They slept the sleep of exhaustion: deep, but brief. They wanted an early start. They were all tense, but naturally Helga was the most emotionally affected by their imminent departure. This cottage had been her home since childhood, the last link to her dead father and brother. Here she had lived quietly, but as a loved and respected healer, part of the community. There were so many things and so many people to say good-bye to, and no time to say it. All of her possessions of a lifetime were here, and the animals.
Godric and Rowena had braced themselves for a confrontation in which they would be forced, very kindly, to explain to Helga that they had to travel light, and she couldn’t take much with her. They were pleasantly surprised therefore when she emerged last, carrying merely a few blankets, and one large green satchel. Her haggard expression kept Godric from what might sound like a frivolous complement, but inwardly he was proud of her practicality under such difficult circumstances. The rest of them had little enough in the way of possessions, and they were soon mounted and ready to go. Helga lifted her head and whistled, and very soon Egbert bounded out of the woods, tail wagging. Less a creature of the Earth than the badger, subtlety was unnecessary. He merely sniffed around the cottage, sidestepped warily to avoid the horses, and kept pace with Helga’s mount as they rode out of the cottage yard toward the road. Helga had to keep wiping her eyes on her wide sleeve, but she sat straight, and kept her eyes open.
When they reached the north road, Helga and Rowena pulled down their hoods as had been discussed beforehand. The road was alive with soldiers and supply masters bustling around, and although they drew a certain amount of attention, no one stopped them. The four adults and Emmeline each rode a horse, and the sixth carried their gear. Aidan shared the saddle with Emmeline, and Helga held Cadogan in front of her. What their fellow travelers saw were six horses carrying two monks, and three novices, two of whom held children before them: an uncommon grouping, but nothing to remark on.
Salazar’s first task for Emmeline on the previous morning had been for her to slip unobtrusively into the clearing where laundry was being done, and find appropriate clerical garments to disguise them all. Salazar had cooked up a story he thought would be sufficient for whatever guards they might have to pass. Soldiers had a way of recognizing one another, but clerics were uninteresting enough that they projected a certain sameness. Unless a cleric was quite prestigious, he was likely to look to everyone else, just like every other cleric. The women had been harder. This wasn’t a place where women would naturally be, and so Salazar had thought to reframe their slighter builds by representing them as novices.
All was going beautifully. Folk glanced at them, but clerics were not very interesting, and their eyes slid away in search of something more exciting. They had passed through the bulk of activity, and were reaching the edge of the camp when they were challenged.
There was a small cluster of guards at the roadside, and to Salazar’s dismay they looked bored. Salazar knew that a bored soldier is likely to be a troublesome soldier, and he tensed as the burliest of the men stepped into their path. As the most fluent Norman speaker, Godric had been charged with telling the tale.
“We are on a mission for His Grace,” he said in answer to the guard’s query. “These children,” he gestured carelessly back to Aidan and Cadogan, were found hidden in a barn. “They are nephews of Harold Godwinson’s, and the Duke wishes them brought to the local priory for ‘safe keeping.’” He emphasized the words so that the guard would understand that “safe keeping,” meant under guard until a ransom could be negotiated. The burly guards leer couldn’t disguise the fact that he wasn’t quite as simple as he’d looked on first sight. He swaggered forward, passed Salazar and Godric, and stopped at the horse bearing Helga and Cadogan. Salazar tried not to let his nervousness show. All the children had been coached in what to say if they were questioned, but of all of them, Cadogan was the last one Salazar would wish interrogated.
“What’s your name?” The soldier asked roughly.
“Cadogan,” Safe enough, it was a common English name.
“And where’re ye bound?”
“To the priory,” Cadogan replied as though reciting a lesson.
“And who travels with you?”
Salazar’s tension was mounting; he feared that this last question would put too much strain on Cadogan’s meager powers of memory, but he said the right thing, “Brother Abelard, Brother Arnulf, Novice Brother Godebald, he’s just a novice, Brother Eustace he’s just a novice too, he’s got my brother Aidan, and then Novice Brother Herman, their just novices you know, that means they’re not very smart yet.” To everyone’s alarm, Cadogan was starting to babble from nerves. “They’re just young, not as young as us. Oh yeah, and I forgot, there’s Odo too.” All the others froze in consternation.
