Rowena stood at Helga’s 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, and the door and windows were 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 indulged in 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 he was clean-shaven, which 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 at all 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 softly. 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, then dipped a cloth into the water and reached out shyly to apply the cooling water to his face and forehead. He closed his eyes, and his features relaxed. She allowed herself to look her fill at him, and 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 contended 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 deep 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 discreet 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, try to engage him in conversation. 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 rather 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, gave her voice a gentleness it didn’t usually possess. 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 how it had been 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, and her own earlier agitation, both felt relaxed and eased by each others’ company.
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, puzzling his way through long words, and concepts he didn’t understand.
Rowena and Helga agreed on butterflies. 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 butterflies,” she said calmly. Helga made herself focus, and suddenly the air was full of jewel bright wings. The butterflies 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 blade 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 evoked in 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 can’t say I’d 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 her growing feeling for the fair-haired man made her eager to save him from whatever danger it was that 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 and Godric, it was a complete novelty to be in a group of their own kind. Helga and Salazar, though never having practiced secrecy, had long missed the companionship of other magical folk. Godric was more alert, and was able to sit up. Rowena tried not to hover over him, to leave his tending to Helga or Salazar, but her heightened awareness of him was a small exhilaration inside her, 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.
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.
Only half jokingly, Godric said 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 spent a wet hungry night while we slept 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 with surprise, 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, or unaccustomed to it.”
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.
“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 astonished and 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 this skill in childhood, he and Helga shared a prodigious ability to remember spells, 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.”
As his health returned, Godric had begun once more to exude the vitality that Salazar had thought one of his best qualities. Since coming to Helga’s cottage, he’d had long talks with Helga, and more with Odo. The gentle wisdom of the healer, and the strange, if muddled objectivity of the man out of time, had settled Godric’s mind somewhat. He found himself in the uncomfortable position of being forced to redefine many of the concepts that had governed his life, and discard things he’d thought were true, but he was beginning to find new truths to replace them. His natural ebullience was returning. Rowena was finding that, in such close quarters, this masculine vitality was extremely distracting.
Odo was a regular visitor. He had an obsessive interest in the small caldron simmering merrily away on the high shelf. The contents 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. “There are any number of ways this could go horribly wrong. The tincture of Thyme wasn’t much of 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. Are you sure you want to do this thing? It’s not too late to change your mind. Go home. Leave this place and go back to your home in 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.”
Helga gave up, again. They had carried out this discussion repeatedly over the past half year, but she kept trying anyway.
Godric and Salazar reacted predictably when they heard of Odo’s intentions for the potion. “That is a noble and selfless purpose,” Godric said with feeling. “This 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 bestow.”
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. “Good God man I admire your motives, but how can you call an invader other than your enemy?” Then a pained expression crossed Godric’s face. He twitched uncomfortably, looking 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 his fate. He could see it and they couldn’t, and they would never understand. The most he had ever found was acceptance from the rare wise and kind, like Helga. “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? 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 sometimes childlike smile, which Helga found endearing. “Yes,” he answered, “Maybe I will.”