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 what it had brought, that had made the book his constant companion of late. Of course he wanted no companionship, having dispensed with that frivolity a century ago, it was just a book; and a damned good one if he did say so himself.
The deep magic of the book, indeed what had made him pull it off its dusty shelf some months ago, was its relationship with its distant companion. This book was the original. A perfect copy was adrift somewhere in the world, somewhere far from this isolated retreat in the north. The books were bound together by powerful magic so that if both were being read at the same time, the wizard of greater power, who of course would always be himself, had limited access to the mind of the other reader, most likely without that reader’s knowledge.
Some months ago, troubled by dreams of a jolly, fair-haired witch and the dangers closing in on her, he had taken action. Well, not much action, he cared nothing for pretty young witches, or pretty old witches, or wizards, or muggles, or the world generally. After centuries of entanglements, he just wanted to be left alone. But the pretty, impervious witch in his dreams wouldn’t leave him alone. Finally, he’d salved his conscience with a plan. He would use the book to contact another witch or wizard’s mind, implant the dreams with them, thus compelling them to act, and solving the problem so that he could go back to a life of great meals, Burgundian wine, and scaring the daylights out of local folk when he got bored.
His plan seemed to be going on swimmingly. The young lady currently in the possession of the copy of the Metamorph Magi was a scribe of some sort, living out her days in dry libraries and scriptoria. To be sure she had a surprisingly disciplined mind; it had taken more effort than he’d expected to implant the dreams, but once roused, her 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 would think twice before a journey through that swath of dark wood. Probably just ignorant and foolish, he told himself. He’d almost experienced true 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, and assurance that his plan had worked, and 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 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 jolt of 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, and 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, 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 of transfiguring her feet into flippers during a swim and being 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, because you didn’t care about them, because no one would ever come here to live in them and disturb your peaceful solitude.”
“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 merely nodded. 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.
“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, 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 that he’d completed his epiphany of 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, would limber up, lift its head, 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 was pulled up from 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 considerable 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 bringing 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.