On the night after the battle, after their decision to leave had been taken, Rowena had thought hard about all the spells she had ever read, and had settled on a powerful stilling charm. She had read it in a book from the east called, “Salad in the Desert.” It was a book about how to charm food and drink so that one could travel through any kind of terrain for any length of time, and still enjoy meals of crisp vegetables, fresh meat, and chilled wine. Rowena didn’t explain to Helga where the charm had come from, merely that it was an enchantment that would stop the normal processes of transformation. Someday Helga might appreciate this set of spells for its own merit, but this wasn’t that day. Rowena had cast the spell on Odo’s remains, confident that this would allow them to carry Odo to his home in the north. Helga had produced a large magical basket that had belonged to her mother. It was made to carry a heavy load, and do so invisibly. It had taken the efforts of them all to bend the slightly rigid Odo into a cozy looking ball, and tuck him into the large basket, wedged in with blankets and a hideously mangled feather bed. When Helga waved her wand, the basket had lifted slightly off the ground and vanished. It rested now on the rump of the pack horse, securely fastened, invisible, and a negligible burden to the horse. Though they couldn’t see him, they were of course all intensely aware of the 8th member of their party. As Cadogan gestured expansively behind him to the pack horse, Salazar felt the bottom drop out of his stomach.
Helga, under the guise of hitching Cadogan into a more secure position on the saddle, gave him a fierce little shake, and he stopped talking.
“Odo?” The soldier said, eyeing their party beadily and attempting what looked like a laborious count.
“Godric cleared his throat and said with admirable suavity, “He means the Bishop Odo Naturally. The brother of His Grace is, of course, the one who suggested the Saxon children be moved, and the boy means that William’s brother the Bishop Odo is with us in spirit, watching over our journey.”
All of William’s army knew that the Duke’s brother Bishop Odo had accompanied the invading army, adding some fighting men of his own to the campaign. Godric had remembered this in the nick of time, and the soldier looked inclined to believe him.
To ensure his belief, Salazar reached into his robe and produced a ring bearing a remarkable emerald. “You will naturally recognize the Bishop’s ring.” So haughty was Salazar’s expression, that the guard stared for a moment, then nodded.
As he stepped aside to let them pass, the other soldiers loitering there exchanged a laughing comment as they looked at Salazar. Some of William’s army were Flemish mercenaries, and doubtless these two thought that their insult wouldn’t be understood by the cleric. “With a face like that,” one soldier chortled to his mate, “It’s no wonder he chose the celibate life.” His companion guffawed. Salazar didn’t understand Flemish, but looking into the man’s mind, the insult was clear. Salazar caused his horse to sidestep as he passed, then to send a vicious kick toward the comedian. The man fell to the ground, and the party rode on, leaving the teeming camp behind them.
The country around the camp for many miles had fared badly. Apart from plundering the countryside to provision his army, William had set about a deliberate campaign of burning and destruction. These lands were held by relatives of the now late King Harold. William was intent on landing and making Harold come to him. William didn’t want to exhaust his own army by marching far from the shore, so he had encouraged his troops to lute and destroy in order to make Harold exhaust his own army in a long march to come and defend the holdings of the King’s family.
Of course those who suffered most from these tactics were the poor, who had little enough to start with, and nothing to fall back on when everything they owned had been burned or stolen. Many had taken to the road themselves, and in the wake of the battle, the seven travelers passed through a burned out landscape that felt desolate and abandoned. Helga gazed about her in horror. These were places she knew, the homes of people she had cared about. Where were they all? Dead? Gone? Taken to the road like she herself. She had been busy doing what she could to help ease the suffering of the wounded, but now she was conscious of a growing anger, an impotent rage against the invaders who had wantonly caused such destruction.
They were passing a small copse of low trees when they heard sounds of life, startling in the desolation. Helga immediately recognized the bleating of a goat. Her practical mind turning to thoughts of goat’s milk on their journey, she turned aside to go in search of the animal. Godric, fearing for lurking danger, followed her. Just then there was another bleat, more panicked this time, and a woman’s cry of fear. Godric pushed passed Helga and emerged into a small barnyard. The cottage had been burned, but though scorched, the barn was still standing. Outside it three of William’s soldiers were terrorizing a young woman, clearly intent, at least, on steeling her goat.
