. He was in the act of lifting the ax from his belt when he felt a sharp stab in his shoulder. He looked around in shock; it was entirely the wrong time of year for bees. Helga was staring at him with eyes so fierce they might have spat fire themselves. Her wand was raised, and he realized she’d hit him with a well-aimed stinging hex: not bad enough to really hurt, but enough to get his attention. He pursed his lips in anger, but let his hand fall from the ax.

Rowena held her wand tightly. It was her only weapon, and if her spell should fail … She wouldn’t let herself complete the thought, but she felt sick with fear. There was a startling shriek from nearly overhead: some impervious bird, careless of their danger. Reflexively Rowena looked up, and her mouth fell open. She shut it quickly, but her eyes were huge. Perched on the branch of a nearby tree, was a blue-black raven. Its beady eyes stared directly at her, leaving her in no doubt that it was the same bird which had precipitated her departure from the scriptorium, the same bird who had saved Aidan’s tiny sister from the wolf. Helga saw Rowena’s expression, and followed her gaze. Helga looked startled, but then, there was no attention to be spared for birds.

The chimera was abreast of them now. There was a heart-stopping moment when it stood still, quite close to them, sniffing the air. Edwina, in desperation, began yelling down to it.

“Come on you ugly, misbegotten offspring of a demon! This way! What’s the matter? Afraid of us? You should be! We’re going to chop you up into pieces and feed you to our dogs!” In a different situation, her taunts might have been funny. Instead, they raised the spirits of all, making them feel braver. All, that is, except the chimera. It had apparently had quite enough of being mocked, and bounded forward with a will.

This was the moment for action. “Now!” Godric called. Instantly, each of them raised a bow with an arrow on the string. They had rehearsed it, and it came off perfectly. None of them save Godric was much of an archer, but he had drilled them to shoot in waves. There wasn’t much hope of penetrating the scaly tail, but enough arrows shot at reasonable range, might possibly do some damage to the goat’s body. The effect was slight. The chimera checked its mad rush forward, as though puzzled by the sudden sting of multiple insects. It did a kind of sideways shuffle, that gave the first wave of archers time to restring. The next volley mostly bounced off the back of the goat head, and seemed to propel the beast into motion.

Now, the attackers followed with a will. Their goal was to stay beside and behind, keeping out of reach of the fiery breath as long as they could. The stoutest of them carried axes, which could be used in close range, or thrown. Multiple piles of stones had been laid around the spit, ready for throwing, either by hand or by magic. Godric had a sword, but he was the only one. Thus, Godric’s many-pronged attack began.

The chimera was bombarded by a hail of large stones and small boulders. These were intended to weaken and confuse it. The attackers aimed for head, shoulders and front legs, but the creature was moving so quickly that only some hit their targets. Salazar, waiting until the chimera was almost upon him, used magic to lob a large stone right at the creature’s ear. The beast let out a bellow of pain and turned toward him, but he was quicker, hurling himself into the water where he was safe both from the fiery breath, and from pursuit. Edwina had succeeded in luring the chimera right to the end of the peninsula, which was exactly where Godric wanted it. She continued to fly out over the water, both to give her horse time to calm down, and to keep the chimera facing away from its attackers. This worked for a few seconds, during which blows rained down on the chimera from stones and axes. Finally, however, the chimera had enough, and turned on them in a fury of aggression.

Many retreated immediately, but Godric and some others stood their ground. A flurry of spears and large stones at close range had some effect, but several received bad, sometimes crippling burns. Others, brave enough to attempt ax blows, were struck by the creature’s deadly claws.

Godric had one spear, his ax and his sword left. The spear was the most cumbersome weapon to retain, so he decided to use it first. He was too close for throwing, so stabbed its barbed point repeatedly upward, trying to reach the vulnerable spot below the jaw. The creature was dancing with rage from the repeated blows of rocks and thrown spears however, and was an impossible target for a precision thrust. Miraculously, Godric continued to jump, sidestep, duck and weave, eluding the deadly breath. All could see that he was tiring though.

It hadn’t occurred to Godric to fight the beast with magic himself; fighting was a skill of the arm, the body, and the mind. For Helga and Rowena, magic was the only way they knew to fight. Helga was trying a series of spells meant to shift the stony ground beneath the creature’s feet. This did work, and the chimera was often halted in its attempts to lunge at attackers with killing blows of its brutal claws, but it’s tail provided excellent balance, and she was never entirely able to topple it. Others in the attacking force used magic to hurl stones, and cause burns and welts to appear on the creature’s torso. These were driving it mad, and the multiple small injuries were beginning to slow it down.

Godric’s spear was nocked from his hand by a vicious swipe of the creature’s front foot. The swipe might have taken off Godric’s arm at the shoulder, but somehow he dodged just in time, and the spear was nocked from his hand, leaving his arm temporarily numb from the impact. The spear shattered under the creature’s powerful foot.

Godric looked around quickly, sensing something. Alfred was approaching, throwing ax held in both hands. Grateful for a second or two to catch his breath, Godric moved sideways. Alfred stepped bravely forward to take his throwing stance. The movement caught the chimera’s attention, and the hideous head turned toward him. A puff of fiery breath flew through the air.

Standing back, Rowena gathered herself together for the one thing she hoped she could contribute to this fight. It was so much more difficult to focus her mind amid the shouts, the hail of missiles, and her own buzzing fear. If it worked, this spell might turn the tide. She cast, and nothing happened. She wanted to shout with rage. She stood, feeling absolutely powerless.

Alfred had thrown himself to the ground, but his clothes ignited. Rowena, strengthened by her own fury at herself, ran forward, heedless of her own danger, to try and roll Alfred toward the lake. Others joined her. After that, she and Helga devoted themselves to using magic to gather up more stones, and to quickly move those who’d been scorched, into the lake. There was no time for healing, and some were lost.

They were running out of stones, running out of weapons, and running out of options. However, the chimera had lost ground too. Its front legs had been injured by repeated blows, and it couldn’t maneuver as quickly. Its strength seemed limitless, but repeated blunt traumas were beginning to wear it down.

After one particularly resounding blow to the head, the chimera stood still, temporarily stunned into immobility. There was a harsh cry from overhead. The black raven swooped down toward the chimera, so quickly that the beast had no time to react. The raven tucked its wings, made a dive, and sank its claw deep into the chimera’s eye. There was a burst of blood, and a roar such as they’d not heard before. The chimera leapt up, and injuries not withstanding, began laying about with fire and claws so that all scattered before it: all, save Godric. He would not yield.

He pulled his jewelled sword from its sheath, and started forward. There were cries of dismay and fear, but he didn’t hear them. He was leaping from side to side, jabbing upward at the unprotected throat, somehow dodging the fiery breath, and the frenzied swipes of the killing claws. Those who watched were astounded, never having seen anything like Godric’s ferocity, or his luck in evading the chimera’s best attempts to eviscerate or incinerate him.

Salazar had retrieved Alfred’s ax. Now, he rushed forward. He was aiming for the side of the beast’s head. The chimera was completely absorbed by its desire to stomp the life out of Godric, but as Salazar positioned the ax for a mighty blow, the beast turned its head, and sent a full blast of fire into his face.

Standing back and watching in horror, Rowena didn’t stop to think. She raised her wand high. Those who saw her wondered afterward if she hadn’t grown taller. She seemed to expand. Her eyes flashed, and power radiated from her. Instantly, a wall of water rose from the lake, sweeping in a powerful, focused wave between Salazar and the fire. Both Salazar and the chimera fell back from it. Godric was thrown back as well. Salazar was the first to recover himself. He stood dripping, and raised fingers to his lips. He emitted a startling, piercing whistle.

Edwina had flown the horse to the rear of the battle, to keep it out of harm’s way, and preserve its sanity. She frankly didn’t trust it not to simply fly away, but all of their training together paid off, and it stayed by her side. The last phase of Godric’s battle plan lay with the horse. Edwina knew what to do if she must, but she wasn’t the most skilled, and she heard Salazar’s whistle with relief. She slapped the horse reassuringly on the hind quarters, and it rose into the air. It was more evidence of Salazar’s rapport with animals that the horse came to him, despite the chaos that reined around him. The bow and quiver full of arrows were tied on to the horse, right where they should be.

The Chimera was dazed from the water, but recovering itself. Salazar led the horse quickly to Godric, and helped his friend to mount. “Good luck my brother,” he panted, as he secured the bow, and helped Godric sling the quiver over his back. Then, he retreated. They had all done everything they could. It was up to Godric now.

Godric had been exhausted by the fight, but leaving the ground was exhilarating. He felt a burst of strength as his world became three-dimensional in a way it hadn’t been before. Ever since leaving the inn, he’d felt an unreasonable optimism: a certainty of victory. Now, astride a winged horse, with the killing weapon in his hand, he had an astonishing feeling of infinite possibilities. He felt like he could do anything. “NO single combat is it Helga?” He shouted joyfully, “Watch this!”

As Edwina had done, he began shouting insults at the chimera, trying to make it look up at him. “You mongrel! You twisted product of a charnel house! Your father was a worm, and your mother was a barn cat! You won’t even make meat for my dogs. Up here goat!”

He flew back and forth, flaunting his lack of fear in the beast’s face. It looked up. Now was the moment. Godric raised his bow, squinting, tensing his entire body to steady his weapon. Firing from a moving target was no joke. He’d practiced this too, but suddenly, it seemed simple.

He was aiming for the open mouth. The idea had come from one of Rowena’s books, its execution, from Alfred, the blacksmith. These were no ordinary arrows. Their tips were iron. As the arrow disintegrated into ash, the iron melted, and slid down the creature’s throat, and into its lungs, two places where hot metal manifestly didn’t belong. It wasn’t going to be quick, but it was going to be final.

Every arrow hit its mark. As Godric swung back and forth, and up and down to avoid the flames, he watched the chimera slow down, begin to sink to its knees, and still he got off arrows, one after another, into the fire. He felt a surge of triumph. He had one more arrow, and he was determined to loose them all. He dipped lower. The chimera wanted desperately to tare him to bits. In a last burst of fury, it lunged. The horse lurched upward and away, but too late. As the chimera fell to the ground for the last time, the horse’s left wing ignited. It shrieked, and plunged earthward, Godric tumbling off its back like a leaf blown from a tree.

The watchers below cried out. Salazar, Rowena and Helga had no time to even try to help. Perhaps if he’d been over water, perhaps, but … There was a shocking swirl of color and movement from the cliff top where Æthelrand had fought. Down swooped a creature only a few of them had ever seen. It swooped toward Godric, flying up beneath him as he fell. He clung convulsively, splayed across the lion’s back, born by the eagle’s wings. It landed, deposited Godric on the ground, and swept gracefully back into the air. The sunlight reflected off its mottled gold. Where the chimera had simply been an abomination, this creature, blending eagle and lion seamlessly, was the most beautiful creature any there had ever seen.

