However misleading Cleodna’s first appearance to them might have been, her pleasure at having guests was obviously genuine. She inquired regularly into their preferences, saw to it that they lacked for nothing, conjured amusements and indulgences for them, and seemed pleased that they should remain as her guests indefinitely. Her improbable house was astonishingly comfortable, and seemed to ooze servants.
On their second day, Rowena discovered Cleodna’s library. Rowena stood in the doorway gazing rapturously, but hesitating, like a child afraid of breaking something. Cleodna was off in her still room with Helga, and the others had gone to make sure their horses had been adequately stabled and tended.
Rowena tiptoed into the room and looked around. Unlike other scriptoria she had been in, this one was large, airy, bright, and furnished so lavishly that your feet got sore just looking at the chairs. There was a large table in the center of the room, and the walls were lined alternatively with luxurious armchairs, tall bookshelves, and wide windows which let in the brilliant sunlight from Cleodna’s courtyard. Everything was meticulously dusted and polished, and the books were in pristine condition.
Rowena tentatively approached the first shelf, and began a thorough perusal of the titles. There were books of natural history and magical theory, compendiums of spells and charms, guides to potion making, reference works on botanicals: a treasure trove, a dream come true for a scholar.
Disciplining herself to choose only one, Rowena finally settled on a book titled, Magicians of Mesopotamia: What They Did and Where They Went Wrong. She approached the table and chose a chair. She laid the book down reverently, and sat. Across the table from her was a book called, Days and Nights of the Druidesses of the Secret Grove: With illustrations. Feeling that perhaps Cleodna had been interrupted in her studies, and not wanting to disturb anything, Rowena left the other book to itself, and focused on the wonderful tome which was spread out before her. There were gorgeous illustrations, stories of ancient near-eastern kings, and a treatise on the theme of immortality by someone named Utnapishtim.
Rowena was engrossed, and jumped when she heard a step in the doorway. It was Godric. His complexion was ruddy with exercise, and she thought how well he looked.
“We took the horses for a cantor to keep them in form,” he said lightly. His eyes swept the room. “This is the largest collection of books and scrolls I’ve ever seen,” he said, obviously impressed. He smiled. “You must feel like a cat who’s broken into the dairy.” He came into the room and stopped across the table from her, examining the cover of the book that lay there unopened. “What is this?” He asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I thought that perhaps Cleodna had left it there to come back to, so I didn’t open it.”
Whatever his other virtues, Godric didn’t share her reverence for books, and reached out his callused hand to turn back the cover. Rowena had observed that he read sufficiently well, particularly for a man who’d earned his livelihood as a soldier, but that he had no special fondness for the written word. She was surprised therefore by the way the book seemed to captivate him. Absorbed as he was, it was easy to stare at him without self-consciousness. Her initial attraction to him hadn’t diminished, but the turmoil of recent events had caused her to suppress it. Now, watching his well-favoured person, bent with seeming dedication over a book, the sleeping creature within her raised its head, tasted the air, and found it good. Finally, more to protect her own sense of herself than to keep Godric from seeing her interest, he was anyway completely hypnotized by the book before him, she dropped her eyes to her own book, and was soon enthralled once more.
Some time later, there was the sound of voices, and Helga stood in the doorway. Cleodna had stopped to give orders to a servant. Rowena looked up and, realizing how stiff she had become from sitting, rose, and walked across the table to peer over Godric’s shoulder. His physical nearness was so distracting that it took her a moment to fully register what she was seeing, then she blinked.
“What is this book?” She asked. Godric jumped as if he’d been jabbed in the ribs with a spear.
“Well,” he said a little uncertainly, “It’s…”
Rowena peered more closely. “Is it a treatise on anatomy?” She raised her eyebrows. “All of these illustrations are of women and….”
“Anatomy?” He asked, sounding a bit dazed. “Well no, I don’t think so, that is…, not exactly.”
Rowena began turning the pages curiously, and Helga came up behind her to look also. “Oh my!” Helga exclaimed. “What sort of book did you say this is?”
“Although Godric’s been poring over it for the better part of an hour,” Rowena replied a little caustically, “He doesn’t seem to know.”
