There was a moment of shocked silence, and then Helga burst out, “By all the oaks on Ynys Mone! Godric! What was that?”
Godric looked around him in a daze, as though expecting the landscape to have altered in some way. “I have no idea,” he said almost reflectively.
“How did you summon it?” Salazar asked.
“I don’t know,” Godric said again.
“That,” Rowena said almost indignantly, “Was a griffin.” They all stared at her uncomprehendingly. “It’s a…, a magical creature, part eagle and part lion. I’ve seen illustrations of them, but never did I think to see one in real life. Godric, how did you do that?”
“I tell you I don’t know,” Godric insisted. “I’ve never even heard of a griffin. I just…, I was so angry, angry enough to…, well, when I saw that raven I just lost all caution. I called out more from feeling than from thought.”
Helga considered. “Yes that raven was odd. Why did it target that terrible bald man like that?”
Rowena looked suddenly shifty and dropped her eyes.
“I’ve seen that raven before!” Aidan burst out suddenly. He looked at Rowena. “In the forest of Andredsweald, you made it chase off the wolf who would have attacked my little sister. Remember?”
Rowena remembered all right. She shifted uneasily in her saddle and didn’t make eye contact with anyone. “Before that too. It…, it began watching me, following me. In a way it was the reason I eventually took to the road to find you.” She looked at Helga. “Some verminous children were throwing rocks at it one day, and before I could stop myself, I used magic to protect it. That was the last straw for the folk around me, and I decided it was time to leave.” She worked hard to keep her expression neutral. It had been a painful decision, but it had led her to these friends whom she valued more than anything.
Helga, Salazar and Godric looked at her with curiosity and speculation. She was the last of them to be making strange communion with animals, they all thought. Clearly, both she and Godric had powers they hadn’t suspected.
It was the practical Helga who put an end to the awed silence by suggesting that they move on, and find a camp for the night. She thought they should rest for a day, allowing the band they had chased away to come back and pass them. The road the band would take west wasn’t far ahead, and all saw the sense in taking a day’s rest in order to avoid being overtaken.
Excited by the day’s events, the younger members of their party stayed awake later than normal, and they all sat around the fire gnawing on pieces of wild boar, talking about what had happened.
Helga turned to Emmeline, her expression serious. “You know you caused much trouble by what you did to Elswyth.”
“She deserved it!” Emmeline replied fiercely.
Aidan and Cadogan raised their voices in ascent. “We saved her, gave her food, let her travel with us, and the first thing she does is try and get us in trouble!” Aidan said indignantly.
Helga sighed. “I know,” she said sadly. “She treated us poorly. I was angry too, but you can’t just go around cursing everyone who offends you.”
“Why not?” Cadogan asked.
“Well firstly because it’s dangerous, just as you saw.”
“What if we’d gotten away, then Emmeline did it? That wouldn’t be dangerous. It’s only dangerous if people know it was you.”
Rowena rubbed her index finger across the bridge of her nose. “It is dangerous, you can never be certain that you won’t be found out, but it’s also simply wrong. Magic is something that makes us…, stronger and more able than muggles. It isn’t right for the strong to dominate over others.”
“Yes it is,” Emmeline replied forcefully. “What else is strength for except to get you what you want, or to keep you safe from….” Her voice trailed off and a shadow crossed her face. “My mother was a witch too, and she wouldn’t let me use magic because of what folk would think, and she had to, I…, we had to…, I…. Being weak means that things happen to you that you don’t want. My mother wouldn’t let me…, but she’s dead now, and we here all can do magic. Why should we not? Why pretend?”
“Perhaps if your own country had just been invaded and your king killed, you would understand better why strength alone isn’t the right way to choose your actions,” Helga replied bitterly.
“I have no country and no king,” Emmeline replied boldly. “I am only a woman,” she gave the last three words a sneering emphasis. “I didn’t invade anyone’s country, I just did what my mother said so that we could have protection and enough to eat. I can’t make myself into a man to carry a sword, but if I have the power to use magic to protect myself why wouldn’t I?”
“How was what you did to Elswyth going to protect us,” Rowena said calmly. “It was an undisciplined act of vengefulness that could have caused even more trouble than it did.”
“What were all of you going to do?” Emmeline asked defensively, “Turn and run away? Elswyth deserved what she got!”
“You’re not speaking rationally,” Rowena said, her tone still projecting a calm condescension that was making Emmeline even more defensive.