Godric came to himself, and looked to the chimera. It was clearly in its death throes. He drew his sword, ran forward, and delivered the killing blow. Salazar came to his side. Godric turned to him. “Are you wounded my brother?” Salazar asked.

Godric shook his head slowly. “I don’t know why I’m not, but I’m not. It was like the chimera couldn’t touch me!” Salazar’s huge grin matched Godric’s, and they embraced.

They turned, and made there way back to where the watchers had clustered. They all looked stunned, and Godric laughed aloud, but found no words. Very slowly, a ragged cheering began. It grew in strength until the air rang with shouts of victory. No one could say afterward who was the first to call out the words “Godric’s hollow,” but they were taken up quickly by the rest of the fighters. The words carried over the water to the rest of the villagers where they watched from around the lake, and was echoed back. By the time the first of them had pelted back around the lake to join the fighters, all had agreed that the village would henceforth be known as Godric’s Hollow.

Godric objected, but they wouldn’t hear him. Finally, he gave up in favour of practicality. Helga and Rumie had already begun treating the injured, and Godric helped them organize moving them to the inn. When the last victim had been sent hovering on his way, Godric, Helga, Rowena and Salazar had a chance to look at one another, and truly savor what they had done.

Chapter 29: The World Men Make

 

Helga and Salazar questioned Rowena excitedly about her water spell. “It would have been a lot more effective if I’d been able to carry it off sooner,” she said a little grimly.

“That was impressive magic, Godric said. You figured it out just in time for Salazar eh? And is there something you’d like to tell us about that raven?”

“I wouldn’t know what to say: it comes, but I don’t know why.”

“I know how you feel!” Godric expostulated. He stopped, causing them all to stop too. Everyone else had departed for the inn, and a riotous celebration, and they trailed behind. Godric looked suddenly serious. “What does it mean? The raven, the griffin, the dragon, why?”

The others looked back unflinchingly. “It is our fate,” Salazar said simply. “It’s as I said before. The four of us have a great destiny, I know it. Look what we have done here. Who can say they’ve killed a chimera? And it’s not just this. You know we are, special.” Slowly, solemnly, they each nodded. “We should stop denying it, accept it.”

“What do you mean?” Helga asked.

“I don’t know yet. All I know is that we did something great here today.”

“Each of us,” Helga said smiling, “we each had something necessary to do. Perhaps you are right.” She shifted restlessly. “I want to get to the inn and help Rumie.”

They set off once more, talking excitedly about the battle. “I will tell Alfred,” Godric said with satisfaction, “the arrows were perfect; they seemed to practically aim themselves.”

“Your sword work on the ground Godric,” Rowena said in awe. “Well, I know nothing of sword work, but the way you were so light on your feet that the chimera couldn’t touch you!”

“I know,” Godric said unselfconsciously. “I can barely understand it myself, but these things happen in combat sometimes, and you never really know why, just luck maybe.”

Salazar was not one who found working in the shadows uncomfortable. When it came to distributing honor however, the shadows didn’t suit him as well. If he’d let himself think about it much before hand, he would have said he’d meant to keep it to himself, but now, in the euphoria of victory, discretion seemed irrelevant. “Lucky indeed,” He said, with an enigmatic tone that made them all turn to look at him. He grinned back, sure they’d praise him for his forethought. “Have none of you guessed? Helga, before we left, I drained that little caldron of yours into a vial, and I’ve carried it with us in case of dire need.”

There was a ringing silence, then Helga stepped menacingly forward, leaning in close to Salazar, and said, “Which caldron?” Instinctively, Rowena and Godric backed away.

“Your potion for liquid luck,” Salazar replied, his voice cracking slightly, though he tried to keep his expression bland. “If ever there is a time for a luck potion, surely it’s when you’re about to battle a chimera.”

Helga raised her hand as though she would strike Salazar. Her face worked, as though several bitter statements were warring with one another to be spoken. Finally, she turned her back on him, and thundered off toward the inn. Salazar looked to Rowena for enlightenment, but her eyes were on Godric. He had his hand on his sword, and was beginning to draw it.

“Godric,” she said calmly. “Do not dishonor this glorious victory by attacking an unarmed man.” That stopped him. His face was rigid with anger. He stared at Salazar. “Never speak to me again. Our friendship is ended. I warned you once, never to deal so with me again. The next time I find you prepared to defend yourself, I will show you how little I need your interference.” He too turned, and strode away.

Rowena approached Salazar. She was an undemonstrative woman, and so when she rested her hand on his arm, it broke through his stunned immobility. “Walk with me,” she said, and gestured away from the inn and the crowd. He followed. Reassured by movement, they didn’t speak until the sounds of celebration had been swallowed up by the trees. Finally, Salazar said, “Rowena, what just happened?”

Rowena sighed. “You know I’m not the best at understanding people, why they do what they do, or feel the way they feel. You must remember that Helga still grieves for Odo. She thinks his death her fault, the fault of her potion. She is afraid of her power. You know this.”

Salazar tried to understand, but couldn’t. “Does she think I stole the potion from her?”

“Perhaps.”

“But she left it behind, with all the other things she left behind. Surely it isn’t steeling to take what someone has discarded? And Godric! I secured victory for him. He is the best fighter, it made sense to give the potion to him. He can have the glory too, but why should we not share it? Helga brewed the potion, I had the forethought to save and use it, and Godric defeated a chimera and rode a griffin. Why is that cause for him to tell me our friendship is ended, and to swear vengeance on me?”

“I think it is his honor. He feels you choose for him.”

“If others around him manipulate events, he isn’t in control, and that’s what he cannot stand.”

“Salazar, you might have told him you had the potion and convinced him to take it.”

“Look what trouble it’s caused with victory in our hand. What do you think would have happened if I’d proposed that? Helga would have talked him out of it, and a lot more people would have been killed, maybe us.”

Helga’s anger was rare. Like a lightning fire in the woods, it came suddenly, burnt fiercely, then dissolved in the firebreak of her nature. Salazar was wrong to have done what he did, but he was Salazar, and he had only acted as his nature dictated, just as she did, in letting go of the edge of her anger against him. Godric was different. He was slow to anger, but once kindled, the emotion grew like a bonfire on Beltane, stoked with a will.

Godric moved his things into Alfred’s cottage. Helga avoided Salazar, spending the chilly days by the fire, working with the scarlet wool. Celina often joined her there, and it made the work go faster.

One afternoon, Salazar entered. He’d been avoiding Helga, but now he approached the hearth, something cupped in his hand. It was an immobile bird. He placed it delicately on the hearth stone, and crouched to inspect it.

“What have you there?” Celina asked.

“I think its still alive.” Helga came to kneel beside him. “It’s a snow bird.”

“They come this far south in winter sometimes, but their home is the high north.” Salazar explained.

“Is this one injured?” Helga asked.

“I don’t think so, I think it was very wet, then got caught in the wind. I think it’s half frozen.”

Helga reached out a light hand. The bird didn’t move. “Hmm, I hope so, pour thing.” She straightened, caught Salazar’s eye briefly, then looked away.

When she’d resumed her chair, Salazar said a little awkwardly, “The work with the horses is going well. They’re as ready as they’re going to get. I think we should prepare to leave soon.”

Helga swallowed. She wasn’t ever going to be a fan of flight. “Very well, when?”

“Four more days.”

“I’ll tell Godric.”

Emmeline stood, leaning against her winged horse. Edwina hadn’t had names for all of them, so Emmeline had called this one Plume. She liked running her fingers through the beautiful, vigorous feathers, and the horse seemed to like it too. Salazar approached, smiling, an act even more rare than usual these days. “You’ve done very well with him; that was an excellent flight.”

“We understand each other.” She rubbed her forehead a little against Plume’s neck. Something she couldn’t describe, even to herself, had happened as she and the horse started to trust and understand each other, and it had become the most important thing in her world.

“We’ll be leaving in four days. I have no worry about how you’ll handle this one.” He stroked the horse’s nose.

Emmeline took a deep breath. “I’m not going with you.”

Salazar withdrew his hand. “Why not?”

Emmeline shifted a little uncomfortably. “Why should I go with you? What’s the reason in it? You helped me, I know it, but we’re not … I mean you helped me get away from a bad situation, but you’re not responsible for me. I like it here. I love the horses, and Aunt Rumie has said I can apprentice with her.”

“You’re not cut out to be a healer,” he said bluntly.

“That’s kind of you to say,” she replied a bit sharply, “but it’s not only tending the sick you know. Rumie even knows things that druidess knew, and Rumie’s a … well she’s not whatever that druidess was.”

Salazar smiled again. “You didn’t like her, did you?”

Emmeline shook her head. “She scared me, it’s like she wasn’t quite a person any more.”

“Hmm, extremely powerful witch though, you can’t deny that.” Salazar sighed. “It’s for you to choose whether to stay or come with us. I’ve like knowing you, but it’s wise for you to think of your future.”

“I always felt like you understand me better than anyone else even though you’re a man. You are a very good teacher too; I’ve learned much from you.”

Godric was by the inn at least once a day for one thing or another, so Helga waited until he arrived to chop wood for Celina. He came into the common room to have a look at the leg of a table that had been broken in the raucous celebrations that followed the defeat of the chimera. That had been an awkward evening for the travelers. They should have been jubilant, but the tensions between them had been impossible to ignore, though more than one tried, with some success, to drown them temporarily.

Rowena had just returned from milking, which she’d fervently hoped was an occupation consigned to the past. Seizing the moment, Helga said flatly, “It seems the horses are ready. We can leave in four days.”

Rowena merely nodded. Godric stood up. “Helga, I’m not coming with you. I cannot be within sight of Salazar and not want to … I will not travel with him. I’m sorry Helga. Besides, I’m needed here. The village lost several men to the chimera, not only in the last fight, but over the past months. Many have begged me to stay. I know that Salazar will protect you, and now that you have the winged horse’s, your journey will not be a long one.” Helga was speechless. “I’m going outside to chop wood,” he concluded, and left.

Celina took one look at Helga’s face, muttered something about the bread, and retreated into the kitchen. After a time, Helga rose deliberately, put on her cloak, and went out. She sat on the mounting block, watching him: saying nothing. He was working at a furious pace. There was something oddly satisfying about watching the work, she could see why one might do it, especially if one was angry or … He continued for quite a while.

Finally, he stopped, exhausted. He dropped his ax, and collapsed onto a stray bench. “All right, just get it over with. Say what you’re going to say.”

She had meant to talk about debts of honor, but what she said was, “Godric, you’d leave me to go on alone?”

“Only to carry Odo home! Then you’ll come back here! At least I hope you will. We’re both needed here. Since they lost their lord, they look to me for solutions to their problems, to decide their disputes. Some are people I’ve grown up with. I’ve spent so much time trying to avoid the west country, but this is my home. We could make a good life here together. Will you come back?”