“It’s true I’ve seen few books in my life,” Helga said judiciously, “But is it common for books to…, to have such…, such illustrations, and to concern themselves with things like…?” She was leaning forward, her incomplete knowledge of reading causing her to struggle with words she’d never seen written down before. “What in the name of Merlin is a…?”
Just then there was a light step, and Cleodna came in. She was delighted to find three of her guests so enraptured. “Ah!” She exclaimed. “You’ve found my book!” Rowena and Helga assumed that she meant “My” in the proprietary sense of an owner, but at their failure to answer and their stunned expressions, she came forward and flipped the pages back to the beginning. There was the illuminated title, with the words, “From the quill of the Druidess Cleodna.”
Helga and Rowena looked in astonishment first at Cleodna, then at Godric. If his face had been ruddy before, it was positively aflame now. He pulled himself together, muttered something indistinct about checking on the horses, and beat a hasty retreat. Helga took one more look at the front page, shifted her eyes to Godric’s rapidly retreating back, and let out a hearty belly laugh.
“Well,” Cleodna said with entire good nature, “That’s not exactly the effect I was aiming for, but so long as it amuses you….” Rowena was staring after Godric, and frowning.
The next afternoon, Salazar chanced to be passing the bath house when Cleodna approached, wearing a robe of flowing, translucent green, and obviously headed in. She stopped however, and leaned against the wall regarding him from under lowered lids.
“Godric tells me that among your many other talents, you are an authoress.”
She fluttered her lashes coquettishly. “I like to turn my hand to many things,” she said, the husky tone in her voice more evident than usual. “Did you see my book?”
“Yes, When Godric told me of it I went to the library at once.”
“And what did you think?” Salazar considered, taking in all aspects of her appearance. “A captivating work,” he said judiciously, then smiled in a most injudicious way. “I haven’t had the opportunity to…, to read it from cover to cover, but it does not seem to support what I know about the druidic life.”
“Oh, and what do you know of the druidic life?” She shifted against the wall with a suggestive restlessness.
“Oh nothing at all it would seem. I’m from a foreign land as you know; our practice of magic is somewhat different.”
“I see. I’ve never seen anyone like you before.” She shifted again in a way that made her translucent robe flutter. “I can see by your face that you have depth. My animals all respond to you as to no one else save myself, that’s never happened before. You intrigue me.”
“Oh?” He stepped a little closer to her. “Usually it’s Godric who turns the lady’s heads.”
“You say that without rancor.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Godric is my sworn friend. What rancor would I bear him for his good looks?”
She smiled a lazy smile. “Your loyalty does you credit. Godric is well-favoured it’s true, but I’m drawn to men of a certain complexity, a certain depth, perhaps…, a certain mystery or rarity.” She fluttered her lashes once more and gestured toward the doorway. “Will you join me?”
The next morning as they lazed about in the perpetually sunny courtyard, one of the ubiquitous servants came out from the door leading to the front entrance. He looked agitated. “Please Lady,” he said to Cleodna, “There’s been an accident with Fenton. He was climbing for apples and fell. He’s hurt bad. Please will you come?”
Cleodna sighed, and rose languidly from where she was half reclining in a wicker chair. “I will come,” she answered, sounding not especially concerned. “I’m sure you’d rather take your ease here,” she said to Helga, “But I know you are a healer also, and perhaps there will be something to interest you.”
“I will come,” Helga replied. Cleodna’s casual attitude suggested to Helga that perhaps the servants were prone to exaduration, but when they’d left the house and walked around to the back where the apple orchard was, Helga saw that the man was truly in a bad way. He had hit his head, and his leg was twisted under him in an unnatural position. Salazar had followed them, curious to see Cleodna’s skill as a healer, and under Cleodna’s direction, he and another man turned the hapless Fenton on to his back. In the process of having his leg examined Fenton woke up, which was bad for everyone, and him most of all.
As his raw shouts of pain filled the air, Helga found herself backing up hastily before realizing what she was doing. She was suddenly shaking from head to foot, and memories of the day of the battle obliterated her view of the orchard. She found herself with her back to a tall apple tree. She clutched the rough bark in her hands, and tried to focus on the present moment.
Cleodna was crouched down by Fenton. She asked Salazar to hold Fenton still while she set the leg using magic. There was a terrible crunching sound as the bone slipped back into place, and the man cried out afresh.