Salazar leaned forward. He had, in point of fact, had a time to hide his amusement at what Emmeline had done to Elswyth. He too thought that Elswyth deserved what she’d got, but Rowena was right, and Emmeline was never going to admit that to Rowena. “Elswyth was an ungrateful fool who didn’t deserve our help,” he said flatly. “I would have enjoyed cursing her myself. But sometimes it’s necessary to put other things before revenge. I don’t say revenge is wrong, but you did put all of us in danger by what you did. Revenge should be carefully considered, something to be exercised with control, and enjoyed at leisure, not when it will put your friends at risk.”
Emmeline’s features relaxed. These people were all nice enough, but she felt that only Salazar really understood her, and she him. No one except Salazar and Emmeline were comfortable with the way he had defused Emmeline’s anger, but they tacitly agreed to leave it at that.
Aidan and Cadogan, excited by the day’s events, bounced around restlessly, tussling with Egbert, and sporadically participating in the conversation of the adults. “Hey!” Cadogan exclaimed into a comfortable silence, “Where did you get that emerald you showed to the guards the day we left the camp?”
Salazar would have been content if this subject hadn’t come up, but there was nothing to be done now it had been raised. “I found it,” he said nonchalantly.
“Where does one find such a thing?” Godric asked.
“On the battle field,” Salazar replied briefly.
Godric looked distressed. He knew the sort of people who “find” valuable things on a battle field, and he didn’t like them. Sometimes such folk were obviously so desperately poor that one overlooked the distasteful practice, but to find out that his sworn friend would engage in such an activity was a blow.
Helga looked shocked. “You mean while I was tending the wounded, you…,” she shifted, moving unconsciously a little away from Salazar.
Salazar was affronted by their reaction. “I never took from anyone who still lived, which is more than I can say for many on the field that day. Did that emerald not convince the guards we were who we claimed? Would you rather it had been buried or burned with its owner, or that it had been found by someone else? It helped us get ahead of William’s army. Isn’t that what we were trying to do?”
No one answered, but the silence now was an uneasy one. Salazar stroked Madella, feeling relieved that at least no one was asking him what else he’d acquired that day. Emmeline reached out toward the snake. “Will she let me touch her?”
As they continued north, the flow of travellers on the road gradually thinned out. Most of those on the move didn’t have healthy horses to carry them and their gear, so went more slowly. It was the middle of a misty afternoon, and they were all damp from the day’s showers, and perhaps just a bit cross. On their left, a road came into view that made a right angle to their own. It wasn’t much of a road, more of a track, and clearly had no bearing on their intended direction. However, both Helga and Salazar began to rein in their mounts and peer closely at it.
“What ever are you staring at that path for?” Godric asked a little impatiently. He would have sworn up and down that he welcomed the riggers of the road, but he disliked being damp, and was thinking ahead to where they would make their next camp.
“There’s magic there,” Salazar said, glancing at Godric in some surprise. “Don’t you see it?”
“It…, there is a powerful witch or wizard who has…, well, I don’t know what they have done, but they’ve clearly done something.” He looked to Helga for confirmation.
She nodded. “Yes, it’s very obvious. Can’t you see it either?” She asked Rowena.
Rowena shook her head, vexed at her inability. Curiosity, and a need not to be petty made her ask, “What do you see? And how?”
Helga considered. “It’s like a light, but not one you see with your eyes. I think I would see it even at night. What think you Salazar?”
“Just so,” said Salazar. It seems like a thing of the eye, but it isn’t really. Emmeline nudged her horse up beside his. Always ready to show interest in what interested him, she said eagerly, “Teach me how to see.”
Aidan and Cadogan drew up close to hear also. Godric and Rowena tried not to show the same eagerness as the children, but they listened with great attention as Salazar and Helga tried to teach them how to focus with the eye and the mind together, to perceive beyond what their eyes saw, to let their perception of magic reach out beyond their own awareness into the wider world. After some time, the children were still unable to see anything unusual, but Rowena and Godric began dimly to perceive something, a kind of almost shimmer around the edges of things.
Helga was surprised at how difficult they found it. “I suppose it is because you lived as muggles most of your lives. You trained yourselves to see the world as muggles see it.”
“Rowena frowned, displeased to feel herself described as limited. “Is this something you see every day?” She asked Helga.
Helga considered. “No, certainly not every day, but sometimes it’s blindingly plain. I can usually tell right away if a person has magic, or if an object or creature is magical. That…, that griffin you called it? That creature exuded magic so strong it was overwhelming. Did you not see that much?”
“No I didn’t,” Rowena replied, a little sharply despite herself, “I was too busy wondering how Godric had summoned it, and from where.”
