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 possibly 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 move were sleeping 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.
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 great 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?”
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 Helga, 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 that made the magical annex curl 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 had come to a place where some pre-existing buildings had been left standing, and 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 even 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 unwittingly closer to her, made Salazar relax. Godric on the other hand was twitching with unease.
“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 aabbreviated 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.