As though shot from a bow, Helga darted forward to the case of potions and implements Cleodna had brought with her. Forgetting to ask Cleodna’s permission, Helga rifled through the case till she found a vial of potion for easing pain, removed the stopper, and carefully poured some into Fenton’s mouth. Almost immediately he relaxed, and his breath came more easily.
“Thank you,” Cleodna said to Helga. “I should have thought to do that first; it makes them easier to work on.” She conjured splints, and wrapped the man’s leg. She then turned her attention to his head wound. “This looks serious,” she said, considering the swelling. “I fear the bone may be fractured and pressing inward. Would you like to look?”
Rock steady now, Helga shifted her position and laid gentle hands over Fenton’s head. “Yes, you’re right.” She withdrew her hands, feeling the familiar twist of frustration in her gut when confronted with a wound she couldn’t heal.
Cleodna saw the disappointment on her face and said, “Have you never treated a case like this?”
“No, I didn’t know you could.”
“It is not simple, but it can be done. If you place your hands close to mine, can you follow me as I work?”
Helga considered, then lifted her hands once more to place them a few inches above Cleodna’s. Cleodna rested her hands with a feather touch on Fenton’s head, and both women closed their eyes.
Salazar was interested in what they were doing, but was soon distracted by an odd sound. It was a kind of roaring wine the like of which he’d never heard before. All attention was focused on Fenton, and no one observed Salazar quietly detach himself and go in search of the source. It took him some time to find it, and when he did, he stood transfixed with amazement.
In a clearing filled with grey boulders and charred tree stumps, was a tethered black dragon. The chain that held it was of some kind of treated iron. Around it lay the carcasses of many meals. Salazar supposed that some hapless villager must be charged with hunting for it and feeding it since it clearly wasn’t free to hunt for itself.
The dragon fixed Salazar with a slitted, fiery eye. Its pitiful groans subsided as it gazed at him. Salazar reached out tentatively with his mind. He’d never tried to communicate with any creature so fearsome, but he felt sympathy for it in its captivity. Doing his best to project tranquillity, he gradually oozed forward for a better look. The beast was fearsome; there was no doubt about that. He gazed at its fierce purple eyes, its rough scales, the shallow, raiser-sharp ridges on its back, the vicious looking arrow shaped, spiky tail, the massive impotent wings folded against its sides, the flaming breath he was careful to keep up wind of. A grand creature, the noblest he’d ever laid eyes on, and held captive…, for what? Salazar backed away slowly, not taking his eyes from the beast. Still attempting to calm it with his mind, he let himself melt back into the trees.
Retracing his steps, he returned to the apple orchard in time to help levitate Fenton into Cleodna’s house. Someone had conjured a pallet to keep him as still as possible during the move. They wafted him into a side chamber off the courtyard which was airy, but dim.
Helga offered to stay with him and watch, but Cleodna insisted that Fenton would sleep, and summoned one of her servants to sit by him and let her know if he seemed in distress. She laid a tender hand on Helga’s arm.
“You go and rest,” she said kindly. “That is demanding work for one not used to it. I must go see to our supper; I’ll have the cooks prepare something especially sumptuous for you.”
Helga watched as Cleodna glided smoothly away. “She is incredibly skilled,” she said to Salazar.
“Indeed,” he replied enigmatically.
Rowena was in the library with the three youngest members of their party. She had got permission from Cleodna to use a book of elementary spells and charms to teach them both magic and reading. Helga passed the open door, feeling unequal to so much company. Salazar had followed Cleodna, and Helga found herself wandering aimlessly, feeling unaccountably restless. As she turned a corner, she was startled to see a room she’d not noticed before. It was a small armory. The walls were lined with a comprehensive array of blades, axes, spears and bows. Inside the room Godric sat, his jewelled sword on a table before him, and an oiled cloth in his hand. He looked up at the sound of her step.
“I heard what happened. I thought it would be better if I stayed out of the way. Will the man be all right?”
“I don’t know,” she said after serious consideration. “Cleodna practiced healing of a kind I’ve never seen before. She allowed me to learn from her. I….” Her voice trailed off. The sight of all the weapons was reviving the fear that had come to her in the orchard before her instinct for healing drowned it. All those blades, the walls were covered with them, and they could…, they had…. She turned on her heel and left the room.