“I too,” Godric laughed. He was less distressed than Rowena to find there were magical skills he didn’t have. He’d spent his life cultivating skills of blade and spear, and had been happy so. Now however, he was heartily curious, and assented when Helga and Salazar proposed taking the path to see where it might lead. Eager for adventure the young people followed, but Rowena, who felt she’d had enough adventure for five lifetimes already, brought up the rear of the party as they turned aside down the overgrown path.
After some time, the path opened up. Before them was a small valley, rocky and without much vegetation. On the other side of the valley was a wooded hillside, and on either side of the valley were slopes so steep and densely overgrown that they were essentially impassable. As they emerged into the open, the air was rent by an ear-splitting roar, and a sight met their eyes as strange and menacing as any they’d seen so far. From the barren valley, breathing fire and flapping its enormous wings, rose into the air a dragon. It was of a malodorous green, and everything about it screamed aggression.
Salazar, who alone among them had ever seen a dragon before, exercised rigid control to keep his mount from bolting. Giving a dragon something to chase wasn’t always the wisest course. He turned his eyes briefly away to ensure his companions recognized this, but found that all save Godric had scuttled back to hide behind a large boulder and a turn of the path. Godric was struggling to quiet his horse, and Salazar reached out with his thoughts to help. Looking grim but determined, Godric drew his jewelled sword from its sheath.
“I don’t think that will do much,” Salazar said, with what Godric thought was remarkable calm.
“What do you propose?” Godric asked threw his teeth.
“Well, I’m not quite sure yet. Something with my wand, but what exactly…”
The dragon rose higher in the air and moved threateningly toward them, and Salazar continued to look only mildly interested. “Perhaps you could think a little more quickly friend,” Godric hissed.
“Well,” Salazar said musingly, “Do you see anything odd about that dragon?”
“Odd, apart from the raking claws and spitting fire? No, but then I’ve never seen one before.”
“Hmm, it’s a very misty day, lots of rain in the air.”
Godric, rapidly concluding that Salazar had been driven mad with fear to be talking about the weather in the face of a fire-breathing dragon, lifted his sword and gathered himself together as though he would charge the beast.
But Salazar continued, “Do you see how the dragon just blasted that clump of trees, yet the trees don’t burn. And that much fire should be making the mist turn to steam, but it’s not.”
“Are you saying that dragon isn’t real?” Godric asked in astonishment.
“It’s not a real dragon anyway. What it is I’m not sure, but maybe together we can find out. Why don’t you sheath your sword and pull out your wand, which might actually do some good? Do you remember how we all practiced combining our magic? Maybe if we both concentrate on dispelling whatever spell is at work, concentrate on revealing what’s truly there, disillusioning the illusion….” His voice trailed off as he raised his wand and focused intently on the dragon.
After a second, Godric did as Salazar had suggested. It was a little like summoning the wind had been: drawing on the force of his own magic not for something simple and defined like levitating a goblet, but something that had more to do with a broad intention. The effort brought sweat beading on their foreheads, but at last, the outline of the dragon wavered. The fire retreated into its mouth, its wings folded in on themselves, and it descended to their side of the valley. As it neared the ground, its claws retracted, its tail split, its scales smoothed out, and before them stood a woman wearing a green dress, with red hair flowing down her back.
Salazar smiled broadly, and bowed to her from his saddle. “An impressive feat my lady!” He exclaimed with genuine delight.
She smiled back. When she spoke, she was out of breath from her exertions. She had a pleasant voice, the kind of low, husky voice, which men often appreciated more than women.
“Thank you my lord. It has been a long time since there has been any to truly appreciate my transformations. Usually I come when I see someone is trespassing toward my village, and a few swoops and fiery breaths are enough to send them scurrying back where they came from. Effective, but it’s nice to have my abilities seen for what they are occasionally. What brings two such powerful and well-favoured wizards to this place?”
Godric was regarding her, his heart unmoved by her graceful carriage and winning smile.
It was Salazar who spoke. “Like many, we have taken to the road lately, partly to remain free of William’s army, and partly because of a need to journey north.”
“It’s been a long time since any magical folk have come this way. I’d be glad for you to take rest here, refresh yourselves for your long journey.”
Salazar, who hadn’t thus far found the road much of a burden to his comfort, suddenly thought how restful it would in fact be to stop in a settled place for a while.