A tiny not of tension eased, but she said, “Godric, you swore an oath to Odo, and to us. I thought such things mattered to you.”

“You, who’ve so often dismissed my talk of honor, now you throw it in my face? How about this. I swear you an oath not to kill Salazar if he stays out of my sight. Now I cannot go with you, because I cannot share the road with him each day and not give him what he deserves.”

“Godric you talk like a brute. No one understands better than I do that Salazar did a terrible thing, but will u let that get in the way of the respect you owe to your word to Odo?”

“You don’t need me with you to carry him home. This was always more your obligation than mine. Mine now is to help here, and make a home for us.”

She knew he was right, she would be safe, and Odo had been her friend not his. Still, she felt betrayed and abandoned. As she rose from the mounting block, she couldn’t stop herself from saying, “You just like being lord. Perhaps you should find yourself a clerk.”

It was the night before their departure by the time Emmeline worked up the courage to come and see Helga. Salazar had told her of Emmeline’s decision to stay. Helga had been hurt not to hear it directly, and had not gone in search of her. She felt a kind of relief when Emmeline entered the inn common room, shaking rain from her cloak, and hanging it on a peg by the door.

“Come here by the fire where it’s warm,” Helga said, removing her work basket from a chair. Emmeline sat down, folding her hands in her lap like a disobedient child awaiting a rebuke.

Helga smiled sadly. “You needn’t look like that. The only thing I’d reproach you for is not telling me yourself.”

“I’m sorry. Salazar was there, and I just told him, and then I couldn’t make myself come here because … you’ve been so kind to me, I didn’t want to disappoint you or … or seem ungrateful or …” Her voice trailed off.

Helga let her squirm for a moment, then said kindly, but with a sigh, “Go on and tell me about it.”

Emmeline took a deep breath. “Some of it is what I told Salazar. You’ve all been kind to me, and I truly had nowhere to go with my mother dead. Even so, being the daughter of a laundry woman following an army, with no father or brother to protect you or to … can you imagine such a life?”

Helga shook her head. In attempting to understand Emmeline’s aloofness, her guarded nature, Helga had tried. The girl had a watchfulness, a tendency to become tense at odd moments. Helga had tried, but she doubted she’d succeeded.

Emmeline shook her own head and gazed into the fire. “Well, maybe you can’t. In fact, you’re so sweet and good, I hope you can’t. But here, here it’s different. It’s not just because everyone has magic, at least I don’t think it is. I’ve never met women like Edwina and Aunt Rumie, and Celina. They deal with men, they laugh with men, but they don’t fear men, and don’t seem to especially need them.“

“And does that seem a good thing to you?”

“Yes. I see how it is for you and Godric, or Salazar and Rowena, and maybe someday I’ll care about that, or want children, but I see here that you can live without men if you choose, and that maybe you can not be afraid of them. Odo was your friend and I know you’ve sworn an oath to carry him home, but what happens then? This is a good place for me.”

“Salazar tells me that Brumhilda has agreed to take you as an apprentice.”

“Yes. It’s really the horses I love, but I’m interested in what Rumie does too. It’s like she’s not afraid of anything.”

“Hmm, that’s likely true enough.”

“What is it?”

“Well, I’ve come to believe that there are some things we should be afraid of. Just because a thing can be done, doesn’t mean it should be done. Try to remember that. I hope you will be happy here.”

“But you are coming back are you not? Godric said you will!”

Helga made a face. “Godric does not speak for me. I know not what I will do.” The truth was that this place was appealing, but she was so angry at Godric for abandoning their quest, that she couldn’t think clearly about the future.

Rowena came down from where she’d been packing upstairs, and Celina joined them from the kitchen, where she’d been tidying after the evening meal. The four sat companionably by the fire, and when Helga proposed that they switch from the mild ale to the much stronger mead, no one objected. When the boys ran down the stairs with Salazar, it was to find the women laughing uproariously at a joke they refused to share.

Suddenly, it seemed to Helga that if she had to deal with one more male and their alien, barbarous ways, she would burst. She fixed the boys with a beady eye and said, “I think you should go spend the night at Alfred’s. We’re going to sit here and talk about childbirth and women’s ailments the entire evening. You want no part of that, do you?”

At the steely glint in her eye, the boys departed smartly, and Salazar discovered that he hadn’t quite finished his own packing after all, and retreated back up the stairs.

As the evening wore on, and they laughed and told stories, few of which had to do with childbirth or womens’ ailments, Helga felt an increasing sympathy for Emmeline’s choice. The world was a dangerous place, especially for women. This village was as likely a refuge as any, and probably safer than most. A place where magic could be used freely, was a good place for women. In a world ruled by the sword, magic leveled off the difference in power between men and women. A woman might lack a strong sword arm or an instinct for violence, but a witch was as likely to overpower a wizard using magic as the other way around.

Women made sense, Helga mused a little drunkenly. Women were generally peaceful, reasonable, comprehensible. They cared for one another, for children, they gave life, and made life comfortable and good. Men fought, squabbled, were messy, disorderly, reckless, dangerous, and made the world into a place of violence. Looking at Emmeline’s flushed young face, more relaxed than she’d ever seen it, she hoped there would be peace here, for Emmeline at least, who, perhaps more than any of them, deserved it.

Helga was suddenly immensely tired of the world, of how men, who ran the world, did so with force. It seemed the answer to all for them. They would fight to conquer, fight to defend, fight to protect, fight to take, and sometimes fight for no reason at all. Here was a village of all magic folk, where witches and wizards need not hide what they were. Where was the place where women were free to order the world as they would, where their children could grow in safety, and not have to learn how to fight?

Emmeline returned to Rumie and Edwina’s cottage that night, and didn’t come to see the travellers off in the morning. The rest of the village did, but Godric hung back. He bid a sincere farewell to Rowena and the boys, but Helga would only utter polite words, and stepped back when he would have embraced her. The boys were wild with excitement. Aidan was anxious to be on there way, because every wing beat would bring them closer to his mother, who he still maintained, waited for him in the north. Cadogan was eager for any excuse to take to the sky on his winged horse.

Salazar checked the load on the pack horse one last time. He had chosen the most docile of all the horses for this task, reasoning that in case of trouble, the horse would simply follow its fellows. Odo had been retrieved from his corner in Celina’s barn, and his basket secured on the horse’s rump. Their more conventional luggage was in saddle bags, which had had to be modified to accommodate the feathered wings.

Helga mounted. She was still ill-at-ease as a flier, and wasn’t looking forward to the days of flight ahead of them. She felt empty and angry leaving Godric behind, but it seemed to her now that her vow to carry Odo home was the only real and certain thing in a shifting and dangerous world. Her home was gone, her country taken by an invader, her … no, she resolved, she wouldn’t think of Godric anymore. All there was left to do was fulfill her oath made to her oldest friend, who’d given his life in an honorable cause.

Rowena instructed the boys to cast the spell she had created, which they hoped would conceal them during flight. She watched closely as the boys raised their wands, and cried, “cumulo obscura!” She gave them a rare smile of approval, as they were blurred by a foggy, blue-white mist. It looked out of place on the ground, but she’d seen it from below, and was pleased with the results of her work. The adults cast the spell as well, and then they were up, the powerful wings beating strongly.

To her own surprise, Helga felt her mood lightening as they rose. Her mount was really quite reliable she told herself, just so long as she remained calm, and in control. The boys whooped with youthful high spirits as they flew, executing little swoops and turns, showing off. Despite how she’d felt mere moments before, it was good to be in the air, good to be on their way again.

Emmeline couldn’t concentrate on Rumie’s erratic lecture about the properties of rat spleens, and instead took herself off to the paddock. Plume galloped toward her, and they nuzzled one another affectionately. On impulse, Emmeline leapt onto Plume’s back, and they rose, circling the field lazily. Her eye was caught by something startling. It was a pillar of smoke off to the south. There was far too much of it for a simple cooking fire, and she knew something was burning that shouldn’t be. Edwina had just left the ground on her favourite mare, and Emmeline called out to get her attention, gesturing meaningfully toward the smoke rising on the still air. Emmeline saw Edwina grow stiff with alarm.

“It’s the manner house!” She called in alarm, and flew off, obviously intending to see what she could see. A few moments later she was coming back, urging her horse not toward the paddock, but toward the center of the village. She landed, dismounted, and ran for the forge, shouting for Godric.

“Soldiers!” She gasped, unable to catch her breath. “On the road, maybe two dozen or more, coming from the southeast, some mounted, some on foot. They’ve set fire to the manner house. They’re coming this way.”

Godric swore volubly. He didn’t think he’d ever been angrier with himself. He should have seen this coming, and prepared for it, but he hadn’t. He swore some more. “Go fetch Rumie!” He exclaimed, and ran to where Edwina had left her horse.

When Rumie came running, he said, “What protective enchantments are on this village?”

Rumie looked confused. “I don’t know exactly. Æthelrand consulted me about it, but he wouldn’t let me be involved with the casting. He said it was his duty to protect us. Whatever he did,” Rumie looked suddenly horrified. “Whatever he did is no longer in affect. A spell ends when its caster dies.”

Godric swore even louder. How could he have been so careless, so stupid? He gave rapid instructions to Rumie and Edwina. They were to gather those who had fought the chimera, and send them toward the road, armed with everything they could lay hands on. The women, children, anyone who wouldn’t fight, should take to the woods with what valuables they could carry. Those who could, must fly the horses, either to battle, or to safety.

As he leapt onto the horse and urged it frantically into the air, he reviewed the litany of his failings. Distracted by Celina, by the flattery of being sought after, by his pride in defeating the chimera, by his grudge against Salazar, he had failed in the most basic task he should have been concerning himself with. While he busied himself arm wrestling with Alfred and settling petty disputes among the villagers, William’s army was moving systematically through the country, conquering as it went, and plundering where it chose. He knew how ruthless and efficient William’s forces were, and how vicious soldiers everywhere can be. He’d known all of this, and he hadn’t thought about it, hadn’t lifted a finger to prepare. And what of his friends? Were they safe away? They’d been headed north. Surely they were long gone.

Helga’s high spirits persisted. Salazar suggested circling the village once or twice to settle the horses. He didn’t say so, but he was nervous about Helga. Her affinity for animals was equally balanced with her dislike of flying, and he was concerned that her anxiety would spook her horse, once they’d flown beyond its familiar territory. The others agreed with his suggestion, and they began a lazy circle that carried them vaguely southward.

“Look!” Cadogan called out excitedly, “soldiers!” He was pointing toward the ground. They all looked down. Below them, looking like toys from this distance, was a group of men, some on horseback, some on foot. Some of the men wore mail, others did not, but all were clearly armed, and they moved as a unit. Salazar saw the smoke in the distance, and knew instantly who these men must be, and the danger they posed.