Now Godric was a man badly in need of a fight. He was innately a man of action. The last months of inner uncertainty, the last weeks of forced inactivity, and the last days of self-imposed passivity in the face of the biggest battle of his life, had driven him nearly mad. Here was a problem with no moral ambiguity at all, and Godric leapt from his horse and drew his jeweled sword from its sheath with an inarticulate shout that mingled anger and joy in equal measure.
Helga retreated hastily, meeting the others as they came forward to see what had happened. Salazar had removed his wand from his sleeve and was watching the fight keenly, clearly trying to decide how best to help. Helga put a hand on his arm. “Wait,” she said. “I think he’d be better off doing this himself.” Salazar lowered his wand, but didn’t put it away.
The fight was ferocious. These were professional soldiers and there were three of them, but Godric had been among the elite of Harold’s fighters, and his need to engage in mayhem was intense. When it was over, the three lay at his feet, and he stood, breathing hard, and laughed aloud. He thrust his blade into the ground to clean it, then returned it to its sheath. With fierce pleasure he kicked the bodies aside toward the copse, then turned to the woman who was cowering against the wall of the barn.
Despite the fact that he’d just saved her and her goat, the woman wasn’t regarding him with especial favour. Looking at his fierce countenance, Helga found it easy to see why. A man laying about him with a jeweled sword and wearing a monk’s robe just wasn’t something you saw every day. She came forward quickly, interposing herself between them. Helga’s own novice’s robe was scarcely less incongruous, but these were turbulent times, and the woman didn’t seem incline to question their attire or their identities.
The woman, Elswyth, had foolishly refused to leave when William’s force landed. Her husband had gone with the King’s army to the north, and she feared that when he came home, they wouldn’t be able to find one another. She had hidden, and had remarkably so far avoided assault or injury. She told them that she knew her husband must be dead, or he would have come for her. With a baby whom she had hidden in the barn when she heard the soldiers coming, she was afraid to take to the road alone. Helga and Rowena helped her gather her meager possessions, and agreed she could travel with them until they met others heading west, where Elswyth had family.
Salazar disagreed with this plan, feeling that associating themselves with muggles was asking for trouble. The others wouldn’t hear of leaving her on her own however, so she was bundled onto Emmeline’s horse, Aidan mounted behind Salazar, and they took to the road once more.
After weeks of recovery and cushy living in Helga’s cozy cottage, Godric welcomed the discomforts of the road. Helga did not. This became evident after they’d chosen their camp for the night. Helga tended solicitously to Elswyth’s needs, ensuring she had a comfortable place near the fire where she could sit to nurse her baby, a place which conveniently put Elswyth’s back to the small clearing. Then, at some distance from the woman, who was after all an unknown muggle, Helga knelt before her green satchel, which rested on the ground before her. Godric was off hunting for their supper, and Salazar was tending to the small fire. Rowena was beside Helga as she began pulling things out of the satchel. Rowena could tell right away that this was no ordinary satchel, for the first thing Helga tugged out was a furled tent.
As the daughter of a witch who practiced magic with insouciance, Rowena had seen many unlikely sights in her life, but watching a furled tent emerge from a satchel of a size to be carried on a woman’s shoulder took the cake. The tent changed in proportion only on that part of its length which was constricted by the opening of the satchel. As it was drawn out, it assumed the regular proportions of a minimal tent meant to hold perhaps two people. Helga placed it carefully, then stood back and waved her wand in a complicated figure 8 type movement. With a gentle woof, the tent inflated before their eyes. Helga went to the tent flap and looked in. “Not quite as comfortable as home,” she said competently, “But it will do. Godric may sleep on the hard ground if that suits him, but it doesn’t suit me, and I dare say it doesn’t suit you if you have a choice about it.”
Rowena took her turn at the tent flap and gaped in astonishment. Inside was an entire bed chamber, complete with oil lamps, feather beds, wool blankets, and rugs on the floor. Despite her memories of magical bath tubs conjured by her own comfort-loving mother, this was magic on a scale she herself had simply never considered. Magic was something she had been born with, had wrestled with, had never fully come to terms with. Magic simply as a way to make life more comfortable was an idea she’d never thought of until coming to live with Helga. She loved Helga, but found these manifestations of magic frivolous. That opinion not withstanding, after a day in the saddle, she wouldn’t say no to a feather bed.