“We’re not travelling alone,” Godric said impassively, and gestured to the turn in the path, around which Aidan and Cadogan were peering. Slowly, the rest of the party came into view, urging their reluctant horses out of the trees. The green clad lady’s smile faltered for a moment as she took in the women and children, but she rallied graciously, and all introduced themselves.
The lady’s name was Cleodna, and she guided them down the safest path into the valley and up the hill on the other side. When they’d passed through a stand of oaks, they came to Cleodna’s village.
It wasn’t long before they all understood that when Cleodna referred to the village as “hers,” she hadn’t been speaking in the way people normally do about their home in the collective sense. The village consisted of a sprawling prosperous looking house on a gentle rise, overlooking a collection of small but well-maintained cottages and a village common. Cleodna gestured gracefully toward the house. “That’s mine,” she said with some satisfaction. “There’s plenty of room there for…, for all of you. Come.”
The way to her house passed through the common. The place looked ordinary enough. People milled about, doing the sorts of things one might expect: washing clothes, tending livestock, gleaning a last harvest from kitchen gardens. The folk didn’t look afraid of her exactly, but they all bowed to her deferentially, and while some greeted her, it wasn’t with especial warmth. Cleodna’s house was as far from ordinary as anything the travellers had ever seen.
Cleodna said that she’d gotten the idea for its design from her travels in the east. The house was built around an inner courtyard, which gave the front of the house an imposing aspect. The inner courtyard was something none of them had ever imagined.
Cleodna, whatever else she was, was clearly a very powerful witch. The courtyard had its own climate. When they’d passed through an immaculate entranceway, they stepped out into a hot summer afternoon. Above them the sky was a clear blue, and the sun shone hot and bright. Around them grew plants of such lush strangeness that one mightn’t have been in Britain at all. Flowers the size of goblets, leaves broad as trenchers, fountains sparkling in the sunlight, marble benches, and dotted around the perimeter, cages holding beasts of such variety the eyes of all goggled in amazement. They each stood in silence, gazing around them in genuine awe.
Cleodna looked immensely pleased with herself. She actually clapped her hands in delight at their reaction. “Oh it’s such fun to surprise people with my courtyard, and I so rarely get the chance!” She pulled a wand from her sleeve and made a quick tapping movement. The air was briefly filled with a sweet chiming sound, and in a matter of seconds, a servant came scurrying out of one of the doors. “These are my guests,” she said in a business-like way. “Take their wet cloaks. Send someone to tend to their horses. Have food prepared, and bed chambers made ready. Have the bath house made ready also.” She said to Helga and Rowena, “I’m sure you would like to freshen yourself after so many days on the road. While my servants prepare your welcome, come and let me show you around my sanctuary.”
They followed her slowly around the courtyard, dazzled alike by beasts and botanicals. There were creatures both magical and non-magical, but all rare, most unknown in Britain. Salazar saw beasts he had heard of but never encountered, and Rowena saw one’s she had only ever seen in illustrated guides to places like Babylon and Arcadia. There were trees, flowering shrubs, and medicinal herbs from foreign lands that left Helga slack-jawed, and longing for a digging stick and a drying wrack. Emmeline was captivated by the tethered unicorn, which didn’t seem to favour her much, and Aidan had to be restrained by Rowena from sticking obstructive fingers merrily into the spouts of the fountains to see what would happen. Alone among them, Cadogan seemed unimpressed. He stayed close to Helga, seeming uninclined to explore this miraculous place.
Finally, nearly falling over him he was sticking to her so closely, Helga said a little tersely, “Cadogan, what troubles you? I nearly tripped over you.”
The others were gathered around a small pond bearing what Cleodna told them was a grindylow. Seeing the distressed look on Cadogan’s face, Helga squatted down to bring herself on a level with him. “What is it?” She asked quietly.
Cadogan’s face twisted up in an effort to find the right words. “It feels funny here.” His eyes roved the improbable surroundings, lingering on the caged creatures. “I don’t like it.”
Helga wanted to be kind, but her clothes were still damp, parts of her were still sore from the saddle even after so many days, her stomach was rumbling with hunger, and mention of the words “bath house” had stimulated a desire which she had nobly suppressed, but which now reared its head with all the ferocity of a caged cat.
“I know it’s very different here,” she said comfortingly, “But look at all the incredible creatures and flowers! We may never see their like again; we should be grateful for Cleodna’s offer of hospitality. Won’t it be nice to stay in such a comfortable place for a while?”
“I guess so,” he replied ungraciously. “But Cleodna’s…, she’s a dragon. And if she’s so wealthy and powerful, why is she wearing a dress that’s too tight for her?”