“We have to warn them.” He gestured toward the village. “Rowena, go with Aidan and Cadogan. Take them off into the woods and hide until …” He didn’t finish his sentence.

They were turning, intending to fly away from the soldiers. Helga was frozen with terror. The sight of the soldiers filled her with a paralyzing panic. Her affinity with her mount proved to be their undoing. It felt her panic, and jerked sideways in flight. Helga was so frightened that she barely saved herself from plummeting to the ground. Rowena called out to her, trying to wake her from her paralysis, but Helga didn’t respond. Salazar reached out with his mind. Overpowering the horse’s urge to flee, Salazar forced it downward. There was no choice. Helga was seconds away from losing her grip, and falling to her death. Her horse dived at a dangerous angle toward the ground, and landed hard, right in the path of the oncoming men.

Chapter 30: Blame and Blue Fire

 

The jarring thud as her horse’s hooves hit the ground, jolted Helga out of her stupor, if not out of her fear. She came to herself facing an astonished collection of soldiers, some on conventional horses, and some on foot, but all heavily armed. She felt that she couldn’t breathe, and moving by instinct rather than thought, she drew her wand from her sleeve.

The group’s leader, a shrewd, decisive man, was the first to recover from the shock of her arrival before them. As she sent an unstudied shower of sparks toward the men, he yelled, “A witch! Kill her!” He was not at the front of the group, but placed some way back. The soldiers closest to her were on foot, too close for arrows, and didn’t look eager to approach something so unpredictable as a witch, mounted on a winged horse. Her horse wasn’t at all keen on the idea either, and kicked out with its hooves, sending a few men falling backward with shouted curses. Eventually though, one man caught hold of her cloak, and was able to drag her off, pulling her, tumbling toward the ground.

Godric surveyed the oddly assorted group of villagers who’d chosen to fight. He’d gathered them together at a spot where he hoped to be able to stage something of an ambush. They might be able to muster some element of surprise, but they were a motley collection of inexperienced farmers and herders, facing trained and battle-hardened soldiers. They were witches and wizards however, and he hoped that would be enough.

He had done a brief reconnaissance from the air. The soldiers were likely a scouting party, ready to fight if they must, but not expecting heavy resistance. They had likely been sent to this backwater in search of plunder to supply the larger force, which would be concentrating on securing more important military targets. This didn’t mean they weren’t dangerous. To untrained and nearly unarmed villagers, they posed a dreadful threat. Anyone who got in their way was fair game for sport, and anything they saw that took their fancy was ripe for the taking. Godric had his sword and a couple of spears, and little in the way of strategy.

Instructing the others to wait for a sight of the enemy, he rose into the air once more to scan for any advantage the terrain might yield. If his small band of fighters struck exactly at the right time, and were exceedingly lucky … maybe … He stopped thinking about what could happen, trying to focus on the needs of the moment. As he got high enough to get a clear view, his worst-case scenario spread itself out before him.

There were the soldiers, just as he had seen them before, the conical helmets of the mail clad among them looking oddly contorted from his position above them. Before them was the last thing he wanted to see: figures, mounted on winged horses, and in plain sight. Not only in plain sight, one of them, Helga, was diving toward the ground in an uncontrolled descent that ended right in front of the astonished Normans. Rowena and the boys were turning, flying back toward safety in the wood, but Salazar was following Helga down, his descent controlled, but no less precipitous. As Godric watched, Helga was pulled roughly from her horse, and he lost sight of her in the disorder of alarmed fighting men.

With a roar of rage, Godric urged his horse forward and down. He wasn’t concentrating on guiding the beast, and it carried him to land behind the soldiers. This wasn’t what he’d intended, but it did mean that the attention of the group was divided, sometimes an advantage when surprising the enemy. He didn’t dismount immediately, knowing the advantage of height and reach of being on horseback. This mount was not trained for combat however, and didn’t care for it one bit. Before it threw Godric in disgust and flew off, it did get in a few good kicks at the foot soldiers.

Salazar, landing sloppily near Helga, was completely distracted by an attack from a war horse. It objected violently to these feathered intruders, who looked at once like, and offensively unlike itself. The war horse charged Salazar’s mount. Thus, Salazar failed to see that the soldier responsible for killing Helga, was having second thoughts. He seized her and dragged her away, but once he’d gotten a good look at her, he decided that killing her right away might not be strictly necessary. He pulled her behind the cover of some bushes. Everyone knew that a witch worked by using her wand and uttering incantations. With the application of some quick knot work, he made these activities impossible.

Fending off the war horse, Salazar saw Godric land out of the corner of his eye. Offering two separate targets might be good strategy, but instinct made Salazar try to edge closer to Godric. Without thinking about it, he felt that they would be stronger together. He wanted to find Helga, but was soon surrounded. Only his will kept his horse from taking off out of this chaos. It kicked and blew, holding off some attackers merely by its alarming appearance. Salazar found that he was unable to think of a single offensive spell, and spent his energy erecting a wall of force around himself and his mount. This allowed him to get closer to Godric, but wasn’t doing anything to even the odds. Finally, he took pity on his horse. He dismounted close to Godric, and the horse leapt into the air, nocking a few soldiers to the ground as it went.

Godric rolled to his feet, whipping his sword from its sheath as he did so. Charging toward the first soldier he could reach, he was aware of some force in himself that he hadn’t felt before. He was no stranger to battle. He knew its fierce, reeking violence, its absolute immediacy. He knew that your weapons must be part of your own body, an extension of yourself. His skill had been praised by teacher and comrade alike.

In an instant of clarity, however, he realized that despite his love of a fight, and of the soldier’s life, he’d always fought for another’s purpose. When you fought, you had to fight for your own life, and for victory, but why? He had fought for Harold, fought for William, fought for his own honor, but always he had been in disguise. Now, he fought for his own kind, a village of magic folk who wished only to be left alone, and for Helga, whom he should have been there to protect, who’d gone down amid a group of the enemy.

Watching, Salazar couldn’t follow. Godric moved so fast, and it wasn’t only speed. Godric’s sword had always been remarkable for its quality, and its jewelled hilt, but now it glowed with a flashing silvery light that Salazar knew was magical. Salazar wasn’t the only one to notice. Soldiers began falling back from Godric. He’d taken down several, but Salazar, the pragmatist, knew he couldn’t fight off the entire band. Desperately trying to think of an offensive spell, Salazar moved closer, and extended his magical wall of force to include Godric. The soldiers had fallen back to regroup, and the two wizards stood side by side, surrounded by carnage.

Godric was trying to catch his breath, and examining a wound on his left shoulder, which was bleeding freely. Salazar looked around desperately for inspiration, and saw two figures approaching from above.

Emmeline stood watching Godric as he took off on his horse to join those who would fight. All around her was chaos, as folk tried to gather valuables, wrangle children, pack food and belongings, put out hearth fires, and generally make ready to evacuate in case the village was overrun. The fear was palpable. Emmeline was no stranger to fear. As she imagined herself huddling in the woods with the other women, she felt a twist of revulsion in her belly. She turned from side to side, surveying the panic. She had always felt herself to be weak, too weak to fight or even defend herself.

She didn’t feel that way when she was riding plume though, she didn’t feel that way even when she was merely grooming him or nuzzling his withers. She went to Rumie and Rowena’s cottage, but she didn’t collect her belongings. Instead, she went to a shelf where there was a collection of glass vials, which emitted a sinister blue glow. She swept them into the pocket of her cloak, and went in search of Plume.

When Rowena yelled to Aidan and Cadogan to follow her away from the soldiers, she first thought they wouldn’t obey. They had all seen Helga go down, and Rowena was afraid the boys would do something fatally reckless. They did follow her though, and the three flew some distance from the road, then touched down in a tiny clearing, hidden from the road by trees. They slid from their horses, panting for breath, and frightened into speechlessness. She felt she should say something comforting. She tried to imagine what Helga would say were she here, but that only made her fear grow. The boys roamed restlessly, and when they began pestering her to let them fly above the trees to see what was happening, she lacked the strength of will to stop them. She too wanted to know, and so, extracting their promise to stay close to her and far from the fight, she rose with them into the air once more. Some of the soldiers were on the ground, wounded or killed, but too many of them were still standing, brandishing swords and spears. Godric and Salazar seemed to have fought them off temporarily, and were together at some distance. It looked like the soldiers were gathering themselves for a charge at the two men, who seemed to be sheltered behind a faintly shimmering barrier. They couldn’t see Helga anywhere.

Suddenly, another winged horse appeared, flying toward the soldiers. They recognized Emmeline, and saw that she was hurling something down at them. Whatever she threw was so small they couldn’t see it, but the next thing they knew, one of the soldiers began shrieking, and fell to the ground. Something had struck him on the back of the shoulder, and burst into flame. His leather armor was charring as they watched, and it was easy to guess what was happening to the flesh beneath. Emmeline took aim, and let loose once again. Beside Rowena, Cadogan let out a fierce whoop, and urged his horse forward as fast as it would fly. His rapport with the beast was excellent, and as he flew, he withdrew stones from his pockets and began pelting the soldiers from above.

Godric and Salazar looked on in amazement, as two of their protégés threw themselves into the fight. Emmeline’s weapon, whatever it was, was doing real damage. One man after another found himself rolling on the ground. Sometimes he was able to stifle the blue fire that exploded as her small missiles struck, but it seemed to be something other than ordinary fire, and not all were able to extinguish it. Cadogan’s attempt to re-enact the fight with the chimera was of doubtful effectiveness, but did serve as a distraction, and Godric inwardly praised the boy for his bravery.

“By the beard of Merlin!” Godric exclaimed, “what are we to do? There aren’t enough of us.”

Salazar screwed up his face in concentration. Emmeline’s use of fire had reminded him of something. That day in the woods when the goblin had cornered him, the goblin had limbed Salazar in flames, used magic to immobilize him. He hadn’t been able to move without experiencing the burn of fire on his skin. How had the goblin done that? The goblin had had no wand, had spoken no word, no spell, no incantation. Salazar remembered the games the four of them had played in Helga’s cottage, pulling their magical abilities together, using all of their force as one, to do more than any of them could have done alone. Something clicked in his mind, and suddenly spells and incantations seemed like letters on a page. Letters by themselves had no meaning, they were just pieces. The meaning was in the idea.

“Godric,” he said quickly, “do you remember when the four of us experimented with combining our magic? Close your eyes for one second. I’m going to put an image in your mind of what to do, and then we’ll both try to do it. Try also to send the idea to the minds of others who can help us.”

Not knowing what else to do, Godric closed his eyes. His mind was suddenly full of an image: the soldiers, caught in a kind of fiery armor, fire that didn’t consume, but that encased each man, burning him if he tried to move outside of it. His eyes flickered open. Salazar was right. They needed to do something to stop this fight. They had magic, but they were unprepared and outnumbered. They could keep fighting, but they would most likely be overcome, and the others left defenseless. Godric nodded, and the two men turned to face the soldiers, staring intensely.