Dropping the sword on the table he leapt up to follow her. She was leaning against the wall facing away from the armory, and shaking.
“Helga my sister,” he said, shocked. “What ails you?”
“I hardly know,” she gasped. “When I saw Fenton on the ground and Cleodna crouching beside him…, when I heard him…, heard him scream, I was suddenly overcome by things…, by things…, things I saw and heard and did…, on the day of the battle. I shook like a leaf, and couldn’t move.”
To her great surprise, he didn’t look surprised. “Yes,” he said quietly, “It can happen like that.”
“What do you mean?” She asked so pitifully that he put a consoling arm around her shoulder. “I…, it was terrible enough on that day, why should it affect me in this way now?”
He sighed and pulled her closer protectively. “I don’t know why it should be so, only that it is so. I felt like that after my first battle, and I have seen others too. Maybe it is that some things are so bad, especially when you’re not used to them, that you can’t feel all the badness at once, or you’d be unable to do what you must do. I’ve only seen men taken this way, because…, well, I’ve lived a soldier’s life, and battles are men’s affairs, usually. Most men, those who are soldiers anyway, seem to get used to it, but you’re not a soldier, and you saw and heard and did things that few women could or would do. You’re very brave.”
“I don’t feel brave,” she said, resting her head on his shoulder and surrendering to the trembling. “I feel frightened, as though it was all happening right now.”
“I know,” he said, filled with a vast tenderness for this funny, brave lady who worked so hard, cared so much, and felt so deeply. He had had to work through these reactions alone, and he longed to cushion her somehow.
She leaned against him, grateful for his comfort. The feeling reminded her of her father and brother who had always comforted and protected her when she was a girl. This was neither her father nor her brother however, and the comfort he gave was its own unique balm to her spirit.
That afternoon, finding her pupils restless, Rowena retrieved a scroll titled, Compendium of Uncanny Creatures. She took the book with them into the courtyard, and they set themselves to identify as many of Cleodna’s captive beasts as they could. Emmeline turned out to be the best at this. Of all of them, she had shown the most interest in the animals since their arrival.
“Oh!” She exclaimed, stopping before a caged bird with vivid plumage of orange, pink, lime green and yellow. “This is a fwooper Bird!” She peered closely at the detailed illustration. “Yes, it’s native to Africa, and its quills are highly prized.”
“Indeed,” Rowena said, gazing covetously at the exotic, but oddly silent bird. “It looks like it’s cheeping, but makes no sound.”
Emmeline read on, haltingly but with enthusiasm, “’The song of the fwooper bird is most pleasing, but most inefficacious to the listener, for if the bird-lover doth hark too long, then the bird lover shall assuredly part company with reason. Hence, anyone finding themselves in possession of this rare avian, can, with regular application of the silencing charm, thereby make the bird pleasing to the eye, but not fatal to the mind.’ Why can’t these writers just say what they mean?”
“But he has,” Rowena replied. “How wondrous. Perhaps Cleodna will remove the silencing charm for us later, for a moment or two.” She peered hopefully into the cage, but couldn’t see any molted feathers.
Emmeline was delighted to find an entry for what had become her favourite of all the rare animals. The creature was as big as herself, but gentle. It had large, rather sad looking black eyes, which were almost lost in its hair. This was of a silky silver-gray. There was quite a lot of it, and Cleodna had allowed Emmeline to open the cage door so that she could brush and groom it.
Emmeline read that the creature was called a demiguise, was native to the east, and that its hair is highly valued, “’Being the stuff out of which one might weave a cloak of invisibility.’” Emmeline’s eyes were like stars. “So that’s why Cleodna asked me to keep the hair for her!”
“Why can’t we just open all the cage doors?” Cadogan asked.
“Firstly because we’re guests,” Rowena answered primly, “And it’s not up to us to decide where the creatures may go. And Second, many of these creatures were brought here from foreign lands, and would not survive outside this courtyard.”
“Which ones couldn’t survive here?”
“Well, I’m not sufficiently versed in beast lore to know all, but you can usually tell by looking at something and judging whether it would look out of place. That fwooper bird for example, you just know that’s not a creature that would thrive in our forests.”