After a meal of roasted venison, the children and Elswyth were quick to curl up close together by the fire, and fall into an exhausted sleep. There had been a tense moment when Salazar was sure that Elswyth had seen Madella poke her head out from beneath his wide sleeve and taste the air, but after one wide-eyed glance, the woman had looked away. Salazar concluded that she’d decided it was a trick of the firelight, and dismissed it from her mind.
As Helga, Rowena, Salazar and Godric sat enjoying stillness and full bellies, Godric was ebullient. Taking up sword once more, particularly in something so obviously worthy as the defense of a defenseless woman, had given him back his self-assurance. “The battle is over it’s true,” he said, “But that doesn’t mean the country is lost. There will be resistance to William’s progress north and west. Why shouldn’t we make ourselves part of that. With such skills as we have, what could we not do?” He was looking at Salazar, expecting that, as a man, he too would feel the pull of a fight.
Salazar looked back, unimpressed. “But why would we bother? These are affairs of muggles, what mean they to us?”
“What mean they to us?” Godric asked incredulously. “Have you been riding all day with your eyes closed? Have you not seen what has been done here? Surely you don’t wish to see the entire country laid waste!”
Out of deference to his friend’s feelings, Salazar tried not to look as indifferent as he felt. “This is what armies do, and, I’m sorry my friend, but this isn’t my country, so I can’t feel about it the way you do.”
Godric turned to Helga and Rowena. “And what do you say?”
Helga looked confused. “I don’t understand what you’re suggesting. I’ll never take up the sword, and I thought we’d come on this journey to carry Odo home.”
“Of course we have,” he replied emphatically, “And we can still do that, but we can choose how we do it, and what else we do. It’s not necessary for a witch to take up a sword in order to affect the outcome of a battle. You have an affinity with animals just as Salazar does, and you’ve heard about the weather wisdom we used to keep William’s army from sailing.”
“Yes, I have heard, and I myself would be ill at ease making such enormous choices that affect so many. In fact, if I were you I’d be troubled by wondering what might have happened had you not interfered. Perhaps King Harold’s army could have been victorious and the King still alive if they had been encamped and well rested for the battle instead of coming to it after a long march.”
“Perhaps, but then they would have made the march in the other direction to meet Harald Hardrada’s forces, and lost there. We can’t know what would have happened.”
“No,” Helga replied, “We can’t, and just because we can do a thing doesn’t mean therefore that we should do it. My gift is to save lives, and I won’t use my magic to take them, at least not if I can help it.”
“Not even to protect your own country?”
“I’m neither a soldier, nor the defender of my country. That is a job for others to do, for men to do. War is a man’s business.” His three companions looked at Godric with troubled eyes. The bond between the four of them had run quick and deep, but in that moment they realized that regardless of how they felt towards one another, they had had lives before which had shaped them, and Godric’s life had been the life of a fighter, a man who settled problems with violence. They didn’t feel threatened personally by this truth, but for the first time they all understood that their powerful friendship might not be strong enough to resist the forces that pulled on them each in a different direction.
Rowena said nothing. She was thinking about her more recent experiences with the Metamorph Magi. The mind of the old man was revealed to her in tiny glimpses, along with his surroundings. Her awareness focused with an almost passionate longing, on his library: quiet, safe, and lined with books she had never even imagined. A longing for that room, that safety, that quiet retreat was growing. It was a private, inward feeling, and it made her listen to the highly charged conversation of the others with a vague dread. She didn’t know who or where the man was, why his thoughts seemed to be leaking into her mind, or how any of this was connected with their quest to carry Odo home, and she had a sudden and overwhelming sense of her own homelessness. If her mother still lived she was far away. Though the religious house had been a home of a sort, it was really only the library that had held her, and that was lost to her. She belonged nowhere it seemed, but whoever the old man was, she got a distinct sense of place from him. It was the feeling of someone rooted where they were, belonging there, having found or made a safe retreat, and she longed for that too.