It didn’t take long. Tongues of flame began to appear first around the mail and helmets of the better armed fighters, then around their limbs, then around the bodies of those on foot. Salazar spared regret for their horses, but there was nothing to be done about it. At last, the entire group was held immobile, shouting with either fury or agony. Working hard to maintain his concentration, Godric stepped forward, raised his sword, which still sent forth an unnatural silvery glow, and said in a voice of command, “Those of you who drop your weapons will be spared. Those of you who will not yield, shall die by blade or by fire.”

Most dropped their weapons immediately. They were hardened fighters, but they had never seen anything like what was going on around them, and most were frankly scared out of their wits. Those who didn’t drop their weapons inevitably tried to use them, which led to either a quick and crisp end, or to them falling to the ground, and becoming immobile by the simple expedient of losing consciousness. Salazar moved forward, withdrawing his small knife. It was clear that he meant to kill, not out of blood lust, but out of necessity.

“No!” Godric said sharply. Salazar turned an inquiring look on him. “If none of these report back, others will be sent. Rumie has told me of memory charms. We must keep some alive to send back with stories that will make this place sound harmless and unprofitable.” Salazar nodded slowly, seeing the sense in this.

Rowena touched down behind them. “Accio weapons!” She called out, and immediately all of the swords, spears and bows of the soldiers gathered themselves together, and flew in a lethal cloud, to fall at her feet.

Godric caught movement out of the corner of his eye. The man who had dragged Helga off hadn’t been in any hurry to rejoin the fray. As events unfolded more and more strangely, he continued to hold back. Now however, feeling a growing panic at being the last man standing, he stepped forth, drew an arrow on the string, and shot straight for Godric’s chest. Salazar had seen Godric’s eyes flick past the group of soldiers. He turned to see what had caught Godric’s attention. Without thought or hesitation, Salazar flung himself to the side, taking the arrow under his collarbone. Blood issued from the wound, and Salazar fell to the ground.

Godric leapt forward, kneeling at Salazar’s side, turning him over onto his back. He didn’t see the man who had fired the arrow burst into a pillar of blue fire. Neither did he see Rumie, until she crouched on Salazar’s other side, examining the wound closely. All of the villagers intending to fight had arrived, and Alfred, who had heard Godric’s instructions to Salazar, took charge of binding the unarmed soldiers. They’d been freed from their fiery captivity when the spell casters were distracted by the bow shot.

Rumie had pulled a knife from somewhere on her person, and was delicately attempting to cut the shaft of the arrow at the entry wound. Her face was more serious than Godric had ever seen it. “It’s bad,” she said tersely. “I’m going to have to pull the arrow out from the exit wound, and then see where we are. He still breathes, and his heart still beats; that’s all I can tell you for now. Back up and give me room to work.”

Godric stood up, emotions roiling unbearably. The road was a ghastly sight. Fallen fighters lay everywhere. Most were Norman soldiers, but villagers had been injured also. The air was filled with the scents of battle, which were familiar to Godric, but they were overlain with an uncommon smell of scorching: product of their binding spell, plus whatever it was Emmeline had been throwing down from her horse’s back.

Having assured himself that Alfred had control of the prisoners, Godric roared, “Where is Helga?” Rowena was ahead of him however. She beckoned to him as she circled around to the other side of the sight of battle. He ran to catch up, and arrived in time to see Rowena turning away from the road, into the cover of trees and underbrush. Emmeline was kneeling by a crumpled figure on the ground. It was Helga. He saw Emmeline raise her wand, and the ropes binding Helga flew apart. He felt bile rise in his throat when Helga didn’t move. She lay on her side, curled into a protective ball, and she didn’t move.

He made as though to approach, but Emmeline said sharply, “No Godric, leave her to us. She lives. Rowena and I will tend to her hurts.” He had never heard the soft-spoken Emmeline use such a tone with him, and his belly clenched with fear. Feeling as though he would burst with the need to do something, he went back to where Alfred was herding the prisoners. Godric helped to rope them together, and as he passed the burnt body of the man who had shot Salazar, he stabbed him through, in a futile and unsatisfying act of vengeance.

Trying hard to focus his mind on necessary tasks, and leave healing to those better skilled, Godric assigned a group of villagers to deal with disposing of the dead soldiers. Others he charged with helping the wounded back to the village. He wouldn’t let anyone tend to the wound on his shoulder. He felt more isolated than he’d ever felt in his life, denied the company of those he cared about, and as he trudged back to the village behind everyone else, he told himself that it was no more than he deserved.

Back in the village, he set about the sorts of things he told himself he should have been attending to weeks ago. He made up a schedule of guard duty so that the road was under constant surveillance in case more soldiers came. When this had been done, he stuck his head inside the inn common room, and called peremptorily to Rumie, telling her to come as soon as she could. He sent Edwina to gather the most powerfully magical folk, and when Rumie joined them, they discussed which protective enchantments should be used to hide the village from notice by any more roving bands from William’s army. As they went off as a group to begin circling the village and casting protective magic, Godric came to Rumie’s side.

“Salazar is badly off,” she said frankly. “His lung was pierced by the arrow. We can only be grateful it didn’t injure the heart. He breathes, but I can’t make any promises. He’s resting quietly at the moment, we might know better by morning.”

“What of Helga?”

“Her arm was broken, and she’d had a blow to the head. I’ve mended her arm, and done what I could elsewhere, but she’ll need to rest too.” Godric thought there was more, but Rumie’s lips closed on whatever else she might have said.

Helga lay on a pallet beside Salazar, focusing on the sound of his stertorous breathing. It was laboured, but regular. She closed her eyes. She wanted nothing more than to lie still, never move again. She had tried to tend to the wounded, applying spells where she could, but she simply couldn’t remain upright any longer. She gave instructions to Celina and Emmeline, then laid down where she could see and hear Salazar, even if she couldn’t do anything for him. She understood that Rumie had gone off to work protective magic, but not even the knowledge that she was the only healer in the room was enough to keep her going.

Some time later, Emmeline was crouching beside her with a hand on her shoulder. “Helga,” she said authoritatively, “you must sit up and drink some broth.”

“I don’t want anything.”

“I know, but you’re going to sit up and take some anyway.”

“No, I’m not. Go away.”

“Not until you take some broth.”

“Emmeline, go away.”

“Sit up this minute, and take some broth. You’re acting like a child. You know you need nourishment, now sit up.”

More to keep Emmeline from pestering her, Helga sat up slowly and took the cup of broth. Emmeline knelt beside her, an arm around her shoulders to steady her. Helga didn’t want to eat or drink. She only wanted to lie perfectly still, where it was quiet. The broth didn’t appeal to her, but there was something unexpectedly comforting about being told what to do by this odd young woman, who she knew wanted the best for her.

“You’ve gotten awfully bossy,” Helga said wearily, her voice husky from fatigue and disuse. Emmeline didn’t reply, but stayed where she was, propping Helga up against herself.

“How is it with you?” Emmeline asked.

“My arm is well enough, though weak. My head pains me, and I feel …” Her throat closed.

“Have you other hurts?”

Emmeline’s question was low-voiced, but so matter-of-fact that Helga felt a tiny loosening of the tightly coiled thing that lurked inside her. “Torn clothing, bruises, I …” Helga shifted in a sudden movement of fear and unease. “I … I have other hurts.”

Helga found that she was leaning against Emmeline, shaking with reaction. Where she had desired nothing but immobility before, now stillness had abandoned her. She shook like a leaf in the wind, shifted with a bone-deep restlessness, clutched Emmeline as though she might drown or be swept away. Her breath was ragged. Emmeline held her tightly, saying nothing. Helga glanced up, and saw something she hadn’t seen in all the months they had known one another, and all the things they’d been through. Emmeline was weeping. Somehow this opened the knot of the thing that was lurking inside her, and it burst. They sat together amid the pallets spread on the floor, shaking, grieving, and rocking quietly together, two more, among the wounded.

It was a bad night for everyone. Salazar’s breathing continued to be a source of worry. Rumie came back after dark, and took over the tending of those who required care. Though Helga was faint with exhaustion, she insisted on sleeping next to Salazar. Godric, returning with Rumie, was warded away by Emmeline’s uncommonly fierce expression, and flopped down dejectedly on a bench at the side of the room. Celina placed a cup of mead in his hand, and sat down beside him.

“I’ve never felt so bad in all my life,” he said simply. She said nothing, merely sipping companionably by his side, watching his face. “I’ve failed at everything. I should have known the soldiers were coming. I should have taken steps to protect the village. I was so busy playing lord that I neglected to fulfill the most basic duty. I abandoned the oath I made to Odo, and I left Helga. I should have been there to protect her. If I had gone with them …” His face twisted and he looked away.

“You take a lot on yourself,” she said unargumentatively, “but then you always did.”

“I’m of no use here,” he said bitterly. “I’m going to Alfred’s. I can’t bear to be here with Helga and Salazar, and helpless to do anything for them.”

In the morning he returned, irresistibly drawn to those he loved, even if he could do nothing to help them. Rowena met him at the door with a wan smile. “Rumie says Salazar will recover.”

His shoulders slumped with relief. “And Helga?”

Rowena’s smile faded. “Her arm is completely healed. Rumie says her head wound will heal also, but that she must stay quiet for some time.” Rowena’s eyes slid away, and Godric didn’t bother to ask what else she wasn’t saying.

Godric went first to Salazar. He was awake, but his colour was terrible. Godric thought him asleep, but as he crouched beside the pallet, Salazar’s eyes opened. Slowly they fixed on Godric.

“Are you thirsty?” Godric asked, desperate for something to say, something to do. Salazar nodded, and Godric, knowing enough of chest wounds not to try and move him, took up a cup of water, pouring some carefully into Salazar’s mouth. Salazar swallowed, but didn’t speak, his eyes on Godric’s face.

“You put yourself in the way of that arrow to save my life,” Godric said simply. Salazar nodded again. “If you can speak, tell me why you did that.”

In a slow, halting voice that croaked with effort, Salazar said simply, “You are my friend.”

Godric looked down. “Even though I told you our friendship was at an end.”

“You can’t control everything Godric. Just because you say a thing does not make it so. Friendship isn’t something for one person to choose. I’ve never had a friend like you. Maybe I’d never had a friend before. I did not want you to die, so I chose. All choices are not up to you my friend.”

“I was very angry over what you had done,” Godric said without heat.

“I think Rowena was angry too, though she wouldn’t say so. It may be that I have something to learn about friendship too.”

Godric put a firm hand over Salazar’s. “Thank you for my life. When you and Helga are well again, we will continue our journey north together, if you will have me.”

Salazar smiled his rare smile. “There’s no question of that my brother, but you should go to Helga, it may be her consent you need to win.”

“Rest now,” Godric said, and got to his feet.

