As the inevitable day drew nearer, the inhabitants of Helga’s cottage varied wildly 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 with which to fret. He had finally agreed to avoid the battle all together, but the decision cost him. His restless energy was unsettling in such close quarters, and 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, and 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 outside. 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. 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.”
The ongoing debate about leaving her home had been wearing Helga down, and 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 distract 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 calm and 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 usual 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 found tucked away behind a large jar of eel’s eyes. It had belonged to Helga’s father, and although Helga couldn’t play, she kept the instrument both out of affection, and recognition of its intrinsic value. Godric had once had some skill at playing, and he’d been passing the time of his recovery by remembering old ballads and drinking songs. Helga felt that most of his repertoire was completely unsuitable to anywhere but the barracks, but she didn’t like to discourage him, so had kept her peace. Tonight, she actually welcomed the diversion.
He took them through spirited renditions of My Lady’s Valley, Oh Bring Me a Caldron of Ale Fair Maid, The 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 in its warmth. 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 even more. When Godric struck up the slightly more conventional Three-Headed Dog of Dorset, Helga raised her own voice to join in. Though unable to play the harp, she had a sweet, clear singing voice, and 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 more loudly than necessary, 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, 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 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 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 sometimes 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 road is long if you walk it alone, but the road 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. The peace of the past days 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 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.
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, but 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. 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 was 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 eye 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.”
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 look intimidated. “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 her sufficiently contained so that they went unnoticed, 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 to keep her quiet, 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. Helga, 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 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.