The morning found them once more on the road, Egbert and Elswyth’s goat in tow. The goat slowed them down a bit, but Egbert didn’t. Elswyth had viewed the tent with wide eyes, but asked no questions. If she’d noticed how easily Salazar had lit a fire with damp leaves, she didn’t ask questions about that either.
They were far from the only travelers. There were farmers, cotters and trade’s people fleeing William’s army, soldiers who had fought for Harold and now sought to evade William’s vengeance, and the other folk who follow even the most swiftly moving army. All were as though pushed before an ocean wave, either leaving homes no longer theirs, or seeking homes left in order to fight for their now dead King.
The party had changed out of their clerical garb; their horses made them conspicuous enough. Even as it was, their appearance of some prosperity meant that they were often appealed to for food by the most desperate of their fellow travelers. Helga had bread and cheese in her saddle bag. Although magic was insufficient to create food where there was none, her frequent replenishing charms meant that she could always offer a morsel or two.
Elswyth spoke little, and made no burden of herself or her baby on the party. So quiet was she in fact that they all began to take her presence for granted, or forget it in so far as their behavior was concerned. They had all come from different levels of openness about their magic, and together in a group of fellow witches and wizards, it had begun to feel natural to use magic freely.
These were small things. They weren’t conjuring floods or causing trees to fly, nothing spectacular, just the lighting of a fire here, the odd levitated water skin there, that sort of thing. If Salazar occasionally shortened the odds on an afternoon’s hunt for supper by coaxing prey toward its fate, he was careful not to let Godric or Helga suspect.
The recklessness of this course became clear to them on the afternoon when they met a party of true clerics. The band looked like what they were: refugees. They made a straggling group, men and women in clerical garb, lay people who were likely servants of the monastery they’d fled, and various hangers-on who, like Elswyth, sought protection on the road. Some of the clerics were riding, but most of the band was on foot. They had just passed a crossroads when this motley band fell in behind them. Elswyth, ever looking around her, was first to spot them. She called softly to Helga, then they all turned and saw the group behind them. They all stopped. Godric wheeled his horse and came to call across the distance to the leader of the other party. This was a man with a shiny bald pate, and a hawk-like face. In polite phrases, Godric explained that they had a traveller with them who wished to find company on the road west.
The man nodded. “We travel that way. She will be welcome with us,” he said, his face showing no expression, and he gestured back to the ragtag group of folk who walked behind.
Without a backward glance, Elswyth dismounted, took her baby from Emmeline’s arms, and walked toward the other party. Instead of walking off to the side to join the other women who walked as a group, she headed straight for the party’s austere leader. He looked askance at her, but she didn’t flinch. She walked right up to him and all could see that she spoke urgently to him.
Godric, displeased with her lack of gratitude but ready to leave her in the care of others, was about to turn his horse and resume their northward direction, when the man’s voice called out strongly across the distance that separated them.
“This woman tells me you harbor sorcery among you. She says she has seen many unnatural acts, the exercise of strange powers, and that one of you keeps a serpent.”
Now Godric was constitutionally disinclined to call any woman a liar. At the same time, the habit of concealing his true identity from muggles went bone deep. This left him at a loss for words. Seeing this, Salazar walked his horse forward.
“I am from a foreign land as you see,” he said, exaggerating his accented speech. “This woman has merely mistaken foreign ways and customs for something else.”
There was a brief pause as the woman spoke again to the group’s leader. All in Godric’s party were on the verge of simply turning to be on their way, but the man spoke again in a louder voice which drew the attention of the sizable number of people following him.
“She says you start fires without flint, cause demons to fetch and carry for you, and that your tent is a den of unnatural vices.” This last made Helga want to laugh, and made Aidan want to ask what a vice was, but the newly focused attention of the crowd, which was quickly starting to look like a rabble, drew any levity out of the situation.
Godric didn’t like to flatly contradict a lady, but his assessment of Elswyth was moving fast from lady, to something much less flattering. “This is foolish women’s talk,” he said dismissively. “She is crazed with grief for her dead husband, and imagines things.”