Helga was sitting in her accustomed chair near the hearth. Her work basket lay on the chair next to her, but her hands were still, and even her spindle lay idle. Rumie had said that her arm was completely healed, but Helga was cradling it with her other hand as though it ached.

“Does your arm pain you?” He asked diffidently, sitting on his heels before her.

She looked startled. “No,” she said flatly, and folded her hands.

He had seen victims before; you couldn’t avoid it in a soldier’s life, and he recognized her expression. In the past, this expression had elicited an impersonal pity. Now, he felt it like a cramp in the belly. He remembered a day in Cleodna’s house. Helga had come across him in the weapons room. The unexpected sight of so many blades had caused Helga to step back, to shelter against the wall, trying to fend off the memories of the battle in Sussex. He had gone to her, held her, she had laid her head against him and been comforted. He thought of Emmeline’s warning look, and stayed where he was. “Rumie says you had a blow to the head also.”

“Yes. I think it will be fine. I just need to be careful for a time.”

There was a terrible silence, then Godric said simply, “Helga I’m sorry. I should have been with you. What can I do?” His hands moved restlessly on his knees.

“Do? Nothing I suppose.” She wouldn’t meet his eyes.

“I have spoken with Salazar. You know what happened?” She nodded. “I asked him if I would be welcome to come north with you. He told me I must speak to you.”

“Yes, all right,” she said as though her mind was elsewhere.

“Helga, have you … have you other injuries?”

She let out a cynical breath of laughter, nothing like her usual merry chuckle. “Yes, here and there.”

“I should have been there!” He said with self-disgust.

She looked at him. “You don’t think that would have helped do you? It was my fault, I lost control of my horse because I …” Her throat closed, and she hesitated before saying, “because I was afraid.”

Godric let out a laugh, bitter as her own. “Of course you were afraid. Being afraid isn’t a fault, it’s what you …” He’d been about to say, “it’s what you do in the face of fear that’s important,” but he stopped. He didn’t know what she had done, and suddenly realized his easy words might be a mistake.

She looked down and away. “It’s what you do in the face of fear that’s important. I know. That’s why I lost control of my horse, because I was afraid, so afraid I couldn’t move or think or do anything at all. If Salazar hadn’t made my horse land, I would have fallen off and died.”

There was a long silence while Godric thought about this. Finally, he said, “Helga, you’re not a soldier.”

Tears prickled her eyes, but she held them back. “No, I’m not, but you are, you know about courage.”

“About some kinds of courage perhaps, but not all. I don’t know how to do what you did after the battle in Sussex. I don’t just mean the healing, I mean the things you had to do, and the way you were with Odo while he died. Those things take bravery I know nothing of.”

She took a slow deep breath, and something in her bearing relaxed. “You have a wound on your shoulder.”

He gestured it away as nothing. “It’s fine, Rumie saw to it.”

“You spoke to Salazar? He shouldn’t be speaking much you know. You made things right with him?”

“I think so. He was willing to give his life that I might live. Can I hold a grudge against such a friend? I know not why he does the things he does. Perhaps it is because he was … isolated in life, never learning how to … I don’t know why he is as he is. What he did was wrong. Hopefully he can be made to see it. When you are better, will I be welcome to continue north with you? I shouldn’t have abandoned my oath to Odo, and I’m sorry for that too.”

There was another silence, and then, unable to bear it any longer, he reached out and covered her hands with his. Large hands: a flash of panic caught her like lightning, fierce, quickly gone, but leaving an after-image on her nerves. When that too had faded, she was able to feel how warm and gentle his hands were. She remembered how they looked on the harp as he played. She really looked at him for the first time, and it helped. “Come with us,” she said, “where you belong.”

Chapter 31: The Old Man in the Wood

 

But for several reasons, none of them was going anywhere soon. Salazar and Helga mended slowly. Godric was concerned with ensuring the safety of the village, and he spent many days reinforcing magical protections, and training villagers in rudimentary defense tactics. And apart from everything else, the winged horses who had been involved with the fight were now deeply suspicious of all humans. They communicated their mistrust to the rest of the herd, and Edwina, Emmeline and Cadogan had their work cut out to regain their trust.

Rumie continued to dose Salazar with blood-replenishing potion, but he was slow to heal from his internal injuries, and remained weak. Helga’s physical injuries healed quickly, but she stayed even closer to the hearth than usual in the chilly winter days.

On the first night that Salazar could sit up for any length of time, he, Rowena and Godric joined Helga by the fire. Emmeline had moved her things permanently to Rumie and Edwina’s, Aidan and Cadogan were with Alfred, and it was the full moon, so they were alone in the common room. Godric wondered when the last time was that they had been alone in this way. Being in the village had pulled them each in different directions, and looking around fondly, he felt again the special connection that bound them.

Helga’s lap was full of scarlet. She was sewing Rowena’s cloak. “I hope Emmeline will have time to embroider this before we go,” she remarked.

“Did any of you find out what that blue fire was all about?” Godric asked.

“Yes,” Rowena answered. “It was an invention of Rumie’s. Emmeline didn’t know exactly what was inside the glass vials, but something very dangerous. Rumie put a strengthening charm on the glass to contain it, but any kind of impact from the outside of the glass would cause the fire to be released. Rumie had started work on it quite some time ago, and forgotten about it. She’d told Emmeline about it though, and it was Emmeline’s idea to use it as she did.”

“It was a brilliant idea,” Salazar said, “and well executed.”

Godric looked thoughtful. “It was so strange to watch soldiers who might once have been my comrades, so effectively defeated by magic. Fighting by magic was something I never considered, and I’ve done a lot of fighting.”

“Godric, what happened to your sword?” Rowena asked gravely.

Godric frowned. “What do you mean?”

“It … it seemed to glow; it was the most extraordinary silver when you attacked the soldiers. I think it scared the fight out of them quite as much as anything else.”

“It was certainly magical light of some kind,” Salazar remarked. “I’ve never seen your sword do that before.”

Godric was flummoxed. “I have no idea.”

“You say you’ve never thought to use magic in a fight? How could you stop yourself? You weren’t trying to use magic this time were you?” Salazar asked.

“No, but just before I charged them, I was thinking about … I was thinking about why I fight. You know how sometimes things can be happening so fast, and yet your mind finds time to think about other things? That’s what happened. I was thinking about all the reasons I’ve fought in the past, and that none of those fights were in a cause I truly cared about, I mean really cared about. This time, I was fighting for my …” His voice trailed off. “I was fighting to protect people like me, people I truly wanted to protect. I’m an expert swordsman, but then, I did feel something else, something more than mere skill. My sword must have shown that somehow, or … I don’t know.”

“Magic isn’t just spells and incantations,” Salazar said seriously. “What we did with the binding fire, that wasn’t a spell, that was magic wielded by powerful witches and wizards, real magic, only to be mastered by the best of wizard kind.”

“Salazar!” Helga said, a little shocked.

“I thought you had stopped denying it,” Salazar said gently.

Helga looked uncomfortable. “Well, if we are more powerful than many, it doesn’t make us the best of wizard kind, we still …” Her voice broke, and Godric understood that she was thinking of her failure to act decisively in the face of fear.

Godric said, “Such power as we have, should make us try to be worthy of it. Look at Cleodna. She is a witch of immense power, but she has lost something of her humanity I think.”

“Such responsibility as she takes,” Helga said with a sneer, “I’d sooner be a muggle.”

“You speak of responsibility,” Rowena said thoughtfully. “What we did to those soldiers, we did defeat them, and we hadn’t even prepared. I am no soldier, but such weapons as we have could defend many who are helpless, not just magic folk. Armies fight, rulers squabble for riches, but it is the helpless ones who suffer most. That’s one thing I’ve seen above all on the road from Sussex.”

“Are you saying you think it is our duty to use our magic to protect people, muggles?” Godric asked.

“I don’t know,” Rowena replied, “but when I think of Cleodna, then of someone like Colby hiding his gifts, or Æthelrand hiding an entire village, it seems there must be some other way.”

“It’s Colby’s children who haunt me,” Helga said sadly. “They are being raised so that they will fear and distrust their own magic, so that they won’t even have words to describe or name it. Surely that’s as wrong or dangerous as anything we’ve seen.”

“Trying to better the muggle world is folly,” Salazar said definitely. “You would achieve nothing before you were seized, and disposed of by those who mistrust witches, who seek to destroy us.”

“But we have magic!” Godric exclaimed. “Why should we not use it to fight those who invade our country? It is our country to defend, same as it is the country of non-magic folk.”

“Witches and wizards who were surely wiser than us chose against that course,” Helga replied. “Don’t you remember what Cleodna told us? The druids and druidesses of the sacred isle departed rather than fight.”

“Most of them,” Godric retorted, “not all, some stayed.”

“And what happened to them? I did good work as a healer for both magic and non-magic people, but I know not what our country will become, and either way, I myself am not a fighter, and will have nothing to do with defending our country. Since I left my home, I begin to think that the best thing I have done is to teach magic to those children we’ve come across. What magic children learn, if they learn, is haphazard, left to chance sometimes. If our gift is something that bears great responsibility, surely there is nothing more important than safeguarding it and passing it on.”

Godric looked dubious. “You think to renounce the muggle world then, to live apart?”

“Have you forgotten Elswyth, the woman we rescued from the soldiers on the road?” Salazar said bitterly. “We saved her, took her in, shared food and protection, and the first chance she got, she denounced us to folk who would have killed us.”

Into the tense silence that followed this statement, came raucous relief, in the form of Aidan and Cadogan bursting excitedly through the door yelling, “Godric! Godric!” They burst grinning into the room, and skidded to a halt before them. “Wait till you see!” Cadogan exclaimed. “Alfred’s bringing it now! Just wait till you see!”

They danced with excitement until the door opened again, and Alfred came in, carrying something that was wrapped carefully. Looking mightily pleased with himself, he laid the package in Godric’s lap. It was flat, and vaguely triangular. Godric unwrapped it slowly, not knowing what to expect. They all gasped, as a beautiful, eleven-string harp was revealed.

“Rumie and I went to have a look at the manner house,” Alfred said, his smile sliding off. “It had been well picked over before they burned it. We thought to look for signs of magical concealment, things Æthelrand had been able to hide. We thought he might have been better prepared than we were, and he was. We found this among some other beautiful and valuable things that were well hidden from muggle eyes.”

“They were under the manure pile!” Aidan contributed gleefully. “Alfred told us! Someone must have used a spell to move the pile, buried the harp, then used magic to move it back again.”

Godric sat stroking the harp wonderingly. “Where is Æthelrand’s harper?”

“No one has seen him,” Alfred replied. “Some of Æthelrand’s servants wound up here, but it’s not known where the others are. Hopefully some got away to go back to their own kin.”

Godric began plucking the strings experimentally, smiling involuntarily as the sweet sound stole into the room. He began automatically to tune the instrument, his face assuming a characteristic, absorbed expression.