Cadogan looked sullen. “I would let them all go anyway.”
“But Cadogan,” Rowena said a little impatiently, “Many of these creatures would be harmed if you let them go. You can understand that.” Not an especially empathetic person, Rowena was confused by Cadogan’s preoccupation with freeing the animals, and gave it no more thought as they stopped in front of the cage of a giant snail. They had witnessed its dazzling properties before. Every hour, it made a spectacular display of itself by changing colour in a rapidly swirling kaleidoscope. Emmeline turned pages until she found the proper entry, informing them that the creature was called a streeler. They identified a runespoor, a three-headed African serpent; a snidget, a perfectly round golden bird with bizarre flying abilities; and a tebo, a warthog from the Congo, which kept appearing and disappearing, apparently at random. Though she wouldn’t have liked to admit it, even Rowena enjoyed herself.
The supper was in fact sumptuous. Afterward, everyone except Cleodna lounged in the warm dusk of the courtyard, lulled by the fountains, and the late chirping of captive birds. It was easy, in this exotic setting, to lose track of the outside world all together, to forget how damp or chilly or dangerous the outside world could be, or even that it was real at all.
“Where’s Cleodna?” Emmeline asked a little suspiciously.
“Bathing,” Helga answered.
“Again?” Cadogan asked scornfully. “She did that before supper too, so did you,” he said accusingly to Salazar.
“Being clean isn’t a crime,” Salazar remarked amiably. “You should try it sometime.”
“Boys and girls don’t bath together,” Aidan said accusingly.
Emmeline frowned and looked as though she was considering a caustic rejoinder, but Helga interposed smoothly, “What were you studying today in the library?”
Aidan was eager to show her. “Look!” He exclaimed. He jumped up and went to the small pond. He splashed the edge with his toe, and began to step in.
“Don’t do that!” Helga cried, “That nasty little grimyellow beast will bight you!”
“Grindylow not grimyellow, watch this!” He splashed again, and there was a flash as the green creature reached fierce little arms out to wrap around Aidan’s ankle. Aidan raised his wand, pointed it at the grindylow, and said a word Helga didn’t recognize. Sparks shot from the end of his wand, and the grindylow was thrown back into the center of the pond.
“Well done Aidan,” Rowena said firmly, “But come out now. That spell was taught you to defend yourself, not so you could bate a creature who doesn’t threaten you.” Looking a little disappointed, Aidan stepped out of the pond and rejoined them, flopping down into a wicker chair.
“When are we leaving,” Cadogan said with a child’s directness.
No one spoke for a moment, then Rowena said, “Surely there’s no hurry. Cleodna’s library is a treasure trove. I myself have already learned much, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. The opportunity for teaching the children is a rare one and I think we should not waste it.”
“You said yesterday that Cleodna is a false scholar,” Cadogan said with his devastating honesty.
Rowena’s cheeks coloured slightly, but she said imperturbably, “Perhaps that is true, but an…, indifferent scholar can still host a superb library.”
“I don’t think she’ll let us go,” Emmeline said unexpectedly.
“What nonsense,” Helga laughed. “Why or how would she stop us?”
“Look at those,” Cadogan said, gesturing expansively to all the caged creatures, and inadvertently knocking a porcelain figurine to the ground. “I bet she wants to keep us like them.” Rowena and Helga smiled indulgently, but Godric and Salazar didn’t.
“She’s given us nothing but open hospitality,” Helga said, “And she’s a remarkable healer. I too have learned, and would like to learn more.”
“You don’t think she’d try to hold us here?” Cadogan asked. “Let’s try telling her we’re thinking of leaving then and see what happens.”
Helga smiled and ruffled his hair. “You’ll do no such thing my lad. Remember your tender years, and leave such decisions to your elders. And now, I think it’s time for all three of you to be in bed. Off with you.” She lifted her wand and made Cleodna’s own tapping gesture, causing the sounding of the gentle bell. An attentive servant came quickly, and Helga said, “Do see that these three go directly to their beds please.”
When they had gone however, Salazar spoke up for the first time. “I think Cadogan might be right. I think we should do as he suggests and see what happens.” Godric didn’t look as surprised as either of the women had expected, and so they agreed.