Whether this explanation would have defused the situation they would never know, for just then, Elswyth cried out. In horror, she thrust her baby up toward the cleric on the horse, who caught it by instinct, then clapped her hands to her head. The mounted cleric was staring at Elswyth with disbelief. From Elswyth’s forehead, two horns were sprouting, and growing fast. They resembled the shape of the horns that folk made as a hand gesture to ward off evil, and they continued to grow larger. Godric gave a hasty glance around him, trying to figure out who was responsible. His gaze stopped on Emmeline’s face, on which he saw a fierce look that mingled concentration and triumph.
Emmeline had for days shared her horse with Elswyth, had helped the other woman in caring for her infant. All of their party had welcomed the young mother generously, offered her companionship and protection on the road, and at the first opportunity she had betrayed them. Emmeline knew what could happen to people accused of the things Elswyth had accused them of. Far from being grateful for their generosity, Elswyth was ready to denounce them, and possibly even threaten their lives. Exhilarated by the freedom of finally being with folk of her own kind, Emmeline was quick to reach out for revenge.
The cleric’s expression went from impassive to ferocious in the blink of an eye, and Rowena instantly recognized the fire of the zealot. This had been her own personal terror: to be uncovered as a witch by a cleric who, unlike a simple villager, would react with more than wariness or fear.
The man raised his voice in a passionate outcry. “It is because we suffer such as you among us that our land has been taken and our King killed!” He was clearly talking to the crowd around him who, by virtue of simple numbers, had it in their power to detain Godric’s party, or worse.
Godric was trying to decide whether they had a hope of simply turning and outrunning the crowd, which could quickly become a mob. Before he’d had time to innumerate all the reasons why this was an impractical idea, there was a loud squawk as though in mockery of the cleric’s exhortations, and a sudden flurry of wings. A large black raven had swooped down from the sky directly toward the man’s head. He flailed his arms madly in fending motions, but the bird merely circled high, then down again, as though intent on pecking his eyes out. All looked on in horrified fascination, accept for Rowena, who covered her eyes.
If Godric had allowed himself to stop and think about it he’d never have done it, but the raven’s cries caused something in him to snap. All the years of self-denial, of masquerade, of concealment, of the secret dread of discovery fell away. In one of the most liberating and exhilarating moments of his life, he lifted his head, and called out in a loud voice of command, “All you creatures of the air I summon you! Come to us now and chase these liars and fools so that they trouble us no more!” He had no idea what he was doing, no actual intent beyond venting his spleen, and scaring the daylights out of these short-sighted and ungrateful muggles. What happened next amazed even him.
Later, Helga and Salazar freely admitted that, taking their lead from him, they each used their own magic to call as many birds as they could, and oh how they came! Soon the air was full of chirps, squawks, cheeping, harsh cries, and the flapping of wings. Indeed, the air was vibrating with the noise and disturbance. As though guided by a single mind, birds of all descriptions were flying together as a flock, straight at the medley of people facing Godric. But neither Helga nor Salazar tried to take credit for what happened then, and Only Rowena could name what they saw.
As clerics and their followers alike were swiping ineffectually at the flock or covering their heads, there was a deafening harsh cry from above and behind Godric. Like everyone else, he looked up, and beheld the most incredible sight he had ever seen.
Flying toward them on massive wings was an extraordinary creature which only Rowena had ever seen, and then only in illustrations. It was hard to judge its size in flight, but its out-spread wings showed all its bestial improbability to full advantage. It was a mottled gold. Its fore claws, head and wings were those of an eagle, and its torso, rear legs and tail were those of a lion. Feather blended into fur with a smooth elegance, and the overall impression was one of overwhelming grace and power. The creature was heading swiftly down toward them in a powerful glide. Those in Godric’s party were awed into immobility, their mouths agape. The same could not be said for the rest on the road. With shrieks of absolute terror, all those on foot turned and ran full out, as far and as fast as they could. Those on horseback strove mightily to control their mounts, most of which merely scattered, taking their hapless riders careering across field and wood.
When the road had been cleared of all save Godric’s party, the creature swooped back toward them. Later they all wondered why they felt no fear. They all sat still, gazing upward, amazed that anything could be so powerful and so beautiful. The creature circled lazily over them several times, its eagle’s eyes fixed on Godric, and then it simply flew away, its golden shape disappearing toward the north.