Helga watched him. She liked his look of concentration, and the deft way his hands moved. Even un tuned, the sound of each individual string plucked was a tiny pleasure, pure and uncomplicated. When the tuning was complete and Godric began to play, she sat utterly still, transported.

It took many days of patient, and in some cases not so patient work to convince the horses that humans were worthy of anything other than a swift kick to the chest. Many backsides were dampened by contact with the wet ground, and many feathers spat out irritably, before they reached the stage of training they’d had before the soldiers came. Helga in particular had a difficult time. She spent hours grooming and tending her horse, trying to make her peace with the desirability of flight over walking.

Helga was off at the paddock one afternoon when Celina found Godric in the common room. He had moved his things back to the inn, complaining that Alfred’s cottage smelled of smoke and farts, and that Alfred was a terrible cook. All felt better when he had done so, and a sense of excitement for their departure was growing.

“I have something for you,” Celina said gravely. She held out a sword belt and scabbard. They were of expertly worked leather. The scabbard was studded with precious gems, and lined with fine animal fur, making for a quick, smooth draw. He took it, looking impressed. “It belonged to Æthelrand,” she said soberly, “he said you should have it if … if anything happened.”

“Celina, do you think he knew he was going to die, maybe what I mean is, do you think he intended to die?”

They had always been able to speak the truth to one another, and she didn’t flinch at his question. “He had a formidable ego, there’s no doubt of that,” she replied, “but no sane man takes on a chimera in single combat and expects to live, don’t you think?”

Godric sighed. “I do think. Did he mean me to stay here Celina, to take his place?”

Celina looked uncomfortable. “Perhaps he did, well, all right, he did. It wasn’t a bad idea, and it wasn’t a bad thing for you to want to do.”

“I know, but it wasn’t the right thing.”

“I’ll miss you. I always do.” Tears filled her eyes, and he reached out unselfconsciously to embrace her. They stood together, memorizing again how it felt to be close. They didn’t speak; it wasn’t necessary. They knew that they would most likely meet again, and if they didn’t know when, they did know where. It was a tie that bound them in a way that was at the same time disturbing, and oddly comforting.

Emmeline came to see them off this time. She had become protective of Helga in a way that surprised both of them. They embraced warmly.

“I was concerned when I first heard that you had decided to stay here,” Helga said. “I don’t entirely trust Rumie’s judgment, and, well, I didn’t see you as a healer, but I may have been wrong, on the second count at least.”

“Healing is more than binding wounds or tending to a scullery maid with a burn,” Emmeline replied.

“Yes, that’s true,” Helga said, thinking of those on the battle field in Sussex too far gone for any kind of help save one, and of sitting beside Odo, singing to him while he died. There was more to healing than curing the body. Maybe Emmeline had gifts Helga hadn’t suspected before. Helga rested her hands on Emmeline’s shoulders, peering closely into her face. “You are a woman now,” she said gently.

Emmeline nodded, and said, “I hope we will meet again.”

The horses were still skittish. They might have done better to wait a few more weeks, but they all felt impatient to be off. Winter was ending. As the six of them rose easily into the air, heading north, the land beneath them showed swaths of green. The air was softer, warmer, more gentle, unless of course you were flying through it, high above the treetops. Helga pulled her scarlet cloak more tightly around her. She looked over at Godric, feeling an immense satisfaction to see him beside her. She tried not to think of the other time, of leaving without him, and what had happened afterward.

“Focus on right now,” Emmeline had insisted more than once in the past weeks. “Find something to focus on right now, right in front of you, that’s real, good, or reassuring. Focus on it, and the bad things will fade into the past, where they belong. You must just keep doing this again and again. That’s how you move forward, without being stuck.” Helga let out a breath of wonder. Such a troubled girl Emmeline had always seemed, so difficult to really know, until now.

It was good to be on their way together again; all of them felt it. They felt renewed in their dedication to carrying Odo home. So many things were beyond their control, so many things were in flux, but this one honorable deed they could and would complete.

As they continued north, the country below them became wilder, less settled. Villages were more widely spaced, and it became easier to avoid being seen with their flying horses. Finally, late one afternoon, Helga began to recognize features of the land below. Her father had been a traveling healer, and it was here in the north that, traveling with him, she had met Odo.

She peered carefully down, ahead and behind, trying to fit what she was seeing into her memory, to superimpose this odd view from above, onto what she could recall of reaching this place on the ground. “There!” She burst out, pointing to a place where two streams met to form a small river. They could see what might be a village, and they made cautiously for it. They landed at a discrete distance, and Helga and Godric went to reconnoiter on foot.

The next day, in a gentle rain, they buried Odo. In extricating him from his basket to lay him out, they found that Rowena’s preservation spell had worked perfectly. However, in the vagaries of travel, Odo’s wand had been snapped in half, and his hat turned inside out. They decided to bury him thus, a testament to the long journey he had made. He had kin in the village, but no close kin.

Godric stood at the grave side, his arm protectively around Helga. She wept bitter tears, which she made no effort to control. One by one, folk stepped forward to remember Odo.

An old man spoke first. “He was my sister’s boy,” he said simply. “She was living with us when Odo was born. Funny he was, right from the beginning. He was born with a tiny fuzz of hair, as some babies are, and you know, that hair was gray. Oh it fell out and grew in again a normal colour, but we all knew he was different right off. Never knew a gentler lad though. No matter how distracted he’d get by his visions, he’d always be watching out he didn’t kill anything, you know, critters and such, never liked anything getting hurt.”

A woman stepped forward, one of Odo’s aunts. “He’d always be wandering off, even when he was tiny. One time I found him just sitting on a log staring around at trees. He told me he was watching them when they were as small as him, and when they’d died and fallen over to rot. It was like he could see their whole life at once. He said it was beautiful. I wasn’t surprised when he took to the road. I think he got tired of knowing too much. We did miss him when he went: such a sweet lad he was. I remember the women who were expecting sometimes went to him to find out whether they bore a boy or a girl. He’d tell them, but sometimes he wouldn’t, and they could tell that their baby was going to die. It wasn’t Odo’s fault, and those women had gone to him, but some did hold grudges I’m sad to say.”

All of the tributes were like that, Odo’s goodness and gentleness, cushioned amid a persisting wariness. Helga stepped forward, wiped her face on her sleeve, and told them about Sussex, how Odo had known what was coming, and given his life to prevent suffering and death. No one looked surprised, but some, like Helga, wept.

Odo’s home was one of those rare villages where magic and non-magic folk lived side-by-side, with no more friction than is usually present in a group of people living in dangerous times. There were empty cottages because of villagers who’d gone to fight at Stanford Bridge, and hadn’t returned. The travelers were invited to occupy one for the night, and they slept warm and dry. The others asked Helga if she wanted to stay longer, to talk more with those who had known Odo, but Helga declined. The place served only to remind her of what Odo’s peculiarity had denied him in life. She only hoped that somehow, their long journey to carry him home might finally achieve what his life could not: peace.

They set off the next morning. They still traveled north, pushed on by Aidan’s insistence that his mother and sister waited for them somewhere to the north, and also by an inner conviction none of them could explain. Though they had achieved their goal of carrying Odo home, still they all knew their journey wasn’t complete. For Helga and Rowena, the desire to see Elwyna again, to see Aidan reunited with her, was a powerful motivation, but there was something more for all of them, though they didn’t know what it was.

They weren’t making very good time. The horses were proving to be often intractable, and sometimes took their own heading, regardless of what their riders wanted. Aidan and Rowena had the clearest sense of the direction they wanted, and it was they who led the others, despite Rowena’s indifferent riding skills.

There came an afternoon, however, when they felt themselves to be truly lost. They had been following the course of a river, but that had run out, and the cloudy sky made navigating by sun or moon impossible. It had been days since they’d spotted human habitation, and the landscape was becoming increasingly lonelier and wilder. Finally, the oncoming darkness caused them to look for a place to land and set up camp. They chose what looked to be a smallish clearing near the head of a stream. As they touched down, they saw with some unease that it was much darker than they’d realized. Light lingered in the sky above, but here on the ground, little was visible in the mirk that settled beneath the trees.

As they slid to the ground beside their horses, they were stunned into immobility, as a sudden and shocking light filled the clearing. It was brighter than midday. Everything around them was so sharply lit that they felt as though they were inside a bolt of lightning. The breath caught in all their throats, and as the light vanished, they stood, unable to see anything at all, their eyes dazzled by the dramatic light, and its equally dramatic withdrawal.

In the ringing silence, there came the mad laughter of a cackling old man. Whoever it was seemed quite entertained, though the travelers felt their blood chill. Godric called out boldly, “Who are you? Show yourself!”

The clearing was so dark that no one expected this command to be obeyed, but instantly, a sizable fire appeared within a ring of stones, and they could all see an old, wizened man sitting by it, a staff lying on the ground near him. He was tugging on his long gray beard, and laughing fit to burst.

“Oh if you could only have seen yourselves!” He guffawed. “The looks on your faces! Sometimes the simplest magic is the most amusing!”

“I don’t know who you think you are,” Godric blustered, irritated to have been so frightened by a simple spell, “but your parlor tricks are childish.”

“Childish is it? Oh, Godric my son, if you only knew!”

“How do you know my name?”

“It’s about time you got here,” the old man said, his amusement fading into irascibility, “I’ve been sitting here all afternoon waiting for you. What took you so long?”

“I stopped to fish for our dinner at midday,” Godric said defensively, then caught himself. Why was he bandying words and defending himself to this crazy old man?

The old man rose arduously to his feet peering from one to the other of them, showing no surprise. Rather, his face wore a look of satisfaction, as though he knew them, and had indeed been waiting for them. When his eyes lighted on Rowena, he almost smiled, but instead said sharply, “Where’s my book?”

“What?” Rowena asked, utterly flummoxed.

“My book, the Metamorph Magi, where is it?”

“What ever do you mean by calling it your book? It belongs to me.”

“Oh, does it now little girl?” Rowena lifted her head, very offended.

“Yes it does. How do you know about it?”

“Know about it? I wrote it you silly chit. Where is it? Show it to me. I suppose you have it jammed in those scruffy saddlebags next to the infants’ clouts.”

Instantly, Aidan and Cadogan burst out with angry assertions that they weren’t infants, and didn’t need clouts. The old man cut them off with a chopping gesture and a nasty glare. “Shut up you two little weasels, I know more about you than you do. Now where’s my book?”

“Now look here old man!” Godric began, but Helga laid a hand on his arm, murmuring quietly, “Don’t be rough with him, can’t you see he’s old, and a bit daft?”

“Daft! You would call me daft young lady? You, who befriends badgers and wild dogs? Keep a civil tongue in your head when speaking to your elders. Now show me the book before I jinx you all into oblivion.”

Not knowing what else to do, Rowena dug in her saddlebag, producing the book, and holding it out reluctantly to the old man. His face softened immediately, and he took the book lovingly into his hands, gazing at it as though it were a long lost child. His expression disarmed Rowena’s apprehensions; anyone who treated books with such respect could not be dangerous.

He didn’t open the book, but stroked the cover affectionately. “You’ve taken good care of it, despite how far it’s traveled.” Still holding it reverently, he returned to his place by the fire, collapsing feebly onto the log he’d been sitting on, and resting the book on his knees. He continued to stroke the book, and his face assumed the dreamy, vacant expression of the very old.

Finally, Helga stepped diffidently forward. “May we share your fire grandfather?”

He looked up as though he’d forgotten about them. He smiled at Helga, an oddly childlike smile, completely at odds with his earlier crabbiness. “Of course Helga my child. You are even prettier in person, despite how dirty and ragged you’ve become on the road, or in the air you might say.”

“Can you tell me how you know us?” Helga asked gently.

The man’s expression became suddenly cogent and world-weary. “Know you? I know everyone, and everything.” Salazar laughed scornfully. “You doubt me young Salazar? I know all of you, though I’ve rarely seen such an odd bird as yourself.”

“Now you watch your tongue old man!” Godric burst out. “This man is a powerful wizard, and my sworn friend. You keep your manners about you.”

“Godric!” Helga exclaimed, “take your hand off your sword. You’re not going to attack an old man, no matter how ill-tempered.”

The old man smiled. “Ah, aging does have its benefits. I’ve never been one to filter my words for the comfort of others, but as an old man, I get to watch people fighting with themselves over how not to strike me for insulting them. Here, I’ve brewed a nice soothing tea for you. The heavens know it’s had long enough to steep, as long as I’ve been waiting for you, and this other caldron bears a rich stew. You may not care much for my manners, but I’ve got excellent ideas about cookery.”

They hadn’t noticed before, but there were two caldrons hovering over the fire, which did prove to contain tea, and a hearty stew, just as the old man said. When they had eaten, Aidan and Cadogan went off to find fire wood. They returned, Cadogan carrying wood, but also a quantity of pine needles, which he threw onto the flames, liking the dramatic effect. For a moment the flames were smothered, then burst up in a quick flash. They all gasped. In the sudden illumination, the old man was no longer an old man. His beard was dark and luxuriant, his bearing erect, arrogant and potent with force.

“You wish to know who I am?” He said in a rich, deep voice, “I am the hand of your destiny. I am come to show you where you shall go.”

“And where is that sir?” Salazar asked eagerly.

“North, as you have been. Tomorrow, you will reach your goal, find your fate. There is a castle. There,” he gazed down at Aidan, “there you will find your mother.” His eyes took in the rest of them. “There are many others there as well, who wait for you, though they know it not. Many folk have wound up there as the troubles of this land grow once more: wizard folk who know that fear and violence bring more fear and violence, especially to those who are different. Many have come, bringing their children.” His somber expression cracked into something resembling the irritable old man. “So many children, loud, mischievous, grubby, uncontrolled children.” He made a restless movement, as though trying to rid himself of pesky flying insects. “They were endearing for a little while, but after a time I simply couldn’t stand them anymore. And that castle, so squalid and confining, up here in the middle of nowhere. I was glad to leave. I’m restless to wander once more, and it’s your turn now.”

“Our turn?” Rowena asked.

“Yes, you will know what to do.” His eyes lit up. “There is a library there such as you have never seen before, my library. There are books and scrolls from Greece, and Rome, from the Near East, a lifetime of scholarship for you my daughter.” Something flickered in his eyes, but Rowena didn’t notice, excited as she was by his words.

“Oh you have quite a look of your mother about you,” he continued, “though I dare say she was a merrier sort than yourself, but not a bad scholar.”

“You knew my mother?”

“Indeed, very well. I gave her this book. It is a copy of the original, which I kept with me. Apart from its fine illumination, and its excellent spells, it has its own powerful magic. I have been using it to bring you all here. When the two books are read simultaneously, the more powerful wizard can put thoughts into the mind of the less powerful one, and of course, no matter who else is reading it, I’m always the more powerful wizard. I saw by my art that troubles threatened, threatened you my child,” he gestured toward Helga. “Armies come and armies go, invasions, migrations, restless people, they mean little to me anymore, but I saw you mistress Helga, and, much as I didn’t want to concern myself, I was concerned. I remembered this book, and took the chance that someone still read it. I used the book to put images and desires into your mind Rowena, so that you could see to this young lady, save her from harm.”

“You gave me those nightmares!” Rowena burst out, more agitated than any of them had ever seen her. “Those nightmares upset me so that I betrayed my own vow to hide my magic. Because of those nightmares I was forced to leave the quiet and safety of the scriptorium! You had no right to do that!”

The man made the same impatient chopping gesture he’d made earlier. “The four of you really must learn that you can’t control everything. Don’t be foolish child. Did you want Helga swept up by the invading army? And that scriptorium of yours, what do you think has happened to it since you left? Gone up in flames, like so much else before the wave of an invading army.”

Rowena’s rage, fueled as much by being called foolish, as by the machinations of this strange man, froze, and dissolved in horror. “Burned? But why? And what of … what of my … what of my sisters?”

“That isn’t a matter which need concern you,” he said, speaking more kindly than he had yet done. “Such things happen, and neither you nor I can stop them, and even I cannot explain them properly. Can you wish you had remained there to see those things? Can you wish that you had never met these three, who have become so important to you?”

Godric was reminded of Salazar, defending his own manipulation of circumstances by their outcomes. “Have we no real choice at all then?” He asked the man. “Are we all like chess pieces?”

“You believe in fate. You must live as though each choice matters, and at the same time accept and embrace your fate. Your fate,” and his glance included them all, “is to live on in legend for more than a thousand years, for you are all great witches and wizards.”

There was a grave silence, which the man broke at last by saying in a lighter tone, “Godric young master, let me see that sword of yours.”

Almost numbly, Godric drew his sword from its sheath and handed it to the man. “You’ve tended it well,” the man said approvingly. “It looks just as fine as the first time I saw it, so long ago that was.” His expression grew distant, and a little sad.

“You’ve seen it before?” Unaccountably, Godric looked a little shifty.

“Yes I have,” the man replied, “and I’ve seen it wielded by one of the finest swordsman who’s ever lived.” He handed it back to Godric. “It’s in good hands. Cherish it, and guard it well, it still has noble work to do. And you my strange friend,” his eyes moved to Salazar, “you have responsibility in this too. Once already you have laid down your life for your friend. It may be that you will be called to do so again.” The man’s face clouded briefly. “You do have a look of Mordred about you.” The man shrugged. “You are as powerful as any of these others. Together the four of you will do great things.”

“Who are you sir?” Godric asked again.

“Have none of you guessed?” He ran his fingers through his beard. “I am old, and young too. I’ve seen invaders come, go, be absorbed and forgotten, I’ve put kings on the thrown, and toppled others. I’ve wandered, learned, taught, raised stones, and brought down monuments.” He gestured off to one side, and they saw that a harp lay there, wrapped, but ready to be slung across the back of a man on foot. “I’ve composed songs, and enchanted men to sleep, and to battle with them.”

Helga’s mouth opened in an O of astonishment. “Are you …? You aren’t … are you … Merlin?”

His face broke into a wide, dazzling smile, the charm of which erased all the acerbic comments he had made. “Aye, I am Merlin. I have been tucked away up here for … I can’t remember for how long, but I have left to wander the land again. The old restlessness comes every few centuries, and then I’m off to wander up and down the country. I leave my castle to your keeping.”

“Won’t you stay with us a while sir?” Rowena asked. “There is so much you could teach us!”

The old man shook his head. “I’m looking forward to sleeping rough again, to fooling the credulous with my simple tricks, healing the common folk, sticking my nose into the affairs of others, visiting old friends.” A light appeared in his eye, “I might even drop down to look in on Cleodna.” His eyes met Salazar’s, and they exchanged a knowing smile.

“If you are really Merlin sir,” Godric said, “what is the best way for us to fight the invader?”

Merlin laughed. “Fight the invader? It’s too late for that young Godric! The invader was crowned King of England just after the solstice. Whatever fighting you were going to do, you missed your chance.”

All but Salazar looked crushed. “It’s no more than has happened many times before,” Merlin said nonchalantly, “Romans, Saxons, Danes, Normans.” He made a dismissive gesture. “Who do you think your own ancestors were?” As they continued to look distraught, Merlin sighed. “Living in my solitary way for so long, I forget what the young are like: so ardent. Life will go on, the country won’t be overrun, but it will be changed, and times of change are usually dangerous times, especially for folk like us, well, folk like you; I’m much too powerful to be threatened by anything. This is why what you four will do is so important.”

They sat up late into the night listening to merlin tell stories. Considering who he was, there wasn’t much point in them telling him stories, and Merlin enjoyed few things more than the sound of his own voice. He played the harp for them also. Godric watched and listened, enraptured, as Merlin made the harp speak under his hands, producing subtleties and patterns Godric had never even imagined.

In the morning, he did a piece of magic for them which Helga and Rowena particularly appreciated. He conjured a large wooden tub, and magically filled it with steaming water. “You’ll make a better first impression if you arrive clean,” he said pragmatically.

Rowena smiled. “My mother used to do this!”

“I remember,” Merlin replied fondly. “Where do you think she got the idea?”

When they were all clean and dressed, ready to depart, Merlin changed his appearance back to that of a bent, gnarled, and crusty old man. He refused to hear their words of parting. “Get on with you,” he said irritably, “and leave an old man to rest his bones before such a long journey.” But he didn’t rest. As they rose gracefully into the air, they saw him below, striding energetically southward, head turning to survey the country, staff swinging jauntily at his side.

 


Before the Tide

What makes five of the most powerful witches and wizards of their day retreat from the world to teach magic? 11th Century Britain is a perilous place, even for a sorcerer. It’s the summer of 1066, and England is on the brink of events that will bring destruction and transformation. A battlefield is an unspeakable place, but it can also be a place of astonishing heroism. Brought together by the manipulations of a wizard even more powerful than they, the Hogwarts four, inspired by the remarkable courage of Odo the Hero on Hastings field, find themselves embarked on a quest to the north, which keeps them one step ahead of the invading army. On their journey, they meet seductive sorceresses, vicious magical creatures, and people who are not what they seem. The country is changing, and magic is no longer as stylish as it once was. Should magicians interfere in the affairs of muggles? Should witches and wizards retreat from the world for their own safety? Is magic the only protection witches have in a violent world? And who is the cantankerous old wizard responsible for bringing these legendary friends together? This is a rollicking tale of adventure and magic, that peaks behind legends, and explores what it means to be different in a dangerous world.

  • Author: Christine Malec
  • Published: 2017-05-25 15:50:16
  • Words: 135169
Before the Tide Before the Tide